“I hate bolognese.” Layla said looking at a plate of pasta.
“You don’t have to eat it.” Marianne snapped, “Just serve it. Now, before it goes cold.”
Layla sighed and lifted up the plate. The man with crusty eyes who had ordered it accepted the dish and winked. “This looks incredible. Second best looking thing in the room.”
She thought of all the funny things she could say back and then decided she didn’t need another telling off from Marianne that day. She walked away before he could remind her about the empty chair at his table again. It was the second last thing in the room she wanted to sit on.
The restaurant was busy, but not so busy that she could switch her brain off and let time run past her. Oh no, no such relief. She had plenty of time to think between dietary requirements and customer condescension, about how this had happened to her.
It was only three months ago she had bounced out of her office job feeling on top of the world. She’d slammed out of the lobby feeling much closer to a million dollars than the £41.28 she’d actually had in her account. Her boss had been a creep, the work was tedious and Layla was set to be a superstar, so why not quit? Ok, so she wasn’t quite as close to being a superstar as was possible, but it was definitely going to happen, so why not leave and give herself more time to focus on stand up comedy?
She’d pulled her mobile out of her bag and called Kieran.
“Hey babe, you ok?” He’d answered almost immediately. She’d heard the roar of the motorway in the background and pictured him in the front of his Polo, fast food wrappers strewn across the passenger seat footwell as he made his way to his show.
“Yeah,” she’d said breathlessly, “I quit!” There’d been silence on the other end of the line. “Did you hear me? I said I quit?”
“Yeah… wow.” Kieran hadn’t sounded elated. “So… what are you going to do?”
“I’ve got comedy gigs booked.” The positivity had immediately started draining out of Layla, Kieran was being drearily practical.
“Paid ones?” He’d asked, and she’d heard the indicator flick on in his car. She’d pictured him checking his blind spot meticulously and smiled to herself. He was practical, why expect him to be any different?
“Yeah… quite a few.” She’d said vaguely. Two was quite a few, wasn’t it? She’d ended the conversation and called an endlessly positive girl friend instead. He was just distracted because of the motorway.
Layla shook her head to dispel thoughts of the past. She didn’t want to think about stupid Kieran. But once you thought to yourself that you didn’t want to think about something obviously it was all you could think of. She polished cutlery and clattered forks loudly into the tray until Marianne shushed her furiously.
Layla and Kieran had met at a stand-up comedy gig. Her own forays into becoming a comedian were going pretty well. One night she had dropped into The Green Shoes Comedy Club to do her best five minutes and the act headlining the gig had been Kieran. She couldn’t take her eyes off him: the gravitas, the voice, the jokes. He was so funny, and, not that it was important or anything, but oh damn was he handsome. In the green room afterwards they had got talking and he was nice, down to earth and far too good to be true. He’d been a comedian for just a year longer than her, and was already beginning to turn pro. Their green room conversation turned into lunch, which turned into dates, which became a relationship that moved itself into a pretty, and pretty small, flat.
That flat might have been smaller than the room she had back at her parents’ house, but at least it had been freedom. She glanced up from the spoon she was buffing and nearly choked as a man entered who looked alarmingly like Kieran. This is where thinking about your exes gets you, she thought, you start seeing them everywhere. Then he laughed and her blood ran cold. It was Kieran. Walking causally into her restaurant with eight sycophants… oh god she was going to have to serve him bolognese.
Kieran had got back the day Layla quit looking tired and distracted.
“Are you ok?” She’d asked, gently.
“I can’t believe you quite your job.” He’d snapped. She’d flinched.
“You know I hated it there.”
“What are you going to do for money?” He’d asked.
“I have savings,” she’d replied, not telling him they were in coupon and Beanie Baby form, “and I will be earning from comedy.”
“But what if…” he’d started, and then stopped. She’d felt herself wanting to prod the bruise of his pause to see where it was going. She’d tried to leave it, but her mouth, had been faster than her determination
“What if what?”
“What if you don’t get enough gigs?”
“You did.” She’d retorted, wishing she was less fired up so she could let him relax and have this conversation when he was less grumpy.
“Yes, but…” again, he trailed off, and this time she didn’t prod the bruise. She knew what it would be and she couldn’t bear to hear it.
She should have just walked out full of self-respect. But she didn’t. That came later.
