An excerpt from

Brenda Monk Is Funny

Katy Brand

Extract One
It was the fifth weekend in a row that Brenda was spending alone in London. To be fair, Jonathan had been disarmingly upfront at the beginning of their relationship that he would not be the ‘usual kind of boyfriend’. Of course, for the first six months, this didn’t matter at all – couples often spend the first six months of a relationship finding all the things they have in common, and the second six months finding all the things they don’t, and for Brenda and Jonathan, this was quite firmly the second six months. Jonathan’s stand-up comedy career was going extremely well – he was now an established headline act for the larger clubs, and was making good money. Never mind that his 20-minute set largely consisted of jokes about his relationship with Brenda, the fact was that they were good jokes – one or two were even great jokes, possibly classics. But still, the irony that Jonathan spent most of his time miles away from Brenda, whilst talking about her to a roomful of 300 strangers, was not lost on her. This weekend was Glasgow, the week before had been Birmingham and before that had been…somewhere…Belfast? Maybe Belfast.

So, another weekend stretching out in front of her. What to do with it? Go swimming? Again? A yoga class perhaps? Something, she had to do something. Call a friend? All Brenda’s friends were in relationships that were still new enough to want to exclude others at the weekend, choosing instead to remain in bed together, drinking Cava and talking about where they stood on private education (a good way of disguising the inevitable ‘do you want kids’ chat). Last weekend had been a particular low point as Brenda had spent it sitting in her flat, alternating restlessly between playing the piano badly, watching day-time TV (supposedly ironically), and then, in a fit of frustration and self-loathing, going out to purchase all the necessary ingredients for home-made hummus, which she had then abandoned half way through upon realising dried chickpeas require 24 hours soaking. And who the hell has time to soak chickpeas for 24 hours? Well, Brenda actually, but that was part of the problem.

Jonathan would often tell Brenda to capitalise on the freedom his absences gave her, talking romantically about how missing one another actually brought them closer together and prevented them from getting into a ‘rut’. Brenda’s suspicion, buried for now but apt to flare up at inappropriate and embarrassing moments, such as his friends’ birthday parties, was that it was any degree of commitment at all on his part that constituted a so-called ‘rut’. For Jonathan was the kind of man who could see entrapment in a three course set-menu, and could barely commit to taking a shit - he always had to be doing something else on the toilet as well as emptying his bowels, lest his colon get too comfortable and try to tie him down.

Extract Two (some time later…)

This was a terrible mistake. She could leave now and no-one would think any the less of her. Well, except for Brenda herself, but what did that matter? She’d let herself down before. Jesus, if you can’t let yourself down from time to time, then we’re all doomed, and anyone who says different has clearly never been on a diet. Martin, the club owner, knew she would fail. It was obvious. She’d be on stage, the yawning silence threatening to swallow her whole. She’d forget all her jokes. Word would get out that she, Brenda Monk, Jonathan Cape’s on-off-on-fuck-buddies-as-an-experiment-on-off-let’s-just-try-being-friends-for-a-bit-on-off-definitely-now-off-ooops-on-again girlfriend had actually thought she was funny. That would be the biggest laugh of the whole evening. She framed herself to turn and leave just as the doors swung open and in swaggered Rossly Barns, a rangy, long-haired Australian comedian in grey jeans, studded belt, large boots and a leather jacket, whose own personal confidence, won from years of experience, appeared to know no bounds.
‘Hey, Brenda – is Jonathan on tonight, then?’
‘No’, Brenda jumped as she heard her voice come out deep and low, with a strong West Country accent. Then she realised it was Martin talking.
‘Brenda is’.
Rossly’s reaction said it all. He pretended to collapse and die on the floor. It was a long, loud, drawn out death and when Brenda looked round, she could see the girl behind the bar laughing ostentatiously.
‘Get up, Rossly – a woman pissed herself right there last week,’ Martin said. Rossly stopped and leapt to his feet. Brenda smiled at him sweetly, offering her hand as he steadied himself.
‘So, you’re going on, are you sweetheart?’
‘Yup. So you’d better dust your best jokes off, or you’re going to look pretty amateur.’
‘Strong words, female, strong words. No Jonathan?’
‘Nope’.
‘Well, let me say this: if you’re funny tonight, I’ll fuck your brains out, how about that?’ Rossly had a glint in his eye that was not unappealing – he had a reputation for somehow getting away with the most profoundly crude material, and not for nothing. Brenda looked at him, breathing in the thickened atmosphere produced by a combination of recklessness and control – a comedian’s two principal weapons of choice. She could learn from Rossly.
‘And if I’m not funny?’
He paused. Perfect timing.
‘I’ll still fuck your brains out. I’d say that’s a pretty good deal for you, babe.’
And then Brenda started to feel excited.
‘And for you too,’ she said, ‘you get to fuck me either way’.
‘Either way, eh?’ Rossly arched an eyebrow. ‘How about both ways…’
Brenda let out a shout of a laugh. Rossly regarded her for a second, assessing the impact of his little witticism and then, having made a mental note of the gag and rated it according to his own personal criteria, he moved off with Martin, striking up a conversation about the running order. Brenda followed them to the matt black door in the matt black wall that lead backstage and walked through.

