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Apr/May 2005 fiction

Are You Lonesome Tonight?

by Roderick Leyland


It's a bugger when you bungle your first brain transplant. Isn't it? Yeah, he knows what I mean. Blood, grey matter, bone fragments... Blimey! Was I on a learning curve! That's what they say, these days, isn't it? Not, I've got it wrong, but, I'm on a curve. I know the kind of curve I prefer. Don't you, dear? Cor, look at her blushing under the pancake. I wear pancake too, love, but I'm not one of them. No, it prevents the lights burning me out, sweetheart, and stops me looking like a corpse. Who said that wouldn't make any difference? You wanna come up here, son, and try yourself? Yeah, you're very brave, down there in the dark. Big gob, small dick.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes—back in the operating theatre. I said to my assistant, And where does this bit go? Blank faces: You're the guv'nor. The patient's left was my right; my right his left. Good job it wasn't dentistry, otherwise I'd have had to grapple with upper and lower as well. Here, I hope you're all paying attention, because there's a test at the end and they don't let you out till you get it right. Still, they say exercising your brain keeps you young—

Ronnie approaches the front of the stage, almost falling into the orchestra pit, and becomes conspiratorial.

In confidence, I've been smelling something queer all day. Can you smell it? Hello! Is anybody awake, or am I speaking to myself? Who's that sniggering at the back? Mm? Probably didn't pay to get in. Bloody youngsters—don't know you're living. You're all central heating, Greek yoghurt, and food styling. Yes—bugs, jugs and mugs. Think about it... When I was young, you had bread and butter—oh, yes: butter didn't kill you in them days. If you ate butter, you could live forever. So, you had your sandwich, followed by ten hours of manual labour, a smack in the teeth, and a good thrashing before you went to bed.

You may laugh, loves, but I've got the scars. No, no—don't worry, I shan't be shedding my shirt today. Not for the moment, anyway.

No, I'm speaking of the days when someone who worked in a kitchen was called a cook, not a food guru. Guru? That's Indian, isn't it? Spiritual teacher—he'll show you how to climb an unsupported rope, not balance a rissole on a lettuce leaf. But these new chefs are a bunch of fairies—aren't they? Prancing around, thinking they can walk on their own water.

Anyhow, I think you've heard enough from me for the time being. Who started that round of applause? No, dear, I'll be back. Don't you worry. Now then, I want you to put your hands together for a young lad who's up-and-coming. That's right—he's a trainee steeplejack. No, he isn't... he's a cloudpainter. No, he's not—he's a skyscraper. Ah, well, he's one of the three.

Hello—! Is that somebody choking? What's the matter, darling, beta blocker lodged in your windpipe? Quick! Wheel in that defibrillator before she ruins my act. Only joking, love. I adore you, even if he doesn't. Huh, look at her nudging him! See the way her chest ripples and heaves. It hasn't moved with such force since VE Day! Listen, it's like Hurricane Henry in Honolulu. No, you could ski down her front. Honest. Only joking, darling. You don't mind, do you?

But now I've got to get off because you lot are giving me a headache. I'm under doctor's orders—genuine—to take a Valium and lie down in a darkened room with a cold compress—accompanied by one of those blonde dancers. No, seriously, give it all up now for a bright youngster, a star of tomorrow, a man who could get a laugh out of the dead—a great comic, here he is—Neil Sparks!

Ronnie strides into the wings as Neil takes his opening bow on thin applause, sees Vince, the stage manager.

Bloody hard work tonight. What they done—emptied all the asylums? Ruddy hell, it's like walking up a waterfall.

Ronnie sniffs.

Have you been sharpening pencils?

The stage manager, looking puzzled, places a finger close to his lips.

Must be my imagination.

Ronnie's attention is diverted by a dancer, on stage early for her next entrance.

Hello, darling. How are you?

"Here, keep your dirty hands to yourself."

Only being friendly, dear.

"Why don't you shove off?"

Ignoring this, he laughs.

So, where're you taking me tonight, sweetheart?

"I'm not."

Why's that, then?

"Cos I'm going home to my boyfriend."

Waiting in bed for you, is he?

"Really, you're disgusting."

You need a real man, love.

"I've got one, thank you very much."

That pony-tailed ponce with studs through his face? Must be like making love to a dog collar.

"You must be sick in the head."

As the dancer turns away, Ronnie turns to the stage manager.

I've got ten minutes. See you shortly, Vince.

"Ronnie, you mustn't slip out to the pub again."

I'm not, matey. Keep your rug glued down.

Ronnie climbs the stairs to his dressing room. On the door his name, altered by a felt-tip from LONESOME to LOATHSOME, has still not been replaced.

