Senán looked across at Trish and smiled. She was giving him the fourth degree. He hadn’t been asked so many questions since Scary Mary had interviewed him for what she kept calling the “position”. (Vincent got a kick out of Senán’s report of the interview, punning on position to within an inch of its life.)
“So you go home every weekend?” asked Trish.
“Every weekend? Seriously?”
“For hurling practice?”
“Well, that and to see my family.”
“And then you’ve a game on the Sunday?”
“Most Sundays. The league is starting up now. Intermediate level, God love us.”
“And do you practise during the week here in Limerick?”
“Yeah. I’m in the hurling club in college. We train twice a week at my level. Luckily it doesn’t clash with my job in Francie’s. We train at midday. The big boys, the senior team, train in the evenings.”
“And then after the match at home on Sunday you head off back to Limerick?”
“I can’t get over it,” said Trish. She took a sip of her wine and shook her head carefully — she was wearing her hair in an elaborate up style, what Senán would call a “wedding hairdo” and which he guessed had taken quite a length of time to concoct. “You kinda live in two places, a sort of double life. You’ve your weekend life at home in Tipp and then your weekday life here in Limerick. It’s a weird . . .”
“Dichotomy,” offered Senán.
Senán smiled as a joke came to mind. “But that’s enough about me,” he said in a corny American accent, “what about you?”
Trish laughed. “I’ve been going on a bit, haven’t I, asking you questions, like?”
“Just a bit!”
Senán was surprised at how nervous Trish was. She hadn’t been her usual smart, sassy and talkative self the minute he picked her up from outside her house in his battered old Mazda 323. There was tension written on her face, and the little peck on the cheek she gave him after buckling up was more out of formality than warmth.
“C’mon. Get the fuck out of here,” she had said between her teeth. “My family are all gawking out at us.”
She had been quiet on the journey across town, gripping her handbag to her chest and looking into shop windows. Senán had kept where they were going a secret, despite Trish’s pleadings throughout the week. In quiet moments in Francie’s she would stand under his ladder and beg to be told where they were going.
“I need to know what to wear,” she would say. “Is it a dressy kind of place or fucking McDonald’s?”
All Senán would reveal was that it was neither a Michelin-starred restaurant nor a fast food joint. In response to her increasingly desperate messages as he prepared to drive back to Limerick on Saturday afternoon after training, he told her he would be wearing “smart cas”. When she gave her coat to the waiter in Martino’s, she had either ignored this message or possessed a different concept of smart casual than Senán. She wore a sea-green body-hugging minidress of a kind of synthetic, stretchy satin with sheer fabric sleeves. The pattern, consisting of irregular arrangements of chevrons of a darker green and shinier material than the base fabric, was continued from the body of the outfit to the arms, with iridescent ribs running over the see-through fabric to give Trish’s long, toned arms an impressive, structured appearance. Although the dress’s neckline was high, its tightness and pattern emphasised her bust. At the back of the dress, similarly positioned chevrons drew the eye to the buttocks. Whenever she moved, reflected light from stretching and contracting chevrons played on the curves of her body. Senán could see men at other tables checking her out.
“Wow,” he said.
“You like it?” said Trish skittishly. “Not too OTT?”
“No way. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. You look gorgeous. Like you could be on the red carpet of a film premiere. I’m blown away.”
Trish glowed with pleasure, but didn’t relax fully until after the starters had been cleared away and she had poured herself a second glass of red wine.
“I don’t want to sound like the poor little girl from the Island, but I’ve never been to a place like this before,” she said.
“Ah, it’s not that fancy,” said Senán. “You don’t have to have a knighthood or anything to come to this aul’ place.”
Martino’s was one of the city’s longest-established eateries, on the go since the 1970s. It had been cordon bleu in the dark days before Ireland became a cosmopolitan, outward-looking country, and when the phrase carried a certain snob value. While some of the cachet of eating in Martino’s had worn off over the decades, with the arrival of new trends and competing restaurants that boasted concept décor and nouvelle cuisine, it was still a place where the great and the good of the city ate, and where you took a client if you wanted to wine and dine them. Martino’s didn’t do stag or hen parties, unlike many of the city’s restaurants, and there was no pizza, lasagne, hamburger or, God forbid, kiddies’ meal on the menu.
