The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Storytelling

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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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.

Stand up Tragedy: ‘Tragic Fall’

I was delighted to recently appear as a guest on Dave Pickering’s Stand Up Tragedy podcast. The results are here, and they turned out pretty well I think. Have a listen below. Meanwhile thanks to Dave and all at Stand Up T; they do a lot for storytelling, comic or otherwise, and I hope the event returns soon.