Coiled Shells

Photo of the back of a female form looking at several birds flying across a water body towards the horizon

It was different in the 80s.  Of course it was – no time can ever be the same as another – but living now with the memory of what it was like then makes it easier to justify somehow, even if it’s only to myself.

I came to the city from a Scottish place of drizzling skies, wide expanses of beaches with blurred lines between sand and water and clouds.  An island life, with winds that blew to the core of you, and more dialect words for different kinds of rain than standard English understands because we needed all of them.

My art school application portfolio reflected those first nineteen years.  There was jewellery made from the bones of a dead seabird, coiled shell earrings fastened to clasps that held them gently against your ear so that if you listened you could imagine the sound of my sea. There were necklaces cast to look like the most delicate of seaweed and a ring in the shape of a sea urchin.

Looking back, I feel a little sad for the girl who made jewellery from her imaginings. I wish I could be the one to tell her, you’re good, of course they should have accepted you: you’re talented.

I was surprised to be accepted and, in the first days, hid in my Art School Hall room, exhausted all day because the noise of the traffic outside my window wouldn’t let me sleep, fearful of long nights weighing my own inadequacies, the mistake they had made in having me there.

It wasn’t long, not even a week.  He wasn’t my tutor, not the academic I was to go to with my problems and concerns. If he had been it might not have happened.  I was fearful of my designated tutor because there was so much I could say, and yet to do so would be to admit that I didn’t belong and perhaps to make him, and by association the college, realise the error they had made.

He lectured us on the history of design once a week for an hour, that was all. But it was a biggish class, about thirty of us, and he smiled at me, despite my saying nothing. I wonder now if it was my long dark hair, my breasts, my innocence, or if he thought I was talented because he had seen my entry work.  He told me it was the latter.  The second time he spoke to the class, he gestured for me to stay behind.

‘You’re Belle,’ he said, ‘your jewellery is lovely. How are you finding London?’

‘Too big, too noisy,’ I said. Then I blushed in case I had said the wrong thing, criticised carelessly the city he loved.

He half laughed. ‘Yes indeed, it is. But after a year or two you’ll find other things are important too. Just give it a little time.’

I smiled.  He smiled. ‘Come by in my office hour if you want a friendly face.  I always have coffee and shortbread. My mother was Scottish, it might make you feel a little less far from home.’

‘You don’t sound Scottish,’ I said, immediately regretting it.

He laughed again and said, ‘I’ve lived here all my life, so I’m not surprised.  The shortbread’s probably the only thing left of my heritage.’

A week later I went to his office.  I didn’t plan to go in, I don’t think, but he caught me hovering, and immediately came out to usher me onto one of the three sofa chairs he kept huddled around a little coffee table.

‘Cimera ha?’* he said. And I almost cried to hear my language for the first time since I’d left home.  Then he said, ‘Don’t bother replying, I won’t understand if you do. I looked up how to say it after we spoke last week. Just tell me how you are in English.’

He was younger than my parents, maybe in his forties, slightly overweight, with a receding hairline, but in his company I was everything I wished to be, and more. And so in less than a month I fell in love with the way he made me feel.  In two, he sat in the armchair beside me and leaned across, surprising me with a kiss.

He pulled back immediately, ‘I’m sorry, if you don’t want this, just say, just tell me, we can go back to being completely professional, you will have nothing to worry about.’

Instead I kissed him back, closing my eyes so I wouldn’t catch a glimpse of the framed photo of his wife he kept on the shelf behind his desk.  I lost my virginity in the bed he usually shared with his wife while she was at an academic conference in Germany. There was no persuasion or coercion.  Once, just once, we stayed in his office after everyone had left and had quick, furtive sex on his desk, but it was risky and I didn’t want him to get into trouble.

‘I can’t declare our relationship,’ he told me, ‘there are people in the department who are friends with my wife.  It would get back to her.  It has to be our secret.’

And it was. All I ever knew was that I wanted to see him again. My college days became a mix of intense creative work and him. I made no close friends. They might have asked questions or wondered where I went. The confidence he gave me meant that I experimented with materials and forms I would never have otherwise been brave enough to attempt. In workshop classes, I got the best marks in my year, but in theory I was close to failing, distracted, listless, unable to concentrate on even a page of text when before I had always been a conscientious, attentive student.

There was a café where we used to meet sometimes.  It was on a side street, close to my hall room, a real greasy spoon that no one from the department would ever go near. He would turn up first thing, before his classes, and I would be there, impatient, nervous, always first, always early, always relieved when he came, because sometimes he didn’t.

It wasn’t that I hated his wife.  I never really thought of her.  He spoke of her only with regard to practical arrangements, didn’t criticise her or excuse his betrayal in any way.  Just once, in passing, he said she didn’t sleep with him anymore, but that he loved her. I was jealous then, a fierce bright, brash flame, like a flashing pain inside me that was extinguished instantaneously with his next words: ‘I love both of you.’

‘I love you too,’ I answered. He already knew.


