Castaway - 1. The Velvet Roar
The Velvet Roar
‘Begbie didn't do drugs... He just did people.
That's what he got off on; his own sensory addiction’
-- Renton, Trainspotting. (Irvine Welsh)
The dying off of the velvet roar was like watching the last drizzle of honey bungee off a spoon.
The audience fell silent again. Stewart ran to the front of the stage, the followspot beam glued to him like a clingy apocalyptic sun. Ahead of him: silky blackness.
-- “I was at a cashpoint the other day and the screen read “Do you notice anything strange about this ATM?” What exactly are these strangenesses you’re supposed to notice...?”
As he built the joke up, inebriated on the wine of his own wit, he was suddenly struck with the image of himself years earlier in his parents' bedroom on a Sunday morning. The thought was so vivid and trivial alongside the frantic business of the present that he was almost visibly thrown the moment it entered his head..
He was standing at the window; the chirps of sparrows were ricocheting off the frosty brickwork of adjacent houses; the smashing from a bottle bank trembling in the distance. His father had walked in behind him and lingered spectre-like, and in an out-of-character tone had spoken;
-- “I tell you what, Stew, these Sundays will be the death of me.”
The audience fell silent – it was time for the punchline.
-- “...and the next thing I knew, I was out on a date with the thing!”
The roar from the darkness returned, this time stronger than ever. If human beings were capable of making a sonic boom all on their own, Stewart thought, this is what it would sound like. That was the end of his 5 minute slot. Later, in the pub, it would become clear he was man of the moment:
-- “Seriously you were good. Like so good.”
-- “Like, dude, my face actually hurt. It still hurts”
-- “Ha! Wow, brilliant. That’s.. yeah, really glad you enjoyed it.”
-- “My girlfriend genuinely peed herself. Did you know Jules Richardson was in the audience, as in thee Jules..”
Interrupting the newfound fan mid-speech, having sliced his way like a warm butter knife through the crowd, was the eponymous Jules.
-- “Stewart, genuinely, in all my years in the industry – one of the best acts I’ve seen. Let me get you a drink. No I insist. What are you having?”
As he awaited the delivery of his bitter, Stewart planned the evening’s facial expression. He wanted to appear mysterious and intellectual, so as to suggest that comedy was just one out of a broad range of talents that he possessed, and that at any moment he could prove himself equally at home to topics such as Nietzschen nihilism, Lib Dem domestic policy and the molecular composition of amino acids. Mustn’t be granite faced... but knowing. Yes, knowing. This realisation he delightfully made while catching the eye of his new frisson – a costume assistant called Bee – whose fringe and legs had first caught his attention on the stairwell of the 65 to Ealing Broadway one night. Her laugh was a curious mix of peacock mating call, and burglar alarm. Not relationship material, but perhaps a one-off demolition fuck in a room of tie-dyed wall drapes. The bolder among her costumey friends were offering longer glances, (to her evident annoyance, Stewart was pleased to see.)
Yet, as the night drew on, Stewart couldn’t help noticing how quickly he became anonymous again. Standing in the middle of the crammed room, knocked elbows sending slurries of fresh beer foam unnoticed over people's jeans, his eyes – when moving to and from the bar – less and less frequently found their match among the roving mass of newly acquired admirers. He was happy though, exquisitely happy, as only one can be at the simultaneous discovery and verification of a powerful new talent.
Returning to his room later that evening, he reeled at its pitiful, drab appearance. Old underwear lay scattered across a filthy floor; a single mattress complete with yellowing cushions forced its way diagonally between a chest of drawers, and a book, 'The Art Of Funny – A Starter’s Guide To Stand-up', rested precariously on the edge of a mould-blackened windowsill. All in all, it looked like a cross between a junk shop and a skag den. But no matter. He’d just found his own skag and it was a completely natural high. And you got paid for it if you got yourself known. Which wouldn’t take long, surely: he was well on the way already. Unannounced once or twice the vision of his childhood that he experienced earlier re-entered his head, a little finer having passed through the gauze of alcohol... his father’s voice and the view of the garden. He thought for a moment of his Dad’s life, his successful career as a loss adjuster, his resilient, loving marriage, his assortment of properties all in desirable locations on streets headed with “PRIVATE – RESIDENTS ONLY” signs, and all with the kinds of postcodes that are often boasted about at excruciating dinner parties.
-- “I tell you what, Stew – these Sundays will be the death of me.”
Stewart considered: “did dad actually ever actually say that? Did I dream it? Maybe that’s it; maybe it was in my dream the night before...” But then the velvet roar returned, smudging the perimeters of his hazy mental stirring like a breaking wave over a sandy footprint; this particular one the reward for a gag he’d made about grandparents and the internet.
