Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 10 of 32

Senán looked across at Trish and smiled. She was giving him the fourth degree. He hadn’t been asked so many questions since Scary Mary had interviewed him for what she kept calling the “position”. (Vincent got a kick out of Senán’s report of the interview, punning on position to within an inch of its life.)

“So you go home every weekend?” asked Trish.

“Yep.”

“Every weekend? Seriously?”

“Yep.”

“For hurling practice?”

“Well, that and to see my family.”

“And then you’ve a game on the Sunday?”

“Most Sundays. The league is starting up now. Intermediate level, God love us.”

“And do you practise during the week here in Limerick?”

“Yeah. I’m in the hurling club in college. We train twice a week at my level. Luckily it doesn’t clash with my job in Francie’s. We train at midday. The big boys, the senior team, train in the evenings.”

“And then after the match at home on Sunday you head off back to Limerick?”

“Yep.”

“I can’t get over it,” said Trish. She took a sip of her wine and shook her head carefully — she was wearing her hair in an elaborate up style, what Senán would call a “wedding hairdo” and which he guessed had taken quite a length of time to concoct. “You kinda live in two places, a sort of double life. You’ve your weekend life at home in Tipp and then your weekday life here in Limerick. It’s a weird . . .”

“Dichotomy,” offered Senán.

“Yeah.”

Senán smiled as a joke came to mind. “But that’s enough about me,” he said in a corny American accent, “what about you?”

Trish laughed. “I’ve been going on a bit, haven’t I, asking you questions, like?”

“Just a bit!”

Senán was surprised at how nervous Trish was. She hadn’t been her usual smart, sassy and talkative self the minute he picked her up from outside her house in his battered old Mazda 323. There was tension written on her face, and the little peck on the cheek she gave him after buckling up was more out of formality than warmth.

“C’mon. Get the fuck out of here,” she had said between her teeth. “My family are all gawking out at us.”

She had been quiet on the journey across town, gripping her handbag to her chest and looking into shop windows. Senán had kept where they were going a secret, despite Trish’s pleadings throughout the week. In quiet moments in Francie’s she would stand under his ladder and beg to be told where they were going.

“I need to know what to wear,” she would say. “Is it a dressy kind of place or fucking McDonald’s?”

All Senán would reveal was that it was neither a Michelin-starred restaurant nor a fast food joint. In response to her increasingly desperate messages as he prepared to drive back to Limerick on Saturday afternoon after training, he told her he would be wearing “smart cas”. When she gave her coat to the waiter in Martino’s, she had either ignored this message or possessed a different concept of smart casual than Senán. She wore a sea-green body-hugging minidress of a kind of synthetic, stretchy satin with sheer fabric sleeves. The pattern, consisting of irregular arrangements of chevrons of a darker green and shinier material than the base fabric, was continued from the body of the outfit to the arms, with iridescent ribs running over the see-through fabric to give Trish’s long, toned arms an impressive, structured appearance. Although the dress’s neckline was high, its tightness and pattern emphasised her bust. At the back of the dress, similarly positioned chevrons drew the eye to the buttocks. Whenever she moved, reflected light from stretching and contracting chevrons played on the curves of her body. Senán could see men at other tables checking her out.

“Wow,” he said.

“You like it?” said Trish skittishly. “Not too OTT?”

“No way. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. You look gorgeous. Like you could be on the red carpet of a film premiere. I’m blown away.”

Trish glowed with pleasure, but didn’t relax fully until after the starters had been cleared away and she had poured herself a second glass of red wine.

“I don’t want to sound like the poor little girl from the Island, but I’ve never been to a place like this before,” she said.

“Ah, it’s not that fancy,” said Senán. “You don’t have to have a knighthood or anything to come to this aul’ place.”

Martino’s was one of the city’s longest-established eateries, on the go since the 1970s. It had been cordon bleu in the dark days before Ireland became a cosmopolitan, outward-looking country, and when the phrase carried a certain snob value. While some of the cachet of eating in Martino’s had worn off over the decades, with the arrival of new trends and competing restaurants that boasted concept décor and nouvelle cuisine, it was still a place where the great and the good of the city ate, and where you took a client if you wanted to wine and dine them. Martino’s didn’t do stag or hen parties, unlike many of the city’s restaurants, and there was no pizza, lasagne, hamburger or, God forbid, kiddies’ meal on the menu.

“I know,” said Trish, “but places like this never seem like the type of place for the likes of us to go to. If I go out with the family, it’s always Mackie D’s or Supermac’s or somewhere like that for the younger ones. With the girls we always go to a Chinese or Indian or do pub grub. This place is like for . . . other people to go to. You know. Decent people. Teachers, doctors, solicitors. You know what I mean?”

“I know what you mean.”

“Besides all that there’s the price. Are you really sure you can afford this?”

Trish had looked at the menu in shock after they were seated and had offered to go halves, worried that paying for a three-course meal and a bottle of wine would ruin him. Senán smiled. His ex, Connie, had never shown any desire to go Dutch, and their outings had bled him dry of any monies he might have amassed over the summer.

“Don’t worry,” said Senán. “I won this prize in college at the end of the summer. The O’Curry Medal. It’s given to whoever gets the highest mark in the finals in advanced data modelling. You get this stupid medal, your photograph taken with the head of department and some dudes in suits who sponsor the thing — and five hundred quid prize money. I said to myself that I’d keep the money to spend on something special . . . and here we are. I couldn’t imagine a more special thing to do with it.”

He raised his glass, waited for Trish to follow suit, and said as their glasses clinked: “Here’s to Professor O’Curry — whoever he is, or was!”

“I presume this advanced data modelling has nothing to do with the catwalk or Adriana Lima or Marc Jacobs?”

“You would presume correctly. The modelling I do, it’s a bit like designing a computer game — like the Sims or Animal Crossing. You play around with the variables, basically fiddle with inputs — numbers — like amounts of money, interest rates, time spans, population growth rates, rates of mortality, depreciation, economic constants, et cetera. And you see what comes out the other side when the game is finished. The more variables you add based on real-world data, the more accurate the model is likely to be. It’s a simulation of what might occur in the real world. You gather data, plug it in and press Go. Simple really, if you know what you’re doing. You wouldn’t believe how much data modelling goes on in the world. In supermarkets, in sport, the military — even fashion, I would imagine. The big houses like Zara or Penneys. No one moves a finger nowadays without some kind of modelling being done.”

It was Trish’s turn to say “Wow”, then she looked glumly around the restaurant and snatched at her wine glass.

“What’s wrong, Trish? Bored?”

“No. It just hit me how little we have in common. I mean, you have all this computer modelling and stuff you do out at the university. Stuff way beyond my little brain. I mean, I was shit at maths. Shit. I took the Leaving Cert Applied and I still failed most of that. You’re so academic and intelligent. And I work in a fucking shop. I just wonder are we kidding ourselves that we can have something together. You’ll get tired of my fucking thickness, and I won’t know what you’re on about half the time. I dunno.”

Senán thought for a while.

“Listen,” he said. “Imagine if I was a mechanic. Or a plumber. Would you be worried that you couldn’t talk to me about, I dunno, fan belts and carburettors or pumps and ballcocks and pipes with me?”

Trish raised her eyebrows and smirked. “I’d wind up talking ballcocks and pipe with any fella after a while!”

“You know what I mean.”

“I know what you mean. But most plumbers and mechanics are like me. People who were thick at school and who couldn’t move on to better things. Half the fellas in my class wanted to be mechanics, for fuck’s sake. Guys with their fucking knuckles dragging off the ground. You’re smart. You talk about stuff I’ve never heard of — and I’m not talking about what you do out at the university. You’re cultured. You read. You could be on one of those fucking late-night news programmes talking about the economy—”

“That’s hardly a compliment.”

“But you know what I mean.”

Senán sighed. “It’s the class thing. It’s going to hang over us like a Damocles sword. I’m from a big farm in the Golden Vale. Strong farmer stock. Sent off to university to keep the cycle that’s been turning since the Land War oiled for another generation. You’re from the Island Field. Generation X of inner-city poverty moved from the tenements down the lanes out to modern council houses. I have my lexicon and class identifiers and you have yours and never the twain shall meet. That’s supposed to be the fucking narrative, isn’t it?”

“See: no one from the Island Field would ever use the word narrative,” said Trish, her spirits seeming to fall even further.

It was his turn to take a fortifying sip of wine. “This is good shit, by the way,” he said.

“‘Twould fucking want to be,” answered Trish, “at forty quid a bottle.”

Suddenly they looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“If my mother could see me now,” said Senán, in between shudders of mirth, “she’d die. She’s a teetotaller. She’d be pussing at my father for a week if he’d more than two pints down the pub. If she saw the price of this . . .”

“Well,” said Trish, “my mother would probably be on to her fifth or sixth glass of it by now and she’d be looking at you to order her another. That’s if my father hadn’t gone through it already!”

“We’ll have to get them together, your mother and mine. Does your mother bake?”

Trish found this last question so hilarious that she hooted with laughter, and Senán could hear her high heels clank off the wooden floor as her body shook.

“My mother can just about do a frozen pizza in the oven. Or a tray of chips. I remember once I had to do fucking soda bread for a home economics project and I asked her to help me. I was fourteen. We’d to go on this big spree to find the ingredients. I think we’d to go to fucking Superquinn in Castletroy to find the fucking buttermilk. On the bus. No shop on the Island would stock something as fucking posh as that. Anyway. We got all the stuff together and I did the dough. Grand. All we had to do was put the fucking thing in the oven for half an hour. Anyway. The recipe said, whatever, four hundred degrees Fahrenheit, gas mark whatever and one-eighty Celsius. My mother, not knowing shit, turned the oven up to as close to four hundred as it would go. Fifteen minutes later we’d a fucking fire on our hands. That was the last bit of baking we ever did at home.”

“Well. My mother isn’t just a teetotaller. She’s a Pioneer. Or, a member of the Total Abstinence Association, to use its official title. She thinks alcohol is evil, not to mention drugs. The work of the Devil. She goes to prayer meetings to send beams up to heaven so there’s less alcoholism in the world. And she writes articles for this fucking magazine called Pioneer, surprise, surprise. She gives talks in schools about the evils of drink and drugs. She gave talks in my school — every fucking year. Imagine how embarrassing that was when you’re sixteen and trying to be all tough and cool.”

“Did she smell your breath coming in the door when you were a teenager?”

“She still does.”

“Jesus!”

For the rest of the meal Senán and Trish excitedly painted pictures for one another of their backgrounds. Neither considered their respective families ideal. Senán’s mother was controlling, distant and strict, suspicious of the modern world and fearful that any lapse into pleasure would lead to downfall. She had fought tooth and nail to slot each of her four children into careers she considered suitable — respectable careers, with prospects. Senán’s older brother was packed off to agricultural college and pencilled in for the family farm. Senán was to go into finance, his sisters into pharmacy and human resources. His father was a wimp, completely under his wife’s thumb. The only area where he had the luxury of free will was in running the farm.

“She chooses what clothes he wears. Tells him when he has to get his hair cut. Drags him off to mass and to her Pioneer meetings. Tells him when it’s time to go to bed. He’s like her little boy,” said Senán. “My older brother’s nearly as bad. Still lives at home. Wears these woolly fucking jumpers she buys him in this old man’s shop in Cahir. Still runs around according to her schedule. God help the poor woman he ever gets married to. She’ll have a toddler on her hands.”

“And what about you?” asked Trish. “Are you under her thumb?”

“Not really, anymore,” said Senán, after considering his reply for a moment. “She had a fucking conniption fit when I told her I’d got the wee job in Francie’s.”

