I’m half his size. He makes me sit on his lap, slips a hand under my shirt and begins fingering my arse. He should be in maximum security with his head inside a laundry machine while the weightlifters take turns to bugger him, but instead he has room full of people laughing themselves silly. Just because I’m made from wood.
I’m into a bit of verbal with a young woman in the front row. She’s in tight denim shorts and a vest that barely covers her tits, and when I asked if she wanted a pole to dance around she told me she is a Pole … and a good catholic.
“Catholic,” I say. “Where did you go to school? The Convent of Spearmint Rhino?”
She laughs. Everyone laughs.
“Is that what passes for a confirmation dress in Poland? I know you’ve got a lower standard of living, but surely you can wrap a bit more cloth around your tits when the priest is going on about why condoms are the work of Satan.”
More laughs. She’s going along with, rolling in a sozzled giggle onto her mate’s shoulder.
“Where do you worship? The Church of the Holy Paedophile?”
I’m ready to run with it, but Craig shakes me and pushes his face into mine.
“Oi!” he says. “Drop the catholic stuff! You’re not living in the sixteenth century!”
“So no jokes about the intellectual fuckwittery of transubstantiation?”
“Alright. Let’s get on with winding up the Moslems.”
More laughs, including a big one from the Asian guys in the front row. The audience are young, trendy and most are half drunk. I can get away with murder on a night like this.
“So who’s taking their little sisters on a camping trip in northern Iraq this summer?”
Craig’s sitting in the dressing room, arse on one wooden chair, feet on another as he swigs at a bottle of Stella. He won’t hang around in the bar because it’s still open, and the last thing he wants is some drunken sot trying to play with me. One of the other comics is still here, a Brummie who had spun out a childhood trauma about seeing Grannie give Grandad a blowjob. He and Craig haven’t said much to each other.
“Good ‘un tonight,” I say. “We had them falling off their seats.”
“Yeah, until you threw in that line about FGMporn.”
“It got a laugh.”
“An embarrassed laugh, and it took the sting out of the rest of the set. Half of the audience weren’t with us from there. Don’t do that line again.”
“What’s wrong with you? You suddenly scared of offending people?”
“Shut up Lucas!”
I shut up. He’s falling into one of his moods and know there’s no point in arguing. Then I notice the Brummie look across the room, at Craig, not me, as if there’s something weird going on.
It’s the big one tonight. Big theatre, TV cameras, and Her Majesty sitting in the royal box. How the fuck did we get here? We’ve been on TV before, late night stand-up shows, but never anything for this type of audience. Someone decided they wanted a comedy act that was a bit edgy. Do they want edgy enough to draw blood? We’re led through the warren, up the stairs to the side of the stage. The officious prick who passes for a stage manager tells us for the fourth time: “Seven minutes. No more.”
“Yeah, we can tell the fucking time.”
He glares at me, then at Craig.
“And none of that language.”
“We know,” says Craig. “Sorry.”
We hear our intro, “Craig Creer and Lucas!” and the applause begins before we hit the stage. I scan the audience, struggle to make out any faces, but guess this lot are different to our usual crowd: older, more money, and likely to think that Michael bloody McIntyre is funny. He takes me centre stage, neither of us speak for a few seconds. I make a show of turning my head slowly one way, eyes on the dim figures out front, then the other, then tilt my head forward a little as I look straight ahead.
“Alright,” I say. “Which one shall I kill?”
It gets a laugh, big enough to tell us that most of this lot have never seen us before; I did that line when we started out together.
“I don’t want you kill any of them.”
“Sorry, I mean, which one do you want to kill?”
“What are you on about? They’re our audience, I don’t want to start bumping them off.”
“Don’t be a wuss. They’ve got expectations. I’m a ventriloquist’s dummy. They know I’m evil.”
A louder laugh.
“Don’t be daft,” Craig says. “They’re expecting you to be cheeky, a little bit rude, not evil.”
“But it’s you.”
“What do you mean it’s me?”
“You’ve got that look. Michael Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, now you.”
More laughs, louder. Most of them know the movies. That’s good.
