Plunged in to public spotlight

AFTER 12 weeks of waiting in turmoil, Nicki Durbin has not given up hope her 19-year-old son Luke will appear safe and well. The ordeal propelled her to national television and worldwide appeals.

By Tracey Sparling

AFTER 12 weeks of waiting in turmoil, Nicki Durbin has not given up hope her 19-year-old son Luke will appear safe and well. The ordeal propelled her to national television and worldwide appeals. TRACEY SPARLING meets the mum who has come out fighting.

NICKI Durbin deliberately chose a very private life for herself, her son and her daughter.

From their remote cottage at Hollesley, surrounded by ploughed fields with just a scattering of neighbours, she watched Luke and Alicia grow up with the freedom that only a rural life can safely afford.

“They were able to build dens, head up the road without me worrying, and if their friends came round they often stayed overnight - like they do when you live in the country,” she recalled, over a mug of coffee at the kitchen table.

“I chose to lead a quiet life, that's why I live out here. I once considered moving to Woodbridge but it was Luke who said to me 'I don't know why you would want to.' You don't realise the peace and quiet, until you need it.”

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One fateful day in May, Luke left an Ipswich nightclub with friends, never to be seen again after they parted company. Since that night Nicki and Alicia's world has been turned upside down - and this very private mum has plunged in to the very public arena of national television and newspapers.

The 37-year-old learned fast, that the only way to keep the search for Luke in the public eye is to keep up the publicity. So behind the fragility of her petite frame, and the hurt in her eyes, a steely determination to do the necessary was born.

Her day job, working for a small business letting holiday cottages, kept her going in the early days, but now her driving force is coming home each night to switch the computer back on for the campaign. Every spare moment is spent answering emails, running www.findluke.com, and planning the campaign's next move.

“There were days when the outlook was so black, I couldn't see a way forward,” she said. “Now I put all my energy in to this campaign.

“In the beginning I was in such despair I couldn't get out of bed in the morning. Some days I woke up and just couldn't do things - if it was a day like that I couldn't face doing anything public.”

Her emotional rollercoaster developed to a surging anger: “It was absolute anger and I'm not an angry person, so that feeling was incredibly alien. I never sat down and analysed why, but unfortunately it came out on quite a few innocent people.”

With a grateful smile she added: “With hindsight they were probably the right people, because they have stuck by and supported me.”

From the beginning she has felt frustrated, as her questions about Luke's whereabouts remain unanswered. “Today that frustration has not changed. I am still no nearer finding out where Luke is, and how he is,” appealing for information at the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in June, she made a conscious decision to come out fighting. She said: “I'd thought he would be home by then. But we were no further forward than the day when he left.”

An appeal on GMTV was her most public challenge, and Nicki said: “It's one thing being gregarious among my friends, but I'm not a public person in that way, so it was very daunting. It helped that as soon as I got in to the studio, I was on the sofa and on camera, and everyone there was fantastic.

“I have been thrown in to a strange situation (being in the spotlight), and I have drawn on the support of family and friends. For me, it's not about strength but more about survival.”

She admitted she was suspicious of the 'press' initially, and feared what they would broadcast. “At first I was worried about saying the wrong thing, but then I thought 'My heart has broken, what can I possibly say that would be wrong?' It just didn't come naturally, to be posing for a camera; this wasn't an award I was holding up for the photographer, it was a picture of my son.”

She added: “I was also concerned that people would think what a young mum I must have been. I worried whether I would be judged, but I am well beyond that now.”

Nicki turned to a friend who worked in public relations in London, for tips on how to launch the Summer Holiday Find Luke Campaign. Nicki said: “After 20 minutes talking to her, my whole outlook changed. I had something to aim for. Now I can't see any way to do things, other than to approach people and companies.

“I am asking companies to put hyperlinks to the campaign, on their websites, and spread the word. If everybody put a notice in their car, then nobody could say they hadn't heard about Luke,” she said fervently.

