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11:29, 10 Apr 2019
The Cream of The Jest
Summer had largely been a non-event until on the last day of August when Johnny Magee woke up in the bed of Elizabeth Gerkan. He’d been vaguely aware of Elizabeth as a young woman who worked in his Great Aunt’s antique shop, but it was not until he saw her the night before at the comedy open-mic that he had really noticed her. She had stood out amoung the other performers who mostly based their sets around dreary third-hand imitations of Bill Hicks and George Carlin (Atheism and Anal Sex). Elizabeth had come on wearing a 50s style polka dot dress with her red curls pulled under a black felt hat and deployed a high-pitched innocent voice which bypassed Disney and landed directly on Pollyanna to tell bluntly filthily sexual anecdotes. Naturally Johnny had to talk to her.
For once he was sober and clear-headed, getting up he saw a postit note on top of a stack of paperback Dean Koontz novels (well no one’s perfect). It read ‘Gone to work come for lunch if you want cereal in top shelf help yourself.’ While Johnny was rummaging through the cupboards of Elizabeth’s public lavatory tiled kitchenette he reflected on the note, while Elizabeth would never win fame as a composer of aboudes she was an excellent absentee host. It did not take long for Johnny to find a box of Coco Pops, opening it up he found that the cholate rice puff had been mixed with up with Frosties, clearly Miss Gerkan had the tastes of a child he would have to remember to tease her about it when he came to see her at lunch time.
Deciding to take Elizabeth lunch Johnny stopped at the corner shop near his great aunt’s shop. He purchased a ham sandwhich, can of Coke and a large honeycomb chocolate bar. As he walked towards his Great Aunt’s place he could not help remembering Elizabeth’s performance, the way she pulled a shocked Daily Express Mum face after the punchline to her own jokes her little false coughs, her pale oval face. Johnny entered the shop with a cheek bone to cheek bone grin which immediately shut closed like a bear trap when he saw sitting at the counter not Elizabeth but his great Aunt Betty and her sisster May.
If as Johnny often suspected woman over the age of fifty-five could transmit disapproval telepathically then his two great Aunts were giving him full blast at the moment. Both women mentally cleaved humanity into the respectable and everyone else. However, they differed on how they spilt the sheep from the goats. May believed one could be justified by acts as long you had attended one of the local Catholic Grammar Schools, earned an annual income over thirty grand and drove a new car at least once in your life. Betty on the other hand had a much more Calvinist worldview, only thoese who bore the surname McDaid were counted amoung the elect. Needless to say, Johnny was dammed from both points of veiw. A few years back when he had earned a place to study at Ulster Univerity Betty had begun to speak more civilly to him prehaps hoping that though the process of higher education he would gain the same kind of rough facsimile of respectability the unmarried mothers who provided her home care as part of their social care courses. This period of relatively warm relations ended when a picture of Johnny at a protest again the last G8 summit appeared in the local paper.
“Ah Betty look who’s come to see us today”. May pushed herself up from her steel backless stool and walked to the centre of the room to greet me. She was a large woman and now the middle of the seventh decade she’d put on even more weight as if her body sensed the end coming and had expanded to give the Reaper a harder job carting her off. Her head was as round as a tennis ball and her arms were meaty and solid like two enormous pot marked anvils of pork. May put out a hand for me to shake. “May how it’s going you’re still giving Betty a hand on the weekends then then?”
“Yes, you’re as well working while your alive. Speaking of which no word of a promotion for you yet?”
“Acch at the minute I’m not really bothered I only started with the National Trust at Easter time enough for all that.”
“Hmm I suppose so”.
“Hows the shop going you must be coming into the busy season”
“Things are going perfectly well thank you” May snapped she wanted to end this conversation quickly clearly under the impression that I was about to ask for money.
“Listen May is Elizabeth about”?
When she heard this question, Betty looked up from her catalogue. “Indeed, she is not, she did not bother herself to come in today.” She pulled a face like a gargoyle sucking on a sour gobstopper, Betty was one of those women who had a strong distaste for other woman.
“Well you don’t happen to know where she might be?”
“I suppose I should have known she’d be a friend of yours. No, we do not know what that silly wee girl gets up to when she’s not here. If you do run into her today tell her not to worry about coming in tomorrow. Her attitude and work ethic were always atrocious she was given plenty of chances and I will not be taken advantage of anymore”.
“Not a problem, listen Betty Elizabeth told me to meet me here I’m going to have a look for her if she does come by could you tell her I was looking for her?”
