Is there somebody you know who has been characterized in a love story?
For us, ‘tis Liz (Chute) O’Carroll, proprietress of The Pebble, a renowned B&B in Halifax. Liz and her husband David’s love story is immortalized in the short story “The Pebble” by Ireland’s Bryan MacMahon, writer, teacher, novelist and playwright from the literary town of Listowel where Liz and David grew up. “Our story is one of the great romances of our town,” Liz told us.
Magellan and I are not ordinarily drawn to B&Bs. We didn’t know The Pebble had been rated the #1 B&B in Halifax for the last fifteen years. (Deservedly.) We chose it because of its historic/contemporary look, location and the large garden where we thought our tribe might gather.
“Well, you’ll want to know the history of this place then?” said Liz after she’d given us a tour of The Pebble, asked us about ourselves and why we were staying six nights (Clare’s graduation from King’s College University) and served us tea and cookies.
Liz has élan and flair, an eye for comfort and ease evident throughout The Pebble. Her legendary breakfasts are homemade and organic. Her bircher muesli, steel-cut oats baked in an Aga oven and then topped with an abundance of fresh fruit, is the best we’ve ever eaten.
With her dark hair, intense gaze and body taut from running marathons, she’s iron-willed about cleanliness and the quality of your stay. And one of the most passionate and open people you could ever meet. When I think of her, which is often, I’m reminded of this line by the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain in her book Are You Somebody? “My life burned inside me.”
Gregarious with a raconteur bequeathed most generously to the Irish, Liz said, “You won’t get to meet David, but to tell you the truth he reminds me of you,” she said, turning to Magellan. “He’s an engineer too, working in Alberta, so we only get together once every few months. Our daughter is there, too, they live together. But I’m digressing I am, it’s the Irish in me,“ she laughs.
I too will digress. To the 1970s when Listowel had a pub for every week of the year and one of them, very well known throughout the country, was Chute’s Pub—owned and operated by Liz’s family. Having neglected my diary when we were in Halifax, Liz kindly recounted her story in a telephone conversation. My malfeasance turned out to be a great benefit: Liz’s words.
“I’m from a family of six. When I was growing up, my mother ran the pub and a late-night restaurant at the other end of town. My father lived in New York. I went to the Presentation Convent School and on the way home we’d see the boys standing outside Man’s Shop watching us go by and though we weren’t aware of it, they were giving us girls marks out of ten. David was the most handsome boy and very clever. I thought he had his eye on my friend, who was also named Liz. He came into the café for chips one night and asked if I was going to this dance. I love to dance but my mother was strict and I wasn’t certain she’d let me go. She did but of course I had to be back at the café half an hour before the dance ended to be ready for the crowds. At the dance David asked if he could walk me home. I said sure and on the way he asked if I’d go to a dance with him the following weekend.
“This was just before my 16th birthday. I asked my friend Liz, the Liz I thought he liked, to come along. But at the last minute she backed out. When David and I were on the bus on our way home he asked if I wanted to go steady and shocked that I was, I thought there must be some trick here, what did he see in me? So I told him, ‘I’ll go out with you for as long as I like ya.’
“That summer we used to go for walks by the River Feale. One hot day David suggested we go for a swim. I said I was too tired but really, I was terrified of the water. On his way out of the river he picked up a pebble and gave it to me, going on about rock formations. I thought to myself he’s going to ditch me very fast, I’m not clever enough for him, and I put the stone away in a drawer.
“When I was twenty David gave me a ring and asked to get engaged. He was a civil engineer by then and working in Kilkenny. I was scared. And deathly afraid of marriage. You see back then there was no divorce in Ireland and my mother had said there was nothing worse than a bad marriage. I was so immature. I didn’t know how to articulate my fears. I was scared to go through with it and sabotaged the engagement. Over the years when we were no longer engaged, every so often I’d look out the corner of my eye at that pebble and think I should throw it out. But I never did.
“Shortly after that David emigrated to Canada. He got a job in Calgary. I never spoke about it to anyone but of course everyone in town knew the story. I was busy running the bar, it was heavin’ with the crowds in those days and known the length and breadth of Ireland. I never knew when he was coming home on vacation to see his parents but about once every eighteen months the door to the pub would open and in would come David.
“In August 1985, I heard from a friend that he was coming home. Okay, I said to myself, I need to speak with David. I need to walk down the street with him. I felt bad for hurting him, regretful for wrecking our engagement.
“The following day I was upstairs in the B&B I’d started above the pub when Jolene, an assistant in the bar, called up, ‘David O’Carroll is downstairs and wants to see you.’ It was 11 o’clock in the morning, early for a visit. ‘Will you come for a walk with me?’ he asked. We walked down to the river Feale and were sitting on a bench when all of a sudden he said, ‘I was talking about you last night.’ Oh yeah? I said. ‘I told my parents I was going to ask you: Are you ready now?’
“I was stunned. Then David said something I’ll never forget. ‘The one thing I want you to know is there will be days when you’ll want to be a million miles away from me but as long as we make the decision to be committed to each other, we can work through anything that comes our way.’ (And he was right. It has not all been peaches and cream and we’ve had more than our fair share to deal with.) But when he said it, I thought to myself, okay I can do that.”
