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Luke paid Farrah sixty euro cash for each session and topped this up with groceries, mostly out-of-date chilled products and dented cans of beans and spaghetti, a couple of times a week.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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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 13 of 32

There are many ways of tracing a person when all you know is their name and a rough idea of where they work or study. The internet is a great facilitator for homing in on someone’s identity, whether it be out of innocent curiosity or an interest more nefarious. And so, because Luke was unwilling to press Senán for information on Connie Hogan, he turned to the World Wide Web. It was not the first time he had looked up a girl for whom he had developed a fascination. He had practised this art over the years — on girls with whom he had worked or those he had met socially. After little more than an evening’s trawling, Luke had discovered Connie’s building and office number in the university, her Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, her parents’ address in a salubrious district of Limerick city, and the address of the house she shared close by the college.

He then set about stalking Connie, a habit he had slipped into in his early teens, when instead of approaching the object of his affections, he would skulk and hide and watch from afar. His methods had become more refined over the years, incorporating all the usual tools of the cyberstalker as well as bits and bobs of electronic surveillance equipment he had picked up here and there. Within days of meeting Connie, he had attached a tracking device to her car and could follow her movements through an app on his phone.

To anyone keeping an eye on the movements of cars in and out of the estate where Connie lived, his old, grey Opel Corsa would have become a familiar sight. But in an estate of mainly rented houses, where there was a lack of retirees or housewives with the time on their hands to watch the world go by, Luke’s regular drive-bys went unnoticed. He was too wary and too experienced to park outside her house detective-like, training a long lens on bedroom or sitting room. He planned his forays into Woodhaven to coincide with when Connie was likely to be on the move, driving smartly by her house, keeping his eyes on the road ahead, and leaving it up to his dashboard camera to record any glimpses of her moving between the front door and her car. Luke would then circle the estate and follow Connie from a distance of at least two cars. If she stopped at a supermarket, he would pull in and snap photographs of her leaving her car, wheeling her trolley, or packing the messages in her boot. If she went to visit her parents or friends, he would take photos of her in transit between car and front door. He soon built up a large collection.

Not only did Luke quickly come to learn Connie’s routines, but after weeks of following her he possessed a large amount of data concerning her habits and movements. He knew, for example, that she got her hair cut every three weeks, usually on a Thursday evening, at the X-Static Hair Studio in Castletroy. A photograph of her leaning back into a sink having her hair washed was among his most treasured trophies. He knew what cafés and bars she frequented at the weekend, and with whom, thanks to Facebook and Instagram. She did her laundry on a Monday evening, hanging the washing in her tiny garden if the weather was clement. Some evenings she emerged decked out in sports gear for a brisk walk around the neighbourhood with a housemate. It bothered Luke that only rarely could he slip out of Francie’s at the time he knew her to be pounding the pavements of Castletroy: it was when she was wearing her Lycra leggings and body-clinging running top that he found her most attractive.

It also bothered Luke that he was not free during Connie’s working hours to shadow her movements on campus. Besides details gleamed from social media, what she did between leaving the house and returning in the evening was unknown territory for him. When he asked Francie if he could move his day off from Sunday to Tuesday or Wednesday, Francie would not hear talk of it.

“Ah no, Luke,” he said. “You need your day off. Sundays in here are crazy. Let me handle them. No, no. You take it easy mid-week in here, putting the place in order for Friday and Saturday, and enjoy your Sunday off.”

And so a couple of times a week, Luke would race across the city on his lunch break, stuffing out-of-date sandwiches from the shop into his mouth while he waited at traffic lights. He would frantically look for a parking space on campus as close to Connie’s building as possible and then walk discreetly around and through it. He knew that she usually lunched between half one and two in the business school’s spacious cafeteria. He would pass by her office, pausing outside to listen if the door was closed or hurrying past if it was open. If she was having lunch, he would watch her from the atrium above the cafeteria, take note of who she was with, and snatch a sly photo with his phone. He only ever once directly encountered her, in the car park behind her building. A flash of puzzlement lit her eyes, but she said nothing as they passed one another.

In one way Luke was relieved that she seemed not to recognise him, but in another he was disappointed. If she had pulled up to say, “Oh, you’re Senán’s friend — the manager. Nice to meet you again”, it would certainly have been too much for him. He mightn’t have been able to put two words together without making a fool of himself. He had a story rehearsed, nonetheless. Just in case.