“I know,” said Trish, “but places like this never seem like the type of place for the likes of us to go to. If I go out with the family, it’s always Mackie D’s or Supermac’s or somewhere like that for the younger ones. With the girls we always go to a Chinese or Indian or do pub grub. This place is like for . . . other people to go to. You know. Decent people. Teachers, doctors, solicitors. You know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean.”
“Besides all that there’s the price. Are you really sure you can afford this?”
Trish had looked at the menu in shock after they were seated and had offered to go halves, worried that paying for a three-course meal and a bottle of wine would ruin him. Senán smiled. His ex, Connie, had never shown any desire to go Dutch, and their outings had bled him dry of any monies he might have amassed over the summer.
“Don’t worry,” said Senán. “I won this prize in college at the end of the summer. The O’Curry Medal. It’s given to whoever gets the highest mark in the finals in advanced data modelling. You get this stupid medal, your photograph taken with the head of department and some dudes in suits who sponsor the thing — and five hundred quid prize money. I said to myself that I’d keep the money to spend on something special . . . and here we are. I couldn’t imagine a more special thing to do with it.”
He raised his glass, waited for Trish to follow suit, and said as their glasses clinked: “Here’s to Professor O’Curry — whoever he is, or was!”
“I presume this advanced data modelling has nothing to do with the catwalk or Adriana Lima or Marc Jacobs?”
“You would presume correctly. The modelling I do, it’s a bit like designing a computer game — like the Sims or Animal Crossing. You play around with the variables, basically fiddle with inputs — numbers — like amounts of money, interest rates, time spans, population growth rates, rates of mortality, depreciation, economic constants, et cetera. And you see what comes out the other side when the game is finished. The more variables you add based on real-world data, the more accurate the model is likely to be. It’s a simulation of what might occur in the real world. You gather data, plug it in and press Go. Simple really, if you know what you’re doing. You wouldn’t believe how much data modelling goes on in the world. In supermarkets, in sport, the military — even fashion, I would imagine. The big houses like Zara or Penneys. No one moves a finger nowadays without some kind of modelling being done.”
It was Trish’s turn to say “Wow”, then she looked glumly around the restaurant and snatched at her wine glass.
“What’s wrong, Trish? Bored?”
“No. It just hit me how little we have in common. I mean, you have all this computer modelling and stuff you do out at the university. Stuff way beyond my little brain. I mean, I was shit at maths. Shit. I took the Leaving Cert Applied and I still failed most of that. You’re so academic and intelligent. And I work in a fucking shop. I just wonder are we kidding ourselves that we can have something together. You’ll get tired of my fucking thickness, and I won’t know what you’re on about half the time. I dunno.”
Senán thought for a while.
“Listen,” he said. “Imagine if I was a mechanic. Or a plumber. Would you be worried that you couldn’t talk to me about, I dunno, fan belts and carburettors or pumps and ballcocks and pipes with me?”
Trish raised her eyebrows and smirked. “I’d wind up talking ballcocks and pipe with any fella after a while!”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean. But most plumbers and mechanics are like me. People who were thick at school and who couldn’t move on to better things. Half the fellas in my class wanted to be mechanics, for fuck’s sake. Guys with their fucking knuckles dragging off the ground. You’re smart. You talk about stuff I’ve never heard of — and I’m not talking about what you do out at the university. You’re cultured. You read. You could be on one of those fucking late-night news programmes talking about the economy—”
“That’s hardly a compliment.”
“But you know what I mean.”
Senán sighed. “It’s the class thing. It’s going to hang over us like a Damocles sword. I’m from a big farm in the Golden Vale. Strong farmer stock. Sent off to university to keep the cycle that’s been turning since the Land War oiled for another generation. You’re from the Island Field. Generation X of inner-city poverty moved from the tenements down the lanes out to modern council houses. I have my lexicon and class identifiers and you have yours and never the twain shall meet. That’s supposed to be the fucking narrative, isn’t it?”
“See: no one from the Island Field would ever use the word narrative,” said Trish, her spirits seeming to fall even further.
It was his turn to take a fortifying sip of wine. “This is good shit, by the way,” he said.
“‘Twould fucking want to be,” answered Trish, “at forty quid a bottle.”
