Pub Scene from Death Knell in D

Nora flung open the door of her aunt’s car and plonked down on the passenger seat, clutching her small harp on her lap.

“I am not in the fooking mood to fooking play my effing harp at the effing pub,” she muttered, half hoping her aunt wouldn’t hear her.

But her aunt had. “And I’m not in any mood to drive you there, but if it’ll get either of us closer to normal, I swear, I’ll do it, whether you like it or not, missy.”

Nora flinched a little at her aunt’s exasperated tone, but it didn’t change anything. Things always seemed worse after a session with the grief counselor, and today was no exception. Especially after what she had said today. Something about how her aunt was going through an almost normal grief process from her brother’s death. Perhaps more intense since he was murdered, but Nora’s issues were more complicated.

Grief for her uncle was all mixed up with grief for her ruined career as a harpist, since she couldn’t bear to play her big harp. She could still play her little harp, but just her old Irish tunes. She couldn’t even play Pachelbel’s Canon on it. A fine wedding harpist she would be now! Or, most likely, not. The counselor pointed out that her guilt for feeling more grief over her lost harping than over her uncle was overwhelming her. She’d only known her uncle a few years; she’d been playing the harp all her life, the only career she’d ever considered.

The counselor said that Nora needed to recognize her feelings before she could get through them, but that all sounded like just a bunch of words. When you’re in the middle of an effing hurricane, it doesn’t help to just sit around and talk about how fooking strong the winds are. Why that counselor had suggested they go to a session at an Irish pub, Nora had no idea. But her aunt was eager to do something, anything, to get past this sticking point.

Somehow, they had gotten to the pub, and Nora followed her aunt inside, blinking a little at the darkness. At least this wasn’t one that tried to be too cutesy with every Irish stereotype they could find. The wooden bar was functional, not fancied up with fake shamrocks and pots of gold. And they did actually have one authentic, Irish barman. However they had found him and coaxed him to work there, she’d never know, but she did feel ever so slightly better even just hearing his voice.

“Now, then, darlin’, you’ve brought your harp with you now, that’s grand. Here’s a place right by the booth where they’re all sitting. I have a chair right here, and you can shove your belongings just there on that bench.” The other musicians shifted to make room for her. Mostly fiddles, one guitar and a lone bodhran. Not bad.

Before she knew it, her harp case was off and stashed with the others, she had done what tuning she needed and put the wrench in her pocket. There was a cup of tea in front of her, and the session leader was nodding in her direction.

“Comb your hair and curl it?” he asked, and at her nod, his fiddle began the tune. Nora took a moment to settle herself into the feel of the music, remembering the tune in her head and her fingers. It wasn’t a particularly fast tune, but intricate enough that she had to pay attention to her fingering.

That tune was followed by “Gander in the Pratie Hole” and then “Queen of the Rushes,” and soon Nora’s fingers were flying. On “Planxty Hewlett” she let the others carry the melody and used both hands in a fast and furious sequence of chords. Growing up, she had learned the melodies from the other musicians in the pubs, but her da had taught her the ways of the accompanist, to support the soloist and intensify the feel of the tune or song. “The Monaghan Jig” brought her back into the tunes, her right hand on melody and her left hand mostly still, sometimes adding a bass note or open fifth.

The music had taken her back to her times growing up in the pubs, learning the old tunes and listening to the craic. “The Dusty Window Sill” she had learned from that old man in Doolin, where they had stayed one winter. She’d never been so cold, either before or since, with the wind blowing wild and wet over the Atlantic Ocean straight through to the bones. She’d learned “Banish Misfortune,” with its one accidental, in Galway, that town of lovely shops, full of beautiful things they’d no money to spend on. At least, not then. She remembered her determination at the time to go back, when she’d made her fortune, and buy one of those lovely soft woolen cloaks. But now they were playing some slow airs, “Bridget Cruise” and then “The Parting Glass,” which she knew was the last song before they would take a break.

As the final notes sounded, she took a breath and looked around her. She could have sworn she was in a pub back in Doolin, or Galway, or Dublin, or . . . but no, she was here, in a pub in Atlanta. Why she felt better, she’d no idea, but suddenly realized she was hungry, starving, ravenous, and as she looked around for a waiter, the Irish barman appeared before her with a menu.

Nora knew what she wanted, what she needed. “Do you have any Irish stew? And soda bread?” It was her comfort food, the food of her childhood. And she needed to feel as comforted with the food as she had felt with the music.

The barman tilted his head and smirked. “So, you’ve come all this way and played your harp for us, just to insult our kitchen and cook?” At Nora’s laugh, he continued. “And will that be a Guinness or a lager with your dinner, lass?”

“Lager, please.” The stew would be dark and rich enough, she’d need something lighter to balance it out. As the barman turned to her aunt, Nora carefully placed her harp on the bench and stood up. It felt good to stretch her muscles out. It just felt good, period. The tension wasn’t all gone, but it wasn’t overwhelming her. She didn’t feel normal, but at least she wasn’t in a hurricane. She turned to her aunt, wanting to talk this out, but as usual her aunt beat her to the punch line.

“You found your way home, is that it?” Her aunt paused, and then hunted in her purse for a tissue. “Here, take this.” Nora sat back down and dabbed at the tears running down her face. “There now, that’s just a release from tension. I hadn’t thought of how it’s been for you. You haven’t been here in the States all that long, and goodness knows, you had no proper home there in Ireland, traipsing all over the country growing up, and then all over Europe after your mother won that contest. You’ve tried to deal with your losses without having a safe place to come home to, to cry it all out.”

Nora nodded, suddenly realizing why she had felt so at home in the music. They had toured in the summer, and holed up in some small town in someone’s house in the winter, but the pubs had always been the center of their life. The pubs and the music. Then she had moved to the States, learned the ways of the pedal harp as she finished her schooling, and then began her career. Her career . . . she almost got caught up in hurricane winds again, but stopped. You can do things to counter fear, to counter avoidance, whatever that word was. Maybe that woman was right; when you can name something, you can start to deal with it. There were all kinds of therapy, and maybe something else, as well.

Now that the winds had quieted down, she was able to remember things she had heard, things she had seen, since her uncle’s murder. A couple’s argument on a doorstep. The anxiety on a drag queen’s face as she heard they were going to search her uncle’s house for possible clues. The bishop’s eyes, glancing nervously around the dining room, but avoiding the stare of the bossy old woman from the cathedral. What was all that about? Was that detective following that up? But how would he know about any of that? Should she tell someone? But what would she say?

Nora’s mind went round and round on those new questions until she became aware of a clatter on the table before her. She thanked the barman and picked up a spoon. The stew smelled like home and tasted even better. Slowly she became aware of the others at the table, enjoying their meals and the quiet conversations. She glanced at her aunt, who smiled back at her and raised her glass of Guinness.

“Good health,” her aunt said, and Nora replied with the Irish sláinte. And maybe it could be good health. Or at least the road to it.

She’d start by writing down all the odd behaviors she had noticed, and get with her aunt to see what she’d noticed, as well. And maybe they’d not bother that detective with this. She’d seen too many leaks from them show up in Twitter. Maybe they’d keep this to themselves, see where it all went. And surely something would lead somewhere. If her uncle’s killer was found, maybe she could return to her big harp, to the Canon, to her plans, her career. Nora shook her head. First things first. Write down what she remembered. She turned to her aunt and raised her glass again.