Gu-Gu-Geogheghan — Chapter 23 of 32

In spite of a festive atmosphere in Francie’s so thick it could have been cut with a knife, Senán did not feel at all Christmassy that Tuesday night. The Christmas songs on rotation over the shop’s PA may as well have been taken from one of Vincent’s “Greatest Hits of Goth” compilations for all the cheer they were imparting to Senán. He saw through and past the shop’s dense forest of decorations, not an easy feat given that the girls had covered every available surface with a snowman, Santa Claus, snowdrop or stalactite. And neither Trish’s naughty elf costume, Debs’s flashing Christmas tree hat nor Susan’s wild winter sweater could bring a smile to his face.

Those four hours comprised the slowest shift he had ever worked in Francie’s. Even though it was the busiest he had ever seen the shop, Christmas shopping fever having well and truly kicked in, time seemed to stand still. He hesitated to wonder how the minutes would have crawled if he hadn’t been run off his feet. But rushed and all as he was, clambering up and down his ladder with trays of bottles and jars, and scurrying in and out of the storeroom with a fully laden trolley, he could not prevent his mind from returning to Luke and what he would say to him after work. For all Senán knew, these interminable hours were the last he would spend in Francie’s, but the magnetic pull of dread would not allow his mind to enjoy his retail career’s swansong.

The worst thing was that he felt sorry for Luke. His anger and furious astonishment had subsided and been replaced by pity. He kept wondering why Luke felt the urge to stalk women. He thought of his stutter, his upbringing, his odd physical appearance, his treatment at school, and concocted theories as to why Luke had difficulties forming normal relationships with women. He made excuses for him, and as his anger drained away, empathy and pity swelled his heart.

“Cop the fuck on!” Trish had told him over the phone.

Vincent had echoed this order.

“You’ve to go in there and fucking pound him,” Trish told him. “Put the fear of God in him. Make it so that he never even thinks about stalking a girl again. Just pretend he’s one of the opposition at one of your hurling games. You go in there shoot-to-kill. All guns blazing. Take no prisoners. Frighten the fuck out of the little gowl. Like my brothers did when he was at me. Got it?”

Senán had got it all right, but he didn’t think he had it in him to harshly treat someone like Luke, who had been on the receiving end of life’s hard knocks since the moment of his conception. And he was a fellow stutterer, after all.

The more his shift dragged on and the more he observed Luke, the less he felt like giving him a verbal pounding. As always, Luke cut an isolated figure, standing apart from customers and staff alike, taking no part in the cheerful Christmas banter that buzzed through the shop. But that evening there was something else about him: Luke seemed more on edge, more watchful than usual, paler and more drawn, his eyes bulging out from the sockets of his fleshless face, as if Christmastime was a test of his managerial skills and experience that he was determined not to fail. His orders were more curt than usual, a ragged edge and desperation to his barked words. “Come on, come on, come on,” he had urged Senán more than once. “Get those jars out. We need more broccoli. Ham and cheese pizzas. Go, go, go.” He even got into a number of flaps, something Senán had rarely seen happen before: Luke panicked when they ran out of Christmas crackers, flying into the storeroom as if to put a fire out, and he attacked Susan over mispriced mince pies. “Keep your eye on the ball, Susan,” he hissed at her. “It’s only a week to Christmas.”

As Susan laughed off the incident with Trish and Debs when Luke retired to the storeroom, Senán realised he would never see Francie’s strange manager in the same light again. Before, Luke was something of a mí-adh to him (a word his mother used for someone held back by life’s cruelties and misfortunes), a lonely, timid and mistrusting young man in need of friendship, a kind word and a helping hand. But now he saw him as a damaged and piteous creature, not somebody he would take any satisfaction in harming, but neither someone he would ever want to socialise with or think of as a potential friend.

 

“I nu-nu-need this,” said Luke, collapsing on to a stool. “Whu-whu-what a day. And there’s five more to gu-gu-go.” Closing his eyes, he drank at length from his pint of Guinness. “Gu-gu-great stuff,” he rasped, and licked his lips. “I haven’t-haven’t had a mo-moment to myself all day. Christmas — I fucking hate it!”

You’ve time enough to scoot across town to spy on Connie and Scary Mary, right enough, thought Senán. He looked around Bowsie’s, which was experiencing a festive bump in trade. He and Luke had managed to get the last free table in the shebeen.

“Fuckin’ du-du-deliveries tomorrow an’ all. Francie’s Christmas bonus better be good this year. I’m wu-wu-working like a bu-bu-black.”

Luke looked worn and frazzled. Stooping over his pint, his skinny arms hung limply from his bottle shoulders.

“Luke,” said Senán, after a long drink from his own pint. “I’ve something to ask you.”

Luke’s eyes narrowed and he darted a wary look up at Senán. “Gu-gu-go on.”

“What are you doing hanging around campus taking photos of Connie and Scary Mary?”

A blush flashed across Luke’s face and his head trembled like that of an old man in his dotage. He opened his mouth and Senán saw his throat make gagging movements, but no sound came out.

“I saw you. Today and yesterday. Hiding behind a plant in the business school. Looking down at Connie. Taking photos or videos of her. Then I saw you pass by Scary Mary’s office and photograph her. What the fuck are you up to?”

For the first time in their acquaintanceship, Luke made lasting eye contact with Senán. The look communicated the burning hurt of a child whose parents had caught him doing something which they considered bad, but which he did not. His mouth opened and closed again, his tongue and throat worked away. Eventually he spoke.

“Um. Um. Um. Um. I’m thu-thu-thu-thu-thinking of-of-of-of doi-doing a bu-bu-bu-bu-business-business dip-dip-dip. That’s-why-that’s why I-I-I vu-vu-vu-visit campus.”

“Bullshit!” said Senán. “I saw what you were doing. And you’ve been seen other times as well. You’re stalking them. And you’ve got previous in that regard.”

There, thought Senán, it’s all come out. All my cards on the table.

“Bu-bu-bu-bu-business,” said Luke, stuttering now as badly as he used to do when asked a question by a teacher. “I-I-I-I-I was-was-was-was there on-on-on-on bu-bu-bu-bu. Business.”