On her answer machine Nicki asks callers to leave a message, then there is a pause before she begs: 'Luke, if that's you, please just let us know you are safe…'

She said: “His core friends have got no idea where he is. I have questioned people and said 'you would tell me if you knew something?' If anyone knows something, I am sure it is somebody I don't know.

“Luke's friends are fantastic - they have been so comforting. I don't know if I could have done that at their age. I sat with two of them in the garden, and I was crying but I couldn't help it. They stayed two hours and I thought 'what must that have been like for them?'”

The support has been particularly appreciated, as she had no partner to share the strain with. Luke's dad has not been on the scene for 14 years, and Nicki said Luke had chosen not to see him since the age of 11.

She said: “Luke and I were very close until he was about 11, then I suppose he realised that wasn't cool to be so close to his mum. When he left school, he did slide and started drifting.”

Mother and son clashed when Luke was about 17, when it came to work ethics. Nicki said: “I believe you have to make your own way in life. While they were children I did jobs I wouldn't choose to, because I needed to provide for them, and Luke is so talented and intelligent that I was saying to him 'you've got to do something.' But he was happy to be working in a kitchen as long as he had enough money to survive. But even after a big blow out, we could sit and talk about it afterwards.”

In February this year, the relationship dramatically changed for the better. Nicki said: “Things were just how they used to be. I would come home from work and Luke would want to chat - he soaks up facts and for that hour or so he would chat away. He was loving life again.”

After Nicki went on holiday in April, Luke was there to welcome her home. “He was so pleased to see me, it was just perfect. Luke was working and happy, Alicia was planning what to do when she left school, and I thought, 'this is how I imagined life would be with two teenage children.' All I ever wanted, was for them to be happy.

“It really just goes to show how fragile life is, that just two weeks later our lives were turned upside down.”

After the first few weeks, she knew the family had to start functioning again; Nicki startedf cooking supper and making Alicia's packed lunch, but she said: “It still seems obscene to do anything normal, like go to the pub with friends.”

Some parents in such a tragic situation draw comfort from sitting in their child's bedroom, but Nicki shook her head: “I haven't done that. It really doesn't matter where I am. I could be on the moon and I would still be thinking about Luke.

“The craziest little things trigger me. Like he bought a Foo Fighters CD just before he went missing, and for some reason it wasn't in the case. Putting it back, set me off.

“I would love this all to turn out to be pre-meditated, by Luke. But there is just nothing, his passport and his clothes are all still here. There are no more new clues now, than there were the day he went missing.”

Seven police officers are investigating Luke's disappearance, and Nicki has to believe he is still alive.

She is convinced her son is nowhere near. She said: “If I was a 19-year-old I wouldn't be able to stay hidden for 12 weeks - so I am taking the campaign national now.”

Campaign supporters will meet at Zest nightclub at 8pm on August 17, to walk the route he is known to have walked on May 12. Nicki said: “This is the last thing I can think of. “

So if he walked in through the door today, what would she say?

She hesitated, then said: “I often sit outside by the back door, having a cigarette, and so many times I have willed him to walk round the corner.”

Choking back the tears, she said: “I wouldn't be able to speak… I would cry, and just hug him.”

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Anyone with information should contact police on 01473 721074 or the National Missing Persons Helpline on 0500 700 700.

Weblinks:

www.findluke.com

www.eveningstar.co.uk/lukedurbin

www.suffolk.police.uk

To take part in the walk on August 17, email findluke@hotmail.co.uk.

May 12: Luke is last seen at 3.40am near a taxi office in Old Foundry Road, Ipswich

He was advised to catch a bus from the Cattle Market. The last CCTV images of him show him in Dog's Head Street heading towards the bus station around 4am.

May 18: Leaflets and posters are distributed across town.

June 8: Messages of support flood in from all over the world.

June 12: Leaflets are given to fans queuing at Ipswich's Foo Fighters concert.

June 13: Makes a fresh police appeal.

June 29: Appeals for information at the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert.

July 21: Luke's devastated sister Alicia speaks to press for the first time.

July 22: Vows to take the campaign to a new national level.

July 26: Appears on GMTV, and later is interviewed by The Guardian.

August 3: 12 weeks on, still no news.

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