“This place really is beyond Thunderdome.”
“Tha-tha-that’s one of the ru-ru-reasons I bu-bu-brought you here first. To show you-to show you that at-at least du-du-down our-our neck of the woods thing-thing-things aren’t so bad.”
“This is a totally different kettle of fish to Kileely or St Mary’s Park. This is genuinely scary.”
Luke nodded. “I do-don’t know this area-area as well as my oh-oh-own,” he said, “but-but we can take a-a spin around and-and-and I’ll show-show-show you some-some-some of the la-la-landmarks.”
He and Senán were driving around an estate in Southill, in fulfilment of his promise to give Senán a tour of the “badlands”. It was Wednesday evening the week after Halloween and they had set out directly from Francie’s for the southern fringes of the city after hastily locking up. Luke had wanted to arrive at Southill as early as possible — “be-be-before all the creepy-crawlies come out-out-out of the wu-wu-wu-woodwork”. He had insisted on taking his own car, saying that Senán’s Tipperary reg would arouse suspicion among those charged with watching out for the gardaí.
“There’s al-al-always someone on the look-look-lookout,” he had said. “Ku-ku-kids mostly. They-they-they’d figure that two young-young lads in a Limerick reg cu-cu-car like mine are-are-are ju-ju-just driving in here-here to score.”
Senán was shocked by the grimness and state of ruin of the estate. They were cruising past a large green on which several horses were grazing, and which was surrounded by large boulders — placed there by the city council to prevent Travellers pitching their camps and joyriders performing stunts on its flat expanse. If the green had been intended as a recreation area for children, that purpose was no longer valid. Years of horses’ hooves had trampled the green into a bumpy mire. Opposite was a short row of boarded-up terraced houses, a couple of which were burnt out. Looking around at the other terraces surrounding the L-shaped open area, Senán noticed that they all had a metal-shuttered member. These shutters were invariably rusted and almost always graffitied, although graffiti — mostly crude words, scribbled surnames, or the outing of someone as a “rat” — was by no means confined to these slabs of oxidised metal. Many walls, footpaths and gable ends were also defaced. MK Is Gay, he read on a nearby garden wall.
Those houses that were occupied were badly maintained. Front garden walls were subsiding or fallen down altogether. Wrought-iron gates were bulging and flaking with rust. Concrete drives were dappled with moss and algae, their surfaces loose, cracking and dented. The paintwork of wooden doors and windows was chipped and peeling. Most houses looked like they hadn’t been painted in decades, and even in the weak light from the few functioning streetlights their pebble-dash walls appeared damp and stained. Roofs were carpeted with moss and lichen, with gutters hosting little copses of ferns and maples. Some houses were well maintained, though. Their brightly painted walls, hydrangeas and cherry trees stood out like beacons of hope and order among the dereliction and neglect.
It wasn’t just dwellings that were in disrepair: the common areas and general infrastructure were in an equally deplorable state. From the rutted footpaths and crumbling kerbstones to the weathered, potholed and disintegrating roads, it looked like a council crew had not visited the estate in many years, except perhaps to fit speed bumps and boulders, which Senán saw lined every public space which was not a road and into which a car or caravan might fit. Perhaps one in every three streetlights was broken. Some of the galvanised steel poles looked like they had had fires set around them, and some as if they had been pulled down or driven into. There was not a street or road sign that was fully intact, nor a single tree growing on any patch of green area. Senán’s overriding impression was of an area where normal society had broken down.
Luke drove past the green and turned into a cul-de-sac where the majority of the houses were boarded up.
“This is whe-where the famous sh-shoot-out took-took place about ten yu-yu-years ago,” he said. “There were Du-Du-Duggans living in this middle house. Two vu-vu-vanloads of McCullochs arrived and-and opened up-up-up on the-on the place. You can see the bu-bu-bullet marks.” He stopped the car to give Senán a chance to see the dozen or so bullet holes that scored the house’s blackened plaster. The residence had been burnt out.
“The-the-the Duggans fu-fu-fired back. One of the McCullochs was killed. The Du-Du-Duggans had to leave town af-af-after that.”
He turned the car at the end of the road. “Going ba-ba-back ten years, this-this place would have been-been black with pe-people. Young fellas du-du-drinking. Ow-ow-out smoking dope. Ju-ju-joyriding. Now it’s a lot-lot quieter. But I still-still wouldn’t fuck-fuck around up here. There’s still-there’s still some day-day-dangerous fu-fuckers on the loose.”
