Centered on a small island on the River Lee is Cork, the third largest city in the Republic of Ireland. Nestled just north of the English Market and just west of Cork Harbor, lies the Mutton Lane Inn. A favorite of the early afternoon crowd (opening at 2 pm on Sunday) and the late night couples desiring quaint conditions include candle illumination, small oak tables, and in excess of 600 varieties of beer. Whether a local or a traveler from afar, this small pub sees its shares of love stories and heartache.
This story is not about the Mutton Lane Inn, rather, it pertains to true love found and true love easily lost.
Sergei Protopopov is a young assistant coach for FC Luch-Energiya Vladivostok, or Luch-Energiya for short, or just Luch for conversations with those who find the Russian language and its far eastern dialects difficult to understand and even more difficult to pronounce. Wearing his team black and blue checkered away jersey, Sergei enjoys this pub’s finest offering of beers not ever sold in his home country. Sporting a career-ending knee injury at age 24, Sergei finds his club loyalty rewarded with a coaching position so rare for a former talent of his age. For this sole reason, Sergei discovers strength from his comrades and solace in this pub, at one of the small tables in the corner.
Blessed are those who either have the vision to prepare for what life has to offer or blindly wander aimlessly in a serendipity haze stumbling into each random encounter. Whether it was the former or the latter, life does have an encounter for Sergei Protopopov and his pint of Murphy’s that day.
Amy is a traveler from Los Angeles, California staying with a few friends for the week. Being somewhat disoriented by the lack of dependable cell phone coverage detailing her exact location, Amy Baker enters the Mutton Lane Inn to call her friends and allow them to rescue her. Normally not a fan of hide-and-go-seek, Amy realizes the benefits of a safe pub as a refuge from the afternoon heat and the ambiance of the fine establishment she might one day patronize on a regular basis.
Because upon entry, Amy bypasses the bar and walks directly to the table currently occupied by the remains of a popular beer and a DDG (Drop Dead Gorgeous – by Amy’s standards) athlete who is “kinda cute”.
It is currently 2:45 pm at the Mutton Lane Inn on a Sunday.
And so the story begins.
“Hi.” It was all I had to say. He looks up, as if from a daze, and quickly sprang to his feet as any properly raised gentleman should. I give him a few style points for the effort. Not many men respond in such a way. He did and I am glad he did.
“My name is Amy. Is anybody sitting here?” My mother taught me about the dangers of forwardness and the associated presumptions at home in the US. But in Ireland, I decided to throw caution to the wind today and walk in the rain, without an umbrella, to get wet.
He responds with a thick accent and dark brown eyes. The way he gazes at me leads me to believe he is instantly gobsmacked and totally enamored. Having no use for conceit, I begin to sit in the chair. Chivalrous as ever, he moves quickly and pushes my chair in for me. In doing so, he (I have yet to ask him his name) spills the remaining contents of his pint. Ironically, I see the glass tumble to the floor. He doesn’t. He keeps his eyes glued to me during the entire act. More bonus points to award later.
Like a fool, she catches me off-guard. I push in her chair and spill my pint. To cover, I motion over the owner, Ruth Mutton, and order for the two of us. This Amy is beautiful, too beautiful to be true. I have heard of such exotic women, but have never met one in person. Just looking at her leaves me stupefied. I cannot speak unless spoken to.
In the brief ten seconds of their relationship, Sergei inventories bright blue eyes, chestnut hair, other beautiful features, diamond studs on her earlobes, and no diamond from a stud on her ring finger.
Amy catalogs his great smile, a knee-meltable accent to pass her first impression test, and a “Downton Abbey” disposition to pass her mother’s first impression test.
For the next fifteen minutes, both Amy and Sergei will engage only in idle chit-chat, making small talk, attempting to garner more information than either would normally (or easily) concede. Fearing an opportunity to further his interest, Amy takes a bold step and visibly reaches into her purse to turn off her cell phone. In doing so, she will never receive her friend’s text message, thus ignoring specific demands as to her whereabouts.
This concession to further the relationship was not lost on Sergei. He matches her by turning off his phone, removing the SIM card, and distancing the battery from all electrical proximity. Amy’s smile broadened. A rare sight for Sergei; a clear, even rarer action from Amy.
Freed from prying eyes and immediate discovery, Amy tells Sergei her story involving her past adventures, what might happen, and some flight of fancy taking her nowhere of any importance. As she narrates, it is the journey, not the destination that makes the memories.
Never interrupting her once, he hangs on each and every one of Amy’s words. Though he does not yet understand the exact meaning of each, he does thrive on her excitement, her details, and her “je ne sais quoi”. He will miss out on the details involving context, but never the quality of Amy’s prose.
When she finishes, Amy simply asks, “So what’s your story, Sergei?” Such a unique invitation to blow one’s own horn. Dare he assume she is truly interested in the trials and tribulations of one Sergei Protopopov? He will look to Amy for guidance in answering questions yet unasked. She extends reassurance instead. A small touch of her hand on his hand gives him the measure of confidence he requires to wield Herculean strength over all remaining insecurities he harbors. Sergei, like Amy, is a stranger in a strange land. If Amy can rise above trepidation, so can he.
Pulling one deep breath, Sergei unleashes an onslaught of his collective hopes and dreams. He evokes visions of Olympic participation, advanced medical education, world travel, and of finding that special one in which to share it all. By now, he needs to breathe, but cannot. Amy’s grip on his hand feels tighter. The tears welling in her eyes open the windows to her soul. If this is passion, she has never previously encountered his level of passion. When he speaks of glory, she is transfixed upon his certainty. Sergei displays ultimate confidence in Amy’s presence. He outlines his plan for life’s success and details few provisions for alterations.
Now it is Amy’s turn to breathe. Here, sitting before her, is the type of man Amy’s grandmother warned her about. Such a man once swept her Nana to the altar and then carried her to America seventy long years ago. Sergei is such a man.
And it makes Amy scared.
Not because of what Sergei can do to her, but what Sergei can do with her. Never before has Amy witnessed such singular vision. His is far beyond the live-for-today California boyfriends Amy encounters in her daily routine. In the valley, any valley in California, one score and two-year-old men have the emotional depth of a modest bird bath. It is no wonder, terms such as good-time-Charlie and Mr.-Right-now originated there. If not for Sergei placing his hand over her hand over his hand, Amy might remain oblivious to time itself.
“I need to use the bathroom” was all she can stammer to exit the seriousness.
Understanding her dilemma, Sergei rises and escorts Amy to the appropriate door. Finding his seat, watching the waiter remove the beer glasses, Sergei now ponders his future with Amy. So much so, he never sees the next two people who enter the Mutton Lane Inn. He will never recognize Mary, Amy’s sister, arriving as cavalry always does, in the nick of time. Amy’s bathroom intermission provided the onus for a cell phone activation and text to help direct Mary toward her disoriented sister.
Sergei does recognize, Svetlana, his recent ex-girlfriend arriving with a peace offering of her smartest red dress, originally worn in his anticipation of her expected yes answer. She met Sergei’s eyes and mouthed the word, “Da”, in a voice so soft only he could hear.
The fine edge or cusp of our future depends upon the decisions made and the opportune time. I told my 10:30 regular this as she paid her bill early and decided to go home to her husband and apologize for all things both trivial and benign blown all out of proportion earlier today.
Otherwise, it is a slow night here at the Mutton Lane Inn. I should know. I was there.