Errors of Comedy - Chapter 8
Twenty years passed in the Southern Quarter, although very little changed. People got twenty years older. Some people improved their golf handicap. Some people changed their hairstyle. Apart from that, life was much the same as it had been twenty years earlier.
Derek Daniels sat in his bedroom, staring at the wall. His twenty-first birthday was three days away. He didn't particularly want a twenty-first birthday but it seemed to be the done thing. Besides, his parents were looking forward to it and he didn't want to disappoint them. They had been doing a lot of talking in whispers that stopped as soon as he entered the room and he was becoming a bit suspicious. He wondered what they were planning. Some sort of party, obviously, but who were they going to invite? Derek didn't have many friends. All the people he had been at school with had left Sprawling Metropolis to become accountants. Derek didn't want to become an accountant, but things were definitely moving in that direction. His father had been making subtle hints such as, 'Why don't you drop into the office one day and I'll introduce you to the boss. I'm sure he can find something for you to do.' Thanks, Dad.
The only possible advantage to working at the Daily Thompson was Lisa Bach. She was a journalist and had been for a few years now. How old was she? Twenty-five? She had been a constant feature of Derek's childhood, but always in the background, on the other side of the fence, in the next room, just over the road... driving him round the bend. He had talked to her occasionally. Scintillating shafts of brilliance, such as, 'Morning, Lisa,' or, 'Afternoon, Lisa' or, on one memorable occasion, 'Evening, Lisa'. How ever did she resist his devastating charm? Derek sighed and then brightened up slightly. Lisa was bound to be at the party. Her parents were his parents' oldest friends. Perhaps he could make an excuse to talk to her there. It would be his birthday, after all. His mind drifted...
'Hi, Lisa,' he said, glass of champagne in hand.
It wasn't real champagne, of course. Mayor Burdon had banned alcohol from Sprawling Metropolis eight years ago.
'Hi, Derek,' simpered Lisa.
Derek wasn't sure about the simpering. He had never seen her simper before and the version of it that his imagination had produced wasn't really a pretty sight. He started again.
'Evening, Lisa,' he said.
No, no, no. That wasn't right.
'Hi, Lisa,' he said.
Much better; far more relaxed.
'Hi, Derek,' replied Lisa. 'Happy birthday.'
'Thanks very much,' said Derek, casually. 'Did you get me a present?'
'I certainly did,' said Lisa.
She was about to put her arms around him when he noticed two oddly dressed men standing in a corner of the room. If he was imagining this, how did they get there? He decided to ignore them and turned back to Lisa. She had gone and was now standing by the buffet table. Buffet table? He hadn't imagined a buffet table. What was going on? He looked over to the two men. One of them raised his glass to him. There was something vaguely familiar about them but Derek couldn't quite place it. He was sure that he had seen them before. Even so, that gave them no right to invade his daydream. Enough is enough, he thought, and snapped out of his illusion. The party vanished. So did the two men, eventually.
Twenty years passed almost unnoticed in the Western Quarter. The Gerine family, owners of the largest ranch in Sprawling Metropolis, had gone about their business quietly and without fuss. It hadn't always been the largest ranch, but hard work by Dorothy Gerine and her eight sons had turned a once barren piece of land into a thriving cattle ranch and, of course, tourist attraction. Dorothy's husband had died many years ago. He wasn't suited to the ranching business anyway. He had been an inventor, his most celebrated invention being the twirl-o-matic rope-handling wrist launcher. His oldest son, Jed, was currently out on the range demonstrating its use. He sat astride his horse, his lasso forming complicated patterns in the air above his head. A steer went thundering past. Jed flicked the controls mounted on his wrist and the loop of rope went flying towards it. Skilful manipulation of the controls brought the steer crashing to the ground, its legs trussed, helpless.
'Yeehaw!' shouted Jed. He didn't know why. It just seemed to be expected of him.