He drove to the other end of the estate, the corner farthest away from the main road. On a street corner stood three youths wearing hoodies who eyeballed the car as it went past.
“Du-Du-Dealer’s Corner,” said Luke. “The-the-them lads can get you anything you wa-wa-want.”
Looking in the wing mirror, Senán saw one of the hooded figures snapping a photo of the car with his phone.
“They-they-they’ll know who-who I am in five mu-mu-minutes, if they want,” Luke said, with a laugh. “They’ll put-put my reg into a da-database and Bu-Bu-Bob’s your uncle!”
“Scary,” said Senán.
As they did one more loop through the estate, Luke elaborated on his theme. “Thi-thi-this place isn’t the same as-as it was at-at all. There no lu-lu-life here. All-all-all the normal people’s gone. And your kinda-kinda mid-table scu-scumbag has gone as well. The-the-they’re the ones who can give a pla-place a bit of life. Like the fu-fu-fellas who set the bu-bu-bonfire the other-other night in the Island Field. The likes-likes of them mi-mightn’t always be on-on the right side of-of the law, but-but they’re not the-the-the kind to burn your how-how-house down either. It’s-it’s the fu-fu-fuckers that’s left are the one’s who’d-who’d burn a how-how-house down. No matter who-who’s in it.”
On their way out of the estate Luke pointed out what used to be one of many shebeens in the area — a boarded-up mid-terrace house.
“Now with only su-su-psychos left living here they had-had-had to close it down. There-there was blu-blu-blue murder in there every night.”
After he had joined the brisk traffic on the main road into the city, Luke asked Senán what he thought of his first trip to Southill.
“I’m dumbfounded,” he said. “I mean, I’ve seen all those images on TV and in the newspaper and whatever. And I’ve read dozens of academic papers on the area. But Jesus, in the flesh, the place is shocking. I mean, from my point of view, the project I’m working on and everything, the place is totally out there. None of the normal rules of the property market apply to it. It’s like: who would want to live in a war zone? Southill has just about as much normalcy in terms of the property market as a war zone. I’ve read papers on the property market — or lack thereof — in war zones and I would hazard that Southill fits into that category, no problem. No exaggeration. You couldn’t give away a house in there.”
“You’d-you’d-you’d have to pu-pay someone to-to live there!”
“Exactly! All the normal models that apply to sales and rentals in a middle-class or working-class estates are invalid there. Part of my work will be to establish economic models for Southill and the other areas. But Jesus, a free-market model is off the cards. The place needs turning around. And the only people to do it are the city council or the government. Or both. I guess that’s what this Limerick Regeneration Office is all about.”
“They-they’d want to get their fu-fu-fingers out!”
“Yeah. But what I’m also angry about is how the place was let slide like it so clearly has been. Like, the vast majority of those houses are council houses. The council was in charge of maintaining them. It had an onus on it to do so. And regardless of who was living in them and however dysfunctional or criminal the tenants might have been, they still had a right to live in decent accommodation. There’s broken down walls. Dampness. Places in need of re-roofing. Subsidence. And then there’s the general infrastructure in the estate. Walls, kerbs, roads, playgrounds — they’re all in shit. It’s a fucking disgrace. Of course no one wants to live there. The council really failed in their duty to these people, however poor or uneducated or antisocial they are. They still deserved better. I mean, if you build this ramshackle estate on the edge of the city with fuck-all around it and you let the physical environment go to shit, how do you expect the people in there to turn out? Anyone decent — anyone with a job and a bit of optimism for the future — will get out of there as soon as they can, the place will be turned over to the hooligans and the psychos who have no option but to live there — and you have yourself a vicious circle. I mean, stated bluntly it’s like this: in Ireland of the twenty-first century we have a series of massive sink estates — shitholes, for want of a better term — where the place is falling down around the people’s heads, and the likes of you and me can’t even go for a walk around them at ten thirty at night or we’d be lynched. It’s a fucking disgrace!”
“That-that-that’s what everyone’s been say-say-saying for years. But no-one ever du-du-does anything a-a-a-about it.”
“This place isn’t quite as bad as Southill. At least you can get out of your car and walk around.”
“That’s coz-coz-coz I’m no-no-known around here. If you-you were here with-with-without me you’d be getting ha-hassle fairly lively.”