“I was thinking of getting a qualification,” he would try to say. “A diploma in management. I’m in here to find out about that.” Short, direct sentences. No beating around the bush. No stuttering. And no going red in the face.

The cover story wasn’t too much of a lie. His brother was always telling him to leave the shop. Get himself a qualification. Move on to better things. And the truth was, he was half thinking of starting a night course in retail management. Or even a full-time degree. He’d seen a lot of girls like Connie on his wanderings around campus. Classy ladies. He’d never run out of classy ladies to follow on campus.

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 12 of 32

“Um, you said she was a girl, dude, this new friend of yours. Trish, yeah? Is there something you’re trying to tell old Uncle Vincent now?”

He was more than slightly drunk, more than merry, but the shock was not feigned. He looked up from the corner of the booth occupied by his ample frame, moving his gaze from Senán to Luke.

“I’ll say it slowly this time Vincent,” said Senán. He leaned over the head of the long table and put his mouth close to Vincent’s ear. “I decided not to bring Trish. Instead, it’s a friend of mine from the shop, Luke. I owed him a tour of campus and a few pints.”

“OK. Phew.”

Vincent pulled himself by his elbows into a standing position, and he and Luke shook hands. Senán then made a general introduction of Luke to the table, a mixture of junior lecturers, postdocs and postgrads from the sociology department. He was glad that Scary Mary wasn’t among the faces. She rarely came to these things, and apparently the name of Tom Maguire, the postdoc whose publication they were celebrating, was in her little black book. Luke appeared to be intimidated enough acknowledging the friendly nods without having to deal with The Stare.

“Come in here beside me, Luke. I don’t bite,” shouted Vincent above the hubbub. The college bar was quite full for a Friday night, usually a dead night on campus because of the exodus of students who went home for the weekend. But a large party of Erasmus students clustered around the bar made it necessary to raise one’s voice.

Luke squeezed in beside Vincent, casting nervous glances at his shock of long spiky hair and his ripped and faded Disintegration T-shirt. By the time Senán had returned from the bar with a triangle of settling Guinnesses wedged between his hands, Vincent was bending Luke’s ear about an obscure gothic band from the ’80s, Xmal Deutschland.

“They should never have signed to 4AD. I know it’s heresy to say so, but if they’d stuck it out, a bigger label would have come for them. It would have done them the world of good to have a bit of a budget, a bit of room for development. Some producer who woulda pulled them out of themselves, like yer man did for Mazzy Star. You know—”

“Ah, come on, Vincent. Give the poor fella a break,” said Senán. “Xmal Deutschland! Is there anyone beyond a few head-the-balls who’s ever even heard of them. The lad is nervous enough that he’ll be eaten alive by a table full of sociologists. Don’t be putting the fear of God in him with your Xmal Deutschland. Jaysus!”

“It’s-it’s-it’s OK,” said Luke shyly. “I ha-ha-haven’t heard of X-mu-mu-mal Deutschland, but I’ve-I’ve heard of Mu-Mu-Mazzy Star. A couple-couple of their songs were in Bu-Bu-Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I-I-I checked them ow-ow-out. Yer-yer-yer wan is tasty.”

Vincent thumped the table and gave a little cheer. “A man after me own heart. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Mainstream, but slick and subversive. The Buffyverse has been a portal to the dark side for many an edgy adolescent. Between its peculiar and thoroughly modern lexicon and word usage, as well as the music, post-modern mythologising and very completeness of the alternative reality it creates within the broad school of magic realism, Buffy has a very important place in the gothic, emo, nu metal, et cetera canon. In other words — a shitkicker of a series.”

Vincent finished his pint with a greedy gulp, sucked at the head on his fresh pint, and looked at Luke with fond appreciation.

“And you reckon Hope Sandoval is a bit of all right? You’re the man, Luke! There was a time I would have walked over broken glass just to be up the front of a gig looking up at her long legs and those humongous lips. She has a special place in my pantheon of dark beauties.”

Settling into a stool beside Luke, Senán groaned. “I’m sorry, Luke,” he said. “Your first time in UL and you run into one of the campus’s leading eccentrics. We’re not all like this.”

“I’m much more than that,” offered Vincent, mock-offended. “I’m — what did Connie call me the other day?”

“A creep.”

“Creep!” said Vincent. “I like that. I’m the creepiest creep on campus. Vincent Conroy, creepmeister. The creepiest cat on Shannonside.” He then hummed the piano break from The Cure’s “The Love Cats”.

