Girl Unknown(2)

The closest thing I can see of that outside world and the most appealing feature of the office is the window that takes up the entire southern wall and looks out on to the courtyard at the heart of the building. A small copse of birch trees grows there, and throughout the year I like to observe the changing colours of the leaves and watch the passage of the seasons.

I’ve spent my entire adult life – apart from three years working for my PhD at Queens – on this campus. I’ve loved every minute of it and consider myself lucky to be here, gradually moving up the ranks from Adjunct to Associate Professor, and I love the interaction with students at lecture and seminar level. I love the enquiring minds I meet – the irascible and sometimes irreverent arrogance of a student’s interrogations of the past. I’ll admit I was ambitious, and I’ve had to work hard. It’s not like things came easy for me – not as they have for others who seem to have a natural flair for reading the past. My work was painstaking, but it brought its pleasures.

Even so, she arrived at a special moment of opportunity in my career. My old teacher and the head of our department, Professor Alan Longley, was due for retirement in two years’ time. He had hinted strongly, on more than one occasion, that his position could be mine if I played my cards right, so to speak. Of course, Head of Department would mean more work, but I was ready for the extra responsibility and willing to accept the challenge. Such was my life: the happy construction of work I had built around me – until last autumn, that is.

Back then, during those weeks in September, as the light changed and the air took on the first chill, I knew next to nothing about her. Not even her name. I don’t think I thought about her again until that Friday afternoon when I held my student hours. The first of them began trickling in shortly after three – a second-year wanting to discuss his essay, a final-year already nervous about the prospects of graduation, another considering a master’s. One by one they came, and I found I began to search for her among them, each time expecting to see her bright face appearing around my door.

In my office, there were two small armchairs and a low coffee-table I’d brought from home where I conducted my meetings with students. I don’t like the power imbalance when I sit and stare at them from behind the desk. I kept the door open throughout these meetings, with both male and female students alike. You see, years ago, when I was a junior lecturer, a colleague was badly stung by an accusation from a female undergraduate who claimed he had molested her in his office. I remember at the time being shocked: he was such a weedy guy, with an unattractive habit of sniffing continuously while concentrating on a point.

Strange though it may sound, I couldn’t imagine him having any sexual desires. Most academics are normal people, leading their lives in the manner of any professional person. Some, however, are cloistered, ill-equipped to cope beyond the protective confines of the university. That was Bill – a hard-working historian, but na?ve, it has to be said. Not an unkind man, and quite gentle, really, the accusation hit him like a rocket. Overnight, he became a wild-eyed loon, determined to proclaim his innocence, often at the most inopportune moments – in school meetings, in the staff room over coffee, once at an open day. The claims were investigated by the disciplinary board and deemed to be unfounded. Bill was exonerated. The student graduated and left. Bill continued with his work, but a change had come over him. He no longer came for coffee with the rest of us, and avoided all social interaction with students. It was no surprise when, a year later, he announced he had taken up a post at a university abroad. I’ve no idea where he is now, though I think of him from time to time, whenever some other scandal erupts on campus, or when I feel the weight of a female student’s gaze a little too heavily upon me.

Something about the way she had looked at me that day, the way her voice had faltered, made me think of Bill. I was curious, but wary too. The doe-eyed ones, who seem young and innocent, they are the ones you have to be careful with. Not the savvy girls with their Ugg boots and fake tans – they can hold their own, and have little interest in pursuing a man like me. I’m forty-four, the father of two children. I eat well and I exercise regularly. Most days I cycle to work; three times a week I swim. I try to take care of myself, you could say. Now, I’m not the best-looking man in the world, but I’m not the worst. I’m just shy of six foot with dark hair, brown eyes and sallow skin. My dad said we had Spanish blood in our veins: ‘From the sailors on the Armada, shipwrecked off the West of Ireland all those years ago.’ I don’t know if that’s true or not. But after what happened to Bill, I have to presume it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that an impressionable young student might develop a crush. But at that stage I’d been married for seventeen years, and I was aware of how costly a stupid mistake could be. Besides, I had too much to lose.

I suppose that was what flickered across my mind the first time we spoke. Her reluctance to walk and talk with me – as if the weight of whatever she wanted to discuss required privacy, silence, the full focus of my attention.

That Friday, I fully expected her to come to my office. She didn’t. I have to admit I was disappointed. There was no explanation – not that I needed or expected one. Neither was there an email seeking an appointment. The following week, I saw her again in my lectures, her eyes fixed on the notebook in front of her, but when the hour was up, she filed out of the theatre with the other students.

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