There are some memories that scar the soul so brutally that they can – must – be buried deep, deep, deep in everlasting ice. That ice must never melt, never run cold through the canyons of daily life, never jab the present or the future with a single frosted tentacle. Never even lie liquid and still in a cool dark pool.
Life goes on. Sometimes, against all expectation, all hope, it’s good. Sometimes events go with the grain, smooth and unhindered. Sometimes there is even laughter and a way to see the next day, the next week. Month even.
But it’s there. Down, down, down deep in the ice, the ice that must never melt. Else we drown.
But it’s there.
But if a flame comes near, warm and dangerous and loyal and persistent and patient and inextinguishable?
Well then, that’s trouble.
If Robyn Daniels could let herself go back even for a second, which of course she couldn’t, she would recognise that the rime began to crust across her spirit when she was fourteen years old. She was sitting on the edge of her bed when the first icicle grasped and grew.
She was home. She had survived.
No, that wasn’t right. She hadn’t survived. She’d been dragged back, kicking, scratching, fighting every inch.
Depression was a terrible thing, they had said in the hospital as they checked the graphs, felt her pulse. Especially when it hit someone just on the verge of her whole life. Of course, she’s at that awkward time. Fourteen years old. Hormones kicking in. They shook their heads. Fussed about.
Still, everything to look forward to, they said. How could you do this to your Mum and Dad? Look how upset they are.
Her father was upset all right. He was so upset his eyes bored into her, dared her, threatened her, scorned her – all in one gimlet gaze.
But it would stop now. It wouldn’t happen again. Not ever again. She just knew it. She rubbed the bandages that still patched her forearms. At least she had achieved that. It was over. Not ever again. With anybody.
She hit the mattress with her fist. Anger was taking root, growing, spewing into her very soul.
Not ever again. Ever.
She crawled into bed and curled into a tight ball.
Her mother knocked on her door. Mummy didn’t know. Did she?
The chair was wedged under the door handle. Neither of them would get past that.
Let’s just leave it at that, shall we? Take it from here. See what happens.
See how we get by.
Eight years later, almost to the day and the minute, Robyn Daniels was laughing.
Newly qualified as an English teacher, she was ironically thankful for the process of procreation for she was relieved to have at last secured a temporary post – her first – covering a maternity leave. The school was prestigious and large. Still rather nervous, she would get lost if she had to cover, as now, in an unfamiliar classroom. But if she didn’t totally mess up, these few months were going to look good on her fledgling CV.
She pulled another exam paper towards her. She was taking a relaxed approach to this class to catch up on some marking. These were the most senior students, mature, intelligent and no trouble to supervise for a colleague called away to help with preparations for the end of term sports day.
One, who she thought was called David, was perched on a desk in his shirt sleeves, large feet on a chair. Five of his classmates surrounded him. Four of them were girls. He was telling a joke, which he was illustrating with hand gestures and funny voices. He told good jokes. They were genuinely funny. At the punchline, as Robyn’s sudden laughter danced across the desks, David glanced round and smiled at her, a flick of complicity, there and gone like a breath smothered. .
She always remembered that.
She snagged one heavy curtain of brown hair behind her ear and checked the glass pane in the door. Yes. Chloe, David’s girlfriend, was already outside, waiting. Keeping an eye on her territory.
What is it like to feel that way about someone? What is it like to want somebody, to be jealous, to lose sleep over someone? She had no idea, but it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t happen. Ever. Unconsciously, she rubbed her wrist.
As David put his feet to the floor and stood, one of his audience, a pale, thin girl with a baggy jumper and creased tie, put a hand out to touch his arm. He took a quick pace to the side and avoided the contact. Turning, his eyes caught Robyn’s again. He looked away. Sombre now, apart. A chameleon, she thought.
The staffroom was a ball of tetchiness at this time of year. Robyn sat at a table trying to finish some work while comments zipped around her.
Edith, head of Home Economics, was staring into her mug, aghast. “Somebody has used my mug! Everyone knows the one with the cats on it’s mine.”
One comment was so close to her ear that Robyn couldn’t ignore it. “So how about dinner once term’s over?”
The transparent eyes of the young Geography teacher, Angus Fraser, were fixed on her, unblinking.
She sighed. “Give up, Angus.”
“Come on, Rob. We’re bottom of the heap here. We’ve got a lot in common. How could it hurt?” He put on a comic face. “The summer’s a-comin’ and we could have some fun, merry maid.”
She tucked her hair behind her ear. “Stick to Geography, Angus.” She nudged her chair a few inches away from him. “I’ve to head back home for the summer anyway.”
He laughed, a scoff in the tone. “Running back to mummy already?”
Robyn gathered her papers. “My Dad’s not dead a year.” She stood up. Something about him made her uneasy. “I’m not running back. I’m going back.”
After school Robyn stayed at her desk, chipping away at lesson preparation. A twinge of hunger made her stop and stretch. The beat of a drum vibrated through the soles of her feet as she locked the classroom door in the deserted upper corridor.