“Are you high, Vincent?” asked Senán with no trace of sarcasm.

Vincent smiled like the cat that got the cream. “I may have shared a few puffs of the aul’ doobie with a certain notorious pot-head postgrad before coming here.”

“Down in your haunt?” said Senán incredulously.

Vincent nodded.

“On campus?”

He nodded again.

“Are you mental? If you’re caught you could lose your job. Sometimes you’re a fucking idiot, Vincent.”

Vincent took a long, smiling drink of his Guinness. He licked his lips daintily, and suddenly a harried look came over him.

“If I lose my job, it won’t be over that,” he said. “I have to tell you, Senán, me old segotia, something truly terrible happened today. Something ominous, portentous. The sanctity of our little foxhole up in the Foundation has been violated. It is no longer a refuge from the great unwashed hoi polloi that make up the student body of this unvenerable institution. The seals of King Tut’s tomb have been torn open. The metaphorical machinery of eons-old traps have been heard to grind into action, but there is no Indiana Jones to save me.”

“What the fuck are you on about?”

“My dear Senán, our hideout has been rumbled. Our bolthole has been discovered. This very evening when you were in with Scary Mary I was visited by an undergraduate student.”

“Oh,” Senán said. He now understood his friend’s need to smoke marijuana and his current strange humour.

“You know what this means?” continued Vincent. “The fuckers know where I am. This changes everything.”

Senán saw the puzzlement on Luke’s face and filled him in on Vincent’s almost phobic attitude to his students.

“You see, Luke,” said Vincent, “my job is to teach. I set a course, give lectures, reading lists, tutorials. I give assignments. Set exams. Correct them rigorously and fairly. End of. My view of university education is that you come here — as an adult — and stand on your own two fucking feet. You turn on your fucking brain, put your nose to the grindstone, read books, papers, whatever you can get your fucking hands on for the subject you’re studying, and just fucking act like someone who has reached the age of majority has been expected to act like since the fucking Enlightenment. My students are adults. For fuck’s sake, some of them have had their mickeys pierced. I know that for a fact. I hear them talking. And then you have little bitches like the one who despoiled the peace and quiet of my dear old cubicle this evening. A skinny, spotty, whiny string of piss coming in to me with script in hand, demanding to know why I’d only given her a B3. ‘I put an awful lot of work into it,’ she says. Jesus. Well fuck you! I don’t care if she worked on it for forty days and forty nights. It was mediocre. It only deserved a B3.”

He took another glug of Guinness before continuing.

“And now all is changed, changed utterly. Not only does that little bitch know where to find me, she’s probably passed on the secret to all her spotty little friends. I predict a fucking endless stream of dissatisfied little whores running up to me snivelling about all the hard work they put in and how they deserved higher marks for the steaming pile of mediocrity they served up to me. And furthermore, meeting that spotty little bitch has now altered the student–teacher relationship between us, as it will when I meet her two dozen other scabby little mates. You see, when I have her script in front of me now, I have a face and a personality — not particularly winning, let me tell you that — to put to the name and student number. And not only that, I will be correcting the script with the knowledge that she felt hard done by the previous marks I gave her. So where’s my objectivity after that? Gone out the fucking window, that’s where. I am now no longer grading a script based on what’s on the fucking screen in front of me, but factoring in other extraneous facts as well. Now, this li’l lady is no beauty, but imagine if she was, for example, Hope Sandoval’s doppelganger? Would I be tempted to bump up the marks in some pathetic attempt to get into her knickers? Or if she had argued her point without resort to self-righteous whimpering, if she’d blinded me with the brilliance that was sorely lacking in her paper? Or imagine if she came wearing a Bauhaus T-shirt and we started talking about the aul’ Peter Murphy and Daniel Ash, and we got on like a house on fire? You see, I don’t want to meet the fuckers. I’m not hard enough, in spite of all the gobbing off I do. I’m too soft, too human. I’d take pity on people, I’d be too forgiving. It just wouldn’t work. Take Scary Mary, though. She doesn’t mind one bit meeting her students. She’s a fucking queue outside her door most afternoons. And do you know why she doesn’t mind interacting with the scurvy knaves? Coz she’s a hard bitch, as cold and twistedly unemotional and nastily rational as some sort of artificial intelligence in a Ridley Scott movie. She doesn’t see them as students, let alone people. They’re part of some process, just like Senán here. Like bottles on the bottling line ready to be capped and labelled. All she wants to do is go about her business, like the queen in Alien laying her eggs. Only in this case it’s getting to the top that concerns her. No, her marking of scripts, no matter what, would be clinical and rational. No human concern or emotion would impinge upon it. Even if a student cleaned her house, washed her car and then got down on their knees to lick her out, God forgive me, she’d give them the exact mark they deserved. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

