The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Uncategorized

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.

Enjoyed that? Buy the author a coffee!

Sketch

A pub in the northeast of England.

Andy. And I must say, for my part, I’ve never seen four standing ovations…

Dave. Andy.

Andy. Alright Dave.

Dave. Is it true?

Andy. What?

Dave. What people’ve been saying.

Andy. What?

Dave. You know.

Pause.

Andy. Dave, I’m not getting into this.

Dave. Is it true that you’ve been saying there’s a marked deterioration in the quality of Bob Fosse’s later work?

Andy. Now’s not the time pal. I’m here with my family.

Dave. And do your family your opinions on America’s greatest 20th-century choreographer? That although you acknowledge ‘Cabaret’ as a masterpiece you consider ‘All That Jazz’ to be self-indulgent? Do they know those words have come out their Daddy’s mouth?

Andy. It’s just my opinion Andy, alright.

Dave. No! It’s not alright! I won’t let people talk about Bob Fosse that on Teeside!

Pause.

Andy. (to himself) Well, if that’s how it has to be. If you must know, mate, I don’t like the way you’ve been talking about Stephen Sondheim either. Someone told me you said that he was ‘slightly overrated’.

Dave. Well he is man! His portfolio may be lyrically deft but it’s lacking in truly memorable numbers.

Andy. Can you hear what you’re saying? In front of my children.

Bartender. Now come on lads! You know this pub’s open to all kinds of tastes. If you can’t sit down like men and have a civilized discussion about musical theatre, you best take it outside.

Andy. Alright, that’s right.

Dave. Andy.

Andy. Dave.

Dave. Wait – are you turning your knees inside in a parody of one of Fosse’s signature moves?

Andy. No, I’m just making myself comfortable.

Dave. I’ve seen you man – you’re doing it again! That’s it, outside now.

Andy. Alright, outside it is. I’ll be back in a minute – once we’ve settled this for good!

Dave drains his pint.

The bartender pulls a chalkboard down. The left reads ‘Dave/Fosse’ and the right ‘Andy/Sondheim’, with chalk marks for their respective victories. They have had this fight before.

Sounds of shouting and fighting outside.

Dave. You punched me! (singing) And suddenly everything seems clear…

Andy. (singing) I’m punching you! You’re punching me!

Dave & Andy. (singing) Just two men fighting in a car park… Tonight!

Bartender. Settle in everybody – it’s going to be a long night.

*

 

Photos © 1979 Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation/Wikicommons public domain.

‘Scratch my back’

A meeting room.

A Minister and Helen, a civil servant, are waiting.

Minister. Do you ever feel, you know, absolutely bloody awful?

Helen. Come again Minister?

Minister. Just generally bloody awful, you know.

Helen. I’m taking it you do.

Minister. All the time actually. I mean, I’ve felt completely bloody awful since at least the age of 36.

Helen. And how old are you now Minister?

Minister. 52.

Helen. Oh.

Minister. Is that a long time? It is rather, isn’t it?

Helen. Well, today at least shouldn’t present you any problems. Our teams have already done the hard work – you just need to sign the paper and the first stage of trade negotiations will be officially complete. We’ll then go out and speak to the media – Ah, here they come!

Mr. Bao and his interpreter, Ms. Liu, the Chinese trade delegation, enter. The British delegation rise.

Minister. Ah, Mr Bao! And you must be –

Ms. Liu. Ms. Liu. I’m the interpreter for today.

They sit down quickly; the British follow, trying to look as if they were first to do so.

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao would like you to know that he speaks fluent English, but out of respect for the Chinese people, who he knows are following this broadcast keenly, will be speaking in Chinese today.

Minister. Broadcast?

Helen. I believe this is going out live on Chinese state TV, Minister.

Minister. Of course it is. And about – how many people are watching?

Ms. Liu. No more than a hundred million.

Minister. Then I wish I’d worn a tie. Anyway, this is Helen, my Mandarin-speaking Mandarin. She’ll step in if there are any communication difficulties on our side.

Helen nods.

Mr. Bao speaks in Mandarin and is interpreted.

