Comedy Of Terror
I’d drag myself to work, then I’d drag myself home. Some nights I couldn’t sleep at all; other nights, I went right through the alarm, and would call in sick. Eventually, on the advice of my parents – who I still listen to sometimes, even though I’m edging towards 40 – I went to my GP. He nodded sympathetically then got out his notepad. Here we go, I thought, bring in the Big Pharma big guns; what was it going to be? Prozac; Triptafen; Cipralex; Doxepin? The drug options tripped through my mind, sounding more like characters from a sci-fi movie than anything that ought to be ingested by the human body. So when the GP slid his notepad over to me, I was surprised to see a name written on it. Crackers Comedy Club, it said.
I looked up at the GP and he nodded happily. “This,” he said, “is what someone like you needs. I could give you a drug – but it won’t cure the root cause. You’re sad. You are a sad, sad person Mr. Franks, and what a sad, sad person needs is to be made not-sad. Go to this place and all your worries will be over.
“Really?” I asked. “Is that going to work?”
“Trust me, Mr. Franks. I have sent many, many people to this place and they have never come back requesting prescription drugs. Problem solved, see?”
So saying, he turned his attention back to his computer screen, and I took that to mean that my 10 minutes of allocated NHS time had come to a close. Picking up the piece of paper, I tucked it into my jacket pocket and left.
That was three weeks ago. I dithered and drank and sobbed myself to sleep – then, last night, I decided to take Dr. Chaudry’s advice and check out what Crackers had to offer. So, here I am, sat in the front row waiting for my ‘cure’. As it goes, I don’t hold out much hope – the venue is no Jongleurs or Comedy Club. It sits down a dingy North London back alley – and the interior is just as cruddy. Bottle tops litter the floor, clearly left over from a previous gig, and even the odd fag-end is visible, despite the no-smoking signs that are plastered over the walls.
There is a smell partway between mould and urine – and underneath that, something worse. A sweet, sickly smell; like something decaying. I check around my chair to see if any food has been dropped – which is incredibly likely, given that a few of the other patrons are shoving kebabs and burgers into their mouths.
I wonder what is going to be so great about tonight’s line-up. At the door, I bought a programme but I don’t recognise any of the names. The place is half-empty, which confirms my suspicion that we’re not about to witness the birth of the next Peter Kay.
I’m just about to leave when the lights dim and a compère strolls onto the stage. He is tall and gangly, a latter-day John Cleese visually. I shift in my seat and half rise.
“Where are you going?” he says, pinning me with a stare.
I lower myself back down.
“We’ve got our first runner, ladies and gents,” he says. “Don’t worry mate. If you don’t like the jokes, we’ll give you a refund. Alternatively, you could just go fuck yourself.”
There’s a small tittering among the audience who turn to look at me. This bloke’s not funny, but now I feel compelled to stay, so I settle back down and stare at my lap.
“There’s a good chap,” says the compère. “Right, my name’s Saul Albertson folks – and have I got a fantastic line-up for you tonight. You are going to piss yourselves. These guys are guaranteed to have you rolling in the aisles. So, sit back, enjoy and give a big hand to our first act – all the way from Liverpool, it’s Danny Angelou!”
There’s a smattering of applause. I turn in my seat to get a good look at the room and do a quick head count. Ten of us. That’s it. Hardly a great atmosphere.
When I turn back to the stage, a squat bloke dressed in black jeans and a black t-shirt is standing there. “Hey,” he says, and the mike screeches, reverberating through the small room. “Oops, sorry about that – it’s not me, it’s him,” he says, banging the microphone. “Speaking of mics, I went to see Derren Brown a few months back. Anyway, partway through, he tripped over the microphone and yelled out ‘shit’. The whole audience crapped themselves.”
The audience titters, but I can’t muster a smile. Maybe I don’t want to be happy. Perhaps Dr. Chaudry’s got it wrong and should have just given me the tablets.
