Why real life is better than fiction - Ian McMillan

When I was a teenager my mates and I would wander around Darfield on a Friday evening and we’d end up at the chip shop on School Street just to revel in the glorious improvised theatre of the sizzling stage.

"Sometimes real life is better than fiction; its funnier, it has more depth, it has more nuance." (JPIMedia)

If we timed it right we could get in the queue just before the bloke who always burst in, stood there and said in a loud voice: “Can you put me a tail in?” and the man behind the counter would nod. And then, again if we timed it right, we would be leaving just as the woman we termed the Minimalist Lady would come in and utter her telegraphic order: “Twice. Bits on one”, and again the man behind the counter would nod.

These brief encounters took on an almost legendary status and we’d talk about them in the sixth-form common room all week and, when the time came for the sixth-form revue, we turned them into a kind of lame comedy sketch where, in a Monty Python way, we expanded the things the people said so that “Can you put me a tail in?” became “Can you put me some wings in?” and “Can you put me a head in?” and the Minimalist Lady was reduced to gestures.

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Nobody laughed, of course, but we thought it was hilarious. What we didn’t realise, because we were young and daft, is that we didn’t have to expand on what actually happened because the real life events were funnier and more odd than our lame attempts to turn them into comedy.

Still, because we were young and daft, we then decided to take it too far and we nominated one of us to go into the chip shop and pretend to ask for something ridiculous.

I can’t remember which one of us but I do recall that it wasn’t me; the lad in question got dressed up in one of his mam’s old coats and put a headscarf on of the sort that mams used to wear in those days. He clutched an old handbag that his grandma was going to chuck out. We went into the shop before him and stood in the queue.

Nothing happened for a while and we thought our mate had chickened out but then he sidled into the shop and screeched: “Can you put me a wardrobe in? And a three-piece suite and all?” and we collapsed laughing but the rest of the shop was silent until a man said: “Kids who think they’re funny and they’re not. Twice and a fishcake when you’re ready.”

Our laughter suddenly felt hollow and silly. It felt like we’d taken something precious and broken it. We sidled out and walked home, hardly speaking. The week after we went to a different chip shop but it wasn’t the same.

And the lesson that I, as a writer, should learn from this? It’s that sometimes real life is better than fiction; it’s funnier, it has more depth, it has more nuance. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. Twice with bits on will feed us all.

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James Mitchinson