‘Weren’t you here before?’, the waitress asks.
‘A while ago’.
He’s conscious that his English accent makes him stick out. Outside the diner windows, tall firs capture the early evening darkness, while trucks thunder past on the old highway. Bright neon reflects on the wet tarmac.
‘There’s really nothing special about me’, he insists, as he sits at a table near the plate glass window. He picks up the laminated menu. ‘It must have been over ten years ago. . .’.
‘But I sure as hell remember you’, she says.
And he feels a strange connection inside. Sadness mixed with nostalgia. A hint of shame. Some jubilation.
‘I was a different man back then’.
‘You were on some tour, right? You and your . . Your uncle, right? Driving around the country. And you’d just come down from Canada’.
‘Oh, I sure remember you!’
So much had changed in the previous ten years. He looks around at the other customers in the diner. Truck drivers, a family in one corner, some lone drivers, a young couple. The rain intensifies and it starts to roll down the plate glass window.
‘You were young’, she says. ‘Mind you, so was I. The world was a different place back then, wasn’t it? Weren’t you drunk?’
‘I probably was’.
‘And we’d never had a Brit in here. Do you remember? We danced . . .’.
‘Oh, I remember you, honey’.
She stands next to him and taps her long, painted nails on his shoulder.
‘You swept me off my feet. We glided across this very floor, the music was just the same but it was the music of the moment. You treated me like a proper lady for the first time in years. The bums at the counter, oh sure, they were laughing like hyenas. I said to the guys, this here is a real gentleman . Remember that? This here is a real gentleman ‘.
‘As I say, I was . . Different back then’.
‘Oh, I can’t forget someone like you. I really can’t, sugar. So, what brings you back? What brings you back here, to this crummy diner in the middle of nowhere?’
He wants to tell her that he’s retracing his steps, finding himself, doing something in memory of his late uncle, doing something in memory of his self, but it all sounds so trite.
‘I just felt like something to eat’, he lies.
And everywhere he’d been so far, nobody had remembered him at all. And it looked so different, everything looked like it had changed. It was quite dispiriting. Nobody had remembered him.
‘You staying here? For the night? In our little town? There’s a motel next door. Yes sir, you really did treat me like a proper lady’.
He and his uncle had adjoining rooms, and whisky. It was probably one of the very first times he’d even had whisky.
‘I don’t think it was me’, he says.
He gets up from his table by the window.
‘Oh, hon. I always remember a face’.
‘It wasn’t me’, he says.
And he walks away, back to the car, runs across the parking lot in the rain, through the puddles and the neon.
There has been talk lately in spoken word circles of the direction that the movement has been taking over the last decade and how it has shifted away from the scene that existed in the 2000s and before. Many have cited the influence of slams and American slam culture, others have pointed out that spoken word has become more literary and closer to page poetry, with the emphasis very much on words and use of language. And while neither of these are bad things – (my own philosophy being that it is what it is) – I do ponder every now and then on how it used to be.
I’ve spent the last twelve years or so performing all over the UK and during this time I have honed my regular ‘set’ down to what seems to work best on stage. My poems are mostly humorous, and rely on conventions of stand-up comedy and a certain approximation of what poetry should be contrasted with what my poetry actually is. There’s a bit of prop work and an awful lot of silliness. And some awful silliness. And people seem to like it.
As Pete Bearder pointed out in his wonderful book about the spoken word scene, ‘Stage Invasion’, ‘Many older poets I have spoken to have lamented the loss of diversity in British performance poetry that was previously known for its humour and cabaret quirk’. He goes on to mention performers such as Rachel Pantechnicon, Chloe Poems and AF Harrold, who were at the top of their game back then and were the zenith of the performance poetry scene. Reading between the lines, the question seems to be, ‘when did performance poetry get so serious?’
Over the last year I’ve been working on a spoken word / music collaboration called Croydon Tourist Office, led by my friend Bryce Dumont, who used to run the Epicentre Cafe in Paignton where there was a monthly spoken word night. It was at this time that the spoken word scene was still heavily influenced by a cabaret style where anything went, where most performed created a character on stage, and authenticity wasn’t as important as it has now become. Or indeed, maybe the creation of stage personas actually accentuated the authenticity of the performer. Who knows?
