Name That Tune - Runner Up

Fay Dickinson

Runner Up
I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside
Name That Tune


Fay has had a number of writing successes and a much greater number of rejections!  She has been entering Writing Magazine competitions for decades and has been short-listed several times.  This is her third WM prize.  Fay is concerned about environmental issues and is keenly green.

I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside By Fay Dickinson

Laughing Gus. That was my stage name. The Gaiety Theatre was here, right at the end of this pier. Now there’s an ice cream booth in its place; not of very sound construction either, just a cream wooden shed-type building that is shuttered and abandoned during the winter. 

I know what it’s like to be abandoned. In the 1920s and 1930s I was second on the bill here. Laughing Gus in my garish, checked suit. My patter was perfect. I knew how to please my audience. How I loved to hear the young lasses titter and their beaus guffawing besides them.

I can see it all now. Me up there on the wooden stage and the audience below, hazy faces glimpsed through the tobacco smoke. It was mainly the men who smoked then. I couldn’t see their faces properly, but I loved the glint of teeth as heads rocked backwards and men roared with recognition at my marriage lines. Here’s one of my favourites from the early days when I was lean and handsome, my dark hair as slick as polished shoe leather.

“I met a married friend of mine the other night.

He said, ‘Where are you going with that lantern?’

I replied that I was going courting.

He said, ‘I didn’t take a lantern when I courted my wife.'

I answered, ‘You’ve only got to look at her to see that.’

How the chaps roared at that one. I loved the sound of laughter. I lived for it. That’s what sustained me in my drab rented room. I could never raise a smile out of my dour landlady, not even when I paid her a month’s rent in advance. In the end I was two months’ rent in arrears. That was the day I found my possessions on the doorstep and the room let to a young married couple. It was the day I threw myself into the canal.

I remember the last show I did. My name wasn’t even on the bill. I tried the lantern joke. I’d changed “lantern” to “torch” to keep up with the times, but the half-empty theatre was silent, except for the snoring of an old man in row B and the furtive rustlings of the canoodling soldier and his girl at the back. The theatre manager dispensed with my services. I was fifty years old and everything I lived for had been taken from me. I took to drink and spent my evenings in the corners of dark, shabby public houses gulping cheap ale until I couldn’t even afford that.

It’s not surprising that I can’t rest. If I could only make an audience roar with laughter one more time, then I could be at peace. I died on stage. It’s the most dreadful of experiences for an entertainer, and I have to redeem myself. I have to give one final performance that will obliterate that failure forever.

I have heard some of the comedians at the Arts Centre in town. Much of their humour is far too vulgar for my taste, and there are meaningless antics and gestures that don’t seem at all amusing, but the audience still laughs. I always worked hard at my act and I’ll work hard again to earn that laughter and applause for myself.

I haunt this place. No one can see or hear me, but I observe and listen to everything. The waves are slapping against the pier struts. In the distance the sea is a dancing, sun-sparkled blue, but beneath the pier it’s murky and floating with cigarette butts and crisp packets. The canal was cleaner, but I think of sinking into its silent lap. No ripple of laughter as I left the stage that day.   

There are some deckchairs for hire at the side here. It’s a little breezy, but the sun is warm and half a dozen elderly holidaymakers are sagging into the canvas, sleeping or watching the children splashing at the shore. The air smells of fish and hot, sugared doughnuts, the latter also available from the ice cream booth. A girl aged about ten is queuing with her brother. He is about six. I know that they are brother and sister because they look so alike, and they are well-behaved, unlike some of the children here. Their piercing “I want” shrieks would split my eardrums if I had any.

“What do you want, Josh?”

Eyes wide with anticipation, the boy points to a picture of a giant cone, crammed with strawberry ice cream and dripping with chocolate sauce. The girl is also taken with this illustration and she orders two “Strawberry Whoppers”.

“Come on, Josh, we’ll take the change to grandad, then we’ll go to the end of the pier and watch the boats out to sea.”

As they turn, three bare-chested men with shaven heads jostle against them and the tallest and bulkiest snatches the ice creams.

Terrified the children run to the deckchairs where a frail, balding man is lolling half-asleep.

“Grandad, grandad.” Josh is crying and his sister is trembling.

Grandad reaches for his walking stick and levers himself slowly out of the chair. He moves steadily towards the three hooligans who are leaning over the side of the pier. One is trying to flick ice cream onto a young mother carrying a baby along the beach, whilst the other two are having a spitting contest.

