I’m a scientist, I deal in right and wrong, in facts, in absolute truth. In life, of course, nothing is that simple, but for some reason it took me fifty-four years to realise this. Truth changed for me in the space of a single phone call.
While my phone rang unanswered in my bag, I was in the lab loading an electrophoresis gel with the steady hands I am so famous for. My boss Richard appeared at the door and told me, without emotion, that I had a call. When I reached for the lab phone he stopped me.
“Come to my room.”
I peeled off my latex gloves and dropped them into the biohazard bin. We walked in silence to the shoebox he calls his office, where he left me alone with the stale smell of coffee and banana skin.
I picked up the receiver and heard my husband’s muffled voice.
“Susan, thank God.”
“It’s William.” I could hear Mark fighting for control of his words.
“They’re saying he raped someone.”
The word rape stole my breath, but only for a moment. “That’s not true. It can’t be true. People make these accusations, for lots of reasons. I know it happens.”
“I know, I’m telling them, telling the police. I’m trying…” His gruff voice slipped upwards.
“What have they said?”
“Nothing, they won’t say anything, nothing at all!”
It was pointless to ask more so I trapped the panic inside me and soothed my husband. “It’s okay, we’ll work it out. I can come now, where are you?”
“I’m on my way.”
There was a silence in which the muscles in my chest began to contract, and I dug my fingernails into the fraying edges of Richard’s chair. My mind was full of questions, yet none of them condensed into words. There was a gentle click and the line went dead. I replaced the receiver and left the office, taking a gulp of cool air from the corridor. Richard smiled at me.
“Yes thank you.”
“If there’s anything I can do, just say.”
He stayed watching me, but with a quick nod I left, my head down so no one would notice me.
It was a twenty-minute walk from the university to my house, and I fought to push back any thoughts of William. We knew nothing, so speculation wouldn’t help. I needed to be with Mark, to calm him down, to reassure him we could handle this.
The students had returned after the summer, bringing with them the first signs of autumn. Dead leaves blew around my feet, making whirlwinds on street corners, but instead of the rich oranges of autumn, colour seemed to have leached out of the city. The sky was universally grey, and the few stunted trees couldn’t make up for the mass of tarmac and faded shop signs.
By the time I reached the suburban semi our sons had grown up in, I was pretty much running. Mark had been waiting by the door, and pulled it open before I’d even found my key. I stepped straight in his arms, my face pressed against the rough fabric of his shirt, and we held each other with an intensity I’d forgotten.
“Have you spoken to him?” I asked when we finally moved apart.
“The policeman called, then his school, but not him.”
“So what do you know?”
“It’s a girl in year 11.”
Girls in their GCSE year – relying on their teachers for extra help, or flirting with them, both were equally possible.
“Why did he take any risks? He knows these accusations can happen.”
“I don’t know. They won’t let us speak to him.”
“Where’s the police station? Let’s go there.”
I pulled open the door, but Mark gripped my arm.
“They said we can’t see him, that he’ll get to call us and we just have to wait.”
“They can’t stop us! Let’s go.”
Mark didn’t move, and I realised that my plan was foolish. It would soon be clear that William was innocent, so I wouldn’t help the situation by arguing with the police.
Pushing the door closed behind me, I regained my composure. “I’ll call the police, maybe they’ll talk to me.”
Just because Mark had failed to get any information, this didn’t mean it was time to give up – my career has taught me to question, to always look for alternative ways of doing things. Where he had accepted rebuttals from the police, I could enter negotiations.
He handed me an envelope with the number on the back, and I thought about what I would say when I asked to speak with William. The word rape seemed to bulge out of my mouth, but I was still reluctant to believe it was a concept that had moved from newspapers and crime dramas into my life. For the next half hour, imagined conversations ran through my head, all of them hideous.
I was still sitting there, the phone unused in my hands, when a familiar car pulled into our drive. Out of it stepped my older son, James, his hair cropped short to mask his premature baldness. He walked round to open the passenger door and held out a hand to his wife who stood and kissed him briefly on the lips. They were smiling as they walked to the front door, the evening sun reflecting off her auburn hair.
I looked at Mark, my stomach heavy with fear. Surprise visits from James weren’t unusual, but this one left us with no time to plan how we would deliver the news. Mark’s eyes looked as grey as his hair and I knew he couldn’t do it. I filled my lungs until the muscles in my chest tugged in pain, and pushed myself out of the chair.
I had never cried in front of my children, not even at my father’s funeral, as the curtain closed around his coffin at the crematorium, smooth on its runners. For the next month silent tears had run down my face as I tried to sleep, only to be haunted by velvet curtains when dreams finally overcame me. But by breakfast time I was bright and efficient, doling out Weetabix in suitable quantities for hungry teenage boys. I wasn’t about to break the habit of a lifetime.
I opened the door before they could knock.