Liz worried, concerned about leaving the business her mother had worked so hard to create. You have to hear the Irish lilt in her voice when Liz draws out the “r” “hard” to absorb the full essence of what she means when she says, “My mother worked really hard. By then she had retired and my brother Tommy was running the bar, but still.
“Likely it was my sister who had let her know that David and I had gone for a walk. I couldn’t call; I had Teresa, one of the girls working at the bar, telephone and ask my mother to come over. When she arrived, I could see that my mother had guessed what had happened. She was smiling ear to ear. ‘Liz, go,’ she said to me.” Telling me this, Liz has a catch in her throat, her voice breaks before we carry on.
“I arrived in Calgary December 15, 1985. As we were talking about all that happened, I showed David that I had kept the pebble. I told him that I had thought of throwing it away many times but something prevented me from doing so. He was more than a little surprised. Without me knowing, he took the pebble to a jeweller to see if something could be fabricated with it. The jeweller was more familiar working with diamonds than pebbles, but he played along. On Christmas morning 1986 I opened up my gift. And there it was. The pebble. David had gone to Goldsmiths jewellery, it’s still there by the way, and had it made into a pendant.”
In 1996 Liz and David got the call that baby Elizabeth was available for adoption. Liz had always harboured the idea of moving back to Ireland and taking over the bar, having felt guilty for walking away from a business her mother had worked so hard at. Plus she says, “I was very good at it. My mother had said, ‘I’ve raised six children but only one of them had it.’ By this time my mother had died and I felt like I owed it to my parents to return.”
The young family had living in Toronto for about ten years when Liz read an article in Macleans’ about Halifax and thought it sounded like a great city. Soon after a job came up in Halifax in the company David was working for and he took it. Liz and David immediately loved the city. Planning to stay only a short while before returning to Ireland, they were looking for a place to rent, that is until Liz noticed a For Sale sign on a stately home a stone’s throw from the ocean’s NW Arm. Upon confirming the house could legally be turned into a B&B, they bought it.
Moving to Ireland was still foremost. But they were indecisive.
“Would my marriage fall apart? I wondered,” said Liz, “and I worried for my daughter. Two years went by and we didn’t do any renovations to turn the Bennett’s lovely old home into a B&B.
“Then one day a letter came in the mail from my eldest brother. I hardly knew Frederick. He was fifteen years older than me and away at school when I was growing up. He said ‘Elizabeth I’m not sure if it is correct or not, that you’re thinking of moving back to Ireland. But if it is true I strongly suggest you reconsider.’ I was halfway through the letter when a light bulb went off and I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m not going back.’
“Now I have to tell you more about our town and Bryan’s story about David and me.”
Listowel was famous at one time for producing an inordinate number of writers relative to the population. A few of them founded a writers’ festival, “Writers Week they call it,” says Liz, “and Bryan MacMahon was one of the founding members. The festival would have celebrated its 50th anniversary this year if it hadn’t been for COVID. They have writers like Edna O’Brien and Seamus Heaney and Colm Toibín has been its president for years.” This in a town of only 5,000 people.
Being very fond of Liz, Bryan MacMahon was enchanted that a pebble taken from the River Feale in Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland, as a token of early love, was to be made into a pendant in faraway Calgary, Alberta. How Bryan heard about “the incident” he wrote a short story about is an Irish mystery. His dedication to Liz and David in the leather-bound book containing the story reads: “September 29, 1989, A tribute to a very lovely incident.”
In “The Pebble” a young girl doesn’t want to join a boy in the River Feale because she has no bathing suit. “You’re not my husband,” she says. To which he responds, “If that’s all I’ll marry you.” She asks how she can be sure. “I’ll give you a token,” he says and dives under, returning with an irregular-shaped pebble. “You’re joking,” she responds. To which he says, “I’m steadfast.”
Bryan MacMahon was quoted as saying that he wanted to promote in children
the determination to say Yes to life, to the dark as well as to the bright of it, to its beauty and glory, to its lapses from grace into degradation, and its eventual restoration to serenity.
Wouldn’t he admire the steadfast love of the real-life protagonists in his story?
Liz retold me her story last month while she was out walking the dogs in a park near The Pebble. “Is David still working in Calgary?” I asked her. “Yes, I leave December 15 so we can spend Christmas together. It’s easier for me to go there, as you know, because of the fourteen-day quarantine in Nova Scotia.
“I arrived from Ireland to Calgary on the same day December 15, 1985. Thirty-five years and I still remember what I wore, how I felt, like it was yesterday. I arrived late at night and for the first time I saw white fairy lights sparkling outdoors. This is special I thought to myself.”
Christmas day, the 34th anniversary of David’s gift to Liz of the pebble pendant.
MacMahon, Dr. Bryan. “The Pebble.” Bakers Dozen, a book of short stories edited by Clodagh Corcoran. Dublin: Poulberg Press, 1989. Dr. MacMahon was a poet, short story writer, balladeer, playwright and member of the Irish Academy of Letters. Here’s where you can read “The Pebble” online.
Thanks to Liz for the photo of she and David and of Bryan MacMahon. (The photo of Chute’s pub is fro m Google.) And here’s more to convince you, if you’re headed to Halifax, to stay at The Pebble.