Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Laughter Room

by Dave Weaver


Harry Lloyd never did work out exactly why Langdon told him about the Laughter Room. Of course he didn't call it that at the time. As Head of Traffic Cone Dispersal for the Eurobriton Transport Planning Corporation he'd appointed the man as his new Assistant barely three weeks earlier. He was already regretting the decision when Langdon took him to one side in Conference Room Orange where they were to attend a traffic-calming meeting for the new Bristol to Birmingham spur.

"Need talk to you, not here though; walls, ears etc. Give me your number, phone you tonight," he told Harry, eyes flicking nervously around the crowded room.

Harry had to remind himself that lapsing into Newspeak -- dropping "unnecessary" words from conversation -- was actually a government-sanctioned way to speed up communication, and not evidence of brain damage. He tapped the code into his wrist computer to transmit his number to Langdon's unit, then found a seat at the proper distance from the podium, close enough to show interest, far enough that nodding off a bit would not be too obvious.

Later that evening, while Harry was preparing with his wife Gloria for their dinner party with the Dumounts, Harry's wrist computer informed him that he had face-mail.

"Throw it on the view-wall," he told it sharply. He wasn't looking forward to tonight's strained performance if last month's fiasco was anything to go by. Although simple good manners dictated that he should join in enthusiastically with his hostess' after dinner socio-sexual intercourse, in truth his heart wasn't really in it. Mrs Dumount was a large and rather awkward woman with a plain round face. She was frankly plump compared to his wife's willowy figure but had a pleasant uncomplicated personality that he liked, and unlike the beautiful Gloria who always seemed to enjoy Mr Dumount's company, she could certainly cook.

The two couples had been friends for years, ever since bumping into each other one drunken night among the Pleasure Gardens of New London. They found they had so much in common; the men were infertile, like the majority of Eurobritons's males, they both shared a lowly place somewhere on the government's lengthy waiting list for chemically grown in-vitro-babies. And apparently the Dumounts, like the Lloyds and most of the rest of the state, worked in Administration. In short, they were all perfect citizens.

"Ah, well," he thought to himself, "at least the food will be good."

"Harry, Good Evening!"

Langdon's moon-like face swam before him. "Sorry to bother you at home," Langdon said, "but better talk here than office. Got your PC security switched on?"

"Hang on a sec..." Henry told the image hurriedly, wondering why he'd ever allowed the little man to ingratiate himself so. He couldn't afford the hefty fine for flouting the Government's privacy laws though.

"OK, shoot."

"I've managed to get you into something very interesting tomorrow lunchtime. Give me a call and I'll take you there with me, only for the sake of the deity or deities of your choice don't breathe a word. We could all end up in deep you-know-what if senior management got to hear about it."

"About what?" Harry asked, struggling with his tie.

"You'll see. Pleasant dreams Harry."

The screen went blank, and so it was off to the Dumounts.

"Her breath smells as well," he thought to himself as he told the house to lock itself up and turn out the lights.

True to his word, Langdon was ready for him the next day. They met in Cafeteria Red on the 152nd floor and the little man led him on a mazy ramble through the monolithic and slightly grimy building.

"Where are we going?" Harry asked him. This was a waste of his precious lunch-hour. The Dumounts had been particularly tedious company the night before, insisting on showing Gloria and himself the download from their latest Kama Sutra classes. It all looked rather clumsy to Harry, but he pretended polite interest and even managed a small round of applause when they'd finally finished. The food had been good though.

"We're here!" They'd reached a storeroom on the 243rd floor, at the back of Park And Ride Logistics. Langdon's head swivelled about in an exaggerated manner to check they were alone.

"Will this take very long, Langdon? I've got a cone colour co-ordination meeting at two ..."

But Langdon had already given the windowless door a gentle tap. As it opened a sliver he grabbed Harry's arm and pulled him into the darkness.

For a few uneasy moments his eyes saw nothing. Then out of the murk forms detached themselves. He realised there were others standing in front of him, all facing a flat rectangular shape hanging in mid air. Langdon's silhouette stood to one side in whispered conversation with another. He heard the muffled words "...dead man in Traffic if he splits on us."

A disembodied hand laid itself on Harry's shoulder as bad breath tickled his left ear. A woman's voice whispered. "Get out of here while you still can, Harry!"

He vaguely recognised it, but before he could turn his head the darkness was split by a flickering wedge of light.

