t is a tribute to the sheltered nature of my upbringing and to the sheer breadth of my ignorance that I did not know what my sister was talking about.
"Trips?" I said, vague images of foreign travel in my head.
"Trips, tabs, acid, LSD," said Juno impatiently, sounding like an unusually specialised drug dealer with a thesaurus, offering her wares. "Drugs, you idiot."
Now, I had read a lot about drugs, and I'd seen Drugstore Cowboy three times (for Matt Dillon) and My Own Private Idaho six times (three times for River Phoenix and another three times for Keanu Reeves, and I still couldn't decide...hey, I was young) and countless TV programs and news reports, but Tipperary and Galway were not exactly the drug capitals of Europe, and I'd never actually seen a Class A drug for real. I had the vague impression that "drugs" came in whacking great kilo bags of white powder with Drugs written on them.
"They're not drugs," I said. "They're stamps."
I peered at the stamp album again in the bad light of the toilet cubicle. It consisted of a number of small plastic pages, each with a number of small plastic pockets for stamps. In each pocket was a small paper square. I peered even closer. They were a bit small for stamps and all the same size. And they didn't have proper perforated edges. The first row of three were white with a blue globe on them. The next row of three were white with an Arabic squiggle on them. The next row of three were white with a cartoon explosion on them. I turned the page.
"Jeeeesus," I said.
"It's a selection box," said Juno. "They must be microdots." She pointed at three pockets, each containing what looked like a tiny ball of, well, snot.
I looked at Juno suspiciously. "How come you know so much about it?"
"Because I didn't skip religion when Sister Imelda showed us that video on drugs."
"Oh, yeah." I shrugged. I was still glad I'd missed it. Someone hammered on the cubicle door. "Fuck off," I said absently. I fished a square with a heart on it from its pocket and examined it. "Acid," I said. "Aciiiiiiiiieeeeeed..."
Now you will mock me for my innocence in what follows, but I blame it firmly on National Drug Prevention Day, the Press, the Guards, the Government, and Society. I had been bored to tears for years with the message that drugs, from hash and grass through acid and ecstasy to heroin and crack, were intrinsically evil and exceedingly dangerous. My experience had shown me that half the people I knew smoked marijuana in its various forms and that the message simply wasn't true. I'd smoked Satan's cigarettes a couple of times but couldn't inhale without coughing with embarrassing vigour for an impressive duration, so the full health-and-life-destroying joys of Reefer Madness had been denied to me. I'd drunk mushroom soup once at a party, too. It was meant to be magic-mushroom soup, but after two hours of sitting around watching MTV we reluctantly decided that our morning on the golf course had been wasted. So I didn't really, deep down, believe in drugs.
Also I was a little drunk.
So I popped it on my tongue, sucked it like a sweet, and swallowed.
"Oh, Juliet!" wailed Juno.
"What?" I said, a little belligerently. I was already starting to get the horrible feeling that I'd done something very silly. Juno had covered her face with her hands and was peeking at me through her fingers.
"You absolute idiot," she said in a muffled voice. "Oh God, what am I going to tell Paul?"
"I licked a stamp," I said facetiously. "When will it start to work?"
I was rather disappointed the world hadn't been transformed immediately, as though a switch had been thrown. I felt exactly the same. Boo.
"Shouldn't notice anything for half an hour. Forty-five minutes. Something like that. And it lasts for hours, what are we going to do with you? Is it too late to get sick?"
"I'm not getting sick," I said firmly. I'd done that often enough here as an underage drinker. Reading the fine print of the Armitage Shanks logo at the back of the porcelain bowl. Indeed one of the reasons I'd cut my hair so short back in transition year was to keep my fringe out of Connollys toilets on Friday nights when I'd get sick. Not the main reason, but it had helped tilt the balance at the time. Juno, you will be unsurprised to learn, avoided throwing up on her fringe by avoiding throwing up. Hey, different strokes for different folks.
I snapped back the bolt. "C'mon, let's get ready to rumble. We gotta fight for our right to party. I'm Kool and the Gang, don't worry be happy."
She sighed, but she joined in the game. "Oh lord, please don't let me be misunderstood. Let's stick together, and every little thing's gonna be alright. Idiot."
"Idiot's not a song," I objected.
I swung open the cubicle door, and we walked past a cross-legged, bug-eyed girl with carrots in her fringe. I banged open the swing-door with a nonchalant hip, and we were back in the noise and the heat on the dance floor's edge. I gave a little whoop of giddy joy, and we plunged into the wash of hormones, deodorant, and dancers. The air was volatile with cheap perfume and the kind of aftershave that comes free with petrol, and is almost indistinguishable from it. As we emerged on the other side to rejoin Paul and Aengus, it briefly occurred to me that of all places and times to sharpen the senses and throw open the doors of perception, perhaps Connollys the night before Christmas Eve was not entirely the ideal choice, but I immediately put aside the unworthy thought. Why, Connollys was the best Tipperary had to offer, by God, and only the best was good enough for me tonight. I felt fabulously drunk, and the constant checking of my senses for signs of lysergic impact had the effect of making me feel super-alert, super-alive.
