The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Extract from ‘Midlands’

Cowley Road, Oxford. Photo by Kamyar Adl under a CC 2.0 license here.

V.

At Oxford, over the river, there is a long road which winds into Cowley, the multicultural sink estate where most of the students live out in their second year, very far from the play of dreaming spires and punting rich.

Stuart Holmes lived there for a time too in the early 2000s. He lived on a suburban street called Boulter Street, a shabby little tumble of houses, a haphazard cul-de-sac. One May morning he shut the 50th one of its doors and walked away from it, pulling up his jacket. It was very cold and bright. He passed a house in which a few days earlier a man had died, his face having been burnt beyond recognition by indoor fireworks. A journalist had come round to interview Stuart and asked him to confirm that was what had happened – ‘if you say it, I can write it’ – but Stuart had somehow felt compelled to refuse doing that.

He walked along the street to where Boulter met St. Clements Street, the long thoroughfare which led on back to the centre of town, towards the Oxford of history, of virgins and bookshops. It was also the Oxford of extremely expensive sandwich shops and, if he ever had occasion to write a memoir of this time, it would surely have been called ‘Baguettes.’

Walking along the road – for Stuart was a habitual walker in this town of bikes – came a figure he knew well, a rotund, bulge-eyed man dressed as ever in a waistcoat. ‘Stuart!’ called the man, lifting his arms exuberantly as he did and performing a mock-stunned stumble backwards, ‘Stuart Holmes!’

‘Peter.’ Peter Lowel.

‘Oh my God! I love you!’ said Peter, moving round in a kind of weird dance, his eyes fixed on Stuart the whole time. ‘I love him. I love Stuart,’ Peter shouted to a passing cyclist.

‘How are you Peter?’ asked Stuart.

‘Nomnomnomnom.’ Then Peter flinched suddenly, and looked at him almost angrily. ‘I hate you,’ said Peter. The little dance resumed but now it had grown almost vengeful, animalistic. ‘Hate you!’

Stuart was already walking on towards the town centre. ‘See you later,’ he called to Peter.

‘I love you!’ he could hear Peter calling back.

Stuart walked on. His mind was turning to the show tonight – of course it was. He had received a text from his producer, Julia, that a London West end promoter was due to come; they didn’t know exactly where the promoter was from, or what they indeed looked like, but they were definitely going to come. It would be nice to be famous Stuart thought. He pictured it now; being able to peremptorily quit Oxford, a place he despised deeply, and move straight into a theatrical career; that, anyway, was his ambition. And he wasn’t sure he was going to be staying here anyway. He had recently applied for a scholarship to study Old Finnish at the University of Helsinki. It had been that or Icelandic scalds in Reykjavík.

Though of course, there was always Nellie, his actress girlfriend, who loved Oxford.

And Oxford was beautiful, in its rococo arches, and cold medieval courts, and curved bridges under which the punters glided, and Stuart couldn’t see it. Stuart could only see as far his own nose, which was today incidentally full of cold, streaming down onto him, onto his green corduroy shirt. He needed to get to the Playhouse, though first grab some lunch, so he stopped at a busy sandwich shop on Oxford’s main shopping street.

Flo Doherty was there, sitting upstairs with a friend.

‘It’s Stuart!’ he called as Stuart moved into the room and sat with his sandwich and caramel square. Stuart looked over, pale and sweaty.

‘Hi Flo.’

‘Excited for tonight?’

‘I am.’

‘Nervous?’

‘I don’t get nervous.’

Next to Flo was a British-South Asian man with bloodshot eyes. ‘What’s tonight?’ the man asked.

‘Shaf, this is Stuart Holmes,’ said Flo. ‘Stuart’s the President of the Oxford Revue. And it’s the annual show tonight – this year it’s the Oxford Revue vs. Not the Oxford Revue.’

‘Where is it?’

‘The Oxford Playhouse,’ Flo smiled. ‘Are there still tickets?’

‘Yes, but they’re selling fast.’

‘It’s going to be amazing,’ Flo continued. ‘The reviews were brilliant.’

‘One of them was. The Oxford Student one was done by a German and he just said that we made too many jokes about paedophiles.’

Yeah, but everyone knows the Germans have no sense of humour.’

Shaf said slowly, ‘I was in Berlin recently. You can take a lot of drugs there.’

‘Do you want some drugs?’ asked Flo. ‘We’re going to have some coke later.’

Stuart didn’t, and in fact his chicken and sweet mustard sandwich was just about done. ‘Guys – much as I’d love to stay here chatting, my actors need me.’

It’s going to be a smash. Everyone’s going to be there,’ said Flo.

‘I’m not,’ said Shaf.

‘Everyone’s going to be there apart from Shaf,’ said Flo.

Now Stuart was out of the cafe, walking along Magdalen Street, turning onto the main boulevard. It was tourist central here, the buses crowding along the road, the tourists hoping to catch a little of that Olde English charm behind the blackened facades. But Stuart still didn’t see all this, felt only the dribble of his nose and the swirl of his dreams of glory. And he bent to check the screen of his ancient Nokia, which was telling him he had an unread message in its small black font. He unlocked the keypad; the message was from his production manager, Jonny.

I HAVE COMPLETED MY PROPS LIST

Stuart sighed. Jonny was an authentic idiot, a man who a few days earlier had texted saying he couldn’t find a button. Imagine a production manager who couldn’t find a button, and who had also several months previously won student production manager of the year. Lost in criticism of others Stuart  came now on his left-hand side to the Playhouse, where he had last performed a year previously in the Oxford Revue’s show ‘Gonads’, in which he had portrayed a gonad. In the world of student comedy this counted as paying your dues. But tonight he would be judged, on his Revue, on his contribution to British comedy history, to his playing – him, the boldest and most radical student comic – the Andy Kaufman in a sea of Dudley Moores. First, though, he had to find the correct entrance.

He made his way round the back, which extended out onto a concreted beer garden. There was a door slightly open out of which a man was heaving a keg.

‘Excuse me,’ said Stuart.

‘Yes?’ the man said.

‘I, erm, have a show here tonight.’

‘Oh, you’re one of the artists. Let me show you to the dressing room.’

‘It’s OK,’ said Stuart. ‘Just through here, right?’