Anyway, Bryce had been diligently recording every set that I performed back then and he emailed me a link to all of the material. Several things struck me. First of all, the poems weren’t as good as I remember them, but hey, I was only just starting. Secondly, my linking material was much better than I remember it being. Thirdly, my performance voice was much, much slower than it is now. (This was before I’d even heard of poetry slams and the necessity of cramming everything into under three minutes). And fourthly, wow, I certainly did some weird things on stage!
When I first started performing back in the late 2000s, the local scene was heavily influenced by comedy and surrealism in south Devon, and I soon joined in with a bizarre mix of my own, of prop-based avant gard and whimsical verse which, at the same time, mocked the whole idea of poetry performance. And for a while, this was my Unique Selling Point. And although I wore seemingly normal clothes on stage, I was very much a persona, the Professor of Whimsy, an exaggeration of my actual self.
So here are some of the incredibly bizarre things that I did back in those formative years, 2008-2012:
1. Used a mobile phone to deliver my set from a cubicle in the toilets.
This was fun. I set up a mobile phone I’d borrowed from a friend behind the mic. I put it on speaker phone and then called in my set while pretending to have raging stomach ache from the toilet at the rear of the premises.
2. Built a cardboard robot called Robot Garnham on stage and let him do my performance.
This was also fun. I operated the robot via a fishing rod from the side of the stage. And then at one moment I sat down and read the paper while the robot performed. It was really weird. People were facing the robot and laughing.
3. Phoned a friend halfway through a set to ask him what my next line was.
I had no idea if this was going to work. Again I used the speaker phone. A friend was at home with a copy of my poem. He fed me the lines down the phone.
4. Performed a set of Pam Ayres poems through the window from the street.
So the premise of this was that I’d orchestrated a row with Bryce. I said that I was going to perform some Pam Ayres poems and he pretended to physically throw me out of the cafe. I then proceeded to do a whole set of Pam Ayres poems through the glass windows from the darkened street. And people were walking past and I’d interrupt my performance to say hello to them.
5. Pretended to drink Pam Ayres urine after pretending to choke on a cream cracker.
Just the usual performance. I’d started the set by announcing that I’d gone to the doctors and Pam was in the waiting room, and that she had misunderstood when I said that I was a fan of her work. She got in a mood and left, but accidentally left behind her urine sample. I then performed a poem while eating a cream cracker and halfway through faked that I was choking. Of course, the only thing to hand was the Pam Ayres urine, and down it went in one gulp. The audience reaction was amazing. It was actually cold tea.
6. Performed a whole set with a tea bag sellotaped to my forehead.
Still no idea why.
7. Performed the same poem twice in a row with no explanation.
Which was fun but then at a gig a few years later one of the performers was so drunk that she actually did this, so now I’m a little embarrassed. Perhaps I should perform the same poem three times?
8. Tried to get inanimate objects to race each other.
OK, so this was my performance art piece, ‘Static’. I’d start by tuning a radio to static, and then placing these objects in a line on a table. I’d line them up and then wave a flag while keeping my finger on a stopwatch. Obviously the objects did not move. I tried this three times, then removed the objects, turned off the radio, and went and sat down in my seat.
9. Built a large hadron collider on stage.
Taking a length of garden hose, and a custard cream on a saucer. I’d eat half the biscuit, then pick up a crumb, and blow it through the garden hose, putting the two ends together and then taking a photo with a digital camera. I’d repeat this three times, and then use my laptop to show pictures of the atoms smashing together.
10. Got a poet to dress as a spaceman and pretend to interrupt my set as visitors from the future intent on making sure my rise from obscurity did not occur,
You read that right.
11. Got an eminent and well respected page poet to perform Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance as a poem.
That was a beautiful evening. James Turner was the well respected poet. He did his research thoroughly and even sent me a critique of Lady Gaga’s lyrics.
12. Stood behind another poet as he performed and ate crisps, noisily, while staring straight ahead.
Not much else to add here.
13. Performed while standing on a hip exercise swivel disc.
That was fun, because the more I swivelled, the more I turned around to face the rear, so I kept having to frantically swivel to face the audience again. I’m still not sure why.
14. Performed through an iPad which I held up to my face while wearing a large box on my head.
The box was covered with fairy lights and tin foil. The iPad was showing a video but it was just my face. It was surprisingly effective. I’ll have to do this again some time.
15. Dressed as a crocodile, which had nothing to do with my set.
Nor did I refer to it during my set.