Lonesome by name, chummy by nature. Ronnie Lonesome. Lonesome's the name; comedy's the game. No, it's a stage name, friends, a tribute to the King.

Here Ronnie crosses himself.

Elvis Aaron Presley. The body may be gone, but the spirit lives on.

He looks at himself in the mirror.

Are my brains leaking or is that sweat seeping through the Max Factor? Must powder it off.

If I could walk like that, dear, I wouldn't need the ointment!

Over the tannoy he hears Neil Sparks receiving laughs—sporadic, but laughs nevertheless.

"No, she says, I don't want to stroke your cat. I asked for a Marmite sandwich!"

A few titters of embarrassed incomprehension.

"And then the vicar says, Darling—you need stronger elastic!"

Several coughs.

After relighting a Woodbine, Ronnie stoops to retrieve the bottle of Guinness from his holdall, cracks it against the edge of the dressing table to release the crown cap, and pours it into a tumbler.

Here's to you, Mrs Robinson, and all who sail in her!

Once Neil's act has finished, on comes Ronnie again.

No, sir, the last record I bought had thirty-three on it. And that wasn't the speed, or the date, that was the price!

Bloody hell, have you seen "Top of the Pops" lately? As my old man—Gawd rest 'is soul—used to say, load of longhaired layabouts. Can't tell the men from the women. Only, it's all short hair these days. You can't distinguish the women from the men. Can you? I'll tell you another thing—you're not sure where the song titles end and the artists' names begin, are you? True? Give me the King any day.

Ronnie reaches into his pocket to withdraw a piece of folded paper.

Here we are, I got this from one of the dancers. Now listen, this cutting's from the New Pop Weekly. How about you, pops? Do you try weekly? Will she let you, eh? Or do you try weakly? Bloody hell, you're 'ard work—as the chorus girl said to the Pope. It's a play on words, sir. Weekly, as in seven days. Or weakly as in, Quick! Fetch me a splint and a bicycle pump.

Whoops of laughter!

Gawd! Got your level at last. I wish you'd told me before—you could have saved us a load of grief. Anyway, back to the plot. Oh yeah, that paper: New Pop Weekly. Now then, every week they print a list of the Top Sixty. Have you heard some of these?

Wanna Grapple with your Tackle, by Vicky Virago and the Vixens.

Want that Hunk in my Bunk, by Kathie Klutch and the Crampons.

You're in my Flat, by Mick Manse and the Maisonettes.

I'm Out of my Tree, by Range Loner and the Tontoes.

Stick Your Dong in my Thong, by Big Bertha and the Juggernauts

No—I'm insulted too. I wouldn't use such language. She thinks I'm making them up. Look—!

Here Ronnie shows his audience a genuine Top Sixty from the NPW.

Black Bird, by Carbon Fourteen and the Ravens.

Love's a Gas, by Flatus Faraday and the Outriders.

Ure Luvs a Blast, by Bough-el-Mosh'n and the Feekal Smeers.

I'm Gasping, by Gregory Green and the Grunge Mechanics.

Don't Say Goodbye Till You've Said Hello, by Millennium Freak with FlatEarth.

Sling Your Hook, by Fly Fisher and the Disciples.

Painful, isn't it? Tearful, ain't it? Whatever happened to melody, eh? Give that lot a fifty-piece orchestra and they wouldn't know whether to smoke it, connect it to the Internet, or take it in a bag to the launderette.

Anyway, enough of this tomfoolery. Now I'd like you to put your hands together and give a great big Palace Pier welcome to a young lady who'll thrill you with her voice. Ladies and gentlemen, singing that great Shirley Bassey classic—The Water in Tiger Bay May be Filthy but my Love for You is Pure—please make a big noise for Sally-Ann de Wynter!

 

Ronnie, in his dressing room, is looking in the mirror and trying out some new patter.

Yes, I am under the doctor. No, don't laugh. Please: seriously, that's the way she likes it. Give 'em an inch, eh, fellas...?

No, joking apart, I've had to see the old quack recently. Been getting these funny—well, not funny actually; more throbbing—yeah, throbbing 'eadaches with flashing lights.

Flashing lights? she says—too many discos, Desmond—'cos that's my real name—and she winks at me. Me and women, eh?

Let's 'ave a look in your eyes, says she.

Say I, It's not that sort of examination I came for.

She goes, You never know your luck, big boy... 'andsome chap like you.

Here Ronnie points a finger at his chest and mouths, Me?

Well, she does a few other things—including that trick, you know, the one where you follow her finger—? Then she sits back down.

