by Barbara Latham
re-met Melanie’s sister at the hairdresser.
I was having a cut, as I’m inclined to do when off myself. It gives disappointment a focus. There I was, sitting before too much mirror, when I heard a familiar voice.
Open plan design has been phased out of my school but introduced to this local salon. The person opposite remained totally obscured by mirror while seated but the voice was clear. Was it Melanie James who taught next to me, until she failed to turn up one morning? This was the Deputy Head and a reliable teacher who neither rang nor came in to school.
I convinced myself it was her voice, though it had been a bad week, which is why I was there at all.
As my clothes were brushed down I looked over the central panel.
It wasn’t Melanie, though something around the eyes was familiar, the voice definitely the same.
It had to be Melanie’s younger sister. I’d met her before: at the time of the drama she was better looking than Melanie and inches taller but their voices were disconcertingly similar. While we reeled, trying to take in the absence, it had been odd to keep hearing “Melanie’s voice.”
The sister was called Marion, as she had to remind me when we left the salon together for a coffee. That was the beginning of friendship.
The day Melanie James failed to arrive at school was a Wednesday, the first week in November. She rarely took sick leave, tending to keep going through minor ailments and gave warning the few occasions her temperature was too high to risk coming in.
By 10.30am the Head rang Melanie’s home – there was no reply. After trying again at intervals she decided to contact Melanie’s partner, Matthew, who worked as an administrator at a nearby hospital. But he was out of London on a course.
Straight after school I drove to Melanie’s flat with the Headmistress.
No one answered the bell. We contacted the woman in the flat beneath who said Ms James wouldn’t be back from work.
The neighbour had been home all day and there’d been no sound from upstairs, mind you she often didn’t hear Ms James.
She had a key and the sister’s telephone number.
Melanie was not lying ill upstairs and Marion couldn’t imagine what had happened. Major alterations to the flat were due to start while Matthew was away. Marion had offered Melanie a meal, since she’d be without a kitchen, but Melanie was adamant she needed a few quiet nights on her own and there’d be things to do in the flat. She’d arranged a dinner with Marion for the following week.
There was no sign of work having started, although the contents of the kitchen were stacked neatly in boxes.
At 7pm Marion rang the police, having got hold of Matthew who’d not heard from Melanie since a phone call on Monday night.
The police took note but there was nothing to suggest an abduction and they had no unidentified accident victim fitting Melanie’s description.
By next morning Matthew was convinced Melanie had been harmed.
He was a careful driver, had not once been in an accident and proud of it. He might mutter angrily as he drove but his aggression stayed within the car.
The crash was not his fault, on that the insurance company were decisive; he thought he was driving as usual, nevertheless he felt relief when it happened. He had been dreading whatever trouble lay in waiting, a crashed passenger door and whiplash were, at least, specific.
He looked battered by the time he got to school to check she hadn’t turned up, but insisted on going immediately to the police station.
A police woman suggested that Melanie might simply have left him.
“What rubbish,” he knew she didn’t behave like that and she’d never just quit school, she took her work seriously.
Matthew, having fixed on the idea of Melanie being in need of rescue, would hear nothing else. As details came out over the following days he appeared not to take them in.
The builders, it turned out, had rung to cancel on the Monday just as Melanie was leaving for school. They were delayed on the previous job, they might be able to start later in the week.
There was silence down the phone after the builder told Melanie; he wondered if she’d heard and after a moment asked if she was still there. He’d expected an earful.
Melanie paused further, then said she was late for school, but they could forget it, she’d organise something else.
For months we’d all heard her preoccupation with plans and estimates, she wanted suggestions and spent exhausting Saturdays at showrooms or driving to look at special offer tiles.
She hadn’t told Matthew of the delay on the phone and he, assuming it was going ahead, merely asked if it was a terrible mess. She’d replied “not bad at all.”
Melanie and Matthew had bought the flat four years before but couldn’t, then, afford alterations. Once these were about to begin they talked of little else.
After such preparation who would say “forget it” out of pique? Everyone knew to expect delays with builders.