Mr. Bao. Wǒ hěn qī dài yǔ zhè gè wēi bù zú dào de xiǎo guó hé zuò, yóu qí shì zài nà niǎo bù lā shǐ de wēi ěr shì yùn zuò de feì wù chǔ lǐ chǎng.

(Translation: I anticipate our collaboration with this negligible nation, particularly the operation of the waste-processing plant in Wales, a place where birds don’t bother to shit).

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao is delighted at the cooperation between our two nations, particularly the opening of the waste-processing facility in Aberystwyth.

Minister. Ha, tell Mr. Bao it’s just a shame that he can’t buy Wales entirely!

Ms. Liu interprets it back; Mr. Bao reacts with interest.

Ms. Liu. He asks how much Wales costs.

Helen. No, no –

Minister. It’s just a joke.

Helen. Kāi gè wán xiào.

(It’s just a joke).

The Chinese delegation nods.

Minister. I mean, Wales probably is for sale on some sort of level. I haven’t really thought about it to be honest. Above my pay grade.

Silence from the Chinese delegation.

Helen. Right. Shall we move on to the signing itself?

The Minister takes out a fountain pen.

Minister. My lucky pen! Would you believe this pen belonged to William Gladstone? A great pen to hail a great new liberal age! Where do I sign?

Helen points; the Minister signs.

Helen (pointing). Also there.

The Minister signs.

Minister. Over to you, Middle Kingdom!

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao is very happy to proceed to the signing of the agreement. However, first he has just a little request, or two.

Minister. OK.

Ms. Liu. First of all, he’d like you to do a little twirl.

Minister. A little what?

Ms. Liu checks with Helen.

Ms. Liu. You know, (gestures) spinning –

Helen. Yes, twirl, that’s right.

Minister. And sorry but why does Mr. Bao want me to do a twirl exactly? Weshy-ma?

Ms. Liu. Ah, Minister, you do speak some Mandarin I see.

Mr. Bao. Wǒ xǐ huān kàn zhuàn quān.

(I like watching twirls).

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao likes watching twirls.

Minister. Just let me consult with my mandarin. I mean her – well, her. (as an aside) Helen, what’s the Foreign Office policy on twirls?

Helen. No official policy on that, sir.

The Minister thinks it over.

Minister. Well, I can’t see why it’d hurt. A little twirl from this, particular, British lion to show he is not just a fearsome but a, ah, amicable beast.

The Minister stands up.

He gestures to the delegation, smiles, and gives a little twirl.

The delegation applaud.

Minister. I’m glad you like it. Now, my pen is ready to go…

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao has another request.

Minister. He does.

Ms. Liu. He’d like you to sing his favourite song. It’s the song about the little teapot.
Pause.

Helen (sings). I’m a little teapot, short –

Minister. I know the song, Helen! We all bloody know the song. It’s a children’s favourite.

Ms. Liu. Then you can sing it.

Minister. I don’t want to –

Helen. Minister, I’d remind you of how delicate the negotiations are at this stage.

Pause.

Minister. Oh for goodness sake…

The Minister stands. The Chinese delegation film him, singing.

Minister. I’m a little teapot –

Ms. Liu. And the actions.

Minister. Actions?

The Minister turns to Helen, who demonstrates the actions.

Minister (singing, with actions). I’m a little teapot short and stout

This is my handle, this is my spout

Um – can’t remember the – steam up!

Tip me over and pour me out.

The delegation applauds with polite enthusiasm.

Minister. Alright, listen, that is it! We are now signing that document and I am not putting my finger up my arse or whatever it is that you want from me next, alright!

Mr. Bao (in English). Little teapot!

Everyone excpet the Minister laugh.

Helen. Sorry, Minister.

Ms. Liu. There is one more thing.

Minister. What do I have to do now?

Ms. Liu. Nothing. Just make a short statement about our new trade deal.

Minister. That’s it?

Ms. Liu nods.

Minister. I suppose that doesn’t sound too bad. Sort of thanks to both our nations, best of luck for the Year of the Rat, that sort of thing?

Ms. Liu. We’ve prepared the statement that we’d like to hear.

Ms. Liu pushes a piece of paper towards them.

Helen picks it up and reads it to herself.