“They can see you’ve got an unnatural relationship with me. You’re on the way to a maximum security funny farm.”
They keep laughing, it goes well but I’ve got a clock ticking in my head. We’re halfway through our stint and I don’t want to use it all up by showing off old material. There’s a natural break in the dialogue, I’m meant to switch to ripping into Shoreditch hipsters, but it would be too easy with this audience and I’m itching to go further. I turn my head slowly to the left and upwards, towards the box. I can’t see any faces clearly, but I know she’s there.
“Enjoying yourself?” I ask.
It gets laughs. Comics have always squeezed a few out of being cheeky to her.
“No. Not as much fun as a Nuremburg Rally is it.”
The next laugh is subdued, awkward.
“That must have been a pain, being brought up with all that ‘Sieg Heiling!’ but never get to see the Fuhrer in the flesh.”
Silence. Death has appeared. Craig shakes me hard. I carry on.
“Must have been nice seeing those old photos again, remembering Uncle Edward talking about his Nazi mates. He stayed cosy with them even the governmenbt kicked him out for shacking up with that American tart.”
Craig spits in my ear: “I told you that was off limits!”
“And your mother seemed well up for it as well. I suppose she had a thing for leaders in uniform, especially if they wore jackboots and locked up communists.”
Now there are nervous whispers out there. It’s like there’s a sudden outbreak of plague.
“Lucas!” Craig’s voice is rising, enough for the mic to blast it to the back of the stalls. “Shut the fuck up!”
“I suppose it came with being German. The old master race stuff must have sounded good, gave you another reason to feel you were worth your salt, a cut above the rest of us.”
Craig slaps a hand over my mouth. The lights go down, we look around in the dark and suddenly there are two bodies hauling us off stage.
Half an hour later we’re having a barney in the back of a cab.
“I fucking told you this one was different! We had to play it safe!”
“They wanted edgy, they got edgy!”
“They got you throwing a stream of insults at the Queen!”
“So you’ve pissed off one theatre, one audience. There are plenty more out there!”
“You ignorant little fuck! You just don’t get it!”
Craig turns away and looks out the window. I look forward, raise my head and see into the driver’s mirror. For a moment his eyes are on mine. They look scared.
Seven months of sitting on our arses waiting for the phone to ring. A handful of places honoured the bookings we had before that night, but most dropped us like a plateful of shit and there’s been nothing new. Nothing. Not even those pokey little clubs that pretend there’s something radical and dangerous in taking the piss. Craig thinks they’ve got at us, leaned on the local councils and coppers to make noises about licences being taken away, prosecutions for whatever half arsed charge they can pluck out of their nasty minds. I keep telling him to tough it out, find a couple of friendly journalists to remind people he’s still around, book a room at the Edinburgh Fringe, show everyone we’re not scared. He keeps telling me that I haven’t got a clue, the bank account’s running dry and he’s worried about the mortgage. I reckon he needs a kick up the arse.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
“It’s alright for you. You don’t have to eat.”
“I know, and you don’t have to drink those double vodkas.”
A few days ago he moved me to the back room, on to the cabinet next to his writing desk. I half guessed what was coming, and the next day I heard him from the lounge, trying out new voices. It was something he did every now and then, even after I had made him sell off, dump or break up all those other dummies, the ones that wanted to share my place on the stage. He told me it was an exercise of the imagination, something that kept his creative juices flowing so we would work better together. I tolerated it on the grounds that he didn’t allow another dummy into the flat.
“It only works with us Craig. We’ve got the chemistry. We create the sparks.”
“I know Lucas … and sparks can be dangerous.”
But he’s spending too much time in there, and I’m hearing one of the voices more often. It sounds a bit nasal, middle aged, middle class. The following day I hear a couple of the lines.
“You want to have UKIP?”
“No! I said want to have a kip! I’m bored with this!”
“But it’s democracy. Politics.”
“Poll tax! I thought they got rid of that years ago.”
Pathetic. Next time he comes into the room I have a word.
“Craig. That new voice. It’s no good.”
