Senán and Trish were squashed into the small anteroom that separated the bathroom from the shop and served as a locker room. He was sitting on a battered old kick stool while Trish stood over him with her bag of face paints at the ready. ”
So what d’ya want?” she asked.
“To be honest, I don’t want anything. I’m happy out the way I am. But if I have to, I have to.”
“You have to. You’ve no choice. Sto-sto-store po-po-policy!”
It was Halloween, and he had arrived to work in his street clothes to the consternation of Susan, Trish and Debs. Even Luke, who had made the effort and dressed up as a cloaked figure from Star Wars, looked at him disapprovingly. Trish, wearing a tiny black velvet skirt, fishnet stockings, knee-high boots and a leatherette bodice with a plunging neckline and a series of intricate strings and zips, had leapt into action, closing her till and practically dragging Senán down the back of the shop. Clearly responsible for her own garish make-up and that of the others, she had produced what she called her bag of tricks and was intent on rescuing Senán’s shameful oversight, whether he agreed or not.
“Just surprise me,” said Senán. “Knock me out.”
Trish thought for a moment. “Zombie,” she decided. “You’ll get away without having a costume if I do you a zombie face.” She took out a cotton pad, dabbed it in a jar of white slap-on and began to apply this to his forehead.
Senán, out of decorum, tried to avoid looking at her thighs, which were at eye level, but as she pressed closer, almost straddling him, this became more difficult. He found himself becoming aroused by her closeness and began to concentrate on quelling this.
“So what are you supposed to be?” he asked.
She leaned in closer and all Senán could see was the space between her pushed-up breasts. She did not seem to be wearing a bra.
“I’m a sexy witch. Or a vampire’s helper. A demonic minion. Whatever.”
Senán was about to say something flirty but didn’t. He closed his eyes.
“Eyes open!” said Trish. “And stop moving your head.”
“Are you sure you’re not a dominatrix?” Senán asked.
“No. I just take my face-painting seriously.” She dabbed his cheeks and nose and leaned in even closer. Senán could feel her breath on his brow. “Now you can close your eyes.”
She lightly applied the face paint to his eyelids and retouched some spots she had missed, before stepping back and reaching for a new colour.
“I earn a bit of money on the side doing this,” she said, beginning again around his forehead. “Kids’ parties and all that. I enjoy the work. Wouldn’t mind doing it full-time. It would get me out of this shithole.”
She worked away under his chin, and then moved upwards, carrying colour along his jawline. Senán could smell her hair and the PVC of her bodice. Her fingers were warm as they held his forehead.
“You’ve nice skin. Smooth and firm. Ye fellas are so lucky. Yer skin improves with age. Ours just starts to wrinkle and hang. Although I’d to do Luke there this morning. Like in so many things, he’s the exception. He’s skin like an aul’ one. I nearly puked when I had to touch it. And I caught him looking down my top and everything. He’d give you the creeps. ‘Tis nearly a waste of paint doing him anyway. He’d frighten you at the best of times with that pale aul’ puss of his.”
Senán parted his lips to begin a defence of Luke but felt a finger placed over them.
“No talking!” said Trish with playful severity. “I know what you’re going to say: that he’s not so bad; it’s just shyness. You always stick up for him. I’ll tell you, though: you go round here in a short skirt or a skimpy top and eventually you’ll catch him trying to look up one or look down the other. And the main point of those fuckin’ cameras that’s everywhere is so that he can spy on us. You know, me and Debs gurn into them the odd time just to give him a thrill. And I don’t want to think about what he does in the office when he’s replaying those tapes. Perv.”
She retrieved more items from her bag. Senán felt the tips of fine brushes working around his lips and eyes.
“I’m nearly done,” she said after a time. “Just a few scars. And a few gaping wounds. I’ll be done in jiffy. You can open your eyes if you want.”
Senán opened his eyes to find Trish bending over her bag and going through the various tubes and pots in search of the correct colour. Her tights were hold-ups and she was wearing a black thong. To avert accusations of being a pervert, he took out his phone and began to go about taking a selfie.
“Not yet,” said Trish. “Wait till it’s all done.” After she had drawn the scars and wounds, she stood back and assessed her work. She smiled and said, “‘Twill do!”
Senán took the selfie and told Trish he was impressed with her skills.