16. Wore a fake moustache which slowly moved around my face.
Halfway through the set I took out a large piece of paper and held it up and subtly moved the moustache every time I hid behind the piece of paper, which I was pretending to read from, and then pretending that I didn’t know why the audience were laughing every time I looked out from behind the big piece of paper.
17. Performed the Pet Shop Boys song Two Divided By Zero on a talking calculator.
You’ll find this funny if you know the song.
18. Used an Elefun toy game to blow small pieces of crepe paper with poems written on them into the air.
This worked amazingly well. Elefun is a plastic toy elephant that has a fan in it so it blows pieces of paper out of its long tubular trunk. And it was fun because the pieces of paper blew up out of the toy elephant’s trunk quicker than I could read them, plus I was catching them in a small net so most of the time was spent flailing around with this tiny net trying to catch and then read the small pieces of paper on which the poems were written.
19. Hired out my five minute set to another poet who wasn’t on the bill.
Inspired by a ‘gallery within the gallery’ which used to be at Tate Modern, if you’re interested. I can’t even remember who the poet was. I mean this was back in the day, so it wasn’t like anyone had come just to see me. But you should have seen the look on the host’s face. Plus I made ten quid.
20. Read a poem from an incredibly large piece of paper.
And I mean, really, really big. Which meant I’d spent the previous evening sellotaping together six incredibly large pieces of paper to form one huge humongous piece of paper.
Maybe I should be more adventurous and go back to these days. It certainly was fun. When I first started performing I received a lot of wisdom, advice and encouragement from Rachel Pantehcnicon and she told me that if she could change anything about her career, it would be that she would have less props that she had to lug around the UK. I suppose this was struck home for me when I had the pleasure and honour of supporting John Henley at a gig in London. Indeed, it would be just the two of us all evening. Willing to make a good impression, not only did I cart up on the train the biggest box of props you’ve ever seen, but also a table to put them on, which I then had to transport across London on the tube! After the gig I was so knackered that I just left it backstage at the theatre. I wonder if they ever wondered where their extra table had come from . . .
As I say, times have moved on, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Or maybe it is. Who am I to judge? I do pine for the days when an evening out at a performance poetry gig (as they were called back then, no ‘spoken word’), could entail anything from performers getting absolutely naked to reciting poetry while standing in a paddling pool filled with jelly. Both of which, incidentally, I’ve seen. It was all a little rough around the edges, and most of the performers had stage names, and everyone was absolutely unique in their own quirky way, and the emphasis really was on comedy and spectacle, and at the end of the night you knew you’d seen something amazing. Audience expectations may be different these days. I just hope I somehow remain myself as a kind of bridge between the past and the present.
I could feel the engines throbbing through the joystick, the plane itself skimming the tops of the clouds throwing down a shadow of our outline, the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus hiding within their fluffy exterior hail, thunderstorms, bad weather. It’s a position I’ve been in more times than I can remember, the pulsating turbofans of my craft a comfort, the juddering engines, the pulsating jets, the oscillating power units, all of them at my control.
I speak into the cabin intercom using that practised drawl.
‘Aaaaaaaaand ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, Captain O. Captain. Yes, I know my surname is Captain, you could say I was destined for this job. We’re about seventy miles from Westbury International. If you look out the port side windows, you’ll see a lovely view of the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus. So we should begin our descent any time soon. Until then, please feel free to be lulled by the pulsating, oscillating, throbbing, juddering of the engines as they soothe us through the sky . . . You know . . . I might even sing to you’.
‘Don’t’, the First Officer suggested.
‘Cabin crew, prepare for . . .’.
‘Yes . . Yes . . .’.
Instinctively, I reached out a hand and stroked the topside of the cockpit controls.
‘Bring us home safely, old girl . .’, I whispered.
‘Captain O. Captain’, the First Officer, Ben, said. ‘You really are somewhat eccentric ‘.
I could feel the engines quaking and gibbering through the controls.
‘Ben . . .if that is your name . . . Flying is instinctive. It’s a relationship between not only the captain and their machine, but also solid metal and the laws of physics. It’s like an affirmation of . . I say, are you okay?’
The sweat was rolling down Ben’s face. His upper lip was glistening. He stared straight ahead as if not even noticing the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus,
‘You see . . . The quivering engines . . .’.