As if to say “I rest my case”, he sat back in the bench, ruffled his hair with both hands, and took a long drink from his pint. He then announced that he was going for a smoke. Luke, looking slightly disturbed by Vincent’s rant, stood up to let him pass. When they were alone, Senán apologised for his friend.

“He’s a character,” he told Luke. “But he’s a nice guy when he’s not drunk or high. We share a cubicle, as you might have guessed.”

“He’s-he’s like some-someone from a T-T-V show. Like from Breaking Bad or Shu-Shu-Shameless.”

“Like I said, a real character.”

They sat quietly for a time, Luke casting rapid glances around the table and craning his neck to inspect the gaggle of Erasmus students with their tans, hipster clothing and half pints. Just as Senán was thinking how different the scene must appear to him compared to Bowsie’s or the other pubs he frequented, he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard Connie say his name.

“I see you’re out with your department,” she said in a friendly enough way. “Celebrating something?”

Senán told her about Tom Maguire’s paper and then introduced her to Luke.

“He’s the manager of Francie’s, the shop I work in.”

“Ah, the manager,” she said, making it sound like she was impressed. “Senán’s boss. Wow. You’re young to be a manager.”

Luke lowered his head shyly and a light blush spread over the taut features of his face.

“He’s the man,” said Senán, only realising in saying it that he sounded like Francie. “What are you doing here?” he asked Connie, in an attempt to cover up his faux pas.

“I’m with that crowd,” she said, and nodded in the direction of a knot of Erasmus students at the far corner of the bar. “One of the lads in the house is Swiss. I said I’d come out with him and meet his fellow countrymen. And women.”

“Is there something going on I should know about?” said Senán with a grin. “Foreign relations?”

Connie shook her head. “See. You’re sounding more and more like that creep. I saw him outside, by the way. Jiving around with a fag in his mouth like he was on something.”

Luke was looking up at Connie like one of the children of Fatima at an invisible Virgin Mary.

“You look like a sensible lad,” said Connie to him. “You tell Senán to stay away from that creep. He won’t listen to me.” She turned around to see what her companions were up to and then announced that she had to go. “They’re Swiss. They don’t know how to handle ordering drink in a dive like this place. Too polite. I’ll have to give them a hand. Nice to meet you, Luke.”

Luke’s eyes were stuck to Connie as she walked away.

“Jesus. She’s a fu-fu-fine thing,” he almost slavered. “Fu-fu-fine thing.”

Senán did have to admit to himself that she was looking good. She had obviously made the effort for her Swiss friends, wearing a black party dress that Senán had never seen on her before. It clung to her body and he presumed it was her bottom and thighs that held Luke’s attention until she disappeared into the cluster of students.

“I used to go out with her, you know.”

“Fu-fu-fuck off.”

“Yep. For nearly three years. We split up last year.”

“Jesus.”

They looked towards the knot of Swiss. Connie’s dark hair and black dress were visible among all the jeans and bright jumpers. She was the centre of attention of the predominantly male group, holding their grinning faces with her dark eyes and ruby lips. She shepherded them closer to the taps, and Luke and Senán lost sight of her.

“She reminds me of one of my brother’s girlfriends,” said Luke. “A classy lady.”

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 11 of 32

Connie took a slurp off the foam on her cappuccino, licked her lips and put her mug down. “So,” she said. “Who was this girl you were seen out with on Saturday in the White House?”

The penny dropped. “That’s why you asked me to come for coffee,” Senán said, with a hint of accusation in his voice. “To pump me for information.”

His and Connie’s break-up had been amicable enough. They had called it a day just as the minor, sporadic arguments between them had started to become serious, heated, rolling rows that carried on for hours or days, and hung over their relationship like phantoms, to be summoned to the mortal plane whenever a new niggle or disagreement surfaced. When they realised they wanted different things from life and that this was the root of all the bickering and tension, the decision to part had been close to mutual; Connie had proposed the split, and in the end, despite all the light-hearted talk of conscious uncoupling to friends and family, Senán felt that, while he had not exactly been dumped, Connie had moved on from him.

