Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 5 of 32

“Come-come-come here to me,” said Luke quietly, one Tuesday evening towards the start of Senán’s shift. “Wu-wu-would you be wi-wi-willing to stay-stay on a bit lo-lo-lo-longer tonight? Do-do-do a bit of ex-ex-ex-extra work? We-we-we’ll pay you off-off-off the books. Cash in-in hand.”

“No problem,” said Senán. “A bit of extra money is always welcome. What do I’ve to do?”

“I’ll-I’ll-I’ll tell you when the time-time comes,” Luke said, and he walked away.

At ten o’clock, with the doors of the shop locked and Debs and Trish counting up the takings from their tills, Senán looked for Luke and found him replenishing the cigarette machine behind the counter. When he asked him what he wanted him to do, Luke looked at him angrily and hissed, “Just go and tidy the wine and be-be-beer.” Passing Debs and Trish, they gave him curious looks, as did Susan emerging from behind her counter with a dustpan and brush. The off-licence section was in near-immaculate condition, but he set about pulling the odd bottle forward to fill a space, and rotating bottles slightly to achieve perfect facing. A few minutes later he heard a chorus of female voices singing “Bye, Senán” from the door, and then Luke came down to him wearing the same irate expression.

“You-you-you shouldn’t-shouldn’t have come up to-to-to me like that in-in-in front of the gu-gu-girls,” he said. “We don’t-don’t wan-want ’em no-no-knowing anything about this-this-this kinda thing. They-they-they talk too much. Anymore just-just hang back he-he-here and pre-pre-pretend you’re finishing some-some-something off.”

Senán could have pointed out that mooching around at the back of the shop instead of leaving with the girls as he always did would arouse just as much suspicion, but answered with a plain “OK”.

“Right. Let’s-let’s-let’s get a move on, so. Fu-Fu-Francie’s wu-waiting in the va-va-van outside.”

Senán followed Luke to the little locker room that led to the shop’s tiny toilet. They grabbed their coats as they rushed towards the shop’s entrance. With impressive speed, Luke activated the alarms and soon they were standing in the rain pulling down the screeching metal shutters. Francie joined them while they were struggling to lock each one in place.

“Manky aul’ night, lads,” he said. “C’mon, let’s get going.”

They scarpered to the van and sat in its cab. Francie turned the key in the ignition and pulled out from the kerb.

I’m in the van! thought Senán, recalling Trish’s mock-awestruck voice whenever she referred to the vehicle.

The van smelt of stale sweat, greasy hair, cigarette butts, diesel and rancid remains of fast food. It was none too tidy. The floor was strewn with empty crisp packets, chocolate bar wrappers, crushed Styrofoam cups and balled-up greaseproof paper. The space where windscreen met dashboard was stuffed with receipts, invoices and other detritus. The cubbyholes were overflowing with rags, biros, pocket knives, torches and the like, and Senán found himself bum-shuffling to find a comfortable spot in between the various jumpers and coats rolled up on the seat.

“Manky fuckin’ night, all right,” said Francie.

He was leaning forward, chin almost touching the steering wheel, squinting into the sheets of rain lit up by the oncoming cars. He had the wipers on full blast, but their urgent motion only seemed to spread an oily film over the glass.

“I’ll have to get these fuckin’ rubbers changed,” said Francie. “I can see fuck all.”

He geared down and came to a stop at a traffic light.

“Will you do that for me this week, Luke?”

“Shu-shu-sure, Francie.”

They passed over the turbulent Shannon, its waters lit orange by the floodlights from Thomond Bridge and King John’s Castle, and headed away from the city centre.

“We’re going to a lock-up I keep stock in,” said Francie for Senán’s benefit, his bushy eyebrows dancing. “Now, I don’t want anybody knowing about this place. There’s a lot of stock in there, and as you know this city is full of nothing but fuckin’ robbers and knackers. It’s a tight enough place — secure, like — but them fuckers would have no problem getting in if they wanted.”

“I won’t tell a soul, Francie,” said Senán. “Promise.” He saw Luke looking at him with the shifty expression the girls, especially Trish, were always imitating.

They came to the Parkway roundabout and Francie roughly wheeled the van on to Childers Road, so that Senán slid down the seat and pressed against Luke. His body felt as bony as Senán expected, and he sensed Luke almost crumple at the unwanted contact. They drove past a couple of retail parks shuttered up for the night, passed a halting site with a fire smouldering in the rain and a couple of abandoned quad bikes on the embankments surrounding it, and then turned right into a badly lit, run-down mini-industrial estate. Francie turned left, left again, then reversed the van to a stop in front of a small warehouse with a single up-and-over steel door.

“I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse that the cousins are over the fuckin’ road there,” he said, referring to the Travellers, “but I haven’t been robbed yet.”

He jumped out of the van, unlocked the warehouse door, and with Luke’s help swung it upwards.

“Hit the lights there, Luke,” he said.

Luke dashed inside and turned on the lights to reveal a space of about one hundred square yards broken up into lanes by the same type of shelving present in the supermarket’s store. The warehouse was organised with the same exactitude as the supermarket, which led Senán to believe that Luke was also in charge of its upkeep. Except a couple of rows where the top shelves were empty, the little warehouse was filled to capacity. Before Senán could take a detailed look at any of the stock, he was called into action by Francie.

“Now, lads. These boxes of wine need to be moved to the shop,” he said, pointing to a few dozen boxes on a pallet inside the door. “We’ll do a chain. You go in the van, Luke, and take the boxes from Senán and stack ’em safely. I’d like to help ye, lads, but my back is shagged. I’ll back the van in as far as I can to keep ye out of the wet.”

Senán lifted box after box to Luke who, hunched in the cramped darkness of the back of the van, looked decidedly Gollum-like. He noticed that each box bore a stamp: Liable To Excise Duty, HM Revenue & Customs.

Fishy, he thought. Back of a lorry.

After they had finished with the wine, Francie asked Luke if they needed anything else.

“Cider,” he said. “Fla-fla-flagons of cider. It’s co-co-coming up to Ha-Ha-Halloween. It’s always-always a big seller at-at-at this-this time of the ye-ye-year.”

“Grab what you need, so,” said Francie. And then: “Fuck it! Halloween. The decorations. Thanks for reminding me. Now where the fuck did we put those?”

Luke took out his phone and brought up a photo of a hand-drawn map of the warehouse. This he proudly showed to Francie and then Senán.

“Third ro-ro-row in,” he said. “Chri-chri-christmas decorations and Ha-Ha-Halloween st-st-stuff.”

“Be Jaysus, you’re a genius, Luke,” said Francie with a sideways nod of his head, a kind of wink without involvement of any eye. “You’ve this place in top shape. If I was still organising it I wouldn’t find fuck in here!”

With a short-lived smile, Luke led Senán to the alcohol and they began loading the van with six-pack flagons of cider. Francie watched them work and spoke reflectively.

“There was a time,” he said, “when Halloween was a bit of a bonanza for the shop. There’d be masks and monkey nuts and sweets flying out the door. I used to even sell bangers and fireworks. Under the counter, like. Some of the boys coming down from the North would get ’em for me. But now. Everyone gets their masks and stuff from them fuckin’ pound shops in town. I haven’t sold a monkey nut in years. And since the fuckin’ Peace Process, the boys aren’t into fireworks no more. And anyway, in those days I was behind the counter meself. I wouldn’t be asking Susan or any of the rest of ’em to sell fireworks or the like.”

He followed the younger men to the third row and watched Luke point out the boxes of decorations to be taken to the van.

“We’re only decorating the shop now so we don’t stick out like a sore thumb — the only shop in Limerick that hasn’t a few aul’ cobwebs and witches stuck up. It won’t bring a single extra sale in. Well, maybe the cider. And barmbrack. We do in fairness sell a lot of barmbrack. People still come to us for that. And of course the girls love putting the decorations up. And they’ll dress up on the day. One or two of ’em as sexy witches. You never know what you might see — a bit of leg, a bit o’ boob. It’s good for morale. Team-building, what, Luke?”

From his position up a ladder Luke sniggered at his boss’s joke. Senán looked up at him and got the impression he was flagging — struggling with the large boxes of decorations. His face was paler than usual, if that was possible, and his hair was damp with sweat. Senán wondered why. He thought neither the weight nor quantity of what they had handled warranted such fatigue. But then Senán hurled for his parish, trained twice a week and went to the gym. Perhaps Luke was simply unfit, or weak, or worn out after the twelve-hour-plus day he had put in. Or maybe he’s sick.

Once more, he found himself feeling sorry for him.