“The business of stalking. There’s no point in lying about it. I saw you.”

Luke looked down at the table, biting his lips. He began to pick at a beer mat with a bony finger.

“You’ve a problem with women, Luke,” said Senán in a kindlier voice. “Whether it’s shyness or under-confidence or your stutter. Or whatever. But going around stalking them isn’t the answer. It’s bad for you and bad for them. If you’re caught, you can get into awful shit over it. Lose your job, name in the papers, et cetera.”

Luke didn’t move to reply, was motionless in his hunkered-down position. All his attention was on the beer mat he was scratching.

“And I feel terrible, like part of the fault is mine. I introduced you to Connie and Mary. And if I tell them, I know I’ll get some of the blame for setting you on them.”

Luke stiffened and asked for confirmation that Senán hadn’t told them.

“No,” said Senán. “Nor the guards. Yet. Even though people have told me not to be a fool, I want to give you a chance. So here’s the formal warning: keep away from Connie and Scary Mary. I’m going to be keeping an eye on them and if I see sight or sound of you near them I will tell them and I will call the cops.”

Luke managed a laboriously mangled thanks.

 

Senán and Trish made it to the Barge just in time for last orders. They had hurried from the entrance to St Mary’s park to the riverside, and now stood at the crowded bar counter waiting for Senán’s pint to settle while they soaked in the warmth of the pub.

“He was a pussycat really,” said Senán. “A lamb, albeit a hang-down-your-head-Tom-Dooley kind of lamb. Strange, but he didn’t protest too much. Or say very much, for that matter. I was expecting more aggro. He just kind of caved in.”

“Told you,” said Trish. “He’s a coward. Not into the aul’ confrontation or standing up for himself. I mean, Grabber has him under his thumb with years. Working twelve-hour days, six days a week. And I bet he’s on peanuts. No one else would put up with that.”

She looked at Senán and read the glum droop of eyes and mouth. “You’re feeling sorry for him, you eejit.” Then with tenderness in her voice: “You softie.”

“It was like giving out to a stray dog. He was kinda pathetic. He’s no self-esteem or anything of the sort. I just felt pity for him. I got no pleasure from confronting him. He’s kind of a broken man.”

“He’s no backbone, is his problem. The coward of the county.”

“I reached out,” said Senán, aware of how clichéd it sounded as it came out his mouth. “I offered to help. You know, put him in touch with a counsellor.”

“There you go trying to fix people again.” This was a dig at his unsuccessful efforts to get her to see someone about her problem.

“He kinda just looked at me. Sheepishly. Like he thought there was no helping him. I think he’s given up on himself, that there’s no changing him. Which someone like me in sociology finds anathema.”

“So you’re going to bring him by the hand to therapy? There’s a sight!” She laughed, her dislike of Luke allowing a cruel note to spill into her mirth.

“We kinda left it that he’d think about it for a few days. Over the Christmas. Trying to get him to talk about it after I laid it all on him was like pulling teeth. Like talking to a child. We’ll see.”

Later, in a quiet corner of the pub, Senán asked Trish if she thought Luke would keep his word. He watched her scrunch up her lips and narrow her eyes, formulating an answer, and he thought of how beautiful she looked and how much he liked her.

“You’ve scared him. He’d be scared of you physically, big lad an’ all as you are, and him not exactly being The Rock. And he’d be scared that you’d tell the shades and bring his stalking — and retail — careers to an end. He’s probably terrified right now that life as he knows it might end. I genuinely think that all he gets up to outside of work is stalking and gowling around with that young one, Farrah. That his life is just that, Francie’s, Farrah and stalking. So, not to put it all at risk . . . I think he’ll give the stalking a rest for a few months. He definitely won’t go near Connie and Scary Mary again. But if he sees someone else he takes a shine to in the New Year . . . Old habits die hard.”

“Unless he gets help.”

“A leopard doesn’t change its spots, Senán. Gollum won’t go to some flouncy counsellor to get cured of being a pervert. Unless it’s to look up her skirt or down her top. I think you have to thank your lucky stars you caught him stalking people you care about—”

“I wouldn’t go that far!”

“—and got him to stop. You’ve done as much as you can do. The helping Gollum thing . . . I’d forget about it.”

“There’s one more thing,” she continued, after taking a sip from her gin and tonic. “Gollum is nasty. He’ll want revenge. I’ve seen it before in the shop. It’s an eye for an eye with him. He’s gonna get you back.”

“He might be filling out my P45 as we speak!”

Trish shook her head. “No. No way. He needs you now. He’d never fire his star shelf-stacker in the run-up to Christmas. He might get rid of you afterwards, but not now. But anyway: Gollum is too much of a coward for open warfare. When he gets you back it’ll be in some sly, sneaky way. He’ll knife you in the back by remote control, so that there’s no danger to himself.”

“The old passive-aggressive approach.”

“That’s our Gollum. Passive-aggressive.”

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 22 of 36

“No fucking way, man,” said Vincent. “You tell them nothing. There’s nothing to be gained by it.”

“That’s assuming he stops when I tell him to stop.”

“And why wouldn’t he stop?”

“Why would he? Why is he doing it in the first place?”

Senán and Vincent were down in the haunt, huddling as close to the wall as possible. A bitter north wind had risen and there was talk of snow coming in its wake. A white Christmas did not seem all that unlikely. Vincent bent into the shelter of a concrete column to light his cigarette. Senán felt like asking for one — or ordering a stiff drink in the college bar. He felt like he needed some crutch or other to deal with the strain.

“Listen,” he said to Vincent’s podgy back. “Knowledge is power, right? If Connie and Scary Mary know that Luke has been stalking them, they can keep a lookout, take precautions, and if they see sight or sound of the fucker, call the cops.”

Vincent sucked on his Marlboro, spreading the small patch of struggling incandescence from one side of the cigarette to the whole tip.

“But that knowledge will fuck them up. Sense of security: out the door. Sense of privacy: out the door. Perception of freedom and ease of movement: out the door. Our old friend, paranoia: in the door. Anxiety—”

“I get it: in the door.”