Stuart, who had never been called an artist before, entered the corridor. The man continued to walk behind him, while ahead of them Thwaite approached, the sound of flushing behind him. ‘Sorry mate,’ said Thwaite, ‘wouldn’t go in there. Major post-shit situation. Absolute stinkoid.’

‘I’m actually just going through to the main stage.’

‘Correct decision matey.’ The flushing roar continued as Thorpe leant in, shouting ‘Good luck for tonight.’

The hangar-like backstage gave way to the main auditorium and the beautiful sight of an empty heritage theatre with its hundreds of red-upholstered seats. Stuart paused a moment calming himself. There were actors on the stage talking, though not his actors. Several of those actors were there already though; Tubby Rikes, a magnetic young baldie who was his leading man, and Paul Talbot, a huge muscular Welshman who greeted him with a roar of ‘Stuart!’

‘Did they call you an artist too?’ Stuart laughed.

‘Come here,’ said Talbot, taking him in his arms and walking him slightly to the side. ‘Tonight is going to be so unbelievably brilliant.’

Stuart was smiling as he looked over he saw Nellie. His beloved Nellie. He looked over at her; her expression was stern.

‘We can’t rehearse,’ she said.

‘What?’ said Stuart, moving swiftly out of Paul’s hug. ‘Why can’t we?’

Because ‘Not the Oxford Revue’ are in there.’ She dropped her voice lower. ‘They’re blocking literally every cue. I don’t know when we’ll get on. If we can get on.’

More people were coming now; Cathy Lambert, Sophie Parkin, Jeff Dambo. All the main female and cameo roles. Stuart had for his part been seized by a horrible hacking cough, much to the perturbation of the assembled cast.

‘Are you alright mate? Want a tissue?’

‘No – I’ve got one…’ Stuart straightened, his teeth gritting: the deal had expressly been that Revue would be allowed in at one pm. And his watch now showed five past one. He said ‘I’ll deal with this.’

Stuart marched through the auditorium, past the hundreds of seats which would soon be filled, seeing none of them – well, perhaps he took time for a cock of the head and a prideful inhalation. Then he bustled up the stairwell to the sound booth.

Rupert Ruffles was bent over the mixing desk with a technician, wearing a black polo neck. He was leaning over the techie giving detailed instructions in a perky whine. Stuart just stood at the entrance.

‘Stuart,’ Rupert said noticing him at last. ‘OK, that’s good Andy. Just a little more spot.’ Rupert looked up. ‘Sorry about this Stuart. We’ll be done soon. Excited for tonight?’

‘When are you going to be done?’ said Stuart. He took a step towards Rupert, a much smaller man.

‘We’ll be finished, ah-ha,’ said Rupert, giving a weasely laugh, ‘when we’re finished.’

‘Because we have curtain call at 17.30. And you’ve had all morning.’

‘We’ve had since ten actually,’ Rupert said.

‘Three hours!’

‘We had a lunch break.’

‘So what do we do?’ said Stuart.

‘I don’t know,’ said Rupert. ‘I’m not your director.’ Rupert leant into the mic. ‘OK guys. Run the whole thing again from the top.’

Stuart stared for a moment. ‘Best of luck for tonight’ he said.

‘You too,’ said Rupert, and looked up with a big smile. ‘Ursula – starting position.’

Stuart walked into the auditorium; Ursula was onstage, dressed as a plum. He crossed past her and backstage to where his actors were standing around.

‘They’re blocking their whole show,’ Stuart said angrily upon entering.

‘I booked us the Graves room,’ Nellie carefully replied.

‘Thanks,’ he said, and leant in to give her a quick, professional kiss.

And so the group of actors made the journey across Oxford from the Oxford Playhouse to St John’s college, back along the main drag, so that they could use the Graves room, a small turquoise-walled chamber where they had been rehearsing for the last months, repeating until deep in the night at which point one of the grumpy porters would usually appear to toss them out. In a pack they strode: the American Gary Price, already bearing the long stage cloak he wore for the role of the villain Fumhat, was walking ahead of them with two of the actresses, Sophie and Cathy, both in green dresses, explaining to them as he did the intricacies and humiliations of archaeological digs in New York: ‘And this guy comes up to me and says – you guys digging for gold?’ Talbot was laughing with his actress girlfriend – but in a fine, safe way, he’d trust Talbot with his life – and Tubby was hauling, in its big worn case, his tuba, which was to be used just for a single joke. Stuart looked over to them proudly as he walked; he was very young and had a gang.

They came marching round into St. Johns, laughing and shouting, receiving baffled looks, and not just from tourists, as they moved down the corridor and to the little room, bounding through the door and then inside, taking up positions around the room, conversing, loosening, ready. ‘Alright,’ said Stuart with authority, ‘Let’s run the kazoos.’

Yet just a few minutes later all was chaos and rabble. Tubby was dozing besides his tuba, and Gary had gone to get coffee with the girls. His girlfriend was reading a magazine.

‘What – is going on?’ said Stuart.

‘We’ve outgrown the Graves room, that’s the problem,’ Talbot rose to declare. It was true; they couldn’t block their movements here, and this little carpeted square was very far from the vast stage they were soon to play.

‘Did you see it,’ Jeffrey was saying. ‘It’s big, isn’t it? I mean, there’s going to be an awful lot of people there. Like a large number.’

Nellie looked over to him. ‘What?’ she said to Stuart.

‘I think we should go back to the theatre,’ Stuart said. ‘Where’s Gary? Where’s Marie?’

‘They went to get coffee.’

‘Well somebody go get them!’

Twenty minutes later Gary returned, sipping coffee and eating something out of a grease-stained bag. ‘Sorry,’ Gary said. ‘Did you want coffee?’

‘No,’ said Stuart. He didn’t drink it. ‘Is everybody here?’

‘We’re missing Caps.’

Caps entered. ‘Sorry. Was phoning my girlfriend.’

‘Right, everybody here?’

‘I think so.’

‘Stuart!’ It was Tubby.

‘Yes?’

‘I think I lost my kazoo.’

Stuart flashed a look to his girlfriend.

She looked over, coolly chewing nicotine gum. ‘I told you. I’m not the production manager on this production. I’m purely an actress. Phone the production manager. It’s his job.’

