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Trading Places

Rain dribbled down the side of the 41C. Condensation blurred his view of Dorset Street. He'd been staring at his reflection in the glass two seats ahead, but a young couple had sat in front of him at the Big Tree, and now his mind, it wandered. Fiddling with his ticket, he shifted in the seat. Late October winds sneaked in through the closed window, nibbling at his bare neck. He pulled up the collar of his fleece, and with his arm, wiped a long clear arc on the window pane.

Outside, late-night shoppers, weighed down with carrier bags, battled the gale with flimsy umbrellas. A few woolly-hatted teens, ran for cover in the bus shelter, their puffy jackets glistening under the orange streetlight glow. Behind him two elderly women complained about the weather, in deep gurgling voices caused by a lifelong love affair with John Player King Size. He noticed the venom in their talk, as they moved on to "the youths hogging the seats up the front." A student across the aisle typed furiously on her mobile. Through her Walkman headphones he could make out the muffled lyrics of the latest boyband hit.

... where the fields are green,
to see you once again, my love ...

He cringed. His wristwatch beeped. Six.

Two months in Dublin, and Mikey was used to the routine. They'd said he'd never like the settled life, that in no time he'd be running home with his tail between his legs. He was the only one from the whole MacDonagh clan to get the Leaving, let alone go on to college. He was the only one to live in a house for God's sake. If you could call it that.

He was renting a cramped bed-sit in Grace Park House, Drumcondra. A converted convent, its small rooms suited the hermit life. When it rained heavily, the single window dripped in time with his alarm clock. He'd lined the sill with newspaper, and stuck a Dolmio jar under the largest crack, but he knew when he'd get home the carpet would be drown'ded. What harm, it was better than the van any day.

The others had thought him cracked to go. "What use is a education to the likes of us?", his father said. "I suppose you'll be gettin' a fancy settled woman to go along with that fancy house o' yours."

His father had been trying to arrange a marriage between Mikey and Paddy Ward's daughter from Oughterard. His three older brothers had been hitched, and at nineteen, 'twas time for Mikey too. "Curse to God on ya, Mikey. I'm after savin' enough for a new van and all. What good is a education to ya?".

But Mikey looked up from his fingernails and gave his Da a defiant stare. "I'm not spending the rest of my life in this dump."

His father was a tall, domineering man with a stubborn jaw. Since Mikey's granddad's death, he'd taken over as head of the camp. He had a head of long greying curly hair, and what seemed to be a constant stubble on his sun-darkened face. His hands were as big as saucepans, tough like sand-paper. He'd been taught the skills of tinkering by his father, and still made some water-cans for the local farmers. But like so many of his kind the advent of plastic had forced him on to other trades. Mikey often sold cheap furniture with him on the quays in Galway.

To make it worse, Nana'd died the week he was leaving. You'd think there were two deaths, with all the attention he got at the wake. "'Tis a bad sign", his mother repeated, "a bad sign", as she rocked in her seat in Lowney's funeral home, her black shawl sweeping the arms of the mahogany chair.

But the night of the funeral, with all the commotion in the camp gathering up all of Nana's things, carefully placing them in her old van and setting it alight, he was able to get packed with hardly any notice. Filling up his suitcase, he could hear aunt Peggy singing Luke Kelly, as the camp sat around the blaze. The next morning the smouldering black skeleton of the van marked the end of one life, as he boarded the bus to Dublin.

Schooling had been tough for Mikey. He'd been to three primary schools in all. He remembered St. Stephen's in New Ross the most. His first class teacher, a mister D'Arcy, had been forced to take him by the headmaster. He made it clear he resented having "his kind" in class. He'd stand in front of the board, armed with chalk and "glantóir"1, his single bushy eyebrow like a giant "M" dragging his forehead down over his eyes. When it came to First Confession he joked to the class how MacDonagh would "hold the rest of us up with his crimes. He'll prob'ly try to flog some of his ould tarmac to Fr. Codd in the box, lads".

The others giggled. Their minds, like suitcases, filling already with prejudice.