“Very well I suposse it is too much trouble for you to stay and give your two elderly Great Aunts a hand running the shop for the day. Say hello to your mother for me.”
Johnny left the shop without saying goodbye, for a few minutes after he left he stood outside facing the road taking deep breaths. The standard protocol in the extended family was to remain calm when dealing with Betty and May and Johnny always felt he was pretty good keeping his head anyway. However, he had reached the limits of his patience despite the fact that there would surely be repercussions when the rest of the family heard about it he was about to go back inside and unload twenty-three years’ worth of boiling anger on top of the auld bitch’s heads. His hand was on the doorknob and he was about to turn when and eggcorn hit him in the dead centre of his forehead.
Rubbing his head Johnny stared at the industrial bins outside the café opposite the shop trying to see who threw the eggcorn at him when he heard a familiar English-sounding voice behind him. “Are you looking for Oscar The Grouch”? Johnny did not turn around, he did not want Elizabeth to see the tears that were forming in his eyes. He blinked a few times before replaying.
“Careful now this street is clearly a hotbed of poltergeist activity I’ve just been whacked in the head with an eggcorn.”
“Yeah sorry, that was me I was aiming for the window of the shop.”
“Most people use a brick when they want to vandalise their former employers store fronts, but then you like to put your own individual stamp on everything you do.”
“Well when I came in this morning the two charming old women who own and operate that establishment told me that they did not like my face that it was only a matter of time before I stole something, and it would be better if I just left and never came back I had one of flare of anger. After I crossed the street the eggcorn was the first thing I saw”.
“Okay, aye I can totally understand that reaction my Great Aunts must have been extermly hard to work with”.
“OMG sorry I forgot you were related to Betty and May I’ll won’t say anything else”.
“Nah its not a problem in fact I was going to go in a chew them out for how they talked about you when you hit me in the face. I am however a bit confused I May, and Betty told me a slightly different story about what happened this morning. I had brought you some lunch to eat at the counter but as that is now no longer an option. Shall we grab a descent lunch somewhere”.
They went to a nearby Chinese Restaurant and availed of a lunch time offer, Elizabeth shoved pieces of sweet and sour pork into her mouth with alarming speed. In between bites she explained that May’s pathological lying was not simply a family affair, she did it in the shop as well. She had apparently accused Elizabeth of stealing money from the till on a number of occasions and a last Tuesday a vase went missing during her shift. At first May had told her not to worry about that her and Betty knew she would had nothing do with it. Then that morning as Elizabeth had had to gone in and open up she found the two of them already inside and ready to blame her claim they knew she had stolen it and that they did not want to see her again. Elizabeth paused to finish the last third of her Tiger beer in a singel gulp. “And that’s when I hit you in the head with an eggcorn. Sorry about that by the way it’s just you know sometimes you get these flashes of anger and you have to do something about it”. She stooped talking for a moment and looked me directly in the eye. “OMG yes that’s right I saw you when you were outside the shop, your casket was ready to pop off as well this is perfect you can help me we can be a team”.
“I’d be more than happy to, provided of course you tell me what I am supposed to be helping you with.”
“With my revenge of course. Look even if I had been able to break a window with the eggcorn I still would not have been satisfied I need to do something else something bigger. Running in to you, a fellow artist who also has a reason to dislike the crones McDaid has given me an idea. Why spend ten seconds committing a petty act of property damage when you can write, rehearse and perform a sketch tearing the shite out of them.”
“Right things are becoming a bit clearer. I assume you want us to write some sort of piss take of my Great Aunts and perform it at next moths open mic.”
“Aye I must admit I’m tempted by the idea my current is getting a bit old and I do feel the need to vent a little. But you must understand in my family we keep Omerta, if we do this you might away safely but I’d be found a few days after the performance skinned a with my balls stuffed inside my mouth.”
“Oh come on what’s the point of being a young artist if you can’t kick against your background a bit”.
“But what do you do if the background kicks back.”
“You do what every other Irish artist did and go into exile. I urge to do this by telling you that it will be a laugh but that may rather trite.”
Johnny finished his own beer and ordered two more from a passing waiter.
“Ok” he said “but only if you agree to stop talking in monologues.”