A year had passed since Stewart had graduated in engineering. He had received a 2:1 with relative ease and had gained a yearlong placement at shampoo supergiant Johnson & Johnson. His parents had been delighted, especially his father whose final and fourth progeny, unlike his siblings, had arrived at a career that seemed to paint a future of financial self-sufficiency. 6 months into the contract, Stewart had ceased commuting from home and signed a tenancy in London with Sarah - a bouncy female flatmate whose dabblings in standup comedy had spurned his interest. There quickly followed a perfunctory affair whose origins, Stewart often feared, were perhaps more to do with Sarah’s desire for new comic material rather than a genuine appreciation of his Herculean torso. Tonight’s gala had been the result of 2 months of preparation and rigorous mentoring gained through the winning of an online competition.
“For Christ’s sake, Stew, couldn’t you have at least done the year, and then gone on to do something else?”, his father had said. Stewart often found it difficult to supply a decent response to this comment, given that his decision to leave his job was based loosely around the combined messages of several Philip Larkin poems. Not sound enough reasoning as far as his father was concerned. Or anyone was concerned, really.
Lying in bed he thought of Sarah. He longed for her and thought how, to him, she really was the visible personification of absolute perfection. The romance had finished promptly, with their final lovemaking session ending with Sarah in fits of laughter scribbling down notes in her “gag pad”. The whole incident left Stewart feeling sterile and embarrassed. After the consolatory man hugs and splurging pub sessions, he learned to adopt the swagger of one content in their newfound singledom. Really, he was as a lake is on a still winter’s morning; its mirrored stillness screaming to be disturbed.
The next morning, Stewart headed to his favourite cheap cafe in Mile End. If he could just make his act a little bit longer, trim the lead ups a bit, and put in a few more topical references, he could have an act for The Comedy Store. Then the world would be his oyster. When pangs of doubt wormed their way through his mind, he thought of the velvet roar rising out of the invisible darkness; its tuneless blast when peaking, and its gradual fragmentation as it tails off into crisp, individual laughters, and localized claps and cheers. There was just one problem: money. Having spent the money he'd saved during his time commuting from home to Johnson, Stewart had scraped by the last 4 months doing shift work in his local Tesco Extra, though they had recently laid him off with the landmark arrival of the self-service checkout.
Leaving Mile End station he turned towards the café, entered and ordered. On the other side of the saloon doors behind the counter he spied a hairy hand invert a Tupperware container letting a slab of congealed pasta and meat *ker-plunk* onto a plate retaining perfectly its container’s oblong dimensions. He chose a table, sat down, and picked up his phone.
-- “Hi, Dad.”
-- “Oh, hi Stewart! How are you?”
His Dad was evidently pleased to hear his voice. Perhaps the most pleased he had been to hear any voice that day.
-- “Yeah, listen, Dad... I really think I’m onto something with this whole comedy thing. But things are just, well... They’re very tight at the moment.”
-- “I did warn you, Stew... It’s all well and good running after a dream but you had a good job at Johnson, and were nearing getting a promo...”
-- “YEAH, Dad. I know. But listen, OK? J&J weren’t for me. My soul was being increasingly incinerated with every day that passed there.
He sensed his dad's eyebrows raise down the phone line.
-- "...I’m happy here. Things are working out now. I did a big gig last night, and it went really well..."
His father’s voice dropped a key and became enthusiasm’s shadow.
-- “Ah, great. Well you worked hard at it, didn’t you. Terrific.”
-- “Now I know you don’t approve of this business or whatever, but...”
-- “It’s not that I don’t approve, Stewart, it’s just that I want you to be happy, and we simply can’t afford to keep supporting you...”
-- “I KNOW! God, sorry. I know. But maybe for just a small while to help me get on my feet? I really feel if I get in at The Comedy Store books, it’ll do wonders for my contacts and my career, but it costs £500..”
-- “Five hundred pounds?!”
Beneath the cafe, a Central Line train ran through the tunnel to Mile End tube. Suddenly he thought of the velvet roar.
-- “For God’s sake, Dad; you helped my brothers didn’t you? It’s not that much, it’s an investment..”
-- “Don’t take that tone for me. If you can’t earn your way, that’s it you’ve got to come home, we’ve always supported you, and it’s high time we draw the li...”
And then the phone was flying through the air. Stewart couldn’t remember at what point he decided to throw it. It must’ve been an involuntary reaction, like breathing or blinking. As if a film director, Stewart imagined what the phone looked like, side on in slow motion, spiraling across the room, “Home Calling” displayed on the large LCD screen over a picture of his mum and dad sitting in their living room. He imagined what it must’ve looked like the moment it hit the tiled cafe floor, the first fissure shattering across the screen like a thunderbolt, a moment later the screen bleeding its LCD chemicals, then flickering and going off. Forever.
-- “Jesus, dude, what was that?”
-- “Ah, sorry. I kind of, dropped my phone..”
-- “Dropped it, you fucking lobbed it I saw you!”