 

On their way back to the shop, Francie brought up the subject of the wine.

“Just in case you’re wondering, Senán,” he said, taking his eyes off the road for a second to glance at him, “there’s nothing dodgy about that wine. I got it at a liquidation sale. A job lot of wine imported from the North. It’s all kosher. It’s all kosher.”

“Ah, yeah, grand,” said Senán under Francie’s scrutiny but not particularly believing him. “Grand.”

“But what I need ye to do when we get back to the shop is get the bottles out of them boxes with that fuckin’ Her Majesty’s Customs or whatever-the-fuck-it-says stamp on it. If Revenue or Customs and Excise decide to do a swoop and they catch sight of that fuckin’ crown, I’m up shit creek. I mean, there’s nothing dodgy about the wine — it’s kosher — but that stamp is like a red rag to a bull where those fuckers are concerned. There’ll be questions. They’ll be poking their noses into everything. God knows what the fuck they’d find. Do I have receipts for this, that and the other thing? Where’s my importer’s licence? Fuck that. We won’t give ’em an excuse. By tonight those boxes will be history.”

“No-no-no problem, Francie,” said Luke from the other side of Senán. “I’ve-I’ve-I’ve been keeping em-em-empty boxes this-this-this la-last week. There-there’s plen-plen-plenty.”

“Good stuff outa you, Luke boy!”

Francie nudged Senán with his elbow. “What did I tell you, Senán?” he said joyously. “He’s the best shop man in Limerick city or county. Whatever they’re teaching you up in that college, you’ll learn a fucklot more from watching this fella. A fucklot more!”

Senán studied Luke’s face as they drove up a deserted Clare Street towards the Abbey River. If he was pleased or embarrassed by Francie’s praise his face didn’t betray either emotion.

Back at the shop, Luke and Senán got stuck into transferring the wine into the empty boxes, while Francie pottered about front-of-shop, sticking his head through the clear PVC swing doors every now and again with a query for Luke. After stacking the boxes in a corner of the wine store and finding room for the cider, Luke and Senán’s final act of the night was to spirit the flattened boxes to the van. Standing in out of the rain under the shop’s backlit sign, Francie watched the pair wrestle and juggle with their stacks of cardboard and getting wetter and wetter. Over the squalling wind he told them the evidence would soon be up in smoke — he would be lighting his range for the next few weeks with Her Majesty’s cardboard.

“Reduce, reuse, recycle. Wha’?” he laughed.

“Now, take this,” said Francie, when they had finished locking up the shop. He handed a twenty euro note to Senán. “Remember: it’s our little secret. Not a word to Susan or any of the rest of ’em. They’re grand girls and all, but they love an aul’ chinwag. You know what I mean?”

Senán nodded and thanked Francie, even though he wasn’t particularly happy with the rate of pay. It was after twelve. Twenty euro for two hours’ work was just above the minimum wage he was being paid on the books. Time and a half, me arse.

“Ye’ll come with me for a drink, lads, will ye?” said Francie. “A nightcap.”

Senán looked at Luke, who seemed to be holding out on giving an answer until he heard Senán’s response.

“I’d love a nice, cold beer,” said Senán, “but sur’ it’s way past closing time. Unless we go to a nightclub at this stage we won’t get in anywhere.”

Francie gave a merry jig-like step, causing the raindrops in his bushy hair to drip on to his forehead and shoulders. “Whahoo,” he cried. “Listen to him, Luke! He doesn’t know much about life over here on the wrong side of the tracks. ‘Closing time’. Where we’re going there’s no such thing as fuckin’ closing time. Would I be right, Luke.”

They slid damply into the van and were soon driving in the opposite direction, away from the river and towards Moylish.

“D’ya know what a shebeen is, young fella?” said Francie to Senán.

“It’s a kind of unofficial bar, isn’t it?” he answered, not wanting to use the words “illegal” or “unlicensed”.

He had heard of the existence of such places in the problem estates, especially in Moyross and South Hill, which had been built far outside the city centre and beyond the reaches of amenities such as shops, schools and pubs. Shebeens had sprung up in obeisance of the laws of supply and demand, with a number of enterprising families turning their homes into drinking establishments to fill a gap in the market. Shebeens also served the function of pub of last resort, or last chance saloon, for those who had been barred from licensed premises, and because of this had a reputation for being rough-and-tumble establishments.

“Spot on. Where we’re off to is an unlicensed premises,” said Francie with a flourish. “Bowsie’s it’s called. But don’t let that put you off — Bowsie Griffin runs a tight ship. There’s no head-the-balls allowed in there.”

“Not-not-not that mu-many anyways,” said Luke, cracking his very first joke in Senán’s presence.

“Ah now, Luke, don’t be trying to frighten him. We won’t tell anyone he’s from Tipperary and he’ll be grand.”

Francie turned right, into Kileely, then right again, taking them down into a warren of short, narrow streets lined with 1950s-era council houses, most of which were in darkness. There was movement of neither pedestrians nor cars, and as Senán studied the streets he noted that properties were well kept, some extremely so, with window boxes or hanging baskets spilling late-flowering varieties down brightly painted walls. Not a single dwelling was boarded up or burnt out, contravening his received images of the area. All street lights were fully functioning, bravely casting an orange light on to the puddled tarmacadam. Even through the night’s drenched gloom and the fogged-up glass of the van, the streets gave off a sense of close-knit community and solid optimism. When Francie stopped the van outside a corner house showing a glowing porch light and evidence of activity behind the curtains, Senán did not feel like he was setting foot in a neighbourhood whose reputation for crime and violence preceded it. Didn’t some of the houses have children’s toys and bicycles scattered around their front gardens, and didn’t the house before them have a swing around the side?

Francie scuttled up the short driveway and gave a series of raps on the living room window.

“The-the-the secret nu-nu-knock,” explained Luke.

Luke’s mood was growing lighter the more time that passed since shutting up the shop for the night. First he had cracked a joke and now he was addressing Senán directly, after having spent the previous couple of hours saying nothing beyond the absolutely necessary, and flashing shifty looks at him. Perhaps going to the lock-up and laundering contraband together had cracked a glass ceiling so that Senán was now in Luke’s circle of trust.

The front door opened a crack and a pair of eyes peered out into the relative darkness.

“Francie!” said a voice, and the door opened back. A burly man in his mid-forties was revealed. He had narrow eyes and wore a short, brown moustache. As he stood aside to let them through to the hall, Senán thought he recognised something of a military bearing in the man.

“It’s a manky night out there, Bowsie,” said Francie. “You know Luke. And this is one of my night crew, Senán.”

“How’s she cuttin’?” said Bowsie to Senán, who felt he was being scrutinised for trouble-making potential.

Once inside the living room, Bowsie asked them what was their poison, and Senán had a chance to take in the scene. To all outward appearances he was not standing in the living room of an end-of-terrace council house, but in a cosy and intimate pub, resembling in every manner except scale hundreds of traditional pubs the length and breadth of Ireland. On the walls were a large flat-screen TV, currently turned off, antique mirrors advertising Jameson or Paddy or Powers, framed old maps of Limerick, Munster and Ireland, and a 1916 Proclamation of Independence. The half-dozen low, round tables and the stools that surrounded them were of the authentic bar room variety. Deeply coloured wainscoting ran all along the room, contributing with the well-worn wooden floor to the country pub look. What had been the house’s living room extended into the kitchen, and what remained of the kitchen now constituted the bar counter and serving area. The short wooden bar had three taps offering stout, lager and red ale. Behind the counter was a comprehensive array of spirits bottles sitting on standard optics, and a couple of fridges containing bottled beer, cider and mixers. To Senán’s disbelief there was also an espresso machine and coffee grinder.

“This place is impressive,” he whispered. “I was expecting sofas, a mantle clock and cans of warm Dutch Gold.”

“You’ll get the best pint in Limerick here,” said Francie with grave authority. “Short line. The barrel does be right under the counter.”

They watched Bowsie pull their pints of stout, leave them on the counter to settle, and then carefully confection the head.

“And you won’t beat the price in a long day’s walk,” said Francie, after handing over a ten euro note to Bowsie and getting change back.

He led them to a free table close to the fireplace, in which a peat fire was burning dully. Senán took his coat off, settled on to his stool and took another look around. There were three other groups in the shebeen: two middle-aged men standing by the counter who were on nodding terms with Francie and Luke, two elderly couples in quiet conversation around a table by the door, and a youngish couple sitting by the window. To his surprise he noticed that a couple of patrons were smoking. Then he remembered that he was not on a licensed premises.

“We’ll warm up a bit here,” said Francie.

