"Let me see the lads."
Nan was craning her eyes over my shoulder to try to get a look at my boys, who were waiting in the car behind me.
I was standing on Nan's front stoop, after having rung the bell and then introduced myself to her stern countenance, with the words, "I'm Mr. Solomon. We are the family who called you earlier, to stay at your bed and breakfast tonight."
"How many are ye?"
"Myself and my wife, and our two boys."
But Nan had to get a good squint at the lads before she would let us in.
So I called the boys over, and duly paraded them before Nan's scowling face, where they stood the scrutiny tolerably well. Then Nan led us in to the stark interior of her dwelling, and she showed us to our musty, threadbare rooms.
Our reception was not precisely hostile, but neither was it welcoming, and we stood huddled in the cold room all looking at each other uneasily.
"Should we stay here?" asked Lauren. She didn't exactly trust the situation, or the way Nan had sized up our boys.
"It would be pretty awkward not to, at this point," I reasoned.
"Maybe that lady at the store knew something," put in Mathew. That was more than Lauren wanted to hear just then.
"We'll be fine," I said. "Let's go back to the store and get something for dinner."
We got into the car and drove back towards the village; none of us feeling exactly easy. Finally I voiced the unspoken thought that was in all our minds.
"She really is a witch, you know." The boys probably found that remark funnier than Lauren did, for she immediately desired me to stop saying that.
When we had arrived at the village earlier that day, we had been to the little general store before we went out to see Nan's place. Pretty much everyone we met while we were in Ireland expressed a warmth and friendliness, and the storekeeper here was no exception. We had chatted for a bit, and told her that we were touring the country, staying in bed and breakfast places along the way. She had asked us where we were staying that night, and I had told her, "Over at Nan's place, out on Route ___."
Suddenly, everything had gotten very quiet. The few people in the store stood still, and there was no response at all to my remark except a studied vacancy on the part of everyone within earshot. This was a curious sign, we had all thought. So it was with some foreboding that we had made our way out to meet Nan, even before we had seen the place.
Now that was over with, and we were back in the car, returning to the little store in the village. When we got back there we were a little shy of speaking to anyone, but we bought some cold cuts and bread, and we had a nice meal on a picnic table under some trees: an idyllic spot in the fine evening. Nobody mentioned Nan, but eventually it was time to go; it was getting dark, and even I was getting a little apprehensive. Why had everyone gone so quiet at the store?
But back we went to the now silent house; Nan was not to be seen, and Lauren and I got the boys situated in their room. Then we reluctantly left them to go to our own room. I was making no jokes about witches at this point.
But as it turned out, this was to be another perfectly daring adventure, ruined by the lack of any real danger. Apparently we hadn't antagonized Nan sufficiently, for she never used any evil spells on us the whole time we were there, and the worst thing we suffered was a cheerless night on a hard bed, and an almost laughably sparse breakfast the next morning.
You can confidently expect that a bed and breakfast house in Ireland will be comfortable and bounteous, abounding in fresh fruit, strong tea and coffee, local cream in a charming little pitcher, toasted soda bread, yogurt, hot cereal, pots of jam, butter, honey. The hostess will bid you help yourself to all of this from the sideboard, and she will then ask, "And what would you like for breakfast?" That would mean, "How shall I cook your eggs, and what meats will you take?" We declined the meats, they being usually of some pork variety, and we certainly just said "No, thank you," to the black-and-white puddings; pork blood mingled with milk: possibly the most unkosher food on planet Earth, if you are of the Jewish persuasion. However, being civilized creatures, we of course never mentioned that, but we greatly enjoyed partaking of the other good things, which were often accompanied by a fine turf fire glowing on the hearth, and adding its scent to the room.
Well, all this is exactly what Nan's place was not. From the look of things, she probably did not get much company, and she undoubtedly needed the money, but for what we got we certainly did not get a bargain price. The house was cheerless and without character, and Nan didn't seem to like people very much.
At breakfast we were seated in front of a blaring TV, at a worn linoleum table provided with hot water and instant coffee, milk in its carton, and a sideboard that contained a number of boxes of cold cereal and nothing else.
Jake looked over the selection, and chose some cocoa-puffed things, and he was about to pour some into his bowl.
"Oh, I wouldn't recommend that one," cautioned Nan.
"Why not?" asked Jake, poised with the box.
"Oh, that one's been there quite a while," she replied.
Jake's eye strayed back to the remaining selections, but I decided not to wait for any further, perhaps awkward, choices, and I asked, "Well, which one would you recommend?"
The corn flakes is what she would recommend, so we all had some, washed down with stale instant coffee (Nan drank tea), and thin milk for the boys. I think I remember some rubbery eggs that went with it, but I do remember what was on the TV. The news was over and a travel program was on, featuring a Chinese pottery maker. The TV volume was too loud to allow conversation, but that's just as well, for there was precious little of that around this dismal table. We all watched the pottery maker on TV as we ate. He was showing how to make a tea strainer, and he was poking a thin stick through the bowl of wet clay, over and over to make little holes; "Keep pushing, keep pushing," the potter intoned as he worked, and the whole experience for me took on a dreamlike surrealism. Here we were in Ireland, the land of enchantment, intruding, as it were, in someone's kitchen, eating cornflakes out of a plastic bowl, and having a Chinese cultural experience. "Keep pushing, keep pushing..."
So that was bed and breakfast at Nan's place: a mild enough experience; the lads caused no trouble after all, and neither did Nan. What she thought of us I don't know, but for me it was a memorable experience; it was just not the sort that you would find in the travel books.
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