“Ten-four.”

They listened to the howl of the wind through the street lights and bushes of the car park. The men from Buildings had turned off the fountain, its waters having been driven far across the car park by the gusts.

“D’ya think he’s following them off-campus?” said Senán. “Like, peeping in their windows while they’re undressing and that kinda shit?”

“You’d have to assume so. That’s what stalkers do, isn’t it?”

“What sort of buzz does he get out of it? It’s deviant behaviour, isn’t it?”

“Well, your Luke would probably constitute the classic stalker. The stutter, the painful shyness, the weird head on him, the body, et cetera. Your classic loser. Then throw in what you told me about his background, bullying at school . . . The only time he feels realised is when he’s stalking someone. He probably started off young, got a taste for it, and now it’s part of his personality. Second nature. So when he met Connie in the college bar and found her particular brand of superficial yummy mumminess attractive — each to their own, I say — instead of asking her did she come there often or offering to buy her a drink, he says to himself: Jesus, I’ll start stalking this one, she’s hot.”

“But what does he feel when he’s doing it?”

There was a stricken edge to his voice: the sound of guilt, bafflement, pity and anger all rolled into one. Vincent had been busy clearing his inbox for the forthcoming exams and wouldn’t have gone down for a cigarette but for his friend’s obvious distress.

“Power,” said Vincent. “Skulking in the shadows watching these women gives him a sense of power over them. He’s there watching them, doing what he wants, rewarding an impulse, while they’re there oblivious to his presence. He’s the powerful one, they’re the victims. Also: he probably hasn’t a great opinion of women—”

“That’s for sure. I’d always just thought his opinions were a bit unevolved, but now, looking back on the stuff he’s come out with, I think he’s a problem with women. He thinks all the women from the Island are slappers and these women his brother brings down from Dublin are classy ladies. Quote, unquote.”

“Hmm,” sang Vincent, and then took a pull on his cigarette. Senán looked at him quizzically until his cycle of inhaling and exhaling was complete.

“These university women that he meets through you represent something for him. A kind of idealised vision of what women should be. His own mother abandoned him: slapper. The girls he went to school with: slappers, especially because they probably spent five years teasing him and rejecting him. The girls in the shop: slappers — won’t go next nor near him, mock him, call him Gollum. All the women he encounters in his daily life are slappers. And then he has his brother, who’s done well for himself you tell me, pulled himself up out of the ghetto, rubbing his brother’s face in his own loserdom and inadequacy, brings these classy ladies down from the big smoke. No doubt about it. Fucked up and all as it sounds, for your friend Luke, Connie and Scary Mary are everything he thinks he wants from a women: not from the Island, educated, well-mannered, good accents, ambition, prospects. He must be like a kid in a sweetshop at the moment. He’s probably never stalked anybody like either of these two. You’ve opened up a whole new world to him. It might represent a kind of displaced admiration of you, the type that he feels for his brother. And . . . you’re his portal to these women. His access point to this brave new world of Connies and Scary Marys.”

“Fuckin’ A, man. Fuckin’ A. That makes me feel just brilliant altogether.”

“You shouldn’t feel bad. You’re not responsible for the behaviour of others. You just need to give him a tugtar faoi ndeara, as they say in the civil service. Warning him off is the best you can do.”

Glumly, Senán backed into the wall, and standing shoulder to shoulder the two men watched the wind pull and tear at the shrubs and trees.

“I have to tell them. Connie and Scary Mary,” said Senán after a while. “There’s no way I can’t and still call myself a good person.”

“Senán, listen,” said Vincent, the authority of a parent in his voice. “Forget about your guilt. Or deal with it in some other way. You’ve nothing to gain by telling them. You don’t want to startle the horses needlessly. You telling them will achieve nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah. What you’ve got to do is talk to this worm, this fucker, warn him off, scare the bejaysus out of him, get him to promise he’ll never stalk them again — or else. And keep an eye on the situation. If you see him up to his old tricks after you’ve warned him off, then it’s time to think about ‘fessing up to those two delightful ladies. Even going to the cops — or the shades, as I believe they’re called in the less salubrious parts of our un-fair city.”

 

“I agree with your friend Vincent,” said Trish. “They don’t really need to know. It’ll just . . . It’s just disturbing to know that someone is watching you. So telling them will just make them feel all weird for no reason. Like, if it’s all over and done with after you have your little chat with Gollum, what’s the point in ruining two innocent people’s buzz for nothing?”

“You’re saying me telling Connie and Scary Mary is needlessly causing them grief?”

“Yep. It’s like someone telling you a burglar was casing out your house but didn’t break in. What good would knowing something like that be?”

Senán glanced across at Trish, who was looking at him with sympathy and kindness, and gave a brave, bitter smile. They were in the Barge, a pub on the Abbey River within walking distance of the shop and Trish’s house, and frequented by a rugby set.

“You’re going to pay a high enough price as it is,” she continued. “As of that little chat you’re going to have with Gollum you’re an ex-employee of Grabber Francie.”

“I’d kinda factored that in to the whole equation.”

“Well you don’t want to wind up being Scary Mary’s ex-whatever-it-is either. Or Connie’s ex-ex: you know, so far down her shitlist you won’t have a single friend in common.”

“Isn’t the XX a band?”

Trish laughed.

“I won’t tell them, so,” he said quietly. “You and Vincent have won the debate. But I’m keeping an eye out for Gollum on campus from here on out, and I might even do the odd fly-by of Connie’s and Scary Mary’s places just to make sure. Coz if he ever did anything to one of them, I couldn’t live with myself.”

“You needn’t worry about that. That gowl is too much of a snake to do anything except slink around following someone. All he’s doing is pulling his wire to pictures of ’em. Twisted little fuck.”

“I hope that’s all he’s doing. I really hope so.”

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chaper 21 of 32

Senán’s phone vibrated and gave a little ping. He looked aside his computer and saw Trish’s name lit up on his phone. The message read: “He’s left in his Noddymobile. Good luck.”