‘Fine, I’ll phone him,’ said Stuart.

He did; the familiar nasal whine answering. ‘Jonny’s phone.’

‘Hello Jonny.’

‘Ah Stuart. I did send you a text earlier. I have now completed my props list.’

‘Yes, Jonny, I got that, thank you so very much. But that’s not the right issue now. It’s that – could you get us another kazoo?’

‘I have said props should be left at the theatre at all times.’

‘Yes, Jonny, I totally agree – I think you’re absolutely right about that – it’s just, it’s, the show tonight you see and we really need an extra kazoo.’ He looked over at his girlfriend. ‘And a sign, right?’

‘Laura’s making the sign.’

‘Does she know that?’

‘She said she was…’

‘Somebody phone her!’

‘There’s no need to shout,’ said Jonny.

‘I’m not shouting!’ Stuart shouted. ‘Just get us a fucking kazoo will you? Thank you.’ He ended the call and launched into a hacking cough which ended with a yellowy burst of sputum into his handkerchief. ‘Let’s go to the Oxford Playhouse.’

When they arrived back at the Playhouse Rupert was still rehearsing.

‘Nearly there,’ Rupert said before Stuart had even got through the door.

‘How long is nearly there?’ said Stuart in the doorway. ‘It’s almost three-fucking-thirty.’

‘Run that again from the top.’ Rupert looked over but didn’t stand up. ‘Sorry Stuart, we’re busy.’

Stuart went down and sat in the auditorium. Julia, his producer, came and quietly sat next to him.

‘We’ve sold 400 tickets.’

‘400?’

‘We’re going to get at least 450 in. BBC Oxford is coming. And that Oxford website.’

‘That’s good. You know, I’m just really proud of the show.’

‘Excited?’ said Julia after a pause.

‘Indeed. I’ve been working my whole life for this moment.’

‘Well – it’s an amazing show.’ Julia hadn’t actually seen it yet but, there you go, Stuart would take it.

‘Thanks.’

‘Finished!’ called Rupert, bursting into the auditorium from the back. ‘Right everyone,’ he cried, ‘Let’s go to the pub.’

And Rupert and his little mob went off stage, laughing and joking and bounding out the door. Stuart stared at them with his sourest look and then sprung up.

‘Nellie! Cathy! Sophie! Marie! Positions ! First scene!’ Stuart spluttered and shouted. ‘Come on, come on, we only have just over an hour!’

By the time the hour was up they had blocked exactly forty-five minutes of their two hour show and certain actors had never set foot on the stage at all. The result of all this was that the audience would in effect be watching their dress rehearsal.

About then Andrew the technician entered. ‘You all have to get out right now,’ he said.

‘But we’ve only just started,’ Stuart said.

‘That’s not my issue. Playhouse regs are quite clear; everybody has to be out of here by five thirty at the latest. It’s five thirty.’

Stuart took a spaced-out pause. ‘Alright everyone, clear the stage.’ Tubby and Talbot, dressed as a bee and a priest respectively, shuffled offstage together, talking in low tones. Stuart for his part shuffled together his tawdry, coffee-stained script, saying despondently to Julia as he did, ‘I can’t believe this.’

Jonny was approaching.

‘I have a kazoo,’ Jonny said.

‘Great Jonny.’

‘It cost 65p.’

‘Just sort it out with Nellie, will you?’

‘I’ve told you, I’m not the production manager!’ Nellie called back.

‘I don’t have any change,’ Stuart said quietly. A new man was standing in front of him, with a huge shock of curly hair.

‘Hey.’

‘Hello.’

‘Tig.’

‘Hi Tig.’

‘Cool.  I’m a comedian. For tonight – you know, from the Cambridge Footlights. Well, alright, I’m not technically a Footlight but I’m representing the Footlights. I’m representing Cambridge. How long do I have?’

‘Sorry but – who said you were on tonight?’

‘You did. You’re Stuart Holmes right?’

‘Yes, I’m Stuart Holmes but…‘ Stuart thought back; he dimly remembered sending an email at 4am, some months ago, enquiring if the Footlights could send someone down. But he didn’t remember receiving a reply any. ‘Oh, Tig,’ he said. ‘Have you got five minutes?’

‘I can do 15.’

‘Five will be fine. I’ll tell Rupert – or, if you find him, you can tell him. He’s a small fat man in a polo neck. He talks a lot.’

Laura burst in, holding something large wrapped on a stick. ‘I’ve got it!’

‘What have you got?’ said Stuart.

‘The sign!’

‘Right,’ Stuart said.

‘And about my cameo today – I practiced saying the line. Can I try it? “Hello sailor. Hellooooooo sailor.” What do you think?’

‘It’s great Laura.’

‘Or is it more – ‘hell-o sailor’? And I thought I could wear this cap.’ She popped a white woollen cap on her head.

‘I already saw Rupert,’ said Tig, standing to Stuart’s left. ‘He said I could do 15, at the start of the second half.’

Stuart sighed. ’Did Rupert invite you?’ he said, standing up; some of the actors were calling him. ‘Please do five. And keep it tight – we’ve got a very long show tonight.’ Of which his part, the Oxford Revue, was to form the second half.

Kazoos. Photo by Dhaggis under a CC License 2.0 here.

With the auditorium being cleared and hoovered for the 7.30 start, and Not the Oxford Revue, plus Tig, safely ensconced in the only available dressing room, there was nothing for it, as Talbot suggested, but to go to the pub.

Stuart didn’t drink. Indeed he disapproved of drinking, living for his part on a diet of marijuana and 50p mix. Gary sat opposite with a pint and a chaser, and Stuart didn’t approve, it seeming to him a bad omen, imagining sloppy line deliveries to come. But nobody was getting paid, so how hard could he be on them?

They were sat in the yard behind the Oxford Playhouse, near the small Burton Taylor theatre, where Emperor Penguin had been staged. He remembered Nellie selling the tickets, newly together and so happy to give out the stubs. Kissing when the last one was sold. Now the sky above was very black, cracked almost, in a May as dark as winter.

‘Come on everybody,’ said his girlfriend.

‘I’ll see you at the start of the second half,’ Stuart said.

Stuart moved to the theatre foyer, which was already filling.