-- “Yeah, sorry. It’s OK, nothing’s broken. Well the phone is, obviously, but nothing of yours is broken. It’s fine.”
Stewart paid and left, tense and angry. Then it clicked: his Dad was jealous. He had the money, he had the means to invest in his career and future; he just didn’t want to. He’d had a drab working life and he simply couldn’t stand the thought of his son having an exciting one. His walking pace slackened and his breathing rate normalised at this wonderful realisation. Yes, jealousy; that green-eyed monster, masquerading behind parental officiousness and “rationality”. Suddenly his mind began forking, and reforking entertaining a multitude of other previous occasions where this obstructive, sickening, oft-overlooked sin of jealousy may have raised its ugly head in the face of his ambitions: university choices, gap year destinations, housing choices, girlfriend choices...
Yet frustratingly, in the hours after the conversation, Stewart became acutely aware of his parents’ presence in their living room. The image had usurped the mental space previously occupied by the velvet roar. His saw his father, in his armchair, passing a slightly trembling hand to pick the TV remote off the coffee table, brow furrowed; the pictures slinking shyly into their frames as if themselves embarrassed of the happy times that accompanied their purchase; his mother, gazing eerily out the window to the dark night. And the clock... the ticking and chiming of the death-bidding grandfather clock, seeming to them that little bit louder this evening. Stewart’s eyes fizzed with tears; he held them back. Each step over the gum-freckled streets of East London was a mark in his history. In the future, he’d be on Desert Island Discs and remember this moment. He thought of Kirsty Young’s voice, slightly rasping with age, given it’ll be 2018, and the sounds of midday London slid softly behind its dulcet tones as he walked:
Pelican crossing. Green man; beeb-beeb-beeb-beeb-beeb-beeb.
Sliding onto the purring escalator at Stratford tube. “Central Line – The Train Now Approaching Is To Epping”.
(Oo, he liked that. Best write it down for when the time comes.)
“Min’ the doors please ladies and gents, this train calls all stations to Epping. Please stan’ clear ov’ the cloooosin’ doors...”
Stewart looked up from his seat. On tiptoes peering between the heads of crammed commuters was Sarah’s grinning face. He rose and squeezed his way in her direction. Suddenly they found themselves in each other’s arms, though it wasn’t entirely clear whether this was a conscious decision or as a result of the train’s sudden braking. (How do sardines hug? Or are they always hugging...?)
-- “Sarah! Cool to see you, how’s it all going?”
-- “Really good. Took a while to find a new place, but I’ve got somewhere now in a district called 'Mudchute'. It's near Greenwich and nicer than its name suggests, I promise.
A plume of dust jetted through the carriage dividing them between a grey sea of fug; the urban equivalent of soft focus.
-- “And the comedy...?
-- "Pretty good - my agent’s lining me up for a Sunday morning slot on 5Live.”
Not having had the chance to plan his body language, Stewart was highly aware of his body as some sort of gangly Medusa-like string of awkward limbs and digits. A pause ensued.
-- “Look about how it ended, Stewart, I re...”
-- “Don’t worry. Really it was fun. Well more fun-ny, at times, haha. But fun too. I’m kind of seeing someone anyway now, so...”
-- “Really? Oh.”
Another pause. The average time between tube stops is 2-3 minutes. However for historic reasons, Stewart remembererd, the gap between Mile End and Stratford is notoriously long.
-- “By the way, I was at the comedy gala last night. You were epic, Stew...”
-- “You were there!?”
-- “Course I was there, my agent got me free tickets. You were very impressive."
-- “Thanks, well you know I think the audience was partic..”
“STRATFORD STATION LADIES AN’ GENTS – CHANGE FOR DISTRICT, HAMMERSMITH AND CITY, DLR AND NATIONAL RAIL SERVICES. MIN’ THE DOORS PLEASE, STAN’ CLEAR OF...”
-- “Hang on, Stewart, wait!”
Her face was intent, and frustrated that he was leaving. Frustrated that *he* was slipping away. Serotonin engorged Stewart’s brain.
-- “Look let’s meet up, I’m free after the radio slot on Sunday.”
The doors separated them. She made telephone fingers through the glass, and then was gone. He heard the velvet roar again, like some life-giving siren’s morning song. He heard it even above the braided din of station announcements and buses, pelican crossings and grumbling beggars. And when forcing his hand deep into his jeans for small change he hardly even noticed the soft pinch of the tiny shards of glass now dislodged from his mobile’s screen and scattered throughout his pocket like cacti needles.
Nor would he notice later that week when he went to draw out money at the ATM that his bank balance had been mysteriously and plentifully increased; nor, too, the letters that accrued on the doormat over the next fortnight, each one carefully handwritten in anachronistic calligraphy, return address carefully printed on the back. His resolve was immutable: to be the next big thing the country had seen; to do what only he could do; to take the maligned art of comedy to new heights, push it across new frontiers, and get very wealthy and very happy while doing it.