Senán smiled at Trish’s little joke, thinking that there was indeed something Noddy-like about Luke when he drove his old Corsa — the rigidity of his posture, the straightness of his arms, the puppet-like way he moved his head to check his wing mirrors. He answered the text with the detective-and-magnifying-glass emoji and quickly finished the section of the paper he was reading.

“I’m off for a bite of lunch,” he said to Vincent.

On his way to the elevators he snuck a look out at the weather and decided to get a take-out if the queue wasn’t too long. In ten minutes’ time he was munching a roll and surveying the entrance to the business school.

There’s only one way in and out, he was thinking, but where can I stand watching it without being seen?

The business school was U-shaped. The courtyard enfolded by the arms of the U afforded nowhere to hide, with only low shrubs and a long rectangular water feature occupying its grey-slabbed sterility. He looked up at the entrance again and calculated whether someone observing the courtyard from the second or third floor atrium could be seen from where they stood. The answer was no.

And if I see him coming in, how do I follow him? For the hundredth time, he wondered what Luke did in the business school. Walk up and down Connie’s corridor? Watch her having lunch? Peep at her office from the end of the corridor?

He looked outside the U, at the copse of bare birch at the other side of the roadway, their peeling bark shining in the winter sun, the grass growing up around their trunks in need of a strimming. If I hide in there waiting for him to pass, I’ll look like some sort of pervert. They’ll call campus security.

He shook his head and took a large chomp from his roll. If it were any other building on campus, the Foundation, for example, there would have been dozens of nooks and crannies in which a person could lie in wait without being seen; Vincent’s haunt, for instance.

Damn it, I’ll just go up to the atrium and wait it out. All I want is to see is he hovering around Connie. If I’ve to come back another day, I will.

He finished the roll and washed it down with the coffee that steamed from the paper cup warming his left hand. Up on the third-floor atrium he kept watch for Luke’s skinny form. Down below, just inside the doors, a pair of green-uniformed porters were putting up a Christmas tree. Better late than never, Senán thought.

There was a week and a half to go until Christmas day. Campus was frantic with exam fever. As a tutor, his inbox was buzzing with urgent emails from first and second years wanting to clarify this point or that as they settled down to cram for their sociology or statistical science exams. Scary Mary’s office door was under continual assault as desperate students, behind in their assignments or hopelessly lost in last-minute study, called to “plea bargain”, as Vincent called it. Vincent himself was receiving visits. While the worst-case scenario of “all is changed, changed utterly” he had painted in the college bar had not come to pass, the spotty girl whose character and appearance he had assassinated that night and a few of her friends were now regular callers to his and Senán’s corral.

Bingo!

Approaching the U was Luke, wearing his navy anorak, chinos and scuffed and dried-out-looking black shoes. Senán stepped back from the low wall of glass that marked the edge of the open area overlooking the atrium, and half concealed himself behind an indoor plant — just in case. Luke carried nothing in his hands, he noticed, nor wore a bag, which he surely would have done were he bringing documents for registering for a course. He walked quickly, with obvious purpose and, as always, flicked his eyes up, down, left and right, like a soldier patrolling hostile streets. Soon he was below Senán. His gelled-back hair shone as he passed underneath the doorway’s recessed lighting and made for the stairwell. As he ascended the wide stairs Senán noticed that he could follow his progress through his reflection in the atrium’s glass wall. Fearing that the reverse could also be the case, he retreated further behind the plant.

When Luke reached the first floor, Senán saw his reflection move to a spot exactly two floors below. Mirroring his positioning even more, Luke stood behind the corresponding plant on the first floor.

If I’m hiding from him, who the hell is he hiding from? thought Senán. He watched Luke take out his phone, play with the zoom and focus, and take a number of photos. If Connie is down in that restaurant, that’s as good as proof that he’s stalking her.

Being a yard or so in from the edge of the balcony, Senán could only see half of the cafeteria’s floor space. Connie’s distinctive mop of hair was not visible. Carefully, aware that his reflection could be seen if Luke happened to look up, he inched forwards and glanced down to his right. Sure enough, at a table with some of her new business school postgrad friends was Connie. Senán shook his head, walked in from the edge of the open area and slumped into a seat by the back wall. There it was, Connie blithely going about her daily business and Luke hiding behind plants taking photos of her.

Great, thought Senán. Where do I go from here?

He judged that it would be a bad idea to march down and confront Luke. This had to be dealt with calmly and delicately — not argued about in the heat of the hunt. But the stalking would have to be stopped soon. After work some night that week, over a pint in Bowsie’s, Senán would have to broach the subject and make it clear that Luke had to leave Connie in peace. But what would he tell her? He dreaded talking to Connie more than to Luke. He knew she would throw it all back in his face: his decision to take up a postgrad in sociology; to work with Scary Mary studying the lack of social justice in the housing market; his job in Francie’s; going out with Trish. The lot. He could hear the expression being trotted out all over again: “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” He wondered would she go to the guards.

Thinking such thoughts, Senán sat and watched a very busy-seeming Luke. In the time Luke was stooped behind the plant, phone pointed discreetly downwards, he had either shot hundreds of photos or a long video. After close to ten minutes he put his phone away and walked down the stairs without a glance towards the restaurant.

To follow or not to follow, that is the question. Fuck it, this is where the stalker becomes the stalked.

Thinking that Luke was probably returning to his Noddymobile, Senán did not start moving until Luke had almost crossed the courtyard. By the time he emerged from the building Luke was almost out of sight. He had not turned right towards the nearest visitors’ car park, however, but was taking a path through the copse of birch trees which would lead him towards the heart of campus.

Where the fuck is he going?

At the far end of the copse Senán paused. About a hundred yards ahead, Luke’s slim figure was hurrying up a set of wide steps at the top of which was a footpath that branched into paths past the library or on a wide loop of the Foundation. Luke took the latter. He wouldn’t be going to visit me? Senán hung back until Luke disappeared around the elbow of the footpath. He then put on a spurt of speed, just in time to see his quarry turn towards the Foundation’s main entrance.

Let’s see where he goes from here.

