Girl Unknown by Karen Perry is a novel of literary suspense that explores family life, the fragile nature of trust, and the tragic inescapability of the past (available February 6, 2018).
David and Caroline Connolly are swimming successfully through their marriage’s middle years―raising two children; overseeing care for David’s ailing mother; leaning into their careers, both at David’s university teaching job, where he’s up for an important promotion, and at the ad agency where Caroline has recently returned to work after years away while the children were little. The recent stresses of home renovation and of a brief romantic betrayal (Caroline’s) are behind them. The Connollys know and care for each other deeply.
Then one early fall afternoon, a student of sublime, waiflike beauty appears in David’s university office and says, “I think you might be my father.” And the fact of a youthful passion that David had tried to forget comes rushing back. In the person of this intriguing young woman, the Connollys may have a chance to expand who they are and how much they can love, or they may be making themselves vulnerable to menace. They face either an opportunity or a threat―but which is which? What happens when their hard-won family happiness meets a hard-luck beautiful girl?
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 hall. It was hard not to notice her, not with that hair. A great glow of it, radiantly blond in long loose curls like a soft release of breath. In the dimness of Theater L, it caught the light and reflected it back, golden and iridescent. I noticed the hair and the bright moon-shaped face beneath, and I thought: new penny. Then my mind turned back to my slides.
There is an energy on campus during those first weeks of the new semester that is like nothing else. The air is charged with the frisson of possibility. A cheerful busyness 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 for that first month, and there is a sense of hopefulness that’s infectious. Once the madness of Freshers’ Week has worn off, and the pace of lectures and tutorials has been set, a briskness falls onto campus like a flurry of autumnal 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 working at this 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 from behind their desks, 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 go 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.
“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 unlike so many of the female students who come to class layered in makeup, a miasma of chemical smells surrounding them. This girl was different—there was a freshness and a simplicity to her appearance that 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 e-mail 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, good-bye then,” I said, checking my watch and ducking into the drift of students heading toward 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 in which my life split—like a page folded over and creased down the middle so everything fell into before or after.
My office is on the third floor of the Arts Block. It’s covered with book-filled shelves and framed prints: the 1916 Proclamation, prints of two William Orpen sketches from the trenches in World War I, 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 the Hell Fire Club in the Dublin Mountains that I had taken with my phone last summer: Holly’s hair is wind-tossed, Robbie is grinning, and Caroline’s eyes are 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, 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 onto the courtyard at the heart of the building. A small copse of birch trees grows there, and throughout the year I like to look out onto the changing colors 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 Queen’s University, Belfast—on this campus. I’ve loved every minute of it and I considered 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 curious and inquisitive minds I meet, the irascible and sometimes irreverent arrogance of the students’ 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 like 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 student wanting to discuss his essay, a final-year student 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 moon-shaped face appearing around my door.
In my office, there is a low coffee table and two small armchairs I brought from home and this is 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 undergrad 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 hardworking historian, but naive, it has to be said. Not an unkind man, and quite gentle really, and the accusation hit him like a rocket. Overnight, he became this 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 he avoided all social interaction with students. It was no surprise when, a year later, he announced he had taken up a position 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 some 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, the ones who look young and innocent, they are the ones you have to be careful of. Not the savvy girls with their Ugg boots and fake tan—they can hold their own and have little interest in pursuing a man like me. I’m forty-four years old, 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 feet with dark hair, brown eyes, and sallow skin. My dad said we had Spanish blood flowing through 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 I’ve been married seventeen years, and I was aware how costly a stupid mistake could be. Besides, I had too much to lose.
I suppose that’s 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. Nor was there an e-mail seeking an appointment. The following week, I did see 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 theater with the other students.
The matter went clean out of my head, and would, I’m sure, have been forgotten about 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 like 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 zipper on her sweater. She was small and thin, bony wrists emerging from the cuffs of her sleeves, which had been picked and unraveled. Nervous fingers constantly moving.
“What’s your name?”
“Zoe,” she said quietly. “Zoe Harte.”
“Well, Zoe. How can I help you?” I asked while tidying a bunch of journals at my desk.
Her hands became still and in a voice that came out clear as a bell, she said, “I think you might be my father.”
Copyright © 2018 Karen Perry.
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Karen Perry is the pen name of Dublin-based authors Paul Perry and Karen Gillece. Together they wrote Girl Unkown.
Paul Perry is the author of a number of critically acclaimed books. A recipient of the Hennessy Award for New Irish Writing, he teaches creative writing at University College, Dublin.
Karen Gillece is the author of several critically acclaimed novels. In 2009 she won the European Union Prize for Literature (Ireland).