Brendan Garraghan stared blankly into his coffee. He had a meeting with a client within the next half hour, but he really didn’t want to go. It would take him about five minutes to walk to the offices of Crookes & Fyddler. He wanted the next ten minutes to last forever. It was a wet grey morning outside.

Cranes had dominated the skyline outside during the boom years of the Celtic Tiger. That seemed like a lifetime ago now...

He’d gone up to the counter in the hope of simply getting a dose of caffeine to wake himself up and give himself some much-needed enthusiasm to see the client.

“A coffee please.”

“What kind of coffee?” the Polish girl behind the counter had asked. “Frothy frappuccino? Skinny latte? Mochaccino? Espresso?” she prompted.

“Erm...” He hesitated over the agony of choice. There was a lot to be said for the traditional greasy spoon establishment where they simply gave you what you asked for without having to interrogate you. These newfangled chains were taking things too far in his opinion.

He chose a random option from the board above. Just as he was about to pay he was asked another equally irritating question.

“Would you like anything to eat? A scone or sandwich? Croissant? Danish?”

He was almost tempted to say “if I wanted anything else I would have asked” with a few choice words thrown in for good measure.

But she seemed quite nice and to be fair she’d probably been trained to say this. He shouldn’t even be in this café as it was against his principles to frequent multinational retail chains. It was the first place he had come to in order to escape the heavy rain and he badly needed his morning caffeine fix before going into the office to meet this client. And coincidentally he’d seen a familiar face in the corner.

He’d been on a few anti-globalisation protests.  The dreadlocked, tattooed multiply-pierced adherents hadn’t really been his type of people. When he told them he was an accountant they viewed him with suspicion. When they realised that he was genuine and not some kind of incompetent undercover agent sent by the big bad capitalist corporations to infiltrate them they had asked him to become a spy for the cause.

“I’ll think about it,” he had told them.

He never went back. He still had sympathy with their aims, but was at the same time relieved that he hadn’t given any of them his address or phone number.

“Am I a hypocrite?” he kept asking himself.

He caught the Polish girl’s eye. He could see from her name badge that she was called Dominika. He imagined her life story. She’d probably worked as a physiotherapist back in Wrocław and was now training to be a brain surgeon, funding herself by selling her soul to the big corporations.

He’d been to Poland once on an inter-railing holiday, where he’d picked up a few words of the national lingo. This could be his chance to put it to some use. Or could it?

He was now 30 and life was beginning to pass him by. Despite having done a Philosophy degree and in spite of his ambition to become a great artist/poet/musician he’d ended up in the accounting business. It was a job he had little love for, but it paid the bills. He’d gone through the classic middle class upbringing – university, then entry into the white collar professional classes. He’d vowed to have travelled around the world and written a novel by the time he reached his third decade. He’d only achieved half of these ambitions.

In these times of financial difficulty he was lucky to have a job though. He’d managed to stay in Dublin, but many of his friends had been forced to move to England, Germany, America, Australia, New Zealand and even in one case Dubai.  But maybe they were the lucky ones for having got away. The grey wet Dublin skyline was so depressing at this time of year....

 He didn’t care much for the number-crunching, but certainly preferred it to being unemployed, a fact that wasn’t lost on a friend who’d recently been made redundant from the architects’ practice he’d been working at.

Dublin was often contemptuously described as little more than a glorified village. There was some truth in this. He did occasionally bump into people he knew from back home in the city centre, something that he imagined would be unlikely to happen in the centre of London or New York.

He’d been on an archaeological dig in the south of France – where he was paid peanuts to unearth bottles and cans and the jawbone of a cow – a far cry from the Roman coins or Celtic swords he’d hoped to find.  On one not-so-memorable occasion what he’d initially thought was an ancient coin or medallion buried three feet under the soil turned out to be a flattened beer bottle top. He became so disillusioned that he did a runner without telling them.

Up to that point he’d even contemplated becoming an archaeologist himself. But he decided there would be too much disappointment in the job. At least in accountancy he knew what to expect and you never got your hopes up for anything interesting to happen anyway – unless you were in forensic accounting, but there were extra exams required for this and he didn’t have the time or the discipline to juggle that with the novel he was currently working on, or the songs he was writing, and Russian language classes and meditation sessions he attended.

Now his mind was on Françoise. She was sitting in the corner reading a paperback between sips of cappuccino. Everyone else in the café seemed to be doing things on their laptops and i-phones. They were mostly city office workers. To him this seemed to defeat the purpose of it. Cafés as far as he was concerned were places of relaxation where you went to daydream or chat to your friends – not somewhere you took your work to – the office was for that.

All he knew about Françoise was that she was French and taught at one of the city’s language schools. He’d found this out through a mutual friend at the weekly Creative Writing class they both attended. He agonised over making the move. Would she think he was some kind of pervy stalker who followed young women around?

He used to play fantasy role-playing games with his geeky mates from school. Most of them grew out of it when they realised it wasn’t the sort of hobby you could expect to meet girls through – nor did most attractive girls want to hear about how many orcs you could slay with a blunt pencil or how to outwit a drunken ogre during neap tide on the third Tuesday of the month.

Against all odds most of his geeky mates were now married with children. He’d lost touch with almost all of them. The only time he ever heard from most of them now was through vapid social media sites or the occasional Christmas card. There had been talk of a reunion for years now, but nobody could be bothered organising it.

