Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 24 of 32

“At last,” said Senán out loud. “Yippee!”

He took off his coat and walked from the kitchenette to his living room-cum-bedroom.

“Getting warm in here as well. Brill.”

It was Sunday, three days after Christmas. A cold snap had gripped the country in what the media were calling “the big freeze-up”. Being unheated and unoccupied since he had driven home to Tipperary the night before Christmas Eve, Senán’s bedsit had been as arctic as the dark blue front staining the weather maps on the front pages of all the newspapers. The bedsit even lacked the usual residual heat from the accountancy firm below: O’Byrne and Co had shut down for the holiday period.

He had not planned to be back so early. He didn’t start in Francie’s until Tuesday and had told Scary Mary he would be in his booth on Wednesday morning bright and early. A text from her on St Stephen’s day had brought him back to Limerick. “Can you be in on Monday morning? There’s a problem with the CSO dataset.”

Fuck the CSO dataset, Senán had thought, but then saw a silver lining: he could see Trish earlier than planned. He had missed her more than he had thought he would. Since they had started going out they had not been apart for more than a weekend, and he ached for her soft skin and cutting humour. When he texted her, however, she told him they wouldn’t be able to meet until Monday evening — she had a family do.

Senán looked at his watch. Almost ten. He grappled with whether he should boot up his laptop and go over the problematic data set or just veg out in front of the TV.

TV, he decided. I’m not on the clock until tomorrow.

Just after he had settled on the couch, the intercom buzzed. He smiled, thinking that Trish had decided to surprise him, and raced through the kitchenette, skipped down his narrow staircase, and opened his front door wearing a face that spoke a thousand welcomes. The expression did not persist. In front of him, lit by the threadbare cone of light from the naked bulb at the bottom of the stairs, stood another female form. The face took a few seconds to register.

“Farrah, Luke’s friend,” his puzzled voice said. “What can I do for you?”

The girl, hugging herself and shivering, bit her lip and looked left and right before speaking.

“I need somewhere to stay. It’s cold. And, well . . . When I met you with Luke, you seemed like a good person. I’ve nowhere else to go.”

She was underdressed for the unforgiving conditions, wearing the same black leather jacket he had seen her in before and skinny jeans ripped at the knees. Her face was blue-white, and when she lit a cigarette Senán saw that her hands were red-raw with the cold.

“How do you know where I live?”

Farrah blew smoke from one side of her mouth and looked boldly at him. “I copped a look at Luke’s phone there one day. He had your address on it.”

“I bet he did,” said Senán, thinking that he probably had Connie’s and Scary Mary’s as well.

He looked at her. She was heavily made up. Her red lips shone in the weak light and around her eyes was a thick layer of black. Her fingernails were of a dark chocolate colour that he associated with Scary Mary — that he had, in fact, never seen her without. Through the cigarette smoke he could smell sickly sweet perfume — a scent that rang a bell with him, although he couldn’t say why.

“Well?” asked Farrah.

Senán smelt trouble. From the little he had seen of her, she was a very mixed-up and unhappy young woman. And if what Trish had told him was more than malicious gossip, she was on the game. And in some strange pay-as-you-go relationship with Luke. And underage. The last thing he needed was the living embodiment of teenage angst and waywardness. But he couldn’t turn her away either. He’d take her inside, give her a cup of instant soup and whatever she wanted to eat, and try and sort out some sort of sheltered accommodation for her. There had to be a number he could call.

“I’m freezin’, you know?”

“C’mon inside,” said Senán.

Farrah took a few deep drags on her cigarette before flicking the butt towards the line of leylandii that separated O’Byrne and Co’s property from the field beside it. As she walked up the stairs in front of Senán, he got a stronger waft of the perfume. He squinted, almost as if in pain, trying to remember who the scent reminded him of, when she entered his kitchenette and, wide-eyed, surveyed the compact space.

“Cool place,” she said, moving further in. “And you’ve it all to yourself.” She walked through the bedroom and poked her head into the little bathroom. “Jesus, this place is great. I’d love to live on my own somewhere like this. No one to fucking bother me.”

“I don’t spend much time here, but I like it,” said Senán from the kitchenette.

“How much do you pay for somewhere like this?” She was pulling back the curtains and assessing the view. “That’s Rhebogue down there, right?”

“Ah, right. Yeah. Those lights would be Rhebogue. How much does it cost? Four hundred a month. Plus gas. Plus electricity.”

“Jesus.”

“It’s not bad as things go. And the place is quiet. No noisy neighbours. Not a student within an ass’s roar of the place. No parties. And, I’m on my own. All the dirty dishes are mine. I find it much easier to live like this after four years of house-sharing.”

She returned to the kitchenette and took a peek out the long window that ran behind the sink and worktop.

“Wow, the Dublin Road. And Jesus, you can see TK Maxx from here! This place would be heaven for me. Saunter across to TK’s for shopping and come home to a quiet house. And Burger King over there in the Parkway. Heaven.”

“Maybe you could get a job in TK Maxx, you know. Then you could afford somewhere like this. Live your own life. Be free. Independent. Wouldn’t be a bad start.”

Farrah’s eyes lit up. “Fuck! That’s not a bad plan. I like the way you think, mister!”

She began to pull off the little rucksack she was wearing. “But,” she continued, the wonder fading from her face, “they wouldn’t give a job to the likes of me. I failed my Junior Cert. And I’m more or less dropped out of school. Unemployable, as everyone keeps saying.” She dumped her bag on the floor and removed her jacket.

“If I can get a job packing shelves and make a go of it, anyone can. Don’t dis yourself. Would you like a Cup-a-soup?”

“Go on, yeah. I’m starving.”

“Toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich?”

“Mega.”

Senán filled the kettle and took out the food.

“But you’re some sort of brainbox. You work in the college. Luke’s always going on about how brainy you are. It’s easy for you. I’m just a dud.”

“Don’t say that.”

He bent down to fish out a tomato from the bottom drawer of the half-sized fridge. Looking up he caught a glimpse of fishnet tights under the rips in her jeans. He felt a jolt of unconscious arousal and did his best to suppress it.

“People have infinite capacity. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want. How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“There you go. Your brain is still plastic. You can train it any way you want. You can be a tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor. Whatever you want. Don’t write yourself off.”

He washed the tomato, shook it dry and placed it on a chopping board, and then rummaged in a press and produced an onion. He held it up and said: “Francie’s best!”

“I don’t like the idea of my mind being plastic,” said Farrah. “Does that mean it’s all squishy inside, glooping around? Jesus!”

She sat down on one of the pair of foldable chairs, watching Senán chop and slice.

“Jesus, you’re good at that. You would have aced home ec. I failed it. The nearest we come to cooking in my house is throwing a pizza in the oven.”

She made an impressed whoa when he spread mayonnaise and sweet mustard on the bread, and asked him what the stuff he was sprinkling on the cheese was.

“A little bit of paprika. And now, some basil.”

“Jesus.”

When the kettle clicked, Senán turned around to see her opening her bag and pulling out a bottle of red wine.

“This’ll go down well with those sangers,” she said gleefully.

 

“That was lovely,” pronounced Farrah. “I’m all warm inside. All snuggly.”

