by James Warner
“I was very small when I was at school,” I tell the crowd at the Recreation Center.
“You still are small where it counts, that's what I hear,” calls Fat Gareth, a wanker from South Wales who comes to all my gigs to heckle me.
I press on. “And I wasn't popular. Even my imaginary friends used to refuse to play with me.”
“Who can blame them?” yells Fat Gareth.
“The girls all used to make fun of me. I told one girl, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. So she fractured my skull with a dictionary. I think that's why I never learned to spell. That and the drugs. Not that there were lots of drugs at my school, but Ringo Starr would touch down his helicopter in our playground to see if we had anything new.” Since that doesn't get much reaction, I shift gears. “This isn't an easy way to make money you know. My dad used to say the hardest part of any job's at the beginning, when you're still on the outside trying to break in. Of course he would say that, he's a burglar. He and my mum were very close when I was young. He was usually in Walton Prison and she was usually just a short bus ride away in the Fazakerley mental hospital. My mum's always been a bit funny.”
“Pity you don't take after her,” howls Fat Gareth.
The gags about my dad come easy, but I always dry up when I start on my mum. Usually joking about stuff helps me feel better, but not with her.
Other boys used to follow me round the playground chanting “Brendan's ma's in the loony bin.” Kids can be cruel.
I see my Kirsty coming in at the back of the club. “Thanks for turning out tonight lads, because I'm skint. I need the money from this gig to take Kirsty out to dinner someplace nice. I know I tell jokes about her, but she's the lass for me, no question. I can't explain it really, I've never felt this way about a woman before. There's just something about her, know what I mean?”
Get mushy about your girl on stage, and it's usually good for a knee trembler later in the evening, that's been my experience. But it's true about Kirsty. I really think it's going to work out this time.
“She's not only my girlfriend, she's also my best mate. I'm so lucky to be with her, it makes me feel like crying sometimes.”
Time to change the subject, before the crowd gets restless.
“Talking about crying, I saw a man cry on the news today, an Iraqi shopkeeper who was upset because he has no electricity, his shop keeps getting looted, his sister was attacked in the street and beaten, and his son was arrested in a case of mistaken identity. Mind you, if you ask me it was his own fault. What did he expect when he opened a shop in Liverpool?”
The audience clap. They're suburbanites and soft as shite, but they still fancy themselves as hard bastards just because they're Scousers. Fuck' em. But I smile at the tossers as I push my way to the bar, where Kirsty's waiting.
“Ready to go?” I say.
“Er, look Bren,” she says. Her manner is sympathetic, always a fucking bad sign. “It's not working.” She glances away uneasily. “I can't go out with you any more.”
“The thing about your set, Bren, is it's all true. Your dad really is a burglar. Your mum really is wrong in the head. I used to think you were funny, Bren, but you're not. You're just sad, and I've realized I need someone more emotionally stable. I need a man who has his life together a bit more. Look, I've been seeing someone else.” The conversation doesn't go anywhere much after that. Inside me, there's just that feeling like my insides are being sucked away down a bottomless drain. “At least he can pay his rent on time.” Kirsty's talking about Colin the carpet-fitter from Birkenhead. “Will you be all right, Bren?” she says.
“Don't you worry about me, pet,” I tell her. “Mine's a pint of lager,” I add to the barman.
As I watch Kirsty leave, Fat Gareth comes up to say, “You were bloody bollocks boring as usual tonight, Bren. What I don't understand is, why do you keep trying?”
I'm no good at dealing with hecklers, it's my greatest weakness as a comic. They remind me of everyone who's ever made me feel small. I want to ask Fat Gareth to step outside, so I can give him a good kicking, but you should never let a heckler know they're getting your back up, so instead I order another pint of lager, because I've already drunk the first one. I knock back the second pint of lager fast too, and soon afterwards, purely for variety's sake, I have a third and fourth pint of lager...
I wake up feeling even more shite than usual. I'm lying under my kitchen table, and I've pissed my kecks. When I try to turn on the light, the electricity's been cut off.
My mobile rings, and it's Les, my agent. “The Rec Center tell me you were brilliant,” he says, “but they never want to see your face again. That's yet another venue you're barred from. You trashed the place. Fucking congratulations. You're your own worst enemy, you know. It's like with that man from the BBC. He could maybe have gotten you a slot on TV, but you had to take the piss out of him.”
