“We’ll have to have a drink in my neck of the woods the next time,” said Senán. “I feel like you and Francie have taken me under your wing, you know, bringing me to this place and giving me such a feel for the area. I should repay the compliment.”
“I-I-I dunno,” answered Luke. “I’ve never been ow-ow-out that side of town mu-mu-much.”
He and Luke were in Bowsie’s again, after another late-night trip to Francie’s lock-up. This time Francie didn’t join them, citing tiredness. The fifteen-minute winding walk to Bowsie’s had turned into something of a tour, with Luke acting as guide, pointing out houses where this or that gangster lived, where shootings and petrol bombings had taken place, and explaining which families were aligned with which of the city’s feuding gangs. He possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge and spoke with a perverse pride about the joyriding, drug dealing, beatings and other criminal activities. Even though he referred to those concerned as scobes, toerags and knackers, it was clear that he felt kinship with them, coming from the same broad tribe. Hadn’t Luke gone to school with some of them, played out on the green with them as kids, collected pallets and old tyres for the Halloween bonfire with them, been to their birthday parties?
“You must have been in and about the university, though?” asked Senán.
Luke looked down at the table and shook his head. “Never,” he said.
There was something about Luke’s response that made Senán regret asking. He felt Luke’s shame and sense of inferiority. To cover up his faux pas with bluster, he said, “There’s some right babes out there. If you think about it, where else in the city will you find close on five thousand young ones wandering around? Most of them gagging for it. I mean, there’s a lot of thick-ankled girls with notions above their station, but there’s some right crackers too, you know? And many of them are low-hanging fruit.”
Senán listened to himself and thought he sounded like Vincent doing one of his dirty old man raps. He took a drink of his pint, thinking of a change of topic.
“There-there-there’s plenty of low-hang-hang-hanging fruit around here too,” said Luke. “But-but-but you get ti-ti-tired of that after a while. Those-those-those classy ladies that-that the brother brings home — that’s the kind of wo-wo-woman I’d like. A bit-bit of mu-manners. And edu-edu-education. Look.”
He activated his phone and brought up a photo. It was of a dark-haired girl with deep brown eyes, pale skin, high, rounded cheekbones, a sharp nose and generous ruby lips.
“That’s one of the brother’s exes. She-she look-look-looks like that Nigella Lawson one. Only-only better looking.”
“She’s stunning,” said Senán. “Lucky man, your brother.”
“A smu-smu-smart cu-cookie.”
Senán wanted to ask Luke about his brother. He was curious to know how his brother had become a mover and shaker in the stock market, and why Luke hadn’t taken a similar route, why he had stayed at home to work in Francie’s instead of following in his brother’s footsteps. He didn’t get the chance, however: Luke continued eulogising the Nigella Lawson lookalike.
“And she wasn’t ju-just a stunner — she-she-she was smart and in-interesting to talk to. It-it wasn’t just about-about handbags and nu-nu-nails. She talked-talked about books and-and-and films and pu-pu-politics. She’d a bi-bit of curiosity about-about the wo-wo-world around her.”
Since his first trip to the lock-up Luke had become more talkative in Senán’s presence. In Francie’s he no longer issued curt orders and walked away without making eye contact. There was now some normal workplace banter between them, and Luke would even stop as Senán packed or tidied shelves and initiate a conversation about soccer or rugby or local gossip. The girls did not fail to notice this change. A couple of nights previously, when they had gone to PJ’s for a quick one after work, they had teased Senán about his “new friend” and jokingly warned him to be on the lookout for a Gollum-like stalker figure “snaking around after him out at the university”. The most remarkable thing Senán had observed was that Luke stuttered less and less in his presence. The stutter was something Senán was desperate to bring up with him, but that night in Bowsie’s he almost couldn’t get a word in edgeways.
“I’m-I’m-I’m sick of girls from round here. Mo-mo-most of ’em are fat slags. And-and most of ’em that’s my age have ba-ba-babies. Your only-your only option is-is to get ’em young. And that’s ill-ill-illegal!”
He laughed a free and easy laugh, took a gulp of stout, and laughed again. Senán could see that after only one and a half pints his companion was merry.
