Zara slid into the vacant seat and joined her classmates for lunch.
“So, what are you guys doing for Mardi Gras?” she enquired as she opened her can of coke.
Her friend Sinead paused, a sandwich halfway to her mouth.
“We don’t do Mardi Gras. We just have Pancake Tuesday.”
Zara looked around the table, expecting to see everyone laugh but they all just looked at her and shrugged.
“Yeah,” explained Sinead. “They used up all the good stuff to make pancakes before the fast and abstinence of Lent started. Sure isn’t that what Mardi Gras is too? Fat Tuesday?”
“But, what about the parades, and the floats and the carnival?”
“Nope, we just eat a load of pancakes.”
“Jesus, what a country,” sighed Zara.
Zara was not finding it easy to integrate into Ireland. She’d been born to Irish parents in New Orleans and grown up as an American, pledging allegiance to the flag, cheering at the football, not soccer, matches and celebrating Mardi Gras every spring. Then in July 2019, Hurricane Barry turned her, and everyone around her’s lives upside down.
While not as devastating as Hurricane Katrina had been fourteen years earlier, Barry had still managed to flood their home and business for a second time and her parents had decided enough was enough. It was time for them to return back home to Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. Back to a country that Zara had never even seen. While her nine-year-old brother had adapted to primary school easily enough. At eighteen, Zara was parachuted into the final year of High school and struggled even to come to terms with the language, let alone the culture and the school subjects.
Courgettes and aubergines were bad enough. But then she got confused that fries were chips and chips were crisps. The icing on the cake was that pantyhose were tights and apparently tights were called leggings.
“Tell us more about this Carnival anyway.”
Zara looked at her friends and smiled. She described how everyone dressed up in purple, green and gold. How they eat king cakes frosted with purple, green and gold icing and if you find a little plastic Jesus inside, you are King for the day and have good luck for the year. It’s all about celebrations and overindulgence before Lent.
“Typical Irish,” moaned Orla. “They get a carnival and we get a fecking pancake.”
“There’s a lot of sex too. Loads of girls in skimpy costumes and drink and darkness. I heard someone describe the Mardi Gras in New Orleans as ‘Booze, beads and boobs’.”
“Sounds like Westport on a Saturday night,” Orla laughed.
“And the beads?” Sinead inquired. “What are they for?”
“You dirty bitch.” Orla roared with laughter.
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
Sinead glowered at her friend before turning back to Zara.
“Umm, well people throw them from the floats and you are supposed to catch them and wear them. I think it’s for luck. Usually, if a woman flashes her boobs, guys will throw loads of beads at her.”
Zara shrugged. “It’s just a big party really. An excuse for a good time.”
She looked disdainfully at the ham sandwich she’d picked from the cafeteria counter and dropped it back on the plate. She opened her bag of chips and thought about home.
“We should have a Mardi Gras parade.”
Zara looked up and saw Sinead’s excited face. “Or a party anyway.”
Orla chimed in too.
“It’d be mental. We could all dress up. I’m sure we could find some coloured beads and it’d be the perfect excuse for a party before we all have to settle down and start studying for the Leaving Cert.”
“I love the costumes… Look.”
Sinead held out her phone where she’d been googling Mardi Gras.
“Oooh, we could all wear masks too. Then you wouldn’t know who was flashing their tits for beads!”
The girls fell about their chairs laughing.
“Seriously though. It’d be a laugh, wouldn’t it, Zara?”
Zara looked at her friends' faces. Sinead and Orla smiled back at her. She shrugged.
“Why not. It’ll be better than sitting around getting fat from eating too many pancakes anyway.”
Friday night came around fast enough and Zara was freezing as they tottered down Westport's main street in their high heels and short dresses. It was a welcome blast of heat as they pushed open the door of Fox’s pub and sauntered up to the bar.
The barman grinned. “Alright girls, let me guess. Two 7 Ups and a lemon Fanta?”
“Aw come on, Oisin. Sure don’t you know we are all eighteen?”
