Errors of Comedy - Chapter 24
Across the northern reaches of the central region, the flower of Northern Quarter manhood marched. Some of them carried makeshift weapons: pickaxes and pitchforks, most of which had been made especially for the occasion, their bearers staying up all night to ensure to ensure the authentic 'revolting peasant' look. Those who didn't carry weapons made up for it with their enthusiastically aggressive gestures and the stirring battle anthems in which they led their comrades. All in all it was a terrifying sight that made its way south across Sprawling Metropolis; three armies, united in pursuit of a single goal. The fourth army, ostensibly in pursuit of the same single goal, was lagging somewhat behind the rest of the expeditionary force. The reason for this lay with its commander, Arthur Mayhew...
'Right. Excuse me gentlemen,' began Arthur when he had given up trying to record the names of over three-thousand people in his notebook. 'I expect you're wondering why I've called you here today. That is, why Mr Hilarious himself has called you here today.'
He paused for a moment, working out what he was actually trying to say.
'We are here,' he hazarded, 'to march on the central region.' That sounded familiar. 'When we reach the central region we will attack the...' He flicked through the pages of his faithful notebook. '...Presidential Theatre,' he finished with relief.
'Why the Presidential Theatre?' called a voice from the crowd. Arthur began to breathe very heavily. This wasn't meant to happen. He tried desperately to remember what Mr Hilarious had said to him about the Presidential Theatre.
'Er... because it's not very nice... no... because it's a... oh, what was it...' He glanced at his notebook and found what he was looking for. 'It's a pretty vile disco-dance,' he finished confidently.
'Oh 'ell,' said the voice, 'I hate them disco-dances.'
'Yeah,' agreed another voice, 'they're ruining the clubs.'
'Aye,' put in a third voice, 'they should stick with singers. You know where you are with a good singer and a tune you can listen to. Not like this modern...''Yes, thank-you, gentlemen,' interrupted Arthur. 'It seems that we are in agreement. I suggest we begin marching.'
He glanced down once more for confirmation and read the words at the top of the page:
Battle slowly. Carefully. Take a very long time.
'Gentlemen, we shall march. We shall march in the manner that Mr Hilarious himself has seen fit to decide upon. We shall battle, but we shall battle slowly and carefully. We will take...' he paused dramatically, '... a very long time.'
There was a cheer, which subsided into a slightly confused murmur of voices. Arthur had leapt down from his position on the transmitter tower and had begun to walk, slowly and carefully, toward the central region. His army fell into step behind him, occasionally bumping into one another.
At much the same time, Harold Simpson was standing on the roof of the 'Graven Image', addressing his own troops.
'Gentlemen,' he began, 'we are here at the behest of Mr Hilarious himself. He has decided that the time is right for the people of the North to march on the South. I am in full agreement with him, which is why I have agreed to command this part of his army.' OK, so it wasn't strictly true, but it sounded quite good.
'Our target is the Daily Thompson. We are to take control of the South's main propaganda pamphlet and make it our own. We will then be free to publish the truth instead of the subversive lies that have been printed up to now. Gentlemen, in this glorious battle, are you with me?'
There was an enormous cheer from the throng that surrounded him.
'Then let us proceed,' he cried and made his way down to the ground. His army lined up behind him and began marching purposefully forward.
Ernest Ramsden stood on top of a large pile of carpet offcuts, generously supplied by his brother for the occasion. He struggled for a moment to regain his balance and then began reading from a small piece of paper.
'Good morning, gentlemen. Welcome to Ramsden's carpets. In our warehouse you will find the largest selection of...'
He stopped, slightly confused, and turned to his brother.
'Is this the speech that I wrote?'
'So what is it?'
'It's an advert. You know, "A message from our sponsors".'
'Who are our sponsors?'
'They are now.'
'Mr Hilarious didn't say anything about sponsors,' said Ernest, becoming even more confused.
'That's as maybe, but if you want to use my warehouse as a rallying point, then I want some free advertising. Do you think you could get Mr Hilarious to do a quick commercial. Apparently he's been on the television before. He'd be very good. There are thousands of people in the South who don't have Ramsden's carpets and it's only fair that they're told about them.'
The word 'carpets' suddenly triggered a recollection in Ernest's brain.