“How long has this place been on the go?” asked Senán.

“Arrah, a good few years, at this stage. As well as the price and the late opening, the great thing is that you get no scobies in here. It’s kinda like a private club. Bowsie’s very strict on who he lets in. If you go to any of the official pubs down towards the river there’ll be all sorts of knackers and scumbags and men of the road. And young wans going around half-naked with fellas sniffin’ around after ’em. It’s a rough kind of scene. You know, you might get caught up in the crossfire if there was any argy-bargy, and you never know where any of that might lead — a bottle in the face or worse. This place is grand and peaceful. You just have your quiet pint, a bit of a chat and home to the leaba.”

He took a drink, savouring the finish with clear relish, and continued: “But I suppose for the likes of you and Luke, who’d be looking to rise a bit of skirt, this place is probably not where it’s happening at all, at all.”

“‘Tis-tis-tis grand for a pu-pu-pint after work,” said Luke. “Chill-chill-chilled out, lu-lu-like.”

They spoke for a while about Bowsie’s and then conversation drifted on to the area itself and how it was perceived in the respectable parts of the city.

“I mean there’s some right headbangers around here. People as bad as any you’d ever hope to meet. People who’d cut you up or shoot you as soon as look at you. People who should be fuckin’ locked up for life. Whole families of ’em. That’s what gets the whole place the bad rep it has. Apart from them it’s just a normal, working-class area. Plenty people work, bring up their families, keep their places nice and clean. Don’t have fuckin’ cars on blocks outside their gaffs. Or rubbish. Or fuckin’ caravans. I mean, there’s problems. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a whole pile of young wans who wouldn’t fuckin’ work to warm themselves, poppin’ kids out by the new time.”

“An-an-and fu-fu-fellas as well — there-there-there’s plenty fu-fu-fellas who’ve no-no-no interest in wu-wu-work.”

“And by the time they cop on to themselves, they’re in their thirties, they’ve three or four bambinos, no qualifications, no work experience — and they’re fucked. Caught in a trap, you know. The fellas are worse off than the girls, with payments to this one and that one. Three or four kids by different women. What’s wrong with down here is people need to keep their fuckin’ mickeys zipped up.”

“Or-or-or use pro-pro-protection.”

“The welfare has ’em ruined,” said Francie. “If there was no single-mothers’ allowance they’d be keeping their legs together fairly smart, I’m tellin’ you.”

Senán had heard the views Francie had expressed many times before. He was surprised at someone from the area holding the same opinions as the rafts of middle-class reactionaries who had never set foot in King’s Island or Thomondgate or Kileely, but who had all the answers when it came to cleaning up the problem estates. He said as much to Francie and Luke.

“Well, that’s coz the answer to the problem is simple: put some manners on the toerags and get everyone off the fuckin’ dole.” said Francie. “But another day’s work is the image this side of the city has. The way people look down on us. If the city wasn’t designed so the respectable people never have to set foot in St Mary’s Park or Moyross and we never have to set foot anywhere outside o’ here and maybe the city centre, then maybe our problems down here would be their problems. But sur’ we’re like another species to them. When you tell people where you’re from, you might as well be telling them you’re from ISIS or the Taliban.”

“Tu-tu-true. People-people see yu-yu-your address and that’s it. Yu-yu-you’re in the-the same-same bu-boat as the fu-fu-fuckers they see on the fro-fro-front of the pa-pa-papers being-being-being hauled into co-co-court.”

And so the conversation went until Senán saw that his companions’ glasses were draining.

“Ye’ll have another?” he asked. “One for the road?”

“Go on, so.”

When Senán set three settling pints of stout on the table and sat down, Francie asked him a question which had been gestating a while: “Tell me now — as someone not from the area — what’s your opinion after working on the front line for a while.”

Senán felt Luke’s eyes on him as he cautiously replied, “To be honest, I was a little bit worried before I started the job that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. That people would be a lot rougher. Or people would hear my accent and not give me a break. That there’d be a lot more hassle in the shop than there really is. But people are grand. Most of the customers are grand. It’s just like you said — there’s only one or two headbangers and the rest are normal people.”

“And the difference between the people you meet every day out in the college and the crowd coming into the shop?”

Senán bit his lip and frowned in thought.

“I see where your question is coming from,” he said. “The ones going to university have goals, career plans — all that shit.”

“And most of the people passing through my shop are just getting by from day to day. No plans. Not a notion of bettering themselves. No interest in moving up in the world. No hope. That’s the key difference between someone from out here and some well-heeled fucker from the Golf Links Road. That’s the difference between the Indians here on the reservation and the cowboys. No hope. No plans. No future.”

 

“I’ll walk-walk you down to the river,” said Luke. “You-you won’t get a taxi to cu-come in here at this ow-ow-hour of the night.”

“Thanks,” said Senán. “Coz I haven’t a clue where I am, really.”

They were outside Bowsie’s front wall. It was after two in the morning and the rain hadn’t let up during the couple of hours they had been in the shebeen. If anything, the drops were larger and colder and being driven by a wind with a steelier bite. Francie had left after his second pint, citing a wish not to be caught drink-driving. Luke and Senán had stayed on for a couple more.

“This way, so.”

Luke began walking, the hood of his coat up, its drawstrings tightly pulled and his shoulders hunched. Senán followed. After about two pints, Luke’s stutter had begun to lose its dominance, and with this loosening of his tongue he became better company — not charming or gregarious, but to Senán’s relief Luke at least had begun to initiate conversational threads and pose the odd question. Because when Francie had left, Senán had dreaded being alone with a Luke who seemed only to speak in the role of Francie’s wingman.

“The hard p-part is getting out of the estate.”

Even so, Senán had done most of the talking. Luke had shown genuine interest in the subject of Senán’s thesis, and had listened keenly to him talking about the various strands running through his research: the factors influencing prices of property in the city’s problem estates; rates of owner-occupiership in the poorer third of the city; the incentives and disincentives for buy-to-let investors; the factors influencing upkeep costs for landlords; the variables involved in the decision to purchase a property in a problem estate; difference in resale rates between the two parts of the city. He had been particularly curious to learn of the many consequences of 2008’s property crash, especially the harm it had done to the rental sector. The news that landlords who had bought at the height of the boom were struggling to cover their mortgages and were, seven years on, attempting to exit the sector got Luke talking about Francie and his houses in the area. Francie was OK, according to Luke. Most of his properties had been bought pre-boom and paid for in cash. He wouldn’t be bailing out.

“Here-here we are now: the main road.”

The most Luke had spoken was on the topic of his older brother, Dean, who worked in Dublin “on the stock market”. “He’s a smart fella, like you. You’d like him,” he had said. If Luke’s attitude to Francie was pure admiration, this was multiplied several-fold as far as his brother was concerned. Senán heard all about the flat he lived in in Dublin’s Docklands, with its views out over the city and port, his high-powered car and the string of blondes he had taken down to Limerick on weekends. He moved millions of euro with the touch of a button and made (and sometimes lost) millions for his clients every week. The bonuses he had earned included a gold watch, a cruise, a share in a racehorse, and a guitar that had belonged to one of the Beatles.

“There’s the ru-river,” said Luke. “You know where you are now?”

“I do.”

Senán had wanted to bring up Luke’s stutter, but just couldn’t formulate a way to do so without the risk of giving offence. At one stage he was on the verge of saying something about how the stutter had disappeared with a bit of drink, but the moment did not seem right. Another time.

They walked in silence towards the river, with their wet footfalls and the beeping of a traffic light the only sounds that could be heard along with the pitter-patter of the rain. When they arrived at Thomond Bridge, Luke stopped and pointed in the direction of the river’s flow.

“If you walk towards Su-Sarsfield Bridge along the strand here, you’ll sure-surely meet a taxi. And if not, there’s a rank on O’Connell Street. I’m heading off ho-ho-home this way.” He pointed to the other side of the river.

“See-see you tomorrow.”

He nodded at Senán, turned around and walked into the rain, his body looking lean and frail against the lit-up bulk of King John’s Castle.

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 4 of 32

“Ah, yeah,” said Susan, “Luke’s had it tough all right. You’d nearly feel sorry for him if he wasn’t such a gowl.”

Debs and Trish giggled, and Debs echoed the nearly in a slow, hoarse exhalation.

“Besides the stutter and his bony arse and bottle shoulders—” continued Susan.

“Mister Universe,” interjected Trish.

“—and that gorgeous complexion—”

“And the frog’s eyes!”

Gollum eyes!”

“Besides all that,” said Susan with mock patience, “he’s had it pretty tough.”