The pair were now in Moyross on the northern edge of the city. Luke had parked in the car park of the area’s well-manicured playing fields, and they were walking towards the heart of the estate. Unlike Southill, there was a steady stream of cars passing by and plenty of pedestrian footfall. On first impressions, Senán thought Moyross to be far less derelict and sinister than Southill. There wasn’t that sense of abandonment, of things falling to rack and ruin that he had experienced on the southside. There were no boulders barring access to greens and alleyways. Street lamps were in working order. Graffiti wasn’t quite so ubiquitous. The footpaths and roads were in good repair.
Either the council is lavishing more attention on this place, thought Senán, or the inhabitants are more civilised.
If it wasn’t for the fact that so many houses were boarded up, Moyross would have looked like any ordinary working-class estate. Only it wasn’t an ordinary estate. Luke was filling him in on all the grisly details.
“Back-back-back in the day, when the few-few-feud was in fu-fu-full swing, this place was mental. Lu-lu-loopers! A drive-by nu-nearly ev-ev-every week. Gu-gu-gangs of knackers up here wu-wu-with slash hooks an-an-and crowbars and shu-shotguns. There was how-how-houses petrol-bombed. Tha-tha-that one there, fu-fu-for example.”
He pointed to a boarded-up, roofless house which, judging by the charred state of its remaining beams and rafters, had suffered from a devastating fire. There were many such boarded-up houses, although most showed no signs of arson.
“Another how-house behind, burnt down wi-with a couple of ju-ju-junkies inside. I su-su-saw the firemen take the bu-bu-bodies out. They were lu-lu-like bu-bu-bundles of black-black sticks. They su-su-say they were so-so out of it that-that they didn’t e-e-even wake up when the flames ru-ru-reached them.”
They were walking along a winding street lined on both sides by the typical style of house found in Moyross: a mix of pebble-dash and red brick, with two small square upstairs windows, one larger downstairs window and a wide front door. Unlike Southill and the city’s older estates, there was a small driveway and a postage stamp of front lawn. When Southill and Kileely had been designed, the city fathers had no expectation that those moving from the overcrowded lanes and tenements of the city centre to their brand-new houses on its edge would ever better their lives enough to need a driveway in which to park a car. Senán noted that in the time between the creation of Southill and Moyross, those responsible for designing the council’s estates seemed, at least, to have grown in empathy and humanity.
“You know, Luke,” he said. “This place isn’t bad. I’d live here myself. The houses are bigger than in Southill. They seem better built. And they’re definitely better maintained. The estate is full of open spaces and it’s much better laid out. There’s trees. A view of the hills over there in Clare. Ample parking. The place is in pretty good order. You’ve your sports club down below. I can see this place being turned around eventually.”
Luke shook his head. It was a mild night and he was wearing a light bomber jacket over the navy pants and jumper he always wore in Francie’s. The jacket emphasised his leanness, with his shoulder blades poking out under its shiny fabric.
“You wu-wu-wouldn’t survive five mu-mu-minutes here. It’s winter now, there’s-there’s no great goo on young lads to-to-to be out making tru-tru-trouble. But come-come-come the good weather and the long nights: this-this place will be nu-nu-nuts. Joyriders. Pu-pu-parties in abandoned houses. Gangs on the streets. Horses racing up-up and down.”
On their meandering walk through the estate, Luke and Senán had come across several groups of youths wearing hoodies or baseball caps huddled in the shadows drinking cans of beer or cider and smoking what he assumed to be pot. The youths had in local parlance “stared them out of it” until Luke gave a special tilt of his head, somewhere between a nod and a shake and said: “How’s it going, boys?” The answer was invariably “grand”. After they would pass a group, Senán would hear someone mutter “Gu-Gu-Geoghegan”, followed by knowing laughter.
“What would happen, now, if I was wandering around here on my own?” Senán asked.
“Number one,” said Luke, smiling, “you don’t look-look-look like someone from around here. The face. The-the colour of your skin. Number two: your shoes. No-no-no one from around here wu-wu-wears fuckin’ deck shoes. So they-so they have you pu-pu-pegged immediately as an-an outsider. And-and-and a middle-class ow-ow-outsider at that. A-a-after that it’s all down to how-how-how they want to play it.”
“Yeah. If the-the-the boys just want to have-have a bit of fun-fun with you they’ll ju-ju-just take the mickey out-out-out of your clothes or shoes or-or-or whatever. But if they’re fu-fu-feeling in the mood fu-fu-for a scrap or they’ve tu-tu-taken a dislike to you, pre-pre-prepare to get-to get your head kicked in. Or to-to-to run like fuck.”
