The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Short story

Two Comedians

A Parable

There were two comedians and they were friends, but they were also comedians, and that meant rivalry. They had both started doing comedy at the same time and indeed had both moved to their new city at the same time, and both had attained the same level of success in the city they had come to.

They used to hang out before shows together, the older comedian guzzling Club Maté, a natural energy drink beloved in their new city, and the younger comedian drinking first water and then later, if his gigs went well, the cheapest local beer. ‘It’s shit,’ the younger comedian would say, ‘But I drink it’, and like so many of his private jokes it became part of his act.

Because the comedians were the best comedians in the city which they lived in – which was not it should be said the most famous city, and was in many respects a strange city for them to be in at all, a city which had in fact only recently been unified – they began to tour outside of it. They began to take the trips around the country they had moved to, through its forests and past its lakes on cheap communal buses or fast expensive trains. And as they did, they grew a little older, and it soon became time for their youth to end and for them to move back to the countries which they came from.

After they did this, the older comedian to a big liberal young country, the younger to a small traditional old one, they began to live rather separate lives. The older comedian met a woman, an understanding young woman, and got married, while the younger man worked nights in a basement. And still both of them continued to do comedy, and years passed.

Years passed, and both grew more famous. They each took all the lessons they had learnt in their adopted city and put them into use in their home countries – spontaneity, openness, tolerance. The younger comedian even sometimes still performed shows in the language of their former adopted home. And every year the older comedian came to visit the country of the younger one and they sat together and drank Club Maté like it was old times when they had sat together before shows eating pickles.

But the younger comedian became jealous. Jealousy is a poisonous thing for a comedian, because there are so many opportunities to put it into use. For the young man now came many nights of humiliation and rejection, came many nights of watching others – less talented, his heart cried – succeed. And eventually, finding himself not as successful as he wished in his island home, he began to travel again: to small new countries in the east, to small old countries in the west, to bars in mountains and theatres near the sea. He brought his smart shoes with him and did his little show, and after every performance he took off his smart shoes and put them back in his bag, and shook hands with his hosts and headed off again.

But all the time the older comedian did the same. Sometimes it seemed like that in every little town the younger comedian visited the older one had been there already. ‘Yes,’ his promoter would say, ‘we had him here last month. That guy is so funny.’ Or: ‘We gave him four rounds of applause’, and the younger comedian would bristle at this, never mind that he had got four too. It seemed that the older comedian had been everywhere first, and that every European town had a bollard of that face, that smirking little face of his old friend grown biggest rival.

You might ask at this point why the younger comedian got so jealous, why he wasn’t satisfied at the evident acclaim he was himself receiving. That would show, however, your complete lack of understanding of the natures of comedians, who grow anxious if nobody laughs at the way they say ‘Hello.’

club-mate

Photo by Christo under CC 4.0

One day in a restaurant eating dim sum in an industrial town in Europe’s east, he saw a documentary about the coldest part of the world, the North Pole, where seals and Eskimos congregate, and a scheme was born within him. He would go there, or as near as he could! He would go there and do a show and would be for once in his life indisputably first! With that kind of publicity he would surely settle the rivalry once and for all.

It wasn’t too hard to arrange – in the big city on the little island somebody always knew someone, even so far away. And soon he was booked, for two days at a trading settlement a few hundred miles from the most northerly point of the world. He even tried to learn a few phrases of the local Inuit dialect, North Baffin, in case some of the First Peoples of the area came to see him. He planned for the show for months, documenting his physical and comedic preparation in an increasingly popular blog, called, if you must know, ‘Snow Jokes’.

It was summer when the younger comedian flew north. When he landed he took another flight and then finally sailed in a red-hulled boat to the edge of the world. This, he thought, will surely help me with my future plans. This will give me inner peace and anecdotes to tell the beautiful woman who will surely one day come into my life.

The ship dropped him off at the settlement and for its part continued on north. When he disembarked, the locals were waiting beneath a banner for him, for him, so deeply honoured were they apparently to have him there. The Mayor of the settlement, Brian, self-proclaimed promoter of ‘The World’s Most Northerly Comedy Night’, greeted and embraced him warmly, almost in tears that he had come. The first show would be tomorrow night; for now, they took him to a wooden hut, where, under the clear freezing sky in a vast darkness, he slept like a newly-minted child.

In the morning he walked on the ice, and met the ice fisherman, who showed him how they did it, and took him out to see the walruses and whales.

Then after his dining on tinned fish and condensed milk it was show time already. He took out his sound recorder and his shoes and a bottle of Club Maté, with which he took a selfie. He stood in the frost and felt himself growing up at last. Mayor Brian came in, asking: ‘Are you ready?’ and walked with him to the venue. It was amazing – they had built a giant igloo and from all around people had come and were waiting seated there. Mayor Brian warmed up the audience with some local material, about why sea lions were funny and what he thought of his now ex-wife.

