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19

It was no longer night.

And it was no longer Mute Corp Keynes.

A big smiley sun beamed down from the heavens of blue. Sparrows chorused from the branches of ancient riverside oaks. Flowers prettified their -well-tended beds in the memorial park and a snoozing tomcat snored upon the window sill of the Flying Swan. The milk float jingle-jangled on its wibbly wobbly way. Another glorious day had dawned upon Brentford.

Derek awoke to find that the world had gone upside down.

He blinked and focused and stared upon the shelves of video games. Why were they all upside down, he wondered? And why was the ceiling now the floor?

Derek coughed. He didn't feel at all too well. Why would that be, then? Ah, oh dear and yes, that would be the drink and that -would be -why.

Derek heaved himself into the vertical plane. That would be -why the world had all turned upside down. He'd been lying, fully clothed, on his bed, flat on his back with his head hanging over the end.

Not the way he usually slept.

Which was all tucked up beneath his Star Wars duvet.

'Oh what happened?' Derek groaned, and slumping down upon his bed, he placed his elbows on his knees and cradled his head in his hands. 'I got drunk, that's what happened,' he mumbled. 'What did I do? Did I do something terrible?'

Circuits meshed in Derek's head. No, he hadn't done anything terrible. He'd got drunk. Wandered about. Met up with Mad John and Mad John had brought him home. That wasn't too terrible, although his mum wouldn't be smiling at him this morning over the cornflakes. 'It's all her fault,' mumbled Derek. 'That Kelly. She's got inside my head. Oh damn it. I really am in love with her. Oh God, what am I going to do?' Derek peered at his wristwatch. It was nine thirty. He should have been at the offices of the Brentford Mercury half an hour ago.

Derek dragged himself over to the dressing table and peered at his reflection in the mirror. It was grim. A boggy-eyed unshaven face peered back at him. 'Oh God,' mumbled Derek once more. 'I've really fouled up this time. Those horrible sods from Mute Corp will be sitting at Mr Shields's desk waiting for me. I have to go.'

Derek did pathetic little pattings-down at his hair, muttered something about designer stubble coming back into fashion, opened his bedroom door and stumbled down the stairs. And he almost made it to the front door too.

'Is that you, Derek?' called the voice of his mum.

'Yes Mum,' called Derek. 'Who else would it be?' He picked up a folded piece of paper from the doormat. It was addressed to him in Kelly's handwriting. But as Derek had never seen Kelly's handwriting, he didn't recognize it.

'Well, aren't you going to give your mother a goodbye kiss before you go off to work?'

'Oh,' went Derek, shrugging, then, 'OK,' he said.

Derek thrust the folded and unread piece of paper into his trouser pocket, then he bumbled along the passageway to the kitchen. Past the framed photograph of the Queen Mother, presently celebrating her one hundred and twenty-second year. Past the framed photograph of his dad, possibly celebrating something up in Heaven. And past the framed photograph of himself as a baby. The Derek of today was in no mood at all for celebration.

'Morning, darling,' said Derek's mum, beaming at him from the kitchen sink, where she stood drying her hands on an oversized brown gingham tea towel.

'Morning, Derek,' said Mad John, looking up from the breakfasting table.

Derek stared at Mad John. Mad John was wearing Derek's dressing gown.

'Give your mum a kiss,' said Derek's mum.

'And you can shake my hand if you want,' said Mad John. 'But no kissing please, it makes me want to shout.'

Derek made that face you make, when you find out that some vagrant loony's been having it off with your mum. It's a very specific sort of face, it doesn't really apply to any other situation.

'And what kind efface is that?' asked Derek's mum. 'The last time I saw a face like that, your father was making it. Shortly before he met with his tragic accident.'

'I I you you he he" went Derek.

'What kind of language is that?' asked Mad John. 'Is it Runese?'

'You him.' Derek pointed to and fro.

'Give us a kiss then.' Derek's mum puckered up.

'No,' said Derek. 'No, no, no,' and Derek left the house.


Derek staggered and stumbled along the sunlit streets of Brentford. Streets that, had he noticed it, were looking rather spruce. There were sweepers sweeping these streets and painters on scaffolding, painting the houses. There were cleaners cleaning the lampposts and there were dustbin men and the dustbin men were emptying dustbins and whistling while they worked. In fact everybody was whistling while they worked. The sweepers and the painters, and the cleaners and the dustbin men, all whistling gaily as they worked. And all of these whistlers had one thing in common, well two if you counted the whistling. But the one thing in common they had most in common, was in the way they were dressed.

One-piece, all white, zip-up overalls, with a big fat Mute Corp logo on the back.

