HONOUR BRIGHT – a play by Peter Snow
HONOUR BRIGHT – Peter Snow
The characters in the play:
OSWALD BASTABLE – mid thirties, looks older.
DICK BASTABLE – early thirties. Left arm missing from a naval battle.
DORA BASTABLE – mid thirties. Confirmed spinster.
ALICE BASTABLE - late twenties. An active member of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, working in the East End toy factory founded by Sylvia Pankhurst.
NOEL BASTABLE – Alice’s twin brother. A poet.
BILL CARTWRIGHT – a working man.
JOE TIMMINS – his mate.
PARKINS – servant to Oswald
MINNIE – maid to Dora.
H.O. The youngest Bastable brother: he never appears on stage.
(The actor playing Parkins can double as the Soldier)
The action of the play takes place in 1919, with two episodes from 1916.
OSWALD is seen as a Captain, invalided out of the army after being gassed, and as a solicitor, following his demobilization. DICK is seen as a naval Commander, and as a civilian. It is a middle class family, and largely hanging on to the middle class values that they were brought up with before the Great War, except ALICE, who has seen the writing on the wall. DORA is in her thirties but already middle aged. NOEL is a young officer and poet.
CARTWRIGHT is an ex-soldier, embittered by the war and the state of the country to which he has returned. TIMMINs is his friend, less proud, and with an eye to the main chance.
The SOLDIER only appears in one scene near the end, and can be doubled with the role of PARKINS, Oswald’s servant.
MINNIE is Dora’s servant, a nervous young woman.
The characters are mostly taken from the books of E. Nesbit, The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The New Treasure Seekers and Oswald Bastable and Others. I read these as a child, and often wondered how life would have been for them in the face of the Great War, and more particularly, its aftermath. Nesbit herself never told us, and I’m sure that if she had, the result would have had the wit, humour, keen observation and light pathos that she brought to her work. This, such as it is, is my homage to her, albeit in a completely different mood.
The plot hinges on how – and more importantly, why – Noel died. I know that such things happened, as my own grandfather told me towards the end of his life a story from his own experiences on the Western Front that exactly reflects the one I tell here. There are other details from his reminiscences, here and those of others. I hope that we are sufficiently removed from that time now that the retelling will injure no one.
Scene 1 – 1916 The Bastable family home. ALICE and NOEL. NOEL is writing, and ALICE is reading something that he has written.
ALICE: Oh, I love this bit, Noel! (Quotes) “The old oaks in the garden and the birch copse in the park/Harbour colder shadows as the world drifts into the dark.”
NOEL: Hm. Still not quite right, is it. Not happy about the metre. And is ‘harbour’ right?
ALICE: I think you need the metre broken up here. You’ve got these slow spondees of ‘old oaks’, and then it all gathers speed with ‘as the world drifts into the dark’. All those short syllables and a sort of anapaest line: I think it’s clever.
NOEL: Yes, but you see, you’re my sister, and in your eyes, I can do no wrong. You see it all through the eyes of love.
ALICE: You beastly prig! You sound just like Oswald! I shall tickle you! (ALICE approaches NOEL, and they circle each other.)
NOEL: NO! Don’t you dare! If you think I shall behave as a gentleman, you’re quite wrong – NO! Keep off!
ALICE: I’m not afraid of you!
NOEL: You ought to be! I’m a big strong man, and you’re just a poor weak woman!
ALICE: Pooh! Dicky’s the big strong man in our family. Not you, Noelly Poelly Piggy Poltroon!
NOEL: Whoa! That does it! Prepare for squalls!
(NOEL throws himself at ALICE and they wrestle playfully but with real energy. They end up with NOEL kneeling astride ALICE.)
NOEL: Now what do you say, you reckless termagant?
ALICE: I say sucks to you! (ALICE brings her knees up and pushes him off her. NOEL goes sprawling, and ALICE sits astride him.) Now what do you say, O Prince of the Goblins? Perhaps I should kiss you and turn you into a handsome prince?
NOEL: Don’t you dare!
ALICE: Of course, you’re more likely to turn into a frog. (ALICE kisses NOEL. He protests loudly.)
NOEL: Ach! Stop it, you awful – Stop it! Get off! I give in! You’re the King of the Castle! Stop it!
ALICE: (Gets off him and looks down at him. He slowly gets to his feet, coughing slightly.) Are you really thinking of joining up?
NOEL: What? What’s that got to do with it? Look at my trousers! Covered in dust!
ALICE: You’ve fluff in your hair, too. (She picks fluff out of his hair.) But are you?
NOEL: Am I what? Thinking of joining up? Of course! I can’t just sit here on my hinder end writing verses for the literary quarterlies while other chaps are out doing their bit.
ALICE: I don’t think they’ll take you.
NOEL: (Looks at her in surprise.) What do you mean?
ALICE: I think you’re too delicate. I don’t think they’ll accept you into the ranks.
NOEL: Not the ranks. It’s an officer’s life for me.
ALICE: They won’t take you, Noel. You know they won’t.
NOEL: They already have.
NOEL: The doctor chappie turned out to be a friend of Father’s. He said: ‘You really want to join up, don’t you,’ and I said, ‘of course.’ So he passed me. Not quite A1, but close enough. Anyway, look here, I’m not a complete invalid, you know! I’m far more robust than you and Dora give me credit for.
ALICE: Oswald and Dicky and now you. Well, I hope you all manage to come back, that’s all.
NOEL: (Pause.) Look, I want to show you something. (He crosses to a drawer in his desk and takes out a white feather.) I was waiting for the tram down in the High Street, and a woman came up to me and forced this on me.
ALICE: A white feather?
NOEL: It’s not just that. People make comments. Men in uniform as I pass them in the street.
ALICE: But they don’t know you! They have no idea about you, who you really are, what you truly think about things.
NOEL: I know. I know what I truly think about things. And the thing is, there’s always a little voice inside telling me that I’m a coward; that I ought to do my duty. And so, finally, I’m listening to the little voice. Of course, there’s another little voice now telling me not to be a fool and to run away. But the first one’s the voice I’m listening to.
ALICE: It isn’t fair! It’s not as if you’re a conchy. Though I wouldn’t blame you if you were. All the women I know in the suffrage movement are dead against the war, you know.
NOEL: Only a fool would be for war. But it’s got to be done. I mean, ever since they went into Belgium it’s been clear enough. No. I’ve got to go, Alice.
ALICE: (Crosses to him and hugs him.) I’m proud of you. You will…No, I shan’t say it.
NOEL: Say what?
ALICE: I was going to say you will be careful, won’t you. But it’s silly, I know.
NOEL: I imagine it’s what sisters are saying to brothers all over the country. And mothers, I suppose. Sweethearts and wives and so on. Can’t think what Dora would say!
ALICE: She’ll be terribly proud. Then she’ll worry herself sick day and night till you come home again.
NOEL: Yes, I suppose she would.
ALICE: Let’s not tell Dora just yet. Leave it to me, anyway. She’d think that she’d really rather hear it from you, but it’s best if I tell her gently.
NOEL: That’ll be another bone of contention between you, if you tell her instead of me. Goodness knows there are plenty of bones of contention between you already. You’ll have enough for a complete skeleton, soon. Then you can construct a dinosaur and give it to the museum in Kensington. The Aliciadorasaurus, complete with monstrous fangs.
ALICE: Beast. I’ll show you my monstrous fangs in a minute and bite you.
NOEL: You do tend to strike sparks off each other though, you and Dodo.
ALICE: Oh, Dora and I are all right, really, underneath it all. We only quarrel about Women’s Suffrage. She just hasn’t got used to the twentieth century.
NOEL: It’s pretty hard for anyone to get used to it. If it carries on like this…Well. Don’t suppose there’ll be much of it for anyone.
ALICE: It can’t carry on like this. Not possibly. Perhaps it’ll all be over by Christmas, and we’ll all be together again.
NOEL: Yes. We’ll all be together again.
Scene 2 – 1919 – A street in East London. OSWALD, DICK, CARTWRIGHT, TIMMINS. OSWALD, in Captain’s uniform, is troubled by painful coughing. DICK dressed as naval Commander has his left sleeve pinned up. CARTWRIGHT and TIMMINS are in civilian clothes, poor. They are leaning against a wall as DICK and OSWALD enter.
DICK: Yes, I was sorry to hear about you and Edith. I thought you were rather good together. (Pause) Of course, if you’d rather not talk about it…
OSWALD: No, that’s all right. It was when I was sent home. I think she felt that her idol had feet of clay.
DICK: You were her idol, were you? She put you on a metaphorical pedestal, then.
OSWALD: Yes, well, you know what I mean. She saw through me. She has a horror of ill health in anyone.
DICK: Still, it’s a bit thick in my view. Women are a bit of a mystery to me, frankly. (Brightly) By the way, I’m thinking of going to see Father this weekend. He’s happy as a pig in clover down there in that cottage.
OSWALD: So you don’t think – (fit of coughing).
DICK: All right, old man? Let’s stop a minute.
OSWALD: (Regains breath and composure.) I was about to say, you don’t think Father’s wasting away down in the country? All alone, I mean?
DICK: He’s not entirely alone. He’s got that woman thingummyjig from the village to look after him.