That Melanie had removed the money for the building work came out though not through Matthew’s enquiry.
I used the bank two doors down from the school and chatted to the woman there. The cashier also knew about Melanie’s alterations for she had been in on Tuesday lunchtime to take out cash to pay for the work.
The school secretary also recalled walking into the Head’s office after school on Tuesday. Knowing the Headmistress was away she just went in; Melanie was on the phone and obviously not pleased with an intrusion. The secretary apologised, having overheard only a few words of Melanie asking about exchanging dollars.
Matthew refused to believe Melanie had taken £10,000, maybe changing it for dollars, unless she was under duress.
Over coffee with Marion, fifteen years later, she told me she’d recently seen Matthew.
They’d met by chance on a beach in Cornwall having, by his choosing, had no contact for nearly fourteen years.
“He’s completely disconnected from any of it and said: ‘If you throw china against concrete that is it. It’s impossible to mend. It’s just finished.’ ”
“It’s not like that for me,” Marion added. “It’s one thing to run away from a partner but to escape your family is like trying to get away from yourself.
“Our daughter Miranda was only five months when Melanie left. She was with us last summer in Cornwall and usually sullen at breakfast, though tending to thaw in the sun.
“One morning on the beach a family with three children played with a Frisbee next to us – children still young enough to delight in being with parents – our two can’t wait to leave. Miranda resented being stuck with us and our son was off in youth hostels. The Frisbee landed on Miranda’s feet and the father, apologising, invited her to join them. That was Matthew, the man who had been adamant he did not ever want children and had a vasectomy before he lived for eight years with Melanie.
“I’d not heard of him since he left London. He wanted no reminders.
“And here he was with three children saying he didn’t think of Melanie, the smashed china left in London.
“Returning to Cornwall, where he was born, he took on an apprenticeship to a potter.
“This was the man who insisted my sister must have gone mad, who said he’d never accept Melanie, in her right mind, had just taken a chance for escape.
“At the time I adjusted to the facts more easily. I was just returning to part time work after our second baby and busy.
“It’s over recent years that her desertion seems revived, as if it’s about to happen again, with children leaving. It may sound ridiculous, but apart from those traumatic months when we hoped to find her, or find out what happened, it feels worse at present than any time over fifteen years.”
I don’t think any who taught with Melanie James believed she could have planned to just quit her life. Not at first. Each of us had our own idea of her to keep in place but all agreed that Melanie was highly reliable.
Colleagues who liked her least were most adamant that she was not capable of shedding responsibilities in such a fashion. If brute force was not behind her disappearance something must be. Melanie did have a gullible streak. Perhaps she’d signed up to some new craze for liberation?
She was acknowledged a ‘sound’ teacher, who cared that children learned to write neatly. Hers was the most orderly room in the school.
She never wanted children of her own, she said school was enough.
There could be irresistible charm in her smile so that, despite themselves, staff who found her infuriating at times would say there was something likeable about Melanie, she wasn’t just prim. She was only 5’2” but you didn’t easily take advantage of that, she could be forceful.
Only one colleague never warmed to Melanie and claimed she’d clipped her own wings, or had them severely lopped back, and was in the business of clipping everyone else’s, for their own good, of course.
Melanie lived as if doing one’s duty promised due rewards, though these, the slight whine in her voice seemed to imply, had as yet been rather unforthcoming. Nevertheless, for many of us life was easier while Melanie remained dutiful.
Of course, everyone began shifting their assessment once we had to take in that she probably had taken the saved money and simply left.
For a couple of years after her disappearance I kept “seeing” Melanie on the streets and don’t know when it stopped. I couldn’t register the last time, it came and went unnoticed, though after I hadn’t “seen” her for months it dawned on me it must be over. And that was a relief.
We’d been colleagues and beginning to be friends but I wouldn’t say I loved her.
The fact of her “appearing” to me seemed quite as puzzling as her sudden disappearance.
It was a ten day wonder, of course, when she vanished but soon enough I was back juggling a job, two small children with a partner who was often away, and barely sparing a thought for Melanie James.
