Listen to “All the People Were Mean and Bad” by Lucy Caldwell. Read by Laura Pyper.
Listen to “All the People Were Mean and Bad” by Lucy Caldwell. Read by Laura Pyper.
Lucy Caldwell reads a very special, as-yet unpublished short story, called ‘Fiction’. This episode is celebrating her long-awaited second collection of short stories, Intimacies, which is out in the UK and Ireland on May 6th, 2021. Lucy is joined by Agnieszka Pokojska, a former Literature Ireland bursary recipient, who reads her translation into Polish.
“Windows on Worlds” written and read by Lucy Caldwell on the 80th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz, on RTE’s Sunday Miscellany.
We were talking about Monica Lewinsky.
My friend had googled her, some late-night internet rabbit hole, and had realised that, when it all happened, she’d been just twenty-two.
Fuck, I said.
I know, right? Twenty-two.
Neither of us said anything more for a bit. We rocked our buggies absent-mindedly back and forth. Sometimes I rocked the buggy when the baby wasn’t in it. Sometimes I rocked shopping trolleys.
We’d just come from our baby swimming class, thirty minutes of trailing wet bundles in thermoprene suits, who ranged from bemused indifference to howling impotence, around a hotel’s basement pool, singing made-up extra verses to old nursery rhymes. If you see a crocodile, don’t forget to scream!
We were standing outside the hotel’s back entrance, preparing to push our buggies their separate ways. The babies were uncharacteristically silent, glazed and stupefied in the way I remembered being after swimming as a child, although they hadn’t exactly done much of the work. It was spring, but cold. My friend tucked a stray hair under her yolk-yellow hat. Our babies, born within a month of each other, were just old enough now that our hair was starting to grow back: soft, stubborn wisps, and the relief of no more frantic hairballs choking the plughole.
Well, my friend said. I want to get home for his nap. So I should get going.
Twenty-two, I said. Do you remember what you thought at the time?
How stupid she was, I think. Yeah, me too.
We’d been sixteen, seventeen, and certain it was Monica Lewinsky’s fault. I remembered discussing it with school friends in the sixth-form common room. The stupid wee bitch, we’d called her. The silly wee slag. And the dress, like! The president had come to Belfast a couple of years earlier. He’d ousted the Power Rangers to turn on the Christmas lights; there’d been cheering crowds in Donegall Place, and fireworks. The Leader of the Free World. What did Monica Lewinsky think she was at? His daughter was more or less our age: frizzy hair and braces. We felt scundered for her, and disgusted.
I remember my mum saying how charismatic he was, I said.
That’s one word for it. Ha.
And do you know that The Dress was only from Gap? It was just this… shirt-dress thing. Bog-standard blue.
I had imagined some chi-chi cocktail dress. Marabou feathers, a plunging neckline.
Yeah, my friend said. She never got it cleaned to wear it again cause her friend said she looked fat in it.
We both had a fit of giggles and the babies regarded us with their disapproving stares.
I’ll walk with you a bit, I said. I turned the buggy and we fell into step. We were both wearing trainers, hers trendier than mine. It had been a joke between us for years, my impractical footwear. I thought of how substantial my first hi-tops had felt, after years of flimsy ballet pumps, the cheap ones made out of cardboard and fake leather. When we’d discovered how well made men’s brogues were we’d laughed and laughed.
Her bus was pulling in to the stop, and we ran for it. Come back to mine, she suddenly said, for baby rice and Ella’s.
But there was already a buggy on board, and the maximum allowed was two. We hugged a quick goodbye, chlorine and cold cheeks, and see-you-next-weeks.
It wasn’t for the babies we did baby swimming, of course. A minute or so later, my phone buzzed: a stream of emojis telling the story of two splashing whales and two fishes abruptly and tragically separated. Then another message, tactfully upgrading the whales to dolphins, with the crying-laughing face.
I didn’t know when we’d started to communicate in emojis, but I was pretty sure it had coincided with parenthood. A way of acknowledging how forthright, earnest, certain we used to be about everything. Or maybe it was just sleep deprivation.
I sent the same face back, then searched for the bowl-of-rice and the strawberry and wrote: Enjoy your pre-digested feast.
She sent me the Edvard Munch face, and some x’s.
There was no way I’d make it home before my baby fell asleep. But if I started walking now, I could sit in a cafe and google Monica Lewinsky for five minutes before he realised the buggy was no longer moving and woke to express his outrage.
As I walked, I thought of our early twenties. We’d spent them putting the world to rights over cocktails of Zubrówka and apple juice at bars that used to be handbag factories, or in bedsits over mugs of herbal tea, the same freewheeling conversation that continued for years, it seemed, lightly spanning the places we and our other friends variously sojourned, internships, relationships, the occasional Alpha course. Brussels, Paris, London, New York: big cities with bright lights, flatshares and failed love affairs and flea markets on Sundays. We’d thought we were living the dream, and if we were unhappy, well, it was our fault, our failure to live up to it all.
Once, at a bonfire party, we’d talked late into the night, long after the others had gone, moving our chairs now and then towards the warmth. At one point we’d looked down to realise the embers were smouldering around us. It had seemed, at the time, a metaphor for something.
I took my phone from my pocket and swiped it. Do you remember the bonfire? I texted, still walking.
Her message flashed back before I’d even suffixed some flames.
There’ll soon be less distance, it said, between our babies and us-then, than us-then and us-now.
It took me a moment to get my head around it.
I sent back the smiling-crying face and the Edvard Munch.
On a whim, in the aisles of the Costcutter, I bundled the necessary packets and tins into my basket, and when I got home I made Fifteens.
They were called Fifteens because you needed fifteen of everything. Fifteen digestive biscuits, fifteen marshmallows, fifteen glacé cherries—the stickiest, most artificial, reddest sort. You bashed the digestives with a rolling pin, halved the cherries and marshmallows, mixed up the whole lot with a tin of condensed milk, then rolled it into a sausage and shook over desiccated coconut. You didn’t even need to cook it, just chill it for a bit. It was a ridiculous recipe, and one that could only come from a place where grown men and women would, with a perfectly straight face, order a square of Lumpy Bumpy to have alongside their pot of tea. A place whose facade was allowed, or needed, to slip just that much, no more.
We had made Fifteens in primary school—everyone made them in primary school—and I still remembered the stout headmistress sliding her finger around the inside of the tin of Carnation condensed milk and shivering, rolling her eyes with pleasure.
She’d taught us penmanship, and stepped into the classroom unannounced to drill us on times tables. Her hair was tight with perfect curls and she walked with a rubber-tipped stick which she sometimes thumped on the floor. Once, in Supermac, at her wits’ end with our bad behaviour, my mum had threatened my sisters and me with the idea that our headmistress could be right around the corner. We’d turned into the next aisle, and there she was. I’d been in awe of her for years after that, as if, rather than the force of my mother’s summons, the power to appear had been hers alone.
I hadn’t thought of the headmistress for years. I tried to work out how old she might be. I realised that, by my friend’s logic, I was nearer to her age then than she would be now. If she was still alive. She had retired when we left primary school. I tried searching for an online obituary, though I didn’t know her first name, didn’t know, in fact, if she’d taught and lived under entirely different surnames. No, I realised; that couldn’t have been the case. Teachers back when she started out had to resign upon getting married. I googled some more. I came across a young Nell McCafferty, in the mid-seventies, leading a charge of thirty women into a pub. They ordered thirty brandies and one pint of Guinness. When the barman refused to pull a pint for a woman, they each drank a brandy then refused to pay, on the grounds that their order had not been fulfilled. I could still hear my headmistress’s voice. I decided she would have approved entirely of the enterprise.
I closed the little window on my phone. It was time to wake the baby, still out for the count in the hallway, or he’d never sleep tonight. Before I woke him, I cut a corner off the roll of Fifteens. It was too sweet, of course: far too sweet. I thought once more of the headmistress and her theatrical pleasure.Then I ate two or three more slices.