The girl was currently engaged in emptying a dishwasher of glasses and stacking them on the shelf below the optics, in preparation for the evening’s show. As Brenda approached, the metallic smell and cloying warmth of the steam from inside the dishwasher hit her full in the face like a vomit cloud. Brenda stopped for a moment and gagged. The girl looked up.
‘Jonathan’s not here,’ she said, and turned away.
‘Yes, I know he’s not’, said Brenda. The girl shrugged.
‘Broken up, have you?’
‘Is Martin out the back?’ Brenda asked.
‘Dunno. It’s a bit early for Martin…’
‘Ok, thanks’. Brenda walked past the bar, fighting an urge to mess up the arty arrangement of beer mats advertising liquorice flavoured shots, and went over to the matt black door laid discreetly into the matt black wall to the side of the stage. Ah yes, the stage. There it was. Four black blocks on steel legs, each around a foot high, jammed together in front of a heavy black drape. A microphone in a microphone stand, its long wire snaking away down to the side, and off. And that was it. Nothing funny about this stage. Nothing funny at all. The only funny thing about this stage was who was on it. And in about an hour and a half, that would be Brenda, for a full ten minutes.

Within the rush that suddenly surged through her brain she managed to note a tiny tingle. An, as yet, unpopped kernel of madness. A sliver of thrill. She would either make this stage funny tonight, or she would be enveloped in its silent blackness, buried alive in the softest of shrouds. She would either kill, or die. For that was the language of stand-up comedy, and where she used to roll her eyes at the overblown, absurd masculinity of these war-like epithets, suddenly, in a white magnesium flare, she got it. She was a warrior, a gladiator, a…
‘Mini-Egg?’
Brenda turned round to find Martin standing behind her, holding a yellow bag of sugar-coated chocolate. Brenda took a handful and started crunching them hard, grateful for a new noise inside her brain.
‘Still up for it, then?’ Martin raised a wiry grey eyebrow. Brenda tipped her chin to a scornful angle and sucked her teeth.
‘Of course – what do think I am? I’m going to fuck this place up – you’ll never have seen anything like it in your life. You’ll be begging me to stop before someone ruptures something…’ Martin raised a hand to stop the flow and Brenda abruptly shut up. Aware she was now breathing heavily through her nose, she felt her breasts rising and falling – too big, too big, too cumbersome, not flat and swift and aerodynamic enough for this lark - and a redness creeping up around her neck. She was a fraud. She was sure they both knew it, and imitating the combative style of the more established stand-ups as they psyched each out backstage only served to underline the point.

This was a terrible mistake. She could leave now and no-one would think any the less of her. Well, except for Brenda herself, but what did that matter? She’d let herself down before. Jesus, if you can’t let yourself down from time to time, then we’re all doomed, and anyone who says different has clearly never been on a diet. Martin knew she would fail. It was obvious. She’d be on stage, the yawning silence threatening to swallow her whole. She’d forget all her jokes. Word would get out that she, Brenda Monk, Jonathan Cape’s on-off-on-fuck-buddies-as-an-experiment-on-off-let’s-just-try-being-friends-for-a-bit-on-off-definitely-now-off-ooops-on-again girlfriend had actually thought she was funny. That would be the biggest laugh of the whole evening. She framed herself to turn and leave just as the doors swung open and in swaggered Rossly Barns, a rangy, long-haired Australian comedian in grey jeans, studded belt, large boots and a leather jacket, whose own personal confidence, won from years of experience, appeared to know no bounds.
‘Hey, Brenda – is Jonathan on tonight, then?’
‘No’, Brenda jumped as she heard her voice come out deep and low, with a strong West Country accent. Then she realised it was Martin talking.
‘Brenda is’.
Rossly’s reaction said it all. He pretended to collapse and die on the floor. It was a long, loud, drawn out death and when Brenda looked round, she could see the girl behind the bar laughing ostentatiously.
‘Get up, Rossly – a woman pissed herself right there last week,’ Martin said. Rossly stopped and leapt to his feet. Brenda smiled at him sweetly, offering her hand as he steadied himself.
‘So, you’re going on, are you sweetheart?’
‘Yup. So you’d better dust your best jokes off, or you’re going to look pretty amateur.’
‘Strong words, female, strong words. No Jonathan?’
‘Nope’.
‘Well, let me say this: if you’re funny tonight, I’ll fuck your brains out, how about that?’ Rossly had a glint in his eye that was not unappealing – he had a reputation for somehow getting away with the most profoundly crude material, and not for nothing. Brenda looked at him, breathing in the thickened atmosphere produced by a combination of recklessness and control – a comedian’s two principal weapons of choice. She could learn from Rossly.
‘And if I’m not funny?’
He paused. Perfect timing.
‘I’ll still fuck your brains out. I’d say that’s a pretty good deal for you, babe.’
And then Brenda started to feel excited.
‘And for you too,’ she said, ‘you get to fuck me either way’.
‘Either way, eh?’ Rossly arched an eyebrow. ‘How about both ways…’
Brenda let out a shout of a laugh. Rossly regarded her for a second, assessing the impact of his little witticism and then, having made a mental note of the gag and rated it according to his own personal criteria, he moved off with Martin, striking up a conversation about the running order. Brenda followed them to the matt black door in the matt black wall that lead backstage and walked through.

