In the restaurant of Ireland's Kilkenny Design Centre, small groups are seated around the room. Breakfast is served there for overnight guests staying at Butler House. There is no table set aside for a solitary diner. The dining area is large, its ceiling low, and the gray brick walls are adorned with black-and-white photographs of Kilkenny Castle across the road. Guests mill about the breakfast buffet, deciding on eggs, oatmeal, yogurt, juice.
"Room fourteen," Sinead says when she is asked. The hostess with the clipboard seats her alone at a table for four. Every day she is seated at a different table, but the servers are the same; the thin girl with the ponytail, the older plump woman, the young boy who has outgrown his pants. And every day, no one sits with her.
"Will it finally rain today?" the thin girl asks, setting the menu down. Sinead asks for Earl Grey tea, her favorite. It hasn't rained in seventy days.
Yesterday at the Hole in the Wall pub, the drought was the main topic of conversation. The newspapers were full of farmers' problems: canceling their holidays to deal with feed shortages, water and milking issues, or part-time workers laid off when no harvesting could be scheduled. Everyone hoped for rain. Ireland still being somewhat religious, more than a few prayers were offered.
Sinead has been coming to Ireland since she was five years old, the Kilkenny Arts Festival part of her parents' yearly routine. Galway, Dublin, Dingle, and Bantry Bay were also usual stops on the vacation. Traditional music, theater, and morning tea were the outlines of each day. She wonders if life could have served her differently.
The thin girl brings her tea.
"The Irish Independent said sixty percent chance tomorrow," Sinead finally responds.
"Grand, let's hope. We're desperate for it, so." The waitress sets the teapot down and walks away.
Service was always a little up and down from year to year. More Polish girls one year if the economy was good in Ireland. More very young, red-faced Irish teenagers if the economy was better elsewhere and the EU workers switched countries.
Sinead thinks about the Secret Garden performance yesterday. Such a sweet longing Martin Hayes has, with his melancholic fiddle inviting you back into the old days. How can an unaccompanied violin sound so essential?
Wearing a simple sheath dress, belted, she has hoop earrings and a few inexpensive bracelets. Her chunky-heeled platform shoes are impractical for walking the town to the festival events, but she loves making that small tourist statement, and the extra height it gives her around men. With her medium-length hair pulled back into a ponytail, her chiseled face resembles one of Picasso's cubist women before being rearranged. She recently turned thirty and is staying alone at Butler House because her husband decided to end the marriage, and left her.
He urged her to go anyway, having paid in advance for the planes, hotels, and concert tickets, saying the music, and Ireland, wasn't really for him, though they had gotten engaged across the street, in the castle's rose garden.
Her thoughts cascaded, tumbling over one another. Why did he marry her in the first place? "I don't want to hold you back anymore," he had said as he asked for the divorce. When did he decide? He must have known for a while. Was there already someone else?
The waitress asks if she wants more tea. She shakes her head no and tries to focus. What was the purpose of coming on this vacation if everything was only going to remind her of Colin? She had hoped to get away, to achieve some distance from the ache and bewilderment. Instead, it was the opposite. Everywhere she went she was reminded of him; the rose garden where he proposed, the Italian restaurant where they ate that first night, the castle grounds. This was ruining Ireland for her.
If the marriage hadn't ended—and she hadn't wanted it to—she wouldn't be alone now. After breakfast Colin would have gone for his run around the castle grounds while she read the newspaper or worked on one of her poems. Maybe in a few years they would have come here with their own children and filled out one of these tables for four. She sees a family group seated along the wall and listens to the morning conversation carried on in French, only half understanding it. The parents and children, a teenage girl and younger boy, all look happy.
Sinead stands abruptly without eating and tries to pay, forgetting that breakfast is included with her room. She apologizes and walks out into the warm morning.
Later, in the afternoon sunshine, she waits for the next Secret Garden performance to start. She hopes it is Martin Hayes again. If not, she'll spend the twenty minutes comparing the performer to Martin: the phrasing, the tune choices, the tempos. Comparing what could have been with what is offered. No one is ever as good as Martin at conjuring up the emotions of Ireland's past with such nuanced playing; a bluesy, jazzy version of tradition. It's like hearing Joshua Bell perform Mozart: the past masquerading as a perfectly realized present.
"I'll never be good enough for you," he had said. "I feel I'm holding you back."
Liz Knowles walks through the flowerbeds, up to the gazebo, and takes out her ten-string viola d'amore, a Hardanger fiddle it's called in Norway. Liz plays in a quartet with Martin, and she is a very good substitute for the real thing. She starts playing a slow air. Five strings for the melody, five sympathetic strings to vibrate along as she blends the old with the new, the traditional and the modern, the pedestrian with the magical. She brings the afternoon alive, and Sinead leaves a bit of this morning's sadness behind. The music always transports her.