Orla fluttered her eyelashes at the barman. He slowly shook his head as he reached for the glasses and lined up the three vodkas and coke.
Sinead looked around the pub. For a Friday night, it looked very dead.
“Where is everyone?”
“It’s February. It’s freezing and it’s a long time til payday. Only the desperate are out.” He grinned as he looked at the three girls.
“You should put on a Mardi Gras night. That would get a crowd in.” Sinead started to suggest to Oisin when she was interrupted.
“I might have known you’d be out.”
The girls turned to see who was talking and Sinead let out a squeal and hugged her sister,
“Hey, Maeve. Can you buy us a drink?”
Maeve laughed and put a twenty euro note down on the bar.
“I thought you’d be in the Students Union. What are you doing slumming it here?” Sinead enquired.
“Well, you know." Sinead smiled at Oisin. “A change is as good as a rest."
“We were just suggesting to Oisin that he should put on a Mardi Gras night. Zara was telling us all about them. We were talking about trying to organise a parade but we could have a carnival theme night in the pub.”
“A parade? In the pub? Are you out of your mind?”
“Sure who’d want to stand out on the street on a freezing cold February night and watch a parade? It’s not like it’s New Orleans weather here.”
“That’s why I said you should have it in the pub. Just imagine it. Everyone would be dressed up and dancing and drinking. It’s supposed to be the debauched night before you repent and abstain the next day.”
“As if anyone abstains from anything around here. But run this debauchery bit by me again now, would you?”
Sinead giggled and outlined pretty much what Zara had told them at lunchtime.
“It all sounds grand now, girls. There’s just one teensy weensy problem. Sure no fecker is going to be out on a Tuesday night. And you think it’s quiet tonight? Sure you’d never be allowed out on a school night.”
“Ah,” countered Zara, “but Mardi Gras can run all weekend and finish on the Tuesday. We could have our Mardi Gras on the Friday or Saturday.”
She paused and turned to Maeve.
“And I’m sure you’d get loads of students from the University too.”
Sinead smiled smugly at Oisin as if that settled it.
The girls ordered their carnival outfits online, having quickly discovered that the local Dunnes Stores didn’t stock tights or basques in the required green, gold or purple.
Sinead found a green and purple rah-rah skirt and a pair of bright yellow tights and Zara ordered a bunch of masks and beads for Oisin to hand out or sell behind the bar.
Word got around fairly quickly that Oisin was planning a Mardi Gras festival. Maeve had put up posters around the local University campus and rumours abounded that there’d be exotic dancers as well as a jazz band providing the carnival atmosphere.
As word spread, the local evangelical anti-fun brigade also came out of the woodwork, protesting that Mardi Gras was sinful, pagan and an affront to God.
Sinead stomped into the art room on the Thursday morning before the Mardi Gras festival.
“Have you seen this shite someone’s posted all around the school?”
She flung an A5-sized flyer down on the table.
“Stupid Luddites didn’t even use social media. Going to all the effort, wasting trees to produce that poison.”
Zara reached forward and picked the flyer up off the table. Her eyes widened as she read aloud.
“The only purpose of Mardi Gra is to overindulge in whatever sinful activity you desire before you begin your fast. It is colourful parades, alcohol, masquerades and the partaking of every flesh-filled sinful desire you can imagine.”
“That sounds great,” Orla laughed. “Can’t wait for tomorrow night, now.”
“Why?” Sinead retorted. “What sinful desire did you have in mind?”
The girls called into the bar after school to see how Oisin was getting on with the preparations. As they looked around, they appreciated all the work Oisin had been doing. He was up at the top of a step ladder, draping purple, green and gold streamers between the rafters and behind the bar. A low platform wound its way around the room and the intention was that they would have parades with groups of people doing the conga down the platform every so often to throw beads down at the people sitting at the tables or standing on either side.
Oisin had persuaded a few friends he knew who played the trumpet and saxophone to come along and he’d posted adverts on all the bar’s social media channels. There seemed to be a good buzz around the town about it and he was confident it was going to be a good night.
