Errors of Comedy - Chapter 19
Dawn rose over Sprawling Metropolis as Billy Hilarious sat at his desk, the recording equipment placed carefully by his feet. His generals sat around him in deferential silence. Billy ignored them for the moment as he stared at the piece of paper on his desk. Arthur Mayhew peered over to try and glimpse what was written on the paper. It just looked like a page of meaningless scribbles. He wrote 'scribbles' on his pad, but then reconsidered and crossed it out. Ernest and Harold sat and fidgeted slightly in the presence of their leader. Billy picked up a pen to make a few marks on the paper and then laid it down again. He looked up at his officers who jumped slightly.
'Well, gentlemen,' he said, 'how's things?'
Harold and Ernest looked at Arthur. Arthur looked at Billy for a moment in mounting panic and then clutched at his pad.
'Er... things are going fine, Mr. Hilarious,' he squeaked.
'So my armies will be ready tomorrow?'
'Yes, Mr Hilarious.'
'And you're prepared to command?'
Arthur looked down at his pad, as if expecting to find the answer there. He looked up and swallowed.
'Yes, Mr Hilarious,' he said.
Billy turned to Harold and Ernest.
'And how about you?'
'Yes, Mr Hilarious,' they said in unison.
'Good,' said Billy standing up. 'In that case we'll reconvene at five o'clock tonight. I want to make the first broadcast at six and I expect you to be there.'
'Yes, Mr Hilarious,' mumbled the three men as Billy escorted them out of his office.
He walked back to his desk, shaking his head. It was a pity he needed them, but they were three of the most influential people in the Northern Quarter. After himself of course. He returned to his chair and began poring over his battle plan once more.
Arthur, Ernest and Harold stood outside the door.
'Arthur?' said Harold.
'When Mr Hilarious said, "How about you?" and we said, "Yes, Mr Hilarious", what was Mr Hilarious asking us?'
Arthur looked at his pad. The words 'command', 'fine things fine' and 'five six' were written, circled and underlined a varying number of times. Arthur looked from the pad to Harold, back to the pad, to Ernest and back to the pad again.
'I think,' he began, 'that Mr Hilarious was asking if you were ready to command part of his army.''Was he?' said Harold in alarm.
Ernest nodded in agreement.
'That's what I thought,' he said calmly and began to walk off.
'Where are you going?' asked Harold.
'To the club. I've got work to do and we don't have to be back here until five.'
'Are you serving bitter?' asked Harold.
'It's a bit early in the morning to be drinking bitter, isn't it?'
'He didn't ask if you were drinking it,' pointed out Arthur. 'He asked if you were serving it.'
'Of course we're serving it.'
'Then we're coming with you,' said Harold.
Derek Daniels arrived at work early that morning. Not very early, just early enough to give him time to sit in his office and worry about the task that Witty Put-Down Man had to perform later that day. He looked at his watch. Eight o'clock. Time to open up the building. He picked up the large bunch of keys that hung on the wall and set off on his morning round.
He walked along the corridor on the first floor, opening the doors of the various archives. He wondered if Lisa was still in the newsroom, crying. No, of course not. He remembered her leaving. On her own. Not with him. Why wouldn't she let him walk her home? She would have let Witty Put-Down walk her home...
Stop it. He had to stop thinking about Witty Put-Down Man as if he were a separate person. He wasn't. He, Derek, was Witty Put-Down Man and Witty Put-Down Man was him, Derek. End of story... Who was he trying to kid? He looked around. There didn't seem to be anybody else there so he decided he must be trying to convince himself. He also decided he wasn't doing a very good job of it. He looked around again. Somehow he had made it up to the Accounts department on the next floor without realising it. Yet again Lisa and Witty Put-Down Man were taking over his brain.
He unlocked the door. Right, he was now going to stop thinking about Lisa and Witty Put-Down Man. How were the Magpies getting on these days? He walked up the stairs to the third floor. They had made their usual dismal start to the season but they might improve, you never know. He opened the door to the newsroom. The newsroom. Lisa. The editor. Witty Put-Down Man. Derek. Him. Today.
He began breathing heavily and backed out of the door. Yes, the Magpies had made a terrible start to the season. He had to save Lisa. Had to defeat the editor. Had to go home and hide under his bed. No. Had to open up the top floor.
He stood outside the door to Personnel, debating whether or not to unlock it. It would serve them right if he didn't. However, it probably wasn't the best way to go about improving relations. He could always pin a scrap of paper with a crude representation of a man being impaled by a mop on the door, but that probably wouldn't help either. With some regret, he unlocked the door to Personnel and opened up the remainder of the top floor. The Magpies certainly had made a very poor Lisa. Damn.
It was as if the switch on the kettle somehow had a direct connection to Alfred. Exactly thirteen seconds after Derek had switched the kettle on, Alfred appeared in the doorway with a cheery smile and an empty mug.