All of a sudden Ben yelled, ‘Can’t you see it? Don’t you understand? You’re my father!’
I was silent for a couple of seconds.
‘But . . .’.
‘Don’t try to deny it. You know it’s true. I’ve been waiting years for us to be scheduled on the same flight, just so I could tell you this!’
‘But Brad, we have our pre-landing checklist . . ‘.
‘It’s Ben. Sod the pre-landing checklist! I rose up through the ranks just for this one day, and then the moment . . . The moment I’m with you . . I . . .’. Ben let out a sign, his head silhouetted against the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus clouds. ‘I realise that I can never come between the love you have for aircraft’.
I could feel the vibrations and the trundling of the engines through the controls.
‘So your mother must be Sophie’, I whisper, ‘that winsome mechanic whose coquettish charms lit up the engineering hangar all those years ago, resulting in our tryst in the starboard fan cowling assembly . . .’.
‘That was twenty four years ago’.
‘Jeez, they’re letting you fly planes at twenty three years old, now?!’
‘Captain O. Captain. I mean . . Dad’.
The sun shines brightly on the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus.
‘No time to talk, we’ve got to concentrate. Let’s get this baby on the ground ‘.
‘That’s what she said’.
We began our descent. The white fluffy clouds of the cumulonimbus gave way to a deep grey and the cockpit window was spotted with rain. A slight turbulence flexed our wings as the engines grinded and rattled through the controls. After a while we were out of the base of the clouds and the runway lights were in view.
‘Every landing’, I whisper, as we levelled and lined up, ‘is a controlled calamity’.
And the runway itself seemed to beckon us in. In much the same way that Sophie had beckoned me up into the starboard fan cowling assembly to show me an interesting leak. And then before we know it we’re down on the ground, wheels touching the runway, reverse thrust applied throwing us ever so gently into our harnesses.
‘You really only ever get one shot at this’, I tell him.
We taxi to the terminal building.
‘You really do . . ‘, I continue, my mind wandering.
I taught a sheep to use a pogo stick. I wanted to do it so that I could unveil the sheep on the pogo stick at my sisters wedding and make some wisecrack about woolly jumpers. I spent weeks finding the right sheep. It had to be one that would not only demonstrate the necessary physical aptitude but it would also have to be glad of the limelight. And once I found the right sheep we had to go through several weeks of intensive rehearsals. I’d get home late at night, my neck aching from watching the sheep bounce up and down, my back aching from all the times I had to pick it up from the floor but by the end of the process and with just two days to go before my sister’s wedding the sheep was ready. It had a little hat and a sparkly one piece cat suit. Sheep suit. And I unveiled it at my sisters wedding just before the big ceremony and my sister just turned to me and said, ‘you’re sick. You really are sick.’
This is the show that I was supposed to have toured the U.K. with this year. Alas, it was not to be.
Life can be so juicy at times. Juicy like a sweet apple, filled with goodness. It’s the small things that make it so ripe for exploration, for prodding and poking. Robert Garnham’s new show is an hour or so of performance poetry and spoken word, comedy rhymes and whimsy by the bucket full.
With poems about life, LGBT issues, being envious of beards and the pitfalls of fancying a surfer, Juicy culminates in an extended theatrical piece about love and lust set at an airport departure lounge.
Multiple slam champion and longlisted as Spoken Word Artist of the Year in 2016 and 2017, Robert has performed everywhere from the Womad Festival to London Gay Pride. He has recently featured in a tv advert campaign for a U.K. bank.
1. No one is ever worth writing a poem for, though every now and then you’ll meet someone who’s worth a limerick, particularly if they come from Chard.
2. If someone tells you that they love you, it’s not always a test, it’s an affectation of the status quo, a joy delivered in the beauty of a relationship which actually works, so it’s best not to answer with, oh, that’s good.
3. Shrimp will always give you raging guts ache.
4. Hold on to your nostalgia, otherwise you’ll have nothing to be nostalgic about, except possibly for the time you used to be nostalgic about things, so maybe you can be nostalgic about that.
5. Look at your life. Isolate your fears, your demons, and anything else that gives you the willies. Engage with them and dance, and banish them with a smile and a wave and a cheer. Unless, of course, the thing that scares you the most is crushing loneliness.