In Portlaoise they'd had a separate class for the "itinerants". A small flat-roofed hut attached to the back of the school, beside the boiler house. It had been a make-shift changing room before the travellers arrived. A single map of Ireland showed all the rivers, lakes and mountain ranges. It looked a happy place in green and brown. They'd had a separate lunch break, too. And, it seemed, a separate curriculum. "Much better to have them among their own", they'd said.

The MacDonaghs had settled down in Tuam halting site in first year, and Mikey stayed in the C.B.S. there right through to the end. His other brothers left after their Junior Certs, poor results echoed their lack of interest. School was rough being the oldest "knacker" there. "Penny for the baba", murmured around the class whenever he stuck his hand up. But Mikey was determined to stay. He wanted to be a lawyer. Evictions and discrimination had taught him the powers of the law. And here he was on the 41C, inching his way towards the City Centre.

The bus pulled in beside Kleenman Launderette. A black-haired girl, was crouched over, feeding the machine a melange of sheets and towels. Mikey thought she looked a bit like Saoirse. But it couldn't be. Saoirse had left the sheets behind her.

Mikey'd met Saoirse his fourth night in the flat. He was home a few hours after working his first night in Xtravision. He was awake, trying to tire his eyes by reading the map of Dublin uncle Ollie had bought him. He was memorising the south side, Cuffe Street, Wexford Street, Liberty Lane ... when three gentle, almost inaudible taps, came on the grey door. He checked his watch - 2am. He'd never had a visitor in the day time, let alone at night. He decided to ignore, but the light through the window pane above the door betrayed him, and the same three knocks came again. Pulling on his jeans, and gripping the plastic doorknob, he eased the door open.

She stood, half-slouched, lying against the corridor wall across from Mikey's. A gold name plate pinned to her tucked-in white blouse reflected the light from the room. Her black skirt just barely revealed her knees. "Hi", she offered uneasily, "My name's Saoirse. I live upstairs".

He threw a glance at the name tag. "Oh yeah", she continued, "I'm just back from work. I was wondering if I could maybe borrow a cigarette?"

She had one of those new "Celtic Tiger" Dublin accents, with slender vowels, and perfect pronunciation. The type who said "Oi" instead of "I". Relaxing his grip on the door, "Sure", he turned towards the kitchen chair that served as coat rack, and picked up his leather jacket. He reached into the inside pocket and withdrew a box of Marlboro. He was used to smoking rollies, but had switched to cigarettes in Dublin. "By the way, I'm Mike ... al, Michael McDonald", he gave the name on his USIT card, "You're the first neighbour I've met."

He noticed her nervous smile. Her lips pinched together, a hint of red lipstick brightening up her thin white face. Her cheeks were lightly dusted with small brown freckles, overpowered by the thick black mascara surrounding her turquoise eyes. He gave her a handshake, and then opened the red packet. "Come in if you like".

"Oh, Oi don't know it's very late. Oi'm probably disturbing you."

"Not at all. I couldn't sleep anyway".

Giving in, she stepped lightly over the threshold.

Saoirse worked at Spar, on Talbot Street. Her tall build helped her stock the top shelves - and attract the customers, Mikey imagined. She wasn't stunning, but attractive in a girl-next-door, or girl-upstairs kind of way. She parted her hair straight down the middle, like two satin curtains of pitch black, from a bottle, hair. Her name meant "freedom". Mikey thought that cute. She liked the Beatles.

On their second "date" they went to her flat, and listened to Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Saoirse smoked marijuana, or "funny fags" as she called them. Mikey had refused at first. He had hesitated in accepting her cans of Dutch Gold. But Saoirse insisted. "Everybody does it. It's, loike, barely illegal."

He frowned. In the camp the strongest thing they had was whiskey. She continued, "Someone once told me, you don't have to sell all your soul. Y'know. You can sell half or a quarter of it", grinning, she pushed the joint towards him.

It was rolled tightly. Carefully examining it between his fingers he thought of his Da with his old sofas and dressers in Galway. He decided to sell as much as he could. He took a drag with one hand, and her wrist with the other. Exhaling, he kissed her, softly, on the cheek.

