Girl Unknown(3)

The matter went clean out of my head, and I’m sure I would have forgotten about it completely in time. I was busier than ever, juggling my lectures and research along with various other work commitments, not to mention all the administration I had to do. I would also be talking to various media outlets about the 1916 centenary celebrations in the coming months. Caroline had started a new job. Between us we shared the school drop-offs as well as the kids’ after-school activities. Life was full. I was busier than ever. I was happy. I know that now.

Then one afternoon, in October, returning to my office from a school meeting, I found her sitting on the floor next to my door. Knees drawn up, hands clutching her ankles. As soon as she saw me, she got to her feet, and pulled at her clothing.

‘Can I help you?’ I asked, my hand searching in my pocket for the key.

‘Sorry. I should have made an appointment.’

‘You’re here now.’ I opened the door. ‘Come in.’

I went to my desk, placed my bag on it. The room was chilly. I walked to the radiator and ran my fingers along its top. The girl went to close the door.

‘No, you can leave it open,’ I said.

She gave me a slightly startled glance, as if she wished she’d never come.

‘Let’s sit, and you can tell me what’s on your mind.’

I took one of the armchairs, but she just stood, fiddling with the zip on her sweater. She was small and thin, bony wrists emerging from her cuffs, which had been picked at and unravelled. Nervous fingers constantly moving.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Zo?,’ she said quietly. ‘Zo? Barry.’

‘Well, Zo?. How can I help you?’ I asked, tidying a bunch of journals at my desk.

Her hands became still, and in a voice that came out as clear as a bell, she said: ‘I think you might be my father.’

2. David

Students come through my door every day of the working week. Some have ordinary questions, course-related queries. Others are in trouble. They want my help. They may not even know what’s wrong. And then again, others are trouble. Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of problem cases. They have ranged from benign to complex. But none was like this. None spelled trouble so clearly and lucidly, or announced the problem with such candid, if sheepish, clarity.

‘I don’t understand,’ I said.

‘Can I close the door?’

‘No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ I gestured for her to sit down in the chair opposite.

‘I know it’s probably a shock,’ she said, taking a seat and putting her bag down by her feet.

‘A shock?’ I said. More of an intrusion, or a preposterous allegation, than anything else. I inspected my itinerary for the day. It was full: one meeting chased by another. The module review committee was going to be particularly taxing. I also needed to get to the library to talk to Laurence about the oral histories he was sourcing for me from the British Library.

‘Well, yes … I’ve come in here out of the blue and revealed to you that I am your daughter.’

‘Sorry, I’m still struggling to follow. Why is it you think I might be your father?’ I said.

Her expression didn’t change. Shy, meek even, as if she were there against her will. ‘I’ve been thinking about how to put it so it wouldn’t come out as bluntly,’ she said, leaning forward slightly. ‘It doesn’t seem to matter which way I turn the phrases over. You are my father.’ She coughed awkwardly into her sleeve. ‘I thought it would be better to tell you straight rather than dancing around it, if that makes sense?’

The planes of her face were smooth. It was an open face, an honest one. Her eyes were green, wide and bright. Her hair fell over her face occasionally and she had to push it back – a kind of tic, I supposed.

‘Actually, it’s a relief to tell you,’ she said, giving me a watery smile. ‘I’ve tossed this around for ages, sitting in your lectures, knowing all the time you’re my father and that you had no idea. It got so I couldn’t bear it. I felt like I had to tell you.’

Her voice, though tentative and soft, had the earthy guttural of the North in it. Because of all the reading and research I’d been doing recently, it made me think about those American soldiers during the Second World War stationed in the various towns of Northern Ireland – Coleraine, Ballycastle, Portstewart – and their unwritten legacy: the ones who left behind sons and daughters they might never have known about, while others were sought out later in life by their offspring. I had always thought this a joyful, if complicated, legacy – an ancillary tributary to the river of the past – an enriching one, even.

Still, I became annoyed at the vagaries of my own mind and the distraction the girl had brought to my day: her prank, the articulations of an unsound mind, whatever it was.

I picked up my notebook, drew myself up from the chair, and walked to my desk. I felt the short fuse of my temper fizzle. ‘Again, what makes you think I’m your father?’

The smile fell from her face. She reached into her bag for a tissue. I could tell she was struggling to maintain her composure. Perhaps I had been too curt. I had, after all, a duty of care to her as a student. She was young, lost; it must have been very difficult for her to pluck up the courage, however misguided, to come in to talk to me.

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