The Holy Huddle Hooley. They were rehearsing for next Thursday’s end of term gig when the Christian pupils said they were going to prove, loudly, that the devil did not have all the good music.
It was the first time it had happened. David Shaw, the joke teller, had arrived at the school just before Christmas. The two facts were connected.
Robyn liked some of the Holy Huddle – the less pious ones. The gym looked strange as she entered. Desks marched in rows occupied earlier each day by those taking examinations. It was impossible to move without causing the ching and clunk of metal legs and wood that seemed to Robyn to be a trademark noise of schools everywhere.
Edith, seemingly recovered from the trauma of the mug incident, stood to one side, by the climbing bars. Robyn joined her, leaning on the bars to watch the group round the drum kit and keyboard on the slightly raised stage. Billy Dobbin, the boys’ games master, wandered in, track suit bottoms sagging round his thighs.
“Bit of a racket,” he said, and lounged his bottom onto a desk, causing it to shift and ching against a chair leg. He blew a bubble with his chewing gum and burped.
Another senior, Tim Thompson, was on keyboard, his red curls tossing to the beat of his chubby hands as they pounded out a heavy rhythm. The stool strained valiantly beneath the gyrations of his ample behind. David was fiddling with the sound desk and Chloe was studying a sheet of paper in her hand.
Occasionally, David stopped everyone to go over a few bars again. A chap with a guitar arrived, puffing. David motioned him into place impatiently.
Billy popped a bubble and sucked it off his cheeks.
“Cocky bastard, isn’t he? Rich mummy and daddy, moved into a big house on the Malone Road, long legs and a pretty face. Just about got it all.”
They listened for a few moments and then Edith said: “I don’t think he’s cocky. I think it’s just that he knows who he is and he’s comfortable with that.”
Billy waggled his brows sceptically. “And how would you know, Edith? He doesn’t cook in your kitchen, I’m sure.”
“I knew the family in Enniskillen.”
Billy chewed some more. “Sprung fully formed on an unsuspecting school. Female hormones sloshing over the tops of our shoes. Then they found out he was a Jesus freak. What a waste of testosterone!” He grinned and waggled an eyebrow. “Or maybe not?”
He stood; the desk slid. His trainers made his stride soft on the wooden floor as he loped away. He turned back.
“Watch out or the bloody bugger’ll convert you!”
“Billy!” said Edith, “Language! This is a decent school!”
Billy grinned again and chewed. The gum appeared, poking between his teeth.
“Yup,” he said. “It’s bloody posh.” The gum changed sides. “D’you think it’s only the plebs who swear? Wash your bloody ears out and bloody listen, Edith baby.”
“Wash your mouth out, Billy Dobbin,” said Edith.
He left. Robyn looked at Edith and tried to contain her chuckle.
Robyn’s flat was just two streets from the school. She turned her key in the lock and slipped inside. It was above a dental practice, on the first floor of a tall Victorian terrace house in one of the elegant streets off Belfast’s main artery to the south-west. She had lived in this flat for several years. It was important to her.
When she moved in, Neil, a friend from childhood, had said – in what was a rare moment of wit – that it wasn’t a flat at all; it was a cupboard with ideas above its station. He hadn’t been in it since.
The tiny hallway had three doors, two on the right and one straight ahead. First on the right was the bathroom. Next was the kitchen. Robyn could stand in one spot and prepare a meal, reaching everything from hob to sink without moving a foot.
Straight ahead was the sitting room. The light was flashing on the answer-phone perched on the edge of the stuffed bookcase. Robyn put the kettle on and got a ready-meal out of her small freezer before pressing the button.
“Hi Rob, it’s me. Why won’t you get a mobile, you dinosaur?” Robyn smiled. Neil’s sister Gemma hadn’t changed since primary school. “So you’ve only yourself to blame that this is short notice. I’m on a late tonight so how about tea in town? I’ve got an hour from six.”
Robyn put the ready-meal back in the freezer.
Over salads, in one of the city’s trendy snack bars, Robyn relaxed as her friend chattered. Despite Gemma’s blonde beauty and outward sophistication, she talked with her mouth full just as she had in nursery school. She had a new hot boyfriend. He was called Jack. Robyn listened patiently. This happened every so often. Gemma had met him in the library when she had dropped an armful of books on the stairs. He came to the rescue. Just like a White Knight. Gemma’s eyes had a misty moment. Then she waved her fork.
“I’ll be so glad when the school term’s over. All the pupils and students in the city are coming to blows over seats in the library. Honestly, don’t the universities have enough space of their own?”
Robyn extracted the piece of coleslaw that had flown from Gemma’s fork to visit the sugar.
“Exam time. Nearly over, though.”