Johnny and Elizabeth spent the next few weeks preparing their new act, the writing of the script only took a few days, they both had a wealth of material to draw upon. After they had enough written it, they took it to the organiser of the open mic, surprisingly they were given the extended headlining slot. This meant that they spent four evenings a week rehearsing and re-writing their act. When the appointed evening came around Elizabeth told Johnny that she had a gotten her hands on some special costumes and set dressing, she wanted them to be a surprize. Therefore, Johnny was sent downstairs to pick up drinks while she set up. Coming up from the bar Johnny first saw Elizabeth’s creation. He almost fell back down the stairs, some how she had managed to create a rough re-creation of his great Ant’s shop. She had found the same kind of backless steel stools with the same purple and green striped cushions on them. Off grey next curtains were hung from the railings behind the stage. A square from very similar kind of fluffy beige carpet as the kind his Aunts had was placed under the stools. To top it off draped over the lighting rig were two long sleeved Paisley Pattern dresses one very Pattie and the other extermly large.
Johnny went over to the table nearest to the stage and placed Elizabeth’s vodka and coke down on the table. “Thank you darling, maybe you’re useful after all. By the way when I was coming in this evening, I saw that relative of yours the one who is always hanging about the shop. It looks like he’s going to watch the show tonight.”
“Fuck you don’t mean George”.
“Is that his name your Aunts never introduced us”.
Johnny’s cousin George was the only member of his family he detested more than Betty and May. He had always been one of thoese guys with an inherent understanding and love of hierarchy. At school, at work and especially within the family circle George always naturally understood who was in charge and how to ingratiate himself with them. If he saw Johnny performing a parody of Betty and May in front of a small group of people, then word would come back to the two Aunts in such a way that would further elevate George in their eyes while Johnny was permanently cast into the outer darkness. “I suppose I’d better go over and say hello then”.
Johnny found George preached on a back-cushioned chair on the downstairs bar. He was studying the bar menu and was wearing a face which seemed designed to get him elected to the office of High Pontiff of Peevishness. “How’s thing George “?
“Oh, Hello Johnathon it’s good to see you, I did not see you upstairs, so I came down stairs to get a drink and a bite to eat. Do you come here often?
“A few times a week after work and on the last Friday of every month for the comedy, why?
“Very nice that must be very relaxing for you, but don’t you find the menu somewhat limited”?
“Nah, it’s just good bar food, try the chill cheese fries.”
George took a twenty-pound note from his wallet placed it in his right hand and stretched his arm over the bar to get the attention of a member of staff.
“Portion of chill cheese fries and Spitfire pint of, thanks”
He placed the bank note on the table then turned his back away to face Johnny.
“I must say I’m looking forward to seeing you perform tonight, we were all talking about you last night and we all think it’s nice to see you doing something constructive.”
“Thanks man, listen I have to go and get ready things are kicking off soon.”
Johnny went back up the stairs smiling it would be intresting to see if the various members of his family still thought that his performing stand-up comedy after tonight.
The performance was supposed to be the climax of something, Johnny had expected an ill-defined big thing to happen. Yet half way though the routine Johnny paused for a moment and looked out at the crowd the expected catharsis would not happen. In fact, very few people seemed to be laughing, a few tables seemed be giggling out of pity. The plain fact was the routine was simply not very funny. It was not ready, Johnny looked round at Elizabeth it was clear that she also clear that she was beginning to realise that it was not working as well. They would just have to get through it.
After the open mic a few friends had come over to awkwardly congratulate him. Elizabeth flatly thanked him for his help before buying him a whisky. She clearly wanted him to stay behind to rework the act. It was obvious to Johnny that it was unsalvageable. However, the seed of a new one was plated in his mind, he thought about Betty and May’s haughty demeanour on the day Elizabeth lost her job or the look on George’s face as he left that evening. Bores were everywere, like hydrogen they were a universal constant. They had an unbreakable grip on the world. These types of people could force themselves on to everyone else though sheer brute will, frequently our only resources we had to fight against them were internal. The trick was to perform alchemy, Johnny would transform his web of dismal familial into threads of comic gold. From the outside it looked like he was lose but the cream of the jest would come when everyone saw him joking though his own failures.
11:28, 10 Apr 2019
The Wedding Gift
It was while he was staying in his father’s study the pervious Christmas that Markus first read about Branwell Brontë. Obligatory attendance at the extended family’s Christmas Eve whiskey party meant that he could not sleep that evening. Markus spent most of that night reading a biography of the Brontë family. After the first few references Markus went to the index looking for more information on Branwell. With each passing page interest, turned to fascination, to distaste and eventually to recognition. Branwell the other sibling, the restless drunken failure. Branwell the artist.