“Didn’t think it was good enough for you?”

“Yep. But it was more than that. Last year I decided not to follow the path she’d set out for me. You know, do a master’s in finance and then go into some soulless bank or insurance company and fester there for the rest of my life. Doing this thing in the sociology department was basically turning my back on a life focussed on making shitloads of money no matter what the cost, and instead using my training to try and make the world a slightly better place. That’s when the real showdown happened. That was when I really got her claws out of me. There were some interesting conversations around that time. The argument about Francie’s was just a kind of coda to all that.”

“See, in my family you’d never use a word like coda,” said Trish. “I actually don’t really know myself what coda means.” She scrunched up her face apologetically. “My father just talks about football and rugby and hurling. And the greyhounds. He kinda lives in a parallel universe to the rest of us. He gets up, goes to work, comes home, reads the paper, eats his tea, goes to the pub if there’s a match on, or goes off to the dogs on a race night. I used to go with him as a little girl but not for years now. All I really know about him is that he hates fucking politicians — all of them. He’s given up voting. He’s not going to pay the water charges over his dead body, and he wants the Arsenal crest on his gravestone when he dies. He’ll do a bit of gardening and DIY if my mum nags him enough, and he cleans his car on Saturdays if the weather’s all right. My mum smokes like a trooper, does a few hours’ cleaning in Tesco four nights a week and spends the rest of her life in front of the TV watching Strictly and The X-Factor. I’ve two younger brothers and two younger sisters. The boys are boys: Playstation, rap music, knocking round the place with their homies. The girls are sweeties. Jessica is six. Draws a lot. Into princesses and all that shit. Lauren is smart. She’s the brains of the family. Gets all A’s. Has got her shit together in a way the rest of us never had. Going into secondary school next year. I just hope to fuck she keeps on like she is and doesn’t wind up working in a fucking shop like me.”

Senán looked into Trish’s dark blue eyes. He wanted to take away the anger, disappointment and resignation he saw in them.

“Hey, come on, there’s nothing wrong with working in a shop.”

“Yeah, right. It’s career of the century. It’s so exciting and fulfilling. It really has me leaping out of bed in the mornings. Facing the day ready to meet new challenges and encounter interesting people.” She placed her knife and fork on her plate and brusquely drained her wine glass. “If I think about it too long it gets me down. If I think forward ten years and see myself still working in Francie’s, taking orders from fucking Gollum, still having the little fucker trying to peep down my top, and beep-beep-beeping fucking cans of spaghetti letters and pasties over my scanner day in, day out . . . I think I’d be better off in the fucking river. But like you said, this wine is good shit!”

They ate without speaking for a time, glancing discreetly at other tables or following the waiters’ sweeping deliveries. Martino’s was hopping. Not a single table was free and a couple of parties waited at the bar sipping aperitifs until they could be seated.

“You know,” observed Senán. “This place looks like the type of sitting room my mum and all her friends would have if they won the lottery. It’s like the kind of décor middle-class women of a certain age swoon over. It actually is like my mum’s good room, as she calls it, on steroids. It’s like the ur-good room. Creepy.”

“I love the way you talk,” said Trish. “You’re like someone from a TV show. Like that guy from Scrubs or someone. I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. Can I capitalise on the goodwill and steal a kiss?”

Wordlessly, Trish leaned across their table, closed her eyes and half pursed her lips. Senán nuzzled her nose, caught her lips lightly with his own and they kissed at length.

“They won’t kick us out for kissing, will they?” said Trish afterwards.

“Naw,” said Senán. “I think part of the forty quid for the wine comes with a licence for at least a couple of unobtrusive pecks over this fine candle here.”

 

“Where to next, m’lady?”

They were standing outside Martino’s. Underneath her coat, Trish was rigid from the sharp change in temperature between the toasty restaurant and the north-wind bite of the November night. Senán draped his jacket over her shoulders.

“Go on outa that!” she said. “I’m grand.”

“Grand, me arse. You look like you’re ready to snap in two. Sur’ you haven’t a pick on you. You need to fatten up for winter.”

She drew Senán’s jacket around her and looked at him with tipsy eyes. “Senán, this night is nearly perfect. You’re like a Prince Charming. I don’t want it to end, you know. Let’s go for one or two more. On me, though. You’ve paid for enough.”

She put her arm around his waist and pulled him in the direction of O’Connell Street. The Christmas lights were shining against the black sky, the streets adorned with silver, blue and golden stars and snowflakes.

“It’s lovely,” gushed Trish. “I have to come in here with the girls tomorrow evening. They love the Christmas lights. And looking in the shops.”

At the top of O’Connell Street, where they were absorbed into the cheerful crowds moving from bar to bar, Senán asked her where they were going.

“Somewhere I’ve never been before, but have always wanted to go. A place I’ve never felt good enough to go into and a place I want to go with you for the first time. Coz after that it will always be our special place.”

She pulled him more tightly to her, and Senán felt her softness, even under the pair of coats. The warm belief hit him that he was with someone special: somebody not just physically beautiful but kind, caring and romantic. He was perhaps a romantic himself, and between the lights, the buzz on the street and Trish’s hearty squeeze he felt like a leading man in the soppiest of romcoms.

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 9 of 32

“This place really is beyond Thunderdome.”

“Tha-tha-that’s one of the ru-ru-reasons I bu-bu-brought you here first. To show you-to show you that at-at least du-du-down our-our neck of the woods thing-thing-things aren’t so bad.”

“This is a totally different kettle of fish to Kileely or St Mary’s Park. This is genuinely scary.”

Luke nodded. “I do-don’t know this area-area as well as my oh-oh-own,” he said, “but-but we can take a-a spin around and-and-and I’ll show-show-show you some-some-some of the la-la-landmarks.”

He and Senán were driving around an estate in Southill, in fulfilment of his promise to give Senán a tour of the “badlands”. It was Wednesday evening the week after Halloween and they had set out directly from Francie’s for the southern fringes of the city after hastily locking up. Luke had wanted to arrive at Southill as early as possible — “be-be-before all the creepy-crawlies come out-out-out of the wu-wu-wu-woodwork”. He had insisted on taking his own car, saying that Senán’s Tipperary reg would arouse suspicion among those charged with watching out for the gardaí.

“There’s al-al-always someone on the look-look-lookout,” he had said. “Ku-ku-kids mostly. They-they-they’d figure that two young-young lads in a Limerick reg cu-cu-car like mine are-are-are ju-ju-just driving in here-here to score.”

Senán was shocked by the grimness and state of ruin of the estate. They were cruising past a large green on which several horses were grazing, and which was surrounded by large boulders — placed there by the city council to prevent Travellers pitching their camps and joyriders performing stunts on its flat expanse. If the green had been intended as a recreation area for children, that purpose was no longer valid. Years of horses’ hooves had trampled the green into a bumpy mire. Opposite was a short row of boarded-up terraced houses, a couple of which were burnt out. Looking around at the other terraces surrounding the L-shaped open area, Senán noticed that they all had a metal-shuttered member. These shutters were invariably rusted and almost always graffitied, although graffiti — mostly crude words, scribbled surnames, or the outing of someone as a “rat” — was by no means confined to these slabs of oxidised metal. Many walls, footpaths and gable ends were also defaced. MK Is Gay, he read on a nearby garden wall.

Those houses that were occupied were badly maintained. Front garden walls were subsiding or fallen down altogether. Wrought-iron gates were bulging and flaking with rust. Concrete drives were dappled with moss and algae, their surfaces loose, cracking and dented. The paintwork of wooden doors and windows was chipped and peeling. Most houses looked like they hadn’t been painted in decades, and even in the weak light from the few functioning streetlights their pebble-dash walls appeared damp and stained. Roofs were carpeted with moss and lichen, with gutters hosting little copses of ferns and maples. Some houses were well maintained, though. Their brightly painted walls, hydrangeas and cherry trees stood out like beacons of hope and order among the dereliction and neglect.

It wasn’t just dwellings that were in disrepair: the common areas and general infrastructure were in an equally deplorable state. From the rutted footpaths and crumbling kerbstones to the weathered, potholed and disintegrating roads, it looked like a council crew had not visited the estate in many years, except perhaps to fit speed bumps and boulders, which Senán saw lined every public space which was not a road and into which a car or caravan might fit. Perhaps one in every three streetlights was broken. Some of the galvanised steel poles looked like they had had fires set around them, and some as if they had been pulled down or driven into. There was not a street or road sign that was fully intact, nor a single tree growing on any patch of green area. Senán’s overriding impression was of an area where normal society had broken down.

Luke drove past the green and turned into a cul-de-sac where the majority of the houses were boarded up.

“This is whe-where the famous sh-shoot-out took-took place about ten yu-yu-years ago,” he said. “There were Du-Du-Duggans living in this middle house. Two vu-vu-vanloads of McCullochs arrived and-and opened up-up-up on the-on the place. You can see the bu-bu-bullet marks.” He stopped the car to give Senán a chance to see the dozen or so bullet holes that scored the house’s blackened plaster. The residence had been burnt out.

“The-the-the Duggans fu-fu-fired back. One of the McCullochs was killed. The Du-Du-Duggans had to leave town af-af-after that.”

He turned the car at the end of the road. “Going ba-ba-back ten years, this-this place would have been-been black with pe-people. Young fellas du-du-drinking. Ow-ow-out smoking dope. Ju-ju-joyriding. Now it’s a lot-lot quieter. But I still-still wouldn’t fuck-fuck around up here. There’s still-there’s still some day-day-dangerous fu-fuckers on the loose.”

He drove to the other end of the estate, the corner farthest away from the main road. On a street corner stood three youths wearing hoodies who eyeballed the car as it went past.

“Du-Du-Dealer’s Corner,” said Luke. “The-the-them lads can get you anything you wa-wa-want.”

Looking in the wing mirror, Senán saw one of the hooded figures snapping a photo of the car with his phone.

“They-they-they’ll know who-who I am in five mu-mu-minutes, if they want,” Luke said, with a laugh. “They’ll put-put my reg into a da-database and Bu-Bu-Bob’s your uncle!”

“Scary,” said Senán.

As they did one more loop through the estate, Luke elaborated on his theme. “Thi-thi-this place isn’t the same as-as it was at-at all. There no lu-lu-life here. All-all-all the normal people’s gone. And your kinda-kinda mid-table scu-scumbag has gone as well. The-the-they’re the ones who can give a pla-place a bit of life. Like the fu-fu-fellas who set the bu-bu-bonfire the other-other night in the Island Field. The likes-likes of them mi-mightn’t always be on-on the right side of-of the law, but-but they’re not the-the-the kind to burn your how-how-house down either. It’s-it’s the fu-fu-fuckers that’s left are the one’s who’d-who’d burn a how-how-house down. No matter who-who’s in it.”

On their way out of the estate Luke pointed out what used to be one of many shebeens in the area — a boarded-up mid-terrace house.

“Now with only su-su-psychos left living here they had-had-had to close it down. There-there was blu-blu-blue murder in there every night.”

 

After he had joined the brisk traffic on the main road into the city, Luke asked Senán what he thought of his first trip to Southill.

“I’m dumbfounded,” he said. “I mean, I’ve seen all those images on TV and in the newspaper and whatever. And I’ve read dozens of academic papers on the area. But Jesus, in the flesh, the place is shocking. I mean, from my point of view, the project I’m working on and everything, the place is totally out there. None of the normal rules of the property market apply to it. It’s like: who would want to live in a war zone? Southill has just about as much normalcy in terms of the property market as a war zone. I’ve read papers on the property market — or lack thereof — in war zones and I would hazard that Southill fits into that category, no problem. No exaggeration. You couldn’t give away a house in there.”

