HE – Middle class, middle aged and eager to be genial.
SHE – Middle class, middle aged, unhappy and a furious knitter.
JACK – A quiet, agreeable gentleman, except on mobile phone and near the end.
A hearthrug at stage front, centre, has an easy-chair on each side, one behind it facing the audience. The back is made claustrophobic by two walls meeting at a corner, a window in the middle of the left, a door in the right with upright chair beside it. On both walls hang well mounted and framed Piranesi prints from his Carceri series.
HE, hands in pockets, stands looking out of window. His speeches are punctuated by brief pauses indicated thus . . . SHE sits stoically knitting in the right hand chair.
HE: Well well. (sighs) Yes indeed. (sighs) I wonder what the weather’s like.
SHE: Go and look.
HE: I am insufficiently . . . Motivated . . . You’re lucky.
HE: You knit. You do housework . . . Early retirement has made me . . . An appendage. I ought to cultivate something.
HE: A hobby. A garden. Friends.
SHE: Friends are not cultivated. They happen, like weeds.
HE: I bet I could plant some. (with sudden enthusiasm) This is a free country – I can go into any pub, see an interesting stranger, walk right up to them, hold out my hand and say, “My name’s Jim Barclay, tax avoidance accountant, retired. How do you do? What brings you to this neck of the woods?” . . . Mind you, it would sound better if I was American. (in American voice) “Howdy stranger! Jim Barclay’s the name. What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
SHE: Woods don’t have necks.
HE: (sighs) Not around here, anyway. (sighs)
SOUND: DOOR BELL CHIMES.
HE: Well well well! Someone’s arrived! (strides to door) Someone’s arrived! (opens it, cries) Look who’s here!
JACK: (modestly) Yes. It’s me.
HE: Come in come in come in!
JACK enters. SHE looks up.
HE: Linda! Linda! This is old, old, old, old . . . (snaps fingers) . . . old, old, old, old ...
JACK: (helpfully) Jack.
HE: Yes, old Jack! He was my pal in the old P I S Q S.
SHE resumes knitting.
JACK: (amused, shaking his head) Actually, it was the old S H I Q T.
HE: (puzzled) Are you sure?
JACK: (nodding) Definite.
HE: It was certainly one of those hell holes. But you saved my life, I remember that well enough!
JACK: (shrugging) It was my job. I was in charge of security. Today I was driving north and felt I should look in.
HE: Thank goodness! This calls for a celebration. Have a seat.
JACK: Only if you’re having one yourself.
HE: No, too excited. What’s the weather like?
JACK: Much the same as in here. Nothing to speak of.
HE: Pity. Care for a drink? Tea? Coffee?
JACK: No thanks.
HE: Orange juice? Beer? Gin? Vodka? Whisky? Drambuie? Tia Maria? Sherry? Port? Chateau Mouton Rothschild du Pape? I’m afraid we’re out of champagne.
JACK: Sorry, Iím a health freak. I only drink water and stopped off for a couple of pints ten minutes ago.
HE: (disappointed) Oh. (sits down in centre chair)
JACK sits in the other. A pause.
HE: (suddenly inspired) Care to talk about being a health freak? I mean, you might manage to convert us, ha ha.
JACK: No no. You’d find the topic too bloody boring.
HE: (heartily) Ha ha ha, you’re right there! (on an intimate note) Sorry I can’t ask you what car you drive, and tell you about mine and all the trouble I have with it. Linda finds the topic too bloody boring.
JACK: Ha ha, she’s right there!
JACK ( ) What are you doing these days?
HE ( ) What are you doing these days?
JACK: You first!
HE: No, you!
JACK: You! I insist.
HE: Well as a matter of fact –
SOUND: A mobile phone plays the first two lines of Do You Ken John Peel?.
JACK: Excuse me. (unpockets phone)
SHE looks up, listening.
JACK: Hello . . . Listen, bitch, and listen good. There were no witnesses to that promise you allege I made, pills are cheap so your bastard is not my concern. If you must whine try whining at my lawyer. He’ll land you in Fumbleton Vale Jail without your feet touching the ground and women commit suicide to escape from that place. So get out of my life! (pockets phone. Apologetically) Sorry about that. As a matter of fact you’ve what?
