Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 18 of 32

“I saw Luke out at the university today,” said Senán.

“Ooh,” mocked Trish. “Did your bestest friend forever come to visit you at work?”

Senán was walking her home. They were strolling hand in hand and coming to the entrance to St Mary’s Park. It was an unexpectedly mild and dry night and both were feeling restful and satisfied and glad to be finished with the day’s work.

“He was out there on business. He told me he was thinking of doing a cert, or a dip in management.”

“He fuckin’ needs some sort of tutoring, all right,” said Trish. “He needs to get the creepy all educated out of him. Or even better — bet out of him. And he needs to be taught a bit of human warmth and caring. Like, he’s not exactly a people person. He’s not great at dealing with the public, like. Or his staff. Or anybody really. Actually, he doesn’t need to do a course. He needs a personality transplant. And maybe a head transplant to get rid of his aul’ gawky, gowly, Gollum puss. And a body transplant, if there’s such a thing.”

She laughed and tugged on Senán’s arm to show that her tirade was as much to get a rise out of him as to express her dislike for Luke. Senán did not look impressed. Just as he was about to speak, she continued: “And don’t you stick up for him like you always do. ‘Luke’s had it tough. Luke has no father or mother. Luke is a poor stutterer. Luke was bullied at school.’ We all fucking had it tough and we didn’t turn out gowls like him.”

“Actually, I wasn’t going to say that, smarty-pants. I was going to ask you for your opinion about something.”

A seriousness in his tone made Trish scan his face to assess his mood and intentions. She wound down her smile and told him to go ahead.

“OK. I saw Luke today on campus and, like I said, he said he was looking into doing a dip or a cert in management. OK. Grand. But he was seen the other week on campus as well, by a friend of mine, Vincent.”

“The famous Vincent.”

“More or less in the same area — near the business school. Anyway. I’m thinking: why wouldn’t Luke give me a call and we could have lunch together and hang out? I mean we’re going for a pint in Bowsie’s at least once a week these days.”

“Ye’re bosom buddies, I know.”

“So yeah, he comes on to campus without telling me anything. Not a crime, I do admit. It’s a free world and all of that. But then, he’s talking about doing this cert or dip. And he knows my background. I mean I could put him in touch with lots of people who could tell him exactly what he needs to do and who to see, what brochures to collect and all that shit. Get him on special programmes for people with just the bare Leaving Cert from, um, disadvantaged areas.”

“Mind your language, there!”

“But he’s doing it all in secret.”

“That’s our Gollum. Su-su-secret is his middle name.”

“Which leads me to wonder what exactly he’s doing on campus. Is it a case of—”

“He’s stalking someone.”

Trish said this with such deadpan gravity compared to her last few wisecracking interventions that Senán pulled up, Trish luckily noticing this before her arm was yanked back.

“I’m ashamed to say,” said Senán sadly, “the same thought had struck me. That’s why I want you to tell me all you know about Luke stalking people.”

“Jesus. You didn’t want to hear about any of that before. You really do think he’s stalking someone?”

“I suspect. That’s all. And I feel terrible about it. I feel like a bad friend. But I can’t get the nagging sensation out of my mind about what Luke’s up to, coz . . . coz I half suspect who he might be stalking. But I need more data before I can make my mind up. So please, hit me with all the malicious gossip about him.”

“You heard some of it before, right?”

“Yep. Remember one night in PJ’s with you and Debs and Susan, before Halloween when I was still a newbie? Ye talked about the girl I replaced as chief midweek evening shelf-stacker. She was the subject of, um, Luke’s unwanted attentions and walked out, couldn’t take it anymore, as far as I remember. And there was another girl as well, a young one.”

“Ronnie.”

“Who left the shop as well because of him.”

“Yeah. He was a real pest with her. Likes ’em young, you see.”

“And you felt he was watching you as well?”

“Not just felt,” said Trish adamantly. “I fucking knew he was watching me. I mean, I was wise to him after the stories the girls told me. For the first few weeks I was working in Francie’s, trying to be all nice and make a good impression and everything, fucking Gollum was all over me. Asking me every five minutes how I was doing, showing me how to ring stuff up on the till. All that shit. Every time I looked up, there he was watching me with that fucking fish’s eye of his. And then offering me stuff, the exact same as how he went on with Ronnie and Amy: out-of-date pasta and soup to take home to the mother and father. Fresh pizzas. Milk, bread. Whatever. I mean, I woulda loved to take it, we’re not exactly rolling in it at home. But, fuck, he was so creepy and weird I didn’t want to be under a compliment to him. So I said no, thank you very much. But the watching still went on in the shop. And we all thought he’d moved the security cameras around to be able to get better angles of us. And we were super freaked out about the jacks in case he’d have had a tiny spy camera in there. But how can you prove that? So anyway. I find myself in town with the girls of a Saturday afternoon and who do I catch lurking behind a plant in the Arthur’s Quay shopping centre? Fucking Gollum. Or in PJ’s or the Trinity Rooms hidden up at the bar on his phone, mar dhea? Or having a few cans in the sun down the Back Field who do I see peeping out of the bushes? Or in the Parkway on Childers Road? He’s not actually all that good a stalker, the fucking gowl. And once you actually start looking around yourself, carefully like, paying attention to who’s around you wherever you go, and you see that fucker nearly everywhere . . . I got my brothers to have a word with him. Surprise, surprise, I stopped seeing him everywhere.”