The baby woke beaming, as if seeing my face was the most wondrous thing ever, and I ached with love for him. We spent the afternoon in bed, feeding, cuddling, practising tummy-time. I amused us both, or at least myself, by making up more alternative verses for songs. Three little people in a flying saucer flew round the world one day, they looked left and right and they really liked the sight so they came for a holiday. The baby was in a playful mood, gurgling and babbling, so I took a video of him squealing with pleasure as I kissed his toes and sent it to my family group. We’d communicated more, in the few months since the baby was born, than we ever had before, and it was almost entirely through the medium of him.
my youngest sister said, almost immediately
give him a kiss from his aunty
My youngest sister messaged like the Millennial she supposedly was and I definitely wasn’t, despite the barely-four years between us: one line at a time, rarely any punctuation, and all lower-case. If she and her boyfriend were annoyed with each other, they would zap back and forth gales of messages one word at a time.
are such a
utter dickweed sometimes
My middle sister, from whatever time zone she was in, sent hearts-for-eyes.
Mum is typing . . . my phone said.
Mum is typing . . .
There wouldn’t be any response to the video from my dad. He caught up on all his messages once or twice a week, texting like the digital immigrant he was: long, single texts riddled with elisions and compressions (cu l8r), muscle memory from when you—or rather he—paid per message for all phones on the family account, and characters were limited.
Mum is typing . . . Mum is typing . . .
I thought about my first-ever Nokia, and how miraculous it had seemed back then: the little envelope that showed a new message had come in; the string of flashing letters slowly scrolling across the small grey-green screen.
Mum is typing . . .
My mother, true to form, eventually sent a gif. She had recently discovered gifs and communicated almost exclusively, if often erroneously, through them. This one was a key moment from Flashdance. Despite having three daughters, I doubted she’d ever seen the film. On the spur of the moment, I rang her.
Hello? she said, sounding surprised. Hi, I said. I just thought I’d ring.
Oh, lovely, she said. I’m in the Tesco’s car park. Oh, sorry.
No, no, it’s nice to talk. Hang on.
There was a pause while she did whatever she did. My mum never phoned me, in case she disturbed me, she said, or woke up the baby. But I called her almost every other day now.
You saw the video? I said, when she came back. Yes, did I not reply? she said. I thought I’d replied. No, no, you did. Have you ever seen Flashdance?
What’s Flashdance? Never mind.
Well, my mum said brightly, so how are you? Good, I said. He’s very sweet, isn’t he?
Oh, he really is. I remember you at that age, when you suddenly started crawling. Just suddenly, out of nowhere. It was Christmas Day. You couldn’t even sit up properly, but there you were, hauling yourself across the floor to get to some shiny wrapping paper.
She laughed.Then she said:
You’ll never be loved so much again. Sorry? I said.
It goes so fast, she said. Then she said, brisk now, Well, I’m at the car, and it’s starting to rain, and I’ve got to get the dinner on.
Mum? I said.
Sorry? she said. Hello? No, nothing, I said.
Keep sending the photos and videos. We love seeing him.
I will, I said.
My mum, in the Tesco’s car park. Starting the engine so the heat would come on, then sitting there for a minute, before edging out of the parking space and joining the traffic on the slip road to the Sydenham bypass. The clouds over the Holywood hills would be thick and lowering in a waterlogged sky. The Stena Line ferry chugging in over the lough; the Irish Sea.
You’ll never be loved so much again. It was no more than I’d been thinking myself, since my son had woken. But I felt the ache all over again, the inevitable and necessary complication of that love. Something my friend and I discussed almost every time we met: was it harder, these days, raising sons or daughters? And how were we not to fuck it up?
What do you think of, I said to my husband that evening, when you think of Monica Lewinsky?
It was Friday night so we were having a glass of wine while we looked at our phones.
My husband didn’t miss a beat.
I did not, he said in a hick voice, while continuing to swipe at his screen, have sexual relations with that woman.
But he did, though.
My husband looked up at me.
Course he did. Did anyone ever doubt it? Well—yeah. Or at least—they wanted to. Plausible deniability.
The baby monitor squatting in between us crackled ominously.We waited to see if it was something or nothing. It was something.
I’ll go, my husband said, even though he’d gone the time before.
Thank you, I said. If parenthood was seventy per cent trying to get a baby to sleep, twenty per cent trying to keep it awake, and ten per cent texting each other lists, then maybe this was true love.
While my husband was gone, I texted a new name to my friend: Anna Nicole Smith. We’d spent the afternoon sending names back and forth. Tonya Harding, Amy Winehouse, Shannen Doherty, Britney Spears. Because the thing was, it wasn’t just Monica Lewinsky. It was all the other women too, who used to be sort-of laughing stocks, and who—you suddenly realised—turned out to be something else entirely. Once you started googling, it was hard to stop. Anna Nicole Smith’s son, Daniel, I now newly knew, died suddenly in her room in hospital, while visiting her and her new baby, his half-sister. The toxicology report suggested he’d ingested some of her methadone prescription, along with other medication. At his funeral, she made them open the coffin and tried to climb inside: she begged them to bury her with him. He was twenty, and she was only thirty-eight. She died of an overdose herself a few months later.
Good one! my friend messaged back. A moment later, she texted: Jade Goody.
Jade Goody! I replied.
My friend sent the hand-painting-its-nails.
How could we not have known? I wanted to text, but I couldn’t think of the right emoji to make it funny.
You knew, and didn’t know. Sometimes it seemed that all of my life had been knowing and not-knowing. As if it was a technique rather than a state; a safety mode, a way of coping. There were words for things now that we hadn’t even realised were things, because there were no words for them.
Do you remember, I said when my husband came back, Sinéad O’Connor ripping up the picture of the Pope?
Vaguely, he said. Not really.
Here, look, I said, and I found it on my phone.
She’d been performing on the American programme Saturday Night Live. In rehearsal, she’d held up a picture of orphaned children. We have confidence in the victory of good over evil. But when she did it live, the picture was of Pope John Paul II and she ripped it up, once, twice, three times, and scattered the pieces. Fight the real enemy, she said, looking straight at the camera. The clip ended with her taking off her headset and blowing out the church pillar candles on the table beside her.
We watched the twenty-nine seconds again, and then again. Every time, you felt something creeping up and down your spine.
Bloody hell, my husband said.
I can’t believe you don’t remember that, I said. Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal in England.
I took my phone back and leaned against his shoulder. We would have been eleven at the time, I said.
I remembered the shockwaves. One cardinal, in an interview on TV, said she was using voodoo or ‘sympathetic magic’ in an attempt to injure the Pope.
The cigar, my husband said, after a bit. The what?
That’s the other thing you think of. Or at least that you try not to.
A moment later, he said, I’m completely knackered. Shall we just go to bed?
It was nine thirty-five, which was at least five minutes past our bedtime.We’d been going to try to watch something.
Yeah, I said.
He set off the dishwasher while I plugged in the monitor to recharge.
There are times in my life, I said. It was a phrase that had recently entered our private lexicon, a shorthand of sorts.
I know, he said. It’s nine thirty-seven now. Come on.
I couldn’t sleep. It was too cruel, the nights this happened. Your exhausted body, flush with adrenalin, primed to jump at every cough and whimper, eventually refused to settle at all. I googled Monica Lewinsky again, and found the photo of the dress. It was on a cached eBay link, where someone was offering it, not the actual dress itself lol, for sale for a hundred dollars. Wouldn’t some other museum want it? someone had asked in the questions. Like I think the Smithsonian has the original?
I looked at the dress, at pictures of Monica now, at pictures of Monica then. You didn’t even need to type Lewinsky, the internet knew you wanted her. I found a fuzzy picture that someone had scanned in from a college yearbook.
I thought—of course, again—of myself back then. Of myself at twenty-four, twenty-two, nineteen.
