It was difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when Toby’s set fell apart. He had been drinking, but not so much that he couldn’t stand up. There was minimal swaying and some slurring. Yet laughter came and washed over him like the most refreshing of waves.
The large crowd sat at round tables, nursing their drinks and eating tapas. A fug of smoke hung in the air and he squinted under the glare of the spotlight. Some patrons talked in low voices throughout the sets. Toby didn’t mind, as long as the majority listened. Waiters scurried between the tables collecting soiled dishes and glasses. Coloured lights were strung along the bar, winking on and off.
He told the story about his abusive father. When he had rehearsed it in the bathroom mirror he rocked with mirth. The way his Dad’s belly rolls rippled as he punched his Mum was funny, wasn’t it? Like a furious sumo wrestler. He stiffened as the silence descended. An angular man rose with a frown.
‘Domestic violence isn’t funny, mate. I lost my mother to it when I was five. No laughing matter.’
‘Well, maybe if your Dad had been as fat as mine she would have survived. Sorry for your loss. Moving right along.’ The man sat down, glowering.
‘My girlfriend left me the other day,’ he began, sweat beading on his forehead. ‘Now before you start feeling sorry for me, I’ve got to tell you, she was a total bitch. Mouth like the Grand Canyon, spouting complaints all day long. Toby, you haven’t taken out the bins. Toby, you’re balding. Toby, you forgot to roll the toothpaste up from the bottom. And I’m like, listen honey, why are you here? Let’s get existential about this. Other than planting your arse on the couch and complaining, what are you bringing to the table? Well she said…’
A woman rose and glared, her arms crossed. ‘You misogynist. Why would she want to be with an asshole like you?’
‘Haha, may I continue? I’m in the middle of something here?’ There were some mutters, and several patrons stood and wandered out, glancing back with something between disgust and pity.
He teetered and seized the microphone stand for support. Vertigo swirled in his head and his thoughts were erased. He opened his mouth to speak and, to his horror, discovered the words had banked up in his throat, like a comedic traffic jam.
‘Got something to say, smart arse?’ A snickering voice called.
‘About to wet yerself, are ya?’ said another.
Toby shook, his face clammy. He raised his palms in surrender, edged back and ducked under the red satin curtain.
He retrieved his phone from his pocket and dialled her number for the fifteenth time that day. It was only her voicemail, but the sound of her comforted him.
‘Gracie? It’s me. I was wondering if there might be the tiniest chance, like a speck of dust, or a wisp of cotton. Just a little possibility that you could take me back? I’ll stop talking about you in my sets, I promise. I’ll keep phoning until you pick up…’