“Wow,” said Senán, frowning. He began walking again and didn’t speak until they were inside St Mary’s Park.

“And you said about him liking them young?” he said. “What does that mean?”

“Well, OK. The girls had never seen Gollum so gone on anyone as he was on Ronnie. I mean, she’s a nice-looking girl and everything. You know, trim figure, pleasant face, nice complexion, decent hair. But nothing special.”

“Not like you,” joked Senán.

“Not like me. Yeah, right. Anyway, Ronnie was a normal girl. A seven, seven and a half out of ten. But Gollum was mad for her. You could see it in his eyes. And d’you know why we think he was so gone on her?”

“Her age?”

“Exactly.”

“And then there’s rumours.” Trish’s voice took on a hushed, grave tone. “That he’s knocking around with this young one. This one that’s dropped out of school and whose mother is a junkie and whose father has gone AWOL and has a whole heap of half-brothers and -sisters running round the place hungry and dirty.”

“Farrah.”

“How the fuck do you know her name?”

“I’ve met her. The night Luke was giving me a tour of the badlands. We met her on the train tracks coming up to Rhebogue.”

“Fuck, Senán you’ve to stop hanging around with him. She’s on the game, God love her. Not far away from being a junkie herself. And the whole of Limerick knows that Gollum is riding her. Paying for it, more than likely. She’s seen going in and out of his house when the grandparents are away and it’s hardly playing tiddlywinks inside there that they’re at.”

“Fuck,” was all Senán could manage.

“He’s following in Grabber’s footsteps. They say Grabber’s never not paid for sex. He was always down the docks back in the day, and now he’s visited by slappers from eastern Europe — home deliveries. That maybe he even keeps some of ’em, rent free, in one of his millions of houses. Who knows? All I know is that both of them are dirty when it comes to women and that of the two, Gollum is the creepiest. I can see him doing horrible things to that poor young wan.”

“Fuck.”

Senán put his arm around Trish and pulled her tightly to him. She rested her cheek against his shoulder and nuzzled his neck with her nose.

“You believe what I’m telling you?” she asked. “Coz I know you didn’t before.”

“It’s not that I didn’t believe you. Or the rest of the girls. I just thought ye were exaggerating.”

“But now you’ve seen it for yourself, you believe.”

“I haven’t seen anything for myself yet — I just have suspicions. But I’m keeping an eye out from now on. A sharp eye.”

They reached the corner of Trish’s street, their usual spot for a kiss and a cuddle before they said their goodnights. After a minute’s embrace in the half-light, Trish held her head back to pose a question.

“So who’s this girl he’s stalking. Do you know her?”

“Yes,” said Senán. “Connie. The ex we talked about. The snobby one. The worst thing is, if this stalking thing is true, I introduced them. She’ll really have me over a barrel if a friend of mine turns out to be stalking her. Remember that night Luke came to a do we were having with the sociology department? In the college bar. The night you couldn’t come? Well, Connie came over to say hi, and I introduced her to Luke. I mean, I didn’t notice anything at the time, but looking back, he had a bit of a gleam in his eye when she was talking to us. I dunno.”

“Is she that good-looking, this Connie?” There was a note of hostility and possibly jealousy in Trish’s voice. Senán answered carefully.

“Vincent calls her the ‘childless yummy mummy’, if that gives you any clue.”

“Hmm,” said Trish, filing the description away for later consideration. “Are you gonna tell her that maybe she’s being stalked?”

“Not for the moment. First, I’ll keep an eye on old Luke, and then . . . we’ll see.”

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 17 of 32

As he parked his car behind the business school, Luke was surprised to find himself in a state of arousal. The previous night he had had sex with Farrah dressed as Connie, and if he saw Connie this lunchtime he would have images in his mind of her writhing and panting beneath him. Farrah had played the role well, moving like the women in the videos Luke had shown her, even gentrifying her accent when she said his name and the other things he had instructed her to say.

He stepped out of his car, hiding his erection by zipping his anorak. A rare smile stretched his thin lips. Anyone passing might have supposed he was abuzz with the joys of the world or some good news. The smile soon faded when Luke set eyes on the main door of the school and he assumed surveillance mode. He was desperate to see Connie — not just to bolster the pleasure he had felt the night before, the residue of which was coursing through his body, but also to get close enough to smell her. Only one thing had taken away from the near-exquisite perfection of the previous night: Farrah as Connie still smelt like Farrah. It was something that Luke had overlooked, but as he stripped and kissed her, and as her hair dangled into his eyes when she straddled him, the smell of cigarettes and cheap teen perfume niggled at him. He had never seen Connie smoking and was certain the perfume she wore did not cost six euro in Michael Guineys. He wasn’t sure if brushing past Connie or walking in her wake would allow him to gain an impression of how she smelt, but he was determined to try.