Markus knew something about what it was like to live with brilliant sisters. Take Emily the eldest member of the family. She was playing piano by ear at two, first concert hall at nine and international orchestras by thirteen. Next up came Charlotte if anything her process with the Cello was even quicker. The youngest sister Mary played the bass. As soon as Markus was born it was expected that the trio would become a quartet. One of Markus’ earliest memories was the day his mother placed a violin into his podgy toddler’s fists expecting the subline and getting a blast of scratchy atonal noise back. After that he was usually just given a box of crayons and some white paper and expected to keep quiet during the long rehearsal periods.
It was during those long silent afternoons that Markus uncovered his own interests. While the rest of the family sat in the living room sharpening their ears to pitch, melody and timbre Markus spent his time looking at things and ‘scribbling’. Everywhere he went he saw interesting things to draw, Stick men, bits of graffiti he saw in the street, monsters and most of all the cartoons he saw on television. Thus, their childhoods took their expected courses the sisters scaling the Himalayas of their talents while Markus climbed the more modest slopes of his own. Despite this Markus bore no resentment towards his sisters until early adulthood, a time he would later describe using an analogy from a favourite childhood cartoon. In the Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner shorts, the titular cartoon coyote would be so blindly focused on stocking his prey that he would often run off cliffs. For a few moments his feet would paddle though the air propelled forward by the fury of his own obsession not realising there was no ground beneath him. Suddenly he would look down see the gap beneath him and plummet all the way to the ground. Markus often thought one’s twenties were like that. His fall would take place during a family wedding.
Markus had been conscripted into the groom’s party a fortnight before and as such had turned up at the hotel early. He found his fellow groomsman sharing a plate of chips in the lobby. Both of the groom’s bothers Pongo (so-called because of his unfortunate canine-like face) and Spanky (So-called because of an incident involving a stack of pornographic magazines during a school assembly) saw him and signalled him over. Pulling a chair from another table Markus had just sat down Pongo grabbed his hand and began to shake “Markus man how’s it going, you still working at the vodafone centre?”
“Aye for now, what about yourself, still at the garage?”
“For the time being I’m thinking about going back to Tech get my English you Know. Spanky’s been plugging away at it for a while recons he’s close this year.”
“Really, good man would Tesco’s take on full time then?”
Spanky grunted by way of response before getting up and heading for the bar. Markus had always felt kinship with his two cousins they well all younger children whose older siblings were much more successful. Still seeing them as they were that day he was forced to consider the idea that an Art Collage graduate who worked temp jobs and picked up the odd bit of freelance graphic design work had it much than the academically unsuccessful sons of a family of teachers and accountants who looked like they’d scrape along working for minimum wage their whole lives.
When Spanky returned he was crying a tray with three half-pints of larger on seeing them Pongo winked.
“Sorry it can’t be anything more Markus man we promised Ma we wouldn’t drink before the wedding. Still we had to get something you are pulling us out of the hole we were in when that mate of Brain’s said he couldn’t do groomsman. One eh us has to do the speech.” Markus padded the jacket pocket which contained his notes. “It’s no bother at all”. If he was asked he would have to had said that he was looking forward to delivering this speech. After a life time of sitting quietly during his sister’s recitals and being for the most part overlooked he had grown fond of public speaking of being watched a listened to for a change. He leaned back in his chair and look a sip of his larger. It was going to be a fine day.
After finishing his drink, Markus went to check in and drop his bags of before the ceremony, coming out of his room he saw his father at the other end of the corridor. “Could I have a world Markus”? His father was grinning, and he could hear traces of his native Devon accent as he spoke. Clearly the cousins weren’t the only ones who started on the drink early.
“I understand that you’re delivering the best man’s speech. Could I ask you a small favour?”
“What is it”?
“I have not had a chance to talk to you about Brain’s wedding present. Your mother and I wanted to give the couple something a bit special and your sisters are all a bit short of money with the trip to Vienna coming up. So, we all put our heads together and have come up with an idea. We need your help keep an open mind.”
“What do you need”?
Listening to his father Markus was beginning to remember their last conversation. During a dinner to mark his retirement Markus’ father had pulled him aside and suggested that he enrol on a course which trained bookkeepers. He could hear the same tone of voice he used them entre into this conversation.
“We have spoken to the parents of the couples and asked for a bit of time during the speeches to present our gift. You see your sisters have been working hard over the past few months and they’ve cooked up with a small composition to mark to the occasion. I understand you were looking forward to delivering your speech, but I was just wondering if you could refrain from it and just sort of introduce your sisters.”
“Yeah of course no bother”
“You’re not disappointed”
“Nah not really I’m looking forward to hearing the piece.”