OSWALD: Yes, but she’s hardly company, is she?
DICK: I dare say he’s used to being alone, ever since Mother passed away.
OSWALD: Yes, but he’s always had us, one way or another. Until the war, anyway. (Coughs.)
DICK: He won’t repine.
OSWALD: No, he won’t do that. It’s not the Bastable way. Dora goes down often enough to keep an eye on things at any rate. And you and I are within reach. We Bastables are pretty dependable, one way or another.
DICK: The dependable Bastables! That’s the stuff.
CART: Bastable? Bastable?
OSWALD: What’s that? What did you say?
CART: Oh, er, nothing really, sir. Just thought I heard you say the name Bastable.
DICK: Yes? What about it?
CART: Beg your pardon, Captain.
DICK: (Showing the stripes on his sleeve.) Commander. These stripes are a Commander’s.
CART: It was the other gent I was referring to.
OSWALD: Yes, I am a captain. For a few more days, anyhow.
CART: I heard you say the name Bastable. That’s all.
DICK: That’s our name. What of it?
CART: Excuse me butting in to your conversation, only there was a young officer by that name in our lot in the war.
OSWALD: Well, there are a few of us around. (He turns to go.)
CART: Young bloke in the Essex and North Kents. He didn’t last long. Like a lot of other poor bleeders.
OSWALD: Essex and North Kent Light Infantry?
CART: That’s right, sir. Lieutenant Bastable.
DICK: Lieutenant Noel Bastable?
CART: Never knew his Christian name, sir. He wasn’t with us long enough for us to hear it.
OSWALD: Our brother was killed pretty much as soon as he got to the front. Do you think it was the same chap?
CART: Couldn’t say, sir. He had a great pal down from Brigade H.Q. Adjutant, name of Bland. He came down one day, and him and Lieutenant Bastable was like long lost brothers.
DICK: Albert Bland?
OSWALD: There was a chap of that name used to live next door to us.
CART: We wasn’t on first names, sir. These two had lived next door to each other, seemingly, in Lewisham. I remember that, cos I’m from round there meself. Marquis of Granby, New Cross way.
OSWALD: Good Lord! It must be! Lieutenant Noel Bastable from Lewisham? It must be the same man!
DICK: He was our brother.
CART: Your brother? I wondered if it was something like that when I heard you say the name, sir. Anyway, I think it was a diabolical shame what happened to him!
DICK: It happened to a lot of other poor chaps, too.
TIMMINS: You’re not wrong there.
CART: (Beat.) Well, there’s certainly a lot of good men never came back. And a lot like yourself, sir, (To DICK.) excuse me for mentioning it. (To OSWALD.) And that sounds like a gas cough, sir, if you’ll excuse the liberty.
OSWALD: Yes, it is, as a matter of fact.
DICK: So, er, how was he? Lieutenant Bastable, I mean. What did the men think of him?
CART: What, you don’t – No, of course you don’t. All right, gents. Sorry I spoke. Best let such things lay, sir. No point in dragging those things up now.
OSWALD: What do you mean? Do you mean he wasn’t popular? (Coughs.)
CART: Sorry gents, I should never have said nothing about it.
OSWALD: Look, I’d like to know more. My brother and I, we’d be very grateful for anything you can tell us. Look, here’s half a crown.
CART: No thank you sir.
OSWALD: Go on, take it, one soldier to another.
CART: (Hurt pride.) No thank you sir. I’m sure it’s kindly meant, and Christ knows I could do with it.
OSWALD: Well, take it then!
CART: (Brusque.) No sir. I don’t take no toff’s charity. I aint a soldier no more, see. It’s the working man’s got to look after hisself now. I’ll bid you good day. (Exit.)
DICK: Hi! Wait a minute!
OSWALD: (To TIMMINS.) Look here, do you know that man who was just talking to us?
TIMMINS: What, Bill Cartwright? Yes, of course I know him.
OSWALD: It seems he knew our brother. In the war, you know. We’d like to talk to him about it a bit more.
DICK: It looked as if he knew something about our brother’s last days. It’s rather important to us, as I’m sure you can appreciate. Could you show us where he lives?
TIMMINS: Show you where he lives? Catch me doing a thing like that! A bloke’s entitled to his privacy, isn’t he. And his pride.
OSWALD: Did you serve with him? Were you mates? Same regiment?
TIMMINS: Thing is guv’nor, if you started flashing your half dollars around, you wouldn’t find me as proud as Bill.
DICK: (Gives him half a crown.) Here.
TIMMINS: Very kind, sir, I’m sure. I served with Bill for most of it, but I was invalided out in 1917. Same as you, sir. Gas.
DICK: Hard lines!
TIMMINS: It was bloody hard lines, and all! Women coming up to me and handing out white feathers. No use me saying I was invalided out! Old Bill was on leave one time when it happened, and he ran after the cow and made her take it back! He’s a good bloke, Bill.
OSWALD: But did you know Lieutenant Bastable? Were you there?
TIMMINS: I never knew no Lieutenant Bastable, so I can’t help you there. But I’ll give you the tip as to where you can find Bill. Not his house, mind! I aint sending you there!
DICK: All right. Where can we find him?
TIMMINS: See that old church hall down there, on the corner by the pillar-box? That’s where the Labour Party has their meetings. Round the corner to the right, down there, there’s a pub called the King’s Head. They generally go round there after their meetings.
OSWALD: When do they have their meetings?
TIMMINS: It’s Thursday nights, but I can’t remember how often. Once a month or twice, I don’t know. Anyway, I’d give him a chance to get his temper back before you go and talk to him again.
DICK: Thanks. We’ll try and follow it up.
OSWALD: Good luck.
TIMMINS: Not much of that about, not round here. (Exit.)
DICK: Well? What do you reckon?
OSWALD: I think it’s worth a try. What about you?
DICK: Well, all right. I don’t hold out much hope, though.
OSWALD: Perhaps we’d better be a bit more tactful, next time.
DICK: Oswald…Look here, old man…
OSWALD: What? (Pause.) Out with it.
DICK: I get the feeling that we might not like what we hear. That’s all.
OSWALD: You don’t mean that Noel was a coward? Dick, you know as well as I do what war is like. Berserker warrior one minute and shivering in a blue funk the next. It certainly happened to me. Must have been the same in the Navy. A man might be a hero one day and the complete opposite the next. Noel was the same as any of us. I bet it wasn’t cowardice that chap was hinting at.
DICK: Well, if you’re game, I am. Perhaps we’d better steel ourselves, though. You never know. But you know, it’s probably nothing. It’s probably someone else entirely.
OSWALD: No. It goes against the grain to say it, but we aren’t the only Bastables about the place.
Scene 3 – 1916 - The Bastable home – ALICE and NOEL
NOEL: Of course, it would be sucks to me if I got to the front and it all ended as soon as I got there! (Pause.) Only joking.
ALICE: Oh, Noel! Dora and I, well we never say it outright to each other, but we’re both terribly afraid for Dicky and Oswald. And now, if you go too, oh, it doesn’t bear thinking about!
NOEL: Here here! Come come come! That’s no way to put heart into the troops!
ALICE: No. I’m sorry.
NOEL: Anyway, if the three of us perish, there’s always H.O. to carry on the name of Bastable.
ALICE: Noel! Please. You’re not helping.
NOEL: All right. I’m sorry. Rather tasteless of me, I admit.
ALICE: (Forces a change of mood.) Show me a bit more of what you’ve written!
NOEL: Em, there is something, where is it? Here it is. There, what do you think of that?
ALICE: (Reads, and looks up at NOEL.) Quite expressive.
NOEL: Well? Any thoughts?
ALICE: Noel, this isn’t…I mean, are you and Albert..?
NOEL: (Snatches it away from her.) It’s only a poem, damn it.
ALICE: Is it? Only a poem, I mean?
NOEL: What – You didn’t think…The love that dare not speak its name? Albert and me? Don’t be silly!
ALICE: All right. I must admit, I’ve wondered, from time to time.
NOEL: (Surprised and affronted.) Thanks very much! I may not be a sort of Hercules, like Dicky, but I’m not a…Goodness me!
ALICE: All right. Sorry I spoke. I’ll entirely dismiss the thought from my mind.
NOEL: I should think so too! Where on earth do you get these florid notions? It’s a poem about a couple of chaps who like each other. Like David and Jonathan, you know. Damon and Pythias, all that; Achilles and Patroclus. Comrades in arms.
ALICE: But not actually in each other’s arms? (He reacts.) All right, all right.
NOEL: Really! It’s not worthy of you, Alice! Harbouring such febrile thoughts.
ALICE: Noel, you’re my brother, we’re coevals, as Albert’s uncle used to say. I know you to the soul. I’d still love you if you were a murderer or a thief. I’d still love you no matter what.
NOEL: (Relenting.) All right old thing. Let’s say no more about it. Though where you dig up such ideas is beyond me, frankly! If that’s what you and those women talk about, well. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
ALICE: ‘Those women’? Honestly, Noel, you’re as bad as Oswald, sometimes, sitting on your high horse, thinking you can order all the world in your own image.
NOEL: Oh, come! I’m nothing like Oswald
ALICE: No, that’s true. You’re not.
