A Touch of a Brogue
Christine Danse © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“‘The food aspires to be gourmet Irish but succeeds at neither being gourmet…nor authentically Irish?’”
Colm had been able to maintain calm till then, but his voice pitched with the last words. He gripped the magazine tighter.
“‘While the setting was evocative of a traditional pub, the food was not as sure of its identity, and the confused menu could not be saved by the tired gimmick of shipping a historic building overseas.’ Gimmick?” Colm’s voice rose an octave, and he didn’t care that Robin was here to witness. The establishment had been in his family for three generations. He’d shipped it to the Pacific Coast of the United States—at great expense—to preserve his heritage. A gimmick?
“No way,” Robin said.
He twisted the magazine in his hands and slammed it into the trash bin. It wasn’t even worth recycling.
Robin knelt and retrieved it. She flipped through the bent pages as if she wouldn’t believe the review herself until she saw. Colm could have told her not to bother. He’d just read the whole thing aloud to her. Although it did satisfy a small part of him to see her scanning through the article with an expression of disbelief on her face.
“Well, that’s just shit,” she said. “Did he even review the right restaurant? This is complete shit.”
Colm made a sound that wasn’t a laugh. He agreed with her. The review felt uncomfortably like a personal attack, but he didn’t recognize the critic’s name, and there was no author picture for him to check.
“What a butt-licking douchebag,” Robin said, and Colm almost laughed for real then. She stared at the byline. “Did I serve this asshole?”
Colm turned away. He was having trouble breathing, as if he’d been punched. In a sense, he had. He dropped onto the office chair, which nearly spun away before he’d landed.
“Oh, friend.” Robin draped her arms around his shoulders. He didn’t tell her off.
His reaction was stupid, of course. It was just a review. But it was the first professional critique he’d received, and it was in Portland Eats, the city’s premier food publication. The truth was it cut him unexpectedly deeply. He had poured himself and his money into the restaurant, sometimes working upwards of 100 hours a week, week after week, with an eye to details. The restaurant was supposed to be unique, a step above the rest. Of course he was upset. Understandably so.
Robin rubbed his arm in what was supposed to be a comforting manner.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “This idiot obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s just one review. It doesn’t mean anything.”
But six months later, they were languishing.
It was only one review. Of course, it wouldn’t shut them down. But its words had acted as an ill omen.
Robin worked extra hard to keep him in good spirits and the restaurant afloat. She came up weekly with new schemes to draw business. Colm was discovering in her a near inexhaustible supply of optimism and a teeth-gnashing loyalty. He felt a little in awe of his luck in having her, although he suspected her to be motivated largely by a sense of self-preservation, considering she now called the restaurant home.
Colm had found her less than a year before, huddled in the doorway off the alley. The restaurant had only been open for a few months then, and he’d only just finished moving his things into the small apartment above the restaurant. It still gave him an odd sense of displacement, seeing and smelling this building from his childhood. Home, but here in Oregon.
It’d been the coldest March Colm could remember. It’d already snowed twice that month, and a frozen mix was expected again that night. Colm opened the door to take a bag of garbage out to the dumpster and nearly tripped over the small form bundled in the deep doorway. For an instant, he thought someone had left a heap of trash, topped with a blanket, on his doorstep. Then the heap moved, head tilting back to reveal a pale face and eyes blinking in the sudden light. Young. She looked so young, and clean, and fragile. He didn’t think she’d last the night.
So, of course, he wasn’t able to leave her there.
Robin was her name, and she came with a cat. Or rather, the cat arrived the next night, taking her place in the shelter of the doorway. It ran in as soon as he opened the door. Unlike Robin, who’d given him a long, measuring Are you a creep? look.
He must have passed her scrutiny, because she came in after several minutes. She was taller than he expected, although she sloped her shoulders in an unconscious defensive posture. He gave her the spare room in the apartment. On the second night—the night the cat arrived—he woke to find her in his room. Woken, and nearly died of a heart attack to find her standing over him. She’d been gathering her courage to pay him back for his hospitality with the only currency she thought she had, until he wheezily corrected her misconception.
No. And no. And in any case, no.
The episode shocked him, and he sat up, feeling violated and unclean, into the bleak hours of morning. When he finally clomped downstairs, he found her in the restaurant, dressed sharply and with hair pulled into a glossy bun. He hadn’t asked her to work. He still hadn’t decided if he wanted to let her stay. After the night before, it seemed like a bad idea.
“I can do an Irish accent,” she said in the worst attempt at a brogue he’d ever heard. He grimaced and said, “No.”
But only to the accent. He assigned her to bus the tables.
As if by some magic, the suspicion burned away from her, reservation replaced with bubbling chatter. She had no mute feature. The customers loved her.
Although Robin never gave him a full account, she shared her story in pieces. Colm put them together. Before taking up in his doorway, Robin had been nearing the end of her accounting program when her parents kicked her out of the house. Not that it was for him to judge, but she didn’t strike him as the kind of kid you kicked out. Sober, honest to a fault, hardworking. Colm had his suspicions, but he never pushed her for the circumstances behind the dispute with her family.
She refused a wage, at first. “You’re putting me up. Feeding me. That’s enough.” But he insisted. She would need money to finish school. To pay for clothes, a cell phone. And she could use the work history on her resume.
Soon, she began preparing his books for him. That was another surprise. He found her in his office and was outraged at first, because she’d previously offered, and he’d declined her help. But before he could say a thing, she showed him the work she’d done already. The numbers embarrassed him into silence. She may have very well saved the restaurant from tanking in its first months.
Then the review had been printed in Portland Eats, and they began sliding closer and closer to a pit they would not be able to climb out of.
And so Robin worked madly alongside Colm to save the restaurant. Fact was Colm had miscalculated. Badly. He shouldn’t have opened his restaurant three blocks from an existing pub, the Crooked Kilt. He’d thought he’d done his research, though. The other establishment was more of a standard American brewpub serving burgers with Gaelic names and hosting folk acoustic bands of the contemporary American type. Colm’s own Irish Sisters served a large selection of beers from the British Isles and a full menu of traditional Irish fare. Granted, with a modern twist. And they worked hard to book a lineup of Celtic music acts. There really shouldn’t have been any competition. In Portland, it was standard for brewpubs to operate next to each other, all doing good business.
Colm worried. Robin continued to host trivia nights and Celtic karaoke. They held on. The review in Portland Eats faded into bad memory. And, little by little, the restaurant started to pick up.
Then the poor Internet reviews started to pour in.
Colm had a habit of checking the review sites. Yelp. Trip Adviser. Google. Not the healthiest behavior, but he restricted his checks to once weekly and told himself it was good business to be aware of what the reviews said. And that Sunday, they said the restaurant was dark and dirty, with poor quality food and bad service. Colm framed his face in his hands and stared at the computer screen. It was like the article in Portland Eats all over.
Later, Robin caught him checking the reviews on his phone. She took it from him.
“Don’t worry about them. They don’t mean anything.”
Within a week, business was flagging again.
“I’ve got an idea,” Robin said, arriving unannounced in his office.
The cat had taken a perch on Colm’s desk. He’d been petting its back. Now he and the cat looked at her.
“We’re going to throw an Irish Christmas extravaganza.”
Colm quietly placed his forehead against the desk.