Suddenly they looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“If my mother could see me now,” said Senán, in between shudders of mirth, “she’d die. She’s a teetotaller. She’d be pussing at my father for a week if he’d more than two pints down the pub. If she saw the price of this . . .”
“Well,” said Trish, “my mother would probably be on to her fifth or sixth glass of it by now and she’d be looking at you to order her another. That’s if my father hadn’t gone through it already!”
“We’ll have to get them together, your mother and mine. Does your mother bake?”
Trish found this last question so hilarious that she hooted with laughter, and Senán could hear her high heels clank off the wooden floor as her body shook.
“My mother can just about do a frozen pizza in the oven. Or a tray of chips. I remember once I had to do fucking soda bread for a home economics project and I asked her to help me. I was fourteen. We’d to go on this big spree to find the ingredients. I think we’d to go to fucking Superquinn in Castletroy to find the fucking buttermilk. On the bus. No shop on the Island would stock something as fucking posh as that. Anyway. We got all the stuff together and I did the dough. Grand. All we had to do was put the fucking thing in the oven for half an hour. Anyway. The recipe said, whatever, four hundred degrees Fahrenheit, gas mark whatever and one-eighty Celsius. My mother, not knowing shit, turned the oven up to as close to four hundred as it would go. Fifteen minutes later we’d a fucking fire on our hands. That was the last bit of baking we ever did at home.”
“Well. My mother isn’t just a teetotaller. She’s a Pioneer. Or, a member of the Total Abstinence Association, to use its official title. She thinks alcohol is evil, not to mention drugs. The work of the Devil. She goes to prayer meetings to send beams up to heaven so there’s less alcoholism in the world. And she writes articles for this fucking magazine called Pioneer, surprise, surprise. She gives talks in schools about the evils of drink and drugs. She gave talks in my school — every fucking year. Imagine how embarrassing that was when you’re sixteen and trying to be all tough and cool.”
“Did she smell your breath coming in the door when you were a teenager?”
“She still does.”
For the rest of the meal Senán and Trish excitedly painted pictures for one another of their backgrounds. Neither considered their respective families ideal. Senán’s mother was controlling, distant and strict, suspicious of the modern world and fearful that any lapse into pleasure would lead to downfall. She had fought tooth and nail to slot each of her four children into careers she considered suitable — respectable careers, with prospects. Senán’s older brother was packed off to agricultural college and pencilled in for the family farm. Senán was to go into finance, his sisters into pharmacy and human resources. His father was a wimp, completely under his wife’s thumb. The only area where he had the luxury of free will was in running the farm.
“She chooses what clothes he wears. Tells him when he has to get his hair cut. Drags him off to mass and to her Pioneer meetings. Tells him when it’s time to go to bed. He’s like her little boy,” said Senán. “My older brother’s nearly as bad. Still lives at home. Wears these woolly fucking jumpers she buys him in this old man’s shop in Cahir. Still runs around according to her schedule. God help the poor woman he ever gets married to. She’ll have a toddler on her hands.”
“And what about you?” asked Trish. “Are you under her thumb?”
“Not really, anymore,” said Senán, after considering his reply for a moment. “She had a fucking conniption fit when I told her I’d got the wee job in Francie’s.”
“Didn’t think it was good enough for you?”
“Yep. But it was more than that. Last year I decided not to follow the path she’d set out for me. You know, do a master’s in finance and then go into some soulless bank or insurance company and fester there for the rest of my life. Doing this thing in the sociology department was basically turning my back on a life focussed on making shitloads of money no matter what the cost, and instead using my training to try and make the world a slightly better place. That’s when the real showdown happened. That was when I really got her claws out of me. There were some interesting conversations around that time. The argument about Francie’s was just a kind of coda to all that.”
