Links and Hooks or a Lack Thereof: A new short story by Lisa McInerney

It is nine days before Christmas, and on Oliver Plunkett Street two women are window-shopping

The Christmas lights on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork. Photograph: Getty Images

The Christmas lights on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork. Photograph: Getty Images

 

It is nine days before Christmas, and on a damp Oliver Plunkett Street are two women, window-shopping. The taller is called Concepta. The shorter is Attracta. That their names are similar incenses the former and doesn’t bother the latter one bit. They’re one or the other side of 40 and aesthetically alike; each wears a woollen coat and black boots, and each carries a large Ted Baker tote. They are here because of a cock-up in a WhatsApp group chat.

At the end of November, Concepta nabbed a hotel deal: two nights’ B&B, one dinner, and a cocktail and mince pie on arrival. She suggested the office girls go to Cork for the weekend for a little Christmas shopping. Her colleagues were all for it, couldn’t wait, beside themselves, and then of course they started dropping like flies. A primary school Christmas pageant, a fiancé with a bad dose, in-laws in hospital gone very low. The cock-up was in Concepta’s thinking the getaway would come together at all when she worked with such predictably flaky weapons.

Attracta is new to the office, and odd. She is eager to please in a way that seems almost foreign. No cynicism, no inclination towards gossip or self-deprecation. She is not very good at her job. She can fill out Excel sheets but can’t get her head around formulas. She isn’t one for deadlines or reading a room. She eats odd things for lunch. Leftover pasta. Liga biscuits. Gnarled apples.

Concepta said on WhatsApp that she’d cancel the getaway and that she was huffing must have been obvious, as Attracta had replied, “Aw hun, I’ll go with you” as if she was doing Concepta a favour. “Do, girls,” said the WhatsApp group. “Go and enjoy yourselves.” When Concepta had privately expressed her horror, her colleagues looked disappointed. “Give her a chance,” they said, of Attracta. “God, she thinks the world of you.” But that Attracta thinks the world of her is precisely Concepta’s problem.

Now, as shoppers surge around them, Attracta points at a blazer in the window display. “What do you think of that?”

“Pure mank,” Concepta says.

Attracta agrees.

“Though now that I think about it,” Concepta adds, “it’s actually very vibrant.”

Attracta agrees with this, too.

“Vibrant and mank,” Concepta says.

“’Tis true for you,” Attracta nods, and Concepta scowls at their reflection.

Also on Oliver Plunkett Street is a young barwoman, hungover, dry-mouthed, furtively watching a couple laden with shopping bags. They are around the same age as her. The girl half of this couple is blonde, short and basic. The boy is spectacularly handsome, in the barwoman’s opinion. She slept with him three weeks ago and knew she would run into him sooner rather than later but she would have preferred not to meet him Christmas shopping and certainly not with his girlfriend.

Well. Not slept with, per se. He’d been as drunk as he is handsome and had stumbled out of the bed and back into his clothes, making excuses without a lick of sense to them. That shouldn’t have . . . I shouldn’t have . . . We shouldn’t have . . .

He has not yet spotted the barwoman on Oliver Plunkett Street. She wants to get closer. See what he’s buying with his girlfriend. Christmas outfits? She could handle that. But what if it’s Christmas decorations for a house they share? What if that confirms to the barwoman that she’s too easily fooled, and will always be an understudy to girls with more sense, basic and all as they are?

A few metres from the barwoman are a father and son who are thick as thieves, in that each is afraid to let the other out of his sight. The father, who is almost 50, has just lost a significant amount of money on a bet. The son, who is 19, has just spotted a lad to whom he owes a couple of hundred quid. Luckily, the creditor is out with his girlfriend, and between nods to her words he is glued to his phone screen, so he hasn’t seen the father and son, who both know they’re in a spot, who are expected to come home with lights, a wreath, and Christmas crackers.

“Well, what do we do now, Barry?” asks the son, the kind of young fella that thinks calling his father by his first name is very dry. So there is meant to be a mocking tone to this question, only the son doesn’t quite get there; he is high-pitched, wheedling. Until his father lost that bet, he could have asked him for the loan of the couple of hundred quid. It won’t be much of a Christmas if he’s to spend it looking over his shoulder for his creditor, preparing poor excuses.

Barry scratches his neck. He’s thinking about 12-step meetings and residential treatment facilities. About the yellow betting slips folded into his own father’s jacket pockets. About the jukebox and the arcade machine in the pool room of his local in the ’90s. Tinsel around the one low window, the Pogues on repeat, the dark, fizzy smell of hops. Lads back from London, from Oz, from Lebanon. Lepping and roaring as their ould fellas drank and murmured at the bar.

Barry is nostalgic by habit, not by nature; he’s always trying for connection to his own father, an unknowable misanthrope.

Now he says to his son, “Christ knows.”

