“Um, you said she was a girl, dude, this new friend of yours. Trish, yeah? Is there something you’re trying to tell old Uncle Vincent now?”
He was more than slightly drunk, more than merry, but the shock was not feigned. He looked up from the corner of the booth occupied by his ample frame, moving his gaze from Senán to Luke.
“I’ll say it slowly this time Vincent,” said Senán. He leaned over the head of the long table and put his mouth close to Vincent’s ear. “I decided not to bring Trish. Instead, it’s a friend of mine from the shop, Luke. I owed him a tour of campus and a few pints.”
Vincent pulled himself by his elbows into a standing position, and he and Luke shook hands. Senán then made a general introduction of Luke to the table, a mixture of junior lecturers, postdocs and postgrads from the sociology department. He was glad that Scary Mary wasn’t among the faces. She rarely came to these things, and apparently the name of Tom Maguire, the postdoc whose publication they were celebrating, was in her little black book. Luke appeared to be intimidated enough acknowledging the friendly nods without having to deal with The Stare.
“Come in here beside me, Luke. I don’t bite,” shouted Vincent above the hubbub. The college bar was quite full for a Friday night, usually a dead night on campus because of the exodus of students who went home for the weekend. But a large party of Erasmus students clustered around the bar made it necessary to raise one’s voice.
Luke squeezed in beside Vincent, casting nervous glances at his shock of long spiky hair and his ripped and faded Disintegration T-shirt. By the time Senán had returned from the bar with a triangle of settling Guinnesses wedged between his hands, Vincent was bending Luke’s ear about an obscure gothic band from the ’80s, Xmal Deutschland.
“They should never have signed to 4AD. I know it’s heresy to say so, but if they’d stuck it out, a bigger label would have come for them. It would have done them the world of good to have a bit of a budget, a bit of room for development. Some producer who woulda pulled them out of themselves, like yer man did for Mazzy Star. You know—”
“Ah, come on, Vincent. Give the poor fella a break,” said Senán. “Xmal Deutschland! Is there anyone beyond a few head-the-balls who’s ever even heard of them. The lad is nervous enough that he’ll be eaten alive by a table full of sociologists. Don’t be putting the fear of God in him with your Xmal Deutschland. Jaysus!”
“It’s-it’s-it’s OK,” said Luke shyly. “I ha-ha-haven’t heard of X-mu-mu-mal Deutschland, but I’ve-I’ve heard of Mu-Mu-Mazzy Star. A couple-couple of their songs were in Bu-Bu-Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I-I-I checked them ow-ow-out. Yer-yer-yer wan is tasty.”
Vincent thumped the table and gave a little cheer. “A man after me own heart. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Mainstream, but slick and subversive. The Buffyverse has been a portal to the dark side for many an edgy adolescent. Between its peculiar and thoroughly modern lexicon and word usage, as well as the music, post-modern mythologising and very completeness of the alternative reality it creates within the broad school of magic realism, Buffy has a very important place in the gothic, emo, nu metal, et cetera canon. In other words — a shitkicker of a series.”
Vincent finished his pint with a greedy gulp, sucked at the head on his fresh pint, and looked at Luke with fond appreciation.
“And you reckon Hope Sandoval is a bit of all right? You’re the man, Luke! There was a time I would have walked over broken glass just to be up the front of a gig looking up at her long legs and those humongous lips. She has a special place in my pantheon of dark beauties.”
Settling into a stool beside Luke, Senán groaned. “I’m sorry, Luke,” he said. “Your first time in UL and you run into one of the campus’s leading eccentrics. We’re not all like this.”
“I’m much more than that,” offered Vincent, mock-offended. “I’m — what did Connie call me the other day?”
“Creep!” said Vincent. “I like that. I’m the creepiest creep on campus. Vincent Conroy, creepmeister. The creepiest cat on Shannonside.” He then hummed the piano break from The Cure’s “The Love Cats”.