“And the lines were useless. Silly jokes for a silly voice. You know the score; get the voice right and the lines are right. That’s when you get the killers.”
“If you say so.”
“So when are we going to work up something new?”
“When we’ve got a booking.”
I don’t like the sound of that, but I let it go. As far as I know he’s only doing voices, no other dummies in the flat.
Over the next few days I hear that same voice again, more than once, and feel suspicious. Then I’m proved right. His sister comes around with her pair of brats. I can hear little girls and squealing in the lounge and for the first time in weeks feel glad that I’m stuck out here. Children should be seen and not heard, or locked in a cupboard with a padlock on the door. There’s movement in the hallway, a couple of minutes of quiet, then the toilet flushes and the bathroom door opens. A pair of little feet come into the room and she’s there, the older of the two, eyeing me up as a source of amusement. Next thing I know I’m in her arms as she rushes back to the lounge and holds me up for everyone to see.
“Uncle Craig! Is this the naughty dummy? The one who got you into trouble?”
I don’t hear the answer. I see him across the room, a dummy with big eyes, parted hair, dressed in a grey suit with a striped tie.
“Who’s he?” I ask.
Both girls giggle.
“He’s Arnold,” says Craig.
“What’s he doing here?”
“You’ve heard, we’re trying things out.”
The girls keep giggling and Craig’s sister is grinning. They all think this is amusing.
“Craig! If you’re …”
“Alright, not now!”
He takes me from the little girl and carries me back to the room. Before he sets me down I manage one question.
“Why have you kept him in there, out of my sight?”
“Because you’re so bloody sensitive.”
“Sensitive! I …..”
His back is turned and the door closed. Bastard!
It’s late. He’s been out, told me he was going for a drink with a couple of mates. I asked which ones. He said Tom and Gus. I’ve heard him mention a Tom before, never a Gus. It’s dark outside, no noise in the street, and I hear the front door open. He goes into the lounge, I expect to hear the TV, but first it’s voices.
“It went alright.”
“Could have been better.”
“You did well. First time out, you got plenty of laughs.”
“And nobody tried to kill you.”
He’s talking to Arnold. They’ve done a gig! I wait until the lounge light goes out and he steps into the hallway.
He comes into the room.
“You’ve gone behind my back! You’ve done a gig with him, that fucking kid’s puppet!”
“I was just trying something out. And what are you getting upset about? I’ve worked with other dummies before.”
“Yeah, and you dumped all of them, because you knew they weren’t in the same class as me.”
“I know, but that never stopped me experimenting.”
“You like experiments, here’s one. See what happens when you spray Arnold with lighter fluid and drop a light match on him.”
He closes the door.
It happens again the following week, then again two days later, but he keeps quiet and doesn’t come into the room. The third time he gets home at four in the morning. I don’t hear voices but I see him pad through the hallway on his way to the bathroom.
“Where have you been this time?”
“You’ve done a gig in Liverpool! I bet little Arnold didn’t get one laugh out of that lot.”
“They liked us.”
I sit fuming while he goes to the bathroom. But then I stifle it, realise that I’ve got to play it more carefully. When he steps outside I shout again.
“So when are we going onstage again? I don’t mind sharing a set with Arnold. I’ve done it with others.”
He looks at me for a moment, suspicious, then goes to the bedroom.
Next morning I let him have breakfast and drink the usual two cups of coffee, then see him put on his jacket. I stop myself shouting to him, reckoning it better that if I’m playing nice I should wait until he’s ready, but then he comes in. He’s smiling a little, looking friendlier than in months.
“I’ve been thinking,” he says. “Maybe you’re right, you and Arnold can share a stage.”
“Of course. He can warm them up, then I can bring them to the boil.”
“Maybe, but you’ve got to remember that we damaged ourselves. Some people are going to be excited to see you, others are going to be suspicious, reluctant to laugh. You know how that can kill the mood in a room. We’ll be on a knife edge.”
“That’s what great comedy’s about.”
“We’ll think carefully about the material, and set some rules for the ad libs.”
“Of course, of course. When’s the next gig?”
