Errors of Comedy - Chapter 15
While Billy Hilarious carried out his mission in the central region, his generals remained in the Northern Quarter preparing for the recruitment drive. They had, or so Billy had estimated, three days to get the entire population of the Northern Quarter mobilised and ready for battle. It wasn't going to be easy.
Arthur Mayhew consulted his notepad and cleared his throat.
'Well, gentlemen,' he began, 'according to my notes, we are to set about achieving glorious victory. Oh, and carpets, but I'm not sure what that refers to.'
'We're supposed to achieve carpets?' asked Harold Simpson.
'My brother sells carpets,' added Ernest Ramsden helpfully.
'Really? Could he get me a cheap shagpile for the front room?' asked Harold.
'I don't see why not,' replied Ernest. 'They've always got a load of remnants at the warehouse. What colour do you need?'
'Well, the furniture's a sort of dark blue, but the wallpaper's more of a beige, so I suppose...'
'I think,' interrupted Arthur pointedly, 'that the reference to carpets was perhaps meant to suggest the weakness of the Southerners.'
'Weak carpets?' asked Ernest in surprise. 'They obviously don't get them from my brother. Very high quality his carpets are.'
'I think perhaps a dark blue to match the furniture,' said Harold thoughtfully.
'Will you stop talking about the carpets?' said Arthur in exasperation. 'The carpets aren't important. They're just a symbol.'
'My brother's aren't,' said Ernest sulkily. 'Damn good carpets they are.'
'Perhaps just a light floral pattern, but nothing too fancy,' mused Harold.
'Glorious victory,' said Arthur loudly, 'is what we're going to achieve. In order to achieve glorious victory, we will need some help.'
'Will we?' asked Harold.
'My Betty's said she'll pack us some sandwiches,' said Ernest helpfully.
'I think we'll need a bit more than sandwiches,' said Arthur sarcastically.
'She could throw in a bit of pork pie as well?'
'I was thinking more along the lines of two-hundred thousand armed men,' said Arthur bluntly.
Ernest thought for a moment.
'That's nearly fifteen thousand loaves of bread,' he said in amazement.
'You could get thin sliced,' said Harold, 'that would bring it down to around eleven thousand.'
'Gentlemen, we are not here to discuss the catering arrangements,' said Arthur sternly.
Ernest and Harold looked at each other in embarrassment.
'Quite right,' mumbled Harold.
'Women's work,' muttered Ernest.
'Good. Now then, when we have assembled this army, we will each take command of one quarter of the men. Mr Hilarious himself will be taking personal command of the remaining troops. As soon as we are ready, we are to proceed to the central region.'
'How are we going to get that many men into a monorail car?' asked Harold.
'We'll have to do it in more than one go,' said Ernest helpfully.
'We're not going by monorail,' said Arthur patiently.
'I'm not cycling,' said Ernest suddenly. 'I haven't got a bike, for one thing, and I'm not as young as I used to be.'
Arthur resisted the sudden urge to bang their heads together and composed himself.
'We are not going to cycle. We are going to march on the central region.'
'Oh,' said Ernest and Harold quietly.
'Now then, I am going to broadcast a message over the radio calling all fit and healthy men to meet at four points along the Southern border. One of us, or Mr Hilarious himself, will be waiting at each of the places. We are to wait there until Mr Hilarious himself gives us further orders. Is that understood?'
Harold and Ernest nodded dumbly.
'Good,' said Arthur relieved, 'this meeting is adjourned.'
As they stood up to leave, Harold turned to Ernest.
'Actually,' he said, 'I don't think the floral pattern's such a good idea after all.'
Derek sat in his office. This janitoring business was less busy than he had been expecting. Perhaps Psycho had done future janitors a favour. The staff of the building found dodgy wiring, dud lightbulbs, peeling paintwork, cracked windows and inefficient air-conditioning infinitely preferable to being impaled with a mop. Not that Derek was likely to impale anybody with a mop, especially after all the trouble he had putting it back together. There was no point telling everybody that though. The more scared of him they were, the less likely they were to ask him to do his job. As long as he got paid, he didn't mind sitting in a cupboard all day.