NOEL: And what does that mean?
ALICE: Nothing. You’re just not like Oswald, that’s all.
NOEL: You mean, he’s walking out with that woman, what’s her name, and I’m not walking out with anyone?
ALICE: That’s not what I meant at all.
NOEL: I should hope not. Surely I don’t have to prove my manliness to you, Alice, of all people!
ALICE: Oh, Noel! Stop it! I didn’t mean that at all. Don’t keep harping on about it. I’ll begin to think the poet doth protest too much, in a minute.
NOEL: You and those ghastly amazons and their fevered imaginations! I don’t think they’re doing you any good, you know. They’re an awful fanatical bunch, aren’t they?
ALICE: They’ve got a lot to be awfully fanatical about, if you ask me.
NOEL: Fearful harridans the lot of them!
ALICE: All right. Let’s drop it. I don’t want to argue with you now. (Mildly teasing to cover her distress.) Not when you’re about to go off and thrash the Hun.
NOEL: (Relenting.) All right. Let’s call it pax. Come here. (They embrace affectionately.)
Scene 4 – 1919 – OSWALD’s study. Enter PARKINS
PARKINS: Mister Richard, if you please, sir.
OSWALD: Oh, yes, of course. (Exit PARKINS. Enter DICK)
DICK: Come to roust you out of your burrow, you old badger! Or liven you up a bit, anyway.
OSWALD: Hello, Dick, old man! (They shake hands. Their relations are warm but formal) It’s, er, sett, actually.
DICK: Eh? What is?
OSWALD: Badgers live in setts. Not burrows. Never mind. Good to see you.
DICK: (Crosses to drinks on sideboard and pours himself a glass) Jolly good. Setts, eh? Well well. Golden Amorolio! Er, will you, er…?
OSWALD: Bit early for me, old man. That’s the whisky decanter, actually, not sherry.
DICK: Oh, I know that. Spot the difference a mile away. Soda with yours?
OSWALD: Plenty, please. It doesn’t affect my chest as it used to, but I still have to be careful, you know. Sure you can manage?
DICK: No trouble at all, old man. Here.
OSWALD: Oh well, since you’ve poured it…Here’s how. (They drink)
DICK: That hits the spot, eh? You remember Golden Amorolio? Who was it called it that? H.O. wasn’t it? Probably H.O.
OSWALD: (Slight pause) I think it was Noel, actually.
DICK: Oh. Yes, of course. H.O. would have been too young, I suppose.
OSWALD: (Tone brightening) He’s coming over, as a matter of fact.
DICK: Old H.O.? Good biz! It’ll be good to see how the cadet branch is getting on. Probably big as a house and strong as an ox by now.
OSWALD: Yes. I got a wire from him on, er, Tuesday I think it was. He’s sailing on the Lutetia.
DICK: That’s wonderful. So we’ll all be together. At last…Well…
OSWALD: Yes. Nearly all.
DICK: So how does it feel to be out of uniform at last?
OSWALD: Pretty average wonderful. Yourself?
DICK: Oh, not bad. I’d just got used to dealing with my uniform buttons and so on with one hand, and now I’ve got to get used to civvies. Good job it was my left arm. If it had been my right I’d really be scuppered. (Drinks.) By the way, I’ve been thinking.
OSWALD: Don’t strain yourself, old man. (Wry smiles)
DICK: No, I’ve been thinking about Noel. And all that business.
DICK: The thing is, well. I mean, don’t let’s tell Dora.
OSWALD: I haven’t said a word. Not about…
DICK: The thing is, she’d be so dreadfully hurt. I mean, I think it would destroy her.
OSWALD: Relieved to hear you say that, old man. I’ve been turning the thing over in my mind, too, as it happens, and rather come to the same conclusion. I mean, we can’t be sure, can we.
DICK: Wouldn’t trust those chaps as far as I could throw him. Mercenary beast, that Timpkins. Anyway, good. Glad we see eye to eye on that one. After all, we’ve kept it to ourselves for a long time now.
OSWALD: Quite. Not easy to talk about, is it.
DICK: Even you and I haven’t talked about it. Not really.
OSWALD: No. I wouldn’t even know how to broach the subject with Dora.
DICK: No, it would have been a bit awkward. Mind you, not so sure about Alice.
OSWALD: Not so sure? How do you mean? Surely you don’t think we ought to tell her?
DICK: Well, you know how it is with twins. They seem to sort of know, if you follow me.
OSWALD: Twintuition, as it were.
DICK: What? Oh, I see, yes. Twintuition. What Noel would call a beastly neologism. Is that the right word?
OSWALD: Twins communicating on the ethereal plane, or whatever it is. Yes, well they did go in for that sort of thing a bit, as I recall. Not as much as some.
DICK: No, well, we wouldn’t have, you know, encouraged it.
OSWALD: Not sure we could have prevented it, old man.
DICK: What I’m getting at is the sort of influence they might have had on each other. Twins like that, one boy, one girl. You’d think there might be some sort of, I don’t know, some sort of confusion.
OSWALD: Confusion? Not entirely sure I take your meaning.
DICK: Probably just talking rot. Chap I know reads a lot of Freud. Don’t care for it myself. But I think what I’m getting at is, being so close to Alice, some of her thoughts and feelings might have sort of rubbed off on him, and vice versa, of course.
OSWALD: Oh, Well, I’m not sure…
DICK: No, what I mean is, older brothers and all that. We wouldn’t have stood for any…Any sign of…(Awkward pause)
OSWALD: What do you mean, incipient effeminacy, that sort of thing? Well, he was a poet. We always rather encouraged that.
DICK: I’m not sure that’s quite what I mean. Good old Kipling’s a poet, after all, and you wouldn’t call him…I mean. Would you?
OSWALD: Good Lord, no! But when it comes to Alice, you think that perhaps we ought to let her know the whole, the whole…They were so close, after all. You think perhaps she has some sort of inkling?
DICK: Thing is, old man, I was rather hoping that you’d take the lead on this one. Head of the family, and all that. And we’re agreed we can’t really tell Dora the plain unvarnished.
OSWALD: Hm. Women can be much tougher than you might think. I sometimes think that Alice is the bravest of all of us. She was as a kid, when you think about it.
DICK: Yes, but this is Dora we’re talking about. As I see it, if we tell Alice, she’s bound to blurt it out to Dora sooner or later. She’d feel it her duty. You know what these bluestockings are like. Let Truth be our Watchword, and all that sort of thing
OSWALD: Oh, you surely can’t call Alice a bluestocking! Redstocking, more like. I caught her reading a copy of the Workers Dreadnought the other day.
DICK: She’s positively suffragettish! Short hair, and, you know, comfortable clothes and all that.
OSWALD: She was before the war, I know. But surely, I mean, they’ve got the vote now. What more could they possibly want?
DICK: Ask Alice. She’ll tell you, if you give her half a chance.
OSWALD: I should have thought that with doing all that hard labour during the war, munitions factories and all that, they’d have had enough of chaps’ work, and been grateful to get back to more womanly matters.
DICK: If you ask me, it was doing all that men’s work that got them the vote. You can’t change the way things are with a few stunts like chaining yourself to the railings of Buckingham Palace, and what-have-you. I mean, for Heaven’s sake, if they hadn’t been working in the factories during the war, and on the land and so forth, we’d never have managed, would we? Here, let’s have a top-up.
OSWALD: Well, if you must. No bird ever flew on one wing, as Paddy Shaughnessy used to say. (Awkward pause) Oh, my dear chap! I’m so sorry! I quite forgot. I mean…Oh, how awful!
DICK: What? Oh, that! Used to it, old boy. Completely inured. The medic who took this off told me that anything you’ve got two of, you can do without one of them.
OSWALD: Oh. Ah. Well, nice of you to take it that way.
DICK: Down the hatch. (They drink) Phew! Fairly whistles through the rigging, what?
OSWALD: So, on the whole, we’ll carry on keeping the whole thing to ourselves, then. Noel, I mean.
DICK: Yes. Say nothing. Do nothing. Probably the best course of action. I mean, we’ve only got that fellow’s word for it, and he seemed the most frightful blighter to me.
OSWALD: He certainly wasn’t the sort of chap that you’d want to hear news like that from. Anyway, we shan’t say anything to Dora.
DICK: Good. Glad we’re agreed. Changing the subject, there was a chap I served with on H.M.S. Chester, a Commander. He was terribly interested in what he called Esoteric Buddhism. Anyway, he used to –
(Knock. Enter PARKINS)
PARKINS: Miss Dora, if you please, sir.
OSWALD: Dora? Good Lord! Yes, of course! (Exit PARKINS. Enter DORA)
DORA: The shops were just awful! I nearly – Dicky! How wonderful to see you! (They embrace, a bit awkwardly, owing to DICK’s missing arm) I had no idea you’d be here! Hello Oswald! (They embrace, a little less warmly, but less awkwardly) I brought cream horns. I thought we might have them with a cup of tea. We’ll have to share them between three now. I gave them to Parkins. He’ll bring them in soon, I expect.
DICK: Cream horns?
DORA: Oh, do say you like them! I had terrible trouble finding them.
DICK: Good old Dora and her nursery pleasures!
