I walked down to the square. Tam was on the corner, leaning against his barrow and affecting the worst Irish accent I had ever heard:
‘Get yer loovely toilet paper here – all de way from ould Doublin!’
‘All right, Tam?’
He ignored me. Someone had just picked up a sample. The transaction was completed, much to Tam’s delight.
‘What’s with the brogue?’ I said.
‘Ever seen green bog roll?’ he said. ‘Course ye have. This lot, however, haven’t. Call it a Celtic sales pitch.’
‘But they can’t speak English,’ I reminded him.
He jingled the coins in his hand. ‘Away wichi!’ he said. ‘Dey loove de ould blarney. Interested?’
We still had half a family pack at the flat. I was about to explain this when my attention was seized by the sight of two men in leather caps pushing a barrow, larger than Tam’s, into the square. They took a furtive look round, parked and carefully removed the tarpaulin that was covering their wares.
‘Now there’s something ye don’t see every day,’ said Tam, and scratched his head through tartan.
A periscope was lying inside an inflatable dinghy.
‘I hope their patter’s good,’ he said, and looked at his own merchandise. ‘My stuff’s more household oriented,’ he added.
I left him to argue the toss with the competition, who were nudging their barrow closer. Tara was sipping a gin tonic outside the Astoria. She wasn’t alone. I sat at the next table and ordered a coffee. Maybe I’d chance a beer later. I’d be staying off the retsina, though.
‘All right there, Tara?’ I said. No reaction. I reached over to the old man who was parked next to her. He was fiddling with the rims on his wheelchair. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ I said. He mumbled something into his toga and looked at Tara, who patted his hand.
‘There, there,’ she said. ‘You don’t need to know who it is.’
‘Hnn?’ he said. The old boy was addled beyond repair. It must have been frustrating for Tara, who, at fifty, had needs that couldn’t be fulfilled by her husband. She had a fucking big house, though, so maybe it was worth being married to a cripple.
‘How are things, Tara?’ I said.
She was still stroking his hand. ‘Don’t try to ingratiate yourself with me, you cad,’ she said. ‘You can forget about the exams.’
I had to smile. Did she really think I was holding out for employment at her bribefest? And I’d never been called a cad before. It sounded totally ridiculous. ‘I was just being civil,’ I said. At this point, I lied. ‘I usually stay on speaking terms with women I’ve...’
‘Oh don’t say it!’
Her husband raised his hands quickly to his ears. ‘Hnnnnnnn?!’ he went.
‘Does he speak English?’ I said.
‘What’s it to you?’ she said.
‘Thought not,’ I said. ‘He doesn’t like the sound of raised voices, though, does he?’ He reminded me of Priam for some reason. Fair enough, here we were in the land of Homer, and there was, of course, the toga. I felt that he wasn’t as articulate as he could have been, however. We plumb the depths of human degradation...
‘Call yourself a man?’ Tara huffed. She was talking to me, not him.
‘You should be thanking me,’ I said. Priam leaned forwards until his face was hovering above a soup plate of brown liquid. He vacuumed froth through a straw.
‘You don’t know how to satisfy a woman,’ she said, and wiped his chin with a tissue. Again, I assumed the remark was directed at me. Oh, dear, I thought. It was turning into one of those conversations. The ones where no holds are barred.
‘I’ve never had any complaints,’ I said. ‘Lots of moans, though.’
‘I’ve never seen a smaller one in my life,’ she said.
Oh, please, I thought. ‘I almost saw your anus,’ I told her.
Priam, with the straw in his mouth, turned to me and Hnnnnned.
‘Yes,’ I said to him. ‘Her arse is so flabby I wasn’t sure if it was her bumhole or her belly button.’
‘Hah!’ he went; the straw flew out of his mouth and sailed over my shoulder.
This wasn’t me. It was as if someone was making me say these things. But she was asking for it.
‘You’ll never work in TEFL again,’ she said, and wiped her eyes with the tissue. ‘I’ll make sure of that.’
‘Oh, don’t threaten me,’ I said. ‘Who do you think you are?’
‘You’ll find out if you ever apply for a job with the Council,’ she said.
Tam threw his barrow into the bushes. He didn’t bother to chain it up. ‘That’s me fucked,’ he said, and crashed down into a chair. ‘Ever had a pistol pressed to yer ribs? Awright there, Stanley?’
‘Ooh, aow’s it goin’, Tam?’ It was the old man. The accent was more Stoke than Troy. I felt like a complete idiot. He poked me on the forearm. ‘Aow’s it goin’, shaggah?’ he smiled.
‘Get this,’ said Tam. ‘That’s the Commies moved in. Tell me this. How’s me selling toilet paper going to affect sales of Russian Navy knock-off? Eh? Tell me.’
‘Tara,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry if I upset you.’
‘I mean it,’ I said. ‘I didn’t come here to make enemies. I’ll be gone in a matter of days...’ She wailed into her gin tonic. Stanley gripped my forearm. His knuckles looked like polished marbles. ‘You want to stop ’ere, lad,’ he said. ‘She likes a good...you know...’
Tam looked at me and closed an eye, like a camera shutter.‘No, Stanley,’ I said. ‘But I think I know the man to help you out. You’ll be meeting him shortly.’