Tom of the Ardmore House

Our car rolls gently down the street to the cozy hamlet at the end where we see the sign:

Ardmore House B&B

The house itself is a single story, wide and white, with a beautiful red door that we could see was already open.

We pull our car head-in to the unlined pavement just in front of the low white wall that surrounds the property. I worry that we might not be in the right parking space. I look at the only other car parked in front of our B&B and think the better.

I put the car in park and turn it off.

We don't hop out and trot in to check-in as we normally do with hotels. We just sit there, quietly. Breathing it in, feeling the adoration swell within us.

There is a large yard which rolls down to the left of our B&B, trees and the faintest tops of houses beyond it. Rose bushes half-full with bright summer colors dot the lawn.

The low rumble of our Czech rental car that has enveloped us for the past several hours now seems a deafening memory.

Everything feels suddenly, cosmically still, like we've found a hidden exit off the space time continuum.

We leave our bags in the car and walk up to the house.

As we approach the front door Annie pauses behind me to bury her nose in the open arms of the juicy red rose of a multicolored bush that comforts the walkway.

It’s the kind of rose that would stop her anywhere. She tells me to smell it and I do. I lean in and innhale deeply. I pull back to process. Somehow this one smells unlike any I’ve ever smelled. Full without being overwhelming. I lean in again. The scent is enlightening.

We walk through the open red door into a small ante room where another door stands closed before us. I turn the knob and open it with a slight shove. We are in.

The smell is instant. Familiar and familial. Reminiscent of a long history lived in this place. More indicative of a generation than a specific structure. A small corridor in front of us, a sitting room to our left, the faint hum of a TV coming from just beyond us.

Annie closes the door behind us.

“Hellooo” I say in a 15 foot voice with a touch of hesitancy, not so much a question as a gentle announcement. Like I was someone returning to a place I’d recently left instead of arriving somewhere for the first time.  Feeling less like I was arriving at a hotel and more like I was reluctantly intruding on someone’s home.

And around the corner he comes.

Dark buttoned up shirt and trousers he favored one leg as he walks with the slightest limp to greet us.

This is Tom.

The proprietor. The man spoken so highly in the B&B reviews. The man who will take care of us for the next 12 hours, and as we will find out, largely by himself. The man who Annie and I will reflect upon constantly over the coming weeks.

I introduce myself and my girlfriend, each of us shaking his gentle, well worn hand.

His accent is different than the rest of the people we’ve met in Ireland. Not thicker necessarily, but older, out of step with what we’ve heard. It is the accent of a town that has remained relatively unchanged after years of transient tourism.

We summarize our travels and he points to the map on the wall next to him to guide us for our adventures the next day. Something he has undoubtedly done hundreds if not thousands of times.

He shows us two rooms, one overwhelmingly floral and one overwhelmingly pink, and gives us our choice. We choose the pink one for the size of the bed.

Tom sets off to make us a pot of tea.

He is so endearingly sweet I almost feet obligated to help.

As soon as he is out of sight Annie and I whisper sweet impressions to each other. A normal speaking voice seems significantly too loud in this space.

It is the first B&B we have stayed in while visiting Ireland.

It is the first one Annie has ever stayed in and the first one I have stayed in since visiting Salem, Massachusetts as a pre-teen.

That was a decidedly more commercial (if also possibly haunted) affair. It was an old victorian style house on a commercial street where we stayed on the second floor. My sister and I stayed in a separate room from my parents, a huge deal at the time for us. I remember activity and comings and goings that made it seem more like a cultural event, like visiting one of those places where actors play out the lives of people from hundreds of years ago.

Tom’s B&B feels less like a commercial enterprise and more like a home.

We quickly realize that while there might be other people staying the night here, they are currently absent.

We bring our bags in from the car and after a brief summary of local restaurants from Tom, and a confirmation of an 8 am breakfast time tomorrow, we are off for a peaceful and lovely evening.