The audience applauded politely and headed off for their plate of beans. Jed shook his head and walked back to the house where his mother had prepared duck-a-l'orange with mange-tout, broccoli and croquette potatoes. The tourists were sitting around a fire eating cold baked beans. He never understood why they did that. No doubt 'Wild' Sven Hickock would be along shortly to sing at them. He wondered why they let him. Outside a tall, blond man with a moustache and a guitar had sat himself down by the fire.
'Hello, my name is "Wild" Sven Hickock but you can call me "Wild". Har, har, har,' said Sven. 'I am in Helsinki was born but am now mostly at home here out on the range. Hey, that reminds me of a song.'
He began to strum hard on the guitar. The guitar complained bitterly but Sven ignored it and continued to thrash away.
'Oh, give to me a home, where the buffalo are roaming,' he sang, sort of.
The audience listened in raptures. This was a shame as it only encouraged him. The song ended. Foolishly, the audience clapped.
'Thank-you for your appreciation of my song. You to me are very nice. Har, har, har,' he said.'Is there anybody here who is called Susannah?'
There was no reply. Sven continued regardless.
'That is a very nice name and, hey, that reminds me of a song.'
The guitar ducked but it was too late. Sven grabbed it by the neck and began to throttle it.
'I am coming from Alabama with my banjo on my knee,' he crooned, sort of.
Back in the house, Jed's youngest brother, Ted, was sitting at the table fiddling with a twirl-o-matic rope-handling wrist launcher. Nobody knew what he was trying to achieve but they left him to it. Dorothy had a soft spot for Ted. All that messing with machinery. He was just like his father, although she would like to know what he was up to every now and again. Still, as long as it didn't explode she didn't mind.
'In a cavern which was also itself in a canyon,' droned Sven, sort of.
Twenty years passed eventfully in the Northern Quarter. The owner of Sprawling Metropolis United peered out of his window at the unrelenting drizzle. Most of the events had been his doing. Ever since he saw his first football match, just over twenty years ago, he had dreamed of owning the club. Four days ago his dream had come true. Well, part of it anyway. Owning the club was merely the first step on the road to world domination. It hadn't always been world domination. Twenty years ago, Billy Hilarious would have settled simply for revenge on the South, but twenty years is a long time for a man to seethe. Revenge on the South was merely the second step on the road to world domination. The telephone rang. Billy lifted the receiver.
'Aye?' he said.
'Hello, Mr. Hilarious. It's the manager here. You said I could have some money to buy players.'
'Of course,' replied Billy, 'I've transferred five-hundred million dollars to the club's account.'
'Five-hundred?' asked the stunned manager.
'Aye, five-hundred. Spend it well,' said Billy and returned the telephone receiver to its rest.
He smiled. He was already something of a hero to the people of the Northern Quarter. Ever since United had begun their inexorable slide to the bottom of the League the people had looked to him to cheer them up. He had obliged. To this day he wasn't sure exactly how he had done it. His material kept on writing itself. Of course, being a comedian wasn't that lucrative and Billy had realised long ago that it would need slightly more money than his nightly pay-packet to finance his ambitions. Accordingly, he had turned to crime.
With the help of a disenchanted computer operator who had 'defected' from the South some time ago, Billy had quietly and carefully been removing money from all the city's major companies. The amounts were generally too small to notice or, if they had been noticed, too small to worry about, but over twenty years, those small amounts had built into a sizeable fortune. Enough money to buy the, now almost worthless, football club and inject some life into it. It would only take a few wins to elevate Billy to god-like status. Once that happened, the people of the Northern Quarter would be his completely.
The money that he had presented his manager with should be enough to ensure victory for the team, but Billy intended to make even more certain. He could no doubt obtain a few more barrels of the strangely contaminated bitter that had proved so useful in precipitating United's demise in the first place. Perhaps he should introduce them to the opposing teams for the first few matches. It was a shame that those barrels had been drugged all those years ago. Now, who could possibly have done that? Surely not the same person who had casually blackmailed four previous owners, stripped most of the club's assets and publicly discredited eight previous managers?