“I’m glad you liked it,” said Senán.

He took her plate and cup to the kitchenette. When he returned she had kicked off her runners and was curled up against the arm of the sofa. She had also poured herself another large glass of wine — her third.

Senán regretted not having forbidden her to open the wine. She had told him she would only have a couple of glasses to wash down the sandwiches, but it now looked like he would have difficulty stopping her from downing the bottle. He remembered the drunk and obstreperous girl he and Luke had walked the tracks with and could have kicked himself. At least he had declined her offer of a drink; it was one thing to facilitate underage drinking, another thing entirely to join a sixteen-year-old in their drunkenness. Senán figured that dealing with Farrah would require full sobriety on his part.

He made another effort to convince her to let him ring up social services for an emergency bed in a woman’s shelter or homeless hostel.

“Fuck off,” she said in a good-humoured tone. “No way. Amn’t I grand here? Anyway, at this hour of the night where would they put me? Only in the back room of a cop shop eating biccies and drinking tay and having to listen to some hairy-chinned woman guard blabbing on. Fuck, no! Or they’d bring me to a hospital. A and E. Sur’ if I wanted to see junkies and drunks batin’ the shite out of each other I could just go home!”

“OK. Fine,” he said. “But you’ve to promise me you’ll be good. No more wine after that glass. No drugs. And early to bed. I’ve a meeting with my boss tomorrow morning, where there will be seven shades of shit hitting the fan. So I’ll need my beauty sleep.”

“Fine. I’ll be a good little girl.”

She sipped her wine, shook her blonde mane and asked if she could turn on the radio. She searched through the stations until she found Spin South West. Senán asked her to turn it down.

“I’m an old fogey at this stage, you know.”

“I like older men,” she answered, with a deliberate and obvious narrowing of her eyes and slow crackling of her voice.

“Like Luke?”

As soon as he had said the words he regretted it. He didn’t want to put her on the defensive or throw a spanner in the works of the wine-induced merry and placid state she was in. She took the comment in her stride, though.

“Luke and me are just friends,” she said. “He’s not all bad at the back of it all either, if you know how to handle him. He gives us stuff — our family, I mean. We’d’ve gone hungry many’s the time if it wasn’t for him. I mean, he’s a bit weird, with the stutter and all, but there’s a lot worse than him going around. You should see some of the toerags my mother drags in. They’re all addicts and ex-cons. At least Luke’s not like them.”

Senán was thinking of a way to move the topic on from Luke, but there was no need. Wriggling her feet into her runners and standing up, Farrah announced that she was going outside for a cigarette.

“I wouldn’t want to stink up your nice place here.”

Senán offered to go down with her but Farrah insisted on going on her own, even when he said that anyone could jump out on her from the bushes.

“That gable end’s a dangerous place.”

“I’ll be grand.”

“Take my coat, at least.”

He threw his heavy anorak at her when she was halfway down the stairs. She caught it and he heard a chirpy “thanks” before the door slammed. When she came back up it wasn’t the smell of cigarette smoke she carried in from the cold but the heady herbal aroma of cannabis.

“Have you been smoking pot?” he said crossly.

A slow, stupefied smile spread across her face and she replied: “Just a little joint. A mini, mini, mini joint. To relax me.”

“Holy fuck,” said Senán. His voice reverberated around the kitchenette. Farrah kicked off her shoes and padded unevenly to the sofa.

“You mean the wine wasn’t enough to relax you?” he asked.

“‘S yummy wine. It relaxed me all right, but now I’m super-dee-dooper relaxed altogether. Super-dee-dooper.”

While Senán made noises of disapproval, Farrah fiddled with the tuner.

“I need something more chilled-out. This is cack. Too much . . . bangle-jangle.”

She found a classical station, allowed her body to slump back onto the couch, and then closed her eyes to the music, which sounded to Senán like George Gershwin. He crept up and soundlessly swiped the bottle of wine, which he corked and put in the fridge.

He left her in peace for a few minutes while he browsed on his phone and looked out at the traffic on the Dublin Road. Watching the headlamps and tail-lights break a trail through the darkness, he began to fret and feel alone in negotiating a tricky situation. He thought of calling Trish, sure that she would know how to deal with Farrah, have the language and ways about her to keep the girl in check, but he didn’t want to ruin her family night out.

I should have just put her in my car straight off and driven her home, he thought. I can’t do that now though. How could I turn up on her doorstep with her drunk and high like this? I’ve fucked up here. I’ve no option but to keep her till morning.

He thought of trying to convince her to go to sleep. She couldn’t cause trouble then. When the music came to an end and the presenter’s melodious baritone dripped from the speakers in delivery of a short anecdote, Farrah blinked open her eyes. She smiled goofily over at Senán and said: “That was fuckin’ mad. I’ve never heard music like that before. Crazy shit. The pictures it puts in your mind.” The warm-voiced man introduced Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Its opening notes broke through the bedsit. Farrah held her hands up in front of her face and examined them at length, turning them slowly around and looking at the tips of her fingers from different angles.

Oh, Jesus, thought Senán, here we go.

“I didn’t like this colour at the start. I thought it looked like shit, literally,” she said and gave a stoned chuckle. “But now I like it. Or I half like it. It goes nice with this music and this bedsit. It’s warm and fuzzy. A match made in heaven. A hatch made in meaven. Ha, ha.”

Senán could only laugh along with her.

“‘That’s what classy ladies wear,’ Luke told me when I told him to shove his fucking shitty brown nail polish up his skinny hole. But now . . . It’s jazzy. Like that music. I don’t give a shit about classy. But jazzy is nice.”

The term “classy ladies” set off alarm bells in Senán’s mind. “You mean, Luke asked you to wear that nail polish?”

“Yep. He wanted me to look like some bitch he’s following around—”

“Scary Mary?”

“He calls her Mu-Mu-Mu-Máire.”

Senán stifled a gasp and looked murderously out on to the Dublin Road. Farrah was too busy looking at her hands to notice his anger.

“And does he get you to do anything else to look like Máire?”

“Oh, yeah. Sur’ fuckin’ hell, like. He got me a wig. You know, long, flouncy hair. And clothes. This fuckin’ business suit. Sexy lingerie. And I’d have to try to talk like her. And walk all stiff and up straight. And then we’d fuck. You’d sweat like a pig with that wig on, I’m tellin’ you.”

“Jesus Christ.” Senán felt like screaming at her, shaking her, interrogating her, demanding her to admit that she was involved in something twisted and illegal.

You’re underage, he wanted to shout. And pretending to be some innocent women he’s stalking. It’s sick. He’s sick. And you’re doing harm to yourself.

But Senán said none of those things, just bit his tongue and allowed Farrah talk on.

“Of course he keeps the clothes, the fucker. Not that I’d wear them. But if I’d an interview, that suit would come in handy. Although the other things he makes me wear belonging to that other woman, Connie — they’re not bad. Sporty. And the wig an’ all isn’t as bad. He pays me extra to pretend to be them. Twenty bucks. I can do a lot with twenty bucks. Grass. Pills. Vodka. A few things for the brothers and sisters. Wine.”

