He’s pacing back and forth, or trying to. The little dressing room is crowded with folding chairs and dusty flyers and a mirror with bright bulbs that burn his elbows. When he sits, the room feels too full. So he stands. And paces. It takes six steps and four breaths to cross the length of the floor. Maybe an extra breath or two when the crowd’s laughter fades and he can hear Dan’s voice seeping under the door.
It’s ridiculous to be nervous now. He wishes he could say it was about the fans, that he’s worried they’ll be disappointed, but it’s not about them. It never was. Certainly not on those afternoons in their Dalston flat, hours spent stringing up curtains made of dirty bed sheets and building jungles out of cardboard and gaffer tape. He could have got a real job, been happy minding a shop, as long as he got to keep those afternoons.
He met Dan at stand-up night at The Hyde nearly two decades ago, back when every chair in the place was perpetually turned towards the nearest telly, back when they had to compete with Hollyoaks for the pub’s attention, and Hollyoaks usually won.
‘Sometimes I’m glad,’ Dan had told him. ‘Most of them, I think their disinterest is the most positive response I could get.’
Jem hadn’t argued. After two Perrier nods and a decade of sold-out venues, he could do and wear whatever he liked and the only people who told him off hid in the pages of the Daily
Mail. But he hadn’t forgotten the years spent staring down the heckles of hard-faced lads in sports pubs, stumbling outside after gigs to see his posters torn and the words ‘fucking queer’ scrawled across his face.
It had gotten easier once he’d found Dan. Somehow his presence, the way his hands twitched nervously when he spoke and the way his tweed jackets never fit quite right, it made Jem look less threatening. After Dan, there were no more torn posters. Or maybe there were, but Dan made him forget.
And that night at The Hyde, that was where it had all started. He’d sidled up to Dan at the bar, stammered something about that P-Funk gag he did and how genius he was and maybe would he like to come see him tomorrow in Soho.
Dan, eyes fixed on the crooked line of his nose, had cocked his head to the side and told him he looked like a wonky seabird.
But the next day, he came. And after the show, on the corner of Dean Street, he asked Jem if he’d like to write a show together.
They did a few more weeks at The Hyde until they started to get proper bookings. Dan said they needed to advertise and so hundreds of flyers were printed up with ‘Olson and Bauer’ in bright glaring green letters. Jem had complained that the names made them look like a law firm and that maybe they should consider calling themselves something like ‘The Flying Cactuses,’ something with a bit of edge. Dan had asked him what was so edgy about airborne vegetation, but it didn’t matter. The Guardian had picked it up and run a blurb about Olson and Bauer, the act of the millennium, and they didn’t have the money for new flyers anyway.
The next year, they did a month-long run at the Pleasance and sold out every night. Dan had given in and let Jem dub the show Electric Mollusks, since he never got his cactuses. They got called surreal and Dadaist in every paper and Jem complained to anyone who would listen about how anything a bit strange was deemed ‘Dali-esque.’ That is, until Liam Gallagher likened them to ‘fucking Magritte,’ and then Jem was quiet for a week.
They did a tour and then another. The second was what did them in. One hundred and thirty shows spanning the UK and Australia. Too many nights blurred together, too many hours spent onstage and too many hours spent off and trying to get back on. Dan said he didn’t understand how to switch back to real life when the curtains closed. He said he was tired of talking to Olson instead of just Jem.
It was almost over, Jem had promised him. One more month and they could go back to Dalston and they could be Jem and Dan again.
He always stumbled back to the hotel hours after Dan. Dan didn’t see the point of after-parties, not when there had been a show every night and there were dozens more booked for the next few weeks. He didn’t need to be there, anyway. Jem crept into his room every night to whisper about where he’d been and how the DJ didn’t know who Frank Zappa was and could he believe that. Sometimes, Jem said he couldn’t find his floor and needed to sleep there. He could never remember his room number, but he could always find Dan’s.
That night, he’d muttered an ‘all right?’ and thrown himself onto the mattress before Dan could reply. His hair stank of sweat and his face was smeared with crusted makeup and he knew he should get up and find his own bed, only his eyes had closed just as his head found the pillow and he couldn’t bring himself to open them again.
‘What d’you want?’
‘Goodnight kiss.’ But his head was too heavy to lift and his breath reeked, he was sure, so he just traced his thumb over Dan’s lips and hummed.
‘You’re sleeping in these ridiculous things now?’ Dan had laughed, slipping a hand in the back pocket of his drainpipes. ‘Gonna cut off the circulation. Next morning I’ll have to explain why you’re hobbling around on frozen legs. We’ll have to change the spider monkeys bit.’
‘Mmm. I was thinking, maybe when we get home—’
‘What the fuck is this?’
He didn’t have to open his eyes to know what Dan was holding.
‘Nothing. Listen, I want to—’
‘It was in your pocket. Who gave it to you?’
‘It doesn’t matter. I only had a bit, all right?’
‘No, it’s not fucking all right. Is this why you’ve been so— Is this why you’re here?’
A month later, Olson and Bauer did go back to Dalston, but he wasn’t sure that Jem and Dan ever did.
Two years after that, they had been asked to do a telly show. Jem knew he couldn’t get Dan back on tour, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to either. This was better. Wake up at 6am. Take the bus home at 7pm. Watch TV with Dan. Sit on the other end of the sofa, not directly next to him. Point out the 9pm slot on Channel 4, the one that would be theirs in a few months. Try not to shout at him that the tour was over and he’d barely even had a drink in months and he’d said he was sorry so couldn’t they just be normal again.
It had carried on that way until the pilot.
Standing in front of the studio audience, it had reminded Jem of the arenas they’d booked years ago and why they’d tried to keep them out of the second tour. A faceless audience more interested in staring at the screens hung just to the side of the stage than at the stage itself. At least on tours they’d been able to interact with the crowd, see which jokes stuck and which needed to be weeded out. Every performance was a test and each show was better than the last.
In the studio, they had to stick to the script – even though, they were quite sure, they’d never provided anything of the sort. They repeated jokes until their voices went flat and the words felt heavy in their mouths. The audience laughed when they weren’t meant to, smothered the quiet moments that had made them so famous.
They watched the pilot at 9pm on Thursday night in the Dalston flat. Dan on the sofa. Jem cross-legged on the floor at his feet. Neither spoke until the credits rolled, and even then, Dan had only smiled and said that maybe they should have stayed where they belonged.
That had been four years ago. Four years of nothing, until tonight.
Lee had called on Tuesday. Said he had a sudden opening and asked if they wanted to come round in a week’s time. Do one last show in the place where it all began. They couldn’t really, Jem had thought. It wasn’t The Hyde anymore. The cracked wooden chairs had been done away with, replaced by leather-cushioned stools that clustered like beetles around the base of the stage. And no more television screens winking merrily from the walls, as Lee had proudly pointed out. There wasn’t a need for them now. Not since it had become that pub, the one that launched Olson and Bauer and a dozen acts since.
Jem had nearly asked if they could bring them out again. Just for one night. Turn them up as loud as they could go and see if this time, they could beat Hollyoaks. But he wasn’t sure how to ask, and so he didn’t.
Tonight, they’ll insist that the chemistry is still there as they break character and garble lines. Jem will wonder again if they’re joking about it because they’re afraid it’s true. If he misses a mark, he’ll arch a brow as if it was intentional and Dan, he knows, will play along.
But what if it is true? What if he waited too long and now it’s gone?
He remembers the moments they never wrote, gags about losing the magic because they got too close and crossed the line. He never thought about what would happen if they didn’t.