The spent stillness of early Monday evening hung over the Foundation. Most of the cubicles were empty and closed up, the doors of the offices that ran along two sides of the building similarly shut. There was only the odd sniffle, the clearing of a throat, the rattle of a page or the tapping of a keyboard to show that the brown-carpeted, open-plan office was not completely deserted. In one of the smaller cubicles near the emergency stairwell, at the far end of the floor from the offices, Senán Meere and Vincent Conroy were hunched over their computers in silent concentration. A delicate ping sounded through Senán’s headphones, which were plugged into his computer but nested unworn under a litter of papers beside the mouse pad. He opened his email, read the new message and spoke an involuntary “Shite”.
“Sounds serious,” said Vincent, without removing his attention from his screen.
“Scary Mary wants to see me,” replied Senán gravely.
“Ah. Summoned to the dragon’s den!”
Although Vincent was Scary Mary’s colleague — a fellow junior lecturer — whereas Senán was her postgraduate student, he always expressed as much dread of her as any of her charges.
“It’s about that job I’m starting in the shop,” said Senán. “Some fucker’s snitched on me.”
“Our Máire has her tentacles flung deep and wide.”
Senán spun his chair around and said to the older man’s back: “She’ll want to know now why I didn’t consult her first, as my supervisor and someone with a duty of care over me and all that. And will it interfere with my research, blah, blah, blah. Fuck it anyway.”
Vincent swivelled to face him. He was wearing a “Boys Don’t Cry” T-shirt with Robert Smith stretched tight over his barrel chest and sizable pot belly. Vincent Conroy’s field of study was adolescent subcultures, which allowed him to indulge his passion for The Cure and other gothic music. Over the years his students had learned that papers or exam scripts peppered with allusions to The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees et al. garnered higher marks, so those who took his modules on “Teenage Self-Harm” or “The Role of Urban Tribes in Post-Industrialised Societies” quickly familiarised themselves with the oeuvres of such bands. He had recently published a rather esoteric academic study of The Cure’s importance in 1980s and 1990s youth culture (“The Light in the Shadows: The Cure’s Music as Lightning Rod and Panacea for Teenage Angst”) and was organising a conference on the band for the coming summer. His references in conversation to The Sisters of Mercy or Miranda Sex Garden sometimes left Senán at a loss as to what precisely his friend meant.
“Just tell her you can’t survive on that miserable fuckin’ IRC grant. Give the aul’ bitch the poor mouth. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, a supervisor has no claim on a student’s time outside the nine-to-five window. Sur’ we all had jobs on the side in my day, even Scary Mary as far as I’ve heard.”
The younger man’s dejection turned to keen interest. “Gimme the low-down, gimme the low-down!”
Vincent ran his hands through his shock of jet-black hair, separating the half-spiky, half-wavy strands. He checked his watch and then reached into a drawer for a packet of cigarettes and lighter.
“If you come out with me for a fag I’ll fill you in. I’m afraid to talk in here.” He pulled an ear to say that the walls had them.
Senán stopped outside Máire Ní Mhainnín’s door, took a deep breath and knocked.
“Come in,” came the muffled voice, ostensibly cheerful and welcoming.
As he turned the handle and stepped inside, Vincent’s piece of gossip ran through his mind. He didn’t know whether the idea of a young Scary Mary working at a make-up counter in Brown Thomas took some of the intimidatory sheen off his supervisor, or merely added to her strangeness which, along with the sternness and barely repressed hostility that radiated from her, made him and many others uncomfortable in her presence.
“Take a seat, Senán.”
Scary Mary was correcting papers: a large pile on the left-hand side of her desk, a smaller pile on the right. The top script was scarred with angry red marks.
Poor fucker, thought Senán.
“You received my mail, obviously,” said Scary Mary.
“I’m worried, Senán.”
She let the words hang in the air while she gave him what the postgrads called “The Stare”. Senán tried to force his eyes to hold Scary Mary’s searing blue-eyed gaze, but he found himself looking at her brow, her cheeks, her lips, then her neck, until she spoke again.