“They were queued at the door before we opened this morning. Nearly knocked me down.” Gemma tackled a button tomato. “And then we have your lot. Seniors mostly. In fact there was a big guy in yesterday evening looking for some lit crit on Heaney or somebody. I asked him if he knew you and he said he did, but you weren’t one of his teachers.”
“I wonder who that was.”
Gemma waved her knife. Robyn moved the sugar.
“Over six feet – wavy black hair. If I hadn’t just met Jack I might have been tempted to explain the Dewey Decimal system to him. Slowly.”
Robyn smiled, mug paused on its way to her mouth. “There’s a guy like that in the other English group. Might have been him. I think he’s a bit older than the others.”
Gemma tore a piece of roll with teeth all the whiter for the frame of her scarlet lipstick.
“Neil’s still pining after you, you know,” she said, words muffled round the bread. The gutsy staying power of Gemma’s lipstick was a constant source of puzzlement and wonder to Robyn.
Robyn rolled her eyes. “I’ve no idea why. I’ve never led him on. Your brother needs to get over his obsession with me and get on with his life.”
“I’ve told him that.” Gemma slumped back in her chair, her eyes following a businessman in a suit weaving his way through the crowded tables to the door. He was gripping a paper cup and a folded newspaper, all in the fingers of one hand.
Robyn followed her gaze. “You do see the wedding ring on his finger, Gem?”
“Yea. Bollocks.” Gemma’s attention returned to her plate to skewer another tomato. “Anyway, Neil would put one of those on your finger.”
“Tell him to get lost.” Tension turned Robyn’s voice brittle. “I won’t ever get married. I won’t ever be…” She hesitated. “…with anyone.”
Oblivious of a change in her friend’s mood, Gemma grinned. “So you’ve said before. Well, Neil would be…” She mimed quotation marks with the free fingers that weren’t still holding her knife and fork. “…with you any time.”
Robyn looked at her watch. “It’s nearly seven. You’d better get going or you’ll be late.”
Robyn walked back to her flat, a brisk half hour in the evening light. The city’s day was on the turn. The workers had gone home, the players preened for the night ahead.
There was only one armchair in her little room. She sat with another mug of coffee in her hands and thought how Gemma, dear old man-crazy Gemma, didn’t know it all, didn’t understand. Robyn didn’t want anybody. She didn’t know how to want anybody.
Darkness fell before she roused herself and got ready for bed. She carried a chair to the hall and wedged it against her front door.
Friends weren’t always a help. More often they were just a pit-stop. She plumped her pillow, tucked the duvet under her chin and curled up, hoping there would be no nightmares this night.
You can try to get by. But maybe, sometime, you will run out of road.
A couple of days later Robyn returned marked exam papers to her excited junior class. She had finished them after midnight and she was tired, but she had promised to have them by today.
The last weeks of term brought presents from some of the pupils. Even though she had not been at the school for long, Robyn received a number from senior boys who suffered the agonies of having a crush. Some were accompanied by excruciating verse and some by quotations considered apt by the devoted pupil.
After school, Robyn popped the latest offering into her bag – a copy of Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. She sat to ease off the shoes that had been hurting her all day. When the family shoe shop was in business, she had never had to think of buying shoes. She had first pick of any new stock. Now she had to shop like everyone else. These red open-toed creations were Gemma’s idea.
“Just you, Rob,” she’d gushed. “You look great in red and these’ll match your red dress. Look, they’re almost exactly the same shade. Oh, go on! You can break them in.”
Robyn stretched her legs and flexed her crushed toes. The shoes were breaking in her feet. She leaned back and rested her head against the wall behind her chair.
Angus Fraser locked his room at the far end of the upper corridor. His last class had been boisterous and difficult, but he didn’t care. The easiest option was to let the little buggers riot until the bell went and then get rid of them as fast as possible. At the central stairs he paused and looked along to the English rooms. It looked as if Robyn Daniels’ door was open. He frowned. No-one turned him down as many times as she had. He was starting to get annoyed.
Treading softly, he reached her door and peered round. Robyn was seated at the desk. Her bare feet were tucked up and partially hidden under the hem of her red dress. Her head was propped against the wall and her hair cascaded over the heart-shaped neckline and brushed along the creamy skin of her arms. She was sound asleep.
Lust hit Angus so hard he gasped and gripped the door jamb. By God, he would have this one! The thought possessed his brain as, eventually, he backed away, the sight of her imprinted on him, branded, hot and deep.
David Shaw leapt up the stairs three at a time, passing Fraser on his way down. He greeted the teacher, but Fraser seemed preoccupied. David walked quickly to Miss Daniels’ room, hoping she was still there. He knew it was her habit to work on after school. Seeing her door open he pivoted on the door frame and swung in.
He had taken a breath to say her name when he saw her and stopped. His smile unfolded quietly. He was looking at a pose that his friend Tim Thompson would love to paint. The angle of the head, the exposed throat, the full red dress, the bare toes – it was the stuff of dreams. He backed out silently, wondering what could have made her so tired.
He had a question for her but it would have to wait.