“Posh Southern twat,” I manage. He was the one called my act a mercurial amalgam of bathos and pathos, for fuck's sake.
I'm not surprised I'm hungover, but it takes me longer to understand why I feel like I've been torn into small bleeding pieces, until I remember about Kirsty. Then I need a drink. “You were doing a good impersonation of the man,” Les is saying, “right till you threw up over the poor bastard, but there's a time and a place. You get up there on the stage and you're like a lunatic, it's great, but you need to learn how to behave offstage as well.”
“Why haven't you got a gig for me tonight?” I say. “It's a Saturday in the middle of summer, I can't see a thing in this shithole because they've cut off me lecky, and I'm shit broke.”
“Actually I have found you something for tonight, Bren, at a pub in Flint, in Wales. They booked a band that canceled unexpectedly.” Les recites the details, then adds, “Don't cock this one up, eh?”
I'd better get going if I'm to be on time. I take a bus to the railway station, where I purchase a sixpack to keep me company on the long depressing journey past pointless little market towns and fields... I hate Wales. My old English teacher was a Welshman. He used to humiliate me by picking on me to spell the most difficult words. If the Welsh are so good at spelling though, why do their towns mostly have names like Ffynnongroyw?
Better not make any anti-Welsh jokes tonight though. I don't want to offend anyone...
Not long after my sixth failed attempt at hitting a sheep with an empty lager can, the train pulls into Flint. I find my way to tonight's venue, Y Llety, one of those pubs with two rooms where the old men drink in one room, and the young men drink in the other room and wait. Depressing as fuck. The birds in the second room all have orange tracksuits and big earrings and are chomping on cheese-and-onion flavour crisps. That's what I like about travel, it broadens the mind.
“This is Mr. Brendon Hargreaves, an up-and-coming comic from Liverpool, and he's our entertainment tonight,” the landlord introduces me. No one looks up.
At least I can't see Fat Gareth anywhere. “Evening,” I say. “People ask, why the fuck do I do this?” I'm completely wrecked already. “I dunno, it could all be a desperate cry for help,” I say. “I'm that sad, I've thought about killing myself, only I'm afraid I'd make a spelling mistake in my note. Then I'd make everyone laugh.”
“There's a first time for everything, so they say,” Fat Gareth declares, waddling in.
I was worried something might have happened to the cunt.
How does he find me anyway? Is it telepathy, or is he stalking me?
“I see Wales is still full of cheap slags,” I observe. “Although looking round the room, I can also see why the local idea of a Recreation Center is a sheep tied to a fencepost.”
A big bloke stands up and says, “Are you taking the piss?” His mate gets up too.
“I'm ready for you,” I yell, responding deftly to the change in ambience. “Come on. I'll wipe the floor with you bastards.”
The landlord comes back in, looking pale. “Could you come with me a moment?” he said. “It's just, this is something urgent.”
“He's not going anywhere,” the bloke's mate says. “We're going to do this Scouse git.”
“There's bad news, Mr. Hargreaves,” the landlord says. “Just got a phone call. Your mum's passed away at the hospital.”
It's like my head's been kicked in. And as all the normality bleaches out of my surroundings, the big blokes offer me cigarettes, even Fat Gareth gives me a hug as I'm gasping, trying to remember how to breathe, in a swell of tears, and the landlord pays me in cash, and one of the better-looking birds drives me to the station, telling me it'll be all right. This is the most crap show I've ever done, and no one has a bad word to say to me now, and I'm feeling broken and thinking I'll always remember this as the worst night of my life...
A few days after the Flint gig, I'm standing by my mum's grave, feeling heavy enough to be sucked down to the center of the earth.
The priest is mumbling the liturgy. We're in the graveyard behind the Church of our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
And talking about perpetual suckers, here's my dad, with a screw on either side of him to make sure he doesn't do a runner. “Got a fag?” Dad whispers to me. I give him a Benson and Hedges. “You're a life-saver, Bren,” he wheezes.
My mum's in her coffin. It's a grand fucking day otherwise. The priest nods to me to step forward. Everyone's agreed I should say something, because I'm the one who has a way with words. I'm standing here in agony, and everyone's waiting for me to begin, a feeling I know well.
