Mother of missing Luke Durbin admits his birthday is tougher than Christmas because it should be all about him
It’s eight and a half years since Luke Durbin left home for a night out with friends in Ipswich, never to be seen again.
In that time his mother, Nicki, has been to some dark places. She’s trawled the streets in the dead of night, looking for her son. She’s imagined what fate might have befallen him and seen her worst fears played out in her mind’s eye. At times she’s felt she was barely clinging to sanity.
But, she says, the truth is that ‘missing’ has now become her new normality.
Most of the time, she doesn’t cry as easily these days. But this week the tears have never been far away.
Two days ago it was Luke’s 28th birthday.
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There have now been nine such anniversaries since he’s been gone, each one moving him further away from the 19-year-old just getting a foothold in the world that he was when his mother last saw him.
“It’s always a difficult time and it doesn’t get any easier,” says Nicki, who lives at Hollesley. “I just don’t like December very much anymore. It makes me feel so sad. I find Luke’s birthday a difficult day. I don’t go to work. I usually spend it quietly with my daughter (Luke’s sister, Alicia). It’s such a strange day now.
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“I actually find Luke’s birthday worse than Christmas because it’s a day that should be all about him. With Christmas, to a degree, you can put on a face to it all because it’s about so many other people as well.”
Talking about Luke’s birthday is the only time Nicki’s voice wavers during our conversation. It’s clear the pain regains a raw edge at such a poignant time of year.
She feels resigned to the idea that he is not coming back but admits that without answers there’s always hope.
Alicia, she adds, feels certain Luke is still alive out there somewhere.
“No-one is right or wrong with how they deal with it,” says Nicki. “It is like grief. At any stage you can go back. Something new can happen and you can feel you are beginning again.”
Before May 12, 2006, the day Luke disappeared, the idea that one of her children might go missing had never crossed Nicki’s mind.
“Every parent dreads something terrible happening to their children but I never imagined missing,” she says. “I had heard of cases but didn’t think of it beyond that.”
Now she is immersed in that world. She has become friends with other people whose sons, husbands, brothers or other loved ones are also missing. They support one another in a way that no-one else can.
“In Luke’s case, I don’t think it was a free-will decision to disappear,” she says. “If I had known that Luke was really troubled and had withdrawn money from his account the level of hope that he was alive would be much higher.
“Over the years ‘missing’ has become my normality. The constant, desperate need for answers hasn’t changed at all. I have become a master at running two separate lives. It has become easy to conceal things when I feel it is inappropriate to be crying, shouting and screaming but in no way has it lessened the amount of times I think about Luke in a day or wonder what has happened to him.”
In the last four years, Nicki says, the police inquiry into his disappearance has been given huge impetus since coming under the remit of the Norfolk and Suffolk Major Investigation Team.
“They have been so thorough with everything,” she says. “Once I knew that everything was being done to try and find my son it was one less battle for me. I know they won’t stop and that if a new lead comes in they will follow it up.”
Over the years there have been searches of areas of interest and even some arrests, but nothing concrete. Nicki has never been able to escape the limbo that comes with that uncertainty.
She hung on to Luke’s clothes for a long time but then realised that even if he did come back he would no longer be 19 and would not want most of them.
“I’ve kept some things, of course,” she says. “The things that meant something to him, like his guitar and the teddies he had all his life, books and things like that I would never get rid of.”
She welcomes the recent presumption of death law change that can lead to issue of a Certificate of Presumed Death when someone goes missing long-term.
“That doesn’t affect us though,” she says. “Luke was 19 and his biggest possession was his motorbike, which I sold anyway. It was just going to rust if I kept it. Luckily, I spoke to someone sympathetic at the DVLA and they let me change the ownership. But I know others it has affected hugely. I have a friend whose brother has been missing 19 or 20 years. He had all sorts of financial affairs. They did have him declared dead but it wasn’t an easy process.”
Because ‘missing’ is now Nicki’s normality she is conscious that any change to that might create a state of abnormality again.
“Quite often, people will say to me: ‘If you could just know one way or another’,” she says. “But if Luke is found it will possibly be a crime scene and then, finding whoever murdered him and then, court. I think that would open up something that becomes abnormal again. But all I want is to find out what happened to Luke. If that means finding a crime scene, so be it.
“My thought process has changed over the years. When he went missing I remember looking at people in the street and thinking; ‘Do you know what has happened to Luke?’ I felt I was becoming insane. I used to imagine where Luke was lying. If it was raining I would ask myself: ‘Is Luke in the rain?’ It is not normal to have to think like that about your child. I feel resigned that he is not going to come back. But without answers there is always that little bit of hope. I have planned Luke’s funeral so many times and there is a high chance there will never be a funeral.”
The kindness of strangers is another thing can still move Nicki to tears.
“Publicity is a double-edged sword,” she says. “After there has been some publicity about Luke people - well-meaning people, often strangers - will approach me. It can be as simple as a squeeze on the arm in a shop and I know what it is about. People are just being kind but in the past when it’s happened I’ve just had to leave my trolley and go.”
In the early days, when she believed not enough was being done to find her son, Nicki often felt like she had to turn the stones that remained unmoved.
“Since the Major Investigation Team has been involved I have become more relaxed about that,” she says. “I have taken my finger off the pulse and for my survival that is a healthy thing.
“The feeling I am going insane has disappeared over time, along with that absolute utter despair of being so helpless and not knowing where to go. I wanted every policeman in the country to be looking for Luke. I wanted the army out. Looking back, I put myself in so much danger. I was out putting posters up in Ipswich town centre at 4am. I went down to London, talking to homeless people.
“In the first couple of years I would wake up and think: ‘Today is the day they will find him’. I still think about him a number of times every day, just as you do with your children whether they are with you or not. Smell can trigger a memory suddenly or I can be listening to a song and think, I know Luke would like that.
“I feel more grounded now but a couple of years into the investigation the police had 200 statements and were telling me things - it felt like my memory of my son was being created by strangers. I called a friend whose son has been gone for 18 years and sobbed down the phone to her, saying I didn’t know who Luke was any more. I felt crushed by it. But I’m fine now. I’m not letting my memories get re-imagined.”
Nicki also knows she has changed since Luke has been gone.
“It’s strange how fearless I have become in many ways,” she says. “I was never a shrinking violet, especially where my children were concerned and I do still get nervous about some things but I don’t fear the same things as I used to. Before, I would have been worried about offending or hurting people’s feelings. Losing a child in any circumstances, your life takes on a different perspective.
“Sometimes I think about the people who are desperate for children and haven’t been able to have them at all. I had Luke for 19 years. But even so, I would like to just have silly little things to worry about, not if my son is ever going to come back, how he was murdered, was he awake and did it hurt. This is every parent’s nightmare and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.”