He was two weeks away from home now. His mother had been writing all the time. Well, they were written by his brother, Liam, but his Ma had dictated. Short paragraphs about the daily happenings of camp life. Peggy'd been given a job by Father Murray, cleaning the church on Mondays, and decorating the altar on Fridays. Aunt Mags was expecting again. She'd told Ollie she wanted a fourth son, but confided in Ma she'd "give her right arm" for a daughter. They'd painted new lines on the road outside the camp. She asked him when he was coming home.

Come October the weather worsened, and Mikey's flat was damp and cold. He was seeing Saoirse regularly now. Every night he'd wait for her to come back from Spar and knock. Three gentle taps on the wood, that reminded Mikey of his father carefully shaping the handles of his cans. They'd sneak upstairs to her warmer flat. When he thought about it he never knew why they snook. It just seemed natural to carefully hop over the squeaky second step and shuffle quietly to her room every time.

They'd drink some cans, have a joint when she could get her hands on it, and "make love" in her hard single bed, before pulling over the thin wool sheets and drifting off to sleep. She'd had boyfriends in the past, and guided Mikey expertly. But she wasn't domineering or selfish during sex. Just gentle, and instructive. She had a knack, where she'd gently explore Mikey's ear with her tongue, and then withdraw, to blow a mouthful of air, sparingly, into the wet spot she left behind. Mikey's whole body would stand on edge. He'd never known a girl, before Saoirse. Not really. They shared everything. Their time, their food, their bodies. They'd even devised nicknames for each other by the time she showed him the pregnancy test.

"How could this possibly happen."

"What? They don't have Sex Ed. in Galway", she scrunched up her face, her eyebrows creating a stern ledge over her eyes, "You see, Michael, when a man sticks his "willie" up a woman's "fanny" and ..."

He usually loved her sarcasm. "You said you were on the Pill", he said it louder than was needed, desperation quickly taking over.

"I was. I am. But sometimes ... Well it can happen that ..."

He stopped listening. His hands felt numb. He dropped to the bed. Silent. He pictured all his cousins running round the camp playing in the rubbish, or fighting with sticks. He was going to be a "Da". He looked down at his hands. They were too smooth, too clean to be father's. She invaded his private coma. "So what are we gonna do? ..."

Mr. Fallon, the landlord, was a short, stocky, sweaty, balding man. He never ventured near the house, except to collect rent the last Friday of every month. He was pretty easy going when Mikey explained that he wanted to move home. He just chuckled saying, "'Tis not easy get used to the big smoke." He kept the deposit.

Mikey moved all his stuff up to Saoirse's flat. The rent was cheaper to split and they needed to start saving for the baby. Mikey extended his hours in Xtravision. He got time-and-a-half on Sundays. With the extra money he bought a portable telly for the flat. They went halves on a hi-fi and some CDs. By late-October they had three hundred pounds in the "Baby Fund", and despite occasional raids for groceries, it gradually filled the old coffee jar on top of the oven.

Trinity College had a strange way of examining. They had end-of-week exams every Friday, and regular fortnightly tests that went towards the semester grade. Mikey was finding it hard to study with his extra "responsibilities". The tests on the 30th kind of crept up on him. The first one on European Legislature I seemed to go alright. But as for Domestic Law, a certain flunk. "If only they knew!", he thought.

The test finished at five, but he was out the door a half-hour early. He was due in Xtravision at five to. The 11B seemed to take ages, and he had to go back to the flat for his uniform. He was busy thinking up a clever excuse when he saw the notice.

EVICTION was printed in block capitals on an A4 Refill page. Mr. Fallon had gone over it three or four times in blue biro. It was stuck to her door with a strip of Cellotape. "The occupant, Ms. S. Burns, is requested to leave, No. 6, Grace Park House, immediately due to rent violation", and then after that formal introduction, scrawled quickly: "Saoirse I let you off with September. Pay up for the two months, or go!!!" Mikey didn't have time to worry now. Mr. Fallon had obviously made a mistake. He'd given her the hundred pounds for October just two days earlier and she always paid on the last Friday. He fiddled with the key, detaching the A4 sign, and opened the door. A solitary letter shifted along the carpet as he entered.