Helen. You can’t read this Minister. Nonetheless, you can’t not read it either.

Minister. Remind me what exactly we pay you for.

Helen. Not enough to work under Dominic Cummings.

The Minister stares at the paper again.

Minister. How many did you say are watching?

Ms. Liu. About three hundred million as of now. (checks phone) Oh, four.

Minister looks to camera. He begins to read.

Minister. Great people of China. Today I am speaking on behalf of my tiny little country. Look what happens to small islands which aggressively assert their independence! Now the English lion is humbled, and forced to twirl and sing like a stupid old baby. This serves me right for the opium war and stealing other people’s territory – which is all my personal fault. Yes, I am a large baby, a – what’s that? – oh, shit-eating baboon, right – and my only friend is Yorkshire pudding. I suck. Shay shay.

The Minister sits down, deflated.

Minister. Rather like Yorkshire puddings actually.

Mr. Bao, laughing, gestures for the pen.

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao is now ready to sign.

The delegation huddle around the table signing. Mr. Bao is now quite animated, signing and being demonstratively friendly to the team.

Ms. Liu. Is Wales really for sale?

Helen. Twenty billion ought to do it.

Ms. Liu. Thank you. Before leaving, we would like to offer you a gift.

He hands the Minister an ornamental backscratcher.

Mr.Bao. You scratch our back – you scratch your back!

Laughter from everyone except the Minister.

The Chinese delegation exit.

Helen begins using the backscratcher to scratch the Minister’s back.

Helen. Well done Minister, well done.

Minister. It was absolutely bloody humiliating. Still, I suppose things can only get better from here.

Helen. I wouldn’t be too hasty, Minister. The Indian delegation is due next week.

Pig and scratcher

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.’

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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.

New shorts

‘When Daddy Punched the Bear’

I remember the day like it were yesterday; myself, my sister, and my brother Engelbert or as we knew him, Angelic Bert. There we sat on the picnic cloth in the grounds of our stately home, which Daddy had recently purchased on eBay. The only sounds were Englbert peeling a pork pie – it was a weird habit of his, to denude and then suck apart the residual pork filling – and my sister quietly turning the pages of her book. Mummy and Daddy, still deeply in love in this, their eighth year of marriage, looked at each other adoringly above the eggs and the coffee.

Suddenly, the bear emerged from the woods, roaring and growling and being generally bear-like. For some reason its neck had been bound with a red handkerchief, almost cowboyesque in its tying, and perhaps that had contributed to its aggrieved air. The bear was going fucking nuts, and quite soon it was right next to our family, stomping and rasping and coming perilously close to knocking over a pot of gherkins.

As you can imagine, we children reacted with terror, leaping into each other’s arms in a small cluster of fear and, in Bert’s case, masticated pork. We shot troubled, frightened eyes to Mummybuns and Daddykins, imploring them to rescue us from the savage beast which had now intruded upon our lunch.

But we had reckoned without Daddy. There he rose, drawing himself up to his full height of five-foot ten, courageous and comfortable-looking in chinos and an M&S checked shirt, to punch that bear right in its fucking face. ‘Take that, you cunt!’ he yelled. It was the first time I had heard the word.

Stunned, the bear bellowed and cantered back to the woods, its head and back bending as it leapt into the thicket. Gradually the weeping and sobbing faded and we children made our way apart from each other once again. Mummy moved to Daddy with a devotion bordering on erotic mania, and Daddy spoke. ‘Now,’ he said, regaining his composure and the mustard knife, ‘We are all going to enjoy our picnic.’

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‘I Am a Flemish Nationalist’

I am a Flemish nationalist. I believe in the independence of Flanders, the need of the Flems to liberate themselves from the Wallonian yoke, and the supremacy of Flemish business and cultural practice. If the world were more like Flanders, it would be a measurably better place – but as it is, the part of the world which is most Flanderian, Flanders, should be allowed to exult in its own sheer Flemishness, and so doing prove a beacon amongst the nations.