We had done the Starr Report in my first week in college. It might, in fact, have been my first-ever lecture. The lecture theatre was packed to the rafters with not just freshers, but second- and even third-year students. The young lecturer was something of a celebrity on campus: I had picked that much up already, along with the slang for the dining hall and the porters’ lodge and the woman who, to my shame, made my bed and emptied my wastepaper basket every day. They were all words that I couldn’t bring myself yet to use, out of conviction they’d sound ridiculous coming in my accent, coming from my mouth.
The lecture was on prac. crit., ‘practical criticism’, the newest of the skills—or concepts—I had to master. How to close-read and analyse a text. I tried not to think of our teacher at GCSE, fresh out of teacher training and earnest, pressing us to explain why Wilfred Owen had selected a particular word. My friends and I sniggering, passing notes. Because it rhymes? I’d said when she finally called on me, just sarcastically enough that my friends would definitely know it and she might not.
It’s utter shite, all of it, the girl beside me had whispered. Sure he’s there in the trenches, being shelled to fuck. He wants to get his poem on the page, he doesn’t care what word he uses and why.
The lecturer, who was slim and angular, allegedly quick-tempered and also reputedly brilliant, stalked up to the lectern and immediately began reading aloud, while we fumbled for a copy of the handout being passed along the rows.
At one point, Ms. Lewinsky and the President talked alone in the Chief of Staff’s office. In the course of flirting with him, she raised her jacket in the back and showed him the straps of her thong underwear, which extended above her pants.
He was reading from the Starr Report. He looked up, made a joke about the American versus the British word for undergarments and paused for laughter. Everyone, myself included, obliged. Carry on, he said suddenly, pointing at a blushing boy with steel-rimmed glasses near the front.
Ms. Lewinsky testified, the boy recited, ‘I believe he took a phone call . . . and so we moved from the hallway into the back office . . . . He put his hand down my pants and stimulated me manually in the genital area.’
Straight out of the Haynes Manual on Sexual Intercourse, he said, and we all laughed again, though I didn’t know what the Haynes Manual was.
Let’s hear that passage again, he said, and picked on someone else.
I believe he took a phone call . . . and so we moved from the hallway into the back office . . . . He put his hand down my pants and stimulated me manually in the genital area.
I’m still not getting it, he said. Again.
In the third or second row, I was desperate not to catch his attention. If he called on me to read aloud, or give an opinion, I’d freeze, I knew I would, and make a mockery of myself.
After the fourth time, he took pity on us, or maybe just got bored.
The ellipses, he said. Why am I not hearing the ellipses?
The ellipses are the most important part of it.
He read aloud himself, then, in a falsetto voice.
I believe he took a phone call—dot, dot, dot—and so we moved from the hallway to the back office—dot, dot, dot, DOT. Poor prim, flustered, trying-to-be-dignified Monica, he said. I mean, look at those ellipses AGAIN—dot, dot, dot—dot, dot, dot, dot. Think about what they’re saying, or trying not to.
While I tried to make myself invisible, while the president continued talking on the phone, while the lecturer strutted and joked, she dropped to her knees and performed (‘performed’, the lecturer said, how much of all this is a performance, and for whom?), she performed oral sex.
He finished his call, and, a moment later, told Ms. Lewinsky to stop. In her recollection: ‘I told him that I wanted dot, dot, dot to complete that. And he said dot, dot, dot that he needed to wait until he trusted me more. And then I think he made a joke dot, dot, dot that he hadn’t had that in a long time.’
Randy Bill hasn’t come to completion, the lecturer said, but like him we’re done with Monica for now, although she may yet come back to haunt us.
And we laughed and laughed: at Monica, with relief, at the trope (a new word on me) of the dissatisfied husband, and moved on to Wordsworth.
At the end of the hour, everyone, myself included, gave a round of applause. It had been inconceivable to me that you could put a verbatim account of giving a blow job alongside the poems of Wordsworth, and read them with equal attention and care.
I still remembered it, after all these years. Dot, dot, dot.
Dot, dot, dot, dot. What was said, and wasn’t, and why.
He was meant to be very charismatic, my mum had said. That’s one word for it (my friend).
The beginning of the Starr Report, which I found now on my phone: When she introduced herself to him, he said he already knew who she was.
At least we—
I began to text my friend, my phone jumping to anticipate each word. It was 2 a.m., but her baby was teething too, and even at this time of night, or morning, the little ticks often went instantly blue to show she’d read it.
At least we—
Then I stopped. I held my phone in my hand for a while, and concentrated on breathing, until I could feel my lungs release and fill, then deleted the characters, one by one.
A powerful story about motherhood and loss by Lucy Caldwell for the BBC National Short Story Award
Read by Jessica Raine
from the anthology “Still Worlds Turning”, published by No Alibis Press.
Out of nowhere you are suddenly awake, heart pounding.
Nothing. The baby is next to you in the bed, asleep. In the orange glow of the salt lamp, the room’s shadows are still.
There is no noise from your son’s room.
The baby whimpers. Sometimes you wake a second before her, as if your body knows. That’s what the baby blogs say, the ones that say co-sleeping is fine. A mother’s instincts will keep you both safe. Though maybe it’s you that wakes her. The rustling of the duvet as you turn, the agitation of a dream. You lie completely motionless, waiting to see which way she’ll go.
And that’s when you hear it again.
It’s the creak of a footstep in the wooden hallway, the sound of a footstep that’s trying not to creak.
You know the ley lines of the flat, the trusted, navigable paths. The faulty joists in the timber flooring, guaranteed to wake a sleeping baby, even when that baby will sleep through the full blare of police sirens on the road outside.
Again, nothing – although now the nothing is charged.
It’s summer, so the heating’s off; it can’t be the pipes or radiators clicking to life. It’s summer, so the balcony door is open, to let air into your airless flat. You’re on the third floor and the glass box of a balcony doesn’t adjoin those of the neighbours, so it’s always seemed safe enough.
Your breathing sounds noisy. Your heart, too, leaping like a trapped thing in your chest.
The baby snuffles and rustles and turns on to her tummy. Was that another footstep?
You listen with your fingertips, with every hair of your head.
You locked the door last night, you’re sure of it. Or rather, didn’t fully lock it, as the Chubb lock has been sticking, but flicked the snib downwards to disable the Yale. It’s always been your husband’s task, like the bins and the recycling and the washing of pans, in the wordless division of domestic labour. But he’s away for two nights, of which this is the first; a symposium in Berlin. You don’t always bother doing the blinds, with the evenings so long. Has someone been watching? You know more than you mean to about the families opposite, the dioramas of their lives. Has someone who knows you, knows your husband, seen on his Facebook or Instagram that he’s away?
You listen, you listen. Your whole body aches with listening.
There was the man who came to rehang the front door, when it sagged on its hinges and kept jamming in the frame. For weeks afterwards you had missed calls from an unknown number. When you finally texted the number and said, “Who is this?” a message flashed back instantly, “An admirer”, followed by a smiley face, and then a second message, “Wud u like 2 go 4 a drink?”
“I think you’ve got the wrong number,” you texted.
“I dont think so” (another smiley face).
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are.”
“Yes u do”
“You didn’t reply, and showed the texts to your husband that night. Do you want me to text,” he said, “and say I’m your husband or something?”
“Oh what, like back off, this chattel’s mine?”
You both laughed, and it no longer seemed so sinister.
You were pregnant at the time, though not enough that it showed. You’d felt nauseous, blurry; the man’s arrival had jolted you from a midday nap – that first trimester tiredness that leaches from your very bones. You’d been blank at the door, almost rude, then overcompensated by faking brightness, offering tea, coffee, your stash of ginger biscuits. When he’d said, “What I’d really like is a nice cold beer”, you’d laughed and said, “Sounds good”.
You thought it must be him, though you couldn’t be sure enough to contact the company. Besides, it wasn’t as if he’d changed the locks, only the hinges, and no more messages came.
