The Laughing Club

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 Helen Townsend 2013

It was cosy, coming in from the winter cold, but it was only the low lighting that disguised the shabbiness of the bar – the worn, cheap fabric on the arms of the chairs, the grotty carpet and the scratched fake timber surfaces of the coffee tables.

“Two lite beers,” said Shelley to the barman, then took the drinks over to the table where Anna was sitting with a bowl of nuts on the table in front of her. Shelley and Anna didn’t mind the grot. A few weeks ago they’d tried a smart city bar full of young merchant bankers. The bar had been pompously named “The Elizabeth”. They had felt despised, as if they were on the hunt for rich young suits. The rich young suits were dull and they came back to the Gig Palace where you could talk to people who were ordinary and had a sense of humour. Everyone was here for the comedy show which was sometimes wonderful and sometimes dreadful.

They came every Tuesday. Shelley liked familiarity. Every time they came they had a bowl of nuts and lite beers, a meal which Anna pronounced to be rich in nutrients, if not exactly balanced.

“All you have to do,” she said, “is to have a tomato when you get home and then go for a run.”

“I don’t run,” said Shelley. “I’m not a great fan of tomatoes either.”

Anna always put a lot of effort into dressing for their Tuesday night at the Gig Palace. A lot more effort than Shelley, who came as she was from work. Tonight Anna had on one of those flirty little short skirts with different coloured tiers, a top which pushed her boobs way out and a white denim jacket. Shelley thought that maybe she had body glitter on her boobs, because they seemed to glow. But perhaps they caught the light in their own right. They were those sort of breasts. People said having spectacular physical attributes didn’t matter, but they only said it to people who didn’t have them, like her. In her head, Shelley saw herself and Anna flirting with some guys after the show. Anna would be smiling with that broad, laughing mouth, her boobs out there, the guys laughing at everything she said. All eyes on Anna, Anna knowing it.

Shelley had a commentary on life, which ran in her head alongside the life outside her head. She tried to keep the commentary in check because it had a jealous and bitchy subtext that made Anna superficial, whereas in real life they were good friends, providing real life didn’t actually include the bitchy subtext, which was something Shelley debated, although, of course, only in her head. Sometimes the subtext said that she, Shelley, was judgemental and mean minded. But then the subtext argued back that you couldn’t really trust your own judgement regarding your own character. Anna looked cheap, said the subtext, but Shelley thought “cheap” was a low word to use about someone who had been her friend since year 9. She would never say that Anna looked cheap out loud, because then she might look cheap herself, which made her a hypocrite as well as being judgemental, and a user of a low word.

She didn’t think Anna had an inner monologue like hers. Anna was very very bright. Shelley knew Anna was brighter than her, but she was fine with that. Anna was going to be a computer scientist. She had a great sense of humour. But nothing about her, Shelley thought, indicated an interior monologue. But then, did anything about the outer Shelley indicate her inner monologue to Anna? And what did the interior monologue do for Shelley, besides making her uncomfortable? It meant she classified people, which was exactly what made her uncomfortable. But it also satisfied her, to have the world ordered and put in its place.

They sat there, eating nuts, Anna occasionally shooting a glance or a smile at the MC, not because she liked him, but because that was what she did. The bar was getting more crowded and noisier, with a buzz of anticipation. It was all part of the routine for Shelley. She had a routine for every night of the week. Wednesday was video night with her flatmates. Thursday, she did her washing. Friday was going out after work. Saturday, she saw her mother and sisters, and then went out dancing Saturday night. Sunday, she slept in and saw movies. Monday night was reading.

There were smaller parts of her routine. Fried egg on Vegemite toast for breakfast every day. Cheese sandwich with grainy bread, no butter, chopped shallots every week day for lunch. Vietnamese rice paper rolls for dinner on video nights, whatever anyone else might have. Wool blankets, never a doona. Life of Brian on DVD, which she watched at least once a month. Pair of brown laced brogues in her wardrobe. One flannelette shirt, always. In her heart (not the interior monologue), she wanted a boyfriend/lover/partner. There hadn’t been anyone for almost a year.

“How’s work?” Anna asked Shelley.

