“At last,” said Senán out loud. “Yippee!”
He took off his coat and walked from the kitchenette to his living room-cum-bedroom.
“Getting warm in here as well. Brill.”
It was Sunday, three days after Christmas. A cold snap had gripped the country in what the media were calling “the big freeze-up”. Being unheated and unoccupied since he had driven home to Tipperary the night before Christmas Eve, Senán’s bedsit had been as arctic as the dark blue front staining the weather maps on the front pages of all the newspapers. The bedsit even lacked the usual residual heat from the accountancy firm below: O’Byrne and Co had shut down for the holiday period.
He had not planned to be back so early. He didn’t start in Francie’s until Tuesday and had told Scary Mary he would be in his booth on Wednesday morning bright and early. A text from her on St Stephen’s day had brought him back to Limerick. “Can you be in on Monday morning? There’s a problem with the CSO dataset.”
Fuck the CSO dataset, Senán had thought, but then saw a silver lining: he could see Trish earlier than planned. He had missed her more than he had thought he would. Since they had started going out they had not been apart for more than a weekend, and he ached for her soft skin and cutting humour. When he texted her, however, she told him they wouldn’t be able to meet until Monday evening — she had a family do.
Senán looked at his watch. Almost ten. He grappled with whether he should boot up his laptop and go over the problematic data set or just veg out in front of the TV.
TV, he decided. I’m not on the clock until tomorrow.
Just after he had settled on the couch, the intercom buzzed. He smiled, thinking that Trish had decided to surprise him, and raced through the kitchenette, skipped down his narrow staircase, and opened his front door wearing a face that spoke a thousand welcomes. The expression did not persist. In front of him, lit by the threadbare cone of light from the naked bulb at the bottom of the stairs, stood another female form. The face took a few seconds to register.
“Farrah, Luke’s friend,” his puzzled voice said. “What can I do for you?”
The girl, hugging herself and shivering, bit her lip and looked left and right before speaking.
“I need somewhere to stay. It’s cold. And, well . . . When I met you with Luke, you seemed like a good person. I’ve nowhere else to go.”
She was underdressed for the unforgiving conditions, wearing the same black leather jacket he had seen her in before and skinny jeans ripped at the knees. Her face was blue-white, and when she lit a cigarette Senán saw that her hands were red-raw with the cold.
“How do you know where I live?”
Farrah blew smoke from one side of her mouth and looked boldly at him. “I copped a look at Luke’s phone there one day. He had your address on it.”
“I bet he did,” said Senán, thinking that he probably had Connie’s and Scary Mary’s as well.
He looked at her. She was heavily made up. Her red lips shone in the weak light and around her eyes was a thick layer of black. Her fingernails were of a dark chocolate colour that he associated with Scary Mary — that he had, in fact, never seen her without. Through the cigarette smoke he could smell sickly sweet perfume — a scent that rang a bell with him, although he couldn’t say why.
“Well?” asked Farrah.
Senán smelt trouble. From the little he had seen of her, she was a very mixed-up and unhappy young woman. And if what Trish had told him was more than malicious gossip, she was on the game. And in some strange pay-as-you-go relationship with Luke. And underage. The last thing he needed was the living embodiment of teenage angst and waywardness. But he couldn’t turn her away either. He’d take her inside, give her a cup of instant soup and whatever she wanted to eat, and try and sort out some sort of sheltered accommodation for her. There had to be a number he could call.
“I’m freezin’, you know?”
“C’mon inside,” said Senán.
Farrah took a few deep drags on her cigarette before flicking the butt towards the line of leylandii that separated O’Byrne and Co’s property from the field beside it. As she walked up the stairs in front of Senán, he got a stronger waft of the perfume. He squinted, almost as if in pain, trying to remember who the scent reminded him of, when she entered his kitchenette and, wide-eyed, surveyed the compact space.
“Cool place,” she said, moving further in. “And you’ve it all to yourself.” She walked through the bedroom and poked her head into the little bathroom. “Jesus, this place is great. I’d love to live on my own somewhere like this. No one to fucking bother me.”
“I don’t spend much time here, but I like it,” said Senán from the kitchenette.
“How much do you pay for somewhere like this?” She was pulling back the curtains and assessing the view. “That’s Rhebogue down there, right?”
“Ah, right. Yeah. Those lights would be Rhebogue. How much does it cost? Four hundred a month. Plus gas. Plus electricity.”
“It’s not bad as things go. And the place is quiet. No noisy neighbours. Not a student within an ass’s roar of the place. No parties. And, I’m on my own. All the dirty dishes are mine. I find it much easier to live like this after four years of house-sharing.”
She returned to the kitchenette and took a peek out the long window that ran behind the sink and worktop.