OSWALD: No need to tease, old man. Of course we’ll have them, Dora. Splendid idea.
DORA: Oh! I see you’ve already been having refreshments.
DICK: Just a small tot, old thing. Blow away the cobwebs.
DORA: A bit early, though, isn’t it? (Pause) Oh well, you hearty sailor men are used to it, I suppose. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, and so on.
OSWALD: We had rum in the Army, too. In the tren – at the front. (DORA is pained by this but covers it.)
DICK: Bit of good news, Dora! Tell her, Oswald.
DORA: Oh, what? What is it?
OSWALD: (Puzzled at first) Not sure what…Oh! Of course! Our little brother! H.O.’s coming over. On the Lutetia.
DORA: Oh how wonderful!
DICK: Yes, bit of goose, isn’t it. We thought we’d all get together, you know. Roust Father out of that dismal little cottage and bring him up to the city.
OSWALD: You’re a terrible one for rousting, Dick. First me; now Father.
DICK: Keep things moving. That’s the ticket. Otherwise, we’d all set like jelly.
DORA: Do you think one of you might tell Alice? I would, but, I mean, we don’t always see eye to eye, Alice and I.
DICK: Eye to eye, Alice and I. Rather good! If old Noel were here, he’d soon whip it up into something for Punch.
OSWALD: (With a warning glance at DICK) Yes! He would have done, wouldn’t he! Good old Noel.
DORA: Working in that dreadful place has such a bad effect on Alice. It’s almost as if she’s turning into one of the women she works with.
DICK: Pooh! Not Alice. Her strength is as the strength of ten because her heart is pure. All that socialism is just her wanting to do good works.
OSWALD: I’ll tell her if you like. But, er, dreadful effect? I hadn’t noticed?
(Enter PARKINS with tray, tea things and cream horns)
DICK: Cream horns! Good biz!
OSWALD: Righto, Parkins. We’ll manage, thanks. (Exit PARKINS. The others sit and start pouring tea, etc.)
Scene 5 – 1919 DORA’s front room. ALICE, MINNIE
MINNIE: I’ll tell missis you’re here, mum.
ALICE: Thanks Minnie. How are you by the way?
MINNIE: (Flummoxed by the question) Me miss?
ALICE: Yes, you. How are things?
MINNIE: Oh, I mustn’t grumble, miss, thanks for asking. (Exit)
(ALICE sighs heavily and throws herself into an armchair. Enter DORA)
DORA: Alice! My goodness, dear, you look quite done up! Are you all right?
ALICE: Yes, I’m fine, Dodo. Exhausted, that’s all. I’d love a cup of tea.
DORA: I’ll see to it right away. (Calls.) Minnie? (DORA exits briefly and returns at once.) Sit down and take the weight off your feet.
ALICE: If I go right off to sleep, don’t blame me. Who’d have thought making toys could be so exhausting!
DORA: I don’t know how you manage, down there.
ALICE: There are plenty of women ‘down there’ as you call it, who have to manage with a lot worse. One came in today with a black eye. She said she banged it on the edge of a table, but we know it was her husband. If he is her husband. They don’t always have the time or money to worry about such things as weddings.
DORA: It sounds terrible. I worry about you.
ALICE: Oh, I’m quite safe. (Taking out a cigarette and lighting it.) I’m going to have a gasper, if you don’t mind terribly. (Pause.) Oh don’t look so disapproving, Dodo! It’s only a cigarette, after all.
DORA: (Whispering.) I don’t like you smoking in front of Minnie!
ALICE: (Laughs mirthlessly.) Do you think I’m setting a bad example to the lower orders?
DORA: (Whispering.) Don’t! She’ll hear you!
ALICE: You can be sure she’s heard worse. Do you know what they called me when I went down to Norman Road at first? The Little Duchess. Because I ‘tawk propah’.
DORA: That’s surely rather unfair. We’ve been poor, too.
ALICE: Us? Poor? Believe me, Dodo, we were never poor, not like poor people are poor. Father was a bit strapped for a time, but we always had servants. Anyway, they don’t call me that any more.
DORA: I hope they’re polite, at least. I hope they show you a bit of respect, I mean.
ALICE: Some call me Alice, the ones who’ve known me the longest. Others call me ‘Miss Alice’. I can’t seem to break them of the habit. Good Old Sylvia calls me ‘Miss Bastable’.
DORA: Well, I’m relieved to hear it. I suppose at least they’re ladies, the Pankhursts. And I don’t suppose Miss Pankhurst would be delighted to hear you refer to her as ‘Good Old Sylvia’.
ALICE: Oh, they’re that all right. Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel are the most frightful snobs. They won’t have anything to do with Sylvia because she lives and works among the women of the East End. They think that’s awfully déclassé, don’t you know.
DORA: (Quietly.) Perhaps I’m a snob, too, then.
ALICE: No doubt about it, darling. But you still talk to me and let me into your house (Enter MINNIE.) and serve me tea.
MINNIE: Will I bring the tea things in, Mrs. Bastable?
DORA: Yes, thank you Minnie. (Exit MINNIE.)
ALICE: (Whispering.) Mrs. Bastable?
DORA: (Whispering.) I know. I can’t seem to break her of the habit, like your ladies down in Bow. (Enter MINNIE with tea things, which she lays, on the table and exits.)
ALICE: Oh, a cup of tea! Thank goodness. I was so bloody tired! This’ll buck me up.
DORA: (Putting her hands over her ears.) Alice! Please! Such language is so soiling!
ALICE: Sorry, Dodo. It just slipped out.
DORA: Really, if that’s the way you carry on in Bow…(Pause.) Don’t ever let Father hear you say that word!
ALICE: I don’t think he’d be likely to send me to bed without supper.
DORA: He’d be saddened to think you’d been so diminished by your work.
ALICE: Do you think I’m diminished by my work?
DORA: You know perfectly well what I mean. Noel’s death was such a blow, and anything else just now…
ALICE: (Bitterly.) Well, you needn’t worry. (Sweetly.) I shall practise my best behaviour on you, Dodo dear, before I go down to see Father. There you are. (Pause.) Have you seen anything of Oswald and Dicky, lately?
DORA: Yes! I saw Oswald last week. His cough’s improving, I’m sure of it.
ALICE: His lungs will never fully recover. You do know that, don’t you?
DORA: But the doctor said that he could look forward to a full recovery given time.
ALICE: Yes, well, that was an army doctor. He’d have to say that. He’d probably say that Dicky’s arm would grow back ‘given time’. Where is Jutland, anyway?..Eugh! My mind’s like a grasshopper when I’m so tired. Oswald’s chest, Dicky’s arm, the Battle of Jutland – it’s all a frightful rag-bag with no sense to it. Rather like the war, I suppose.
DORA: Don’t say that. We beat the Hun, didn’t we? It was something that had to be done.
ALICE: So they tell us.
DORA: Alice! Really!
ALICE: Oh, don’t take any notice of me. I just ramble on when I’m tired. It’s all a lot of nonsense.
DORA: There’s no excuse for making light of the sacrifices of others.
ALICE: I wasn’t – Oh, never mind. (Pause.) The men who were there, you know, at the front; they didn’t hate the Hun. I talk to a few from time to time. Husbands and so on. I see them at work, sometimes. They thought of them as being rather like themselves, forced into a terrible place, putting up with the same sort of things as they were: shells, gas, bombs and bullets. All the fun of the fair.
DORA: One heard such dreadful things! Those nuns in Belgium, the babies, and so on. It doesn’t bear thinking about!
ALICE: I know a boy who thinks that was all my eye.
DORA: Oh, no! Surely not! Whoever would make up things like that?
ALICE: He thinks that they were made up to get us all to hate the Boche and send our boys off to fight.
DORA: Oh no. I simply can’t believe that.
ALICE: Would you rather believe the tales of Belgian nuns being ravished and the babies and all that?
DORA: Of course not. But I can’t think that the government or the military people would tell us such lies. It simply isn’t a decent way to behave. They are all gentlemen, after all.
ALICE: Ah. Decent. No. Still, if they weren’t gentlemen, you could vote them out now, couldn’t you.
DORA: Oh, the vote. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with mine. I’ll just have to ask Father. Or Oswald. I suppose you’d vote for the Labour people.
ALICE: I haven’t got the vote. Not yet. I’m too young.
DORA: Alice…I hope you won’t mind what I’m going to say. The thing is, I think this work that you do in Bow is making you…hard and cynical.
ALICE: (Beat.) Yes. I think it probably is.
DORA: But you don’t want to be like that, Alice!
ALICE: No, I don’t want to be. You should come down to the East End with me one day. Women with five children and nothing to feed them on; war widows reduced to begging in the street; women with husbands crippled by the war, unable to work and they’ve got to do it all. Yes, and they swear, and smoke if they can, and they’d drink if they could, and some do, and who could blame them? And life’s hard, all right, and it makes them cynical, all right; but decent? I didn’t know what decent meant until I saw how those women cope and try to look after each other. And they’ve got nothing to look forward to. Nothing. It just gets worse, day after day. Any more tea in that pot?