Grandad confronts the men. They form a circle of tattooed flesh around him.

“Why did you steal the children’s ice…”, but before he can finish the sentence one of the hooligans kicks the walking stick. The elderly man grabs the pier rail for support.

That’s when I know that I must act. I can’t speak and I can’t actually touch things, but I have the power to whip up a storm by spinning like a whirling dervish. I can also blow harder than a ship’s siren. I puff up my non-existent cheeks and breathe out. Pink ice cream splatters the face of the largest hooligan. He immediately grabs the arm of the shortest thug.

I cannon into all three men sending them crashing onto the wooden floor of the pier. Next I blow grandad’s stick upwards. He grabs the stick and he and the children retreat to a safe distance. The deckchair dozers are suddenly alert and sitting upright watching the three men.

Noticing a large clump of wet, sand-speckled sea weed lying beneath the pier I whirlwind it upwards and begin slapping it against the bare chests of the men, jumping from one to another as their tattooed arms flail in a vain attempt to protect themselves. One of them starts swearing, but I blow a soggy trampled doughnut into his mouth and his expletives are soon unintelligible.

A young girl’s laughter thrills through me and I think of one of my old jokes.

“Before a man gets married he swears to love.  Afterwards he loves to swear.”

I know times have changed and I wouldn’t be able to tell such jokes now, unless I applied it equally to males and females, but I can’t help thinking of it as I hear the hooligans spluttering.

These three have upset a lot of holidaymakers. They’ve spat on people, stolen money, intimidated the elderly, frightened the children. I should have tackled them before. Suddenly I hear a song on the wireless, or radio as it seems to be called now. It’s a modern song, noisy and pounding, but I remember how I, as Laughing Gus, had a crazy, little dance routine that I used to perform to whatever melody was popular at the time. Using all my whirlwind powers of manipulation I force the hooligans’ legs this way and that, so that they skid, slip and slide all over the pier. Everyone is watching. The ice cream seller, a large-faced man with a bushy, black moustache, throws back his head and roars with laughter. He could be a 1920s theatregoer and I am transported with delight to those days again.

The old people have risen from their deckchairs and are cheering. Young men and girls whistle loudly.  It’s hard to tell the youth apart these days, but they are unanimous in their appreciation. I bow, I beam, although no one can see me, and rush forward for an encore. The guffawing ice cream seller accidentally knocks the squeezy bottle of chocolate sauce onto the pier floor. In my day it was all glass bottles, but I know how this squashable one works.

It’s time for my finale. Time for me to take my final bow. I rush over to the hooligans who are lying huddled and exhausted by the deckchairs. Somehow I squeeze the chocolate sauce over them and by whirling the bottle in and out I spell out “Laughing Gus”. The crowd gasp then the laughter and cheering starts again.

A young man, with his arm draped around the neck of a pretty girl, is very enthusiastic about my performance.

“What an amazing magic show, but who’s Laughing Gus; surely not that old man with the stick?”

“It’s probably all computer or electronically-generated,” replies the girl.

A queue forms at the ice cream booth as the crowd realises the show is over. The hooligans slink away humiliated.

Grandad, waiting with his grandchildren for ice creams, mumbles, “Laughing Gus, I know that name.”

He smiles to himself and whispers to the children.

“My dad used to talk about Laughing Gus.  He was a very funny comedian from a long time ago.”

“Tell us about him, granddad,” says Josh excitedly.

“I certainly will,” replies granddad, “but let’s get the ice creams first.”

The voices, the sparkling sea, the pier all fade as I exit to the wonderful memory of laughter and applause.

Judges Comments

'I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside.' the runner-up in WM's Name That Tune short story competition, takes its cue from the title to provide a delightful story of knockabout from beyond the grave, as writer Fay Dickinson narrates, in first person, the comeback of long-dead seaside comedian Laughing Gus.

Gus haunts the seedy seaside town where, in his glory days, he was a popular comic, and Fay plays with the trope of the depressed comedian as Gus recounts how he ended up a washed-up drunk who couldn't raise a laugh. I died on stage, recounts a morose Gus – fittingly, in order for him to be able to rest in peace, he needs to make an audience laugh again.

And how gloriously Fay delivers this. As hooligans shatter the peace of decent holidaymakers, from beyond the grave Gus puts on the slapstick performance of his life as an act of revenge. It's laugh-aloud funny, it's redolent of poetic justice and Gus's triumphant turn provides him with the reward that's most precious to him - the gift of laughter.