Wake Up Laughing





The 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.

            “Do your parents know you’re out this late?” I’ll ask her.

            She’ll 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…


            I 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.




Regarding 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.

            She 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.”

            “Someone with authority?” I said. “Let me know when you find him or her.”

            Not 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 certainly did.

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.

            “What about the reports?”

            Again, 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.”

            “I guessed as much.”

            “Okay, then. Your arm…”

            I held out my right arm, the one I’ve still got.

“What, you don’t like it?” I said.

            She 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.”

            I’ve 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.

            “So, what happened to your arm?” Alisha asked.

            Normally 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.

            “A massive paper cut,” I said.

            Remembering 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.

            “I like that you can joke about it,” she said. “Humour can be sexy in a man. But really?”

            “A fight with a rabid letterbox.”

            She rolled her eyes.

            “Okay, I lost it in a poker game.”

            As 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 was there.

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.  

She said, “Am I wasting my time?”

            I 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.




That happened a couple of weeks ago. My conversations with Alisha since have been strictly business.

            “Let’s discuss the proposal at the next board meeting.”

            “Colin’s happy with the outcome. Thanks.”

            “I’ve e-mailed you those sales charts you wanted.”

            Stuff like that.

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 mistaken.

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 social networking.

            Maybe 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.


            …or 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…


            And 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 again?”

            “Because 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.

            And 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 day.

©2011 D M Artis

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