“You’re three months into your project. Am I right?”
“And what have we talked about in our meetings to date?”
Scary Mary was a firm believer in holding weekly meetings with her postgraduate students, unlike most of the other lecturers in the sociology department. Vincent, for example, actively avoided encounters with his clutch of students, and was even known to hide out in the library or college bar if he suspected a student wished to meet him.
“Hitting the ground running,” said Senán.
A brief smile flashed across her face, as Senán knew it would. He was giving her back her own words. In every meeting so far she had spoken about hitting the ground running.
“Exactly. Tús maith leath na hoibre and all that. If you do all the donkey work this year, you’ve broken the back of your project and you’re on a smooth road for the rest of your stint amongst us. If you have some sort of usable data by next summer, you’ll have a conference poster, maybe a talk by autumn. We could start putting the bones of a paper together by Christmas. But this job, Senán. Is this going to be a spanner in the works?”
Senán shivered. As always, Scary Mary had the windows open and it was freezing in her office. The rumour was that she believed a colder environment caused the body to burn more calories and hence helped to maintain a trimmer form. A jocose counter-rumour had it that a “cone of cold” followed her around, and that, as with a ghost in a haunted house, everywhere she went experienced a sharp dip in temperature.
“N-n-no. Not at all. It’s only three nights a week. Six to ten. Packing shelves. It won’t be any sort of distraction. I’ll be able to do just as much on the project as I am at the moment. Really. No worries.”
His tone was conciliatory. Even though the vibes coming off her at the moment were on the pleasant side of neutral, he knew enough about body language and had heard enough about her from the senior postgrads and Vincent not to face her down directly. He didn’t want the needle on the Scary Mary dial to dip into Icy and Hostile.
“And will it sap the vital energy you need to complete a PhD in the social sciences? You know, doing a PhD is like being in training for the Olympics. Three or four years’ hard work culminating in one tiny moment: the viva. You’ve only one bite at the cherry there. Is working in some shop for a few quid worth it if it saps your energy and focus, and leaves you struggling for air in the viva?”
There it was, thought Senán. The viva. Scary Mary’s frequent use of it to frighten her students into line was a staple of the postgrads’ bar room bitching sessions.
“I’ll-I’ll play it by ear, Máire. If I find it interferes with what I’m doing here, I’ll give it up. Straight away. But it’s only packing shelves. They just need a warm body to move stuff from A to B. I might even refine my thinking on PhD stuff while I’m lining up cans of beans. Time to myself and all that.”
She liked being called by her first name. She had been heard telling other lecturers that her students called her Máire, boasting that she and her charges were all equal members of a happy gang. Senán wondered if Scary Mary really believed that piece of propaganda or if it was just a brick in the wall of pretence that she had erected around herself.
“And I hear this shop isn’t in a great part of town. Will you be able to handle it, a nice country boy like yourself?”
The shop, Francie’s, a mid-sized Spar, was in Thomondgate, within walking distance of a number of the city’s problem estates. The customers would be of a different social class to those with whom Senán was used to mixing. He was unsure himself how he’d deal with some of the rougher elements. Would his accent make him stand out? His clothes? Would he be mocked — or worse?
“I’ll be grand,” he answered. “Anyway, I’m seeing it as an opportunity to learn about the real people we’re studying and supposed to be helping. It’s kinda shameful that I’m here doing research on these people’s lives and I’ve never walked the streets they live in. In all my time in this university, I’ve never met anyone from St Mary’s Park or South Hill or Moyross. And there I am parsing their lives out for my PhD. It might lend my whole thesis a bit more humanity, you know, if I can put a few faces to all the stats.”
“Very noble, very noble,” said Scary Mary. She shifted in her chair, refolded her legs and drew her grey suit tight around her chest. Senán’s eyes were drawn to a bare knee which poked above her desk. He suppressed the urge to follow the pale skin’s course upwards. Although he had never admitted it to anyone, and barely to himself, he found Scary Mary attractive. The power suit look, which she sported on the days when she had “high-level meetings”, was his favourite. The blouses she wore gave glimpses of pure white skin and well-defined clavicles, while the short skirts showed off her smooth and shapely legs. Paud, one of Scary Mary’s old-timer postgrads, was often heard to say, “You’d want to be fucked up to fancy her — you’d have to have your self-esteem in the gutter”, which made Senán wonder about himself.