“I’m investigating a widow who may have murdered her husband. Not on my own, with the police, of course. In a way I hope she did because I’ve never had a murder.”

“You had that spectacular arson though. It made the evening news and the front page.”

“This is more of a challenge. Arson – they’re either idiots, like that lot – which makes it too simple to prove. Or they’re masterminds and we can never prove it.”

“Do you think the widow really killed the husband?” asked Anna.

“Possible,” said Shelley. “My boss hopes she did, then we don’t have to give her the pay-out and it improves our bottom line. It is a two million dollar policy taken out just last year, and he died falling over a waterfall in the bush – all a bit suss. But if she didn’t do it, it must be awful to be investigated.” Sometimes, it worried Shelley that working as an insurance investigator made real people seem like characters on TV. “But on the other hand, if we find she didn’t do it, getting the money would take the sting out of it.” Her interior monologue often said she shouldn’t have done forensic science. Which showed that the interior monologue was not a reflection of her real life because she quite liked being an insurance investigator. Not having a relationship was the problem.

It was for Anna too. It wasn’t that she couldn’t find anyone, but that she couldn’t find Mr Right.

“I want someone who thinks and laughs. Like Gary, but taller.”

“He was cold hearted,” said Shelley.

“He had nice eyes.”

“Bet you can’t remember the colour.”

“Come on, let’s go in, it’s starting soon. We want to get up the front.”

Their devotion to laughter went back to when they first met in Year 9. Shelley had seen an Indian laughing club on TV, where people went to have a laugh at nothing at all because it was good for their health. She had started a laughing club at school, not for anybody’s health, but for fun, because school was not fun. Anna had been her first and most enthusiastic member. But the headmistress banned it because it made one girl vomit, and because it wasn’t quite Christian. Christians, the Headmistress had explained, could appreciate a joke as well as anyone, but they did not laugh for the sake of it.

Shelley had known the headmistress would say something like that and would ban the club as soon as she found out about it. She was resigned to the fact that any fun at school was doomed, but Anna was outraged and insisted on a final show of defiance. So she and Shelley walked out of the hall at the end of the weekly assembly behind the headmistress. They were followed by other members of the Indian Laughing Club, all laughing – silently but extravagantly. Anna and Shelley were suspended for a week. It sealed their friendship and their dedication to laughter. In year 10, they started sneaking into comedy clubs, which only ended when they were busted as underage drinkers.

Anna bought two beers and they went into the theatre and took their seats at their usual table. The MC came over.

“Hi guys.” He sat down for a moment. “You’re looking good tonight.” He meant Anna, Shelley knew. But she didn’t mind. (Not much, she told herself, unsure of whether she was being sarcastic in her interior monologue, or truthful. Not that it mattered.)

“What’s the talent tonight?” Anna asked him.

“Three chicks. Two idiots, one wog comic and a partridge in a pear tree. The usual.”

“So thank God we’ve got you to tell the same old tired jokes in between.”

“And tell them I will. You can be sure of that.” The lights went down and he bounded up onto the stage and did his usual patter, which was very funny.

There was the usual run of amateurs and nervous first time comics. “Raunchy,” said Anna, of a boy with a great smile, a good line of chat, but no real jokes.

“Nothing going for this one,” said Shelley said of the next.

“Idiot.”

“Mickey Mouse ears, my God.”

“This guy is cute.”

“She’s funny.

“And now, final act for the night,” said MC. “Please don’t groan guys. He can’t help being last. Please welcome, Lost in Space – no – sorry – that’s just the look – the name is Jamie Jackson.”

That morning, doing the gig at the Gig Palace had seemed sensible to Jamie Jackson although he realised there was a contradiction between performing good comedy and being sensible.

