The boy’ll not have done it. He’ll be her friend. Her only friend. Sometimes you need a friend. Someone who understands you.
He’ll be confused. They’ll come at him, nice and slow, nice and friendly like, cups of tea and all, even the offer of an illicit cigarette, treat him like the grown up they want to make him out to be. He’s only fourteen, or so they say on the street. Maybe fifteen. Who knows the truth.
They’ll tell him like it is and he will nod. He’ll think, You understand me. They’ll talk to him of what a lovely girl she was. How bright and smiley. How she loved to tease. They’ll say, Think of her mother sitting at home this minute, right now, curtains drawn, bastard press outside her house tapping on her windows. Poor woman.
They’ll say, You liked her didn’t you? The nod. Perhaps you even loved her. The nod. How is it that they understand.
They’ll say, Her mother loved her too. The nod. Her father. The nod. Her wee brother Callum and Hayley, wee Hayley. She’s been crying ever since. Imagine having to grow up without a big sister. You’ve got a sister haven’t you? The nod. How would you feel if she just disappeared one day? You’d want to know wouldn’t you? The nod.
We understand son, it was probably an accident. Wanted something, eh. Pushed it a bit far. We know how it is. Young lad like you. It must have been exciting. First girlfriend eh. Nod, little smile this time on the corner of his mouth and the men exchange glances.
Did you kiss her? I bet you wanted to. She was pretty wasn’t she. Lovely hair, lovely smile. I would have, if I were your age. It’s lonely son, isn’t it. We understand. You need a friend sometimes. Someone special.
The boy’s eyes drop to the floor and the men glance at each other again. Behind the glass fingers tighten on folded arms. Just tell us where she is, son. That’s all we want to know. Where’s she gone. Perhaps you had a row. Perhaps you wanted something and she didn’t. Perhaps she was upset. We understand. It can be like that sometimes. Love. And they pause because they see this is the truth, for the boy reaches for his polystyrene cup of tea (milk one sugar – aye, just how I have it son, you’re in good company) and his fingers shake and it slops a little as he pulls it towards him. Behind the glass the officers set their mouths and they sigh. It’s looking bad for the boy.
Back inside he’s crying now. His mum sitting next to him clenches the shredded tissue in her hand. She’s been warned – best to be quiet. The boy’s hand shakes and tea spills on his leg.
It’s OK son. It’s OK. We understand.
Tears start to trickle down his cheeks and he doesn’t wipe them away, lets them drop onto his jumper and his hand where it sits in his lap holding the tea. And for once the police are silent and they all hold their breath.
Then he speaks.
I didn’t mean to.
He means something different. I know he does. She’s well gone by now. Gone to her new life. Left it all behind. The boring mum, the embarrassing dad, the bastard teachers never getting off her back. The stupid girls all souking up one minute and turning nasty the other. She feels bad about him, likes him and all, but he’s a bit too serious for her. She doesn’t mean to go that far. Just thinks of it like the trip they took the year before. Forgets to get off the bus, that’s all. And once you’re there, well, it gets hard to go back.
They have him now. The air in the room goes up a notch. The men behind the glass smile with pressed lips and nod to each other. The men in the room look up at the mirror, then sit back in the chairs their hands flat, their fingers laid out on the edge of the table. They wait. A new man comes in and they stand. Hello son, he says. The boy’s mother grips her tissue. So this is how it happens.
We had a row that’s all. The boy is sullen now. Now he has decided. I didn’t mean to.
Didn’t mean to what son, says the new man in the room. He sits on the edge of the table.
Didn’t mean to shout at her.
You shouted at her?
Yes, we had a row. She was pissed off with me. His mother tightens and the boy casts her a glance. His hands curl closer around the warm cup of tea.
A row son?
Yes, a row. This time he looks up. The officer crosses his arms.
What about son?
The boy looks down again. Nothing.
Nothing? Why didn’t you want to tell us if it was nothing?
It was just…
What son? Just what?
It was stupid.
Stupid? They’re not giving him any leeway now. In what way was it stupid?
I don’t know, just stupid. I…he looks at his mother again. I asked her to marry me.
The men behind the mirror drop their arms to their sides, take a step closer to the glass. To marry you? The man in the room can’t hide his surprise. This is not the way it’s supposed to go.
The boy’s mother briefly closes her eyes. Her romantic son. Her sensitive boy. Always the first to cry. Always without a best friend. Always in search of someone to love him. She’d done her best. On her own. With his little sister too, all bright and out there. And he’d been so quiet, so quiet all these last couple of years. Her first born. She dropped her head in relief. He’d gone daft over a girl, that was all. He’d gone daft over a girl and now he was embarrassed because she was gone and he thought he was to blame.
The policemen know she’s right. They see her look, the way her hands harden. Behind the glass one man shakes his head and another leaves to go back to his desk. Inside the officer sits and rubs his thumb and finger across his forehead. Tell me son. It’s OK. It’s OK to be embarrassed. Just tell us what happened.
So he does.
How he liked her. How they would hang out together after school. How she hated the other girls and he the boys. How they didn’t have any other friends. How they went to the place down by the river because there was a bench there you could sit on and it was quiet. How she used to take out her brush and brush her long hair and she would let him do it for her. How they would hold hands and share packets of crisps. Salt and Vinegar. How her little fingertips were so pink and almost see through, like his little sisters used to be when she was a baby. How she would talk about not liking her mum and her dad being stupid. About how she was going to go away and why didn’t he come too. But he said he couldn’t, what about his mum. So she didn’t mentioned it for a while. And then once, they kissed. Then laughed. And it was after that he asked her.
She laughed again. Then she saw he was serious. And she said, But I can’t. I’m going away. And he said, Don’t go away. And they rowed. And she stormed off. And he went home. And then when he heard that she was gone he was frightened. He knew it was all his fault. If only he’d agreed to go with her. Or not said the thing about getting married. He should have left it just the way it was. Friends and everything. And he’s crying now. I love her, he said. I love her. And he’s the only one who talks as though she’s still here.
After that they let him go and he leaves the police station with his mother’s arms around his shoulders and his head dipped, eyes to the floor. The police send a woman to sit down with the girl’s mother. Where might she have gone? What places would she run to? Do you have relatives, or friends she might stay with? What about your husband? What does he think?
And the mother, who has prepared herself for the worst, discovers that this, this vanishing into thin air, is much, much more terrible.
© Mary Paulson-Ellis, 2013