Twenty-five years she has been coming to Ireland, with and without her parents. "I feel accepted here," her father would say. Her mother would reflect when they were back home in Santa Clara, "The people are so friendly. And the weather is cool and damp; you never feel worn out with the heat like California." Arid brown versus lush green was the usual comparison.
Dinner tonight will be Indian food at the place by Cleere's pub, then the concert in St. Canice's Cathedral. Sinead hopes she can get some writing and postcards in beforehand. Her parents liked to drink in the afternoon, then take naps before the evening dinners and concerts. Ever since they divorced five years ago, neither of her parents has traveled to Ireland.
Dennis Cahill shows up with his guitar and joins Liz for her performance, and she introduces him. Dennis is the usual accompanist for Martin Hayes; Sinead has not seen him performing alone with another fiddler before. Sinead's father always dressed like Dennis, jeans and a beret, sometimes a sport coat. Even though her father had a beard and Dennis doesn't, there was some confusion because they were roughly the same height and build. People regularly congratulated her father on the previous night's concert or asked his advice on what chords to play. Her father played guitar in his own Irish band in Santa Clara and grew up in Chicago, just like Dennis, so he acted a bit like him and was able to answer the questions, but he would always laugh and disclaim being Dennis. Only some of the people believed him.
Liz and Dennis play Sinead's favorite song as an instrumental, "Down by the Salley Gardens." It is Sinead's signature song. Ever since she learned it from the San Francisco Opera's vocal coach, it has been the song that works every time for her, in every setting. No matter where she sings it—the pubs, parties, the stage—her sweet soprano voice always makes someone cry. "He bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs, but I was young and foolish and now am full of tears." The girl in the song didn't take the advice to relax, to slow down and listen to her partner, and now she has no partner.
The short afternoon concert ends while Sinead is still daydreaming.
At dinner, Sinead has brought a book, a murder mystery by Tana French. Again she is seated alone at a larger table. Colin could have been here with her—he loved Indian food, the poppadums and raita, tikka masala, naan bread, tandoori chicken. The smells particularly remind her of their favorite restaurant, Gunga Din in Hollywood, where they used to live together. If everything had worked out, they might have also brought their children here to eat tonight.
Now she feels adrift. Her menu shakes as she reads it. Two couples come in: Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, and their wives. Dennis nods to Sinead; he recognizes her from this afternoon. They must be having dinner before the concert tonight. They're the featured performers. Another couple are seated across the restaurant. Sinead thinks she hears them speaking German. Her father always said Germans loved Ireland and the traditional music.
"What would you like?" the waiter asks in a soft Indian-accented voice.
"Murgh makhani, garlic naan, and a small salad, with a glass of the Tempranillo," she replies. It's the pinot noir cousin from Spain that her father used to order. When the waiter leaves she pulls out her book and tries to concentrate. Other customers come in—the restaurant is on Watergate Street, only a block from the cathedral. One is a woman she recognizes from Butler House. They have spoken in the art exhibit on the first floor. She's from Indiana or Iowa, Sinead can't remember, and wears blowsy dresses and sweaters even though the weather is warmer than usual. Her conversation was basically about money and the cost of everything in Ireland being so high. Sinead thinks the prices are reasonable considering where she is staying. The woman is also seated by herself, facing away from Sinead.
"I love you, Sinead," Colin had whispered in the Chinese restaurant last year when they were here. He had touched her hand. She hadn't responded; she had been mad about the dry cleaning not coming back on time and how it would have to be sent on to Galway to catch up with them. Somehow, she implied, it was his fault.
On her way to the concert after dinner, she wonders if this is how her life will be now: a solo traveler in a sea of couples, families, and tour groups, constantly wondering what could have been. Sinead can't stand the forced camaraderie of the tour groups with their busses and leaders and umbrellas and name tags. But she also dislikes being alone. One of the reasons Ireland is so appealing is the ease of conversation; everyone just expects you to join in. But being alone, there is always the undertone of why. And the inevitable questions. Sinead finds it makes her uneasy.
This isn't the first time a relationship has failed. There have been others. But none so entwined. Now there are legal ramifications and finances to unravel. She wonders why love is so difficult. The most basic of human emotions and yet she has to fight to stay present and committed, struggling sometimes to live up to her own expectations.
Other couples walk toward the concert, happy on their holidays, full of fun and wine and anticipation. Once inside the cathedral, she is reminded again of the hard seats and the vastness of the interior. The concert passes in a swirl of sounds and emotions, musicians coming and going, as Sinead contemplates her future. When the other relationships ended, she hadn't gone on holiday. The pain might have faded faster then because she kept going with her daily routine, teaching at the junior high, her colleagues and girlfriends at the time pulling her along, helping her recover. Maybe this was a mistake coming here by herself, allowing too much time to think. How will she move on from heartbreak this time?
Afterward, she finds herself in Cleere's, the local pub with the best traditional music. Some of the musicians from the concert are sprinkled around the room, listening. The musicians are mostly older, as are the patrons. She finds a seat at the bar surrounded by a crowd of happy drinkers.