On the rectangle now a little moustachioed man in a rumpled suit and hat was trying to eat a bowl of soup in a drab restaurant. Something odd was happening though; there was a creature under the soup's surface, a crab perhaps -- ah yes, it was crab soup and the thing was popping out and blowing the liquid back in the little man's face making him angry. The image was black and silvery, strangely fast and jerky, and very, very old, maybe even from Eurobriton's unreconstructed era hundreds of years ago.

It shocked Harry. It was in clear violation of Personal Space Initiative Clause Nineteen; "secret observation of another citizen's stress levels". What was the point of it?

The scene switched to the same man, now inside a wooden hut. It looked freezing, the poor fellow's breath condensing in little clouds as he hungrily attempted to cook and eat a pair of bootlaces. Suddenly with a shower of snow a bad-tempered fat man entered the room and the two began to fight.

This broke so many PS Initiatives that Harry lost count: aggressive behaviour, size stereotyping, depiction of personal misfortune, poor anger management...

The sound crept up on him stealthily from the vague figures in front. Unsure at first he had heard correctly after a few more minutes there was no mistaking it. What had begun as embarrassed coughing and snorting behind cupped hands had grown into a swell of choked exclamation and snatched breath. There was an electrical charge in the air, and without knowing how or why, Harry began to feel himself caught up in it. The characters' grainy images danced before his eyes; their ridiculous posturing, their mad eye-rolling, their clumsy sliding around on the floor of the madly tilting room...

The same sound forced its way into his throat from somewhere deep inside his stomach and before he could stop it, burst from his mouth. A wide-eyed Harry turned and forced his way back towards the door, scrabbling at the handle to get out. Langdon joined him in the corridor a few moments later, red-faced and out of breath.

"Sorry old man, should have warned you. Strong stuff for first time..."

"You didn't tell me it was comedy...!" Harry felt his shoulders heaving as he gulped in fresh air. The darkened room had stunk of emotional release, the smell still clinging in his nostrils.

"Pretty high-grade, eh?" His new assistant looked smugly pleased with himself.

"If the Vice Squad raided here right now you'd all get ten years plus corrective re-citizenship!"

"Enjoyed it though, didn't you?" A thin smile twisted itself around Langdon's lips. "You're no different from the rest of us, Harry."

"I'm not a pervert, if that's what you mean!" He glared at Langdon, then turned and marched away, fists balled at his side.

"Did though, I heard you!" Langdon's shrill voice followed him down the corridor. "We all did, you hypocrite. We all heard you laugh..."

It had been two weeks since the strange events at Park and Ride; two weeks of sleepless nights and sullen, bad-tempered days as he fought in vain to drive the monochrome images out of his head. The disgusting sound his body had made still haunted him. He'd tried throwing himself into Cone Planing, tried losing himself at night with Gloria and their friends in the Pleasure Garden's sex-bars. But every time he began to relax that damn vision of the little man and his ridiculous hat and cane popped into his mind, and he was drawn back to the dark storeroom with its silvery light and mesmerising images. And then the dreaded sound would begin its fluttering at the back of his throat, and he would make his excuses, dash to the men's room, and violently...

That was their secret name for the place, apparently; the Laughter Room, a filthy phrase muttered under the breath like a password to guilty pleasure.

"So where did they get them from in the first place?" Harry was hunched over his meal in Cafeteria Red, talking out of the corner of his mouth like he was in a bad spy show from the view-wall. Langdon was across the table from him wearing another baby-faced smile. He enjoyed his new boss's sweaty discomfort a moment longer before telling him.

It had started with young 'Smiler' Keaton in Signs and Directions, or rather Smiler's brother-in-law, a porter at the Museum of Social Antiquities. Nosing around in the bowels of the building he'd stumbled on some ancient tins of tapes with tiny pictures on them lying next to a strange metal machine. Intrigued, he'd taken them home and worked out what they were, something the pre-reformists called 'films'. He'd told Keaton about his discovery, showing him how to use light to 'project' the images, and the little club was formed.

Of course, Harry had to see them again. He couldn't stop himself. After a few more weeks of the claustrophobic lunchtime sessions, the laughter came naturally too. They all did it and nobody seemed embarrassed anymore. Eventually, it almost felt human.

He wondered if he should tell Gloria. They'd never had secrets from each before, but comedy?

He'd read the public information warnings in government newssheets. About how it broke up marriages and ruined peoples' lives; how it was a social evil, directly contravening the PC laws of the Great Re-construction that followed the religious insult atrocities of the last century. Laughter at another's expense was sinful and anti-social, they'd been taught at school, as they recited the Ten Commandments of Personal Space. Commandment Number One -- Thou Shalt Not Laugh At Thy Neighbour.