She took her hands down from her face and took a sip of the wine, as if to reinforce the point that she was drinking the fruits of her arrangement with Luke.

“You’ll never guess what he wants me to do now.”

She gave a woozy look in Senán’s direction and laughed so hard that her wine split over the rim and onto the wooden floor.

“He wants me to shave my fanny. Says yer one Máire has hers shaved. A Brazilian. Says he wants to lick me out while I’m talking to him like I’m her. I’ve said no, but that’s only to string him along until he offers me a couple of hundred to do it. I wouldn’t mind a shaved fanny, to be honest. I’d be like Gaga or Kim Kardashian. Which would be mad cool.”

 

The alarm on Senán’s phone went. He shook himself awake, reached over to the coffee table beside the couch and hit the Sleep button. Dawn was yet to break, the room cloaked in mid-winter darkness. As he stretched his creaking neck and rubbed the small of his back, he looked across at his bed. At the top of a tangle of duvet and pillows and long, skinny limbs shone the blonde hair of his uninvited guest. He listened to her deep, easy breathing, a high nasal expulsion of air that took him back to his childhood of a shared bedroom, sleepovers, scout tents and dormitories at Irish college.

The room was stuffy, smelled slightly of the wine from Farrah’s breath and the pot that clung to her hair and clothes. Senán felt stuffy; muzzy-headed and grimy from sleeping in his clothes, and above all stiff. The two-seater couch did not afford enough space for him to curl up on, so he had been forced to sleep sitting up.

He stepped out of the picnic blanket he had used as his bedclothes and tiptoed to the kitchenette.

Why am I sneaking around? he thought to himself. Don’t I want her awake and out the door at the same time as me?

He turned on the gas heater, knowing that the strange clicking the radiators made as they warmed up could rouse the most determined sleeper. If not, the noise he intended to make getting organised would have Farrah up in no time.

“Oh Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” he heard from the kitchenette after he had showered and dressed and set about clanking plates and cups with gusto. “It’s like a fuckin’ war zone in here with all the noise. A girl can’t get her beauty sleep.”

“Good morning!” boomed Senán, with assumed cheer. “Ready to greet another day?”

“Aw, fuck. What time is it?” he heard.

“Almost eight. If you want a shower, I’ve a spare towel.”

“Ugh. Go on.” She spilled slowly out from under the duvet and stood on the carpet in her bra and knickers. Senán averted his eyes as he crossed the room to get her a towel from the closet in the bathroom.

“Thanks,” she said when he handed it to her, clearly amused by his embarrassment. “You’re nice,” she said. “Most men would be gawking at me.”

After a longer shower than Senán would have liked, Farrah emerged wrapped in a towel and accompanied by a thick bank of steam.

“What can I rustle you up for breakfast?” said Senán. “Muesli? Toast? Scrambled eggs? A fry?”

“Jesus. A fry! Yeah. I’d murder some sausages. I think I’ve the munchies from last night.”

She stood behind him watching as he cut sausages from their string and pierced them with a fork, and laid out rashers on his little grill. She no longer smelt of what he now knew was Scary Mary’s perfume, nor of wine and pot. He smelt his own shampoo and the sandalwood soap which he rarely used himself.

“I’m sorry I’ve no puddings. Would you like a fried tomato?”

“Go on, yeah. This is like being in a hotel. I must come here more often.”

Senán’s politeness did not allow him to say what was on his mind: Please don’t. Instead he suggested she get dressed so they could be out the door as quickly as possible.

“I’ve to meet Scary Mary.”

He sat down opposite her and drank a cup of tea while she wolfed down the fry. He decided to try to talk some sense into her.

“You should keep off the drink and drugs,” he said. “They’re not going to improve your situation. What you’re doing is called palliative coping: you dose yourself with something that gets you out of your head to forget about your problems, but when you get back to reality, the problems are still there. You have to find out where the stressor is coming from and either eliminate it — or move away from it.”

“Stressor?” came the question from a mouth stuffed with sausage.

“Your family situation. And probably what you’re doing with Luke. Do you have an uncle or aunt you and your brothers and sisters can go and live with? Somewhere stable? If you can sort out your home environment, start going back to school, leave off the hooch and the drugs — you’d be a different person. I’m not saying you’ve to live like a nun. But . . . you’d be much happier. And what you’re doing with Luke: he’s a sick man. A stalker. And paying you to have sex with him is bad. Horrendous. Illegal. He could wind up in the slammer over it. It’s abuse. And mixed in with you dressing up as Scary Mary and Connie and whoever, it’s really, really, really sick. You should leave off him. Report him to the cops—”

“I’d never do that! The cops would come for me then, split up our family. I’d be put in fucking care. No way. No cops. No cops. Please — promise you won’t go to the cops. And don’t tell Luke anything I told you. Please.”

Senán pondered for a moment.

“If you promise to stay away from Luke, I won’t go to the cops. OK? Deal? And you can come here once in a while if you need to get away from it all, or need a chat, OK?”

“OK.”

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Gu-Gu-Geogheghan — Chapter 23 of 32

In spite of a festive atmosphere in Francie’s so thick it could have been cut with a knife, Senán did not feel at all Christmassy that Tuesday night. The Christmas songs on rotation over the shop’s PA may as well have been taken from one of Vincent’s “Greatest Hits of Goth” compilations for all the cheer they were imparting to Senán. He saw through and past the shop’s dense forest of decorations, not an easy feat given that the girls had covered every available surface with a snowman, Santa Claus, snowdrop or stalactite. And neither Trish’s naughty elf costume, Debs’s flashing Christmas tree hat nor Susan’s wild winter sweater could bring a smile to his face.

Those four hours comprised the slowest shift he had ever worked in Francie’s. Even though it was the busiest he had ever seen the shop, Christmas shopping fever having well and truly kicked in, time seemed to stand still. He hesitated to wonder how the minutes would have crawled if he hadn’t been run off his feet. But rushed and all as he was, clambering up and down his ladder with trays of bottles and jars, and scurrying in and out of the storeroom with a fully laden trolley, he could not prevent his mind from returning to Luke and what he would say to him after work. For all Senán knew, these interminable hours were the last he would spend in Francie’s, but the magnetic pull of dread would not allow his mind to enjoy his retail career’s swansong.

The worst thing was that he felt sorry for Luke. His anger and furious astonishment had subsided and been replaced by pity. He kept wondering why Luke felt the urge to stalk women. He thought of his stutter, his upbringing, his odd physical appearance, his treatment at school, and concocted theories as to why Luke had difficulties forming normal relationships with women. He made excuses for him, and as his anger drained away, empathy and pity swelled his heart.

“Cop the fuck on!” Trish had told him over the phone.

Vincent had echoed this order.

“You’ve to go in there and fucking pound him,” Trish told him. “Put the fear of God in him. Make it so that he never even thinks about stalking a girl again. Just pretend he’s one of the opposition at one of your hurling games. You go in there shoot-to-kill. All guns blazing. Take no prisoners. Frighten the fuck out of the little gowl. Like my brothers did when he was at me. Got it?”

Senán had got it all right, but he didn’t think he had it in him to harshly treat someone like Luke, who had been on the receiving end of life’s hard knocks since the moment of his conception. And he was a fellow stutterer, after all.

