Connie took a slurp off the foam on her cappuccino, licked her lips and put her mug down. “So,” she said. “Who was this girl you were seen out with on Saturday in the White House?”
The penny dropped. “That’s why you asked me to come for coffee,” Senán said, with a hint of accusation in his voice. “To pump me for information.”
His and Connie’s break-up had been amicable enough. They had called it a day just as the minor, sporadic arguments between them had started to become serious, heated, rolling rows that carried on for hours or days, and hung over their relationship like phantoms, to be summoned to the mortal plane whenever a new niggle or disagreement surfaced. When they realised they wanted different things from life and that this was the root of all the bickering and tension, the decision to part had been close to mutual; Connie had proposed the split, and in the end, despite all the light-hearted talk of conscious uncoupling to friends and family, Senán felt that, while he had not exactly been dumped, Connie had moved on from him.
“Well, duh,” she sang. “I’ve had nothing but ‘Senán was with this leggy brunette in the White House’ all day. The whole Small Firm Internationalisation Unit was out on Saturday. Doing nothing but watching you and your one canoodling, by the sound of things. You’re the talk of the Business School. Even Jim fucking Duggan said to me: ‘Whatever he has, he should bottle it. How he’s able to go round with all these gorgeous women is beyond me. It’s always the quiet ones.’ I mean, I don’t know what to say to people. You should have told me you were seeing someone.”
Senán smirked. “I thought after consciously uncoupling that we were free agents. That we were going to move on to new chapters of our lives. Not take one another into consideration vis-à-vis future options or choices. The same as if we were just good ol’ buddies.” He was throwing phrases back at her that she had used when they broke up. “I didn’t think I needed to run stuff by you, and since I haven’t seen you since the thing between this girl and me started, I just didn’t get the chance. I would have told you if we’d met. It wasn’t that I was hiding it. It’s just that—”
“I’m clearly not important to you anymore. I get it.” She gave him a hard look. “Jesus, you weren’t long getting over me.”
Senán wanted to reply with a snarky comment, but he didn’t have the heart. Whether the peevishness, anger and hurt burning through her dark brown eyes was down to embarrassment or some residue of the love that had existed between them, he didn’t have it in him to kick her while she was down.
“C’mon,” he said kindly. “I think we were both over each other well before we split up. And you know I’d never do anything to hurt you, no matter what shenanigans went on towards the end. I’d hope you’d think that of me anyway.”
The coffee dock in the Foundation was winding down for the evening. Senán and Connie were among a handful of customers chatting above the rattle and clack of the waitress who was locking things down for the night. Connie looked out beyond the café’s floor-to-ceiling windows into the darkness, seeming to study the queue of cars waiting to exit the car park. She wrinkled her pale forehead and blew some strands of jet-black hair out of her eyes.
“You coulda just given me some heads-up. People still think we’re joined at the hip. They haven’t got the message we’re split up.”
She sounded less irate now, as if the play of headlights on the car park’s long, rectangular water feature was soothing her spirit. Senán didn’t answer, but took a subtle glance at her face and figure. She hasn’t let herself go, anyway, he thought.
Her hair shone and her skin still had that plumped-up, velvety texture that he had found adorable. She was dressed in one of her preppy jeans-and-boots combinations and a lemon-coloured V-neck jumper, tight enough to reveal a voluptuous figure. Senán saw that if she ever put on weight, her shape could easily become sloppy. She didn’t have Trish’s height or long limbs to get away with excess body fat.
“So. Who’s this mystery girl?” she asked. “Some babe from the sociology department?”
“No. She’s a girl from the shop. Trish. She’s a nice girl.”
The double take Connie did was almost comical. “A shop girl? Jesus Christ, Senán. You really are getting down with the people in the ‘hood.”
“Nice” was all Senán said. Connie’s snobbery had always been a bone of contention between them, and her opinions — classified by Senán as reactionary — on Travellers, the city’s poor, the unemployed and immigrants had often kick-started quarrels.
“Is it serious?”
“It’s a bit early to tell yet, but . . . it’s going well so far.”
Connie nodded and looked again towards the car park. They drank their coffees. Connie’s phone tinkled an alert, which she read and dismissed.
“Are you going to take her home to meet your mother? Coz, Jesus, if I was never good enough for you, what are the chances of some shop girl meeting her impossible standards?”
