“Come-come-come here to me,” said Luke quietly, one Tuesday evening towards the start of Senán’s shift. “Wu-wu-would you be wi-wi-willing to stay-stay on a bit lo-lo-lo-longer tonight? Do-do-do a bit of ex-ex-ex-extra work? We-we-we’ll pay you off-off-off the books. Cash in-in hand.”
“No problem,” said Senán. “A bit of extra money is always welcome. What do I’ve to do?”
“I’ll-I’ll-I’ll tell you when the time-time comes,” Luke said, and he walked away.
At ten o’clock, with the doors of the shop locked and Debs and Trish counting up the takings from their tills, Senán looked for Luke and found him replenishing the cigarette machine behind the counter. When he asked him what he wanted him to do, Luke looked at him angrily and hissed, “Just go and tidy the wine and be-be-beer.” Passing Debs and Trish, they gave him curious looks, as did Susan emerging from behind her counter with a dustpan and brush. The off-licence section was in near-immaculate condition, but he set about pulling the odd bottle forward to fill a space, and rotating bottles slightly to achieve perfect facing. A few minutes later he heard a chorus of female voices singing “Bye, Senán” from the door, and then Luke came down to him wearing the same irate expression.
“You-you-you shouldn’t-shouldn’t have come up to-to-to me like that in-in-in front of the gu-gu-girls,” he said. “We don’t-don’t wan-want ’em no-no-knowing anything about this-this-this kinda thing. They-they-they talk too much. Anymore just-just hang back he-he-here and pre-pre-pretend you’re finishing some-some-something off.”
Senán could have pointed out that mooching around at the back of the shop instead of leaving with the girls as he always did would arouse just as much suspicion, but answered with a plain “OK”.
“Right. Let’s-let’s-let’s get a move on, so. Fu-Fu-Francie’s wu-waiting in the va-va-van outside.”
Senán followed Luke to the little locker room that led to the shop’s tiny toilet. They grabbed their coats as they rushed towards the shop’s entrance. With impressive speed, Luke activated the alarms and soon they were standing in the rain pulling down the screeching metal shutters. Francie joined them while they were struggling to lock each one in place.
“Manky aul’ night, lads,” he said. “C’mon, let’s get going.”
They scarpered to the van and sat in its cab. Francie turned the key in the ignition and pulled out from the kerb.
I’m in the van! thought Senán, recalling Trish’s mock-awestruck voice whenever she referred to the vehicle.
The van smelt of stale sweat, greasy hair, cigarette butts, diesel and rancid remains of fast food. It was none too tidy. The floor was strewn with empty crisp packets, chocolate bar wrappers, crushed Styrofoam cups and balled-up greaseproof paper. The space where windscreen met dashboard was stuffed with receipts, invoices and other detritus. The cubbyholes were overflowing with rags, biros, pocket knives, torches and the like, and Senán found himself bum-shuffling to find a comfortable spot in between the various jumpers and coats rolled up on the seat.
“Manky fuckin’ night, all right,” said Francie.
He was leaning forward, chin almost touching the steering wheel, squinting into the sheets of rain lit up by the oncoming cars. He had the wipers on full blast, but their urgent motion only seemed to spread an oily film over the glass.
“I’ll have to get these fuckin’ rubbers changed,” said Francie. “I can see fuck all.”
He geared down and came to a stop at a traffic light.
“Will you do that for me this week, Luke?”
They passed over the turbulent Shannon, its waters lit orange by the floodlights from Thomond Bridge and King John’s Castle, and headed away from the city centre.
“We’re going to a lock-up I keep stock in,” said Francie for Senán’s benefit, his bushy eyebrows dancing. “Now, I don’t want anybody knowing about this place. There’s a lot of stock in there, and as you know this city is full of nothing but fuckin’ robbers and knackers. It’s a tight enough place — secure, like — but them fuckers would have no problem getting in if they wanted.”
“I won’t tell a soul, Francie,” said Senán. “Promise.” He saw Luke looking at him with the shifty expression the girls, especially Trish, were always imitating.
