Michael McGrath

A Study in F

Michael McGrath

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Turning up the collar of his thick Crombie overcoat, Peter Carson strolled along an uneven pavement toward another day at his office. The morning was fresh and Henry Street was unusually quiet for half past eight of a Tuesday, so that the noise and bustle of the city seemed to echo from distant junctions at either side of the sunlit road. It had occurred to Peter that the particular block where the plush Savoy Hotel faced the white modernity of a multi-storey carpark was beginning to resemble something of architectural note. Each building consisted of roughly six or seven floors which obscured the blue of the morning light, giving a paired down Manhattan feel to the eye of only those who dreamed such things. Then again, the famed grid system of New York’s streets had been modelled on that of Limerick, and Peter felt very intelligent for knowing this. Indeed, there were many obscure facts about the city which he had collected from his forty-five years of living within it and he would often use these to regal the few people in his life with whom he felt comfortably acquainted.       

          Approaching the corner of Roche’s Street, a southern wind whipped round the corner of a stone building and Peter instinctively wrapped his overcoat around the dimensions of his slight frame—wondering aloud if he should have worn a hat. He had always been somewhat fearful of wearing hats, for he had heard that they may bring about the onset of premature baldness. His wispy brown hair, though somewhat faded, had for the most part remained attached to the top of his head; though on breezy mornings such as this, he wondered if the sudden gusts may nonetheless cause irreparable damage to his brittle follicles for no other reason than to spite him.    

          Arriving at last to the door of the solicitors’ office in which he worked, Peter entered the reception area and typed a code which would bring him around to the other side of the desk. It was better not to get too caught up in such pointless musings. After all, little could be done to slow the process and were he do something radical such as surgery, people would notice. Had he not seen enough cases involving knives in his work at a solicitors’ office in Limerick to last a lifetime? Peter smiled to himself when he thought of this. He was very clever.  

          Peter’s desk was behind a large glass window in the reception area of the dated office, and it was from here he took care of all administrate duties for Harper’s Solicitors and Associates. Beyond his glass window sat a quaint and narrow waiting room of fading 1970s’ décor: its dark timber furnishings only offset by the occasional cream cushion or sprig of green from a potted plant. A silver CD player sat awkwardly in its timber surroundings and wafted the tones of RTE’s morning radio up through the crackling Venetian blinds, which swayed to a summer dance with an unseen open window.      

          The scene was a deliberate construct of Peter’s notions on blissful environments and helped immensely in the administration of his secretarial workload. Though this work was exclusively clerical in nature, it was not without its own aura of prestige, and Peter often postulated that unlike the solicitors, he was the one crucial cog which never needed oil. For by their nature, attorneys were required to exist in a vacuum of massaged egotistical facades—whereas Peter was a creature of more simple requirements.       

          As if to confirm this conjecture, Peter heard the familiar clack of one of his boss’s high-heeled shoes echo from the pavement outside the front window and within seconds Brenda Harper had bustled in to the reception area, both hands full with briefcases and various paper folders. Hurried and confused, her eyes quickly focused on her assistant who was sitting with an air of some contentment behind his glass panel.     

          “Get me the McGinley files at once please,” she whistled through gasping breaths, which laboured from the efforts of her unhealthy fifty-year old body rushing to the office with assorted baggage. Peter winced a little at the sharpness of her tone. Though he was rarely intimidated by Brenda, he was never left in much doubt regarding his subordinate role in the midst of a crisis. He also disliked the glare that she threw in his direction which suggested that he was in some way responsible for her poor timekeeping. Her hazel eyes, which were still beautiful, sat coldly in the round dimensions of her face; and like the dry brown hair which hung past her shoulder, didn’t flit a moment until Peter began to look a little more spritely.      

          “Oh bloody hell, he’s here already,” hissed Brenda beneath her breath as the sound of the outer door’s movements echoed into the reception room. With little time to consider much else, the solicitor piled her cases and files on a slim chair and turned to face her favoured client who had officially arrived two minutes early.     

          “Good morning, Mr McGinley,” she smiled through her dark red lipstick.   

