They introduced themselves in turn in their south-Wexford accents, starting with the tavern owner sitting to my left.
Lawrence Cronin, or “Lar” as he insisted I call him, with his scruffy salt-and-pepper beard, pale skin, and of course his endless stream of questions, such as where was I from? What was I doing this far south? Didn’t a fully-grown woman know better than to drive the guts of 5km on an empty diesel tank? In an area she didn’t know? Did I play cards? What did I want to drink?
Across the table and to my left was Pig-in-Muck McCarthy, a bulky man of few words and as many teeth, with a head that made me think of a hard-boiled egg. And directly across from me sat Seánie Pascal, sallow-skinned beneath a peaked flat cap and chewing on a piece of straw. The faint smell of manure and sweat hung in the air, not associating itself with any one of the men in particular.
When asked a second time what I would like to drink, I ordered a whiskey. When asked which whiskey, I read the label of the first bottle my eyes fell upon—Black Bush. Lar landed a glass in front of me, declaring his admiration for a woman with taste. I took a sip and it had a taste all right—a taste like petrol. It wasn’t a very ladylike thing to drink either, but something told me I’d get more than one funny look if I tried to order a mojito in here. They might have thought I was trying to teach them a foreign language.
“Deal ‘em out, Pig!” Lar clapped his hands as he returned to the table, slurping a freshly- pulled pint.
Pig-in-Muck scooped some playing cards from the table and began to shuffle them so that the barkeeper and I could join in. His hands looked like boulders. “Rummy?” The question was directed at me.
“Sure.” I sipped from my whiskey glass and tried not to wince at the burning sensation it left behind. Pig-in-Muck dealt seven frayed, dog-eared cards to each of us. I rearranged mine in my hand so that three kings and two sixes were side-by-side. I fought to hide the smirk that rose to my face; already, I was just two cards away from winning.
“Lorraine was it, you said?” The cards in Seánie’s hand quivered. Trying not to let my eyes linger upon the man’s tremor, I opened my mouth to correct him.
“No, Laura.” Lar had beaten me to it.
“Laura.” My name sounded clumsy coming from Seánie. “Used to know a girl called Laura. You didn’t go to school around here, no?”
“No, I grew up in Blackrock.”
“Fair enough so. Here, I think I saw you across the way this afternoon.” He nodded towards the hazy window behind me. “With himself. Bertie.”
I turned to look, peering past the big faded “Heineken” sticker. The autumn evening had stolen away the sunlight, but the shadowy outline of Loftus Hall, with its eight visible chimneys, stood strong across the marshland. Some of its downstairs windows glowed, and headlights flashed in the driveway.
“Mr. Price is my client.” I turned back to the table. “What’s happening over there? Surely they aren’t giving tours at this hour.”
“No haunted-house tours on Halloween night?” Lar chuckled into his cards. “Woman, it’s no wonder you’re in the business of tearing stuff down ‘stead of making something of them.”
I gritted my teeth against the sting of the remark. I didn’t admit it, but I had actually let Halloween slip my mind that year.
“What’ll your demolition fellas think o’ the devil’s hole?” Seánie picked up a card from the deck, slid it into his hand, and placed another down on the table. A ten.
A laugh escaped from my throat as I drew from the top of the deck and turned over a queen. “The devil’s what-now?” I decided to keep the queen in my hand and discarded a four. I shook my head in Seánie’s direction. “I don’t know what that means.”
“The hole that goes through every floor of the house, and the roof, that can’t ever be patched up.” Lar placed a card. “Did Bertie not show you it? Did he not tell you about the devil at Loftus Hall?”
“The devil? I thought they were only ghost stories,” I chuckled again and sipped my whiskey. Its cotton-like dryness didn’t feel so unpleasant anymore. None of the men laughed with me, and I felt the whiskey turn cold on its way down.
Seánie chewed on his piece of straw, arms twitching visibly. “Oh, it’s a great story. Ah, you may tell the poor girl now, Lar.”
