Wake Up Laughing
first thing people ask once they’ve known me for longer than a day is why I
make a joke out of everything. Some people find it irritating, but I can’t help
it—call it a defence mechanism. The second thing they ask if they’ve had a
glass or three to drink, is what happened to my arm.
I’m thirty-one, and if I were writing a lonely-hearts
advert, which is something I’m considering, I’d describe myself as a single
male, good career, average looks, with GSOH. What I wouldn’t say is that my
best friend and confidante is a ten-year-old girl called Carolyn who plays
hopscotch on the pavement outside my window late at night.
I live in a modest two-up two-down terraced
house that has no front garden; you step straight out of the front door onto
the pavement. It’s in a quiet cul-de-sac, so noise from the road isn’t a problem,
except for Carolyn. Three nights out of four, she’s outside, pitching a stone, then
hopping and jumping her way along the chalked out grid, her old-fashioned shoes
scuffing on the pavement. Everything about her clothes suggests mid-eighties—in
my opinion, the era that taste forgot. I’ve told her, ten-year-olds these days are
supposed to be interested in dance mats and The X Factor, not hopscotch. I
suppose fashions come full circle eventually, retro-chic and all that. Carolyn
is stuck in the past.
We’ve established a little opening routine.
your parents know you’re out this late?” I’ll ask her.
pout and answer, “Do yours?”
And so on. It’s a bit of black humour between us
because we both know the answer. Like a lot of what’s difficult in life, it isn’t
easy to swallow without a dose of humour. Sometimes we talk for hours, until at
last I think I may be able to sleep.
…and in my half-waking dreams, I’m six years
old, suffocating, and semi-conscious. My ears ring with the shriek of twisted
metal, shattering glass, raging fire. I think I hear a crowd gathering, and
sirens. The air is so dense with heat and smoke it’s as though I’m swimming. I
hear a voice nearby, gradually moving further away until…
always wake up too early, so I’ll lie for a while imagining I’m the only person
in the world. Come the morning light, and after I’ve gulped down enough strong
black coffee containing enough caffeine to resurrect Elvis, I’ll open the curtains.
Both Carolyn and her chalk lines will be gone.
Carolyn, I should point out that I’m not a weirdo. You won’t find me frequenting
internet chat rooms pretending to be Aiden, aged fifteen, from Cirencester,
chatting to young girls. My conversations with Carolyn get pretty antagonistic.
You couldn’t say we like each other much of the time. But that’s okay. Most
people have some family or friends they don’t like—the ones who make you screen
calls or suddenly remember, when you answer their calls by mistake, that you’ve
left your non-existent poodle lathered in the bathtub and have to go.
But for a ten-year-old Carolyn’s a good listener,
which is rare at any age. Most people are too busy thinking up the next thing
they want to say once you stop talking. Classic example—our new marketing director
at work, Alisha. This woman never listens. She also has the shiniest, blackest
hair you’ve ever seen and a different Armani suit for each day of the month. Alisha
had been in the job six weeks when she homed in on me after her first targets,
the male directors under fifty with a full complement of limbs, fell through.
cornered me by the water dispenser one morning and, tucking her hair back the
way she does when she’s being predatory, said, “I’d like to run through some
reports with you. I need someone with authority around here.”
with authority?” I said. “Let me know when you find him or her.”
listening, she dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ve had it up
to here with Hugh and Colin. I want to get things moving.”
She booked us a table at Luigi’s for the
following evening and we ended up back at her place, right in the city centre. I
could have raised stronger objections, but I have a habit of not swimming
against the tide.
Alisha lives in a rented executive pad, the kind
that comes fully furnished—expensive but neutral for a fast turnaround. People
living here work in jobs where, within six months or less, you’re either
heading upstairs towards the penthouse suite, or moving out and having your
post redirected to the suburbs.
After a couple of drinks and some clumsy
flirting that wouldn’t have been out of place in a TV mini-series, she asked
whether we should go through to the bedroom.
about the reports?”
not listening, she narrowed her eyes and said, “Can I ask you a serious
question? I mean, I’m a no-bull person, I say what I’m thinking.”
guessed as much.”
then. Your arm…”
held out my right arm, the one I’ve still got.
