Going Postal

Page 38

among those prepared to back an outside chance. She'd hung a banner over the door. It read: It Could Be YOU. It couldn't happen. It shouldn't happen. But, you never knew . . . this time it might. Moist recognized that hope. It was how he'd made his living. You knew that the man running the Find The Lady game was going to win, you knew that people in distress didn't sell diamond rings for a fraction of their value, you knew that life generally handed you the sticky end of the stick, and you knew that the gods didn't pick some everyday undeserving tit out of the population and hand them a fortune. Except that, this time, you might be wrong, right? It might just happen, yes? And this was known as that greatest of treasures, which is Hope. It was a good way of getting poorer really very quickly, and staying poor. It could be you. But it wouldn't be. Now Moist von Lipwig headed along Attic Bee Street, towards the Lady Sybil Free Hospital. Heads turned as he went past. He'd never been off the front page for days, after all. He just had to hope that the winged hat and golden suit were the ultimate in furniture; people saw the gold, not the face. The hospital was still being built, as all hospitals are, but it had its own queue at the entrance. Moist dealt with that by ignoring it, and going straight in. There were, in the main hallway, people who looked like the kind of people whose job it is to say 'oi, you!' when other people just wander in, but Moist generated his personal 'I'm too important to be stopped' field and they never quite managed to frame the words. And, of course, once you got past the doorway demons of any organization people just assumed you had a right to be there, and gave you directions. Mr Groat was in a room by himself; a sign on the door said 'Do Not Enter', but Moist seldom bothered about that sort of thing. The old man was sitting up in bed, looking gloomy, but he beamed as soon as he saw Moist. 'Mr Lipwig! You're a sight for sore eyes, sir! Can you find out where they've hid my trousers? I told them I was fit as a flea, sir, but they went and hid my trousers! Help me out of here before they carry me away to another bath, sir. A bath, sir!'

'They have to carry you?' said Moist. 'Can't you walk, Tolliver?'

'Yessir, but I fights 'em, fights 'em, sir. A bath, sir? From wimmin? Oggling at my trumpet-and- skittles? I call that shameless! Everyone knows soap kills the natural effulgences, sir! Oh, sir! They're holdin' me pris'ner, sir! They gived me a trouserectomy, sir!'

'Please calm down, Mr Groat,' said Moist urgently. The old man had gone quite red in the face. 'You're all right, then?'

'Just a scratch, sir, look . . .' Groat unfastened the buttons of his nightshirt. 'See?' he said triumphantly. Moist nearly fainted. The banshee had tried to make a noughts-and-crosses board out of the man's chest. Someone else had stitched it neatly. 'Nice job of work, I'll give them that,' Groat said grudgingly. 'But I've got to be up and doing, sir, up and doing!'

'Are you sure you're all right?' said Moist, staring at the mess of scabs. 'Right as rain, sir. I told 'em, sir, if a banshee can't get at me through my chest protector, none of their damn invisible little biting demons are going to manage it. I bet it's all going wrong, sir, with Aggy bossing people around? I bet it is! I bet you really need me, right, sir?'

'Urn, yes,' said Moist. 'Are they giving you medicine?'

'Hah, they call it medicine, sir. They gave me a lot of ol' mumbo-pocus about it being wonderful stuff, but it's got neither taste nor smell, if you want my opinion. They say it'll do me good but I told 'em it's hard work that does me good, sir, not sitting in soapy water with young wimmin

lookin' at my rattle-and-flute. And they took my hair away! They called it unhygienic, sir! What a nerve! All right, it moves about a bit of its own accord, but that's only natural. I've had my hair a long time, sir. I'm used to its funny little ways!'

'Hwhat is going on here?' said a voice full of offended ownership. Moist turned. If one of the rules that should be passed on to a young man is 'don't get mixed up with crazy girls who smoke like a bellows', another one should be 'run away from any woman who pronounces “what” with two Hs'. This woman might have been two women. She certainly had the cubic capacity and, since she was dressed entirely in white, looked rather like an iceberg. But chillier. And with sails. And with a headdress starched to a cutting edge. Two smaller women stood behind and on either side of her, in definite danger of being crushed if she stepped backwards. 'I've come to see Mr Groat,' said Moist weakly, while Groat gibbered and pulled the bedclothes over his head. 'Quite impossible! I am the matron here, young man, and I must insist that you leave at once! Mr Groat is in an extremely unstable condition.'

'He seems fine to me,' said Moist. He had to admire the look the matron gave him. It suggested that Moist had just been found adhering to the sole of her shoe. He returned it with a chilly one of his own. 'Young man, his condition is extremely critical!' she snapped. 'I refuse to release him!'

'Madam, illness is not a crime!' said Moist. 'People are not released from hospital, they are discharged!' The matron drew herself up and out, and gave Moist a smile of triumph. 'That, young man, is hwhat we are afraid of!' Moist was sure doctors kept skeletons around to cow patients. Nyer, nyer, we know what you look like underneath . . . He quite approved, though. He had a certain fellow feeling. Places like the Lady Sybil were very rare these days, but Moist felt certain he could make a profitable career out of wearing a white robe, using long learned names for ailments like 'runny nose' and looking solemnly at things in bottles. On the other side of the desk, a Dr Lawn - he had his name on a plate on his desk, because doctors are very busy and can't remember everything - looked up from his notes on Tolliver Groat. 'It was quite interesting, Mr Lipwig. It was the first time I've ever had to operate to remove the patient's clothing,' he said. 'You don't happen to know what the poultice was made of, do you? He wouldn't tell us.'