“Wednesday of next week.”
“That’s plenty of time.”
“OK. I’m going out.”
That’s it! I’m back in the game! I wallow in the satisfaction. Yes, I’ll share the stage with Arnold for a while, a few weeks, maybe months, but I can see him off. It won’t take long for Craig to notice that I’m the one who gets the audience falling off their seats. I’ll get a little more time, and a little more, and then …. Poor old Arnold. Of course, I’ll have to make sure he has no way back, just like I did with the others. Like that priest who didn’t believe in God. I convinced Craig that he was creating some bad karma, so he was dropped into a charity bag with some old trainers and an unworn pullover. And that talking meerkat, the one who kept saying he was a mate of David Attenborough; he had to go into the recycling bin at the shopping centre. And Gerald, the Tory MP who wanted to bring back hanging, live on TV; he wound up on a Fireworks Night bonfire. All it needed every time was a few careful words from me, little reminders about how all of them failed, that they gave off negative energy, that they could undermine all our success. That did for the fuckers.
So it’s the afternoon of the gig, at a club in Brighton so it’s out of here late afternoon. The phone rings. Craig speaks quietly, all I can detect is touch of tension in his voice, then the closing words: “Well if that’s what they say.” I brush it off, until it’s getting time to leave and I wonder why he hasn’t packed me into the case yet. Maybe he’s working out how to fit both of use inside without me ripping out Arnold’s throat. Then he enters the room, already in his coat, a nervous look on his face.
“Sorry,” he says. “It’s not on for tonight.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you can’t come. David phoned earlier. He’d been speaking to the club owner, and he’s as nervous as a lot of the others about me turning up with you.”
“You’re winding me up!”
“No, sorry, it’s just me and Arnold tonight.”
“You can still take me. No-one will know until we’re on stage together.”
“David was warned if that happens they’ll stop the gig.”
I stare hard for a second, not sure if I should blame some paranoid club owner, David the dozy arsed agent, or this backstabbing bastard in front of me.
He doesn’t answer, but leaves the room, and two minutes later I hear the front door closed.
Again it’s past midnight when he returns. I’m fuming, ready to scream him into oblivion, but he doesn’t come near me. Instead I can hear the voices from the lounge.
“I was terrible.” It’s Arnold. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“No need for that, you’re only starting out. I’m the one who’s been doing it for years. I should have been quicker to spot the false laughs. I was too slow to react.”
“Everyone dies sometimes. It’s part of the business.”
“But I know how hard it is for you, trying to get back on your feet.”
“It’s not your fault. We’ve got another gig next week. We’ll work on it, give it a fresh shot.”
There’s a moment of quiet, a shuffling sound, then a couple of tired words.
Inside I’m rocking, laughing so much that I almost topple off the seat. Goodnight Arnold. Good fucking bye Arnold. You’ve had it. You’re dead.
Craig stays clear of the room the following day, moping in a post-death depression. But the next day he comes to the desk, bright and smiley, and switches on his computer. I let him settle down, type the first couple of lines, then break his concentration.
“I understand it went badly in Brighton.”
“Who told you?”
“I could hear when you came home.”
“Yes, it went badly. We died.”
He does nothing for a while, then manages to type a couple more lines, then I speak again.
“You know the problem?”
“The reason you died.”
“I planned the act wrong, and didn’t spot the false laughs.”
“Wrong. You’re brilliant at what you do Craig, the best ventriloquist this country has ever seen. You’ve got the technique, the timing, the feel of the audience, the material, and you do great ad libs.”
“You do the ad libs.”
“Well, yeah, as a team with you. And that’s it, what it makes the act so special. It’s us, the demon duo, the pair who say things no other vent act or stand-up’s got the bottle to say.”
He doesn’t reply, but looks at me in a way that tells me I’ve touched a nerve. I drop my voice, making sure I’m not heard outside the room.
“You know what was wrong the other night? Him. Arnold.”
Craig doesn’t answer, but his eyes stay on mine. He’s listening.