Lots of people come and go, most of our friends in London are other transplants, one accepts no one stays long. Melanie was my only “English” friend.
The rest of us had all left, yet we’d done it less aggressively and our families could send mail.
The first time I “saw” her the impact felt immediate and physical. I did call out and tried to hurry the double buggy down a busy street but lost her.
Next time it happened, weeks later, I simply abandoned the children and ran.
Once I caught the woman it was obvious it wasn’t Melanie. I felt shaken at having left a baby and a four year old to chase a phantom.
I assumed, at first, that if I was “haunted” she might be dead.
It wasn’t that I saw someone I thought looked like her; I saw her. I was certain it was Melanie; only then it wasn’t. Conviction tipped over.
Then it wouldn’t happen again for weeks.
I resented the disturbance. It was as if she left me mid-sentence, my mouth still open. It wasn’t that I had specific things to say to her and I certainly don’t now, but teaching side by side, putting on nativity plays together and sharing a liking for fine shoes, we were fond of each other. Though neither of us wore them, we’d talk shoes and window shop. She said her feet were too big to actually wear them and I was too poor to buy any then.
It must have been thirteen years since I’d “seen” her on the street, when I heard her sister in the hairdressers.
Marion, at forty-three, had re-begun a search. She had to know what had happened even if her sister still wanted nothing to do with her; the compulsion to have something definite was strong. An ache to embrace her only sister was intermittent, the drive to “find out” stayed constant.
Melanie’s desertion generated a fear; might her children, too, want to sever every tie and have no contact with their beginnings?
Marion didn’t believe her sister had simply freed herself, “maybe she hoped for that, but you aren’t free because you’ve made yourself rootless.”
Melanie having made no contact was not proof that her sister was satisfied. If she’d made a good life surely opening a tiny channel of communication would threaten nothing.
“I can’t accept she hated me so completely that my banishment makes sense.”
Marion believed Melanie was alive and put pleas in missing person columns.
“I feel she is in limbo and taken a part of me.
“I think it was a sudden decision. Maybe she’d thought of it before but when the situation presented itself she just acted.
“But clearly I knew less than I assumed about my sister. Only a couple of weeks before she went she upbraided me for having an injection at the dentist. ‘If you don’t feel any pain, how have you any idea what is being done to you?’
“As adults I guess we weren’t really close, we were sisters without parents who kept in touch. We no longer fought as we’d done as girls. The gap between us was tangible yet I felt loyalty. Melanie decreed that after our life it was right not to want a child. I never argued I just didn’t agree. When I began to want a baby she behaved as this was betrayal, as if we’d both believed what she’d once decided. When my son was born she bought him a rattle and a jacket but kept her distance. She didn’t want to know him or anything about my turning into a mother. Only when he was due to start school she had advice. We called our second child Miranda Melanie and she seemed pleased, but she hasn’t seen that girl since she was five months old.
“Melanie had been on holiday in August over her birthday, so I promised her a lunch but it was mid-October before we finally got there. I don’t know why I talked to Melanie as I did, maybe it was the champagne. If it hadn’t been the last time we talked freely, I wonder if I’d remember? I talked too much about motherhood and how satisfied I felt to have a daughter.
“I did ask if she ever considered changing her mind about a child but she said ‘not really and Matthew has had a vasectomy, he’s quite decided.’ A few days later she rang to thank me for lunch and upbraided me about my slightly slurred speech after the dentist’s injection, then we discussed her kitchen. She never spoke to me again. Never wrote. She was just gone.”
In the early stages of my friendship with Marion, her son of twenty, took up the subject of his aunt. “You have to assume Melanie didn’t much like her life. Dad’s restless but he won’t do a bunk. I think of her as the one with courage to detach.
“It’s pretty hideous to think she could be just as dissatisfied somewhere else.
“In India I found myself looking out for her, I was supposedly teaching English for a term and it occurred to me that I might be following my aunt.”