“See, in my family you’d never use a word like coda,” said Trish. “I actually don’t really know myself what coda means.” She scrunched up her face apologetically. “My father just talks about football and rugby and hurling. And the greyhounds. He kinda lives in a parallel universe to the rest of us. He gets up, goes to work, comes home, reads the paper, eats his tea, goes to the pub if there’s a match on, or goes off to the dogs on a race night. I used to go with him as a little girl but not for years now. All I really know about him is that he hates fucking politicians — all of them. He’s given up voting. He’s not going to pay the water charges over his dead body, and he wants the Arsenal crest on his gravestone when he dies. He’ll do a bit of gardening and DIY if my mum nags him enough, and he cleans his car on Saturdays if the weather’s all right. My mum smokes like a trooper, does a few hours’ cleaning in Tesco four nights a week and spends the rest of her life in front of the TV watching Strictly and The X-Factor. I’ve two younger brothers and two younger sisters. The boys are boys: Playstation, rap music, knocking round the place with their homies. The girls are sweeties. Jessica is six. Draws a lot. Into princesses and all that shit. Lauren is smart. She’s the brains of the family. Gets all A’s. Has got her shit together in a way the rest of us never had. Going into secondary school next year. I just hope to fuck she keeps on like she is and doesn’t wind up working in a fucking shop like me.”
Senán looked into Trish’s dark blue eyes. He wanted to take away the anger, disappointment and resignation he saw in them.
“Hey, come on, there’s nothing wrong with working in a shop.”
“Yeah, right. It’s career of the century. It’s so exciting and fulfilling. It really has me leaping out of bed in the mornings. Facing the day ready to meet new challenges and encounter interesting people.” She placed her knife and fork on her plate and brusquely drained her wine glass. “If I think about it too long it gets me down. If I think forward ten years and see myself still working in Francie’s, taking orders from fucking Gollum, still having the little fucker trying to peep down my top, and beep-beep-beeping fucking cans of spaghetti letters and pasties over my scanner day in, day out . . . I think I’d be better off in the fucking river. But like you said, this wine is good shit!”
They ate without speaking for a time, glancing discreetly at other tables or following the waiters’ sweeping deliveries. Martino’s was hopping. Not a single table was free and a couple of parties waited at the bar sipping aperitifs until they could be seated.
“You know,” observed Senán. “This place looks like the type of sitting room my mum and all her friends would have if they won the lottery. It’s like the kind of décor middle-class women of a certain age swoon over. It actually is like my mum’s good room, as she calls it, on steroids. It’s like the ur-good room. Creepy.”
“I love the way you talk,” said Trish. “You’re like someone from a TV show. Like that guy from Scrubs or someone. I’ve never met anyone like you before.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. Can I capitalise on the goodwill and steal a kiss?”
Wordlessly, Trish leaned across their table, closed her eyes and half pursed her lips. Senán nuzzled her nose, caught her lips lightly with his own and they kissed at length.
“They won’t kick us out for kissing, will they?” said Trish afterwards.
“Naw,” said Senán. “I think part of the forty quid for the wine comes with a licence for at least a couple of unobtrusive pecks over this fine candle here.”
“Where to next, m’lady?”
They were standing outside Martino’s. Underneath her coat, Trish was rigid from the sharp change in temperature between the toasty restaurant and the north-wind bite of the November night. Senán draped his jacket over her shoulders.
“Go on outa that!” she said. “I’m grand.”
“Grand, me arse. You look like you’re ready to snap in two. Sur’ you haven’t a pick on you. You need to fatten up for winter.”
She drew Senán’s jacket around her and looked at him with tipsy eyes. “Senán, this night is nearly perfect. You’re like a Prince Charming. I don’t want it to end, you know. Let’s go for one or two more. On me, though. You’ve paid for enough.”
She put her arm around his waist and pulled him in the direction of O’Connell Street. The Christmas lights were shining against the black sky, the streets adorned with silver, blue and golden stars and snowflakes.
“It’s lovely,” gushed Trish. “I have to come in here with the girls tomorrow evening. They love the Christmas lights. And looking in the shops.”
At the top of O’Connell Street, where they were absorbed into the cheerful crowds moving from bar to bar, Senán asked her where they were going.
“Somewhere I’ve never been before, but have always wanted to go. A place I’ve never felt good enough to go into and a place I want to go with you for the first time. Coz after that it will always be our special place.”
She pulled him more tightly to her, and Senán felt her softness, even under the pair of coats. The warm belief hit him that he was with someone special: somebody not just physically beautiful but kind, caring and romantic. He was perhaps a romantic himself, and between the lights, the buzz on the street and Trish’s hearty squeeze he felt like a leading man in the soppiest of romcoms.