“Have you seen the free publicity the evangelical Christians are giving you?” Sinead called up to him, waving the pamphlet at him. Oisin just rolled his eyes.
“I have indeed. They were on a phone-in on the radio this morning saying they are going to protest outside and have a prayer vigil. As if they’ve nothing better to do.”
“Maybe that will bring in more people?”
“Should do. I heard the local students union are selling Mardi Gras beads. I think we’ll have quite the crowd.”
Mardi Gras night came around and the girls met up at Zara’s house. Sinead took off her coat and revealed her outfit. She spun around so the layers of colours lifted and flashed, receiving wolf whistles of approval from the others. Zara had put purple and green streaks through her blonde hair and was wearing a pair of furry purple, green and yellow leg warmers while Orla had found a stripey rugby shirt in green, purple and yellow and matched it with the shortest skirt she had and a pair of stripy yellow and black tights.
After drinking a couple of vodkas and coke as a warm-up, the girls headed down to the pub to see what sort of crowd was gathering. Zara gasped and clutched Sinead’s arm as they saw the queue stretching down the street from the pub.
“Jezabels… Harlots... Whores of Babylon.”
A young man, wearing a navy blue trenchcoat stood under a streetlight opposite the pub. He held a handful of the same flyers as had been distributed around the school and waved them above his head. A small crowd of middle-aged and elderly men and women stood silently behind him.
“You Jezabels will be burning in the fires of Hell for eternity. There is no place in the Kingdom of God for worthless slatterns like you.”
He turned and looked at the girls.
“You! Yes… You. You harlots in your short skirts, flaunting the sins of the flesh. You are the whores of Babylon and you will suffer the eternal fires of Hell if you don’t repent and turn away from that den of vice.”
He flung his hand out in the direction of the bar for emphasis as the group behind him nodded their approval.
Orla pulled her top up and flashed her bra at him in response and the three girls laughed as he continued to rant about the evils of Mardi Gras. They turned and walked to the front of the queue, before announcing grandly that they were on the guest list.
The bouncer nodded his head at Sienad and signalled for them to head on in.
When Zara pushed open the pub door, she couldn’t believe the raucous atmosphere. The band were playing ‘When the saints go marching in’ which felt appropriate given the ramblings of the young man outside.
The place was jumping. A fair smattering of the customers had made an effort and were wearing green, purple or gold in some form or other and a large number had beads around their necks. A lot of the girls were wearing masks and it took a few minutes for the girls to find Maeve and when they did, they were blown away by her outfit.
Maeve was wearing a gold basque with a purple tutu and a pair of tights with one green and one purple leg. She also had put coloured streaks in her long blonde hair and wore a sparkly green mask.
“What a crowd,” Maeve shouted in Sinead’s ear. “This was such a good idea.”
“Yeah, apart from the nutter outside.”
“You mean Jebediah? I think he’s pretty harmless.”
It turned out that Jebediah was well-known around the University. He was seen as a one-man rent-a-mob who would be guaranteed to turn up at every LGBT+ event just to tell everyone there that they were an abomination and were going to Hell. At the time of the abortion referendum, he’d ended up being escorted off the university premises after refusing to let a pro-choice representative speak at a ‘Repeal the 8th’ debate. One of Maeve’s friends, Aoife, had laughed as Maeve told Sinead about Jebediah and offered the opinion that all he needed was a good shag.
Soon Sinead forgot all about Jebediah as the Mardi Gras got into full swing. The conga line along the platform was getting rowdier and rowdier every time. Beads were being flung in both directions and Orla was seizing every opportunity to flash her boobs. Sinead wondered fleetingly where Orla’s bra had disappeared to as she saw Orla’s pale pink nipples being flashed to raucous applause for the umpteenth time.
Zara had disappeared into the back room of the pub with Oisin and just as Sinead was starting to wonder what they were up to, they reappeared carrying trays of buns iced with stripes of purple, green and gold frosting.
