Girl Unknown(8)

‘Let’s just eat,’ he said.

Addressing his plate again, he speared some pasta with his fork. We had forgotten about the salad, still sitting next to the sink, but neither of us made a move towards it. The jingle of the drive-time show was playing on the radio, its cheerful beat pounding through the speakers while we sat together without talking until the meal was done.

Whenever I try to remember how it all started, I don’t think of the morning I found out, or the first time I saw the haze of yellow hair, the feline stare. I think of David that evening, the coiled rope of tension within him, the shiftiness of his irritation. I didn’t know it was because of her – Zo?. I didn’t even know she existed. But that was when I first felt her shadow fall over me. The first time I felt the ripples of a new presence within my home, like a dye entering water, already changing its chemistry.

4. David

I woke up the next morning to the thought She is dead. Linda is dead.

It wasn’t grief I felt. How could it be? She had not been in my life for a long time. But, still, there was sadness, and the shock left me feeling out of sorts, on edge. I got up, threw water on to my face, shaved, showered and pulled myself together as best I could. Over breakfast, my world solidified around me. Robbie and Holly were absorbed in their cereal while Caroline got their lunches ready. I finished breakfast quickly, leaned in to Caroline to say goodbye and felt the warmth of her kiss on my mouth. I told myself, Everything is going to be all right.

I pedalled away from the house, my lungs filling with air, and flew past the traffic while trying to convince myself that, even if Linda had passed away, what this girl had told me was some kind of joke, an elaborate student prank. A student’s life is full of mad-cap behaviour, full of stunts and dares. That was why there was no reason to tell my wife what she had said. Maybe somebody had put the girl up to it. Maybe I wasn’t her father.

On campus, I spent the first hour going through my inbox. What struck me initially was the amount of non-college work I had taken on: media commitments, interviews, op-ed pieces, book reviews, as well as board and committee duty. I replied to as many emails as I could before I rushed to a tutorial with my third-years, followed by coffee, then seminars until one. My first-year lecture was after lunch, and as the time approached, I grew twitchy. My palms became sweaty, my stomach churned. I told myself to stop being paranoid and walked into the theatre, down the steps, swung my bag on to the bench and hooked my laptop to the projector. When I raised my face to the students, my heart was beating hard. A hush came over the auditorium. As I talked, I scanned the room for her, but drew a blank. Twice, late-comers interrupted. I looked to the swinging door only to find it wasn’t her. During the last few minutes, I opened up the lecture to questions: it was another chance to search for her among the sea of faces. By the time it ended I was sure of it: she wasn’t there.

Throughout that day and the next, I couldn’t help thinking about her, despite my best efforts. Caroline’s new job, and the discussion that had started between us over what we should do about my mum – home-help or sheltered accommodation – acted as something of a distraction. But the girl was there, in my thoughts, the entire time.

I didn’t do anything about it, about her, until Friday. I was in a meeting with my most promising PhD student, Niki Agsten, and her co-supervisor, Dr Anne Burke. Niki’s subject was the role of women during the First World War, and she was telling us about something she had stumbled on during her recent research. ‘It was in the court records,’ she said. ‘I was going through the year 1918 when I came across this.’

Anne and I listened while she read out a statement from a witness detailing an account of a woman giving birth and subsequently taking the life of her newborn baby. ‘It’s strange,’ Niki said, ‘but since I read the account in the court files I can’t stop thinking about her. She tried to strangle her own baby with a sock. When that didn’t work she crushed it beneath the weight of a window frame. What made her believe that letting her baby live would be so much worse than having its death on her conscience?’

Anne made some answer but I was lost to the conversation, my mind tumbling back through my own history. An image came to me of Linda sitting hunched in a bathroom, her cheeks flushed with heat, the test in her hand, a line on a stick. My imagination ran riot. I thought about the panic she might have felt, the loneliness. I wondered again why she had never told me. That was, if what the girl had said to me was true, which I still didn’t know. And if it was true what it might mean to my relationship with Caroline, and the challenges that already faced our marriage, not to mention how it might affect our children. Too many what-ifs crowded my mind, and too many unanswerables made it impossible for me to concentrate.

‘David?’ Anne was waiting for an answer.

What would she think if I told her about Linda, about Zo??


‘Next Thursday – are we agreed?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes, of course.’

They left. I stood and thought of how I had buried the girl’s words, transformed them into a joke, reduced what she had said into a student spoof or the workings of an unsound mind. It occurred to me that there was something desperate in the way I was trying to blot out those words. Blot her out.

I went to my desk, stirred my computer to life and clicked on to the internet. It didn’t take long to find it. Still, I was surprised. DNA testing seemed so foreign, a product of a more litigious society than Ireland’s, but there it was in black and white: a company in Dublin that carried out paternity tests with a 99 per cent accuracy assurance, discretion guaranteed.

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