At the family home of Bernie Ross, the Christmas tree is still up, bedecked with beautiful tiny ornaments and twinkling with fairy lights. A pile of presents sits unwrapped beneath it.
The festive scene has been left untouched since Ross’s wife, Jacinta Evans, discovered last month her missing husband had been found alive, if not well. They would put Christmas on hold, she decided, and celebrate together with their four children – a reunited family of six – once he finally was home.
Ross, 51, UEFA’s former head of TV production, had been missing since October 18, when he told his wife of 20 years he was heading to London for a day or two to visit his sister. In fact no such visit was ever planned. After setting off from his house in Oxford, he instead boarded a Eurostar to the continent and, in a highly fragile mental state, commenced a desperate journey around France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland, where he eventually turned up on December 18. Travelling sometimes by train, sometimes on his fold-up bicycle, he managed to evade police searching for him for two months before finally presenting himself to a psychiatric hospital in Geneva.
Ross is one of thousands of people who go missing in Britain every year, many of whose families are supported by Missing People, one of the organisations The Telegraph is supporting in its ongoing charity appeal. In many cases, relatives are left in an agony of hanging on for news of their loved one and trying not to fear the worst. Evans, 52, and her children Theo, 18, Felix, 17, Oscar, 14 and Matilda, 11, were among them. Inevitably, the darkest thoughts had begun to cross Evans’ mind. “I honestly thought he might be going to kill himself,” she says.
After losing his high-powered job at the body governing the European football associations in 2016, her husband’s mental health declined dramatically, tests last January revealed he had bipolar disorder. He spent the next six months in and out of hospital receiving treatment for his illness, and was showing signs of improvement when he vanished.
Evans believes the strain of his workload before and during Euro 2016, and uncertainty surrounding a promotion, were what had made him snap. But UEFA refused to recognise his illness, she says, and he should not have been dismissed while he was ill. Still, the legal battle the family was taking against UEFA, suing them for unfair dismissal and loss of future earnings, became a secondary concern. “I’ve just been focused on finding Bernie,” she says.
I first met Jacinta in November when she described the nightmare state of limbo in which she was suspended. This time, we meet for happier reasons: her husband has been found , although it could be some time before he is discharged from the psychiatric ward at Geneva University Hospitals.
Having been traced to Grasse in south-east France at the end of October, there had been no confirmed sightings of him until December 8. The next evening, at 6.10pm, Evans was shopping with her daughter in when her phone rang.
“CID from Banbury read me a statement saying Bernie had turned up at UEFA premises late at night and sought to gain access to the buildings. They said he’d delivered Christmas cards and left on foot, alone. I was delighted because [then] I knew he was alive. It was confirmation.”
The missives turned out to be hand-written, bloodstained notes to five UEFA directors saying in French “Aidez-moi, s’il vous plait” (help me, please) – then Ross disappeared for another 10 days.
His former UEFA colleagues swung into action, plastering the town with posters appealing to the public to help find him.
“Bernie saw a poster,” says Evans – and headed to an internet cafe to find out how to get help. Here, he came across the Facebook page the family was using to search for him. On it was a “heartbreaking” video his daughter had made consisting of a series of images of her father. “It was just her way of expressing that she was missing him so much,” says Evans. “It was a bit of a shock to him.”
Evans, a former publishing director at Open University Press was in the middle of the shift volunteering at a local food bank when her phone rang again.
“I’d stopped asking [the police] ‘have you found him?’ [But] the guy said ‘I’ve got some news: he’s turned up.’ I burst out crying. I couldn’t believe it. I was desperate to talk to him.”
Back home, it took her close to half an hour after first ringing the hospital to be put through to the man she’d feared she may never see again.
“Eventually this doctor said ‘yes, he’s with me now , I’ll pass him over,’ just like that. So then I was talking to Bernie! It was so lovely to hear his voice.”
What did he say to her, the wife who had been at the brink of despair?
“He said: ‘It’s nice to hear your voice,’” says Evans, welling up at the memory. They talked for almost two hours – Evans can’t be sure, so delirious were those early moments of reunion.
“We just talked for ages and ages. He had no idea how long he’d been away and hadn’t got another prescription [for his medication] for nearly 40 days. He was in a very bad way. He didn’t sound like himself, he said he hadn’t slept for a month.”
Bit by bit, she learned how he had spent the past two months, though details were hazy.
“He got a lot of trains and he travelled a lot, by night sometimes”, she says. “He got on and off without really knowing where he was going.”
Pushed to breaking point by his lack of medication, he had finally gone to the hospital because he was so desperate to sleep.
“It was very upsetting,” she says. “Honestly, I think we got him just in time. I think he was really at the point where it was all going to end very badly, but seeing the poster and realising there were all these people out there looking for him pulled him back.”
She took the next flight out to see him, arriving the next day and spending hours at the hospital with him.
“He was so thin. He was sitting in a chair looking very crumpled and sad and out of it. I stayed until they had to lock the doors.”
She visited him each day, watching him slowly make progress. On December 21 they celebrated her birthday there. (“It was lovely. We had the whole day together.”)
But it soon became clear he would not be returning home with her any time soon, and she is now resigned to what could be a lengthy wait.
There has, however, been an unexpected side-effect of the hellish journey she has been on. “Some people renew their vows and I almost feel I’ve done that,” she smiles. “It’s been very affirming for me and Bernie. If you’ve been married that long you pootle along but I would go to the ends of the earth for him. Sometimes you say that, but I really did have to spend every waking hour trying to find him.”
A spokesman for UEFA has said previously: “Bernie Ross was a highly valued and respected member of the UEFA staff. While we fully sympathise with Mrs Ross...any suggestion of misconduct or maltreatment of Mr Ross on the part of UEFA would be wholly untrue.
“When Bernie left UEFA, we signed a confidentiality agreement with him and we intend to respect that. UEFA cannot comment further on what is essentially a private matter.”
Missing People is a beneficiary of this year’s Telegraph’s Charity Appeal. To make a donation to this or one of the other charities supported in our appeal, please call 0151 284 1927, visit telegraph.co.uk/charity or see below for the coupon.