“Hey, you!” yells Danny Angelou at me, “why so miserable? Okay, how about this – a horse walks into a bar and the barman says, ‘Hey, why the long face and . . .”
“. . . The horse says, ‘I’m not a horse, I’m Sarah Jessica Parker,’” yells a man sitting a couple of seats away.
Danny’s face darkens. “I’m the one telling the jokes here, mate. So let me tell you one – what about this: “I’m getting fed up with all the interruptions during my self-harm meetings. Every five minutes someone is going off for a slash”
“What the fuck?” says the man and his hand drifts to his wrist. His shirt sleeve has rolled up a little, but even in the semi-darkness, I can see a pattern of raised white marks criss-crossing his skin.
“Oh come on,” yells Danny from the stage, “Don’t beat yourself up about it mate!”
The audience shifts uncomfortably.
“I don’t think . . .” the man on my left begins, but Danny cuts him off.
“What? You don’t think twice about cutting a slice?”
Even though the rest of the audience can’t have seen my seating companion’s wrists, they seem to sense what is going on. A hush has descended upon the room. This is about more than playing with a heckler, it’s turned nasty. Personal. I don’t want to be part of this anymore.
I rise to go, but Danny turns on me. “Leaving are you? Oh, before you do, I saw a book today that you might like – Depression & Anxiety For Dummies – isn’t that nice that they wrote it especially for you?”
The audience gasps. “Fuck you,” yells someone in the front row.
“No, fuck you,” shouts Danny, reaching behind him into the waistband of his jeans. He pulls out a gun and trains it on the last heckler. There’s a nervous giggling. “Oh, now they’re laughing,” screams Danny. “Hey! What do you call a comedian with a gun?” he asks. The room remains silent. “A HEAD-liner,” shouts Danny and, with that, he shoots the front-row heckler in the head.
The room erupts. Automatically, I drop down under my seat. Frantic scrabbling tells me the rest of the audience is doing likewise. A minute or two pass, then the sound of roaring fills the room. I risk poking my head up slightly and wish I hadn’t. Coming down the stairs, into the seating area, is Saul Albertson and he’s carrying a chainsaw. Behind him, Danny pads down the stairs, gun in one hand, mic in the other. “Didn’t we promise you we’d have you rolling in the aisles,” he bellows. “Oh, and there you go Madam – you’ve already pissed yourself.” Another shot is fired off, and someone behind me screams.
I cover my head with my hands, rolling into a tight ball, and try to edge myself under the seat in front. My top half is partway through when I see it. A severed finger. Fighting down nausea, I reel back, shuffling over to the next seat. Keeping my head low to the ground, I flatten myself out until I’m face to face with someone else. For a moment, I think the person from the row in front has managed to get under the whole bank of seats, but then I see the eyes are glazed, fixed open on nothing. My eyes travel down to find the rest of their body, but it isn’t there. I’m sharing the space with a severed head. I scream, hoping I haven’t been heard – but Saul’s chainsaw is still rumbling.
“Why all the fuss?” booms Danny through the mic. “None of you lot want to be alive anyway. You’re sad the lot of you. Dr. C sent you here to get rid of all those bad feelings. Just come out and we can solve it – no more bad days, no more lows. C’mon folks – it’ll be fun. Shits and giggles and all that!”
Suddenly I find myself laughing. For real. Deep belly laughs. I’ve been set up by my GP! He is a modern-day Shipman – but rather than doing the deed himself, he’s sending us to these psychos. What must they be paying him? Certainly more than he’d get for filling out a Anafranil script. There never was a line-up; there weren’t any comics – just two blokes with a blood-lust and a captive audience.
I have just about pulled myself together when I sense a presence behind me. I hear a click and feel cold metal touch the back of my head. “Knock, knock,” says Danny.
“Who’s there?” I whisper – because I have to know what the last punch line is going to be.
And they were right all along – they have made me piss myself.