Without any uncertainty, looking like he belonged in the building, Luke turned off its main concourse onto a little-used spiral staircase. From the entrance to a lecture theatre just inside the Foundation’s long double doors, Senán saw him rise two flights and then hurry along the landing to the open-plan office where Senán’s corral lay.

Jesus, he’s calling into old Senán!

Senán took the elevator and stealthily walked down the corridor. Expecting to see Luke wandering around the large space searching out his and Vincent’s booth from among the three dozen there, he stopped by the nook with the photocopier and water cooler, giving him a view of the entire office. Luke was nowhere to be seen. Frowning, Senán began to walk towards his booth. Perhaps Luke had found it and was sitting inside chatting to Vincent about Xmal Deutschland. Suddenly, he perceived movement from the corner of his eye. At the far side of the open-plan area, Luke’s form was slowly moving along the corridor where the lecturers’ offices lay. Almost gliding in the smoothness of a pensive gait, and for once not squinting around him but concentrating on the name plaques on each door, Luke passed from Senán’s left to his right like a ghost.

Senán stepped behind the poor cover of a coat stand. He saw Luke reach Scary Mary’s office, whose door was open, and hesitate briefly as he passed, as if part of him were sending an impulse to his legs to enter the office instead of walk by it.

Curious, thought Senán. Even more curious was when Luke did an about-face at the end of the corridor and in the same ponderous gait walked back the way he had come. This time he did stop in front of Scary Mary’s door, though almost imperceptibly — both feet still, resting on the floor, head turned and eyes eating everything he could see through the door. Senán saw the flash of a smartphone’s screen as Luke held the phone at hip height and presumably snapped more photos. As Senán blinked incredulously, Luke continued along the corridor and disappeared.

Holy fuck. He’s stalking Scary Mary as well. What the fuck?

He remembered back to the previous week when he had introduced Luke to his supervisor, and then he thought of that night in the college bar when Connie had come over to their table. He shook his head once more. What sort of freak am I dealing with?

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 20 of 32

Dazzlers nightclub was notorious in the city, its name synonymous with middle-aged desperation and marital infidelity. Rarely did anyone under thirty go there, and if they did it was for a stag or hen party, where the usual stigma of being seen in the club could be shared among friends, or the entire party receive a general absolution for the occasion. “Meat market”, “pickup joint” and “fleshpot” were phrases often used in reference to Dazzlers, and locals’ idea of a typical patron was a boozy, red-faced, overweight, separated man in his late forties or early fifties, or a lonely, mutton-dressed-as-lamb single woman of similar age, suffering from low self-esteem and general disappointment with life, and whose search for a partner using all the normal channels had been so fruitless that only Dazzlers remained — as the option of last resort.

Máire Ní Mhainnín stood out from the crowd in Dazzlers, not only because of her beauty, but because of her age — she was one of few women under forty there that Saturday night — and her aura of confidence. Luke could see the ripples of excitement among the knots of men huddled along the counter as she walked with her glass of wine to a free high table overlooking the dance floor. He also noted the jealous glances from other women. A black velvet minidress clung to her body, showing off her flat stomach, perky breasts and rounded bottom. She was setting down a marker by which the other women would be judged that night. Her competitors knew she could have any man she wanted, and Luke could see they hated her for it.

He had raced from closing up Francie’s to An Chéim Bhriste just in time to enjoy the spectacle of Máire getting ready to go out. She had padded around the house barefoot, fresh out of the shower, with a bath towel wrapped around her trunk and her hair tied turban-like into a smaller one. Her skin was smooth, pink from the heat of the water, and for the first time he saw the firm line of her jaw and cheekbones unobscured by hair. With the garden perfumed by steam rising from the drain outside her bathroom into the damp December air, he watched her dry herself, apply body cream to every inch of her skin below the neck, and spray deodorant under her arms.

Her body was beautiful beyond Luke’s expectations. She hadn’t a pick of fat anywhere — no little belly, no spare tyre, no rolls of fat under her buttocks — but she wasn’t skinny: her arms, legs and torso were toned, leading him to believe that she must work out regularly. He wondered if the reason she went into work so early was to hit the gym before her classes began. Or maybe she exercised here after work, while I’m still on the clock in Francie’s?

She had small, tidy breasts, more like Farrah’s than he imagined Connie’s to be. With the right wig and make-up he could picture Farrah being a convincing Máire, although there was one alteration that Farrah would have to make: Máire’s crotch was almost entirely free from hair, with only a thin line of fur running from the top of her vagina. Luke believed this was what was called a Brazilian.

How much would Farrah charge me to get one of those done on herself?

As he watched her get dressed, he knew for sure she was going out. Slavering in the darkness outside her bedroom, he saw her slip first into lacy black briefs, whose high waist made her legs look even longer. She then clipped herself into a matching bra and stood adjusting it and assessing herself in the mirror. When she was happy with this, she pulled on heavy and glossy black pantyhose. He had never watched a mature woman dress before, and found the experience delicately titillating, certainly better than the couple of times his brother had brought him to strip clubs in Dublin. In the midst of the drunken, rowdy throng of those places he had felt anything but arousal. He had felt shame, as if he were the one under observation rather than the oiled women writhing on the little stage. In the garden of An Chéim Bhriste, Luke was the only one doing the watching, and the woman inside was not some tattooed slapper from a poor neighbourhood trying to make an easy buck before falling into full-blown prostitution.

Máire took a little black dress from her wardrobe. After tugging its stretchy fabric around her bottom and midriff, she sat in front of the large mirror of her dressing table to do her hair and make-up. It fascinated Luke to study her putting her face on, to watch her slow, deliberate transformation from a fresh-faced, natural beauty to a dark-eyed, crimson-lipped bird of prey. She seemed to grow in mystery and ineffability the more colour she applied to her face, became something other from the simple woman who had stood naked and unadorned minutes before, running the towel over her damp skin.

She’s dressing to kill, thought Luke, as she stretched her neck in putting on earrings. Then a shaft of panic broke his composure: She’s going to be leaving soon. Do I want to follow her? He decided that he did. He turned off his video camera and made stealthily for the road. He hurried to Walsh’s car park and soon was reversing into the gateway of an abandoned bungalow from where he could observe anyone entering or leaving the cottage.