“There’s a plastic Jesus in one of the buns,” Zara shouted as she passed the trays of buns around the bar. “Whoever gets it is declared King or Queen of the Mardi Gras.”
The crowd eagerly munched into the buns. As Maeve reached out to take a plate of buns, she saw Jebediah’s face pressed against the glass. She took another swig of her drink, then stood up and carried the tray outside.
It was late by now and while Jebediah still stood outside the pub, the last of his supporters were drifting off.
“Hello Jebediah,” Maeve smiled. “I brought you a cake. I thought you might be hungry.”
Jebediah’s face flushed.
“It’d be rude to refuse, you know. My friends worked very hard baking these.”
She picked up one of the buns herself, and without breaking eye contact, bit into the sweet sugary icing and slowly chewed the mouthful.
Jebediah gulped. His hand reached out to take one. His fingers closed over the brightly-patterned bun.
“How could I refuse then?” he stammered.
He raised it to his mouth and bit into it. Suddenly his face contorted and he quickly removed the bun. Maeve could see the top half of a tiny plastic Jesus sticking out of the half-eaten bun.
“Oh my god,” she giggled. “You’ve got the plastic Jesus.”
She grabbed his hand and pulled him into the bar.
“Everyone,” she shouted as soon as she got inside. “Jebediah has found the plastic Jesus. He’s King of the Mardi Gras.”
The crowd cheered and stamped their feet or drummed the table and broke into a chorus of ‘Plastic Jesus, Plastic Jesus’ as the band improvised the melody. Maeve’s friends got up and danced their way towards them as they stood in the doorway. Jebediah looked confused and dumbfounded as Maeve’s friend, Aoife, pressed herself against him and ran her fingers along the arm of his coat.
As another conga began snaking its way through the bar, Aoife draped a set of purple beads over Jebediah’s head. He tried to back away but found his back pressed against the wall.
She wrapped her fingers around the string of beads and slowly started walking backwards, forcing Jebediah to follow her. The crowd continued to sing ‘Plastic Jesus’ as Aoife sashayed her hips and slunk her way towards the back room.
When she closed the door behind them, the whole bar cheered and the band struck up ‘she’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes.’ as Oisin tried vainly to call last orders.
Slowly the crowd dispersed. Oisin closed the door on the last inebriated revellers and turned to face the chaos. He leant his back against the door and watched as the girls helped the bar staff make a start on gathering up the dirty glasses.
Suddenly, there was a loud pounding on the door. Oisin turned and expected to find the local Guards at the door when he unlocked it. Instead, a small willowy woman forced her way into the bar. Oisin started to try and explain that they were closed when she cut him off.
“Where is he? What have you done with my son?”
Oisin stared open-mouthed as the woman scanned the room.
“Jebediah, where are you? Are you OK, son?”
She turned and glowered at Maeve and the girls.
“What have you Jezebels done with my son? Where is he?”
Sinead giggled and Oisin had to try and calm the woman down as she frantically looked into all the corners and alcoves.
Then the door of the back room opened and a very dishevelled Jebediah stumbled out. He was pulling up his unzipped trousers and trying to tuck in his unbuttoned shirt at the same time as he made his way towards his mother.
“Sorry Mum,” he muttered.
Jebediah’s mother’s face turned white. Her mouth opened and closed without a sound coming out. She stood stock still. Nobody moved. Zara hardly dared breathe as she watched. Then Aoife walked out behind him holding his shoes.
“Don’t forget your shoes, darling,” she giggled coquettishly as she kissed Jebediah on the cheek.
Everyone could see the mother taking in Aoife. The gold bra left very little to the imagination and the green GAA shorts looked like Aoife had borrowed them from her ten-year-old sister.
Finally, Jebediah’s mother broke the tableau and grabbed her son by the arm, yanking him away from Aoife while telling him he was a disgrace and that it would take God a long time before he was forgiven for this night’s wickedness.
As Jebediah’s mother dragged him out of the bar, Sinead called after them, “Don’t forget to repent for your flesh-filled sinful desires, Jebediah.”