Errors of Comedy - Chapter 10
Derek sat perched on the radiator in the cloakroom. The two ghosts stood facing him.
'Well, Derek,' said the Irish ghost.
'Excuse me,' interrupted the English ghost. 'I thought we'd decided that I should do the talking.'
'That was before the aubergine.'
'Will you shut up about the aubergine,' snapped the English ghost. 'Now, may I continue?'
'Be my guest.'
'Well, Derek,' began the English ghost.
'I've just said that,' interrupted the Irish ghost.
'Now look here, dear boy. Who's telling this story?'
'Neither of you,' said Derek. 'You've dragged me out of my twenty-first birthday party and I keep getting premonitions of disaster so will you please tell me what's going on?'
The ghosts looked at each other sheepishly.
'It's quite simple, really,' said the English ghost, 'you were born to be a hero.'
'That could be difficult,' said Derek. 'Apparently I was born to be a janitor.''Perfect!'
'I beg your pardon?'
'You have to have some sort of cover. The post of janitor seems ideal.'
'After all,' added the Irish ghost, 'you're going to be cleaning up the city.'
'No. Just the Daily Thompson,' said Derek. 'They have other people to clean up the city.'
'I didn't mean it like that,' explained the Irish ghost. 'I meant "clean up" in the sense of defeating the bad guys, juxtaposed with your job as janitor and...'
'I believe it was an attempt at wit,' said the English ghost, 'but he's a little out of practice.'
'An attempt at what?' asked Derek.
'Wit. You'll soon get the hang of it,' said the Irish ghost.
'Get the hang of it? But I've never even heard of it,' protested Derek.
'You'll have to learn,' the English ghost informed him. 'It's essential to your future.'
'Your future as the saviour of the city.'
'What is there to save it from?'
'Trouble from the North.'
'What sort of trouble?'
'I'm afraid we can't tell you that.'
'Because we don't know.'
'But if you don't know, how do you know that I'll know?' asked Derek.
The ghosts looked at each other.
'We don't know,' said the English ghost.
'But it probably involves an aubergine,' added the Irish ghost.
Before the English ghost could say anything, Derek interrupted.
'What is an aubergine?'
'It's a type of purple vegetable,' said the English ghost.
'It's a prophetic metaphor,' said the Irish ghost.
'Ah,' said Derek, none the wiser. He decided to give up on the aubergine.
'Tell me about wit,' he said.
'Wit is a lost art,' began the English ghost. 'It died a slow, painful death at the end of the twentieth century. The world has forgotten us.'
'Us?' asked Derek.
'Us. Myself, of course, Shakespeare, Johnson, Shaw, Parker, Marx...'
'Karl Marx!' exclaimed the Irish ghost. 'He was a miserable old...'
'Now then, where was I?'
'You were telling me about "us",' said Derek.
'Ah, yes. Those people were some of the greatest practitioners of the art of wit.'
The Irish ghost stood and stared pointedly at the English ghost, tapping his foot. Derek brought this to the attention of the English ghost.
'What about him?' he asked.
'Him? Well, he used to be quite good at it, I suppose,' conceded the English ghost.
The Irish ghost grunted and turned his back on him.
'Anyway,' continued the English ghost, 'the practice of wit gradually died out until all that was left was the gross insult, stripped of all subtlety, style, grace...'
'Which is where you come in,' said the Irish ghost, rejoining the conversation.
'You want me to be witty?'
'Exactly,' the ghosts said in unison.
'But I don't know how to,' protested Derek.
'It will come naturally,' said the English ghost, 'but there are a few things that you'll need.'
The Irish ghost produced a plastic carrier bag. The English ghost stared at it.
'Is that the best you could manage?'
'What did you expect? A handbag?'
'Oh, very witty,' said the English ghost.
Derek stared at them, baffled.
'What are you talking about?'
'It's not important,' said the English ghost.
'But you said it was witty.'
'I was being sarcastic.'
'The lowest form of wit,' put in the Irish ghost.
'What's in the bag?' asked Derek before the English ghost could respond.
The Irish ghost reached into the bag and handed him a large piece of blue, velvet material. Derek unfolded the garment and studied it.
'It's a jacket..?''A smoking jacket, to be precise,' said the English ghost.
'What's it for?'
'For wearing,' said the Irish ghost. 'For being witty in. Put it on.'
Derek slipped on the smoking jacket. It felt very comfortable.
'Very fetching,' said the English ghost.
'It suits you,' said the Irish ghost.
'The finishing touch, if you please,' said the English ghost.
The Irish ghost pulled a small, black case out of the bag and handed it to Derek.
'Take care of this, Derek,' he said. 'The smoking jacket is important but your true power resides with this.'
Derek opened the case and pulled out a thin, black tube that was flattened at one end and wider at the other. He stared at it.
'What is it?' he asked.
'You've only got half of it,' replied the English ghost.
Derek looked in the case and removed a small white paper tube. It was filled with a brown, flaky material.
'You see,' said the English ghost.
'No,' replied Derek.
'It's a cigarette holder.'