SHE resumes knitting.
HE: Taken early retirement.
JACK: But you used to be such a live wire!
HE: (depressed) The firm made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
JACK: (sympathetically) The swine!
HE: (shrugging) Business is business. (thoughtful pause, then, struck by idea) Have you noticed that every ten years since 1975 the number of millionaires in Britain has doubled?
JACK: (nodding) Yes.
HE: Have you never wanted to be one?
JACK: I am one.
HE: (not catching that) It’s done by cashing in on the market whether it’s going up, down or sideways. Jack Rotter of the Porridge Union is coming to everyone’s neck of the woods the day after tomorrow so why not contact him on rotporridge at slash dot crash dot wallop yahoo dot com and get tips from the horse’s mouth while there’s still a vacant seat in the house? All terms and conditions apply.
SHE: (exasperated, looking up) He’s already told you he is a millionaire.
HE: (to JACK) Did you?
JACK: (chuckling) Yes.
HE: (chuckling) Dear me! That ought to teach me something.
SHE: It should teach you to listen as much as you talk.
HE: (not noticing her) Yes it really ought to teach me something. (sighs) But I wish they hadn’t pushed me out of tax avoidance.
JACK: I seem to remember you were damned good at it.
HE: I was, but even accountants don’t know everything.
JACK: A disturbing thought. But I think my own accountant is trustworthy.
HE: You could be living in a fools’ paradise. Just the other day I was running to the seaside when the door of a parked car suddenly opened and smacked me into the middle of the road. I was left with nine broken ribs and a fractured pelvis.
HE: (smugly) Not at all. I got straight on to J C Pooter who will get me a cool million in compensation and a year’s holiday in the Bahamas.
JACK: (nodding approval) J C Pooter was your knight in shining armour.
HE: What are you doing these days?
JACK: As a matter of fact I’m –
SOUND: mobile phone rings. SHE pauses, listening.
JACK: Excuse me a moment. (on phone) Hello . . . They’re rioting? We knew they would . . . Of course they’ve invaded the plant, I hope they burn it down so the firm can claim insurance . . . You’re trapped on the roof? Phone the police to airlift you off. (pockets phone) Sorry about that. I was saying?
SHE resumes knitting.
HE: What you’re doing these days.
JACK: I’m a troubleshooter.
HE: You shoot trouble makers?
JACK: (chuckling) No no no no, I never pull a trigger. I tell other people to do that.
HE: (admiringly) That must take courage.
JACK: (with regret) Not much. Hardly anyone gets killed. They usually see reason when confronted with the wee black holes at the ends of Kalashnikovs.
HE: Does Russia still make these?
JACK: Not sure, but nowadays you can pick them up anywhere for a song.
HE: Good! Excellent! In fact, fantastic, but which of the following statements is untrue. Stoats have almost human fingernails. For two centuries the Austro-Hungarian official language was Chinese. You can afford an Assassin Javelin Jeep, with inbuilt recording studio, wireless-enabled laptop, leather upholstery and all the trimmings. And the Madagascar royal flag is an inverted hippo.
JACK: Er . . . the inverted hippo?
HE: (triumphantly) They’re all true! The most domestically-abused single-parent pauper can now afford a Assassin Javelin Jeep thanks to an easy credit deal that lets them sell their children into slavery.
JACK: Do all terms and conditions apply?
HE: (enthusiastically) Of course! Hallelujah! At last Assassin Javelins have put the best jeep in the world within everybody’s reach. But I’d like to put in another word for the Porridge Union . . .
SHE: (deliberately, having ceased knitting) Hell. Hell. Help.
JACK, alarmed, looks at her, then at HE.
HE: (quietly) She thinks our conversation has become too commercial.
JACK: (quietly) Should we discuss music?
HE: (nodding) Please.
JACK: (enthusiastically) You know, my favourite radio programme is Classic FM.
HE: It is?
JACK: Definitely! You cannot beat Classic FM for really smooth, relaxing music sponsored by the British Savings Bank which is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of premium bonds . . .
