Rachel Katz lifted the mike off its stand and jerked the lead away from her feet.
“So yeah, right, anyway,” she began, moving the mike stand to one side, “what do you think about this new morning-after pill for men?”
She’d hoped for a few expectant chuckles at her opening line, but wasn’t too alarmed when none came.
“The male morning-after pill, yeah. The moment the paternity suit’s filed, it changes their blood group.”
Silence. OK, she thought. It happens.
“You know,” she continued, her trademark deadpan voice not faltering, “I’m thirty-four years old and still I don’t get it. Men. And the emotions thing.
“I mean why are they so afraid of feelings, so alienated by the remotest display of sensitivity? Let’s face it — the only time you’ll catch a bloke watching Oprah is when it’s on nymphomaniacs and where they hang out.”
She paused. Waited for her laugh. Again, nothing. She was beginning to feel uneasy, and more than a little perplexed. She’d tried out the Oprah gag on a dozen audiences in the last few weeks and people always hooted.
The family of highly strung ferrets that usually inhabited Rachel’s stomach when she was performing went into a psychotic frenzy of somersaults and back flips.
“Right,” she said breezily, doing her best to ignore the ferrets. “Just me on that one then.”
She smiled at the audience, hoping she might receive a few titters of encouragement in return. But none were forthcoming.
“You see,” she continued, starting to feel mildly nauseous now, “it’s not only the emotional thing fellas can’t do. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I mean practically all my boyfriends have missed the things that are really important to me — my birthday, the anniversary of when we met ... my clitoris.”
She paused once more. Still not a hint of a hoot. This could not be happening.
She peered at the audience through the smoke and semidarkness. Sitting round the Anarchist Bathmat’s pub tables was the usual mix of pierced and goateed student types, a few yuppies and a smattering of forty-somethings desperate to show the world their humor was still cutting edge while forgetting their sartorial style was more cutting hedge.
“Right, er, OK,” Rachel battled on, “I was lying in bed next to my boyfriend the other night after we’d made love and I found myself thinking that God just has to be a man. I mean if God were a woman, she’d have made sperm taste of chocolate.”
“God, I wish you lot had been here yesterday,” Rachel said, swallowing hard. “I was in Birmingham.”
Suddenly a woman in the front row began sniffing loudly. Others followed. Then came the sound of somebody crying. By now Rachel’s nausea, panic and overwhelming confusion were turning to astonishment. She couldn’t understand it. Usually when people didn’t like her material, they heckled, went off to the bar or simply ignored her. They didn’t collapse into depression. Her bewilderment was such that she realized she’d forgotten the next part of her routine. She had to come up with an ad lib, fast.
“‘S funny,” she chuckled nervously, “right now, I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”
Rachel couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The whole place was now filled with the sound of people weeping. For the first time in her career and, Rachel suspected, in the history of stand-up comedy, an entire audience had been reduced to tears.
Through the hazy half-light she could see women hunched over tables wracked with noisy sobs. Blokes were biting their bottom lips and gently consoling their girlfriends. A few fellas were even hugging each other. Through her peripheral vision, Rachel caught sight of Lenny, the emcee, who was standing to one side of the stage. He was making violent cutthroat gestures to her. She realized she had no alternative but to come off stage.
“Thank you,” she shouted above the din of wailing, sniffing and nose blowing, “I’m Rachel Katz and you’ve been ... an audience. Good night.”
Rachel bounded over to Lenny. He was a short, thirty-something Sheffield lad with mad-scientist ginger hair and pink tartan flares. They’d worked together dozens of times and he and Rachel were good mates.
“Blimey,” she gasped. “Talk about going down like Sylvester Stallone’s dick at a transvestite convention. Do you mind telling me what was going on? I mean, I’ve died before, but I’ve never been mourned.”
“It’s OK, Rachel. Calm down,” Lenny said, smiling and gently rubbing the top of her arm. “It wasn’t your fault. You see, the audience couldn’t help it.”
“What do you mean, ‘couldn’t help it’? Course they could bloody help it.”
“No, they couldn’t, honest. You were in the bar with your bloke when Mori Bund the Jewish Goth hypnotist was on. He’d put the entire audience in a trance, managed to convince the men that England had just lost the Ashes, the Football World Cup and the Rugby World Cup all on the same day and the women that they were watching the final scene in Casablanca. He finished his act positive he’d brought them back. It was only when you went on that he realized they were still under.”
Rachel turned to look at the audience. The crying had stopped and everybody was sitting upright in their seats, their eyes closed and heads flopped forward. On stage a gangly, nervous-looking chap with an Alice Cooper face, wearing a black top hat, matching satin cloak, horizontally striped black-and-white tights and red Doc Martens, was counting loudly backward from ten.
“You’re quiet,” Rachel said to Adam through a mouthful of Big Mac. “You haven’t even told me what you thought of my set tonight, at least what there was of it. I know it all went a bit pear-shaped because of the hypnosis thing — but weeping customers aside, what did you reckon?”