Whistle whistle whistle went the whistlers as they worked.

'Shut up!' shouted Derek, then he clutched at his hung-overed head.

There was scaffolding up outside the offices of the Brentford Mercury and whistling men swarmed upon this scaffolding, renovating here and titivating there.

An old chap with long grey hair, leather trousers and a lacy flouncy shirt, who had once been popular on the tele, was directing operations. 'I'm going for a retro feel,' he was telling a whistler. 'An homage to the twentieth century.'

'Anything you say, Mr Lawrence, guv,' said the whistling workman, continuing to -whistle as he worked.

Derek stumbled and staggered up the stairs to the offices. There in that of Mr Shields were the two men from Mute Corp. Little Mr Speedy and bigger Mr Shadow. Bigger Mr Shadow was looking at his watch. 'I'm docking you an hour's pay,' he told Derek. 'If you're late again tomorrow, then you're sacked.'

'Tomorrow?' Derek wiped at his cold and clammy brow. 'But tomorrow's Saturday. I never work on Saturday.'

'You do now, and Sunday too. Everything has to be online for Monday. That's when Suburbia World Plc opens to the public.'

Mr Speedy tapped at keys on his briefcase laptop jobbie. 'We went out on the World Wide Web at nine this morning,' he said. 'Projected figures suggest that we'll have at least ten thousand paying visitors on the first day alone.'

'Ten thousand?' Derek sank onto the unpacked box of Mute Corp computer parts.

Id rather you didn't sit on that,' said Mr Speedy. 'That's going back to the company. And I'd like to know the whereabouts of the rest of that consignment.'

'Search me,' said Derek, dismally. 'But ten thousand visitors? How can that possibly be? If you only went online half an hour ago?'

'Make that closer to an hour. There's a whole world out there,' said Mr Shadow. 'Beyond the boundaries of Brentford. A whole world of PC users, logging onto the Web, ever anxious for something new. Something special to entertain them.'

'But there's nothing special about Brentford,' said Derek and then, realizing just how stupid that remark really was, he buried his face in his hands.

'There's a certain magic here,' said Mr Speedy. 'I'm surprised that you, as a resident, have never noticed it yourself.'

Derek made awful groaning sounds.

'So,' said Mr Shadow. 'There is much to discuss. Where are the crad barges? Where are the five miles of perimeter fence?'

'And the steam train,' said Mr Speedy. 'I'm really looking forward to seeing the steam train. I've never actually seen one before. What do they run on, petrol?'

'Petrol?' Derek made further groanings and meanings.

'Well, whatever,' said Mr Speedy. 'I'm looking forward to that and also to seeing the Brentford Griffin. Old-fashioned holographies can still draw in the public. What time should I schedule a demonstration for? Shall we say three p.m.?'

Derek made a pitiful sound.

'You're not going to let us down, are you, Derek?' Mr Speedy asked. 'We'd be very disappointed if you let us down.'

'We'd have to dismiss you,' said Mr Shadow.

'And turn you in to the police, over that nasty business of the stolen computer games,' said Mr Speedy.

'And there'd be questions asked about Derek's expenses,' said Mr Shadow. 'Which would probably lead to further prosecutions.'

'Undoubtedly,' said Mr Speedy. Td see to that.'

'All right, stop!' Derek hauled himself to his feet. Til get it all done. Everything's in hand. Just leave it to me, I won't let you down.'

'Good,' said Mr Speedy. 'Then off about your business. Pacey pacey, chop chop and things of that nature generally.'

Derek turned painfully to take his leave. And then he stopped and turned right back again. 'No, hold on,' he said. 'What about the paper? It's Friday. The paper is supposed to come out today. Oh my God. The paper. The paper.' Derek tore at his hair, Mr Speedy and Mr Shadow watching him tearing at it.

Ill bet that really hurts,' said Mr Speedy.

Ill just bet it does,' said Mr Shadow.

'Oow!' said Derek, ceasing to tear at his hair. 'It does hurt, I can tell you. But oh my God again. How could I have let this happen? There's no Brentford Mercury. In one hundred and fifty-two years, we've never missed an issue.'

'You don't look that old,' said Mr Speedy.

'You know what I mean!' Derek shouted, and then he clutched once more at his head. 'The paper must come out today. It must. It must.'

'And it has,' said Mr Speedy. 'Trust us, it has.'

'Has?'said Derek. 'Has?'

'It's already on the news-stands and in the paper shops.'

'And popped through the letter boxes,' said -Mr Shadow.

'No,' said Derek. 'What are you talking about?'