SHE writhes in torment. HE points this out to JACK.
JACK: (guiltily to HE) Sorry about that. Health, perhaps?
HE: Try it.
JACK: You know, there’s nothing very clever about living with a hernia.
SHE resumes knitting.
HE: But operations used to be painful, took months, were often worse than useless.
JACK: No more! And about time. Nowadays you can walk into the Universal Hernia Centre and walk out twenty minutes later with a brand new, state-of-the-art hernia and a life-long permanent artificial kidney guarantee, and it wonít cost you a Ė
SHE screams. HE clutches at his hair.
JACK: (inspired) I’ve got it! Science! Pure science! E equals M C squared!
HE: (delighted) Oh yes yes yes! E equals M C squared! (sigh of relief) Poor Albert Einstein. He never could get his head round quantum physics. “God doesn’t play dice,” he said.
JACK: (chuckling) Max Plank soon put him right about that, ďDonít tell God how to play games!Ē he said.
SHE: (grimly resuming knitting) Wasn’t that Neils Bohr?
JACK: One or tother. Einstein never understood that a unified field equation was only possible in a steady state universe that would be indistinguishable from one infinite Permenidean solid.
HE: Exactly exactly exactly! Otherwise modern physics would be Calvinist predestination all over again, and human consciousness an unnecessary epiphenomenon.
JACK: Schopenhauer showed how impossible that was.
HE: (overjoyed) He did, he did, he did!
SOUND: Do You Ken John Peel?
JACK: Excuse me. (on phone) Hello . . . Okay . . . Okay, the demonstrators have you spread-eagled naked and face down on a tabletop with a funnel stuck up your arse. And? . . . They are going to pour melted lead down it, unless? . . . (incredulous) Unless the government promises to nationalise their factory and reopen it? Why should the government do that? . . . You’re Gordon Brown’s nephew? What’s that got to do with it? Family loyalty is as dead as the brotherhood of man. I’m sorry you got yourself into this mess but there’s now nothing I can do. (pockets phone) Sorry about that. You were saying?
HE: Schopenhauer pointed out that Determinism’s definition of will as effect rather than cause is dependent on consciousness itself, a reductio ad absurdum that would reduce the Gods themselves to helpless laughter.
JACK: Which is why Nietzsche and Wagner loved Schopenhauer. I suspect Bruckner did too. In a peaceful wood, on a summer afternoon, one’s mood is exactly conveyed by the almost inaudible vibration that opens his fourth symphony.
HE: (nodding) Yes, the unity of art and science, hand and eye is absolutely predicated by the past as our only inevitability. It is no coincidence that Phoebe Traquair, evening star of the Arts and Crafts Movement, married a marine palaeontologist who specialised in asymmetry in flat fish.
SHE: (flings knitting down) I can’t take any more of this pretentious shit!
HE: (jumping up and pointing angry forefinger) Then let me tell you this. It’s very easy to sit on one side, knitting and nagging. I hate pretentious shit as much as you do, but I loathe something else even more – that ghastly, brain-destroying silence in which people sit uselessly hating each other. Well, I’m finished. I give up. I wash my hands of the whole business. I’m leaving him to you.
HE walks to window and stares out, hands in pockets. JACK has watched all this with interest but no embarrassment. SHE smiles and shifts to the chair beside him.
SHE: (pleasantly) Well Jack, what brings you to this neck of the woods?
JACK: (slapping his knee) Ah, now you’ve got me REALLY started! From now on you won’t get a word in edgeways. I’ve been called north because S. L. I. C. Q. E. has–
SHE: What’s S. L. I. C. Q. E.?
JACK: Scottish Lice and Insect Corporate Quango Enterprises. They want me to –
SHE: (firmly) Insects are disgusting.
JACK: They are! They are! But from an industrial point of view midges –
SHE: The female flesh fly, Sarcophoga Carraris, lays young larvae in the fresh or decomposing flesh of almost any animal. Or in manure.
HE is now pretending to inspect the framed prints, but obviously listening closely.
JACK: I know, I know, but why does a salmon as big as this (spreads his arms) leap out of a river to swallow a wee toaty midge as big as this? (shows forefinger nearly touching thumb)
SOUND: Do You Ken John Peel?