DORA: (Pours ALICE another cup of tea.) Of course, we always knew that life was difficult for poor people. (Pause.) You see, what I can’t quite grasp is why you feel you have to busy yourself on their account? People like us don’t really fit in with them, do we? You said it yourself, they call you the Little Duchess, wasn’t that it? I mean, are they grateful?
ALICE: Grateful? Heavens, Dodo, you’d never ask that if you’d spent as much time down there as I have. Look, we’ll just have to agree to disagree about it. It’s my work, and I love it. That’s all you need to know.
DORA: I’d think it quite saintly of you, if you weren’t so coloured by it all.
ALICE: Oh, I think you’ve struck it there! Little Saint Alice, that’s me. Alice Bastable with the heart of gold. Well, not gold. Gimcrack, maybe.
DORA: Darling, don’t be flippant.
ALICE: Oh, I am so very tired! Dodo, darling, would you be awfully sweet and let me stay tonight? I shan’t take up much room, and I’ll have to leave early in the morning. I just can’t bear the thought of travelling across London at this time of night.
DORA: Of course you can! You can have my bed.
ALICE: No. Don’t be silly. Where would you sleep?
DORA: Oh, the couch is perfectly comfortable. I’ve slept on it lots of times.
ALICE: No, I shan’t throw you out of your bed. The couch is good enough for me. I’m used to roughing it, remember.
DORA: I won’t hear of it. Go on, off you go. You’re entitled to a little comfort sometimes.
ALICE: Oh, Dodo. (Embraces her.) You silly old thing. All right. Good night. You’re a brick. (ALICE exits. DORA turns to the couch and tries to stretch out on it. It is clearly very uncomfortable indeed.)
Scene 6 – 1919. The King’s Head pub, public bar. CARTWRIGHT seated at a table. OSWALD and DICK enter, looking round.
DICK: Look, there he is. (DICK and OSWALD make their way across to where CARTWRIGHT is sitting.)
OSWALD: Mister Cartwright?
CART: Oh. It’s you.
OSWALD: Look here, Cartwright, we’ve just come to say sorry about last time. We really didn’t mean to cause offence.
CART: None taken, Captain. As I said, I’m sure it was kindly meant.
DICK: A drink’s a different thing, though, isn’t it. Will you have a drink with us?
CART: (Pause.) I suppose that’s all right. Very well, gents, I’ll have a pint of mild, if that’s what you’re offering.
OSWALD: I’ll go and order. Usual for you, Dick?
DICK: Whisky for me, Oswald. Make it a double measure, would you? What about you, Cartwright? Sure you won’t change your mind and have a whisky with us?
CART: No thanks, Commander. It goes to my head so quick, you see. A pint of mild will suit me fine.
DICK: Fair enough.
CART: Joe Timmins told me as how you were keen to talk to me about your brother.
DICK: That’s true. We’d be very grateful if you could give us a few details. Just to put our minds at rest, you know.
CART: It’s as I told you before, sir. There’s some things that ought to be left to lay where they are. Now, you’re being very civil to me, and don’t think I aint grateful. But there’s nothing I can tell you that’ll put your mind at rest. So, I’d be obliged if you’d just let it lay where it is.
OSWALD:(Returns with the drinks.) Here you are, Cartwright, one pint of mild. Whisky for you, Dick and a half of bitter for me.
DICK: Only half a bitter, old man? You can push the boat out a bit, surely!
OSWALD: No, the half pint’s enough. Strong drink seems to tickle up my chest, somehow.
DICK: Hard cheese. I’ve been trying to get Cartwright here to tell us about Noel, but he’s adamant that the subject ought to be dropped.
CART: Now, I don’t mean no disrespect, Captain, and here’s your very good health.
OSWALD: Is it so very bad, then?
DICK: I suppose the worst we can imagine is that he was shot for cowardice.
CART: Cowardice? No, gents. You’re way out. Cowardice? Gawd, I seen a kid of sixteen, lied about his age to join up. When the shelling started, he was weeping like a baby! He was so scared he put a bullet through his hand to get hisself sent home. He got sent home, all right. Sixteen years old and shot like a dog for cowardice in the face of the enemy. I bloody near got picked for the firing squad, and all. Lucky to get out of it. The whole thing was bloody murder from start to finish.
OSWALD: I’ve seen young lads in a funk, too. Most of them managed to pull themselves together, though.
CART: Yes, and where are they now. Still lying in the mud, a lot of ‘em.
DICK: So it wasn’t a case of cowardice, with our brother, I mean? It’s important for us to know, you see. We’ve got sisters, and they would like to be told the truth, if it bears telling, that is.
CART: You see, gents, you was in it yourselves. You know what it was like. And you know there’s things that don’t bear talking about, especially to women. There’s things you’d never tell those sisters of yours, aint there. That whole war, from start to finish was just bloody murder, pure and simple. No one came out of it with clean hands, did they. Not a soul.
OSWALD: We had a job to do, and we did it. It was a pretty filthy job sometimes, but it had to be done. I dare say all of us remember things from the war that we’re not proud of, but from the moment they went into Belgium, we knew we had to get them out.
DICK: (Trying to lighten the mood.) Of course. Or we’d all be drinking lager beer, now.
CART: (Angrily) If that’s the worst that could happen, then I’m bleeding well sorry – No. I’m grateful for the pint, gents, and I don’t mean no offence, no disrespect to either of you. It was a dirty rotten thing happened to your brother, and a lot of dirty rotten things happened to a lot of decent blokes, and that’s all I’ll say about it. (He drains his glass and stands.) Thanks very much, gents both. I’ll be on my way, now, and wish you good night. (He passes TIMMINS on the way out. They stop to have words.)
OSWALD: So. We’re no forrader, are we.
DICK: Whole thing was a bit of a frost. Still, we can be pretty sure that Noel didn’t disgrace himself. Pretty dismal view he has of the war, our friend Cartwright.
OSWALD: (Beat.) Good Lord, Dick!
OSWALD: Well, I don’t know how it was in the Navy, but what he said was pretty near the truth, if you ask me.
DICK: Come come, Oswald. You said it yourself. It was a dirty job, but it had to be done.
OSWALD: Sometimes it was very dirty indeed.
CART: (From near the door, shouting to TIMMINS who is making his way to OSWALD and DICK) Not a bloody word, Joe Timmins! You hear me? Not a single word! (Exit)
DICK: Hullo? What’s all that?
OSWALD: It’s the other fellow. He’s coming over.
TIMMINS: Evening, gents. You found Bill, then?
OSWALD: Good evening, Mister Timmins. It is Timmins isn’t it?
TIMMINS: That’s me, Captain. I bet old Bill never told you nothing, did he.
DICK: And you don’t know what he could have told us, do you?
TIMMINS: Ooh, you never know. He might tell me things he’d never tell you gents. We was together through most of it, you see.
DICK: So he did tell you something, did he?
TIMMINS: Easy does it, Commander. I only came in here for a quiet drink.
OSWALD: (Looks at DICK.) We’ll stand you a drink if you can tell us anything.
TIMMINS: Very kind I’m sure. I’ll have a pint of stout. Mind if I take the liberty? (He sits. OSWALD rises to fetch a drink for TIMMINS.)
DICK: Make yourself at home.
TIMMINS: I reckon I’m more at home here than you are, Commander, if you don’t mind my mentioning it. There’s not many of your class comes in here.
DICK: I’m not surprised, judging by the quality of the whisky they serve here.
TIMMINS: The toffs like to keep the best stuff for theirselves. It don’t get down this far. Not often, anyway.
DICK: And when it does, it comes by a pretty roundabout route, no doubt.
TIMMINS: That’s right. Here, you aint coppers, are you?
DICK: The police don’t take one-armed men.
TIMMINS: No, I suppose not. No skin off my nose either way.
OSWALD:(Returning.) One pint of stout. And here’s another for you. Dick.
DICK: Well done. Good man.
TIMMINS: That’s very white of you, Captain. Cheers.
OSWALD: You don’t find that it affects your chest? It does mine.
TIMMINS: Mother’s milk to me, Captain.
DICK: Now, have you anything to tell us in return?
TIMMINS: All right, gents. There’s something old Bill told me that might be of interest to you, or it might not. About a young lieutenant who got hisself killed almost as soon as he arrived at the front.
OSWALD: Go on, then.
TIMMINS: The way Bill told it, it was like this…
Scene 7 – DORA’s front room. ALICE knitting and DORA sewing.
DORA: Do you remember when we were children, and Noel wrote that poem about you knitting? (Quotes.) My dearest sister knits and knits –
DORA/ALICE: I hope to goodness the stocking fits.
ALICE: And then he apologized to you for calling me his dearest sister.
DORA: Did he? That’s so like him. Dear Noel, it’s so nice to remember him.
ALICE: Nice for us.
DORA: Nice for us? How do you mean?
ALICE: Well, I don’t know. I was with Oswald and Dicky a couple of weeks ago, and they seemed quite uncomfortable about it; secretive almost, the way they looked at each other and looked away again. Almost conspiratorial.
DORA: Secretive? What possible secrets could they have?
ALICE: Goodness knows.
DORA: I dare say it’s just the way the boys take it. They’re more inward about such things. I remember when Mother died, Oswald went upstairs and shut the door, and Dicky went down to the bottom of the garden. Neither of them said a word.