'A what holder?'
'Oh dear,' the English ghost sighed.
'A cigarette holder,' explained the Irish ghost. 'The white thing is the cigarette. It goes into the end of the holder.'
Derek took the cigarette and fixed it into the holder.
'Well, technically, you should set fire to the end and inhale the smoke, but I don't recommend it.'
'Because it's poisonous.'
'So what do I want it for?'
'It is a symbol,' explained the English ghost, 'a relic of a bygone age when wit, intelligence and style were respected and admired, rather than feared and ridiculed. That cigarette holder is your link to the past. Your powers are bound up in it. Without it you would be nothing.'
'Well, that's it,' said the Irish ghost. 'You've got the equipment. Go and use it.'
'My dear boy,' said the English ghost, 'it's up to you to defend the city. There are too many... offensive individuals here. It's up to you to root them out and destroy them. Not to mention the Trouble from the North.'
'Oh, I see,' said Derek uncertainly.
'Good,' said the Irish ghost. 'Now go and enjoy your birthday.''Thanks,' said Derek and walked out of the cloakroom.
He walked back in almost immediately.
'What am I supposed to do with these?' he asked, indicating the smoking jacket and the cigarette case.
'Commit them to the ethereal,' said the English ghost.
Derek looked blank.
'Just, sort of, imagine that they've disappeared,' explained the English ghost sheepishly.
Derek did so. He found himself left with only the cigarette holder in his hand.
'What about this?'
'You must keep that with you at all times,' said the English ghost. 'When you want to be witty, put it in your mouth.'
Derek tentatively placed the cigarette holder in his mouth. He immediately found himself wearing the smoking jacket. A cigarette had appeared in the holder. He willed them to disappear again. They did. He turned to the ghosts.
'I think I'm getting the hang of this.'
'We knew you would,' said the Irish ghost.
Derek put the cigarette holder safely in his pocket and left the cloakroom again.
'I think we handled that rather well,' said the English ghost.
'I think we deserve a sherry,' agreed the Irish ghost.
In the Eastern Quarter, Horace and Doris Lundy lay in bed. Horace was watching the television. Doris was not. She was listening to the television; she didn't have much choice about that, but she was refusing to watch it. She hadn't come on holiday to watch television. Admittedly, she hadn't come on holiday for a tour of a housing estate, a stay on an artificial ranch, a brief glimpse of some factories or interminable readings of fake 'Oriental' poetry either. Forty years she had been married to Horace Lundy and in all that time they had never left the USA. 'I can't go too far from my work,' Horace had said. Doris could never understand what was so important about running a laundrette that he would have to dash back from his holidays at short notice. A leaky pipe, perhaps? Or a black sock in with a load of white shirts? Try as she might, Doris could never persuade Horace to stray more than a few hundred miles from home, until now.
She turned over in bed, being careful not to look at the television screen. She wouldn't have minded so much if there had been something worth watching on, but they were just showing reruns of The Paradoxicals for the umpteenth time. Doris tried to shut it out but it was no good. She could still hear every word.
'I've got an idea,' said Dave Brady (ex-physical training instructor, widower and leader of The Paradoxicals).
The three members of the team were sitting in a badly lit basement room. Dave leaned forward and put his right hand on the table, always a sign that things were about to happen.
'Jane,' (young, attractive and intelligent; degree in maths, Masters in computer science), 'I want you to calculate which window we've got the best chance of making the shot from. When you've done that, access their computer records and transfer ownership of the building to us. Rich,' (smooth-talking, immaculately dressed, ladies' man; unmarried), 'we'll need to get hold of some weaponry. I don't know what sort of thing they had in the 1960s. Just do your best. I'm going to try to find out who we're up against. OK people, let's move.'
Dave stood up and left the room, followed by the other Paradoxicals. Their destination was Dallas, Texas. They had recently received word that a particularly violent group of criminals had gone back to 1963 to try and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was up to The Paradoxicals to make sure that Kennedy died when he was supposed to. During a commercial break, Doris turned to her husband.
'I can't believe you're watching this garbage again. You must have seen it twenty times.'
'It's not garbage.'
'It is garbage. Time travel. Assassinations. Criminals. It's unbelievable. Are you trying to tell me that one man could sneak into an apartment block and shoot the American President?'
'It's not just any man, though. It's Dave Brady. He can do anything. Don't forget he's got access to technology that they hadn't even dreamed about back then.'
'But you know exactly what's going to happen. Jane alters the computer records, Dave uses the laser-guided missile to kill the President, Rich gets to sleep with that Marilyn woman, the bad guy gets framed for the murder and everybody lives happily ever after.'
'So I know the plot. That doesn't stop it being exciting,' said Horace irritably, 'Now be quiet. It's back on.'
Doris yawned and turned over. As well as boring, Doris also found The Paradoxicals slightly distasteful. In this episode, the poor man they were trying to kill was only forty-six. Surely it wouldn't have done any harm to let him live.
Derek walked out into the party. Nobody seemed to notice that he had been missing. He felt the cigarette holder in his pocket and frowned. What was he supposed to do with it? Whilst he was contemplating his fate, he heard a soft, female voice behind him.