The more his shift dragged on and the more he observed Luke, the less he felt like giving him a verbal pounding. As always, Luke cut an isolated figure, standing apart from customers and staff alike, taking no part in the cheerful Christmas banter that buzzed through the shop. But that evening there was something else about him: Luke seemed more on edge, more watchful than usual, paler and more drawn, his eyes bulging out from the sockets of his fleshless face, as if Christmastime was a test of his managerial skills and experience that he was determined not to fail. His orders were more curt than usual, a ragged edge and desperation to his barked words. “Come on, come on, come on,” he had urged Senán more than once. “Get those jars out. We need more broccoli. Ham and cheese pizzas. Go, go, go.” He even got into a number of flaps, something Senán had rarely seen happen before: Luke panicked when they ran out of Christmas crackers, flying into the storeroom as if to put a fire out, and he attacked Susan over mispriced mince pies. “Keep your eye on the ball, Susan,” he hissed at her. “It’s only a week to Christmas.”

As Susan laughed off the incident with Trish and Debs when Luke retired to the storeroom, Senán realised he would never see Francie’s strange manager in the same light again. Before, Luke was something of a mí-adh to him (a word his mother used for someone held back by life’s cruelties and misfortunes), a lonely, timid and mistrusting young man in need of friendship, a kind word and a helping hand. But now he saw him as a damaged and piteous creature, not somebody he would take any satisfaction in harming, but neither someone he would ever want to socialise with or think of as a potential friend.

 

“I nu-nu-need this,” said Luke, collapsing on to a stool. “Whu-whu-what a day. And there’s five more to gu-gu-go.” Closing his eyes, he drank at length from his pint of Guinness. “Gu-gu-great stuff,” he rasped, and licked his lips. “I haven’t-haven’t had a mo-moment to myself all day. Christmas — I fucking hate it!”

You’ve time enough to scoot across town to spy on Connie and Scary Mary, right enough, thought Senán. He looked around Bowsie’s, which was experiencing a festive bump in trade. He and Luke had managed to get the last free table in the shebeen.

“Fuckin’ du-du-deliveries tomorrow an’ all. Francie’s Christmas bonus better be good this year. I’m wu-wu-working like a bu-bu-black.”

Luke looked worn and frazzled. Stooping over his pint, his skinny arms hung limply from his bottle shoulders.

“Luke,” said Senán, after a long drink from his own pint. “I’ve something to ask you.”

Luke’s eyes narrowed and he darted a wary look up at Senán. “Gu-gu-go on.”

“What are you doing hanging around campus taking photos of Connie and Scary Mary?”

A blush flashed across Luke’s face and his head trembled like that of an old man in his dotage. He opened his mouth and Senán saw his throat make gagging movements, but no sound came out.

“I saw you. Today and yesterday. Hiding behind a plant in the business school. Looking down at Connie. Taking photos or videos of her. Then I saw you pass by Scary Mary’s office and photograph her. What the fuck are you up to?”

For the first time in their acquaintanceship, Luke made lasting eye contact with Senán. The look communicated the burning hurt of a child whose parents had caught him doing something which they considered bad, but which he did not. His mouth opened and closed again, his tongue and throat worked away. Eventually he spoke.

“Um. Um. Um. Um. I’m thu-thu-thu-thu-thinking of-of-of-of doi-doing a bu-bu-bu-bu-business-business dip-dip-dip. That’s-why-that’s why I-I-I vu-vu-vu-visit campus.”

“Bullshit!” said Senán. “I saw what you were doing. And you’ve been seen other times as well. You’re stalking them. And you’ve got previous in that regard.”

There, thought Senán, it’s all come out. All my cards on the table.

“Bu-bu-bu-bu-business,” said Luke, stuttering now as badly as he used to do when asked a question by a teacher. “I-I-I-I-I was-was-was-was there on-on-on-on bu-bu-bu-bu. Business.”

“The business of stalking. There’s no point in lying about it. I saw you.”

Luke looked down at the table, biting his lips. He began to pick at a beer mat with a bony finger.

“You’ve a problem with women, Luke,” said Senán in a kindlier voice. “Whether it’s shyness or under-confidence or your stutter. Or whatever. But going around stalking them isn’t the answer. It’s bad for you and bad for them. If you’re caught, you can get into awful shit over it. Lose your job, name in the papers, et cetera.”

Luke didn’t move to reply, was motionless in his hunkered-down position. All his attention was on the beer mat he was scratching.

“And I feel terrible, like part of the fault is mine. I introduced you to Connie and Mary. And if I tell them, I know I’ll get some of the blame for setting you on them.”

Luke stiffened and asked for confirmation that Senán hadn’t told them.

“No,” said Senán. “Nor the guards. Yet. Even though people have told me not to be a fool, I want to give you a chance. So here’s the formal warning: keep away from Connie and Scary Mary. I’m going to be keeping an eye on them and if I see sight or sound of you near them I will tell them and I will call the cops.”

Luke managed a laboriously mangled thanks.

 

Senán and Trish made it to the Barge just in time for last orders. They had hurried from the entrance to St Mary’s park to the riverside, and now stood at the crowded bar counter waiting for Senán’s pint to settle while they soaked in the warmth of the pub.

“He was a pussycat really,” said Senán. “A lamb, albeit a hang-down-your-head-Tom-Dooley kind of lamb. Strange, but he didn’t protest too much. Or say very much, for that matter. I was expecting more aggro. He just kind of caved in.”

“Told you,” said Trish. “He’s a coward. Not into the aul’ confrontation or standing up for himself. I mean, Grabber has him under his thumb with years. Working twelve-hour days, six days a week. And I bet he’s on peanuts. No one else would put up with that.”

She looked at Senán and read the glum droop of eyes and mouth. “You’re feeling sorry for him, you eejit.” Then with tenderness in her voice: “You softie.”

“It was like giving out to a stray dog. He was kinda pathetic. He’s no self-esteem or anything of the sort. I just felt pity for him. I got no pleasure from confronting him. He’s kind of a broken man.”

“He’s no backbone, is his problem. The coward of the county.”

“I reached out,” said Senán, aware of how clichéd it sounded as it came out his mouth. “I offered to help. You know, put him in touch with a counsellor.”

“There you go trying to fix people again.” This was a dig at his unsuccessful efforts to get her to see someone about her problem.

“He kinda just looked at me. Sheepishly. Like he thought there was no helping him. I think he’s given up on himself, that there’s no changing him. Which someone like me in sociology finds anathema.”

“So you’re going to bring him by the hand to therapy? There’s a sight!” She laughed, her dislike of Luke allowing a cruel note to spill into her mirth.

“We kinda left it that he’d think about it for a few days. Over the Christmas. Trying to get him to talk about it after I laid it all on him was like pulling teeth. Like talking to a child. We’ll see.”

Later, in a quiet corner of the pub, Senán asked Trish if she thought Luke would keep his word. He watched her scrunch up her lips and narrow her eyes, formulating an answer, and he thought of how beautiful she looked and how much he liked her.