Senán made no comment, but let his thoughts range free while they walked in silence through the night. There was an almost-full moon. Glimpses of the Sliabh Bearnagh mountains silhouetted against the sky could be caught in the gaps between the rows of houses, and when the two turned north at the end of the street, this low range filled their vista.
“Why don’t they pick on you?” said Senán after a while. “Respect? Familiarity? Coz you’re one of them? Coz you know people, their older brothers or whatever? Why do you have a free pass here?”
“Coz-coz I’m one of them. One-one-one of the tribe, lu-like you said. They can-can-can see it, e-e-even if they mightn’t-mightn’t know exactly who I am. They can smell it off me that I belong here. Like dogs.” Luke flashed a look at Senán and turned something over in his mind before continuing. “The wu-wu-ones who know or-or-or kinda know me — they-they-they know there’s nothing to be gu-gu-gained by pushing-pushing me around. Nu-nu-no street cred at all. The stu-stu-stutter lo-lo-lost its novelty for them years ago. And-and-and be-be-beating me up is no-no great trophy. I’m not-not exactly Tu-Tu-Tyson Fury!”
A shiver of excitement ran through Senán. Luke had mentioned his stutter. This was the perfect opportunity.
“Did you ever go to speech therapy?”
Luke laughed — a bitter snuffling sound. “Yu-yu-you’re ju-joking? A bu-bu-boy from the Island Field gu-gu-going to sp-sp-sp-sp-speech therapy? Not on yu-yu-your life!”
It looked like Luke was mulling over what to say next, so Senán just walked beside him in silence.
“My-my-my-my mu-mu-mother fu-fucked off when I was si-si-six. Me-me-me and my bro-bro-brother lived with ow-ow-our grandparents. We-we-we were dirt poor. On-on-on a mu-mu-medical card. There was no-there was no thu-thu-therapist du-down this side of the cu-cu-country, so after being-being on a wu-wu-waiting list for years we-we-we went up to-up to Dublin on the train and-and-and I saw this wu-wu-one a cu-cu-couple of times. Du-du-didn’t work, as you-as you can see. All I remember is going to the-the-the zoo afterwards and-and-and feeding the ku-ku-kangaroos Jelly Tots. We du-du-didn’t have the mu-mu-money to be hi-hi-hiking up to Dublin every month, so when it lu-looked like it wasn’t wu-wu-working we stopped-stopped gu-gu-going.”
“And none of your teachers ever tried to help? Giving you poetry to read or songs or anything?”
Luked laughed again. “You’re-you’re fucking joking? Ed-ed-education around here is all about mu-mu-making sure nobody nu-nu-knifes you or bu-bu-burns the school down. Half the ku-kids hardly know how-how to read and write when they leave sku-sku-school. I jus-jus-just kept my head do-do-down and tried not to-not to gu-gu-get bullied too much. Tha-tha-that was school for-for me.”
“Jesus,” Senán said.
Luke led them downhill to the bottom of a cul-de-sac. After passing the last house, he stopped and turned to Senán. “I’ve-I’ve something different plu-plu-planned,” he said with a mysterious smirk on his face. “We’re going to do-do what ge-ge-generations of young fellas from ru-ru-round here have done. Follow-follow me.”
He left the road and sprang over the low wall that marked the estate’s northern boundary. A well-worn path in the grass beyond led them through a field in which a couple of piebald ponies grazed, their white patches shining in the moonlight and steam rising from their nostrils. The cropped grass was damp but the ground was firm. At the far end of the field was a gap in the thick whitethorn hedge that formed its boundary. Luke pulled himself through and held back the briars to ease Senán’s passage. Beyond the hedge was a much larger field, empty of livestock, but Senán saw from the hoof marks and pats that it had recently contained cattle. A sheltered area, a type of bay under the whitethorn, was littered with bottles, cans and plastic bags — the detritus of years of bush drinking. There were even plastic crates and car tyres, which Senán imagined served as seats for gangs of drinkers. Luke made towards a short incline that ended in the peak of the field’s irregular pentagon shape.
“We’re going on-on to the train tracks,” he announced when they arrived at the apex. Beyond it was the incongruous presence of a high steel fence of recent construction. After squeezing through more whitethorn and briar, Senán found himself beside what he assumed was the Limerick–Ennis line. Luke took out his phone and turned on its flashlight.