JACK: (reaching into pocket) Excuse me!
SHE: I won’t. No gentleman will let a mobile phone interrupt a conversation with a lady. Switch it off.
HE stares at his wife in astonished admiration.
SOUND: Do You Ken John Peel?
JACK: (becoming frantic) I must answer it! If it’s the boss I’ll be sacked if I don’t answer! I have to be on call day and night! Day and night!
SHE: Is it your boss? Won’t the phone tell you?
SOUND: Do You Ken John Peel?
JACK: (in agony) I donít know if itís my boss! Nowadays anyone with technical skill can hack into my phone and make it say my manager is calling, even though he changes his name twice a day, so Iím bombarded with calls from a prostitute I picked up in a Thailand childrenís brothel. I chucked her out a fortnight ago and now she rings me almost hourly! My life has become a nightmare! (weeps) . . .
SOUND: Do You Ken John Peel?
JACK: (through tears) Please let me answer! I’m drinking myself to death . . .
SHE: With water?
JACK: Water can kill faster than alcohol . . .
SOUND: Do You Ken John Peel?
JACK: Please . . . Please . . .
SHE: (firmly) Switch it off, Jack. It’s probably only strikers who want you to hear your colleague screaming while they pour molten lead into his guts.
JACK: (resigned) I pray to God you’re right.
SOUND: Do You Ken John Peel? interrupted half way as JACK switches off.
HE: (carrying over an upright chair) My my, Jack, you really live at the centre of things. (puts chair between SHE and JACK and sits) Tell me, why do great big salmons leap out of rivers to swallow toaty wee midges?
JACK: (triumphantly) Because of the adrenalin! Every wee midge is an atom of pure protein fuelled by an atom of adrenalin. That’s why midges are able to stot up and down all day above rivers, lochs, ponds, stanks and puddles in your back garden.
SHE: (stonily) Cephenormia Auribarbos is a rather flat parasite fly whose shape and claws allow it to move quickly, crab-wise, across the soft hairy surfaces of ponies and suck their blood. The female gives birth to full grown larvae, which at once pupate.
JACK: Very true. But what would you have if all the swarms of midges infesting the Highlands and Islands were squeezed together into one huge dripping block?
HE: (fascinated) What would she have?
JACK: A lump half the size of Ben Lomond containing enough adrenalin to start a Scottish subsidiary of International Pharmaceuticals, while leaving another half mountain of protein to be sliced and marketed locally as midgeburgers. The working classes soon won’t be able to afford fish suppers and Scottish beef and venison are for export only, so midgeburgers are about to become Britain’s fastest food – our expanding economy will depend on it. And Scotland is in luck! Global warming is turning the Western Isles into a new Caribbean! So S. L. I. C. Q. E. have used lottery money to start Highland nudist sun beaches for the unemployed and cull the swarms of midges they attract . . .
SHE: (grimly) The Deer Bot Fly, Calliphora Vomitaria –
HE: Sorry dear but I have to interrupt. Jack is a trouble-shooter. Exactly what trouble are you here to shoot, Jack?
JACK: The midges aren’t biting.
JACK: Nudists are using midge repellents.
SHE: (trying again) Calliphora Vomitaria –
HE: I’m sorry dear, this is really important. (to JACK) International Pharmaceuticals want the midges but they also make the repellent sprays. They can make the sprays sold in Scotland ineffective by weakening the contents!
JACK: They’ve done that. But local chemists have enough stockpiles of effective stuff to repel midges for the next 20 years.
SHE: Calliphora Vom –
HE: (testily) I told you, Linda, this is important –
SHE huffily resumes her former seat and stonily knits again.
HE: – Listen, Jack! The companies must tell local chemists the repellents they’ve stockpiled may induce skin cancer because they’ve been insufficiently tested and offer to replace them with safer stuff free of charge.
JACK: (shaking his head) Too dangerous. If that lie turns out to be true word will leak out and the pharmaceuticals have no defence when someone sues them.
HE: So what can you do?
JACK: S. L. I. C. Q. E. has called in T. I. Q. T. S. who –
SHE: (explosively) What is T? I? Q? T? S?