Mr Speedy picked up a newspaper from the desk and handed it to Derek. 'We took care of everything,' he said. 'Mute Corp always takes care of everything.'

Derek stared at the paper in his trembling hands. Its five-inch banner headline ran:


JOY, JOY, HAPPY JOY

HAPPY, HAPPY JOY


'Uplifting isn't it?' said Mr Speedy. 'That has to be a first in headlines, doesn't it?'

Derek's jaw was hanging slack, his numb hands numbly turned the pages.


GREAT DAYS AHEAD


ran the headline on page two.


BRENTONIANS TO RECEIVE MASSIVE

CASH FUNDINGS: ALL WILL PROFIT

HUGELY FROM KINDLY CORPORATION'S

CARING CASH CONTRIBUTIONS.


'Note all that alliteration,' said Mr Shadow. 'That was my idea.'

'Very professional,' said Mr Speedy. 'Very Sunday Sport.'

'What's this?' asked Derek, pointing, pointing, pointing. '"BRENTFORD SHAREHOLDERS' BIG BUCKS BONANZA.'"

'My idea too,' said Mr Shadow.

'Very professional,' said Mr Speedy once again.

'Yes,' said Derek. 'But what does it mean?'

'It's an incentive,' said Mr Shadow. 'You see, once, back in the early 1980s, there was this Waterman's Arts Centre project. The locals made a right old fuss. So much so that the backers pulled out and left the Arts Centre for the locals to do with as they pleased.'

'I've read all about it,' said Derek, and here a tone of pride entered into his voice. 'I am a Brentford Poet.'

'Then you'll know what happened. A wise old man called Professor Slocombe, I believe he still lives here on the Butt's Estate, persuaded the locals to build the Arts Centre themselves and all become shareholders. The Arts Centre stands here today. No fuss. No bother. We've just done the same. All Brentonians are now shareholders in Suburbia World Plc. They've been allocated one share each. I'm sure that after they receive their first generous dividend, they'll be buying a lot more shares.'

'It's all corruption,' said Derek. 'All of it. Bribery and corruption, blackmail and extortion.'

'I don't think there's any extortion involved,' said Mr Speedy. 'Although I'll bet you'll have to pay an extortionate price for that steam train. I'll bet that could run to about ten thousand pounds, you'll probably be needing some more petty cash, won't you?'

Derek's mouth was hanging open once again. When he finally closed it once again and then opened it to speak more words, the words he spoke were these.

'Ten thousand was exactly the figure I had in mind.'

Which really didn't say a lot for Derek.


The Flying Swan was crowded when Derek stumbled in to take a liquid breakfast. There seemed to be an air of jollity around and about the saloon bar.

Derek dragged himself to the counter and tried to get himself served.

'Hello,' said Old Pete, looking up from his Brentford Mercury. 'Fancy seeing you in here again. You're a bit of a sucker for punishment. Can't you find yourself another Brentford bar to drink in?'

'This was the nearest,' said Derek. 'And I really need a big drink.'

'You work for the Mercury, don't you?' said the oldster. 'As well as being a bard and a student of Runese.' Old Vic wasn't there to chuckle, so Old Pete's dog did instead.

Derek hung his head in shame.

'I'm very impressed,' said Old Pete. 'I like this headline on page five. "HEAVEN DECLARED ON EARTH. BUT ONLY FOR THE FOLK OF BRENTFORD." According to this, Brentford has been singled out by God, as the first site of The Rapture. And apparently he loves the place so much that he's rewarding everyone who doesn't get Raptured by having Mute Corp turn the place into an Earthly paradise. And there was me thinking that there wasn't a God. It just goes to show how stupid I am.'

'It does?' said Derek.

Old Pete slowly shook his ancient head. 'No lad,' said he. 'It doesn't. And be warned, anyone who tries to take advantage of the borough and its people will find themselves tarred and feathered and dancing at a rope's end, lacking their wedding tackle.'

'Oh,' said Derek, crossing his legs.

'So let's hope that doesn't happen, eh?' said Old Pete brightly. 'Let's all enjoy this unexpected largesse.'

'Good idea,' said Derek.

'Isn't it,' said Old Pete. 'So I expect that you, like me and everybody else in the borough, will be cashing in your share certificate on Monday and pocketing the moolah, before getting on with the tarring and feathering. Not to mention the snippings-off of wedding tackle.' Old Pete made some snippings with his old and wrinkled fingers.

'I think I will drink elsewhere,' said Derek, rapidly taking his leave.