“Wow, the Dublin Road. And Jesus, you can see TK Maxx from here! This place would be heaven for me. Saunter across to TK’s for shopping and come home to a quiet house. And Burger King over there in the Parkway. Heaven.”
“Maybe you could get a job in TK Maxx, you know. Then you could afford somewhere like this. Live your own life. Be free. Independent. Wouldn’t be a bad start.”
Farrah’s eyes lit up. “Fuck! That’s not a bad plan. I like the way you think, mister!”
She began to pull off the little rucksack she was wearing. “But,” she continued, the wonder fading from her face, “they wouldn’t give a job to the likes of me. I failed my Junior Cert. And I’m more or less dropped out of school. Unemployable, as everyone keeps saying.” She dumped her bag on the floor and removed her jacket.
“If I can get a job packing shelves and make a go of it, anyone can. Don’t dis yourself. Would you like a Cup-a-soup?”
“Go on, yeah. I’m starving.”
“Toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich?”
Senán filled the kettle and took out the food.
“But you’re some sort of brainbox. You work in the college. Luke’s always going on about how brainy you are. It’s easy for you. I’m just a dud.”
“Don’t say that.”
He bent down to fish out a tomato from the bottom drawer of the half-sized fridge. Looking up he caught a glimpse of fishnet tights under the rips in her jeans. He felt a jolt of unconscious arousal and did his best to suppress it.
“People have infinite capacity. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want. How old are you?”
“There you go. Your brain is still plastic. You can train it any way you want. You can be a tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor. Whatever you want. Don’t write yourself off.”
He washed the tomato, shook it dry and placed it on a chopping board, and then rummaged in a press and produced an onion. He held it up and said: “Francie’s best!”
“I don’t like the idea of my mind being plastic,” said Farrah. “Does that mean it’s all squishy inside, glooping around? Jesus!”
She sat down on one of the pair of foldable chairs, watching Senán chop and slice.
“Jesus, you’re good at that. You would have aced home ec. I failed it. The nearest we come to cooking in my house is throwing a pizza in the oven.”
She made an impressed whoa when he spread mayonnaise and sweet mustard on the bread, and asked him what the stuff he was sprinkling on the cheese was.
“A little bit of paprika. And now, some basil.”
When the kettle clicked, Senán turned around to see her opening her bag and pulling out a bottle of red wine.
“This’ll go down well with those sangers,” she said gleefully.
“That was lovely,” pronounced Farrah. “I’m all warm inside. All snuggly.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” said Senán.
He took her plate and cup to the kitchenette. When he returned she had kicked off her runners and was curled up against the arm of the sofa. She had also poured herself another large glass of wine — her third.
Senán regretted not having forbidden her to open the wine. She had told him she would only have a couple of glasses to wash down the sandwiches, but it now looked like he would have difficulty stopping her from downing the bottle. He remembered the drunk and obstreperous girl he and Luke had walked the tracks with and could have kicked himself. At least he had declined her offer of a drink; it was one thing to facilitate underage drinking, another thing entirely to join a sixteen-year-old in their drunkenness. Senán figured that dealing with Farrah would require full sobriety on his part.
He made another effort to convince her to let him ring up social services for an emergency bed in a woman’s shelter or homeless hostel.
“Fuck off,” she said in a good-humoured tone. “No way. Amn’t I grand here? Anyway, at this hour of the night where would they put me? Only in the back room of a cop shop eating biccies and drinking tay and having to listen to some hairy-chinned woman guard blabbing on. Fuck, no! Or they’d bring me to a hospital. A and E. Sur’ if I wanted to see junkies and drunks batin’ the shite out of each other I could just go home!”
“OK. Fine,” he said. “But you’ve to promise me you’ll be good. No more wine after that glass. No drugs. And early to bed. I’ve a meeting with my boss tomorrow morning, where there will be seven shades of shit hitting the fan. So I’ll need my beauty sleep.”
“Fine. I’ll be a good little girl.”
She sipped her wine, shook her blonde mane and asked if she could turn on the radio. She searched through the stations until she found Spin South West. Senán asked her to turn it down.
“I’m an old fogey at this stage, you know.”
“I like older men,” she answered, with a deliberate and obvious narrowing of her eyes and slow crackling of her voice.
As soon as he had said the words he regretted it. He didn’t want to put her on the defensive or throw a spanner in the works of the wine-induced merry and placid state she was in. She took the comment in her stride, though.
“Luke and me are just friends,” she said. “He’s not all bad at the back of it all either, if you know how to handle him. He gives us stuff — our family, I mean. We’d’ve gone hungry many’s the time if it wasn’t for him. I mean, he’s a bit weird, with the stutter and all, but there’s a lot worse than him going around. You should see some of the toerags my mother drags in. They’re all addicts and ex-cons. At least Luke’s not like them.”
Senán was thinking of a way to move the topic on from Luke, but there was no need. Wriggling her feet into her runners and standing up, Farrah announced that she was going outside for a cigarette.