'Happy birthday, Derek,' said Lisa.
Derek panicked. Lisa. Here. Talking to him. What was he going to do? Reply. What was he going to say? His mouth had gone dry. He couldn't speak. Help! No, think calmly and clearly. Lisa had wished him happy birthday. Think. He turned round.
'Thank-you,' he said. Brilliant. Illuminating. Scintillating.
'Are you enjoying your birthday?'
Derek went blank. She was making conversation. He hadn't prepared for this. What should he do? Dance? Ask her to dance. He couldn't do that. Yes he could. It was now or never.
'Lisa, would you like to dance?' he asked. 'With me,' he added, quite unnecessarily. 'Now,' he continued, beginning to overheat.
'Dance to what?' asked Lisa.
She had asked him a question. She wanted an answer. What was the answer? What was the question?
'Eh?' said Derek, eventually.
'There's no music,' explained Lisa.
Derek listened. No music. What had he done? None at all. All gone. Not a musical sound. Think quickly, before she goes away. No music.
'Who needs music?' asked Derek, wildly.
'OK. Let's dance,' said Lisa.
Derek nearly fainted. She wants to dance. But there's no music. He needed music. No he didn't. He couldn't dance. At all. She wanted to dance. With him. Maybe she didn't. Maybe she was just being nice. She is nice. No, concentrate. Dance. Excuse. Can't dance. Can't admit it. Need an excuse...
Just as Derek was about to hyperventilate, Teresa Quinn drifted past.
'Don't bother, Derek. She's not worth it,' she said and vanished into the crowd.
Derek stared at her. How dare she say that about his girlfriend? Well, nearly girlfriend. He was about to storm after her when he remembered the ghosts. Destroy offensive people? This looked like a good place to start. He turned back to Lisa.
'Would you excuse me, Lisa,' he said calmly. 'I have some business to attend to.'
He walked towards the door clutching the cigarette holder inside his jacket pocket. All he needed was a place to change. He walked up the stairs leading into the theatre itself. A theatre had to have changing rooms. He ducked into the first one and took the cigarette holder out. He looked at it for a moment. If it didn't work he was going to make a bit of an idiot of himself. He placed the flattened end in his mouth and the smoking jacket and cigarette appeared in their respective places. So far so good. He left the dressing room and walked down the stairs. Something felt different. He began to walk more slowly. He felt calmer than he had done for a long time. The doors of the party room stood closed in front of him. He pushed them open and stepped into the room.
The party fell silent. Everybody turned to look at the new guest. Derek calmly surveyed the crowd. The cigarette sprang to life and Derek took a long drag through the holder. He stepped over to Teresa Quinn and stared at her. Casually, he removed the cigarette holder from his mouth and exhaled. Teresa backed away in terror. With the exception of Gerald Quinn, the other guests watched with interest, as Derek opened his mouth to speak.
'Madam, might I suggest you try a little of the quiche. It too, is a tart with ideas above its station,' said Derek.
The audience gasped. Teresa Quinn collapsed in a heap on the floor with her head in her hands. Derek gracefully turned through one-hundred and eighty degrees and, ignoring the protests of a stunned Gerald Quinn, started to walk out of the room. Lisa and his mother stood in the way.
'Thank-you,' said Deborah.
'Whoever you are,' added Lisa.
Derek looked at them. For the first time since putting the cigarette holder in his mouth, he panicked slightly.
'Just call me... "Witty Put-Down... Man",' he said and left.
Lisa and Deborah stared after him.
'I wonder who he really is,' said Deborah.
'I don't know,' replied Lisa, 'but I think I'm in love.'
The doors opened again and everybody looked up expectantly but it was only Derek.
'Where have you been?' asked Deborah. 'You won't believe what you just missed.''Er... I was just getting some fresh air,' said Derek.
Teresa Quinn walked unsteadily towards them.
'Deborah. Lisa. I'm sorry,' she said. 'I can't believe I've treated you so badly. I don't know what to say.'
Gerald Quinn stormed past them, banging the doors on his way out.
'We're getting a divorce,' said Teresa. Deborah hugged her.
'That's wonderful,' she said. 'And all because of Witty Put-Down Man.'
'Was that his name?' asked Teresa. 'I must thank him if I ever see him again.'
'I hope we'll be seeing a lot of Witty Put-Down Man in the future,' said Lisa, dreamily.
Derek stared at her. Teresa tapped him on the shoulder.
'Derek, could you go and get my coat for me? I think I ought to go home.'
Derek wandered off to the cloakroom, still thinking about the look on Lisa's face when she had mentioned Witty Put-Down Man. The two ghosts were standing where he left them. He forgot about Lisa, briefly.
'You should have seen me,' he said. 'Teresa's getting divorced and everybody's happy. Thanks!'
He found Teresa's coat, waved at the ghosts and walked back into the party.
'Nothing like a little hero worship,' said the Irish ghost.
'Everybody worships me. It's nauseating,' said the English ghost.