Everyone in Ballycumscut thought Leg O’Lamb was a little bit, you know, strange? It wasn’t something you could actually put your finger on, though. And, whenever they were talking about him, they would usually add that he was a nice enough man, really. They’d even say he was quite friendly too, in his own sort of way, because he’d always greet you with a chirpy hello whenever you went into his shop. He’d smile, of course, but it was always just the mouth. The eyes didn’t smile. They were expressionless. Shiny, slate grey pebbles in a big round face, they scanned you from the top of your head right down to your toes every time they looked at you. But you could never tell what was he thinking. He had that kind of vacant expression on him. Someone once joked that he was probably analysing your body mass, comparing it to the carcasses that hung on steel hooks all along the wall in the stockroom. You could just glimpse them through the open door behind the counter.
Liam Edward Gerard O’Lamb, our local butcher, had been here in our little village of Ballycumscut, tucked away in the McGillycuddy Reeks near Killarney, for almost thirty years now, and he knew everyone and their dog.
But did anyone really know him? Did they know what he got up to when the shop was shut? Where did he go, what did he do in his spare time? And what deep, dark secret was he hiding in the gloomy recesses of his freezer, tucked away in that dusty stockroom at the back of his shop, that no one ever saw him open? And would they believe him anyway, if they ever found out?
Well, they didn’t believe him when he called into Leary’s Pub a few years ago and told Paddy the Pipe he was only having a quick one because he was on his way over to Lisa Lavender’s place. He was taking her out on a date! Well, there was a sort of shocked silence for a moment, then an almighty spluttering into beer glasses, and sniggering into the palms of hands.
“What?” Mo Quinn bowed her head towards Leo Fanning.
“Lego’s going on a date,” Leo told her, to another round of spluttering from the regulars strung out along the length of the bar. “With Lisa Lavender!”
“What?” Mo’s eyes bulged. “I don’t believe him!”
Actually, no one believed him. And they had great fun not believing him, too. The thing was, Lisa Lavender was a very pretty girl, and Leg O’Lamb was, well, you wouldn’t call him pretty in any shape or form. OK, he was supposed to be very rich, according to spotty Kieran Mulcahy who works part time at the Post Office and claims to have seen Lego’s account. But still! And Lisa Lavender wasn’t just pretty. She was also very intelligent. She could have had her pick of the men. Would she really want to be seen out and about with a man like Leg O’Lamb, just because of the size of his wallet?
Anyway, we never found out if it was true or not, because no one ever saw Lisa Lavender after that. She took off for Australia, according to rumour. Just packed up and went, without as much as a goodbye.
And Leg O’Lamb never mentioned her again. He didn’t mention Kitty O’Hare, either, for that matter. She also left the parish rather suddenly after Lego dated her, allegedly, on Christmas Eve the following year. Then there was supposed to be an Elanor Flaherty, though no one could remember what she looked like. Whatever happened to her? She also took off.
There was lots of speculation, of course. Was it something Leg O’Lamb did? Or was it just the shock of spending too much time in his company, listening to his obsessive rambling about meat? Leg O’Lamb loved his meat. He talked endlessly about it, how to hang it, how to cut it, how to age it, how to cook it. If worshiping meat became a religion, Leg O’Lamb would be the high priest. And he couldn’t understand why no one else felt the same way. He was oblivious to the way people’s eyes glazed over when he started, and how they would often say they were just nipping out to the toilet and never came back.
Anyway, one dull evening last February, Leg O’Lamb was about to shut the shop and go home, and when he glanced out of the rain-spattered window at the receding daylight he groaned out loud. The Widow Mariah was lumbering along the pavement towards him. Bugger! Still, a customer is a customer. But his heart sank all the same, because he knew exactly what she was going to ask for - she'd gone through the same old routine every time she came into his shop for the last thirty years!
"Can I have a pig's head please, Lego,” she would screech from the pavement before she even reached the shop door. “And could you leave the eyes in to see us through the week?"
Or else she would ask for some pig's trotters, and could he leave the head on, please!
Of course he'd laugh, as if it was the first time he'd heard it in his life. Because, you see, the Widow Mariah was the mother of the beautiful Eileen Grey, and Eileen Grey was the love of Lego’s life, ever since that beautiful sunny day when she called in for some lamb chops on her way home from work. It was the tattoos that did it for him. She wasn’t quiet as big as her mother, but she still had a nice round shape to her hips and she showed an ample amount of bare skin between the jeans and the tiny pink top. And when she bent to adjust her shoelace, there they were. A beautiful butterfly on one side and a soft green shamrock on the other, both just visible above the waistband of her low cut jeans.