Marion was unimpressed by her son’s line on Melanie, “who else but family will always be there for you and be prepared to fight for you? You would no doubt have survived if I’d put you in an institution at birth, though that was inconceivable. I don’t mind that it’s been hard work, it made sense. Duty is grossly underrated.
“But Melanie had responsibilities too young. She took the burden of them on herself, then couldn’t get out from under.
“Now I feel I can’t move; I have to stay so she knows where to find me if that is what she chooses.”
The daughter, Miranda, had a different view.
“Not wanting to be stuck with my parents on a Saturday night doesn’t mean I plan on vanishing. But it’s a drama if either of us go away. When my brother went to India Mother looked as if he, too, had gone forever. The morning his first postcard arrived, I cried to see it in the mail and shouted for her, as if one postcard cancelled everything else out.“
After I had become friends with Marion, I also contacted Matthew when I went to Cornwall.
Over the years I’d known Melanie, we’d gone out sometimes as a foursome, but I enjoyed far more the man I re-met in Cornwall. I turned the subject to Melanie. “If your bike tyre loses air you are eventually driven to mend the hole. Too much of me seemed to be seeping out after Melanie left until, apparently suddenly, the leak was sealed and that was the finish. I saw the photo of her beside my bed as I woke up and looked carefully: the light was bad, it wasn’t a good picture. I put it away. The flat went on the market and one year one month after she went I was ache free and cut loose. Financially I came out of it far better than Melanie.
“Possibly my recovery was the proof she’d always wanted that my love for her was shallow.
“But I determined to make something of the break and I do thank her for that.
Melanie was only part of what wove me into that old place but it had not occurred to me before that I could leave it. “
The first few times Marion discussed her sister’s escape I followed the words, though now I wonder what on earth I can have heard at that time.
It’s taken five years of friendship for what I hear to have more substance.
Marion maybe in place but that is also fragile; a drop is always close. The first Christmas back in England, after their father’s death, Marion was nearly nine and taken to the circus. “Aunts were far from amused when I wet myself in suspense during the trapeze. How could anyone leap like that, trusting anyone would be there? I had relied on Melanie being there, as a child, and now she is not there to catch anything at all of me.
“Before we left New Zealand we were closer. She used to be scared that one day she might find herself glued to her seat at school. She hated butterflies pinned on a board. She didn’t mind the plan of coming back to England, though being here proved another matter.
“By then father’s death had come between us. We couldn’t share that, it was too big.
“Also, she moved into adolescence and was defeated somehow. She lost a confidence and gusto which had been rather daunting.
“Turning into a young woman seemed to come down on her like a load. It wasn’t a parties and friends time for her.
“When we first heard she was missing my immediate assumption was that she’d be going back to New Zealand, she’d been happier there.
“After our father’s death, Mother brought us back to be near her family. Away from them Mother had been able to suffuse her sisters with warmth but when she returned with us we found small-minded, ungenerous women. The two of them lived within a mile of their old family home and did not look lightly on defectors who’d thought it necessary to go across the world.
“Both aunts seemed solid, with the church as well as convention on their side. Their ideas of themselves as worthy could not be ruffled even by their husbands, one of whom got out from home as much as possible without leaving completely, the other seemed never to speak a work in his own house.
“The certainties of our aunts about colonials were not dented by Melanie’s skirmishes on father’s behalf.
“I was young enough to barely bother with grown-ups but Melanie was drawn in.
“As adults, while Melanie lived nearby and I kept off difficult subjects. we ‘got on’, it made Mother happy that her daughters liked each other.
“Then over the three years after Mother’s death we could be prickly with each other and sometimes sharp; perhaps old grievances were rumbling.
“It’s possible Melanie hated my arrival enough that the earlier years of companionship counted for nothing and she wanted me obliterated. Though I can’t know that, certainly she left me on my own.
“Maybe Melanie saw no good ahead and assumed that once resentments were given any space they’d tear us apart.
“I’d not want to destroy what there is in the marriage or do what Melanie did but I have to go again to New Zealand. This time alone, as soon as our daughter leaves home.
“I have to keep looking.”