Girl Unknown(9)

What did I need? A swab from the inner cheek was best, but there were other sources: a hair (with follicle, preferably), a toothbrush. I must have spent twenty minutes working out all the ways I could capture her DNA without her knowledge.

While I trawled through the DNA sites I was all the time weighing up whether or not to discuss the paternity test with Zo?. I thought about asking her permission, telling her I needed to get the test done – but every time I included her in the conversation my imagination tangled the possible outcomes into something messy and complicated. The minutes ticked past. My thoughts grew more confused: a sudden flash of how crazy this situation was made me close down the DNA page I was on. I told myself to get a grip. When Alan put his head around the door and asked if I’d join him in the common room for coffee, I was more than relieved.

Alan has been my friend and mentor since I was an undergraduate. A wise soul, with a gruff exterior, he had offered me my first post-doctoral post after Queens. I owe him a lot, and have a firm affection for him, despite our differences. He’s an old-school historian, and is baffled sometimes by my approach to history. My adventures in the media irk him in particular. That afternoon, as we strolled to the common room, he took a pop at my latest article.

‘The sports supplement!’ he said. ‘What are you doing writing about sports?’

I laughed. ‘You don’t think sport is relevant to history? What about the 1933 Olympics?’

‘Come on. He’s hardly Jesse Owens, is he?’

‘Can you think of a more controversial figure in Irish sport?’

‘I just don’t see why you’re wasting your time mixing it with the polemicists and writing such –’

‘Go on, say it. You think it’s drivel.’

‘I was going to say journalism.’

‘You were not.’

He laughed.

‘Sport, the arts, popular culture, all of it informs the national consciousness,’ I said. ‘It makes us who we are as a nation. All of it is history in the making.’

We picked up our coffee and sat. Alan was smiling at what I had said. I could tell he was not in the mood for argumentative banter today. ‘I’m supposed to go to this conference in East Anglia next month,’ he said, leaning forward and examining his cup. ‘To give a talk … I was wondering if you would go in my stead.’


‘It would be good for you,’ he replied. ‘And your CV.’

How often had it been said to me that if I did a favour for someone it would advance my career at a later date? I didn’t mind standing in for Alan, but it wasn’t like him to duck out of a commitment. ‘Sure, Alan. Is everything all right?’

‘I’ve been doing some thinking,’ he said seriously. ‘My health is not good – a problem with my heart. They tell me I should have surgery, but I don’t know if I want that. At my age …’

‘You’re only sixty-two.’

‘Well, exactly. That’s my point. I want to live a little while I still have time. So I’ve decided to take early retirement.’

‘Early retirement?’

‘What? Did you think I’d be here for ever, David?’

‘Yes,’ I said. A kind of sadness was pulling at me. I’ve never been very good at endings or goodbyes.

‘This time I really do mean it,’ he said.

He didn’t need to spell it out for me. There was an unspoken understanding. If Alan left, there would be a position for a new professor. This was my chance. I couldn’t help feeling a spark of excitement. The way he suggested it, it almost felt like favouritism. His kindness had always, it seemed, extended itself beyond a professional duty of care.

The possibility of the professorship stayed with me all the way back to the office, my mind brimming with ideas, rushing a few months ahead, to the interview board, the presentations. I began making a mental tally of the papers I hoped to publish that year, including the book I was finishing, wondering how my research output would compare to the other candidates’. The idea was so consuming that I almost didn’t notice the slip of paper on the floor as I opened the door to my office. As I shut it behind me, the paper fluttered in the draught. I leaned down to pick it up, and read the words quickly.

All my excitement vanished. The lead weight was back in my heart.

It was a short note written in an elegant hand, signed with a flourish, her name a slash across the page.

Meet me this evening? Madigans, after work. Say 6.30 p.m.


I placed it carefully in my wallet.

Friday evening, and there was a sense of expectancy in the air. The collective relief that the end of the week had arrived presented itself in a frenetic busyness on the roads and pavements. The wind had whipped up and I pedalled slowly to Donnybrook. Traffic was thick, people hurrying to get away from the working week, their desks, bosses and obligations.

By the time I got there, the pub was heaving: office workers, students, mechanics from the nearby bus depot, their voices blending together in a dense cloud of talk. I found her sitting on her own at the back, a bottle of beer in front of her. One elbow on the table, her head was resting on her cupped hand, her face blank as she fiddled with her phone. For just a moment, before she saw me, she looked so young, so harmless, that I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.

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