His Mum was stood near the entrance with a concerned smile. ‘Stuart – Pam’s come down. Isn’t that good of her?’

Pam was an old retired friend of his mother’s who now spent her days photographing dogs.

‘Thanks for coming, Pam,’ Stuart said.

‘I hope it’s good,’ said Pam with an unimpressed frown. ‘The train ticket was expensive.’

‘Thanks so much for coming, really,’ said Stuart. ‘This is a very big opportunity for me. This is probably the biggest venue in British student theatre,’

‘You have done very well,’ said his Mum.

‘Stuart,’ said his Dad, approaching with a plastic pint cup.

Laura approached, dressed in her college scarf. ‘Hello sailor!’

His Dad said, smiling, ‘Lively this one, isn’t she?’

‘Laura, these are my parents.’ Stuart showed her his parents, together as so rarely. The two of them, little old people in Marks and Spencers wear, stood smiling back.

‘You must be proud Mr. and Mrs. Holmes,’ said Laura.

‘Miss. Sachs,’ said his mother.

‘Stuart,’ said Laura, standing a little too close to him, ‘I made Italian fig cake for the after party.’

Stuart nodded. ‘Thank you Laura. Now, if you excuse me, I have to go. We’ll be starting in five minutes.’

‘Good lad!’ they all said, or words to that effect.

*

Stuart moved into the main auditorium. There were hundreds of people streaming in, coming into the stalls, friends, acquaintances. The strangers were often older and louder, and had a coarseness to their speech that the students, the reedy needy students, did not.

‘Ready for a good laugh?’

‘Am I fucking ever.’

‘Hope it’s not shite.’

‘Students though innit. Wankers.’

Stuart took his seat towards the rear of the audience, directly before the main left entrance. Julia was already there, and excited.

‘We had to open the dress circle,’ she said. ‘Biggest student show of the year.’

‘People always want to see comedy,’ Stuart replied.

‘We’re a hit!’ said Julie.

Already the lights began to dim. In the pit to the right, Stuart could see his mother and father, and his girlfriend’s family too. ‘My mother likes you,’ Nellie had said. ‘I think she thinks you’re the only genius she’s ever met.’ And his girlfriend’s little sister, there in a tasselled cinnamon dress – smiling in anticipation of success. Now the lights were beginning to dim, and he noticed other familiar faces dotted around as the dark fell upon them.

‘Good luck,’ whispered Julia.

Arnold Thwaite came onto the stage first. He was wearing a black waistcoat and a silver bow tie, and said, raising his silver-topped cane – ‘Welcome everyone to Not the Oxford Revue vs. The Oxford Revue.’

They went wild.

‘We’ve got an amazing night of comedy for you tonight. But first, I want to talk to you. You know I read a headline recently that said ‘Porn is being literally pumped into Britain’s homes. And I thought,’ Thwaite squealed, ‘Really? Porn is really being pumped into Britain’s homes? Like –‘ Thwaite, thin and red-haired, made a gross squelchy noise.  ‘Scwurppp.’ Then came Stern Dad voice, Thwaite’s specialty. ‘Oh no dear. There’s porn being pumped into the house again.’ Generic Posh Woman: ‘Oh no darling! Can you turn it off?’

The audience laughed for about five seconds straight, savouring this joke on the most radical of subjects, porn. It normally took the audience five minutes to warm up but with such excellent tech specs and at eight pounds a ticket, these people were like butter waiting to be spread.

Where had Tig come from? This detached Cambridge Footlight, this man who seemed to end up on stage almost by accident, and was now there again, blethering bollocks about penguins and, once more, porn, and of course, that indispensable comic trump card, his possession penis. Tig seemed to go on for hours, shouting about doing ‘a number three, a poo-wee’, but there was a God, he was at his closer now. ‘Can all the black people put their hands in the air?’

Nervous laughter into which Tig bellowed ‘Come on!’

A few hands.

 Tig said ‘I still can’t see you.’ Then he said, ‘Welcome to Oxford admissions.’

With the ghost of satire securely slain, off went Tig.

Thwaite reappeared. ‘Wasn’t that incredible! Stealing my porn jokes, though. Ooo-er! Being pumped into our homes! Scwurppp! Now, are you ready for your first main act?’

What the hell was that, a first main act? You were either a main act or you weren’t.

‘I didn’t hear you! Come on now!’

The audience roared louder.

‘OK guys let’s do this! Let’s bring onto the stage – NOT – the Oxford – REVUEEEEEEEEEE!’

Stuart checked his watch; they had already been running for twenty-five minutes. He felt uneasy.

For now, a groovy little piece of pop funk began, and ‘Not the Oxford Revue’, these glorious specimens, these dancing clowns, these accessible fools, bounded onto the stage. Such enthusiasm! Here was Jerome Woodford, blonde and juggling, here was Ursula Blade, twirling and sashaying across the stage with her dress blown up by a fan. And here was Thwaite himself, who had expressly changed into jeans and a T-shirt to feature in the show he had himself warmed up for, and who was blowing bubbles.

It was a hell of a start and of course the audience loved it. They wanted to be entertained. The cast members twirled off, always in character, and the first sketch began, with Ursula emerging, dressed again as that gigantic plum. And now she began to pun, discharging a litany of fruit-based puns upon the audience in a way which left them rolling and gasping. Fruit puns! It would ever be thus; English audiences loved a juicy pun.

There followed funny videos of people dressed as cows, a song about soup, and not a single joke with bite or edge until, upon the finale – which featured all the cast dressed as rapping nuns, the laughter thinning now after over one hour in – ‘Not the Oxford Revue’ were dispatched to rapturous applause.

Stuart looked at his watch. Fuck. It was 9.15 with a twenty-minute interval still to come.

The Oxford Revue’s turn; Stuart’s turn. Triumph’s turn? He walked out the foyer and round to the auditorium, to the apparent ‘artist’s entrance.’ When he got backstage his whole cast was waiting for them, this numbering about twenty people.

Nellie was abuzz. ‘Where’s the oboe? The tuba? The dart?’ Various things were being found and tested, and some things couldn’t be found at all. Jonny stood at the side of the prop’s table with an air of inert pride.

‘OK everyone gather in,’ Stuart said. It was time for his motivational speech; the actors for their part moved into a huddle.