“I wouldn’t want to stink up your nice place here.”
Senán offered to go down with her but Farrah insisted on going on her own, even when he said that anyone could jump out on her from the bushes.
“That gable end’s a dangerous place.”
“I’ll be grand.”
“Take my coat, at least.”
He threw his heavy anorak at her when she was halfway down the stairs. She caught it and he heard a chirpy “thanks” before the door slammed. When she came back up it wasn’t the smell of cigarette smoke she carried in from the cold but the heady herbal aroma of cannabis.
“Have you been smoking pot?” he said crossly.
A slow, stupefied smile spread across her face and she replied: “Just a little joint. A mini, mini, mini joint. To relax me.”
“Holy fuck,” said Senán. His voice reverberated around the kitchenette. Farrah kicked off her shoes and padded unevenly to the sofa.
“You mean the wine wasn’t enough to relax you?” he asked.
“‘S yummy wine. It relaxed me all right, but now I’m super-dee-dooper relaxed altogether. Super-dee-dooper.”
While Senán made noises of disapproval, Farrah fiddled with the tuner.
“I need something more chilled-out. This is cack. Too much . . . bangle-jangle.”
She found a classical station, allowed her body to slump back onto the couch, and then closed her eyes to the music, which sounded to Senán like George Gershwin. He crept up and soundlessly swiped the bottle of wine, which he corked and put in the fridge.
He left her in peace for a few minutes while he browsed on his phone and looked out at the traffic on the Dublin Road. Watching the headlamps and tail-lights break a trail through the darkness, he began to fret and feel alone in negotiating a tricky situation. He thought of calling Trish, sure that she would know how to deal with Farrah, have the language and ways about her to keep the girl in check, but he didn’t want to ruin her family night out.
I should have just put her in my car straight off and driven her home, he thought. I can’t do that now though. How could I turn up on her doorstep with her drunk and high like this? I’ve fucked up here. I’ve no option but to keep her till morning.
He thought of trying to convince her to go to sleep. She couldn’t cause trouble then. When the music came to an end and the presenter’s melodious baritone dripped from the speakers in delivery of a short anecdote, Farrah blinked open her eyes. She smiled goofily over at Senán and said: “That was fuckin’ mad. I’ve never heard music like that before. Crazy shit. The pictures it puts in your mind.” The warm-voiced man introduced Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Its opening notes broke through the bedsit. Farrah held her hands up in front of her face and examined them at length, turning them slowly around and looking at the tips of her fingers from different angles.
Oh, Jesus, thought Senán, here we go.
“I didn’t like this colour at the start. I thought it looked like shit, literally,” she said and gave a stoned chuckle. “But now I like it. Or I half like it. It goes nice with this music and this bedsit. It’s warm and fuzzy. A match made in heaven. A hatch made in meaven. Ha, ha.”
Senán could only laugh along with her.
“‘That’s what classy ladies wear,’ Luke told me when I told him to shove his fucking shitty brown nail polish up his skinny hole. But now . . . It’s jazzy. Like that music. I don’t give a shit about classy. But jazzy is nice.”
The term “classy ladies” set off alarm bells in Senán’s mind. “You mean, Luke asked you to wear that nail polish?”
“Yep. He wanted me to look like some bitch he’s following around—”
“He calls her Mu-Mu-Mu-Máire.”
Senán stifled a gasp and looked murderously out on to the Dublin Road. Farrah was too busy looking at her hands to notice his anger.
“And does he get you to do anything else to look like Máire?”
“Oh, yeah. Sur’ fuckin’ hell, like. He got me a wig. You know, long, flouncy hair. And clothes. This fuckin’ business suit. Sexy lingerie. And I’d have to try to talk like her. And walk all stiff and up straight. And then we’d fuck. You’d sweat like a pig with that wig on, I’m tellin’ you.”
“Jesus Christ.” Senán felt like screaming at her, shaking her, interrogating her, demanding her to admit that she was involved in something twisted and illegal.
You’re underage, he wanted to shout. And pretending to be some innocent women he’s stalking. It’s sick. He’s sick. And you’re doing harm to yourself.
But Senán said none of those things, just bit his tongue and allowed Farrah talk on.
“Of course he keeps the clothes, the fucker. Not that I’d wear them. But if I’d an interview, that suit would come in handy. Although the other things he makes me wear belonging to that other woman, Connie — they’re not bad. Sporty. And the wig an’ all isn’t as bad. He pays me extra to pretend to be them. Twenty bucks. I can do a lot with twenty bucks. Grass. Pills. Vodka. A few things for the brothers and sisters. Wine.”
She took her hands down from her face and took a sip of the wine, as if to reinforce the point that she was drinking the fruits of her arrangement with Luke.
“You’ll never guess what he wants me to do now.”