Inside the atrium, he looked at his watch: almost a quarter past one. He wondered whether Connie might be having an early lunch, as she sometimes did mid-week, or whether she was still in her office. He decided to check the cafeteria. He skipped up the stairs and took a left, stopping at his usual spot behind a yucca tree close to the balustrade which overlooked the eating area. He scanned the dozen or so occupied tables below and the short self-service queue leading up to the cash register. Connie’s explosion of jet-black hair was not among those present.

Office, so, he thought.

By this stage, Luke had got to know the business school well. There were three ways to get to the second-floor corridor where Connie’s unit had their offices: climbing up the main stairs, taking a right and then another right; using the emergency staircase which served the north wing of the building; or taking the elevator. The elevator was a no-no. At the best of times, Luke avoided brightly lit and enclosed spaces. When he was stalking someone — “on duty”, as he called it — the last place he wanted to be was in a metal box with only one exit. (Luke did have a fantasy about following Connie into the elevator, but he had always seen her take the stairs.) The loneliness of the emergency staircase attracted Luke. In his dozen or so forays into the building, he had never encountered anyone on it. Noting that a security camera covered the ground-floor entrance to its stairwell, he only used it for two specific purposes: descending from Connie’s floor, and observing movements in and out of her office. The door that separated the stairwell from her corridor had a small window glazed with safety glass through which, if he stood bang up against the door and craned his neck, he could see her office. When he failed to spot her in the restaurant or when her office door was closed, his tactic was to wait in the stairwell, pretending to be on the phone, until he saw her dashing into or out of her office, or until he had to go back to the shop.

Stepping on to the second floor from the main staircase, Luke looked right and left before proceeding briskly to the corridor that led to the north wing. Classes were in session. Many of the lecture room doors were shut, allowing only the muffled boom of the lecturers’ voices out. Luke had the stuffy, tiled passageway to himself. He preferred it this way: on the couple of occasions when his visit had corresponded with class change-over time, he had felt swamped and intimidated by the students spilling out and loudly hurrying by. He felt he stood out more in the middle of a crowd of happily chatting students than as a single figure in an empty hallway. He could sense their eyes on him, their recognition that he didn’t belong on campus.

The paintings that lined the corridors often distracted Luke from the task at hand. A sign told him they were part of the National Self-Portrait Collection of Ireland. There were self-portraits of gnarled and bearded old men, wild men with mad looks in their eyes, angrily accusing him through beady, black pupils. There were resigned and disappointed-looking old women, lives of hardship and struggle ploughed into thick furrows of oil paint. There were middle-aged men and women, some garish, some playful, some with arch puzzlement drawn around the mouth and eye, but never pleasing to look at. It was not these nor the pretentious poses of confident and arrogant young men that interested him. The only portraits that caused him to linger and perhaps take a picture were those of young women.

Luke had never liked art before, but neither had he been exposed to much, beyond a couple of school visits to the Hunt Museum, where the paintings were of generals on rearing horses and consumptive beauties in Victorian ball gowns. He had never thought that art could be a turn-on. But there in the school were two portraits that ranked with anything he had in that folder on his laptop labelled Beauties. The women in these portraits may have been fully clothed and may not have been degrading themselves with fingers or dildos, but they made his lips and fingers and penis tingle every bit as much as his private photos.

One of the women was wearing a low-cut, red sequined dress. She sat on a couch which was a darker shade of red, legs crossed and hands splayed on its velvety fabric, pushing her upper body forward. She was blonde and possessed a severe, patrician beauty. The porcelain whiteness of her skin and the delicacy of her shoulder blades and cleavage made Luke desire to search out the artist, to watch her as he watched Connie, and to harbour similar fantasies of enjoying her body. He was happy, even somehow relieved, that unlike many of the artists watching him traverse the corridors, this woman was still young. The label gave her date of birth as 1985.

The other self-portrait showed a woman with an uncanny resemblance to Connie. She had thick, black wavy hair which reached to below her shoulders, pale skin rising to a blush on her cheeks, and a striking purple tinge to her brown eyes. It was a simpler portrait than the woman in the red dress — merely a head-to-toe representation of the woman against a bare white wall and standing on a grey concrete floor. She was dressed in a black body stocking, the only skin on show that of her hands, neck and face. The woman was slim, with small breasts and narrow hips, her body resembling that of Farrah rather than Connie. Yet each time he passed the picture or studied the photo of it on his phone, he could not help imagining Connie wearing a similar garment, her fuller figure stretching the light fabric until it became diaphanous.

Luke arrived at the top of the corridor and saw that Connie’s door was open.

OK, Luke, he said to himself. Steady as it goes.

He stood still and listened. There was no sound of footfalls behind him, and no stirrings behind any of the doors along the empty corridor up ahead.

Right! Go!