The walls of my house are coloured gold and black, and decorated with hand-carved lions. I begin each morning with a chorus of De Vlaamse Leeuw, our national hymn, before a breakfast heap of the finest Ghent chocolates. I read exclusively Flemish nationalist authors of the early 20th century, and my daily diet consists entirely of pure beer and fries, although I am careful to consume only potatoes sourced from Flemish soil, though I do like French mustard. Over my buttocks spreads a tattoo of Eddie Merckx, five times Tour de France winner, and on my wall a framed photograph of myself with Jan Jambon, the Belgian Interior Minister. His name in English is Jan Ham – but such trivialities do not amuse me.

My children, Jan and Agnes, have also been reared as strident Flemish nationalists. It was on only his fifth birthday that Jan brought an entire room of assembled relatives to tears with his recital of the 19th-century nationalist poet K. L. Ledeganck’s ‘Zegepraal van’s Lands onafhankelijkheid’ (‘Our country’s triumphant independence’), all 150 lines learnt by heart. How we wept! Then my beloved Agnes sang us a medley of dEUS songs, accompanying herself on the electric viola; really, how could we fail to cry further? Sadly I was forced to leave my wife as, during the recent World Cup, she began supporting the country of Belgium, a nation I do not recognize. I had no choice but to remove both her and a six-metre Belgian flag from my apartment, and I have no idea as to her current whereabouts.

I must mention, of course, I have never lived in, been to or even intend to visit Flanders. In fact I live quite happily in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My neighbours by now know to leave me well alone, and I am able to stay fully in touch with Flemish culture via a variety of online streaming services. Not that, of course, I pay for them: I may be a diehard Flemish nationalist, but I’m not a fool.

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There was a problem with a word

The phone rang.

‘Major?’

‘Yes?’

‘Can you hear me? It’s Collins sir, Sergeant Collins.’

‘Oh right. How can I help sergeant?’

‘Well sir, we have a bit of a problem.’

‘Of course; as your commanding officer, I’m always here to listen. Even at this ungodly hour.’

‘I must say sir that’s very reassuring. It’s about a word sir.’

‘Yes?’

‘A word sir. It appears to have stopped working.’

‘What does that mean sergeant?’

‘Well – there’s no easy way to explain it. I mean, that’s the problem. Sir, you know the liquid you drink.’

‘What?’

‘The liquid that you drink to survive.’

‘Water?’

‘Yes, that’s exactly it Major, exactly that. Well – it’s the word sir. It’s stopped working. I mean, the concept is still understood. But when you just say the word sir, it doesn’t mean anything to the men anymore. The – uh – signifier has become detached from the signified.’

‘Speak English, Collins!’

‘I’m trying to sir but the men no longer seem to understand it. At least that one word. And a few others too, actually. Like – lace curtains. That’s not so important down here, not an item coming up so much in conversation, just like Twister, marsupial and pail, which are also all not working. But it’s really the word water which is causing all the problems.’

‘Well – alright… What on earth do you expect me to do about it?’

‘I don’t know sir. I thought you might have some advice.’

‘Advice. You want advice. Have you tried, ah, pointing at things?’

‘That’s what we’re doing sir. But that’s not always practical. You can’t do that in the middle of an engagement with the enemy sir, you might get your bloody arm off!’

‘Then what about using a verb? To drink or even as a noun phrase, can I have a drink?’

‘Sure sir but a drink could be anything. I mean, you could ask for a drink and be given a coffee, when actually what you wanted is – you know. That clear, essential liquid.’

‘I see. I can well imagine how this is something of a problem.’ There was a long pause. ‘How about – well, how about a new word?’

‘New word sir?’

‘Yes, yes, a new word. It’d have to be one which no-one has used before. Like – let’s see – snupup.’

‘Snupap sir?’

‘I said snupup sergeant. Snup-up.’

‘And what does that mean?’

‘It means – well, it means that vital clear liquid all drink to survive. And which our bodies are composed of up to about 60%.’

‘Right. Snapup.’

‘Yes, snapup, snupup, whatever.’

‘Right you are sir. I’ll take that back to the men and we’ll give it a go. Snupap! Thank you so much sir. I knew you’d help.’

‘It’s late, sergeant. Is there anything else?’

‘Yes sir – there is one more thing.’

‘Yes?’

‘We appear to be running out of snupup.’