Wiri was shivering. From the cold or the nerves, he didn’t know. When Bex had arrived home she’d said her day had been all kinds of freaky, and he’d told her he’d like to hear it once the whole comedy thing was over and he could listen with a clear head.
And now wham, here he was, walking into the comedy club and dedicating every neuron in his brain to acting like he belonged here.
‘I gotta go backstage before it starts,’ he said.
‘Yup,’ said Bex. ‘Oi, don’t forget this.’ She took off her pounamu and handed it to him.
‘Thanks,’ he said, putting it on and tucking it under his shirt.
Wiri paced back and forth in the wings. This was the closest he’d come to drinking in years. Closest he’d come to asking to borrow Bex’s vape. He avoided making conversation with anyone, knowing that if the façade dropped here then there was no chance he could pull it up again on stage. At this point in his life, Wiri knew how people saw him. They liked him until they had to hear him string a full sentence together. Charisma was a fickle beast, wasn’t it? A skinny boy with a carefree stride and a thoughtful expression was someone people wanted to know more about, but ask him a question he hadn’t rehearsed an answer for and perceptions changed. Carefree and thoughtful looked more like aimless and disconnected.
But that’s why this might work. He was free to choose both the questions and the answers himself. Free to sound conversational without needing to have a conversation. The audience would either laugh or not, and he’d say the same words in the same order regardless.
The emcee called out his name, and he walked on stage. Not really carefree, but a perfect replica.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
The lights were bright. He’d been told they’d be so bright that he wouldn’t be able to see the audience’s faces, but this wasn’t true. Their faces were vague, alloyed with the murk of the room and almost grainy like film, but he could identify them as individuals and see the edges of their expressions.
Near the front he saw Joachim sitting with Bex. Near the back he saw Crystal, and next to her, Eulalia.
‘My name’s Wiri. I’m a security guard. I know, now you’re looking at me and thinking, I could get past him.’
‘And it’s true. I don’t bring a lot of muscle to the table, or a lot of energy. I’m in your way, you could take me out no problem. But could you live with yourself?’
‘Don’t underestimate the security value of pity. I have the freedom to put someone in a headlock because I know in their mind they’re going, I’ll just let him have this one. He looks like he needs a break.’
‘I don’t drink. That’s part of why I ended up doing security. I knew a guy who did it and he said, It’s not that interesting. It’s mostly telling drunk people not to touch things, which was really disappointing to hear, because I didn’t know I coulda been getting paid for that the whole time.’
Good laugh. Good, middle of the road laugh.
‘Now I’m outside WINZ. It’s kinda similar. Main difference is the people just wish they were drunk.’
Back to lighter laughter.
Bex felt stupid for having such a big smile on her face. Every time the audience liked a joke she felt personally validated as co-writer. To make matters worse/better, she always heard Crystal’s laugh clear and isolated amongst the rest. Part of her wanted to get out of her seat, run over to Crystal, and tell her all about the process for coming up with the set.
‘I can never tell if people think I’m Māori or not,’ said Wiri. ‘The way I look, I’m right on the edge where people are either going, he definitely is, or, he definitely isn’t. For the record, I am Māori, and I can actually prove it.’
He reached under his collar and pulled out the pounamu, letting it hang over his chest. He pointed at it, and a few people in the audience laughed, not knowing if it was a joke or not.
‘Now see,’ he said, ‘if I wasn’t Māori, woulda had this out from the start.’
Jackpot. Eruption of laughter. Bex’s comedic pride and joy vindicated. She dared a look back at Crystal, whose laugh was loud as ever. Even in the dim light, Bex thought she could see a hint of confusion on Crystal’s face, as if she was laughing just to be a part of something despite not quite knowing what it was. That made Bex feel even better. When she looked back at Wiri again, he was tucking her pounamu back under his shirt, and he had a massive grin on his face. Bex hadn’t seen him smile like that for a long time.
Wiri was relieved. The façade wasn’t just up, it was reinforced and earthquake-strengthened. These people liked him now, and if the real Wiri were to slink away into the shadows, the fake one, the charismatic one would still be standing there throwing out punchlines like it was charity.
‘I’ll admit the name helps. Wirihana. Not the most ethnically ambiguous name. I think there’s two types of Māori names. New Māori and old Māori. New Māori is when you see one of your Facebook friends who you thought was a Pākeha has got a flash new middle name, like Gandalf coming back from the dead.’
Tiny laughter, maybe from somebody guessing the punchline, or maybe just because the setup was so stupid.
He put on his Ian McKellen voice, which was not very good, but at least recognisable. ‘Kelly Bunsen? That’s what they used to call me. Kelly Bunsen the White. I am Kelly Rongohīrea Bunsen, the Brown.’
Split the room. Big laughs from some, not much from others. A little too conceptual, but still satisfying.
‘Then there’s old Māori names. If you go to a marae, I guarantee you the kuia with the most mana is named something like Auntie Bitch.’
Big, big laugh from everybody. The profanity bonus, extra strong when combined with the topic of old ladies.
‘Māori parents out there, you got a big responsibility. Names affect your psychology. My big brother, his name was Tāwhirimātea. That’s the god of the winds and the thunderstorms. That’s big shoes to fill, right? But he filled them. He was a big, majestic guy. Then I come out and my parents name me Wirihana. You know what that means?’ He paused. ‘It means Wilson.’
‘What shoes was I meant to fill, oi? Like naming your kids Prometheus and Brad.’
‘But it makes me nervous, because my brother, he died in a boating accident during a storm.’
Wiri saw Joachim get up from his seat and run out of the bar.
‘So I …’
Wiri tried to remember the next word, the next punchline.
What had set Joachim off this time? Creative liberties with Wiri’s own brother’s death?
‘So because my name …’
Nope, that wasn’t it.
People in the audience had turned to look at Joachim as he left. Their eyes were on Wiri again, but he could tell they were a little distracted. He was distracted. Had he set Joachim off by bringing up the drowning at all? In any capacity?
‘So you’re not gonna catch me drinking Moore Wilson’s orange juice any time soon.’
Fuck. Fucked it up. That’s not how it was meant to go.
Bex gritted her teeth for the remainder of Wiri’s set as he muddled his way through the bit about being good at making instant noodles. So much for validation. She looked back at Crystal again, who didn’t seem phased by either Joachim storming off or Wiri’s instantly sunk confidence. But next to her, Eulalia was still looking towards the exit.