The story continues….
Tess sauntered down the winding path which snaked through the university grounds and across the river towards the halls of residence on the other side. It was a mild night and the route was busy with other students making their way to the next party or nocturnal liaison. She smiled and greeted many of them for everyone knew Tess Cartwright. She was hardly a shrinking violet so it hadn’t taken long for the pixie haired fresher to stand out with her flamboyant dress sense and even more flamboyant personality.
Despite the balmy conditions Tess shivered, goosebumps breaking out like hives on her bare arms. She folded them and quickened her step, keen to be back in her room and snuggled beneath the comforting embrace of the duvet. The central heating afforded by the vodka at the Union was starting to wear off. It had been such a fun night though, hadn’t it? Tess shivered involuntarily and shook her head. She swore she hadn’t drank that much but was struggling to recollect the events of the previous few hours.
‘Honestly Cartwright, you’re such an airhead.’ She rebuked herself as she reached the bridge and began to cross it, the lights of the halls just beyond. She would be home and dry within minutes.
Despite outward appearances Tess Cartwright was anything but an airhead, rather a carefully constructed caricature beneath which hid an intelligent, eloquent young woman. It was all an act, a protective shell to ward off the ghosts from a past which she never wished to revisit. No, Ariana Hennessy wasn’t the only one with secrets. When it came to skeletons Tess had more closets than she currently crammed her huge mish mash wardrobe of designer labels and charity shop cast offs into.
Tess bounced along the bridge, glancing briefly at the dark, swirling waters beneath before focusing once more on the lights ahead. Look to the light, Tess, the dark can take a running jump. The chiffon hems of her flamingo pink ballgown rustled in stark juxtaposition to the clatter of her Doctor Marten boots on the metal walkway. Like her dress sense, the young woman was a walking, talking contradiction. Still waters run deep? Well so did babbling, gushing torrents.
The darling of Ashgrove College for Girls, the country’s most elite establishment for the daughters of wealthy, entitled parents, Tess had it all in her final year. Head Girl, captain of their all conquering hockey team and, despite her dizzy exterior, a straight A student. As futures went, there was none no brighter than hers. Until she met Sasha Blackstock, two years younger and Ashgrove alpha female in training. Like many of the younger girls at Ashgrove, Sasha idolised Tess to the extent where it verged on the creepy. Always hanging around, the first to post gushing praise on Instagram when Tess posted a pouting selfie, she was everywhere the older girl turned.
She took it in her stride at first, Tess was well used to the adoration of male and females alike. With her flawless skin, cheekbones to die for and athletic figure, she had broken her fair share of hearts. Tess was swanning through her final year at Ashgrove on the crest of a wave. One match away from an All Ireland hockey final, stunning grades in her mock A levels and with the choice of the top universities, the world was her oyster.
Until it wasn’t….
The night of the formal at the five star Culloden Hotel was a blurry mess. Too many pre-dinner cocktails, too much wine at the meal and then vodka, vodka, vodka by the bucket. Tess had danced and vomited and then danced some more, spinning round the floor in her designer gown until her feet ached, but her heart soared. All under the watchful, envious eye of her date for the night, Callum Maguire, Ulster Schools superstar and rumoured to be offered a professional rugby contract the following season. She had only met him on a handful of occasions before when her entourage bumped into his on another wild night out in the city.
It had been a no brainer date, guaranteed to be plastered all over the next edition of the Ulster Tatler magazine and secure another few thousand Insta followers. Truth be told, they had barely spoke prior to the night and their stilted exchanges over dinner did little to ease the awkward tension which existed between them during the course of the evening. There was something about him, thought Tess, a sour edge to his words, an ugly scowl never far from his boy next door, model good looks. Here was a young man with the world at his feet, but all he wanted to do was kick it in the face of anyone who even looked at him the wrong way.
Tess largely avoided him after the ordeal that was dinner, preferring the company of her own friends. Until he cornered her in a corridor on a return journey from the toilets. He had been charming at first, but it was an oily charm, dripping like viscous fat from an undercooked bacon rasher. She humoured him with small talk at first, conscious that his imposing frame was blocking her return to the main room. When he lunged forward to kiss her, claim what he thought was rightfully his, she pushed him back gently at first, insisting this was neither the time nor place, trying to sound calm despite the gathering thunder of her heart, like the hooves of wild horses galloping across the plain.