“In the 1600s, the Hall was owned by a well-off British family called Tottenham, and there was a daughter—Anne.”
Seánie played a three to me. I didn’t need it. I pulled a two from the deck. I laid it down for Lar, who kept talking as he played.
“And one night a stranger knocked on the door and asked could he stay the night, saying he’d just arrived by sea. Tottenham—that’s the British lad—invited him in coz of there being a storm, and he became their guest.”
Pig-in-Muck laid down the six of hearts. Shit. Seánie picked it up and placed it in his hand, leaving a jack down for me. Bastard. I took an ace from the deck and left it on top of the pile, still holding out for my king and my six.
Lar paused and stared at me. I nodded to reassure him that I was still listening to his story, though honestly I was a little more interested in winning the card game. “Later in the evening, Tottenham and his brother—I think it was his brother—and young Anne were having a game of cards with the strange lad, and I can’t think what the name of the game was but everyone needed to be holding three cards, and Anne found herself a card short.” He picked up the card that I had laid down and placed a three.
“She thought she’d dropped it, so she reached down under the table to have a look for it, but what she actually found was that the stranger had bloody hooves for feet—they’d been sharing their home with the devil! And when he realized he’d been found out, he shot off up through the ceiling and out the roof and away into the night went he! And poor oul’ Anne was never the same, and when she died they had to build a special coffin for her because her body was all curled up from rocking back and forth. No word of a lie.”
I slammed my hand down on the table, making my whiskey and the three cloudy pints of lager—as well as the two older men across from Lar and I—jump on the spot.
Lar roared laughing. “Ah, sorry, pet – I didn’t think I’d scare you that much.”
He hadn’t scared me—what happened was that I had seen Pig throw down the very last king in the deck, meaning it wasn’t likely for me to win now.
Evidently on edge, Seánie picked a card from the deck, and mulled over it for a long time. Guilt rippled through me; I had done a better job of shaking someone up with a single motion than Lar had managed to with his entire story.
Seánie finally came to a decision, but the card dropped from his trembling hand, fluttering beneath the table and disappearing into the shadows.
My pulse slowed down as my eyes scanned the table—in this scenario, I was Anne, I was the vulnerable young maiden in the presence of not just one but three strange men and there was no way that I would be looking under the table. God, what had come over me? I felt like such an eejit for being sucked in by Lar’s bullshit story, but even so, I couldn’t unfreeze myself and go looking for the damned card.
“I’m not looking down there. Not after that story of yours.”
A smirk broke out on Lar’s bearded face. “Seánie, you’ll get it, will ya? I think Laura’s scared.”
I clenched my fists at his last comment, yet still I couldn’t bring myself to defy him and do it myself. I watched as Seánie began to shift in his seat and duck his head below the table. My cheeks grew hot with the realization that I had believed that I’d been playing cards with the devil himself, and the fact that I had sent a quivering old man under the table when I was more than capable of doing it. The women back in the office in Dublin would have a right laugh when I told them about it—it might even make a good story for Christmas dinner at my mother’s that year.
A shriek rang out from under the table, sending Lar, Pig and me leaping to our feet. Seated at the outside of the booth, I managed to recoil from the table, feeling my knees give way beneath me. I stumbled backwards and landed near a lice-ridden barstool, gazing at the ceiling, heart pounding. The whiskey must have affected me more than I’d thought it would. I hoisted myself up against the bar to see the three men standing frozen by their seats, pale as ghosts, eyes unwavering, watching.
I looked down. My legs were covered in coarse brown fur, covered to the knees by my navy skirt, and my dainty size-4 feet had been replaced by neat little hooves, which had broken outof the patent black pumps I had been wearing. The shoes were still under the table, side by side, as though I had stepped straight out of them.
A laugh burst forward from my core and reverberated through the weather-riddled wood of the tavern as I exited through the ceiling.
This would certainly make an excellent story for Christmas dinner.