Lego was besotted, but of course he didn’t think Eileen Grey could ever know how he felt about her. And he was much too afraid to tell her, or anyone else for that matter. He knew what the reaction would be. Lego and Eileen? No, you can’t disguise the look of horror on a person’s face, no matter how fleeting it might be.
Anyway, this time the Widow Mariah didn’t go through her usual routine. Instead she waddled up to the counter with a strange look on her face.
"I have a message for you," she said gruffly.
Lego had already started the obligatory laugh, and it was a few seconds before what she'd actually said began to register with him. But what really confused him was the strange way that she said it. Her voice was usually - he couldn’t quite think of the right words to describe it, but it always reminded him of one of those battered old slates you’d find on an ancient church roof, the kind that somehow comes loose and slithers off down over the moss covered gable, rattling and clattering away into the night. And she always ended her sentence with an odd sort of screech, which made him think of the slate flying out into space and shattering into bits as it crashed against the two-hundred-year old gravestone of the Reverend Pat Curran. Father Pat was a bit of a local hero back then, in the dark days of Irish history. He had been the local priest, but he also administered to another kind of spirit – poteen. The rumour was that he kept the still under the altar where the marauding Brits wouldn’t look for fear of being struck down with the religion. And he made a bit of money on the side out of it as well - for the Church, of course – by supplying it to his parishioners, but only for medicinal purposes, you understand! Anyway, his demise had been a very strange affair, to say the least. Apparently his cat had visited the vat of poteen, and in its intoxicated state it mistook Father Pat’s flowing ginger beard for a foxy feline. It came at him like an Exocet missile and attached itself to his face. Unfortunately for Father Pat, he was riding into town at the time on a seventeen-hands-high grey mare. Being only five-foot-two himself it was a long way down to the ground.
Anyway, that’s a different story. In the meantime, Lego was completely thrown by the Widow Mariah, and all he could say was: "What?"
"I said, I have a message for you.” She dragged the words out. “From my Eileen. You do know my Eileen, don't you?"
Lego thought a moment. "I do," he mumbled, hesitation in his voice.
"Well, she wants to ask you around for dinner,” Mariah continued. “Well, actually, she wants to share a dinner with you. She'll arrange the vegetables if you supply the meat. This Friday night, if that’s all right?"
"Oh," said Lego, in a totally unmanly soprano croak. “Yes, of course. Yes. I’d be … yes … well, I mean … ”
The Widow Mariah nodded gravely, and then she turned and floated out of the shop. Lego was stunned. Could this be true? Was this really happening to him? Had Eileen guesses how he felt about her? But an odd suspicion tugged at him. What were they really up to? The Widow Mariah had been married, and widowed, three times already, and she had acquired a reputation as a bit of a gold digger. Apparently her first two husbands died after accidentally eating poison mushrooms. The third husband died of a broken neck after falling down the stairs. Cruel gossip at the time hinted that he fell down the stairs because he refused to eat the mushrooms! But she was supposed to have amassed a load of money from him. So why would she be after Lego’s? He decided it didn’t matter anyway. If Eileen Grey wanted his money she was welcome to it. Well, not all of it! But he wouldn’t mind sharing some of it with her. Well, maybe share was a bit too extreme. All right, she could have a look at it, if she wanted. As for giving her some, well, he’d see. In the meantime he was so elated he danced on tiptoe right around the counter and across to the door. Actually, being twenty-two stone it was actually more of an awkward lumber, but it did show the excitement that had welled up inside him, and he locked the door with a flourish of the wrist. Eileen Grey! His dreams were coming true.
That Friday Lego selected his choice of meat: two generous steaks from an Angus bull that had been lovingly hand-reared on a farm just outside Aberdeen by a man called Jock something, and they were already enveloped in all the adjectives that Lego could think of. Succulent, juicy, rare, tender; the vision went on and on to the point where Lego couldn't think about them without dribbling. Even as he bathed and powdered himself, applying obscene amounts of deodorant, he could only dream of the vegetables that the beautiful Eileen was preparing. Indeed, this was going to be a night to remember!