ALICE: Yes, but this was different, somehow. They weren’t like it before. They were all gruff and manly before, hiding their feelings behind the stiff upper lip, but now, it’s as though they’re covering something up. (Beat.) Perhaps I’m just making a lot out of nothing. I suppose life looks quite different once you’re out of uniform.
DORA: I can’t see what they could possibly be hiding. I’m sure you’re imagining it.
ALICE: There is something.
DORA: What? What can you possibly mean?
ALICE: Well, Noel was never a very manly man, was he?
DORA: He was always very sensitive.
ALICE: Yes, he was. But perhaps it was something more than that.
DORA: You mean he always wore his heart on his sleeve?
ALICE: The part that he could show, perhaps, yes.
DORA: You speak in riddles, my dear!
ALICE: The thing is that I have a strong feeling that Noel…Well, you remember all that to-do about Oscar Wilde?
DORA: Oscar Wilde? I can’t see – oh! No! No, I can’t believe that. Not of Noel.
ALICE: Can’t you?
DORA: No, I mean, that – that’s a sort of illness, isn’t it, or something like that? Noel wasn’t ill. I’m certain of it. Not in that way.
ALICE: Perhaps you’re right.
DORA: I can’t think how you’d even think a thing like that of your own brother! I always knew that working in the East End would be bad for you. Now I know it. It just twists everything out of shape. Everything!
ALICE: All right, Dodo, let’s drop it. Forget I said anything.
DORA: How your imagination could be so poisoned!
ALICE: All right, all right. Let’s not discuss it any further.
DORA: I feel quite upset, now.
ALICE: I’m sorry, Dodo. I should never have said anything.
DORA: No, I don’t think you should. All right. We’ll say no more about it. (Awkward pause.) Oh, by the way, did Oswald tell you? About H.O.?
ALICE: What about H.O.?
DORA: He’s coming over! Sailing on the Lutetia! Isn’t it wonderful! Our little brother coming home at last!
ALICE: How splendid! He’s probably huge and suntanned and leathery handed, and talking with an American accent!
DORA: In a ten gallon hat!
ALICE: Sporting six guns on each hip. Oh, I have missed him!
DORA: We all have! Still, I think it was quite right of Father and Uncle to send him to America.
ALICE: Away from the war.
DORA: Yes, away from the war. You know what he’s like. He would have said he was older, just to join up.
ALICE: Oh yes. He wouldn’t have let his brothers go where he wasn’t allowed. And so many boys did lie about their ages to go to war.
DORA: Yes, I’m sure they did. It showed the right spirit. I imagine all boys long to fight for King and country, and prove themselves on the field of battle.
ALICE: (Bitterly.) Well, the war certainly gave them plenty of opportunity.
DORA: Well, let’s not talk about the war. We’ll only start to quarrel. How’s your knitting? How far have you got?
MINNIE: If you please, mum, it’s Mister Bastable.
ALICE: Which Mister Bastable, Minnie?
MINNIE: (Confused and embarrassed.) The army one, Miss. Not the gentleman with one – not the sailor.
(Enter OSWALD in smart civilian suit. Exit MINNIE.)
OSWALD: Hello Dodo! Alice, you dreadful bolshevik! What a lovely surprise! (Embraces them both.)
ALICE: Now we know how Minnie distinguishes between you and Dicky. You’re the army one.
DORA: And Dicky’s the sailor. (Glances quickly and anxiously at ALICE.)
OSWALD: So she’s got us sorted out in her mind, then. Jolly good, though she might have to revise her views now that both of us are back in civvies. And since you’re here, Alice, I’ve got some pretty first rate news.
ALICE: You mean about H.O.?
OSWALD: Yes. Has Dora told you?
ALICE: Yes, just now.
OSWALD:(Mildly disappointed) Oh. Oh well, so you know. Topping, isn’t it.
DORA: We were just wondering how he’ll turn up. All dressed for the Wild West, we thought.
OSWALD: That would be something, wouldn’t it. We’ll have to get him a horse so that he can gallop around Blackheath.
ALICE: The rest of us can be Indians. Oswald can be the mighty Sachem. You’re the mighty Sachem type. We can all live in wigwams on the hill by Greenwich Observatory.
DORA: I think I’d prefer to stay here, if you don’t mind.
OSWALD: Paleface like maisonette in Lewisham. Wigwam too much like roughing it. Ugh!
DORA: Tease me as much as you like. (Brightly, changing the subject.) How’s Dicky? Have you seen him lately?
OSWALD: Oh he’s in fine form. I have seen a bit of him lately, as it happens. We’re looking into some old war stuff.
ALICE: Oh? What sort of old war stuff?
OSWALD: Nothing that would interest you, dear. All dry as dust and, er, rather dispiriting.
ALICE: I’ve been looking into some old war stuff, too, in a way. I’ve been going through Noel’s letters. I always keep the last one he wrote with me.
DORA: You should read it Oswald. Is that all right, Alice? Could Oswald be allowed to read it?
ALICE: Of course. (Takes letter from her bag.) Here it is.
OSWALD: Thanks. I say, would you mind awfully if I took it away and read it later?
ALICE: I suppose so. Promise you’ll look after it!
OSWALD: Oh, of course I will. And, er, is it all right if I show it to Dicky, too?
ALICE: I don’t mind, as long as you bring it back safely. It was his last letter. I do rather treasure it.
OSWALD: Of course I’ll take great care of it. (Puts it in his wallet.) Look here, what say we all have dinner out? My treat? Alice, will your socialist principles allow you to be given dinner by a bloated capitalist like me?
ALICE: First rate notion! Count me in. What say you, Dodo?
DORA: Are you sure you can afford it, Oswald?
OSWALD: My dear girl, dinner for the three of us is well within my current capabilities. We solicitors don’t starve, you know.
ALICE: Oswald has restored the family fortunes! Well done you! I always knew you would.
DORA: Well if you’re sure?
OSWALD: Quite sure. Come on.
Scene 8 – The King’s Head. TIMMINS. Enter to him CARTWRIGHT
TIMMINS: All right, Bill?
CART: Don’t you all right me.
TIMMINS: That’s nice, that is! What’s the matter with you?
CART: Of course you had to bleeding tell them, didn’t you.
TIMMINS: What? Tell who what?
CART: Them two toffs what was in here asking about their brother. I told you that in confidence, and you went and told them the whole thing straight out. After I said not to, and all.
TIMMINS: Who the bloody hell do you think you are giving orders? They wanted to know, so I told ‘em. You wouldn’t, so I did.
CART: Oh yes. And what did they give you?
TIMMINS: I never made nothing out of it…Well, pint of stout.
CART: Oh yes, and the rest. Yah, you disgust me, Joe Timmins.
TIMMINS: What, a couple of toffs come in here asking about their brother, and you won’t tell ‘em what they want to know? Where’s the sense in that? Where’s the decency?
CART: Don’t you bloody talk to me about decency! I know why you done it.
TIMMINS: Oh really! Go on then, tell me why I done it if you’re so clever. Go on!
CART: Gercha. Go on, get out of it.
TIMMINS: No, I’m serious. Why do you think I told them toffs what you wouldn’t tell ‘em? Eh?
CART: You told ‘em because you thought they’d give you something in exchange. There now. I hope they did, and I hope whatever it was bloody choked you. Now then.
TIMMINS: My right hand to God, Bill, I never got more nor a pint of stout, and that was between gents.
CART: Oh, you’re a gent now, are you?
TIMMINS: All right, I told ‘em what you told me. No more, no less. So now what?
CART: What did you tell ‘em?
TIMMINS: I told ‘em what you told me, that’s it. Just what happened to some young iron hoof of an officer. Come on, Bill, have a drink. Have one on me, come on.
CART: I’ll buy me own, thanks.
TIMMINS: All right. Just tell me this, Bill Cartwright! What do you care about a couple of toffs you don’t know from Adam, or their sisters? Why should they be spared? Look around you! There’s not a man in this pub didn’t see something as bad as that or worse happen to his mates! Three years I was in that lot! All that mud and rats and lice; bullets and bombs and bloody gas! And when I get invalided out, some cow sticks a white feather in me hand! I’d have taken it all; I’d have taken the lot, but that bitch with her white feathers!
CART: All right, she should never have give it you, but I made her take it back, didn’t I.
TIMMINS: Yes, you done that for me, but now you’re mates with them toffs.
CART: They aint no mates of mine.
TIMMINS: So what are you being all hoity toity about, then?
CART: I asked you, didn’t I. I particularly asked you not to say nothing to them toffs, and you went ahead and did it. That’s what sticks in my craw. You ask a mate to do something, and he bloody goes and does the opposite. Things are bad enough as it is, without your own kind betraying you.
TIMMINS: Betraying? By Christ, I’ll give you bloody betraying! Come outside! Come on, you self-righteous bastard! I’ll give you betraying!
CART: Shut your cake-hole for gawd’s sake.
TIMMINS: No, I mean it! Come on! Outside!
CART: I aint going. Get that pint down your neck, and not so much of it. Come on, Joe. What’s done is done. We don’t need to talk about it no more.