“The boys wu-wu-will have loosened some of these,” he said, pointing his phone towards the bottom of the flattened two-inch-wide pickets making up each section of the fence. He walked in a crouch along the line, shining his light before him. Senán wasn’t sure what Luke was looking for until he heard a triumphant “Bingo”.
“Look,” said Luke. “We mi-mi-mightn’t have mu-much schooling but we ain’t-ain’t thick!”
Senán peered over Luke’s shoulder and saw the light from his phone dance over a series of markings scratched into the galvanised surface of three consecutive pickets.
“The wu-wu-weldings on these have been saw-sawn through by some en-en-enterprising young lad. This-this is his code. We ju-ju-just have to lift ’em ow-ow-out of the gravel, mosey on-on through and repla-place ’em.”
Senán was impressed. “Railway vandals’ code. Or trespassers’ code or whatever. Cool.”
“The only tu-tu-time when people ru-round here come together is to fu-fu-fuck the system.”
They removed the pickets, stepped through the gap and carefully put them back in place.
“Do they never inspect the lines?” asked Senán.
“Couple of times a wu-wu-week. But in one of tho-those little engines. Har-har-hardly ever on foot.”
“What are the chances of us being caught?”
“Nil. We-we-we’re only going across the river and back. I ju-ju-just want to show you Ballynanty and the Island from a u-u-unique viewpoint. And-and some of the old haw-haw-haunts. There’s no ca-ca-cameras. And no security until you gu-gu-get near the station. And even-even though it’s a gru-gru-grand bru-bru-bright night, we-we-we won’t be seen.”
“And if a train comes?”
“We’ll have plu-plu-plenty warning.”
With that, Luke scurried up the embankment until he stood on the single line of track. Senán followed, and soon the pair were walking in the direction of the city. Even though they were only a stone’s throw outside the city limits, there wasn’t a sound to be heard beyond the crunching of their feet on the gravel. After a couple of minutes’ trudging the coarse stones or hopping from sleeper to sleeper they had the dark houses of Moyross on either side of them. Luke took up his commentary.
“There was-was jokes about which half of Moyross was on-on the wrong side of the tracks. The-the joke never had a definite pu-pu-punchline.”
He pointed out the back gardens of heroin dealers, notorious families of settled Travellers, another house which had been firebombed. They left Moyross behind, and immediately it seemed like they were in the countryside again. Fields either side of the track in which horses or cattle stood silently in the moonlight gave way to an area of damp crag laced with brimming ditches and pools of swampy water. This led to wild woodland where the bare branches of alder and willow spilled on to the tracks and must have rattled against the carriages as they trundled by. Given the piles of cans and bottles, the shelter from the trees had made this section of track inviting for bands of bush drinkers down through the years. Graffiti artists had also plied their trade under the branches: the fence glowed with garish motifs, surprisingly artistic. Senán took photos. More mundane graffiti marked the sleepers — Horse Loves Suzi or CIRA or Biggsy Is A Shade Rat. The trees thinned out and Senán looked down into space on either side. They were about to cross the Shannon, whose black waters sped by about fifty feet below.
“Jesus,” he said. “Are we OK crossing this? What if a train comes?”
Luke laughed. “You ru-ru-run like fuck!”
Nervously, Senán picked his way from sleeper to sleeper, going much more slowly than Luke, who strode nimbly ahead. Seeing glints of river between the sleepers made Senán tread cautiously. Some of the older sleepers were mossy and slimy, with edges rounded by years of exposure to the elements. A slip could put someone sprawling, and the image of dangling over the river waiting for Luke to rescue him didn’t reassure Senán. He looked ahead at Luke and saw someone at home in their natural environment. Slipping through bushes, scurrying up embankments, squeezing through fences and skipping over the sleepers, Luke’s scrawny lightness and slight stoop were an advantage. It was almost as if a childhood spent exploring the waste ground between the Island Field and Moyross had shaped his physique. Looking at his form, black against the blue midnight sky, loping across the bridge, Senán could not seal his mind to the word Gollum. It also struck him that there was something of the creature of the night about Luke, not in the sense of a Dracula-like predator, but rather a being who slunk in the shadows avoiding the gaze of others, watching and waiting.
When Luke reached the other bank and turned around with a triumphant and indulgent smile to watch his companion’s shaky progress, Senán felt sorry for him again.
He gets his self-esteem from these little things. And being cock of the roost in Francie’s. I should tell him about my stutter. How I got rid of it. Maybe it’s not too late for him.