6. It’s never too late to learn. It’s never too early to forget.
7. Only concentrate on that which requires no thought.
8. You might not ever mention the elephant in the room, but you can certainly wonder how it got through the door, and up the stairs.
9. Look at the mirror every morning and say, I am loved, I am loved, I am loved. At least this way you’re prepared for any other bullshit that comes along.
10. Everyone you see or meet or talk to has been born. Even Avril Lavigne. And if you think being born was difficult, try getting a mortgage.
11. Go on, help yourself to the last cake in life. Living is all about grabbing the last cake. Go on, have it. Enjoy it. The dog licked it.
12. Get up early one morning, when the dew is still on the grass, and go for a walk barefoot in the park. Let me know when you’re doing this so that I can come round and borrow your vacuum cleaner.
13.Do something that excites you every day. Subvert the rules. Turn things on their head. Naturally this does not apply if you’re an airline pilot.
14. How do we know that opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck? Who was the first person to discover this? How many similar things do we do which are good or bad luck without us knowing? Brandishing a vase on a Thursday? Sitting on a pouffe just after lunch? The mind boggles, Mrs Henderson, the mind boggles.
15. Give as much joy to the small things in life as you do to the large. Which is why me and my ex split up.
16. If at first you don’t succeed, then maybe catching bullets with your teeth isn’t the job for you.
17. If you don’t think you can get it out, why the hell did you put it in there in the first place?
Strung from lamp post to lamp post, the multicoloured fairy lights wiggled, jiggled and jumped in the wind. An angry sea scratched at the pebble beach. Flecks of sand stung cold raw cheeks. It was dusk.
The world seemed obsolete, nullified by the obviousness of the season. Decay, frost-shredded painted gaiety and cartoon characters diminished by the elements, painted on shuttered ice cream shacks.
‘It’s heaving down here in the summer’, I tell him.
‘How far is it to your flat?’
‘Just a road away. I thought we’d make a detour, so you could see, the, erm . . .’.
We walk huddled hands in coat pockets.
‘You look like your profile picture’.
‘So do you’.
I like the way that the wind ruffles his hair. His cheekbones are much more pronounced than I thought they would be.
‘Wild’, I whisper, meaning the weather.
And he’s slightly taller than me.
There are lights on the horizon out at sea, ships sheltering in the bay, and they twinkle and pulse just like stars, and if it weren’t so cold then maybe I could create my own constellations.
‘I’m cold’, he points out.
And the multicoloured fairy lights throw down a glow which gives us several overlapping shadows, our two forms merged and combined like a pack of cards being shuffled. The iron legs of the old pier stride in to the angry sea like a Victorian lady holding up her petticoats,
‘Really cold’, he says.
‘When we get to my flat’, I tell him, ‘you’ll be warm enough’.
‘What’s that?’, he said, pointing at the pouffe.
‘It’s a pouffe’, I replied.
He walks around the living room, warily, looking at it from several angles.
‘What does it do?’
‘You put your legs on it when you’re sitting on the sofa’.
‘Yewwww . . .’.
‘Shall we just sit down and, er, warm up and . .’.
‘With that thing, there?’
I sit down. He lingers for a bit, and then he sits down, too. We look at each other and we smile.
‘I really liked your profile’, I tell him. ‘We’ve got a lot in common, haven’t we? It was great to chat online, but I’m so glad we’ve met’.
‘Seriously’, he says, ‘it’s called a pouffe?’
‘Yes . .’.
He looks at it for several seconds.
‘I can put it out on the landing if you like, if you’ve got a . . . Phobia’.
‘It’s still been in here, though’.
‘Put it out if your mind’.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to’.
And then neither of us says anything for a while. I can hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece.
‘A green pouffe . . .’.
He sighs, leans back in his chair.
‘I was in the jungle’, he whispers. ‘They said I was green. Green meant new, apparently. But I was more likely green because I just felt so unwell. The food, you see . . . And everything in the jungle was green, too. Have you ever really looked at the colour green? There are so many varieties. Green leaves, moss, bark, more leaves, green everywhere. And I felt so bad, I really did feel ill.’
‘That’s a shame. Let’s snuggle . . .’.
‘They reckon I had some sort of disease, brought about by flies. Mosquitoes, probably. They do things to the mind, and affect the way that we see the world. You can never tell how it’s going to go. But with me, it was the effect of everything. The greenery. The predominance of the colour green, just kind of crowded in on me. Made me lose my senses, in a way’.