There hasn’t been another noise for a while, now: long enough that you allow yourself to think you must have imagined it, after all. Or maybe you didn’t imagine, but misheard and it came from your son’s room: a flung arm hitting the bedstead, a book falling to the floor.
You should check on your son. He begged and begged, this evening, to sleep in your bed, the way he used to until the baby came. You almost said yes. You half-wanted it yourself, the warmth of his smooth body, the way he cuddles right into you as if skin is no boundary. But you knew you’d all sleep badly if you did: the baby would wake him and he’d wake the baby; she’d see him and think it was morning and time to play, so you stayed firm.
Your son has been frightened of burglars, recently, and so you’ve been reading him the rhyming books of your own childhood from the library; the Robbers with names like Grabber Dan and Grandma Swag, thwarting and thwarted by Cops in an intricate, uneasy dance; the burglar who accidentally steals a baby and then goes straight, returning the things he’s stolen.
You really should check on him, but somehow your body won’t move. If there is someone in the flat – there isn’t, you tell yourself, but if there is – then surely it’s best you’re all asleep, or seem that way? Let that person, or persons, take what they want and go swiftly. Your laptop is on the kitchen table, your bag’s by the sofa. There’s a ceramic apple of loose change on the bookshelf, mostly shrapnel. It shouldn’t take long. It might be done already.
You try to remember whether the noises, if there were noises, were moving towards the bedrooms or into the livingroom: getting closer or farther away.
There’s a drug problem in the area, groups of addicts on the streets like some dystopian film, abandoned needles and scorched crack pipes. You sometimes watch the drug deals from your balcony; teenage boys standing look-out on corners, their mini-messenger bags wedged with thick rolls of cash. The cars speeding the wrong way up the one-way street, the shuffle-run of the addicts once the drop-off’s made. There have been leaflets from the police about muggings in the street, about home security. But there was stealth, not urgency, in the movements you heard.
Would-be rapists who creep into houses late at night and lie in wait for their victims, listen to them breathe. Abductors who take children to order: a little boy, blond-haired, no older than three.
Stop it. Now. Get up and check, the way you make your son do. No burglars in the wardrobe, no monsters under the bed.
You sit up.
The French teacher who told you when walking at night to hold your house keys in your fist, and poke a key through your first and second fingers, a makeshift weapon. A novel where someone thwarts attempted abduction by piercing her captor’s eye with a hairpin. You cast around the room. An architect’s pencil, the sort that pushes up refillable lead through a bright, sharp point? A paperclip?
A siren streams past on the road outside, shrill and discordant.
You quell the bubble of a sob.
Your phone is in the corridor. You read an article about the correlation between cellphone radiation and cancer; official public health guidance by the state of California on how to reduce exposure to radiofrequency energy. Ever since, you’ve insisted that phones aren’t charged in the bedroom overnight; the plug socket in your cramped bedroom right by the baby’s cot. And what would you do, anyway, missed-call your husband until he woke, then text that there might be someone in the flat? Message your family group, your sister thousands of miles away in another time zone, and ask her to phone the police?
What, the operator would say, is the nature of your emergency?
I woke, in the night.
You ease the duvet off your legs and get out of bed. Once you have babies, they say, you’ll never really sleep again, even after the babies finally do. Your feet on the floor like the herd of elephants you’re always chastising your son about. If there’s anyone in the flat, they’ll have heard you now. Abandoning your plans to sidle along the wall, you go quickly into the corridor, grab your phone. You stand for a moment. Nothing. Into your son’s room. He’s sideways in bed, half hanging out. You lift him, tuck him back in, press your lips to his neck. He moans. The baby, as predicted, has started to cry. Back into your bedroom, and pick her up. She stops crying, starts to rootle, but you don’t feed her yet, just put her down in the cot where she can’t fall out. To the sound of her outrage, you go down the corridor the other way, past the front door and into the livingroom.
Nothing and everything looks amiss.
It was the venetian blinds hanging over the open door, clicking against the doorframe in the breeze. It was a block, and then another, toppling from your son’s precarious tower, constructed with Duplo and cereal boxes and his baby sister’s bricks, which he insisted you leave out overnight.
You slide the balcony door closed, twist the handle up.
You check the front door, move the buggy up against it, just in case.
The baby’s cry is now at boiling point. Your son wakes up and calls out for you, too. Some tiny, shameful part of you is glad not to be awake alone.
You should go to them. Scoop up your son and bring him into your bed, feed the baby and then all lie down together, the way families must have for centuries, the way animals do.
The sirens again, outside. More of them, now, and louder, shifting in pitch and frequency. There is something still tugging at the edges of your consciousness. A framed map in the hallway, askew on its picture-hook. You right it, and think: was the frame always cracked? For a moment, you feel gloved hands on your shoulder, hot breath down your neck. Why would the blinds rattle on an airless night, or a tower suddenly tumble?
Something is happening, somewhere, you tell yourself, but not here, not here, not now.
Taken from the acclaimed debut collection, Multitudes, it is a tale of master and pupil, transgression and guilt…
I saw him last night. He was with a girl half his age, more than half, a third of his age. It was in the bar of the Merchant Hotel and they were together on the crushed-raspberry velvet banquette. Her arm was flung around his shoulder, and he had an arm around her, too, an easy hand on her waist. She was laughing, her face turned right up to his, enthralled, delighted. They kept clinking glasses: practically every time they took a sip of their cocktails they clinked glasses. I was alone, in a high seat at the bar, waiting for my friends – friends I hadn’t seen in years, but who even years ago were always late. I’d ordered a glass of white wine while I waited; I picked it up with shaking hands. It was him. There was no doubt about it. His face had got pouchy, and his hair, though still black – dyed, surely – was limp and thinning. When he stood up, he was shorter than I remembered.
But it was him.
I hadn’t seen him in years. I scrambled to work out the numbers in my head. Sixteen – seventeen – almost eighteen. All those years later and there he was, entwined with a girl a fraction of his age. He must be nearly sixty now.
I bent my head over the cocktail list as he walked towards me, letting my hair fall partly over my face, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His eyes slid over the women he passed, thin, fake-tanned bare backs and sequinned dresses, stripper-shoes. He didn’t look once at me. I’d lived away too long, and I’d forgotten how dressed-up people got for a Saturday night: I was in skinny jeans and a blazer, and not enough make-up. I watched him walk along the candy-striped carpet and out towards the toilets, and then I turned to look at his companion. She had her head bowed over her phone and she was jiggling one leg and rapidly texting. She suddenly looked very young indeed. I’d put her in her mid-twenties but it was less than that. I felt a strange tightness in my chest. She put her phone away and uncrossed her legs, re-crossed them, tugged at the hem of her little black dress. She picked up her empty glass and tilted her head right back and drained the dregs, coughed a little, set the glass back down and slung her hair over the other shoulder. She had too much make-up on: huge swipes of blusher, exaggerated cat-eyes. She glanced around the bar, then she took out her phone again, flicked and tapped at it. She wasn’t used to being alone in a bar like this. It was an older crowd and she felt self-conscious, you could tell. The men in the chairs opposite her were in their forties at least, heavy-jowled, sweating in their suits, tipping back their Whiskey Sours. I watched the relief on her face when he appeared again, how she wriggled into him and kissed him on the cheek. As they studied the menu together, giggling, their heads bent confidentially together, I suddenly realised she wasn’t his lover.
She was his daughter.
She was Melissa. Seventeen years. She’d be eighteen now. Perhaps they were out tonight celebrating her eighteenth birthday.
With a surge of nausea I realised, then, that what I’d been feeling wasn’t outrage that she was too young for him, or contempt, or disgust. It was simpler, and much more complicated than that.
I don’t remember whose idea it was to go to Mr Knox’s house. One minute we were giggling over him, nudging elbows and sugar-breath and damp heads bent together, and the next minute someone was saying they knew where he lived, something about a neighbour and church and his wife, and suddenly, almost without the decision being made, it was decided we were going there.
