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Sushi for Beginners(11)
Marian Keyes

‘This owl walks into a bar,’ Ted started. The audience’s upturned faces were lambent with expectation. ‘He orders a pint of milk, a packet of crisps and ten smokes. And the barman turns to his friend and says, “Look at that, a talking owl.” ’

There were one or two nonplussed titters, but otherwise an expectant silence reigned. They were still waiting for the punchline.

Anxiously, Ted started into a new gag. ‘My owl has got no nose,’ he announced.

More silence. Ashling had almost gouged stigmata in her palms with tension.

‘My owl has got no nose,’ Ted repeated, laced with desperation.

Then Ashling understood. ‘How does he smell?’ she called, her voice quavering.

‘Terrible!’

The air was thick with perplexedness. People turned to their neighbours, their faces twisted into what-the-fuck… ?

And on Ted laboured. ‘I met a friend of mine and he said, “Who was that lady I saw you walking along Grafton Street with?” And I said, “That was no lady, that was my owl!” ’

And suddenly they seemed to get it. The laughter started small, but began to swell and burgeon, until the audience were in paroxysms. In fairness, it was Saturday night and they were pissed.

Behind her, Ashling heard people wheeze, ‘Your man’s hilarious. Off-the-wall, completely.’

‘What’s yellow and wise?’ Ted dazzled with a smile.

The audience were in the palm of his hand, their breath held, waiting for the gag. Ted smiled around the room. ‘Owl-infested custard!’

The roof nearly lifted.

‘What’s grey and has a trunk?’

A giddy pause.

‘An owl going on holidays. That’s a grey owl, obviously.’

There went the rafters again.

‘You’re recruiting for a job.’ Ted was on a roll and the audience were in floods of merriment. ‘You interview three owls and ask each of them what’s the capital of Rome. The first one says she doesn’t know, the second one says it’s Italy and the third one says that Rome is a capital. Which owl do you give the job to?’

‘The owl with the biggest tits!’ someone yelled from the back and once again laughter and applause rose and flapped like a flock of birds. The more established comedians, who’d only let Ted on as a favour to stop him pestering them, looked at each other anxiously.

‘Get him off,’ Bicycle Billy muttered, ‘the little bollocks.’

‘Gotta go,’ Ted ruefully told the audience as Mark Dignan made an urgent throat-cutting gesture.

‘AAAAAAWWWWWWW,’ everyone complained in bitter disappointment.

‘We’ve created a fucking monster!’ Bicycle Billy whispered to Archie Archer (real name Brian O’Toole).

‘I’ve been Ted Mullins, a comedian who tells a load of oul’ jokes. Or should I say owl jokes?’ Ted twinkled. ‘And you’ve been an owl audience!’

Amid hysterical cheers, whistles, foot-stamping and thunderous applause, he took his leave.

Later, as everyone beat their way out, Ashling overheard person after person talking about Ted.

‘What’s yellow and wise? I thought I’d end myself laughing.’

‘That Ted was fantastic. Sexy too.’

‘I liked the way he lifted his –’

‘– T-shirt. Yeah, so did I’

‘D’you think he has a girlfriend?’

‘Bound to.’

The party was in a modern block along the quays. As it was Mark Dignan’s flat, and loads of the other guests were also comedians, Ashling had expected to be kept in hysterics all night. But though the room was crowded and noisy, a bizarre atmosphere of gloom pervaded.

‘They’re all keeping shtum in case anyone steals their lines or ideas,’ explained Joy, a veteran of such knees-ups. ‘Without a paying audience you wouldn’t get these fellas being funny to save their lives. Now Where is he?’

Joy went on a Half-man-half-badger walkabout and Ashling poured herself a glass of wine in the galley kitchen where Bicycle Billy was rolling a spliff. As he was short and troll-like, she was able to smile at him and say, ‘You were very funny tonight. You must get great satisfaction from what you do.’

‘Ah, not really,’ he said tetchily. ‘I’m writing a novel, you see. That’s what I really want to do with my life.’

‘Lovely,’ Ashling encouraged.

‘Oh no, it’s not,’ Billy was keen to emphasize. ‘It’s very truthful, very depressing. Very grim. Ah, where’s my lighter?’

‘Allow me,’ Ashling flared a match and lit his spliff. Seemed to her like he needed it.

Through the crowds in the sitting-room, she saw Ted enthroned on an armchair, an orderly queue of interested girls shuffling forward to make their case. Staring out the window into the oil-black waters of the Liffey was a broody figure, a thick stripe of grey through the front of his long, black hair. Aha, thought Ashling. International half-man-half-badger of mystery, I presume. Joy was nearby, energetically ignoring him.

Under the half-man-half-badger circumstances, Ashling decided to let her alone. Hanging around, swigging her wine, she spotted Mark Dignan. As he was almost seven-foot tall and had the poppiest eyes she’d ever seen on someone who hadn’t recently been strangled, she was able to have a little chat with him too.

But he dismissed her praise of his act with a cranky wave of his hand. ‘It’ll do until my novel is published.’

‘Ah, you’re writing a novel too. So, um… what’s it about?’

‘It’s about a man who sees the world in all its rottenness.’ Mark’s eyes bulged even further. They’d fall out on to the carpet soon if he wasn’t careful, Ashling thought anxiously. ‘It’s very depressing,’ Mark boasted. ‘Like, unbelievably depressing. He hates life more than life itself.’

Mark realized he’d said something vaguely witty and flicked an anxious glance to make sure no one had heard.

‘Er, the best of luck.’ Miserable bastard. Ashling moved away, and was buttonholed by an enthusiastic, bright-eyed man who insisted that Ted was a comedic anarchist, an ironic post-modern deconstructionist of the entire genre. ‘He’s taken the basic gag and completely subverted it. Challenging our expectations of what’s funny. Anyway, d’you want to dance?’

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