“You’d-you’d-you’d have to pu-pay someone to-to live there!”

“Exactly! All the normal models that apply to sales and rentals in a middle-class or working-class estates are invalid there. Part of my work will be to establish economic models for Southill and the other areas. But Jesus, a free-market model is off the cards. The place needs turning around. And the only people to do it are the city council or the government. Or both. I guess that’s what this Limerick Regeneration Office is all about.”

“They-they’d want to get their fu-fu-fingers out!”

“Yeah. But what I’m also angry about is how the place was let slide like it so clearly has been. Like, the vast majority of those houses are council houses. The council was in charge of maintaining them. It had an onus on it to do so. And regardless of who was living in them and however dysfunctional or criminal the tenants might have been, they still had a right to live in decent accommodation. There’s broken down walls. Dampness. Places in need of re-roofing. Subsidence. And then there’s the general infrastructure in the estate. Walls, kerbs, roads, playgrounds — they’re all in shit. It’s a fucking disgrace. Of course no one wants to live there. The council really failed in their duty to these people, however poor or uneducated or antisocial they are. They still deserved better. I mean, if you build this ramshackle estate on the edge of the city with fuck-all around it and you let the physical environment go to shit, how do you expect the people in there to turn out? Anyone decent — anyone with a job and a bit of optimism for the future — will get out of there as soon as they can, the place will be turned over to the hooligans and the psychos who have no option but to live there — and you have yourself a vicious circle. I mean, stated bluntly it’s like this: in Ireland of the twenty-first century we have a series of massive sink estates — shitholes, for want of a better term — where the place is falling down around the people’s heads, and the likes of you and me can’t even go for a walk around them at ten thirty at night or we’d be lynched. It’s a fucking disgrace!”

“That-that-that’s what everyone’s been say-say-saying for years. But no-one ever du-du-does anything a-a-a-about it.”

 

“This place isn’t quite as bad as Southill. At least you can get out of your car and walk around.”

“That’s coz-coz-coz I’m no-no-known around here. If you-you were here with-with-without me you’d be getting ha-hassle fairly lively.”

The pair were now in Moyross on the northern edge of the city. Luke had parked in the car park of the area’s well-manicured playing fields, and they were walking towards the heart of the estate. Unlike Southill, there was a steady stream of cars passing by and plenty of pedestrian footfall. On first impressions, Senán thought Moyross to be far less derelict and sinister than Southill. There wasn’t that sense of abandonment, of things falling to rack and ruin that he had experienced on the southside. There were no boulders barring access to greens and alleyways. Street lamps were in working order. Graffiti wasn’t quite so ubiquitous. The footpaths and roads were in good repair.

Either the council is lavishing more attention on this place, thought Senán, or the inhabitants are more civilised.

If it wasn’t for the fact that so many houses were boarded up, Moyross would have looked like any ordinary working-class estate. Only it wasn’t an ordinary estate. Luke was filling him in on all the grisly details.

“Back-back-back in the day, when the few-few-feud was in fu-fu-full swing, this place was mental. Lu-lu-loopers! A drive-by nu-nearly ev-ev-every week. Gu-gu-gangs of knackers up here wu-wu-with slash hooks an-an-and crowbars and shu-shotguns. There was how-how-houses petrol-bombed. Tha-tha-that one there, fu-fu-for example.”

He pointed to a boarded-up, roofless house which, judging by the charred state of its remaining beams and rafters, had suffered from a devastating fire. There were many such boarded-up houses, although most showed no signs of arson.

“Another how-house behind, burnt down wi-with a couple of ju-ju-junkies inside. I su-su-saw the firemen take the bu-bu-bodies out. They were lu-lu-like bu-bu-bundles of black-black sticks. They su-su-say they were so-so out of it that-that they didn’t e-e-even wake up when the flames ru-ru-reached them.”

They were walking along a winding street lined on both sides by the typical style of house found in Moyross: a mix of pebble-dash and red brick, with two small square upstairs windows, one larger downstairs window and a wide front door. Unlike Southill and the city’s older estates, there was a small driveway and a postage stamp of front lawn. When Southill and Kileely had been designed, the city fathers had no expectation that those moving from the overcrowded lanes and tenements of the city centre to their brand-new houses on its edge would ever better their lives enough to need a driveway in which to park a car. Senán noted that in the time between the creation of Southill and Moyross, those responsible for designing the council’s estates seemed, at least, to have grown in empathy and humanity.

“You know, Luke,” he said. “This place isn’t bad. I’d live here myself. The houses are bigger than in Southill. They seem better built. And they’re definitely better maintained. The estate is full of open spaces and it’s much better laid out. There’s trees. A view of the hills over there in Clare. Ample parking. The place is in pretty good order. You’ve your sports club down below. I can see this place being turned around eventually.”

Luke shook his head. It was a mild night and he was wearing a light bomber jacket over the navy pants and jumper he always wore in Francie’s. The jacket emphasised his leanness, with his shoulder blades poking out under its shiny fabric.

“You wu-wu-wouldn’t survive five mu-mu-minutes here. It’s winter now, there’s-there’s no great goo on young lads to-to-to be out making tru-tru-trouble. But come-come-come the good weather and the long nights: this-this place will be nu-nu-nuts. Joyriders. Pu-pu-parties in abandoned houses. Gangs on the streets. Horses racing up-up and down.”

On their meandering walk through the estate, Luke and Senán had come across several groups of youths wearing hoodies or baseball caps huddled in the shadows drinking cans of beer or cider and smoking what he assumed to be pot. The youths had in local parlance “stared them out of it” until Luke gave a special tilt of his head, somewhere between a nod and a shake and said: “How’s it going, boys?” The answer was invariably “grand”. After they would pass a group, Senán would hear someone mutter “Gu-Gu-Geoghegan”, followed by knowing laughter.

“What would happen, now, if I was wandering around here on my own?” Senán asked.

“Number one,” said Luke, smiling, “you don’t look-look-look like someone from around here. The face. The-the colour of your skin. Number two: your shoes. No-no-no one from around here wu-wu-wears fuckin’ deck shoes. So they-so they have you pu-pu-pegged immediately as an-an outsider. And-and-and a middle-class ow-ow-outsider at that. A-a-after that it’s all down to how-how-how they want to play it.”

“Play it?”

“Yeah. If the-the-the boys just want to have-have a bit of fun-fun with you they’ll ju-ju-just take the mickey out-out-out of your clothes or shoes or-or-or whatever. But if they’re fu-fu-feeling in the mood fu-fu-for a scrap or they’ve tu-tu-taken a dislike to you, pre-pre-prepare to get-to get your head kicked in. Or to-to-to run like fuck.”

Senán made no comment, but let his thoughts range free while they walked in silence through the night. There was an almost-full moon. Glimpses of the Sliabh Bearnagh mountains silhouetted against the sky could be caught in the gaps between the rows of houses, and when the two turned north at the end of the street, this low range filled their vista.

“Why don’t they pick on you?” said Senán after a while. “Respect? Familiarity? Coz you’re one of them? Coz you know people, their older brothers or whatever? Why do you have a free pass here?”

“Coz-coz I’m one of them. One-one-one of the tribe, lu-like you said. They can-can-can see it, e-e-even if they mightn’t-mightn’t know exactly who I am. They can smell it off me that I belong here. Like dogs.” Luke flashed a look at Senán and turned something over in his mind before continuing. “The wu-wu-ones who know or-or-or kinda know me — they-they-they know there’s nothing to be gu-gu-gained by pushing-pushing me around. Nu-nu-no street cred at all. The stu-stu-stutter lo-lo-lost its novelty for them years ago. And-and-and be-be-beating me up is no-no great trophy. I’m not-not exactly Tu-Tu-Tyson Fury!”

A shiver of excitement ran through Senán. Luke had mentioned his stutter. This was the perfect opportunity.

“Did you ever go to speech therapy?”

Luke laughed — a bitter snuffling sound. “Yu-yu-you’re ju-joking? A bu-bu-boy from the Island Field gu-gu-going to sp-sp-sp-sp-speech therapy? Not on yu-yu-your life!”

It looked like Luke was mulling over what to say next, so Senán just walked beside him in silence.

“My-my-my-my mu-mu-mother fu-fucked off when I was si-si-six. Me-me-me and my bro-bro-brother lived with ow-ow-our grandparents. We-we-we were dirt poor. On-on-on a mu-mu-medical card. There was no-there was no thu-thu-therapist du-down this side of the cu-cu-country, so after being-being on a wu-wu-waiting list for years we-we-we went up to-up to Dublin on the train and-and-and I saw this wu-wu-one a cu-cu-couple of times. Du-du-didn’t work, as you-as you can see. All I remember is going to the-the-the zoo afterwards and-and-and feeding the ku-ku-kangaroos Jelly Tots. We du-du-didn’t have the mu-mu-money to be hi-hi-hiking up to Dublin every month, so when it lu-looked like it wasn’t wu-wu-working we stopped-stopped gu-gu-going.”

“And none of your teachers ever tried to help? Giving you poetry to read or songs or anything?”

Luked laughed again. “You’re-you’re fucking joking? Ed-ed-education around here is all about mu-mu-making sure nobody nu-nu-knifes you or bu-bu-burns the school down. Half the ku-kids hardly know how-how to read and write when they leave sku-sku-school. I jus-jus-just kept my head do-do-down and tried not to-not to gu-gu-get bullied too much. Tha-tha-that was school for-for me.”

“Jesus,” Senán said.

Luke led them downhill to the bottom of a cul-de-sac. After passing the last house, he stopped and turned to Senán. “I’ve-I’ve something different plu-plu-planned,” he said with a mysterious smirk on his face. “We’re going to do-do what ge-ge-generations of young fellas from ru-ru-round here have done. Follow-follow me.”

He left the road and sprang over the low wall that marked the estate’s northern boundary. A well-worn path in the grass beyond led them through a field in which a couple of piebald ponies grazed, their white patches shining in the moonlight and steam rising from their nostrils. The cropped grass was damp but the ground was firm. At the far end of the field was a gap in the thick whitethorn hedge that formed its boundary. Luke pulled himself through and held back the briars to ease Senán’s passage. Beyond the hedge was a much larger field, empty of livestock, but Senán saw from the hoof marks and pats that it had recently contained cattle. A sheltered area, a type of bay under the whitethorn, was littered with bottles, cans and plastic bags — the detritus of years of bush drinking. There were even plastic crates and car tyres, which Senán imagined served as seats for gangs of drinkers. Luke made towards a short incline that ended in the peak of the field’s irregular pentagon shape.

“We’re going on-on to the train tracks,” he announced when they arrived at the apex. Beyond it was the incongruous presence of a high steel fence of recent construction. After squeezing through more whitethorn and briar, Senán found himself beside what he assumed was the Limerick–Ennis line. Luke took out his phone and turned on its flashlight.

“The boys wu-wu-will have loosened some of these,” he said, pointing his phone towards the bottom of the flattened two-inch-wide pickets making up each section of the fence. He walked in a crouch along the line, shining his light before him. Senán wasn’t sure what Luke was looking for until he heard a triumphant “Bingo”.

“Look,” said Luke. “We mi-mi-mightn’t have mu-much schooling but we ain’t-ain’t thick!”

Senán peered over Luke’s shoulder and saw the light from his phone dance over a series of markings scratched into the galvanised surface of three consecutive pickets.

“The wu-wu-weldings on these have been saw-sawn through by some en-en-enterprising young lad. This-this is his code. We ju-ju-just have to lift ’em ow-ow-out of the gravel, mosey on-on through and repla-place ’em.”

