I don't know if I will ever forget being asked this question. The memory certainly came back again this morning when there was a piece about "forced marriages" in the paper.
I was in our local library one day when a girl I did not know at all approached me and asked softly and nervously, "Are you S...'s friend?"
I knew who she meant by S... because of the way she was dressed. Her family were members of the same cult-like church where women cover their heads and are strongly discouraged from interacting with people outside their church.
My response to this girl was, "Yes, I know S.... " I would not have called him a friend. He was a boy of about twelve at the time. He had begun to display the same arrogance common among the men in the cult. I didn't particularly like him but he and his sisters seemed to like to talk to me - probably because, while not expressly forbidden, it was not encouraged. Their mother had spoken to me as well - because there were problems at school. The children were not permitted to have any form of fiction to read. They never saw television or heard radio. Any form of imaginative thinking was so strongly discouraged at home they had difficulty doing many things at school.
I wondered if this girl was facing a similar problem. She looked down to the other end of the library where her mother was helping her siblings choose non-fiction books and then said urgently, "I need to talk to you."
We went into the book stacks - where she was supposed to be finding a sewing book - and she asked me the question about marriage. I listened. I am still glad I listened.
Her father had arranged for her, aged almost sixteen, to marry a man from another state. He was also a member of the cult. He was a young widower with three small children. This girl had never met him. He was coming in a few weeks time. The plan was that she would be married on her birthday.
That she was terrified by this was obvious. Even as she spoke to me she was close to tears.
In the end all I could do was advise her, "No, he can't. You need to get help."
She left home with the help of a woman who lived at the end of her own street. It was all extremely traumatic for her, eventually involving the police and the social services. I often wondered how she managed. All I knew was that she went to live in a large country town and went back to finish her schooling - with the help of the woman at the end of the street.
Several days ago I saw that woman who is considerably older now. She came up to me as I was waiting to cross at the lights and spoke to me. I asked how the girl was getting on. She smiled and said,
"Oh she's like another daughter, a much younger one. We couldn't have managed without her. It took a long time and there are still things she needs to know from time to time. But she was the one who saw us through the early stages of the pandemic."
Yes, the isolation of her childhood might have helped. She is the accounts officer in a business in the town and is now engaged to be married to a boy who, on hearing she had left the cult, also left. The woman I was speaking to was very positive about it. It has taken both of them a while to get that far but she thinks they will "do very well" together. They know where each other has come from - and they have made their own decisions.
I went to school with girls who married not long after leaving school. The marriages were "arranged", some of the girls knew who they would be marrying before they left school. I wonder how those marriages went. Perhaps they worked. Perhaps they didn't.
Forced marriages still occur here, sometimes with girls as young as seven. They can have no idea of what is happening to them. Their families see nothing wrong with it, indeed the reverse is often true. Our so called "multi-cultural" policies make it harder to stamp that sort of behaviour out. That frightens me.
I am glad I told that girl that her father could not force her to marry.