He walks into the pub, elbows out, face grim. There isn’t room to breathe, let alone sit or stand. As if that matters. It matters to me, wedged as I am, with one foot in Temple Bar, the pub, and one foot out the door, on the road, in the rain, in Temple Bar, Dublin. The streets are grey, the sky black, the pub a brilliant throbbing red. I scan the crowd. If it weren’t for his hair – giant black corkscrews dreaded out like Mr. B. Marley himself – I would have lost him by now. But among the crush of grey wool caps and pale bald Irish heads, he stands out like a beacon.
My second foot finally finds purchase on the pub side of Temple, and I feel a certain smugness that I am in, when all the other pint-seeking rain-cursing sods are still out. My eyes follow his hair as he winds his way towards the stage. His elbows are sharp, pushing a sure path through the steaming, impenetrable wall of bodies, married shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, a jostling, raucous mass of noise and drink.
I’ve made little progress. Two flush-faced young men in hoodies and high-tops squeeze sideways, meaning I can squeeze sideways, but I’m not gaining any forward ground. They half-raise their glasses in a toast to our cosy predicament, but they are flat against the wall and can’t lift their hands much higher than their lips. They take a swig instead.
On the stage, the first guy with a guitar nods to the second guy with a guitar, which turns out to be code for rocking out with a few John Mellencamp songs. I’m mostly disappointed. My counterpart is less concerned. He’s got one short dark leg swung over a stool near the stage, and he’s beckoning that I should join him. As if it were possible. I glance around his immediate area, wondering who he had to slug to get a seat, but it turns out that being six and cuter than a pug is enough to get you what you want in a place like this.
His second leg swings over the stool. It’s got a bandage over the knee and red welts from thigh to ankle. He ran through a rose bush in Limerick three days ago. He wasn’t brave, not in the least, and cried like the dark horses of death were visiting. Today he is fearless, and has figured out that if he stands on his seat he can flag down a waitress and order a drink. She’s got a sleek black ponytail that reaches past her waist, skinny legs, and a wide pink mouth. They are flirting, that much is certain. Whatever he’s just ordered, I’m betting he’s getting it for free.
I’m not sure if six-year-olds are allowed to order drinks in pubs in Ireland, or even be in pubs in Ireland, but what can I do from this far away? He’s shouting at me now – Mom, get over here! A few heads turn my way, no doubt casting about for a peek of the mad-hatter with the free-wheeling pub-crawling kid. As if they’ll even know it’s me. I try to blend, but he’s looking straight at me and waving, ordering people to step aside so I can get through. No one is even listening to Mellencamp any more. We’re a diversion, to be sure.
I’m getting closer now, what with all that pushing from behind and parting of the forward waters. Somehow he convinces a sleeveless man with a tattoo of a green unicorn to give me his seat. There is no point in gracefully declining. I sit down.
The waitress is back. On her tray are three bags of crisps and a pint. I am pretty sure this is not okay. Not the crisps, I mean, but the pint. He’s six. I don’t care how many winks and nudges he’s given this girl, or how relaxed Irish drinking culture is, he’s not getting a pint. Not today. I’m shouting as much into the thrice-pierced ear of the waitress, but she flicks her shoulder at me like I’m a fly. She’s standing between us, in a space narrower than a page, and her back deflects all of my clumsy attempts to lift my arm and intervene.
When she finally walks away, she glares at me. I glare back. Unicorn Man rubs my back to make me feel better, but fails, hugely. I’m feeling suddenly sour. Damp and defective.
There’s a five second pause in the music as I grab for the glass. I sniff at it, and my lips wrap around the rim just a fraction of a second before the two guitars pick up the gritty chords of Van Morrison’s Caravan. It’s apple juice.
I know my son doesn’t know this song, but he gets that it’s good. He’s got his feet up, toes drumming, on the rungs of the next stool, head back, eyes knowing. His whole small self is contentedly submerged in the malty, sweaty, noisy thrum of Sunday pubbing. He gives me a cocky, little boy smile as he cradles his enormous pint glass between his small brown hands and takes a mighty Irish guzzle. I wrap my arms around him, around his wet woolly sweater, around his sureness, and breathe in the beating of his fearless gypsy soul.