This was an incident which happened over thirty years ago. Every so often I replay the scene in my head and without fail it produces a dopamine rush of unbridled laughter which lasts for several minutes. I am always astonished at how the memory still has the power to provoke fresh waves of champagne giggles. Maybe you had to be there. Let’s see.
I was an art student on a foundation year. The course demanded that we experience as many crafts as possible including pottery and textiles. The group of friends I had made were hard core performance and fine art wannabe’s and so such activities held little interest for us.
Towards the end of the year we had a regular textile class. The stuttering British summer had kicked in and produced a stultifying day of airless suffocation. We were all gathered around a large table listening to the lecturer drone on about inks. This was a trial. We were aware of the soporific nature of this particular lecturer and in the heat of the day a few of us were close to nodding off.
The lecturer was a dour Scotsman. He was tall and gaunt with a sing-song accent which belied his doom laden nature. Every molecule of humour had been squeezed out of his body by the pernicious fingers of fate. Although we knew his wife had recently died of cancer we were unaware of any other tragedies which had befallen him but they must have been many going by his constant expression of despair.
I was standing directly opposite the lecturer and my mischievous friend Peter was standing immediately to his left. We occasionally rolled our eyes heavenward to each other in acknowledgement of the boredom. The lecturer, in his lilting voice, was reaching a climax in his deliberations about the ink…
“So, you mix the ink to the right constituency.”
It was a simple mistake, easily done. No-one seemed to notice but I immediately shot a look to Peter who locked his widening eyes with mine and acknowledged the error with a swift leap of his eyebrows like two racing caterpillars clearing a hurdle simultaneously.
This simple little gesture contained in such a hot and fetid atmosphere had an electrifying effect on me. The boredom was too much, the distraction too great and I inwardly cavorted with the image in an orgy of clowning. My mirth was evident to Peter who’s eyes widened even more as the contagion of humour infected him. Seeing his face attempting to resist the rictus of laughter created a feedback loop of humour in me and I had to feign a bodily irritation to disguise my mirth. I closed my watering eyes and hunched forward onto the table. Such was the effort in trying to control these huge comic forces that my body rocked gently up and down.
When I had deemed a sufficient amount of time had elapsed for the spasm to have abated and I was in control of my body once more I raised my head and stared again at Peter. This was a mistake. His face was a mask of anguish. I could see pleasure and pain sweeping across his face like flitting shadows as he attempted to control his own paroxysm of suppressed laughter. My own resolve quickly broke at this ridiculous sight and a tightly grimaced smile carved itself onto my swelling face. Our eyes locked in a terrified moment of barely suppressed hysteria. The tension was becoming unbearable. A fly buzzed in the hot, still air somewhere above us.
And at exactly that moment, the lecturer, wishing to impart a final important message, searched for someone to make eye contact with so that he could drive the point home. As Peter was standing right next to him, he proved to be the sensible choice and the lecturer directed his voice at him. It was obvious to Peter that the lecturer had turned towards him and that social etiquette demanded that he return the gaze. Being the well mannered middle class youth that he was, he obliged.
The rest of the group had started to sense that something unusual was hovering within their midst, an ectoplasm of some kind which needed a rational explanation, and they suddenly became more alert like a flock of birds simultaneously crouching in readiness for take-off to some, as yet, unseen danger.
When the lecturer spoke to Peter, he didn’t pause in his dialogue but I could see that a part of his mind had become fascinated with what was happening in front of him: ‘it looks like Peter’, he seemed to be thinking, ‘but his face seems to be on the verge of metamorphosing into something else – a moth perhaps’.
Peter was suppressing a volcano inside of him and little muscle tremors played about his face. The lecturer seemed confused and intrigued by the sight and like a man watching the shaking of a boiler next to him, he was totally unaware of the danger he was in. Of course, Peter was hoping that the lecturer would conclude his important point and look away so that he could release some of the pressure in a discreet and inoffensive way but the more he hoped, the more disfigured his face became and the more intrigued the lecturer became and thus the longer he continued to speak to Peter. They were locked in a death embrace.
Horrified, I looked on, my own mirth forgotten with this new fascinating development. Eventually Peter’s eyes could bulge no more and his breathing appeared to have stopped.
The volcano blew spectacularly and whilst the lecturer was staring into his face not two feet away, Peter let out this sudden, violent, unstoppable explosion of hysterical laughter. It was a kind of laugh I have not heard since. It was mad. It was the laughter of someone who had crossed the line of human decency. It was the laughter of someone who didn’t care anymore.
It must have lasted for just two seconds but it was enough to release the intense pressure and just as suddenly, Peter’s expression returned to normal. Everyone around the table remained in their crouched flight position now completely unsure as to what was happening. The pregnant silence was only broken by the lecturer who, without missing a beat, continued with his explanation of ink. His expression was now one of complete mystification as if he had resigned himself to the fact that the workings of humanity would forever be beyond his comprehension. He turned his face away from Peter’s and continued to talk to the group as if nothing had happened. Everyone else in the group looked at each other with a disbelieving expression of, did that really happen?
Yes, it did.