The door led straight into a small shabby room, with a toilet room to one side and another door at the far end, beyond which lay an even smaller room that served as Martin’s office, where Martin and Rossly were bending over the desk, scrutinising the order in which the comedians would go on. Brenda guessed that Rossly was trying to make sure he had the sweet spot – the first act on after the interval, when the crowd would be nicely warmed up, refreshed from a short break, but not too tired to listen and laugh. This was surely why Rossly had turned up early – a comedian of his calibre would never normally bother to arrive until half an hour or so before the show started, at the earliest, so Brenda idly wondered what his agenda was – perhaps he knew something she didn’t. Perhaps there was to be someone important in the audience that night.

Next to the office was a man-sized space with a worn red velvet curtain hanging over it, slightly too short and too narrow, but big enough to enjoy a final hidden moment before stepping out into the full beam of the spotlight. The lack of a door here meant that the other comedians waiting their turn had to be quiet when the show was on, forced to listen to all the other acts, the triumphs and the tragedies. There was no escape from the pressing judgement of one’s peers here, and the awareness of this silent, hidden audience was probably the most intimidating aspect of performing at this particular club. In other, larger venues, the green room was a distance away from the stage, with a door or two in between. At those places the stage time was almost a relief from the constant scrutiny of other comics, as when they were not required by architecture to keep quiet, they lost interest in the gig itself, and set out to good naturedly destroy one another instead. But not here – there was to be no such relief tonight.

Beyond the curtain was the left wing of the stage. Beyond that, a microphone and the unknown. At some stage in the club’s history, a rather half-hearted attempt had been made to make this cramped, claustrophobic space feel like a comfortable green room for several acts, or a large dressing room for one. Perhaps when it was built there had been a sweetly innocent plan to have local theatre groups perform Tom Stoppard plays here, but such an idea had been quickly stubbed out by the sheer force of economics – stand-up comedy was cheap to put on and made a bomb at the bar. Local theatre groups required all kinds of expensive kit and attracted the kind of audiences that drank one slimline tonic and went home.

There were two mirrors edged with naked bulbs, or open sockets where the bulbs should be. They were never turned on. The room was lit instead by an old, brown-fringed table lamp on a small table in the far corner – it was dingy, but necessarily so, in order to avoid any bleeding of light onto the stage from under the curtain during show time. Round the edge of three-quarters of the room was a waist height sideboard where actors might lay out their make-up and good luck cards. Given that no actors had ever entered this room, and those comedians who considered make-up integral to their public image usually arrived with the mask intact, along with the fact that a good luck card at a gig would be a sign of weakness and therefore an open invitation to ridicule, there was nothing on this sideboard other than three or four stickily empty pint glasses, a barren ash tray or two – a hang over from the days when smoking was legal back here – and a mysterious dildo no-one wished to claim, remove or touch.

There were a couple of cheap metal framed chairs with tatty red cushions half attached, and two small matching sofas which may well have looked inviting at some point in the mid-1980s. The carpet was stained in various hues and damp in the corner next to the toilet room. The toilet room had no door as such, just a wooden screen that could be dragged across the entrance, although the comedians usually didn’t bother, partly out of genuine laziness, partly out of a desire to appear unbothered by suburban concerns for propriety and privacy. In short, this was not the sort of place Joan Collins would feel able to prepare to meet her public.

