There was a story of Tina during a wakeful night.
It made sense and had a flow, with detail and coherence.
Moving into the day, tired and with things to do, the clarity of those dawn hours vanished.
What was it that became obvious, in need of being told, if only to myself?
Perhaps, from the start of our friendship, way back, Tina carried some of what might be stirring, though not yet well shaped, for me.
There was a vibrancy flickering over her and that beauty seemed amazing.
Somehow, I need not be seen, if Tina and I stuck together as a pair, and there could be delight in her being admired.
We became instant best friends when Tina arrived in town at eleven, with her English voice and delicate, china doll looks.
We remained engaged by each other and intensely loyal until her parents abruptly returned to London, just as Tina turned sixteen.
We then sent long letters, pages of them, writing every day and posting off our week of daily notes.
I loved those letters and writing to Tina each evening was the best of most days – with the blanket pulled over me and a pillow at my back, I sat with eyes shut to conjure Tina, feeling my body alive to her, alive for myself.
Missing her, being apart, gave me something of my own – and we might get closer than ever, writing only for one another.
We did not say any sort of goodbye.
Tina told me they were going to Auckland and made it sound like nothing. Her mother was often going somewhere.
I probably assumed they were to visit her brother, due to finish at university there.
Certainly I made no push for explanation – it’s not what we did.
Only her father and brother returned from Auckland, bringing a note for me.
“Write, write, write till I get back. It seems we go to London town again and will be staying with Gruff Granny.”
Tina and her mother had already flown and, giving me Tina’s note, her father said, “She wants to tell you all about it and I’m to give you my mother-in-law’s address.”
I must have accepted that, though possibly asked my parents “why?”
Tina and I were both quick to bleat “why, why?” without expecting serious answers from adults.
Later it looked inconceivable I hadn’t sought more explanation.
But it never occurred to me as a clear possibility that Tina would not be back soon.
We quickly settled into writing daily and, by the time someone told me their house was sold, Tina and I were well into planning a trip as soon as we left school. Our reunion would be glorious.
I was learning to wait for Tina – not stay attached.
Over the months before she left, neither of us had anything to say after some crucial moments between us – moments as erotic as I have ever experienced.
We had, from eleven, surrendered to music side by side, moving together – what was new was that surprise electric charge between us.
And we both recognised the luminous late one afternoon as we sat on her bed while she brushed my hair.
We melted into smile but said nothing, did nothing.
Perhaps those sweeps of new and intense desire were already separating us into two bodies with longing in between – no longer as though one unit.
Tina’s mother still called “twin is here,” more than she said my name, when I biked up to collect Tina each school day.
One exasperated teacher told us we were “glued at the hip”; my father said “absurdly inseparable.”
How could we not think ourselves as close as was possible?
But what picture did I have of her?
There was little I could describe yet my senses seemed attuned to her and we each found safe haven.
If, during those four years and one month, Tina rang or dropped by, I was there, always ready for her.
It was Tina’s older brother who had those songs which we played to dance away so many hours. Abandoning ourselves and sinking into his music.
At school, as a closed pair, we had protection from class intrigue and bitchiness – we gave each other that through the turbulence of starting secondary school and puberty.
Our periods started a month apart and soon came in unison – not that we spoke of it or of anything much about our changing bodies. They were beyond our grasp, doing whatever they had to do, despite us and our talk.
Together we pulled faces or giggled over any attempted parental discussion – why should they poke their noses in our knickers? We didn’t want awkward conversation with any adult.
If they even drew attention to our physical development we felt affronted. We were just inhabiting ourselves, however we could.
I didn’t believe myself invisible, it just wasn’t anyone’s business to look, even as my own eyes feasted on Tina.
I missed that when she left, as I badly missed dancing.
I also felt the loss of her company at school. Though by sixteen, feeling solitary – tinged with colourful melancholy – had certain charm and hurrying home to write became this big satisfaction.
Tina and I were not done.
What did we write?
What did we have to say over all those hours of chat at school, after school and on the phone?
It baffles me.
Too much talk is exhausting these days, has exhausted me for years.
I recall Tina’s letters had funny bulletins about two girls and her gruff granny but were mostly full of details for our travel.
Though going along with planning, somewhere I was not quite into it.
I’d never been out of New Zealand, while Tina had already visited France, Italy and Spain during her first eleven years.