“I’ll expect payment tonight,” she replied. “A dance. You’ll give me a dance, won’t you?”
In spite of the holiday atmosphere in Francie’s, with staff and customers alike on a high in anticipation of that night’s revelries, Senán’s four hours of work seemed to crawl by. All he could think about was the dance he was to have with Trish.
Was the promise she had extracted from him a come-on? he wondered.
With each passing glance at her checkout, he desired her more. The possibility of placing his hands around her waist and holding her to him in a slow dance shortened his breath and made his lips and fingertips throb in anticipation. When he imagined running his hand up her slender and taut thigh towards the thong, he had to tell himself to concentrate on his jars and cans. He almost fell off his ladder at the image of undoing her bodice.
With her light brown hair tied up in a tight ponytail, under the fluorescent lights of Francie’s there was a severe beauty to her heavily made-up face. Senán watched her interact with customers and saw a confident, smart and witty young woman who treated all comers with cheerful respect. Beyond her physical beauty, she was an attractive personality, a happy presence who was fun to be around. Senán liked her, but did he like her enough to imagine moving beyond the kiss and cuddle that was on the cards that night? Could he envisage falling into a relationship with her and, if he couldn’t, would it be fair to walk knowingly into a one-night stand?
Maybe that’s all she wants, though, he thought.
He decided to go with the flow, and if it looked like a question of Trish’s place or his, he would subtly attempt to gauge what she expected from him.
If my parents could see me now, was the thought that ran through Senán’s mind.
He touched his cheek and felt its heat, shaking his head gently in wonder. He had never seen a bonfire so big, never seen any fire rage so fiercely, not even the gorse fires that sprung up every couple of summers on the mountain slopes near his family’s farm. The sound alone was impressive — a deep hrush accompanied by the crisping and shattering of the mountain of pallets feeding the flames. There was also the occasional explosion of a strategically placed aerosol which drew cheers from the large, boisterous crowd. Senán reckoned there must have been hundreds watching the livid flames eat their way through the wood and old tyres, craning their necks to follow the flow of sparks far into the night sky. From time to time the wind would rise or change direction and an orange limb would dance towards those on the inside of the circle of revellers, sometimes whipping their costumes and causing more shouts and cheering. Senán was on the outside of the circle, which was five or six bodies deep, and he was almost asphyxiating from the heat. He couldn’t imagine what it was like to be any closer.
The fire was on a piece of waste ground on the north-eastern end of the Island Field, out of sight and reach of the gardaí and fire brigade. A group of about twenty youths seemed to be in charge of proceedings, presumably having spent their mid-term break gathering materials for the fire. Even though their mean age was no more than fifteen, none was without a can or flagon of cider in their hand. They were also openly passing joints around. Senán had a can of cider — from a slab of out-of-date scrumpy that Luke had produced at closing time — and was glad of its cooling refreshment in the face of the fire’s ardour. The rest of the crowd was a broad demographic: children, teenagers, men and women his own age, older adults — there were even people old enough to be grandparents. There were large numbers of dogs, some racing around in growling and barking rolling rucks, others shivering in fear at their owner’s feet or yelping at the boom of a banger or firework. Senán could hear the snorting and whinnies of nearby horses, but did not set eyes upon one until a couple of boys riding bareback passed by the fire yahooing and whooping.
Luke stood beside him silently, the hood of his cloak hiding his face. Somewhere to their right, Trish and Debs had blended into the crowd. Every once in a while Senán caught a fragmentary phrase or shout which he identified as Debs’s husky tone. As soon as they had arrived, Susan had sought out her two children and was currently standing well back from the fire with a knot of other parents doing their best to supervise.
Senán saw Luke rummaging beneath his cloak and pull his phone out to read a message.
“I’ll-I’ll-I’ll be heading away now,” he said after answering it. “Before-before it gets too-too ru-ru-rough.”
“You’re not coming dancing with us?”
Luke’s head shook inside his hood. “Not-not-not my cup of-of tea.”
“Ah, but sur’ it’ll be a bit of crack.”
“Naw. I’ll-I’ll-I’ll see you tomorrow.” He reached down to the cider at his feet and took a can in each hand before turning to leave.
“I’ll look after these so, I suppose?” said Senán, referring to the cans.
“Wha-whatever,” came the answer.