The foamy clouds in his coffee began to assume odd shapes as they merged and split like amoebas. His mind began to wander. It was as if he was now in another place entirely...

He stared across the vast windswept expanse of barren wasteland. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the carcass of a greepo by the lake shore being devoured by an army of two-headed vultures and the occasional tiny jorb. He ran towards the scene and set the vultures flying in all directions. Around the dead creature’s half-eaten neck was a silver locket inscribed with the letter F. The greepo had obviously stolen it from Françoise who was being held prisoner by the evil warlock Argoth somewhere in the uncharted caves of Skladrax beyond the mountains to the east. They said that strange creatures dwelled in these mountains to the east - not just estate agents, but also mortgage brokers and hedge fund managers. Somehow he had to get across these mountains and rescue his sweetheart from Argoth’s clutches. He was about to wrench the locket from the dead creature’s putrefying flesh, the stench of which was invading his nostrils, when he heard footsteps behind him.

“Prepare to die, number cruncher!”

It was Dregskop the orc, an ally of Argoth’s. He had his sword drawn and was about to strike when Brendan instinctively ducked and managed to grab his adversary by the legs as he leapt into the air. He flung the orc kicking and screaming into the lake of acid. The creature’s flesh rapidly dissolved to reveal gleaming white bones. The acid-resistant jorbs, tiny five-legged creatures with six eyes that live on carrion desperately dived into the lake to feast on its succulent flesh, but most of it had dissolved before they got the chance.
 
Suddenly he realised that what was left of the greepo’s rotting face looked strangely familiar. He was the tax inspector who’d been examining the accounts of Froplix plc, multinational manufacturers of red tape.

He could sense the disappointment on the jorbs’ little faces as he set off for the mountains, determined to find Argoth’s lair and rescue Françoise from the warlock’s evil clutches. He would no doubt encounter many dangers along the way – the incontinent squirting dragons of Praxtor whose urine could burn off your skin in seconds, the Radioactive Troll of Myrgad who glowed in the dark, the lethal marsh gases from the Swamp of Trabsplod and all the voracious flesh-eating creatures who dwelt beneath the surface – and not forgetting the whistling froctoids of Outer Ringroadia whose piercing whistle could make your ears bleed till they fell off....

But it was all worth risking career and reputation for the rewards that lay ahead.

He came across a puddle of dirty brown water with clusters of bubbles on the surface...

He’d spent so long daydreaming and staring into space that his coffee was now getting cold. He quickly gulped it down and rose to get up, resolving to one day write a Sword and Sorcery type fantasy novel or form a progressive rock band and launch a dramatic revival of that oft forgotten musical genre that had seen its heyday in the early 1970s. He walked over to the corner of the café.

“Hi, you’re ...er...Françoise, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” she answered with a look of pleasant surprise on her face.

“How do you know me?” she continued.

She doesn’t recognise me, he thought. That can’t be a good sign. Never mind, I’ll try and jog her memory, as he came up with the next line.

“I’m in your meditation class!”

“Oh yes! You look so different when you’re wearing a suit and tie.”

It was now obvious that she hadn’t recognised him at all as he usually went to meditation class straight from work and didn’t have the time or the space to change into anything more comfortable. Nevertheless he decided to continue the conversation even though he wasn’t sure which direction it was going.

“How are you finding it?”

“It’s OK. A bit difficult though.”

An awkward silence ensued.

He could now see himself walking arm in arm with Françoise through the desolate wastelands, heading into the purple sunset towards the gleaming citadel on the Hill of Morvab. But first he had to battle with the marauding orcs from the forest of Kraplok who would try and sell him dodgy shares in Orx plc – which unbeknownst to him had gone into liquidation beneath the acid lake.

Molotov’s Cocktail, a highly acclaimed Russian film which had won the Golden Meerkat award at the Cape Town Film Festival, was now showing in the independent cinema just down the street in Temple Bar. It was apparently a tale of oppression, unemployment, homophobia, drug addiction and queuing up for loaves of bread. In fact so incendiary was it considered that it had been banned by the Russian government and had to be smuggled out of Moscow Airport by its director Sergei Murmansk, who was now currently in exile in Paris.

“I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, but....”

“Sorry, I’m meeting my boyfriend tonight. He’s flying in from Toulouse this evening,” she said with a smile. “I’m really looking forward to it – we haven’t seen each other since Christmas.”

“What the hell’s the bloody point anymore?” he thought to himself.

“Boyfriend” was his most hated word in the entire English language. It was the same at parties. He always got talking to girls he really got on well with. On hearing that word he would make his excuses and run off, his fist in his mouth.

He was already late for the meeting with his client. They were supposed to be discussing the quarterly profit figures for Bloodsucker Ltd. The offices were only two minutes away. But they could wait, he decided. It was now raining more heavily than before.

A few minutes later he reluctantly went outside. The sun glistened on the wet pavement. It had suddenly stopped raining. There and then he resolved to shave his head, jack in his job and enter a Buddhist monastery where he would renounce all material wealth and begin a new life of quiet contemplation, spiritual meditation and austerity. Or he could live in a hippie commune and join his former environmentalist colleagues in the anti-globalisation movement.

Suddenly he decided to go back into the café. He went up to the counter and said to Dominika:

“I think I will have a scone actually. I’m quite partial to raspberry jam with cream.”


*

 

by Ciaran Ward


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