Billy grinned an evil grin. In some ways he was surprised that the club still existed at all. That it did was a testament to the passion with which it was supported by the people of the Northern Quarter. Passion that was ripe for exploitation. He picked up a pencil and began to compose his oration to the crowd at Saturday's match. Northern Radio would be there and he didn't want to disappoint the listeners. He had four days to come up with something stirring with, for once, no mention of his mythical mother-in law.
Twenty years passed in the Eastern Quarter, although it was hard to tell. Being the tourist's paradise that it was, time wasn't really allowed to pass. The trees were kept at the same height. The number of birds in the trees and fish in the ponds was strictly monitored. The temples were repainted every few weeks. The flowers were replanted every morning and sprayed with perfume every hour. Woe betide any gardener who allowed the Garden of the Aromatic Dragon to lose its aroma.
Horace Lundy was currently enjoying the Garden of the Aromatic Dragon. His wife, Doris, wasn't convinced. The garden was beautiful, she had to admit, but she was less than impressed by the huge Metroburger complex that they had passed on their way there. She could still hear the advertising jingle:
A delight for everyone,
Only eight dollars
Very spiritually enlightening. The significance was lost on Horace. He was far too busy enjoying his Cheese-Metroburger. Doris shook her head. She hadn't enjoyed much of the tour of this city. She had bought the tickets for Horace to celebrate his retirement. Foolishly, she had asked him where he would like to go. She had expected him to suggest Europe; Paris, London or Rome, but no. Horace had wanted to visit Sprawling Metropolis and, as it was his present, she was forced to go along. The Southern Quarter had been bland, the Northern Quarter depressing and the East and West were appallingly artificial. She hated the city and the sooner she could get out of it the better. Fortunately, there was only the central region left to visit and then they could go home. She looked at Horace. He had wandered over to a reading of 'Oriental' poetry. Doris joined him and they sat down.
Once upon a time,
Three bears lived in the forest,
Mum, Dad and Baby
Horace applauded. Doris held her head in her hands. This was nearly as bad as that singer in the Western Quarter.
One day, Goldilocks,
Was skipping through the forest,
When she found their house
Twenty years passed busily in the central region. Commissioner Parker sat in his office. Two months until he retired. Two months until he ceased to be the city's sole law and order representative. Two months until he could sit down for more than eight minutes without the telephone ringing to report another petty crime. Two months.
He had been dreaming of that moment ever since the day when Mayor Burdon had dissolved the police force. Twenty years as the only person available to chase lost cats and tell annoying neighbours to trim their hedges into a more appropriate shape. Not much else happened in Sprawling Metropolis. Not under his jurisdiction, anyway. Lost cats. The very occasional mugging. Back in the old days there was crime and petty crime. Nowadays all the crime was petty. It was all that the inhabitants of the South could be bothered to do.
'Commissioner, you must help me, my neighbour has trimmed his hedge into the shape of a golf player and his five-iron hangs into my garden. Arrest him immediately.'
'Commissioner, you must help me, my cat has disappeared. It happened shortly after we bought our new dog.'
Well, he was on his way out. He wondered who his replacement was to be. He was due to meet him in a few minutes. No doubt he would have to show him the ropes. This is a cat. This is a hedge. This is the desk that you spend most of the day resting your head on. This is the bottle of illicit whiskey that you keep in the second drawer of the desk...
'Come in,' he called. 'Can you describe the animal and when did you last see it?' he added under his breath.
Eric, box-office manager at the Presidential theatre, walked in. Commissioner Parker looked up in surprise.
'Morning, Eric,' he said, 'trouble at the theatre?'
'No, Commissioner,' replied Eric. 'I'm your replacement.'
'Good Lord,' exclaimed Commissioner Parker. 'Well, I'm a little, how can I put it, "stunned".''You don't approve?'
'Of course I approve. Let's have a, how shall I put it, "celebration".'
He pulled out the bottle of whiskey. Eric's eyes lit up.
'I haven't seen one of those for years,' he said.
Commissioner Parker held up a glass.
'How shall I put it?'
'On the rocks, please,' said Eric.