Senán watched Luke move quickly around the cone of light spilling from the fire, skirt a couple of small boys clattering each other with plastic swords, and then disappear into the dark gash that lay between the fire and the lights of the housing estate about five hundred yards away. Some instinct made Senán continue to peer into the night following what he imagined to be Luke’s progress. Then he noticed a young woman who seemed to be waiting for someone. A hooded figure, who by his gait could only be Luke, emerged into the dim orange glow, clambered up through the gap, and the pair walked out of sight together.
Old Luke has a date! thought Senán. Good for him!
For about half an hour Senán stood on his own, marvelling at the fire and the antics of the youngsters who were growing progressively louder, higher and drunker. The scene reminded Senán of Native American post-battle victory feasts in old Technicolor westerns, especially with the bareback horse riders. As the night went on he noticed couples leaving the light to smooch in the privacy of darkness, and as the crowd thinned he gained a direct line of sight of Trish. She and Debs were in a large group of girls their own age. Tinny dance music was blaring from someone’s phone, and many of the girls, including Trish, were dancing in a vigorous hip hop style. Trish had cast off her coat, and Senán saw flashes of top and bottom cleavage as she kicked and stomped and bounced and gyrated with her friends. In the middle of a particularly frenetic song, she happened to look over and caught Senán’s eye. Seeing him alone, she made her way towards him.
“You’re all on your own,” she said breathlessly. “Where’s Gollum?”
“Looks like maybe he’s a hot date. He met a girl over by the gap in the wall.”
Trish’s eyes flashed with interest. “What’d she look like?”
“I couldn’t say,” said Senán. “She was too far away. But good old Luke, says I. It’s always the quiet ones and all that.”
“He’s probably paying for it,” said Trish, deadly serious.
Senán didn’t understand. “Paying for it?”
“He’s learned from the master. Francie is famous for visiting the Dock Road and Catherine Street. The only women he’s ever been with are ones on the game. Luke’s the same, only he likes ’em younger.”
Senán was shocked. He tried to square Luke’s idealised view of the “classy lady” cohort of womanhood and his denigration of the women from his own area with what Trish was telling him.
“I can’t see Luke going with prostitutes,” he said after a long pause. “I just can’t.”
“Believe what you want,” Trish said matter-of-factly. “But you know, around here a fly can’t land without people seeing it. None of Gollum’s midnight wanderings in his aul’ 2003 Corsa go unnoticed. It’s well known what he gets up to, even though he might think he’s slinking round invisible, like.”
There was another long pause.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Senán eventually. “Going with prostitutes is low, dirty. There’s exploitation involved. There’s—”
“There’s a lot worse things Gollum could be up to,” said Trish. “Maybe what he and Francie do keeps them from doing worse things to women. Let’s leave it at that.”
She smiled at Senán until she saw him nod slowly.
“Come on over and join us and don’t be standing here on your own like a tit. Do you have those cans of cider, or did that stingy fucker take them with him?”
Senán nudged what remained of the slab of cans with his shoe.
“Good,” said Trish. “Bring ’em over. We’re having a party!”
Over among the dancing girls, Trish introduced Senán to everyone and was greeted warmly. Knowing looks passed between some of the girls and Trish, and some even teased him about his intentions towards her. With the eyes of so many girls on him, Senán was glad that his face was already red from the fire and plastered with a thick layer of Trish’s paint. Most of the girls were, like Trish, dressed up in variations on the theme of sexy witch. Some of the heavier girls, such as Debs, wore flowing robes that concealed their obesity, but even so, this sorceress look incorporated a low neckline and a long slit in the skirt. As cans of cider were handed out, Senán recognised many of the girls as customers of Francie’s. None was as beautiful or lithe as Trish, and he felt a burst of something akin to pride.
“You’re not dancing?” asked Trish. After popping open her can, she had resumed her stepping and weaving to the music.
“I’m not much of a dancer,” said Senán. “I usually only get moving when I’ve got a bit more rocket fuel inside me.” He tapped his can of cider.
“Go on!” said Trish. “Get that ass moving!” She bumped up against him with a hip, reversed into him and, with both arms raised seductively, began to twist her body so that her backside ground against his pelvis in time to the music. Senán couldn’t help but follow the rhythm and grind out his own movements. Trish danced forward and turned around to face him. Like a hip hop belly dancer, she shook her shoulders so that her breasts bounced inside her bodice and the light from the fire sparkled on its zips and buckles. She took a drink from her can and laughed.
