“Ah, yeah,” said Susan, “Luke’s had it tough all right. You’d nearly feel sorry for him if he wasn’t such a gowl.”
Debs and Trish giggled, and Debs echoed the nearly in a slow, hoarse exhalation.
“Besides the stutter and his bony arse and bottle shoulders—” continued Susan.
“Mister Universe,” interjected Trish.
“—and that gorgeous complexion—”
“And the frog’s eyes!”
“Besides all that,” said Susan with mock patience, “he’s had it pretty tough.”
“Aw, the craythur,” said Debs, causing further giggles to break out.
The three girls and Senán were sitting around a table in a bar called PJ’s which was just down the road from Francie’s. It was the Thursday night of Senán’s third week, and they had asked him to come along with them for a couple of quiet ones after work. Though he hadn’t planned on going out, he had been so delighted by proof of his workmates’ acceptance of him that he jumped at their offer.
“No, really. He’s had a hard childhood,” insisted Susan.
“Shur, haven’t we all?” said Debs. “Aren’t we all from the Island Field?”
The girls laughed. Senán wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for him to join in, so he merely smiled.
“He was brought up by his grandparents,” said Susan, looking at Senán. “He doesn’t know who his father—”
“Like lots of people round here,” said Debs.
“And his mother fucked off to England early on.”
“I’da fucked off too after seeing the face of him. It’s a wonder she didn’t climb out the window of St Munchin’s after they pulled him out of her!”
“Ah Jesus, Debs,” scolded Trish. “For fuck’s sake.”
“For fuck’s sake you, Trish,” said Debs, a note of irritation in her voice. “My father fucked off to England too. I haven’t seen him in seven or eight years. And what about your aul’ fella? He’s hardly father of the year.”
“It’s different when it’s your mother,” said Susan. “Being abandoned by your own mother is a cut that runs deep. It’s a different kettle of fish altogether. That’s real . . . pain.”
“Pain,” said Debs. “The only pain is Gollum: he’s a pain in the hole.” She rooted in her handbag, fished out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter and announced that she was going out for a fag. “Otherwise I might lose my temper.”
“She doesn’t have much time for Gollum,” said Trish, after Debs had left.
“I think he’s all right,” said Senán, feeling the need to stick up for Luke. “I mean, he’s not Mr Sunshine, but he hasn’t done or said anything off to me. As far as bosses go, he’s OK.”
Susan and Trish swapped a look.
“In fairness,” said Susan, “you’re only part-time and you’re only packing shelves. We’re there day in, day out.”
A tourist, thought Senán.
“And we’re girls,” said Trish.
Susan and Trish took sips from their drinks, inviting the obvious question from Senán: “Luke has a problem with women?”
“More like we have a problem with him,” said Trish.
“Why d’you think Francie’s has a new part-time shelf stacker — and he’s a fella?”
Senán thought for a moment. “Fuck off,” he said. “You mean Luke was, like, harassing the girl whose job I’m in now?”
“Harassing is a strong word for it,” said Susan. “But there or thereabouts.”
“Jesus,” said Senán. “What kind of stuff was he up to?”
“Subtle stuff,” said Susan. “Watching, mainly. Walking down her aisle every five minutes. Being nice to her.” She made quotation marks around nice.
“Letting her off early. Helping her with heavy boxes. Giving her out-of-date stock to take home.”
“Doesn’t sound all that bad to me,” said Senán. “I wouldn’t mind if Luke was nice to me.”
Susan shook her head. “This girl was totally freaked out. She said every time she looked up, Luke was there gawking at her. She even thought he moved the security cameras to be able to record her. One day she had a massive row with him in the frozen food section and just walked out.”
“I met her a couple of weeks ago,” said Trish. “She said she’s had to change her Facebook and Twitter settings. Block Gollum out of WhatsApp. Go private on Instagram. The whole shebang. She even thinks he’s following her round the place. She’s thinking of calling the shades.”
“Jesus,” was all Senán could say, surprised at what the girls were telling him. He wondered was it perhaps Luke’s awkward shyness that led to his affection for a girl taking strange and socially unacceptable forms. Maybe Luke needs a bit of friendly advice on the dating front.
“And that wasn’t the first time he got all creepy with a girl,” said Susan. She was talking now in a low voice. The neighbouring tables were full and the bar had suddenly gone quiet, experiencing one of those negative feedback loops that begins with a couple of simultaneous lulls in conversation, and ends with everyone in the room holding their breath and looking around.
“Me, for example,” said Trish. “But I told him where to go — straight off.”
“And your brothers had a word with him,” laughed Susan.
“That’s right,” said Trish.
Senán studied her. In the dim light of PJ’s, Trish looked far more attractive than she did in Francie’s. The shadows falling on her face gave it more structure than it appeared to have under strip lighting. Her strong brow and flat, rising forehead lent her the look of a Viking noble, with her deep eye sockets and the dark blue eyes that filled them adding to an air of mysterious beauty. She sat dancer-straight, long legs crossed, and wore skinny denims tucked into knee-high boots. He wondered if she was single.
“And there was that girl that worked the late shifts at weekends,” said Susan. “What was her name?”
“That’s it, Ronnie. Luke really had the hots for her.”
“And she was only a kid.”
“She wasn’t even able to ring up sales of alcohol. Luke had to come and do it.”
“He loved that.”
“The knight in shining armour.”
“Has anyone ever gone to Francie about this?” asked Senán.
