Máire Ní Mhainnín, said Luke to himself. He liked the sound of the name. Exotic. Gaelic. Like the name of a heroine from the old Irish myths and sagas the teachers had read them in primary school. It suited her: there was something otherworldly and mythological about her fierce beauty.
Máire Ní Mhainnín.
He said his own name aloud in Irish — Lúcas MacEochagáin. He had never liked it. His name in Irish sounded ugly and harsh, and he was no son of Eochagáin. He had no father: MacEochagáin was his maternal grandfather’s name.
Indeed, from when he first started learning it at five years of age, Luke had never liked Irish. Somehow he stuttered even more when attempting to push the strange sounds of that ancient language out of his mouth. He had the same problems later on with French and German. You could hear a pin drop in his usually boisterous language classes when the teacher asked him to say something in either of these tongues, and when he eventually managed to stumble out an Ich heisse Luke or an Il fait chaud, the class would erupt into howls of derision.
Máire Ní Mhainnín.
He was outside her house, a picturesque old cottage on the Peafield Road in Monaleen where the suburbs straggled into countryside. He had guessed that her house would be distinctive, something apart from the norm, like every other aspect of her life he had learned about to date. He could not envisage her living in one of the hundreds of paint-by-numbers semi-detached four-up-three-down houses that had swallowed up the land between the university and the other side of Monaleen. A wooden plaque on one of the low gateposts declared the name of the cottage: An Chéim Bhriste. Luke had looked this up and found it to mean “the broken step”. One of the lichen- and moss-clung concrete steps leading to the green front door was cracked and crumbling with age.
Following Máire Ní Mhainnín was a different experience to his other “cases”. He imagined he was handling her case the way detectives in a pre-internet age would have shaded their targets. Good old-fashioned spadework.
Máire Ní Mhainnín had practically no internet profile beyond a paragraph describing her teaching duties and research interests on the university’s website, and she did not use social media beyond having anodyne LinkedIn and ResearchGate accounts. So everything Luke had got to know about her over the last week was hard won through a steady process of following, hiding and watching. It was only when he clamped a tracking device under her car — a funky, 1998-reg Subaru station wagon — that he had brought the operation into the twenty-first century.
He still didn’t know enough about her to even begin to satisfy his curiosity. Compared to the detailed knowledge he possessed of Connie (who he intended to watch for some time yet), he only had the sketchiest pen-picture of Máire’s life. He knew where she worked and when she began her working day, but her movements on campus from then until the icon for her car started moving on his phone app were a great void for Luke. In a way the difficulty was frustrating, but in another it added to the triumph and excitement whenever he discovered something about her. For instance, that evening, she had not gone straight home from work as she usually did. Crouched over his phone in Francie’s storeroom, Luke had watched eagerly as her flashing icon looped towards town and stopped in a car park he later calculated was at Dunnes Stores on the Childers Road. He now knew where she did her Thursday evening shopping.
Of all his targets, current and former, Máire’s house was Luke’s favourite. Its location offered endless possibilities to anyone interested in spying on its occupant. To begin with, the Peafield Road, while little more than a narrow, winding boreen with a snaking ribbon of one-off housing, was a rat run. It was used by those in the know to navigate a path between the Dublin and Tipperary roads free of traffic lights and tailbacks. Strange cars cruising it at any hour were nothing out of the ordinary, and so the caution he had to exercise in a quiet cul-de-sac such as Connie’s was unnecessary. Secondly, a busy pub with a large car park, Walsh’s, was to be found at the bottom of the road just a five-minute walk from Máire’s house. Luke quickly came up with the idea of leaving his car outside Walsh’s and walking to An Chéim Bhriste. Because of the houses along the road it was not unusual to see walkers or joggers there, even after ten at night when Luke’s shift ended. So he never felt unduly under suspicion or observation as he went about his business. Finally, the Peafield Road was dark. Being outside the city limits and of secondary status, it was unlit except at a humpbacked bridge, a crossroads and the underpass that led on to the Tipperary Road.
The darkness meant Luke could enter the grounds unseen and stand outside Máire’s windows in the shadows without fear of detection. He had never before had the opportunity to roam at will around a target’s house, peering into their life like a small boy with an aquarium. It made him giddy with power and pleasure. The single storey meant there was no room in which Máire could escape potential observation, bar when she was behind the frosted glass of the bathroom. If she had drawn her curtains and blinds Luke would have grown bored of circling the house to keep up with her movements inside, chasing rhombuses of light as they flicked across the grass and shrubbery. But Máire Ní Mhainnín wasn’t one to draw her blinds.
Luke had spent three nights in a row spying on Máire, and each night when he slipped silently up the worn tarmac driveway he found her on the couch of her living room bathed in the flickering light of her television and lit from above by a retro bamboo and stainless steel reading lamp. She was always on her own with her laptop on her knees. He surmised that she was doing some mundane task on her computer — correcting coursework or answering emails — while having an eye and an ear on the television. Because of the angle of the television screen relative to the room’s French doors, Luke would have had to press right up to the glass to glimpse what she was watching, and he wasn’t prepared to engage in any risky behaviour yet.
Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
Máire was always in pyjamas by the time Luke arrived at An Chéim Bhriste. They were downy, peach, loose-fitting, not particularly sexy, but confirmation to Luke that he was on to a good thing, a classy lady. If Máire had flounced around an empty house in revealing lingerie it would have been decidedly odd, and while Luke would undoubtedly have found it arousing, she would have gone down in his opinion, become someone not much better than the slappers from his estate.