Brenda had been in this room a couple of times before, but only in her capacity as Jonathan’s girlfriend. She had sat on the left sofa, trying look self-sufficient and mildly disinterested, alert yet unimpressed – the demeanour of any comedian’s girlfriend who knew the ropes. She had always felt she was there by invitation and could be ejected at any time, and so it had been important that her presence take up as little of the room as possible. Now, it was different. Now she was an act. She had a right to be there on her own terms and she must show that she was worthy of it. She must expand to fill the space, or be crushed by the others. If comedy was 80% confidence, she needed to increase her confidence by around 79% within the next…Brenda checked her watch…hour and fifteen minutes. Rossly sauntered out of Martin’s office.
‘I’ve told Martin to put you on after me, babe,’ he announced. ‘You’re doing 10, right?’
‘Yeah, 10.’
‘You got 10?’
‘If I take it slowly…’
‘Better to do a fucking amazing 7 and leave ‘em panting, than fuck it up with a slow 10.’
‘Yeah, I know.’
‘Not as if you’re getting paid, so Martin doesn’t give a shit if you’re 3 minutes light, do you Mart?’
Martin looked up from the desk.
‘Suits me better if she doesn’t go on at all – Ludo always runs long, and people start to worry about their trains once it gets on for eleven o’clock’.
Rossly nodded.
‘There you are, babe. You don’t even have to go on, if you don’t want to...’
He left that hanging in the air like a malingering fart. Brenda smiled. Rossly couldn’t help but try to psyche her out, throw her off her stride – it was instinctive. No point getting pouty about it – it was part of the game.
‘Nah – I want to go on. I’ve got some new material I want to try out at an intimate club like this – you know, not so much pressure, eye contact with the front three rows. I like a small crowd.’ Brenda marvelled at the level of bullshit coming out of her mouth. New material? It was all new material.
‘Sure you do, babe.’ Rossly smiled crookedly. He was sizing her up, not as competition, but as prey. Brenda smiled back, realising just in time that appearing confident was more important than feeling confident. Lesson one.

Rossly broke the atmosphere by opening his bag, looking for the CD of music he wanted Martin to put on when he walked on stage. Brenda breathed out silently and felt for her small notebook in her jacket pocket. She sat down on the left sofa and pulling out a pen, she opened the book and started copying her set order onto the back of her hand. It was a waterproof pen, which meant that the set order would remain on the back of her hand for anything up to a week, but at least it wouldn’t rub off when she started sweating. And she had already started sweating. The door to the green room swung open again and a stocky man in his early forties grunted into the room. Rossly glanced up.
‘Hey Mike, buddy – you look like shit – you got cancer or something?’
Mike Smith adjusted to the small but deliberate body blow, and dumped his rucksack on the floor.
‘It’s full blown AIDS – I think I got it when your mum let me butt-fuck her in Melbourne last year.’
Rossly smirked and nodded, and went back to looking for his CD. Brenda sniggered to herself. Mike noticed her sitting on the sofa and frowned.
‘I thought Jonathan was in Birmingham tonight’.
‘He is,’ said Brenda.
‘So…’ Mike looked at her with a quizzical expression.
‘I’m going on.’ Brenda heard herself say these words, and once again, the reality lurched in her stomach like a bad prawn.
‘She’s got some new material she wants to try out, right, Bren?’ Rossly’s voice leaned in to Mike’s mounting confusion.
‘Oh, right. I didn’t know…I mean, I never realised…’
‘You’d better not fuck it up tonight, Mike. Brenda’s bringing the good stuff.’
Mike narrowed his eyes for a fraction of a second. He’d been on the circuit for over ten years now, and never got above club level. Never even made it to headliner. To Mike, anyone was a threat, regardless of experience. Mike had seen enough people start after him, climb past him, and never glance back down the crevasse to see if he was ok, so he couldn’t afford to be generous.
Brenda studied her hand, while Mike walked into the toilet room and unbuttoned his awful black jeans. As the sound and smell of piss, fermented on the long tube ride down from Acton, filled the room, Brenda gagged again. Was this really what she wanted? Rossly’s words played in her head, ‘you don’t even have to go on, if you don’t want to.’ Did she want to? Did she?

She closed her eyes. She imagined getting up, making her excuses, walking out of the black door, through the bar, past the security guard and back out onto the street. She pictured hailing a cab and climbing in. She pictured telling the friendly, fatherly cabbie her address and sitting back, watching London slide past, not knowing, not asking, not caring, not judging. She would pay the cab, open her front door, slip inside and pour herself a glass of wine. She would put the TV on – she’d be home in time for The Apprentice if she left now. It would be as if this had never happened. Martin wouldn’t care. Mike would be relieved, and Rossly would certainly find someone else to fuck whichever way he pleased. She was drifting in a sea of sweet relief, when something gripped her inside, an unwelcome clench of regret and disappointment. A feeling that her life would continue without her if she stepped off now. She could feel it rising, this knowledge that she was going to stay, she tried to push it down, but it wouldn’t stop and now all she could picture was herself sitting at home, bored, sadly downing a bottle of wine alone and wishing she was back at the club. She was going to stay here, wait her turn and walk through the curtain, and with the screaming silence of the green room behind her, and the potential actual silence of the crowd in front of her, she was going to tell her jokes. Yes, she was going to tell her jokes tonight.