Senán’s Monday was turning out memorable for all the wrong reasons. After struggling to hurry Farrah out of his flat, then racing into college in his old car and dropping her at the main bus stop on campus, he had arrived at his spot in the Foundation with barely time to boot up his computer before Scary Mary emerged like a malevolent wraith to summon him to her lair. Their meeting was long and fraught. They had gone cell-by-cell through a weighty SPSS analysis of owner-occupier data from the CSO, ending in Scary Mary’s terse order to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. There were “schoolboy errors” in categorising the raw data, the degrees of freedom were “haywire”, and she told him she would have expected more from him. The original analysis had taken Senán two weeks and he had been quite pleased with the outcome, so he was none too pleased emerging from the meeting. Neither Vincent nor any other colleagues were martyrs enough to their research to be working between St Stephen’s and New Year’s, leaving Senán without anyone to whom he might vent his frustration. He stewed in his anger and resentment, knowing that a bitching session on his supervisor’s unreasonableness and draconian rule would have to wait.
As he went about constructing the analysis recommended by Scary Mary (and which he had uselessly argued was even more flawed than his original supposedly was), the only light at the end of a long and tiring day of wrestling with SPSS was that Trish would be coming over that evening. But then she texted to ask would he mind meeting her in the Barge instead, that something had come up. Making his way across to the pub, his mood was low, far from the tingling excitement of a man anticipating a lovers’ reunion.
Trish arrived late, and Senán’s humour did not improve during the half hour he spent sucking his pint of Guinness while keeping one eye on a lacklustre Premiership match. But when she stood between him and the big screen, he couldn’t help but smile and forget the day’s troubles. He was surprised that upon standing up and offering his open arms, she made no effort to move towards him and her face betrayed no joy at seeing him.
“We need to talk,” she said through gritted teeth as she left for the drink she said she needed badly. All sorts of thoughts ran through his mind while he waited. When she sat wordlessly opposite him with her gin and tonic, he asked her what was wrong.
Trish activated her smartphone, scrolled through a couple of menus and handed it to Senán. “This is the problem,” she said.
The phone displayed a photo of a teenage girl with a shock of blonde hair looking out the window of a brightly lit room.
“Fuck,” said Senán. “I’ve been had.”
“There’s more,” said Trish, anger and hurt in her voice.
With a sinking heart, he flicked through a half dozen more photos. There was a shot of Farrah looking out the window of his kitchenette, one of Senán opening the door to her, of him following her up the stairs, one of her smoking outside his door, and one taken that morning of her looking out the bedroom window wearing only bra and knickers.
“Fuck, I don’t believe it,” he snarled. “Fucking Luke. I’ll kill him. I’ll wring his neck. He’s a sick cunt.”
“When did it start?” asked Trish.
Senán, slow to answer, confused and distracted, asked her when did what start.
“You and that little slag. When did you start seeing her?”
Senán looked up from the phone and shook his head.
“You’ve got the wrong end of the stick there.”
“No,” said Trish. “You’re the one with the wrong end of your DICK! You can’t deny what’s in those photos. Fuckin’ Gollum pulled me aside today. Told me he had to tell me something. That you and that slag are going around together. Then he sent me the photos. So, wrong-end-of-the-stick your hole.”
“Listen, Trish. Whatever fucking Gollum’s told you, it’s a lie. I’ll—”
“What about the photos?”
“Listen for a minute. Please. Number one: I’m not going round with Farrah. Number two: Luke is up to some manoeuvre to get me back for rumbling his stalking. Now, listen. I was in my place last night when the buzzer rang. I thought it was you, actually. I opened the door, big smile on my face, and there was Farrah. I was surprised, to say the least.”
“I’m sure you were.”
“I’d only ever met her once before, with Luke, down the tracks. Which I told you about. Anyway, she told me I’d struck her as a nice person when we’d met—”
“I’m sure you did.”
“And that she needed somewhere to stay. She got my address off Luke’s phone. It was cold. She was fuckin’ blue with the cold, so I let her in.”
Trish gave a sardonic grin.
“You mean to tell me,” she said, “that that slapper just showed up at your door, out of the blue, after only meeting you the once — and you let her in? Go on outa that.”
“That’s the God’s-honest truth, Trish. You have to believe me. There I was, minding my own business when she appeared at my door. My plan was to get her inside, get some soup into her and then try to find somewhere that would take her in.”
