First-Person Short Story Competition - Runner Up

Terry Baldock

Runner Up
Nobody Laughed
First-Person Short Story Competition


Terry lives In Evesham after moving from Droitwich Spa last year.  He has been a winner and runner up in  Writing Magazine Competitions plus a number of shortlisted stories and poems.  He has also had poems placed in other magazines as well as wins in the National Association of Writers Groups’ short story competitions and shortlisted in the Swanwick Writers Summer School Competitions. 

Nobody Laughed By Terry Baldock

I died on stage that night. Not a heart attack, sniper’s bullet, jealous husband. No, it was a bad joke, no boom boom moment jokewise, but it felt like an arrow in my heart. Can’t afford an audience that doesn’t laugh. And they booed as I left the stage. I’d not been booed since we first started all those years ago. Ronnie and Rex. That was us. Not the other way round.
We stood with me on the left facing the crowd, Rex on the right, and that was forever. It couldn’t be varied, didn’t work. I had a space next to Rex, and he next to me. That was it.
Until he died. I mean really died. Then that space where he should have been; had been for three decades, was empty.
‘Change careers,’ Bill, my manager said, after I came off. ‘Or look for a new partner. You’re just not funny anymore.’
‘That means I was funny once. Eh Bill?’
‘Not on your own you weren’t. And the material was better. Punchy. Relevant. Not rude like now. No politics. Pity you fell out with Gordon. His stuff was perfect for your act.’
‘Yeah, but he’s moved on to bigger things. I was the comedian in the duo, Rex was the straight man, fed me the lines, took all the mock insults.’
‘He was. But without him you’ve nobody to insult. Unless you do it to yourself.’ He laughed.
‘Do I have to do the second show tonight Bill? I’m not feeling too good.’
‘Cost you a lot if you don’t. Breach of contract. Have to pay. I mean you’re here, aren’t you? Go on. Do your best. Imagine that Rex was there by your left arm. Take some medicine or something. I mean if you’re feeling a bit funny that’s just what you want.’ He chuckled.
I always imagined that Rex was there. That was the trouble. The ghost of him. And ghosts aren’t funny. No fun in the afterlife, I thought, couldn’t be much fun being dead.
I went on as Bill suggested. Could see the first ten rows. Grim looking bunch. I tried an opening witticism. But they didn’t want that. This lot had come along to see the legendary Ronnie Cox, half of the Ronnie and Rex duo, so as there was only half of the team there, maybe I’d be at least half as funny, I could see it in their faces, but I wasn’t. And they hadn’t paid half price.
‘I thought the other half of the act was dead. Not you,’ someone shouted, and others laughed. It was a bigger laugh than I managed to get.
I grinned. Tried to calm them down.
‘Leave him alone,’ a woman in a comedy hat shouted in my defence.
I nodded my thanks.
The spotlights dimmed. It went quiet. Time seemed to slow. Except it didn’t affect me.
Dust circled, tried to form a shape. I froze. ‘Tell them about us,’ a voice I barely recognised whispered from the vortex. ‘Tell them our tale. That’s what they want. Our story.’
It was Rex. The dust, the chill, the love he had for me, for the act, for each other. But he was deceased. No longer with us. And yet he whirled there, taking a Rex like form, wearing the hat, the suit, the tie that was so loud you could hear him coming. That was what he had said many times, and it was.
He faded. The lights rose, audience started to applaud, my left arm jerked as if something had let go.
They rose in unison. But why? How? Rex wasn’t really there was he? I’d been to his funeral. Read the eulogy. Kissed his widow, Emily. That was it. I’d felt anger emanating from his casket as she cried on my shoulder. His kids consoling us.
TV cameras, reporters, words shouted, silly questions, ‘What are you going to do now Ronnie?’ ‘You carrying on?’
‘Mr Cox has not made a decision yet.’ ‘He’s lost a great friend and colleague.’
We struggled to the car. Molly and Emily and Rex’s two eldest kids.
‘How do you feel about your partner's death?’ That was the last question thrown.
How was I supposed to feel. After all, I’d killed him.
‘No comment,’ Patricia our agent said, and the car whisked us away to the quiet wake.
Only a select few. No hangers on. No fans.
‘Suspicious Death’, was what some of the early editions had said after Rex had been found. ‘Misadventure’ was another reason bandied about. Whatever that is. An adventure that went wrong. Or one that had been poorly chosen. Either would explain what had happened. It was me that chose it.
I remember having him up against the wall, arm at his throat. We’d often lost our tempers. Living cheek by jowl is hard. We shared much of each other’s waking moments, rehearsals, travelling, late nights, too much drink, crooked theatre owners, filthy lodgings; then the good times, with awards, accolades, we were the best, most popular, the people’s choice. Until I fell for his wife, and she fell for me, and secrets are hard to keep when you live in the same pocket, share the same breaths, rely on jokes, being funny, bouncing off each other like rubber twins. Brothers who hated each other. Caine and Abel. It was all going so well until I killed him.