They all leant forward so their heads were at the same level looking over to him. But it suddenly occurred to him that he had prepared nothing, and he suddenly felt very sick, cold and frail. So all Stuart did was throw up his hands and say –

‘It’s there if you want it.’

And his arms fell back.

Then for a few minutes he strolled around, watching his actors, his heroes; Grimes was explaining medieval scholarship to Tubby, Paul was singing a rugby song; Jeffrey Dambo was practicing his line. Stuart suddenly felt greatly proud of them; perhaps they could pull it off after all. He kissed Nellie, he touched her hand, offered everyone a few last words of well-wishing, and walked back to the auditorium.

He passed his Dad emerging from the toilet.

‘Stewie, good luck,’ said his Dad.

‘Thanks Dad.’

And Stuart’s show began.

This is an extract from the author’s novel ‘Midlands’. If you enjoyed it, and would like to encourage him further, why not buy him a coffee?

Refugees welcome

Photo under a CC0 license via Pexels.com.

Two Civil Servants are waiting for the Hone Secretary, who enters.

CS One: Ah, Home Secretary, so glad you could join us.

Home Secretary: I was just watching daytime television.

Cs Two: Pointless?

Home Secretary: Not as much as dealing with you idiots. Now, what have you got?

Cs One: Right, Home Secretary, so we do have a few ideas based on your proposal.

Home Secretary: Use gigantic waves to push refugees back across the English Channel. Pretty cool, right?

Cs Two: Ye-e-e-s…. The thing is, ‘cool’ as the idea undoubtedly is –

Home Secretary: I saw them do it at Center Parcs. So much fun!

Cs One: But we would obviously be talking about a much-larger operation here.

Home Secretary: I like the word large!

Cs Two: It would cost 500 million, Home Secretary.

Cs One: We don’t have 500 million, Home Secretary.

Cs Two: We don’t have five million, Home Secretary.

Cs One: Also it’d be illegal under international law.

Home Secretary: But not illegal under British international law.

Cs One: Is that… a thing?

Home Secretary: Well what about a cheaper option, like sinking their stupid little boats?

Cs One: Sometimes the weather’s bad.

Home Secretary: Yes, I can imagine the headlines if we lose any of our sailors… Well, what about sending them to remote islands?

Cs Two: The issue there is the people who already live on the remote islands. A lot of them feel terribly British, you see, right down to not liking foreigners.

Cs One: There is one other possibility…

Cs Two: You sure?

Home Secretary: Come on, hurry up, I’m very hungry!

Cs Two: We let the refugees in, but… We’re really mean to them.

Cs One: You know, follow them around making intensely belittling comments all the time, like ‘You’ve got a big nose’ or ‘You’ll never get a job in those shoes’, and keep this up until they eventually leave of their own free will.

Home Secretary: But isn’t that just the current system anyway?

Aide Two: Here’s the twist –

Aide One: – in light of current unemployment figures  –

Aide Two: We could make benefits claimants do it.

Aide One: Or community-spirited volunteers.

Aide Two: ‘Drive out to help out’, we thought.

Aide One: Basically: We get the public to get rid of the asylum seekers for us. And we don’t pay them.

Pause.

Home Secretary: I absolutely… love it! It’s just the combination of cheap and cruel we’re looking for. Well done morons – treat yourself to a glass of water! It’s this kind of innovativeness which makes Britain such a great country. After all, why else do so many people keep wanting to come here!

End

A memory

At times like this I comfort myself with the time I played a tiger in a Lana Del Rey video. Oh, I remember – the way we filmed the long takes, the heaviness of the tiger suit, Lana’s preternatural calm. I remember most of all though the breaks, when they’d winch the head off me, and I’d have a brief few minutes to prowl about. One day my walks took me to the back of the studios where I met, all alone, Lana. She was standing there smoking in that beautifully-sculpted, slightly-taller than you might think hipster way. And I remember approaching her, stooped, my paws raised, and going ‘Ra!’ And Lana saying ‘God – you scared me!’ And me saying, ‘Sorry.’ And then her, ‘Are you a real tiger?’ And me replying ‘No, I’m a translator from Nottingham.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘Lower your paws.’ And so I did and stood before my idol; she was so radiant I had to look at my feet. And Lana said, ‘It’s so stressful all this, don’t you think?’ ‘And the lights are hot – especially for me.’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I have to search really hard to find a moment for myself. You won’t tell anyone I’m here will you?’ ‘Nottingham men,’ I said, ‘are famously taciturn.’ And she laughed at that, and I really felt that it was going well – who knows where the conversation could have gone from there. Maybe she liked men dressed as big cats. But next moment one of her people had found her and could be seen approaching with a coffee and an ashtray for her cigarette and also an arm leading her back to the set. She was gone.

That was nine years ago. I’m still a translator from Nottingham, and she’s more famous and respected than ever. But I’ll always have the time I played a tiger in her video. Often as the nights draw in I find myself looking at photos; look, that’s me on the left. The other guy’s a tiger.

Video to ‘Born to Die’ (2013), directed by Woodkid.

Last orders

“Pub Night” by igormazic is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings in hi-vis jackets.

Boris Johnson: I’ve told you before Dom, I have no desire to witness the consequences of my own actions.

Dominic Cummings: Prime Minister, it’s necessary. The focus groups are saying the public want to see you getting more directly involved.

Boris Johnson: It just seems against my, you know, liberal British values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Dominic Cummings: Those are American values, sir.

Boris Johnson: Well, I am American, even if I gave up my citizenship to avoid paying tax!

Dominic Cummings: That is very American, Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson: Do I look alright?

Dominic Cummings:  They’re all pissed, sir.

Boris Johnson: They’ll eat me alive like a lump of fried lard!

Dominic Cummings: Yes, but you need to be their lump of fried lard. Get in or I’ll kick you!

Sounds of a busy pub.

Boris Johnson: Listen up, er… er… boozers!

Drinker:  Hey, it’s Boris!

Boris Johnson:  Yes it is, your upstanding Prime Minister and, and as it’s now 9.55 in the evening, and I have to tell you to, er, er… drink up and go home!

Drinker: Home?

Boris Johnson: Yes, sort of ‘drink up then get out’, to paraphrase Rishi, not that any of you should pay any real attention to him.