'Morning, squire,' he said.
'Yes, it is,' said Derek.
'Big day, then?'
'Cheer up, squire. You'll handle it brilliantly.'
'No I won't. Witty Put-Down Man will.'
'Same thing, squire.'
'Is it?' asked Derek, unconvinced.
'Course it is. Lisa will realise, eventually.'
Derek poured out the coffee, placed the makeshift seat over the sink and sat down.
'Alfred,' he began.
'I had a dream last night.'
'Lots of people did, squire.'
'You were in the dream.'
'What was I doing?'
'Not much. Emptying the trash cans, apparently.'
'You said that I should ask the real you what you thought it was about.'
Alfred thought for a moment.
'Did I say anything else?'
'Just that somebody was making a mess and that you had to clear it up.'
'And what else was in the dream?'
Derek hesitated, embarrassed.
'Witty Put-Down Man and Lisa were there,' he said. Alfred nodded.
'Let me guess, they were getting on quite well.'
'You could say that.'
'The "Trouble from the North" was there as well. It was a man talking to me.'
'And I said that I'd be able to help?''You said you might be able to,' said Derek hopefully.
Alfred finished his coffee.
'Do you want my honest advice?'
'Great,' said Derek as Alfred stood to leave. He had a sudden thought.
'Alfred?' he asked.
'What's an aubergine?'
Alfred looked at him.
'It's a sort of purple vegetable,' he replied. Derek looked confused.
'I knew that,' he said.
'So, any reason for asking?'
'I'm not sure.'
'Fair enough,' said Alfred with a shrug of his shoulders, 'I'll see you later, squire. Good luck.'
Alfred left the office and Derek sat staring at the wall. The question now was when to make his move. How would he know the right moment to strike? He felt a slight movement of air and looked around. The two ghosts stood in the doorway.
'Good morning, Derek,' said the English ghost.
'Ready for your big moment?' asked the Irish ghost.
'No,' said Derek.
The ghosts looked at him sternly.
'Now, what sort of attitude is that?' asked the English ghost.
'It's my attitude,' replied Derek.
'It's not what we expect from a hero,' said the Irish ghost.
'I'm not the hero, Witty...'
'That's quite enough of that,' interrupted the English ghost. 'You're going to have to get over this feeling of dichotomy.'
'Of what?' asked Derek.
'The feeling that Derek Daniels and Witty Put-Down Man are different people. They are not. Now, you are still inexperienced. When you are more comfortable with your alter-ego, the feeling will pass. For now you will just have to cope with it.'
'What's an alter-ego?' asked Derek, feeling the conversation escaping from him.
'It's a sort of purple vegetable,' said the Irish ghost quietly.
Derek suppressed a smile and stepped in before a fight could break out.
'How will I know when I have to go and save Lisa?' he asked. 'And when the trouble from the North arrives?'
'You will know,' said the English ghost. 'You will develop a 'wit-sense'. It will tell you when your services are required.'
'Wit-sense?''Have faith, Derek,' said the English ghost reassuringly. 'You will triumph, but you have to believe in yourself.''He's right, you know,' said the Irish ghost, 'so go get 'em.'
The ghosts began to fade away.
'Go get 'em?' said the English ghost distastefully.
'Oh, I don't know,' said the Irish ghost. 'It seemed sort of appropriate.'
'Now there's a surprise.'
Derek continued to sit, alone once more. Wit-sense. It was all very well saying that his wit-sense would alert him, but how would he recognise it? He had no idea what to expect. Just as he was pondering this, he heard a distinct ringing noise. He jumped. This must be it. This was his wit-sense telling him it was time to go and rescue Lisa from the clutches of the vile and despicable... Or perhaps it was the telephone telling him he should answer it.
'Hello, janitor's office.'
'Hello, Derek. It's Andy Moore here. There's a bit of a mess in the newsroom. Do you have time to come and sweep it up?'
'Oh, I think I can find a window in my busy schedule sometime in the next week or so,' said Derek.
'See you in a minute, then,' replied Andy.
Derek replaced the handset. This would put him in the newsroom, where he could observe what was going on, but it might make it a bit difficult to change into Witty Put-Down Man. Or a lot difficult. Still, he could deal with that problem when it arose. Hopefully. For now he had a 'mess' to clear up. He picked up his trusty mop and looked at it.
'Andy definitely said "sweep",' he said, 'so I won't be needing you this time. Sorry.'
He replaced the mop and picked up a broom. He was about to lock the door when he turned back to the mop.
'Have the kettle on when I get back.'
Derek opened the door and stepped into the newsroom. This time it actually looked like a newsroom. People sat at desks typing furiously into computers, while others rushed from one desk to another with pieces of paper. He spotted Andy Moore and walked over to him.
'Where's this mess then?'
'Just over here,' said Andy, leading Derek to the far side of the room, just beside the door to the editor's office.
Derek surveyed the mud on the floor.