Senán was impressed. “Railway vandals’ code. Or trespassers’ code or whatever. Cool.”

“The only tu-tu-time when people ru-round here come together is to fu-fu-fuck the system.”

They removed the pickets, stepped through the gap and carefully put them back in place.

“Do they never inspect the lines?” asked Senán.

“Couple of times a wu-wu-week. But in one of tho-those little engines. Har-har-hardly ever on foot.”

“What are the chances of us being caught?”

“Nil. We-we-we’re only going across the river and back. I ju-ju-just want to show you Ballynanty and the Island from a u-u-unique viewpoint. And-and some of the old haw-haw-haunts. There’s no ca-ca-cameras. And no security until you gu-gu-get near the station. And even-even though it’s a gru-gru-grand bru-bru-bright night, we-we-we won’t be seen.”

“And if a train comes?”

“We’ll have plu-plu-plenty warning.”

With that, Luke scurried up the embankment until he stood on the single line of track. Senán followed, and soon the pair were walking in the direction of the city. Even though they were only a stone’s throw outside the city limits, there wasn’t a sound to be heard beyond the crunching of their feet on the gravel. After a couple of minutes’ trudging the coarse stones or hopping from sleeper to sleeper they had the dark houses of Moyross on either side of them. Luke took up his commentary.

“There was-was jokes about which half of Moyross was on-on the wrong side of the tracks. The-the joke never had a definite pu-pu-punchline.”

He pointed out the back gardens of heroin dealers, notorious families of settled Travellers, another house which had been firebombed. They left Moyross behind, and immediately it seemed like they were in the countryside again. Fields either side of the track in which horses or cattle stood silently in the moonlight gave way to an area of damp crag laced with brimming ditches and pools of swampy water. This led to wild woodland where the bare branches of alder and willow spilled on to the tracks and must have rattled against the carriages as they trundled by. Given the piles of cans and bottles, the shelter from the trees had made this section of track inviting for bands of bush drinkers down through the years. Graffiti artists had also plied their trade under the branches: the fence glowed with garish motifs, surprisingly artistic. Senán took photos. More mundane graffiti marked the sleepers — Horse Loves Suzi or CIRA or Biggsy Is A Shade Rat. The trees thinned out and Senán looked down into space on either side. They were about to cross the Shannon, whose black waters sped by about fifty feet below.

“Jesus,” he said. “Are we OK crossing this? What if a train comes?”

Luke laughed. “You ru-ru-run like fuck!”

Nervously, Senán picked his way from sleeper to sleeper, going much more slowly than Luke, who strode nimbly ahead. Seeing glints of river between the sleepers made Senán tread cautiously. Some of the older sleepers were mossy and slimy, with edges rounded by years of exposure to the elements. A slip could put someone sprawling, and the image of dangling over the river waiting for Luke to rescue him didn’t reassure Senán. He looked ahead at Luke and saw someone at home in their natural environment. Slipping through bushes, scurrying up embankments, squeezing through fences and skipping over the sleepers, Luke’s scrawny lightness and slight stoop were an advantage. It was almost as if a childhood spent exploring the waste ground between the Island Field and Moyross had shaped his physique. Looking at his form, black against the blue midnight sky, loping across the bridge, Senán could not seal his mind to the word Gollum. It also struck him that there was something of the creature of the night about Luke, not in the sense of a Dracula-like predator, but rather a being who slunk in the shadows avoiding the gaze of others, watching and waiting.

When Luke reached the other bank and turned around with a triumphant and indulgent smile to watch his companion’s shaky progress, Senán felt sorry for him again.

He gets his self-esteem from these little things. And being cock of the roost in Francie’s. I should tell him about my stutter. How I got rid of it. Maybe it’s not too late for him.

“Gu-gu-good man,” tittered Luke. “You-you-you made it. You can pu-pu-put that on your CV. ‘Cru-cru-crossed the Sha-sha-shannon at mi-mi-midnight on the ray-ray-railway bridge’.”

“I have to say,” said Senán, “it’s a wee bit scary. And I always thought I was good with heights.”

Luke turned around to face southwards and raised an arm to point to a cluster of lit streets about a quarter of a mile away.

“That-that-that’s the Island Field. The bu-bu-bonfire the other night was just down-down there. The-the-the train line doesn’t cru-cru-cross the Island Field. Just-just skirts it. We’re-we’re going as far as that pu-pu-point where you could nu-nu-nearly throw a stone across the A-A-Abbey River and hit the Island, and-and-and then we’re turning back.”

He looked behind at Senán and pointed towards the west.

“Over-over there is where we’ve cu-cu-come from: Moyross. Down below, Bally-Ballynanty. And-and then Kileely.” He began walking. “If-if-if we follow the line, we pass through all the shi-shi-shitholes in the city: Lower Park, Garryowen, the-the edge of Southill, Roxboro. It’s like-like when they started mu-mu-moving people fro-fro-from the slums in the fifties, sixties, the tru-tru-train line mu-mu-marked the ow-ow-outer limits, the places where no-no-nobody wanted to live. All-all-all the decent people are either wu-wu-west of Moyross, between Southill and the-the Shannon or-or-or even further out, like in Castle-Castletroy.”

“Interesting,” said Senán. “If you can hear the train you’re more likely to live in a council estate. I can prove that with a little stats magic. I’ll do a little exploratory stats, a correlation, during the week. And I must read into the history of how and why and when the train line was laid down. Could be interesting. A different angle from the usual narrative of why Limerick took its current dysfunctional shape. Thanks, Luke. It could be a good way of looking at things. The train line angle.”

Luke smiled proudly and began to lead the way along the line. The land on this side of the river was also heavily wooded. Long limbs of willow shook in the night’s light breeze and hid the lights of the city which they had been able to see while crossing the bridge. This stretch of track was also popular with bush drinkers. Numerous cave-like areas created by tangles of drooping willow boughs, ash and whitethorn bushes were littered as before, and graffiti artists had also broken the greyness of the fence along there. At a point where the line bent gently to the right to cling to the crook which the Abbey River made before it joined the Shannon, Luke, a few yards ahead, came suddenly to a stop and shushed. He scurried silently towards the embankment, crouched in the undergrowth and bade Senán do the same.

“There’s someone up ahead,” he hissed. “Listen.”

Senán strained his ears. Just above the sound of the wind whistling through the branches above him he heard music, weak and tinny, as if coming through the tiny speakers of a mobile phone. It was difficult to tell how far ahead the source was.

“Fu-fu-follow me quietly,” whispered Luke.

Keeping to the high grass at the right-hand side of the track, Luke duck-walked forward soundlessly, stopping to listen and peer into the darkness before taking off again. The music grew louder until Senán could recognise the song — a Katy Perry number which was on constant rotation in Francie’s. Luke put his mouth close to Senán’s ear: “Look. Over to the lu-lu-left there. There’s a cu-cu-couple of pallets. See the shape on top.”

Senán, already impressed by Luke’s keen sense of hearing, was now amazed by his night vision. After opening his eyes wide and staring at the spot indicated by Luke — one of the cave-like enclosures formed by the trees and bushes — he spied a kind of divan and took Luke at his word that this was made of pallets. On top there was a form which could have been that of a person.

“It’s a girl,” said Luke. “A yu-yu-young one. Let’s move a bit closer to see-see if she’s alone.”

They crept to within fifteen yards of her and watched and listened. The girl, who Senán could now see had a full head of long, unruly blonde hair, swayed her shoulders slightly in time to the music. He imagined her to be lost in the song, eyes shut, oblivious to the world around her. If she wasn’t alone, then whoever she was with was either lying silently behind the stack of pallets or had gone up the track for a call of nature. If she was on her own, Senán wondered what a girl of her age was doing down the tracks after midnight. Drinking? Doing drugs? Escaping from some terrible domestic reality?

The song ended and there was a pause before another cued itself up. After a few introductory bars, the girl spoke: “Fuck’s sake.”

She shuffled on the platform and activated her phone. Its light allowed them a clear look at her. She was no more than sixteen. She had a heart-shaped face with a strong brow line and deeply set, piercing blue eyes. She wore little or no make-up, but the strength of her features needed no assistance to define an already sharp beauty. Senán guiltily thought he had rarely seen someone as beautiful outside the pages of a magazine. As she swiped the screen of her phone, he saw that she was not dressed for a chilly November night. All in black, she wore a tiny skirt over leggings slashed at the knees. Her little leather jacket would not have afforded much heat even if she had drawn its zipper up fully. He noted that beside her was a 700-millilitre bottle of vodka.

“I know her,” said Luke. “Let-let-let me handle this.”

Presumably finding a song to her liking, she laid the phone down. Before its light faded, and as the beats of a new track popped through the air, she lifted the bottle and took a swig. As if this were his cue, Luke stood up, turned on his own phone, pointed the light towards his face to reveal himself and said, “Farrah! What are you doing out here on your own at this time of the-the night?”

The girl spluttered and Senán saw her blonde head rear up in shock.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Luke. You scared the fuck out of me! What the fuck are you at?”

Luke crossed the tracks and stood on the edge of the hollow. “I’m out for a walk is all. Showing a fu-fu-friend of mine around.”

The girl looked past Luke and squinted at Senán, who, not wanting to cause any undue alarm, was hanging back a few yards.

“A fu-fu-friend. Fucking hell. You’re full of surprises.”

Luke ignored her mocking and signalled for Senán to approach.

“This is Su-Su-Senán. From the shop. ‘Member I told you about him. The guy studying the how-how-housing market down here.”

The girl eyed Senán from head to foot, a peevish, deliberately unimpressed look on her face. She said nothing, but proceeded to root in her handbag for a packet of cigarettes and lighter.

“Senán,” said Luke formally, “this is Fu-Fu-Farrah. She’s from the Island. We’re neighbours.”

Farrah lit up a cigarette and blew the smoke contemptuously towards Luke.

“Neighbours,” she snorted. “You make it sound like I’m one of the Flanders and you’re fucking Bart Simpson.”

Senán wondered if the girl’s hostility was down to the quarter bottle of vodka she had drunk or whether she held some deeper resentment towards Luke. Trish’s comment on the night of the bonfire about Luke liking them younger ran through his mind, and he asked himself was Farrah the girl who Luke had met that night. She looked so young and was behaving in such a classic teenage manner that Senán couldn’t possibly imagine his friend being involved in a relationship with her. He decided to reserve judgement until he had more evidence.

“Come-come on and I’ll walk you home,” said Luke. “This is no place for you to be. On-on your own and all. Any-anyone could come along. You’re a si-si-sitting duck.”

“Quack quack.” Smiling at her joke, she turned up the volume of the music.

“Some dodgy fuck-fuck-fuckers do be out at this hour of the night,” insisted Luke. “Come-come-come on. Come with me.”

“I can handle myself.”

“Haven’t you got sku-sku-school tomorrow?”

“I told you I’m finished with that fucking shithole. I’ll be up in time to bring the younger ones to their school. Right? But I ain’t setting foot in my own institution ever again. I’m finished with it. So you and what’s his face can mosey on down the track and leave me the fuck alone.”

“We’re not,” said Luke sternly. “You’re coming back up to Moyross with us and then I’ll drive you home.”

Farrah took a drag from her cigarette and then a mouthful of vodka. She fixed her blue eyes on Senán. “I bet you didn’t know Gu-Gu-Geoghegan here was a knight in shining armour. He gets a kick outa looking after little strays like me. Did you know that?”

“Cut the shit, Farrah! You’re co-co-coming with us.”