The next morning we wake up and efficiently repack the few things we have removed from our luggage.

The house is unfamiliarly quiet. A stillness we haven't experienced in Ireland. A stillness we haven't experienced in months.

It’s the kind of quiet neither of us can remember hearing. We emerge from our rooms like cat burglars. I worry there is no noise from the kitchen. Did Tom oversleep? Did he forget? How will we wake him?

How can I get mad about a septuagenerian entrepreneur not waking in time to make me eggs while on a road trip vacation?

All of these frivolous thoughts leap into my consciousness as we walk around the corner into the dining room which is completely yellow.

And empty.

Each of the half dozen or so tables are made up and set, ready for patrons not yet awake.

Annie chooses a table next to the window. Probably as much for the view of the morning light as the freshly cut rose that sits in front of it.

She stares at the rose for a moment before reaching for the tiny vase and burying her nose in the flower. It’s real she says.

I wonder when he cut it, if he cut it.

Sounds in the kitchen assuage my fears. Tom is awake. Breakfast is in progress.

Annie and I whisper and giggle. We point out the clouds to each other. We look for the donkeys we saw next door the night before. I point out the cat across the way that leapt up to a windowsill to check in on it’s residents. It’s the kind of cat she would be walking up to right now if we weren’t sitting at breakfast. For this I am grateful.

Tom comes out of the kitchen with a small pot of coffee in one hand and a pot of tea in the other, his hands shake slightly as places them on our table.

Two Irish breakfasts he asks? We confirm. He clasps his hands together and heads back into the kitchen.

We hear oil sizzling, gentle movement of pans, a kitchen suddenly very much awake even if we aren’t.

Tom returns when we have finished. He asks us where we are from and what we do.

We tell him which prompts a discussion of a horrific event in the states from today’s paper. It is something I saw on the newsstand at the gas station that day before out of the corner of my eye. It is a harsh reminder of what a fairytale we are currently living.

Our conversation evolves and he tells us he started the B&B with his wife after their 4 kids had left the home. He tells us his wife passed away several years ago and he has continued to run the establishment himself. Managing the bookings, watching the email, cooking the breakfasts.

He tells us that things are different now, that he hires somebody to clean the bathrooms and change the linens.

He says something about 90 to 95 percent of people being something. I can’t tell if he said good or bad.

I wish now I had asked him to clarify. My heart preemptively breaks thinking about how hard this could be for him, about how people might treat him.

He tells us he coaches Gaelic football at the local college. I wonder what kind of a coach he is. Somebody so mild mannered and attentive.

Though nothing in his face shows animus, nothing in his mood shows exhaustion. He comes across as a man who has been doing this for a long time, as he always had, as he would as long as he could.

And somehow, without any prompting, I feel bad for him. Working so hard at such an old age, by himself, just to make his living. I feel bad for him and then I feel guilty for feeling bad. Is pity an emotion of arrogance or naiveté? He has managed well enough on his own, why should my emotions be so significant if at all relevant?

I feel myself starting to form the basis of some sort of learning. Something about hard work, and honest work. Something about just doing what you do without questioning it. Perhaps what I imagined his body felt like wasn’t accurate, that I imagined this life to be sadder and harder than it actually was.

I have no idea.

I want to ask more questions but we must be on our way. Tom wishes us well and we are gone.

On one of our last cab rides before we leave Ireland, we strike up a conversation with our driver who is on his last run of the evening. He has been driving a cab for over 30 years. He tells us of his 4 kids and a wife that passed away three years ago.

Cancer, he says.

At a red light he pulls his cellphone out of his shirt pocket, an older keypad style phone and pushes a button so the screen illuminates.

That’s her he says as he holds it over his shoulder for us to see.

She’s beautiful Annie says.

He pulls the phone back, looks at the screen briefly and kisses it before putting it back in his pocket, his sincerity disarming.

The light turns green. He pushes the gas propelling us forward.

Forever forward.