Drinker Two: But I’ve just ordered –

Dominic Cummings: Tough. Out!

Boris Johnson: It’s the new rules, terribly, er, er, sorry.

Drinker Three: But I’m eating.

Dominic Cummings: Throw your food in the bin!

Drinker Three: But –

Dominic Cummings: Scrape off the veg!

Sound of a breaking glass.

Female Drinker: Prime Minister!

Boris Johnson: Yes, attractive young woman.

Female drinker: I voted for you. And I thought you were freedom loving. And now you’re telling us that we have to go home right in the middle of our night out?

Dominic Cummings: Don’t listen to her, Prime Minister.

Female drinker: Do listen to me, Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson: Dom, Dom, do listen to this, er, I must say, buxom young woman. How could anyone tell the Great British Drinker that he cannot have his or her or their pint? Or in this person’s case pint, pie and gravy and what’s that?

Drinker Three: Mushy peas.

Boris Johnson: Well I say you have a right to your mushy peas!

A murmur of agreement.

Boris Johnson: And, and this vile policy that I – I – just introduced – as well as any other ones you don’t like – now or in future – well just I say – to hell with it! How dare my government interfere with your lives!

Cheers.

Boris Johnson: Never! Never! Barkeep – buy everyone a round! We must and shall defeat this horrendous government overreach by – drinking all night! And later – all doing shots!

Loud cheers and singing of ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’.

Dominic Cummings: It’s going to be a long night.

End

Late August

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All day he had felt certain she was going to do it. Her pauses had grown too long, her laughter too deliberate, as if occurring in spite of a concealed and growing disdain. It didn’t matter how much the tickets had cost, although he had actually got them for free, that he had hyped them up, saying that the President was a great live act, essential really, that you had to put aside your disappointment as to his policies and just enjoy his stand-up, that in many ways he had filled the void in American cultural life vacated by Bill Cosby, now disgraced. But she was from Latvia – what did she care? They barely had comedy over there and until recently they hadn’t even had elections. He tried to explain but his enthusiasms seemed to occur in a void, like he was busking in a train station, alone and at night and cold.

He had known it was coming for a while. In conversations he found himself looking at her more. Looking at her as if checking for something, often prompting her shrill, smiling ‘What?’, to which he said nothing, just smiled back. It was like he was being tortured and his only happiness was in the brief cessations of pain. Though it had happened before. As a younger man he would have tried to do something, make a gesture, write a card, make a compilation CD. And indeed he did that again now, leaving a loving note beside her as he departed for work each morning, which would still be in the same place every night when he returned.

He had even been dreading it playing cricket that morning.  Freddy had come over, sanguine in his white jumper.

‘Alright Marv?’

‘Alright,’ Marvin said.

‘Doing alright isn’t he?’ The bowler.

‘He is.’

‘How’s your lady by the way?’

‘Oh’s she’s alright. We’re going to see Obama tonight.’

‘Really? That’s brilliant. He’s on tour isn’t he. Where is it again?’

‘It’s at the Camden Roundhouse.’

‘I love the Camden Roundhouse. I’d like to direct my own show there, you know.’

This was exhausting. ‘Well, you better get back to long-on.’

‘Hadn’t I just! Pint afterwards?’

‘Cider.’

Freddy grinned and then trundled back across the pitch, clapping his hands as he did and offering a few motivational shouts. In truth they didn’t have much to do, so he for his part slipped back into anxiety, wondering what his tactics should be. Why had this happened? It had happened to him before.

They had met, before there had been a they, in a bar. Funny story – it bore telling – he had been waiting for another date, but had arrived, this being his habit, having been single so long, ridiculously early. So he had chosen to sit at a pub round the corner from the actual pub where they would be meeting and sat there reading; he had bought interesting things, challenging things, to read, but ended up just going through the Times’ sport section.

She had been there with a group of friends, all beautiful, she the most. When she absented herself to go to the bathroom one of those friends, Lea, a short little Danish girl with black hipster glasses, asked him about his book. The unopened book on the table that was. It was just something his friend had recommended, he said, a novel about a messed-up American family, but to be honest, he couldn’t get into it. Tell me though he asked – is it true girls liked guys who read? Because, he didn’t tell them, he’d been reading all his life but his last four girlfriends had left him after periods ranging from five months to two years.

‘You’d have to ask Karen that,’ said Lea.

‘You’d have to ask Karen what?’ said Karen returning.

‘Whether guys who read are sexy.’

‘Yes, very.’

Lea looked at Marvin with a nod, smile and a slight raise of the shoulders. ‘There you are then.’

‘He wants to know why,’ said Lea.

‘Because you can talk about what you’re reading.’

‘But surely you can talk about that with your girlfriends.’

‘Women don’t talk about books. Well, that’s not true actually,’ said Karen. ‘But most women don’t. They just talk about feelings.

Karen smiled.

‘I can’t believe you’re saying that,’ Marvin said. ‘If I said something like that I’d be shot.’

‘Well, best not say it then,’ said Karen. She was sat down now, facing her girlfriends and their extensive empty glasses. ‘Alright, are we getting another pitcher? Or shall we move on?’

He leant back, reading the cover of his book a thousandth time, when they spoke to him once more.

‘What’s your name nice man?’

‘Me?’ Marvin looked up. ‘Marvin.’

‘Nice to meet you Marvin. We like you Marvin!’

The girls were raising their drinks, led by Lea. ‘Cheers Marvin!’

‘Thanks,’ Marvin blushed. ‘I like you too.’

‘What are you doing here Marvin?’

‘Um, just having a drink. But actually I’ve got a date.’

‘A date!’ Lea shrieked; Karen was expressionless. ‘First – second? Do you like her? Are you in love?’

‘I don’t really know anything about her, except that she works in IT.’

‘Well I’m sure she’s going to love you. I’m sure she’s going to think you’re just smashing. Where are you meeting her?’

‘Lea, would you stop shrieking?’ Karen said. ‘You’re literally shrieking in my ear.’

‘Round the corner actually.’ He checked his watch; it was still far too early. ‘In fact I’d better go.’

‘Ohhh that’s a shame!’ Lea said. ‘But you have a good date yeah! We’ll drink to you!’

He was gathering his things together, filling his tote bag. He offered them a big, he was sure nervous-looking, smile.

