The Book of Jokes, more bits of chapter one

I happened in the school toilet. Schott and his boys kicked in my cubicle door. They stood sneering in a circle. My trousers were around my ankles.

“Do you want to die peacefully in your sleep like your grandpa,” they asked me, gabbing me and making me to push my head down the toilet, “or screaming like his passengers?”

It was a rhetorical question. No, it was a joke.

The joke was a short one, but there was time and space ans scenery within it. You could stop inside the joke and delay the punch line for long enough to smoke a cigarette, chat to the other passengers, tak e a pee, look out of the window.

Inside the joke, I streched out across two seats in my grandfather’s coach. The fabric, a blend of rubber and synthetic cloth, was Orlon acrylic fibre. I knew it was called Orlon because my grandad, the driver, had once told me.

The Orlon was comfortable. I could see the top of Grandad’s head in the chink between seats. His eyes, visible in the rearview mirror, were still open.

I would leave the joke before the fatal crash, but for now there was no hurry. I felt like a player of video games who abandons the action-packed plot and just wanders around looking at polygonal trees in peaceful bitmapped parks filled with samples birdsong.

“How are you doing?” I called across the aisle to a mother and her plump daughter.

“Very well, thank you,” said the mother, a little stiffly. Her daughter gave me a bulgy-eyed stare.

I started day dreaming. I dreamed of shepherds playing panpipes, of Scottish Expressionist paintings, of golf courses and stables and Edith Sitwell. I began to feel drowsy, but quickly jolted alert. It was vital I didn’t fall asleep in the middle of the joke. If I slept I would die.

I turned to the mother and daughter. The mother was producing cucumber sandwiches from a plastic box.

“I’m the grandson of the bus driver,” I called above the drone of my grandfather’s engine.

“Ah,” mouthed the mother, “very nice!”

“The grandson of the man driving this joke…”

But my words were drowned out by the revving engine. We swung around a particularly treacherous corner. My grandfather ground into lower gear.

the plump little girl grabbed a mirror built into a compact case containing orangy-pink foundation powder and lifted it to the window. I knew the game: with the mirror held to one eye and angled forward a forty-five degrees to the glass, you could imagine you were sitting in a cockpit of a pointed vehicle rushing into an exhilarating symmetrical landscape. I’d done the same at her age.

But she would never live to be my age. She was in a joke involving a coach crash. I wondered wether to broach the subject, to warn the passengers, to alert my grandfather. Should I feed him coffee from the thermos flask I knew he kept in his military canvas bag?

Then again, what was the point? This version of my grandfather only existed to crash this bus in this joke. The entire landscape was synthetic; everyone and everything here had been created for a laugh. There would be other chances to meet my grandfather, in other jokes.

O glanced at Gramp’s eyes in the rearview mirror. They were drooping, closing. In a few seconds the bus would mount the hard shoulder, explode through the safety barrier and jackknife – slowly, slowly – into the jagged ravine. It was time to leave.

Raucous laughter rang around the stinky toilet. I didn’t smile.

“He doesn’t get it,” shouted Ben NElson, Schotts’s loyal lieutenant.

“He’s gonna get it all right,” said Schott.

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