“A step forward,” he thought, which it was considering he had done almost nothing for the last year. Well, he had trained his dog to kiss him by putting peanut butter on his cheek, which the dog licked off and had then learnt to kiss on command without the peanut butter. Jamie kept the house okay but failed the year at uni. The dog training had taken some effort and so had the house, although maybe not enough. Failing uni had required very little. He had had a little breakdown when his mother died, but only a little one which didn’t warrant a medical certificate. In the beginning he was always resolving to go back to uni to explain to the student counsellor why he hadn’t been coming or handing in any assignments. He had searched his head for a meaningful reason for his absence and had come up blank – which was perhaps the reason he’d stopped going. Then, he had got the letter telling him he had been discontinued. He had wanted to write and say that discontinue was an active verb, although a passive act perhaps, and while they could expel him, they could not, grammatically speaking, discontinue him. Halfway through the letter he realised discontinue could quite validly be used in the passive voice, although continue could not. You could be discontinued, but you could not be continued..

His sister Megan had called that morning and he told her about the gig.

He had thought Megan would be pleased, but she had simply sounded exasperated. She sounded exasperated a lot of the time. She was always saying “bloody unbelievable” about all sorts of things. He was devoted to Megan, but her constant exasperation drove him to his own more low key exasperation. He seemed to drive her to the exasperation in relation to almost everything he did. Or didn’t do.

“Look Jamie,” she said. “I’ve been very patient with you.”

She was always being very patient with people, before she exploded into her “bloody unbelievables”.

“I’m going to sell the house,” she said.

“I live here.”

“It’s time to sell. I’m executrix of the will.”

“Does that mean you can chain people to dungeon walls and flog them?”

“You’re bloody unbelievable,” she said, and hung up.

Megan was often exasperated by jokes, especially his.

Later, Gran had rung up from Melbourne. Gran was unlike anyone else in the family. She had a posh voice and posh manners and posh clothes and a sense of humour like his.

“Can she sell the house?” he asked.

“She’s the executrix,” she said.

He said the line about chaining people to the wall in dungeons and she laughed.

“She can sell it,” she said. “You could dispute it, but I don’t think you’d get anywhere. And you don’t want to fight with your sister.” He didn’t. He had a memory of Megan beating the shit out of him when he was eight although that didn’t stop him liking her.

“Megan’s right, darling,” Gran said. “You do need to find a way to support yourself.”

He got a picture in his head of him supporting himself by standing on his hands. He forgot he was talking to Gran.

“Don’t go blank on me, Jamie,” she said. His mother always used to say Gran was the matriarch.

“I’m doing a gig at a comedy club tonight,” he said.

“That’s wonderful.”

“I don’t get paid.”

“It’s a start,” she said. “They might pay you after a while. When they see how good you are. Anyway, I don’t think it matters. You’re getting out of the house. You will be alright Jamie.” And her voice stopped sounding like a matriarch and sounded a little more plaintive and longing, as if she was worried about him. He was often a little worried himself.

After that, he washed the dog, and dried him with an old towel. He had a flash about the towel because he remembered his mother drying her hair with it. It didn’t actually summon up a picture of his mother drying her hair, that was too painful. In any case, she had become encapsulated in a single image, which wasn’t really an image of her. After she had died, there had been a petticoat and a bra across the chair in her room. He hadn’t been able to move them, because they had seemed so like her. Megan said he had to tidy up the house, because she had organised the funeral and done all the legal stuff. But it was only when Gran came back up to Sydney, after the funeral, that those things had disappeared, along with his mother’s shoes, which had been beside the chair, but didn’t seem to carry her imprint of her so strongly. But the petticoat, with its twisted ribbon straps, and stretched where her bum went, with a loose thread of the lace at the hem, her bra, a little discoloured because it was old and a little stretched sat the sides. It had sat there with its DD cups – those things were her, totemic images in his head. They were more in his head than the fact that he had really loved his mother. That wasn’t right and the thought of the wrongness had caused the little breakdown. He was sad about his mother, but he often thought he couldn’t feel as sad as he really was deep down.

After he washed the dog, he took him down the park. The dog was called Thurber after the American writer James Thurber, whose writing he loved. He had hoped that Thurber would be a trick dog, so he could hire him out for movies, but that wasn’t working out. Thurber had a comic instinct, but also a mind of his own, which in a way, Jamie preferred although it would have been easier if Thurber had been able to support them. Thurber didn’t mind doing almost anything whereas Jamie found most things difficult.

