You walked towards me in Earls Court Road that evening, and surprised me. Surprised us both, I think, because you seemed to scowl and then you ran past me. I turned back and I knew it was you, because of your lolloping gait as I liked to think of it. Kind of clump, clump. Now, if this were today, I would’ve grabbed my cellphone and taken a photo. Put it up on Facebook, asked people all over the world to share it, and to get in touch if they saw you.
Back then, I just knew from a mutual friend that you hadn’t been in contact with your parents. They were worried about you. That was all.
Then after I told people I had seen you – and you had run from me – I became part of your story. After that, stories went around about you.
A girl said she had been sitting on the roof of a house she was visiting in Camden when you came out through the attic window bearing a plate full of still-warm scones. ‘And with blackcurrant jelly. Such a New Zild thing to do,’ she said. She’d known your face. And the voice. It couldn’t be anyone but you. But she hadn’t known you well enough to say anything. You had just been someone on the fringe of the circle when you were living in New Zealand.
You and I and some others had shared that freezing damp house in Dunedin. You had rosy cheeks and wild frizzy brown hair that couldn’t be tamed with just a brush. You didn’t have a boyfriend and you didn’t date anyone; it was hinted afterwards there may have been someone you were keen on then. Unrequited love. Mostly what I recall is how sensible you were. In summer, when we were getting sunburnt down at the beach with the boys, you were at home giving the bathroom a good clean. Or baking scones.
Your cousin came over to London. He was a farm labourer and he seemed lost in this big city, going from flat to flat to ask about you. Out of touch. But he persevered.
When we met he asked me to recall in detail what I had seen of you; he listened intently to the story about the scones and the blackcurrant jelly, and nodded thoughtfully as if that meant something to him. Later, the other girl said she wasn’t one hundred per cent sure.
Your cousin went to the police and Salvation Army. He went to the Australia–New Zealand newspaper in Kensington and told them your story. How you were lost and the family wanted you found. One thing I heard was that you called the phone number listed in the newspaper, angry, and said you did not want to be found. Was that true?
It’s like the story someone else had been told: you had got mixed up with a criminal of some kind, a guy who went to jail. But I think people, when they didn’t know much, liked to invent things. That’s what we all do.
In the same way, I have wondered over the years – at idle moments – what made you run and hide? What was it you were running from all those years ago? Or who?
I sometimes imagine your life now. Maybe you ran off with your gypsy lover and now criss-cross Europe, season-by-season?
Maybe you’re somebody famous like the girl in Heavenly Creatures who went to jail for helping murder her best friend’s mother. She ended up with a change of name and became a crime writer.
From time to time I’ve read those articles about the girls who got mixed up with the big New Zealand drug baron, Mr Asia. Or the Kiwi girls living in Sydney and Melbourne who, thirty years ago, left their flatmate or boyfriend or brother a note saying they were going away for a few days. And then were never seen again.
I didn’t want to think of you, found years later in an unmarked grave in a wood, blows having been dealt to your scalp.
I’ve heard over the years that first your mother got ill and died. And you hadn’t been found. And then your father. I wonder if anyone is looking for you still.
I’ve forgotten the names of most of the people I flatted with, forgotten the names of people I once saw daily at work. But I never forget your name.
Maybe, in the end, you are living in a tiny basement flat with a couple of cats for company. Or perhaps a dog. The people in the square where you live know you by sight but you don’t speak to them. You walk your groceries and fruit and vegetables from the market in a little tartan trundler and your back is stooped. Your hair is still frizzy but now it’s grey. I prefer that to imagining you in a shallow grave in the forest. Of course, I do.
And something else that occurs to me now is that even though you were never found, you were never lost. Not as far as you were concerned.