They came to the Parkway roundabout and Francie roughly wheeled the van on to Childers Road, so that Senán slid down the seat and pressed against Luke. His body felt as bony as Senán expected, and he sensed Luke almost crumple at the unwanted contact. They drove past a couple of retail parks shuttered up for the night, passed a halting site with a fire smouldering in the rain and a couple of abandoned quad bikes on the embankments surrounding it, and then turned right into a badly lit, run-down mini-industrial estate. Francie turned left, left again, then reversed the van to a stop in front of a small warehouse with a single up-and-over steel door.
“I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse that the cousins are over the fuckin’ road there,” he said, referring to the Travellers, “but I haven’t been robbed yet.”
He jumped out of the van, unlocked the warehouse door, and with Luke’s help swung it upwards.
“Hit the lights there, Luke,” he said.
Luke dashed inside and turned on the lights to reveal a space of about one hundred square yards broken up into lanes by the same type of shelving present in the supermarket’s store. The warehouse was organised with the same exactitude as the supermarket, which led Senán to believe that Luke was also in charge of its upkeep. Except a couple of rows where the top shelves were empty, the little warehouse was filled to capacity. Before Senán could take a detailed look at any of the stock, he was called into action by Francie.
“Now, lads. These boxes of wine need to be moved to the shop,” he said, pointing to a few dozen boxes on a pallet inside the door. “We’ll do a chain. You go in the van, Luke, and take the boxes from Senán and stack ’em safely. I’d like to help ye, lads, but my back is shagged. I’ll back the van in as far as I can to keep ye out of the wet.”
Senán lifted box after box to Luke who, hunched in the cramped darkness of the back of the van, looked decidedly Gollum-like. He noticed that each box bore a stamp: Liable To Excise Duty, HM Revenue & Customs.
Fishy, he thought. Back of a lorry.
After they had finished with the wine, Francie asked Luke if they needed anything else.
“Cider,” he said. “Fla-fla-flagons of cider. It’s co-co-coming up to Ha-Ha-Halloween. It’s always-always a big seller at-at-at this-this time of the ye-ye-year.”
“Grab what you need, so,” said Francie. And then: “Fuck it! Halloween. The decorations. Thanks for reminding me. Now where the fuck did we put those?”
Luke took out his phone and brought up a photo of a hand-drawn map of the warehouse. This he proudly showed to Francie and then Senán.
“Third ro-ro-row in,” he said. “Chri-chri-christmas decorations and Ha-Ha-Halloween st-st-stuff.”
“Be Jaysus, you’re a genius, Luke,” said Francie with a sideways nod of his head, a kind of wink without involvement of any eye. “You’ve this place in top shape. If I was still organising it I wouldn’t find fuck in here!”
With a short-lived smile, Luke led Senán to the alcohol and they began loading the van with six-pack flagons of cider. Francie watched them work and spoke reflectively.
“There was a time,” he said, “when Halloween was a bit of a bonanza for the shop. There’d be masks and monkey nuts and sweets flying out the door. I used to even sell bangers and fireworks. Under the counter, like. Some of the boys coming down from the North would get ’em for me. But now. Everyone gets their masks and stuff from them fuckin’ pound shops in town. I haven’t sold a monkey nut in years. And since the fuckin’ Peace Process, the boys aren’t into fireworks no more. And anyway, in those days I was behind the counter meself. I wouldn’t be asking Susan or any of the rest of ’em to sell fireworks or the like.”
He followed the younger men to the third row and watched Luke point out the boxes of decorations to be taken to the van.
“We’re only decorating the shop now so we don’t stick out like a sore thumb — the only shop in Limerick that hasn’t a few aul’ cobwebs and witches stuck up. It won’t bring a single extra sale in. Well, maybe the cider. And barmbrack. We do in fairness sell a lot of barmbrack. People still come to us for that. And of course the girls love putting the decorations up. And they’ll dress up on the day. One or two of ’em as sexy witches. You never know what you might see — a bit of leg, a bit o’ boob. It’s good for morale. Team-building, what, Luke?”
From his position up a ladder Luke sniggered at his boss’s joke. Senán looked up at him and got the impression he was flagging — struggling with the large boxes of decorations. His face was paler than usual, if that was possible, and his hair was damp with sweat. Senán wondered why. He thought neither the weight nor quantity of what they had handled warranted such fatigue. But then Senán hurled for his parish, trained twice a week and went to the gym. Perhaps Luke was simply unfit, or weak, or worn out after the twelve-hour-plus day he had put in. Or maybe he’s sick.