“Aw, the craythur,” said Debs, causing further giggles to break out.

The three girls and Senán were sitting around a table in a bar called PJ’s which was just down the road from Francie’s. It was the Thursday night of Senán’s third week, and they had asked him to come along with them for a couple of quiet ones after work. Though he hadn’t planned on going out, he had been so delighted by proof of his workmates’ acceptance of him that he jumped at their offer.

“No, really. He’s had a hard childhood,” insisted Susan.

“Shur, haven’t we all?” said Debs. “Aren’t we all from the Island Field?”

The girls laughed. Senán wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for him to join in, so he merely smiled.

“He was brought up by his grandparents,” said Susan, looking at Senán. “He doesn’t know who his father—”

“Like lots of people round here,” said Debs.

“And his mother fucked off to England early on.”

“I’da fucked off too after seeing the face of him. It’s a wonder she didn’t climb out the window of St Munchin’s after they pulled him out of her!”

“Ah Jesus, Debs,” scolded Trish. “For fuck’s sake.”

“For fuck’s sake you, Trish,” said Debs, a note of irritation in her voice. “My father fucked off to England too. I haven’t seen him in seven or eight years. And what about your aul’ fella? He’s hardly father of the year.”

“It’s different when it’s your mother,” said Susan. “Being abandoned by your own mother is a cut that runs deep. It’s a different kettle of fish altogether. That’s real . . . pain.”

“Pain,” said Debs. “The only pain is Gollum: he’s a pain in the hole.” She rooted in her handbag, fished out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter and announced that she was going out for a fag. “Otherwise I might lose my temper.”

“She doesn’t have much time for Gollum,” said Trish, after Debs had left.

“I think he’s all right,” said Senán, feeling the need to stick up for Luke. “I mean, he’s not Mr Sunshine, but he hasn’t done or said anything off to me. As far as bosses go, he’s OK.”

Susan and Trish swapped a look.

“In fairness,” said Susan, “you’re only part-time and you’re only packing shelves. We’re there day in, day out.”

A tourist, thought Senán.

“And we’re girls,” said Trish.

Susan and Trish took sips from their drinks, inviting the obvious question from Senán: “Luke has a problem with women?”

“More like we have a problem with him,” said Trish.

“Why d’you think Francie’s has a new part-time shelf stacker — and he’s a fella?”

Senán thought for a moment. “Fuck off,” he said. “You mean Luke was, like, harassing the girl whose job I’m in now?”

“Harassing is a strong word for it,” said Susan. “But there or thereabouts.”

“Jesus,” said Senán. “What kind of stuff was he up to?”

“Subtle stuff,” said Susan. “Watching, mainly. Walking down her aisle every five minutes. Being nice to her.” She made quotation marks around nice.

“Letting her off early. Helping her with heavy boxes. Giving her out-of-date stock to take home.”

“Doesn’t sound all that bad to me,” said Senán. “I wouldn’t mind if Luke was nice to me.”

Susan shook her head. “This girl was totally freaked out. She said every time she looked up, Luke was there gawking at her. She even thought he moved the security cameras to be able to record her. One day she had a massive row with him in the frozen food section and just walked out.”

“I met her a couple of weeks ago,” said Trish. “She said she’s had to change her Facebook and Twitter settings. Block Gollum out of WhatsApp. Go private on Instagram. The whole shebang. She even thinks he’s following her round the place. She’s thinking of calling the shades.”

“Jesus,” was all Senán could say, surprised at what the girls were telling him. He wondered was it perhaps Luke’s awkward shyness that led to his affection for a girl taking strange and socially unacceptable forms. Maybe Luke needs a bit of friendly advice on the dating front.

“And that wasn’t the first time he got all creepy with a girl,” said Susan. She was talking now in a low voice. The neighbouring tables were full and the bar had suddenly gone quiet, experiencing one of those negative feedback loops that begins with a couple of simultaneous lulls in conversation, and ends with everyone in the room holding their breath and looking around.

“Me, for example,” said Trish. “But I told him where to go — straight off.”

“And your brothers had a word with him,” laughed Susan.

“That’s right,” said Trish.

Senán studied her. In the dim light of PJ’s, Trish looked far more attractive than she did in Francie’s. The shadows falling on her face gave it more structure than it appeared to have under strip lighting. Her strong brow and flat, rising forehead lent her the look of a Viking noble, with her deep eye sockets and the dark blue eyes that filled them adding to an air of mysterious beauty. She sat dancer-straight, long legs crossed, and wore skinny denims tucked into knee-high boots. He wondered if she was single.

“And there was that girl that worked the late shifts at weekends,” said Susan. “What was her name?”

“Ronnie.”

“That’s it, Ronnie. Luke really had the hots for her.”

“And she was only a kid.”

“She wasn’t even able to ring up sales of alcohol. Luke had to come and do it.”

“He loved that.”

“The knight in shining armour.”

“Has anyone ever gone to Francie about this?” asked Senán.

“Gone to Francie about what?” It was Debs, returned from smoking her cigarette. Along with the smell of smoke, a pocket of cold night air accompanied her to her seat.

Trish filled her in. “We’re talking about Gollum and his stalking.”

Debs took a drink of her gin and tonic and looked at Senán with an expression of someone wise in the ways of the world forcefully maintaining patience in the face of callow questioning.

“Will you go on outa that,” she said to him. “Shur Francie loves Luke. He treats him like his long-lost son.”

“You learn pretty quick not to dis Luke to Francie,” said Susan.

“Here’s my number two,” said Trish in imitation of Francie’s voice. “I’d trust him with my life.”

“Or vice versa,” said Debs. “I think Gollum thinks Francie really is his father.”

“Luke, I am your father,” said Trish in Darth Vader’s voice.

“Shur they’re down in the shop now,” said Debs, “counting the takings. Going over the day’s sales. Coming up with their strategies. This isn’t selling well. That’s flying off the shelves. This should be moved to the top shelf. This display is for scrapping. We should double the space for this. Blah, blah, blah. I heard them a few times. Gollum and the meanest man in Ireland.”

“Francie the Grabber,” said Susan.

“Francie the Grabber? The meanest man in Ireland?” asked Senán. “I thought he was sound.”

“Jesus, you think everyone is sound!” said Debs.

“He’s an innocent young fella,” said Susan, shaking her head.

“We’ll have to wisen him up,” said Debs.

“Take him under our wing.”

When the three girls had finished laughing, Senán pressed them for more information on Francie.

“He’s a bachelor,” began Susan.

“Too mean to marry,” said Debs.

“He started off with the shop years ago,” said Susan. “It was only a shack back then. Sweets and fags and newspapers. We all bought our Mr Freezes and Monster Munch in there.”

“You’d have to check your change. He’d diddle you out of tuppence if you gave him half the chance.”

“And he just kept adding and adding to the shop.”

“Until it got to be the wonderful supermarket you see today.”

“And bit by bit he’s been expanding his empire.”

“The chip shop.”

“The bookies.”

“He rents out lock-ups.”

“He owns a shitload of houses.”

“All rented out.”

“And an apartment in Spain, for fuck’s sake.”

“All grabbed. Bought on the cheap from someone on their uppers.”

“Francie the Grabber.”

“The thing is,” said Susan, “he wouldn’t spend Christmas. He still lives in the same shitty house on Island Road that he grew up in. When he could live wherever he likes. And he drives around in this aul’ banger of a yoke from the nineties.”

The van,” moaned Trish.

“And he’s always got some scam going,” said Debs. “Buying dollars. Or selling sterling. D’ye remember the night he was running around the city taking money out of ATMs coz the exchange rate was I-dunno-what-the-fuck — going up or down?”

“He nearly had a coronary,” said Trish. “Dashing from bank to bank with Gollum at the wheel!”

“Like Noddy and Big Ears.”

“And the stuff he arrives into the shop with. God knows where he gets half of it.”

“Back of a lorry.”

“Like those heathers we’re flogging at the moment. Like, where the fuck did they come from?”

“Or those memory sticks?”

“And d’ye remember all that stuff for horses? The bridles and saddles and all? We’d half the Travellers in Limerick in the shop.”

“And their aul’ nags parked outside!”

The girls continued in this vein for some time, delighting in zany reminiscences of working for Francie, and relishing in their status as insiders and old hands imparting knowledge and insight to the newcomer. When their store of tall tales was mined out, and after Senán had got a fresh round of drinks in, he said: “At least Francie is a fair boss, from what I’ve seen.”

“Only if your name happens to be Luke,” said Debs.

“Ah now,” said Susan. “I’ve had worse bosses.”