A taxi pulled up outside her house. Luke heard its horn beep and Máire clambered in. The taxi did a U-turn, its lights flashing briefly into the cab of Luke’s car, and made for the Tipperary Road. After it had passed out of sight, Luke started his engine and did his usual trick of staying at least two cars back. Traffic was light and fluid, and keeping up was not difficult. By the time they reached the Ballysimon Road, past various routes to circumvent the city, he was certain she was going to a city centre restaurant or pub. He was surprised when the taxi drew to a stop outside Dazzlers. He didn’t associate the place with a classy lady like Máire Ní Mhainnín, but then he remembered his first impression of her — as a sexual predator — and thought there would be ripe pickings in the nightclub for a woman like her.

 

For a couple of hours Luke hid in the shadows of Dazzlers watching Máire from a distance. He was easily the youngest person there, apart from one of the barmen and the floor boy, but he didn’t stand out. He was used to occupying spaces in busy rooms unseen, had practised the art over many years. After Máire had got her wine and seemed settled at her table, he went to the bar and ordered a bottle of non-alcoholic beer. This he nursed for the rest of the night, taking tiny swigs to appear that, like everyone else, he was there to get drunk and pick someone up.

In these situations his phone was an invaluable prop. A person could spend the entire evening in a bar or club hunched over their phone without looking out of place or drawing attention to themselves. He noticed tables of glum-looking patrons doing nothing but drinking and fingering their phones.

If Máire had a mobile phone on her person, Luke saw no evidence of it in Dazzlers. She sat statue-still at her table with a beguiling smile lightly written on her sleek, moist lips. She appeared to be in rapt observation of the goings-on on the dance floor. Occasionally her smile would broaden, as if something below was amusing her, and sometimes she would switch her gaze to the flirting couples peppered along the bar. Luke began to wonder if she had come to Dazzlers just to people-watch. She had hardly touched her wine, showed no interest in dancing and hadn’t set her eyes on any of the men milling around her part of the club. He wasn’t quite sure what sociologists did, but had an idea that they studied human behaviour. Was Máire’s outing for work purposes? Perhaps she was writing a book about the kinds of mating rituals on display at the club.

But Luke knew that no matter what Máire’s motivation was, a woman of her beauty would not be left alone for long. Male patrons were now on to their second or third drink, the alcohol in their systems battling their shyness and insecurities. Dutch courage would propel their lust in her direction. The first man to chat Máire up was a short, balding man with the type of moustache favoured by the rugby playing types from the city’s “good” clubs. This man hadn’t lined out in over twenty years but probably spent most of his evenings hobnobbing in the Young Munster or Shannon club house. The gaps in height, age and physical attractiveness rendered his attempts to woo Máire ridiculous, but Luke had to admire his courage. For ten minutes he looked up at her with a bold twinkle in his eye and talked non-stop, only pausing to deliver the odd hearty laugh that shook his flabby chest and midriff. The man made Máire herself laugh a few times, which Luke knew was half the battle with women, but there was something in the way she looked at the man, like an aunt’s regard for a wayward toddler, which suggested he was on a fool’s errand.

Following this man’s departure, a line of others beat a path to Máire’s table. They were of all ages, shapes and sizes, some taller than Máire, some short, some buffed and polished and highly spruced up, some down-at-heel and bedraggled, some salesman-confident, flashing white teeth and oversized watches, others sneaking glimpses at her from the corners of their eyes and mumbling bashfully. Luke could see in their gestures some men asking her for a dance, which she never agreed to. Whatever she was doing, she wasn’t there to dance. A couple of men invaded her personal space, standing elbow to elbow with her at her table. One even tried to throw an arm around her. Something Máire said made him pull the arm away in an instant. While in conversation with these men, her lack of interest was clear from one hundred yards away. If she had come to Dazzlers to take someone home, it wasn’t going to be any old piece of warm meat. She was looking for something specific or uncommon.

It was a strange-looking man with whom she eventually left — a man as distinctive and quirky as her old Subaru or An Chéim Bhriste. He could have been described as a middle-aged hipster, with his highly groomed grey beard, pointed ankle boots and skinny jeans. He was rake-thin, shoulder blades protruding from a black velvet sports coat, and tanned, as if he had just come from a holiday on the Costa del Sol. Unlike his beard, his mop of curly hair had not gone fully grey, adding to his striking appearance. Luke could see from the shift in Máire’s body language that she was attracted to the hipster. When he stood at her table, presumably introducing himself or delivering some ironic pick-up line, she angled her body towards him, something she had not done for any of the other men. He also coaxed more conversation from her than the others, and while they chatted she made deep and unbreaking eye contact with him. Luke was surprised when the man left, but then he returned with drinks and nestled in close to her. They remained in a tight huddle until they left the club after finishing their drinks.

Without stopping to consider a strategy or plan, Luke left Dazzlers in the wake of the newly formed couple. He found them outside kissing. As he passed them by he could hear the slurping sounds their mouths made. After he had crossed the road fifty yards ahead and began to double back, he saw them walking arm in arm. They were laughing loudly and Máire looked light-hearted and full of joy. Luke figured they were heading to a taxi rank. At the top of the street, across the road from Dazzlers, he dawdled after turning around.

What good would following them on foot do? he asked himself. They would hop in a taxi on O’Connell Street and would be lost to the night — unless he did a Spencer Tracy, jumping in a taxi himself and ordering the driver to “follow that car”. He thought of taking a gamble. What if they’re going back to her place? I’ll get there before them and be all set up in the bushes and I’ll record everything that happens.

 

A voice cried up the stairs: “Luke, love. We’re off to mass now. And then we have that trip to Killaloe. See you for tea. Bye, love.”

It was his grandmother. He would have the house all to himself. The front door closed. Luke rolled out of bed and went to the bathroom. As he stood over the bowl urinating, he smiled.

What a night! My best night on the job, ever!

After flushing, he went straight for his backpack at the foot of his bed and took out his infrared camera. He turned on his laptop and connected the camera. While waiting for it to boot up he went downstairs and put on the kettle and some toast. He hummed over the rumbling and gurgling of the kettle.

