I nearly trip and fall into his house as soon as the door opens. The paving is uneven and I don’t factor this in as I ring the doorbell upon arrival. He is rather surprised by this strange woman looking at him and seemingly wanting to come into his house without even so much as an invite. Before I can gain my balance or say who I am, he haltingly, with a weary tilt of the head states that now is not a good time because he has guests for lunch. The silence hangs for a suspended minute.
I very quickly regain my balance, explain who I am and apologise for nearly falling into his house. I re-assure him that crashing a leisurely Wednesday afternoon lunch is not high on my priority list. I notice a slight relaxation in the shoulders at this point. Slight being the operative word. He hurriedly gives me a brochure with portraits on, starts closing the door and asks me to call him. I walk away wondering if I will ever get to meet this man properly. I grouse at myself for tripping over the paving. I would also not be impressed if someone fell into my house!
Fast forward two phone calls and two weeks: 11am at No 18 Lombard Street West.
I walk back to the house, note the uneven stone and step over it. I straighten myself out and ring the doorbell.
“Well hello there my darling!”
His voice floods over me as he opens the door and ushers me inside. Mental note to self: things are off to a better start than last time. Deep breath.
I immediately notice that somehow an extra floor has been built into the house: forming a homemade sandwich if you will. I know this because of the style of No 12 Lombard Street West where the ceiling is very high. The staircase forms the middle of this arrangement. Half of it leads upwards and the other half leads downwards. Both above and below, I look out of windows where green shrubbery abounds! Before I can stare any longer, I am ushered into the living room area. Ian meets me with a formal handshake. I am shown the seat by the window. The cat stares at me, daring me to place my bottom on her favourite cushion. I stare her down and smile sweetly at her owners.
The conversation unfolds itself: stilted at first because this girl is not quite sure if she fits in with all the poshness. These are two very gentlemanly men. Both Ian and Jim have retired from advertising and now pursue quieter, but no less busy, lives. Pleasantries are exchanged. The usual questions about my reasons for leaving sun and exchanging it for rain are asked. Then the cat makes an appearance, arching her back and breaking the ice along with it.
Jim is an artist of distinction who has returned to his first love: the mixing of charcoals, smudges, lines and chalk. He has sketched the famous, the rich and the beautiful of Ireland. His artistic artillery lies scattered throughout the house, a beautiful chaos that catches my eye around every corner when I am given the grand tour.
Ian is a lover of classical music and is a producer on Lyric FM. I am led into his recording studio. The space has been fitted out to accommodate walls of CD cases and music accoutrements. Sound is not merely sound to this man. It is a place, a sacred place where he comes alive. We talk about my deep love of piano music and he vividly retells his stories of the International Piano competition that takes place in Dublin. I make a mental note to book tickets for the next one.
The conversation turns to South African politics, racism and Gay Rights. Ian and Jim have been together for close on 30 years. They have been through a few wars of their own which mimic my Apartheid laden childhood memories. The comparison makes for fascinating conversation.
It is the kind of conversation that leaves deep marks in one’s soul, the kind that will only unravel in time.
Fast forward two hours: the tears are running down my cheeks from laughter and the tea cups lie across the tray with stained lip markings. I have to drag myself away. I really don’t want to go. I am invited back for homemade lasagna and an evening with all their friends. I know it will be served at that evocative table that literally caught my breath. The one that stretches beyond the old Aga, down down down deep into the back part of the house. The table that welcomes guests at any hour of the day. The table that can seat 20 people.
I cannot wait.
Photos and post by Claire Burge.
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“A powerful saga of love and survival.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)