There was verbal toing and froing between them for the time it took her to finish her cigarette. It was only when Luke sat down beside her and declared that he would stay until whenever she decided to leave that the impasse was broken.

“Fuck’s sake,” said an exasperated Farrah. “You’re a pain in the fucking hole, Luke. I’ll go, OK? I’ll go back with you fuckers. Back to my wonderful home with my wonderful junkie mother, and cross my fingers that she hasn’t brought one of her beautiful junkie dickwad boyfriends home with her, and the two of them aren’t out of it on the couch when I get in. OK? Happy?”

She closed the bottle of vodka and slid off the pallets. Going behind them and turning on the flashlight of her phone, she found a hidey-hole for the bottle in the bushes.

“I’ll know who fecked it if it’s not there the next time,” she said accusingly, before crunching up the gravelly slope to the track. Without waiting for Luke and Senán, she set off in the direction of Moyross.

“Su-su-sorry,” whispered Luke to Senán before they began to follow Farrah. “She’s a bit du-du-difficult tonight. She’s-she’s going through a bu-bu-bad patch. We’ll have to fu-fu-finish the tour another time.”

“Don’t worry. The most important thing is to look after your friend.”

After they caught up with her, Luke insisted that her music would draw unwanted attention, and ordered her to turn it off.

“You nu-nu-never know who’s hanging out in the u-u-undergrowth either side of the lines.”

“Fuck off, Luke. There isn’t a fucking sinner out at this hour.”

“You nu-nu-never know.”

“Your friend Luke is paranoid,” she said to Senán. “Thinks they’re all coming to get him. Spends his life snaking around the place. Hiding in bushes, spying on people. Thinks we’re all like him.”

Eventually, just beyond the wooded area on the far bank of the river, she did turn off the music. Senán noted that although Farrah had put up some prickly resistance, Luke had come out tops in two successive battles of wills. He seemed to exercise authority over her. Senán speculated again on the nature of their relationship.

At the stretch of track where Moyross’s lights could be seen through the hedgerows on either side, Farrah made an announcement: “I’m bursting for a piss. You guys go on ahead and I’ll catch up. And no looking. Go on.” Thirty yards up the track, waiting for her to finish, Senán took the opportunity to ask Luke about her.

“Mu-mu-mother’s a junkie,” Luke answered. “She’s not gu-gu-great at the homemaking, as you mu-mu-might guess. Farrah’s the eldest. The-the-there’s fu-four younger brothers and sisters. I think there’s thu-thu-three fathers involved. None of them’s on the scene. So Farrah is like the response-responsible adult in the house. It’s a lot of work: shopping, cu-cu-cooking, cleaning, getting them u-up for sku-sku-school and all that. Some-some-sometimes it gets her down, lu-lu-like tonight. You know?”

“I can imagine. Jesus.”

“But no matter what, she still-still needs to keep going to school. Otherwise, you know-you know yourself. She’ll be stuck on the fu-fu-fuckin’ Island forever. I’ll have to have-have-have a chat with her.”

“What about social services? Couldn’t someone call those and have them intervene?”

Luke shook his head, violently almost. “No fu-fu-fuckin’ way. That’s the la-last option. They’d jus-just split the family up. And they’d be fucked then. They’d nu-nu-never be a family again. At least now they’re-they’re all together. And the mu-mu-mother, bad and all as she is, does her best. She loves them. Never did a spo-spot of harm to them. If they took the kids away from the mother, it would be a disaster. Tu-tu-take it from me.”

Senán, realising that he had come close to upsetting Luke, just nodded. A question came to him after a time, though: “How do they manage for money? If the mother’s a junkie, her fix or whatever mustn’t leave much for groceries and electricity bills et cetera.”

“They have it tough all right,” said Luke. “But-but-but people help out. Friends. Neighbours. St Vincent de Paul. Francie. They don’t starve anyway.”

They heard the crumple of footsteps approaching and kept their peace as Farrah’s blonde head grew closer, almost seeming to materialise out of the darkness.

“That’s better,” she said. “I had a couple of cans on the way down. That fucking lager just runs through you. You’ll have to have a word to Francie about it, Luke.”

As she spluttered with laughter at her wisecrack, Senán wondered if she was an habitual drinker. Even with cans and vodka on board she was showing no signs of having drunk — beyond her tetchiness, which may have been a personality trait. She seemed in better humour now, and made small talk as they walked. She asked Senán where he was from and what he was doing, and even showed interest in his research project. She seemed to grow reflective the nearer they got to their destination.

“I like the peace out here at night on my own,” she said, when Luke went searching for the markings on the pickets. “I look at the lights of the houses I pass and it’s kinda like looking at a movie except I’m making up the stories of what’s happening inside. I always think people in the houses are happy, that their lives are perfect. Like the families in Liv and Maddie or Jessie or one of those lame yokes on Disney Channel. There’s a father and a mother. Nice, polite, normal kids. Their fridges and presses are full of whatever food they want. The kids’ drawings are stuck up in the kitchen. There’s this cute dog. They all do stuff together — play basketball in the yard, cook, put up the Christmas tree. The only problems they have are to do with boyfriends or bad hair days or falling out with a friend.”

She sighed wistfully. “There really are people like that, aren’t there?”

Posted in Fiction, Gu-Gu-Geoghegan, Ireland | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 8 of 32

Senán and Trish were squashed into the small anteroom that separated the bathroom from the shop and served as a locker room. He was sitting on a battered old kick stool while Trish stood over him with her bag of face paints at the ready. ”

So what d’ya want?” she asked.

“To be honest, I don’t want anything. I’m happy out the way I am. But if I have to, I have to.”

“You have to. You’ve no choice. Sto-sto-store po-po-policy!”

It was Halloween, and he had arrived to work in his street clothes to the consternation of Susan, Trish and Debs. Even Luke, who had made the effort and dressed up as a cloaked figure from Star Wars, looked at him disapprovingly. Trish, wearing a tiny black velvet skirt, fishnet stockings, knee-high boots and a leatherette bodice with a plunging neckline and a series of intricate strings and zips, had leapt into action, closing her till and practically dragging Senán down the back of the shop. Clearly responsible for her own garish make-up and that of the others, she had produced what she called her bag of tricks and was intent on rescuing Senán’s shameful oversight, whether he agreed or not.

“Just surprise me,” said Senán. “Knock me out.”

Trish thought for a moment. “Zombie,” she decided. “You’ll get away without having a costume if I do you a zombie face.” She took out a cotton pad, dabbed it in a jar of white slap-on and began to apply this to his forehead.

Senán, out of decorum, tried to avoid looking at her thighs, which were at eye level, but as she pressed closer, almost straddling him, this became more difficult. He found himself becoming aroused by her closeness and began to concentrate on quelling this.

“So what are you supposed to be?” he asked.

“No talking!”

She leaned in closer and all Senán could see was the space between her pushed-up breasts. She did not seem to be wearing a bra.

“I’m a sexy witch. Or a vampire’s helper. A demonic minion. Whatever.”

Senán was about to say something flirty but didn’t. He closed his eyes.

“Eyes open!” said Trish. “And stop moving your head.”

“Are you sure you’re not a dominatrix?” Senán asked.

“No. I just take my face-painting seriously.” She dabbed his cheeks and nose and leaned in even closer. Senán could feel her breath on his brow. “Now you can close your eyes.”

She lightly applied the face paint to his eyelids and retouched some spots she had missed, before stepping back and reaching for a new colour.

“I earn a bit of money on the side doing this,” she said, beginning again around his forehead. “Kids’ parties and all that. I enjoy the work. Wouldn’t mind doing it full-time. It would get me out of this shithole.”

She worked away under his chin, and then moved upwards, carrying colour along his jawline. Senán could smell her hair and the PVC of her bodice. Her fingers were warm as they held his forehead.

“You’ve nice skin. Smooth and firm. Ye fellas are so lucky. Yer skin improves with age. Ours just starts to wrinkle and hang. Although I’d to do Luke there this morning. Like in so many things, he’s the exception. He’s skin like an aul’ one. I nearly puked when I had to touch it. And I caught him looking down my top and everything. He’d give you the creeps. ‘Tis nearly a waste of paint doing him anyway. He’d frighten you at the best of times with that pale aul’ puss of his.”

Senán parted his lips to begin a defence of Luke but felt a finger placed over them.

“No talking!” said Trish with playful severity. “I know what you’re going to say: that he’s not so bad; it’s just shyness. You always stick up for him. I’ll tell you, though: you go round here in a short skirt or a skimpy top and eventually you’ll catch him trying to look up one or look down the other. And the main point of those fuckin’ cameras that’s everywhere is so that he can spy on us. You know, me and Debs gurn into them the odd time just to give him a thrill. And I don’t want to think about what he does in the office when he’s replaying those tapes. Perv.”

She retrieved more items from her bag. Senán felt the tips of fine brushes working around his lips and eyes.

“I’m nearly done,” she said after a time. “Just a few scars. And a few gaping wounds. I’ll be done in jiffy. You can open your eyes if you want.”

Senán opened his eyes to find Trish bending over her bag and going through the various tubes and pots in search of the correct colour. Her tights were hold-ups and she was wearing a black thong. To avert accusations of being a pervert, he took out his phone and began to go about taking a selfie.

“Not yet,” said Trish. “Wait till it’s all done.” After she had drawn the scars and wounds, she stood back and assessed her work. She smiled and said, “‘Twill do!”

Senán took the selfie and told Trish he was impressed with her skills.

“I’ll expect payment tonight,” she replied. “A dance. You’ll give me a dance, won’t you?”

 

In spite of the holiday atmosphere in Francie’s, with staff and customers alike on a high in anticipation of that night’s revelries, Senán’s four hours of work seemed to crawl by. All he could think about was the dance he was to have with Trish.

Was the promise she had extracted from him a come-on? he wondered.

With each passing glance at her checkout, he desired her more. The possibility of placing his hands around her waist and holding her to him in a slow dance shortened his breath and made his lips and fingertips throb in anticipation. When he imagined running his hand up her slender and taut thigh towards the thong, he had to tell himself to concentrate on his jars and cans. He almost fell off his ladder at the image of undoing her bodice.

With her light brown hair tied up in a tight ponytail, under the fluorescent lights of Francie’s there was a severe beauty to her heavily made-up face. Senán watched her interact with customers and saw a confident, smart and witty young woman who treated all comers with cheerful respect. Beyond her physical beauty, she was an attractive personality, a happy presence who was fun to be around. Senán liked her, but did he like her enough to imagine moving beyond the kiss and cuddle that was on the cards that night? Could he envisage falling into a relationship with her and, if he couldn’t, would it be fair to walk knowingly into a one-night stand?

Maybe that’s all she wants, though, he thought.

He decided to go with the flow, and if it looked like a question of Trish’s place or his, he would subtly attempt to gauge what she expected from him.

 

If my parents could see me now, was the thought that ran through Senán’s mind.

He touched his cheek and felt its heat, shaking his head gently in wonder. He had never seen a bonfire so big, never seen any fire rage so fiercely, not even the gorse fires that sprung up every couple of summers on the mountain slopes near his family’s farm. The sound alone was impressive — a deep hrush accompanied by the crisping and shattering of the mountain of pallets feeding the flames. There was also the occasional explosion of a strategically placed aerosol which drew cheers from the large, boisterous crowd. Senán reckoned there must have been hundreds watching the livid flames eat their way through the wood and old tyres, craning their necks to follow the flow of sparks far into the night sky. From time to time the wind would rise or change direction and an orange limb would dance towards those on the inside of the circle of revellers, sometimes whipping their costumes and causing more shouts and cheering. Senán was on the outside of the circle, which was five or six bodies deep, and he was almost asphyxiating from the heat. He couldn’t imagine what it was like to be any closer.