“Well, duh,” she sang. “I’ve had nothing but ‘Senán was with this leggy brunette in the White House’ all day. The whole Small Firm Internationalisation Unit was out on Saturday. Doing nothing but watching you and your one canoodling, by the sound of things. You’re the talk of the Business School. Even Jim fucking Duggan said to me: ‘Whatever he has, he should bottle it. How he’s able to go round with all these gorgeous women is beyond me. It’s always the quiet ones.’ I mean, I don’t know what to say to people. You should have told me you were seeing someone.”

Senán smirked. “I thought after consciously uncoupling that we were free agents. That we were going to move on to new chapters of our lives. Not take one another into consideration vis-à-vis future options or choices. The same as if we were just good ol’ buddies.” He was throwing phrases back at her that she had used when they broke up. “I didn’t think I needed to run stuff by you, and since I haven’t seen you since the thing between this girl and me started, I just didn’t get the chance. I would have told you if we’d met. It wasn’t that I was hiding it. It’s just that—”

“I’m clearly not important to you anymore. I get it.” She gave him a hard look. “Jesus, you weren’t long getting over me.”

Senán wanted to reply with a snarky comment, but he didn’t have the heart. Whether the peevishness, anger and hurt burning through her dark brown eyes was down to embarrassment or some residue of the love that had existed between them, he didn’t have it in him to kick her while she was down.

“C’mon,” he said kindly. “I think we were both over each other well before we split up. And you know I’d never do anything to hurt you, no matter what shenanigans went on towards the end. I’d hope you’d think that of me anyway.”

The coffee dock in the Foundation was winding down for the evening. Senán and Connie were among a handful of customers chatting above the rattle and clack of the waitress who was locking things down for the night. Connie looked out beyond the café’s floor-to-ceiling windows into the darkness, seeming to study the queue of cars waiting to exit the car park. She wrinkled her pale forehead and blew some strands of jet-black hair out of her eyes.

“You coulda just given me some heads-up. People still think we’re joined at the hip. They haven’t got the message we’re split up.”

She sounded less irate now, as if the play of headlights on the car park’s long, rectangular water feature was soothing her spirit. Senán didn’t answer, but took a subtle glance at her face and figure. She hasn’t let herself go, anyway, he thought.

Her hair shone and her skin still had that plumped-up, velvety texture that he had found adorable. She was dressed in one of her preppy jeans-and-boots combinations and a lemon-coloured V-neck jumper, tight enough to reveal a voluptuous figure. Senán saw that if she ever put on weight, her shape could easily become sloppy. She didn’t have Trish’s height or long limbs to get away with excess body fat.

“So. Who’s this mystery girl?” she asked. “Some babe from the sociology department?”

“No. She’s a girl from the shop. Trish. She’s a nice girl.”

The double take Connie did was almost comical. “A shop girl? Jesus Christ, Senán. You really are getting down with the people in the ‘hood.”

“Nice” was all Senán said. Connie’s snobbery had always been a bone of contention between them, and her opinions — classified by Senán as reactionary — on Travellers, the city’s poor, the unemployed and immigrants had often kick-started quarrels.

“Is it serious?”

“It’s a bit early to tell yet, but . . . it’s going well so far.”

Connie nodded and looked again towards the car park. They drank their coffees. Connie’s phone tinkled an alert, which she read and dismissed.

“Are you going to take her home to meet your mother? Coz, Jesus, if I was never good enough for you, what are the chances of some shop girl meeting her impossible standards?”

Senán’s mother had never warmed to Connie, despite the fact that Connie came from a “good” family — her father was an architect and her mother a GP. Senán’s mother always said Connie was a good-time girl, that he would be better off seeing someone less interested in glamour and socialising, someone more “solid”. A sensible country girl instead of a Limerick city slicker like Connie. While the women had always been impeccably polite to one another, they had made their mutual dislike clear in that infinitely nuanced, near-invisible mode of communication that exists between competing females.

Senán sniffed and jauntily raised an eyebrow. “Trish is quite the traditionalist,” he said. “She doesn’t want any family involved until the engagement is announced. She wants all the formalities followed: an ad in the Irish Times. A little soirée in the bride-to-be’s house. In evening dress. Official invitations on the correct grade of paper. Formal introductions over amontillado in the drawing room.”