The university’s staff parking disc system had made it easy to find her car. Since clamping the device to it a couple of days after Senán had introduced them, Luke had learned that she normally left campus close to seven in the evening, and, apart from her foray to Dunnes that Thursday, always went straight home. So far she seemed to be a woman who lived to work. Luke was looking forward to the weekend to see whether she let her hair down.
Perhaps she would have a man back. Or a woman.
Luke fantasised about being outside her bedroom window to see her changing out of her work clothes. If only he didn’t have to work late, he would be ready and waiting when she arrived, concealed in the escallonia at the back of her house. After the headlights of her Subaru were extinguished, leaving the garden in darkness again, he would creep along the border of her lawn, careful not to leave footprints, and crouch in the shadows of the fuchsias at the side of the house where her bedroom lay. His heart would pound as he watched her remove her blouse and vest, and he would inwardly moan as her skirt dropped to the floor and she pulled her tights down her long legs. Perhaps she would strip fully and walk down the corridor to shower. Just imagining seeing her crotch and following the bouncing motion of her bare breasts and buttocks excited Luke. If he saw such a sight he would have no choice but to masturbate there and then among the bare branches and drifts of fallen leaves.
It was not Luke’s policy to masturbate on duty. It was messy, potentially noisy and a distraction. You could take your eye off the ball and find the target or a passer-by stealing up on you. And although he had never been caught spying on someone, if he was ever discovered he didn’t want it to be in the context of committing a public indecency. It was one thing to be caught hiding in someone’s garden or sat in a car outside their house — excuses could always be provided — but another thing altogether to be found masturbating. There was no credible explanation for that.
In spite of this, the first time he had set foot in Máire’s garden and prowled around her house in the darkness, he felt an irresistible urge to pleasure himself. The elation at having found where she lived, and the prospects offered by an isolated cottage with open gates and low walls on a dark road, with a single, unaccompanied classy lady who didn’t draw the curtains or blinds, were too much to bear. He was swollen with the feeling of power that he had over Máire; giddy and drunk, almost to the point of bursting, that he could watch her at will, his presence outside her house unsuspected, and, barring very bad luck, undetectable. He masturbated as he gazed in at her immobile form on the couch, and it felt so good he almost didn’t care if he was caught.
That first time he scurried off the Peafield Road and up the driveway of An Chéim Bhriste, he had come unprepared: no video camera, no night-vision goggles, just his mobile phone, whose lit-up screen was anathema to anyone intending to lurk unseen in the shadows. When its tracking app had told him he was within fifty metres of Máire’s car, he had set the phone to silent and put it away, leaving him nothing to record the exquisite stillness of a woman who didn’t know she was being watched — no trophy to take home and upload to his new folder. On subsequent nights Luke went with his complete bag of tricks. Among the items in his weatherproof rucksack was his favourite toy — an infrared night-vision and full-spectrum video camera with a dimmable eyepiece monitor and no pilot lights. With this in Normal mode he could Máire in brightly lit rooms, or on its Night-vision setting capture images of her padding from one darkened room to another. He could even record blurry images of her sleeping through closed curtains (she did close them before retiring for the night).
On that Thursday night she surprised him. She closed her laptop shortly before eleven, stretched her long arms and legs, turned off the television, and went to the kitchen, where she uncorked a bottle of red wine. Back in the sitting room, after placing the bottle and a generous glass of wine on the coffee table, she disappeared from view. Luke heard a loud boom and was startled until he realised it was the opening bars of a song.
Máire likes her music loud!
The volume fell gradually, though not so much that he couldn’t still hear it, and she reappeared, grooving to the rhythm, using the remote control as a microphone. Luke was treated to a show: Máire Ní Mhainnín bopped and whirled and gyrated and swung, bellowing into her imaginary microphone. In between verses she would grab her wine glass and take a lusty mouthful, banging the glass down hastily before setting off into song again. She belted the words out with such volume that he could hear her through the double-glazing. Between the blaring of the music and its distortion through the glass, Luke could not tell whether she had a good voice or not, but she certainly sang with passion. I bet she’s a demon in the sack, he thought, surprised by the ardour of her private performance.
He felt a mean sense of privilege as he watched and recorded her from his hidey-hole at the far side of the little patio the French doors led on to. He was probably the only human being to ever witness what Máire got up to late at night in the privacy of her home. Did even her family or her lovers know how she liked to unwind on a Thursday night?
For a while he concentrated on the shards of music that reached him. He wanted to know what she was listening to, so he could listen to it himself, put it on in his bedroom or car or even in the shop and feel closer to her. One song rang a bell. The chorus mentioned something about “seeds of love”.
It’s something from the 80s, he thought. I’ll look it up later on.
When the music stopped and she tidied up and turned off the light, Luke moved around to stand outside the bathroom window. The light came on and he saw a shadow moving behind the frosted glass. Water whooshed out the downpipe from the flushing toilet and then trickled into the drain from her ablutions and brushing of teeth. The light went off and Luke moved to outside her bedroom. This time no light came on. A ghostly figure drew the curtains. Switching to Night-vision, Luke saw an orange blur settle on the bed. He would see no more that night.