The fire was on a piece of waste ground on the north-eastern end of the Island Field, out of sight and reach of the gardaí and fire brigade. A group of about twenty youths seemed to be in charge of proceedings, presumably having spent their mid-term break gathering materials for the fire. Even though their mean age was no more than fifteen, none was without a can or flagon of cider in their hand. They were also openly passing joints around. Senán had a can of cider — from a slab of out-of-date scrumpy that Luke had produced at closing time — and was glad of its cooling refreshment in the face of the fire’s ardour. The rest of the crowd was a broad demographic: children, teenagers, men and women his own age, older adults — there were even people old enough to be grandparents. There were large numbers of dogs, some racing around in growling and barking rolling rucks, others shivering in fear at their owner’s feet or yelping at the boom of a banger or firework. Senán could hear the snorting and whinnies of nearby horses, but did not set eyes upon one until a couple of boys riding bareback passed by the fire yahooing and whooping.

Luke stood beside him silently, the hood of his cloak hiding his face. Somewhere to their right, Trish and Debs had blended into the crowd. Every once in a while Senán caught a fragmentary phrase or shout which he identified as Debs’s husky tone. As soon as they had arrived, Susan had sought out her two children and was currently standing well back from the fire with a knot of other parents doing their best to supervise.

Senán saw Luke rummaging beneath his cloak and pull his phone out to read a message.

“I’ll-I’ll-I’ll be heading away now,” he said after answering it. “Before-before it gets too-too ru-ru-rough.”

“You’re not coming dancing with us?”

Luke’s head shook inside his hood. “Not-not-not my cup of-of tea.”

“Ah, but sur’ it’ll be a bit of crack.”

“Naw. I’ll-I’ll-I’ll see you tomorrow.” He reached down to the cider at his feet and took a can in each hand before turning to leave.

“I’ll look after these so, I suppose?” said Senán, referring to the cans.

“Wha-whatever,” came the answer.

Senán watched Luke move quickly around the cone of light spilling from the fire, skirt a couple of small boys clattering each other with plastic swords, and then disappear into the dark gash that lay between the fire and the lights of the housing estate about five hundred yards away. Some instinct made Senán continue to peer into the night following what he imagined to be Luke’s progress. Then he noticed a young woman who seemed to be waiting for someone. A hooded figure, who by his gait could only be Luke, emerged into the dim orange glow, clambered up through the gap, and the pair walked out of sight together.

Old Luke has a date! thought Senán. Good for him!

For about half an hour Senán stood on his own, marvelling at the fire and the antics of the youngsters who were growing progressively louder, higher and drunker. The scene reminded Senán of Native American post-battle victory feasts in old Technicolor westerns, especially with the bareback horse riders. As the night went on he noticed couples leaving the light to smooch in the privacy of darkness, and as the crowd thinned he gained a direct line of sight of Trish. She and Debs were in a large group of girls their own age. Tinny dance music was blaring from someone’s phone, and many of the girls, including Trish, were dancing in a vigorous hip hop style. Trish had cast off her coat, and Senán saw flashes of top and bottom cleavage as she kicked and stomped and bounced and gyrated with her friends. In the middle of a particularly frenetic song, she happened to look over and caught Senán’s eye. Seeing him alone, she made her way towards him.

“You’re all on your own,” she said breathlessly. “Where’s Gollum?”

“Looks like maybe he’s a hot date. He met a girl over by the gap in the wall.”

Trish’s eyes flashed with interest. “What’d she look like?”

“I couldn’t say,” said Senán. “She was too far away. But good old Luke, says I. It’s always the quiet ones and all that.”

“He’s probably paying for it,” said Trish, deadly serious.

Senán didn’t understand. “Paying for it?”

“He’s learned from the master. Francie is famous for visiting the Dock Road and Catherine Street. The only women he’s ever been with are ones on the game. Luke’s the same, only he likes ’em younger.”

Senán was shocked. He tried to square Luke’s idealised view of the “classy lady” cohort of womanhood and his denigration of the women from his own area with what Trish was telling him.

“I can’t see Luke going with prostitutes,” he said after a long pause. “I just can’t.”

“Believe what you want,” Trish said matter-of-factly. “But you know, around here a fly can’t land without people seeing it. None of Gollum’s midnight wanderings in his aul’ 2003 Corsa go unnoticed. It’s well known what he gets up to, even though he might think he’s slinking round invisible, like.”

There was another long pause.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Senán eventually. “Going with prostitutes is low, dirty. There’s exploitation involved. There’s—”

“There’s a lot worse things Gollum could be up to,” said Trish. “Maybe what he and Francie do keeps them from doing worse things to women. Let’s leave it at that.”

She smiled at Senán until she saw him nod slowly.

“Come on over and join us and don’t be standing here on your own like a tit. Do you have those cans of cider, or did that stingy fucker take them with him?”

Senán nudged what remained of the slab of cans with his shoe.

“Good,” said Trish. “Bring ’em over. We’re having a party!”

Over among the dancing girls, Trish introduced Senán to everyone and was greeted warmly. Knowing looks passed between some of the girls and Trish, and some even teased him about his intentions towards her. With the eyes of so many girls on him, Senán was glad that his face was already red from the fire and plastered with a thick layer of Trish’s paint. Most of the girls were, like Trish, dressed up in variations on the theme of sexy witch. Some of the heavier girls, such as Debs, wore flowing robes that concealed their obesity, but even so, this sorceress look incorporated a low neckline and a long slit in the skirt. As cans of cider were handed out, Senán recognised many of the girls as customers of Francie’s. None was as beautiful or lithe as Trish, and he felt a burst of something akin to pride.

“You’re not dancing?” asked Trish. After popping open her can, she had resumed her stepping and weaving to the music.

“I’m not much of a dancer,” said Senán. “I usually only get moving when I’ve got a bit more rocket fuel inside me.” He tapped his can of cider.

“Go on!” said Trish. “Get that ass moving!” She bumped up against him with a hip, reversed into him and, with both arms raised seductively, began to twist her body so that her backside ground against his pelvis in time to the music. Senán couldn’t help but follow the rhythm and grind out his own movements. Trish danced forward and turned around to face him. Like a hip hop belly dancer, she shook her shoulders so that her breasts bounced inside her bodice and the light from the fire sparkled on its zips and buckles. She took a drink from her can and laughed.

“Now. I’ve given you a jump-start! Come on.”

With Trish beside him giving him the odd nudge to spur him on, Senán danced with the girls. Soon his embarrassment at his poor sense of rhythm and lack of moves wore off, and he comfortably settled into a groove. His attention jumped from Trish to the circle of girls to the high jinks underway elsewhere. Some of the girls were quite drunk. Debs, for example, who held a half bottle of cheap vodka, wore a numb expression, her eyelids falling down over dull eyes. Her movements varied between sluggish swaying and, whenever she gained a second wind, a frenzied kind of bouncing.

The wider party was descending into an ever wilder affair. Along with the horses, there were now quad and scrambler bikes wheeling around the fire. Most of the families had retired from the scene. Many young and not so young men were staggering around blind drunk. A couple of fights had broken out and been quickly quenched. Drug use was much more open: along with reefers, Senán had seen powders and pills being passed around. If the party had been Wild West before, it was now moving close to Mad Max.

After a while, when the battery ran out on the phone providing the music, there was a council among the more sober of the girls.

“It’s starting to get a bit rough,” one of them said. “Will we head?”

There was general agreement that they should.

The fire still burned fiercely but was now almost half its original size. The youths who had set it were growing ever bolder in their feats of daring. They were queuing up to leap over a waist-high corner of the fire that had collapsed. A boy on a quad bike had almost driven into another toppled section, and the girls predicted that it would not be too long before someone tried to jump this on horseback. A rumour had also spread that some of the boys had stolen a car and would arrive forthwith.

“You don’t want to be here for that,” Trish said to Senán as they made towards the lights of the estate. “The shades will be down after ’em and it could get messy. There’s nothing the boys from round here like more than a good riot. Feckin’ bricks and stones at the cops is their idea of a perfect end to a good night out.”

In the relative brightness of the streets beyond the gap in the wall, Senán saw how drunk Debs and some of the other girls were. Progress was slow between the Island Field and Patrick Street as the girls staggered along on their high heels, making stops for kerbside toilet or vomit breaks. Debs vomited profusely when the wind from the Shannon hit her on Bridge Street. She wouldn’t hear talk of being brought home, though.

“I’ll be grand in a minute,” she slurred. But she was not grand. Right outside the nightclub, a run-down former warehouse in a narrow alley off Shannon Street, she vomited once more, in plain sight of the pair of burly bouncers.

“She’s not coming in,” one of them said. “Not in that state.”

The girls decided that she needed taking home. Trish reluctantly volunteered to look after her, and Senán’s heart sank. She lifted one of Debs’s limp arms and put it gently over her shoulder.

“Come on so, Debs. Let’s get you a taxi home.”

While he wondered what to do, Senán watched Trish guide a very waxen, weak and tottering Debs towards the entrance to the alley. I can’t stay on with these girls, he thought, looking at the gang flirting with the bouncers and preparing to file into the nightclub. But can I tag along with Trish and Debs? What signal would that send out?

He found that he didn’t care about the signal, and ran after the lumbering pair.

“I’ll come with you,” he called. “If that’s OK.”

“I’d appreciate it,” said Trish. “The nearest taxi rank is William Street and I don’t know if I have the strength to take her all the way. Grab her other arm and we’ll carry her between us.”

Feeling awkward, Senán did as Trish asked. To bear any of Debs’s weight, he had to stoop into an uncomfortable loping walk. His back soon ached. He was surprised at Debs’s almost catatonic state. She made no effort to talk, had lost all the muscle tone from her face, and was blinking slowly and nodding her head like someone about to lapse into sleep.

“She’s wrecked,” he whispered to Trish. “She must have had more than that half bottle of vodka I saw her with.”

“She’d a couple of zimmos early on. They always fuck her up when she mixes them with drink. But there’s no talking to her.”

Senán wanted to ask what zimmos were but didn’t want to appear like an ingénue again.

“That’s our night out over, anyway,” said Trish. “It’s nearly a quarter to one. By the time we get her home it’ll be a quarter past, and then getting back in here will take another twenty minutes. It won’t be worth our while then. Fuck it.”

It was a busy night in town. The streets hummed with the roar of aerofoiled cars packed with partying boy racers. Many honked their horns at the struggling trio, either in appreciation of Trish’s get-up or in amusement at their plight. Wisecracks were also offered by the droves of pedestrians along Little Catherine Street. Senán left these to Trish, whose barbed tongue was well sharpened by her disappointment. Luckily, on William Street the taxi rank was full and they didn’t have to wait in a queue enduring further taunts from passers-by.

Back on the Island Field Senán paid the taxi driver and waited on the footpath outside Debs’s house while Trish put her to bed. He still had no idea of how the night was going to end.

When Trish eventually emerged it was with a face of sharp ire.

“I feel like I need a zimmo myself after that,” she said, breezing past Senán so that he had to skip to keep up with her. “The aul’ bitch of a mother of hers gave me an earful. As if I was spooning fucking drink and drugs into her daughter. Fuck’s sake! That’s the thanks you get for looking after someone. I could’ve left her there puking her ring out or wandering around lost, but I ruined my night out to bring her home. Fuckin’ aul’ cunt!”

“She didn’t call you a bad influence or anything?” said Senán with a smile.