“I did my time down there,” she continued.
It was known among the postgrads that between degree and PhD Scary Mary had spent a year working in a resource centre in Moyross. The joke was that she spoke about the experience in the same terms as a Vietnam vet.
“They’re good people, mostly. But you have to win their trust. If they think you’re down there as some sort of tourist, or worse, an academic, then they’ll blow you out of the water.” She gave a tiny smile. “Not literally of course.”
“I’ll play it cool.”
“You well might, you well might. But Senán, do you really need the hassle of this job in your life? Is the few quid worth what could happen to you if you got on somebody’s wrong side down there? You know, all it takes is a stray, clumsy comment to the wrong type of guy — or gal — and you won’t be able to set foot in town again. I’ve seen it happen. If you don’t know the social cues, if you’re not familiar with the argot, you’re a sitting duck. You could just look at someone the wrong way and bam. They’re not all wild animals, but there’s some very dangerous and very damaged people down there. You can talk about playing it cool all you want but . . . you’re a bit of a softie, aren’t you?”
Senán smiled. The same word had cropped up in a conversation with his recent ex, Connie, who told him he needed to show more steel and be more assertive.
“May-maybe I need to toughen up, so,” said Senán to Scary Mary, with none of the defensiveness in his voice that there had been with Connie. “Maybe this job might, you know, toughen me up a bit.”
Scary Mary mirrored Senán’s smile, as if in disbelief that this could ever happen.
“I just wished you’d come to me before taking up this job. I mean, I know the IRC grant is a bit lean, but it should give you enough money to live on. If it’s money problems you’re having, there’s ways and means to earn a little more on campus here: tutorials, corrections, invigilating, all that stuff. And remember, if you’ve any problems with money or whatever, just come to me first in future. That’s what I’m here for. I know ye’re all adults, but I’ve a duty of charge to my postgrads. Within reason.”
She aped a smile again.
As a cue that their meeting was over, Scary Mary began to cast her attention at the script in front of her. Senán felt relief. She hadn’t reprimanded him or pushed too hard for him to give up the job. Perhaps he would pay for it later when the axis of a graph was mislabelled or a citation wasn’t to her liking, and his mistake would be blamed on tiredness or lack of focus, but in the meantime he got the feeling that, if not in Scary Mary’s good books, at least he was not in the little black book that Paud was convinced she carried in her handbag, containing long lists of names under Disagreed With Me, Lazy, and Male Chauvinist Pig.
I must be doing something right, Senán thought, making his way across the Foundation to his desk. Everyone I’ve told about the job thinks it’s a bad idea.
Connie’s reaction had been as predictable as her reaction to his deciding to do a postgrad in sociology rather than a high-powered MBA as she had chosen.
“Working in a grotty little supermarket isn’t going to do anything for your CV,” she had told him. “Now that you’ve turned your back on the business world, you need to play it clever to at least give yourself the chance of a decent career.”
She and Senán had come up through a degree in economics and finance together, and whereas all Connie wanted was to join and rise through the ranks of a large financial institution — the MBA was a stepping stone to this — Senán had decided to put his economic training to some use that might benefit the less well-off in society.
“If you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas,” his mother had warned him.
“Whatever they pay you in that shop, I’ll double it,” his father had said.
But Senán didn’t want any more handouts from his parents. They had subbed him all the way through his degree, with his work on the farm at weekends and during the summer costing his father multiples of the minimum wage. At twenty-two years of age Senán wanted to stand on his own two feet and follow a path through life that did not involve number crunching for faceless speculators and keeping up with his fellow graduates. He and Connie’s relationship did not survive the “attack of conscience”, as she called it, that he experienced midway through the final year of his degree.