‘Er – it was great to meet you.’

‘Nice to meet you Marvin!’

‘Thanks.’

‘Good luck.’

‘We love you Marvin.’

‘Shhhhhh.’

He walked to the table and then, paused at the crossing to the front bar. He could still hear the girls, principally Lea, hooting with laughter behind him, and suddenly he felt – yes, he could do it. He turned and walked slowly back to the table.

‘So uh – ladies. Here’s my card.’

He dropped it on the table, just a little closer to Karen than the others.

‘You’re a web designer?’

‘Yeah, I mainly make websites for, uh, magicians. Musicians! I mean musicians, I make websites for musicians. Do you have one?’ he said, a bit quieter and much more definitely to Karen.

‘A website?’

‘A card.’

‘I do.’ She rummaged in her large gold bag, rooting out a small silver card. Karen Astaju, MA, Senior Recruitment Consultant.

‘Oh, thanks.’

‘No problem. Enjoy your date, then.’

‘I will.’

And walking backwards a few step before turning, he moved across the carpet and onto the next pub, noting of course before he did the laughter returning, all of it aimed at Karen.

When he came back she was on the bed watching Netflix. He called to her, she acknowledged his coming in and, before he did so, he waited in the living room a moment. Right now, she really felt she could strike any moment, that their status-changing conversation was imminent.

He came into the room; she was in a T-shirt and sweatpants.

‘Hi.’ His voice high, feminine.

‘Hi,’ she seemed to imitate – mockingly?

‘How was your day?’

‘Fine. Yours?’

‘It was alright. I’m really hungry actually. Do you want to eat something there or –‘

‘Actually I already ate. There’s some left, actually, in the fridge, if you want.’

‘What is it?’

‘Rice.’

‘Thanks, I will. I thought we’d go in about an hour.’

‘What?’ she looked over. ‘Oh, an hour.’

‘What are you watching?’

‘Amy Schumer. She’s really funny.’

He sat on the bed, watching the flickering screen a moment. ‘I love you,’ he said.

‘Mmm?’ she looked over. ‘Love you too.’

*

Whenever she said it he felt the noose loosen a little. But there was no doubting it was there, the tightness in his throat, the stumbled words and the heaviness of actions which had once come naturally.

It had been two years now. They had moved in together after six months – ‘Why wait?’ she had said, so warm to him in those days, at least as warm as the others had been – and they had been so lucky to find this small flat in Battersea. Admittedly, it was a bit end-of-the-liney, but they were ahead of the curve of the city’s gentrifying wave and, basically, they got to live together.

When you thought about it, it was a terrible optimism, to live together, like a child’s belief in the good. Back then they had barely analyzed it. In the mornings, he cycled over to Brixton to his major employer, a record label, which had a red sofa and a selection of board games. He drank coffee and WhatsApped her through the day and she Instagrammed back pictures of herself at the office and yes, one time there had been pictures of the kind he would, he feared, shortly have to delete from his phone forever.

So why were they here? Why had they arrived at the end place? The last times? They had none of the usual issues. He wanted a kid, she wanted kids. He wanted to live in London, she wanted to live in London, although maybe move back to Latvia for a bit, because her parents were getting old and she would want to be near them, particularly with a new baby. The sex was good – fine, she was more keen on the old S & M than he was, but he did his best, had a really decent crack at being tied up and whipped. What he was trying to say was: compared to the incompatibilities which had seen Trudy, Michelle, Sonya and Yoko leave him, the difficulties they had experienced seemed negligible.

They headed out together, bussing to Waterloo first and then picking up the Northern Line to Chalk Farm. They – they were still they, he clung to it, how bad it could be when she was prepared to accompany him to a concert, looking so splendid in red, in black – didn’t speak much on the way. When they got out the tube station the approach was already thronged with people. The gig had of course sold out within minutes of tickets being released. It was fortunate, actually, how he had arrived at tickets – face value £150 – for the show, having designed a site for an aspiring musician named Kenneth who it turned out had been one of the President’s former bodyguards. ‘What’s he like then?’ ‘Well,’ Kenneth had replied, ‘He’s just really normal. Just an ordinary guy you know? I think he finds it all as ridiculous as anyone.’

They moved down the hill, past the calling scalps, to where one of the polite bouncers frisked them; security was tight, although not as tight as it would have been a few years earlier. ‘Enjoy the show,’ said the bouncer, but he said it with more conviction than was usual, in a way which made it clear that for this event he really did feel like joining them.

‘Exciting,’ said Karen they moved up the stairs.

‘It is exciting. I mean, it’s actually amazing that we got tickets.’

‘It’s a coup.’

‘A what?’

‘A coup.’

He felt the fact that they had tickets, and their presence at the event, was temporarily drowning all other problems. Or perhaps this was the beginning of a more general recovery. She was continuing to smile.

‘Do you want a drink?’

‘Yeah, beer.’

‘What do you want?’ he said, weak sweetness in his voice.

‘Just beer. Anything is fine.’

‘OK.’ He bent over and kissed her. She didn’t react much to it; it was like she couldn’t deal with official statements of togetherness, even if she accidentally displayed them the rest of the time, like she had to remind herself to be cold to him now.

He went to the bar and bought two expensive drinks. As he queued he felt that time had become very limited; he couldn’t imagine, now, further than Thursday, Friday, the weekend. He always wondered about this during these times, the end times; if he might say or do something which would conceivably lead to a changed outcome. If he say bought her the right drink – Red Stripe, that’d do, she’d drunk that before – or said the right phrase or the evoked the right memory. If that would be the difference between staying together, happy for years, or their hopeless parting.

‘Alus.’ Latvian for beer. He handed it over.

‘Thanks,’ she said. And then, ‘You look nice tonight.’

‘Me?’ He was wearing a black bowling shirt. ‘Well, thanks.’

‘Original.’ She smiled. ‘Honestly, you do. How are you?’

‘I’m fine.’ Marvin supped. ‘I mean, to be honest, I’m a bit upset about us.’

‘About us? Why are you upset about us?’

‘Yeah, well, we haven’t been getting on very well recently, you know.’

She thought about it. ‘No. We haven’t. Why do you think that is?’

