Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: Left shaken - and stirred - by a spook in the men's shed
I'm in the local with the Secret Woman. We've two nice pints in front of us and he's digging into a packet of Tayto, because - he says - he's after coming straight from work.
- Hang on, but, I say, after he slaps my hand away from the bag. - What d'you mean you're coming straight from work? You're retired.
He holds the bag up over his mouth, with his elbow pointing straight at my face. If I go for the bag, I'll lose a few teeth.
- Men's shed, he says.
And he drops the crisps into his gob, every f*****' crumb.
-You're in a men's shed? I say.
- I am.
- But you identify as a woman, I remind him.
- I do, he says, and he winks at me. - I'm infiltrating them, Charlie.
- I'm a spy.
He takes the crumbs and salt off his mouth with the sleeve of his hoodie and picks up his pint. It's a nice looking hoodie, by the way. The hood itself - it clearly isn't an afterthought. It looks like it fits snugly. It looks like a hoodie that James Bond would wear after work. It looks like a woman bought it for him.
- I need this, he says, and he lowers half of his pint.
- Did you just say you're a spy? I ask, when he comes up for air.
- Yep, he says. - I'm Mata Hari these days, Charlie.
Mata Hari always brings me back to schooldays. I remember flicking through my new Leaving Cert history book to see if there were any pictures of her, the beautiful dancer who spied for the Germans in World War I and got executed for her troubles. There weren't any pictures, so I put my hand up.
- Sorry - Brother?
The one-eyed Brother stared at me with the eye that wasn't there.
- What now, Mister Savage?
- There's been a misunderstanding, Brother, I said. - Can I do biology instead?
He didn't even bother saying no.
Anyway, I spent long hours dreaming about Mata Hari and now, apparently, he's sitting beside me.
- Hang on, I say. - You're spying on the men's shed?
- Who for? The Russians?
- The book club.
- You're spying on the men's shed for your f*****' book club?
- Keep the voice down, Charlie. The walls in this place definitely have ears.
It's nearly three years since the Secret Woman told me he identified as a woman. And nothing much has happened since then, as far as I know. He hasn't changed his name or anything, and he's been having an elderly torrid affair with the love of my teenage life, Eileen Pigeon. But that just proves that he knows a great looking woman when he sees one and that she needs to go to Specsavers.
He joined the book club as a first, tentative step to womanhood and I think - if I'm remembering right - it was a bit of a disappointment. The women were slow to accept him, he felt, and he was thinking of jacking it in.
- I don't even like books, he'd said at the time.
But now he's spying for them, by going into the local men's shed. He's risking his life and - I'm watching him knock back the rest of his pint - he's clearly having a ball.
You'd think envy would drop away as we get older, wouldn't you? You'd think we'd cop on and stop caring that much. He's my best friend, a great pal over the years - but I want to kill him.
Don't get me wrong: I don't want to join a men's shed. I wouldn't even want to join a women's shed. If I was told that Naomi Campbell was giving demonstrations on cabinet making in a shed somewhere, I'd say, 'Grand - I'll see her after.' I've nothing against sheds or women, or even most men; I just don't want to join anything.
So, it's not the fact that the Secret Woman is in a club full of women of a certain age who want to know what's going in a shed full of men of a certain age that makes me envious. Good luck to him, and good luck to most of them.
It's the excitement of it that I envy. He's a spy, for Jaysis sake. He's going behind enemy lines twice a week. He's got a gang of women hanging on his every word.
- It's gas, he says now. - One of the women - Vera. You know Vera?
- Married to your man with the hair?
- That's her. And she says - at the book club, like - 'I'd love to know what goes on in that bloody men's shed.' So I say, 'I'll find out for yis.' And I'll tell you, their attitude to me, Charlie - I feel accepted.
- That's nice, I say.
I mean it.
- What does go on in a men's shed, anyway?
- Ah now, he says. - That'd be telling.