Errors of Comedy - Chapter 28
About a mile away from Sprawling Metropolis television studios, Billy Hilarious led his men down the streets of the central region. He paused, the army coming to a respectful halt behind him. He stared around at the street and the buildings that lined it. They looked familiar. This wasn't really surprising. In Sprawling Metropolis, all the streets were pretty much identical; all built according to young Simon Burdon's vision.
Billy continued to stare. The feeling he had wasn't purely because the streets looked the same. Somehow, these streets felt familiar, but Billy didn't know for certain whether he, or William Randall, had ever walked down this particular street before.
He stopped his train of thought. That had to be a bad omen: William Randall. He had never admitted the existence of his previous self to anyone and had done his best to keep it hidden from his own conscious mind. It was the first time that the name had appeared in his head for a very long time. Perhaps William Randall had wandered down this street at some time. Perhaps on one of the many occasions that he had needed to get away from the theatre to clear his head. Perhaps it was on this very street that the idea of faking his own death had occurred to him. Or maybe it was the final details that had been worked out as William had stepped over the place where Billy was now standing. Possibly William had paused on this very spot to consider the fact that innocent people might die in the monorail accident. It might even have been this spot where he decided once and for all that the inhabitants of the South didn't deserve to live anyway.
Whatever had occurred here, and there was no certainty that William Randall had been anywhere near the place, the emotions flashing across the mind of Billy Hilarious were certainly the strongest that he had felt since leaving the Northern Quarter. Was someone trying to tell him something? Was he trying to tell himself something? Behind him, his men began to shuffle impatiently. Billy relaxed slightly. At least these feelings didn't seem to be affecting his army. They were still keen to be about the business of bringing the South to its knees. They still needed him to lead them into battle. He had a responsibility to them and to their families back in the Northern Quarter. Billy decided that he had to cling onto that thought if he was to stay focused throughout the ensuing events. He raised his arm and the column began moving forward again. If he was being honest, he didn't expect much of a 'battle' but he could always hope.
* * *
In his bed in the central hospital, ex-tourist and would-be action hero Horace Lundy turned onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Timing was going to be crucial. The nurses changed shift in about five minutes time and he would have to move fast if he was to exploit the confusion to its maximum effect.
Glancing surreptitiously around, he eased himself up into a sitting position, noting again exactly how uncomfortable the beds were. He reached out toward the bedside table. Was his hand shaking? It didn't seem to be. Well, no more than usual. Good. That meant that his nerves were under control. The hand closed around a glass of grapefruit juice and he conveyed it to his mouth. None spilt. Still under control, then. He sipped carefully at it, all the time scrutinising the nurses station. He wished it wasn't grapefruit juice, though. He'd have preferred bourbon.
Nerves holding? He successfully replaced the glass on the bedside table and gave a sly grin. Nerves definitely holding. He shifted his position slightly, never taking his eyes off the nurse, who was still sitting reading the Daily Thompson. There could only be about two minutes left now. The nurses were always on time. Always. He wasn't one-hundred percent sure what his course of action was going to be. He had a vague idea, of course, with one or two of the details filled in, but quite a lot of it was going to have to be made up as he went along. Which suited him. The 'Paradoxicals' never really knew in advance what they were going to do. They just stepped out of the time machine and things happened. OK, so they invariably involved computers, women and tables. There was still an air of spontaneity. Always the possibility that they might fail in their mission. The constant fear that something would go wrong. That Dave Brady's brilliant hunch or wild gamble might not pay off. That they'd be stranded, hundreds of years from home.
Obviously, in the forty-eight episodes that were made, it had never happened. Horace had seen them enough times to know that. The concept that they always won in the end was currently occupying a large part of his brain. Horace was making sure that it did. He had to believe that his plan, whatever it was, was going to work. If he failed the consequences were... well, if he was being honest, the consequences were that he'd be put back to bed with an admonishing word and, if he was unlucky, a tranquilliser dart in his backside. That wasn't the point. His wife was out there, somewhere, with war about to break out.
He wondered who was at war with whom. There was an episode of 'The Paradoxicals' in which they had to go back in time to prevent a war between the United States and 'Euessessar'. Perhaps the Euessessarians were getting a bit feisty again. It didn't seem very likely, somehow. Perhaps the rest of the States had declared war on Sprawling Metropolis. That was far more plausible and probably a good idea. Anyway, whoever the war was between, Doris was going to be caught in it.
There was a movement in Horace's field of view. He focused all his attention towards it. The new nurse had arrived and was flicking through a sheaf of papers while the original nurse attempted to explain precisely what was going on. This was it then. Horace turned back his sheets and hung his feet over the side. He was still wearing his dressing gown, his first act of defiance against the authorities. Ignoring his hospital issue slippers, he slid his feet into his shoes and stood up. A quick glance back to the nurses. Still arguing. Time to go.