'I believe it's layers of flannel, goose grease and bread pudding,' said Moist, staring around at the office. 'Bread pudding? Really bread pudding?'

'Apparently so,' said Moist. 'Not something alive, then? It seemed leathery to us,' said the doctor, leafing through the notes. 'Ah, yes, here we are. Yes, his trousers were the subject of a controlled detonation after one of his socks exploded. We're not sure why.'

'He fills them with sulphur and charcoal to keep his feet fresh, and he soaks his trousers in saltpetre to prevent Gnats,' said Moist. 'He's a great believer in natural medicine, you see. He doesn't trust doctors.'

'Really?' said Dr Lawn. 'He retains some vestige of sanity, then. Incidentally, it's wisest not to

argue with the nursing staff. I find the wisest course of action is to throw some chocolates in one direction and hurry off in the other while their attention is distracted. Mr Groat thinks that every man is his own physician, I gather?'

'He makes his own medicines,' Moist explained. 'He starts every day with a quarter of a pint of gin mixed with spirits of nitre, flour of sulphur, juniper and the juice of an onion. He says it clears the tubes.'

'Good heavens, I'm sure it does. Does he smoke at all?' Moist considered this. 'No-o. It looks more like steam,' he said. 'And his background in basic alchemy is . . . ?'

'Non-existent, as far as I know,' said Moist. 'He makes some interesting cough sweets, though. After you've sucked them for two minutes you can feel the wax running out of your ears. He paints his knees with some sort of compound of iodine and—'

'Enough!' said the doctor. 'Mr Lipwig, there are times when we humble practitioners of the craft of medicine have to stand aside in astonishment. Quite a long way aside, in the case of Mr Groat, and preferably behind a tree. Take him away, please. I have to say that against all the odds I found him amazingly healthy. I can quite see why an attack by a banshee would be so easily shrugged off. In fact Mr Groat is probably unkillable by any normal means, although I advise you not to let him take up tap dancing. Oh, and do take his wig, will you? We tried putting it in a cupboard, but it got out. We'll send the bill to the Post Office, shall we?'

'I thought this said “Free Hospital” on the sign,' said Moist. 'Broadly, yes, broadly,' said Dr Lawn. 'But those on whom the gods have bestowed so many favours - one hundred and fifty thousand of them, I heard - probably have had all the charity they require, hmm?' And it's all sitting in the Watch's cells, thought Moist. He reached into his jacket and produced a crumpled wad of green Ankh-Morpork one-dollar stamps. 'Will you take these?' he said. The picture of Tiddles being carried out of the Post Office by Moist von Lipwig was, since it concerned an animal, considered to be full of human interest by the Times and was thus displayed prominently on the front page. Reacher Gilt looked at it without displaying so much as a flicker of emotion. Then he reread the story next to it, under the headlines: MAN SAVES CAT 'We'll Rebuild Bigger!' Vow as Post Office Blazes $150,000 Gift From Gods Wave of stuck drawers hits city 'It occurs to me that the editor of the Times must sometimes regret that he has only one front page,' he observed drily. There was a sound from the men sitting round the big table in Gilt's office. It was the kind of sound you get when people are not really laughing. 'Do you think he has got gods on his side?' said Greenyham. 'I hardly imagine so,' said Gilt. 'He must have known where the money was.'

'You think so? If I knew where that much money was I wouldn't leave it in the ground.'

'No, you wouldn't,' said Gilt quietly, in such a way that Greenyham felt slightly uneasy.

'Twelve and a half per cent! Twelve and a half per cent!' screamed Alphonse, bouncing up and down on his perch. 'We're made to look fools, Reacher!' said Stowley. 'He knew the line would go down yesterday! He might as well have divine guidance! We're losing the local traffic already. Every time we have a shutdown you can bet he'll run a coach out of sheer devilment. There's nothing that damn man won't stoop to. He's turned the Post Office into a . . . a show!'

'Sooner or later all circuses leave town,' said Gilt. 'But he's laughing at us!' Stowley persisted. 'If the Trunk breaks down again I wouldn't put it past him to run a coach to Genua!'

'That would take weeks,' said Gilt. 'Yes, but it's cheaper and it gets there. That's what he'll say. And he'll say it loudly, too. We've got to do something, Reacher.'

'And what do you suggest?'

'Why don't we just spend some money and get some proper maintenance done?'

'You can't,' said a new voice. 'You don't have the men.' All heads turned to the man at the far end of the table. He had a jacket on over his overalls and a very battered top hat on the table beside him. His name was Mr Pony, and he was the Trunk's chief engineer. He'd come with the company, and had hung on because at the age of fifty-eight, with twinges in your knuckles, a sick wife and a bad back, you think twice about grand gestures such as storming out. He hadn't seen a clacks until three years ago, when the first company was founded, but he was methodical and engineering was engineering. Currently his greatest friend in the world was his collection of pink flimsies. He'd done his best, but he wasn't going to carry the can when this lot finally fell over and his pink flimsies would see to it that he didn't. White memo paper to the chairman, yellow flimsy to the file, pink flimsy you kept. No one could say he hadn't warned them. A two-inch stack of the latest flimsies was attached to his clipboard. Now, feeling like an elder god leaning down through the clouds of some Armageddon and booming: 'Didn't I tell you? Didn't I warn you? Did you listen? Too late to listen now!', he put on a voice of strained patience. 'I've got six maint'nance teams. I had eight last week. I sent you a memo about that, got the flimsies right here. We ought to have eighteen teams. Half the lads are needin' to be taught as we go, and we ain't got time for teachin'. In the oP days we'd set up walkin' towers to take the load an' we ain't got men even to do that now—'

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