Thanks to Midwest Communications for this image.
She would have been sixty a few days ago: Linda* – friend, enemy, rival, part of an intense quartet of adolescent vibrancy, crushes and high octane emotions. But she did not even reach thirty, checked out of life way back in the earliest eighties.
We met in the first year at our girls’ grammar school, though friendship did not blossom, and wither, blossom and wither, until our third year.
She was quiet, very bright, enormously talented: a fabulous artist and writer, good at games (which I, most assuredly, was not) – and part of the North Oxford set who, corporately, seemed a world above me and impossible to reach.
Both from large families; both with a predominance of female siblings; both insecure and shy, we should, by rights, have been inseparable. But we were not. Our friendship was always troubled, uneasy, competitive.
Simple: In the hot-house environment that is an all girls’ school, our budding sexuality centred upon our fellow pupils (though, later, we all went on dates with boys from St Edwards’, a minor public school in Oxford) – and falling for our friends, unattainable sixth formers and the younger teachers was by no means unusual.
Linda and I, both, as I say, one of four (I, the oldest; she the penultimate), segued into that familiar bonding almost without thinking. Unfortunately, not only had we fallen for the same youthful educator, we compounded this by developing a crush on the same girl within our group: Let’s call her Suzanna.
Suzanna did not join the school until the third year – and she and I became best friends pretty quickly, though it was always an unequal pairing: I needed, wanted, her far more than the other way round. She, too, was part of the much-envied North Oxford bunch, as was the fourth in our troubled quartet, Meredith.
The lines of affection ebbed and flowed. Alliances were made and broken. Twosomes became fraught threesomes when one person was away ill. The other three lived in the hallowed part of town; I did not. This created a distance both physically and emotionally – and I still recall watching as the others cycled in through the school gates, laughing and joking.
I felt – inferior, left out, a lesser being. Not their fault, I hasten to add: These feelings were already a part of my personality. For some reason – perhaps because of my poor mathematical ability – I had always felt that I was an only-just Eleven+ success, and convinced myself, over the coming seven years, that I was useless at pretty much every subject.
In the summer of 1973, when we were all fifteen (and coming up to our O’level year), we went on a cycling and Youth Hosteling holiday to the Peak District. This high-lighted several weaknesses, both in the friendship group and in my own character. Unable, even then, to say what I wanted, meant and felt, I wrote it all down in my diary – and much of my rage was centred around Linda. She found, and read, the particular entry, of course – and a nasty evening followed. Served me right.
Feeling left out, I hid myself – wanting to be found; not wanting to be found – and, earliest back from the next day’s ride, ran into the shelter of a marshy end to a field and watched (by no means the last time this has happened), and listened, as the girls cycled back, laughing, letting hands leave handle-bars, at ease (or so I thought) with life, adolescence, the holiday.
I suppose, looking back, I saw them all as golden girls, blessed by life and nature and family. So self-obsessed we are as teens, aren’t we? It is all about us – and in many ways it has to be this way, otherwise we would never attain our own individuality and leave the, in my case crowded, nest!
Even back then, I was the group listener – and was not always as reliable and honest as I could have been: passed information on occasionally in order to gain Brownie Points and be liked, popular.
I sensed, through the mists of teen exaggerated misery, that all was not well with Linda either, although she was, by and large, better at putting on a brave front. But I can remember one day, when we were both in the sixth form, seeing her standing still, bike resting between her legs, tears streaming down her face.
The four of us went our separate ways at eighteen – and, although I heard of the other three courtesy of a contact who still lived in Oxford, only ever saw Suzanna again (and that, just the once, soon after I started teaching).
It was through the contact, Laura, that I heard of Linda’s deteriorating mental health and regular stays in a local psychiatric ward. I felt deep concern and a kind of residual guilt, as if my on-off liking for her had, in some way, contributed.
The call, from Laura, when it came was a huge shock: Linda had drowned herself.
I am not going to go into the details – and have given all four females mentioned in this piece false names – because I would not wish, on the off-chance that Linda’s family members were to see this post, to cause any more grief in an already-tragic loss.
I could wish all manner of things: that I had been nicer, less jealous, less fearful, more trusting; that I had been an easier friend to be with and had not been so selfish and over-dramatic. I say ‘I could’ – and, in all honesty, that has, at times, been a much more raw, ‘I wish…’ statement, for perhaps all of us who lose someone to suicide share this irrational guilt, this sense of having contributed to the eventual end.
I know now, at sixty – and, having paused, for a sombre moment and a few tears, on the day she would have reached this age – that nothing I did, or did not do, could have made any difference to the eventual outcome; that teenagers, especially girls, tend to over-estimate their effect upon one another; to see the brief, and passionate, pairings and more-ings as far more life-shattering than they actually are.
Yes, I could have been kinder. But don’t we all think that in the wake of death? Don’t we all waste tears on launching the leaky ‘If only…’ boat?
I do not know what, finally, caused this fragile and talented young woman to take her own life – a tangled skein of problems, I suspect. I do, however, wonder sometimes what she would be like now, at pensionable age. I do wonder what the world has lost as a result of her abrupt ending.
And, finally, I know, have always known, how lucky I am: Despite anxiety – and, at times, depression – I am still here, still alive and kicking and rebellious at sixty years and three months.
Linda is not.
I wish she were.
*not her real name.