Dublin, Ireland, 1978: The taxi pulled up to the curb on a narrow street, lined with identical brick houses side by side. Pushing past the metal gate that opened onto a tiny, bleak front yard, I knocked on the black enamel door.
Vera swung the door open, baby at her hip, her face betraying a slight panic when she saw me.
“Ah! Mary! What a surprise to see you!”
“But, didn’t you get my letter with my arrival date?”
“No, no, Mary. Don’t you know we’ve had a mail strike for the last month? But, come in, come in.”
And so began my short vacation to Ireland, a special get-away for a single woman about to get married back in San Francisco. My suitcase was packed with the bare minimum: a pair of jeans, a quilted green jacket I’d bought in Chinatown, a sort of peasant blue dress with a billowing skirt, a pair of high leather boots.
I stayed for a few days with my Dubliner friends, then planned to explore Galway on the west coast. Vera’s husband was a cameraman at the television station, so a highlight of my visit included tickets to a popular variety show, broadcast live.
Wearing my blue dress, I made myself comfortable in the audience. There were maybe 30 seats, situated in a small studio painted entirely black. A tacky velvet curtain served as backdrop for the moderator’s desk and chair, atop a small elevated stage. Very low budget, but the right ambiance for the first guest. It was a farmer who brought along his goat for the interview.
The moderator cracked jokes, and the audience leaned forward, enthralled. I shifted in my seat and wondered how long the interview would last. Then came three dancing girls, dressed in satin shorts and fishnet stockings, crammed onto the stage. They harmonized about the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B.
After a rousing finale, the goat, the farmer and the dancers marched off the stage. The audience followed them into an adjoining room for a cast and crew party. My friends and I found seats to relax and share a cup of tea. I was about to sip from my cup when a young man joined our group, kneeling beside me to fall into conversation.
“Ah, yer from San Francisco, miss, and where do you go from here?”
“Well, my friends have suggested I take the train tomorrow morning for Galway, to stay at the castle there.”
His eyes twinkled. “And what time does your train leave, may I ask?”
His eyes were very sweet, very playful. He seemed irresistible to me.
“Seven a.m. On the dot.” I swallowed hard.
He broke into a merry smile and said, “I’ll be there, and I’ll go to the castle with you.”
And then, he took a bowl of sugar cubes, held the bowl high while he met my eyes again, and silently spilled the sugar cubes onto my lap. He leaned over, took a cube delicately between his teeth, and dropped it gently into my tea cup.
As he slowly leaned away from my lap, he turned his face toward mine and grinned.
Did I blush? Did my heart race? Did we exchange another word? None of that remains in my memory. I can recall the weight of the sugar on my dress, the way his dark curls fell forward as he leaned to capture a cube from my lap.
Next morning, I left on the train for Galway. Alone. I felt disappointed that he hadn’t materialized, but it was a relief to keep traveling light without a stranger as extra baggage. Once I arrived at the castle converted into a hotel, a bellboy escorted me to my room in a tower overlooking a moat with white swans.
As we rode the elevator, I asked him, “Are you from Galway?”
“No, ma’am, I’m from Belfast, Northern Ireland.” He stared at his shoes, then looked up to see if his response made any connection with me. His ill-fitting beige bellboy uniform only made his poor complexion look more sallow. A ridiculous cap on his straw-colored hair made him look like a sad monkey.
That night, I wore the blue dress — my sugar cube dress — to dinner in the elegant hotel dining room. A gregarious couple from Texas invited me to join them, sharing a bottle of wine and a wonderful meal. Feeling well fed, content and tired, I nodded hello to the bellboy as I passed his station on the way to the elevator.
“Room 11, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Right,” I said. As the elevator door closed, I thought, “That’s odd.”
An hour later, I was locked away in my turret room, snuggled under a comfy quilt. Suddenly, I heard the distinct sound of metal to metal, as a key turned in the door lock. A slice of light from the hallway cut across the far wall as the door slowly opened.
Into the room slipped my prince charming monkey bellboy. He stood stock still facing my bed, his back against the wall. Wordless.
Reflexively, I pulled the covers up to my shoulders, as I sat up in bed.
“What is it?” I half-shouted.
I switched on the bedside lamp.
“Well, this light’s working.”
A long silence ensued. I glared, my mind racing. He took a deep breath, eyes on the floor, then nodded.
“Yes, ma’am. Just checkin’.” And he left.
Image from British Library, original photo of Dublin Castle by Maurice O’Connor Morris, 1888. (Wikimedia Commons)