Thurber was a small brown dog, with a cute little terrier head and strangely long and lanky legs. His face was almost always smiling and his tail wagged gently while he walked. He liked to chase imaginary birds and to stalk Jamie through long grass.

Down at the park, Jamie started worrying about the gig, saying his lines over, stumbling in the same places, scaring himself witless. But he knew, unlike most other things in his life, there was no way he wouldn’t do this. Every day he’d make a time to go to the supermarket, or even the corner store or to the Indian restaurant in the mall, or to Megan’s, or to the solicitor, or the flexi teller, and most often, he didn’t do any of these things. And those things didn’t induce a feeling of nausea, like the Gig Palace did. But he’d go to the Gig Palace, whatever happened.

Which was how, at ten o’clock that night, Jamie found himself the last of the try-hard comics, standing on the stage of the Gig Palace, dazzled by the lights, looking out into the amorphous dark mass of the audience. Someone backstage had told him to pick out two people in the audience, one at the front, one in the middle and make eye contact. There was a yellow T-shirt with a dark blob of a head sticking out of it somewhere in the middle. He smiled at it. His eyes flicked down to the front, where he made eye contact with Anna’s breasts.

Perfect, a sign, except he wasn’t sure what this sign could mean and no words came out of his mouth.

“Say something!” yelled the yellow T-shirt.

That was a bad sign. A weekend stand-up comedy course had been his second foray into tertiary education, after he hadn’t gone to university. They hadn’t laughed at his material there. The woman who ran it was cold and mean and full of rules, which he had tried to absorb. He had wondered if he should have done the university degree before he had embarked on something as ambitious as comedy.

Still no words out of his mouth.” All right,” yelled someone else. “Don’t say anything.”

“Anything,” he said softly and they laughed, not enough to break a laugh meter, but with goodwill. “I’m going to tell you the story of my life,” he said. Loud groans. “Which can be summed up in one word. Breasts.” A small laugh from the audience and the yellow t-shirt gave a whoop.

But then, all the jokes were gone from his head and he realised he was going to tell them his life story because that was what he needed to do, whether they laughed or booed or whatever. It wasn’t his entire life story, but it was the part that felt so painful and shameful that he’d never told anyone. His true story. His life story wasn’t exactly a joke. No-one’s is.

He thought the breasts in the front row winked at him. Encouragingly.

“First, I’ll tell you about my Dad. He wasn’t into breasts, at least not that I knew, but he was very big on meaning and purpose. That didn’t include us, his family. He had stand alone purpose and meaning.

“First up, it was dope smoking. Dope smoking was freedom and gave him an understanding of life. That was the meaning and purpose and why he did it – night and day. One night I kicked a soccer ball through the front window and Dad and all his friends thought it was hilarious. So that’s when I first thought I might have a knack for comedy. Now I’m not sure I have the knack, not really.”

There were chuckles in the audience which surprised Jamie because this wasn’t supposed to be funny.

“Then Dad gave up dope and none of those people came to the house any more. He became a wine buff. He was forever tasting and spitting it out and writing things down because he thought he was so shit hot at it that he’d be a wine critic. When he realised nobody wanted him as a wine critic, he stopped spitting it out and got really drunk every night so that lost him meaning and purpose although he still talked about it.

“Mum got sick of Dad not working and they went to counselling. It worked, at least a bit because he stopped boozing full time.He decided money provided meaning and purpose and he turned into a free ranging, predatory capitalist which was worse than not working. He thought he earned a lot of money because he had an executive life style. But what actually happened was that he spent a lot of money on skiing and martinis and a fast car. I guess he was just confused about money going out as opposed to money coming in. It’s an easy enough mistake to make.

“Then he became a prosperity gospel Christian, born again, talking in tongues. He left the family and went to live in one of those god and guns community in Texas. At first he sent us cards at Christmas, but then he got another wife. Now we don’t hear anymore.”

Jamie realised at that moment that his father was just a space in his life. He had never missed him like he missed his mother. He could feel himself missing his mother, right at that moment, which was good in one way, although he hoped he wouldn’t cry or anything like that.