He crept up the linoleum tiles as smoothly and soundlessly as someone accustomed to having to move about unheard. He passed the first door, the second, the third, the fourth, hugging the wall and holding his jacket to him to prevent any swishing that might betray him. Between the fourth door and Connie’s he came to a stop and pricked his ears. All he could hear was the voice of a man talking on the telephone in the office opposite him and the sound of a keyboard being tapped in Connie’s office. He took a deep breath and edged along the wall until all that was between his left shoulder and the jamb of her door was an inch of cream-painted breeze block.

Wolf-like, he lifted his head, drew a long breath through his nostrils and turned his mind to picking apart the scents that mingled in the air. He held the air in his nose, warming it, humidifying it, turning it over, his full attention on the data trickling from nose to waking mind, and exhaled with a flash of triumph on his features. He could smell her! Somewhere among the building’s dusty, plasticky fug and the stale, solvent smell coming from the heating system nestled a combination of light, fruity shampoo and conditioner, hair oil, perspiration and perfume. He sniffed again, a growing excitement reddening his face. There it was! He ignored the apple shampoo and the red-berry conditioner, put aside the piny, outdoorsy smell of detergent and fabric softener. As if it were plucking balloons of a specific colour from a riotous mix, his olfactory bulb snatched snippets of Connie’s perfume from the air escaping her office and presented a sheaf of aromas — some crystal clear, some mere impressions, some indefinable — to his consciousness. Her perfume was a clash of light and dark aromas, like a ninth chord — an arresting combination, a scent that demanded to be noticed.

Luke could not have put the smell of her perfume into words, but he knew he could walk into the cosmetics section of Debenhams and pick it out from the hundreds on offer. He smiled and took one last sniff. The next time Farrah came to visit he would make sure that as well as looking like Connie, she would smell like her too. Moving back down the corridor, he wondered if Farrah could be persuaded to forgo smoking in the hours leading up to the rendezvous.

Probably not, he thought. Or she might ask for another twenty. Is it worth another twenty?

He looked at his watch and saw he could squeeze another fifteen minutes out of his visit to campus. He went upstairs, hurried to the stairwell and slipped down to his usual spot, to press up against the little window of the fire door. Connie’s door was still open — she hadn’t budged. He watched and waited. Close to half past one he perceived movement by her door. Pulling her arms through a light navy suit jacket and arranging her handbag over her shoulder, she appeared on the corridor, locked the door and, without a glance back towards Luke’s hungry watching eyes, walked towards the atrium. When she reached the end of the corridor he began to follow.

Connie kept up a steady, brisk pace. Luke liked it that way. There was nothing worse than trying to keep pace with someone who dawdled. You found yourself walking past them to avoid arousing suspicion when they came to a sudden stop, and then going to all sorts of bother to double back unseen. If there was one thing he had learned about Connie, it was how decisive she always was. Everything she did had an air of surety and composure, be it the swift, unyielding manner in which she entered roundabouts to how she grocery shopped, plucking items off the shelves without checking either price or best-before date, sometimes mid-walk. There was no hesitation in movement, intention or speech. She was like a shining arrow tearing through time and space.

With her scent hanging undisturbed in the still air of the corridor for Luke to catch, images of Farrah as Connie rose once more to his inner eye. He thought of how he had roughly pulled down her Lycra leggings and stuck a hand underneath her thong. He saw his penis thrusting into vagina, mouth and anus, and the redness of her stung nipples after he had bitten and pinched them. He heard her cry out his name as he pulled her hair and took her from behind: “Luke. I want more, Luke. Give it to me.” He wondered how different sex with the real Connie would be. He couldn’t imagine her taking orders the way Farrah did, submitting to his every desire. But one never knew . . . Maybe Luke would make it so she had no option but to obey. He dreamed of catching her in her office late in the evening, locking the door behind him, tying her to her chair, and doing what he did to Farrah. Or pulling her into his car when she was out walking and driving to Cratloe Wood where there would be no need to muffle her screams with a gag. Or breaking into her house some weekend when she was on her own.

When he reached the stairs, Luke hung back. Connie entered the cafeteria and he watched from behind his yucca tree. She met a couple of girlfriends Luke had come to recognise, then she set off for the sandwich counter. She looked quite the businesswoman. Between the suit jacket and peach blouse, the scarf she wore like a cravat, the ironed denims and black, sensible high heels, she was the embodiment of the female executive. It wasn’t as much of a turn-on as when she wore her walking gear, but Luke did harbour fantasies about being seen with her in public while she sported this look. The toerags who mocked his stutter in the shop would be laughing on the other side of their faces if he went for a walk around the neighbourhood arm in arm with Business Connie, as he called her, and he surely would rise in his brother’s estimation if they met in town for a coffee with her in tow. He snapped a photo of her stooping down over her handbag to pay at the cash register, legs bent at the knees and her bottom sticking out beneath the hem of her jacket. It became one of his favourite images of her.

Outside the school, as he hurried towards the car park, Luke was surprised to hear his name being called. He turned around to be met by a smiling Senán, who was with a strikingly beautiful, if somewhat cross-looking, woman in her mid-thirties.

Luke’s first thought was to retrieve the excuse he had prepared for such an occasion, and his second one was of wonderment that Senán seemed to be permanently in the company of stunningly attractive women.

