PART I: Galway
When Juno and I stepped off the bus in Eyre Square we were armed only with an enormous rucksack each and the scribbled address of a distant cousin. A blizzard of youth-hostel flyers immediately engulfed us, clearing only to reveal a blizzard of youths, smiling at us in French, Spanish, English, and Italian. Juno told them we didn't need a hostel, but thank you anyway. I told them we didn't need a hostel, so fuck off.
And there I think you have, neatly illustrated, the essential difference between her and me.
I had, to be fair to me, not enjoyed my journey much. The peace had held all through the morning's packing, but on the way out the door I managed to have an almighty row with our father. What was it about? Ah, what are they ever about. It was about nothing. All the way up on the bus I had stomach cramps and a headache. A drunk behind us spewed against the back of my seat. Then he tried to make light conversation. The driver spent the entire journey with the radio on at full blast as he attempted, with an ever-increasing lack of success which would have disheartened a lesser man, to tune in to a country-and-western station that seemed to be making its last, faint, desperate broadcast from somewhere beyond the edge of the solar system.
Things rapidly improved once we'd got off the bus and through the blizzard. Pausing only to shovel fistfuls of flyers into the big yellow litter bins that disfigured the edge of Eyre Square, we headed for the nearest coffee shop. Apart from a couple of buskers and another drunk and a spotty boy with a clipboard who promised not to take up much of our valuable time and didn't, nobody bothered us for money, our names, or a kiss in the hundred yards to the G. B. C. Coffee Shop and Restaurant.
Some kind of record.
I should probably explain that Juno began to be beautiful around the age of fourteen and the process shows no sign of stopping. Her beauty refines and upgrades itself constantly. At the time this story begins, she has just turned eighteen and it's almost ridiculous how beautiful she is. No, it is ridiculous how beautiful she is. She's beautiful to the point where it might as well be a disfigurement. She's invisible behind it. It's all people see. Not just men. Everyone. That doesn't mean everyone's attracted to her. It just means everyone has an attitude, an opinion, before they know a damn thing about her. It's nobody's fault. It's the way we are. It annoys the hell out of me.
I should probably also explain that Juno is my identical twin.
We got a seat in the nook at the back. The coffee was lovely. My cramps and headache faded. We'd left home. I felt great. Eventually we paid up and went to look for the house of our distant cousin.
We found it.
The front door of 14 Bishop Casey Terrace swung open and we stepped trustingly into what might as well have been deep space. It was so dark I had the sensation of falling, and grabbed Juno. Seconds later, as our eyes adjusted, we found ourselves blinking in the centre of a kind of smoke-blackened igloo constructed entirely from plaster statues of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, in assorted sizes, and large, framed pictures of Pope John XXIII. Turf dust covered every flat surface an inch deep. No light came through the shroudlike curtains. A tiny turf fire in the grate sent a little light halfway across the rug, while the small, sinister, glowing sacred-heart lamp on the far wall did its job of flooding the rear of the room with darkness. Our distant cousin was now close enough for us to count her teeth, even by that light.
Five. Three up on top.
She spoke in tongues, and vanished. I was terrified.
"What the hell was that about?" I asked Juno.
"She's gone to put her teeth in and put on the kettle," said Juno, who'd always been better at languages. "She hopes we had a pleasant journey."
The tea was actually grand and over the course of it our cousin slowly turned into a human being, although a very old, very religious human being with no sense of humour. That didn't stop her being very funny, it just stopped her from noticing the fact. We had to turn a lot of laughs into coughs, to the extent that she gave us both Hacks cough sweets, which she took with a creaking of bones from the top of the dresser, half a packet of them softened with age into a thick paste in their paper wrappers. They came in some obsolete, unrecognisable flavour, probably that of a long-extinct plant. Gobi Water Lily. Sabre-Toothed Parsley. We liked her. We even ate some of the sweets for her.
