Cape Breton pub crawl

There’s only one bar in Mabou, but it’s a rollicking spot when it rains


Rating: NNNNN


Cape Breton – There is nothing more miserable than sitting in a wet tent with nothing to do but play cards or backgammon, or sitting in a car to read by the interior light. Your travelling companions, once the font of good times, can very quickly become the most annoying shitheads.

“Look,” says Shawn, “I saw a pub back in Mabou. Let’s get in my car and go. Drinks are on me – it’s not going to be fun sitting here in the rain all night.”

It seems like a plan.

After all, we are in Cape Breton.

As we cruise Mabou’s main drag – one street, some houses, darkened shops – we notice a beautiful old store with large front windows on either side of a screen door. Out of the windows warm candlelight streams onto the front stoop.

“That’s it!” says Shawn, making a left into the gravel parking lot.

The screen door is an old spring-loaded one with no latch, just a handle. When you open it, it creaks its welcome, and when you leave, it slams its goodbye as if in protest. The sign over the door reads “The Red Shoe Pub.”

Inside, there’s a long bar at the back of a large room that must once have been a store. Candles flicker on the tables. We sit down and order a round, then sit like bumps on a log since we’ve run out of things to say to each other. Besides, everyone else here seems to know one another and is sort of checking us out. We wait for their curiosity to die down before we begin to talk quietly among ourselves.

Once the locals decide we aren’t much of a threat, one of the girls at the table across from us begins to sing traditional Nova Scotia songs. We and the people at her table cheerfully join in on the chorus.

The lamplight, so warm, like being held by someone who loves you for you, bumps and all, with a bewitching voice hanging on the air, rain beating an accompanying rhythm on the roof, the shadows long and flickering on the walls – I could have stayed in that moment forever.

Then the door slams shut. The singing stops. A wet, dark girl is standing there with a violin case in her hand.

“Oh, don’t stop for me,” she says, pushing back her wet hair and taking a seat at the table next to us. The server takes her order.

“Play us a tune?” asks a man at the bar.

“What would you like to hear?” she asks.

“It don’t matter,” he says.

She tucks her violin under her chin and crinkles her forehead. Then she begins to play a song I’ve heard a hundred times, though I don’t know its name. It is the most wrenching song, like a woman crying out her grief over someone or something broken and irreplaceable. When she’s done, she tells us it’s an Appalachian Mountain tune called Dylan’s Song and that she’s from Boston, in Cape Breton to study the local fiddle music.

“Give us another one?” the man at the bar asks. She picks up her violin and plays again. And again. Each time she stops, the man politely asks her to play again. She always does. The man tells her he can listen to her forever, and she should never leave Cape Breton. They appreciate her more in this little hamlet than any Boston concert hall audience.

She plays jigs. She played reels. Finally, unable to control myself, I jump up to dance the Irish steps I learned in the kitchens of my aunts and uncles.

The singing girl from the table next to us whoops her delight and grabs the hands of two of her companions, and we jig and step-dance our way around the lamp-lit pub.

When we leave to go back to our tents, my fellow traveller Sarah looks at me with stars reflecting from the night sky in her eyes and says, “It’s been a great first trip so far. I’d like to move here!”

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