“Whatcha doing here, Luke? I thought the night out with the sociology department would have scared you off the place forever!”

Luke looked shyly beyond the pair and then down at the ground.

“I’m-I’m-I’m thu-thu-thinking of du-du-doing a cert or du-du-diploma in mu-mu-management. I’m just-just checking out my options. I du-du-du-don’t know.”

“That’s great. Fair play,” said Senán brightly. “If you need a hand, I can put you in touch with a few people.”

Luke nodded his thanks and then Senán remembered his manners.

“Oh, Máire. This is Luke Geoghegan, my other boss. The manager of the shop, Francie’s. Luke, this is Máire Ní Mhainnín, my thesis director.”

Luke and Scary Mary shook hands, with Luke casting his eyes downwards and reddening slightly in the wake of a mild form of The Stare.

“We’ll have to get together, Luke,” said Scary Mary in her sweetest voice. “To compare notes about our Senán, here. I’m sure you have some tricks up your sleeve for getting the best out of him.”

Luke laughed and mumbled something about Senán being a great worker.

“You see, that’s the kind of thing I don’t want to hear,” said Scary Mary. She paused and glanced playfully from Senán to Luke. “I want him to expend as little energy outside of here as possible so that he can devote all his attention to the project we have together.”

When he had listened to Senán telling stories about Scary Mary, the picture he had had of her bore no resemblance to the woman standing before him. Luke had imagined a figure similar to the handful of younger women teachers who had passed through his secondary school on the way to better things. Most were plain, dowdy and countrified (although some were vaguely attractive — Luke had even had a thing for a German teacher called Miss Crowley, who had become one of the first objects of his stalking). But there was nothing schoolmarmish about Scary Mary.

He felt she simultaneously exuded both a sense of availability — or looseness — and an air of predatory sexuality. Everything from her hair to her facial expression to her clothes said “sex on a stick” to him. She wore a shaped winter coat, black with subtle floral details in a matt off-silver, which clung to her bust, hips and bottom and stopped mid-thigh, allowing a fair glimpse of long, slender legs clad in dark grey tights. Her skin-tight, stiletto-heeled boots, which reached to just below the knee, accentuated the sensual curves of her calves, and bordered on the types of boots worn by the PVC-and leather-clad women in his BDSM videos. Her chestnut hair was highly styled, a layered, asymmetric cut, and swept forward to below the jawline. She wore subtle day make-up that drew attention to her bottle-blue eyes, which were lined with kohl and shadowed with a colour to match her tights. Luke could not look into those hot, confrontational eyes, sure she would see the desire in his own. Instead he flicked his gaze from her cranberry lips to her arrow-straight eyebrows, to the flash of neck he could see above the collar of her coat. If the young woman he had been observing represented sweet, squeaky-clean, upper-middle-class normalcy, Scary Mary represented something altogether darker — a pillar of the academic world with a barely concealed interest in cold, angry sex, and possible fetish elements thrown in.

“He-he-he gu-gu-gets a lot of tu-tu-tu-time in the shop to thu-thu-think about his pu-pu-pu-project. While he’s-he’s pu-pu-packing shelves and-and-and all.”

“That’s true,” added Senán. “It’s solitary work. You get a lot of time to think about things.”

“Hmm,” said Scary Mary sceptically. “I’d prefer if he was doing his thinking at his desk in the Foundation. But anyway. We’ve to go, Luke. We’ve a meeting with a statistician. Nice to meet you. C’mon, Senán.”

With that she began marching forward, heels clicking on the tarmac. Senán winked at Luke, told him he’d see him later on in Francie’s and skipped to catch up. Luke walked in the opposite direction, then turned and watched until Senán and his supervisor disappeared into the business school.

So that’s Scary Mary.

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 16 of 32

“Can I ask you a favour, Vincent?” said Senán.

His friend puffed an expanding plume of smoke into the sharp night air, and smiled faintly as he flicked ash into a flower bed.

“You know I love doing people favours,” he said. “As long as we’re not talking money or anything that would put me out too much, I’m Mister Congeniality.”

“OK. I’ve two favours to ask you, really, thinking about it now.”

“Two? Jaysus.”

Vincent was wearing an oversized black mohair V-necked jumper, riddled with holes, whose sleeves were tattered enough to make a maiden aunt reach for her darning needles — his “Robert-Smith-circa-PrayerTour look”. Whenever he pulled this on before going out for a cigarette, it was a sure sign the weather was chilly.

“The first favour,” said Senán, “is that you turn off the sarcasm and wry observations for a couple of minutes. If you can do that, I can ask you the second one. Smart-arse setting to zero, please.”

“Hmm. Can I turn off the sarcasm and wry observations? Would I still be me if I did that? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make any noise? How can Vincent crappy with one handy?”

“Oh, Jesus,” said Senán in exasperation. “Forget it, Vincent. I knew it was too much to ask. I’ll bring my problems to Scary Mary or someone. Someone who’s not some kind of overgrown teenager.”