Adam took one hand off the steering wheel and leaned across to steal one of her chips. He said nothing. He looked thoughtful and uneasy at the same time. She could tell he was building up to something.
“Come on, out with it,” she said good-humoredly. “You thought I was crap, didn’t you?”
He opened his mouth to speak, but she came back at him before he had a chance.
“OK, I know what it is,” she said. “All my bloke-bashing material makes you feel like I’m getting at you. Come on Adam, you know none of my gags are personal. Jokes against men get laughs, that’s all.”
She leaned toward him and began stroking his cheek. “You’ve never once missed my birthday,” she purred. “Or my clitoris.”
“Don’t be daft,” he told her. “It never even occurred to me to take any of your anti-men stuff personally. Mind you it is a bit unrelenting. Why don’t you try changing it a bit? I heard this brilliant gag the other day. Now then, how did it go? Hang on ... OK, yeah ... What do Japanese men do when they have erections?”
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice a perfect imitation of a music hall comic. “What do Japanese men do when they have erections?”
“Right,” she said with a weak chuckle.
“Oh, well,” Adam shrugged, “it made me laugh. Still, what do I know, I’m just a dentist.”
“Yeah. You think loose dentures are funny.” She shoved some more chips into her mouth.
“I don’t know about that, but I could certainly name you dentists whose bridgework makes me laugh out loud.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment or two.
“I know what’s bugging you,” she said eventually. “You still think I should jack in the comedy, don’t you?”
“Look,” he said, bringing his brand-new Audi A6 to a stop at a red light, “with the exception of maybe your mother, nobody would be more delighted than me if you gave it up and went back to journalism. Bloody hell, Rache, two years ago you were a broadsheet features editor earning a really decent salary. You had an expense account, a company BMW. Then you just walk away. For what? To spend night after night in seedy smoke-filled pub back rooms getting heckled by drunks.”
“Er, excuse me,” she said. “For your information, I haven’t had a heckler in ages. Adam, we’ve been through this a thousand times. You know how much I love doing the comedy. You know the buzz I get from standing up there, making an audience laugh at material I’ve written.”
“I can’t imagine what it must feel like performing in front of all those people,” Adam said. “I’d be petrified.”
“I am petrified,” she said eagerly. “But in a way I love that too. Even before I get up on stage, the adrenaline starts pumping because I know I’m about to take this enormous risk. The audience may not laugh. And that’s scary. Then when they do, I get this wonderful sense of triumph. It’s like I’ve climbed a mountain or run a marathon. Journalism could be satisfying occasionally — you know, blowing the whistle on some bent MP or whatever — but it never gave me the rush the comedy does. It didn’t come close. In the end it just bored me.”
As she took another bite of burger, mayonnaise started to dribble down her chin. She wiped it with the back of her hand. When she realized all she’d succeeded in doing was transfer the mayo rather than get rid of it, she began sucking her hand.
Adam winced, and opened the glove compartment. Next to the box of tissues that he always kept in the car in case he had one of his frequent, stress-related nosebleeds was a container of Wet Ones. He handed it to her. But by now she’d already wiped her hand on her combats. She put the box down next to her feet.
“Thing is,” she went on, “I must give it a proper go. I can’t give up just because once in a while I get heckled. That’s how comics learn. It’s part of finding out what material works and what doesn’t.”
She stopped chewing and watched Adam take a neatly folded yellow duster from the driver’s door compartment, open it and wrap one corner round his index finger.
“But you’re earning no money,” he said, rubbing at a spot of nonexistent dirt on the dashboard.
“I am,” she said brightly. “I made 150 quid tonight.”
“I mean real money. Rache, you have to clean people’s houses to make ends meet. And you’ve got a child to support.”
Satisfied that the imaginary speck was gone, he refolded the duster down the original crease marks and put it back in the driver’s door compartment.
“C’mon, Ad,” she said, playfully punching the top of his arm, “I get by. And you know I’d never let Sam go without ... Anyway, it’s only till I get famous. D’you want the rest of these chips?”
He shook his head.
She screwed up the burger paper and rammed it down on top of the half-full chip box. “Plus I’ve worked it out, I’ve got all the money I need ... so long as I die before Monday.”
Adam turned to her and smiled, despite himself.
“Look,” she went on, “please try and understand. I’m doing something I really want to do and that means so much more to me than having piles of cash in the bank.”
By way of response, Adam took the McDonald’s rubbish from her lap, twisted round and placed it neatly in the Car Tidy hanging from the back of the passenger seat.
“Floss?” he said a moment later, taking his hand out of his jacket pocket and offering her the tiny white container.
Rachel was used to Adam’s flossing obsession. No matter how many times she begged him not to, he still offered it round at dinner parties.
She shook her head.
“Fine, but I tell you, Rache, you neglect oral hygiene at your peril. Don’t come crying to me when your teeth start to turn yellow.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.