Beyond the porn he watched on his laptop, Luke had never seen a couple having sex before. The hipster and Máire had begun on her couch, getting into a tangle of arms and legs while slow music throbbed through the French doors. The man had stripped her off gradually and worked his tongue all around her body while she writhed on the sofa. Then he took his own clothes off and she led him to the bedroom, where for a change the curtains were not drawn and a small lamp was left on. Luke went closer to the window than he had ever dared before and was rewarded for his boldness by scenes of adventurous lovemaking that lasted well over an hour. Realising that he might never have an opportunity like this again, he had concentrated on recording the event at as high a quality as possible. Instead of allowing his arousal to overcome him, he ignored it and devoted his attention to getting properly focussed close-ups: the man’s penis thrusting in and out of Máire’s vagina; her lips around his testicles; his tongue teasing the tight skin of her anus; her expression when she was tied to the bedposts and blindfolded as he ran his penis over her breasts.

Luke was anxious to get the data on to his laptop and then back it up onto a hard drive. He couldn’t contemplate losing those videos. Tea and toast in hand, he bounded up the stairs and set about transferring the files.

Will I or won’t I? he asked himself.

Should he watch “Máire Post-Shower” or “Máire and Hipster”, or leave them as a treat for later? Farrah was coming over in a couple of hours. He didn’t want to be all spent up for her, his penis sore and raw from pulling, and his libido struggling to maintain interest. More than anything it would be a waste of the eighty euro he was paying her.

Leave it till later, Luke boy. A Sunday evening treat.

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 19 of 32

Máire Ní Mhainnín, said Luke to himself. He liked the sound of the name. Exotic. Gaelic. Like the name of a heroine from the old Irish myths and sagas the teachers had read them in primary school. It suited her: there was something otherworldly and mythological about her fierce beauty.

Máire Ní Mhainnín.

He said his own name aloud in Irish — Lúcas MacEochagáin. He had never liked it. His name in Irish sounded ugly and harsh, and he was no son of Eochagáin. He had no father: MacEochagáin was his maternal grandfather’s name.

Indeed, from when he first started learning it at five years of age, Luke had never liked Irish. Somehow he stuttered even more when attempting to push the strange sounds of that ancient language out of his mouth. He had the same problems later on with French and German. You could hear a pin drop in his usually boisterous language classes when the teacher asked him to say something in either of these tongues, and when he eventually managed to stumble out an Ich heisse Luke or an Il fait chaud, the class would erupt into howls of derision.

Máire Ní Mhainnín.

He was outside her house, a picturesque old cottage on the Peafield Road in Monaleen where the suburbs straggled into countryside. He had guessed that her house would be distinctive, something apart from the norm, like every other aspect of her life he had learned about to date. He could not envisage her living in one of the hundreds of paint-by-numbers semi-detached four-up-three-down houses that had swallowed up the land between the university and the other side of Monaleen. A wooden plaque on one of the low gateposts declared the name of the cottage: An Chéim Bhriste. Luke had looked this up and found it to mean “the broken step”. One of the lichen- and moss-clung concrete steps leading to the green front door was cracked and crumbling with age.

Following Máire Ní Mhainnín was a different experience to his other “cases”. He imagined he was handling her case the way detectives in a pre-internet age would have shaded their targets. Good old-fashioned spadework.

Máire Ní Mhainnín had practically no internet profile beyond a paragraph describing her teaching duties and research interests on the university’s website, and she did not use social media beyond having anodyne LinkedIn and ResearchGate accounts. So everything Luke had got to know about her over the last week was hard won through a steady process of following, hiding and watching. It was only when he clamped a tracking device under her car — a funky, 1998-reg Subaru station wagon — that he had brought the operation into the twenty-first century.

He still didn’t know enough about her to even begin to satisfy his curiosity. Compared to the detailed knowledge he possessed of Connie (who he intended to watch for some time yet), he only had the sketchiest pen-picture of Máire’s life. He knew where she worked and when she began her working day, but her movements on campus from then until the icon for her car started moving on his phone app were a great void for Luke. In a way the difficulty was frustrating, but in another it added to the triumph and excitement whenever he discovered something about her. For instance, that evening, she had not gone straight home from work as she usually did. Crouched over his phone in Francie’s storeroom, Luke had watched eagerly as her flashing icon looped towards town and stopped in a car park he later calculated was at Dunnes Stores on the Childers Road. He now knew where she did her Thursday evening shopping.

Of all his targets, current and former, Máire’s house was Luke’s favourite. Its location offered endless possibilities to anyone interested in spying on its occupant. To begin with, the Peafield Road, while little more than a narrow, winding boreen with a snaking ribbon of one-off housing, was a rat run. It was used by those in the know to navigate a path between the Dublin and Tipperary roads free of traffic lights and tailbacks. Strange cars cruising it at any hour were nothing out of the ordinary, and so the caution he had to exercise in a quiet cul-de-sac such as Connie’s was unnecessary. Secondly, a busy pub with a large car park, Walsh’s, was to be found at the bottom of the road just a five-minute walk from Máire’s house. Luke quickly came up with the idea of leaving his car outside Walsh’s and walking to An Chéim Bhriste. Because of the houses along the road it was not unusual to see walkers or joggers there, even after ten at night when Luke’s shift ended. So he never felt unduly under suspicion or observation as he went about his business. Finally, the Peafield Road was dark. Being outside the city limits and of secondary status, it was unlit except at a humpbacked bridge, a crossroads and the underpass that led on to the Tipperary Road.

The darkness meant Luke could enter the grounds unseen and stand outside Máire’s windows in the shadows without fear of detection. He had never before had the opportunity to roam at will around a target’s house, peering into their life like a small boy with an aquarium. It made him giddy with power and pleasure. The single storey meant there was no room in which Máire could escape potential observation, bar when she was behind the frosted glass of the bathroom. If she had drawn her curtains and blinds Luke would have grown bored of circling the house to keep up with her movements inside, chasing rhombuses of light as they flicked across the grass and shrubbery. But Máire Ní Mhainnín wasn’t one to draw her blinds.