“There was this-this girl in the shop, bu-bu-before your time, who was dif-dif-different from all the rest. A honey. Swee-swee-sweet and innocent. She was-she was trying to get-get out of this place. Make something of herself. It-it-it didn’t-didn’t wu-wu-work out bu-between us.”
Senán assumed he was referring to Ronnie, the girl Susan, Trish and Debs said had to leave Francie’s because of Luke’s unwelcome attentions. The tender way Luke had spoken about her had him wondering if there were two sides to the story.
“Trish has-has-has lovely knockers,” said Luke after a spell. “A nice-nice body in general. But-but I wouldn’t stick-stick-stick it in her. She’s-she’s too gu-gu-gobby. Does-does-does my he-head in with all her chu-chatter.”
Senán didn’t like this kind of talk, the way men spoke of women as if they were inanimate objects without any say in who might “do” them or allow “stick it in” them, as if it were a privilege to be on the receiving end of such actions. The women being spoken of were usually out of reach of the men who were so free with their words. He thought of Trish and the revulsion with which she spoke of Luke.
“She’s a nice girl,” said Senán, simultaneously attempting to stand up for Trish and tone down the conversation. “She’s funny. You know? Witty.”
Luke chortled and shook his head. He was sitting low on his stool, all hunched over, with one elbow resting on the table, holding his pint glass to him as if he feared someone would snatch it away. To Senán, who was sitting up straight and whose head was a foot above Luke’s, there was something of the old man about him. He looked crumpled up, like a balloon with a slow leak. Gollum involuntarily came into his head.
“She’s a sla-slapper like the rest of them. She’d-she’d suck the chrome off a hitch.” Luke laughed again, a cackle almost. The handful of other patrons in the shebeen turned to look at the source of hilarity.
“I’d stay away-away from her if-if I was you. You never-never know what you mi-might catch. Me-mecca-mechanised dandruff! And that other one, Du-Debs. Dirty. The-the only way she’d get a fella is-is by doing stuff no-no-no one else would do. Dirtbird. She-she went out with a nu-nu-knacker an’ all. Naw. You-you-you should stick to the nu-nu-nice girls out-out at the uni-uni-university.”
Senán wanted to make the point that Trish and Debs were decent, normal girls who didn’t deserve Luke’s comments, and also disabuse him of the notion that the girls on campus were without exception intelligent, virginal, “classy ladies”.
“Ah, Luke, now. Trish and Debs don’t deserve that. I think they’re grand and sound. They’re good co-workers and good crack. And as for them being any different from the girls on campus. We’re just talking about things like accent and socio-economic background, not common decency or morals — or hygiene. There’s a crapload of girls you wouldn’t go near out on campus. Not because they’re dirtbirds or slags or slappers or any of that. But because they’re shallow, materialistic, boring or nasty.”
Luke looked up at him and smiled. “You’ve-you’ve-you’ve a lot to learn, Su-Su-Senán. You’re too in-in-innocent for du-du-down here. You’ve lived-lived your life around nu-nu-normal people and you-you-you’re judging people from ru-ru-round here based on that. You’ll-you’ll-you’ll learn that you ca-ca-can’t.”
Senán looked around the shebeen, smarting a little from once more being branded an outsider with much to learn. It seemed like every time he disagreed with Luke or Susan, Trish and Debs, or expressed surprise at their worldview, he was dismissed as someone who didn’t grasp the reality of life in their part of the world. Between this and Luke’s misogyny, he did not enjoy his quiet pint in Bowsie’s. Then an idea struck him: if he brought Luke for a night out on campus, he could show him there was very little difference between the girls from his own area and college girls — especially after the girls had a few drinks on board. If he saw how they partied he might lower them from the pedestal to which he had elevated them, and perhaps re-evaluate the merits of local girls like Trish. At the very least, Senán could have a chat to Luke about his attitude to women and attempt to coax him into the twenty-first century. He might even be able to finally bring up the subject of his stutter.
“Luke, I’ve an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you come with me for a night out on campus? We’ll have a few drinks. I’ll introduce you to some of those classy ladies you were on about. And you never know what might happen.”
A broad smile stretched Luke’s narrow lips and he flicked a few looks at Senán, but he didn’t answer.
“And in return,” continued Senán, “you’ve to give me that tour of the badlands, like you promised.”
Luke’s smile broadened further.
“O-O-OK. You’ve a du-du-deal.”