“That and more. And of course round here they always bring your family into it. ‘You’re like your tramp of a mother. Running round half naked’. The aul’ bitch! As if she was fuckin’ Mother Teresa. She’s off her head most of the time on tranquilisers. Barely leaves the house except to run up to the doctor. ‘Me nerves is at me! Them kids haves me in a state.’ Fuck her!”

Senán laughed at her imitation of Debs’s mother. Trish scrunched up her nose and narrowed her eyes as she quoted the woman, putting on a crackly, high-pitched voice.

“You should go on telly,” he said. “You’re a good mimic.”

This compliment took the edge off Trish’s anger.

They walked in silence for a while until they reached the end of the street. The noise from the bonfire could be heard in the distance — shouts, roars and engines — and the smell of smoke filled the air. Trish stopped and turned to Senán.

“What’s the plan?” she asked.

“I owe you a dance still.”

She sighed. “I don’t feel like going back into town now,” she said.

“Your place?”

“I live at home. There’s a rake of us. I’ve two younger brothers and two younger sisters. You don’t want to be going in there at this hour of the night. Or at any time.”

“My place?”

Trish looked into Senán’s eyes and frowned in thought, an expression that lent a fragility to her beauty that Senán found almost irresistible. He felt like grabbing hold of her and kissing her hard, but held himself back.

“I’d love to,” she said at last, “but I’m . . . old-fashioned. I think we should at least have a date before we talk about your place or mine.”

“A date? You are old-fashioned.”

Senán was both disappointed and pleasantly surprised. None of the fantasies he had been cooking up would be coming true, but on the other hand what Trish had said revealed a sweetness, independence of thought and firmness of idea that made him like and respect her even more. The more time he spent in her company, the more she seemed like someone worth getting to know.

“You’re laughing at me,” she said flatly, more challenge than accusation.

“No, Trish.” Senán shook his head slowly. “I think what you’ve said is right. If we are going to start something, we should do it right. So — let’s have a date! Let me walk you home and we’ll thrash out the details along the way: where, when—”

“Who, why, what . . . I’ve run out of W words!”

She laughed, a giddy tinkle, and made a grab for Senán’s hand, squeezing it tight, and pushing her body into his from shoulder to hip. “Come on, so,” she said brightly. “You’re walking me home.”

She set off, pulling him with her, letting go of his hand and putting her arm around his waist. With his own arm around her middle and squeezing her tightly to him, Senán thought himself to be the happiest man in Limerick at that moment. As they walked along the empty streets where only the odd house had a light on behind a curtain or blind, he took in his surroundings. The houses were squat, with two windows at street level and one above. Each had a small front garden, which many residents had concreted over to make into a parking area. They were clearly council houses, but older than those in Bowsie’s area; there wasn’t as strong a sense of tidiness and community as in Kileely. While many homes were well maintained — freshly painted, with shrubs, flowers and garden gnomes — many others looked neglected or close to dilapidation. Some properties were even boarded up with sheets of metal.

“It doesn’t get better than this,” said Senán, breaking the silence between them.

Trish rested her head on his shoulder and sighed. Soon their mouths found each other and they came to a stop to kiss under the shadow of a broken streetlight.

Posted in Fiction, Gu-Gu-Geoghegan, Ireland | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 7 of 32

“We’ll have to have a drink in my neck of the woods the next time,” said Senán. “I feel like you and Francie have taken me under your wing, you know, bringing me to this place and giving me such a feel for the area. I should repay the compliment.”

“I-I-I dunno,” answered Luke. “I’ve never been ow-ow-out that side of town mu-mu-much.”

He and Luke were in Bowsie’s again, after another late-night trip to Francie’s lock-up. This time Francie didn’t join them, citing tiredness. The fifteen-minute winding walk to Bowsie’s had turned into something of a tour, with Luke acting as guide, pointing out houses where this or that gangster lived, where shootings and petrol bombings had taken place, and explaining which families were aligned with which of the city’s feuding gangs. He possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge and spoke with a perverse pride about the joyriding, drug dealing, beatings and other criminal activities. Even though he referred to those concerned as scobes, toerags and knackers, it was clear that he felt kinship with them, coming from the same broad tribe. Hadn’t Luke gone to school with some of them, played out on the green with them as kids, collected pallets and old tyres for the Halloween bonfire with them, been to their birthday parties?

“You must have been in and about the university, though?” asked Senán.

Luke looked down at the table and shook his head. “Never,” he said.

There was something about Luke’s response that made Senán regret asking. He felt Luke’s shame and sense of inferiority. To cover up his faux pas with bluster, he said, “There’s some right babes out there. If you think about it, where else in the city will you find close on five thousand young ones wandering around? Most of them gagging for it. I mean, there’s a lot of thick-ankled girls with notions above their station, but there’s some right crackers too, you know? And many of them are low-hanging fruit.”

Senán listened to himself and thought he sounded like Vincent doing one of his dirty old man raps. He took a drink of his pint, thinking of a change of topic.

“There-there-there’s plenty of low-hang-hang-hanging fruit around here too,” said Luke. “But-but-but you get ti-ti-tired of that after a while. Those-those-those classy ladies that-that the brother brings home — that’s the kind of wo-wo-woman I’d like. A bit-bit of mu-manners. And edu-edu-education. Look.”

He activated his phone and brought up a photo. It was of a dark-haired girl with deep brown eyes, pale skin, high, rounded cheekbones, a sharp nose and generous ruby lips.

“That’s one of the brother’s exes. She-she look-look-looks like that Nigella Lawson one. Only-only better looking.”

“She’s stunning,” said Senán. “Lucky man, your brother.”

“A smu-smu-smart cu-cookie.”

Senán wanted to ask Luke about his brother. He was curious to know how his brother had become a mover and shaker in the stock market, and why Luke hadn’t taken a similar route, why he had stayed at home to work in Francie’s instead of following in his brother’s footsteps. He didn’t get the chance, however: Luke continued eulogising the Nigella Lawson lookalike.

“And she wasn’t ju-just a stunner — she-she-she was smart and in-interesting to talk to. It-it wasn’t just about-about handbags and nu-nu-nails. She talked-talked about books and-and-and films and pu-pu-politics. She’d a bi-bit of curiosity about-about the wo-wo-world around her.”

Since his first trip to the lock-up Luke had become more talkative in Senán’s presence. In Francie’s he no longer issued curt orders and walked away without making eye contact. There was now some normal workplace banter between them, and Luke would even stop as Senán packed or tidied shelves and initiate a conversation about soccer or rugby or local gossip. The girls did not fail to notice this change. A couple of nights previously, when they had gone to PJ’s for a quick one after work, they had teased Senán about his “new friend” and jokingly warned him to be on the lookout for a Gollum-like stalker figure “snaking around after him out at the university”. The most remarkable thing Senán had observed was that Luke stuttered less and less in his presence. The stutter was something Senán was desperate to bring up with him, but that night in Bowsie’s he almost couldn’t get a word in edgeways.

“I’m-I’m-I’m sick of girls from round here. Mo-mo-most of ’em are fat slags. And-and most of ’em that’s my age have ba-ba-babies. Your only-your only option is-is to get ’em young. And that’s ill-ill-illegal!”

He laughed a free and easy laugh, took a gulp of stout, and laughed again. Senán could see that after only one and a half pints his companion was merry.

“There was this-this girl in the shop, bu-bu-before your time, who was dif-dif-different from all the rest. A honey. Swee-swee-sweet and innocent. She was-she was trying to get-get out of this place. Make something of herself. It-it-it didn’t-didn’t wu-wu-work out bu-between us.”

Senán assumed he was referring to Ronnie, the girl Susan, Trish and Debs said had to leave Francie’s because of Luke’s unwelcome attentions. The tender way Luke had spoken about her had him wondering if there were two sides to the story.

“Trish has-has-has lovely knockers,” said Luke after a spell. “A nice-nice body in general. But-but I wouldn’t stick-stick-stick it in her. She’s-she’s too gu-gu-gobby. Does-does-does my he-head in with all her chu-chatter.”

Senán didn’t like this kind of talk, the way men spoke of women as if they were inanimate objects without any say in who might “do” them or allow “stick it in” them, as if it were a privilege to be on the receiving end of such actions. The women being spoken of were usually out of reach of the men who were so free with their words. He thought of Trish and the revulsion with which she spoke of Luke.

“She’s a nice girl,” said Senán, simultaneously attempting to stand up for Trish and tone down the conversation. “She’s funny. You know? Witty.”

Luke chortled and shook his head. He was sitting low on his stool, all hunched over, with one elbow resting on the table, holding his pint glass to him as if he feared someone would snatch it away. To Senán, who was sitting up straight and whose head was a foot above Luke’s, there was something of the old man about him. He looked crumpled up, like a balloon with a slow leak. Gollum involuntarily came into his head.

“She’s a sla-slapper like the rest of them. She’d-she’d suck the chrome off a hitch.” Luke laughed again, a cackle almost. The handful of other patrons in the shebeen turned to look at the source of hilarity.

“I’d stay away-away from her if-if I was you. You never-never know what you mi-might catch. Me-mecca-mechanised dandruff! And that other one, Du-Debs. Dirty. The-the only way she’d get a fella is-is by doing stuff no-no-no one else would do. Dirtbird. She-she went out with a nu-nu-knacker an’ all. Naw. You-you-you should stick to the nu-nu-nice girls out-out at the uni-uni-university.”

Senán wanted to make the point that Trish and Debs were decent, normal girls who didn’t deserve Luke’s comments, and also disabuse him of the notion that the girls on campus were without exception intelligent, virginal, “classy ladies”.

“Ah, Luke, now. Trish and Debs don’t deserve that. I think they’re grand and sound. They’re good co-workers and good crack. And as for them being any different from the girls on campus. We’re just talking about things like accent and socio-economic background, not common decency or morals — or hygiene. There’s a crapload of girls you wouldn’t go near out on campus. Not because they’re dirtbirds or slags or slappers or any of that. But because they’re shallow, materialistic, boring or nasty.”

Luke looked up at him and smiled. “You’ve-you’ve-you’ve a lot to learn, Su-Su-Senán. You’re too in-in-innocent for du-du-down here. You’ve lived-lived your life around nu-nu-normal people and you-you-you’re judging people from ru-ru-round here based on that. You’ll-you’ll-you’ll learn that you ca-ca-can’t.”

Senán looked around the shebeen, smarting a little from once more being branded an outsider with much to learn. It seemed like every time he disagreed with Luke or Susan, Trish and Debs, or expressed surprise at their worldview, he was dismissed as someone who didn’t grasp the reality of life in their part of the world. Between this and Luke’s misogyny, he did not enjoy his quiet pint in Bowsie’s. Then an idea struck him: if he brought Luke for a night out on campus, he could show him there was very little difference between the girls from his own area and college girls — especially after the girls had a few drinks on board. If he saw how they partied he might lower them from the pedestal to which he had elevated them, and perhaps re-evaluate the merits of local girls like Trish. At the very least, Senán could have a chat to Luke about his attitude to women and attempt to coax him into the twenty-first century. He might even be able to finally bring up the subject of his stutter.

“Luke, I’ve an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you come with me for a night out on campus? We’ll have a few drinks. I’ll introduce you to some of those classy ladies you were on about. And you never know what might happen.”

A broad smile stretched Luke’s narrow lips and he flicked a few looks at Senán, but he didn’t answer.

“And in return,” continued Senán, “you’ve to give me that tour of the badlands, like you promised.”

Luke’s smile broadened further.

“O-O-OK. You’ve a du-du-deal.”

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 6 of 32

“And what time do you call this, young man?” said Vincent. He was wearing a Cure “Faith” T-shirt over a long-sleeved grey top, and was working on a PowerPoint presentation.