“Can you go and get their drinks order?” Marianne bustled past. Layla wanted to have an excuse for why she couldn’t, but the words wouldn’t materialise. She stuttered some consonants that weren’t really anything and stood staring at the coffee machine. “Now Layla. For goodness sake. If we weren’t so busy I’d send you home tonight!”
“We’re not that busy…” Layla dived for a glimmer of hope.
“Drinks order.” Marianne dumped cold sick on the once beautiful glimmer. Layla walked to the table as if it was a gallows.
“What can I get you?” She croaked, and he looked up, realising who she was and blinking in surprise. The sight of him took her right back to their last argument.
“I can’t believe you would say that!” She’d screamed, “On the radio?!”
He’d shrugged. “But my Twitter is blowing up? And check out TikTok!” He’d showed her his phone and a grin had spread across his face as he fell into the online adoration.
“But you can’t possibly mean it?” Her heart beat had been so intense it scared her, “I’m a female comic. You know how hard it is for me. You can’t possibly believe it’s harder for men?”
His jaw had motioned open and closed as he’d tried to answer, but she could see his eyes drawing back to his phone, looking at the attention he was getting.
She should have left then. But still… she’d stayed a few more long weeks. Listening to success beckon him, luring him into more and more ridiculous claims. Gaining him a following but at the expense of every value they’d shared.
“I hardly mean any of it. I’m just playing the game.” He’d said trying to soothe her, but it had made her skin crawl lying next to someone who would say anything for fame.
The end came the night of her big show. She’d worked so hard and now was finally playing a real theatre; just her on stage. Her own show. Agents were invited and she was ready to make a splash. Kieran couldn’t make it; he had his own show, hastily moved into a venue twice the size now he’d blown up.
She’d walked back into the flat afterwards and he’d smiled at her. “How did it go?”
“No one came.” The words choked out on a tidal wave of humiliation. She’d wanted him to bury her head into his chest and go back to being her Kieran.
“Oh Lay, you’ve got to start playing the game. Look at what’s happening with me? Sure, it’s not quite how I imagined it, but I’m finally going somewhere!”
That was when she’d left. Without even arguing. How did you argue with someone who didn’t believe their own words?
She’d watched from afar his star climb further on the back of offensive comments and outrageous appearances. Her jokes got funnier but money got tighter and her belief that talent was all you needed shrank.
Now here they were, face to face.
“Layla.” She was grateful to see the wind truly out of his sails.
“What can I get you to drink?” She repeated.
“I’ve tried really hard to get hold of you…” His friends were silent, noticing the tension. She saw from the corner of her eye other diners gawping.
“Two missed calls is trying really hard is it?”
“I…” he shifted in his chair. “It’s two more than you tried.”
“I was busy. You know how it is with us female comedians, we’re out there stealing all your jobs.”
There was an audible gasp and Layla noticed more than one mobile phone being surreptitiously removed from a pocket to film.
“Oh don’t be like that.” Kieran rolled his eyes.
“What, funny? Why? Can’t you keep up?” Giggles began around the room, “No sorry Kieran, you don’t get to say the things you do and have a girlfriend like me.”
“Why are you taking it so personally? It’s just work stuff. I’m not talking about you.”
“You ARE talking about me. Everything you say is about someone. You’re just too stupid to notice. You say diversity has gone too far and it makes your life better so you feel like a crusader. You are a crusader. A medieval idiot prancing about. At least if you believed it that would be honest. But you’re hollow. You’re not even a crusading knight you’re just the empty armour. Being with you would be even more humiliating than being a failed comedian serving bland bolognese. Sorry Marianne.”
There was silence in the restaurant. Then the sound of one person clapping, and then a couple more. Layla spun round and saw everyone there applauding her. She would have loved to bask but there were tears on their way so she fled to get the coat she assumed Marianne would soon be telling her to leave in.
She reached the lockers and heard footsteps behind. “Don’t Marianne.” Layla fished her phone out of her pocket.
“Layla that was amazing.” Marianne sounded awed.
Layla didn’t turn round. She stared at the phone screen full of notifications. One or two of the diners had posted their videos, and it seemed that Marianne wasn’t the only one who found Layla’s take down of Kieran amazing.
At Layla’s next show, she wasn’t the only one there.