‘My name is Aoife and I’m a …’ She paused. What the hell was she doing here? Twelve months previously she’d had a good job in a bank working in the commercial property section. She’d been pulling in over one hundred thousand euro a year, plus the same again in bonuses. She’d bought a nice, three bedroom mews house in the city at the height of the property boom, drove a bright red BMW 3 series, wore designer clothes, ate in the best restaurants, and took three or four foreign holidays a year.
Then boom! She’d been laid off as the bank imploded. Suddenly she was finding it difficult to pay the mortgage on a house that was worth a third less than she paid for it, the garage was threatening to repossess the car, her credit cards were maxed out, her savings gone, and the chances of another well paid job pretty much zero. Thirty two and she was already on the scrapheap.
‘Aoife?’ the group facilitator, prompted.
‘Sorry.’ She pulled a tight smile of apology. ‘My name is Aoife and I’m a kleptomaniac.’ There, she’d said it. It didn’t feel like a release, a step towards reform; more like a grubby confession to strangers – part of her penance for being caught shoplifting on three separate occasions; along with one hundred and twenty hours of community service.
It hadn’t been something she’d set out to do; she’d just kind of drifted into the petty theft. She’d gotten away with it for a while, before being caught in a supermarket only scanning the cheap items at a self-service checkout. The second time it had been a wool coat from an upmarket department store. The third time … she didn’t want to think about the third time, it was too stupid for words.
* * *
She stepped out onto the street and waited at the kerb for a gap in the traffic.
‘Well, that was a waste of feckin’ time,’ said a voice behind her.
She glanced back. A young woman in a black bomber jacket, a short denim skirt over black leggings and red pumps was standing in the doorway, staring up at clouds that threatened rain.
‘Do you fancy getting something to eat? I’m starving after that nonsense.’
‘I can’t afford to eat out,’ she replied warily.
‘Who said anything about paying?’
‘And I can’t afford to get caught again either. The judge said next time would be a prison sentence.’
‘That’s bollocks. There’s no way they’re going to send you down for a misdemeanour. Jesus, our Gary’s been in trouble with the law more times than you’ve had hot dinners and they’ve never put him away. He’s just trying to scare you, that’s all. There’s a Chinese down here.’ She nodded with her head.
‘I’m fine. Thanks for the offer.’
* * *
The woman’s name was Carol. She’d had a dozen jobs in a half a dozen years, all of them paying just above the minimum wage. Her specialty was lifting goods and finding people stupid enough to buy stuff for her.
Carol’s solution to Aoife’s financial woes was simple – post the keys back to the mortgage company, cut free of her life in Ireland, and get the plane to London and start again; as if re-invention was a case of turning on and off a switch. As if life could be that simple.
They’d started with a gin and tonic each and had then worked their way through a bottle of white wine, spring rolls, chicken satay with fried rice, and beef chow mein.
‘Look, will you stop worrying,’ Carol said smiling. ‘I’ve done this loads of times. Do I look like I’m worried?’
‘Well then. This is the way it works. You go outside for a cigarette. I …’
‘I don’t smoke.’
‘You can borrow one of mine and pretend. After a minute or so, I’ll ask the waiter where the toilets are. Then when he heads back into the kitchen, I come out and join you and we slip away. He won’t realise at first what has happened, because he thinks you’re having a cigarette and I’m in the loo.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Jesus, Aoife, will you lighten up. Have you got any money?’
‘Not enough for the meal.’
‘Well then, we haven’t got a choice have we?’
‘What am I doing?’ Aoife mumbled to herself.
‘It’s not going to bankrupt them, is it?’ Carol pulled a pack of cigarettes from her handbag and passed one over. ‘Look, I’m the one staying behind taking the risk. Just head outside and hang around, I’ll be out in a minute.’
Aoife left the restaurant and waited on the pavement, glancing nervously at her watch, thrilled and appalled in equal measure, aware that she was now quite drunk.