TIMMINS: No, my feelings is hurt. (Drinks his pint off.) I’m off. But I’ll tell you this! I told them toffs, all right, and you know why? Coz it would take the bleeding wind out of their sails. Coming round here, lording it over us lot. So I told ‘em the truth, just to see how they’d like it. I wanted to sicken ‘em, and I did. Now then.
CART: I hope you’re satisfied.
TIMMINS: I am, thanks. Thank you, yes! I am!
CART: Stupid sod.
Scene 9 – OSWALD’s study. OSWALD and DICK, sitting, reading NOEL’s letter. NOEL appears in uniform, as in a flashback)
OSWALD: (After a pause.) So what do you think?
DICK: (Wrestling with emotions.) Well. It rather looks as though…
OSWALD: Looks as though what that fellow in the pub said was true.
DICK: It’s worse than that, Oswald. Look, do you mind if I have a drink?
OSWALD: Please, help yourself. How do you mean, worse?
DICK: Can I tempt you?
OSWALD: Too early for me. You go ahead. Sure you can manage?
DICK: No trouble at all. (Pours drink.) The man Timpson said –
OSWALD: Timmins, I think.
DICK: Yes, him. I mean, it just didn’t sound like Noel. It sounded more like you. (Pause.) Sorry, Oswald. I’m sure you weren’t, you know, like that.
OSWALD: I wouldn’t have lasted long if I had been. But you think that, after all, it was Noel? Not someone else, and we’ve got all mixed up?
DICK: It’s this bit here: (Reads as NOEL enters in uniform apart from the others, as though re-reading his letter.) ‘There’s quite a different sense of camaraderie here at the front. I was overseeing the dinner rations today, bully beef and other stuff too ghastly to contemplate ‘
OSWALD: Things must have been pretty lax in that sector of the line. I’d never have allowed a remark like that about the food to get through!
DICK: Perhaps the chap censoring officer’s letters thought that Noel’s literary background excused him.
OSWALD: A likely story. Lax, I call it. Anyway, carry on.
DICK: Where was I? Here we are. – ‘And I said to one of the chaps…
(Light comes up on NOEL)
NOEL: – ‘And I said to one of the chaps, “Not exactly the Ritz, is it?” He just turned to me, smiled and said, “You’re right, there!” Just like that! No ‘sir’, no salute or anything. It was really quite matey. It’s the sort of thing that makes life here bearable. Don’t think I’m complaining when I tell you that it’s not what you might call idyllic, living in a trench. I said to him, “Don’t you salute an officer?” I wasn’t checking him, you understand, I wasn’t trying to assert my precious authority; I just wanted to know how things are here. Well, at once the poor fellow sprang to attention, gave me a real parade ground salute and apologized. Rather embarrassing! I just said, all right. Carry on. Some of the chaps in the line gave me some very dirty looks. I think I’ve committed a breach of trench etiquette in rather a serious way. Even we exalted officer types have to mind our Ps and Qs. Especially us officer types, perhaps! It’s not at all like in training. Still, we’re all in it together, and these chaps are the salt of the earth. It’s an absolute privilege to be amongst them. Rough on the outside, but dig a little deeper, and there’s gold.’
(Silence. Light fades. Exit NOEL.)
DICK: (Crosses to drinks and pours himself another.) You sure you won’t?
OSWALD: I find strong drink rather tickles up my chest these days. The gas, I expect. I wish Alice hadn’t shown me the letter. The whole thing seems so…bloody.
DICK: Yes, but is such a thing possible? I mean, you were there, at the front. Could such a thing have happened?
OSWALD: A lot of things happened that wouldn’t bear examination.
DICK: So you believe it?
OSWALD: The fact is, Dick, it could have happened.
DICK: Look here, Oswald, I want to go back to that pub and get them to tell me exactly what happened and who was responsible.
OSWALD: And then what would we do?
DICK: You’re the lawyer! You’re the chap with the legal brain. You tell me!
OSWALD: It’s all hearsay. Second hand hearsay at that. There’s no evidence, and no witnesses to speak of.
DICK: Well, all right, what about the other chap? Cartwright? What about him? Doesn’t he count?
OSWALD: Hardly. Not in any way that a court of law could accept. Let alone a Court Martial.
DICK: So there’s nothing we can do?
OSWALD: Dick, I know I go on about the trenches –
DICK: You don’t, you know. You hardly ever say a word!
OSWALD: Well, I think about it a lot. Dream about it. Anyway, the thing is, it wasn’t normal life. The conditions were…unspeakable. Men did things…There was this big crump one day, and a chap was buried alive. The shelling was so fierce that we just couldn’t dig him out. But one of his hands was sticking out, you see.
DICK: Yes. Sounds pretty awful.
OSWALD: No, the thing is, as the men moved to and fro in the trench, going about their duties, they shook hands with this hand. For luck.
DICK: Gallows humour. We had that in the Navy, too.
OSWALD: Then, there was another time: a sniper shot one of our chaps in the backside just as he was going to the latrine. Well, we all had a good laugh. It sounds pretty callous, but you see what I mean? It wasn’t normal life. Well, you can’t have men unable to use the latrine, otherwise you’d have men up to their ankles in, er, in no time. So I gave the order to keep a wary eye out. The Lewis gunner saw where this German sniper was, in a tree. So I said, well done. We’ll wait until dusk. And so, as the sun was setting, we all opened fire on this tree. Small arms, Lewis gun, the lot. I was firing my Webley, too. My wrist was aching like mad when we ceased fire. When I gave the command to cease firing, there was hardly anything left of the tree, let alone the man in it.
DICK: But that was an enemy! You can’t have snipers picking men off in the latrine!
OSWALD: No, you can’t. But you see what I mean about normal life? Perhaps I will have a drink after all. Plenty of soda, please.
DICK: (Pours drink for OSWALD.) It won’t do, I’m afraid. I’m sure it was hell in the front line, but that doesn’t excuse it, or even explain it.
OSWALD: I can’t forget it, either, Dick. I simply think that trying to gain redress at law at this stage will be a complete waste of time.
DICK: (Silence.) No doubt you’re right. Well, I’m going now.
OSWALD: Oh. Do you have to go? So soon, I mean?
DICK: Yes. I’ve, er, got to clear my head. Get some fresh air.
OSWALD: Dick, you do see what I mean, don’t you? It’s terrible, but I really don’t think there’s anything to be done. Not now. If nothing was done at the time, nothing can be done now. It’s utterly hateful, but one must be realistic about the matter.
DICK: If it were someone else, no doubt I’d feel the same as you. But this was Noel, you see. It was Noel, Oswald.
Scene 10 – The King’s Head. CARTWRIGHT.
CART: Good evening, sir.
DICK: Mind if I sit down?
CART: Help yourself. Plenty of room.
DICK: I wonder if you remember me?
CART: I remember you all right, sir.
DICK: Only I’m in civvies, now. Still, there’s my arm, of course.
CART: You’re not the only one round here like that. Anyway, I remember you all right. I fell out with Joe Timmins about you and your brother.
DICK: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Never meant to be a cause of ill feeling between you.
CART: What’s done is done. Wasn’t your fault, sir. Still, you know it all, now, don’t you. Your brother couldn’t help being what he was, but it got him killed. Should never have happened. It was a dirty thing, but a lot of dirty things happened to blokes who didn’t deserve it.
DICK: We were hoping, my brother and I that is, that perhaps it was another chap that you were talking about, but my sister had this letter, you see, and it all ties in.
CART: A letter? What sort of letter was that, then?
DICK: It was from our brother Noel. Lieutenant Bastable. He wrote about supervising the dinners, and making a joke, and some chap just nodding and smiling, and so on. Rather like the story we heard from Timmins, as a matter of fact. Look, I’ve got it here, actually. Perhaps you’d like to – Sorry, you can read, I take it?
CART: You’d be astonished what we lower class types can do.
DICK: Of course. I’m so sorry.
CART: I’d rather not poke my nose into nothing private, if it’s all the same to you, sir.
DICK: I’d be most obliged to you if you would read it. It would help clear things up for my brother and me, you see.
CART: All right then. Let’s have a look. (Takes the letter and reads.)
DICK: (Taking the letter back.) What do you think?
CART: (Sighs deeply. Pause.) He says, “Not like the Ritz, is it?” And I says, I don’t know, something like, “That’s right,” or “You’re right there,” or something, and he says, “Don’t you salute an officer?” Of course, when an officer says that, you stand to attention, and bloody smart about it, too.
DICK: Yes. Of course. It was like that in the Navy, too. He’d been trying to get to the front, but he wasn’t posted there till 17. I suppose they were pretty short of trained officers by that time. A lot of them hadn’t, er…
CART: What? Survived? None of ‘em did. Damn few, anyway. Damn few. But your brother, well. That sickened me, and Christ knows there was enough to sicken you in that lot.
DICK: So what happened? I’d really like to know, and, well, you were there. Not like Timmins.
CART: (Pause.) One of the blokes came into our dugout and says that Lieutenant Bastable was laying dead in the trench, like he’d slipped off of the firing steps. We went out to have a look. There he was. We thought at first he’d stuck his head too far over the edge. That happened to a lot of blokes. Anyway, the next day it was, Sergeant Major come down and says that Lieutenant Bastable had gone out on a night recce, met a jerry patrol and been wounded. He’d made it back to the lines, but succumbed to his wounds on his return.
