Today is Undiagnosed Children's Day. Here's my wee curly bap at the ripe old age of eight. He's a cool dude.
Here's a little snapshot of Jack:
My Wee Curly Bap
By Gerard Brennan
For the third time in three days I take Jack, my five-year-old son, to
Lola, our hyperactive beagle pup, comes along. Jack has been asking me all day
about this walk. Pestering me. When he gets an idea into his head it sticks.
This is part of what makes him who he is. How he is. Dundrum Castle
We live close to the castle. It’s a five minute walk on your own. Ten minutes with a five-year-old and a puppy. I tread carefully on the shit-littered lane and I watch Jack’s step. He’s a little clumsy and his eyesight is poor. I’m wearing old shoes and Jack has his Spider-Man wellies on. It wouldn’t be the end of the world to get them dirty but I’d prefer to avoid it. I’m so busy watching Jack’s step, and my own, that I don’t notice right away that Lola has found a dead mouse. It’s not that I’m squeamish, but the state this poor wee rodent is in sends ripples of gooseflesh across my skin. We move on.
Halfway along the lane we meet a neighbour walking her dog. I’m not sure of her name. I don’t pay much attention to the people on our street. It’s not out of aloofness or social anxiety. I just don’t have time to go out of my way to meet them or learn their names. Jack recognises the dog she has with her. It’s a greying Cairn Terrier. A decent wee doggie that mopes about on her front garden most days. My wife told me once that the neighbour rescued the terrier. I’m predisposed to liking her.
The neighbour is friendly and asks a couple of polite questions, makes a fuss about Lola and my son’s curls. She’s nice. After Jack is finished petting her dog he’s done with the encounter and wants to move along. With a parting comment about the unexpected sunshine I follow my wee curly bap along the lane.
Jack finds a puddle and asks my permission to jump in. I give it to him with a nod. He rewards me with a magnificent smile.
Soon we’re on the hill leading up to the castle. Jack’s progress slows. This is the point where I need to encourage him to keep up with Lola who is straining on her lead. She’d be half choked if my wife hadn’t bought that harness. After a few rounds of ‘ready, steady, go!’ we’re at the castle’s car park. We don’t go straight to the keep. In Jack’s mind we have to go by the hiking trail at the far end of the car park that circles the castle grounds. It’s pointless to suggest we go straight to the keep. That would be the wrong way to do it.
We meet another dog owner in the car park. She’s an older lady with dyed blonde hair and the look of money about her. Her dog is an overweight King Charles Cavalier. Its fur is red like the long wavy hair of a traditional Irish cailín. My dog and hers sniff each other and the lady tells me she’s come here from Hillsborough. While we’re talking, another woman shouts something at me. I don’t catch what she’s saying so I tilt my head politely; wait for her to repeat herself. She doesn’t. This woman stares at me for longer than I’m comfortable with. Her hair is cut into a perfect bob. It’s thick and black and reminds me of the helmets worn by the Normans who built
Eventually she says, “You look like that fellah that works at our place. Gary Charles.”
I don’t know what to say to this.
Should I tell her I don’t know who Gary Charles is? She seems to want me to react in some way. I glance down at Jack to make sure he’s okay. He’s examining this new dog so he’ll be fine for a few more minutes. I look back up and the woman with the black hair is closer, giving me a good up and down investigation.
“He looks like Gary Charles, doesn’t he?” She directs this at the blonde woman from Hillsborough.
“This is Margaret,” she says. “We have her home for the weekend.”
Oh. Margaret is a little bit different, then. Maybe a little bit the same as Jack.
“Even your jeans are like his,” Margaret says. “And the way you walk.”
Margaret bends her knees slightly and does a bit of a bounce. Is that how I walk?
I think of something to say. “Well, I hope Gary Charles is a good-looking man.”
She doesn’t laugh. Maybe she doesn’t really care for Gary Charles’s appearance.
The blonde lady says, “She usually tells people that they look like Christopher Lee.”
“I’m not tall enough, I suppose.”
I get a laugh from the blonde lady. Margaret has moved off. She’s gone to stand by a little black Renault Clio that I assume they arrived in. There’s a white-haired lady and a toddler in there. Jack notices them for the first time and skips over to say hello. The white-haired lady asks him for one of his curls. Jack loses interest in her. All he wants to do is close the car door. Open doors bug him. Nobody objects when he slams it shut. I wish he wouldn’t do that, though. I worry about him catching his fingers. He’s been to the hospital too many times already; broken leg, numerous cuts on his head, planned operations on his eyelids… It’s not fair and I don’t want to add to the list. People think I’m over-protective of him, I know they do, even though they don’t tell me to my face. Well, I can’t help it.
We leave Margaret and the blonde lady and Ruby, the red-haired King Charles, and make it to the hiking trail. Jack wants to run down the makeshift steps. I’d like to put a harness and lead on him. It’s easy to control Lola. With Jack I have to use calm and clear instruction to keep Jack at a sensible pace. I’m not always calm and clear. Jack’s not always sensible.