Was it Tanya?
There were four of us: Donna, Tanya, Lisa and me. We were fourteen, and bored. It was a Baker Day, which meant no school, and we had nothing else to do. It was April, and chilly; rain coming in gusty, intermittent bursts. The Easter holidays had only just ended, and none of us had any pocket money left. We’d met in Cairnburn park just after nine, but at that time on a wet Monday morning it was deserted. We’d wandered down to the kiddie playground but the swings were soaking and after a half-hearted couple of turns on the roundabout we’d given up. The four of us had trailed down Sydenham Avenue and past our school – it was strange to see the lights on in the main building, and the teachers’ cars all lined up as usual. Then, more out of habit than anything else, we crossed the road to the Mini-Market. We pooled our spare change to buy packets of Strawberry Bon-bons and bags of Midget Gems and Donna nicked a handful of fizzy Cola Bottles. We ate them as we trudged on down towards Ballyhackamore. The rain was getting heavier and none of us had umbrellas, so we’d ended up in KFC, huddled over the melamine table, slurping a shared Pepsi. We were the only ones in there. The sugar and the rain and the boredom made us restless, and snide. We’d started telling stories, in deliberately too-loud voices, about people we knew who’d ordered plain chicken burgers and complained when they came with mayo. There’s no mayo in it, the person behind the counter would say. Oh yes there is. Oh no there isn’t. And it would turn out that the mayo was actually a burst sac of pus from a cyst growing on the chicken breast. The girl behind the counter was giving us increasingly dirty looks and we realised that if she chucked us out we really had nowhere to go: so we changed tack then and started slagging each other, boys we’d fancied, boys we’d “seen”, or wanted to “see”, as the expression went.
And then the conversation, almost inevitably, turned to Mr Knox.
We all fancied Mr Knox. No-one even bothered to deny it. The whole school fancied him. He was the French and Spanish teacher, and he was part French himself, or so the rumours went. He was part-something, anyway, he had to be: he was so different from the other teachers. He had dark hair that he wore long and floppy over one eye, and permanent morning-after stubble, and he smoked Camel cigarettes. Teachers couldn’t smoke anywhere in the school grounds, not even in the staffroom, but he smoked anyway, in the staff toilets in the Art Block or in the caretakers’ shed, girls said, and if you had him immediately after break or lunch you smelled it off him. He drove an Alfa Romeo, bright red, and where the other male teachers were rumpled in browns and greys he wore coloured silk shirts and loafers. On Own Clothes Day at the end of term he’d wear tapered jeans and polonecks and Chelsea boots and, even in winter, mirrored aviator sunglasses, like an off-duty film star. He had posters on his classroom walls of Emmanuelle Béart and a young Catherine Deneuve and Soledad Miranda, and he lent his sixth-formers videos of Pedro Almodóvar films.
But that wasn’t all. A large part of his charge came from the fact that he’d had an affair with a former pupil, Davina Calvert. It had been eight years ago, and they were married now: he’d left his wife for her, and it was a real scandal, he’d almost lost his job over it, except in the end they couldn’t dismiss him because he’d done nothing strictly, legally wrong. It had happened before we joined the school, but we knew all the details: everyone did. It was almost a rite of passage to cluster as first- or second-years in a corner of the library poring over old school magazines in search of her, hunting down grainy black-and-white photographs of year groups, foreign exchange trips, prize days, tracking her as she grew up to become his lover.
Davina Calvert, Davina Knox. She was as near and as far from our lives as it was possible to get.
Davina, the story went, was her year’s star pupil. She got the top mark in Spanish A-level in the whole of Northern Ireland, and came third in French. Davina Calvert, Davina Knox. Nothing happened between them while she was still at school – or nothing anyone could pin on him, at least – but when she left she went on a gap year, teaching English in Granada, and he went out to visit her. We knew this for sure because Lisa’s older sister had been two years below Davina Calvert, and at the time was in Mr Knox’s Spanish A-level class. After Hallowe’en half-term he turned up with a load of current Spanish magazines, Hola! and Diez Minutos and Spanish Vogue. They asked him if he’d been away, and where he’d been, and he answered them in a teasing torrent of Spanish that none of them could quite follow. But it went around the school like wildfire that he’d been in Granada, visiting Davina Calvert, and sure enough, when she was back for Christmas at least two people saw them in his Alfa Romeo, parked up a side street, kissing, and by the end of the school year he and his wife were separated, getting divorced. The following year he didn’t even pretend to hide it from his classes: when they talked about what they’d done at the weekend he’d grin and say, in French or Spanish, that he’d been visiting a special friend in Edinburgh. Everyone knew it was Davina.
We used to picture what it must have been like, when he first visited her in Granada. The winding streets and white medieval buildings. The blue and orange and purple sky. They would have walked together to Lorca’s house and the Alhambra, and afterwards clinked glasses of sherry in some cobbled square with fountains and gypsy musicians. Perhaps he would have reached under the table to stroke her thigh, slipping a hand under her skirt and tracing the curve of it up, and when he withdrew it she would have crossed and uncrossed her legs, squeezing and releasing her thighs, the tingling pressure unbearable.
I imagined it countless times: but I could never quite settle on what would have happened next. What would you do, in Granada with Mr Knox? Would you lead him back to your little rented room, in the sweltering eaves of a homestay or a shared apartment? No: you’d go with him instead, to the hotel that he’d booked, a sumptuous four-poster bed in a grand and faded parador in the Albaicín – or more likely an anonymous room in the new district where the staff wouldn’t ask questions, a room where the bed had white sheets with clinical corners, a room with a bathroom you could hear every noise from. The shame of it – the excitement.
And back in the KFC on the Upper Newtownards Road, on that rainy Monday Baker Day in April, we knew where Mr Knox and Davina lived. It was out towards the Ice Bowl, near the golf club, in Dundonald. It was a forty-, forty-five minute walk. We had nothing else to do. We linked arms and set off.
It was an anti-climax when we got there. We’d walked down the King’s Road, passing such posh houses on the way; somehow, with the sports car and the sunglasses and the designer suits, we’d expected his house to be special, too. But most of the houses on his street were just like ours: bungalows, or small red-brick semis, with hedges and lawns and rhododendron bushes. We walked up one side, and down the other. There was nothing to tell us where he lived: no sign of him. We were starting to bicker by then. The rain was coming down relentless, and Tanya was getting worried that someone might see us, and report us to the school. We slagged her – how would anyone know we were doing anything wrong, and how would they know which school we went to, anyway, we weren’t in uniform – but all of us were slightly on edge. It was only mid-morning, but what if he left school for some reason, or came home for an early lunch? All four of us were in his French class, and me and Lisa had him for Spanish, too: he’d recognise us. We should go: we knew we should go. The long walk back in the rain stretched ahead of us. We sat on a low wall to empty our pockets and purses and work out if we had enough to pay for a bus ticket each. When it turned out there was only enough for three, we started squabbling: Tanya had no money left, but she’d paid for the Bon-bons, and almost half of the Pepsi, so it wasn’t fair if she had to walk. Well, it wasn’t fair for everyone to have to walk just because of her. Besides, she lived nearest: there was least distance for her to walk. But it wasn’t fair! Back and forth it went, and it might have turned nasty – Donna had just threatened to slap Tanya if she didn’t quit whinging.
Then we saw Davina.
It was Lisa who recognised her, at the wheel of a metallic-blue Peugeot. The car swept past us and round the curve of the road, but Lisa swore it had been her at the wheel. We leapt up, galvanised, and looked at each other.
’Well come on,’ Donna said.
’Donna!’ Tanya said.
’What, are you scared?’ Donna said. Donna had thick glasses that made her eyes look small and mean, and she’d pushed her sister through a patio door in a fight: we were all a little scared of Donna.
’Come on,’ Lisa said.
