Digging Up The Past
Sensitive content-Contains a reference to a missing person
MISSING. That first September teaching, in my home-town university, the poster was everywhere. Plastered onto shopfronts, nail-gunned to weathered, wooden poles, pinned to each faculty’s bulletin-board.
The subject of the poster was a grinning young man, in billowing graduation robes, his mortar board skew-ways. Clutching his hand, was a tiny blonde girl, wearing too-big fairy wings, laughing up at him.
“His little sister,” Joan, the new Dean, told me.
“An awful business” she added, blinking away tears.
He had been in the English Department-a gifted student, everyone agreed. One of his undergrad essays already published in a small literary mag. A promise of a job with a Dublin paper. A bright future within his grasp. Then, like a conjuring trick, he disappeared without a trace. The last known sighting was of him weaving down the university avenue, shouting goodbye to the remaining stragglers at the graduation party.
The response from the university and city community was impressive. Search parties organised, help lines set up, an appeal at the university from his beleaguered parents. His stoop-shouldered father and weeping mother led to the lectern by Joan.
Trauma counselling was offered. Extra lights installed on the shadowy, tree-lined avenue. Students reminded to walk home together.
Cynics said it was to calm the panicked calls from freshers’ parents.
No, this has never happened before.
No, your kids are perfectly safe.
No... there's been no sign of him, yet
That first semester new colleagues often asked if I’d known him.
“No,” I always said.
“Before my time.”
All true. Technically, we’d never met.
It was strange being back in my home-town. My parents had long since moved away. Our contact had dwindled to occasional, pause-laden phone conversations. They always asked about my university job. I felt their flicker of pride. Somehow, I’d found my way into a world bigger than they could ever have imagined. We never talked about the past.
I rented a room in one of those old red-bricks around the corner from the university. Growing up, this had been a staid, unfashionable neighbourhood, a hive of identikit terraced houses with a square of green to the front. Like so much else, it had been reimagined. An Italian bistro at the end of the street, with its nutty waft of coffee. A brightly-painted playground, replete with rambunctious kids. An upmarket deli.
My landlady had lived in the house for 40 years. It was still a small place then, my home-town. Of course she’d known the young man’s family. She was succinct in her summary of his disappearance.
The parents should just accept he’s gone, she announced periodically. He's never coming back.
Outside my bedroom window, his smiling eyes stared at me from a telephone pole poster. Those early days, I was beset with strange dreams. I’d wake, heart pounding, the flickering remnants from my disturbed reverie pulling at me. He tried to speak to me, his eyes transforming to empty sockets, his mouth filling with soil.
More often though, it was his little sister who invaded my sleep. In one particularly vivid sequence, she pelted down the road, fairy wings on her back, striving to catch her laughing brother and never quite reaching him. She would look at me then.
Do something I felt her say.
On those mornings I’d remember again the knock on my family door, the flickering blue lights of the garda car, my mother’s anguished crying. I felt again that dark ache of absence, like every good feeling, every happy memory was sucked out of me.
I began running. Every morning, I’d roll out of bed and bleary-eyed reach for the kit laid out on the chair. I’d lace my runners up tight, pull out the door and jog, slowly at first, then with more pace, up the street. By the time I got home, face flushed and breath ragged, my mind would be clear, focused.
By tacit agreement, C. and I didn’t stay in contact. What had once seemed real, possible even, now fell away. Our brief love affair, if that’s what it had been, juddered to an abrupt halt that night in the woods. Our faculties were located on different sides of the campus. It was easy to avoid each other. I bumped into him. Just once. I was hurrying to a department meeting. My first one. I was due to present on the curriculum strategy, how I wanted to broaden it out to focus on communication in different forms. I was deep in thought when I passed him.
He called out to me. I was shocked by the outer change to his appearance. Where once he’d been lean, casually handsome, now he looked gaunt and much older. His suit was crumpled. A bang of booze on his breath. He grabbed my upper arm and held it tightly. I stiffened. For a moment, I felt frozen. Then I shrugged it off and smiled up at him.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
He sneered at me then shook his head.
“Well you’re ok, anyway. With the lecturing job I recommended you for.”
I could have spoken up. The course director had, in fact, told me, that it was my post graduate essay on Beowulf that nailed it.
“I have to go”, I said.
“A department meeting.”
“Right. Don’t let me keep you,” he said, giving me a two-finger salute, his mouth twisted in a narrow-lipped smile.
I never walked that way again.
I became more confident in my lecturing. Less inclined to fill every gap with commentary, more likely to call on the students. We experimented with different ways of learning. Pecha Kucha storytelling-20 slides, 20 seconds for each. Digital writing. Podcasting. The students were more engaged and my lectures became significantly better-attended.
September gave way to October and the HallowEen ball. Photos of undergraduates in garish costumes were displayed around the campus. Then November and thoughts turned to Christmas exams.
