Is it possible a relationship could collapse on the back of a joke, and a friendship called into question? That seems to have been what happened when not so long ago I told a friend a joke Freud tells in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious about salmon mayonnaise. Or perhaps this is just my way of rationalising things. I’d been reading the book in a pub in Aviemore waiting for Andy to finish work, and the joke made me laugh quietly and at length. The joke itself was light, and perhaps not obviously funny but it seemed to have a strange after effect, and when I told him the joke he laughed not so much loudly, as instantly, and then kept chuckling for the best part of a minute after it. I said his response was similar to mine,but I’d never told anybody else the joke so I wasn’t sure if this was a typical response or not. After all, Freud himself wondered whether it was really even a joke. As we sat in his compact bungalow, which was actually one of the chalets almost all the other owners used as no more than a holiday home, I wondered what the joke told me about Andy, and what the joke told me about myself. I suggested maybe I should tell Farrah the joke over the phone; Andy, who had met my girlfriend a few times both in Aviemore and Edinburgh, insisted it would probably be better if I told her it in person.
Now Andy, perhaps my closest friend, lives in the Highlands, Farrah and I a hundred and fifty miles south in Edinburgh, so though Farrah was probably the first person I would have been likely to have tried the joke out on after Andy, that had to wait. For after visiting Andy in Aviemore, I travelled further north, to Inverness, to see my mother and father, and then on to the Black Isle, to visit my sister and her husband. As I told the joke to my parents over dinner, the punch-line met with puzzlement on both their parts as they looked at each other and wondered what they were supposed to get. Later that evening, after they’d returned from their after-dinner walk, and after I’d worked upstairs on my mother’s computer, they said they sort of got it. But they still didn’t find it that funny. They wondered if it was perhaps even pointless.
I would sometimes think that is exactly what they thought about my own life: where was the direction, my mother would often say, where do you want to be in five years’ time? I would usually insist I wanted to be in exactly the same place if I possessed the degree of contentment I felt at the moment of the asking; a different place if I didn’t. That was too vague, she would say, and wondered at least when I would take up a permanent teaching post instead of the supply work that was supporting me but offering nothing more. I felt, somehow, the joke symbolized the differences between not so much us – between my parents and me – but our perspective on life. However, I also thought it’s our perspective that makes us who we are. I would often recall my father saying, shortly after I’d left school, that we all need a purpose, and the best way to get one is to imagine our future: to create for ourselves the life we will then lead. He said this to me in the garden of the very same house that they’re still living in, a house which looks directly out onto the River Ness, in what remains one of the most attractive parts of the town. He explained that day, years ago, what he wanted from life wasn’t so very complicated. He wanted to become a successful GP, with friends in the community, a nice, large house to invite them round to, a wife he would love for the rest of his days once he found her, and kids he would watch equal his achievements and possibly surpass them.
It was the last pep talk he really gave, or rather the last talk where he revealed his entire lifelong ambitions to me with a sense of achievement rather than beseechingly trying to persuade me to pursue some ambitions of my own. Now that I’m thirty three, if he brings up his children’s future, it’s with a wistful recognition that I haven’t followed through on my own. A future isn’t given to us, he would say, we have to take it. I sometimes replied that the future concerned me less than the specifics of the present; on other occasions I would insist if we are to make our future, surely first of all we have to make it in our own image, not through the expectations of our parents. And anyway, wasn’t the great achievement in life to live in the present? That evening, while they were out walking, I wrote a brief sketch about a man whose entire purpose in life had been to avoid future tense feelings like anticipation, expectation and ambition. After finishing it I, perhaps quite aptly, deleted it from the computer.
The following afternoon I drove my battered old mini over the Kessock Bridge, across the Black Isle, and pulled up at my sister’s driveway. She was in the garden with the kids, the three of them bent over, cutting herbs, yanking up a lettuce; obviously picking food for dinner that night. I couldn’t help but wonder about my short story of the previous evening; as I looked forward to my sister’s cooking, and watched the three of them gathering the herbs and salads for it, don’t we need to think of the future just a little? I couldn’t help but admit that every time I would cross the Kessock Bridge I wasn’t especially thinking of the view as I crossed it, but about what my sister might be cooking for dinner that evening. Maybe I needed to modify my notion of the present. Farrah and I would often argue on this point; did I want a future with her or didn’t I, she would often ask?
