Girl Unknown

Girl Unknown by Karen Perry


The water is cold but there is a promise of heat in the air as the dawn begins to break. It will not be long before sunlight reaches the garden. Insects buzz and rustle in the undergrowth, the scent of lavender drifts from pots on the terrace. Drips roll from the edge of the diving board, making lazy plopping sounds as they meet the rocking surface of the pool.

A seagull landing on the wall casts a beady eye downward into the water, scouting for food, or maybe just curious. The drips from the diving board slow.

The bird surveys the garden – the squat silent house beyond, shadows on the terrace. It raises a wing and with its yellow beak jabs at its feathers, rearranging them. It straightens up, folds back its wing and looks down again.

Something in the water rolls – or rather someone. The watchful seagull blinks. The water darkens. A face tilted, a figure submerged. The mouth is open but there is no shining thread of bubbles, no silvery breath escaping.

The only sound – the drip-drip of blood hitting the slick surface of the pool before moving slowly through the blue-green water, mingling until it disappears.

Part One

* * *

1. David

I should, I suppose, go back to the beginning, to the first time we met. The first time she spoke to me, to be precise, for I had seen her before – spotted her among the first-year faces staring out at me from the lecture theatre. It was hard not to notice her, with that hair. A great glow of it, radiantly blonde in long loose curls, like a soft release of breath. In the dimness of Theatre L, it caught the light and reflected it back, golden and iridescent. I noticed the hair and the bright round face beneath and thought: New penny. Then my mind turned back to my slides and I moved on.

There is an energy on campus during the first weeks of the new semester that is like nothing else. The air is charged with the frisson of possibility. A cheerful vigour takes hold, giving a new life and sheen to every faded surface, every jaded room. Even the most hardened staff veterans have a spring in their step during the first month, and there is an infectious sense of hopefulness. Once the madness of Freshers’ Week has worn off, and the pace of lectures and tutorials has been set, an industriousness falls over the campus, like a flurry of autumn leaves. It zips through the corridors and stairwells, hurries across the wide open spaces where the students gather to talk and drink coffee. I felt it too – the beat of possibility, the urge to get a head start on the year. After seventeen years at the university, I was still not immune to the buoyant lift of first-term energy.

It was a couple of weeks into the semester when she approached me. I had just given my Thursday morning lecture on Modern Irish History and the students were filing out, a buzz of conversation rising as they climbed the steps to the exit. I was closing my laptop and putting away my notes, silently calculating whether I had enough time to nip to the common room for a coffee, when I felt someone’s presence and looked up. She was standing across from me, holding her folder against her chest, her face half hidden behind the long golden strands of her hair.

‘Dr Connolly,’ she said, and immediately I caught the hint of a Belfast accent.


‘I was wondering if I could talk to you.’

I slid the laptop into my bag, fixed the strap over my shoulder, and noticed a kind of wariness hovering behind the big round eyes. She was fair-skinned, and had a scrubbed-clean look about her; many female students come to class in layers of make-up, a miasma of chemical smells surrounding them. This girl was different: a freshness and simplicity about her appearance set her apart, and made her appear terribly young.

‘Of course,’ I said briskly. ‘I have a meeting in a few minutes, but you can walk with me, if you like.’

‘Oh. No, that’s okay.’

Disappointment, a faltering expression that piqued my interest.

‘Perhaps some other time,’ she said.

‘My office hours are on Fridays between three and five. You’re welcome to drop in. If that doesn’t suit, you can always email to arrange an appointment.’

‘Thank you,’ she said politely. ‘I’ll do that.’

We walked together up the steps to the exit, not speaking, an awkwardness between us.

‘Well, goodbye then,’ I said, checking my watch and ducking into the drift of students heading towards the stairs.

By the time I reached my meeting, I had forgotten her. Funny, recalling it now. Such a momentous thing, our first meeting. Since then, I’ve come to look at that moment as the point at which my life split – like a page folded over and creased down the middle so that everything fell into before or after.

My office is on the third floor of the Arts building. It’s covered with book-filled shelves and framed prints: the 1916 Proclamation, prints of two William Orpen sketches from the trenches in the First World War, a framed and faded photograph of my grandfather with others from the Royal Dragoon Guards, and finally a cartoon from the New Yorker featuring two academics squabbling, the last a gift from my wife. There’s also a family photograph of the four of us hiking to the Hell Fire Club in the Dublin Mountains, which I had taken with my phone the previous summer: Holly’s hair is wind-tossed, Robbie is grinning and Caroline’s eyes watering – we look happy, individually and as a family, my arms circling us all in a messy embrace; the city and suburbs, this campus and office are a distant blur in the background.

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