By the following January, the bulletin board posters were partly obscured. New restaurant openings, upcoming gigs, special deals on student accommodation. By the following September they were gone. The phone lines were quietly dismantled. I moved into an apartment with another lecturer. It was the other side of the city, a run to the university, a new circle of friends. The dark dreams dissipated and I was able to box away all thoughts of the missing young man.
When a lecturing opportunity abroad came up, at the end of my second year, I spoke with Joan about it. She encouraged me to go for it, build up my career portfolio. It felt like the right move for me. A fresh start, the turning-over of a blank page, re-writing my future story far away from home.
I thrived in this new university environment. My work rate was impressive-I published a significant number of new papers and was in demand for external speaker gigs. I met someone. He We was kind. He loved me. I might have loved him too. In the end, I knew I couldn’t be what he wanted. People say they want to know you inside out. Trust me, no one really wants that. He said I kept him at arm’s length, never let him get really close. Perhaps he was right. I'm ok with that. There will always be parts of me that I’ll keep hidden, obscured.
Joan and I stayed in contact sporadically. She recommended me for some research work and in turn I was able to forward opportunities to my former colleagues. Eight years later, when Joan contacted me let me know Head of department job had come up and would I consider it felt like a sign. I felt ready to go back.
University campuses are transient places, remade every Autumn when a new wave of students wash through. Coming back here, to my home-town university, was no exception. The grounds, the lecture halls, the avenue felt the same. Faces of former colleagues, that had at first seemed unfamiliar came into focus and I felt that initial rush of surprise at silver-streaked hair, deeper lines, accumulated kilos.
The students, themselves, at first glance, seemed different than previous cohorts. Better dressed, better groomed, more confident and quick to speak up in class. than they had been when I first started. The roar of the Celtic Tiger. Still, they had that potent combination of curiousity, energy and excitement. I was excited to be back.
He was found on a Tuesday morning. It’s the one day I’ve no lectures ‘til the afternoon. I always take advantage by going on a long run. Through the campus, out the road by the river and past the woods.
It was one of those red and gold autumn days, the flat low drizzle of rain had given away to a flinty sunshine. I’d woken up feeling unusually buoyant. A research article accepted for a particularly prestigious publication. A published had reached out asking if I’d consider a book. Two of my PhD students had passed their vivas with flying colours. The streets were slowly waking, the clatter of shutters pushed up, the beep beeps of turning delivery trucks, a nod and a couple or mornings from the early shop keepers. The lift and slap of my broken-in trainers kept my rhythm. There was an occasional twinge from my strapped ankle-it was holding up well and it felt good to be running on it again.
I was almost at the long stretch of dense wood, darkly green and impassive, typically undisturbed except for occasional tourists with appropriate walking gear. That morning, it was different. There was a knot of reporters, huddled into rain-flecked anoraks, with microphones and cameras and curled up notebooks. There was the neon crime-scene tape, lurid against the faded greens and murky browns of the woods. Two Gardai cars parked crossways discouraging concerned, and curious, citizens getting too close.
“Do they know who it is?” one of the reporters asked, dragging on his cigarette and nodding over at the white-suited team.
“It could be a while yet,” the other said, glancing towards the white tent and the grim-faced lady conferring with them.
His remains were formally identified by the state pathologist that evening.
The family wanted the funeral to be in the University’s small chapel. It was obvious there would be significantly more mourners than seats. A long line of former class mates, friends and faculty snaked through the quad and squashed into the chapel or waited outside.
Inside it was high-ceilinged with brightly coloured frescoes and I could see how, in different circumstances, it would be a wonderfully calming location, somewhere you might find solace. This, I knew, would not be one of those occasions.
I found a free spot leaning against a wall, beside a student in mismatched black trousers and a tight fitting blazer that didn’t cover his skinny wrists. In the front pew, I recognised his parents, their faces grey and drawn. Beside them a blonde girl, eyes rimmed a livid red. The little sister grown up, I thought. Finally, it was over. His parents moved down the church, surrounded by sympathisers. I closed my eyes briefly and waited for the crowd to move out.
I heard her first, a slight clearing of her throat. When I opened my eyes she was there, the blonde girl, his sister, staring at me.
“Professor? Hi. I’m…well, you know who I am,” she said wiping her eyes angrily.
“I’m taking your class. next semester.” She exhaled sharply and I knew it was to avoid crying.
“It’s ok. Take your time” I said, my heart pounding as I wondered what she’d say next.
“Thanks,” she smiled briefly and there's a glimmer of that tiny girl in the fairy wings.
“I want my assignment to be a true crime podcast. Someone must know something.” She talked quickly now, anxious to have it said.
“I have to find out.”
She covered her eyes briefly with a hand then looked at me again.
“Will you help me? Please!” she said, staring at me.