“Now. I’ve given you a jump-start! Come on.”
With Trish beside him giving him the odd nudge to spur him on, Senán danced with the girls. Soon his embarrassment at his poor sense of rhythm and lack of moves wore off, and he comfortably settled into a groove. His attention jumped from Trish to the circle of girls to the high jinks underway elsewhere. Some of the girls were quite drunk. Debs, for example, who held a half bottle of cheap vodka, wore a numb expression, her eyelids falling down over dull eyes. Her movements varied between sluggish swaying and, whenever she gained a second wind, a frenzied kind of bouncing.
The wider party was descending into an ever wilder affair. Along with the horses, there were now quad and scrambler bikes wheeling around the fire. Most of the families had retired from the scene. Many young and not so young men were staggering around blind drunk. A couple of fights had broken out and been quickly quenched. Drug use was much more open: along with reefers, Senán had seen powders and pills being passed around. If the party had been Wild West before, it was now moving close to Mad Max.
After a while, when the battery ran out on the phone providing the music, there was a council among the more sober of the girls.
“It’s starting to get a bit rough,” one of them said. “Will we head?”
There was general agreement that they should.
The fire still burned fiercely but was now almost half its original size. The youths who had set it were growing ever bolder in their feats of daring. They were queuing up to leap over a waist-high corner of the fire that had collapsed. A boy on a quad bike had almost driven into another toppled section, and the girls predicted that it would not be too long before someone tried to jump this on horseback. A rumour had also spread that some of the boys had stolen a car and would arrive forthwith.
“You don’t want to be here for that,” Trish said to Senán as they made towards the lights of the estate. “The shades will be down after ’em and it could get messy. There’s nothing the boys from round here like more than a good riot. Feckin’ bricks and stones at the cops is their idea of a perfect end to a good night out.”
In the relative brightness of the streets beyond the gap in the wall, Senán saw how drunk Debs and some of the other girls were. Progress was slow between the Island Field and Patrick Street as the girls staggered along on their high heels, making stops for kerbside toilet or vomit breaks. Debs vomited profusely when the wind from the Shannon hit her on Bridge Street. She wouldn’t hear talk of being brought home, though.
“I’ll be grand in a minute,” she slurred. But she was not grand. Right outside the nightclub, a run-down former warehouse in a narrow alley off Shannon Street, she vomited once more, in plain sight of the pair of burly bouncers.
“She’s not coming in,” one of them said. “Not in that state.”
The girls decided that she needed taking home. Trish reluctantly volunteered to look after her, and Senán’s heart sank. She lifted one of Debs’s limp arms and put it gently over her shoulder.
“Come on so, Debs. Let’s get you a taxi home.”
While he wondered what to do, Senán watched Trish guide a very waxen, weak and tottering Debs towards the entrance to the alley. I can’t stay on with these girls, he thought, looking at the gang flirting with the bouncers and preparing to file into the nightclub. But can I tag along with Trish and Debs? What signal would that send out?
He found that he didn’t care about the signal, and ran after the lumbering pair.
“I’ll come with you,” he called. “If that’s OK.”
“I’d appreciate it,” said Trish. “The nearest taxi rank is William Street and I don’t know if I have the strength to take her all the way. Grab her other arm and we’ll carry her between us.”
Feeling awkward, Senán did as Trish asked. To bear any of Debs’s weight, he had to stoop into an uncomfortable loping walk. His back soon ached. He was surprised at Debs’s almost catatonic state. She made no effort to talk, had lost all the muscle tone from her face, and was blinking slowly and nodding her head like someone about to lapse into sleep.
“She’s wrecked,” he whispered to Trish. “She must have had more than that half bottle of vodka I saw her with.”
“She’d a couple of zimmos early on. They always fuck her up when she mixes them with drink. But there’s no talking to her.”
Senán wanted to ask what zimmos were but didn’t want to appear like an ingénue again.
“That’s our night out over, anyway,” said Trish. “It’s nearly a quarter to one. By the time we get her home it’ll be a quarter past, and then getting back in here will take another twenty minutes. It won’t be worth our while then. Fuck it.”