          James McGinley entered the room in brisk and business-like fashion, stretching his hand to offer the customary firm handshake. “And a rather pleasant morning it is too Brenda,” he grinned, flashing the white veneer of his front teeth. Mr McGinley was an imposing bulk of suit and flesh whose presence filled a room as quickly as his duty-free aftershave. His thick neck overflowed in the shape of a solid ring above a well-tailored shirt collar and the sheen from his slicked back hair gave the disconcerting aura of a halo.       

          Towering over Ms Harper as they shook hands, McGinley rolled his eyes sideways to address her employee. “Carson, isn’t it?”    

          “Yes, Peter Carson.”    

          “Well Carson, is there any truth in this rumour I hear knocking about?”    

          “What rumour are you referring to, Sir?”    

          “What rumour? Why that story I’ve heard about you going to make me a strong cup of tea?”  

          Peter looked at the man somewhat dumbly.     

          “Well?” McGinley raised his voice and looked to Ms Harper whose smile remained firmly embossed upon her pale cheeks.    

           Peter continued to gaze perplexed at the man. “So,” he hesitated, “you wish for me to make you a cup of tea?”      

           Placing his hands upon his large hips, McGinley theatrically gaped about the room for support from an imaginary audience. “Why yes, Peter, if you would be so kind?”  

          Turning about in his small office space to find the key for the kitchen, the clerk was finally rescued by Ms Harper who assured McGinley that Peter would bring the tea through to her meeting room as soon as he had it brewed.       

          The situation seemingly resolved, Ms Harper thanked Peter and walked into her office, leaving the door open for McGinley to follow. However, waiting for her to leave earshot, McGinley placed his well shaven jowls half an inch from the glass which separated the waiting room from the reception desk. “Still though,” he whispered, “I don’t blame you for being a little slow on the uptake old chap. The life of a manservant must have a terribly dulling effect on the senses.”    

          Suddenly ceasing his search for the kitchen’s keys, Peter stood in the centre of his reception office and spoke with uncertainty: “I don’t really understand what it is you are referring to Mr McGinley?”    

          “Ah Peter, we’re all friends here—what is it, twenty odd years you’ve been sat behind that desk serving Brenda? Terribly unnatural state if you ask me, though I guess a person will do what they must to earn a living. Tell me this though—just between us boys—you must have had awful potent fantasies about the old girl from time to time? All that power she wields over you on a daily basis? She’s still a bit of a looker too in the right light.”        

          Mr McGinley, I really don’t think that is…” Peter began.    

          “I’d have myself rubbed raw so I would and there’s no shame in it,” continued McGinley, “go on, Carson, tell me—it must be fierce intense after a bottle of wine of a Friday night?”   

          Without taking his eyes from the folded stack of papers which lay on his desk, Peter spoke lowly, in shame at the tone of McGinley’s conversation: “I am perfectly sure that I have no idea what it is you are referring to and I do wish you would refrain from speaking to me in such a manner, Mr McGinley.”    

          “Era, have it your way, man, all I’m saying is that it’s a funny way to spend a career. Still and all, your name is Carson I suppose—maybe it’s the Protestant work ethic coming out in you what?” 

          With that, McGinley winked mischievously and brought his bulk away from the counter, “Go easy on me, Peter, sure I’m only having the sport with you,” he smiled before stepping heavily into Ms Harper’s office and closing the door behind himself.   

          Peter gazed a moment at the dark wooden door of Brenda’s office which seemed peculiarly ominous in the sudden silence of the room. A black metal placque with silver trim had been riveted to the timber which proudly declared the credentials attained by Mses. C. and B. Harper during the formative years of their legal careers in University College Cork. It came to Peter’s mind that he had never fully understood the meaning behind the various acronyms which proudly validated the sign’s authority.      

          An hour passed under such considerations and little work was completed despite its mounting necessity. Beyond the glass, the radio in the waiting area told the same news on the half hour and took calls from a discontented public to fill the gaps between. Above the silver CD player, the Venetian blinds continued to flit in front of an open window and the large potted plant danced along to the breeze. Feeling somewhat lulled by the monotone tranquillity, Peter gazed sleepily through the gaps of the blind to the concrete and blue skies of the city outside. Here, the people walked the streets with purpose; their errands setting the foundations of greater plans which even if never fully realised, created meaning in the lives of their hosts. In every mind, a scaffold to a greater existence was being held in place with old rope. And they would each climb it too—level by level until finally the lights went out.      