The son says, “Coz I need the lend of a couple of hundred euro.”

“Where would I get a couple of hundred euro?”

“The same place you lost it, Barry.”

“You’re very smart, boy.”

The son jabs a thumb in the direction of his creditor. “I owe that fella money,” he hisses, and because his father is piqued, adds, “From nights out, like.”

“How do you owe money from nights out?”

“Everything’s fierce expensive, that’s how.”

“It is,’ says Barry, and both now look on the verge of tears.

“I need you to help me,” says the son. “That lad’ll break my thumbs.”

Barry assesses the creditor. “That lad couldn’t break an egg.”

“I assure you,” says his son. “He absolutely could.”

Father and son think about betting slips and broken thumbs and going home without the decorations, and God knows how injurious an action that would be on top of everything else. His son jogs Barry’s arm and they scuttle off. Ahead are two women, gazing into a shop window. They’re both wearing woollen coats and boots, both with leather handbags as big as holdalls.

The son hears his father say, “Plenty money there”, with feeling.

The boyfriend waits at the door of the cafe as his girlfriend joins the queue inside. He thumbs through tabs on his phone. He has a bit of a chest infection coming on, maybe, or he smoked too much last night. It’s regrettable he can’t tell the difference, so he tells himself to get his arse in gear. Take it handy tonight, get up early tomorrow and go to the gym or for a run or something, and then bring a breakfast smoothie or mocha home with him to his girlfriend, who he is perpetually certain is ready to dump him.

He frowns at his phone and thinks about what else he might get her for Christmas, what one amazing gift might stave off his apocalypse, and as he thinks he becomes aware of someone staring at him, just a few metres away. He looks up. It’s the girl he thinks he did something very stupid with about three weeks ago. She’s standing with her feet apart. The confrontational stance doesn’t suit the greeting. “Hey,” she says. “How are you?”

Dead on his feet. Suddenly bloodless.

“You’re with your girlfriend, I know. Just wanted to say hi, like, I’m not trying to get you in trouble. Hoping we were ok?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, we’re grand, yeah, no worries.”

“Doing some Christmas shopping?” the barwoman asks.

He doesn’t have her number, and Instagram and Snapchat he leaves to his girlfriend, so even if he’d wanted to analyse the situation with the barwoman, he had no way of doing so outside of physically turning up at her workplace or her house . . . though he can’t remember exactly where her house is, nor can he remember deciding to go to there or deciding to get into her bed. He left reeling and flagged down a taxi. At home he had to sit down in the shower, mouth pressed to his forearm. He doesn’t blame the barwoman for gifting him double shots; he is greedy. Getting presents, rather than giving presents, goes straight to his head.

“Listen,” he says. “Listen, I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?”

“Acting the prick. I’m sorry.”

Inside the cafe, the queue is moving slowly. He looks in and his girlfriend looks out. She smiles at him. He smiles back, then looks at his feet and says again to the barwoman, “I’m sorry,” and to his detriment adds, “Please.”

“I’m not going to say anything to her,” she snaps. “I’m not vindictive, like. It happened, I just don’t want you to ignore me now.”

“Ok,” he says. “I won’t. Please.”

His girlfriend starts towards the cafe door, holding two coffees. The boyfriend shoots one last look at the barwoman, this girl he might have cheated with three weeks ago. The look says, I am appealing to your better nature. The look says, I am throwing myself at your mercy. The look says, ’Tis the season for mercy.

The father and son get to the multi-storey car park and stand in the queue for the pay station. Neither being a decent strategist, each is thinking that he’ll have to come clean: the father to his wife, the son to his creditor.

They are queuing so long that their ticket clocks up another unit; they must now pay over a tenner to the machine. Barry’s bankcard is old and finicky, the machine isn’t set up for Apple Pay and his son has no change. Barry digs in his pockets. “Could any more go wrong,” he despairs, “in this bastard of a day?” He turns to the young wan behind him in the queue and says, “Sorry, girl, you wouldn’t –”

“I wouldn’t,” she says.

“I was only going asking you for a couple of euro.”

“You’re taking so long I’m probably going to need it myself.”

“Were you dragged up?” Barry asks. He is hurdling towards the point at which he’ll put his boot through that machine. Zipping around his head is the saying “Money can’t buy you happiness”, a phrase he figures was coined by the powerful to keep ordinary men from asking for too much. So quickly things go arseways when you have a cash flow problem. He remembers his own father again, the foul temper in the house every Christmas week, the manage money, his mother hiding bits and pieces in the neighbours’ shed, building a stash while his father hunted for what she’d put aside and philosophised bitterly about his lot in life.

“I’ve half a mind to take it off you,” Barry spits at the young wan. His cheeks are puce and his son is hopping from foot to foot, rearing to go. “Only a couple of euro, like. Miserable. You’re as miserable.”

