06 August 2014

Irish Conversations: Two

The song rose while I was looking at the housekeeper's room in No. 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin: halting, not at all together, nowhere near on pitch.

"Happy -- hap -- happy birthday to --"

"Oh, shall we start again? We haven't made a very good go of this one." That was the older woman, Angela, I think, getting them to all stop. I could hear shuffling, and I wanted more than anything to dash out of the housekeeper's room and see what was going on in the little cafe/gift shop in the next room.

"But we've already lit the candles! I don't know if we want to go out and come back in again. It loses the moment a bit, don't you find?" I guessed that that was Fiona, the woman who'd welcomed me at the door to this restored Georgian house and had so carefully and quietly told me that I needed to put my bag in a locker. She had apologized three times for this, even though I told her it was all right every time.

"Oh, I suppose you're right," said Angela. "We'll just go again like that first try never happened, shall we?"

"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you..."

The second attempt wasn't any more in tune than that first, but at least they made it all the way through this one. I've heard that if you want to wash your hands for the properly hygienic amount of time, you should sing "Happy Birthday" in your head; it takes the required 20 seconds. But not when the workers of No. 29 are singing it. Your hands would be extra clean by the time they were done with their timid version.

But Richard—it was his birthday—didn't care. "Och, you all have outdone yourselves, and you didn't have to! It's just my birthday. And Angela, you've gone and made your caterpillar cake."

MY GOSH, why was I still in the housekeeper's room reading about how it was a coveted position in a household because you got your own room? I knew all of that from Downton Abbey anyway, but there was caterpillar cake in the next room. I don't even know what that is, but just hearing Richard talk about it, I knew it was special, and I knew he was most likely turning red from all the attention.

"But it's your 22nd birthday, Richard! That's something to celebrate!" Fiona said, and I laughed because the 22nd birthday is never one I've heard as something big to celebrate, but in the few moments I'd spent with Fiona, I had guessed that she was eager to make people feel both special and comfortable. I had also guessed that she would apologize to an inanimate object if she felt she'd gotten in its way.

Take her introduction to the video about No. 29.

"Now, I'm just going to turn on the little video we have here about the house. There's a long version and a short version, but the long version is only 15 minutes. That's just 5 minutes longer than the short version, but I guess if you're all done after 10 minutes, you could just get up and leave. There isn't anything too important in the last 5 minutes anyway. Not that it's bad if you want to watch the whole thing! No! The whole video is quite good, I find, and I do hope you think so, too, but it's all right if you don't. Well, I'll just turn it on now..."

And then Fiona backed out of the room and apologized for how her shoes scraped on the stone floor.

Even before the happy birthday singing, I had decided that this group of people at No. 29 were ripe for a sitcom. It would be called simply No. 29 and would be about the foibles and victories of this small, mismatched group that had become like a family working at the least visited site in Dublin.

No. 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street

I don't know if No. 29 is in fact the least visited site in Dublin, but it makes the show more touching and full of hilarious possibilities if they're the least visited. Imagine them trying to mount a Twitter campaign. Angela, the cook for the cafe, would most definitely use all the words related to Twitter wrong and say that "tweetering" other people seemed invasive and that you might as well be shouting at people on the streets, it was that rude. Eileen Atkins would play Angela, by the way.

There'd be an ongoing joke about how often Fiona apologized, and in every episode, there would be at least two moments that would make you cringe as the staff overwhelms the rare visitor and tries to get them to stay longer.

"Perhaps a cup of tea, then? We could take it in the housekeeper's sitting room, if you'd like. Or! If you'd rather pretend to be the lady of the house, we could go up to the morning room! That was quite fancy, wasn't it? You seem like you'd've been the lady of the house. We'll even let you sit on the furniture, even though the sign says you're not to."

That's not what happened to me, though—I should be clear that the nice, earnest group at No. 29 wanted nothing more than to make sure I had a good visit to their little museum.

When Fiona learned that I'd just flown in that day, she did offer me some coffee and a chair in the cafe, and then Angela came over with caterpillar cake, which, by the way, is cupcakes arranged to look like a caterpillar and decorated with toothpicks for antenna and gum drops for eyes.

When I told them that I was running a half-marathon on Monday, Angela exclaimed, "But Richard is doing that, too! Why, maybe you'll see him! Richard, come talk to the little American about the race you're doing together!"

Then more softly to me, Angela said, "He's been training for months. Eating all healthy and running in Lord knows what kind of weather. But he's nervous because he's never done anything like this before, so maybe you could have a word with him. Encourage him, like."

This is who would play Richard.

Richard, the recently turned 22-year-old, sprang across the cafe and shook my hand. "So, you're running, too, then? You look ready to go now!"

Fiona jumped in, "And imagine, she just got off the plane from America this morning!"

She would be the perfect Fiona.

Richard looked at me with new admiration and I just looked embarrassed. What should I say to "have a word with him"?

"How's your training been for the race?"

I've learned that with runners, they always want to talk about their training—usually complain a little about it, but I think that's often done to ward off anything bad happening {we runners are a superstitious lot}. As in: if the running gods hear you aching a little, they'll make your next few runs go smoothly.

Richard looked out the window at the rain that was coming down in sheets now. "It's been a lot of running in the rain, so I guess if I can do that, I can make it through the race. Don't you think?"

Here was reassurance I could easily give: "Oh, if you've put in the hours training, if you've been committed even when it's been raining, you'll be better than fine on Monday. All those hours running will be worth it when you cross the finish line."

All the staff seemed to have been waiting for me to say something just like that, and they all let out of a sigh of relief and started talking over one another, all telling Richard that he'd be just fine and to listen to me.

It was closing time, then, for No. 29, so I told Richard good luck for Monday and headed out into the rain. As the door shut behind me, I could hear them all above the clattering dishes as they cleared up from their party. They continued to reassure Richard that he had nothing to worry about in the race and that even if everything went wrong, they'd still be so proud of him.

PS I saw Richard in the half-marathon on Monday and ran with him for 1 1/2 miles or so. He was going to make it just fine.


  1. It's been some time since I popped over here, and I'm glad I did. I grinned through this whole post. I could see it being a BBC miniseries, with the likes of Cranford. I'd certainly watch it.

    1. Katrina! What a good connection -- Cranford! I mean, the small daily worries and gossip that felt so big in Cranford would certainly transfer over to No. 29. Too bad it can't be a period piece :)



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