“We’ve all had worse bosses,” said Debs, “but for one of us Francie is Uncle Francie, and for the rest of us he wouldn’t give you the steam of his piss. I mean, I wouldn’t mind if Francie gave me some out-of-date stock the odd time, or the odd hour or two off, or sent me off gallivanting in the van to collect stock—”

“Or a raise.”

“It all goes to flippin’ Gollum. There’s not many perks to the job. The odd broken Easter Egg or unsold magazine or out-of-date block of cheese. But Gollum grabs everything. He’s every bit as much of a grabber as Francie.”

“Grabber Gollum,” said Trish, with a chortle.

“Grabber Gollum.”

There was another lull in conversation, and everyone took a drink. Debs and Trish picked up their phones and checked their messages. Susan cast hawk-like glances around the bar, taking everything in, noting who was drinking what and with whom, what form people were in, and what they were wearing. Senán checked his own phone and then said, “You know in some big multinationals, American ones mainly, they make people sign an agreement not to gossip about bosses or co-workers.”

The others looked at him with good-natured disbelief.

“That wouldn’t hold in Francie’s, would it?” said Debs, shooting a glance at Susan.

“What are you saying about me?” laughed Susan.

“Nothing,” said Debs. “Only gossip is your life!”

The barman called last orders just as the slagging was reaching a crescendo, and Senán and the girls decided to call it a night. Standing at the door saying their goodbyes in a huddle against the cold, Debs said to Senán, “So, you’ve survived your first trip to PJ’s! That’s a feather in your cap, to be sure!” The others gave a wry clap and cheer. Even though it had been in jest, Senán felt a warm glow of contentment as he walked to the bus stop, proud that he had been able to cut the mustard in Francie’s and to form friendships across the social divide.

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 3 of 32

In his second week working in the shop, Senán felt comfortable enough with its demands to be able to raise his head above his work and properly observe the human traffic that passed through Francie’s. The customers were not the type of people he was used to seeing on campus, nor did they resemble the prosperous farming folk of his own village. People dressed differently: men and women of all ages wore tracksuits, often garish; among the young, there was an absence of the hipster and preppy looks which prevailed on campus; old men were often scruffy-looking, much more so than even the most bedraggled bachelor farmer from his own parish; females from early teens up to middle age could be seen shopping in their pyjamas. But it was more than clothes. There was a lot of obesity among the shoppers, to the extent that a body shape such as his own — not to mention Luke’s — was a rare sight among the aisles. Along with the obesity came a characteristic physiognomy: a swollen redness of cheek and chin, offset by the greyness of the rest of the face. Many customers had battered, weathered faces, not quite as haggard as your typical homeless person’s, but somewhere along that spectrum. Senán put this down to drink or drugs, and the obesity to poor diet.

He didn’t know whether to be appalled by the selection of foodstuffs in Francie’s or by customers’ own shopping habits. Perhaps one was a function of the other, and neither party was to blame in what had become a symbiosis of the provision and consumption of unhealthy fare. From what Senán could see, most customers subsisted on a diet of frozen or chilled ready meals, heavily processed bread, pastries, crisps, biscuits, chocolate and tinned spaghetti, peas and beans, all washed down with copious quantities of fizzy drinks. The fruit and vegetable section was small compared to supermarkets in better-off parts of the city. Not even potatoes were big sellers, with customers preferring bags of frozen chips. Many of the products Senán stacked he had never come across before: plasticised cheeses, tinned meats and instant desserts in plastic pots, for example. And there were products that were staples in his own household — olives, pesto, couscous — that were absent from Francie’s.

The shop did a roaring off-licence trade. Wine and beer sold so well that Luke paid special attention to stock levels in that corner of the shop, and called on Senán a couple of times a shift to help him restock. The range of wine was limited to cut-price Chilean and Australian Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, South African Sauvignon Blanc and cheap Spanish cava. Slabs of cider and generic lager flew out of the shop, and alcopops were also in great demand. The well-known brands of beer stayed on the shelves longer and there was not a single bottle of craft beer on sale. Spirits were kept behind the counter, along with the cigarettes. Senán was amazed at how many shoppers, especially elderly women, asked for a naggin of whiskey or vodka (along with a scratch card) as Trish or Debs rang up their goods. When he asked the girls about the phenomenon, he was told: “Sur’ that’s their night in, these poor auld ones. A naggin of Powers and Strictly Come Dancing.”

It was also in his second week that Senán came across his first instance of shoplifting. He was six rungs up a ladder, arranging a display of plug-in air fresheners at Luke’s request. He had a bird’s eye view not just of the top shelf, which he was rubbing down with a damp cloth, but also of the next aisle over — the cosmetics section. As he collected mini dust-bunnies from as wide an arc as he could reach, he became aware of a woman’s presence a few yards below him. There was something off about the way the woman — short, plump, dyed blonde hair and wearing a parka with a large, furry hood — was hovering in front of the men’s toiletries. More than comparing prices or searching for a specific scent within a range of deodorants, she seemed to be grappling with a difficult decision. Her eyes were glassy in an impassive face, and her gaze was glued to a small cardboard box displaying four-packs of razor blades. As he watched, Senán saw her blink into life, give a sly look up and down the aisle, reach forward with lightning speed, and stuff what she had taken into an inside pocket of her coat. Without looking around, the woman calmly walked a few yards down the aisle before halting and feigning interest in a bottle of nail polish remover. With obvious deliberateness she ran her finger along the price on the shelf below, then shook her head and left the aisle.

Senán was unsure of what to do. Should he jump down and tackle her before she left the shop? Go to Luke? Forget he saw anything?

Anyone who is reduced to thieving a couple of packets of razor blades must be in a bad way, he reasoned. Maybe she’s a mother who needs a few quid to feed her kids? Maybe she’s being threatened by a loan shark? Or maybe she’s a junkie?

Senán decided to take the matter to Luke. He clambered down the ladder and hurried to the off-licence section where his boss was restocking.

“Luke,” he said quietly, “I’ve seen a woman shoplifting. I’m pretty sure she took some razor blades.”

“Show me where she is.”

Senán led Luke to the frozen food section and nodded in the direction of the blonde woman in the parka.

“Mags Halloran,” said Luke, with the first real smile Senán had seen him sport. “A re-re-regular.”

“A regular,” repeated Senán. “Wow.”

“I’ll handle it from-from here,” said Luke and tossed a look at Senán to let him know that everything was OK and he could return to his air fresheners.

Back up on the ladder, Senán leaned forward and craned his neck to get a view of what was happening down by the freezers. He saw Luke approach the woman, and lip-read him saying “Mags”. The woman smiled and raised her eyebrows in a show of sassy nonchalance. Luke returned her smile, said something brief and held out his right hand, palm upwards. With a shrug of her shoulders that said, “Go on, you’ve caught me”, she reached into her coat, took out what Senán presumed to be the razor blades and placed them in Luke’s hand. He nodded and, still smiling, may have said “thank you”. The woman returned, not a bother in the world on her, to perusing mini-pizzas, and Luke walked smartly to the cosmetics aisle and replaced the packets of blades.

“She-she probably has mu-mu-more stuff on her, but there-there-there’s no point in getting he-he-heavy-heavy with the likes of her,” he said to Senán. “If we-we-we called the sh-sh-shades every time some-wa-wa-one shoplifted we’d be-be-be here all ni-ni-night.”

Francie’s philosophy, he explained, was that unless someone was persistently shoplifting large quantities of goods, then no legal action would be taken against them. Someone like Mags Halloran who stole the odd jar of face cream — or razor blades — would just be asked to return the goods, with no threat of barring or summoning the gardaí. If her behaviour worsened, however, she would be barred, and if she thereafter snuck into the shop and pilfered, only then would the gardaí be called.

“We-we-we only ever have-have-have had to ban a ha-ha-handful of ju-ju-junkies,” said Luke. “Mu-mu-most people have-have the co-cop-on to thieve only smu-smu-smu-small stuff.”

Francie had it all worked out, Luke told Senán. Someone like Mags spent far more in the shop than she stole. Between lottery cards, cigarettes, vodka and Danish pastries, whatever money they lost on whatever she might have whipped, they more than made up for with her purchases. If everyone who shoplifted the odd time was barred or had the gardaí called on them then the shop would be left with very few customers.

“Pu-people round here know not-not-not to take the pu-piss,” said Luke. “They do mu-mu-most of their sh-sh-shoplifting in the city ce-ce-centre. E-e-even the junkies have copped on.”