He looked around his office. It wasn't particularly interesting. Sitting in there all day might be all right for a day or two, but for a week? A month? A year? It didn't bear thinking about. True, he did have the equipment filing system to work out, but it wouldn't take that long. Well, perhaps it would, but when he had got it figured out, then he'd have nothing to do. It was no good, he had to find some way of getting the staff of the building on his side so that they'd give him lots of interesting work to do.
Perhaps a 'Hug A Janitor' campaign? A vision of Lisa drifted across his mind's eye and he grinned. That sounded like a very good idea. A vision of the editor followed the vision of Lisa. It was all a question of balance. Was a hug from Lisa enough to make a hug from the editor bearable? Would Lisa condescend to hug him, even if there were a 'Hug A Janitor' campaign? Probably not. OK, perhaps it wasn't such a good idea. Perhaps a 'Shake Hands With A Janitor' campaign was a better idea. Surely Lisa wouldn't refuse to shake his hand, and it would be physical contact. Of a sort. Not much of a sort, though.
Derek sighed. Why did he keep thinking about her? She was a successful journalist with a fantastic career ahead of her. He was just a mild-mannered janitor of whom everyone was terrified. He didn't have a hope. Or did he? The editor was elbowed out of his mind's eye by a remarkably elegant man in a smoking jacket. Lisa stood, transfixed, the light of love shining in her eyes. Well, perhaps not quite the light of love, but it was a small flame of fanciability at the very least.
'Perhaps I should tell her,' he said out loud.
'Don't do that, squire,' said Alfred, appearing from nowhere.
Derek jumped. Had he given his secret away to Alfred?
'Don't do what?' he asked cautiously.
'Don't tell her, whoever, "her" is, whatever it was you were thinking of telling her,' said Alfred. 'Never tell women anything. It just worries them.'
Derek nodded, uncertainly. Alfred continued.
'So, who is this mystery woman you want to tell things to?'
Derek hesitated. Should he reveal everything to Alfred? He took a deep breath.
'She's called Lisa Bach and she's a reporter for the Daily Thompson,' he said quickly. Alfred nodded approvingly.
'I know who Lisa is,' he said. 'Lovely girl. And I suppose you've been contemplating a declaration of love?'
Derek nodded slowly. There was no way he could tell Alfred the truth.
'So what do you think I should do then?' he asked. Perhaps Alfred would have some foolproof method for winning her heart.
'Do you want my honest answer, squire?'
'Yes,' replied Derek. This wasn't sounding too hopeful.
'Don't say anything yet,' began Alfred. 'Wait for the right moment. There's nobody sailing on her horizon at the moment, although there are plenty that are paddling furiously, if you know what I mean.'
'How do you know all this,' asked Derek in amazement. Surely Lisa didn't take Alfred into her confidence as well?
'Oh, you know, squire. I just sort of accumulate information from all sorts of places. It's a case of keeping your ear to the ground.'
'Oh,' said Derek.
'Are you coming for lunch?' asked Alfred.
'I suppose so,' replied Derek. 'Where do we go?'
'Follow me,' said Alfred.
Alfred led Derek to the monorail station and they boarded a car to Stanbridge Square, home of the largest Metroburger restaurant in the city.
'I don't have much money with me,' protested Derek.
'Didn't they give you a meal card when you arrived?' asked Alfred in surprise.
'No,' said Derek. 'Perhaps they thought I wouldn't need one. Perhaps they're under the impression that janitors survive by eating other members of staff?'
'I think you're being a little harsh there, squire,' said Alfred, slightly disapprovingly. 'The management are well aware that one member of the Personnel staff only provides enough nutrition for a few hours at best.'
Derek looked at Alfred and was relieved to find him smiling.
'I thought you were about to tell me that Psycho did eat some of the staff.'
'Well, it was never proved, squire, but one day, three new people started in the news room and then vanished after only a week. We never did find out what happened to them.'
