Open Mic Night

June, 2008. A warm, humid night. First time here. I’m standing at the bar, thinking about the usual stuff, drinking a pint of terrible bitter. ‘Just been outside having a fag and talking about John Lennon, Kev,’ splutters The Other Kev, a man who looks like a less-healthy Amy Winehouse, as he scrambles onto the stool next to me. ‘In fact,’ he continues, in a slightly quizzical tone, ‘the bloke I was talking to really, really looked like John Lennon…’

‘Maybe he faked his own murder, Kev,’ I say, lost for a sensible response, ‘and started a new life in Kentish Town?’

He looks hurt then, The Other Kev, and, for a few exquisitely painful moments, he stops staring lovingly into my eyes and turns into the serial killer I feel sure he actually is. Every facial muscle twitches, his fists clench, his nose becomes alarmingly red. I see him take a deep breath and then consciously, pointedly, sighingly change the subject as he asks me if I know where ‘our’ name is from, asks me if I’m Irish. ”Of comely birth”, I say, ‘that’s what the name is supposed to mean, I think, Kev’, and I can tell I’ve disappointed him again: he wanted to tell methat. I stupidly follow up with ‘And no, I’m not Irish’ and I can see it’s like a kick in the balls to the poor bloke. This is going to be a long night.

‘AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ The gorgeously Gothy, scarily screechy East European woman who’s compering tonight’s event has started singing. She’s tiny, sexy, has more self-confidence than the rest of North-West London put together and is ever-so-slightly, just-enough-to-make-her-a-lot-less-or-a-lot-more-sexy-I’m-not-really-sure, off-key. Though not as off-key as the keyboard player, a man with three ponytails, who seems to be backing a different singer on a different night on a different planet.

Everyone in the bar tries to ignore the racket exploding from the stage; everyone’s intimidated enough by the Gothy woman to make sure they at least appear to be paying attention. In a stage whisper, The Other Kev starts telling me about his post-divorce train-trip across the States, about getting pissed with Scousers in Chicago, about watching a marriage disintegrate in New Orleans, about narrowly missing an actress-shagging opportunity in Atlanta. I seem to spend my whole time these days faking interest in other people, I think. ‘Let me talk aboutme, you selfish git,’ I want to say, ‘I’m far more interesting than you. Did you know that, in 1973, Pablo Picasso…’

My friend arrives, we do the introduction thing and I can tell immediately The Other Kev is aggrieved, for the third (and perhaps terminal) time. He thought he had me to himself, that’s the thing. I try desperately not to make it too obvious that I’m relieved my friend’s here. I want to tell her this Other Kev isn’t my mate or lover, I want to tell her I’ve never met him before. I’m normal, me. Normal. A normal Kev. I try to convey all of this telepathically. The Other Kev turns his back to her, leans towards me, touches my hand unnecessarily, and tells me he’s always loved Art Deco, that the piano on stage is an Art Deco one. I’m fairly sure it’s not, but no way am I telling him: one more disappointment and there’ll be a bloodbath. He offers to buy me (but not my friend) a Guinness and I feel guilty but say yes anyway. I chat to her for a while, while The Other Kev orders the drinks and scares the barman. Out of nowhere, as we’re talking about Sherlock Holmes, I feel a knife-in-the-heart thrust of loneliness, picture The Only Woman I’ve Ever Really Loved (c) (TM) in all her glory and have to hold back the tears yet again. I curse myself: it’s been a day of what I heard someone refer to recently as ‘internal Tourette’s’. Yeah, shit day: hence coming here tonight. Fucking idiot.

The Other Kev gives me my Guinness and the three of us sit there in uncompanionable silence, watching the next poor sod on stage, a stand-up who’s either a post-modern parody of alternative comedians or… well… crap. He’s followed by a barely-noticeable round of applause and then by an angry, surprisingly good American leftie-hippie poet who, after a fearsome tirade about Bush, shouts a poem with a refrain that tears my heart in two:

You get me, I get you
No matter how many years
No matter how many lovers
You get me, I get you
You get me, I get you
You get me, I get you
You get me…

Jesus. While I’m still reeling from that one, my friend’s husband, who I’ve never met before, walks in and we shake hands and I look at him and he’s handsome and entirely comfortable in his own skin and reminds me I’m really, really fucking not and that in turn reminds me again of The Only Woman I’ve Ever Really Loved (c) (TM) and I feel like I’m about to scream.