For similar reasons, Senán learned, other infractions such as drunkenness, vandalism, hooliganism or insulting or threatening behaviour towards staff were dealt with in-house. If every drunk or gang of teenagers behaving obnoxiously was barred, Francie’s would quickly haemorrhage customers. Every evening, Senán witnessed at least one such incident. Very high or drunk people were a common sight. These were mainly a problem for the front-line workers, Susan, Trish and Debs. After staggering through the shop in search of alcohol or crisps to stave off the munchies, drunks’ or druggies’ next port of call would be to Susan for some hot food, then on to Debs or Susan for cigarettes or cigarette papers and tobacco. Some would be blind drunk and stone-in-the-mouth incoherent. The girls’ efforts to elucidate their needs and assist them in paying, often helping them count out change, could be quite comic. Senán found himself chuckling at the exchanges between the girls and the more placid drunks as he went about his business on the shop floor. He also found the antics of funny drunks and stoners amusing. Stoners tended to wander around the shop in a daze, handling random items and staring at brightly coloured displays. Out of pity, Senán would lead them to the snacks aisle. Funny drunks came into the shop looking for devilment along with their fix, and Senán got used to going along with their scat.

Aggressive or cantankerous drunks were a different matter, though. They would bellow their rage at the girls, frightening them and nearby customers. Luke would intervene, his comportment stern or mollifying depending on the situation and the particular drunk, but always remarkably calm and composed. A few weeks into his shelf-stacking career, Senán would also pitch in, using the same placating attitude as Luke. He came to know each drunk’s name and ways, and to possess a mental road map of how to deal with them if they became obstreperous.

Senán quickly learned that it wasn’t the shoplifters, drunks or junkies who were the most trouble, but those coming into the shop looking only for hassle. These were mostly gangs of teen or pre-teen boys, but there were several groups of girls who seemed to be on a mission to outdo the boys’ yobbery. Anything up to a dozen boys would enter the shop in a loud ruckus and rampage through the aisles, pushing and shoving one another and knocking into displays. They would attempt to purchase alcohol or cigarettes, and notch up their threatening, boorish behaviour when refused. Whole sections of the shop could be left in a mess if they were particularly indignant. They would insult the girls, calling Debs a fat cunt and Susan and Trish sluts. The girls’ families, especially their “dirtbird” mothers, would be incorporated into jibes, with the pinnacle of their abuse always involving mention of a mother, aunt or sister who had been “fucked up the arse” by a Traveller or seen plying her wares down the docks.

Some gangs came into Francie’s with the sole intention of tormenting Luke. The jeering youths would gather around him, mocking his stutter and crying out “Gu-Gu-Geoghegan, Gu-Gu-Geoghegan”. It was during these episodes that Luke’s stutter was most pronounced.

“Ou-ou-ou-ou-out of-of-of-of-of-of my-my-my-my-my sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shop,” he would struggle to say.

Only when they had had their fill of gleeful taunting would they leave.

On the first and last occasion Senán intervened, the youths turned on him, threatening to “see him outside” and “cut him a new face”, and asking him did he like hospital food. Luke warned him never to do so again.

“I’ve-I’ve-I’ve been de-de-dealing with toerags like-like this all my li-li-life,” he said. “I no-no-know how to han-handle them. You don’t. They-they-they-they can smell-smell that you-you-you’re not from this-this shithole. They-they-they know me, my-my-my family. How-how far-far they can pu-pu-push me. I’m-I’m-I’m not in any da-da-danger. But-but-but you . . . you just-just ke-keep the head down-down-down anymore when-when they come in.”

Scary Mary’s warning came back to Senán. It was the first time he felt like a tourist in Francie’s, like someone who didn’t quite get the lingo or the nuances of the interactions between people. Luke was telling him he was an outsider, which stung. As long as he worked in Francie’s he wanted to stand side by side with Luke and the girls as they dealt with the drunks and junkies and scumbags, not hide behind his stacks of beans and spaghetti letters.

“OK,” he said to Luke, resolving to keep his head down for a while at least, but also promising to himself that he would keep his eyes and ears open and look, listen and learn.

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 2 of 32

“Now, here’s the man himself!”

Francie Ryan clapped a hand on Senán’s shoulder and led him past the deli counter towards the bread section, to where a slight figure dressed all in navy stood looking warily at the pair.

“This is my number two,” said Francie proudly. “Luke Geoghegan. No better shop man will you find in Limerick city or county. He’ll show you the ropes. By the end of the week you’ll be facing with the best of ’em.”

Francie released his grip on Senán after almost pushing him towards Luke.

“Luke, this is your new stacker, Senán . . . erm . . .”

“Meere.”

Senán smiled and offered a hand to Luke, who took it with what seemed like fearful reluctance.

“We-we-welcome a-bo-bo-board,” said Luke, although his face showed no welcome.

“He’s a college boy and a hurler,” said Francie. “He’s from Tipperary, but we won’t hold that against him!”

Francie gave a jolly laugh but Luke did not join in. Luke’s eyes, large and slightly bulging in his lean face, moved slowly from his boss to Senán and back.

“I’ll leave ye to it. I’m off to the chipper to have a gander at what they’re up to over there. Good luck!”

Luke looked at his watch. “You’re the si-si-six to clo-clo-closing shift,” he said. “It’s a bus-bus-busy time. Out on the fl-fl-floor here you’ve got to-to keep-keep the main se-se-sellers stocked. And then, as it ge-ge-gets quieter, you’re-you’re-you’re ti-ti-ti-tidying up for the morning. Fu-fu-fu-follow me.”

Luke led Senán to the store room and gave him a tour of its rows of bulk shelving, neatly packed with cardboard boxes and shrink-wrapped PET bottles. He would point at a shelf and say, “Your breakfast cereals are here” or “Your toilet roll is here”, but otherwise said nothing else. Senán enjoyed the mix of smells from the goods, and took mental notes of locations. Back on the shop floor, he was the sole audience for a solemn declaration of the do’s and don’ts of shelf stacking in Francie Ryan’s supermarket: “You do-do-don’t change the po-position on the shelf of any pu-pu-product. You do-do-don’t increase or decrease fu-fu-frontage. Me an’ Francie have put a lot of ti-time into wha-wha-what goes where — so do-do-don’t change anything. Everything nu-nu-neat and tu-tu-tidy. Labels-labels out. Straight. No-no higgledy-pi-pi-piggledy. If a fu-fu-full box of stu-stu-stock doesn’t fit on the shelf, then ta-ta-take the extra stock ba-ba-back to the store. When you’re pu-pu-packing, do-do-don’t block the aisles. Empty boxes stu-stu-stu-straight back to the stu-stu-store. No matter wha-wha-what you’re doing, you’re ne-ne-never too-too busy to help a cu-cu-customer. An’ remember: do-do-don’t give shit to any of the-the-them. You do-do-don’t know who-who-who you’re de-dealing with. You do-do-don’t wu-want to ge-ge-get slapped around or sta-sta-stabbed. Or-or-or wo-worse.”

After receiving specific instructions on arranging bread, checking best-before dates, and double-checking prices and bar codes, Senán was left to his own devices.

“If-if-if you’ve any qu-qu-questions, ju-ju-just ask me or one of the la-la-lads,” Luke said as he left.

Senán was surprised at how busy the supermarket was, and he was kept on his toes all evening. His trekking between store and shop floor with boxes of breakfast cereal or slabs of yoghurt cartons or packs of two-litre bottles of cola seemed endless. Keeping the shelves tidy was also a continuous job. No sooner would he fill and face a section of condiments, for example, when a customer would disturb the perfect alignment of jars and bottles. They would, with seeming glee, dig amongst the very packets of bacon he had just finished putting in order, searching for the most distant best-before date. Items would be removed from shelves, placed in a basket and carried around the shop, only to be dumped, suddenly unwanted, on some distant shelf. He began to resent the very existence of shoppers, whose only purpose seemed to be to rummage through his newly stocked and faced shelves and convert order into disarray. He came to see them as agents of chaos and he himself as a soldier on the side of organisation and tidiness.

Customers were also annoying in another way. Senán would be perched on a stepladder, one arm cradling an eight-kilo box of stock and the other placing its contents carefully along the farthest reaches of a shelf, when he would hear a “Where’s the hundreds and thousands, love” from down below. Or he would have his arm jammed deep into a shelf trying to fish out an errant bag of flour when he would be asked where the tinned pineapple was. Old women would ask him to carry a bag of spuds or dog biscuits to the counter. Some shoppers would even ask his opinion on certain products: “Is this muesli any good?” “Which soy sauce is better value?” “Why is this soup half the price of that one?” No matter how frazzled or resentful of being interrupted he was, Senán always remembered Luke’s advice and treated each customer with respect and courtesy, even if he was rarely thanked for his assistance.