“You’ve scared him. He’d be scared of you physically, big lad an’ all as you are, and him not exactly being The Rock. And he’d be scared that you’d tell the shades and bring his stalking — and retail — careers to an end. He’s probably terrified right now that life as he knows it might end. I genuinely think that all he gets up to outside of work is stalking and gowling around with that young one, Farrah. That his life is just that, Francie’s, Farrah and stalking. So, not to put it all at risk . . . I think he’ll give the stalking a rest for a few months. He definitely won’t go near Connie and Scary Mary again. But if he sees someone else he takes a shine to in the New Year . . . Old habits die hard.”

“Unless he gets help.”

“A leopard doesn’t change its spots, Senán. Gollum won’t go to some flouncy counsellor to get cured of being a pervert. Unless it’s to look up her skirt or down her top. I think you have to thank your lucky stars you caught him stalking people you care about—”

“I wouldn’t go that far!”

“—and got him to stop. You’ve done as much as you can do. The helping Gollum thing . . . I’d forget about it.”

“There’s one more thing,” she continued, after taking a sip from her gin and tonic. “Gollum is nasty. He’ll want revenge. I’ve seen it before in the shop. It’s an eye for an eye with him. He’s gonna get you back.”

“He might be filling out my P45 as we speak!”

Trish shook her head. “No. No way. He needs you now. He’d never fire his star shelf-stacker in the run-up to Christmas. He might get rid of you afterwards, but not now. But anyway: Gollum is too much of a coward for open warfare. When he gets you back it’ll be in some sly, sneaky way. He’ll knife you in the back by remote control, so that there’s no danger to himself.”

“The old passive-aggressive approach.”

“That’s our Gollum. Passive-aggressive.”

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 22 of 36

“No fucking way, man,” said Vincent. “You tell them nothing. There’s nothing to be gained by it.”

“That’s assuming he stops when I tell him to stop.”

“And why wouldn’t he stop?”

“Why would he? Why is he doing it in the first place?”

Senán and Vincent were down in the haunt, huddling as close to the wall as possible. A bitter north wind had risen and there was talk of snow coming in its wake. A white Christmas did not seem all that unlikely. Vincent bent into the shelter of a concrete column to light his cigarette. Senán felt like asking for one — or ordering a stiff drink in the college bar. He felt like he needed some crutch or other to deal with the strain.

“Listen,” he said to Vincent’s podgy back. “Knowledge is power, right? If Connie and Scary Mary know that Luke has been stalking them, they can keep a lookout, take precautions, and if they see sight or sound of the fucker, call the cops.”

Vincent sucked on his Marlboro, spreading the small patch of struggling incandescence from one side of the cigarette to the whole tip.

“But that knowledge will fuck them up. Sense of security: out the door. Sense of privacy: out the door. Perception of freedom and ease of movement: out the door. Our old friend, paranoia: in the door. Anxiety—”

“I get it: in the door.”

“Ten-four.”

They listened to the howl of the wind through the street lights and bushes of the car park. The men from Buildings had turned off the fountain, its waters having been driven far across the car park by the gusts.

“D’ya think he’s following them off-campus?” said Senán. “Like, peeping in their windows while they’re undressing and that kinda shit?”

“You’d have to assume so. That’s what stalkers do, isn’t it?”

“What sort of buzz does he get out of it? It’s deviant behaviour, isn’t it?”

“Well, your Luke would probably constitute the classic stalker. The stutter, the painful shyness, the weird head on him, the body, et cetera. Your classic loser. Then throw in what you told me about his background, bullying at school . . . The only time he feels realised is when he’s stalking someone. He probably started off young, got a taste for it, and now it’s part of his personality. Second nature. So when he met Connie in the college bar and found her particular brand of superficial yummy mumminess attractive — each to their own, I say — instead of asking her did she come there often or offering to buy her a drink, he says to himself: Jesus, I’ll start stalking this one, she’s hot.”

“But what does he feel when he’s doing it?”

There was a stricken edge to his voice: the sound of guilt, bafflement, pity and anger all rolled into one. Vincent had been busy clearing his inbox for the forthcoming exams and wouldn’t have gone down for a cigarette but for his friend’s obvious distress.

“Power,” said Vincent. “Skulking in the shadows watching these women gives him a sense of power over them. He’s there watching them, doing what he wants, rewarding an impulse, while they’re there oblivious to his presence. He’s the powerful one, they’re the victims. Also: he probably hasn’t a great opinion of women—”

“That’s for sure. I’d always just thought his opinions were a bit unevolved, but now, looking back on the stuff he’s come out with, I think he’s a problem with women. He thinks all the women from the Island are slappers and these women his brother brings down from Dublin are classy ladies. Quote, unquote.”

“Hmm,” sang Vincent, and then took a pull on his cigarette. Senán looked at him quizzically until his cycle of inhaling and exhaling was complete.

“These university women that he meets through you represent something for him. A kind of idealised vision of what women should be. His own mother abandoned him: slapper. The girls he went to school with: slappers, especially because they probably spent five years teasing him and rejecting him. The girls in the shop: slappers — won’t go next nor near him, mock him, call him Gollum. All the women he encounters in his daily life are slappers. And then he has his brother, who’s done well for himself you tell me, pulled himself up out of the ghetto, rubbing his brother’s face in his own loserdom and inadequacy, brings these classy ladies down from the big smoke. No doubt about it. Fucked up and all as it sounds, for your friend Luke, Connie and Scary Mary are everything he thinks he wants from a women: not from the Island, educated, well-mannered, good accents, ambition, prospects. He must be like a kid in a sweetshop at the moment. He’s probably never stalked anybody like either of these two. You’ve opened up a whole new world to him. It might represent a kind of displaced admiration of you, the type that he feels for his brother. And . . . you’re his portal to these women. His access point to this brave new world of Connies and Scary Marys.”

“Fuckin’ A, man. Fuckin’ A. That makes me feel just brilliant altogether.”

“You shouldn’t feel bad. You’re not responsible for the behaviour of others. You just need to give him a tugtar faoi ndeara, as they say in the civil service. Warning him off is the best you can do.”

Glumly, Senán backed into the wall, and standing shoulder to shoulder the two men watched the wind pull and tear at the shrubs and trees.

“I have to tell them. Connie and Scary Mary,” said Senán after a while. “There’s no way I can’t and still call myself a good person.”

“Senán, listen,” said Vincent, the authority of a parent in his voice. “Forget about your guilt. Or deal with it in some other way. You’ve nothing to gain by telling them. You don’t want to startle the horses needlessly. You telling them will achieve nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah. What you’ve got to do is talk to this worm, this fucker, warn him off, scare the bejaysus out of him, get him to promise he’ll never stalk them again — or else. And keep an eye on the situation. If you see him up to his old tricks after you’ve warned him off, then it’s time to think about ‘fessing up to those two delightful ladies. Even going to the cops — or the shades, as I believe they’re called in the less salubrious parts of our un-fair city.”

 

“I agree with your friend Vincent,” said Trish. “They don’t really need to know. It’ll just . . . It’s just disturbing to know that someone is watching you. So telling them will just make them feel all weird for no reason. Like, if it’s all over and done with after you have your little chat with Gollum, what’s the point in ruining two innocent people’s buzz for nothing?”