“OK. OK. OK. The invocation of that woman’s name has brought me to my senses. I’ll be all grown up from now on in. Promise. Tell me what I can help you with. Uncle Vincent is all ears.”

Senán looked carefully at his friend. In the red-tinged glow of the halogen lights that ringed the Foundation, Vincent’s chubby, unshaven face was without a hint of its usual playful acerbity. Senán even saw kindness and concern there. Convinced that Vincent would behave himself and not take advantage, he explained the favour.

“I need some advice off you, Vincent. As someone who’s been around the block more than me. It’s about me and Trish. You know I’m mad about her. She’s a great girl. Kind. Fun. Smart. We click, you know? And everything is perfect — except for one tiny thing. She has, Jesus, how should I say it, a block. She had a bad experience as a teenager. Her first time having sex. And now, she can’t do it. She just tightens up. She wants to do it, consciously, like. But there’s some unconscious fear. We’re physical together. We’ve done everything two lovers can do, but not full-blown penetrative sex. I’m at a loss. We’ve been going out for nearly six weeks now and I just know that it’s going to grow and grow. Until she feels so ashamed or I feel so sorry for her that it will become a thing between us and we’ll just break up over something that’s stupid and trivial in one way, but really important in another. Basically, and accepting the fact that I’d like to have sex with her very badly, I just want to help someone I really care about.”

Vincent took a drag of his shortening cigarette and pulled at a clump of hair with his free hand, twisting in a childlike way a long knot between his stubby forefinger and thumb.

“Fuck,” he said. “That’s a toughie. Have you suggested counselling?”

Senán nodded. “She’s considering it. Maybe after Christmas.”

“And from what I gather, she’s not generally frigid. She lets you touch her there and everything?”

“No problem.”

“And put your fingers up? She’s relaxed enough to let that happen?”

“Uh-huh. We do that a lot. She enjoys it. Gets wet. Orgasms. The works.”

“So it’s a specific fear of the purple-headed warrior being up there?”

“Uh-huh. And please — you’re veering into Vincent territory again.”

“OK. Sorry. Does she masturbate?”

“As far as I know, yes.”

“Does she have a vibrator?”

“I don’t know.”

After a last pull on his cigarette and flicking it into the shrubbery, Vincent frowned in thought for a while before speaking again: “It might be good to get a vibrator. One that’s as penis-like as can be. A big, scary, fucking industrial, 1970s-porn-movie vibrator. First, get her to use it on herself while you’re watching. And then you use it on her. It might take a few sessions of upping the ante, but after a while she’ll get used to the feel and, more importantly, the idea of a penis inside her. And if that doesn’t work, man . . . I’m thinking. Have you tried to get it on while high? On the doobie?”

“No. Drunk, yes. High, no.”

“Could be an idea. Saw it in a Woody Allen film. You never know. And if that doesn’t work, all I can think of is a visit to the headshrinker.”

Vincent lit another cigarette, as if to say that he was available for another seven minutes if Senán needed to talk more. Senán didn’t speak, however; just watched the wind bending the bare branches of the ash trees behind which twinkled the lights of Drumroe student village.

“Hey,” said Vincent, breaking the silence, “I saw that friend of yours, what’s-his-face, today. Your boss in the shop.”

“Luke?”

“That’s it. Luke. Over by the business school. Was he over here to visit you, or what?”

“No. I’ve no idea what he’d be up to on campus. No idea at all.”

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 15 of 32

Senán licked his way up the inside of Trish’s thigh. He paused when his cheek felt the damp heat of her vagina, and ran the tip of his tongue in light tiny circles until he felt her buckle with pleasure. Building on this effect, he delicately bit along the great tendon that originated just under her vagina and which disappeared into the muscle mid-thigh. When he felt she could take no more teasing, he turned his mouth on her clitoris. She moaned after the first few dabs of his tongue, and Senán heard her stuffing a pillow into her face to muffle her cries as the speed and strength of his tongue-flicking increased. After a spell, he opened up her labia with his fingers and boldly explored the interior with nose, lips and tongue. Eyes squeezed shut, he lost himself in rhythmic nosing and licking until he felt a pair of hands tug at his hair and a voice say his name, hissing: “Enough! That’s enough. I can’t take any more!”

The hands pulled his head up to her mouth. He was smothered in kisses, hard and emphatic, until he found himself looking into Trish’s burning blue eyes. He shuffled his pelvis until his penis sat atop her vagina, its glans slipping into the fold of lip that guarded the clitoris.

“You want to try going for a home run?” he whispered. Almost without his consent his penis was moving downwards, searching out the entrance to her vagina. He felt the tightening of muscles that had been ringing with abandon only a minute earlier, and he knew the answer before Trish spoke.

“Sorry, Senán,” she said. “I’m still not ready.”

An animal part of Senán’s brain boiled with rage and whipped up an impulse to lash out with frustration and take what was rightfully his, but he subdued this instinct and made his lips reply “OK”. And then, as part of the pattern into which their lovemaking had fallen, he rolled off her and lay on his back while with hands and mouth and no little skill Trish brought him to climax.