‘Jeez. So, let’s fool around a bit, you and me. .’
‘And the greenery, it did things to me. I became obsessed. We were there to film a documentary, you see. About slugs, and I was the only newbie there, the only green member of the team. And as I say, I was throwing up the whole time . . ‘.
‘You never mentioned the throwing up.’
I try to put my arm around his shoulders, but he stands up and looks out the window.
‘Sure! A never ending spume of it. I was having visions, it was like some kind of hideous trance that the jungle had put my under. So they flew me home. And the film company, they paid to send me out and recuperate in the countryside. But the countryside, oh, have you ever been to the countryside?’
‘Every now and then. Say, aren’t you hot wearing that big jumper? And those . . Jeans?’
‘There was greenery everywhere. Greenery and scenery. And the scenery was mostly green. There were fields and trees and the fields and trees were green. Especially the evergreens. The greenest evergreens I had ever seen. And there was moss and dappled sun and rhododendrons. And there were villages and villages greens. And the village greens were green. And everyone out there eats their greens. And also some of the tractors were green.’
‘Fascinating. Say, has anyone ever said what nice lips you have? Very kissable . .’.
‘So then I came back to the city . .’.
(‘Here we go . .’).
‘ . . And there was lots of green here, too. The Starbucks logo is mostly green. And so is the fungus in the bus station. And my friend Pete’s car is green. And so is the tie I was wearing yesterday. And the traffic lights are occasionally green. Red, mostly, and amber, and red and amber, but occasionally green. And salt and vinegar crisp packets. Again, green. And the District Line is green. And it passes through Turnham Green. And even though the neon signs are multicoloured, you could probably turn ’em green. Green. Everything is green.’
‘Yes, it is somewhat ubiquitous’.
‘And it does things to me. All this green. It really does affect me very badly. I can’t stand it. I get flashbacks. Green flashbacks. You’ve got to understand’.
I laid my hand on his leg and made a mental note not to include broccoli with dinner.
‘I’ll move the pouffe’, I whisper. ‘Take it away from here, if that makes you feel any better. And then I’ll start on the dinner’.
‘Thank you ‘, he replies. ‘I’m sorry. But it really is giving me the willies’.
I get up and I move the pouffe outside where he can’t see if, and then I come and rejoin him on the sofa.
‘Oh my god’, he says. ‘Is that footstool over there beige? Oh no! I was in the desert, you see, surrounded by miles and miles of beige sand, when I started to feel very ill . . .’.
I let out a deep sigh, lean back on the sofa, and I start peeling an orange.
I think I’m going to burst into flames. It’s not a feeling I’ve ever had before. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, except that one time. I was on a train, and the train manager came over the loudspeaker and said, ‘Take care as you alight’. Oh, I thought, I didn’t know that was a possibility. But right now, right at this moment, I think I’m going to burst into flames.
I was reading this story the other day about some man who burst into flames. There he was, just minding his own business, when, woof! A dog came in. And then he burst into flames. Ironically, his name was Ash.
He’d called his next door neighbour for help but his next door neighbour had said, ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’
‘And the rest of me, too!’, Ash had replied.
And after that, he was quite dead indeed.
It’s quite disconcerting knowing that you might go up at any minute. I phoned my ex and I said, ‘I’m worried that I’m about to go up!’
‘First time for everything, he sighed.
So much for rekindling old flames.
The thing about spontaneous human combustion is that I expect it’s the sort of thing you can only do once. I’d spent most of the afternoon in the shower. My friend Beth has always said that I have a warm personality. You don’t know the half of it, I thought of replying. ‘Let’s go to the funfair’, I suggested, ‘and pretend that it’s not about to happen. And by the way, I think I’ve got heart burn’.
‘OK’, Beth said.
‘OK what?’, I asked.
‘OK, let’s go to the funfair’.
I don’t think Beth believed me when I said that I was going to burst into flames. She said it was like one of those stories you read where the lead character is also the narrator, and it’s obvious that whatever troubles they faced they had survived, because it was a first hand account. She then told me that she didn’t entirely believe in spontaneous human combustion, but that her uncle had once seen spontaneous goat combustion, and for the rest of the day he had had a strange hankering for a lamb roast.