Once more, he found himself feeling sorry for him.
On their way back to the shop, Francie brought up the subject of the wine.
“Just in case you’re wondering, Senán,” he said, taking his eyes off the road for a second to glance at him, “there’s nothing dodgy about that wine. I got it at a liquidation sale. A job lot of wine imported from the North. It’s all kosher. It’s all kosher.”
“Ah, yeah, grand,” said Senán under Francie’s scrutiny but not particularly believing him. “Grand.”
“But what I need ye to do when we get back to the shop is get the bottles out of them boxes with that fuckin’ Her Majesty’s Customs or whatever-the-fuck-it-says stamp on it. If Revenue or Customs and Excise decide to do a swoop and they catch sight of that fuckin’ crown, I’m up shit creek. I mean, there’s nothing dodgy about the wine — it’s kosher — but that stamp is like a red rag to a bull where those fuckers are concerned. There’ll be questions. They’ll be poking their noses into everything. God knows what the fuck they’d find. Do I have receipts for this, that and the other thing? Where’s my importer’s licence? Fuck that. We won’t give ’em an excuse. By tonight those boxes will be history.”
“No-no-no problem, Francie,” said Luke from the other side of Senán. “I’ve-I’ve-I’ve been keeping em-em-empty boxes this-this-this la-last week. There-there’s plen-plen-plenty.”
“Good stuff outa you, Luke boy!”
Francie nudged Senán with his elbow. “What did I tell you, Senán?” he said joyously. “He’s the best shop man in Limerick city or county. Whatever they’re teaching you up in that college, you’ll learn a fucklot more from watching this fella. A fucklot more!”
Senán studied Luke’s face as they drove up a deserted Clare Street towards the Abbey River. If he was pleased or embarrassed by Francie’s praise his face didn’t betray either emotion.
Back at the shop, Luke and Senán got stuck into transferring the wine into the empty boxes, while Francie pottered about front-of-shop, sticking his head through the clear PVC swing doors every now and again with a query for Luke. After stacking the boxes in a corner of the wine store and finding room for the cider, Luke and Senán’s final act of the night was to spirit the flattened boxes to the van. Standing in out of the rain under the shop’s backlit sign, Francie watched the pair wrestle and juggle with their stacks of cardboard and getting wetter and wetter. Over the squalling wind he told them the evidence would soon be up in smoke — he would be lighting his range for the next few weeks with Her Majesty’s cardboard.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle. Wha’?” he laughed.
“Now, take this,” said Francie, when they had finished locking up the shop. He handed a twenty euro note to Senán. “Remember: it’s our little secret. Not a word to Susan or any of the rest of ’em. They’re grand girls and all, but they love an aul’ chinwag. You know what I mean?”
Senán nodded and thanked Francie, even though he wasn’t particularly happy with the rate of pay. It was after twelve. Twenty euro for two hours’ work was just above the minimum wage he was being paid on the books. Time and a half, me arse.
“Ye’ll come with me for a drink, lads, will ye?” said Francie. “A nightcap.”
Senán looked at Luke, who seemed to be holding out on giving an answer until he heard Senán’s response.
“I’d love a nice, cold beer,” said Senán, “but sur’ it’s way past closing time. Unless we go to a nightclub at this stage we won’t get in anywhere.”
Francie gave a merry jig-like step, causing the raindrops in his bushy hair to drip on to his forehead and shoulders. “Whahoo,” he cried. “Listen to him, Luke! He doesn’t know much about life over here on the wrong side of the tracks. ‘Closing time’. Where we’re going there’s no such thing as fuckin’ closing time. Would I be right, Luke.”
They slid damply into the van and were soon driving in the opposite direction, away from the river and towards Moylish.
“D’ya know what a shebeen is, young fella?” said Francie to Senán.
“It’s a kind of unofficial bar, isn’t it?” he answered, not wanting to use the words “illegal” or “unlicensed”.
He had heard of the existence of such places in the problem estates, especially in Moyross and South Hill, which had been built far outside the city centre and beyond the reaches of amenities such as shops, schools and pubs. Shebeens had sprung up in obeisance of the laws of supply and demand, with a number of enterprising families turning their homes into drinking establishments to fill a gap in the market. Shebeens also served the function of pub of last resort, or last chance saloon, for those who had been barred from licensed premises, and because of this had a reputation for being rough-and-tumble establishments.