Luke had spent three nights in a row spying on Máire, and each night when he slipped silently up the worn tarmac driveway he found her on the couch of her living room bathed in the flickering light of her television and lit from above by a retro bamboo and stainless steel reading lamp. She was always on her own with her laptop on her knees. He surmised that she was doing some mundane task on her computer — correcting coursework or answering emails — while having an eye and an ear on the television. Because of the angle of the television screen relative to the room’s French doors, Luke would have had to press right up to the glass to glimpse what she was watching, and he wasn’t prepared to engage in any risky behaviour yet.

Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Máire was always in pyjamas by the time Luke arrived at An Chéim Bhriste. They were downy, peach, loose-fitting, not particularly sexy, but confirmation to Luke that he was on to a good thing, a classy lady. If Máire had flounced around an empty house in revealing lingerie it would have been decidedly odd, and while Luke would undoubtedly have found it arousing, she would have gone down in his opinion, become someone not much better than the slappers from his estate.

The university’s staff parking disc system had made it easy to find her car. Since clamping the device to it a couple of days after Senán had introduced them, Luke had learned that she normally left campus close to seven in the evening, and, apart from her foray to Dunnes that Thursday, always went straight home. So far she seemed to be a woman who lived to work. Luke was looking forward to the weekend to see whether she let her hair down.

Perhaps she would have a man back. Or a woman.

Luke fantasised about being outside her bedroom window to see her changing out of her work clothes. If only he didn’t have to work late, he would be ready and waiting when she arrived, concealed in the escallonia at the back of her house. After the headlights of her Subaru were extinguished, leaving the garden in darkness again, he would creep along the border of her lawn, careful not to leave footprints, and crouch in the shadows of the fuchsias at the side of the house where her bedroom lay. His heart would pound as he watched her remove her blouse and vest, and he would inwardly moan as her skirt dropped to the floor and she pulled her tights down her long legs. Perhaps she would strip fully and walk down the corridor to shower. Just imagining seeing her crotch and following the bouncing motion of her bare breasts and buttocks excited Luke. If he saw such a sight he would have no choice but to masturbate there and then among the bare branches and drifts of fallen leaves.

It was not Luke’s policy to masturbate on duty. It was messy, potentially noisy and a distraction. You could take your eye off the ball and find the target or a passer-by stealing up on you. And although he had never been caught spying on someone, if he was ever discovered he didn’t want it to be in the context of committing a public indecency. It was one thing to be caught hiding in someone’s garden or sat in a car outside their house — excuses could always be provided — but another thing altogether to be found masturbating. There was no credible explanation for that.

In spite of this, the first time he had set foot in Máire’s garden and prowled around her house in the darkness, he felt an irresistible urge to pleasure himself. The elation at having found where she lived, and the prospects offered by an isolated cottage with open gates and low walls on a dark road, with a single, unaccompanied classy lady who didn’t draw the curtains or blinds, were too much to bear. He was swollen with the feeling of power that he had over Máire; giddy and drunk, almost to the point of bursting, that he could watch her at will, his presence outside her house unsuspected, and, barring very bad luck, undetectable. He masturbated as he gazed in at her immobile form on the couch, and it felt so good he almost didn’t care if he was caught.

That first time he scurried off the Peafield Road and up the driveway of An Chéim Bhriste, he had come unprepared: no video camera, no night-vision goggles, just his mobile phone, whose lit-up screen was anathema to anyone intending to lurk unseen in the shadows. When its tracking app had told him he was within fifty metres of Máire’s car, he had set the phone to silent and put it away, leaving him nothing to record the exquisite stillness of a woman who didn’t know she was being watched — no trophy to take home and upload to his new folder. On subsequent nights Luke went with his complete bag of tricks. Among the items in his weatherproof rucksack was his favourite toy — an infrared night-vision and full-spectrum video camera with a dimmable eyepiece monitor and no pilot lights. With this in Normal mode he could Máire in brightly lit rooms, or on its Night-vision setting capture images of her padding from one darkened room to another. He could even record blurry images of her sleeping through closed curtains (she did close them before retiring for the night).

On that Thursday night she surprised him. She closed her laptop shortly before eleven, stretched her long arms and legs, turned off the television, and went to the kitchen, where she uncorked a bottle of red wine. Back in the sitting room, after placing the bottle and a generous glass of wine on the coffee table, she disappeared from view. Luke heard a loud boom and was startled until he realised it was the opening bars of a song.

Máire likes her music loud!

The volume fell gradually, though not so much that he couldn’t still hear it, and she reappeared, grooving to the rhythm, using the remote control as a microphone. Luke was treated to a show: Máire Ní Mhainnín bopped and whirled and gyrated and swung, bellowing into her imaginary microphone. In between verses she would grab her wine glass and take a lusty mouthful, banging the glass down hastily before setting off into song again. She belted the words out with such volume that he could hear her through the double-glazing. Between the blaring of the music and its distortion through the glass, Luke could not tell whether she had a good voice or not, but she certainly sang with passion. I bet she’s a demon in the sack, he thought, surprised by the ardour of her private performance.

He felt a mean sense of privilege as he watched and recorded her from his hidey-hole at the far side of the little patio the French doors led on to. He was probably the only human being to ever witness what Máire got up to late at night in the privacy of her home. Did even her family or her lovers know how she liked to unwind on a Thursday night?

For a while he concentrated on the shards of music that reached him. He wanted to know what she was listening to, so he could listen to it himself, put it on in his bedroom or car or even in the shop and feel closer to her. One song rang a bell. The chorus mentioned something about “seeds of love”.

It’s something from the 80s, he thought. I’ll look it up later on.

When the music stopped and she tidied up and turned off the light, Luke moved around to stand outside the bathroom window. The light came on and he saw a shadow moving behind the frosted glass. Water whooshed out the downpipe from the flushing toilet and then trickled into the drain from her ablutions and brushing of teeth. The light went off and Luke moved to outside her bedroom. This time no light came on. A ghostly figure drew the curtains. Switching to Night-vision, Luke saw an orange blur settle on the bed. He would see no more that night.

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