Mum died trying to escape. She jumped off the top of a wall and snapped her spinal cord. We think the voices in her head told her to do it. Why do the voices in people's heads always give such crap advice? Does no one ever hear a voice telling them to wrap up nice and warm and take their vitamins? Mum's voices mostly told her she was no good and she should die. Anytime she felt vulnerable, the voices piped up and made it worse. She'd cover her mouth and begin whispering, and I'd know it was starting again. Or she'd stop suddenly in mid-sentence and close her eyes. I just have Fat Gareth, but Mum was tormented all her life by invisible hecklers. She reckoned she was personally responsible for 9/11, because the aliens mistook the World Trade Center for the Fazakerley Mental Home.
“Our mum always hated funerals,” I begin. She was never a mourning person. I can't say that, for Christ's sake. “We're not just here today to grieve,” I say, “we're here to celebrate a life. It wasn't always easy growing up, but there's lots of happy memories.”
Then I have to try and think of one. Once I drew a picture of my mum and asked her who it was, and she said it was Satan. Or we went to Wales on holiday once, and Mum and Dad fought, and I said, is this called Wales because everyone cries all the time? Not stories to warm the cockles of your heart. I reckon the only time I felt mushy inside as a kid was watching the comics on telly. And maybe I do standup to try and find my way back to that safe place where everything's all right because there's always another laugh coming, and when you get the right response from your audience, it's like this warm wave you think you can ride forever.
“There were lots of laughs,” I try. “Like the time Mum cleaned the whole house because John Major was on TV telling her we'd been bugged by the Argentinians.” That's got to be the only time listening to John Major inspired anyone to do anything. This isn't so hard, it's like one of my routines minus the punchlines. “Dad always went out of his way to make sure the house was full of accessories,” I go on. For example, my mum and I were often accessories to the receipt of stolen goods. “I'll never forget the Christmas I got a Scalextric.” Even though the bizzies came on Boxing Day and took it back again.
One of the screws is sobbing. I reckon he also wanted a Scalextric when he was small. It's a hard world.
“Mum had many challenges in life. But I'm flattered she saw something of herself in me.” This is the point where I can't keep it together any more, and I have to stop. My dad puts his arm around me, while my brother says a few words. Our Trev's a man of few words at the best of times.
My attention starts to wander. I miss my mum something terrible. We pay our last respects to her, and Trev says, “She looks peaceful, eh?”
Well there is that. After they lower her into the ground, Dad and Trev and I throw clods of earth after her, one of the clods “accidentally” bouncing off the misty-eyed screw, and then it's all over, and Dad wraps his arms around me, and I press my face against his shirt.
“What are you up to then, Bren?” Trev asks.
“Still doing the standup.”
“Always good for a laugh is our Bren,” Dad says. I feel buoyed for a moment, because someone has faith in me, there's a real feeling of togetherness.
That's when my mobile rings, and I see it's Kirsty.
Reading her name brings all the pain of the breakup flooding back. Burying Mum actually took my mind off her for a while. Why are there so many different kinds of pain?
“I knew you'd have to hear this, Bren,” Kirsty says. “There's open mic comedy tonight at that new wine bar in Birkenhead, the one we went to on my birthday. And guess what name's on the signup sheet. Gareth Morgan.”
It takes me a while to clock what she's saying. “Fat Gareth's doing standup?”
“In twenty minutes time.”
“You're having me on.”
“No Bren, it's true.”
This I cannot miss. I'd tell Kirsty about my mum, but there's no time. “Fair play to you, girl,” I say, and hang up.
“Amazing how many mobile phones you see nowadays,” my dad comments as I put mine away.
“You should get out more,” I tell him, giving him a slap on the back before making a mad dash for the central train station.
I miss the first couple of acts, making it into the wine bar during a monologue by some student lass whose act is politely received.
Bit too genteel for me. Fat Gareth's next in the lineup. He comes on wearing a big smile, until he sees me grinning at him from the front table. That's when he loses it. He's trying not to look at me, but he can't help himself, and I just stare right back at him unblinkingly, a reptile contemplating its prey. I've finally got him where I want him.
“This is called alternative comedy,” he begins, “because you've got no alternative but to listen to me. Er, speaking as a Welshman... speaking as a Welshman is of course a tautology. Because Welsh people talk a lot you see.”
Complete indifference from the crowd. I'm loving this. Fat Gareth is covered in sweat, and I want to jinx him, to deny him the uplift of a single titter or snicker. He's not developing a rhythm. This evil grin I'm training on him isn't giving him a chance.