“Spot on. Where we’re off to is an unlicensed premises,” said Francie with a flourish. “Bowsie’s it’s called. But don’t let that put you off — Bowsie Griffin runs a tight ship. There’s no head-the-balls allowed in there.”
“Not-not-not that mu-many anyways,” said Luke, cracking his very first joke in Senán’s presence.
“Ah now, Luke, don’t be trying to frighten him. We won’t tell anyone he’s from Tipperary and he’ll be grand.”
Francie turned right, into Kileely, then right again, taking them down into a warren of short, narrow streets lined with 1950s-era council houses, most of which were in darkness. There was movement of neither pedestrians nor cars, and as Senán studied the streets he noted that properties were well kept, some extremely so, with window boxes or hanging baskets spilling late-flowering varieties down brightly painted walls. Not a single dwelling was boarded up or burnt out, contravening his received images of the area. All street lights were fully functioning, bravely casting an orange light on to the puddled tarmacadam. Even through the night’s drenched gloom and the fogged-up glass of the van, the streets gave off a sense of close-knit community and solid optimism. When Francie stopped the van outside a corner house showing a glowing porch light and evidence of activity behind the curtains, Senán did not feel like he was setting foot in a neighbourhood whose reputation for crime and violence preceded it. Didn’t some of the houses have children’s toys and bicycles scattered around their front gardens, and didn’t the house before them have a swing around the side?
Francie scuttled up the short driveway and gave a series of raps on the living room window.
“The-the-the secret nu-nu-knock,” explained Luke.
Luke’s mood was growing lighter the more time that passed since shutting up the shop for the night. First he had cracked a joke and now he was addressing Senán directly, after having spent the previous couple of hours saying nothing beyond the absolutely necessary, and flashing shifty looks at him. Perhaps going to the lock-up and laundering contraband together had cracked a glass ceiling so that Senán was now in Luke’s circle of trust.
The front door opened a crack and a pair of eyes peered out into the relative darkness.
“Francie!” said a voice, and the door opened back. A burly man in his mid-forties was revealed. He had narrow eyes and wore a short, brown moustache. As he stood aside to let them through to the hall, Senán thought he recognised something of a military bearing in the man.
“It’s a manky night out there, Bowsie,” said Francie. “You know Luke. And this is one of my night crew, Senán.”
“How’s she cuttin’?” said Bowsie to Senán, who felt he was being scrutinised for trouble-making potential.
Once inside the living room, Bowsie asked them what was their poison, and Senán had a chance to take in the scene. To all outward appearances he was not standing in the living room of an end-of-terrace council house, but in a cosy and intimate pub, resembling in every manner except scale hundreds of traditional pubs the length and breadth of Ireland. On the walls were a large flat-screen TV, currently turned off, antique mirrors advertising Jameson or Paddy or Powers, framed old maps of Limerick, Munster and Ireland, and a 1916 Proclamation of Independence. The half-dozen low, round tables and the stools that surrounded them were of the authentic bar room variety. Deeply coloured wainscoting ran all along the room, contributing with the well-worn wooden floor to the country pub look. What had been the house’s living room extended into the kitchen, and what remained of the kitchen now constituted the bar counter and serving area. The short wooden bar had three taps offering stout, lager and red ale. Behind the counter was a comprehensive array of spirits bottles sitting on standard optics, and a couple of fridges containing bottled beer, cider and mixers. To Senán’s disbelief there was also an espresso machine and coffee grinder.
“This place is impressive,” he whispered. “I was expecting sofas, a mantle clock and cans of warm Dutch Gold.”
“You’ll get the best pint in Limerick here,” said Francie with grave authority. “Short line. The barrel does be right under the counter.”
They watched Bowsie pull their pints of stout, leave them on the counter to settle, and then carefully confection the head.
“And you won’t beat the price in a long day’s walk,” said Francie, after handing over a ten euro note to Bowsie and getting change back.
