After a while not many words were spoken in the house about Elly’s disappearance. All the talk was in other places. We had done with bending our imaginations towards the unknowable, constantly hijacked by premature endings: someone had seen her here, or there, or hadn’t because of course they couldn’t. She had never been easy to trace, so this was a comfort at least. If there were other hands involved they would more likely have betrayed themselves. No, it had all the hallmarks of the Elly that we knew. And wasn’t it so like her to wait until she was nineteen to disappear? When she had the right, though barely any resources, to leave and not be followed.
The police reminded us of this often, “and she was a nineteen year old woman when she disappeared” they repeated, as though they might otherwise make the error of thinking that she was a child. I might have been mistaken, but I thought I caught a sense in the way they spoke that the officers believed they had seen it all before. But it wasn’t this that they’d seen before I wanted to argue. You can’t assert something, though, against something unsaid. There was a history. And by extension, we understood, Elly had been deemed damaged and damaging. The damage Elly was assumed capable of was now being enacted through her absence. My days were by then saturated with what I could see of the past; skewed recollections most likely, but the feelings were still powerful enough to be remembered with pointed accuracy.
I’d married Jason quite late really. I’d been married before, but it hadn’t been a marriage for children. Elly was a surprise, and I’d never stopped seeing everything about her as miraculous. Perhaps it was that that made me reticent with her: anxious. I remember reasoning with myself that the other mums at the school gate must have done too (wonder at their own children) but was repeatedly struck with how most seemed to have a different way of doing things. What often surprised me was the sheer ordinariness that they seemed to feel; as though nothing about their own children, nor life in general, held any mystery, any magic. The surprises that they did express came, in my view if not Jason’s, from contrivances: most often the litany of people, including themselves, wronged by others’ malevolence. There seemed to be no end to the permutations, and no hope of discriminating the good from the bad, the true from the false, the just from the unjust. I did manage to get to the point where I could say without stretching credulity that I didn’t care, but ‘not caring’ for most of Elly’s life hasn’t been an option.
Jason has, unhelpfully, always seen the good in everyone. I’ve often struggled with how he could be so mild about their vitriol, even before it was personal; before Elly was even in junior school. When I tried to ask him what he thought about the many interpersonal hostilities and hurt feelings, he always reckoned they were simply all getting by as best they could. Actually a lot of them were just shy, he said. Well maybe they were shy with him, in his shorts, I thought. Anyhow, he held to his view until the question stopped being relevant, when Elly was her own agent at secondary school. I would have liked to believe it too, if there was a chance that the symptoms were only skin deep. I can see the logic. If they were uncomfortable around each other then it would make sense to think they’d use anything at their disposal to fit in. But was shyness the predominant attribute? Why couldn’t I feel as charitable as he seemed to feel? Well, maybe because shyness between the sexes does not translate to appraisals of ones own sex, which are driven by somewhat different forces.
I’m sure he wondered why it mattered so much. He’d never had any issue with them. It often crossed my mind to confront him with the fact that some of them, at least, certainly had an issue with him. Suspicion of him had been rampant for Elly’s first four years, when he was looking after her all day. He’d never altered himself one iota to assuage their worries, still dressing outside as he always had at home: running tights, shorts in summer, vest tops. Unapologetic masculinity I had thought. I knew I wasn’t so assertive. If it had been me I’d have chipped off my edges until I could get by without comment. At least, though, I congratulated myself, I’d had the restraint to let him be, to not mediate their controlling agenda. They’d become used to him eventually, but Elly’s actions cast him into strangeness, not a single time but twice. In his eyes it was their issue alone; the ones who chose suspicion could go ahead, but without him. He wasn’t going to answer to the sickness in others. It had always been a matter of honour in him to respect himself. But I was, by contrast, a permeable person who found my esteem leached away by the waves of criticism that ebbed and flowed, and I began to doubt Jason as part and parcel of doubting myself. Did we, did I, did he, do something to Elly?
“What do you make of it?” I remember questioning Jason back then, after the party, about Becky. I wanted his insights to rescue Elly. I tried to prise him open: “You know that Phil’s Mum and Dad are visiting Becky in hospital every day? They aren’t sure of the prognosis.” I realised back then that I wasn’t sure of the prognosis for Elly. Jason merely accepted the news. He wasn’t indifferent to it but he wasn’t in a panic either. Becky did recover enough to leave hospital, then was in and out on a pretty much constant basis over the years. Sometimes it felt like an accusation. However much I wanted to accept the truism that Becky was a victim I could only see her as the aggressor. But there was nowhere for me to stand. I certainly couldn’t be a victim. When Elly was around, it should I suppose have been her dilemma, but I’d never managed to establish anything about her position.