It took his eyes a few seconds to adjust. The heavy, navy printed curtain was still across. He reached for the switch. The flat looked barer than usual. Mikey had hidden his stuff in the wardrobe, so Mr. Fallon wouldn't find out about his "arrangement". But his leather jacket, and a few tops were positioned around the room. The portable was missing too. His glance at the "Baby Fund" confirmed his fears.

She had everything. The TV, hi-fi, even the CDs, and all her clothes were gone. He'd been done. All that was left of the "Baby Fund" was a folded over Post-it at the base of the jar. The three words "I'm not pregnant" offered no relief. The pain of nineteen years of abuse for "the coniving kind" he was, and he'd been done over. She'd even gone through his jacket for spare change. Itinerant, tinker, knacker, "Penny for the baba". He was the victim.

He left the flat. Ran. Fuck his job. Fuck the flat. Fuck the rain. Down Richmond Road, picking up speed on seeing the bus. He sprinted past FBD Insurance. Panting, he boarded the 41C. Sitting near the back, he could see his self in the glass pane that jutted out from the side doors. His chest heaving from the run. His long hair was gone. She'd convinced him to get it shaved. He was wearing the polo she'd picked out. "Green. It brings out your eyes". Raindrops, like tears, trailed down his cheeks, gleaming in the bus's striplights . His ear was bare. She hadn't liked earrings. "They make you look cheap. Scummy."

The floor of the bus is slippy with rain-water by the time it reaches Talbot Street. Mikey holds on to the bars as he shuffles to the front. The ticket is still in his hand, and he discards it in the bin by the bus stop. Night has fallen quickly, but the evening drizzle has died away. He feels his heart. It's beating much slower now.

The heat and smell of the Cuisine de France bakery hits him when he opens the door to Spar. A miniature Saoirse slumps, bored, behind the counter. Her tag reads HOPE. "My God, do they all have to have black hair, and meaningful names to work here", he thinks. "Hoi", he puts on an accent, "can Oi speak to Saoirse please."

"Saoirse? There's no Saoirse here, bud."

"No? Tall, black hair? Smokes?", he forces himself not to say "thieving bitch?"

She shouts across to the Chinese CHRIS behind the Deli counter. "Chris, is there a Saoirse working here?"

"Saoirse? No. Gone about three weeks.", the Dublin accent surprises Mikey.

"Are you sure? She told me she was in Spar. Talbot Street." His attempted accent is fading. " I have a message for her. Did she leave an address or anything?"

"No", Chris again, "I think she's in Drumcondra though."

"Yeah, I think I might have that one. Thanks", he's already half-way out the door.

Madigan's is busy for seven o'clock. The door creaks when Mikey enters. It's one of those pubs where they've stuck old whiskey jars and Woodbine advertisements around the place to attract the tourists. Back in Tuam they'd never gone to pubs. The vintner's had always had a "regular's only" rule, when the travellers had tried. At least when they'd gone to book the Great Western for Ann's wedding they'd said straight out "No Knackers". Now Mikey just feels like getting drunk.

He orders a pint and sits by the window. He can clearly see Spar across the street. Maybe she'll return for one quick goodbye. Maybe the whole thing was an early April's Fools. Maybe she's already found another fool. He sniffles. The run must have given him a cold. Reaching for a hankie he feels something hard in his pocket.

He'd picked up his mother's letter before he'd left the flat. The shock of betrayal had made him forget. Now he flicks open the white envelope.

Dear Mikey,

Your Ma again. We're all hoping you'll be home for Hallowe'en. Rose and Marrie already have their witches' gear, and the lads have built up the biggest bonfire you ever saw.

I thought you might like to know Mary Ward is doing a line with one of the Conners from Caltra, so your Da has already forgotten about it, and he's asking me when your going to be back.

We know your all settled in to Dublin now, and that you'll be busy with schooling and all. You know your Da is real proud of you. The only one of us to get anywhere. Ollie and Peg were asking for you.

Hope to see you soon,


He crumples it up and throws it in the ashtray. "I'm not going back to that knacker-hole", the words feel strange on his muttered breath. He pictures Mr. Fallon's eviction sign again. This time stapled to a board outside the camp. "Good riddance." He watches the last of the froth on his Budweiser disappear, and takes his first gulp.