Didn’t mean to. Anger boiled over. Rex wasn’t the fittest of men, and I knew this. But I went on. Pushed harder until his head almost exploded. I let go as he fell to the floor. The dressing room seemed to be a fitting place for a comedian to die. Misadventure was the cause although how my arm across his throat could have been deemed to be that, was hard to see, but then a good lawyer can make anything believable. I had a good lawyer. Anyway, I’d been with my wife at the time, hadn’t I? She said I had.
I’d first met Molly when Rex and I were just about to give up. Lowest ebb. We blamed the audience for not having a sense of humour, or the town where we were playing for being miserable and humourless, which they were, but we were supposed to make them happy, give them a reason to go back home, go to work with a smile. We didn’t.
But then it was a dull world until we met Gordon Robins who was a juggler cum ventriloquist, who was a frustrated comedy writer. He gave us some material, ‘gave’ us for goodness’ sake, later he charged a lot, but we got laughs from it. Back then laughs were currency on the circuit.
Our reputation grew and we had an agent, a manager, and everything that comes with success. Radio and then television. Radio was an opening, but it was guesting on television that did it. Showed the world what we looked like, where we stood, me left him right. Me tall and slightly balding, him a bit chubbier with a sweeter more trustworthy face. The women loved him, though I got the biggest laughs.
A laugh is like a sleeping animal, prod it and it will wake and power its way into the ether, untamed, unstoppable. We prodded lots, set many free. Some died or faded, others took on lives of their own. We had conquered the comedy world and it was ours to lose. And we lost it.
Firstly, with Gordon leaving us. Then marital infidelity. And me killing Rex.
But he was there with me on stage. Feeding me the lines from our old shows. Beyond the grave comedy and this audience couldn’t stop laughing and shouting. Rex wasn’t there, only I could see and hear his ghost, or so I thought.
The audience could as well.
The spotlight picked out something next to me that looked a bit chubby, the clothes shimmered, his hat from our early days perched on his head, too small, very comedic.
I staggered off to the applause, something that I hadn’t heard for a while, but were they applauding a ghost, the afterlife of Ronnie and Rex.
Bill opened the dressing room door for me. ‘Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.’
‘Congratulations, Ronnie, terrific set.’ One of the backstage staff said. And others gave me the thumbs up. I tried to bathe in their praise, but Rex had always joked that you could get burnt if you bathed in it for too long. Jut a brief dip would be OK, for Rex’s sake.
‘How did you do it?’
‘I didn’t want to let Rex down, his memory, so I did stuff from our old acts. He was there beside me. I could feel him.’ I took off my ‘Ronnie’ jacket.
‘It was as if he was there, Ron.’ Emily appeared at the door. ‘Like old times.’
I wondered if she thought that it was a good thing that Rex had stepped back through the curtain of death, she was his widow after all. Our affair had stopped after Rex’s passing, although ‘passing’ didn’t seem to be the appropriate word.
‘Ronnie and Rex are Back!’ said a headline in a review of our act in the local weekly paper. The nationals wanted an interview. Bill thought it was a good idea. I went on a local television news programme, ‘Just for a chat’, they said.
I sat on a sofa.
‘Shouldn’t you be at the other end?’ the interviewer joked. ‘The way you always were on stage.’
I did as asked, to much merriment and applause.
The audience gasped. The monitors showed me on the sofa but on the other side there was a shape forming, it was Rex. In his pomp. Looking the way he always had. But he wasn’t on the sofa, only on the monitor.
The interviewer didn’t notice. ‘Tell me Ronnie. If Rex was here now, what would you say to him?’
‘But he isn’t. I think that’s an inappropriate question.’
The mist started to form again, cold, menacing, no longer friendly. ‘Ask him why he killed me!’ It shouted. ‘Or is that inappropriate!’
Nobody laughed.

Judges Comments

Just as with the winner in WM's First Person Short Story Competition, the runner-up displays a wonderful use of narrative voice: Terry Baldock's Nobody Laughed. In this case it's a much darker story, involving duplicity, the supernatural and revenge from beyind the grave, but it's the voice of the narrator – sardonic, blackly comic - that holds the whole thing together.

The flipside of comedy is tragedy, and Terry's story is narrated by Ronnie, the surviving half of a light entertainment comedy duo. Without his partner Rex, he struggles to get the same laughs. Terry brilliantly evokes world-weary thespians for whom the joke has worn thin, as well as the bleakness and desperation that can be the flipside of a skit that seems effortless to the audience. I died on stage that night, the story opens – a killer line using showbiz vernacular that works wonderfully in the context of the story of a washed-up funny-man.

The voice remains consistently believable as the story becomes darker and darker, moving from the foreshadowing of dying on stage to reveal the underlying tragedy of Ronnie and Rex. It's a compelling story that's really well executed and well-told, with a distinctive narrative voice that marvellously evokes a murky underside of the cut-throat world of light entertainment