‘No Callum. Look, they’re about to announce the Formal King and Queen. We’re a certainty.’
A waspish smirk crossed his chiselled features. ‘Come on Tess. We both know this is how it plays out. Don’t tell me you don’t want to.’
She wasn’t prepared for the force of the shove, wedging her into an alcove where coats and bags were piled high. There was now more urgency to her appeal, a rising panic in her voice, while still trying to bluff her way out of a rapidly deteriorating situation.
‘Wise up Callum. You’re….’
Her eyes bulged in fear as a large hand clamped over her mouth and he forced her further into the folds of the alcove. His formidable frame pinned her painfully to the wall behind and, struggle as she might, she could not squirm past him. She felt a rip as the sleeve of her gown tore from the main body of the dress. She felt his hand on her breast, the other one fumbling at the front of her dress, trying to lift it above her waist. This wasn’t, couldn’t be happening. They were in a five star hotel, there were 300 people in the next room.
Her mouth tasted warm, tangy liquid as she bit down hard on his hand, forcing him to release his grip over her mouth. At the same time she thrust a bare knee deep into his groin. There was a satisfying wheeze and he crumpled to the floor, clutching his mid section.
‘You bitch, I only wanted a kiss.’
But Tess didn’t hear for she was running, bursting through the hotel foyer and out into the crisp night air. She desperately scanned the car park before spotting an idling taxi. Leaping into the back seat she blurted out her address and sank into the leather interior, too stunned to talk, to cry, to do anything. The thought of that night numbed every one of her senses.
Her phone started pinging before the journey was over, multiple notifications lighting up the screen. Tess scrolled down, eyes widening in horror at the image staring her in the face. Callum Maguire all over her, face buried in her neck, dress hitched up to reveal her underwear, her face unseen. But everyone would know it was her, only one girl had been wearing such an expensive dress that night. The words beneath the image seared into her soul, never to leave again.
‘Slag of the Ball.’
A relentless surge of comments and emojis unfurled beneath. ‘Tramp,’ ‘Whore, etc etc etc. And there it was, the smiling profile pic of Callum Maguire, adding his tuppence worth, goaded on by his imbecilic mates.
‘She was easy boys. Bit of a letdown if I’m honest.’
Tess thrust a crumpled note into the hand of the driver and stumbled out of the taxi, not waiting for the change. Her hand shook as she battled to turn the key in the front door. Thankfully her parents were in bed meaning she was spared an inquisition. Tess ran to her room and dived into bed, burrowing her head into the plush pillows. It was only then she allowed the tears to flow.
Everything changed after that night. The Instagram account that posted the photo was anonymous but she knew it was Sasha from the giggles and knowing looks she gave Tess from within her coven as she passed them in the corridor. She was the school pariah now, too tired and traumatised to argue her case, fight her corner. Not that anyone would have believed her. Social media had spoken, it was judge, jury and executioner. She lost the respect of the hockey team and it showed on the pitch in a 5-0 semi final hammering. She scraped the grades for Leeds University but dropped out before Christmas, homesick and depressed. The Ashgrove scene continued at Queens University where most of her year now studied, but she was persona non gratis amongst them.
Blocked. Unfriended. Ghosted. Damaged goods.
So here she was, trying to rebuild her life at this smaller, quieter house of learning. She’d heard Natasha was now Top Bitch in her final year at Ashgrove, no doubt making some other poor girls life a misery. Tess pitied them. She shuddered again as she arrived at her dorm block, swiping in and taking the stairs slowly, weighed down by the ghosts of a troubled past. Beneath the cheery disposition and movie star smile was a kinder, more thoughtful young woman. One who looked out for others, who helped the underdog, who had spotted a lost, overwhelmed Ariana Hennessy on induction day and then unravelled the ‘Bomb Girl’ legend. Tess had kept her own story locked away, however, unwilling to burden Ariana further. No, she was there to support her new found friend and not the other way round.
Tess stood at the door to her room and fumbled for the key, checking her phone as she did. Seriously, her head was like candy floss tonight. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember a thing. They had been in the Union, drinking, dancing, had there been some guy involved? Next thing she was walking home alone. She checked her notifications and frowned at the last message from Ariana, some hours ago when they had been arranging to meet outside the Union.
Tess opened the door, the first tendrils of concern unraveling within her. She anxiously punched the keys on her phone and pressed send.
‘Hey, Ariana. Where are you?’
To be continued….