But she didn’t believe me, I’m sure of it. On the other hand I’d hate it if my last words were to be, ‘see! I told you!’
A friend of mine is a fireman and I phoned him up and I asked him for some advice.
‘Well’, he said, ‘you can always fight fire with fire’.
‘But that’s no bleeding good!’, I said. ‘In fact, I reckon it would be counter productive.’
‘If you want me to rush round with my big hose’, he said, ‘then you’ve got another thing coming’.
We met at a house warming party. As I say, he’s a fireman.
Ironically, his name is Bern.
Beth and I arrived at the funfair on a glorious evening. The funfair was on the village green next to the pub and the main road. The setting sun had made the sky all red and the neon and fluorescent lights of the fair contrasted and complemented the glory of the clouds. The world seemed lit with promise as if in competition with the mystique and the firmament of space in its eternal and ethereal wonder, lighting the angular facade of Wetherspoons.
‘You haven’t dried your hair after your shower’, Beth said.
‘It’s true, I am somewhat moist, but it’s all on account of the spontaneous human combustion’.
‘Just plan to do it at nine o clock’, she said. ‘Say to yourself, nine o clock is when I’ll go up in flames’.
‘Why?’, I asked.
‘Because then it won’t be very spontaneous, will it?”
‘It doesn’t work like that’, I pointed out.
‘How would you know, if you’ve never done it?’, she replied.
The funfair had all of the usual accoutrements such as stalls and a dodgems and a couple of rides, but in the middle was a circus tent with a barker standing out the front. And by this I don’t mean a dog, but a man dressed as a circus ringmaster. He seemed very excited about the tent behind him, which was decorated in large fluorescent lettering and the word, FUNHOUSE.
Beth and I stood in front of him for a little bit.
‘Roll up!, he said, through his loudspeaker. ‘Roll up! Gaze in wonder at our Funhouse! Never before in human history has more fun been crammed into one small space! See the amazing Bearded Man! Marvel at the badger who thinks he’s on EastEnders! We have relics from the sinking of the titanic, including some of the original ice! We have a horse! And a very large rug which needs putting away! Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, roll up!’
‘This might take my mind off the spontaneous human combustion’, I pointed out, ‘and if it doesn’t, they might at least have fire extinguishers’.
‘Don’t be so blase’, Beth replied.
We went inside. Beth didn’t seem very impressed. The first place we went was the Hall of Mirrors. The skinny mirror made me look thin, the wavy mirror made me look wavy, the fat mirror made me look more or less the same. The ghost train was inoperative and instead there was a rail replacement bus. The tunnel of love was just boring.
Beth seemed to be wavering in her appreciation of the Funhouse, yet I, with my lurking inevitable internal combustion, saw the fortune teller sitting on a pouffe in the corner, puffing away on a crafty fag, and thought, hmm, she might know what my future has in store. As I approached she stubbed out her ciggie in the foil casing of a half consumed Bakewell tart, and I was glad that she didn’t immediately reach for a fire extinguisher. She had an expression on her face like a ferret with gout. Her chin looked like it was about to leave her and go and join a much more successful face.
By way of greeting she said, as is customary, ‘Hello’.
Her voice was gruff, like that if a trawlerman called Pete. She waved her hands at the lingering smoke.
‘Got told off yesterday, didn’t I?’, she said, ‘I was having a gasper. Didn’t realise it was against company rules’.
‘You didn’t see that one coming?’, I asked.
‘I’m a fortune teller, love. For other people. Don’t work on meself, does it? I deal in the mystical workings of the universe, not company health and safety regulations. Now, tell me, love. Have you been to a soothsayer before?’
‘Yes, I have’.
‘And what did they say?”
‘Sooth’, I replied.
She didn’t laugh.
‘Now, listen’, she said. ‘Some bastard has nicked me tarot cards. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to use a pack of HeMan Top Trumps’.
She opened the lack and laid them on the table between us. Skeletor, was the first card, then came Castle Greyskull. The next card was Skeletor again, followed by another Skeletor. Then Groundskeeper Willie.
‘Sorry, love, don’t know how that got in there’.
Then came another Skeletor. She looked up at me.
‘Let me guess’, I said. ‘The Skeletor card isn’t necessarily an omen of death?’
‘Let’s put it this way’, she replied. ‘You’ll be saving on winter heating bills’.
