There were no new diaries to read of course, and I had very few sources of information about news, or gossip, other than through Jason. Myself, Jason and Linda (Linda more Jason’s friend than mine), often spent time together before Elly disappeared, especially around the time of the incident with Becky, but other than that I didn’t usually get involved. After she disappeared we had made a point of going out, socially, together. It was a bit of a compromise. We, Jason and me, didn’t want to go out in large groups but wanted more than our own company. Linda never wanted to be alone, so we plugged the gaps between her soirées, and she took us out of ourselves for a while. Just being together at home, or even out somewhere, was too stifling when the only thing on our minds was Elly and where she’d gone. Well actually, my mind had taken a distinct turn, referring all of our losses back to Jason’s failings. I knew that’s what I was doing, and yet it didn’t feel entirely groundless. So, a subtext constantly accompanied him of which he was unaware. He didn’t say much, meaning I had to interpolate a great deal. It was tiring, but compulsive.
“I met Linda just now” he said. That was quite soon after we’d realised that Elly had actually gone, and not just become occupied with something that was delaying her. I was all ears. Linda lived close by, and he was always meeting her, but any conversation these days was significant.
“She said she needs our advice about something and shall we go to hers for tea.”
“Advice about what? D’you know?”
“Probably about the house. The decor.” I knew it wouldn’t be advice she was after. She had strong ideas, maybe you could go as far as saying strong opinions, about houses and what to do with them. We’d no doubt be required for a viewing of some kind.
He waited for me to say something either way. When I didn’t he remarked “I said we’d go later on.”
“I’ll go by myself if you like.”
If I like. That phrase has always annoyed me. It circumvented any need to understand anything. We could have discussed why I might not want to, or why I might not have wanted to be included in something before being asked, but ‘if I liked’ might just as well have been ‘I don’t care’, or even ‘please don’t come’.
I had the presence of mind to stop the petty sequence that poses such puzzles as ‘do you want me to?’ and such conclusions as ‘well you just go if you want to’, but I must say it was very tempting. He didn’t really have to have a preference, or even a mind on it at all, for this to be a battleground. I didn’t used to go, not always, but when he came back the last time from a coffee in town with Linda, and said they’d discussed Elly and the accusations about her, it put me in a panic. With her not being around it felt as though the relationships with Elly were up for grabs, a bit like anyone could step in to my place.
She was only nineteen when she vanished, but her childhood was over and it looked as though my relationship with her was also over. Her whole adolescence started to condense in my mind around a few remarks, a few choices and as many accidents. I returned to her diary to try and find her as a person again, or the person she grew from at eleven years’ old.
“Told Beccs today that I have a new best friend”, I had the read the passage so often already by the time Elly disappeared that the words were more of a script than a source of revelation:
“She didn’t say anything. I said it was Rose, but not sure if she knew who I was talking about. Anyhow, she didn’t seem to.”
A series of factual passages like this one follow on, presaging the future, when dates and times and facts pursued Elly. The next relevant entry was quite telling of her mental state, that is of Becky’s mental state:
“I saw her today with Phil from the third year. Rose says they’ve been together for ages – says she barely goes out with anyone else at all. Cut herself off. Don’t know what she sees in him.” Elly had drawn a mocking caricature in the margin. “They were holding hands and kissed each other goodbye at the gate. Jesus.” I knew that Elly had had a few boyfriends herself by that time, but it was not like these two: Becky and Phil. Elly’s were awkward and rivalrous relationships. Becky and Phil, by contrast, had all the mildness of a middle aged couple. It was clear that Elly saw it that way too:
“I don’t think Beccs would be going out with Phil if we were still friends. She hardly spends any time at her own home now I think. I wonder if she gives him loads of sweets and crisps like she did for me? It must be boring with him. He’s so quiet and so unexciting. Don’t know what Beccs’ dad thinks of it – her as good as living with Phil’s family. Perhaps he doesn’t even know. I wouldn’t say it to anyone but I think her dad was in prison – or something like that. He was never there when I went over, and actually her mum wasn’t around much either. It’s not just that though. She never said anything about him and that one time that he came home I wasn’t allowed round there. Nobody was. She was off for a week from school that time. She probably got in trouble for giving me all that food. It was meant for her mum’s shop I think. She won’t even look at me now. I don’t want to look at her either. She should grow up and stop living through Phil.”
Elly was only young then. She was bound to have misconceptions, and it wouldn’t be right to try and pin Becky’s overdose on her somewhat mysterious father any more than blaming Elly. I certainly hadn’t blamed Elly, even though she accused me of that at the time. I’ve never been able to understand why Elly would say that, that I blamed her for Becky’s overdose.