Juno was telling them what I'd just done. Paul was horrified, Aengus was amused but pretending to be horrified. I didn't give a damn.
"If you're not in, you can't win," I said.
Paul was really annoyed with me and began to say so. I stood up, walked onto the dance floor, and lost myself.
The night had begun.
Juno and Aengus calmed Paul down, but I didn't care about that either. I danced with absentminded fury in the heart of the crowd to half-forgotten songs half-remembered from my brother's ancient record collection.
I'd spent most of my life in Tipperary, locked in my own head, feeling like a visitor to a place where everybody else belonged. It was in Galway that I felt at home and felt it was safe to relax, that no one would come smashing vindictively into my life if I pulled back the bolts and let in a little light and air. It had been so lonely in Tipperary, feeling like an observer, living in my mind, feeding it books that showed me a world that felt so much more real than my own. I looked around me at the town I'd been born in, and it seemed so thin, so poor a version of the world. It made me sad in the way that the cheap imitations of good toys almost made me cry when I saw them piled high in the Connollys Super-Store toy department coming up to Christmas every year. I know this sounds pathetic and stupid, but the thought that kids who wanted Sindy or Lego, or World Wrestling Federation figures or Power Rangers, or whatever was popular that year, were going to wake up on Christmas morning and run down to open their presents and find sad, cheap, bad imitations of the present they'd dreamed of for months, that their parents had bought because they couldn't afford the real thing, or because they didn't know the difference, its enormous, heartbreaking importance, the absolute perfection of what you truly wanted and the desolation of unwrapping a fake that didn't move right, didn't look right, that was nothing, worse than nothing...the thought of these other kids with their wrong presents as useless as the stuff they came wrapped in, hiding their huge, gulping disappointment, or letting it show and tearing at their parents' hearts...to be honest I did cry, every year.
It began to prey on my mind coming up to Christmas each year of my childhood, those great piles of cheap imitations, bad copies, with their deliberately misleading names. I would cry at night. I even cried in the aisles of the toy department itself a couple of times, feeling like a perfect fool, wiping my eyes on my coat sleeve and trying to pretend I had a cold. But I think, now, that what I was crying for (and this is just amateur psychology at its worst, I have no way of proving this, it just feels to me to be true) wasn't really the toys and the other kids. It was my life, and me. My life was somehow tangled up in those toys, lived in the huge shadow of the special-offer stacks. I'd been given the wrong life, in the wrong town, and there was nothing I could do about it, and every single day of my life I had to hide my disappointment, because it wasn't my parents' fault, they thought I was happy here, they came from here, it was home, wasn't it? But to me my home felt cheap and wrong, and my life felt like an imitation of a real life, and every Christmas I'd dream I was somewhere else, somewhere more real than this, living my real life.
And I would wake up just torn apart, in a thin, poor town that I hated. Cattle roaring from the abattoir. Connollys owning the town. A town without a river through it. Oh Christmas, I hated you.
And as I danced, furiously alone, in Connollys on the night before Christmas Eve, I was back in my head, locked in, sobbing silently about nothing, with no reason for it and no outward sign (because, Christ, you don't let them see that you're wounded). Galway had almost ceased to exist, even as a memory. I felt like I had been here forever and I'd be here forever and I'd die here if I ever died. I felt as if I'd dreamed the rest of the world. That I'd just woken up, and Galway had been a dream. All that existed was this moment in this town. Oh, this fucking town. I was in absolute, frozen despair inside as I danced and danced and danced.
Juno came over and danced with me for a while and asked if I was OK and eventually went away again. The songs were taking forever to turn into other songs. I had no idea how long I'd been dancing. I looked at my watch. The song went on forever. Eventually I looked at my watch again. Less than a minute had passed. The chorus came around again, and I felt a shivery feeling that I'd heard it too often, that it had come around too often, that it should be over, but I'd heard it a million times before, when I was younger, and it had always ended, so it would be OK this time too. But I always heard it again, didn't I? I'd heard it a million times when I was young, and I was hearing it now and it hadn't ended. It wouldn't end.