Two older men down the bar loudly discuss the musical content of the concert last night commemorating the local record company, Rollercoaster Records, whose founder had died. They disagree on the order in which the songs were played, whether the speakers "talked too much," and the length of the concert. One has spilled some Guinness on the sleeve of his tweed jacket.
"Did you go to that concert?" the woman on Sinead's left side asks. It is the blowsy- sweatered woman from the art show and dinner. How did Sinead not notice her? Tonight the sweater is a fuzzy, dusty brown, much too long for the woman. Her hair is dyed; you can see her gray roots, and she has spots on her hands. Up close, her hazel eyes mist over.
"Yes, I liked it, but the church pews are really hard on my backside," Sinead replies. She feels the flat Midwestern accent of the woman is out of place here in the land of the brogue. But then, she wonders, what do the locals feel about her own accent?
"You travel alone a lot?" the woman asks, looking around Sinead to verify there is no other companion with her.
"This trip to Ireland I am. Usually I come with my parents or my husband." Sinead doesn't know why she has proffered this information. It's really no one's business.
"My husband died, but when he lived I never went anywhere without him. Where in the States do you live?"
"In California, Santa Clara."
"Much better weather than Iowa, or Ireland for that matter."
The music swells a bit, a foot-stomping reel with a loud banjo. Sinead is not partial to the banjo. She likes instruments that are closer to the human voice: fiddles, flutes, saxophones. A younger man with a beard next to her jostles her arm as he buys another round for his friends. They both look at each other, and he nods in apology and smiles. His green eyes are vibrant. She can't stop looking at him for a minute; then she turns back to her conversation.
"What made you come to Kilkenny?" she asks the older woman.
"I make jewelry myself, and I like Celtic design and the artists who are featured at this festival, especially the ones in the Butler House showrooms."
The man next to Sinead passes the pints back behind her, accidentally or deliberately rubbing his back against her arm. She is conscious of the human touch and has trouble concentrating. She loved it when Colin would absently run his hand over her body. She senses the woman next to her continuing to talk.
"I'm sorry, it's pretty noisy in here," Sinead says.
"My name is Alice. What made you come to Kilkenny?"
Sinead wonders this herself. The breakup was difficult, happening at a christening. They found themselves outside at the party afterward with no one around. The backyard was lovely, flowers and pink chiffon and hanging lights, even if it was still a bit warm. The champagne was beginning to sink in when Colin said he was unhappy as an IT worker. He needed to work outside; being inside and developing software every day was making him very unhappy.
"But you chose this career; you studied in college. You can't just throw it out and start all over," she had said. "Think of the money. We talked about having children."
"Maybe being a park ranger, or working on a vineyard."
"Those jobs don't pay very well at all."
"I need to be happy, not always trying to get ahead. And I feel I need to make a commitment to something I love."
"I thought we were committed to each other."
"I love you, but it can't always be about me and my big salary. You don't make much money as a teacher, but you have a job you love, and you're okay with it. Why should I be the one who has to work at a job I don't like just so we can have a certain lifestyle?"
Sinead had finally understood he was breaking up with her. But Colin needed to rationalize why he was doing it.
"Are you okay?" Alice asks Sinead.
Sinead realizes she has drifted again. "Sorry," she says. "Alice, is it?"
Alice nods, a crooked smile as if something is funny.
"I came to Kilkenny because the tickets were already bought. My husband decided to leave me and I didn't know what to do, so I kept on with what we had planned. I do that when my life hurtles off track. I tend to force myself back on as soon as possible." Sinead feels she is not ready for this conversation with a stranger. The marriage had felt like an affirmation after her parents' divorce. She knew she would be the one to stick it out, to make it work. And now this, the divorce, simply because she couldn't let go of the dream of the house and the children and the good schools. She wonders when it all became about the dream and not the reality.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I didn't mean to pry."
Alice continues to talk as Sinead mentally shifts to her parents' divorce and how her illusion was shattered. She was sure love was forever. Now she's sure she knows almost nothing about love. Each previous relationship felt like the one, the commitment was on both sides, until it wasn't. There is just a chasm where there was solid ground before.
The music interrupts again, the crowd cheers, and Sinead is rubbed again, this time on her back, by a hand.
She turns to the bearded man. "Good craic," he says in her ear.
She smiles at him and he looks into her eyes and smiles back. She looks around to his friends and sees three men and only one woman. She realizes he's trying to make conversation with her.
"I need to get going. I'm leaving in the morning," Alice says in her other ear. Sinead turns and nods, sorry that she hasn't been a good companion for another lonely woman in a pub. She wonders if she should leave also.
She turns to say goodbye to the bearded man behind her.
"We're all cheering," he says, "because it just started to rain outside. The drought's over. Can I get you a drink?"
Sinead looks to the door as the woman from Iowa steps out into the pouring rain. She thinks she shouldn't have another drink, then looks back into his smiling eyes. She feels a tear drop down her cheek and says, "That would be nice."
Title image "View Through" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.