It was a busy night in town. The streets hummed with the roar of aerofoiled cars packed with partying boy racers. Many honked their horns at the struggling trio, either in appreciation of Trish’s get-up or in amusement at their plight. Wisecracks were also offered by the droves of pedestrians along Little Catherine Street. Senán left these to Trish, whose barbed tongue was well sharpened by her disappointment. Luckily, on William Street the taxi rank was full and they didn’t have to wait in a queue enduring further taunts from passers-by.
Back on the Island Field Senán paid the taxi driver and waited on the footpath outside Debs’s house while Trish put her to bed. He still had no idea of how the night was going to end.
When Trish eventually emerged it was with a face of sharp ire.
“I feel like I need a zimmo myself after that,” she said, breezing past Senán so that he had to skip to keep up with her. “The aul’ bitch of a mother of hers gave me an earful. As if I was spooning fucking drink and drugs into her daughter. Fuck’s sake! That’s the thanks you get for looking after someone. I could’ve left her there puking her ring out or wandering around lost, but I ruined my night out to bring her home. Fuckin’ aul’ cunt!”
“She didn’t call you a bad influence or anything?” said Senán with a smile.
“That and more. And of course round here they always bring your family into it. ‘You’re like your tramp of a mother. Running round half naked’. The aul’ bitch! As if she was fuckin’ Mother Teresa. She’s off her head most of the time on tranquilisers. Barely leaves the house except to run up to the doctor. ‘Me nerves is at me! Them kids haves me in a state.’ Fuck her!”
Senán laughed at her imitation of Debs’s mother. Trish scrunched up her nose and narrowed her eyes as she quoted the woman, putting on a crackly, high-pitched voice.
“You should go on telly,” he said. “You’re a good mimic.”
This compliment took the edge off Trish’s anger.
They walked in silence for a while until they reached the end of the street. The noise from the bonfire could be heard in the distance — shouts, roars and engines — and the smell of smoke filled the air. Trish stopped and turned to Senán.
“What’s the plan?” she asked.
“I owe you a dance still.”
She sighed. “I don’t feel like going back into town now,” she said.
“I live at home. There’s a rake of us. I’ve two younger brothers and two younger sisters. You don’t want to be going in there at this hour of the night. Or at any time.”
Trish looked into Senán’s eyes and frowned in thought, an expression that lent a fragility to her beauty that Senán found almost irresistible. He felt like grabbing hold of her and kissing her hard, but held himself back.
“I’d love to,” she said at last, “but I’m . . . old-fashioned. I think we should at least have a date before we talk about your place or mine.”
“A date? You are old-fashioned.”
Senán was both disappointed and pleasantly surprised. None of the fantasies he had been cooking up would be coming true, but on the other hand what Trish had said revealed a sweetness, independence of thought and firmness of idea that made him like and respect her even more. The more time he spent in her company, the more she seemed like someone worth getting to know.
“You’re laughing at me,” she said flatly, more challenge than accusation.
“No, Trish.” Senán shook his head slowly. “I think what you’ve said is right. If we are going to start something, we should do it right. So — let’s have a date! Let me walk you home and we’ll thrash out the details along the way: where, when—”
“Who, why, what . . . I’ve run out of W words!”
She laughed, a giddy tinkle, and made a grab for Senán’s hand, squeezing it tight, and pushing her body into his from shoulder to hip. “Come on, so,” she said brightly. “You’re walking me home.”
She set off, pulling him with her, letting go of his hand and putting her arm around his waist. With his own arm around her middle and squeezing her tightly to him, Senán thought himself to be the happiest man in Limerick at that moment. As they walked along the empty streets where only the odd house had a light on behind a curtain or blind, he took in his surroundings. The houses were squat, with two windows at street level and one above. Each had a small front garden, which many residents had concreted over to make into a parking area. They were clearly council houses, but older than those in Bowsie’s area; there wasn’t as strong a sense of tidiness and community as in Kileely. While many homes were well maintained — freshly painted, with shrubs, flowers and garden gnomes — many others looked neglected or close to dilapidation. Some properties were even boarded up with sheets of metal.
“It doesn’t get better than this,” said Senán, breaking the silence between them.
Trish rested her head on his shoulder and sighed. Soon their mouths found each other and they came to a stop to kiss under the shadow of a broken streetlight.