The barwoman arrives for a five-to-close shift in the hotel in which she’s picked up Christmas hours. The place is already busy: a match is finishing on the big screen, people are looking for menus. As soon as the post-match analysis ends the staff must put on Christmas music. The playlist will cycle a good four times before the live band comes on. The barwoman is dreading both playlist and band. She has had a bad afternoon, due first to the wide-eyed pleading of the boy she’d had sex with, and then to a run-in with a man at the car park ticket machine, who’d threatened to mug her.

Two women come in and sit at the bar. The taller of the two is more put-together. Her hair is better styled, her lipstick flatters her complexion. She asks for a glass of pinot grigio. The shorter woman asks for a bottle to share instead. The first woman agrees but isn’t thrilled about it. They begin to drink.

The barwoman is making G&Ts nearby when the shorter woman gets up to find the bathroom. The barwoman casts an eye over the one with the better-styled hair, the well-chosen lipstick.

“Why’d you let her order for you?” she asks.

The put-together woman pinches the stem of her wine glass. “What?”

“If you didn’t want a bottle,” the barwoman says, “you shouldn’t have let her order a bottle. You’ll blame her tomorrow, then! When you’re green.”

“Excuse me?”

The barwoman knows that if a manager came by now, she’d be bawled out of it. But such is the mood she’s in.

“If you don’t want to do something, oh my God, don’t do it,” she says. “There’s no point in being passive-aggressive about it later. Grow a pair, as the saying goes.”

The woman laughs, furiously, so the barwoman doesn’t feel able to admit that she’s not really talking to or about her, but trying to assuage her own guilt, the feeling that it is her, and not the handsome, fearful, cheating boyfriend, that’s done something wrong.

Concepta and Attracta go for a walk after the bottle of wine. The walk was Attracta’s idea, put forward after Concepta talked about taking photographs of the Christmas lights. “I saw a man selling chestnuts earlier,” Attracta says. “We could get a couple of bags. That would be very Christmassy, wouldn’t it?”

“I’d say they’re horrible,” Concepta says.

“Probably disgusting,” Attracta agrees.

Today Concepta has tried to talk about their managing director, who accidentally shared a picture of himself in his jocks on Instagram; her sister-in-law, who is an absolute dipsomaniac; and the lady who cleans the office on Fridays, whose son has been charged with assault. She has even tried to talk about politics. But Attracta does not converse; she agrees, and Concepta is enraged to hear her own opinions echoed, and enraged further to consider what that means, whether she’s actually capable of boring the arse off herself.

They take a wrong turn after their hotel. They end up on the other side of a narrow channel of the river; they see the lights and bustle on the boardwalk opposite, and head for the footbridge that will carry them across. They’re silent, though Attracta seems happy enough, if gormless is a sort of happy, and Christ, thinks Concepta, it must be.

At one end of the footbridge stand two men, one middle-aged, one young. There’s a restraint to them that seems unhealthy. Their eyes flash like those of spooked horses.

“Ladies,” asks the middle-aged man. “Where are you off to?”

Attracta lays out their trajectory, gormlessly happy with this man’s attempts at conversation, maybe thinking that he’s flirting with her. Between trite phrases the men shoot each other looks. Concepta notes how the traffic is sparse on this side of the river. There is timber hoarding across the street demarcating an unlit building site. Concepta quickly understands that these two men, who look well-fed and yet desperate, intimate and yet at war, have the capacity to do her harm. But her half-bottle has brought her closer to the dark than the pretty lights.

She watches the younger of the men cast his glance between her bag and Attracta’s, and she understands what form his desperation will take, and it surprises her; it seems so unambitious, as if he doesn’t understand the damage he’s capable of doing.

The middle-aged man points across the road. “There’s a beer garden down there,” he says. “They have a market set up for Christmas. Handmade yokes, jewellery and sweeties. Hot toddies. There’s a fella there with chestnuts.”

“We can show you,” says the younger man, quickly.

Attracta agrees. Agreeing is what Attracta does. She heads over with the middle-aged man. The younger takes a step forward, then winces at Concepta. “Well, come on,” he says.

Well, come on, though there isn’t a hope in hell of Concepta acquiescing; she is wily, and she is sick of being toothlessly cynical. She watches as Attracta gets further away, listing in her boots, tote bag dangling from her shoulder. She thinks about what the barwoman said about passive aggression. She thinks about letting people make their own foolish decisions. She is not responsible for Attracta; she didn’t wish this bad impressionist on herself. And there is nothing to say that these two men are not actually being friendly or helpful. They could be. Yes, why not? It is almost Christmas, and Concepta, for God’s sake, deserves this.

Photograph: Bríd O'Donovan
Photograph: Bríd O'Donovan

Lisa McInerney’s debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, won the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the 2016 Desmond Elliott Prize. The Blood Miracles was joint winner of the 2018 RSL Encore Award. The Rules of Revelation will be published by John Murray next May

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