“We Welsh were here first of course. That's because we're aboriginal. The only place where English men come first is in bed. To get here from Wales I had to cross Offa's Dyke. Speaking of which, why is it always the office dyke who gets promoted?”
I don't think anyone but me in this crowd even gets that one. There's no way Fat Gareth can perform with me here. Maybe there is a God.
“Sorry to plead and moan,” Fat Gareth says, “but we are in a wine bar.”
Now that's what I call a wounded silence. I lean back, my arms folded. It's a strange thing, standup. I sometimes tell people I discovered my calling in the confessional. I'd be spilling my darkest secrets and tales of woe, and I'd hear the father on the other side of the partition trying to suppress a cackle. Once you start getting laughs, it becomes addictive. Each joke gives you a high, enough to keep you going a bit longer. But the worst feeling's dying onstage like Fat Gareth is now. The audience are nattering amongst themselves. No one but me pays any attention when Fat Gareth's three minutes are up, and he makes his red-faced exit.
I follow him out and track him down the street. He lurches along, looking defeated, but I'm no longer that happy about it because I've started thinking about my mum, and now it seems like there's nothing really in the world at all, it's just a pretense. Why am I talking to myself anyway? First sign of madness.
Gareth turns into an alley. Perfect. I call his name. He turns as I come up to him.
“Bren?” he says.
I punch him in the guts for a kickoff, then knee him in the face as he goes down, put the boot in a few times, nothing vindictive, just letting him know what's what.
Then I watch him lie there groaning for a while.
“If I were you I'd get a job with a pizza restaurant,” I say. “Because you need to work on your delivery.”
“That's not funny,” he groans, and then I take out my cock and piss all over him.
Brutal business, comedy. As I dance away from the scene of the scuffle, Kirsty calls me on my mobile. “Oh my god Bren, I just heard about your mum. Will you ever forgive me for calling you about Fat Gareth at a time like that? How did the funeral go?”
“Whose? My mum's or Fat Gareth's?
After a sharp intake of breath, Kirsty says, “Bren, you're impossible.”
Time to go pubbing it. I'm planning on getting wasted tonight. I wander through the city looking for a likely place, and at first the voices are so quiet I could almost be imagining them. I walk past declarations of eternal love scrawled on the side of bus stops. The voices are subdued, a distant murmuring, and then there's silence for a while, but not a normal sort of silence, more like the whispering singsong of the sea. I've heard it before, but it's always gone away again. But now for a moment I think maybe I'm hearing my own thoughts being spoken aloud, in what sound like Welsh accents. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Fuck that. I can't be doing with any more stress or worry To escape the sound, I go into a bar where loud music's playing, and the first thing I see is this tidy bird, and she smiles at me, and I give her a bit of patter, and maybe it's that I'm in a surprisingly good mood, but I fancy my chances for once. This bird looks up for anything, and she's cracking her sides at everything I say. When I tell her about my mother, she's all sympathy, and then I get her giggling again, because you've got to make a go of things, haven't you? I mean, you've got to laugh off the crap life flings at you, or what's the use? And her name's Cheryl and she's fit as fuck, and her laugh makes everything seem worthwhile, and she nods when I ask if she wants to dance, and I'm asking myself, could this be my lucky day?
OK, stupid question.
To cut a not very long story short, Cheryl's laughter may have been contagious, but so was her herpes.
“At least I can spell that,” I tell the Pakistani doctor who gives me the diagnosis. “It could have been gonorrhea.”
The doctor looks puzzled. “There is no cure for herpes,” he goes on, “but these tablets I'm giving you contain an antiviral agent that will help reduce the frequency and duration of future outbreaks.” I have to ask him to repeat the next thing he says, because there seem to be a lot of people talking in here. “Avoid touching the affected area,” is what the doctor's telling me. I can't seem to stop blinking. The light's too bright in this room, or too sharp, or just wrong somehow. “And avoid stressful situations,” the doctor says.
“It's hard to hear you,” I say, “over all this noise.”
“I don't hear anything.”
Who's that talking then? I strain to make out where the sound's coming from. It's like there's a football stadium about half a mile away, but there's not.
The doctor picks up another clipboard. “Have you been feeling hypersensitive lately?” he asks.
“It hurts like fuck when I piss, if that's what you mean.”
The questions keep coming. “Have you been experiencing any inappropriate emotions? Is there any history of mental illness in your family?”