Over the course of his first shift he met the other members of Luke’s crew. The middle-aged woman on the deli counter was Susan. She had raven-dark hair cut in Cleopatra style, and her chatter, which ranged from flirtatious banter with the men to earnest gossip with the women, could be heard all over the shop during lulls in the piped music.

“Sur’ you’ll be grand here, love,” she told Senán. “Francie’s sound. A fair man to work for. Although himself,” she lowered her voice and waved her bob in the direction of Luke, who was arranging a display of greeting cards near the magazine rack, “can be a bit of a prick, you know? Just keep your head down and don’t give anyone any cheek. The customer is always right in this shop!”

The two girls on checkout duty were Trish and Debs. The pair spent much of their time talking across the few feet of space that separated them, although when Luke was in their vicinity they tended to remain silent. In accordance with the cliché, noted Senán, the girls displayed typical checkout-girl glamour. Both wore heavy make-up, had elaborate hairdos with highlights and extensions, and had long, talon-like, intricately painted nails. Debs was short and chubby, with the deep, crackly voice of a smoker, while Trish was stick-thin and quietly spoken. When he first spoke to them, they commented on his accent.

“God, you’re posh, aren’t you?” said Debs.

“You must be in culture shock here,” joked Trish.

“Ah, no,” said Senán, “sur’ why would I? It’s grand here. So far anyway.”

“We’ll keep an eye out for ya,” said Debs. “Won’t we, Trish?”

Luke checked up on his new charge regularly. “How-how-how you gettin’ on?” he would ask. If his pale face showed no approval of Senán’s stacking and facing, neither did it display any dissatisfaction. “That’s gra-gra-grand,” was all he would say.

Sometimes he would pass Senán and issue a terse order. “Wu-wu-would you give the main flu-flu-floor a sweep?” “There-there-there’s a wo-wo-woman outside needs a hand lifting some ba-ba-ba-bales of bri-briquettes into her car.” “Will you co-come with me to the wine store to lift out a few ca-cases?”

Luke issued orders easily, as if he had been shop manager for years, although Senán reckoned he and Luke were the same age. In the harsh light of the strong room at the end of the store, where the alcohol was kept under lock and key, Senán got a chance to study his new boss. Luke wasn’t just skinny: he was emaciated. His legs looked like sticks inside his chinos, and as he bent to lift a case of wine on to the trolley, the curve of his back under his sweatshirt was Gollum-like. It was only on Senán’s third shift that Debs and Trish confided in him that their nickname for Luke was, in fact, Gollum.

Senán felt sorry for Luke, but also a degree of guilt at feeling sorry for him. As well as his wretched physique and ugliness, he seemed desperately lonely and introverted. He engaged in no small talk with staff or customers, and gave the impression of slinking around the aisles in order to avoid human interaction. The only words that came from his mouth had to do with the business of running the shop. Whatever area he happened to be in fell immediately silent, and even his shooting a look towards the checkouts from the bottom of the shop could cause an awkward drear to fall on the focus of his gaze. Along with the usual dislike of any manager that Senán sensed from his co-workers, there hung in the air an impression of Luke being a figure of fun. “You might be in charge of me,” seemed to be Susan, Debs and Trish’s attitude, “but at least we’re happy and normal.” They warned Senán that Luke was “always watching, always listening” and that he “sneaks up and down the aisles like a creature of the night”.

Senán wondered was it his own snobbery that caused him to feel sorry for Luke— an attitude very close to looking down on him. Just because Luke wasn’t a “college boy”, did that mean his shop-managing career was second best to Senán’s degree in economics and finance? Just because Luke had missed out on the richness of third-level education and had settled into a life that seemed old and stale to Senán, did that mean he deserved pity? Senán pondered whether his middle-class upbringing made him see the role of manager of a small supermarket in a poor area of the city as a kind of failure for anyone with intelligence or ambition, a soft option — a cosy, comfortable and safe job that ceased to be a challenge once one had learned the ropes. He gradually gleaned that Luke had been with Francie since his early teens and had worked his way up through the ranks. Where was the fodder for pity there? Luke was clearly ambitious and competent. Running a supermarket was probably beyond many of Senán’s classmates who had received first-class honours, and possibly even beyond Senán himself.

He tried to talk himself into an attitude of regard for Luke, but he still couldn’t avoid feeling sorry for him. It was the stutter. Senán knew all about it: he had stuttered until his early teens. He didn’t know whether all the therapists and quacks his parents had sent him to had cured him, or if the stutter had gone away of its own accord. He still stuttered the very odd time, when he was under stress, for example, or had his head in the books for hours, but since early adolescence he had known he had the thing beaten. Whenever he came across someone with a heavy stutter and whose self-image and behaviour were obviously affected by it, his old feelings of shame, embarrassment and self-loathing came flooding back. He wanted to grab them by the shoulders, shake them hard and say: “It doesn’t have to be like this. I was like you once, but I got rid of my stutter. You can do the same!”

As he watched Luke’s delicate hands snap the padlock shut on the wine store, Senán wondered how to raise the matter. He was sure that Luke would be defensive about it.

I’ll give it a few weeks, until I’ve gained his confidence a bit more, thought Senán, and pulled the heavy trolley out of the store.

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 1 of 32

The spent stillness of early Monday evening hung over the Foundation. Most of the cubicles were empty and closed up, the doors of the offices that ran along two sides of the building similarly shut. There was only the odd sniffle, the clearing of a throat, the rattle of a page or the tapping of a keyboard to show that the brown-carpeted, open-plan office was not completely deserted. In one of the smaller cubicles near the emergency stairwell, at the far end of the floor from the offices, Senán Meere and Vincent Conroy were hunched over their computers in silent concentration. A delicate ping sounded through Senán’s headphones, which were plugged into his computer but nested unworn under a litter of papers beside the mouse pad. He opened his email, read the new message and spoke an involuntary “Shite”.

“Sounds serious,” said Vincent, without removing his attention from his screen.

“Scary Mary wants to see me,” replied Senán gravely.

“Ah. Summoned to the dragon’s den!”

Although Vincent was Scary Mary’s colleague — a fellow junior lecturer — whereas Senán was her postgraduate student, he always expressed as much dread of her as any of her charges.

“It’s about that job I’m starting in the shop,” said Senán. “Some fucker’s snitched on me.”

“Our Máire has her tentacles flung deep and wide.”

Senán spun his chair around and said to the older man’s back: “She’ll want to know now why I didn’t consult her first, as my supervisor and someone with a duty of care over me and all that. And will it interfere with my research, blah, blah, blah. Fuck it anyway.”

Vincent swivelled to face him. He was wearing a “Boys Don’t Cry” T-shirt with Robert Smith stretched tight over his barrel chest and sizable pot belly. Vincent Conroy’s field of study was adolescent subcultures, which allowed him to indulge his passion for The Cure and other gothic music. Over the years his students had learned that papers or exam scripts peppered with allusions to The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees et al. garnered higher marks, so those who took his modules on “Teenage Self-Harm” or “The Role of Urban Tribes in Post-Industrialised Societies” quickly familiarised themselves with the oeuvres of such bands. He had recently published a rather esoteric academic study of The Cure’s importance in 1980s and 1990s youth culture (“The Light in the Shadows: The Cure’s Music as Lightning Rod and Panacea for Teenage Angst”) and was organising a conference on the band for the coming summer. His references in conversation to The Sisters of Mercy or Miranda Sex Garden sometimes left Senán at a loss as to what precisely his friend meant.

“Just tell her you can’t survive on that miserable fuckin’ IRC grant. Give the aul’ bitch the poor mouth. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, a supervisor has no claim on a student’s time outside the nine-to-five window. Sur’ we all had jobs on the side in my day, even Scary Mary as far as I’ve heard.”

The younger man’s dejection turned to keen interest. “Gimme the low-down, gimme the low-down!”

Vincent ran his hands through his shock of jet-black hair, separating the half-spiky, half-wavy strands. He checked his watch and then reached into a drawer for a packet of cigarettes and lighter.

“If you come out with me for a fag I’ll fill you in. I’m afraid to talk in here.” He pulled an ear to say that the walls had them.

 

Senán stopped outside Máire Ní Mhainnín’s door, took a deep breath and knocked.

“Come in,” came the muffled voice, ostensibly cheerful and welcoming.

As he turned the handle and stepped inside, Vincent’s piece of gossip ran through his mind. He didn’t know whether the idea of a young Scary Mary working at a make-up counter in Brown Thomas took some of the intimidatory sheen off his supervisor, or merely added to her strangeness which, along with the sternness and barely repressed hostility that radiated from her, made him and many others uncomfortable in her presence.

