As soon as I met Narinda I could see she was missing something. She was friendly, funny obviously very smart; but there was a hardness to her, a lack of concern for anyone. Art college was a fluffy, hysterical place and we all wailed our way from one drama to another while Narinda stayed back, calm and quietly scathing.
We lived three doors down from each other in halls, and spent polite time together, but she wasn’t someone I could go to with howls of indignation that my latest project had only got 54%, even though I’d poured my soul into it, or tell her the sexy dream I’d had about Brennan from our pottery class. She made me feel childish and emotionally messy; and to be fair I was. Anyway, I didn’t know what set Narinda apart until one drunken night when the truth spilled out of her. I say ‘spilled’, it was more of a controlled release. We were talking about our families. I said how mine was like a zoo: you know, everybody trapped and pacing. Narinda replied,
“My upbringing was like a psychological experiment. In fact, I think that’s what it was. My parents never hugged me or gave me praise. They didn’t like playing with me, never took my photograph even. I thought that was just how they were, and then my sister was born. You should have seen how they were with her: constant kisses and affection. Little gifts that they’d buy her, they’d tie ribbons in her hair. And we had photo albums filled with pictures of her stupid smiling face.”
“Why?” I asked, aghast.
“I said earlier, it was an experiment. It took me a while to work it out, but it’s how they deal with everything. They experiment with food, trying out new recipes and putting odd ingredients together; they buy from different shops and compare prices and quality, writing it all down a notebook. They experiment with TV programs and technology. Once my dad wired a Furby up to the vacuum cleaner. They want to play with things, see how they turn out. My dad wanted to be a chemist, but he couldn’t pass the exams.” She shrugged as if she didn’t care, her voice even and with the slight sneer that accompanied all her words.
We never talked about it properly again. I think with all the other emotions flying around our classes, her measured sadness wasn’t loud enough to be heard. And I didn’t forget what she’d said, but I didn’t think about it either.
The night Narinda vanished, it took until midnight to notice. From there the situation quickly escalated. There was the neatly written note explaining that she’d decided art college wasn’t for her, the measured request for no one to come looking for her. Within a few hours her parents had arrived from Stockport: two nervous, wide-eyed people who held on to each other and fretted. I’m not sure how I ended up looking after Narinda’s father, feeding him tea and awkward sympathy. There just isn’t much to do when someone goes missing, mostly you sit and wait. So he sat on my scabby armchair that I’d found in the street, huddled over a chipped mug and unable to stop talking. I think guilt had caused his mouth to spring a leak.
“We tried to be good parents, we really did. I expect she told you we didn’t care, but we cared, we tried,” he paused, looked at me pleadingly, then shook his head and looked at the floor. He let the words spill again, “We knew we weren’t giving her what she wanted, but we didn’t know how. We never understood her. She acted as if she didn’t want to be our daughter, right from a baby she was bored with us. It was as if we couldn’t connect. She wouldn’t hug us, didn’t want dolls. I remember I tried to tie a ribbon in her hair once, she pulled it out and threw it in a puddle and stamped on it. She found everything we did an irritation. In her high chair she’d sit and scowl at us, as if we were wasting her time. I thought it was us, but then her sister came along, and well, she was a delight, we could make her happy. But Narinda, it was as if she had something missing. You know?” He looked up at me, his face a cacophony of guilt, sadness, bewilderment and loss. I nodded, because I did.