'Carpets are one of the reasons why we're invading the South,' he said uncertainly.
'Exactly,' replied his brother. 'You're going to go to the South to sell them carpets. My carpets,' he added pointedly.
'No,' said Ernest slowly, trying to work it all out. 'I think we're going to take their carpets away from them.' He brightened, memories flooding back. 'And their air-conditioning.'
'Air-conditioning, you say?' said his brother thoughtfully. 'There's probably a lot of money to be made in air-conditioning.'
'We're not in this to make money,' said Ernest, more sure of himself now. 'We're in this to take away their carpets and break their air-conditioning and then we're all going to move into the South and they're all going to come and live up here.'
'That's brilliant! You take away their carpets and break their air-conditioning and then I can move in with a small team of of my best salesmen and sell them replacements. Fantastic idea! Now, I'll need to get my team assembled...'
He walked away, muttering to himself and Ernest pulled out a second piece of paper and turned back to his troops.
'Good morning, gentlemen. We are gathered here today. The reason for this is because we are going to march to the South and take it over. So let's go.'
Despite the less than stirring words of Ernest Ramsden, his army lifted their voices and cheered, causing Ernest to finally lose his balance and topple over. When he had picked himself up from beneath the pile of carpets he stood at the head of his army and looked around.
'Er... does anyone know which way it is?'
'South,' someone shouted.
'South, right yes,' said Ernest firmly.
There was a pause. Nobody moved.
'Which... er... which way is South.'
'OK. We're off,' shouted Ernest gratefully and began marching. His army followed him. His brother and a few of his staff followed the army, armed with swatches of material, a price list and a copy of 'Air-Conditioning Monthly'.
Having braced itself for invasion, the central region made it to lunch-time in safety. Admittedly, 'bracing itself for invasion' consisted mainly of locking some of the doors and dragging a couple of extra security guards out of bed to do some overtime.
Derek was just locking the door to his office when Alfred came down the stairs.
'Don't bother locking up, squire, we're not allowed to leave the building.'
'Orders of Andy Moore. "No-one is to leave the building except for reporters on assignments".'
'Reporters? That means that Lisa will be out there. She might be in danger. I've got to save her!'
'Very noble of you squire, but Lisa is still in the building. Andy agreed that the Daily Thompson was a target, so he's keeping his best reporter here to cover the action.'
'Lisa is staying here? But she'll be in danger. I've got to save her!'
'Keep your voice down, squire. Lisa is joining us for lunch shortly.'
'Lunch? How can we have lunch if we can't leave the building?'
'Don't worry, squire. I've brought some sandwiches. I had a feeling something like this was going to happen.'
'Alfred, how do you know all this?'
'Oh, you know. I've been around a while. You get the hang of these things eventually.'
'Things like being Witty Put-Down Man?'
'Yeah, things like that. Although I don't think that's something I'll ever get the hang of.'
'But will I?'
'Yes, squire, you will. Now shush; Lisa is coming. Open the door and get the kettle on.'
Derek entered the office and filled the kettle from the tap before replacing the cover over the sink. Alfred sat down on it and Derek squeezed past him to his own seat. A thought struck him.
'What do you mean, "Lisa is joining us for lunch"? There's no room.'
'There's plenty of room. You'll just have to squeeze up a bit.'
'Squeeze up a bit? You want me to squeeze up a bit next to Lisa?'
Before Alfred could answer there was a knock at the door. Derek looked at Alfred with panic in his eyes.
'That's Lisa! What do I do?'
'You could try saying, "come in".'
'Come in?' called Derek. The door swung open and Lisa stood there, looking around.
'Hello, Derek,' she said. 'Nice office.'
'Well, it's...' began Lisa, not expecting that particular response. 'It's... Hello, Alfred.'
'Afternoon, Miss Lisa,' said Alfred, standing up. 'You'll have to excuse Derek. He's not himself today.' Derek stared at him.
'Who am I then?'
'Never mind, squire. Move up and let Lisa sit down.'
Derek swallowed hard and squashed himself into the corner of the room. The mop leaned against his leg, a comforting presence in the midst of sheer terror. Lisa gently picked her way across the room and sat down next to Derek.
'Well, this is cosy,' she said.
'Very pleasant,' agreed Alfred, taking the milk out of the fridge. 'Now then, Miss Lisa, would you like tea or coffee?'