Then, three months after the disappearance, and it must have been about four and a half years since Becky’s overdose, Jason quite unexpectedly brought his voice to bear. He asked me if I’d heard about Becky, and just for a minute I thought he’d said Elly. I had to steady myself. His expression was focused, seeking my responses, and when my head slowly shook ‘no’ he inhaled carefully and said that he was sorry to say that she had died. I distractedly fumbled for the chair behind me and sat down, then got up and walked towards the window. Jason stood where he was.
“Do we know what happened?” I dreaded more uncertainty.
“Complications from her treatments apparently. She was quite poorly in hospital, got worse quite suddenly, and died yesterday. They’re doing a postmortem.”
This was more than we were entitled to know I suppose. We weren’t in touch with her family of course, nor Phil’s, so information coming our way was not out of concern for us nor respect for Becky. It was spillage. I immediately felt uncomfortable having it: of not being able to allow the uncomplicated responses in myself that should have been fitting. It worried me how I was going to cope with it.
“How did you hear about it?” Perhaps this would help me manage myself.
“Ben from next door was chatting to me this morning while I was taking down the shed”. There were three Bens in the village so we always had to specify which Ben we meant.
“Oh, I see”. I wanted to follow-up with the customary questions that buy time for the mind to get to know the information, but they would have come across to me, if not Jason, as salacious. So there was nothing else to say nor do now, except wait and feel the impacts as they came.
The impotent silence was too oppressive, so I picked up on the incidental information:
“Is the shed down now then?”
“Aha. I put the stuff in the lean-to for now, mostly tools, but there are some plastic wheely boxes full of papers that you might want to check before I have a fire”
I remembered putting some old mementos in one of the boxes but wasn’t sure what else. It was raining, though, so I put off going outside and milled about, half completing several jobs inside the house.
When I finally did decide to check-out the lean-to the weather had improved and people were using the footpath alongside the house. They couldn’t see me hunched over amongst the pile of hardware that I’d extracted to get to the wheelie boxes.
“They live there, don’t they, the Richardsons?” I caught the words as a woman who’d come up the path chatted to Lizzy from the shop, who was walking the other way.
“Jase and Cecy – Yep.”
“Has there been any news about Elly yet?” was posed within the same breath as hushed words about Becky’s death. They wove in and out of the details for a bit before she arrived at the real preoccupation: “did you know about Becky’s injuries? The abuse scandal a few years’ back? I wonder whether that’ll need investigating again?” Some more discreet murmurs were ended, “well, bye Sam, catch you later”, and it was over.
I wasn’t sure whether anything new was being implied or whether the questions were being used to work up the blame debate again. It had to go somewhere didn’t it? But my nonchalant, bitter distaste as I relayed the event to Jason was not going to quell my rage for very long, and then that rage would burn out to leave me completely wretched and pretty much back where I’d started. I knew the pattern, the spiral would be relentless once it started. But this time, though, Elly was not there. Would that make a difference to its progress?
I decided to let Jason burn the papers I’d found, keeping aside a box file that had been forced into a gap behind them, jammed stuck against the mouldy wooden panel. I was curious what it was and would probably, I guessed, put it in the fire when I’d found out. Anything I’d needed within any time I could remember was obviously not in the memento troves. Anyhow, why would I put anything I really valued in the shed? It occurred to me, comfortingly, that perhaps this burning of the past was the kind of route Elly had chosen: abandonment, departure. It had worried me for a while why her old diary was still in her room rather than taken with her, or even disposed of, and it made the rumours that there was ‘foul play’ (that her own agenda and interests had been interrupted, interfered with) more cogent, but the balance of probability now tipped back in the direction of a decided departure. I could even reconcile this with the fact of her phone remaining. It was harder to understand her continued silence, but I’d had practice in accepting punishing things from her before and, when it came down to it, wouldn’t I have pressurised her to come back and do whatever was needed to be part of things again, whatever her feelings about (and, it occurred to me then, whatever my resistance was to fitting in with) the village. She had made such a principle of standing her ground; perhaps she couldn’t continue to do that here.