“Take a seat, Senán.”

Scary Mary was correcting papers: a large pile on the left-hand side of her desk, a smaller pile on the right. The top script was scarred with angry red marks.

Poor fucker, thought Senán.

“You received my mail, obviously,” said Scary Mary.

He nodded.

“I’m worried, Senán.”

She let the words hang in the air while she gave him what the postgrads called “The Stare”. Senán tried to force his eyes to hold Scary Mary’s searing blue-eyed gaze, but he found himself looking at her brow, her cheeks, her lips, then her neck, until she spoke again.

“You’re three months into your project. Am I right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And what have we talked about in our meetings to date?”

Scary Mary was a firm believer in holding weekly meetings with her postgraduate students, unlike most of the other lecturers in the sociology department. Vincent, for example, actively avoided encounters with his clutch of students, and was even known to hide out in the library or college bar if he suspected a student wished to meet him.

“Hitting the ground running,” said Senán.

A brief smile flashed across her face, as Senán knew it would. He was giving her back her own words. In every meeting so far she had spoken about hitting the ground running.

“Exactly. Tús maith leath na hoibre and all that. If you do all the donkey work this year, you’ve broken the back of your project and you’re on a smooth road for the rest of your stint amongst us. If you have some sort of usable data by next summer, you’ll have a conference poster, maybe a talk by autumn. We could start putting the bones of a paper together by Christmas. But this job, Senán. Is this going to be a spanner in the works?”

Senán shivered. As always, Scary Mary had the windows open and it was freezing in her office. The rumour was that she believed a colder environment caused the body to burn more calories and hence helped to maintain a trimmer form. A jocose counter-rumour had it that a “cone of cold” followed her around, and that, as with a ghost in a haunted house, everywhere she went experienced a sharp dip in temperature.

“N-n-no. Not at all. It’s only three nights a week. Six to ten. Packing shelves. It won’t be any sort of distraction. I’ll be able to do just as much on the project as I am at the moment. Really. No worries.”

His tone was conciliatory. Even though the vibes coming off her at the moment were on the pleasant side of neutral, he knew enough about body language and had heard enough about her from the senior postgrads and Vincent not to face her down directly. He didn’t want the needle on the Scary Mary dial to dip into Icy and Hostile.

“And will it sap the vital energy you need to complete a PhD in the social sciences? You know, doing a PhD is like being in training for the Olympics. Three or four years’ hard work culminating in one tiny moment: the viva. You’ve only one bite at the cherry there. Is working in some shop for a few quid worth it if it saps your energy and focus, and leaves you struggling for air in the viva?”

There it was, thought Senán. The viva. Scary Mary’s frequent use of it to frighten her students into line was a staple of the postgrads’ bar room bitching sessions.

“I’ll-I’ll play it by ear, Máire. If I find it interferes with what I’m doing here, I’ll give it up. Straight away. But it’s only packing shelves. They just need a warm body to move stuff from A to B. I might even refine my thinking on PhD stuff while I’m lining up cans of beans. Time to myself and all that.”

She liked being called by her first name. She had been heard telling other lecturers that her students called her Máire, boasting that she and her charges were all equal members of a happy gang. Senán wondered if Scary Mary really believed that piece of propaganda or if it was just a brick in the wall of pretence that she had erected around herself.

“And I hear this shop isn’t in a great part of town. Will you be able to handle it, a nice country boy like yourself?”

The shop, Francie’s, a mid-sized Spar, was in Thomondgate, within walking distance of a number of the city’s problem estates. The customers would be of a different social class to those with whom Senán was used to mixing. He was unsure himself how he’d deal with some of the rougher elements. Would his accent make him stand out? His clothes? Would he be mocked — or worse?

“I’ll be grand,” he answered. “Anyway, I’m seeing it as an opportunity to learn about the real people we’re studying and supposed to be helping. It’s kinda shameful that I’m here doing research on these people’s lives and I’ve never walked the streets they live in. In all my time in this university, I’ve never met anyone from St Mary’s Park or South Hill or Moyross. And there I am parsing their lives out for my PhD. It might lend my whole thesis a bit more humanity, you know, if I can put a few faces to all the stats.”

“Very noble, very noble,” said Scary Mary. She shifted in her chair, refolded her legs and drew her grey suit tight around her chest. Senán’s eyes were drawn to a bare knee which poked above her desk. He suppressed the urge to follow the pale skin’s course upwards. Although he had never admitted it to anyone, and barely to himself, he found Scary Mary attractive. The power suit look, which she sported on the days when she had “high-level meetings”, was his favourite. The blouses she wore gave glimpses of pure white skin and well-defined clavicles, while the short skirts showed off her smooth and shapely legs. Paud, one of Scary Mary’s old-timer postgrads, was often heard to say, “You’d want to be fucked up to fancy her — you’d have to have your self-esteem in the gutter”, which made Senán wonder about himself.

“I did my time down there,” she continued.

It was known among the postgrads that between degree and PhD Scary Mary had spent a year working in a resource centre in Moyross. The joke was that she spoke about the experience in the same terms as a Vietnam vet.

“They’re good people, mostly. But you have to win their trust. If they think you’re down there as some sort of tourist, or worse, an academic, then they’ll blow you out of the water.” She gave a tiny smile. “Not literally of course.”

“I’ll play it cool.”

“You well might, you well might. But Senán, do you really need the hassle of this job in your life? Is the few quid worth what could happen to you if you got on somebody’s wrong side down there? You know, all it takes is a stray, clumsy comment to the wrong type of guy — or gal — and you won’t be able to set foot in town again. I’ve seen it happen. If you don’t know the social cues, if you’re not familiar with the argot, you’re a sitting duck. You could just look at someone the wrong way and bam. They’re not all wild animals, but there’s some very dangerous and very damaged people down there. You can talk about playing it cool all you want but . . . you’re a bit of a softie, aren’t you?”

Senán smiled. The same word had cropped up in a conversation with his recent ex, Connie, who told him he needed to show more steel and be more assertive.

“May-maybe I need to toughen up, so,” said Senán to Scary Mary, with none of the defensiveness in his voice that there had been with Connie. “Maybe this job might, you know, toughen me up a bit.”

Scary Mary mirrored Senán’s smile, as if in disbelief that this could ever happen.

“I just wished you’d come to me before taking up this job. I mean, I know the IRC grant is a bit lean, but it should give you enough money to live on. If it’s money problems you’re having, there’s ways and means to earn a little more on campus here: tutorials, corrections, invigilating, all that stuff. And remember, if you’ve any problems with money or whatever, just come to me first in future. That’s what I’m here for. I know ye’re all adults, but I’ve a duty of charge to my postgrads. Within reason.”

She aped a smile again.

“OK.”

As a cue that their meeting was over, Scary Mary began to cast her attention at the script in front of her. Senán felt relief. She hadn’t reprimanded him or pushed too hard for him to give up the job. Perhaps he would pay for it later when the axis of a graph was mislabelled or a citation wasn’t to her liking, and his mistake would be blamed on tiredness or lack of focus, but in the meantime he got the feeling that, if not in Scary Mary’s good books, at least he was not in the little black book that Paud was convinced she carried in her handbag, containing long lists of names under Disagreed With Me, Lazy, and Male Chauvinist Pig.

 

I must be doing something right, Senán thought, making his way across the Foundation to his desk. Everyone I’ve told about the job thinks it’s a bad idea.

Connie’s reaction had been as predictable as her reaction to his deciding to do a postgrad in sociology rather than a high-powered MBA as she had chosen.

“Working in a grotty little supermarket isn’t going to do anything for your CV,” she had told him. “Now that you’ve turned your back on the business world, you need to play it clever to at least give yourself the chance of a decent career.”

She and Senán had come up through a degree in economics and finance together, and whereas all Connie wanted was to join and rise through the ranks of a large financial institution — the MBA was a stepping stone to this — Senán had decided to put his economic training to some use that might benefit the less well-off in society.

“If you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas,” his mother had warned him.

“Whatever they pay you in that shop, I’ll double it,” his father had said.

But Senán didn’t want any more handouts from his parents. They had subbed him all the way through his degree, with his work on the farm at weekends and during the summer costing his father multiples of the minimum wage. At twenty-two years of age Senán wanted to stand on his own two feet and follow a path through life that did not involve number crunching for faceless speculators and keeping up with his fellow graduates. He and Connie’s relationship did not survive the “attack of conscience”, as she called it, that he experienced midway through the final year of his degree.

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