He reached quickly into the small cabinet by his bed and pulled out a shirt and a pair of trousers. Socks he could do without. The nurses seemed to be coming to the end of their argument. All that was left was the handover of the tranquilliser gun and the formalities involved. That meant that he had twelve seconds to make it to the toilet. He tried to avoid walking nonchalantly. Nobody walked nonchalantly unless they had something to hide. The second nurse placed the gun in its holster. Horace broke into a run, clutching at his stomach for added authenticity. The toilet door closed behind him just as the new nurse finished securing her holster and looked up. There didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary.
Horace locked the door and leant against it, breathing heavily. If traversing the few metres from his bed to the toilet was causing him this much respiratory trouble, there didn't seem to be much hope for his escape attempt. His breathing subsided to a regular rhythm and he began to prepare himself for the next stage of the plan. He changed into the shirt and trousers and placed the pyjamas on the floor. He considered the dressing gown. Doris had brought it for him, so to leave it behind might be considered a bad omen. However, as he would be sacrificing it to save her, he could probably get away with it. Carefully folding it, he placed it on top of the discarded pyjamas and then looked up. If he stood on the toilet seat, he could just about reach the small window. Small, but large enough for him to squeeze through. Horace knew. He had tested it.
Once outside, he balanced precariously on the small ledge that ran around the building. There was a drainpipe a few feet away. All he had to do was reach that and then descend one floor to the laundry level. It was a pity that the toilet window opened onto the inside of the hospital compound. If it had been on the other side of the building, all his problems would have been solved. As it was, the game was only just beginning. Horace considered this as he inched his way along the ledge. It was a game, in a way. Whilst part of him was acutely aware that he could get into serious trouble for what he was doing, part of him was having a whale of a time playing at being Dave Brady. He slowly reached out his left arm and took hold of the drainpipe. Pulling himself toward it, he clung desperately until he had regained his breath and steadied his nerves.
Downwards. His foot searched for purchase on the wall. Downwards without looking downwards. One of the metal brackets that attached the pipe to the wall seemed strong enough to hold his weight and he slowly began his descent. Hopefully there would be a window open on the lower floor. His strength was just beginning to ebb away when his foot reached the relative safety of the next ledge. He leant his weight against the wall and rested his arms. There had to be a window open. You couldn't do laundry with the windows closed. The third window along was the one that had to be open and Horace contorted himself into a position that allowed him to peer in. It was some sort of storeroom. The shelves held row upon row of enormous tubs of washing powder. He had the right place then. Slipping through the window, Horace let himself drop into the room, where his legs gave way under him. That was fine; he could afford to sit for while.
* * *
Ernest Ramsden stood at a cross-roads and scratched his head. He was lost. To be honest, he was incredibly fortunate to have made it this far at all. Simply by starting in the Northern Quarter and walking in a straight line away from it he had made his way to the central region. Now, however, such simple measures were not proving effective. He had been given a specific objective. All he had to do was find it. And then... oh, that could wait. His most important task at that precise moment in time was to find the Central Hospital.
He looked at each of the four roads leading away from the intersection in turn. They all looked the same. Which meant that it could be any one of them. And how was he supposed to recognise the hospital when he found it? Would it have a big sign outside saying 'Hospital'? The buildings here didn't seem to go in for signs very much. Or any other form of ornamentation for that matter. So, which of the four roads should he take? A thought occurred to him. He had just come down one of them and they hadn't passed a hospital yet. At least not to his knowledge. Therefore, there were only three possible roads. That made things easier. If he could remember which of the roads they had come down.
He turned around. His army snaked off down the road that Ernest had arbitrarily, and somehow correctly, labelled 'East'. They weren't going to go back that way then. Well, why not go forward? He turned to address his troops.
'Westward Ho!' he called.
* * *
Derek was walking very slowly out of the Daily Thompson building when Lisa caught up with him.
'Have you finished clearing up already?' she asked. Derek turned round.
'No, I was just getting a bit of fresh air after all the excitement,' he improvised. Lisa nodded.
'I thought you did very well in there,' she said. 'I was quite impressed.'
Derek tried to reply but his mouth had gone dry. Perhaps this was it. This was the moment. At least, it would have been if he could have said anything. As always on these occasions, his salivary glands had failed him. He opened his mouth but, for fear of producing something embarrassingly inarticulate, closed it again. Lisa was too wrapped up in her job to notice.
'Anyway, I've got to head off to the television studios,' she said and then added, largely to herself, 'I wonder if "The Comedian" will give me an interview?'
She rushed off to the monorail leaving Derek watching her go.
'Be careful,' he called after her, making sure that it wasn't loud enough for her to hear. It was heard, however, by the two ghosts who hovered invisibly next to Derek.
'What do you think?' asked the English ghost. 'Will she fall in love with him, or will they be "just good friends"?'
'Friendship is far more tragic than love; it lasts longer,' said the Irish ghost.