Tanya looked as if she was about to cry.
’We’re just going to look,’ I said. ‘We’re just going to walk past and look at the house. There’s no law against that.’ Then I added, ‘For fuck’s sake, Tanya.’ I didn’t mind Tanya, if it was just the two of us, but it didn’t do to be too friendly with her in front of the others.
’Yeah, Tanya, for fuck’s sake,’ Lisa said.
Tanya sat back down on the wall. ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ she said. ‘We’ll be in such big trouble.’
’Fine,’ Donna said. ‘Fuck off home, what are you waiting for.’ She turned and linked Lisa’s arm, and they started walking down the street.
’Come on, Tan,’ I said.
’I have a bad feeling,’ she said. ‘I just don’t think we should.’ But when I turned to go after the others, she pushed herself from the wall and followed.
We found the house where the Peugeot was parked: right at the bottom of the street. It was the left-hand side of a semi, and it had an unkempt hedge and a stunted palm-tree in the middle of the little front lawn. You somehow didn’t picture Mr Knox with a miniature palm-tree in his garden. We clustered on the opposite side of the road, half-hidden behind a white van, giggling at it: and then we realised that Davina was still in the car.
’What’s she at?’ Donna said. ‘Stupid bitch.’
We stood and watched a while longer, but nothing happened. You could see the dark blur of her head and the back of her shoulders, just sitting there.
’Well fuck this for a game of soldiers,’ Donna said. ‘I’m not standing here all day like a big fucking lemon.’ She turned and walked a few steps down the road and waited for the rest of us to follow.
’Yeah,’ Tanya said. ‘I’m going too. I said I’d be home for lunch.’
Neither Lisa nor I moved.
’What do you think she’s doing?’ Lisa said.
‘Listening to the radio?’ I said. ‘Mum does that, sometimes, if it’s the Archers. She doesn’t want to leave the car until it’s over.’
’I suppose,’ Lisa said, looking disappointed.
’Come on,’ Tanya said. ‘We’ve seen where he lives, now let’s just go.’
Donna was standing with her hands on her hips, annoyed that we were ignoring her. ‘Seriously,’ she shouted. ‘I’m away on.’
They were expecting me and Lisa to follow, but we didn’t. As soon as they were out of earshot, Lisa said, ‘God, Donna’s doing my fucking head in today.’
She glanced at me sideways as she said it.
’Hah,’ I said, vaguely. It didn’t do to be too committal: Lisa and Donna were thick as thieves these days. Lisa’s mum and mine had gone to school together and the two of us had been friends since we were babies: there were photographs of us in the bath together, covered in bubbles, bashing each other with bottles of Mr Matey. We’d been inseparable through primary school, and into secondary. Recently, though, Lisa had started hanging out more with Donna, smoking Silk Cuts nicked from Donna’s mum and drinking White Lightning in the park at weekends. Both of them had gone pretty far with boys. Not full-on sex, but close, or so they both claimed. I’d kissed a boy once. It was better than Tanya – but still. It made me weird and awkward around Lisa when it was just the two of us. I’d always imagined we’d do everything together, like we always had done. I could feel Lisa still looking at me. I scuffed the ground with the heel of one of my gutties.
’I mean, seriously doing my head in,’ she said, and she pulled a face that was recognisably an impression of Donna, and I let myself start giggling. Lisa looked pleased. ‘Here,’ she said, and she slipped her arm through mine. ‘What do you think Davina’s like? I mean: d’you know what I mean?’
I knew exactly what she meant.
’Well she’s got to be gorgeous,’ I said.
’You big lesbo,’ Lisa said, digging me in the ribs.
I dug her back. ‘No, being serious. She’s got to be: he left his wife for her. She’s got to be gorgeous.’
’Well. She doesn’t care what people think. I mean think of all the gossip. Think of what you’d say to your parents and that.’
’My dad would go nuts.’
’Yeah,’ I said.
We were silent for a moment then, watching the blurred figure in the Peugeot.
’D’you think anything did happen while they were at school?’ Lisa suddenly said. ‘I mean it must have, mustn’t it? Otherwise why would you bother going all that way to visit her? I mean like: lying to your wife and flying all the way to Granada?’
’I know. I don’t know.’
I’d wondered about it before: we all had. But it was especially strange, standing right outside his house, his and Davina’s. Did she linger at his desk after class? Did he stop and give her a lift somewhere? Did she hang around where he lived and bump into him, as if by chance, or pretend she was having problems with her Spanish grammar? Who started it, and how exactly did it start, and did either of them ever imagine it would end up here?
’She might have been our age,’ Lisa said.
’Or only, like, two or three years older.’
We must have been standing there for ten minutes by now. A minute longer and we might have turned to go. But all of a sudden the door of the Peugeot swung open and Davina got out: there she was, Davina Calvert, Davina Knox.
Except that the Davina in our heads had been glamorous, like the movie sirens on Mr Knox’s classroom walls, but this Davina had messy hair in a ponytail and bruises under her eyes, and she was wearing baggy jeans and a raincoat. And she was crying: her face was puffy and she was crying, openly, tears just running down her face.
I felt Lisa take my hand and squeeze it.
’Oh my God,’ she breathed.
We watched Davina walk around to the other side of the car and unstrap a toddler from the back seat. She lifted him to his feet and then hauled a baby car-seat out.
We had forgotten – if we’d ever known – that Mr Knox had babies. He never mentioned them, or had photos on his desk like some of the other teachers. You somehow didn’t think of Mr Knox with babies.
’Oh my God,’ Lisa said again.
The toddler was wailing: we watched Davina wrestle him up the drive and into the porch, the baby car-seat over the crook of her other arm. She had to put it down while she found her keys, and we watched as she scrabbled in her bag and then her coat pockets before locating them, unlocking the door and going inside. The door swung shut behind her.
We stood there for a moment longer. Then: ‘Come on,’ I found myself saying. ‘Let’s knock on her door.’ I have no idea where the impulse came from: but as soon as I said it, I knew I was going to do it.
Lisa turned to face me. ‘Are you insane?’
’Come on,’ I said.
’But what will we say?’
’We’ll say we’re lost – we’ll say we’re after a glass of water – I don’t know. We’ll think of something. Come on.’
Lisa stared at me. ‘Oh my God you’re mad,’ she said. But she giggled. And then we were crossing the road and walking up the driveway and there we were standing in Mr Knox’s porch.
’You’re not seriously going to do this,’ Lisa said.
’Watch me,’ I said, and I fisted my hand and knocked on the door.
I can still picture every moment of what happens next. Davina opens the door (Davina Calvert, Davina Knox) with the baby in one arm and the toddler hanging off one of her legs. We blurt out – it comes to me, inspired – that we live just round the corner and we’re going door-to-door to see does anyone need a babysitter. All at once, we’re like a team again, me and Leese. I start a sentence, she finishes it. She says something, I elaborate. We sound calm, and totally plausible. Davina says thank you, but the baby’s too young to be left. Lisa says can we leave our details anyway, for maybe in a few months’ time. Davina blinks and says ok, sure, and the two of us inch our way into her hallway while she gets a pen and notelet from the phone-pad. Lisa calls me Judith and I call her Carol. We write down, Judith and Carol, and give a made-up number. We are invincible: we are on fire. Davina says what school do we go to, and Lisa says, not missing a beat, Dundonald High. Why aren’t you at school today, Davina asks, and I say it’s a Baker Day. I suddenly wonder if all schools have the same Baker Days and a dart of fear goes through me: but Davina just says, Oh, and doesn’t ask anything more. We sense she’s going to usher us out now and before she can do it, Lisa asks what the baby’s called, and Davina says, Melissa. That’s a pretty name, I say, and Davina says thank you. So we admire the baby, her screwed-up little face and flexing fingers, and I think of having Mr Knox’s baby growing inside you, and a huge rush of heat goes through me. When Davina says, as we knew she was going to, Girls, as I’m sure you can see, I’ve really got my hands full here, and Lisa says, No no, of course, we’ll have to be going – and she’s getting the giggles now, I can see them rising in her, the way the corners of her lips pucker and tweak – I say, Yes of course but do you mind if I use your toilet first. Davina blinks again, her red-raw eyes, as if she can sense a trap but doesn’t know quite what it is, and then she says No problem, but the downstairs loo’s blocked, wee Reuben has a habit of flushing things down it and they haven’t gotten round to calling out the plumber, I’ll have to go upstairs, it’s straight up the stairs and first on the left. I can feel Lisa staring at me but I don’t meet her eye, I just say Thank you and make my way upstairs.