“Gone to Francie about what?” It was Debs, returned from smoking her cigarette. Along with the smell of smoke, a pocket of cold night air accompanied her to her seat.
Trish filled her in. “We’re talking about Gollum and his stalking.”
Debs took a drink of her gin and tonic and looked at Senán with an expression of someone wise in the ways of the world forcefully maintaining patience in the face of callow questioning.
“Will you go on outa that,” she said to him. “Shur Francie loves Luke. He treats him like his long-lost son.”
“You learn pretty quick not to dis Luke to Francie,” said Susan.
“Here’s my number two,” said Trish in imitation of Francie’s voice. “I’d trust him with my life.”
“Or vice versa,” said Debs. “I think Gollum thinks Francie really is his father.”
“Luke, I am your father,” said Trish in Darth Vader’s voice.
“Shur they’re down in the shop now,” said Debs, “counting the takings. Going over the day’s sales. Coming up with their strategies. This isn’t selling well. That’s flying off the shelves. This should be moved to the top shelf. This display is for scrapping. We should double the space for this. Blah, blah, blah. I heard them a few times. Gollum and the meanest man in Ireland.”
“Francie the Grabber,” said Susan.
“Francie the Grabber? The meanest man in Ireland?” asked Senán. “I thought he was sound.”
“Jesus, you think everyone is sound!” said Debs.
“He’s an innocent young fella,” said Susan, shaking her head.
“We’ll have to wisen him up,” said Debs.
“Take him under our wing.”
When the three girls had finished laughing, Senán pressed them for more information on Francie.
“He’s a bachelor,” began Susan.
“Too mean to marry,” said Debs.
“He started off with the shop years ago,” said Susan. “It was only a shack back then. Sweets and fags and newspapers. We all bought our Mr Freezes and Monster Munch in there.”
“You’d have to check your change. He’d diddle you out of tuppence if you gave him half the chance.”
“And he just kept adding and adding to the shop.”
“Until it got to be the wonderful supermarket you see today.”
“And bit by bit he’s been expanding his empire.”
“The chip shop.”
“He rents out lock-ups.”
“He owns a shitload of houses.”
“All rented out.”
“And an apartment in Spain, for fuck’s sake.”
“All grabbed. Bought on the cheap from someone on their uppers.”
“Francie the Grabber.”
“The thing is,” said Susan, “he wouldn’t spend Christmas. He still lives in the same shitty house on Island Road that he grew up in. When he could live wherever he likes. And he drives around in this aul’ banger of a yoke from the nineties.”
“The van,” moaned Trish.
“And he’s always got some scam going,” said Debs. “Buying dollars. Or selling sterling. D’ye remember the night he was running around the city taking money out of ATMs coz the exchange rate was I-dunno-what-the-fuck — going up or down?”
“He nearly had a coronary,” said Trish. “Dashing from bank to bank with Gollum at the wheel!”
“Like Noddy and Big Ears.”
“And the stuff he arrives into the shop with. God knows where he gets half of it.”
“Back of a lorry.”
“Like those heathers we’re flogging at the moment. Like, where the fuck did they come from?”
“Or those memory sticks?”
“And d’ye remember all that stuff for horses? The bridles and saddles and all? We’d half the Travellers in Limerick in the shop.”
“And their aul’ nags parked outside!”
The girls continued in this vein for some time, delighting in zany reminiscences of working for Francie, and relishing in their status as insiders and old hands imparting knowledge and insight to the newcomer. When their store of tall tales was mined out, and after Senán had got a fresh round of drinks in, he said: “At least Francie is a fair boss, from what I’ve seen.”
“Only if your name happens to be Luke,” said Debs.
“Ah now,” said Susan. “I’ve had worse bosses.”
“We’ve all had worse bosses,” said Debs, “but for one of us Francie is Uncle Francie, and for the rest of us he wouldn’t give you the steam of his piss. I mean, I wouldn’t mind if Francie gave me some out-of-date stock the odd time, or the odd hour or two off, or sent me off gallivanting in the van to collect stock—”
“Or a raise.”
“It all goes to flippin’ Gollum. There’s not many perks to the job. The odd broken Easter Egg or unsold magazine or out-of-date block of cheese. But Gollum grabs everything. He’s every bit as much of a grabber as Francie.”
“Grabber Gollum,” said Trish, with a chortle.
There was another lull in conversation, and everyone took a drink. Debs and Trish picked up their phones and checked their messages. Susan cast hawk-like glances around the bar, taking everything in, noting who was drinking what and with whom, what form people were in, and what they were wearing. Senán checked his own phone and then said, “You know in some big multinationals, American ones mainly, they make people sign an agreement not to gossip about bosses or co-workers.”
The others looked at him with good-natured disbelief.
“That wouldn’t hold in Francie’s, would it?” said Debs, shooting a glance at Susan.
“What are you saying about me?” laughed Susan.
“Nothing,” said Debs. “Only gossip is your life!”
The barman called last orders just as the slagging was reaching a crescendo, and Senán and the girls decided to call it a night. Standing at the door saying their goodbyes in a huddle against the cold, Debs said to Senán, “So, you’ve survived your first trip to PJ’s! That’s a feather in your cap, to be sure!” The others gave a wry clap and cheer. Even though it had been in jest, Senán felt a warm glow of contentment as he walked to the bus stop, proud that he had been able to cut the mustard in Francie’s and to form friendships across the social divide.