“I’ve heard the material you’ve done with him, and it’s all wrong. End of the pier stuff. You could do it for a turn in an old people’s home – he comes across as one of them – but it’s no good in the clubs. People expect more from you, something dangerous. They want blood on the floor. We can give it to them.”
He still doesn’t answer.
“Take it from me Craig, the other night wasn’t the first death you’ll suffer if you stick with him. It’ll happen again, then the club owners won’t have you back, then the word goes around that you’ve really lost the plot. Less than a year and you’ll be finished, looking at job ads and living on corn flakes.”
“So you reckon I should drop him.”
“You’ve got to, for your own good. And it’s got to be like the others who wanted to drag you down, don’t just stick him in a cupboard, get rid of him entirely.”
“No, it needs more than that to get it straight in your own mind. Break him up. Take off his arms, his legs, his head, and drop them in bins in different postcodes. Scatter him all over London.”
“Is that necessary?”
“It works, you know that. It clears your head, lets you concentrate on what’s really good for you, working with me. Drastic times, drastic action.”
He stares at me for a little longer, then his mouth twists into a malevolent little smile.
That’s my boy!
I take it easy for a while. I don’t expect Craig to let me watch while he decapitates that usurper, but I entertain myself with fantasies of what will happen to the head and various limbs. Maybe a leg will end up stuffed between a bunch of kebab wrappers and ripped apart by a hungry fox. Nice thought. All the lights go off and Craig retreats to his bedroom, so I reckon he’s putting off the deed until the next day. OK, I can wait for the good news. Then at about one in the morning there’s movement outside, and Craig’s shadow appears at the door carrying a large holdall. Good, he’s got Arnold inside, just letting me know that he’s off to do his worst. But then he places the holdall on the floor, grabs me, stuffs me inside and pulls up the zip.
“What are you doing?”
He doesn’t answer, but as he picks up the bag I realise that it’s made from canvas and that it also holds four large stones, two at each side of my head and two at my feet. The bag swings and one stone knocks my head.
“Craig! Stop fucking about!”
I hear the front door open and close, then we go down the stairs, out to the car, I hear a click and I’m dropped hard. Then there’s a bang above my face and I realise that I’m in the boot. Bastard! I always ride in the back seat! The car starts and we drive for ten, fifteen minutes. Every two or three I shout at him.
“Craig! You’re pissing me off! Chuck it in, now!”
It’s just after a shout that the car stops and for a moment I think he’s seen sense. The boot opens, I’m lifted and then placed on the floor. I can hear him standing over me, breathing hard, and guess that whatever’s in his head he’s unsure of himself. I reckon it’s time to play nice.
“Come on Craig. I realise you’ve been under a lot of stress, and it’s hard to know the best thing to do. But just take a break, let your head clear for now. Let’s just go home. You can take a breather, maybe a few months off, get yourself together again.”
I hear the breathing come closer. He’s crouching over the bag.
“Come on, unzip the bag. Just put me back in the car, in the back seat.”
Then I feel myself hauled up, swung to one side and dropped, a long way down. I hit something hard and suddenly I’m wet. Water’s coming into the bag on every side and the stones are dragging us down. It takes a few seconds for my face to submerge and then I carry on sinking, deeper into wet darkness.
“Craig! Craig! Don’t do this! Get me out! Please! I’ll be a good boy! Craaaaaaig!”
I stare across the room, waiting patiently. The sense of relief is still with me. I was up against the wall, close to being a cast-off, but now I know things are going to be alright. I can hear a car pulling up outside, its door slam, then footsteps downstairs. Half a minute later the door opens and Craig appears. He doesn’t turn on the light or take off his jacket, but sits on the sofa, looking towards my shadow.
“I did it,” he says.
“As we agreed?”
“In the river.”
I’d like a full description, details of what the other one said, how he pleaded and cried until he went under, but I know it’s been an effort for Craig. He needs time to shake off the guilt, even if it is wasted. I show some understanding.
“How are you feeling?”
“How do you think?”
I realise that I shouldn’t overdo the sympathy; reassurance would be safer.
“It had to be done you know.”
“I know Arnold. It had to be done.”