“Gu-gu-good man,” tittered Luke. “You-you-you made it. You can pu-pu-put that on your CV. ‘Cru-cru-crossed the Sha-sha-shannon at mi-mi-midnight on the ray-ray-railway bridge’.”
“I have to say,” said Senán, “it’s a wee bit scary. And I always thought I was good with heights.”
Luke turned around to face southwards and raised an arm to point to a cluster of lit streets about a quarter of a mile away.
“That-that-that’s the Island Field. The bu-bu-bonfire the other night was just down-down there. The-the-the train line doesn’t cru-cru-cross the Island Field. Just-just skirts it. We’re-we’re going as far as that pu-pu-point where you could nu-nu-nearly throw a stone across the A-A-Abbey River and hit the Island, and-and-and then we’re turning back.”
He looked behind at Senán and pointed towards the west.
“Over-over there is where we’ve cu-cu-come from: Moyross. Down below, Bally-Ballynanty. And-and then Kileely.” He began walking. “If-if-if we follow the line, we pass through all the shi-shi-shitholes in the city: Lower Park, Garryowen, the-the edge of Southill, Roxboro. It’s like-like when they started mu-mu-moving people fro-fro-from the slums in the fifties, sixties, the tru-tru-train line mu-mu-marked the ow-ow-outer limits, the places where no-no-nobody wanted to live. All-all-all the decent people are either wu-wu-west of Moyross, between Southill and the-the Shannon or-or-or even further out, like in Castle-Castletroy.”
“Interesting,” said Senán. “If you can hear the train you’re more likely to live in a council estate. I can prove that with a little stats magic. I’ll do a little exploratory stats, a correlation, during the week. And I must read into the history of how and why and when the train line was laid down. Could be interesting. A different angle from the usual narrative of why Limerick took its current dysfunctional shape. Thanks, Luke. It could be a good way of looking at things. The train line angle.”
Luke smiled proudly and began to lead the way along the line. The land on this side of the river was also heavily wooded. Long limbs of willow shook in the night’s light breeze and hid the lights of the city which they had been able to see while crossing the bridge. This stretch of track was also popular with bush drinkers. Numerous cave-like areas created by tangles of drooping willow boughs, ash and whitethorn bushes were littered as before, and graffiti artists had also broken the greyness of the fence along there. At a point where the line bent gently to the right to cling to the crook which the Abbey River made before it joined the Shannon, Luke, a few yards ahead, came suddenly to a stop and shushed. He scurried silently towards the embankment, crouched in the undergrowth and bade Senán do the same.
“There’s someone up ahead,” he hissed. “Listen.”
Senán strained his ears. Just above the sound of the wind whistling through the branches above him he heard music, weak and tinny, as if coming through the tiny speakers of a mobile phone. It was difficult to tell how far ahead the source was.
“Fu-fu-follow me quietly,” whispered Luke.
Keeping to the high grass at the right-hand side of the track, Luke duck-walked forward soundlessly, stopping to listen and peer into the darkness before taking off again. The music grew louder until Senán could recognise the song — a Katy Perry number which was on constant rotation in Francie’s. Luke put his mouth close to Senán’s ear: “Look. Over to the lu-lu-left there. There’s a cu-cu-couple of pallets. See the shape on top.”
Senán, already impressed by Luke’s keen sense of hearing, was now amazed by his night vision. After opening his eyes wide and staring at the spot indicated by Luke — one of the cave-like enclosures formed by the trees and bushes — he spied a kind of divan and took Luke at his word that this was made of pallets. On top there was a form which could have been that of a person.
“It’s a girl,” said Luke. “A yu-yu-young one. Let’s move a bit closer to see-see if she’s alone.”
They crept to within fifteen yards of her and watched and listened. The girl, who Senán could now see had a full head of long, unruly blonde hair, swayed her shoulders slightly in time to the music. He imagined her to be lost in the song, eyes shut, oblivious to the world around her. If she wasn’t alone, then whoever she was with was either lying silently behind the stack of pallets or had gone up the track for a call of nature. If she was on her own, Senán wondered what a girl of her age was doing down the tracks after midnight. Drinking? Doing drugs? Escaping from some terrible domestic reality?
The song ended and there was a pause before another cued itself up. After a few introductory bars, the girl spoke: “Fuck’s sake.”