The bathroom is full – just humming – with Mr Knox. There’s his dressing gown hung on the back of the door – his electric razor on the side of the sink – his can of Lynx deodorant on the windowsill. There’s his toothbrush in a mug, and there’s flecks of his stubble in the sink, and there’s his dirty clothes in the laundry basket: I kneel and open it and recognise one of his shirts, a slippery pale blue one with yellow diamond patterning. I reach over and flush the toilet, so the noise will cover my movements, and then I open the mirrored cabinet above the sink and run my fingers over the bottles on what must be his shelf, the shaving cream, the brown plastic bottle of prescription drugs, a six-pack of Durex condoms, two of them missing. The skin all over my body is tingling, tingling in places I didn’t know could tingle, in between my fingers, the backs of my knees. I ease one of the condoms from the strip, tugging gently along the foil perforations, and stuff it into my jeans. Then I put the box back, exactly as it was, and close the mirrored cabinet. I stare at myself in the mirror. My face looks flushed. I wonder, again, what age she was when he first noticed her. I realise that I don’t know how long I’ve been in here. I run the tap, and look around me one last time. And then, without planning to, without knowing I’m going to until I’ve done it, I find my hand closing around one of the bottles of perfume on the windowsill, and rearranging the others so the gap doesn’t show. You’re not supposed to keep perfume on the windowsill, anyway: even I know that. I slide it into the inside pocket of my jacket and arrange my left arm over it so the bulge doesn’t show, then I turn off the tap and go downstairs and Lisa’s shooting me desperate glances.
Outside, she can’t believe what I’ve done. None of them can. We catch up with Donna and Tanya still waiting for us on the main road – although it feels like a lifetime has passed, it’s only been ten minutes or so since they left us.
’You’ll never believe what she did,’ Lisa says, and there’s pride in her voice as she tells them how we knocked on the door and went inside, inside Mr Knox’s house, and talked to Davina, and touched the baby, and how I used his bathroom. I take over the story then. The condom I keep quiet about – that’s mine, just for me – but I show them the perfume. It’s a dark glass bottle, three quarters full, aubergine, almost black, with a round glass stopper. In delicate gold lettering it says, POISON, Christian Dior.
’I can’t believe you nicked her fucking perfume?’ Donna says.
Tanya stares at me as if she’s going to be sick.
Donna takes the bottle from me and uncaps the lid. She aims it at Lisa.
’Fuck off,’ Lisa says. ‘You’re not spraying that shit on me.’
’Spray me then,’ I say, and they all look at me. ‘Go on,’ I say, ‘spray me.’ I roll up the sleeve of my jumper to bare my wrist.
Donna aims the nozzle. A jet of perfume shoots out, dark and heady and forbidden-smelling.
’Eww,’ says Tanya, ‘that smells like fox. Why would anyone want to smell like that?’
I press my wrists together carefully and raise them to my neck, dab both sides. It’s the strongest perfume I’ve ever smelt. The musty green scent makes me feel slightly nauseous. It doesn’t smell like a perfume you’d imagine Davina Calvert choosing: he must have bought it for her; it must be him that likes it. I wonder if he sprays it on her before they go out: if she holds up her wrists and bares her throat for him.
’What are you going to do with it?’ Lisa says.
’We could bring it into school,’ I say, and all at once my heart is racing again. ‘We could bring it into school, and spray it in his lesson. We could see what he does.’
’You’re a fucking psycho,’ Donna says, and she laughs, but for the first time ever it’s tinged with awe.
’You can’t,’ Tanya’s saying, ‘I’m not having anything to do with this,’ but we’re all ignoring her now.
’Me and Lisa have Spanish tomorrow,’ I say, ‘straight after lunch. We’ll do it then. Right, Leese?’
’What do you think he’ll do?’ Lisa says, wide-eyed.
’Maybe,’ I say, ‘he’ll keep us behind after class and shag our brains out on his desk.’ I say it as if I’m joking, and she and Donna laugh, and I laugh too, but I think of the condom hidden in my pocket and the tingling feeling returns.
That night I lie in bed and squeeze my eyes closed and play the scene of them meeting in Granada with more intensity than ever before: and when I get to the part where he undoes her halter-neck top and eases her skirt off and lies her down on the bed my whole body starts shaking.
The next day in Spanish we did it, just as we’d planned. Before class started we huddled over my bag and sprayed the Poison, unknotting our ties to mist it in the hollow of our throat. We were feverish with excitement. He didn’t know how close to him we’d got.
I had his condom with me, too. I’d slept with it under my pillow and now it was zipped into the pocket of my school skirt: I could feel the foil edge rubbing against my thigh when I crossed my legs.
Mr Knox came in, sat on the edge of his desk and asked us what we’d been doing over the weekend.
My heart was thumping. I suddenly wished I’d prepared something clever to say, something that would get his attention, or make him smile, but I hadn’t and I found myself saying the first thing that came into my head, just to be the one that spoke.
’Voy de compras,’ I said.
’I’m sure you go shopping all the time, but in this instance it was in the past tense.’ He looked straight at me as he said it, his crinkled eyes, a teasing smile. He seemed surprised, or amused, to see me talking. I was never one of the confident ones who spoke up in class without prompting. ‘Otra vez, Señorita.’
Señorita. I’d never been one of the girls he called Señorita before. I imagined he’d called Davina Señorita. His accent in Spanish was rolling and sexy. Hers would be too, of course. They’d probably had conversations of their own, over and above everyone else’s heads.
’Fui de compras,’ I said, locking eyes with him.
’Muy bien, fuiste de compras, y qué compraste?’
’What did I buy?’ The cloying smell of the perfume was making me dizzy and I couldn’t seem to straighten my thoughts.
’Si – qué compraste?’
’Compré – compré un nuevo perfume.’
’Muy bien.’ He grinned at me. ‘Fuiste de compras, y compraste un nuevo perfume. Muy bien.’
’Do you want to smell it, Mr Knox?’ Lisa blurted.
’Lisa!’ I hissed, delighted and appalled.
’Gracias, Lisa, pero no.’
’Are you sure? I think you’d like it.’
’Gracias, Lisa. Who’s next?’ He gazed around the room, waiting for someone else to put their hand up. I’d said it: I couldn’t believe I’d said it. I felt the colour rising to my face. Lisa was stifling a fit of giggles beside me but I ignored her and kept my eyes on Mr Knox. He hadn’t flinched.
At the end of class we hung about, taking our time to pack our bags, and wondering if he’d keep us behind, but he didn’t. We left the room and fell into each other’s arms in fits of giggles – but we were both exaggerating, kidding ourselves that we weren’t disappointed. Or at least I was. Maybe for Lisa it was just a big joke. I don’t know what I’d expected, exactly, but I’d expected something: a moment of recognition, something.
My last lesson of the day was Maths, where I sat with Tanya – none of our other friends were taking Higher Maths. We walked out of school together. Tanya lived up by Stormont and it was out of my way, but I sometimes walked home with her anyway. My mum had gone back to work since my dad moved out and I didn’t like going back to an empty house. And today, there was the increased attraction of knowing that this was the way Mr Knox must drive home.