“You’re saying me telling Connie and Scary Mary is needlessly causing them grief?”

“Yep. It’s like someone telling you a burglar was casing out your house but didn’t break in. What good would knowing something like that be?”

Senán glanced across at Trish, who was looking at him with sympathy and kindness, and gave a brave, bitter smile. They were in the Barge, a pub on the Abbey River within walking distance of the shop and Trish’s house, and frequented by a rugby set.

“You’re going to pay a high enough price as it is,” she continued. “As of that little chat you’re going to have with Gollum you’re an ex-employee of Grabber Francie.”

“I’d kinda factored that in to the whole equation.”

“Well you don’t want to wind up being Scary Mary’s ex-whatever-it-is either. Or Connie’s ex-ex: you know, so far down her shitlist you won’t have a single friend in common.”

“Isn’t the XX a band?”

Trish laughed.

“I won’t tell them, so,” he said quietly. “You and Vincent have won the debate. But I’m keeping an eye out for Gollum on campus from here on out, and I might even do the odd fly-by of Connie’s and Scary Mary’s places just to make sure. Coz if he ever did anything to one of them, I couldn’t live with myself.”

“You needn’t worry about that. That gowl is too much of a snake to do anything except slink around following someone. All he’s doing is pulling his wire to pictures of ’em. Twisted little fuck.”

“I hope that’s all he’s doing. I really hope so.”

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chaper 21 of 32

Senán’s phone vibrated and gave a little ping. He looked aside his computer and saw Trish’s name lit up on his phone. The message read: “He’s left in his Noddymobile. Good luck.”

Senán smiled at Trish’s little joke, thinking that there was indeed something Noddy-like about Luke when he drove his old Corsa — the rigidity of his posture, the straightness of his arms, the puppet-like way he moved his head to check his wing mirrors. He answered the text with the detective-and-magnifying-glass emoji and quickly finished the section of the paper he was reading.

“I’m off for a bite of lunch,” he said to Vincent.

On his way to the elevators he snuck a look out at the weather and decided to get a take-out if the queue wasn’t too long. In ten minutes’ time he was munching a roll and surveying the entrance to the business school.

There’s only one way in and out, he was thinking, but where can I stand watching it without being seen?

The business school was U-shaped. The courtyard enfolded by the arms of the U afforded nowhere to hide, with only low shrubs and a long rectangular water feature occupying its grey-slabbed sterility. He looked up at the entrance again and calculated whether someone observing the courtyard from the second or third floor atrium could be seen from where they stood. The answer was no.

And if I see him coming in, how do I follow him? For the hundredth time, he wondered what Luke did in the business school. Walk up and down Connie’s corridor? Watch her having lunch? Peep at her office from the end of the corridor?

He looked outside the U, at the copse of bare birch at the other side of the roadway, their peeling bark shining in the winter sun, the grass growing up around their trunks in need of a strimming. If I hide in there waiting for him to pass, I’ll look like some sort of pervert. They’ll call campus security.

He shook his head and took a large chomp from his roll. If it were any other building on campus, the Foundation, for example, there would have been dozens of nooks and crannies in which a person could lie in wait without being seen; Vincent’s haunt, for instance.

Damn it, I’ll just go up to the atrium and wait it out. All I want is to see is he hovering around Connie. If I’ve to come back another day, I will.

He finished the roll and washed it down with the coffee that steamed from the paper cup warming his left hand. Up on the third-floor atrium he kept watch for Luke’s skinny form. Down below, just inside the doors, a pair of green-uniformed porters were putting up a Christmas tree. Better late than never, Senán thought.

There was a week and a half to go until Christmas day. Campus was frantic with exam fever. As a tutor, his inbox was buzzing with urgent emails from first and second years wanting to clarify this point or that as they settled down to cram for their sociology or statistical science exams. Scary Mary’s office door was under continual assault as desperate students, behind in their assignments or hopelessly lost in last-minute study, called to “plea bargain”, as Vincent called it. Vincent himself was receiving visits. While the worst-case scenario of “all is changed, changed utterly” he had painted in the college bar had not come to pass, the spotty girl whose character and appearance he had assassinated that night and a few of her friends were now regular callers to his and Senán’s corral.

Bingo!

Approaching the U was Luke, wearing his navy anorak, chinos and scuffed and dried-out-looking black shoes. Senán stepped back from the low wall of glass that marked the edge of the open area overlooking the atrium, and half concealed himself behind an indoor plant — just in case. Luke carried nothing in his hands, he noticed, nor wore a bag, which he surely would have done were he bringing documents for registering for a course. He walked quickly, with obvious purpose and, as always, flicked his eyes up, down, left and right, like a soldier patrolling hostile streets. Soon he was below Senán. His gelled-back hair shone as he passed underneath the doorway’s recessed lighting and made for the stairwell. As he ascended the wide stairs Senán noticed that he could follow his progress through his reflection in the atrium’s glass wall. Fearing that the reverse could also be the case, he retreated further behind the plant.

When Luke reached the first floor, Senán saw his reflection move to a spot exactly two floors below. Mirroring his positioning even more, Luke stood behind the corresponding plant on the first floor.

If I’m hiding from him, who the hell is he hiding from? thought Senán. He watched Luke take out his phone, play with the zoom and focus, and take a number of photos. If Connie is down in that restaurant, that’s as good as proof that he’s stalking her.

Being a yard or so in from the edge of the balcony, Senán could only see half of the cafeteria’s floor space. Connie’s distinctive mop of hair was not visible. Carefully, aware that his reflection could be seen if Luke happened to look up, he inched forwards and glanced down to his right. Sure enough, at a table with some of her new business school postgrad friends was Connie. Senán shook his head, walked in from the edge of the open area and slumped into a seat by the back wall. There it was, Connie blithely going about her daily business and Luke hiding behind plants taking photos of her.

Great, thought Senán. Where do I go from here?

He judged that it would be a bad idea to march down and confront Luke. This had to be dealt with calmly and delicately — not argued about in the heat of the hunt. But the stalking would have to be stopped soon. After work some night that week, over a pint in Bowsie’s, Senán would have to broach the subject and make it clear that Luke had to leave Connie in peace. But what would he tell her? He dreaded talking to Connie more than to Luke. He knew she would throw it all back in his face: his decision to take up a postgrad in sociology; to work with Scary Mary studying the lack of social justice in the housing market; his job in Francie’s; going out with Trish. The lot. He could hear the expression being trotted out all over again: “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” He wondered would she go to the guards.

Thinking such thoughts, Senán sat and watched a very busy-seeming Luke. In the time Luke was stooped behind the plant, phone pointed discreetly downwards, he had either shot hundreds of photos or a long video. After close to ten minutes he put his phone away and walked down the stairs without a glance towards the restaurant.

To follow or not to follow, that is the question. Fuck it, this is where the stalker becomes the stalked.

Thinking that Luke was probably returning to his Noddymobile, Senán did not start moving until Luke had almost crossed the courtyard. By the time he emerged from the building Luke was almost out of sight. He had not turned right towards the nearest visitors’ car park, however, but was taking a path through the copse of birch trees which would lead him towards the heart of campus.