But before he could make a decision, it was all over. The raid, when it came, was nasty and brutal. A battering ram smashed open the storeroom's flimsy door and police stormed in, pushing the pathetic little gaggle of office workers up against the wall. The screen was torn down and trampled under heavy boots so that the silvery images now threw themselves across the backs of the invaders.

"Switch that filth off and pull the big lad down 'ere," one of them shouted, and Harry heard a pained cry and the smash of the projector's glass as Arbuckle from Kerb Maintenance was forced down from his table top perch. Someone turned the lights on and they all stood blinking sheepishly at each as the officers handcuffed them. A little man in a Commander's hat strode out and stood before them.

"I'm arresting you for direct contravention of Eurobritish Individuality Law number 269, to-wit, the viewing of images of a comic nature likely to insult and compromise another's personal space. Anything you say in your defence will be considered proof of your guilt. Take them away, Sergeant."

As the officers pushed Harry outside into the corridor he saw Mrs Dumount in her police uniform. "I'm sorry I couldn't warn you properly, Mr Lloyd." She whispered as they passed. "I tried..."

"Tell Gloria I love her," he shouted back at her as they entered Green Lift. He had a fleeting glimpse of her round face looking at him as the doors slid shut. It had an expression of pity on it.

"You're going down, son." The sergeant told him with a malicious grin. And he was right.

In the end it wasn't ten years after all. Harry had got that wrong. It was exactly four years later to the day when he stood on the pavement outside Eurobriton Transport Planning Corporation.

He didn't have his ID pass anymore of course. That had been stripped from him along with his citizenship on the first day of Re-citizenization.

Nevertheless, the guard on the door let him in when he explained that he was part of the Government's new anti-comedy programme, a reformed addict come to give a salutary lecture to his former colleagues. It was true as well; they were all waiting for him now up in Conference Room Orange.

A shamed Gloria had left him to live with the Dumounts. No doubt she had already pooled her in vitro-baby ticket with Mrs Henderson. He could hardly blame her. With his job gone he had lost their beautiful home, forcing him to live in one of the seedy government-sponsored apartments for corrected perverts.

But Harry still had one last trick up his sleeve.

He asked the guard to wait for him in the lobby while he went to the men's room, then slipped quietly away. He took Green Lift up to 322nd floor and from there made his way to the roof. A few moments later he was standing on the tacky asphalt looking out over the city. Knowing he only had a short time before his presence was missed, Harry quickly pulled out the furled up sheet from inside his jacket and spread it on the ground. Four words, coarsely daubed in bright red paint, gleamed proudly back at him in the midday sun.

He picked up the sheet and walked over to the flag-pole, tugged at the cord to lower the Corporations' flag then tied his own ragged version to it. Then he hoisted it up to the top of the pole and mock-saluted it.

Far from being re-educated he realised now that he couldn't live without comedy. There had been others at the Centre like him, others who knew that something both terrible and beautiful had been surgically removed from their lives. When he told them what he planned to do they smiled and shook his hand.

They understood. The words on the sheet said it all; 'LIFE IS A JOKE'.

It was a truth the world had apparently forgotten.

As he steeled himself a shaking Harry walked to the end of the roof until his toes were peeking over the edge. Not looking down, he gazed instead at the faint clouds flecking the distant hills and thought of the funny little man with hat and moustache, twirling his walking stick as he shuffled away into the sunset.

As if following, Harry began to take a step forward then froze. Did he really want to die like this? Foot poised in mid-air a sudden gust of wind caught in his jacket pitching him over the building's side. Thirty feet down he crashed off the top of the Corporation's giant clock and slithered across its surface. Catching his fingers in the slits of its digital smog alert figures he tried desperately to gain a purchase on the clock's smooth metal as they glowed in his face.

Harry looked down at the city square below his helplessly swinging legs and saw the pink dots of raised faces. For a moment he couldn't tell if they were looking at him or the pathetic flag fluttering in the breeze above his head.

Then the noise reached him and he knew that they'd seen him. Smiling grimly to himself, Harry Lloyd hung above the city and listened to the sound of distant laughter.

THE END


© 2009 Dave Weaver

Bio: Dave Weaver is a graphic designer living in St Albans. The writing bug bit him six years ago returning for regular nibbles since. He likes football, XTC and Stephen King, and is a member of the Verulam Writer's Circle. Dave's 'Finding Uncle' short story was published in Hert's University's 'Visions' anthology.

E-mail: Dave Weaver

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