Three minutes later, Carol appeared. She linked arms with Aoife and walked quickly to the left, breaking into a trot once out of view of the window. At the first intersection they turned left and quickened their pace, crossing to the far side of the road and taking the next right. Two hundred yards later they slowed to a walk.
‘There, I told you it would be fine!’ Carol said, laughing. ‘Let’s go and find some poor saps to buy us a drink.’
* * *
They were sitting a table in a trendy bar nursing two white wines that Aoife had paid for with her bus money. For the past twenty minutes a very tipsy Carol had been regaling her with past adventures, whilst she simultaneously scanned the crowd for likely marks.
‘Here they come’
‘Who?’ Aoife asked, glancing up anxiously. Two men in cheap suits and loosened ties were heading for them, the shorter, dark haired one leading the way, the gangly red head, with pug ears and a broken nose, trailing behind.
‘The two honchos that have been eyeing us up for the past ten minutes.’
‘Howya, ladies, we were just …’
‘Don’t bother unless you’ve got cocks like marrows,’ Carol interrupted, holding a straight face.
‘What?’ the shorter one said flummoxed.
‘I’m hung like Red Rum; he’s more like My Little Pony, but it’ll still be the biggest thing you’ve ever seen,’ the red head quipped back smiling.
‘As long as you both know what a clit is.’
‘Carol!’ Aoife squealed, shocked at the course banter.
‘She’s drinking gin and tonic; I’m on vodka and Coke.’
* * *
She woke slowly, her head fuzzy, her mouth cottony, aware of a warm body snaking down her back, a heavy arm draped over her waist, resting just under her left breast.
Her first coherent thought was, ‘Oh sweet, Jesus,’ followed by mild panic. She slipped out from under the arm, perching on the edge of the bed. Her nightdress had slipped from under the pillow and was lying on the floor. She reached down and slipped it on, glancing back. A red headed man had the quilt pulled tight to his chin.
Fragments of the night before crept into consciousness. She shook her head, angry at herself, and headed for the door, the nightdress barely reaching mid-thigh, suddenly aware the sticky mess between her legs. She turned back, scanning the room for the signs of a condom, panic rising again. Sometimes she really could do the stupidest things.
Having visited the bathroom, she crept downstairs and into the kitchen intent on making coffee. The house was eerily quiet, the smell of stale cigarettes hanging in the air. There was a note on the table. She picked it up and read it twice.
‘Don’t worry about the car. You can collect the insurance money.’
She bolted into the living room to stare out of the front window. The driveway was empty. Carol had taken her BMW 3 series.
She’d been the mark all along.
‘For fuck’s sake,’ she spat angrily. ‘The little bitch.’
A minute later and she was still at the window, gazing out with unfocused eyes trying to piece together the previous evening, her temper having dissipated as quickly as it had risen.
‘Where’s my wallet?’ asked a sullen voice from the doorway.
She turned to face him. He was naked, looking like a shaven Orang-utan, his chest and long arms and legs covered in a light, red down. His right hand clutched his trousers.
‘Probably the same place as my car,’ she said wistfully.
‘My car’s been taken as well.’
‘Yes, Carol and your friend have taken it. If that’s her real name.’
‘Her real name?’ he repeated, seemingly unable to get his brain into gear.
‘I’m going to need to find a pharmacy this morning,’ she said, moving the conversation on, ‘unless you’ve been firing blanks?’
‘I need to get the morning after pill.’
‘Fuck,’ he muttered, something finally sinking in.
‘Yes, that’ll usually do it.’ For some strange reason she felt liberated; she didn’t care about the car, didn’t care about the house or her debts or her reputation. She didn’t care that she knew nothing about the naked ape or his sexual health. She didn’t care about the previous the night. For now it could all go to hell. Maybe cutting loose and abandoning ship for a new start somewhere else wasn’t such a bad idea.
She brushed past him heading into the hallway. At the bottom of the stairs she lifted the nightdress up and over her head, balled it and threw it at him. ‘I’m going to take a shower. Do ya wanna to join me?’
The ape caught the nightdress, looked at it, looked at her, dropped the garment and trooped off after her, his wallet temporarily forgotten.