          “Are you alright Peter?” Ms Harper stood in front of the glass with her black folder held tightly to her chest. Dazed, Peter realised he had been drifting half to sleep and not noticed the door to her office opening.     

          “Yes, Brenda, sorry I was just thinking about something.”    

          “Well snap out of it please,” she whispered, “Mr McGinley is walking out behind me.”   

          As soon as she had spoken, McGinley appeared at the door. “You never brought me my tea after all that hullabaloo?”       

          That was right. In all his distractions he had forgotten about the tea. “Terribly sorry about that, Mr McGinley, I received a phone call after you went in and forgot about it,” Peter replied sheepishly.

        McGinley made his way to the counter and pressed his face near the glass as before. “It’s quite alright old chap,” he grinned in a mocking upper-class accent, “must be awfully hard to find good help these days what?”    

          Peter looked at McGinley’s sneering round visage in disgust. His shirt collar had already darkened round the rim with sweat from the roll of his overhanging neck, and his milky eyes looked sinister and dirty in their sockets. His overbearing aftershave had infused with the gas of fried eggs from his breath and the hybrid stench reeked through the holes of the glass and into Peter’s workspace.       

          “Well, Mr McGinley,” Peter began, his cheeks glowing red in temper, “if you are in such need of regular hot refreshments then might I suggest that you bring a flask in your briefcase for future engagements?”

         “What was that, Carson?” McGinley growled menacingly.

         Trembling, Peter looked viciously at the man and felt a surge of blood begin to boil over in his veins. “Oh go and make your own bloody tea!” he exploded, jumping to his feet and knocking over a stack of carefully organised papers. McGinley wheeled backwards in a defensive reflex at the sudden outburst.       

          “Peter!” Ms Harper exclaimed, and immediately began consoling and apologising to McGinley who stood somewhat dumbfounded in the centre of the room.     

          “Never in all my years,” he began muttering under his breath while staring perplexed at the thin rod of rage which Peter had become behind the glass.   

          “I don’t know what in heaven’s name has gotten in to you, Peter, but you would do very well for yourself if you offered an immediate apology to Mr McGinley—do you hear me?”   

          Peter looked from the stern face of Ms Harper to the open mouthed gape of McGinley and felt the temperature cool around the surface of his forehead. It had been years since he’d lost his temper and he had forgotten how blindingly debilitating it could be. White stars still fell around the room before his eyes and his brain had turned to a thick stew incapable of reasonable function.   

          “I’m sorry,” he blurted automatically.    

          Ms Harper, still clutching McGinley’s jacket sleeve glared scornfully at her assistant. “Take an early lunch, Peter.”    

          “But I need to tidy up this mess back here,” Peter spoke while looking at the table.  

          “Just go.”        

          Realising there was little to be gained by arguing, Peter came out from behind the glass and walked past both silent figures to remove his coat from the rack which stood in the corner of the room. McGinley continued to look on with a slacked jaw as the clerk passed by him. He had done this since the outburst and continued to do so as Peter left the reception area, closed the glass door and walked out into the yellow sunlight of the street.      

          Jaywalking across three lanes of crawling vehicles, Peter loudly cursed the sun upon his neck while inhaling tarmac and exhaust fumes through his open mouth in the process. Removing his coat at the other side, he trudged gloomily up the white flags of the pedestrianised Bedford Row, before turning once more into the loud traffic of O’Connell Street.     

          It was time for a drink. Peter seldom drank on weekdays and only moderately with his friends at the weekend. The meticulous order of his life would not allow for the disarray of intoxication nor the lethargy of a hangover. His time was a precious currency to him and he wished to spend it with his facilities operating at an efficient level. Nonetheless, there was today. Yes, he assured himself, a liquid lunch would wash the morning down the urinal of his memory.  