'We keep some potted plants just here by the window,' said Andy.
'Kept some potted plants,' amended Derek.
Derek began to sweep the mud into a pile. Something began to tingle inside his head. He shook his head, but the sensation was still there. He looked up suddenly. Perhaps this was his wit-sense then. He looked at the door to the editor's office. It was firmly closed. Cleverly manipulating the broom, he edged the pile of dirt nearer to the office. Casually, as if reaching for an errant dust particle, he leaned over and listened at the door. There was a man's voice, too muffled to hear anything. Then a woman's voice, nearer the door. He sidled nearer. The door began to open and Derek backed his mud heap away. Lisa came out with tears in her eyes. Derek walked over to her and stood leaning on his broom.
'I'm leaving,' said Lisa.
'No,' said Derek desperately. If Lisa left then it would all be for nothing.
'I have to, Derek. The editor has just said that unless I... do what he asks, he'll fire me anyway. I have to resign. It'll take me a few minutes to collect my things together and then I'll give him my notice.'
Derek thought fast.
'It'll be all right, Lisa,' he said. 'I'll just go and get a dustpan to clear this mess up and then I'll help you pack.'
Lisa smiled at him through her tears.
'Thanks, Derek,' she said.
Derek walked nonchalantly to the elevator and pressed the call button. The elevator arrived and he stepped in.
'Ground floor, is it?' asked the attendant.
'Yes,' said Derek, 'I have to go and find a dustpan. Trouble is, I don't know where it's kept so it'll probably take me a while to find.'
The attendant nodded, amused by Derek's highly detailed answer. The doors opened at the ground floor and Derek stepped out. He walked slowly down the corridor until the doors closed and then broke into a run. Alfred was emptying something into one of the trash cans as Derek slid to a halt.
'Alfred, this is it,' he gasped. 'I've got to be Witty Put-Down Man, so cover for me.'
'Will do, squire,' replied Alfred calmly.
Derek turned to go and then spun round.
'Can you do me a favour? I need a dustpan and brush. Do you think you could dig one out for me and put it at the bottom of the stairs?'
Alfred nodded, concentrating on whatever it was he was doing. Derek dashed off and began to climb the stairs, pulling out his cigarette holder as he did so. He reached the door to the newsroom and stopped. He put the cigarette holder in his mouth and casually strode into the newsroom. Everybody stopped what they were doing and watched him as he progressed across the room.
Lisa stood in front of the editor's desk. She evidently hadn't been allowed to get as far as resigning. The editor sat, cigar in hand, leering at her. He leaned forward, loosening his tie.
'Come on, I know you want me. Well, you can have me.'
The handle of the door turned and Witty Put-Down Man walked in. He removed the cigarette holder from his mouth and exhaled slowly. The editor stared at him.
'There are many things Lisa would rather have,' said Witty Put-Down Man. 'Some of them can be cured with penicillin.'
The editor slumped over his desk. Lisa gazed at Witty Put-Down Man in wonder.
'Thank-you,' she stammered, 'whoever you are.'
'That's quite all right,' said Witty Put-Down Man. 'Now, if you'll excuse me, Ms Bach?'
He turned to go but Lisa stopped him.
'Wait,' she called.
Witty Put-Down Man turned back to her. Lisa studied his face.
'You look strangely familiar,' she said.
A slight look of panic crept into Witty Put-Down Man's eyes.
'I must go,' he said hurriedly. 'Adieu.'
He walked out through the office and into the stairwell where he replaced the cigarette holder in its case. Derek ran down the stairs to the ground floor. A dustpan and brush sat on the bottom step. Derek smiled and grabbed it on his way past. He hit the call button for the elevator, hoping he had a few seconds to compose himself before it arrived. The doors slid open and he stepped in.
'You found it then?' asked the attendant, indicating the dustpan and brush.
'Yes, eventually,' said Derek mopping his brow in pretend mock-exhaustion.
The door opened and Derek took a deep breath before entering the newsroom. Reporters were talking in excited groups. Andy Moore sat at his desk, typing frantically. Lisa rushed over to Derek.
'Did you see him?' she asked.
'See who?' replied Derek innocently.
'Witty Put-Down Man,' said Lisa impatiently. 'Did you see him?'
'Was he here?' asked Derek. 'You mean I've missed him again?'
He shrugged resignedly and wandered off to sweep up the neat pile of earth he had created earlier. Lisa turned and gazed longingly at the door again. Derek watched her for a moment or two and then returned to his work, shaking his head. The door to the office flew open and the editor stormed out.
'I resign,' he shouted to the room in general and then threw the door open. He turned to face the news staff.
'You haven't heard the last of me,' he said menacingly, 'I'll be back.'
He disappeared from the newsroom, watched by two ghosts.
'It looks like Witty Put-Down Man might have acquired a dangerous adversary for the future,' said the English ghost.
'A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies,' said the Irish ghost.