She gave a woozy look in Senán’s direction and laughed so hard that her wine split over the rim and onto the wooden floor.
“He wants me to shave my fanny. Says yer one Máire has hers shaved. A Brazilian. Says he wants to lick me out while I’m talking to him like I’m her. I’ve said no, but that’s only to string him along until he offers me a couple of hundred to do it. I wouldn’t mind a shaved fanny, to be honest. I’d be like Gaga or Kim Kardashian. Which would be mad cool.”
The alarm on Senán’s phone went. He shook himself awake, reached over to the coffee table beside the couch and hit the Sleep button. Dawn was yet to break, the room cloaked in mid-winter darkness. As he stretched his creaking neck and rubbed the small of his back, he looked across at his bed. At the top of a tangle of duvet and pillows and long, skinny limbs shone the blonde hair of his uninvited guest. He listened to her deep, easy breathing, a high nasal expulsion of air that took him back to his childhood of a shared bedroom, sleepovers, scout tents and dormitories at Irish college.
The room was stuffy, smelled slightly of the wine from Farrah’s breath and the pot that clung to her hair and clothes. Senán felt stuffy; muzzy-headed and grimy from sleeping in his clothes, and above all stiff. The two-seater couch did not afford enough space for him to curl up on, so he had been forced to sleep sitting up.
He stepped out of the picnic blanket he had used as his bedclothes and tiptoed to the kitchenette.
Why am I sneaking around? he thought to himself. Don’t I want her awake and out the door at the same time as me?
He turned on the gas heater, knowing that the strange clicking the radiators made as they warmed up could rouse the most determined sleeper. If not, the noise he intended to make getting organised would have Farrah up in no time.
“Oh Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” he heard from the kitchenette after he had showered and dressed and set about clanking plates and cups with gusto. “It’s like a fuckin’ war zone in here with all the noise. A girl can’t get her beauty sleep.”
“Good morning!” boomed Senán, with assumed cheer. “Ready to greet another day?”
“Aw, fuck. What time is it?” he heard.
“Almost eight. If you want a shower, I’ve a spare towel.”
“Ugh. Go on.” She spilled slowly out from under the duvet and stood on the carpet in her bra and knickers. Senán averted his eyes as he crossed the room to get her a towel from the closet in the bathroom.
“Thanks,” she said when he handed it to her, clearly amused by his embarrassment. “You’re nice,” she said. “Most men would be gawking at me.”
After a longer shower than Senán would have liked, Farrah emerged wrapped in a towel and accompanied by a thick bank of steam.
“What can I rustle you up for breakfast?” said Senán. “Muesli? Toast? Scrambled eggs? A fry?”
“Jesus. A fry! Yeah. I’d murder some sausages. I think I’ve the munchies from last night.”
She stood behind him watching as he cut sausages from their string and pierced them with a fork, and laid out rashers on his little grill. She no longer smelt of what he now knew was Scary Mary’s perfume, nor of wine and pot. He smelt his own shampoo and the sandalwood soap which he rarely used himself.
“I’m sorry I’ve no puddings. Would you like a fried tomato?”
“Go on, yeah. This is like being in a hotel. I must come here more often.”
Senán’s politeness did not allow him to say what was on his mind: Please don’t. Instead he suggested she get dressed so they could be out the door as quickly as possible.
“I’ve to meet Scary Mary.”
He sat down opposite her and drank a cup of tea while she wolfed down the fry. He decided to try to talk some sense into her.
“You should keep off the drink and drugs,” he said. “They’re not going to improve your situation. What you’re doing is called palliative coping: you dose yourself with something that gets you out of your head to forget about your problems, but when you get back to reality, the problems are still there. You have to find out where the stressor is coming from and either eliminate it — or move away from it.”
“Stressor?” came the question from a mouth stuffed with sausage.
“Your family situation. And probably what you’re doing with Luke. Do you have an uncle or aunt you and your brothers and sisters can go and live with? Somewhere stable? If you can sort out your home environment, start going back to school, leave off the hooch and the drugs — you’d be a different person. I’m not saying you’ve to live like a nun. But . . . you’d be much happier. And what you’re doing with Luke: he’s a sick man. A stalker. And paying you to have sex with him is bad. Horrendous. Illegal. He could wind up in the slammer over it. It’s abuse. And mixed in with you dressing up as Scary Mary and Connie and whoever, it’s really, really, really sick. You should leave off him. Report him to the cops—”
“I’d never do that! The cops would come for me then, split up our family. I’d be put in fucking care. No way. No cops. No cops. Please — promise you won’t go to the cops. And don’t tell Luke anything I told you. Please.”
Senán pondered for a moment.
“If you promise to stay away from Luke, I won’t go to the cops. OK? Deal? And you can come here once in a while if you need to get away from it all, or need a chat, OK?”