“Fuck off, Senán.” Connie looked annoyed. “You know, you’re talking like that creep, Vincent. The more you hang out with him, the more you sound like him.”

“Vincent is my hero,” he said with hammy pride in his voice.

“He’s a fucking joke. The University of Limerick’s Cureologist, for fuck’s sake. You should hear what they say about him in the Business School. All that fucking funding he gets for researching why a bunch of snotty, emo, spoiled bitches are scratching their arms. And that moronic conference on The Cure that’s happening in the summer. Jesus Christ, if he’s your mentor, you’re up the swanny. I bet he put you up to getting that fucking job in the shop and dallying with slags from Moyross.”

“I’ve a few corrections to make there, Connie. One, Scary Mary is my mentor, apparently; two, emo is well over; and three, Trish is from the Island, not Moyross. And she’s not a slag.” He paused for effect. “You know, my mother used that word about you a few times.”

 

Senán plopped down into his chair and groaned.

“All is not right in the kingdom of Sen, I sense,” said Vincent in a booming, actorly voice.

“I just had a coffee with Connie. I think we’re definitely now in that clichéd space where neither of us can figure out what we ever saw in one another.”

“Ah, the delectable Connie. The childless yummy mummy.” Vincent had met her a few times when he had tagged along with Senán on nights out. He told Senán he found her shallow and square.

“Well,” said Senán, ducking his head above the panel of their cubicle to make sure there was no one within listening distance, “I think we’ve burnt our bridges there. Or the bridge between us has finally crumbled into the river below. Or whatever.”

“Speaking of combustion: will you come out with me for a fag?”

“Go on. Last distraction of the evening, though. I’ve this PCA to do for Scary Mary. I’d say I’ll be at it till midnight.”

Outside, sheltering from the breeze in Vincent’s haunt, Senán told him that Connie had called him a creep. Vincent looked pleased.

“I like it. I kind of am a creep. You know, creepy-crawly, creature of the night. Cobwebs, Cocteau Twins, Cranes—”

“The Cure. That song they have about the spider eating the singer.”

“Exactly.”

After a puff of his cigarette Vincent spoke again: “So the door is truly shut on you and Connie’s teenage romance?”

“P is less than zero point zero five.”

“I have to say I’m happy for you, me old segotia. She was too straight for you. You’re such a solid, reliable fella — I would be reluctant to use the s-word,” he made a square using the thumb and forefinger of each hand, “that you need someone to offset that. Someone with a bit of go in them, with a bit of spirit. Someone a bit fuckin’ kerrazy. Jesus, I can only imagine what it was like between you and Miss Yummy-Mummy. The sex must have been like that scene in The Piano where yer man has a spa attack when Holly Hunter touches his arse.”

Senán told him he was going too far.

“Sorry. But listen. The minute I saw fuckin’ Connie, I knew that that Playboy-bunny-crossed-with-Sarah-Palin thing she had going on, that façade of sensuality and worldliness she presented to mankind — I knew that was all horseshit. I fuckin’ bet that she was frigid and had intimacy issues. Tell me I’m right.”

Senán smiled, astounded more than offended. “The only thing I’m going to tell you is mind your own fucking business. And. That I’m seeing someone else now. Her name is Trish, and, before you ask, she has no intimacy issues.”

Vincent’s pudgy face lit up with pleasure.

“Good man. I’m delighted for you. Keep your hand — and other body parts — in the game. Use it or lose it.”

Senán puffed in disgust and Vincent chortled at his little joke, then turned excitedly to face his friend. “I know! We can all meet this Trish lady! There’s a night out being organised for Friday. To celebrate Maguire’s paper being accepted — six revisions, but he’s got it into one of the biggies. We’re going straight after work. Starting in the college bar. Finishing God knows where. Bring her along.”

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 10 of 32

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

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

“Yep.”

“Every weekend? Seriously?”

“Yep.”

“For hurling practice?”

“Well, that and to see my family.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep.”

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

“Dichotomy,” offered Senán.

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Just a bit!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know what you mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong, Trish? Bored?”

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

Senán thought for a while.

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

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

“You know what I mean.”

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

“That’s hardly a compliment.”

“But you know what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

Suddenly they looked at each other and burst out laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She still does.”

“Jesus!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Where to next, m’lady?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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