We walked down Wandsworth and crossed the busy junction, then up the Upper Newtownards Road. When we got to the traffic lights at Castlehill Road, by Stormont Presbyterian, I kept us hanging about. I made sure I was standing facing the traffic. I was waiting for the Alfa Romeo to pass us: I knew in my bones that it would, knew that it had to.
When it did, I turned to follow it and didn’t take my eyes from it until it was gone completely from sight. And by the time I turned back, something inside me had shifted.
I spent an hour that night learning extra French vocab and practising my Spanish tenses, determined to impress him the following day, to make him notice me. The next day I walked home with Tanya again, and the day after that, and pretty soon I was walking home with her every day. It was a twenty-minute walk from school to hers, and most days by the time we reached the Upper Newtownards Road his car would be long gone. But I took to noting which days he held his after-school Language Club for Sixth Formers, or had staff meetings, and on those days I’d try to time our journey; persuading Tanya to come to the Mini-Market with me and killing time there choosing sweets and looking at the magazines, then lingering at the traffic lights by the church in the hope of seeing his car. On the days that I did, even just a flash of it as it sped past through a green light, I’d feel I was flying all the way home.
Lisa and Donna were friends again, and Lisa still didn’t invite me on their Cairnburn nights, but suddenly I didn’t care. Three Saturday evenings in a row I let my mum think I was going to Lisa’s, and I walked the whole way to Mr Knox and Davina’s house, and I walked past two, three, four, five times, and saw both cars in their driveway and the lights in their windows and once even caught a glimpse of him in an upstairs room.
It had to happen. I knew it had to happen.
The days you were most likely to see his car, I’d worked out, were Tuesdays and Wednesdays: and one Wednesday, as I kept Tanya hanging about at the end of her road, Mr Knox’s Alfa Romeo finally pulled up at the lights.
He was right beside us. Metres away. It was real: it was happening. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe.
’There he is,’ I said, and Tanya followed my gaze and said, ‘No, wise up, what are you doing?’
’Mr Knox!’ I yelled, and I waved at the car. ‘Mr Knox!’
His windows were wound halfway down – he was smoking – and he ducked to look out, then pressed a button to wind them down fully.
’Hello?’ he said, ‘what is it, is everything ok?’
’Mr Knox,’ I said, ‘we need a lift, will you give us a lift?’
’Stop it!’ Tanya hissed at me.
’Please, Mr Knox!’ I said. ‘We’re really late and it’s important.’
The lights were still red but any moment they’d go amber, and green.
’Please, Mr Knox,’ I said. ‘You have to, please, you have to.’ I had taken to wearing a dab of Poison every day I had a French or Spanish lesson – even though Lisa told me I was a weirdo – and I could still smell the perfume, Davina’s perfume, on me, and I wondered if he could, too, creeping from me in a slow green spiral.
He took a drag of his cigarette and dropped it out of the window.
’Where are you going?’
Tanya hissed again and grabbed my arm but I wrenched it free. The lights were amber and as they turned green I was opening the passenger seat and getting in. There I was, in Mr Knox’s Alfa Romeo. It was happening.
’Where do you need to go?’ he said again, and I said: ‘Anywhere.’ He looked at me and raised an eyebrow and snorted with laughter, and I thought he might tell me to get out, but he didn’t, he just revved the engine and then accelerated away, and in the wing mirror I caught a glimpse of Tanya’s stricken face, open-mouthed, and I looked at Mr Knox beside me – Mr Knox, I was there, now, finally, in Mr Knox’s car, me and Mr Knox – and I started laughing, too.
Afterwards, I couldn’t resist telling Tanya. I told her how he kissed me, gently at first and his lips were soft, then harder, with his tongue. I told her how he undid my tie, and unbuttoned my shirt, and how his fingers were cool on my skin. I told her how he slipped his hand underneath my skirt and traced his fingertips up, then hooked his fingers under my panties and tugged them down.
’He didn’t,’ she said, big-eyed and scared, and I promised her, ‘Yes, he did.’ And her shock spurred me on, and I said how it hurt at the start. I said there was blood. I said it was in the back seat of his Alfa Romeo, in a cul-de-sac near the golf club, and he’d spread his jacket out first, and afterwards he’d smoked a cigarette.
Once I’d told Tanya, I had to tell Donna, and Lisa, and when Lisa looked at me with slitted eyes and said I was lying I got out the condom and showed them: as proof, I said, he’d given it me for next time.
I hadn’t counted on Tanya blubbering it all to her mother: all of it, including the time we went to his house. We got in such trouble for that, but the trouble he was in was worse.
Even though I cracked as soon as my mum asked me, told her that I’d made it all up, she didn’t believe me: couldn’t understand why I’d make it up or how I’d even know what to make up in the first place. In a series of anguished phone-calls she and Tanya’s mother decided Mr Knox had an unhealthy hold over me, over all of us.
There’s no smoke, they agreed, without fire.
They contacted the headmistress and that was that: Mr Knox was called before the governors and forced to resign, and I was sent to a counsellor who tried to make me talk about my parents’ divorce. And then, in the autumn, we heard that Davina had left Mr Knox: had taken her babies and gone back to her mother’s. It must have been her worst nightmare come true, the merest suggestion that her husband, the father of her two children, would do it again. She, more than anyone else, would have known there was no such thing as innocence.
I think she was right.
I don’t believe it was a one-off.
What happened that day is that he drove me five minutes up the road, then pulled a U-turn at the garage and drove back down the other side and made me get out not far from where he’d picked me up and said, ‘Now this was a one-off, you know,’ and laughed.
But I can still see his expression as he dropped me off: the half-smile, the eyebrow raised even as he said it wasn’t to happen again.
It had happened before. And there’s a certain intensity that only a fourteen or fifteen year old girl can possess: I would have redoubled my efforts at snaring him.
If only I hadn’t told Tanya.
I lifted my glass of wine and took a sip, and then another. Mr Knox and Melissa were still giggling over the cocktail menu, flicking back and forth through the pages.
’Excuse me,’ I said, turning to the bar and addressing the nearest barman. He didn’t hear me; carried on carving twists of orange peel. ‘Excuse me,’ I said again, louder. He raised his finger: one moment. But I carried on.
’You see the couple over there? By the window? The man with the black hair, and the blonde girl?’
He frowned and put the orange down; looked at them, then back at me.
’Can I pay for their drinks?’ I blurted.
’You’d like to buy them a drink?’
’Yes: whatever they’re having. All of it. I want to pay for all of it.’
’I’ll just get the bar manager for you. One moment, please.’
My heart was pounding. It was impulsive, and utterly stupid. My friends hadn’t even arrived yet: we’d still be sitting here when Mr Knox asked for his bill in a drink or so’s time, and how would I explain it to them, or to him: because the barman would point me out as the one who’d paid for it. Even if I asked them not to let on, not to give me away, my name would be on the credit card slip, so he’d know. Or would he? Would my name mean anything to him, all these years later? Surely it would. Surely it must.
I swivelled on my stool to look at them again. Melissa, with her blonde hair and pouting glossy lips and blue eyes, didn’t look very much like him. She didn’t look much like Davina either, come to that. They were mock-arguing about something now. She flicked her hair and cocked her head and put her hands on her waist, a pantomime of indignation, and he took her bare upper arms and squeezed them, shaking her lightly, and she squealed then threw her head back in laughter as he leant in to murmur something in her ear.
She had to be his daughter. She had to be.
’Ma’am. Excuse me.’ The bar manager was leaning across the bar, attempting to get my attention. ‘Excuse me.’
’Sorry,’ I said. ‘I was miles away.’
She had to be his daughter.
’I understand you’d like to buy a drink for the couple by the window?’
’No,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry, I was mistaken. I mean, I thought they were someone else.’
’No problem,’ he said, smooth, professional. ‘Is there anything else I can do for you?’
I looked at him. He waited, head politely inclined. I almost asked: Can you find out their names? Then I realised that, either way, I didn’t want to know.
Poison is from Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell