Poison, a short story by Lucy Caldwell
Taken from the Belfast author’s acclaimed debut collection, Multitudes, it is a tale of master and pupil, transgression and guilt
Lucy Caldwell. Photograph: Eamonn Doyle
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 (Faber, £12.99), this month’s Irish Times Book Club selection, which we shall be exploring in a series of articles and essays. The series will culminate in a live event, a public reading by the author and an interview by Laura Slattery at the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, September 15th, at 7pm, which will recorded and released as a podcast on September 30th