In the early days of their courtship it had struck Senán as odd that Trish was always reluctant or unwilling to go back to his place, a bedsit above an accountancy firm on the Dublin road. It was almost as if she were afraid of what might happen when they were completely alone. For the first few weeks, the extent of their physical intimacy had amounted to kissing on a date and some mild hanky-panky in the darkness of a cinema, and it appeared that Trish was not going to make any overtures to ramp this up. While the smooching had been tantalisingly good, Senán could hardly reconcile Trish’s sexy, sassy image with an apparently staid reality.

It had taken much cajoling to eventually get her over to his place for a romantic night in, and she had behaved as nervously as if she were at an interview. Senán had gone to great lengths to make the night special. He had bought gourmet bread and expensive wine, laid out a selection of cold meats and olives as starters, and cooked the one dish that always turned out well in his hands: lasagne. He had made Trish wait outside so that he could dart in, light the dozen candles he had placed around the kitchenette and bedroom, and turn on some romantic music — a Cocteau Twins’ album that Vincent had loaned him on the promise that it was a “leg opener”.

Trish expressed surprise and delight at the effort, but there was something distant and guarded in her manner and conversation. When she visibly flinched at a gentle kiss on the forehead from across his tiny table, he had had enough.

“What’s wrong, Trish?” he asked. “You’re not yourself tonight at all. It’s like you’re afraid of me. Tell me what’s wrong.”

She looked sadly down at her plate of half-eaten lasagne. “I know why I’m here,” she said. “I know what you want.”

There was no anger or accusation in her words, just a kind of desolate resignation. She seemed so inside herself with misery that Senán didn’t have the will to feel offended or the desire to compose a denial.

“It’s OK,” she continued. “It’s normal. It’s normal that you want more off me than kissing and a bit of necking. But . . .” Fat tears welled in her eyes, and her face lost all its colour in the soft flicker of the candlelight. “I have problems in that department.”

She sniffed and the first big tear rolled down her cheek.

“I had a really bad experience when I was younger and now . . . I . . . I . . . can’t do it. I can’t even think about doing it.”

She exploded into a fit of bitter crying. Senán reached across the table and gripped her hands tightly.

“It’s OK,” he said. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want. We can take it as slow as you want. No pressure. This isn’t all some plot to get you between the sheets. It would be nice, but . . . I just want to spend time with you. Be in your lovely company. Come on. Relax and be yourself. We’ll talk, drink some wine. Chill. Watch a movie. And — eat your lasagne or you won’t leave here alive!”

Trish laughed, but didn’t speak until she recovered her composure. “You had to pick the one girl on the Island who doesn’t put out,” she said a while later.

Senán wondered what had happened to her but didn’t want to press the issue.

Trish relaxed, finished her lasagne, and after Senán served dessert and they moved into his living-room-cum-bedroom it developed into a very sweet night. Taking a mental note to tell Vincent that the Cocteau Twins were about as far from leg opener as one could find, he turned off the music and allowed Trish to select something from his Netflix account. Soon they were settled watching a bittersweet romcom starring John Cusack. On the tiny two-person sofa there was no option but to squeeze together. A dozen minutes into the film she kicked off her shoes and draped herself about him. The film was forgotten and they kissed and fondled one another until the credits rolled.

Senán was unsure how far he should go, so he let Trish take the initiative. It was soon clear that her problem was not frigidity or libido. She led his hands and mouth to her breasts and then to her vagina, and was adventurous in her own explorations. Naked, they moved to his bed, where they mutually masturbated and lay in a tight embrace enjoying the warm sated feeling that gently flowed through their bodies.

“I was very young,” said Trish, after a candle on the bedside locker guttered out and woke her from her reverie. “In over my depth with some fucking older guy. A scumbag. He had a motorbike and threw plenty of cash around. Of course I wanted to be all cool and grown up. I went to a house party with him. He basically had his way with me. I didn’t want to say no coz I didn’t want to look like a baby. But I didn’t want to say yes either. It was horrible. The fucking sad thing is I pretended I loved it, making all these stupid faces and noises like in the films. A right fucking clown I was. And now . . . just the thought of doing it makes me go all tight inside. He hurt me. It was fucking awful. And now it’s like a phobia.”

“Maybe you need counselling,” said Senán softly. “You might need to talk the whole thing through with a professional. Lift the trauma off your shoulders.”

“I’ve thought of that,” said Trish. “Maybe I should.”

She hugged Senán tightly.

“You’re such a nice, decent fella, you deserve someone who can love you properly. I’m sorry.”

“Listen, it’s not your fault. And don’t worry about me. What we did just there blew my mind. I ain’t complaining. What we can do is take it nice and slow. Maybe it’s an unconscious trust thing. It might take a few sessions to build up trust in the old Senán!”

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 14 of 32

“I have a pu-pu-proposition for you,” said Luke to Farrah.

They were in his bedroom, Luke standing by the closed curtains pulling a sweater over his head, and she lying on the bed, wearing nothing but the hold-up tights he liked her to put on for their encounters.

