We're counting down to the inaugural Dead In Dun Laoghaire event, a one-day festival celebrating the very best in crime fiction, with a guest list that includes the cream of modern crime authors, taking place from at Dun Laoghaire's Pavillion Theatre on Saturday 22nd July.
Today, we present the opening chapter to Girl Unknown, the latest thriller from Dead In Dun Laoghaire guests Karen Perry (AKA writing duo Paul Perry and Karen Gillece).
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.
‘Yes?’ ‘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 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.
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 un-attractive 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 naïve, 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.
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 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?’
‘Zoë,’ she said quietly. ‘Zoë Barry.’
‘Well, Zoë. 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.’
Karen Perry (Paul Perry and Karen Gillece) will be speaking at the Dead in Dun Laoghaire crime writing Festival on Saturday 22nd July at the Pavilion Theatre. Tickets available from www.paviliontheatre.ie