We get down the steps without any slips or trips. But I can’t relax. Not yet. Jack still needs to navigate a tricky slope in the path. Thick tree roots have broken through the earth in places and there are muddy patches that haven’t been dried out by the sun. And Lola zigzags in front of us so that I have to constantly monitor the position of her lead in relation to Jack’s legs. There is the occasional stretch of smoother ground along the trail and I take those moments to admire the beauty of this spot. Little birds flit by the wild grass, bluebells and nettles. The sun filters through the branches overhead in ghostly strands. I don’t know what kind of trees line the trail. It seems like the sort of thing a man should know about a neighbouring wood. Later on that night I will consult Google and learn that ‘the canopy comprises mature beech with some sycamore and ash, scattered oak and wych elm along the lower edge and a few larch and Scot's pine’.
The trail slopes upwards; I swear it’s a gradient close to sixty degrees. Jack and I need to dig deep to keep pace with Lola. We’re granted a short break when the beagle pup notices a flock of sheep in a field to our right. Jack points at one of the lambs and tells me it’s a baby. I point at another one and tell him it’s the daddy. We bleat at each other and giggle. Lola lifts her front-right leg and her tail straightens out, her hunter instincts manifesting physically. I tug on her lead and she snaps out of it. We continue up the slope, giddy with exertion.
At the top of the climb there is a fence with a two-step stile for trekkers. Jack wants to climb it by himself. I agree to this for the first time but stand with my free hand outstretched, prepared to steady him if he wobbles. His balance is better than I realise. My wee curly bap gets up and over with confidence. I scoop Lola up and scramble over the stile with her under my arm. We turn left and continue towards the castle.
Young voices carry from the castle grounds. A gang of kids are playing on the grass. They have a Frisbee and a football. The man who works as the castle’s caretaker is off to one side of them. He’s brought his son to work judging by the similarity of their features. They’re honing their cricket skills, the son throwing and catching the gentle returns from his father’s cricket bat. A content golden
on, his long tongue hanging.
One of the kids recognises us. A boy that lives next door to Jack’s granny. He’s twelve but is big enough to pass for fifteen. I search my memory banks for his name. Ryan. He has blond hair, a friendly face and a country build. Ryan has no trouble remembering my son’s name, nor my dog’s. He may not know mine.
“Hi, Jack,” Ryan says. “How’s Lola?”
Jack smiles at him.
Some of the other kids break off from the pack and approach us. They’re mostly interested in Lola. That’s fine by me, so long as they don’t hold us back too long.
One boy, the same size and shape as Ryan but with brown curls similar to Jack’s, lies down on the grass in front of Lola. He lets her lick his face.
“I love this dog,” Ryan’s friend says.
“Do you have one?” I ask.
“A wee Shih Tzu.”
“They’re nice dogs.”
“This one’s nicer.”
A tall skinny girl with red hair snickers. “You ever see a Shih Tzu crossed with a bulldog? They call it bullshit!”
I’ve heard that one a few times but the kids within earshot laugh like drunken demons. The little rips. I look to the caretaker to share a glance of disapproval that I don’t really feel, but he’s busy with his son, the cricket protégé. Jack points at the castle’s keep and I have to pry Lola away from the gang of rascals.
The kid with the brown curls skips in front of Jack and asks him his name. Jack answers as best he can but I can see the kid can’t decipher my wee curly bap’s underdeveloped speech. I’m about to translate but the older boy shares a smile with Jack and pretends he’s understood him. He holds out his hand.
“Give me five.”
Jack slaps the kid’s palm. My son looks delirious with joy. I clear my throat and usher him towards the keep. He’s reluctant now that he’s connected with the gang in a small way but I’m conscious of the time. We need to get moving. I tell him he’ll be able to come and play with these kids when he’s bigger. The look of hope on his face breaks my heart a little. I pray to God that I’m not lying to my son about this; that he’ll be fit to go and play unsupervised when he’s older.
At the keep Jack understands that we can’t go inside and climb the narrow steps to the top. Not with Lola. Instead, we circle the outside a few times. Jack runs his hand along the stonework and I ask him to stop when I notice the sleeve of his hoodie is getting dirty. I challenge him to a race down the slope of the castle grounds. He tears off before I can say, ‘Ready, steady, go!’
Lola strains on her lead to chase Jack but I pull back and let my wee curly bap win. At the bottom of the grassy bank he has just enough breath left to giggle. We sit on a low stone wall for a minute. Then I get up and put Jack on my shoulders. Even with Lola on her lead, this is the easiest way to go. He’ll drag his heels if I let him walk. Besides, I’m sure it won’t be long until my son won’t let me carry him at all. Until then, I’ll enjoy the feel of his hands on top of my head and the sound of his laughter when I walk in exaggerated bounds. He’s not heavy, but carrying him like this makes me feel so strong.