Beth and I went and had another mooch around the Funhouse and we both decided to leave. The petting zoo in the corner only had chickens and I’d never wanted to pet a chicken. There were also a couple of cocks, but that’s a different matter. I had a go on the Test Your Strength machine but I couldn’t even lift the hammer. We were just about to leave when there was a sudden blinding flash of fire and warmth.
‘Oh my god!’, Beth screamed, ‘He’s gone up!’
As luck would have it, it was only a fire eater, which I was glad about because I’d been wearing my best shirt. With great panache he spewed tongues of fire, momentarily lighting up the Funhouse and scaring the chickens. Ever the snowman, he pranced and danced, his flaming torch raised to his lips followed by a blinding flash, a sharded explosion whose warmth and brilliance seared into the night throwing shadows as if making us cavemen once more, solitary beasts in search of warmth, or an inhabitant of Milton Keynes.
I’d seen fire eaters before. On holiday at the coast one year, I’d been mesmerised by Marvello and his mastery of flame. The next year, The Great Splendido was similar exuberant, scorcher to the stars. And now here at the Funhouse, this, apparently, was Ben.
He was an interesting character. His face was angular and defined, almost cubist, like a tescos carrier bag full of chisels.
Beth and I stood and watched, entranced by Bens mastery of putting fire in his gob, and when he finished we both clapped.
‘Ah, thanks for that’, he said, in a strange high and squeaky voice. ‘Just doing my job’.
‘You were so good at it!’, I said, ‘you were literally on fire!’
‘What I’m really interested in is how you protect your insides from burning up’, I said.
‘To be honest’, he said, ‘you do get a bit of blowback, that’s how I lost my eyebrows. But as for my insides, yes, there have been one or two occasions where my lunch has been reheated. And I once belched at my Aunt’s flat and accidentally roasted her budgie. You know what, though? The best advice I could give is just to relax and not even thinks about it. So that’s what I do. I just get on and live my life. Oh, and when I’m practising at home, I’m always careful to turn off the smoke alarm’.
The whole time we were chatting I noticed that his bow tie was smouldering.
‘How did you get in to this?’, I asked.
‘Curry’, he replied.
He was quite cute, was Ben. I might even say, hot. I could imagine living with him, and how handy it would be. He’d have a steak and kidney pie cooked in no time. But I knew that it wouldn’t last, the two of us. I’d just had the ceiling of my flat repainted. I licked my fingertips and squeezed his bow tie, putting out the tiny flames with a slight hiss.
‘I’d better go’, he said. ‘And get my indigestion tablets’.
‘Bye’, I whispered.
At that moment the fortune teller ran over, and said rather breathlessly, ‘You will fall in love with a mysterious . . .’.
‘You’re too late’, I said.
Beth and I went outside. The sun was starting to set and the funfair was coming alive. On one side, the rides and the stalls, the lights, the neon, the music and the noise. On the other, a demonstration of dogs herding up some geese. The world seemed perfectly normal.
‘That’s the best advice’, Beth said. ‘Don’t worry. Don’t panic, don’t prevaricate. Be free to live your life without pondering on something that might not happen. If we let fate dictate our actions, then a fear of the unknown will take over, and we will never be free to enjoy ourselves. Now matter how far fetched our private fears, we mustn’t let them ruin the good times.’. She took hold of my hands. ‘Let’s go home’, she said, ‘It’s starting to get a bit chilly’.
I smiled at her and gave her hand a squeeze.
‘Yes’, I whispered.
And then, all of a sudden, woof!
(Poem written for my show, Spout, but ultimately not used)
The tea philosopher
The tea philosopher arrived
And sat himself down in the middle
Of the tea shop.
Dressed entirely in black,
With a beret too,
Just like the philosophers you see on tv,
He was only charging five hundred quid
For a full days philosophising,
We kept the tea coming,
Because that’s why he was there.
Here you go, we would say.
He didn’t laugh.
And he sipped it contemplatively,
And every now and then,
Jotted something down in his notebook.
At opportune moments he would
Hold his forefingers in the air,
As if to say, quiet,
The truth is almost upon me.
And we dared hardly breathe.
And we crowded in.
And we watched as he worked
And probed the human condition
And we could scarcely believe it
At the end of the day
When he put down his pen,
Stood up, and cleared his throat
Without the spout,
Will just stay in the pot.
Gathered his belongings,
Took his pay check,