          Crossing the top of O’Connell Street, he made his way into the cool porch of the White House Bar and pushed in the glass panelled door. The space inside provided an instant sanctuary from the bustle of the street. Light made its way softly through the frosted glass and fell dimly around the dark timber furnishings which were spread evenly throughout the room. Empty booths sat waiting for patrons on either side of the walls and the tall bar was complimented by high stools with thick backrests and green leather cushions. The lure of the public house, thought Peter, as he approached the bar and considered a pint of ale and the curse of Ireland.  

          The barman was a young chap of college going years who sported a well-trimmed beard and a haircut which remained unfathomable to the middle-aged. His thick rimmed glasses sat casually on the bridge of his nose and looking over the top of them, he addressed Peter while pushing a noisy tray into a washer. “Can I get you something, Sir?”       

          “A pint of stout please—Beamish.”    

          “No problem, take a seat and I’ll drop it down to you when it’s ready.”  Peter thanked the surprisingly polite young man and made his way over to an empty booth which directly faced the counter.    

          When the young barman placed the settled pint of stout in front of him, Peter visibly licked his lips in thirst. Teasing himself by looking at the beads of condensation snaking down its black sides, he put his hand on the cool glass and brought it to his face. The scent of malt and hops tickled the tip of his nose a little before he drove it deep into the stout’s creamy head and drank deeply. 

          The thirst broke, he brought the glass down on the table top with a reassuring clang and exhaled in reckless abandonment. He was very naughty. Twelve o’clock in the day of a Tuesday and here he was drinking a pint of stout. But why was he here and how had he gotten himself into so much trouble? Brenda was livid and now he genuinely had to fear for his job. He shouldn’t have let McGinley get under his skin that way. In any event, his reaction was completely disproportionate and out of character. Was there even some truth in McGinley’s oafish words? Maybe he really was little more than a manservant—a glorified teaboy for his bosses’ whims. More worryingly, as McGinley had suggested, it may be true that he harboured an odd subordinate fetish regarding Brenda over the years.      

          Peter took another deep draught of his Beamish and thought about this detail. Really? He supposed she did look somewhat attractive in her business suits and figure hugging formal dresses. Her deep brown eyes were always something which he had admired and they had not lost a drop of depth in their vast oceans during the twenty-five odd years he had known her. There were times too—if he were honest with himself—that he had looked down her blouse as she leaned over to give him orders of some kind and he couldn’t swear that he had not become aroused in the moment. Of course that was the point, wasn’t it? She had been giving him orders at the time.   

          Peter drank another large gulp of stout and began to feel embarrassed for himself. It was true that on some level he certainly drew pleasure from Brenda’s superiority over him. Did this make him dirty? What sort of man had he become? McGinley had done much to emasculate him in a short time this morning and he cursed the brute and all who entertained his withering bile. Draining the last dregs from his glass, he approached the counter for another swift one.    

          “Same again?” asked the young barman.    

          Peter ordered another Beamish and accompanied it this time with a whiskey chaser. Neat. The barman duly obliged and when the Beamish had settled, he placed both glasses beside one another on the dark wooden countertop. Before paying his money, Peter took in a large swallow of stout and quickly followed it with the whiskey till the little glass dribbled its last scorching river onto his tongue.      

          “That’ll put hairs on your chest alright,” chirped a voice at the corner of the bar. Peter turned to see a man sitting on a high stool with his elbow on a newspaper. He was about Peter’s age, but he was bulky and red faced. He had—in Peter’s learned opinion—the distinct whiff of an ex-rugby player.      

          “You up for one yourself?” asked Peter in a congenial tone, though clearly challenging the man.  

          “Bit early for me, auld Pal,” replied the other patron, smiling into his larger, “sure wouldn’t I be in the bottom floor of the dog house if the wife got the smell of whiskey off me of an afternoon?”  

          Peter considered this reasoning with no small level of scorn.       

          “Jim O’Grady,” said the man, holding out his hand. Peter looked at the sweaty palm and large sausage fingers for a moment before shaking it reluctantly.    

          “Peter Carson.”    

          “Well, Mr Carson, it’s not a bad auld day, what?”    

