Errors of Comedy - Chapter 22
Billy Hilarious sat once more in front of his generals. This was his last chance to try to instil in them some of his own tactical brilliance and desire for victory. He looked from one to the other. They stared back at him blankly. Was it worth the effort? Perhaps he should just give them their final instructions and trust that they'd carry them out correctly. He shuddered slightly and leaned forward.
'Gentlemen. You and I must now part company and go our separate ways.'
'Must we?' said Ernest Ramsden.
'Oh dear,' said Harold Simpson.
Arthur scribbled 'separate ways' in his notepad.
'You three will now leave to take your places with your armies. At a quarter-past-ten tomorrow morning you will set out to march to your designated targets in the central region. Is that clear.'
'Yes, Mr Hilarious.'
'In that case, goodbye and good luck,' said Billy standing up and shaking each of them by the hand, causing Arthur to juggle his notepad unsuccessfully. The three generals then trooped out of the room and stood silently in the corridor.
Harold was the first to speak.
'So, this is it then.'
'This is what?' asked Ernest.
'Oh. What sort of it?''You know, "it". The big moment. The grand finale. The...' Words failed him. '...it,' he concluded.
'Bye, then,' suggested Harold with forced enthusiasm.
'Yeah, bye,' replied Ernest less happily.
'Are you off?' asked Arthur.
Harold looked at him.
'Of course we're off. Mr Hilarious himself said it's time for us to leave and join our armies.'
Arthur consulted his notepad.
'You're right. "Separate ways". Well, there you go. Bye, then.'
'Yeah, bye,' said Ernest again, wondering if they were ever going to leave.
The three of them looked at each other for a moment and then left the building. They walked slowly over to the railings where they had chained their bicycles and began unlocking them.
'Bye, then,' said Harold when he had freed his bicycle.
'Yeah, bye,' said Ernest cycling away. Arthur looked up.
Harold cycled off in the same direction as Ernest. Arthur hesitated for a while and eventually followed them.
He arrived at Northern Radio Transmitter 5B after half-an-hour's leisurely cycling. Dismounting his bicycle, he stared up at the tower of one of the smallest transmitters. Its function was to boost Northern radio's broadcasts a certain distance into the no-man's-land of the central region. The executives who occasionally visited the Northern Quarter liked to get advance warning from their monorail cars of any leaks of toxic material or prevailing clouds of nuclear fall-out that might hamper their fact-finding missions. It seemed strange to Arthur that something designed to protect the inhabitants of the South should be used as one of the rallying points for the attack which would destroy them. Perhaps that was why Billy had chosen it. In reality, Billy had chosen it because it would be easy to find. Easy for Arthur because he was the head of Northern Radio and, even if he didn't already know where it was, he could find out. Easy for everyone else because it was a big red and white thing that stuck out of the bleak, southern North landscape like a sore thumb.
Arthur continued to stare up at it until another thought struck him. His army weren't due to appear until tomorrow morning. That meant that he would have to spend the night alone in this desolate place. He shivered. It was getting cold. He fished in his pocket and pulled out a bunch of keys. Hopefully, one of these would let him into the small maintenance room at the base of the tower. At least that would give him some shelter from the wind and the persistent drizzle. He eased himself through the small doorway and closed the door behind him. Surely there should be a light switch somewhere? He eventually found it and surveyed the room. It didn't contain much. A table, a cupboard full of tools and electronic equipment and, in one corner, some blankets. Obviously he hadn't been the first person to be stranded here. The fog that sometimes befell the border regions was legendary, and the engineer responsible for this transmitter had evidently decided to take precautions in the event of being stranded. Arthur reached into his pocket and pulled out a squashed and slightly damp sandwich. Slumping down on the blankets, he took a bite and began to try and remember exactly why he was doing this.
Ernest Ramsden had life a little easier then his comrade. He had simply turned up at his brother's house to be greeted by two nephews, a niece and a sister-in-law with a hearty dinner. Finishing off the last of his dessert he sat back in his seat and reflected upon how fine his life was, now that he had been promoted to the rank of General in the army of Billy Hilarious himself.