Derek ambled through the busy streets of Brentford. And they were busy. Lots of whistling workers. And lots of happy shoppers (but no little chefs). The borough had definitely perked up. People weren't hiding in their homes any more, awaiting The Rapture. They were out and about, sunhats and summer frocks, old straw hats and Hawaiian shirts. Everybody looked very jolly indeed. 'Perhaps it is all for the best,' Derek told himself. 'Perhaps they'll all get to like it and enjoy the money and not tar and feather anyone. And' And Derek patted his jacket pocket. 'I've just made another ten thousand pounds.'

A certain skip came into Derek's step. But it was accompanied by a certain amount of head-clutching also.


The used-car showrooms of Leo Felix lurked on-the banks of the Grand Union Canal, close to the weir, but closer to the road bridge that led from the High Street into the neighbouring town of Isleworth, that nobody in Brentford knew anything about.

The used-car showrooms of Leo Felix were colourful showrooms, painted in red, gold and green and elegantly decorated with five-foot-high cannabis-leaf motifs. It is believed that Leo oversaw all the decorating himself and never called in a designer, who had once been very popular on the tele.

There were a number of automobiles outside. These were not new automobiles. Nor apparently were they second-hand automobiles. These were, so the brightly coloured cards upon their windscreens informed potential purchasers, 'previously owned vehicles'.

Their prices seemed unreasonably reasonable.

Derek, still with some skips in his step, some-skipped down the incline from the side of the bridge and entered Leo's forecourt.

'Yo, Babylon,' called the ancient son of Zion. 'Come inside off of me forecourt, yo spolin' de look of de place wid yo stubbly face and yo big red bloodclart eyes.'

Derek waved towards Leo, who was lounging in the shadowed doorway. 'Morning Leo,' he said.

'Come on in den, come on in.'

Derek came on in.

It was rather dark in Leo's showroom. Two previously owned cars stood glinting vaguely. Both were Morris Minors.

'Oh good,' said Derek, sighting them. 'You have two already. Only forty-eight to go, then.'

'Babylon,' said Leo, looming at Derek. 'Babylon, yo not bin altogether honest wid I an' I.'

'I don't know what you're talking about,' said Derek.

'Folk museum, Babylon. Dat what I an' I talkin' about.'

'How's it all coming along?' asked Derek, feigning bright and breeziness. 'Any luck with those crad barges?'

Leo held a rolled copy of the Brentford Mercury in his hand. He unrolled it slowly and showed it to Derek. 'Babylon try to get one over on Ganga Man,' said he. 'Babylon care to see if he can outrun me Rottweilers?' Leo called out to his dogs. 'Marcus,' he called, 'Marley, Yellowman.' Three big Rottweilers came a-bounding out of the darkness and took to licking Leo's hands.

'Now hold on a minute,' said Derek. 'We had a deal.'

'For de folk museum?' said Leo. 'Or was dat for de multi-million-dollar Mute Corp company?'

'I'm only doing myjob,' said Derek. And as the words came out of his mouth, he really hated himself.

'Dis ain't personal, Babylon,' said Leo. 'Well, actually it is. De white man bin shafting de black man since forever. Dis town here, dis Brentford, I never have no trouble here. People treat me like one of their own and I treat them like one of me own. Respect, Babylon. Do you understand that? Respect? No I don't tink dat you do.'

'I do,' said Derek. 'I do.'

'I an' I tell you what,' said Leo. 'You an' I an' I have a deal. We smack hands together. So I an' I be fair with you. I an' I get you everyting you want by tomorrow, how's dat?'

'Dat's, I mean that's perfect,' said Derek. 'I couldn't ask for anything more than that.'

'Good,' said Leo. 'Dat's my half of the deal. Now all you have to do is two little tings.'

'Go on,' said Derek.

'Give me all the money in your pockets,' said Leo.

'Oh,' said Derek.

'Dat's one,' said Leo, stroking the neck of Marcus.

'Now, come on,' said Derek.

'Dat's one,' said Leo. 'You show no respect. Hand it over, Babylon.' Marcus growled and so did Marley and Yellowman.

Derek dug deep into his pocket and brought out all the money.

'I tink dat's mine, ain't it?' said Leo.

Derek hung his head once more. 'It is,' said he.

Leo took the money and pressed it into the colourful trouser pocket of his colourful trousers. 'Yo get all de stuff you order,' he said. 'I an' I keep my side of the deal. I an' I show respect.'

'Thank you,' said Derek. 'And I'm sorry. All that cash. The temptation was too much.'

'I an' I understand,' said Leo. 'Business is done.'

'Thanks again,' said Derek, turning to leave.

'I an' I said dere's two tings,' said Leo.