JACK: Troubleshooters International Quick Termination Service (proudly) – my firm!
HE: (fascinated) What will you do?
JACK: (in a low voice) Can you keep this to yourself?
HE: A former Boys’ Brigade Captain never clypes.
JACK: I’m going to (his voice becomes an inaudible whisper)
HE: (horrified and admiring) You can actually do that nowadays?
JACK: (nodding) Mhm!
HE: But when that was done by Soviet agents the newspapers said . . . nearly everyone in Britain, Europe and the U. S. A., including our government, said it was . . . er . . . letting the side down . . . a bit dirty. Downright illegal. We even had laws against it.
JACK: (happily) We’ve entered a new age, Max!
HE: (gently correcting him) Jim.
JACK: (puzzled) I’m sorry?
HE: (sharing the joke) I’m not Max – I’m your old friend Jim Barclay.
JACK: (thunderstruck) Not . . . Max Fensterbacher?
HE: (patiently) Jim Barclay.
JACK: (standing up) Is this not Sixteen Conniston Place, Strathnaver?
HE: It’s Sixteen Denniston Place, Strathinver.
JACK: (starting to sound dangerous) No wonder nothing you’ve said has made sense! O but you’ve been very, very smart. I have to admire how you screwed what you did out of me!
HE: (standing up, slightly disturbed) It’s you who’s making no sense! It’s you who made the first mistake.
JACK: But you didn’t go out of your way to correct it! (in menacing tone) Who are you working for?
HE: (hurt) I’m not working at all. I’m a tax avoidance accountant who took early retirement, my hobby is cultivating friendship and you’re making this very, very difficult.
JACK: They all say that. I will now tell you what I came North to tell Fensterbacher, and you’d better believe it. If you’re working for one of the other sides, come clean and we’ll do a deal, because we can always do a deal with the other sides, but if you’re a loose cannon you haven’t a hope in hell. Get this. Everything you’ve heard, everything you know, everything you think is under the Official Secrets Act and if you breath one word of it you can kiss your ass goodbye. And if they come for me first I’ll make sure that we’ll both go down the chute together!
SHE: (desperately) The Deer Bot Fly, Calliphora Vomitaria, deposits larvae in the nostrils of young deer. The larvae live in the nasal or throat passages, attached by their mouth hooks, living on the secretions of the host. When full-fed they are passed out with the deer’s droppings and pupate on the soil.
JACK: (ignoring her) Remember, Fensterbacher, the crocodiles at the bottom of that chute have needle-sharp teeth and take years to make a meal of a man!
SOUND: Do You Ken John Peel? JACK, pulling it from pocket, rushes out, slamming door after him.
HE: (sadly) Well well well (sighs) Well well well.
HE lifts upright chair, places it back beside window, stands with hands in pockets looking out. SHE resumes knitting.
HE: I quite enjoyed his company before he turned nasty. (sighs) I wonder if he was all he cracked himself up to be. (sighs) I’ll know for sure if chemists’ storerooms start exploding (turns toward wife) Should I phone the police about that?
SHE: He was the police – a special branch of it.
HE: Not a trouble-shooter for a private corporation?
SHE: That too. The police are half privatised now, like the government (sadly) . . . I wish you were him.
SHE: He and I nearly had a conversation before you butted in – the first intelligent conversation I’ve had with a man since we married. Before that you sometimes talked to me. Never since. Not now.
HE: (absent mindedly) Not now, no. (sighs and turns to window) Not now. I wonder what the weather’s like outside.
SHE: (stops knitting, looks at his back, says clearly buy softly) What if we – both you and me – were always listening – I mean really listening to the silence. Would we hear, – really hear and heed – the importance of waiting, – really waiting – for the right moment – to begin the song?
HE: (without turning) Did you say something?
SHE: A poem I remembered.
HE: O. I thought you said something.
SHE: (sighing) What does the weather look like outside?
HE: Much the same as in here.
"Midgeburgers" is scheduled to be performed April 2007,
in the Glasgow Oran Mor lunchtime theatre, A Play, A Pie, A Pint.