She had left Galway twice in her life, once to go to Lourdes (the Mecca of the Irish) and once to go to Sligo (the Sligo of the Irish). She thought both places overrated, which, given that Sligo has a global reputation as one of the three wettest, dullest towns north of Antarctica, was a pretty harsh judgement. I coughed enthusiastically and declined another sweet. A cat, half-blind with age, jumped up on the table and began to lick the butter. Juno coughed, and declined a scone.
We hadn't come to Galway to live with our distant cousin. We'd come to Galway to go to university and study English. We were just staying with our cousin until we found somewhere to live. She was lovely, and after five minutes even I liked her. Juno liked her instantly. Juno tends to do that. Living with our cousin was out of the question, though. Her house was a classic Galway terrace house, the kind in which Nora Barnacle and her countless siblings grew halfway up (bad diet, short people). The bottom floor comprised a small living room. The top floor comprised a small bedroom. That was it. Her periodic vanishings to the "kitchen" were only made possible by the almost total absence of light in vast areas of the tiny room. The "kitchen" was a gas cooker, installed strategically under the stairs long before we were born to ensure fatalities in the case of a chip-pan fire. Sadly, everyone had grown up and left or died of natural causes before the cooker could fulfil its destiny. Now it probably wouldn't bother, with only our cousin to operate it and nobody else to be trapped upstairs.
I shall draw a discreet veil over the defects of the sinister, pre-war plumbing. Suffice to say, everything lurked in a shed the size of a wardrobe in the tiny yard out the back. Before retiring for the night, we were introduced to the facilities, a stiff breeze caressing our ankles in the dark. We returned shaken, traumatised, but alive. Let us pass on.
We spent our first night in Galway in sleeping bags on the living-room floor, lulled to sleep by the reassuring hiss of gas leaking from the perished rubber tubes joining the antique cooker to the rusty cylinder, and by the comforting weight of cats lying drowsily across our feet.
We awoke at what felt like dawn, though of course it was still dark in the living room. Our cousin was making us breakfast. By the time we'd thanked God that we couldn't see the state of the plates we were eating off and had eaten an enormous fry, our eyes had adjusted enough to see the state of the plates we had eaten off. They were practically trimmed in fur. We thanked her very much, enthusiastically declined to visit the chamber of horrors out the back, and headed rather urgently out into an explosion of light to look for somewhere civilized to piss. And, once we'd carried out our priority mission, somewhere civilized to live.
We had turned up in Galway a week and a half before the start of college to make sure we would have plenty of time to find a place. So had several thousand other people. These were the late arrivals. Many thousands more had already been in Galway for quite some time looking for places, with far from universal success. A lucky few had parents with the foresight to give birth to them in Galway, but even some of these were struggling. Galway is a small town with a large university. All that Thursday we saw people fighting for bedsits a wino's dog wouldn't tolerate. We saw flats that seemed hewn from the living mildew. We didn't see them immediately. First we had to queue. We saw cookers that would have left our distant cousin exclaiming, "How quaint! An antique!" We saw electric heaters that were obviously prototypes from the dawn of the age of electricity, and slightly before the dawn of the age of tenants' rights. We saw Mesozoic lino. We saw Precambrian carpets.
We saw armchairs with no arms. We saw tables with no legs. We saw young men fighting and dying in a senseless war over a few square yards of worthless ground, and the winners spending half their grant on the deposit.
We saw our lives flash before us.
We had to sit down.
"Jesus, this is awful," I said. I had begun to feel very far from home. Every place we'd looked at had been disgusting, expensive, and taken. Our parents didn't have any more money, I wasn't even sure how they'd gotten what they'd given us, and it wasn't enough. Our grants weren't going to come through for weeks, and all we had to last us until then would barely cover a deposit. If we could find a place. And then how would we eat? How could we buy books? Were we beaten? Was it over before it had started? Would I ever, ever, ever get away from Tipperary and my parents and my school and my life? I started to cry.