Arthur felt a small drop of water land on his leg and pulled the blankets more tightly around himself. He tried, rather unsuccessfully, to remove the top from his thermos flask without uncovering any part of his body. Still, at least the hot tea would warm him up. He took a few sips, sighed, and tried to convince himself that he preferred his tea cold anyway.
Harold Simpson parked his bicycle outside the 'Graven Image' public house and walked through the door. One of the barmaids saw him and rushed to fetch the manager. He walked up to Harold and offered to take his coat. Harold shrugged his shoulders out of his mackintosh and sat on one of the stools at the bar.
'What can I get for you, Mr Simpson, sir?' asked the manager. 'A pint? Something to eat?'
'A pint of your best bitter,' replied Harold, more out of tradition than anything else - the pubs only sold one type of bitter - 'and a round of roast beef sandwiches.'
'Coming right up, Mr Simpson,' the manager assured him, and then dashed off to make sure that everything was just so for the illustrious owner of the 'Graven Image'.
In the meantime, Harold gazed around the room. Small groups were dotted about, drinking and chatting or, in some cases, just drinking. One of the barmaids placed a pint of bitter at his elbow and quickly darted away as if afraid that he might bite her or, worse, fire her on the spot. Being bitten was a bit of an occupational hazard, especially near closing time on a Saturday night. Being fired by the manager, on the other hand, was not a prospect she relished. Harold, however, neither bit her nor fired her, but instead picked up the glass and took a draught. He wondered why he couldn't be this calm and composed in the presence of Billy Hilarious. Something about the great man reduced him to a quivering, stupid heap. Or perhaps it was that Ernest and Arthur's brand of non-specific gormlessness was infectious. Maybe now that he could command an army on his own he could bring something worthwhile to this battle. He spread a little horseradish sauce onto his freshly made sandwiches and resolved to fight the coming battle to the best of his ability.
Arthur Mayhew lay on the floor of the small maintenance room at the base of the tower, clutching his blankets tightly around him. Those Southerners were going to pay for this. With their carpets and their air-conditioning.
Early next morning, the telephone in Police Commissioner Parker's office rang. Eric picked up the receiver and handed it to the Commissioner without answering it.
'It's for you.'
'Hello, Commissioner Parker speaking... Hello, Mr. Jones... Yes, yes we can come over straight away. Goodbye.' He put the receiver down. 'That was Dick Jones. He says he's traced the signal.'
They walked out of the office and took the short monorail trip to Sprawling Metropolis Television. They walked straight past Sharon at her desk and into Dick Jones's office.
'Good morning, Mr Jones,' said the Commissioner. 'Now, I understand you have some, how shall I put it, "information" for us?'
'I certainly do. We've had some success tracing the signal from yesterday evening.'
'It definitely came from the Northern Quarter.'
There was a pause.
'Is that it?' asked Eric.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Have you dragged us all the way here to tell us that the signal came from the Northern Quarter?'
'Commissioner,' said Dick Jones, turning away from Eric, 'you asked me for any information I had regarding yesterday's illegal broadcast. I have provided you with information.'
'I'm not denying that,' commented Eric. 'We were just expecting a little more of the aforementioned "information".'
'Is there anything else you could tell us,' asked the Commissioner wearily. Dick Jones hesitated.
'Well, there are a few things.'
Eric took out a notebook and waited, pencil poised.
'Go on,' urged Commissioner Parker.
'The equipment he's using is highly sophisticated...'
'You don't say?' interrupted Eric. 'And there was me thinking he'd managed to interrupt the entire city's television network with two tin cans and a piece of string.'
'Be quiet, Eric,' snapped the Commissioner. 'Carry on, Mr Jones.'
'The equipment was borrowed from Sprawling Metropolis Television under false pretences.'
'Let me guess,' began Eric, 'the "Comedian" walked in and said, "Hello, I'm not a raving psychopath and I'd like to take lots of highly sophisticated television equipment to the North for the express purpose of not making televised ransom demands to the South." Close?'
Dick Jones stared at Eric with a vicious look in his eyes.