“Proposition?” she asked. She rolled over on to her belly, reached down to the floor and began to rummage in her handbag. She pulled out a packet of Camel and a lighter, and lit a cigarette, her head hanging off the edge of the bed and her blonde hair spilling on to the faded carpet.

“I do-don’t want you smoking in here,” he bristled. “I told you before.”

“Ah, go on,” she said, rolling around on to her back again. “Your aul’ ones won’t be back for hours. Just leave a window open.”

Luke’s grandparents had gone on an excursion with the parish, as they did many Sundays. A bus had picked them and two dozen other elderly parishioners up outside St Mary’s church after twelve o’clock mass, for a tour of the Glen of Aherlow.

Luke cursed, but opened a window.

“I want you to dress up as someone the next time,” he said.

“Dress up?” Farrah blew a smoke ring and, like a question mark in a cartoon, it wafted on an air current towards Luke.

“Yeah. Nothing mu-mu-major. A wig. Some clothes. Sports gear. Ru-ru-runners. Nothing major.”

“Jesus. I thought you were going to be asking me to put on some kinky gear. Leather. Those weird masks that people wear.”

“No. Nu-nu-nothing like that. I’ll send you a photo. And if-and if you could go and get the clothes. I’ll gu-gu-give you the money up front.”

“OK,” Farrah said slowly, letting Luke know that she considered his request strange. “Will you pay me extra for it?”

Luke finished fastening his belt, looked towards the bed and gave a disappointed smile.

“Uh-uh-always on the mu-make, aren’t we?”

“You can’t blame me,” said Farrah. “Most of the children’s allowance my mother gets goes on getting her high or low or a mixture of both. I just want to put a bit of food on the table at home. Wayne needs new football boots. Shannon needs—”

“Will you fuck off for yourself,” snapped Luke. “Ye fu-fu-fuckers get everything for free. Haven’t ye a path beaten to St Vincent de Paul? What you want is money for fags and vodka and fu-fu-fucking credit for your fu-fu-phone.”

“I’d like to be paid more cash.”

Luke paid Farrah sixty euro cash for each session and topped this up with groceries, mostly out-of-date chilled products and dented cans of beans and spaghetti, a couple of times a week. It assuaged his guilt to know that at least some good was coming from his sordid and illegal dealings with Farrah: her younger brothers and sisters were not going hungry like they used to.

“From-from what I hear, you’re not-not short of cash,” he said.

“What the fuck does that mean?”

Farrah leapt from the bed and hurried across the room. She wrapped a curtain around herself as she leaned to flick a half inch of ash out the window.

“I hu-hu-heard you see other pe-pe-people. Other cu-cu-clients.”

“Who the fuck told you that?”

She let the curtain go and it spun and danced as it settled back into place, darkening the room once more.

“I no-no-know everything you do,” said Luke, with a sneering triumph in his voice. “Every minute of the du-du-day, you’re under surveillance.”

“Will you fu-fu-fuck off? Who do you think you are, Ju-Ju-Jason Bourne?”

Luke raised an arm and menacingly held his open palm in the air over Farrah. She didn’t flinch.

“You fucking hit me,” she said, “and it’s the last time you get laid by someone who isn’t some manky aul’ one brought over here by the Bulgarian mafia.”

His eyes seemed to swell even larger in their bony orbs and his skin draw even tighter around his narrow face, but Luke lowered his arm.

“Ju-ju-just get dressed and fuck off out of here.”

“I’ll finish my fag and I’ll go.”

Farrah felt like laughing in his face, telling him that he was too much of a coward to even slap a sixteen-year-old girl. She knew not to ride her luck, though. She had pushed Luke just about as far as he could go, and she wanted to keep their thing going. She already had plans for the three twenties burning a hole in her purse: a bag of zimmos to send her on a holiday from her life for a few hours, and the rest of the money for a couple of cheap tops in Penneys for Shannon, who seemed to be growing by the minute. She took another puff of her cigarette and repeated the action of robing herself in the curtain and flicking ash out beyond the windowsill. An idea came to her.

“I’ll let you take photos of me, you know, dressed up the way you want me to,” she said.

Even though her eyes were on the dark, mossy yard below, she could sense a change in Luke. His body was tightening the same way it did when he led her upstairs to his bedroom. The idea of the photo was making him feel sexy.

“I thought you did-did-didn’t allow photos?”

“For a few extra quid, I’d let you take photos.”

There were two reasons she hadn’t allowed him before. Firstly, she didn’t want to appear on one of those amateur porn sites on the net, for her face and body to go viral and be available to all comers for all time. Secondly, if Luke could masturbate at will to photos of her, he was less likely to want to do — and pay for — the real thing. She thought of her business studies teacher, Mrs Cunniffe. This dowdy and severe middle-aged woman had done nothing but tell her she had no “business acumen”, that she needed to study her textbook to “develop some nous“, whatever that was.

Dopey bitch, thought Farrah.

“An extra twenty,” she said, “for the photos.”

“Twenty,” said Luke in a distant voice. “OK. Twenty.”

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