Suddenly I understand what's going on. The doctor's a friend of Fat Gareth's, and he's trying to keep me waiting here till the Welshmen arrive.
I excuse myself a moment to go to the toilet, then dart out onto the street.
The voices are getting louder, and I know it's me being talked about. When I hurry past a high building, I clearly hear one say, The stress of raising you drove your mother over the edge.
I look around to see who spoke. Kids in tracksuits throw stones at buses. A man leans against the wall eating curried chips.
And drove your father to a life of crime. They're closing in on me now, enlarging inside me. Go into that building, the voices say.
Inside, I take the lift to the top floor, where there's a door that opens onto the roof.
Bren Hargreaves, the voices say.
“I always knew my name would be heard in high places.” The door bangs shut behind me in the wind. It's fucking cold out here.
Why don't you climb out onto that scaffolding?
“Look at that poise,” I yell. “Look at that coordination. I wish the people who called me unbalanced could see me now.” Is that laughter I hear, or just the wind buffeting a tarpaulin? Onlookers gather down below. “Is that your girlfriend?” I shout to one of them. “Sorry mate. Guess that one has to be put down to experience. Or maybe she just has to be put down. Mind you, the last slapper I shagged wasn't such a catch either. She gave me a burning sensation all right, but it wasn't true love.”
The faces below all seem to morph into Fat Gareth's face.
“What you looking at?” I shout, tears raining down my cheeks. “My dad's in the nick, my mum's dead, Kirsty rang this morning to ask if I'd make a speech at her and Colin's wedding, and hearing voices in your head can really fuck with your comic timing. It all gets a bit much sometimes. My life's just rubbish, and I have these horrible lesions on my cock now, and that Paki doctor thinks I'm schizophrenic. Do I have to spell it out? I hope not. Too many consonants.”
The ground looks as if I could reach out and touch it. The crowd's getting bigger, with people pointing at me excitedly, and the light's failing, or else the darkness is growing, and the busies are there too talking into megaphones, but I can't hear them over the voices in my skull. Your mother killed herself, and you will too...
My imaginary friends aren't all that imaginary any more, and I don't think they're my friends either. “Sometimes I wish the world could become a better place,” I say. “Then I worry if that ever happened, they'd raise my rent.”
Why don't you jump, Bren?
“I think whoever said living well's the best revenge obviously never tried disemboweling someone.” That line normally goes over okay, but not with this lot. They're a good-sized audience though. All I need is to make a connection. Maybe a bit of slapstick's what I need. I could jump across the gap to that other piece of scaffolding. It's only about six feet. How else am I going to get a laugh out of these bastards?
Why don't you jump, Bren?
Because something indefinable holds me back.
It's our Trev. “Calm down, eh?” he says, pulling me from the edge.
By the time he's led me back inside the building, the voices are gone. “How'd you get here?” I ask.
“You filled me in as emergency contact on your NHS form. They called me when you made your getaway. I was headed for the hospital when I saw you up here.”
He's taking me down in the lift, and I'm amazed at what a long way down it suddenly seems. “Here's one I just thought of,” I tell Trev. “There's this suicidal cat, right? Because it has nine lives, it has to jump off the roof again and again. And just before it jumps for the ninth time, a dog on the next roof shouts stop, you have so much to live for. The cat says, for example?” When the doors open on the ground floor, white coats rush towards me, and I have to hurry to my conclusion. “The dog says, think of all the things you cats can enjoy, the buzz of hunting fieldmice at dawn, siestas every day, sex on the rooftops all night. So why do you want to kill yourself? The cat says, because I'm crazy. The dog says, what makes you think you're crazy? The cat says, what do you mean, what makes me think I'm crazy? I'm standing here having a fucking conversation with a dog.”
“Is that the end of the joke then?” Trev asks, as I'm dragged into the ambulance, and I find myself thinking that maybe Trev's not all there, but at least he's there, and family is both sentence and reprieve, and love is pain and pain is growth, and in the end there is no safe place, unless you count Finland, and who the fuck wants to go there? But what I'm mostly thinking, flying fast through Liverpool with my hands and feet restrained, is that's what I get for closing with a cat joke.
James Warner is the author of the novel All Her Father’s Guns. His short fiction has appeared in Santa Monica Review, ZYZZYVA, Mid-American Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, etc. His story “Hecklers” originally appeared as a podcast on the website ApostropheCast, but has never appeared anywhere in print or as an online text.