Wednesday 19 June 2019

'You might see a girl who looks like Deirdre and you have to look again' - Jacob family describe agony of living life while their daughter is missing

Twenty years on, the Jacob family describe the agony of living life while their daughter is missing, writes Niamh Horan

Deirdre Jacob's parents Michael and Bernie. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Deirdre Jacob's parents Michael and Bernie. Picture: Steve Humphreys
HAPPIER TIMES: Deirdre Jacob with her beloved dogs
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

One minute. That is how far Deirdre Jacob was from her front door, before something stopped her in her tracks.

The excruciatingly short distance, a stone's throw from the safety of home, still haunts her parents Michael and Bernie 20 years later, as they sit turning over the same unanswered questions.

"There is never a time we go out through the gate or come home when Deirdre's image doesn't come up in front of us," says Michael. "Whenever you pass the gate, you are trying to piece together what happened next. Where did she go? Did she make a decision herself? Did someone else fall upon her?"

After two decades, what do they feel happened in the moments that followed?

"That's the problem," says Bernie. "We just don't know."

Twenty years ago, Newbridge was a safe place. Before the housing boom, before thousands flocked to set up home along Dublin's commuter belt, before the population doubled and most faces became unrecognisable, it was the perfect place to grow up. Houses were surrounded by fields, where children would go exploring in the morning and play until evening fell, undisturbed by concerned parents.

The Curragh Plains offered an idyllic scenic loop which women would run or walk around, alone and unafraid. The mobile phone age was just about to dawn and that September the first teens would proudly flash their first mobile phones at the start of the school term.

But two months before, on July 28, 1998, something happened that ripped through the soul of the town and changed its people forever.

The night before Deirdre went missing was like any other. It was a bank holiday Monday and she had completed her first year of teacher training in college and was home for her summer holidays.

"She was a reader, she played the piano and the guitar. She was very outgoing and she was big into letter writing," recalls her mother Bernie. "When she was away she would always write to us. I still have all her letters. I have kept them and would read them from time to time.

"The night before she went missing I went in to say goodnight to her and she was sitting up in bed writing a letter to one of her college friends. The next day she left home at about 12.30 and I spoke to her on the phone before she walked into the town."

Deirdre's movements for the next few hours are well documented. She visited her grandmother in her shop in the middle of the town and then went to the bank and got a draft to pay for a deposit on new accommodation for her next year at college. CCTV footage captured her at AIB getting the draft and then in the post office sending it off. She then walked home along the shopfronts on the town's main street and back on a busy road toward her house. The last sighting was at around 3pm by a father and a daughter. Both saw Deirdre crossing the road to walk into her home and the young girl in the passenger seat watched her as she crossed the gateway to walk up the drive.

What makes her disappearance even more devastating is that Deirdre was so conscientious about safety. She constantly kept in contact with her parents and let them know her whereabouts. It is the reason her mother felt instantly sick when she arrived home from work later that day.

"I knew straightaway before I even opened the door. There was so many different locks on the door and when I tried to open it with the key it was locked all the way down. So straightaway I thought: 'Where is she? Why isn't she here?' Deirdre was the type to let you know where she was. Even if she was just going up to her friends she would tell me and maybe ask me to collect her at such a time. She hadn't let me know that she wasn't going to be there. So I knew straightaway. I was alarmed.

"My mother was with me and I knew it wasn't like Deirdre. She didn't have a mobile phone. It was only the start of them coming in but she would still always phone."

Deirdre's father arrived home from work a little later and they began searching.

"Michael drove up the road and we contacted friends and my relatives who live in the area," says Bernie. "He drove around the town and eventually we went to the gardai. There was a very good response from them and everyone in the town. Even that evening and that night our neighbours and friends had all started searching."

Twenty years later in a flower shop a few doors up from where Deirdre visited her grandmother's shop for the last time, the florist points to a small light behind the counter. In a week where gardai received new information and the case has been upgraded to murder, she says: "Deirdre's name is still on that candle. We are always praying for her parents, that they will get answers."

