When I was 16 a girl I knew at school got pregnant. I remember being surprised to hear the news because her family was such a strict one. She was quiet and watchful and never spoke up in class, but if you asked her a question she would tell you exactly what she thought.
I was fond of her, in other words. I had learned to value her directness. I imagine she would have told me exactly what was happening, but I never got the chance to hear her out.
The same morning I heard the news she vanished.
One week she had been in class reading Wuthering Heights with the rest of us, the next there was just an empty seat. Gone.
She fell off the earth without a word of explanation. The teachers didn’t mention her again, nor did the nuns. She vanished. The fairies might have taken her for all we knew.
Throughout my adolescence I saw many people who didn’t fit in, people who defied the community’s narrow idea of itself, just disappear. One day they were typical students; the next they were pariahs being hurled out into the dark.
I didn’t see that girl from my school again for over a decade, until one day in the late 1990s when I was home for a quick visit and I bumped into her in a shop.
It was a terrific surprise to see her again, because in my head she had stayed frozen in time in the era of Duran Duran and Culture Club. She had been a 16-year-old schoolgirl then and I thought she would always be one. She recognized me before I recognized her.
She had grown her hair long. She had exchanged her gothic stylings for a matronly two-piece Laura Ashley dress. She had put on weight too, quite a bit of it.
She hadn’t married. She told me she had graduated from a training college down south.
Listening to her I felt like a body snatcher had invaded the girl I knew. The voice was still the same and the friendly directness, but this was the grown woman and I still missed the girl.
I felt robbed suddenly, cheated. It had finally caught up with me. How could I have let her be snatched away without a word of protest long ago?
Now, decades later, I marvel now at how much I noticed and just accepted. All those sudden disappearances, young men and women.
I had watched without a word, as people who no longer fitted the mold would somehow fall off the face of the planet. We would barely say a word about it. There goes another one, we’d shrug. Dear oh dear.
In the shop we tried to talk as though 10 years had not passed, which put a strain on both of us. Where the hell did you go, I wanted to ask her? Why the hell did you not say goodbye to us, or to me?
I realized I was angry suddenly. I wanted answers. But how could I locate a missing teenager in the prematurely middle aged woman standing in front of me now?
Later it occurred to me that the girl I missed was never coming back. And it made me feel a bit hopeless, because there was nothing I could do.
After that on my way home I wondered why I had just accepted her disappearance. I could have gone to her door. I could have brazened her defiant mother.
The thing is I had gotten the memo like everyone else. Our culture in the 1980s was still suffused with the deep shame and silence over sexual matters that allowed tens of thousands of young people to simply vanish into the night.
Put one foot wrong and you would be swallowed up by the night yourself. To even talk about it was to risk contagion.
Back then there were so many reasons for a sudden disappearance, but the worst and most final banishments befell women, gay men and children. Men were protected by the low opinion everyone had of them; but in contrast women, gay men and children were actually threatened by the low opinion everyone had of them. Silence was the price you paid for your protection.
So I kept my head down and my mouth shut, like I’d been taught to.
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