When I think of Halloween, one very particular story comes to mind. In modern times, it is a day very much taken over by giant marketing machines and transformed by American culture despite its Irish origins, but it was not always thus. As a child taught by Christian brothers, I learned of the religious significance first and foremost. Beyond that we learned of more testing times in Irish history and how through the centuries, this day was celebrated. What I remember most perhaps, was a cold, wet October evening when my father, uncle and I, landed in a small pub in Wexford town.
It was bitterly cold and they seemed to select the pub in question, for some special purpose. For me as a boy, it meant a packet of crisps and at least one bottle of Coke a Cola, a rare and delicious treat. I forget the intended purpose of that particular road trip, all I knew was that it was a long way from home on the night before Halloween and all I could think of was the Halloween party the following night. It wasn’t a party in the literal sense, but we hadn’t yet adopted the trick or treatisms from America. For us we called door to door and yelled out “Help the Halloween party.” Ah dem were the days.
Candy didn’t exist, sugary confections were sweets to us and if someone gave you sweets as you went door to door, it was a near miracle. Mostly you got fruit, an apple or orange and usually a big handful of monkey nuts. I wasn’t a fan of monkey nuts but they came in abundance so in a time of less than plenty, we felt obliged to whack our way through whatever came for free. I usually felt quite sick at the end of Halloween night.
Back to the pub. I have no recollection of the name of that place; it held no interest for me. All I recall is that it was tiny and I mean literally tiny. The bar was located on a corner and inside, it was clear that its innards consisted of just that, it was just a small corner pub. Apart from the entrance there was a set of double doors with smoked glass opposite the bar which was an odd, curved structure. There was barely enough room for a couple of tables with small stools and a few high stools at the bar itself. It is amazing how quickly a bar like that fills up. Little me, tucked myself up in the corner and looked at all the enormous men, and they were all men that came in and stood towering above me.
Some made light hearted comments about me to my father and uncle and more than one tussled my hair and told me I was a grand lad. One even bought me another packet of crisps and a coke. It was great for a while but I eventually got bored as any small child would. The last thing I remember before I drifted off to sleep, was the sound of men laughing and the smell of porter.
I have no idea how long I was out, but unlike my ill-mannered sleep these days, back then I slept the sleep of the innocent. I awoke to find myself in a dimly lit room and the noise was duller, slightly distant. I could still hear the laughter of drunken men but they were in another room. Someone had lain me down on a long cushioned bench seat in a small triangular shaped room and covered me with a blanket. I pulled the blanket off and stood up, rubbing my tired eyes and I eventually got them to focus. I was on the other side of the smoked glass doors so clearly someone, most likely my father, had carried me into the quiet side room to get me out of the kafuffle in the bar.
For some reason I didn’t notice the big structure in the centre of the room at first. I suppose I was still waking up but when I did, my tiny little heart nearly stopped. It was a coffin. Worse still, the lid was off and while I was too small to see inside as it was sitting on a high pedestal, the candle light in the room was just about bright enough, to reflect an image on a section of clear glass above the mostly smoked glass of the doors. In the reflection I could see what looked like a woman in a wedding dress.
My little hands were clasped about my mouth and I ran back to the bench and dived beneath the blanket. I had seen Dracula, Bride of Dracula, Frankenstein, and every other wonderful horror movie of the day. I knew what corpses could do.
Once I had hidden beneath the blanket, I was trapped by my own terror. I couldn’t even look out again. I lay still and quiet, terrified that the movement of my chest as I was breathing would alert the dead woman in the coffin and she might rise up and … well I wasn’t quite sure what she’d do, but I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant. My father was just the other side of that door, but to get to him, I would have had to remove the protection of my blanket -my new best friend – and walk within inches of the coffin. I knew instinctively that getting that close would mean only one thing. She would leap up and grab me.
There is no knowing how long I lay there but it must have been quite some time. Tiredness began to overwhelm the fear and at some point it overtook it completely, for the next thing I remember is that I woke up again with quite a start.
This time when I awoke it was much quieter and there was no light whatsoever. It was pitch black. I couldn’t see a thing and the only sound I could hear was my breathing. There was a most peculiar smell and I stretched my foot out to push myself up. It hit something hard. I shifted to lean on my elbow but there was something in the way. I felt as though I was shrouded in a cloud of fabric and mesh. I reached up and found my way blocked. Where was I? It was so dark and I could barely manoeuvre. I pulled at the cloth but when I felt what was beneath it, I instantly stopped moving. Wood at my feet and above my head, I wasn’t boxed in. I was in the coffin and the thing I had touched with my hand was the cold porcelain flesh of the dead woman’s calf. I was in the coffin with her.
I listened very intently, hoping I would hear the sound of drunken men laughing. I strained my ears, terrified to move another muscle, not knowing if the corpse bride had already set her thoughts about devouring the little boy cradled between her legs. What was happening to me? I decided there were only three options. One, I was dreaming and I began to pray that I was. Two, this was all some horrible giant practical joke and I would soon hear the bellow of drunken laughter about the place or three, I had been buried alive…
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