“Are you high, Vincent?” asked Senán with no trace of sarcasm.
Vincent smiled like the cat that got the cream. “I may have shared a few puffs of the aul’ doobie with a certain notorious pot-head postgrad before coming here.”
“Down in your haunt?” said Senán incredulously.
He nodded again.
“Are you mental? If you’re caught you could lose your job. Sometimes you’re a fucking idiot, Vincent.”
Vincent took a long, smiling drink of his Guinness. He licked his lips daintily, and suddenly a harried look came over him.
“If I lose my job, it won’t be over that,” he said. “I have to tell you, Senán, me old segotia, something truly terrible happened today. Something ominous, portentous. The sanctity of our little foxhole up in the Foundation has been violated. It is no longer a refuge from the great unwashed hoi polloi that make up the student body of this unvenerable institution. The seals of King Tut’s tomb have been torn open. The metaphorical machinery of eons-old traps have been heard to grind into action, but there is no Indiana Jones to save me.”
“What the fuck are you on about?”
“My dear Senán, our hideout has been rumbled. Our bolthole has been discovered. This very evening when you were in with Scary Mary I was visited by an undergraduate student.”
“Oh,” Senán said. He now understood his friend’s need to smoke marijuana and his current strange humour.
“You know what this means?” continued Vincent. “The fuckers know where I am. This changes everything.”
Senán saw the puzzlement on Luke’s face and filled him in on Vincent’s almost phobic attitude to his students.
“You see, Luke,” said Vincent, “my job is to teach. I set a course, give lectures, reading lists, tutorials. I give assignments. Set exams. Correct them rigorously and fairly. End of. My view of university education is that you come here — as an adult — and stand on your own two fucking feet. You turn on your fucking brain, put your nose to the grindstone, read books, papers, whatever you can get your fucking hands on for the subject you’re studying, and just fucking act like someone who has reached the age of majority has been expected to act like since the fucking Enlightenment. My students are adults. For fuck’s sake, some of them have had their mickeys pierced. I know that for a fact. I hear them talking. And then you have little bitches like the one who despoiled the peace and quiet of my dear old cubicle this evening. A skinny, spotty, whiny string of piss coming in to me with script in hand, demanding to know why I’d only given her a B3. ‘I put an awful lot of work into it,’ she says. Jesus. Well fuck you! I don’t care if she worked on it for forty days and forty nights. It was mediocre. It only deserved a B3.”
He took another glug of Guinness before continuing.
“And now all is changed, changed utterly. Not only does that little bitch know where to find me, she’s probably passed on the secret to all her spotty little friends. I predict a fucking endless stream of dissatisfied little whores running up to me snivelling about all the hard work they put in and how they deserved higher marks for the steaming pile of mediocrity they served up to me. And furthermore, meeting that spotty little bitch has now altered the student–teacher relationship between us, as it will when I meet her two dozen other scabby little mates. You see, when I have her script in front of me now, I have a face and a personality — not particularly winning, let me tell you that — to put to the name and student number. And not only that, I will be correcting the script with the knowledge that she felt hard done by the previous marks I gave her. So where’s my objectivity after that? Gone out the fucking window, that’s where. I am now no longer grading a script based on what’s on the fucking screen in front of me, but factoring in other extraneous facts as well. Now, this li’l lady is no beauty, but imagine if she was, for example, Hope Sandoval’s doppelganger? Would I be tempted to bump up the marks in some pathetic attempt to get into her knickers? Or if she had argued her point without resort to self-righteous whimpering, if she’d blinded me with the brilliance that was sorely lacking in her paper? Or imagine if she came wearing a Bauhaus T-shirt and we started talking about the aul’ Peter Murphy and Daniel Ash, and we got on like a house on fire? You see, I don’t want to meet the fuckers. I’m not hard enough, in spite of all the gobbing off I do. I’m too soft, too human. I’d take pity on people, I’d be too forgiving. It just wouldn’t work. Take Scary Mary, though. She doesn’t mind one bit meeting her students. She’s a fucking queue outside her door most afternoons. And do you know why she doesn’t mind interacting with the scurvy knaves? Coz she’s a hard bitch, as cold and twistedly unemotional and nastily rational as some sort of artificial intelligence in a Ridley Scott movie. She doesn’t see them as students, let alone people. They’re part of some process, just like Senán here. Like bottles on the bottling line ready to be capped and labelled. All she wants to do is go about her business, like the queen in Alien laying her eggs. Only in this case it’s getting to the top that concerns her. No, her marking of scripts, no matter what, would be clinical and rational. No human concern or emotion would impinge upon it. Even if a student cleaned her house, washed her car and then got down on their knees to lick her out, God forgive me, she’d give them the exact mark they deserved. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
As if to say “I rest my case”, he sat back in the bench, ruffled his hair with both hands, and took a long drink from his pint. He then announced that he was going for a smoke. Luke, looking slightly disturbed by Vincent’s rant, stood up to let him pass. When they were alone, Senán apologised for his friend.