“She was blue with the cold. She wasn’t wearing very much.”
“Of course — that’s what sluts do. Not wear very much.”
“Anyway. I let her in. I got some food for her. She pulls out a bottle of wine—”
“One thing leads to another . . .”
“No, Trish. Stop it. Just listen.”
A sceptical look in her eye, she took a drink from her gin and tonic.
“She has a couple of glasses of wine with the few sandwiches I make her. I start thinking of who I can call. An emergency shelter or whatever. But she doesn’t want to know about it. And then I start thinking that I can’t take her anywhere: she’s drink on her, I’m the responsible adult, I’d get into shit. Can’t drive her home, can’t take her anywhere. So I tell her she can stay.”
“One thing leads to another . . .”
“No. Stop saying that.”
Senán drank from his own glass before continuing. “Then she tells me she’s going down for a smoke. When she comes back up, she’s high as a kite.”
“Exactly. So I spend a wonderful couple of hours listening to her talking stoner horseshit. I eventually convince her to go to bed. She takes my bed; I sleep on the couch with a blanket over me. The photo of her here in her bra and knickers is coz she stripped down to go to sleep. That’s all.”
“Got a good look at her then?”
“No. No way. I was fucking terrified of anything weird happening. That’s jail time. No fucking way. So anyway. Next morning — this morning — I’m up bright and early, coz I’ve to meet Scary Mary. I get her up out of bed, she has a shower, I feed her, I try to talk some sense into her about hanging round with Luke, and getting her shit together, and I drop her off at the bus stop in the college. End of.”
“And you expect me to believe all that?”
“Yeah. You know me, Trish. I’m not sleazy. I’d never do that. To her. To you. To myself.”
Trish bit her lips. “Why didn’t you phone me? I woulda come out to you to sort that little bitch out.”
“I thought about it, believe me, but I didn’t want to drag you into it or ruin your night out with your cousins and all that.”
There was silence between them for a few moments. The commentary and cheering from the football match echoed in the half-empty pub; people were pacing their going out, waiting for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to party once more. Senán slid the phone back gently to Trish and spoke softly.
“It was a set-up, you know. Fucking Luke. He must have dropped her off in his fucking Noddymobile and hid in the bushes taking photos. Which means he must have been watching me, stalking me. I wasn’t supposed to be in Limerick last night. I only came back coz of Scary Mary’s freaker over the CSO data. Which gets me thinking. This is about two things: revenge for spoiling his little thing with Scary Mary and Connie, and a warning that he’s capable of stalking me and trying to wreck my head. The revenge part, Gollum’s revenge, was about upsetting you, Trish, and trying to split us up. Fucking with us. You thinking that I’m shagging Farrah is what Gollum wants you to think. Gollum wins if you believe him and we break up. I don’t know if his intention in sending Farrah to my place was just to get those photos, or if he really told her to shag me. But she didn’t. She didn’t even try. She didn’t make a move on me. And believe me: it wouldn’t have worked anyway. I promise I didn’t touch her. I swear.”
Trish’s expression was softening, the anger melting away. She still wore a look of sadness and hurt, though. It was as if she needed more words from Senán, a critical mass of denials and reassurances to destroy the wall of suspicion that Luke had built.
“I swear. The only thing I feel for that girl is pity. She’s going to end up badly. You know Gollum is paying her to fuck him? And she uses most of the money to get high so that she can forget about her junkie mother and all that shit. I’m half thinking of reporting Gollum, he should go to prison, the fucking scumbag.”
Tears welled in Trish’s eyes, which she blinked away before starting to talk.
“I just thought of you and her. Together. And she giving you what you can’t get offa me. I guess I went a bit funny. I felt terrible and I believed Gollum. I suppose, even though I think you’re the best man I’ve ever met, I still have a shit opinion of men. I shouldn’t have listened to him. Shouldn’t have believed him for a second. Fuck it.”
Senán reached across the table and took Trish’s hand. He stroked the back of it with his thumb and then squeezed her palm hard. Although he disapproved of displays of affection in pubs, often complaining that couples eating the faces off one another in drinking establishments amounted to antisocial behaviour, he leaned across the table and kissed her on the lips, first gently and then passionately.
“Don’t mind that thing,” he said softly when they separated. He held his mouth close to her ear. “That’s something we can fix in good time, believe me.”