She shuffled on the platform and activated her phone. Its light allowed them a clear look at her. She was no more than sixteen. She had a heart-shaped face with a strong brow line and deeply set, piercing blue eyes. She wore little or no make-up, but the strength of her features needed no assistance to define an already sharp beauty. Senán guiltily thought he had rarely seen someone as beautiful outside the pages of a magazine. As she swiped the screen of her phone, he saw that she was not dressed for a chilly November night. All in black, she wore a tiny skirt over leggings slashed at the knees. Her little leather jacket would not have afforded much heat even if she had drawn its zipper up fully. He noted that beside her was a 700-millilitre bottle of vodka.
“I know her,” said Luke. “Let-let-let me handle this.”
Presumably finding a song to her liking, she laid the phone down. Before its light faded, and as the beats of a new track popped through the air, she lifted the bottle and took a swig. As if this were his cue, Luke stood up, turned on his own phone, pointed the light towards his face to reveal himself and said, “Farrah! What are you doing out here on your own at this time of the-the night?”
The girl spluttered and Senán saw her blonde head rear up in shock.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Luke. You scared the fuck out of me! What the fuck are you at?”
Luke crossed the tracks and stood on the edge of the hollow. “I’m out for a walk is all. Showing a fu-fu-friend of mine around.”
The girl looked past Luke and squinted at Senán, who, not wanting to cause any undue alarm, was hanging back a few yards.
“A fu-fu-friend. Fucking hell. You’re full of surprises.”
Luke ignored her mocking and signalled for Senán to approach.
“This is Su-Su-Senán. From the shop. ‘Member I told you about him. The guy studying the how-how-housing market down here.”
The girl eyed Senán from head to foot, a peevish, deliberately unimpressed look on her face. She said nothing, but proceeded to root in her handbag for a packet of cigarettes and lighter.
“Senán,” said Luke formally, “this is Fu-Fu-Farrah. She’s from the Island. We’re neighbours.”
Farrah lit up a cigarette and blew the smoke contemptuously towards Luke.
“Neighbours,” she snorted. “You make it sound like I’m one of the Flanders and you’re fucking Bart Simpson.”
Senán wondered if the girl’s hostility was down to the quarter bottle of vodka she had drunk or whether she held some deeper resentment towards Luke. Trish’s comment on the night of the bonfire about Luke liking them younger ran through his mind, and he asked himself was Farrah the girl who Luke had met that night. She looked so young and was behaving in such a classic teenage manner that Senán couldn’t possibly imagine his friend being involved in a relationship with her. He decided to reserve judgement until he had more evidence.
“Come-come on and I’ll walk you home,” said Luke. “This is no place for you to be. On-on your own and all. Any-anyone could come along. You’re a si-si-sitting duck.”
“Quack quack.” Smiling at her joke, she turned up the volume of the music.
“Some dodgy fuck-fuck-fuckers do be out at this hour of the night,” insisted Luke. “Come-come-come on. Come with me.”
“I can handle myself.”
“Haven’t you got sku-sku-school tomorrow?”
“I told you I’m finished with that fucking shithole. I’ll be up in time to bring the younger ones to their school. Right? But I ain’t setting foot in my own institution ever again. I’m finished with it. So you and what’s his face can mosey on down the track and leave me the fuck alone.”
“We’re not,” said Luke sternly. “You’re coming back up to Moyross with us and then I’ll drive you home.”
Farrah took a drag from her cigarette and then a mouthful of vodka. She fixed her blue eyes on Senán. “I bet you didn’t know Gu-Gu-Geoghegan here was a knight in shining armour. He gets a kick outa looking after little strays like me. Did you know that?”
“Cut the shit, Farrah! You’re co-co-coming with us.”
There was verbal toing and froing between them for the time it took her to finish her cigarette. It was only when Luke sat down beside her and declared that he would stay until whenever she decided to leave that the impasse was broken.
“Fuck’s sake,” said an exasperated Farrah. “You’re a pain in the fucking hole, Luke. I’ll go, OK? I’ll go back with you fuckers. Back to my wonderful home with my wonderful junkie mother, and cross my fingers that she hasn’t brought one of her beautiful junkie dickwad boyfriends home with her, and the two of them aren’t out of it on the couch when I get in. OK? Happy?”
She closed the bottle of vodka and slid off the pallets. Going behind them and turning on the flashlight of her phone, she found a hidey-hole for the bottle in the bushes.
“I’ll know who fecked it if it’s not there the next time,” she said accusingly, before crunching up the gravelly slope to the track. Without waiting for Luke and Senán, she set off in the direction of Moyross.