Juno held me as we sat on the wall of a tiny house in New Road that had been subdivided, with sturdy cardboard partitions, into five "bedsits," in all of which you had just about enough room to prove the description truthful by sitting on the bed, as long as you didn't try anything recklessly space-consuming while you were at it, like crossing your legs, or removing a hat. The last one had gone for a suitcase of used notes, a kidney, and some share options ten minutes before we'd arrived. We'd looked, wistfully, anyway. "Oh Juno, I'm homesick and I don't want to go home," I sobbed. Juno held me tighter. "Hey, 's OK, baby Juliet. I'm here." That's one of the nice things about Juno. She understands me no matter how little sense I'm making, and she never goes for an obvious joke at my expense. And when I feel like a baby she never stays tough. Me, I stay tough, I'm awkward when she's sad, I feel useless and I can't say the things I know I should. But she's good with me. She's really very good.
When I'd stopped crying we went back to our cousin's house. It was after seven p.m.; we'd been looking for a place since we'd picked up the new Galway Advertiser that morning. Our copy was in bits, the big "Accommodation Available" section was covered in scribbled phone numbers and directions and prices, we'd used up two phone cards and walked ourselves stumpy. Time to go home.
Our cousin gave us tea and sympathy and a red-hot tip. "I'm sure old Mrs. Flannery has rooms to let, I'm sure of it. You should try her tomorrow, first thing. She has a house down by the docks, half-empty for months. I'm sure I have her address here somewhere, yes you must call on her tomorrow and enquire." Our cousin hesitated. "Ye might find her a little...old-fashioned." She frowned. "And she'd be a bit too religious for my taste, now."
We gulped. But we went.
We bearded Mrs. Flannery in her lair, armoured by our innocence. She lived in Renmore, a good mile from the docks, in a house that bristled with old ladies of uncertain function. They could have been friends, relatives, or servants. It was impossible to tell from Mrs. Flannery's erratic manner, and she didn't deign to explain. All through our interview they flitted in and out of the half-dark of the drawing room, bringing us fresh tea and bearing away the old cups. The tea was lovely. Biscuits were provided by swift, silent figures. Soon we were ignoring them with the same serene composure as old Mrs. Flannery herself.
Old Mrs. Flannery (so-called because of the existence of a young Mrs. Flannery, her daughter, a victim of coincidence or inbreeding) indeed had rooms to let. Not just that, the house down by the docks had been half-empty for months, not because it was uninhabitable (our first guess: Why else would a house be half-empty in Galway?), but because old Mrs. Flannery didn't believe in advertising, and anyone who'd heard about it by word of mouth had also heard the stories about old Mrs. Flannery and was afraid to go near her. We tut-tutted, people were terrible. I wondered if we'd get out alive.
She was crazy as a loon. She talked to us for twenty minutes about the worldwide Jewish/Communist conspiracy against Catholicism. She offered us more tea, which arrived instantly. She told us for a quarter of an hour about the profound evil of usury, and for ten minutes expounded on the satanic nature of the Bank of England. She passed the biscuits. Then, after a quick history of the Masons, she told us what fine young ladies we appeared to be, warned us against the heresies of Martin Luther, and gave us the keys to the house near the docks. The top floor was ours if we wanted it, forty pounds a week (Each? No, for the whole floor: two bedrooms, living room/kitchen, and bathroom). She was sorry about the rent, it had been thirty-five pounds but, thanks to the Jewish/Communist economic conspiracy against Catholicism, money wasn't worth what it once was. We made noises that indicated an understanding of the words said, without necessarily indicating an agreement with the sentiments they expressed. We were pretty good at these noises by now, after an hour's practice. Juno handed me the keys to put in my pocket and we left.
The place was great. We took it.
Thus it was that we snatched the finest flat in Galway from beneath the noses of an astonished world.
Excerpted from Juno & Juliet by Julian Gough. Copyright © 2002 by Julian Gough. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.