Senán’s mother had never warmed to Connie, despite the fact that Connie came from a “good” family — her father was an architect and her mother a GP. Senán’s mother always said Connie was a good-time girl, that he would be better off seeing someone less interested in glamour and socialising, someone more “solid”. A sensible country girl instead of a Limerick city slicker like Connie. While the women had always been impeccably polite to one another, they had made their mutual dislike clear in that infinitely nuanced, near-invisible mode of communication that exists between competing females.
Senán sniffed and jauntily raised an eyebrow. “Trish is quite the traditionalist,” he said. “She doesn’t want any family involved until the engagement is announced. She wants all the formalities followed: an ad in the Irish Times. A little soirée in the bride-to-be’s house. In evening dress. Official invitations on the correct grade of paper. Formal introductions over amontillado in the drawing room.”
“Fuck off, Senán.” Connie looked annoyed. “You know, you’re talking like that creep, Vincent. The more you hang out with him, the more you sound like him.”
“Vincent is my hero,” he said with hammy pride in his voice.
“He’s a fucking joke. The University of Limerick’s Cureologist, for fuck’s sake. You should hear what they say about him in the Business School. All that fucking funding he gets for researching why a bunch of snotty, emo, spoiled bitches are scratching their arms. And that moronic conference on The Cure that’s happening in the summer. Jesus Christ, if he’s your mentor, you’re up the swanny. I bet he put you up to getting that fucking job in the shop and dallying with slags from Moyross.”
“I’ve a few corrections to make there, Connie. One, Scary Mary is my mentor, apparently; two, emo is well over; and three, Trish is from the Island, not Moyross. And she’s not a slag.” He paused for effect. “You know, my mother used that word about you a few times.”
Senán plopped down into his chair and groaned.
“All is not right in the kingdom of Sen, I sense,” said Vincent in a booming, actorly voice.
“I just had a coffee with Connie. I think we’re definitely now in that clichéd space where neither of us can figure out what we ever saw in one another.”
“Ah, the delectable Connie. The childless yummy mummy.” Vincent had met her a few times when he had tagged along with Senán on nights out. He told Senán he found her shallow and square.
“Well,” said Senán, ducking his head above the panel of their cubicle to make sure there was no one within listening distance, “I think we’ve burnt our bridges there. Or the bridge between us has finally crumbled into the river below. Or whatever.”
“Speaking of combustion: will you come out with me for a fag?”
“Go on. Last distraction of the evening, though. I’ve this PCA to do for Scary Mary. I’d say I’ll be at it till midnight.”
Outside, sheltering from the breeze in Vincent’s haunt, Senán told him that Connie had called him a creep. Vincent looked pleased.
“I like it. I kind of am a creep. You know, creepy-crawly, creature of the night. Cobwebs, Cocteau Twins, Cranes—”
“The Cure. That song they have about the spider eating the singer.”
After a puff of his cigarette Vincent spoke again: “So the door is truly shut on you and Connie’s teenage romance?”
“P is less than zero point zero five.”
“I have to say I’m happy for you, me old segotia. She was too straight for you. You’re such a solid, reliable fella — I would be reluctant to use the s-word,” he made a square using the thumb and forefinger of each hand, “that you need someone to offset that. Someone with a bit of go in them, with a bit of spirit. Someone a bit fuckin’ kerrazy. Jesus, I can only imagine what it was like between you and Miss Yummy-Mummy. The sex must have been like that scene in The Piano where yer man has a spa attack when Holly Hunter touches his arse.”
Senán told him he was going too far.
“Sorry. But listen. The minute I saw fuckin’ Connie, I knew that that Playboy-bunny-crossed-with-Sarah-Palin thing she had going on, that façade of sensuality and worldliness she presented to mankind — I knew that was all horseshit. I fuckin’ bet that she was frigid and had intimacy issues. Tell me I’m right.”
Senán smiled, astounded more than offended. “The only thing I’m going to tell you is mind your own fucking business. And. That I’m seeing someone else now. Her name is Trish, and, before you ask, she has no intimacy issues.”
Vincent’s pudgy face lit up with pleasure.
“Good man. I’m delighted for you. Keep your hand — and other body parts — in the game. Use it or lose it.”
Senán puffed in disgust and Vincent chortled at his little joke, then turned excitedly to face his friend. “I know! We can all meet this Trish lady! There’s a night out being organised for Friday. To celebrate Maguire’s paper being accepted — six revisions, but he’s got it into one of the biggies. We’re going straight after work. Starting in the college bar. Finishing God knows where. Bring her along.”