“Mum was different. She trained as midwife and straight up she found meaning and purpose in being a breast feeding counsellor. She was really, really into it. Like we talked about it at dinner.” He thought of the bra on her chair. She must have thrown it there the night she died. “It was a breast-rich environment to grow up in.”

How do you hear people listening? They weren’t laughing, but they were listening, he knew that.

“Now I don’t remember this exactly, but I’ve pieced it together.” He was on a roll now, his voice getting stronger, even though it had a hitch from the part of him that was missing his mother. They liked him, out there in the darkness, the breasts down the front.

“Mum had a theory that from this exquisitely designed piece of the human flesh, the breast, the child would be sated – forgive me if I sound a little Biblical here. And the said child would go forth full of love, security, hope and creativity.

“Mum tested it with child number one. My sister, And it worked.

“That’s the difference. Girl child, boy child. My sister went forth, secure and with  love, hope and creativity. And today, she’s a merchant banker.”

They all laughed which made him feel defensive. He knew from Megan that being a merchant banker wasn’t easy.

“It’s a result!” They were still laughing, but he went on.

“Boy child – that’s me – I wanted to stay attached. The breast was my life, my security. I had to be forcibly weaned. Just because I was about to start school or get a job at Maccas or something.” That was from his comedy routine and even though it wasn’t true, he knew they’d laugh. He needed the laugh to break his sadness so he could finish.

“And now, even though I fight it and resist it, every fibre of my being, every cell in my body longs for the breast. My mother was always on about breast feeding and breasts. But she never knew, she never even thought, that for me, breasts might be erotic. For her, a breast was like a beautiful casserole dish – a lovely way to serve up nourishing food, but not sexy.”

A bell sounded. It meant he was supposed to finish off now, which was a real bummer, because there was more. Then suddenly, the person, the girl, in the front row next to the glowing breasts stood up and yelled out. “Let him finish. This is okay.”

There were cheers from the audience, so he supposed some of them agreed with her. There were a few groans but not many, so he knew they were with him, with his story, even if they were just black shapes and a yellow t shirt, the breasts and the other girl at the front, drinks and tables hinted at in the dark.

“Another minute,” said the MC.

He took a moment because the missing of his mother felt acute and scary, but he realised that it was contained by a simultaneous and fierce irritation with his her for being so one eyed about breast feeding. Megan was the same about merchant banking. His Dad was the same about all those different things he’d been into. He and Gran were the only sane ones. He could feel a void, right out there, black, deeper than the audience, stretching out, out, out. How long had he been standing here? Why were they looking at him?

“Now, for me breasts are everywhere. You can’t avoid them. It makes social situations awkward. It’s horrible. I’d like the breast feeding counsellors in the audience to take this on board and maybe be a little less evangelical. My life would have been a lot easier if I’d only had a dummy fetish or had a security blanky.

“Breasts are attached to real people, mostly women and if you only think about their breasts and not about their personalities, that’s rude.

“I’m not just being politically correct here – I know that the woman is a person in her own right with social, political and spiritual aspirations.”

That a gorgeous giggle from down the front where the breasts were.

“I respect that. I really do. And I try to remember it. And I try to remember my mother as a person. And I do.” And he felt it, his mother being a person, not just the petticoat and the double D bra thrown over the chair, and he thought he’d have to stop, but he didn’t because there was more he had to say. “But in my head, there’s this picture I have of the underwear she took off the night she died. And I’ve never said it before, and I don’t know why I’m saying it here, because it isn’t comedy, but I loved my mother over and above most other people in my life, but that’s the image that brings her back, makes her real. But it’s not her.”

He addressed the breasts in the front row directly and urgently. “I’ve never had a girlfriend because I think I can’t cope with all that goes with that and the breasts. I wouldn’t want that sort of image in my head. I am not obsessed by big firm exquisitely shaped breasts, although I have nothing against them.” He leaned forward. “I’d be happy with a small pair of, well, ordinary, breasts to take home but really, I want to want a woman.

“This makes me sound misogynist, but in most ways, I’m an ordinary guy.

“Except I’m a fetishist. I do know about the whole being the sum of parts. But I get flustered by the parts It’s kind of screwed me.”