He led them to a free table close to the fireplace, in which a peat fire was burning dully. Senán took his coat off, settled on to his stool and took another look around. There were three other groups in the shebeen: two middle-aged men standing by the counter who were on nodding terms with Francie and Luke, two elderly couples in quiet conversation around a table by the door, and a youngish couple sitting by the window. To his surprise he noticed that a couple of patrons were smoking. Then he remembered that he was not on a licensed premises.
“We’ll warm up a bit here,” said Francie.
“How long has this place been on the go?” asked Senán.
“Arrah, a good few years, at this stage. As well as the price and the late opening, the great thing is that you get no scobies in here. It’s kinda like a private club. Bowsie’s very strict on who he lets in. If you go to any of the official pubs down towards the river there’ll be all sorts of knackers and scumbags and men of the road. And young wans going around half-naked with fellas sniffin’ around after ’em. It’s a rough kind of scene. You know, you might get caught up in the crossfire if there was any argy-bargy, and you never know where any of that might lead — a bottle in the face or worse. This place is grand and peaceful. You just have your quiet pint, a bit of a chat and home to the leaba.”
He took a drink, savouring the finish with clear relish, and continued: “But I suppose for the likes of you and Luke, who’d be looking to rise a bit of skirt, this place is probably not where it’s happening at all, at all.”
“‘Tis-tis-tis grand for a pu-pu-pint after work,” said Luke. “Chill-chill-chilled out, lu-lu-like.”
They spoke for a while about Bowsie’s and then conversation drifted on to the area itself and how it was perceived in the respectable parts of the city.
“I mean there’s some right headbangers around here. People as bad as any you’d ever hope to meet. People who’d cut you up or shoot you as soon as look at you. People who should be fuckin’ locked up for life. Whole families of ’em. That’s what gets the whole place the bad rep it has. Apart from them it’s just a normal, working-class area. Plenty people work, bring up their families, keep their places nice and clean. Don’t have fuckin’ cars on blocks outside their gaffs. Or rubbish. Or fuckin’ caravans. I mean, there’s problems. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a whole pile of young wans who wouldn’t fuckin’ work to warm themselves, poppin’ kids out by the new time.”
“An-an-and fu-fu-fellas as well — there-there-there’s plenty fu-fu-fellas who’ve no-no-no interest in wu-wu-work.”
“And by the time they cop on to themselves, they’re in their thirties, they’ve three or four bambinos, no qualifications, no work experience — and they’re fucked. Caught in a trap, you know. The fellas are worse off than the girls, with payments to this one and that one. Three or four kids by different women. What’s wrong with down here is people need to keep their fuckin’ mickeys zipped up.”
“Or-or-or use pro-pro-protection.”
“The welfare has ’em ruined,” said Francie. “If there was no single-mothers’ allowance they’d be keeping their legs together fairly smart, I’m tellin’ you.”
Senán had heard the views Francie had expressed many times before. He was surprised at someone from the area holding the same opinions as the rafts of middle-class reactionaries who had never set foot in King’s Island or Thomondgate or Kileely, but who had all the answers when it came to cleaning up the problem estates. He said as much to Francie and Luke.
“Well, that’s coz the answer to the problem is simple: put some manners on the toerags and get everyone off the fuckin’ dole.” said Francie. “But another day’s work is the image this side of the city has. The way people look down on us. If the city wasn’t designed so the respectable people never have to set foot in St Mary’s Park or Moyross and we never have to set foot anywhere outside o’ here and maybe the city centre, then maybe our problems down here would be their problems. But sur’ we’re like another species to them. When you tell people where you’re from, you might as well be telling them you’re from ISIS or the Taliban.”
“Tu-tu-true. People-people see yu-yu-your address and that’s it. Yu-yu-you’re in the-the same-same bu-boat as the fu-fu-fuckers they see on the fro-fro-front of the pa-pa-papers being-being-being hauled into co-co-court.”
And so the conversation went until Senán saw that his companions’ glasses were draining.
“Ye’ll have another?” he asked. “One for the road?”
“Go on, so.”
When Senán set three settling pints of stout on the table and sat down, Francie asked him a question which had been gestating a while: “Tell me now — as someone not from the area — what’s your opinion after working on the front line for a while.”