My mind was exploding with thoughts that were moving too fast, overlapping, entangled, my mind felt shivery, I was thinking too much, it was fine. I looked at my watch again. Oh God, no time was passing. No, the second hand was moving, I could see it moving, but Christ it was slow, how could I ever get out of here if time moved so slowly, how could this night ever end, time had always moved faster than this hadn't it, I'd never noticed time pass so slowly, could it be slower now? It felt slower so it was slower, I had to trust what I felt what else have you, you have nothing, what you feel is real or nothing is but if you are mad what you feel isn't real but how can you know because you can't get outside yourself to see if what you feel is really real oh this is a new song oh thank Christ that song is over oh thank Christ I won't look at my watch but if I don't look at my watch how can I know if time is moving fast enough to ever, ever let me out of here but looking at my watch won't help oh God this must be the acid it has to be I don't normally feel like this do I no oh Jesus I want to go home
I began to try to walk back to the table. Light like liquid flooded heavily amongst the dancers so that several times I had to stop, unsure whether I could walk through the thick, viscous beams of red and orange. When a strobe came on, I had to stop again and wait for it to end. The world looked like the inside of a madman's head. Arms and faces froze and disappeared and reappeared elsewhere, still frozen, but in new positions, with new expressions. Very very fast things were happening very very slowly and I felt a drowning sense that I had quite, quite lost my hold on time, that time had abandoned me and I could never be fixed now, that I had made a mistake that could never be fixed or made right. A big tear slowly crawled down my cheek and touched the corner of my lip and disappeared across my mouth in a burst of salt.
The tear trail left a cool line down my cheek as it evaporated.
The strobe stopped and I walked on.
Eventually I reached the table.
"I want to go home," I said numbly to Juno.
Outside, in the car park, Paul decided he wanted chips. He'd left with us to look after us on the walk home, and he'd helped me into my coat when I'd had difficulty finding the armholes, but he was still pissed off with me, and he was damned if I'd rob him of the pleasures of the chip queue. I didn't mind waiting, once I was away from the heat and noise and light. Out here it was cool, quiet, dark. A pleasant, fine drizzle prickled on my face. I'd retreated so far into myself by now that I didn't really feel connected to what I saw and heard at all. I'd been so overloaded in the chaos of trying to leave the building, by the impossible intricacies of answering the questions of Aengus and Juno and Paul, of stripping their voices out of the noise and taking the words out of their voices and squeezing the meaning out of their words and making some sense of the meaning of the words in the voices from the noise...and then trying to reply...that I had now shut down completely. I just heard and saw, without any attempt at comprehension.
Which was rather a pity, because the camera of my mind was running on quite an interesting scene. If you were an anthropologist. Or a zookeeper. Or a prison governor with some spare beds.
It was by now coming up to chucking-out time; you could tell because people were coming out to chuck up. My distress had cut our evening short, but not by much. Connollys Illegal Chip-Van was already busy serving the first wave of drunken clubbers, the smart ones who'd left early to beat the queue. They were all standing round in the rain feeling smug, in a huge queue. Actually, to pick nits for a moment (and you could pick nits all night in the Connollys Chip-Van queue) it wasn't really a queue at all. It was a kind of seething, low-key riot designed to deliver the minimum number of people to the van counter with the maximum discomfort, inefficiency, and violence. "Queuing" was considered an activity fit only for Brits and homosexuals. And Kilkenny hurlers. And Dubliners in general. (These categories were not rigorously exclusive. All Brits were homosexuals. Most Dubliners were Brits. Kilkenny hurlers weren't Brits, but they might as well be, shaggin' homos. That was never a goal. We was robbed.)
In a peculiar kind of way, standing in the rain in the dark of the car park staring at the queue with my brain in mush was oddly soothing. I'd done this so often before. This was a familiar, reassuring childhood scene of just the sort to calm my acid-drenched mind. There was little Benny Reynolds leaning over casually to puke on the feet of the person beside him, his cousin Jacinta, who was too drunk to notice. Rumour had it that Benny was the father of Jacinta's child, but then rumour had it that I was a lesbian and that Juno had gone to England for an abortion when she was fifteen. (She'd gone to the Gaelteacht for a fortnight to learn Irish from nuns, along with half her class. But why spoil a good story?)
There was a Toohy picking a fight with a Sheehy over a sachet of tomato sauce. The Sheehy wouldn't give him any of his, or had squirted too much on, one or the other. The Toohy had knocked the Sheehy's chips flying anyhow, and now some older Toohys and Sheehys were intervening with confused shouts.
"We don't want any fucking trouble, now," said Billy Sheehy, smacking Sean Toohy in the face.
"Hold me back, lads, hold me back, I'll feckin' kill him," shrieked the offended Toohy, throwing himself backward into the arms of a couple of his brothers. It was a ritual as old as time, and as soothing as a cool hand on my brow. It was a cool hand on my brow. Juno, checking I hadn't overheated while dancing. I had the peculiar sensation of her hand melting into my head, but Juno didn't seem to notice anything strange and took her hand away, satisfied.
"R U O K? Jew, Lee, Et? Are you OK?"
I laboriously deciphered her question and risked a nod in reply. The drizzle was falling sideways, which was worrying me a little, but I had a vague idea which I was trying to pin down that this was somehow due to the triumph of wind rather than the failure of gravity and that I had no need for concern. Then people started to fall sideways, and I moaned in horror before I made the back-connections necessary to interpret what I'd seen, which was a lot of people being knocked over by a small fight sprawling into them.
I closed my eyes again, and got way, way lost in the electric impacts of a billion specks of drizzle on the tight skin of my face.
Excerpted from Juno and Juliet by Julian Gough. Copyright © 2001 by Julian Gough. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.