He’d finished, but he thought maybe he should use a little of the stuff he’d rehearsed and had been going to say when he’d been thinking comedy. “Breast fantasies – you name it, I’ve had them – breasts racing across the steppes of Russia, giant breasts in the sky raining milk, being smothered by breasts, finding a golden breast in a deserted mountain cave…

“Anyway, this whole thing is a mess for me and …it’s a mess and thank you for listening.” Jamie could feel himself sweating. Profusely. Not just cold clammy sweat, but like tears coming out all over his body. Oh fuck. Gran. Megan. Why did I do this?

The man in the yellow t shirt rose to his feet and said “Jesus fuck that”. Jamie didn’t know if it was friendly “Jesus fuck that” or a hostile one. The breasts in the front row were smiling at him, the girl with them looking sort of puzzled. The other girl had her head resting in her hands.

Applause. The end. Relief.

Off stage, the MC was waiting for him. “It wasn’t comedy mate. No way. But you could make it funny…”. He gave advice about incorporating blondes and different sorts of breasts, but Jamie knew this once was enough. It had been the sort of thing people say is cathartic, but he didn’t know. How do you know when you’ve been catharted? Can you use cathart as a an intransitive verb? You shouldn’t, but you can because people had started using it that way. He thought maybe you could do whatever you liked.

He felt very strange, this gig being the first thing he’d actually done in the last year besides train Thurber and keep the house sort of reasonable.

“I’m Anna and this is Shelley. We liked that. We’ll buy you a drink,” said Anna. “You were good.”

He waved his pink ticket at them. “They gave me this buy me a drink. You know, for doing the thing.” He thought he should buy them one, but it would only mean half each because the pink ticket was for one drink only. Or only a third if he shared the drink with them. He fumbled in his pocket. He really only had enough money for his bus fare. He could walk home, but it was a long way.

Anna took his pink ticket. “I’ll get them.” She went to the bar and he was left with Shelley, the non breast girl. She had breasts, but they didn’t glow like the golden orbs of Anna. He looked at her, this other girl. He hadn’t really seen her in the darkness of the theatre because he’d been pre-occupied with Anna’s breasts. Now it occurred to him that this other girl, Shelley, had an incredible resemblance to his dog, Thurber. A friendly face, a really nice face, sharpish, but intelligent and benign. It seemed odd that a woman should resemble a dog, not in actual detail, but in the outlines of her facial features. Odd, but wonderful.

And he realised for the very first time that Thurber was not just cute, but truly beautiful, like this girl. Still, some deep part of his brain alerted him – “Do not tell her she looks like your dog.”

“I know this is a little premature, but could I have your phone number and ask you out. You mightn’t want to because all that stuff on stage was true.”

Anna, balancing the three drinks, saw them exchange phone numbers. God, how could Shelley go out with this guy? Even if she was saying “just friends”. The whole thing had been brilliant and honest, but she knew he must be some sort of perve. In fact, that’s what the whole thing had been about, him being a perve. She’d always thought Shelley was little odd, even though she was her best friend. She’d been weird at school and being an insurance investigator was a weird job. No-one else she knew did it.

Anna knew Shelley thought she was superficial.

Shelley took her drink from Anna and knew Anna was having an interior monologue about her and about this boy and that she disapproved that they’d swapped phone numbers. Maybe she was peeved. She was the one with the breasts, after all, the one who should be getting his attention. And she worried that in asking her out, this lovely boy was only trying to wean himself off his breast fantasy by choosing the less spectacularly breasted girl, that is, her. She hoped not, she really liked him.

Jamie knew Anna hadn’t wanted his number, in fact, he was getting vibes that she felt a slight distaste for him. He was thinking that she was thinking that he wasn’t good enough, even worse, that he was pervy, which was logical, given that’s what he’d said on stage, but it was hurtful nevertheless. He wondered why Shelley did like him. He imagined for a moment that she might be a breast feeding counsellor who wanted to change his opinion of breast feeding counsellors. Except his opinion on breast feeding counsellors wasn’t fixed, not really, which he could explain to her later.

They had their drinks, not saying anything.

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