Senán felt Luke’s eyes on him as he cautiously replied, “To be honest, I was a little bit worried before I started the job that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. That people would be a lot rougher. Or people would hear my accent and not give me a break. That there’d be a lot more hassle in the shop than there really is. But people are grand. Most of the customers are grand. It’s just like you said — there’s only one or two headbangers and the rest are normal people.”
“And the difference between the people you meet every day out in the college and the crowd coming into the shop?”
Senán bit his lip and frowned in thought.
“I see where your question is coming from,” he said. “The ones going to university have goals, career plans — all that shit.”
“And most of the people passing through my shop are just getting by from day to day. No plans. Not a notion of bettering themselves. No interest in moving up in the world. No hope. That’s the key difference between someone from out here and some well-heeled fucker from the Golf Links Road. That’s the difference between the Indians here on the reservation and the cowboys. No hope. No plans. No future.”
“I’ll walk-walk you down to the river,” said Luke. “You-you won’t get a taxi to cu-come in here at this ow-ow-hour of the night.”
“Thanks,” said Senán. “Coz I haven’t a clue where I am, really.”
They were outside Bowsie’s front wall. It was after two in the morning and the rain hadn’t let up during the couple of hours they had been in the shebeen. If anything, the drops were larger and colder and being driven by a wind with a steelier bite. Francie had left after his second pint, citing a wish not to be caught drink-driving. Luke and Senán had stayed on for a couple more.
“This way, so.”
Luke began walking, the hood of his coat up, its drawstrings tightly pulled and his shoulders hunched. Senán followed. After about two pints, Luke’s stutter had begun to lose its dominance, and with this loosening of his tongue he became better company — not charming or gregarious, but to Senán’s relief Luke at least had begun to initiate conversational threads and pose the odd question. Because when Francie had left, Senán had dreaded being alone with a Luke who seemed only to speak in the role of Francie’s wingman.
“The hard p-part is getting out of the estate.”
Even so, Senán had done most of the talking. Luke had shown genuine interest in the subject of Senán’s thesis, and had listened keenly to him talking about the various strands running through his research: the factors influencing prices of property in the city’s problem estates; rates of owner-occupiership in the poorer third of the city; the incentives and disincentives for buy-to-let investors; the factors influencing upkeep costs for landlords; the variables involved in the decision to purchase a property in a problem estate; difference in resale rates between the two parts of the city. He had been particularly curious to learn of the many consequences of 2008’s property crash, especially the harm it had done to the rental sector. The news that landlords who had bought at the height of the boom were struggling to cover their mortgages and were, seven years on, attempting to exit the sector got Luke talking about Francie and his houses in the area. Francie was OK, according to Luke. Most of his properties had been bought pre-boom and paid for in cash. He wouldn’t be bailing out.
“Here-here we are now: the main road.”
The most Luke had spoken was on the topic of his older brother, Dean, who worked in Dublin “on the stock market”. “He’s a smart fella, like you. You’d like him,” he had said. If Luke’s attitude to Francie was pure admiration, this was multiplied several-fold as far as his brother was concerned. Senán heard all about the flat he lived in in Dublin’s Docklands, with its views out over the city and port, his high-powered car and the string of blondes he had taken down to Limerick on weekends. He moved millions of euro with the touch of a button and made (and sometimes lost) millions for his clients every week. The bonuses he had earned included a gold watch, a cruise, a share in a racehorse, and a guitar that had belonged to one of the Beatles.
“There’s the ru-river,” said Luke. “You know where you are now?”
Senán had wanted to bring up Luke’s stutter, but just couldn’t formulate a way to do so without the risk of giving offence. At one stage he was on the verge of saying something about how the stutter had disappeared with a bit of drink, but the moment did not seem right. Another time.
They walked in silence towards the river, with their wet footfalls and the beeping of a traffic light the only sounds that could be heard along with the pitter-patter of the rain. When they arrived at Thomond Bridge, Luke stopped and pointed in the direction of the river’s flow.
“If you walk towards Su-Sarsfield Bridge along the strand here, you’ll sure-surely meet a taxi. And if not, there’s a rank on O’Connell Street. I’m heading off ho-ho-home this way.” He pointed to the other side of the river.
“See-see you tomorrow.”
He nodded at Senán, turned around and walked into the rain, his body looking lean and frail against the lit-up bulk of King John’s Castle.