I told the joke over a dinner of cheese ‘n’ oat and onion roast and a no less homemade apple pie. My sister’s husband, Mark, half laughed, and looked at his wife, who’s face was scrunched up as if to say what the heck was so funny. I wondered whether Mark half-laughed because he found the joke amusing, but wasn’t sure how my sister would respond, or half-laughed because he didn’t find it funny but that he didn’t want to offend me by not laughing at all. I would often sense in him a perspective that could be accessed through humour, through a sort of joke he would get despite himself. Sometimes I would make mildly, though never malicious, politically incorrect jokes for no other reason than to play with his expectation of himself, in the first instance, and his carefully built bourgeois life on the other. Mark was from the south of England, and his parents – both teachers – moved up to Fortrose in the Highlands when he was still young. They chose the Highlands because it seemed the antithesis to southern greed, though even Mark couldn’t resist saying the reason his parents could buy such a nice house in the north was because of the positive equity gained from the house boom in London.
It was the first sardonic comment he ever really made, and that was only after a few months of my knowing him, and a while before my sister and Mark got married. It was that light cynicism I seemed to need to tap each time I would visit my sister and her family, and I’m not sure whether my sister simply disapproved of it, or whether it actually in some way shook their marriage. After all, if a joke can destroy a relationship, as I’m proposing, can it not at least rock the foundations of an apparently solid married couple?
When I returned to the city I immediately phoned Farrah; less because I was missing her after our few days apart, but much more to test her: to see if she would get the joke. By now the joke became so laden with significance, so tied up with some existential perspective on humour, that I wondered if I was putting too much at stake by telling the joke and seeing if she would respond to it. As it so happened, I got her answering machine and I recalled her saying that she was going to see a film on Sunday night. It was almost certainly at the Filmhouse or the Cameo – I decided I would sit and wait in the Cameo cafe bar and see her coming out of the film.
As I sat in the bar finishing off Freud’s book, there was no sign of her. What there was very much a sign of, though, was a young woman sitting on her own reading a book that I could just make out from where I was seated. The book was called The Theatre of the Absurd by Martin Esslin, and I wondered if I should go over and try the joke out on her. Would I have thought this if she did not have long, blonde hair, an attractive snub nose made especially cute by the black rimmed glasses she was wearing, and legs that fitted perfectly her short-ish skirt? That I don’t know, but usually if I found somebody attractive I would avoid approaching her for one of two reasons. One would be that I was already in a relationship (a moral conscience) and the other would be that I would need a very good premise beyond the attraction to go up and speak to a woman (sexual shyness). But over the last couple of days I seemed almost to have convinced myself that the relationship would be over because Farrah wouldn’t get the joke, and that, because I had loaded the joke with so much purpose and meaning (ironically for so gentle a gag), I might feel entitled to start looking around for a new girlfriend. After all, Farrah and I had only been seeing each other for a year; we didn’t live together and had never even talked about the future beyond our weekends away and a possible holiday at the October break in a month’s time,though that was of course because of my reluctance to do so. Whenever she mentioned the future I would talk of the importance of the present moment. As for the shyness, usually that would be overcome if I could find some justifiable pretext for talking to a woman. In this instance I think I had one.
So I went over to the pretty girl with glasses and asked her about the book she was reading. She said it was basically about the history of the Absurd in theatre. I said I knew of a few of the writers it was talking about – Beckett, Pinter and Ionesco – but I hadn’t read it. She laughed, kindly, saying that the writer mentions in his introduction that many people know of the title but have never read the book. I asked her if she had read Freud’s book on jokes. She laughed, as if trying to make the connection between the Absurd and Freud, and I pointed over to my nearby table, saying it happened to be the book I was reading. I felt slightly disappointed that she hadn’t noticed what I was reading while I noticed what she was studiously working her way through, but this momentary emotional plummet was promptly alleviated by her request that I take a seat. I quickly popped back to my table to grab the glass of wine but, not wanting to appear presumptuous, left the rest of my stuff on or by the table – including Freud’s book on jokes.
I asked her a few questions about the absurd, and she said that she was working on her Master’s dissertation, drawing, she felt, quite predictable links between Beckett and Pinter. I proposed to her that if she got an absurd joke that Freud tells, then she would have no problems writing on the absurd. She laughed and said that might sound great in theory; but what if she didn’t get the joke at all? I said it would obviously mean it was absurd that she was writing on the absurd. As she laughed again I thought that there was a reasonable chance she would find the joke funny, and thus have no problem writing her dissertation.
