In spite of a festive atmosphere in Francie’s so thick it could have been cut with a knife, Senán did not feel at all Christmassy that Tuesday night. The Christmas songs on rotation over the shop’s PA may as well have been taken from one of Vincent’s “Greatest Hits of Goth” compilations for all the cheer they were imparting to Senán. He saw through and past the shop’s dense forest of decorations, not an easy feat given that the girls had covered every available surface with a snowman, Santa Claus, snowdrop or stalactite. And neither Trish’s naughty elf costume, Debs’s flashing Christmas tree hat nor Susan’s wild winter sweater could bring a smile to his face.
Those four hours comprised the slowest shift he had ever worked in Francie’s. Even though it was the busiest he had ever seen the shop, Christmas shopping fever having well and truly kicked in, time seemed to stand still. He hesitated to wonder how the minutes would have crawled if he hadn’t been run off his feet. But rushed and all as he was, clambering up and down his ladder with trays of bottles and jars, and scurrying in and out of the storeroom with a fully laden trolley, he could not prevent his mind from returning to Luke and what he would say to him after work. For all Senán knew, these interminable hours were the last he would spend in Francie’s, but the magnetic pull of dread would not allow his mind to enjoy his retail career’s swansong.
The worst thing was that he felt sorry for Luke. His anger and furious astonishment had subsided and been replaced by pity. He kept wondering why Luke felt the urge to stalk women. He thought of his stutter, his upbringing, his odd physical appearance, his treatment at school, and concocted theories as to why Luke had difficulties forming normal relationships with women. He made excuses for him, and as his anger drained away, empathy and pity swelled his heart.
“Cop the fuck on!” Trish had told him over the phone.
Vincent had echoed this order.
“You’ve to go in there and fucking pound him,” Trish told him. “Put the fear of God in him. Make it so that he never even thinks about stalking a girl again. Just pretend he’s one of the opposition at one of your hurling games. You go in there shoot-to-kill. All guns blazing. Take no prisoners. Frighten the fuck out of the little gowl. Like my brothers did when he was at me. Got it?”
Senán had got it all right, but he didn’t think he had it in him to harshly treat someone like Luke, who had been on the receiving end of life’s hard knocks since the moment of his conception. And he was a fellow stutterer, after all.
The more his shift dragged on and the more he observed Luke, the less he felt like giving him a verbal pounding. As always, Luke cut an isolated figure, standing apart from customers and staff alike, taking no part in the cheerful Christmas banter that buzzed through the shop. But that evening there was something else about him: Luke seemed more on edge, more watchful than usual, paler and more drawn, his eyes bulging out from the sockets of his fleshless face, as if Christmastime was a test of his managerial skills and experience that he was determined not to fail. His orders were more curt than usual, a ragged edge and desperation to his barked words. “Come on, come on, come on,” he had urged Senán more than once. “Get those jars out. We need more broccoli. Ham and cheese pizzas. Go, go, go.” He even got into a number of flaps, something Senán had rarely seen happen before: Luke panicked when they ran out of Christmas crackers, flying into the storeroom as if to put a fire out, and he attacked Susan over mispriced mince pies. “Keep your eye on the ball, Susan,” he hissed at her. “It’s only a week to Christmas.”
As Susan laughed off the incident with Trish and Debs when Luke retired to the storeroom, Senán realised he would never see Francie’s strange manager in the same light again. Before, Luke was something of a mí-adh to him (a word his mother used for someone held back by life’s cruelties and misfortunes), a lonely, timid and mistrusting young man in need of friendship, a kind word and a helping hand. But now he saw him as a damaged and piteous creature, not somebody he would take any satisfaction in harming, but neither someone he would ever want to socialise with or think of as a potential friend.
“I nu-nu-need this,” said Luke, collapsing on to a stool. “Whu-whu-what a day. And there’s five more to gu-gu-go.” Closing his eyes, he drank at length from his pint of Guinness. “Gu-gu-great stuff,” he rasped, and licked his lips. “I haven’t-haven’t had a mo-moment to myself all day. Christmas — I fucking hate it!”
You’ve time enough to scoot across town to spy on Connie and Scary Mary, right enough, thought Senán. He looked around Bowsie’s, which was experiencing a festive bump in trade. He and Luke had managed to get the last free table in the shebeen.
“Fuckin’ du-du-deliveries tomorrow an’ all. Francie’s Christmas bonus better be good this year. I’m wu-wu-working like a bu-bu-black.”
Luke looked worn and frazzled. Stooping over his pint, his skinny arms hung limply from his bottle shoulders.
“Luke,” said Senán, after a long drink from his own pint. “I’ve something to ask you.”
Luke’s eyes narrowed and he darted a wary look up at Senán. “Gu-gu-go on.”
“What are you doing hanging around campus taking photos of Connie and Scary Mary?”
A blush flashed across Luke’s face and his head trembled like that of an old man in his dotage. He opened his mouth and Senán saw his throat make gagging movements, but no sound came out.
“I saw you. Today and yesterday. Hiding behind a plant in the business school. Looking down at Connie. Taking photos or videos of her. Then I saw you pass by Scary Mary’s office and photograph her. What the fuck are you up to?”
For the first time in their acquaintanceship, Luke made lasting eye contact with Senán. The look communicated the burning hurt of a child whose parents had caught him doing something which they considered bad, but which he did not. His mouth opened and closed again, his tongue and throat worked away. Eventually he spoke.