“Su-su-sorry,” whispered Luke to Senán before they began to follow Farrah. “She’s a bit du-du-difficult tonight. She’s-she’s going through a bu-bu-bad patch. We’ll have to fu-fu-finish the tour another time.”
“Don’t worry. The most important thing is to look after your friend.”
After they caught up with her, Luke insisted that her music would draw unwanted attention, and ordered her to turn it off.
“You nu-nu-never know who’s hanging out in the u-u-undergrowth either side of the lines.”
“Fuck off, Luke. There isn’t a fucking sinner out at this hour.”
“You nu-nu-never know.”
“Your friend Luke is paranoid,” she said to Senán. “Thinks they’re all coming to get him. Spends his life snaking around the place. Hiding in bushes, spying on people. Thinks we’re all like him.”
Eventually, just beyond the wooded area on the far bank of the river, she did turn off the music. Senán noted that although Farrah had put up some prickly resistance, Luke had come out tops in two successive battles of wills. He seemed to exercise authority over her. Senán speculated again on the nature of their relationship.
At the stretch of track where Moyross’s lights could be seen through the hedgerows on either side, Farrah made an announcement: “I’m bursting for a piss. You guys go on ahead and I’ll catch up. And no looking. Go on.” Thirty yards up the track, waiting for her to finish, Senán took the opportunity to ask Luke about her.
“Mu-mu-mother’s a junkie,” Luke answered. “She’s not gu-gu-great at the homemaking, as you mu-mu-might guess. Farrah’s the eldest. The-the-there’s fu-four younger brothers and sisters. I think there’s thu-thu-three fathers involved. None of them’s on the scene. So Farrah is like the response-responsible adult in the house. It’s a lot of work: shopping, cu-cu-cooking, cleaning, getting them u-up for sku-sku-school and all that. Some-some-sometimes it gets her down, lu-lu-like tonight. You know?”
“I can imagine. Jesus.”
“But no matter what, she still-still needs to keep going to school. Otherwise, you know-you know yourself. She’ll be stuck on the fu-fu-fuckin’ Island forever. I’ll have to have-have-have a chat with her.”
“What about social services? Couldn’t someone call those and have them intervene?”
Luke shook his head, violently almost. “No fu-fu-fuckin’ way. That’s the la-last option. They’d jus-just split the family up. And they’d be fucked then. They’d nu-nu-never be a family again. At least now they’re-they’re all together. And the mu-mu-mother, bad and all as she is, does her best. She loves them. Never did a spo-spot of harm to them. If they took the kids away from the mother, it would be a disaster. Tu-tu-take it from me.”
Senán, realising that he had come close to upsetting Luke, just nodded. A question came to him after a time, though: “How do they manage for money? If the mother’s a junkie, her fix or whatever mustn’t leave much for groceries and electricity bills et cetera.”
“They have it tough all right,” said Luke. “But-but-but people help out. Friends. Neighbours. St Vincent de Paul. Francie. They don’t starve anyway.”
They heard the crumple of footsteps approaching and kept their peace as Farrah’s blonde head grew closer, almost seeming to materialise out of the darkness.
“That’s better,” she said. “I had a couple of cans on the way down. That fucking lager just runs through you. You’ll have to have a word to Francie about it, Luke.”
As she spluttered with laughter at her wisecrack, Senán wondered if she was an habitual drinker. Even with cans and vodka on board she was showing no signs of having drunk — beyond her tetchiness, which may have been a personality trait. She seemed in better humour now, and made small talk as they walked. She asked Senán where he was from and what he was doing, and even showed interest in his research project. She seemed to grow reflective the nearer they got to their destination.
“I like the peace out here at night on my own,” she said, when Luke went searching for the markings on the pickets. “I look at the lights of the houses I pass and it’s kinda like looking at a movie except I’m making up the stories of what’s happening inside. I always think people in the houses are happy, that their lives are perfect. Like the families in Liv and Maddie or Jessie or one of those lame yokes on Disney Channel. There’s a father and a mother. Nice, polite, normal kids. Their fridges and presses are full of whatever food they want. The kids’ drawings are stuck up in the kitchen. There’s this cute dog. They all do stuff together — play basketball in the yard, cook, put up the Christmas tree. The only problems they have are to do with boyfriends or bad hair days or falling out with a friend.”
She sighed wistfully. “There really are people like that, aren’t there?”