So I told her the joke and her response was almost identical to Andy’s. It was a soft laugh that built up nicely, so that she enjoyed the joke’s initial gentleness, and laughed more loudly as the absurdity of it struck her. I told her the dissertation was already in the bag.
And so, it turned out, I made it in into Amanda’s bed. Later that night, as we lay awake shortly after being intimate, she said that it was the joke that sealed it. If I had told her a lousy joke she wouldn’t have invited me back to her flat, and she certainly wouldn’t have allowed me into her bed. I laughed, but a low-key anxiety overcame me, and I wondered whether I would have ended up in her bed if I was sure that Farrah would have got the joke. Of course I kept these thoughts to myself, and looked at this pretty young woman’s face; her eyes light green and clear despite the hour, and wondered whether I had just embarked on a new relationship, without first of all ending the one with Farrah.
After leaving the next morning, after a light breakfast, I arrived home to find two messages on my answering machine from her. The first apologised for failing to be in when I got back – she would have met me at the station, in fact, but her friend, Melanie, was ill, and Farrah thought she should pop over with some essentials. Would I give her a ring? The second said that it was one in the morning, and why hadn’t I returned her call. After that, there were a couple of calls where no message was left. Obviously I felt less than wonderful, but it was as though I’d convinced myself there was no relationship really between us because we had very different perspectives on life. Exemplified, I believed, by the joke that she would surely not find funny.
I phoned her and apologized for missing her calls – I said to her that I was in the film café bar thinking that she might have been at a film, and ended up chatting to people there. I said I got her messages when I arrived back, but thought it was too late to phone, and then went to bed. If the ring tone hadn’t been switched off I would have of course picked it up no matter what time she phoned. It is true that I often switched off the ring tone so that I could read or watch a film, or work, and the morning that I went up north I recall turning it down while I had worked for a couple of hours. Nothing that I really said was a lie, but neither did I tell her much that was true.
I asked when we could next meet up, and she said she would be free the following evening. That day I was tempted to phone the woman I had been in bed with only a few hours before. However, it was as though to do so would be to exacerbate the lie, and I believed I needed to find out whether Farrah would get the joke before trying to contact Amanda again.
The next night Farrah and I arranged to meet at a favourite restaurant, and as I sat waiting for her I wondered if I would perceive her at all differently: after all, my one night stand, if that is what it was, happened of course to be the first person that I had slept with since first going out with Farrah. As Farrah arrived at the restaurant wearing a black skirt and a black slip, I thought she looked beautiful. The last few days had been an early September mini heat-wave, and her shoulders were browned, and her face radiant. Her eyes seemed especially clear and alert, yet I could also notice, despite the colouring, a faint heaviness under the eyes, as if she hadn’t slept enough. As I kissed her she appeared reluctant to offer her lips to mine, and as we sat down and ordered the meal the conversation was mutually stilted.
It was during the starter I decided to tell her the joke, and as I began to tell it, she smiled, allowed me to continue and then at the end of it laughed lightly, saying she found it very funny but that she had heard it already. The other evening, while trying to get hold of me, she had phoned Andy, thinking I might still have been up north. When it was clear that I wasn’t, and that as far as Andy knew I had made it back down to Edinburgh, she admitted she began to feel worried and fretful. Andy calmed her down by telling her he was sure there was nothing to worry about, and told her the very joke I had just repeated. As she had laughed as if more with the thought of Andy telling it than my just finished retelling, I wondered whether my sensibility was rather more similar to Farrah’s than I had ever been willing to acknowledge, or whether it was so completely different that the exact same joke told by another could be funny, but that if it had been told by me would barely have elicited a laugh. I also wondered about Andy, and mused over whether a joke he insisted I shouldn’t tell Farrah he told her out of compassion or passion: out of a desire to assuage her worries, or arouse her feelings. And who was I to judge; hadn’t the joke worked in exactly the latter way for me only two nights before? Maybe, I found myself musing, the best jokes are barely jokes at all, but useful keys to unlocking something about our horribly complicated relationship with the world. I also wondered, as I went to the bathroom before the main course, whether at that very moment if the salmon mayonnaise joke were to be told to me I would have possessed the temperament to have found it as funny as I did telling it less than a week before to my apparent best friend.