Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Pub Tales: First Drink

The place was heaving.

I forced my way towards the bar, squeezing through the crowd by turning sideways and shoulder-leading my way slowly forward using baby steps, gentle manipulation and repeated sorrys shouted into already overloaded ears. Two guys with one guitar were on the small stage butchering ‘Dancing in the Dark’ but nobody seemed to care. The dance floor in front of them was full of twirling snow-washed denim jackets, sweaty mullets and jumpsuits in too-bright primary colours. Spinning, twisting lights penetrated the smoke and gloom and flickered across the crowds seated on stools at wet-circled Formica tables loaded with glasses and overflowing ashtrays. Small pockets of boys and girls hung around in separate groups tight to the wall for protection, occasionally casting glance towards the tables as the waited for a group to leave so they could commandeer their seats like some full-on game of musical chairs.

But the people here were all just extras in a movie scene to me as I finally approached the long countertop and prepared to ask for my first drink ever. The narrow space behind the counter was filled with a large bearded man who was calmly serving the waves of drinkers that were lapping up to the bar. I waited patiently for my turn, trusting that the barman had a mental queue of who to serve next once eye-contact had been made and the nod given. I gazed at the sparse collection of taps deciding what to have, suddenly that bearded face was in front of me, he leaned over the bar with his left hand cupped around the back of his ear, which was aimed in my direction.

‘What’ll be head?’

‘Er, a glass of Harp…?’

‘Sound, lad.’

He grabbed a glass from the shelf behind him and I watched as he pulled the tap forward and a yellowish cascade of liquid and bubbles quickly filled the glass. He straightened the glass and filled it to the top, always checking who was next up to the bar. He plonked it unceremoniously down on the bar and I paid him.

‘Cheers head,’ he said as he slammed the change on the countertop and went to his next customer and the ritual began again.

I stared at it for a minute watching the bubbles rise in quick succession from the base of the glass and breaking on the surface. This was my first proper drink in a bar, my first proper beer too, and I had somehow expected it to be a more momentous occasion. I picked up the glass and put it to my lips and had my first taste of beer…

The music abruptly stopped with a mistimed twang of guitar strings.

Everyone in the whole bar turned to look at me silently …

… before erupting into applause.

I raised my glass and toasted my adoring fans.

The girl next to me smiled coyly and put her hand in the small of my back as she brought her lips to my ear and whispered…

Of course none of this happened, when I woke from my reverie I took another cautious sip and with a grin on my face I made my way back through the crowd. I held my glass high to prevent it spilling and it flickered flamelike as spotlights pierced the liquid and for a split second I felt like some ancient champion returning from my first battle basking in the glow of heroism.

But this was 1984 in a grimy student pub in a provincial town in Ireland, and when I arrived back to the comfort and company of my friends that spark of elation dimmed and died. We somehow engrossed ourselves in inane conversation, a common occurrence, and my moment was gone.

But for a brief, special moment I was a hero - I was a somebody …

I had drunk.