“He’s a character,” he told Luke. “But he’s a nice guy when he’s not drunk or high. We share a cubicle, as you might have guessed.”
“He’s-he’s like some-someone from a T-T-V show. Like from Breaking Bad or Shu-Shu-Shameless.”
“Like I said, a real character.”
They sat quietly for a time, Luke casting rapid glances around the table and craning his neck to inspect the gaggle of Erasmus students with their tans, hipster clothing and half pints. Just as Senán was thinking how different the scene must appear to him compared to Bowsie’s or the other pubs he frequented, he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard Connie say his name.
“I see you’re out with your department,” she said in a friendly enough way. “Celebrating something?”
Senán told her about Tom Maguire’s paper and then introduced her to Luke.
“He’s the manager of Francie’s, the shop I work in.”
“Ah, the manager,” she said, making it sound like she was impressed. “Senán’s boss. Wow. You’re young to be a manager.”
Luke lowered his head shyly and a light blush spread over the taut features of his face.
“He’s the man,” said Senán, only realising in saying it that he sounded like Francie. “What are you doing here?” he asked Connie, in an attempt to cover up his faux pas.
“I’m with that crowd,” she said, and nodded in the direction of a knot of Erasmus students at the far corner of the bar. “One of the lads in the house is Swiss. I said I’d come out with him and meet his fellow countrymen. And women.”
“Is there something going on I should know about?” said Senán with a grin. “Foreign relations?”
Connie shook her head. “See. You’re sounding more and more like that creep. I saw him outside, by the way. Jiving around with a fag in his mouth like he was on something.”
Luke was looking up at Connie like one of the children of Fatima at an invisible Virgin Mary.
“You look like a sensible lad,” said Connie to him. “You tell Senán to stay away from that creep. He won’t listen to me.” She turned around to see what her companions were up to and then announced that she had to go. “They’re Swiss. They don’t know how to handle ordering drink in a dive like this place. Too polite. I’ll have to give them a hand. Nice to meet you, Luke.”
Luke’s eyes were stuck to Connie as she walked away.
“Jesus. She’s a fu-fu-fine thing,” he almost slavered. “Fu-fu-fine thing.”
Senán did have to admit to himself that she was looking good. She had obviously made the effort for her Swiss friends, wearing a black party dress that Senán had never seen on her before. It clung to her body and he presumed it was her bottom and thighs that held Luke’s attention until she disappeared into the cluster of students.
“I used to go out with her, you know.”
“Yep. For nearly three years. We split up last year.”
They looked towards the knot of Swiss. Connie’s dark hair and black dress were visible among all the jeans and bright jumpers. She was the centre of attention of the predominantly male group, holding their grinning faces with her dark eyes and ruby lips. She shepherded them closer to the taps, and Luke and Senán lost sight of her.
“She reminds me of one of my brother’s girlfriends,” said Luke. “A classy lady.”