'Eric,' suggested the Commissioner, 'why don't you make yourself, how can I put it, "useful". Go and have a look round and see what you can find.'
'Yes, chief,' replied Eric cheerfully, putting his notebook away and leaving the room.
Commissioner Parker breathed a sigh of relief and returned his attention to Dick Jones.
'Now then, Mr Jones, this equipment that the "Comedian", how shall I put it, "borrowed"?'
'He said his name was Jeremy Droll and he wanted to make a documentary about life in the North. I lent him the equipment necessary to do that. A camera, recording facilities and a portable transmitter so that he could transmit the pictures back here. Somehow he's modified the transmitter so that it functions as a signal jammer as well. He may have people working for him.'
Eric's voice was heard over the intercom.
'Surely not. If I was going to threaten an entire city and then attack it, I wouldn't want people working for me...'
Commissioner Parker reached over and turned the intercom off.
'I assume,' he said to Dick Jones when the latter had calmed down slightly, 'that the "Comedian" didn't reveal any of his other plans to you at that time.'
'No, he didn't. All he talked about was the documentary he was going to make.'
'And you felt that this documentary had, how shall I put it, "potential"?'
'Oh yes,' said Dick Jones enthusiastically. 'You see, there has never been an in-depth look at life in the North. It would be a runaway success. For the first episode I'd start with a tracking shot of...'
Commissioner Parker leaned back in his chair. His job was about asking the right questions. He got the impression that he had just asked the wrong one.
Derek sat in his office, a portable television balanced precariously on top of the refrigerator. On top of the television sat a purple wax object, a piece of string protruding from its top end. Derek sat, clutching his mug of tea. The, by-now familiar, throbbing of his wit-sense and the accompanying headache were all that occupied his world at the moment. He couldn't understand why it kept going off. It wasn't as if he didn't know that the 'Comedian' was the trouble from the North. He'd even accepted that he would be the one to defeat him. There was no need to keep reminding him.
'I know,' he cried out loud. 'Just leave me alone.'
The sensations in his head ceased. He sat perfectly still for a few seconds, making sure that they had gone, and then resumed his cup of tea. Perhaps he did have a degree of control over his wit-sense after all. It was just going to be a matter of refining that control. Presumably the 'Comedian' was going to give him plenty of opportunities to do just that, but how would he cope with them? The ghosts hadn't been much help. He had explained to them, eventually, who the Comedian was and what he wanted. They had responded with a shrug and an encouraging 'I'm sure you'll cope, Derek' and that had been that. They had left him alone. Alone, but for a wax aubergine. And Alfred of course. Brilliant. A janitor, a bin-man and a novelty candle against the combined might of the Northern Quarter. There was a sliding noise and something wet brushed against his cheek. How could he forget? A janitor, a bin-man, a novelty candle and a mop against the combined etcetera.
'No contest,' he said out loud.
'Of course there's no contest,' said Alfred appearing at the door. 'Witty Put-Down Man is the hero. You'll win. That's your job. This "Comedian" bloke is the bad guy. He'll lose. That's his job. Absolutely no contest.'
'So I've got fate on my side?'
'Perk of the job, squire. That's what being the good guy is all about.'
'Which means I don't have to do anything? I just have to sit here and be the good guy and I'll win by default?'
'You can't win if you don't play the game, squire. You've got to make some sort of effort.'
'That's what I was worried about.'
'What have you got to be afraid of?'
'A psychopath and hundreds of his devoted followers?'
'But you're a super-hero. You've got the advantage. They won't stand a chance. And what's more, you've got the element of surprise. They might be expecting, even hoping for, a bit of a fight. They won't be expecting you and they certainly won't be expecting wit.'
'I suppose so.'
'Right. Now then, It'll take them a couple of hours to get here, so I suggest we start looking at some sort of battle plan.'
'Of course. OK, so you're going to win anyway, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared, squire.'
'Fine. Battle plan. What did you have in mind?'
'Well, I imagine they'll have three main targets...'
Two ghosts stood and listened as Alfred outlined his strategy.
'A pity is has to come down to war,' said the English ghost.
As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular,' said the Irish ghost.