“I’d a late night,” answered Senán. He took his rucksack off and shook it to remove the raindrops. As he took his coat off, Vincent told him Scary Mary was looking for him.

“She’s on the warpath,” he added.

“Oh, Christ. The one morning I’m in late I’m fuckin’ caught. My ass is grass.”

Vincent sniggered. “She had that look in her eye. When she saw you weren’t here, the mask of civility briefly fell away. And I was scared.”

“Oh, fuck.”

“I’d even say there was something . . . pre-menstrual about the particular species of nasty on display this morning. A frisson. She looks like she wants to kick babies with those fine legs of hers.”

Senán sat down and booted up his workstation. With his head in his hands he accused Vincent of enjoying tormenting him.

“Well, to be frank, yes. I am twisting the knife a bit. Anything to lift the gloom. This module on teenage suicide isn’t exactly fun, you know? There’s a song by The Creatures on Anima Animus — “Exterminating Angel”. It goes: ‘Plumes of dirt caress a urine-coloured sun / Swarms of angels come to kill your sons / And there’s nothing but black holes / Where the stars should’ve been / Nothing but black holes / Where the stars would be watching’.”

Senán turned around and fixed Vincent with a look that was a mixture of puzzlement and annoyance.

“What’s the ‘plumes of dirt’ and urine got to do with the price of cabbage?”

Vincent sniggered again. “It’s about PMT. Good old Siouxsie Sioux. I think she’s the only lyricist that would have the balls — metaphorically speaking — to pen a song about the curse. Although, if you have a good root around the corpus of Danielle Dax you’d probably find references to menstruation. And now that I think of it, Miranda Sex Garden may have had a broadside on the topic. Oh, shit, of course, Patti Smith. Perhaps. But we’re leaving the strictly gothic genre with her—”

“What the fuck are you on about, Vincent? You’ve lost me! What’s all this got to do with Scary Mary? You, in your role as older man and surrogate big brother — until I find someone better — are supposed to be helping me. Not giving me the willies and doing my head in with talk of urine-coloured dust and shit.”

“It’s ‘Plumes of dust caress a urine-coloured sun’.”

“Whatever.”

Vincent looked disappointed that Senán hadn’t appreciated his brief lecture on menstruation-related lyrics in gothic rock. He flicked his spiky fringe with his hand and said, “OK, philistine. I’ll spell it out for you. Scary Mary has the look of a queen bitch” — he raised his eyebrows for effect — “this morning and is going to have your guts for garters.”

“Thanks, man. Fuckin’ A.”

 

“This is slippage, Senán — drift. It starts with rolling in hung-over on a wet Wednesday morning and it spirals downwards. I’ve seen it. With friends of mine when I was doing my own PhD. And with some of my former students. We’ve to nip this in the bud.”

“I wasn’t hung-over,” said Senán. “I just slept in.”

“But you were out last night. You did have drink.”

Vincent had been right about Scary Mary — there was an extra tinge of terseness to her questioning and a discernible narrowing around her eyes that warned of heightened levels of astringent bitchiness. Whether this was down to the curse, as Vincent had called it, or she had just got up on the wrong side of the bed, Senán couldn’t, and didn’t want to, hazard a guess. All he knew was that he had to stay calm in the face of her accusations, because that morning it was not unlikely that Scary Mary would unleash something more fearful than The Stare if he decided to give her back some of her own attitude.

“I went out for a few pints after work. Yeah.”

Scary Mary shifted in her chair with such vim and speed that it looked like she had given a little jump, and recrossed her legs.

“See! Work!” she snapped. “I saw this coming. I told you about the risks of starting to work in that shop. And I have been proved right. No sooner have you started working there than slippage sets in.”

Senán kept his voice light and calm. “Ah, now, Máire,” he said. “I’ve been working in Francie’s for nearly five weeks and I’ve been in bright and early every morning. Today was just a lapse.”

“A lapse?”

“A lapse. A blip. I just slept in. See, we were in a shebeen last night, me and some of the crowd from the shop.”

“A shebeen. Jesus fucking Christ. Where?”

“I don’t know if I should say. These—”

Where?

“Somewhere in Kileely. That’s all I’ll say.”

“Fuck me! Our gentle boy from Tipperary in a shebeen in Kileely. You’ll be sniffing glue and joyriding next!”

Gentle bemusement had slipped into Scary Mary’s tone. What passed for a smile stretched her lips, and she looked long at Senán with an almost doting version of The Stare.

“It was good,” he said, to break the silence. “I had a long conversation about the problems in the area with a man who owns maybe a dozen rental properties. All good stuff to complement the more official material I’m reading. You know, working in the shop and becoming friendly with a few people down there I feel like I’m coming at my project with more . . . authenticity. After seeing people’s lives first-hand I feel like I’m more entitled to be grinding data and coming up with hypotheses about the bricks and mortar they live in.”

“Well, well,” said Scary Mary. “It looks like you’re going native. It may not be a bad thing if it imbues your work with passion. Just don’t get all touchy-feely. Remember: there are no sides in sociological research. We want hard, objective thinking based on the rigorous analysis of correctly gathered data. I gave you this gig because of your economics and finance background. I could have chosen any of a dozen long-haired, cardigan-wearing, bleeding-heart sociology grads, so I don’t want to end up having one by the back door. Keep yourself grounded, OK?”

“O-OK.”

“And no more struggling in here at eleven o’clock, OK?”

“OK.”

“Right. Let’s get down to business. Let’s see what you made of that Sherry FitzGerald data.”

 

“You made it out alive, I see,” said Vincent, without taking his eyes from his monitor.

Senán collapsed on to his swivel chair with a sigh. “It wasn’t too bad, I suppose. Could’ve been worse.”

“Could’ve been worse,” repeated Vincent. “Hmmm.” He clicked his mouse and raised his arm in celebration, fist clenched like a football striker who had just scored a goal.

“Saved! Almost finished this shit. Want to come out with me for a well-deserved coffee and a fag?”

 

“So. How deep did Scary Mary sink her fangs in?”

They were standing in Vincent’s usual spot, what he called his “haunt” — a little-used side-entrance to the Foundation, hidden behind substantial shrubbery, chosen to avoid any chance encounters with his students.

“I would say I received no more than a flesh wound,” said Senán. His spirits were higher, now that he was standing outside in the fresh air with a cup of coffee in his hand.

“You know,” his friend said, lighting up a cigarette and inhaling deeply, “you’re getting off pretty lightly with Scary Mary so far. Either that or your upper lip is impressively stiff.”

Senán grinned impishly. “That’s not the only part of me that’s impressively stiff!”

“A, I’m ignoring that; and B, I’m incredulous I set such a gaping trap for myself. Anyway. What I’m trying to say is that over the years I’ve seen Scary Mary do nothing but pull the heads off her postgrads. There’s no one who’s lasted as long as you without getting a grade A bollocking and scurrying out of her lair in tears. Male or female, young or old — I’ve seen it happen to everyone. Ask Paud.”

“And your point is?”

“‘Be still be calm be quiet now my precious boy / Don’t struggle like that or I will only love you more’.”

Vincent took a drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke slowly downwards. His expression was of one who had posed a clever riddle and was expectantly awaiting the solution. Senán looked at him and shook his head.

“I haven’t a clue what you’re on about. Although I am glad we’ve moved away from the urine and dust-coated whatever-it-was.”

“The Cure. ‘Lullaby’. Disintegration. Their opus magnum. Do not tell me you are unfamiliar with the greatest record of the 1980s?”

Senán made a moue of boredom, then let his jaw hang dramatically downwards and raised his eyes to heaven.

“Philistine,” chided Vincent. “I don’t know why I bother. Anyway. What I was getting at, besides trying to introduce a bit of culture into your life, was that Scary Mary seems to be going very easy on you.”

“You think?”

“I do.”

“Cos she’s just given me a shitload of number-crunching to do. And she wants it yesterday.”

“But she hasn’t made you cry or pulled your head off.”

“No.”

“Or called you a useless worm or anything?”

“No.”

“I think she likes you. I think she’s a soft spot for you. I think you’re her favourite.”

Vincent delivered this last phrase in the voice of a Hollywood-style bookish child.

“Scaywy Maywy’s favwit,” he said.

“I don’t know why I come down here to your little haunt. All I get is passive smoke, lessons on The Cure and ridicule and abuse.”

Vincent guffawed.

“I think you come down here precisely for the passive smoke. I’d say at this stage you’re a smoker. You just don’t know it yet. I can see you sneakily whiffing up the stray smoke from my fag. I see those little curls of smoke going up your nostrils. Face it: you’re an addict.”

There was silence between the pair for a minute. They watched cars prowl the car park in search of free spaces, and knots of students leave the Foundation for buildings on the north or west side of campus.

“Would you do her?” said Vincent, a little smirk creasing his chubby cheeks. “Would you do Scary Mary?”

“Jesus Christ. You’re in some queer mood today. Are you sure it isn’t yourself that has the PMT?”

Vincent, smirk still firmly in place, wasn’t letting up.

“Would you do her? Go on — you can tell Uncle Vincent.”

“No, I wouldn’t do her, for your information. She’s my supervisor. For all sorts of reasons, ranging from the ethical to the purely practical, I wouldn’t even consider doing her, as you put it.”

“I’d do her.”

“Bully for you: there’s nothing to stop you doing her. There’s no student–supervisor relationship. No gross moral turpitude.”

“But you fancy her?”

“Oh fuck, Vincent. What is this? Torment Senán time?”

“No. I’m just looking for a reason why you’re her favourite. Maybe she gets vibes off you.”

“Vibes?” said Senán in a tone of near disgust.

“Yeah. You fancy her. She picks up the vibes. She’s, you know, flattered. A young handsome buck like yourself. Hence — you’re her favourite.”

“I’m not her favourite. I don’t give off vibes. She’s not bad to look at, but I don’t fancy her. And I certainly wouldn’t do her. Now, there it is, all spelled out for you: my position on Scary Mary.”

Vincent frowned. “But why does she like you so much? I’m trying to get to the bottom of this little puzzle.”

“God, Vincent. Have you nothing better to think about? Like all those little emos cutting themselves or whatever?”

“Not while I’m out here having a coffee and a fag. It’s called a break.”

Senán took a long last drink of his coffee and crumpled the paper cup.

“I’ll put you out of your misery, so,” he said. “Scary Mary told me today that she picked me for this project because of my economics and finance background, and she basically said that she didn’t have much time for the usual long-haired, hippy type of sociology graduate that moves on to being a postgraduate. She kind of warned me not to go native, you know, with working in the shop and all. She didn’t want me turning into a ‘bleeding heart’. Her words.”

“Oh,” sung Vincent. “You’re exotic to her. A hard-data man crossing over into the cuddly world of sociology. Hmm. But she also relates to you because you’ve gotten down and dirty with the natives on the reservation, filling their shelves with Pot Noodles and Linden Village, and going to their shebeens. She sees herself in you. A young, idealistic Scary Mary. She looks at you with a potent mix of narcissism, nostalgia, regret, admiration — onanism maybe. She’s gonna wind up trying to jump your bones, young man. You’re irresistible to her. I’m opening a book. People will bet good money on the chances of her getting off with you at the Christmas party. Stranger things have happened.”

“You know what, Vincent? Fuck you,” Senán said, smiling. “This is all just a middle-aged man projecting his Scary Mary fantasies on to a younger, fitter model.”

“Touché,” said Vincent. He stubbed his cigarette out on the soggy soil of the shrub bed, and scrunched up his cup. “C’mon — back up to the world of dreams,” he said, and made for the door.

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