Where the fuck is he going?

At the far end of the copse Senán paused. About a hundred yards ahead, Luke’s slim figure was hurrying up a set of wide steps at the top of which was a footpath that branched into paths past the library or on a wide loop of the Foundation. Luke took the latter. He wouldn’t be going to visit me? Senán hung back until Luke disappeared around the elbow of the footpath. He then put on a spurt of speed, just in time to see his quarry turn towards the Foundation’s main entrance.

Let’s see where he goes from here.

Without any uncertainty, looking like he belonged in the building, Luke turned off its main concourse onto a little-used spiral staircase. From the entrance to a lecture theatre just inside the Foundation’s long double doors, Senán saw him rise two flights and then hurry along the landing to the open-plan office where Senán’s corral lay.

Jesus, he’s calling into old Senán!

Senán took the elevator and stealthily walked down the corridor. Expecting to see Luke wandering around the large space searching out his and Vincent’s booth from among the three dozen there, he stopped by the nook with the photocopier and water cooler, giving him a view of the entire office. Luke was nowhere to be seen. Frowning, Senán began to walk towards his booth. Perhaps Luke had found it and was sitting inside chatting to Vincent about Xmal Deutschland. Suddenly, he perceived movement from the corner of his eye. At the far side of the open-plan area, Luke’s form was slowly moving along the corridor where the lecturers’ offices lay. Almost gliding in the smoothness of a pensive gait, and for once not squinting around him but concentrating on the name plaques on each door, Luke passed from Senán’s left to his right like a ghost.

Senán stepped behind the poor cover of a coat stand. He saw Luke reach Scary Mary’s office, whose door was open, and hesitate briefly as he passed, as if part of him were sending an impulse to his legs to enter the office instead of walk by it.

Curious, thought Senán. Even more curious was when Luke did an about-face at the end of the corridor and in the same ponderous gait walked back the way he had come. This time he did stop in front of Scary Mary’s door, though almost imperceptibly — both feet still, resting on the floor, head turned and eyes eating everything he could see through the door. Senán saw the flash of a smartphone’s screen as Luke held the phone at hip height and presumably snapped more photos. As Senán blinked incredulously, Luke continued along the corridor and disappeared.

Holy fuck. He’s stalking Scary Mary as well. What the fuck?

He remembered back to the previous week when he had introduced Luke to his supervisor, and then he thought of that night in the college bar when Connie had come over to their table. He shook his head once more. What sort of freak am I dealing with?

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 20 of 32

Dazzlers nightclub was notorious in the city, its name synonymous with middle-aged desperation and marital infidelity. Rarely did anyone under thirty go there, and if they did it was for a stag or hen party, where the usual stigma of being seen in the club could be shared among friends, or the entire party receive a general absolution for the occasion. “Meat market”, “pickup joint” and “fleshpot” were phrases often used in reference to Dazzlers, and locals’ idea of a typical patron was a boozy, red-faced, overweight, separated man in his late forties or early fifties, or a lonely, mutton-dressed-as-lamb single woman of similar age, suffering from low self-esteem and general disappointment with life, and whose search for a partner using all the normal channels had been so fruitless that only Dazzlers remained — as the option of last resort.

Máire Ní Mhainnín stood out from the crowd in Dazzlers, not only because of her beauty, but because of her age — she was one of few women under forty there that Saturday night — and her aura of confidence. Luke could see the ripples of excitement among the knots of men huddled along the counter as she walked with her glass of wine to a free high table overlooking the dance floor. He also noted the jealous glances from other women. A black velvet minidress clung to her body, showing off her flat stomach, perky breasts and rounded bottom. She was setting down a marker by which the other women would be judged that night. Her competitors knew she could have any man she wanted, and Luke could see they hated her for it.

He had raced from closing up Francie’s to An Chéim Bhriste just in time to enjoy the spectacle of Máire getting ready to go out. She had padded around the house barefoot, fresh out of the shower, with a bath towel wrapped around her trunk and her hair tied turban-like into a smaller one. Her skin was smooth, pink from the heat of the water, and for the first time he saw the firm line of her jaw and cheekbones unobscured by hair. With the garden perfumed by steam rising from the drain outside her bathroom into the damp December air, he watched her dry herself, apply body cream to every inch of her skin below the neck, and spray deodorant under her arms.

Her body was beautiful beyond Luke’s expectations. She hadn’t a pick of fat anywhere — no little belly, no spare tyre, no rolls of fat under her buttocks — but she wasn’t skinny: her arms, legs and torso were toned, leading him to believe that she must work out regularly. He wondered if the reason she went into work so early was to hit the gym before her classes began. Or maybe she exercised here after work, while I’m still on the clock in Francie’s?

She had small, tidy breasts, more like Farrah’s than he imagined Connie’s to be. With the right wig and make-up he could picture Farrah being a convincing Máire, although there was one alteration that Farrah would have to make: Máire’s crotch was almost entirely free from hair, with only a thin line of fur running from the top of her vagina. Luke believed this was what was called a Brazilian.

How much would Farrah charge me to get one of those done on herself?

As he watched her get dressed, he knew for sure she was going out. Slavering in the darkness outside her bedroom, he saw her slip first into lacy black briefs, whose high waist made her legs look even longer. She then clipped herself into a matching bra and stood adjusting it and assessing herself in the mirror. When she was happy with this, she pulled on heavy and glossy black pantyhose. He had never watched a mature woman dress before, and found the experience delicately titillating, certainly better than the couple of times his brother had brought him to strip clubs in Dublin. In the midst of the drunken, rowdy throng of those places he had felt anything but arousal. He had felt shame, as if he were the one under observation rather than the oiled women writhing on the little stage. In the garden of An Chéim Bhriste, Luke was the only one doing the watching, and the woman inside was not some tattooed slapper from a poor neighbourhood trying to make an easy buck before falling into full-blown prostitution.

Máire took a little black dress from her wardrobe. After tugging its stretchy fabric around her bottom and midriff, she sat in front of the large mirror of her dressing table to do her hair and make-up. It fascinated Luke to study her putting her face on, to watch her slow, deliberate transformation from a fresh-faced, natural beauty to a dark-eyed, crimson-lipped bird of prey. She seemed to grow in mystery and ineffability the more colour she applied to her face, became something other from the simple woman who had stood naked and unadorned minutes before, running the towel over her damp skin.

She’s dressing to kill, thought Luke, as she stretched her neck in putting on earrings. Then a shaft of panic broke his composure: She’s going to be leaving soon. Do I want to follow her? He decided that he did. He turned off his video camera and made stealthily for the road. He hurried to Walsh’s car park and soon was reversing into the gateway of an abandoned bungalow from where he could observe anyone entering or leaving the cottage.

A taxi pulled up outside her house. Luke heard its horn beep and Máire clambered in. The taxi did a U-turn, its lights flashing briefly into the cab of Luke’s car, and made for the Tipperary Road. After it had passed out of sight, Luke started his engine and did his usual trick of staying at least two cars back. Traffic was light and fluid, and keeping up was not difficult. By the time they reached the Ballysimon Road, past various routes to circumvent the city, he was certain she was going to a city centre restaurant or pub. He was surprised when the taxi drew to a stop outside Dazzlers. He didn’t associate the place with a classy lady like Máire Ní Mhainnín, but then he remembered his first impression of her — as a sexual predator — and thought there would be ripe pickings in the nightclub for a woman like her.