          The clerk sighed and agreed, sitting down on a stool next to the big man. This is what days in the town were like he supposed. He felt sure that soon they would be discussing sport or whatever scant knowledge O’Grady had picked up about politics and the general state of the country. How many days of one’s life could elapse in the intoxicating haze of Limerick’s various public houses? Considering his morning, would it be a bad life at all?     

          Excusing himself momentarily from O’Grady - and with Dutch courage bristling - Peter approached a man who was sitting on his own with a guitar and asked if he was going to play music in the bar today—an odd thing for a random Tuesday afternoon.      

          “Unlikely,” replied the young man, “I’m only a scrub.”  

          “A what?” Peter asked.    

          “I’m only busking down the road for the evening like.”    

          “I see.” Peter knew how to play exactly three songs on the guitar. He had taught himself in college for the same reason he now felt growing inside his chest like a bubble of hot air. He wished to impress others along with himself.    

          “Would you be so kind as to let me try it out?” he asked of the young man.    

          The busker looked at him somewhat perplexed before answering: “Knock yourself out, kid, but if the barman pipes up it’s your own look out, yeah?”    

          “Of course.” Peter returned to his high stool and smiled at the round face of O’Grady.  “You’re gonna give us an auld bar?” asked the big man.    

          “Only one or two,” smiled the clerk before adding with a wink, “I’ve work to be getting back to.”    

          Fumbling over the cords, Peter finally found his rhythm and began to pluck away to a Phil Collins number. It wasn’t so difficult when one knew how, he thought as he began to lowly sing the opening verse. His voice, though trembling, held its pitch.     

          O’Grady grinned drunkenly and raised his arms in a large ‘V’ above his head before crooning along to the chorus: “It’s just another day in paradise.”    

          And it was. Peter played through his full repertoire of three songs, greatly regaling the barman and the other three patrons of the bar.     

          “There’s the man,” roared O’Grady, slapping his wide palm on the countertop, “Do ya see you? You’re some hero, you, boy!”    

          Peter felt the warmth of this appreciation begin to flush along the surface of his cheeks. He had taken quite a risk in playing the guitar for he could easily have forgotten the cords and looked foolish. If he only knew more tunes he would gladly play them; indeed, he would stay for another round or two if work wasn’t beckoning his mind to return.     

          Looking at his watch, Peter saw that it was now almost half past two. He felt Brenda would understand his lateness and put it down to a desire for a well needed timeout after the morning’s drama—however she wouldn’t tolerate a smell of whiskey or the glint of a glassy eye.   

          Resigning himself to leave his congenial company, the tipsy clerk bade farewell to O’Grady, who tightly squeezed his hand and made him promise he would return next week as Tuesdays were his preferred time for day drinking. The young busker and the barman also shook his hand and smiled roundly at the pleasure it had been to make his acquaintance. Agreeing with all of this, Peter elegantly draped his coat over his forearm and made his way back through the dark wooden doors and out to the dazzling street.      

          The sun had not given an inch and the disorientating reflections were cruel on eyes which had become accustomed to the cool dimness of an ale house. At once, Peter decided it would be best to walk around the block by the river—it was longer and the fresh breeze from the water may blow some of the cobwebs from his contented boozy mind. He would also pass a shop in which he could buy a packet of mints. Yes, that would be an important detail.    

          Coming onto the quays, he watched the swans drift silently along the wide river as a group of seagulls stood on the promenade’s railings and eyed each passing human for food. Passing slowly along the timber decking, Peter began to reminisce on the afternoon’s merriment. He had impressed O’Grady. Though the probable ex-rugby player was a large man, the unassuming clerk had given him an exhibition in drinking. He felt the two younger bucks—the barman and the busker—had also revelled in his musical entertainment. Again, this was amplified by his outwardly appearance as a nobody—and nobody had expected it out of him.       

          With his chin in the air, Peter inhaled the river breeze and placed his hands casually in his trouser pockets. He was a man. If only McGinley could have seen him drink and regale the regulars of The White House, he’d never have cause to question him again. Of course, McGinley was probably a lightweight at the back of all his bluster in any case.     