But Scary Goth Lady has just bounced off stage like an electrocuted Tigger and given way to a geezer who’s like a terrible, Cockney Henry Rollins – all chain-rattling, tortured anger and prison-rhythms – and my scream is forced to stay inside, held captive by this man’s startling, comic ferocity. I look around me, avoid The Other Kev’s eye and think: these people have the clothes and hair and half-here desperation of all those people I’m supposed to have been helping over the years, all the people whose pain I’m supposed to be some kind of expert on. Ah: and there was an announcement about some fund-raiser for Mad Pride earlier. Shit. Of course. A lot – most – of these people have mental health problems.  I remember then The Other Kev rambling on earlier about some famous psychiatrist who helped him out a few years back; my carefully-constructed sneer evaporates and I feel a huge, churning wave of empathy and guilt and something like self-pity. Here we go again.

I need to get away now. I ask The Other Kev where the toilets are, cross the dance-floor, walk down a long flight of cunningly-normal steps and I’m hit with… no door, no signs, no obvious toilets, nothing but extravagantly-lit mirror upon mirror upon mirror, mirror within mirror within mirror, me upon me upon me upon me. Mirrors all around me, seemingly stretching into the far distance, mirrors on the ceiling, climbing to the sky: it’s disorientating, bewildering, surreal. I feel slightly sick. I have no choice but to look at this body that’s never been good enough, at the eyes and the no-hair of the thousand, the million me’s, I look at these awkward, distorted, ugly things from every angle possible and I want – like I’ve never wanted anything in my life – to disappear. Fuck the metaphors here, fuck ’em, I want to smash every single posey, pretentious, useless fucking modernist mirror, every reminder of why she’s gone, why she was always going to.

Calm. Down. I find my way, eventually, into a cubicle, surrounded still by a lifetime’s taunts. I have a slash, pull the gold-plated chain and… I can’t find my way out of the fucking place. Every wall is a mirror, every way I turn is part of the trap. There can only be four sides to this cubicle, surely? I smile, grimly, as I think: what if The Other Kev has followed me down here? What if he… Fuck. No. No no no. I can’t cry, not again. From a mile above me, from the Land Of No Mirrors, I can hear the moan of another bloody miserable, middle-aged man reciting, no doubt,  a sonnet about lost love and I want so much to be listening to Her voice in bed, instead of being stuck here in this awful sodding fairground nightmare. Another few seconds pass and I’m panicking now, I’m turning this way and that, pushing, shoving… I bump into another mirror and another, stumble eventually, balls-first, into a door-knob; I shake the door open, run back up the stairs, gasp for breath, images of myself dragging themselves after me, mocking and leering and laughing.

A beautiful transvestite bloke with purple hair smiles at me as I take my seat back at the bar; I’m sweating. The Other Kev’s nowhere to be seen. My friend smiles, says something sane and sweet and, for a moment, I feel OK, regain a little equilibrium. And then a black guy with dreadlocks and an Iron Maiden tee-shirt climbs up onstage and starts singing I Will Always Love You. Christ, I miss Her so much.

When it comes to my turn, I ditch the poem I’d planned to read and improvise for what seems like hours, going on aboutSpringsteen and ee cummings and Portmeirion and anything and everything that comes into my mind. I look out at the crowd and I can see they all think I’m mad or crap or both, I can see the familiar, frozen look of a gawper at a car-crash, I can see no-one has the bottle to tell me to stop. I can’t see my friend or her husband but they must be over there in the corner somewhere? Finally, the swarm of words in my head quietens, softens, flies off and I walk down off the stage in tears. My friend and her husband have gone.

On the trudge back to the station, I go to a cashpoint, get laughed at by the machine, decide things will never be this bad again. And then I hear shouts behind me, turn and see The Other Kev running up the road, a long-haired, bespectacled bloke next to him. By the time they catch up with me, they’re both panting a bit. ‘Meet John, Kev’, says The Other Kev, and I hold out my hand and smile.