“What, you don’t like it?” I said.
smirked and set her wine glass down on the coffee table. “Don’t be smart. Look,
I wanted to say that if you feel self-conscious about it, it’s not an issue.”
had this same conversation in one form or another with maybe fifteen different
women, a couple of times at the point of no return, if you know what I mean. Remember
this: when people say something is not an issue, it always means that it is. This
holds true for most things. It’s not an issue except I felt it was enough of
an issue that I had to tell you it isn’t.
what happened to your arm?” Alisha asked.
people follow this up with ‘if you don’t mind me asking’, but Alisha isn’t that
type of girl. No. She’s also the type of woman other women often hate.
massive paper cut,” I said.
what really happened made me nauseous.
…the voice is my mother calling my name, crying
out. I see her through the flames and wreckage, but only her. Where are the
others, the rest of my family? As I fight for consciousness, I realise this
image of my mother will stay with me because it is the last. Hands pull me
away, but I don’t want to go, I want to sleep…
I had no desire to tell Alisha about the
accident and losing the three other members of my family when I was six, because
she wasn’t listening. It would be hard enough to tell someone who gave a damn,
let alone Alisha. That was why I said paper cut. She hadn’t earned the truth.
like that you can joke about it,” she said. “Humour can be sexy in a man. But
fight with a rabid letterbox.”
rolled her eyes.
I lost it in a poker game.”
I’ve said, people often ask why I joke about everything, why I laugh too often
and too easily. A sensitive person would know; a sensitive person wouldn’t go there.
Carolyn—at ten years of age, would have the sensitivity, the perception, not to
go there. But Carolyn doesn’t need to ask because she knows what happened. She
Alisha’s manicured hand inched high up on my
thigh, kneading and coaxing to no visible effect. We both looked at it, then at
each other with comic timing.
said, “Am I wasting my time?”
apologised and told her that it was my fault, not hers, and I should go. I
called for a taxi from my cell phone and went down to the street to wait. Outside,
the lights of the late-night shops and bars cast coloured smudges on the wet
pavement and slicked tarmac of the road. I pulled my collar up to keep out the
drizzle, preferring to get wet than spend fifteen excruciating minutes with Alisha,
trying to make the silence neutral, rather than loaded.
happened a couple of weeks ago. My conversations with Alisha since have been
discuss the proposal at the next board meeting.”
happy with the outcome. Thanks.”
e-mailed you those sales charts you wanted.”
It’s amazing how relationships can go from
intimacy to anonymity in an instant, like the way the thrill of spotting a
loved one in a crowd dies the moment you’re close enough to realise you’re
Although Alisha is a shark of a woman, I wonder
what might have developed. A tenuous relationship with someone you can’t trust must
be better than nothing, right? Most people say not, but few of those are long-term
single like me. I can laugh at that, too. I am to romance what Lord Lucan is to
if I had a girlfriend or a wife in bed next to me I’d sleep at night. I rarely
catch more than two or three hours—four at most. So I’ll sit up by the window with
my Mister Happy mug of hot milk balanced on the sill and chat to Carolyn while
she rolls the stone. The clatter of stone on pavement will echo outward into
the darkness like ripples on a lake spiralling outward from each drop of rain.
like the pulse of a distant machine in the hospital ward as I lie numb in the
darkness. It seems like I’m the only person in the world and I’m cut adrift. My
hearing is strange because of the crash, but if I lie completely still, hold my
breath and concentrate, I can hear other children on the ward breathing. I’m
alive and know I am not alone…
I’m not alone because I’ve got Carolyn and our routine.
“Don’t you ever get tired of that game?” I’ll
ask, watching her skip the grid. “Why do you keep playing it, over and over
I know it annoys you.”
She’ll poke out her tongue, then grin.
“Why don’t you go and play somewhere else, keep
someone else awake for a change?”
When she answers this question, it’s never in
the voice of a child; it’s the voice of a thirty-five-year-old woman. It’s the
voice of my late sister.
“Because you still need me,” she’ll say. “But
don’t worry, one day soon you won’t.”
I know this is true, in the same way I know when
the sun is about to come out and brighten a wet afternoon.
in the morning, when the world starts a new day and I can laugh about everything
again, the chalk marks will be gone. And I’ll wonder whether this will be the
©2011 D M Artis
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