          While distilling these considerations, Peter’s flow was interrupted by the sudden call of a woman’s voice behind him. Turning on his heel and dragged from his musings to reality, he was met with the alarming spectacle of a young woman with her hands in the air and a man running towards him with the trailing straps of a handbag floating from behind his body.        

          What to do? It felt strange to Peter that his legs seemed to fill with ice in that moment; strange too, that his feet were so cold they froze to the surface of the timber decking. Attempting to free himself, he watched as the woman continued to howl from a distance while the thief came closer to him along the railings of the river. As he approached, the young man slowed and pulled up his hanging tracksuit bottoms, puffing heavily and wiping his sleeve against his nose as he caught his breath.  At ten feet, the youth’s eyes stared directly at the clerk’s, questioning without words and drawing comfort from the response. Cautiously, he crossed the road in front of Peter, turned his face and slipped silently up the darkness of a side ally.    

          The woman continued to stand motionless on the decking. Around her, a group of seagulls circled and called for help to fill their bellies. Peter stared dumbly at her and wondered if he should say something. Across the road, two middle-aged women with cloth shopping bags moved their heads like tennis spectators between the woman and the clerk.    

          It had all happened very fast, he thought, if he were ready, he would have reacted in another way. He’d had a few drinks and that had dulled his senses. He wasn’t used to being tipsy in the daylight and the afternoon had been so bright and dazzling. Any other day would have been different.       

          Returning to the office, Peter pushed open the door sheepishly and stepped into the cool air being generated by the fan. Brenda stood in the waiting area briefing a client. Noting his appearance with a flick of her eyes, she continued to speak as her assistant opened the side door to his office and took his position behind the glass of the reception area.     

          Keeping his head down and busying himself, Peter groaned internally as he heard the door open and the client politely leave. At best, he was in for an earful. Listening to the door closing, he sighed at Brenda’s steps along the carpet and could smell the faint aroma of her perfume before she spoke: 

          “Where in God’s name were you?”    

          “Sorry.”        

          “That was some display you put on here this morning and…” Ms Harper stopped mid-sentence and looked puzzled. Bringing her face closer to Peter, she began sniffing the air like a curious animal through the holes in the glass. “Is that alcohol I smell?”     

          Peter felt his face flush with a new warmth. “Well,” he stuttered, “I only had the one with my lunch if you don’t mind.”    

          Ms Harper stood back from the glass, her face twisted in disgust. “I bloody well do mind! And don’t you give me that one with your lunch nonsense—it’s been three hours and your eyes are dancing in your head.”        

          “Brenda.”      

          “Get a coffee out of the machine in the lobby and sit there until you sober up. I want those files completed before you leave here today and I don’t care if it takes you till midnight.”   

          “Brenda.”    

          “And God help you and the dot that’s missing over an ‘i’ if I come across it,” the solicitor growled before retiring to her office with a final glare, leaving her castigated assistant to stew upon her words. The sudden silence of the room was quite deafening and the flushed clerk sank wearily back in his chair. It had been a long day and a longer evening was yet to come.  

          Allowing his aging body to slump and fill the leather cracks in the seat, Peter listened to the rambling monotone of Radio 1 hissing from a cheap CD player in the corner of his office. Through the glass and into the waiting area, he gazed at the potted plant which sat sadly in its prison on the window ledge. Behind it, the flitting Venetian blinds in the waiting area teased and gave promise of an unseen window which opened outward to a blue sky of promise. A world of men. For out there, fallen men sat in bars in common company, strong men walked with handbags, and business men closed deals with flickering tongues.               


Michael McGrath


Michael McGrath is an emerging Irish fiction writer who has been published both nationally and internationally in journals such as Roadside Fiction, Writing Raw, The Ogham Stone and Literature Today. He achieved success in two categories at the University of Limerick Arts Awards 2014: 1st place in the Short Story category for his work Entropy and 3rd in the Poetry section for The Trouble With Atoms. His first novel The Clock Tower is due for release in autumn 2017. He is the founder and editor of Silver Streams Journal – a publication of Modernist and Post-Modernist literature, art and academic papers. He works as a second level English teacher and lives in Limerick City, Ireland. Website: www.silverstreamsjournal.com