'Coffee please, Alfred.'
'And for you, squire?'
Derek looked up from the mop where he had fixed his gaze. He stared at Alfred vacantly.
'Yes?' he hazarded.
'Good,' said Alfred soldiering on. 'Three coffees then.'
'Yes?' tried Derek again, figuring that, if he said it enough times, sooner or later it was bound to be the right answer.
Alfred stirred the cups of coffee and handed one each to Derek and Lisa. Derek took the mug and stared at it. The presence of Lisa was causing a distinct pressure on his right leg. He swallowed hard and tried to ignore it. There was a throbbing in his temples that wasn't entirely due to his wit sense. He had a feeling that this one wouldn't go away just because he told it to. Lisa might, but that wasn't exactly what he wanted. Why did being a janitor have to be this complicated? He longed for the days when the reputation of his psychotic predecessor was the biggest worry in his life. Now he had to worry about ghosts, comedians, armies, battle plans, targets, aubergines and, most immediately, attractive reporters pressed against his leg.
He continued to stare at the mug before plucking up the courage to take a sip. It was coffee. What he had expected it to be, he wasn't sure, but he wasn't taking anything for granted any more. Another sip. Definitely coffee. He relaxed slightly and felt Lisa shift her position.
'Sorry,' he said out loud.
'That's all right,' replied Lisa, stretching her leg.
'Good,' said Derek earnestly, causing Alfred to grin into his own mug before stepping in to rescue the conversation.
'So, Miss Lisa, how are things upstairs? Everything ready for the invasion?'
'As far as I can tell. Andy has posted guards on all the entrances, but what use they'll be against an army I don't know.'
'Oh, I'm sure we'll survive,' said Alfred, looking pointedly at Derek. 'Witty Put-Down Man must be around somewhere.'
Derek quickly swallowed the mouthful of coffee he had steeled himself to take and looked up.
Alfred continued, 'after all, he seems to have your best interests at heart, Miss Lisa.'
Derek began to turn an amusing shade of red and struggled manfully to control his breathing. Lisa said nothing, but stared dreamily into space. Alfred sat back with smug grin on his face as Derek glared at him, desperately searching for something to say that wouldn't embarrass him or give away his secret. He opened his mouth but Lisa beat him to it.
'Do you really think Witty Put-Down Man will save us?'
Alfred glanced quickly at Derek.
'I'm sure he will. What do you think, squire?'
'Yes?' said Derek, after a pause.
'I wonder,' began Lisa thoughtfully, 'what he was doing at your birthday party? Did you invite him?'
'Sandwich?' interrupted Alfred before Derek could say 'yes' again.
'Yes?' said Derek.
'Good,' replied Alfred with a certain degree of relief. He passed a slightly battered sandwich to Derek, who took it and placed it on his lap. The sandwich sat there, trembling in time to the shaking of Derek's body. He picked it up again before Lisa could notice.
Lisa accepted a sandwich from Alfred and examined it closely. It wasn't exactly what she was used to, but it seemed to be edible.
'Thanks, Alfred,' she said, wondering exactly why Derek was shivering so hard. Alfred had said he wasn't well. Perhaps he had a fever. It probably wasn't a good idea to sit this close to him, but she didn't really have much of a choice. She nibbled at the sandwich. Fortunately, it tasted substantially better than it looked. She washed it down with some coffee and turned to Derek.
'Are you all right, Derek?'
Derek hesitated, half a sandwich poised in his mouth, ready to bite. His hand started to shake visibly. He replaced the sandwich in his lap and looked into Lisa's face. Somewhere in his head, a Rachmaninov piano concerto began. This was the time. This was the time to confess everything. To tell Lisa that he was madly in love with her. That he always had been. That he always would be. That he couldn't live without her. He opened his mouth.
'Yes?' he said, and closed it again. Lisa nodded.
Derek returned to his sandwich. She had asked if he was all right. She had said 'good' when he told her that he was. She cared. She cared for him. Everything was going to be all right.
Two ghosts hovered outside the office, listening to the stilted conversation.
'He seems to be having a little difficulty talking to the young lady,' said the English ghost.
I like to do all the talking myself. It saves time, and prevents arguments,' said the Irish ghost.