Once he had heard what his father had to say Markus walked away. He was being churlish he knew that. Whatever the sisters had come up with it would be great, better than great it would be perfect. What other newly married couple could that they had a new piece of music by near geniuses as a wedding gift? It was about Brain and his new wife, they were centre stage no one else really mattered. Still it would have been nice to spend one day with his family without it turning into the Emily, Charlotte and Mary appreciation society.
The ceremony itself was remarkably quick owing to the fact that the celebrant raced through the it in order to get out and place his grand national bet on. This meant that the dinning room was not ready for and the guests would have to wait another hour. Markus was trying to avoid his father when he heard a shout coming from the bar. Pongo had obviously been let off his leash. Markus decided to go in and investigate. He saw his two cousins (neither of them much taller than five foot) sitting at the bar with glasses of whiskey in their hands and their feet dangling off their stools. They had both somehow manged to lose their charcoal-grey suit jackets. As soon as Markus entered the bar Pongo called him over and placed a bottle of Black Bush with ice into his hand. They followed this with pints of larger, and finally some shots of tequila. At this point Markus realised that he had not eaten that day he was rocking in his chair and his thoughts turned to his speech. He knew he was too full of drink and resentment not to make a balls of his introduction at this point it was all about damage control.
The bell rang in the dinning hall and it was time to entre. Markus made his way past the rows of circular chestnut brown tables and the flower arrangements up to the big head table. Once he got his seat Markus took a breath he just had to get though it just ten more minuities then he could eat. He had just begun to relax when he saw waiters carrying sliver jugs, they were pouring the contents into the wine glasses of each guest. He would be expected to drink some of that wine. A waiter leaned over his shoulder and poured dark red Merlo into his glass. Markus’ stomach went into a spin cycle he could hear his name being called. The bride’s father put the microphone under his chin. Markus stood up he could not quite focus on any one section of the room. The room seemed to assault him with absurd details Spanky’s Karloff-flat head, the exquisitely untrimmed eyebrows of Uncle Alo. Markus opened his mouth to speak at the very end of the room he could see his sisters getting ready.
“Ladies and Gentlemen normally at this point normally the best man’s speech is supposed to focus on the groom. However as many of you know nothing can happen in this family unless the McCain sisters are at the centre. So sorry Brain and Mary we’re going to take time away from you to listen to a tune the girls wrote”.
He had planned to go but then the vomit rose in his chest and pushed through his throat, before he was even aware of what was happening Markus’ shirt, tie and the tablecloth beneath him were all covered in yellow pea soup bile.
Markus bolted out a side door near the main table, a small clump of tress stood on the opposite side of the driving path. Taking off his jacket Markus leaned against a tree and let the remaining contents of his stomach evacuate his body. He began to weep, everything was fucked up. He wanted a bit of attention to be talked about for a bit. The extended family would be talking about his behaviour for quite a while. A hand pressed on Markus’ shoulder.
“Are you okay Markus”. He looked up to see Emily standing above him carrying a glass of water. “fine” he replied. It was bad enough that she was beyond talented worse still she was also pretty enough to become an object of adoration for his friends. The fact that she was considerate enough to come out and check on him even after he had just insulted her was almost unbearable. “I’m not the Branwell you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Branwell Brontë miserable fuck up brother of the novelists.”
Emily’s smile snapped shut when she said this. “Is that really how you see yourself?”
“Next to the three of you how could I not?”
“Fool”. Emily opened her small powder -blue clutch bag and pulled out a folded piece of paper throwing it at Markus’ feet.
“I just wanted you to know that I’ve been showing this to everyone this past weekend”.
Markus picked the paper up and unfolded it. At the start of the month Markus had been commissioned to design a poster for a local music festival. He could not believe Emily had taken it with her that weekend.
“Of course. You do know that the father has a big blown up copy above his desk. In fact, my friend Jackie has been torturing me to get you to draw something for her.”
Emily bent down and helped Markus up after handing him a few wet wipes she turned away to make her inside. Just before she reached the path she looked over her shoulder. “By the way Branwell’s poetry and translations were respected and well-reviewed in his own life time.”.
As soon as the dinner was finished the tables were put away the disco was set up. After the obligatory awkward dance with the Bridesmaid Markus went back to his seat pulled out a sheet of paper and began to draw. He was just finishing his cartoon drawing of a tuxedoed best man vomiting with such force that he was propelled into the air when he saw his sisters dancing in the centre of the dance floor. Things weren’t necessarily alright they wouldn’t be for weeks, months or possibly longer. There was nothing else for it but to keep scribbling.