 

For a couple of hours Luke hid in the shadows of Dazzlers watching Máire from a distance. He was easily the youngest person there, apart from one of the barmen and the floor boy, but he didn’t stand out. He was used to occupying spaces in busy rooms unseen, had practised the art over many years. After Máire had got her wine and seemed settled at her table, he went to the bar and ordered a bottle of non-alcoholic beer. This he nursed for the rest of the night, taking tiny swigs to appear that, like everyone else, he was there to get drunk and pick someone up.

In these situations his phone was an invaluable prop. A person could spend the entire evening in a bar or club hunched over their phone without looking out of place or drawing attention to themselves. He noticed tables of glum-looking patrons doing nothing but drinking and fingering their phones.

If Máire had a mobile phone on her person, Luke saw no evidence of it in Dazzlers. She sat statue-still at her table with a beguiling smile lightly written on her sleek, moist lips. She appeared to be in rapt observation of the goings-on on the dance floor. Occasionally her smile would broaden, as if something below was amusing her, and sometimes she would switch her gaze to the flirting couples peppered along the bar. Luke began to wonder if she had come to Dazzlers just to people-watch. She had hardly touched her wine, showed no interest in dancing and hadn’t set her eyes on any of the men milling around her part of the club. He wasn’t quite sure what sociologists did, but had an idea that they studied human behaviour. Was Máire’s outing for work purposes? Perhaps she was writing a book about the kinds of mating rituals on display at the club.

But Luke knew that no matter what Máire’s motivation was, a woman of her beauty would not be left alone for long. Male patrons were now on to their second or third drink, the alcohol in their systems battling their shyness and insecurities. Dutch courage would propel their lust in her direction. The first man to chat Máire up was a short, balding man with the type of moustache favoured by the rugby playing types from the city’s “good” clubs. This man hadn’t lined out in over twenty years but probably spent most of his evenings hobnobbing in the Young Munster or Shannon club house. The gaps in height, age and physical attractiveness rendered his attempts to woo Máire ridiculous, but Luke had to admire his courage. For ten minutes he looked up at her with a bold twinkle in his eye and talked non-stop, only pausing to deliver the odd hearty laugh that shook his flabby chest and midriff. The man made Máire herself laugh a few times, which Luke knew was half the battle with women, but there was something in the way she looked at the man, like an aunt’s regard for a wayward toddler, which suggested he was on a fool’s errand.

Following this man’s departure, a line of others beat a path to Máire’s table. They were of all ages, shapes and sizes, some taller than Máire, some short, some buffed and polished and highly spruced up, some down-at-heel and bedraggled, some salesman-confident, flashing white teeth and oversized watches, others sneaking glimpses at her from the corners of their eyes and mumbling bashfully. Luke could see in their gestures some men asking her for a dance, which she never agreed to. Whatever she was doing, she wasn’t there to dance. A couple of men invaded her personal space, standing elbow to elbow with her at her table. One even tried to throw an arm around her. Something Máire said made him pull the arm away in an instant. While in conversation with these men, her lack of interest was clear from one hundred yards away. If she had come to Dazzlers to take someone home, it wasn’t going to be any old piece of warm meat. She was looking for something specific or uncommon.

It was a strange-looking man with whom she eventually left — a man as distinctive and quirky as her old Subaru or An Chéim Bhriste. He could have been described as a middle-aged hipster, with his highly groomed grey beard, pointed ankle boots and skinny jeans. He was rake-thin, shoulder blades protruding from a black velvet sports coat, and tanned, as if he had just come from a holiday on the Costa del Sol. Unlike his beard, his mop of curly hair had not gone fully grey, adding to his striking appearance. Luke could see from the shift in Máire’s body language that she was attracted to the hipster. When he stood at her table, presumably introducing himself or delivering some ironic pick-up line, she angled her body towards him, something she had not done for any of the other men. He also coaxed more conversation from her than the others, and while they chatted she made deep and unbreaking eye contact with him. Luke was surprised when the man left, but then he returned with drinks and nestled in close to her. They remained in a tight huddle until they left the club after finishing their drinks.

Without stopping to consider a strategy or plan, Luke left Dazzlers in the wake of the newly formed couple. He found them outside kissing. As he passed them by he could hear the slurping sounds their mouths made. After he had crossed the road fifty yards ahead and began to double back, he saw them walking arm in arm. They were laughing loudly and Máire looked light-hearted and full of joy. Luke figured they were heading to a taxi rank. At the top of the street, across the road from Dazzlers, he dawdled after turning around.

What good would following them on foot do? he asked himself. They would hop in a taxi on O’Connell Street and would be lost to the night — unless he did a Spencer Tracy, jumping in a taxi himself and ordering the driver to “follow that car”. He thought of taking a gamble. What if they’re going back to her place? I’ll get there before them and be all set up in the bushes and I’ll record everything that happens.

 

A voice cried up the stairs: “Luke, love. We’re off to mass now. And then we have that trip to Killaloe. See you for tea. Bye, love.”

It was his grandmother. He would have the house all to himself. The front door closed. Luke rolled out of bed and went to the bathroom. As he stood over the bowl urinating, he smiled.

What a night! My best night on the job, ever!

After flushing, he went straight for his backpack at the foot of his bed and took out his infrared camera. He turned on his laptop and connected the camera. While waiting for it to boot up he went downstairs and put on the kettle and some toast. He hummed over the rumbling and gurgling of the kettle.

Beyond the porn he watched on his laptop, Luke had never seen a couple having sex before. The hipster and Máire had begun on her couch, getting into a tangle of arms and legs while slow music throbbed through the French doors. The man had stripped her off gradually and worked his tongue all around her body while she writhed on the sofa. Then he took his own clothes off and she led him to the bedroom, where for a change the curtains were not drawn and a small lamp was left on. Luke went closer to the window than he had ever dared before and was rewarded for his boldness by scenes of adventurous lovemaking that lasted well over an hour. Realising that he might never have an opportunity like this again, he had concentrated on recording the event at as high a quality as possible. Instead of allowing his arousal to overcome him, he ignored it and devoted his attention to getting properly focussed close-ups: the man’s penis thrusting in and out of Máire’s vagina; her lips around his testicles; his tongue teasing the tight skin of her anus; her expression when she was tied to the bedposts and blindfolded as he ran his penis over her breasts.

Luke was anxious to get the data on to his laptop and then back it up onto a hard drive. He couldn’t contemplate losing those videos. Tea and toast in hand, he bounded up the stairs and set about transferring the files.

Will I or won’t I? he asked himself.

Should he watch “Máire Post-Shower” or “Máire and Hipster”, or leave them as a treat for later? Farrah was coming over in a couple of hours. He didn’t want to be all spent up for her, his penis sore and raw from pulling, and his libido struggling to maintain interest. More than anything it would be a waste of the eighty euro he was paying her.

Leave it till later, Luke boy. A Sunday evening treat.

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