‘He must have been a strong bugger before his accident’ she said, once again referring to that event which had acquired an almost torturous mystery in my mind: the accident. Mrs. Rummidge plowed the great slab of her shoulder into the door, seemingly unconcerned that it was probably worth a great deal more than her monthly salary. Eventually, it swung open.
‘Bloody thing’ she said and began making her way across the hall to the mahogany staircase, dusting off her tunic as she went.
‘I’ll go wake him up and you get on and make his breakfast. There should be yogurt in the fridge’
She ascended and left me alone, once again frustrated by her vague mention of the event that had crippled Mr. Corpius from the waist down.
Mr. Corpius lived in a large, old and rather beautiful Georgian house. Dust lingered on every surface and cobwebs clung to every cornice, though since it was not my job to clean the place I didn’t much mind. It looked as if the interior decoration hadn’t been altered since the 19th century. The walls held gilt-framed paintings of vast romantic landscapes and evidence of the iron-wrought fixtures that once held gas lamps were still visible through the wallpaper. I suppose Mr. Corpius liked it this way; it seemed to match his character. He often said he was a relic from a different time.
Breakfast was always the same: bananas, yogurt and a scant sprinkling of corn flakes over the top. Mr. Corpius was trying to lose weight, which is a considerably difficult task for someone perpetually confined to a wheelchair. However, it seemed to be working; he wasn’t nearly as large as he had been when I first met him. That was months ago, now. He told me I was pretty, though not in the somewhat disturbingly lustful way some of the other old men do. From him it was merely an observation, not a compliment.
I filled Mr. Corpius’s favourite mug with tea and placed it on the tray beside his breakfast. The mug, much to Mrs. Rummidge’s displeasure, was decorated with a drawing of a plump, red-faced Roman drinking wine surrounded by beautiful women. Beneath this picture was the phrase ‘God of Tits & Wine’. Mr. Corpius found the mug hilarious. Mrs. Rummidge did not. I picked up the tray and made my way upstairs.
‘Ahhh, Rebecca, how are you today?’ asked Mr. Corpius.
I put the tray down and touched his hand.
‘Very well, thank you. How are you, Mr. Corpius? Did you sleep well?’
‘Oh, I slept dreadfully. That wretched blackbird woke me up again. Would you mind shooting the bloody thing for me?’
‘Mr. Corpius!’ scolded Mrs. Rummidge. ‘You know you can’t be askin’ us things like that’
‘He was joking’ I said, winking at Mr. Corpius behind her back.
The bedroom was irrationally large for a man who couldn’t walk. Still, he somehow managed to make use of the space, erecting pillars of leather bound books wherever he found himself sitting. One corner was dedicated to the various medical paraphernalia we needed to keep him alive: oxygen tanks, heart rate monitors, various bottles of pills. It was the only section of the house that jolted one out of the nineteenth century and into a time where old, paraplegic men were kept alive by the tools of our desperate invention. Other than these two phenomena the room was relatively bare, excluding his bed. There were no paintings or photographs, no television atop a table or mirrors on the walls. Light would pour through the lead-thatched windows and reveal the living space of a man interested in only one thing: reading.
‘Could you pass me my glasses, dear’ he asked me, masticating noisily on his breakfast.
‘Finish your breakfast first’ said Mrs. Rummidge, who was busy counting out Mr. Corpius’s pills.
‘Goodness, Lady Adelaide is in a terrible mood today, isn’t she?’ Mr. Corpius said, looking at me with a cheeky smirk.
I smiled, saying nothing. He often called her Mary, or Princess, Adelaide. It happened numerous times before I bothered to look her up; Mr. Corpius was right, they bore a cruel, though startling resemblance.
Mrs. Rummidge handed Mr. Corpius a few dozen pills and began snapping on a pair of latex gloves.
‘Nmmm’ he said, still chewing. ‘Can’t you let me finish my breakfast before you start applying that hideous grease?’
‘No’ replied Mrs. Rummidge, dipping a finger into the colossal tub of Diprobase that stood on the bedside table.
