It was impossible to tell who, among the three, was laughing more. They were a boisterous lot, bursting into guffaws now and then, as they sipped their drinks in the pub. They would draw their heads near to each other, someone among them would say something and then, all three would pull back their heads and burst into peals of laughter again.
As I walked beside their table, a mug of beer in hand, they had one of these spasms once again, and I almost spilled a bit.
“I know laughing is contagious but your laughter would empty my glass in no time if I were to stand beside your table,” I said, a little bit of irritation creeping into my voice.
The three men, all past fifty, all with a prodigious middle, looked at me. It was obvious that they were trying to suppress their laughter but a bit escaped from within closed lips … puu.ppp ppp .. till eventually suppression failed and all the three roared into ho ho ho ha ha ha.
“STOP IT!” I screamed.
“Good Heavens! Why?” The one who was bald headed asked, bewildered.
“It’s our laughter after all,” said the one who had a mole on his nose.
“Yes, our laughter. Certainly not yours, since you don’t seem to have any of your own,” the third one stated looking at me but not hiding the mirth on his face, “and we can spend it in any way we like.”
“We could share some, if you wanted a bit of course,” the first one came back to me.
I knew it was pointless standing in front of these three funny men who seemed to be tearing me apart with what they had in abundance - laughter. I moved on with my mug in hand, past four or five tables to a dimly lit quiet corner. I had had an exhausting day that ended with a surfeit of unresolved problems and tired bones. All I wanted was a quiet drink, some hot food and a comfortable bed that night.
As I moved into the corner, I saw a man sitting with his legs crossed, one over the other, and vacantly looking down at the beer mug on his table. He had finished his drink as the empty mug suggested but he held its rim with his fingers while playfully revolving it one way and then the other. He seemed the quiet type and, in any case, he was alone. Safe place to sit, I thought.
“Mind if I sit here?” I asked, as if anybody asked for permission in this pub.
“Certainly, but only if you can bear my company,” he warned. I couldn’t see him properly in the available light. I was certain that if I were later asked to identify the man from among a few, I would have failed. However, his voice was one of the strangest that I ever heard - sort of wheezy that led to being nasal. I would have recognised his voice from among a hundred even if they all talked together.
Sitting down, I took a sip from my mug.
“At least its better here than out there,” I said.
He got up, “Oh! You mean those guys over there? They are harmless, really. Let me go and fill my mug. Don’t run away, young man.”
I sipped my beer as he went to get a ‘filling’ for his mug but I watched him. He stood a moment with the three guys, laughed with them and then trudged back to where I was sitting.
I couldn’t hide my curiosity and asked, “You know them?”
“Who doesn’t in this pub? They have been regulars at this pub since God knows when. And the three have the most common of all English names – John, James and Jack,” my beer companion replied, “And they are wealthy beyond belief.”
“Wealthy?” I asked incredulously, unable to believe that such wealthy guys would be visiting this common pub, with such din, filled with people jostling against one another and the air reeking with the smell of escaping and stale tobacco smoke.
“Not wealthy in the way you would like to believe,” he said, like a learned sage.
“Then?” I prodded him for an answer.
“Laughter and happiness – that’s what they treat as wealth. And you purchase it with what you or most people are very likely to have – sadness and grief,” he went on.
I stared at my mug, trying to really understand what this man was saying.
“Happiness comes at a price always,” he continued to say, “for one ‘slot’ of the item, you may have to offer five ‘slots’ of grief.”
“Slots?” I was unable to fathom what he meant by that term.
“Oh! That’s just a unit to measure life’s sadness and happiness. Or else how would you know how much is there in your kitty?” he was smiling. "And you can well imagine how much sadness went into making that wealth of happiness in the three men."