Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: Picture postcard perfect
It's a year since I've seen the lads. It's always a bit hair-raising. Well, it is for me, because I still have stuff on my head that could reasonably be defined as hair. What I mean is, I'm always excited and I'm always a bit worried.
We meet once a year, us men who grew up together. We've been doing it for more than 40 years, since we all started going our separate ways - when we left home, got bedsits, mortgages; met women, had kids; emigrated, came back; divorced, remarried, were widowed; had grandkids, great-grandkids; were made redundant, retired; got sick, recovered, or didn't recover. There used to be six of us. Now there are four. I think.
We're meeting where we always meet, in Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street. Unlike us, Mulligan's never changes. I can't see a thing that's different, except a few of the taps. But the Guinness tap is the one that matters, and it's exactly where I left it the last time I was in here. I point to it and the barman nods, like he sees me every day and not just once a year at Christmas.
I'm the first to arrive. I always am. I'm unusual; I'm never, ever late. I've always been like that. Back in the day when I went to mass, I'd turn up so early for the half-twelve mass that I was actually late for the half-eleven.
Anyway. The place is busy but there are a few empty stools at the counter. I'm not a big fan of the word 'perfect'. Everything seems to be bloody perfect these days. I handed the young one in the Spar a baguette and a can of beans this morning and she said, "Perfect". The little grandson showed me dog poo on his football boot, and I said, "Perfect". So, I warned myself to be vigilant - to ban 'perfect' from my armory, unless the thing actually is perfect.
An empty stool in a full pub qualifies as perfect and I park my less than perfect arse on top of it. Mission accomplished - I've established a beachhead. And I don't have to wait too long for the rest of the Marines.
First in is Gerry.
He sees me.
- For f*** sake!
Joxer is right behind him.
He sees us.
- For f*** sake!
We're a gang of oul' lads but we're not closed to the lifestyle changes. We hug each other - something we would never have done even a few years back. We get our arms around one another.
- The state of yeh!
- Good to see you, man.
- Ugly as ever.
- S**g off now.
I get back up on my stool before it's kidnapped.
- Pints? I ask the lads.
- Good man.
There's three of us now. We're waiting for Chester, although we say nothing. Chester lives in England - in Manchester - and he comes over just for the Christmas pints. He used to stay with his parents, then his ma, then one or other of his sisters. They're all gone now, so he stays the night in one of the hotels out near the airport. There's no one belonging to him still alive in Ireland. He doesn't have an email address; he doesn't do texting. I send him a postcard with the date and the time - every year.
- How's all the family?
- Grand. Yours?
- Grand, yeah. Not too bad. Any more grandkids?
- One or two… maybe three.
- You lose track, don't yeh?
- I kind of do.
- Great pub.
- Smashing pub.
We say it every year. We feel at home here; we feel it's ours. The atmosphere is good but they don't overdo the Christmas s***e - the decorations and that.
Still no sign of Chester. Still we say nothing.
We never talk about the old days but, still, they're there. We never talk about the schooldays - the mitching, the beatings, the crack, the mad Christian Brothers. We never talk about the girls we used to fancy - well, hardly ever. And one girl always gets a mention.
- D'yis remember Eileen Pidgeon?
- Oh, God. Stop the lights.
I say nothing.
Still no sign of Chester.
We don't talk much about the past but we know: it's why we're here. It's why we hug, why we grin, why we put hands on shoulders. It's why we slag each other unmercifully, why we get serious when we talk about our kids.
Still no sign of -
- Ah. For f*** sake!
It's Chester. Fat and kind of magnificent, filling the door.
- My f****** flight was delayed.
- F****** Luftwaffe, he says. - You could see the f****** bullet holes in the wings.
He's been out of the country for 40 years but he still talks like he's from up the road. Which he is. Which we all are. And we're together again - like we've always been.