Derek shook his head and stepped out of the monorail car onto the platform, high above Stanbridge Square.
Stanbridge Square could have been the focal point of the central region. It was a large open space, ideal for a park, perhaps with fountains and statues. Benches could have been provided for people to sit and admire the beautiful lawns and flower beds. Holidaymakers could have sat and picnicked on the grass as wandering entertainers strolled around and charmed the crowds with their songs, plays, mimes, magic shows or even performance art. The birds would fly overhead, singing, occasionally landing to nibble at a few crumbs dropped by the tourists. The children would be able to feed those birds tame enough to approach them. Perhaps, every now and again, the Sprawling Metropolis marching band could come and practise in the park or put on a show. The boy scouts could organise fairs at which people could buy home-baked cakes and have their shoes polished. Artists would come from all over the world to sit and recreate the scenes in the park. The possibilities were limitless.
However, within three days of Stanbridge Square opening, it had been bought in its entirety by Metroburger, who had turned it into a gigantic, semi-covered, grey, concrete-and-plastic, fast-food restaurant. It wasn't even particularly fast. As the cheapest place to eat in the central region, coupled with the fact that many companies issued their staff with subsidised Metroburger meal cards, it was permanently overrun with customers. The harassed staff found it almost impossible to keep up with the demand and so the queues at lunchtime stretched around Stanbridge Square and away up street F2. This led to a thriving subculture, encompassing street F2 and side-streets F2k to F2v, in which a number of sandwich, hot-dog and doughnut vendors plied their trade. It is currently estimated that, of all the people who ever queue for a Metroburger in Stanbridge square, only forty-six percent actually end up eating one.
Derek stood on the monorail platform and looked down at the queue for the first time. He turned to Alfred in dismay.
'We're never going to get anything to eat.'
'Don't you worry, squire,' said Alfred, and made his way to the elevator.
Derek shrugged his shoulders and followed. Once they had reached ground level, Alfred led Derek through the crowds towards the side of the Metroburger building. Pulling out a small knife, he levered open a small panel, revealing a handle. Alfred turned it, and a door opened.
'Now, the trick is to look like you own the place. Walk straight past the queue and up to the counter, shout, "afternoon, Kevin," and order your meal.'
'What if there isn't anyone called Kevin serving?'
'There's always someone called Kevin. Trust me.'
The rumbling from Derek's stomach made up his mind for him. He looked at Alfred for a moment and then did as he was told.
'Afternoon, Kevin,' he called, feeling incredibly self-conscious. 'Metroburger and fries, please.'
'Coming right up,' called back a rather pimply youth, who Derek assumed must be Kevin.
Alfred stood behind him.
'All right, Kevin?' he yelled. 'One rancid-burger and some soggy fries with too much salt.'
'Coming right up,' said Kevin again.
Derek stared at Alfred.
'How can you get away with asking for that. Don't they deliberately give you worse food?'
Alfred looked at him pityingly.
'What did I order?'
'A rancid-burger and some soggy fries with too much salt,' replied Derek.
'And what did you order?'
'A Metroburger and fries.'
'And what have you actually got?' asked Alfred, patiently.
Derek peered into the paper bag he had been handed.
'Point taken,' he said.
Alfred waved his meal card at Kevin and indicated both meals. Kevin took the card, swiped it through a reader and handed it back.
'Come on, squire, let's find somewhere civilised to eat these.'
They made their way back to Alfred's secret entrance and out into Stanbridge Square.
'Where did you have in mind?' asked Derek. Civilisation seemed very far away.
'Half-way down alleyway G1q(iii) is a small alcove with a table and a couple of chairs. That's where I usually sit.'
'Well, we'd better get a move on before these get cold,' said Derek and then felt the bottom of his bag. 'Well, colder.'
They wandered over to the far side of Stanbridge Square and down the street, away from the crowds. Two ghosts watched them go and then turned to watch the crowds clamouring for food.
'Look at them all,' said the English ghost with distaste. 'Disgraceful, isn't it?'
'The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable,' said the Irish ghost.