It didn’t occur to me to wonder why the family were not travelling to any of those places after their return. Her mother had annoyed us with too many trips exploring New Zealand and only sometimes letting Tina stay behind with us.
There was no mail one week. And then no letter again.
But we’d had postal delays before over our ten months of correspondence.
It was a Saturday, as I sat with porridge, when my mother put her arms around me.
“I’m so sorry darling – don’t post your letter – Tina died.”
This was not believable!
I’d heard the phone ring early and vaguely registered my mother’s tone, probably one of her friends had varicose veins or some bad news.
It made no sense it was over Tina – she was mine.
I just walked out the door. I didn’t ask a single question – I didn’t say a word.
My mother called for me to wait – she was still in her dressing gown.
But I walked faster – then tried to run right out of myself.
I could not hold his.
My father eventually found me. “Come home,” he said, and attempted to put himself around my shoulder. But there was to be no comfort.
Connection had been severed, leaving me at a dead end.
I still did not ask how or why.
Somewhere perhaps I knew, though Tina never told me.
She did not once say how their rush to England followed the terrible diagnosis or that her parents saw the only chance was a top London hospital.
Did Tina spare herself? Or my possibly embarrassing tongue-tied response?
She wrote and wrote and let me believe we were as close as ever.
I sent one last, ridiculous and formal note to that address.
My mother dictated most and then posted it.
Delight in writing and sending or receiving mail was over.
Tina did not say goodbye when they left New Zealand and wrote no goodbye – probably neither of us were up to a real parting, whatever that might be – it wasn’t manageable between us.
And her death did not seem manageable either.
I would not travel now.
There would be no meeting.
In a fit of something I gave the accumulated fund to the starving in Biafra.
Then took Tina’s letters from their large box and tore each one.
How could I take a big loss off with me to university? Escape felt safer than memory.
Sadness had to be packed into a small space – I would not have a big box full of Tina.
Anyway, she’d lied, I said to myself as I ripped sheet after sheet of paper.
Much that had pulsed between us, things I’d recognised and more which went unseen, appeared cut off by her death.
Slowly some of what had been grew back, though I’d lost the smell and feel of her skin, except occasionally in dream.
Tina’s brother made contact when he came on a visit.
He wanted us to share talk of his sister but I was unable and probably still cross.
Why had he not told me his father was selling their house?
Tina got a promise out of them that it was her friendship, her right to tell me everything once she was better. “How could we say that the odds were she’d not get better?
Treatment was horrible – you didn’t have to watch that. And our parents, each at a pitch of tension, just irritated one another, so that was horrible as well. Granny shouted at them to find a way to share distress, then she got sick too.”
Having decided against a looming marriage, twelve years after Tina died, it felt necessary to travel. Not to remote places as we had planned, but to where she had been.
I would face Tina’s mother, who had once declared me very self-centred after she first looked at my letters.
That is what her son told me she said, back when he was feeling hurt I
couldn’t speak of Tina. But he had come too soon.
Tina’s mother had my letters, as she still had everything of Tina’s – though not Tina’s father; the marriage didn’t long outlast their child.
She’d once hoped Tina was passing on her fears, sharing them with me, since she would not speak much to them.
There was little chance for Tina to make friends back in England, except for two girls in hospital, but they both died before her.
There was a bedside diary found after Tina’s death.
“At least she told herself what wasn’t shared with us or you. To tell no one what you are thinking, putting it down only for yourself, seemed the saddest thing. Then. Not so much now.”
That initial shock on reading what I wrote to her daughter had slowly been replaced by remembering how important the letters had been for Tina – both her own letters and mine.
“Because you didn’t know, yours were full of what she could no longer do. She must have wanted that. Perhaps she imagined a life for herself. She spent whatever energy she had on replying and was animated – taken out of pain and tough treatment – coming alive while writing. Not that we suspected how much she wasn’t telling you. We took for granted you were the person she would confide in.”
I knew much about those two girls – Tina’s not quite friends – though she didn’t say where they met. I even knew when Granny got sick, collapsing in the hospital corridor. I had presumed it was in shock after her own appointment.
Had I truly believed everything Tina wrote? Had I wanted to believe she was well and leading a parallel life?
I had registered she missed two periods and though eating was very thin before she left me – back when I barely asked about that abrupt departure.
Weren’t my own letters also part imagined – so we might keep on and on dancing together, despite all?