“Um. Um. Um. Um. I’m thu-thu-thu-thu-thinking of-of-of-of doi-doing a bu-bu-bu-bu-business-business dip-dip-dip. That’s-why-that’s why I-I-I vu-vu-vu-visit campus.”
“Bullshit!” said Senán. “I saw what you were doing. And you’ve been seen other times as well. You’re stalking them. And you’ve got previous in that regard.”
There, thought Senán, it’s all come out. All my cards on the table.
“Bu-bu-bu-bu-business,” said Luke, stuttering now as badly as he used to do when asked a question by a teacher. “I-I-I-I-I was-was-was-was there on-on-on-on bu-bu-bu-bu. Business.”
“The business of stalking. There’s no point in lying about it. I saw you.”
Luke looked down at the table, biting his lips. He began to pick at a beer mat with a bony finger.
“You’ve a problem with women, Luke,” said Senán in a kindlier voice. “Whether it’s shyness or under-confidence or your stutter. Or whatever. But going around stalking them isn’t the answer. It’s bad for you and bad for them. If you’re caught, you can get into awful shit over it. Lose your job, name in the papers, et cetera.”
Luke didn’t move to reply, was motionless in his hunkered-down position. All his attention was on the beer mat he was scratching.
“And I feel terrible, like part of the fault is mine. I introduced you to Connie and Mary. And if I tell them, I know I’ll get some of the blame for setting you on them.”
Luke stiffened and asked for confirmation that Senán hadn’t told them.
“No,” said Senán. “Nor the guards. Yet. Even though people have told me not to be a fool, I want to give you a chance. So here’s the formal warning: keep away from Connie and Scary Mary. I’m going to be keeping an eye on them and if I see sight or sound of you near them I will tell them and I will call the cops.”
Luke managed a laboriously mangled thanks.
Senán and Trish made it to the Barge just in time for last orders. They had hurried from the entrance to St Mary’s park to the riverside, and now stood at the crowded bar counter waiting for Senán’s pint to settle while they soaked in the warmth of the pub.
“He was a pussycat really,” said Senán. “A lamb, albeit a hang-down-your-head-Tom-Dooley kind of lamb. Strange, but he didn’t protest too much. Or say very much, for that matter. I was expecting more aggro. He just kind of caved in.”
“Told you,” said Trish. “He’s a coward. Not into the aul’ confrontation or standing up for himself. I mean, Grabber has him under his thumb with years. Working twelve-hour days, six days a week. And I bet he’s on peanuts. No one else would put up with that.”
She looked at Senán and read the glum droop of eyes and mouth. “You’re feeling sorry for him, you eejit.” Then with tenderness in her voice: “You softie.”
“It was like giving out to a stray dog. He was kinda pathetic. He’s no self-esteem or anything of the sort. I just felt pity for him. I got no pleasure from confronting him. He’s kind of a broken man.”
“He’s no backbone, is his problem. The coward of the county.”
“I reached out,” said Senán, aware of how clichéd it sounded as it came out his mouth. “I offered to help. You know, put him in touch with a counsellor.”
“There you go trying to fix people again.” This was a dig at his unsuccessful efforts to get her to see someone about her problem.
“He kinda just looked at me. Sheepishly. Like he thought there was no helping him. I think he’s given up on himself, that there’s no changing him. Which someone like me in sociology finds anathema.”
“So you’re going to bring him by the hand to therapy? There’s a sight!” She laughed, her dislike of Luke allowing a cruel note to spill into her mirth.
“We kinda left it that he’d think about it for a few days. Over the Christmas. Trying to get him to talk about it after I laid it all on him was like pulling teeth. Like talking to a child. We’ll see.”
Later, in a quiet corner of the pub, Senán asked Trish if she thought Luke would keep his word. He watched her scrunch up her lips and narrow her eyes, formulating an answer, and he thought of how beautiful she looked and how much he liked her.
“You’ve scared him. He’d be scared of you physically, big lad an’ all as you are, and him not exactly being The Rock. And he’d be scared that you’d tell the shades and bring his stalking — and retail — careers to an end. He’s probably terrified right now that life as he knows it might end. I genuinely think that all he gets up to outside of work is stalking and gowling around with that young one, Farrah. That his life is just that, Francie’s, Farrah and stalking. So, not to put it all at risk . . . I think he’ll give the stalking a rest for a few months. He definitely won’t go near Connie and Scary Mary again. But if he sees someone else he takes a shine to in the New Year . . . Old habits die hard.”
“Unless he gets help.”
“A leopard doesn’t change its spots, Senán. Gollum won’t go to some flouncy counsellor to get cured of being a pervert. Unless it’s to look up her skirt or down her top. I think you have to thank your lucky stars you caught him stalking people you care about—”
“I wouldn’t go that far!”
“—and got him to stop. You’ve done as much as you can do. The helping Gollum thing . . . I’d forget about it.”
“There’s one more thing,” she continued, after taking a sip from her gin and tonic. “Gollum is nasty. He’ll want revenge. I’ve seen it before in the shop. It’s an eye for an eye with him. He’s gonna get you back.”
“He might be filling out my P45 as we speak!”
Trish shook her head. “No. No way. He needs you now. He’d never fire his star shelf-stacker in the run-up to Christmas. He might get rid of you afterwards, but not now. But anyway: Gollum is too much of a coward for open warfare. When he gets you back it’ll be in some sly, sneaky way. He’ll knife you in the back by remote control, so that there’s no danger to himself.”
“The old passive-aggressive approach.”
“That’s our Gollum. Passive-aggressive.”