'Oh yes,' said Derek. 'What was the second thing?'

'Yo got ten seconds' start, Babylon,' said Leo. 'Den I release me dogs.'


It's remarkable just how fast you can run at times. Even with a hangover. Derek ran like the rabbit of proverb. And if there wasn't a rabbit of proverb, Derek ran like the hare. He ran and he ran. Away from Leo's showrooms. Out of Leo's forecourt and up Brentford High Street. Derek ran all the way back to the offices of the Brentford Mercury.

And it's a fair old run, especially with a hangover.

Once inside, Derek slammed shut the outer door and leant upon it, breathing horribly.

But no bowlings or hayings of dreadful hounds were to be heard from without.

But had Derek had the hearing of Superman, he might have been able to hear the laughter.

The laughter of Leo, back in his showrooms.

Where he still patted his dogs.


Derek took his liquid breakfast, which was now a liquid lunch, in the Shrunken Head. He didn't play the Space Invaders machine though, he just swigged at Scotch.

He was doomed, he just knew it. He was done for. The best thing he could do was shape up and ship out. Quit the borough, do a runner, before the excrement hit the rotating blades of the air-cooling apparatus. They'd kill him. The locals would string him up. Mute Corp had no idea what they were dealing with here. This wasn't like other places. This was Brentford.

Derek swigged further Scotch.

'I'm unhappy,' he said to no-one but himself. 'I'm a loser. A total prat. That's what Kelly thinks I am. And I am. I really am. I've fouled up every which way. Oh God, I don't know what to do.'

Derek did even further swiggings and returned once more to the bar counter. 'Same again,' he said.

The barman was reading the Brentford Mercury. The celebrations going on at the Swan did not seem to have extended themselves to the Shrunken Head. Different kind of clientele, perhaps. Or some other reason. Derek didn't really care.

'This is all a hoot, isn't it?' said the barman, pointing at the paper. 'This should bring a bit of trade to this establishment.'

'You think it's a good thing then?' asked Derek hopefully.

'God, yes,' said the barman. 'I'm hoping to persuade the residents' committee to give it a week before they start the tarring and feathering. But I'll probably be on my own for that one. I've heard that the lads at the Flying Swan are planning a charabanc trip to the West End.'

'Really?' said Derek. 'Why?'

'I think they're planning to blow up the Mute Corp headquarters. A people's protest, that kind of thing. From what I heard, it seems that the locals are getting well fed up with always having to fight on home territory. So this time they've decided to carry the war directly to the camp of the aggressor. It's a bit revolutionary, but after all, these are the twenty-twenties.'

'The Mute Corp headquarters?' Derek's face fell terribly. 'They can't do that, can they?'

'I'll bet you they can,' said the barman. 'Old Vic's leading the war party. He used to be a POW, you know. He knows all about blowing things up. He told me that he once blew up a Nazi watchtower at his camp, using an explosive formulated exclusively from his own bodily fluids. You wouldn't think that was possible, would you? Although I would, I've heard the old blighter fart.'

'Oh no,' said Derek. 'Oh no, oh no, oh no.'

'I don't know what you're "oh no-ing" about,' said the barman. 'You don't have any friends working at Mute Corp, do you?'

Derek's pale face nodded up and down in time to his nodding head. In perfect synchronization, in fact, because it was all joined on. 'Kelly,' he said. 'The woman I love.'

'The beautiful bird you were in here with yesterday?' asked the barman. 'The bird with the outstanding charlies?'

'Shut up!' said Derek.

'Sorry mate. But she's a babe. You lucky sod. I'll bet she's something between the covers, eh? You wouldn't care to tell me all about it, would you? I'm a married man myself and other than forging my signature and painting our house purple because it's the colour of universal peace, my missus doesn't go in for anything much any more. She seems to be obsessed with charity work. I went home the other evening and found her giving that Mad John a bath.'

'Shut up!' said Derek again. 'I have to warn her.'

'Well, you have plenty of time,' said the barman. 'They're not going to do the dirty deed until Monday. They want to cash in their shares first.'

Derek breathed a big sigh of relief. 'Phew,' he said.

'So there you go,' said the barman, handing Derek his Scotch. 'That's one pound one and sixpence, please.'

'Yes,' said Derek. 'All right.' And he rooted about in his pockets in the hope that he still had some change. He didn't have much, but he did have enough and he also had something else. A screwed-up note that he'd picked up from his doormat, but hadn't yet read.

Derek paid the barman and then he read the note.

And then the bleary bloodshot eyes in his pale and designer-stubbly face grew wide and Derek screamed very loudly.

Horrible, it was.


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