Twenty years passed at the Daily Thompson. The editor had passed on and, despite years of tradition, Andy Moore had been passed over for promotion and was still covering what passed for news in Sprawing Metropolis. Even that job now seemed to be in jeopardy. One of the junior reporters, Lisa Bach, seemed to be getting all the best stories. Andy wasn't denying that she was good at her job. She was also young, female and attractive. The new editor was forty-three, fat, slightly balding and desperate. If he thought he could win Lisa's affections by giving her all the best stories he was going to be disappointed.
Andy shook his head and turned to look at his computer screen. A headline stared back at him: 'Forty Year-Old Woman Wins "Miss Estates 200-299" Competition'. Wow, what a story. Andy sighed and began to write.
'Forty year-old mother of three, Teresa Quinn, has just been crowned "Miss Estates 200-299" for the twenty-second year running. Her husband, Gerald Quinn, said, "This is a great day for us." When asked how she felt about winning, Teresa said, "I want to travel and work with children." Organiser of the event, Gerald Quinn, said "The competition is going from strength to strength." Mr. Quinn, who is also the husband of Teresa Quinn, began the event twenty-two years ago to, "...earn recognition for my wife's beauty." When asked if she felt that being married to the organiser was linked to her success, Teresa said, "I want to travel and work with children".'
Andy was just sitting back to admire his work when the editor came into the room.
'Moore, Commissioner Parker is currently interviewing his replacement. Get over there and interview them both. I want the report on my desk in two hours so move.'
The editor walked over to the desk where Lisa was sitting. He leaned over and breathed heavily.
'Lisa, my dear, why don't you step into my office? There are a few things I'd like to... discuss.'
Lisa shuddered. She looked over at Andy Moore who tried not to meet her eyes. He concentrated instead on putting on his coat and collecting his notebook. Lisa followed the editor into his office. He sat down, loosened his tie and placed his feet on his desk.
'Now then, my dear, about your promotion,' he murmured, pulling out a bottle of cheap, sparkling, alcohol-free wine and two glasses.
'Promotion?' asked Lisa, suspiciously.
'Your forthcoming promotion to senior reporter.'
'But that's Andy's job.''Andy's getting old. It's time for someone younger, more... lively to take over.' He leant forward. 'Of course, your promotion depends entirely on your performance.' He handed her a glass and poured the wine. 'Here's to us.'
Lisa felt sick. She sipped at the wine. The most sensible course of action would be to fling the wine in the editor's face, leave the building and never come back. If she did that he'd never bother her again... and she'd never work again. He had connections in every business in Sprawling Metropolis. She stared into her glass.
'I'll think about your offer,' she forced herself to say.
She drained the glass of wine. There was a foul taste in her mouth that wasn't entirely due to the drink. She turned to leave the office, slammed the door, ran into the toilets and sat, crying. She wished there was somebody she could tell. Her parents had been so proud when she had got the job at the Daily Thompson. Now she knew that it hadn't been entirely on merit she couldn't bear to disappoint them. If only there were someone she could turn to.
Derek Daniels continued to sit looking at his wall. His parents walked into his room.
'Derek, we'd like a word,' said his mother. Derek looked up.
'We've organised a party for your birthday,' said his father, excitedly. Derek nodded.
'I thought so.'
'Well you could try and look a bit happy about it,' said Deborah. 'We've gone to a lot of trouble.''We've booked the party room underneath the Presidential Theatre. Everybody's going to be there,' David added.
Derek did his best to look pleased.
'That's very kind of you. Thank-you,' he managed.
His mother smiled uncertainly and his parents left the room. Derek went back to staring at the wall. So he had been right. His parents had organised a big party. He wondered if he could find an excuse not to be there. As he was the guest of honour, that would probably be difficult. Oh well, he would just have to make the best of it.
Two ghosts stood in the corner of his room, for once taking care to remain invisible.
'It looks like he's going to have to work hard to have fun,' said the Irish ghost.
'Work is more fun than fun,' said the English ghost.