“I’ll try, Senán. I’ll really try. I really want to give you what you deserve, and so you and I can be together properly.”
He smiled. “That was the idea of you coming over to my place tonight. Practice makes perfect and all that!”
“We can still go, if you want.”
“C’mon so. What you waiting for. Drink up. Your chariot awaits.”
“You changed the sheets, right?”
“Yes Trish, for the millionth time. I changed the sheets.”
“It’s just — I don’t want to catch anything from her. She’d have whatever those men she sleeps with have. And what Gollum has, Jesus Christ.”
“Mechanised dandruff, as Vincent says!”
Trish laughed. They were lying on his bed, he on his back and she on her side, head on his chest and arms and legs wrapped around him. Progress had been made in their lovemaking. After he had stimulated her with vibrator and tongue, Trish had relaxed enough to allow him explore her with his fingers. He had felt her grow ever wetter and her contractions and moans demand faster and harder fingering. She climaxed, her body rigid, hands gripping his hair, and voicing her pleasure — a breathy whimper — long and loud. When she had relaxed, she and Senán shook the bed with the laughter of relief and joy. Then it was his turn to orgasm.
“You know,” said Senán. “We have to stop Gollum. He’s not just paying Farrah for sex. When she was high last night she told me a whole lot of stuff. I’m sure Gollum would kill her if he knew. Not only does he pay her for sex, but he gets her to dress up like Scary Mary and Connie and then fucks her in character.”
“Yeah. He’s bought her a Scary Mary power suit, right down to the underwear. Makes her wear a wig. And she has to wear Scary Mary’s nail polish and perfume. The same with Connie. The sickest thing is that he wants Farrah to shave her fanny. Guess why? Coz he knows that Scary Mary has a shaved fanny. And how does he know that?”
“The fucker’s been looking in her bedroom window! Jesus Christ.”
“Exactly. Peeping Gollum. Scary Mary lives somewhere out in Monaleen, on an old country road. In this cottage, as far as I know. I can just see Gollum creeping around the garden in the dark, pulling his wire while he’s looking in at her undressing.”
“Oh, fuck is right. We have to stop him.”
They talked into the night about how best to put a halt to Luke’s stalking, and his exploitation of Farrah. Trish was in favour of the simplest approach — going to the gardaí.
“I don’t think that would achieve anything,” said Senán. “There’s no proof, number one. And I’m sure the cops would just wade in with their big size twelves. Go directly and question Gollum. He’d deny everything, of course. He’s stop for a while, while they were poking around, but that’s it. It’d just teach him to be more careful. And besides that, if social services got wind of Farrah’s activities they’d probably split up the family. Put each kid into a different foster home maybe.”
“Farrah wouldn’t like that. She’s kind of the younger kids’ mother. Looks after them. She told me she’d die if they split up the family. Or at least if they took her away from the rest.”
“Pity about her.”
“I kinda promised I wouldn’t tell the cops about her underage prostitution, and she kinda promised to stay away from Gollum.”
“That’s not going to happen. It’s easy money for her. And he’s got some sort of hold over her, the fucking creep.”
“So what’s to be done, then?” asked Senán.
Neither spoke for a spell, each pondering the puzzle they had set themselves. Music played low on Senán’s stereo, the tuner still on the classical station Farrah had set it to the night before. What sounded like hailstone rattled against the window. A truck whooshed by on the Dublin Road.
“We could set a trap for the fucker,” said Trish at last. “Use his own tactics against him.”
Trish turned around to look into Senán’s eyes. Her hair fell onto his chest, tickled him so that he brushed it gently aside with a flick of his finger.
“OK. He obviously believes in the power of blackmail. Right? He reckoned those aul’ photos of that slapper walking round here in her knickers would break us up. So: if we have a photo like that, and I take the fucker aside in Francie’s like he did to me today, we might get somewhere with him.”
“OK. But what kind of photo. One of him and Farrah? A dose of his own medicine?”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the forehead.
“Well,” he said. “The tension is killing me.”
“What you said earlier on has given me an idea.”
She hugged him tighter and kissed him again.
“You said,” she continued, “that he was probably out in Scary Mary’s garden pulling his wire looking in at her undressing.”
“I did. And I sincerely believe that’s what he’s at.”
“That’s our photo. If we can get it. Threaten the fucker that that photo’s going up on Facebook and Instagram, and we own him.”