Alison and I were 15 when we decided to leave our school, fuelled by that heedless, unstoppable force peculiar to teenagers. Any qualms we might have had about a wasted education were hushed by our impatience to bypass boys our own age, find true love and fulfil our glamorous destiny. We would write comic poems about these quests and each other, which showed at least some self-awareness about how gloriously lost we were. My mum – a teacher – knew that there was no rationalising with teenagers. She made the wise decision to keep me close and let things play out.
It was 1989 when Alison joined the girls’ school I attended in central London. She had a demure mystique about her, but once you were allowed behind that, she was deeply amusing and curious. We longed to go clubbing. We pored over pictures in Vogue and the Face magazine of the people who fascinated us – musicians, designers, film-makers, supermodels, beautiful “wild child” Amanda de Cadenet – mingling in places with daft or postmodern-sounding names like Wall Street or Club MFI. The first club night I tried to get into was called Xanadu, in Clerkenwell, but my friend Jane and I stood no chance, with our baby faces and lack of fake IDs. When Alison and I attempted it together, however, we somehow made it past the red ropes. Perhaps her Bianca Jagger looks helped us appear less like the children we were.
Alison was more sensible than I was. She looked both ways when crossing the road, she had never smoked or got stoned and barely drank. She had decided to live with her dad after her parents’ divorce, partly because he let her come and go as she pleased. Within a few months, we were regulars at various clubs. We occasionally went to a bijou place hosted by the legendary promoter Steve Strange on a Tuesday in Earl’s Court, outside which Strange would scour the queue lamenting: “Where are all the beautiful people?” They were inside already: Duran Duran, Wham!, De Cadenet. Thursday nights at the Wag Club in Soho was our favourite – we would prop up the bar, watching the hilarity unfold and end up dripping with sweat on the dancefloor. As underage girls, we learned, clubbing didn’t cost much. We would get in free on the guest list, be bought one or two vodka and oranges (it was intoxicating enough just being there) and catch the night bus home.
After my GCSEs, I had to contribute to household costs. I got a job in a shoe shop in Covent Garden, while Alison half-heartedly went to college. Standing up all day while being trained to approach customers faux-breezily got old pretty fast, but I had Alison and clubbing and our dreams.
Alison and I spoke multiple times a day – we were like life partners. But about a year into our adventures, around Christmas 1990, she disappeared. I told myself she had met an old friend and was having an extended sleepover until, after a few days with no word, an unease took over. Where could she possibly have gone? After a week, her brother saw a local television appeal about an unidentified woman in a coma, showing Alison’s bracelet, scarf and keys. The next morning, her father called with the devastating news. She had been hit by a motorbike while crossing a dangerous stretch of road. She lay unconscious until her family arrived, then she slipped away.
I dreamed she wasn’t really dead and that I secretly carried her around in my pocket. I listened over and over to her final message on our answering machine, in which she munched cucumber in blissful ignorance of her fate. I found some of her curly hair on my carpet and taped it into my diary behind a photo of us, along with her most recent poem about me. I ripped off the front page of our telephone directory, on which she’d drawn caricatures of us, to preserve it. It was impossible to let go.
Without her, the sheen of clubland and pretty much everything else faded. We had been playing grownups and it was only really fun when we were making lists together of all the handsome men we’d met, or listening studiously to gossip among the rotating sisterhood of the Wag’s loos.
I stayed home alone on Christmas Day. As my brain raced, trying to explain the blunt randomness of Alison’s death, I wondered bleakly whether she had been taken because, like me, she had no solid plans. As the survivor, over the lonely, grieving months that followed, a sense of responsibility rose in me to get un-lost. I saw some cold, hard truths: that you can only truly rely on yourself, that I wasn’t special and nor was I about to sprout a precocious talent or the legs and cheekbones of a supermodel. I was too meek and rudderless to fall into some exciting career through clubbing, or fall in love. I enrolled at sixth-form college, where I could get on with growing up. But I’ll never forget or regret mine and Alison’s early break for freedom, roaming amber-lit London at night, when the city felt like ours alone.
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