So here he was at the Arctic. While he waited to go on he looked over the rows of locals, thin-haired researchers and fur-pelted hunters who had come to see this, his most adventurous show to date. Would he do his Obama joke? What about his song about having kids? And as he contemplated this he noticed one of the igloo’s central pillars, on which a photograph had been stuck, and which he almost couldn’t bear to see.

The photo showed a man stood with Brian, his arm around him and a date – just one month previously. The man was drinking a beer and smiling, and behind him the massed ranks of an audience – a very big audience – were sitting filling this same fake igloo. His rival wore the smile of a comedian who was big enough to play a secret show at the Arctic.

Brian was finishing the material about his now ex-wife. Having done so, he placed the microphone gently back in the stand, and gestured to the younger comedian. ‘We’re ready for you now!’

The younger man held frozen a moment before, after a brief moment of sadness, going on stage to perform with great brilliance for the next two hours.

Later, both comedians died.

igloo

Photo by Ansgar Walk. Licensed under CC by 2.5.

Gaspard

Recently I was in Europe waiting for a bus, in one of the lengthy journeys which have punctuated my thirties. I was in Lille, the bus was very late, and I noticed that waiting with me – in the tiny waiting area, no more than a dias above an elevator – was a French family. They were a grandmother, a granddad and two kids, a boy and a girl. As other buses came and went, it gradually became clear that we were all waiting for the same bus to London.

Eventually, the bus did arrive, and even late we had to change onto another bus at Calais. Once the disarray of relocation had settled, I found myself sat next to the boy from that family, who, I deduced by his grandmother’s frequent address, was called Gaspard. First of all Gaspard was sat near the window, but after we went through customs twice, I ended up there. I asked the returning young man, ‘Vous voulez à la fenêtre?’ and Gaspard said it was no problem, which disposed me to him no end.

We made it through that tunnel. Occasionally, the grandmother would ask Gaspard if he was alright, and he would say he was; an hour passed, and when I looked over next Gaspard was sleeping. I looked down on him, this well-dressed and exhausted figure, and wrote him a poem.

 

Gaspard, tu dors.

Le monde est grand

Et tu sais bien que

Tu auras beaucoup à faire.

Gaspard, tu dors.

Tu as bien raison.

 

Doing this amused me. And with the poem being so simple, I decided to have another go at it in German.

 

Kaspar, du schläfst.

Die Welt ist ja groß und

Du weiß schon, dass

Du viel tun wirst.

Kaspar, du schläfst.

Du hast wohl recht.

 

And, as I was still amusing myself, I tried it in English.

 

Cuthbert, you sleep.

The world’s so big and

You’re well aware

You’ll have a lot to do.

Cuthbert, you sleep.

That’s probably right.

 

That was enough for now. But perhaps others might want to try translating the poem into their languages? It’s called ‘Gaspard’.

Approaching London 0n 26.02.2017.

Entering London 0n 26.02.2017.

 

Later we approached London in a storm. The night was vast and no ideas counted; I saw pubs dashed by rain and blistered neon. I thought, I want nothing more than to be here, seeing this, and in some way this child’s presence is part of my feeling. For his part, of course, it is unlikely he will ever read this tribute or indeed even know of its or remember my existence. Still he was cool guy. When we finally arrived I wished him ‘un beau temps a Londres.’ ‘À vous aussi’, he replied, to you too.

*

In a delightful addendum to the story, my friend Elo Zobel has now provided an Estonian version. Tänan väga, Elo.

Kaspar, sa magad

Maailm on suur

Ja sa tead et sa pead

Palju

Kaspar, sa magad

Ja nii ongi hea.

The border guard

I fell in love at the border crossing, which slowed down my passage somewhat. I lingered there for a few days, writing down my impressions, imagining our future. I had it all pictured – the suburban house, the cherubic kids, your face being told the news of my death. Somehow this was the most romantic moment. But the reality was the corridor, and men in khakis whose voices dropped as I passed, and gazing lengthily over empty offices. Where were you? Not at the compound, and not beyond, not in the fields where I walked – until the dirt caked my best shoes, and I decided suddenly one night to move out, through the fences, back onto that long new country road.

New short story

 ©Christoph Dobbitsch

                ©Christoph Dobbitsch

 

Happy Christmas everyone! My story ‘Trivia’, a comic look at the world of comedy, has been published by Susanne Boswell and the lovely folks at Station to Station here. Thanks to them, and enjoy the rest of the holidays.

New short story

For those of you interested, my new short story, ‘Monogamy,’ is up online here.

Thank you very much to Victoria Gosling, Exberliner and all the nice folks at The Reader for featuring my work.