Then suddenly he was there, standing outside the Widow Mariah's chocolate-box cottage, his fists clenched in an effort to control the mounting excitement in his heart, and his nostrils savoured the aroma of the raw steaks he’d wrapped up in a brown paper bag.
But before he was able to announce himself in the manner someone as beautiful as Eileen would expect, the bright yellow door flew open. Lego jumped and clutched the brown paper bag to his chest.
"Lego,” the Widow Mariah cooed. “Hellooo there."
Lego gulped loudly. "Er, hello there yourself, Mrs – er - Mariah."
Mariah beamed. "Ah, now don't be worrying there, Lego,” she purred in a loud stage whisper. “Shur I’m not staying. I'm actually on my way out this very minute. I have an appointment, don't you know. So I’ll leave you and my Eileen all alone, by your selves. Now be good, won’t you. But if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!”
Maybe she laughed, but Lego didn’t hear it. In the hallway mirror he caught a fleeting glimpse of a beautiful woman as she fluttered down the stairs, her golden hair flowing behind her, and his knees began to tremble. Eileen was so beautiful, even in a dressing gown and with a towel on her head. And to this day he couldn't remember crossing the hall to the kitchen. He wouldn't normally be so presumptuous. But he did recall the moment of confusion that hit him like a slap from a wet fish when he looked at the array of pots and pans that were scattered haphazardly around the worktop. And the shock at what she was actually serving up.
The following Saturday morning Danno Connolly strolled into Lego’s shop and pointed at the tray of thick juicy steaks on the cold slab.
“I’ll have another one of those for my tea,” he slurped, giving Lego a lopsided grin. Lego didn’t smile back. He’d had a face on him like a robber’s dog all week, and a moody cloud hung around him too, but Danno didn’t notice. His mind was on his stomach. “They’re absolutely delicious,” he was saying, and he was still slurping. “And I’ll have a pound of mince, too, if you have any left. That’ll do for the missus.”
“I have,” Lego said with a vague nod towards the stockroom. “I’ll get some from out the back, so.”
Leg O’Lamb patted the cold white lid of the freezer in his stock room and sighed. It wasn't the first time that something like this had happened, of course, these strange blackouts that hit him whenever something went wrong. It was the same old story, he’d become infatuated with some beautiful girl, and he’d put her on an imaginary pedestal. But they would always let him down in the end. God, how they let him down! Surely Eileen Grey must have known that, next to a beautiful woman, Lego's passion was for perfectly cooked food. Properly cooked food! His heart had fallen down into his boots that evening when he turned around in Eileen's kitchen and questioned her with his eyes. Where was the veg? Eileen just laughed - big mistake!
"Veg?" she giggled. "I don’t cook vegetables! I don’t cook anything – ever. That’s what the chippy’s for. If I want veg I have chips. Chips are veg. I have chips with everything!”
A strange black cloud descended on Leg O’Lamb that evening and it brought a terrible retribution. He couldn’t remember exactly what happened, but he did recover enough to realise that the Widow Mariah would be home shortly, and he knew he had to deal with her too.
The local paper ran a story the next day about how the Widow Mariah and her daughter, the beautiful Eileen Grey, had suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared off the face of the earth. Rumours were rife, ranging from the sheer ridiculous to the weirdly strange. The local Garda spokesman, Detective Inspector Pat Cassidy, insinuated that there was a huge debt left behind, and the two of them were well dodgy anyway, and it was good enough for them if no one bothered to go looking for them.
Lego wrapped the mince in a sheet of greaseproof paper, and just as he flopped the steak onto another sheet, Danno’s missus clattered in the door and poked Danno with her walking stick.
“I don’t know why you’re buying that rubbish!” she snapped. “Tell him about the other one. Tell him about the funny bit on the skin. It looked like mould. A funny bit of auld mouldy skin on it. I wouldn’t eat it.”
“Shur isn’t that why you’re having the mince, my little bag of spanners. You’ll be having the mince, and I’ll be having the steak. If that’s all right with you?”
“Well, it’ll serve you right if you pop your auld clogs after eating it! Just don’t expect me to clean up the mess after you. And what’s that? Look, right there. That piece has a mouldy bit in it as well. See? Right there. You said you thought the mouldy bit on other piece looked a bit like a butterfly. Well, that one looks almost like a - well, it could be a shamrock!”