I go, Have you spilt some ink in here?

She smiles, shakes her head: No. Then: Desmond—'cos we've known each other for yonks—Desmond, I'm booking you into the General (and she taps it all out on her computer) for a few tests.

Few is ominous; tests are plural. Well, they stick me in a ruddy great microwave. Keep still, Mr. Robinson, 'cos that's my real name. Ronnie Lonesome's off duty. When I emerge, I feel exactly the same as when I went in—no younger—and I still can't play the piano! Am I done? I ask. What was that—regulo six?

Oh yes, they say. Go back to your GP in a week.

No, Ronnie, you can't do that.

Here he wipes a smudge from the mirror.

Your job's to make 'em laugh. OK, try this.

So, I go back in seven days and she says, It's the size of a pea.

I say, Get your specs on, girl. Listen: when I walk in the showers, heads turn.

Desmond, she says, it needs treating.

I say, Then give it a night on the town. What d'you reckon: limo, dinner at the Ritz, a box at the theatre, and a suite in a Park Lane hotel?

A pea? I say. A pea? I've faced angry crowds, like Michael Caine in Zulu. I've charmed royalty, delighted dignitaries, and made politicians pass out with pleasure. I can soon flatten a pea.

She says, We may have to prepare for the worst.

I say, When Mrs Robinson gave me the elbow, that was the worst. No, I lie. When I lost me mam, that was the worst. They laid her out in the bedroom. Twice in my life women have left me. Both floored me, but I bounced back laughing.

You'll need your positive attitude, she says.

Attitude? I say. Hat he chewed? Who chewed whose hat? I say, A good laugh'll cure anything.

My doc laughs easily. Pretty, too. Married with four kids, husband's a doctor as well, but she burns a light for me. Know what I mean?

No, mate, that's not right either. OK, how about this: My doc tells me I've got a pea in my brain—well, makes a change from water.

You may imagine you smell things, she says, in a matter-of-fact sort of voice. Come and see me as often as you want. Every day if necessary. By the way, how's your son, how's Jimmy?

I say, He's like his mother—loves danger, he...

Scrub it, Ronnie.

Here he tests his smile, drains the stout, twists his cigarette into the saucer, checks his flies, and walks back downstairs on to the stage.

Wasn't Sally-Ann fabulous? Sings like a dove, doesn't she? You'll be seeing a lot more of her later... I wish... No, she's a talented youngster. Yeah, and if you lot don't perk up pretty soon, I'll be singing to you myself—you'll get my selection of the King's greatest hits, climaxing with "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"—and that redefines the term pain. The King is dead; long live the King. Lucky for you the management here is firm...

Now, I've got a story for you. I had to go to the dormouse.

Here Ronnie stops.

Dormouse? What am I on about?

There is a pause while Ronnie searches his pockets; he finds nothing. He looks to the wings and to the stage manager, who shrugs. Ronnie inhales.

Well, it's not like me to be lost for words. Now, to get back to the point. I want to tell you a fact.

Another pause, nervous laughter. Someone starts a slow handclap; it's not taken up. Ronnie studies the palms of both hands, pulls down and examines his shirt cuffs. He laughs.

That's where I used to list my material, in case I forgot. Haven't done that for years. No, I was telling you a story about a cat who liked Marmite, so the vicar says, Does anyone want ointment on their knicker elastic? That's not right, is it?

For the first time this evening the theatre has the silence of anticipation. Ronnie cocks an ear with his finger.

It's gone quiet—who sucked the oxygen out of the room? Am I the only one laughing? You must be joking. What's the matter, dear? Don't you like the material?

Ronnie continues to stand on the stage looking into the auditorium, waiting. The audience is attentive. People have gathered in the wings.

Sorry, folks, I'm not feeling well. Haven't been ill since I was a youngster—just need a lie down. It'll pass—always does. I want my mummy, but can't find her, don't know where she's gone. Do you?

Silence has invaded the theatre and occupied everyone.

It went quiet, my mum was still, and I couldn't wake her. I shook her, but she just lay there, warm. They said leave her, she needs rest now, but she never woke. And that's God's truth.

The silence lasts.

No, I've listened to some audiences in my time, but you, my dears, are the pits. Apart from Mrs. Robinson, Gawd bless 'er, and all who've sailed in her.

By the way, who's responsible, eh? All evening it's been getting up my crack. Is it one of you in the front row or someone up there in the ashtrays? Who the bloody 'ell's been sharpening pencils?

Ronnie's face brightens.

Ha! Oh, yeah: I know what I was trying to remember. Yes, I've got it. Here we go: now, here's one that'll kill you—

 

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