‘I can do it, if you’d like’ I said, hopefully saving Mr. Corpius from enduring the harsh kneading of Mrs. Rummidge. ‘I don’t have a shift after this and I don’t mind waiting’
‘Yeeees! Rebecca can do it! Wonderful’
Mrs. Rummidge, without a word, slipped off the gloves and handed me the tub of moisturizer.
‘I’m off, then. Remember and make his bed before you leave’ she said, rather curtly. ‘Goodbye, Mr. Corpius. I shall see you next week’
With that, she was gone. Both Mr. Corpius and I smiled with relief. She was not an easy woman to get along with.
‘Mr. Corpius…could I ask you your name?’
‘Why, you just said my name, grrhhmph!’ he chortled, sputtering out some of his tea.
‘No…your first name. I believe we should be on first name terms by now, don’t you think?’
‘Ha! Considering you’ve seen me naked more than any other woman I can think of then, yes, I do believe you should know my first name’
He beamed at me with a schoolboy grin.
‘My name is Edwin Corpius. My father told me it was after Edwin Drake, the first man to drill for oil or some other such nonsense. He probably thought I might actually do something that would make as much money. It was always a great disappointment to him that I became a philosopher. Do you want to know what he said when I told him I had decided to study philosophy?’
‘He said: I thought that died out with the Greeks!’
He erupted into one of his large, gurgling belly laughs. I laughed too, though not so much at the joke but at the sight of Mr. Corpius rocking to and fro in his wheelchair, incomparably pleased with the humour of his reminiscence. Never before had I met a man so physically incapacitated with such a jovial sense of humour. ‘If I can’t entertain’ he would say ‘then what good am I?’
The rest of the morning passed much like any other. He finished breakfast, told me a rambling story about a sixteenth century philosopher and interrogated me about the consistency of his bowel movement. He was as sunny and curious as he always was. Not once had I ever seen him ‘have a bad day’ (which, in carer-speak, meant that the patient had given in to the realization that their existence was one almost entirely made up of suffering and, quite often, loneliness).
‘Oh, Rebecca! I must tell you this joke I read in the paper. It’s absolutely devilish!’ he blurted out, still laughing.
He was, by far, my favourite patient.
When I Googled Edwin Corpius that evening I discovered that he had been in car crash twenty-six years ago, on the road from Perth to Dundee. The driver, a Mr. Charles Bicket, had lost control on the motorway and swerved into oncoming traffic. Mr. Corpius suffered severe injuries to his spinal cord and was told he would never walk again. Charles Bicket walked away with a broken arm. Mr. Corpius sued him, successfully, for £90,000 and started a petition to get the University to install ramps into the lecture halls so he could continue teaching. Since the early 90’s he had been an avid campaigner for the legalization of assisted suicide, stating that he himself was the ‘ideal candidate for a test-run’. This comment was typical Corpius, finding humour in the bleakest of subjects. I thought it strange that a man so curious with the world should want to die; in fact, it made me rather sad. Though, perhaps, it was just another one of his curiosities. In 2006 he retired from teaching and was interviewed by the student newspaper. When asked what he would be doing now that he was free from the responsibilities of academia he replied: ‘Laughing, I suppose. I’ve yet to find a more enjoyable pastime. Have you heard the one about the paraplegic philosopher?’
Oh you, oh you at fifteen.
Your little finger held mine
but nothing else touched.
Half amused, half afraid
too wishy-washy, not strong enough
to turn affection into a torrent,
to sweep us away
from the worst thing we could be -
a nothing ever happened.
So somehow we’re fifty
you call me to claim
there are aliens under your bed
and I must help you
pop every one of their eyebulbs
or they’ll spread like Japanese knotweed.
Are you joking or on something?
I’m almost condensed enough now,
sharp and salty as feta cheese
I think about your bedroom
a mattress flat on the floor,
depressed by other women
while what I feel for you,