The tears in her eyes echo the sentiment in the town. On the street, in local cafes, there is a chill in the air as people talk about the disappearance. One woman whose children Deirdre often babysat described her as a "solid" girl. Another said she was someone who would always say hello if she passed them on the street. But when their thoughts come to her parents, there is silence. They shake their heads and offer the same sparse words in an attempt to put a shape to their nightmare: "traumatic" and "horrific" are all they can muster because the truth is that their pain is too great to even contemplate.

Sitting over a pot of tea in Newbridge's Keadeen Hotel, Michael and Bernie describe the reality. "Sleep varies up and down," says Bernie. "I haven't slept at all this week. You see, it kind of takes over your life. Every day is the same because she is still missing and you are trying to think what can you do and where can you go or who you can go to."

Her voice is quiet and rasps as she tries to talk through the pain. At times it is almost as if the ache burns up through her throat and mouth as she tries to get the words out through breaths. She takes a tissue from her bag: "I never thought we would be 20 years down the line like this." Michael sits across from her with the same piercing blue eyes as his daughter.

"You think of it all the time, morning noon and night," he says. "If you wake at night-time at two, three, four in the morning, it's going across your mind. Your thoughts go all over the place and you are asking yourself so many questions."

Those who have experienced grief know occasions such as Christmas can be a time when the sadness is felt the most, but Michael says he and Bernie have no such luxury.

"The enormity of it is such that it even doesn't take a birthday to come around. It is there all the time. Sometimes, on the day she went missing and on her birthday, we just settle down and ponder. Ponder. Pretty much that's all we can do. Because we have spent day in, day out, trying to analyse and ask ourselves 'is there something more we can do?'"

He talks about the futility of their situation, trying to make sense of their daughter's disappearance: "If you career into the back of someone in a car or break or spill something at home, there is a formula to get that sorted. And even if something can't be sorted on the spot, there are a number of stages you go through to sort it out. There is always a next step. But we can't even get the first step. There is a massive big obstacle there which is that 'we just don't know'."

They have kept all their daughter's possessions. "Her books and her guitar, personal items, they will always be there," says Michael.

But they bring no comfort. "It might have been the guitar she was belting away on," he says, which raises a smile from Bernie, "or an old book she had. But they are just memories - they don't replace her."

They have spent the last two decades looking at strangers passing by, thinking they see Deirdre in the crowd.

"The reminders like that are daily and they are so powerful. You could be in Newbridge or Dublin or Cork and you would see someone that might look like her," says Michael.

Bernie continues: "You know the way her hair was? You would glance. The hair from the back..." she says, her voice breaking. "Even driving down our road, you see a girl walking that maybe might look like Deirdre and you have to look again."

Michael describes another fear: "Am I meeting someone going up and down the street that had something to do with this or at least knows something?"

Dealing with the trauma is a moment-to-moment struggle. "You can never say for the next hour you are going to be solid. Because it will hit you very hard at a moment's notice. What hits you hard is that you are in a helpless situation and you can't turn the page."

What is most striking about the couple, however, is not their pain, but their grace and positivity. They are an embodiment of the resilience of the human spirit and much of the conversation is peppered with laughter and smiles.

"You have to try and be positive, otherwise it will bring you down," Bernie says determinedly, "It will consume you." In spite of everything they say they still have "a solid faith". Bernie adds: "Lots of people, particularly over the last few days and weeks, are saying they are praying for us. And we want them to know we appreciate all that because we need all the help we can get."

Bernie says the couple continue to be driven by the need to find answers. "There were years and months and days when nothing changed so while it has been a very tough week you really feel there is something happening."

"It's like a television screen," Michael adds. "You are looking at something and then the screen goes blank. She was there [and then she was gone]. Everything comes down to that. We don't know what happened next."

Sunday Independent

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