Her friendship with Rose had taken off in a big way after she split from Becky. They seemed to be forging their path into adulthood ruthlessly. They saw no reason why the state should support anybody, and they had a Nietzschian disdain of moral weakness. It seemed grossly incongruent because when she was small she had a side to her that was shy and dependent, almost meek. The comments in her diary had no compassion in them, and yet I knew that when faced with suffering, human or animal, Elly could hardly bear it. Her sensibilities were poles apart from her politics and morality. She was by nature a humanist. I had all the evidence of this that I needed by the time she was fourteen. Once, for example, as we often had done, we settled down in front of the TV to watch the weekly play. It’s setting was a wooden hut, during the war. There were uniformed soldiers, one seated at the table, one guarding the door, and the third pacing up and down in dialogue with the seated one: the prisoner. They were all British. I commented to Elly that desertion was a crime. She knew that, she said. Here was a deserter. We witnessed the dramatised courtmartial of this man who continued to be defeated by his need to survive and his terror of death. The scene pushed inexorably on to the bitter end: his execution. Elly protested aggressively that she had tried to stay with him, as though I was accusing her of some kind of complicity. She wrote about it in her diary. She had struggled in her imagination to do his anguish justice, but she couldn’t accompany him outside, still desperately pleading for his life, towards the firing squad. She was determined to see it as it was, but at that moment had retreated, not only psychically but physically. I’d seen that happen when she took herself away to the stairs. I heard her crying.
“It’s not real. It’s only a play” I tried to make her distress less acute, perhaps less real.
“But it happened. That” she spat “happened to people”, as though I’d fired the gun.
I had nothing to say, and again I was on the outside, without the power to restore normality.
It was no secret, even to Elly herself, that she was suggestible, so perhaps the moral disjunction was that simple: the punishing politics of the day voiced through my otherwise empathic daughter. I can recall the day when she came into the dining room and announced a new revelation. She had walked past the radiator at school and felt heat coming off it, and yet when she touched it the metal was cold. And not even her awareness of the phenomenon changed her perceptions. Every other radiator pulled her towards it with warmth, though none of the heating had been turned on. She seemed unable to communicate her amazement with enough force to satisfy her. I was right. Her diary said it most clearly:
“What incredible evidence this is. It supports everything I’m saying about belief, religion, politics and love – all the big topics. The mind does whatever it has a habit for, or wishes for. Isn’t it sensible then to be sceptical and to question?”
But Elly’s scepticism was not ambiguous nor ambivalent, certainly not tentative; on the contrary, highly dogmatic. Likewise Rose. They were hard on themselves and hard on other people. That was all in theory, though. I’m sure it was the talk on the bus, and the groping for certainty of late night discussions. There were no practical consequences. Nobody’s livelihood nor social standing was in their hands, not even their own. So naturally I hadn’t worried about any of that. It was part of growing up.
Phil’s parents had virtually re-adopted their own son, with his new identity as part of the couple, ‘Phil and Beccs’. So the weight of opinion against Elly amounted to something much more formidable than Becky’s dissolute family could, alone, have mustered. And the opinion eventually manifested in the visits to us from those police officers. That’s when I’d first looked in her diary, and when I stopped begging Jason to flesh things out with me, to venture with me on a contrary understanding. I could understand why her peers might consider this as simple cause and effect – Elly steals Phil which causes Becky’s suicidal response – they had every reason after all to police each other’s behaviour, but it seemed outrageous to me for their parents to corroborate the inference. Bit by poisonous bit, though, the substance that made it plausible was constructed, and the naïveté of Elly and Rose began to cost them.
“Jason” I finally overcame my unwillingness to raise what was on my mind with him. “You know that pictures from the party of Elly and Phil together were posted online don’t you?” Jason said he did. “And did you know why Becky involved the police? That she has accused Elly and Rose of bullying her, well actually she even said abusing her? That according to Becky, in a final act of sadism, they had put something in Phil’s drink and concocted the whole scenario, and that they were the ones who had published the pictures. She wants protection from the police because she doesn’t feel safe!” My voice was shaking by this point…incredulous. Becky’s accusations gained popular currency. The village, then, it appeared, were refusing to spare them their philosophy, and they were expected to live it out, one way or another. Becky’s diary competed with Elly’s. It didn’t actually name them, Elly and Rose, but did name the acts, the times, the places. If there had been an adult perpetrator behind the accounts a man-hunt would have resulted. It would have been better if Becky’s accusations had made it to trial, but no case was ever heard. So the bloody fools who thought Elly and Rose capable of those offences never got to see the difference between theory and practice: never got to see how inconsequential a few experimental thoughts could and should have been.