Marvin shook his head. ‘I don’t know. I’d do anything I could to change it.’

Karen tilted her head. ‘I don’t think we’re communicating very well.’

‘No,’ Marvin said. ‘What do you think we should do about it?’

But at that moment the latest audience call came, advising all members to take their seats, the show would be starting shortly.

‘Let’s talk about this later, alright?’ said Karen.

‘Alright,’ said Marvin, and they walked into the auditorium.  

The Camden Roundhouse was heaving; they were sat in the stands, looking down on the crowds, on the auditorium. It was a black, spacious hangar, with a huge tangle of girders hung from the roof above. The President wouldn’t be long now. Funny, how you still kept the title, President, even years after you had left office. Like you had attained a singularity, a distinction from other men. Smoke came out across the stage now, and a deep-voice boomed, like it was a hip-hop show: ‘Ladies and gentleman, the former President of the United States, Barack Obama!’

The crowd went wild. They were on the seats, looking down upon the bulk of the spectators, thousands upon thousands backing up to the stage as claxons sounded and, from within gusts of smoke, a middle-aged man in a blue suit walked into view. He raised his hand as he did, samples of wild-record scratching peaked and then faded as he brought his lips to the microphone saying, in an understated but evocatively cheery voice, ‘Hello London.’

The response was extraordinary – all those keyboard warriors, Guardian comment-leavers, who just minutes before had been in the theatre bar sharing their disappointment in Obama particularly in foreign policy, rising as one to acclaim the presence of superstardom. Even Karen, never the biggest Obama fan, was whooping shrilly and as she did she turned back to smile at him with a grin straight out of olden times, their golden days.

‘Hey folks here’s a good one. What’s the difference between George W. Bush and God? See God knows that’s he’s not George W. Bush.’

A first big laugh. There was real freedom in hearing Obama say something he would never have been allowed to before.  And he was soon into his stride. He had a relaxed style, less professorial than you might expect – perhaps he had taken comedy classes after his Presidency had finished, after all he had contacts galore. His central joke, it seemed, was to present himself as low-status in positions of great power, such as losing his cufflinks before a summit with Putin – ‘and Putin’s a guy who sweats the small stuff –‘ or trying to phone Merkel and getting the French President. ‘And I say, this is Hollande? I want Germany!’ He worked clean, fast, then slow, with the bigger jokes greeted with actual standing ovations, and then when people didn’t laugh, which was rarely, meaning literally, when individual people didn’t laugh, he’d react with self-deprecation or absurd threat. ‘You know, just saying, but the NSA does send me a record of everyone who doesn’t laugh,’ he said. ‘That’s what I call executive privilege.’

But the main thrust of the routine was, funnily enough, not politics but family and relationships. Obama still had that deadpan attitude, that ability to play his familial marginalization in a way which confirmed his own essential decency. Now Obama, freed from the constraints of office but still rolling back to reasonableness like water heading down a plug, talked about love.
‘At some point,’ said Obama, less Midwestern, more transatlantic now, ‘You’ve got to decide whether you prefer the idea of women or actual women. Know what I mean? Because men, when we fall in love, we fall in love with the idea. The idea of women.’ Singing now: ‘”Drea-mmmm. Dream dream dream.” Well that’s fine, that’s just fine when you’re 22 years old but one day you’re forty and shit gets real. Shit gets really real.

‘Because women you know – and ladies back me up on this – women are very much pragmatists. I would suggest women are the least romantic creatures, in the universe. The least romantic. Look at the bare facts of a woman’s life. You gotta have your monthlies, you gotta maybe go through childbirth, if you do have kids you gotta put up with all these asshole men who kill on the kids you’ve sacrificed every darned thing to raise. Not nice hey ladies? I feel you. And all the guys are like –‘ Obama pulled here a quite simply incredible face, raising his hands and tilting his shoulders:

I – I’m so in love with you…

Al Green.

‘So you can’t go on being a puppy dog forever. And at some point you gotta decide – Am I going to love the reality or the dream? Am I going to see my girl for what she is?’

Marvin looked at Karen. Could he see her as she really was? He looked over, seeing her mouth make little happy gapes as it followed the set-ups between laughs, trying to get every word. Look harder. Yes, he could begin to see her, beneath the yellowy make-up; crows’ feet, red-tinged black hair, blusher; she was, he felt suddenly sure, pregnant. Oh he could see her alright.

‘Michelle man, she ain’t romantic but she keeps me steady. If I ever said “Well, they made me President!” she’d say “You’re still getting dirt on the carpet, Barack.” And she was right.’

It was a real pleasure to watch Barack Obama’s first stand-up comedy special, ‘Live and Unleashed.’ He was a real man.

Laughed out, elated even, the crowd made their way home. Above them was a satisfied hum, but also the melancholy of a treat being over, with most of them having early starts the next day. Adult weeknights always had this, this end of the school holidays feeling.

*

They didn’t talk much on the train home. For a start, the carriages were too full, and it was only when they began to empty that he proposed they went for a drink, but she was tired, had work. By the time they disembarked from Waterloo to go to the bus the night had grown a little chillier; late August.

‘You know, this time of year always feels really sad. Because you start to feel the autumn. It’s like sadness on the horizon.’

‘Can I borrow your jumper?’ she said.

When they arrived home she was tired so she went straight to shower then bed. He stayed up watching comedy clips on his laptop, George Carlin, his favourite. He felt sure when she reentered the room she was going to say something; for now he just listened to the rushing of the water in the space between the clips.

But when she came back in she said nothing. She just got straight back into the bed, naked – he snuck a look, he couldn’t help it. She turned on her side, saying promptly ‘Goodnight’ as she did.

He watched another clip in the light, a hum in his chest. But now he couldn’t concentrate, he was too absorbed by her presence. He turned off the bedside light and lay flat.

In the dark, he felt sure she would say something soon. But for now he was in limbo. Limbo – at the word he remembered that, hilariously enough, the previous Pope, the weird one nobody had liked, had officially closed Limbo. Had shut it down. It had been one of the first things he had done.

To close nothingness, what a concept.

He looked across to her in the dark, moving only slightly. She was sleeping or pretending to. It wouldn’t be long now, that feeling was clear.

But who knew until it was done.

Who knew?

All he knew was that they had survived another day.

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