Through all of my first year we continued like this, snatched and rushed, with occasional, languorous overnight stays when his wife was away.

When I passed my exams, we celebrated together in a wine bar on the South Bank, huddled in a corner, warily checking that no one we knew came in.  I went home in the summer; my accommodation was only for term time and I had part time work on the island working in a gift shop.

The days were interminably long and filled with doubt.  I couldn’t call him, of course. But occasionally he phoned me at my parent’s house, using the excuse of a summer assignment.

When the end came it was swift and sudden, as quick as those stolen encounters in unexpected places.

‘I’m sorry, this isn’t working for me anymore.  I need to focus on my marriage for a time, I’m sorry.  We always knew it wouldn’t be a permanent thing.  I think Carina’s getting suspicious.  I just can’t take the risk of hurting her.’  And then, when I said nothing, couldn’t speak, ‘Of course you don’t need to worry about your studies.  I will be as supportive as ever.  You have a lot to offer, you know, you’re going to be a brilliant craftswoman.’

It’s been said that love is a temporary madness, but for me insanity came with the losing of it.  At first I simply waited.  The only confidence I had in anything was that he would realise his mistake and come back to me. Unlike those dramas you watch, I did not plan to be disdainful or difficult, I imagined him, calling, perhaps breaking the rules and turning up at my residence hall, that place we always avoided for fear of discovery, and saying, ‘I’m sorry. I love you.’

And in those daydream scenarios, I never did anything but hold him.

I had become very good at waiting in the past months.  But then something shifted and after a week or so, I began to hover expectantly, just outside his room at the college, although he was rarely there anymore.  The only times I saw him, he spoke first, politely, vaguely solicitous, but with a brusqueness that said as clear as language, I have things to do, other places to be.  I befriended one of his tutees, craved snippets of her exchanges with him, those meetings that took place in what had always been my safe space with him.

I no longer made things. Instead I longed for the way he made me feel, to know that I was good at anything at all.  Then one day, when he had nodded curtly and passed me by, I bought a bottle of whisky that came from an island not far from my own and drank it steadily. I looked for a glimpse of what I used to be in the taste of the landscape that made me.

I was drunk when I took the Northern Line tube to Angel.  I was lost in myself when I knocked on his door.  His wife answered, immediately perceived I was a student, and called for him after a brief, if slightly puzzled, greeting.  He came a clatter down the white wood staircase and, when he saw me, his face crumpled into itself. The concern I had seen in his wife’s face fell away and she grabbed my arm and pushed me out beyond the door. I spoke, finally, but too late, as the door closed on my face.  I knocked again and rattled the letter box and rang the bell, all the while listening to raised voices, arguments which I thought would end in him opening the door and walking out to me.

He did open the door. I waited for him to speak, still good at waiting.

‘Fuck off, you mad bitch, are you happy now? How dare you come here, to my home, my wife’s home. You silly cunt, it’s over, it’s over, all done, now fuck off.’

The door was closed before I could say, ‘But I’ve been here before.  I know the green carpeted room at the top of that staircase, the sleigh bed.  I came in your house as well as to your house. I need to see you again.’

I started avoiding him at college.  I failed an assessment, then a module, and my tutor asked me to meet with her.  Emily was twice my age, gentle, with shiny black hair. She was a painter who worked in oils, creating huge canvases that showed pictures of women in unguarded moments, graceless and tired, but also strong.

She sat me down.  I was prickly, guarded, then tearful.  She made me tea and asked what was wrong.

‘It’s difficult, a relationship gone bad,’ I said, hunting in my bag for a tissue.

‘Oh dear, nothing worse,’ she said. ‘Is he a student here too?’

I have no idea why I said this, but I did. ‘No, he’s a lecturer, like you.’


‘Yes, it’s William.’

She looked only a little awkward, and this was what made everything that happened next be so. She was completely unsurprised.

‘Perhaps you had better start at the beginning.’

I told her the truth, well about those first months, the giddiness of it, the way I felt, and she nodded, ‘You don’t need approbation from a man to prove your worth. You’re young, you’ll learn.’

But then, I elaborated, there was this last time, in his office, when I had my period and didn’t want to but he took me anyway, on his desk.  I explained I didn’t cry out because I didn’t want to ruin his career and be kicked out of art school. I told her that he finished with me the following day, but that a few weeks later, I thought I might be pregnant, and went to his house.

She was intent now, listening, nodding. ‘How did you know where he lived?’

He’d taken me there before, I replied, a few times.

‘And that last time, in his office, you said no, he knew you didn’t want to.’

‘Oh yes,’ I almost interrupted her, ‘he knew, even claimed a little resistance was sexy.’

‘I’m sorry, Belle, I need help with this.  I’m here whenever you need me, but we need to bring someone else into the room.  Are you prepared to repeat it all again?’

I looked at the two canvases that hung above her desk, those loose-limbed, weary women.

‘Oh yes,’ I said.

And so it began.




* How are you? in Scottish Gaelic


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