DICK: A night recce? But that’s different! That’s quite a different thing! You mean –
CART: He wasn’t on no night recce, sir. He was never on no night recce.
DICK: But how do you know it wasn’t a night recce? How can you be sure?
CART: Your brother would know sir, the other gentleman as was with you before. You see, when you go out on a night recce, you put boot polish all over your face and hands, so they won’t show white in the dark. Well, there wasn’t none, was there. He was white as chalk, barring the mud. There wasn’t no night recce.
DICK: Look here, don’t feel you have to spare my feelings. I was in the Navy. That’s how I lost this. Battle of Jutland. It could be pretty hellish sometimes there too. But what I want to know is, what exactly happened?
CART: It was, I don’t know, it wasn’t like real life. It was like a slice of hell burst up and dragged us all into it. There was one of our blokes caught wounded on the wire one time. Nothing we could do about it. Any stretcher party we sent out there’d get shot to pieces. This bloke, he was shouting and screaming, screaming for his mum, he was in that much pain. This goes on for hours. Imagine that. I never knew the bloke, but he was one of ours, all right, screaming for bloody hours, and nothing no one can do. Then after a couple of hours his voice went, and he was just moaning. Moaning and moaning. Gets on your nerves something rotten, a thing like that. In the finish, the officer after your brother, he shouts out, “Someone shut that man up for Christ’s sake!” The sergeant turns to me and says, “Cartwright? You heard the officer. Up them steps sharpish and finish him off.” So I did.
DICK: Shot him, you mean? Put him out of his misery?
CART: I don’t know about his misery, but it put him out of ours. I did. I shot him. So there, I did for one of our own, and all. And look at me. Not a bleeding scratch on me. That’s justice for you. There wasn’t no justice in that war. And we’re paying the price for it now.
DICK: Paying the price?
CART: For what we done. When we wasn’t doing it to Jerry we was doing it to ourselves.
DICK: (Silence) Well, thank God it’s all over, anyway.
CART: All over? Yes, I suppose it is. Look at us now. Blokes without jobs, families with nothing coming in. The Spanish Flu done for whole families down our street, and no one couldn’t pay no doctor. Them doctors that did come round did what they could, fair play to ‘em, but there wasn’t no money to pay ‘em.
DICK: Things are bound to get better. You’ll see.
CART: Maybe they will. For some.
DICK: My sister works in the East End, trying to help out, in the toy factory in Norman Road, you know.
CART: (Bitterly.) Does she! That’s all right then, isn’t it.
DICK: Damn it, Cartwright, I don’t like your tone! Look, if you’re not going to tell me anything, I’d best be on my way.
CART: Look here sir, I’ve said it before: I don’t mean no disrespect. If your sister’s trying to help people as needs it, good luck to her. But don’t come down here expecting us to give you three cheers, or stand to attention when an officer comes into the room, nor nothing like that. Or expecting us to be grateful when toffs chuck a bit of charity our way. It’s us working men has to look out for each other now. We can’t expect no help, no real help from no one. Not the government, not no one. I’ve seen them Parish boards, snooty women looking down their noses at people with nothing, like it’s their own fault.
DICK: My sister doesn’t look down her nose at anyone.
CART: Good for her.
DICK: I think I’d best be on my way and let you get on with it, hadn’t I? Goodness knows you’ve got plenty to do to improve matters round here, though I can’t see much of it happening in this place. (Stands.) Look, don’t think I’m not grateful.
CART: (Beat.) Buggered if I can see what difference it makes, to be honest. Don’t expect we’ll be meeting again. Good night.
DICK: Look here, are you giving me my marching orders? A man like you?
CART: That’s it, that’s the old tone. You lot, you really do believe that you’re better than us, don’t you. (Tired.) Take it any way you like. Well, you can’t help it, I suppose. We know our places, you and me. Yours aint here.
DICK: I won’t be chivvied by you! This isn’t Russia!
CART: (Quietly.) More’s the fucking pity. Look, you want to know exactly what happened with your brother? I’ll tell you. Sit down and I’ll tell you.
DICK: (Stands uncertainly for a moment, then sits.)
Scene 11 – A trench on the Western Front. NOEL
NOEL: Sergeant Walsh? Sergeant Walsh? Get a couple of chaps to – What’s this?
Enter SOLDIER in uniform holding a bayonet
NOEL: Careful with that thing, Private. You might fall and hurt yourself.
SOLDIER: I might at that sir.
NOEL: Seen Sergeant Walsh? I need a couple of chaps to clean up a mess at Tattenham Corner up there.
SOLDIER: Sorry sir. I aint seen him for a while, sir. He was in the dugout last time I seen him, sir.
NOEL: I’d better roust him out, if he’s still there.
SOLDIER: Wouldn’t do that if I was you, sir.
NOEL: What? Why ever not? What are you talking about, man?
SOLDIER: Well sir, Sergeant Walsh, he’s got a sweetheart sir.
NOEL: Look here, are you telling tales out of school, Private?
SOLDIER: Wouldn’t dream of it sir. All I’m saying sir, Sergeant Walsh might be a bit busy just now sir.
NOEL: Damn! I suppose I’d better go and have a look for myself.
SOLDIER: Can’t stop you, sir.
NOEL: And put that bloody bayonet away! (NOEL turns to enter the dugout.)
SOLDIER: I’ll put it away all right, you fucking ginger beer!
(SOLDIER stabs NOEL, who falls dead.)
SOLDIER: This is the front, mate! This is the fucking front! Not fucking Sandhurst!
(He exits quickly, looking around furtively)
Scene 12 – DORA’s front room. DORA, ALICE
ALICE: Dicky’s awfully late, isn’t he? Do you think it’s the fog?
DORA: I know. I don’t like to be silly about it, but one does worry.
ALICE: Good old Dodo. I don’t blame you for worrying. But I’m sure Dicky’s all right. It must have been worse in the navy. Do they have fogs at sea? I’m sure they do.
DORA: I do worry. You know, just before Mother died, she did make me promise to look after you all.
ALICE: And you did, darling. You did a splendid job. Mother would be terribly proud of you. But we’re all grown up now.
DORA: It’s very sweet of you to say so. But I can’t help growing anxious about you all.
ALICE: You don’t need to grow anxious on my account, anyway.
DORA: Oh, but I do. Darling, you’ll probably think I’m fussing, but you are getting very thin. Are you sure you’re looking after yourself?
ALICE: No need to worry about me, Dodo. I eat like a horse when I can.
DORA: Yes, you look as though you’ve been eating nothing but hay.
ALICE: (Pause.) Dodo! I do believe you just made a joke!
DORA: Did I? I really didn’t mean to.
ALICE: Oh, listen, I must tell you this before the boys come. Is Minnie in the kitchen?
DORA: Yes, I think so. Why? What is it?
ALICE: (Conspiratorially.) It was the other day at work. One of the women said, quite out of the blue: “What is vagina, anyway?”
DORA: (Shocked.) Oh my goodness!
ALICE: And the woman she was talking to thought for a moment and said, “I think it’s short for Victoria Regina, like on the pennies.”
DORA: Good heavens! Good gracious me! What do they say, then? I mean, what do they call…You know?
ALICE: (Crosses to DORA and whispers in her ear.)
ALICE: (Whispers again.)
DORA: Oh. (Then, as though light is dawning.) Oh! Is that what that word means? (Beat.) How odd!
ALICE: Odd? Why?
DORA: I heard a drayman calling a bus driver a stupid…one of those…in the Walworth Road the other day. (Pause) I can’t see any connection.
ALICE: It’s just one of the things that men do. Take women’s intimate parts and make a swearword of them. Not that the women I work with are any better, mind you.
DORA: I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t surprise me.
ALICE: Well, we make some nice toys, anyway. You should go up to Selfridges one day and have a look.
DORA: (Crosses to window.) Oh just look at this fog! I hope the boys don’t get lost in it.
ALICE: Shall I ask Minnie to bring us a cup of tea while we’re waiting?
DORA: No, don’t bother. I will put some more coals on the fire, though. (She does so.)
MINNIE: It’s Mister Bastable, if you please, mum.
DORA: Oh thank you, Minnie.
(Enter OSWALD. He is coughing rather badly.)
DORA: Oh, Oswald! Come in. Sit down. Oh dear, that awful cough!
ALICE: Shall I fetch you a glass of water?
OSWALD: (Waves away the offer, still coughing.) No…Thanks…
DORA: It’s this terrible fog! It used to affect Noel like this, too. Oh dear.
OSWALD: (Stops coughing, draws a deep breath.) Bit better now. Fog seems to set it off, somehow. (Coughs again.)
ALICE: Is there anything I can get you? There must be something?
OSWALD: No no, thanks. Fine in a minute. (Takes another deep breath.) That’s better.
DORA: I thought Dicky would be here first. You haven’t seen him, have you?
OSWALD: Dick isn’t here, yet? Lost in the fog, I expect. He’ll be along.
ALICE: We thought he’d be here a couple of hours ago.
OSWALD: Dick’ll manage. Homing instinct. Like a pigeon. Oof! I feel quite out of breath. Better in a couple of minutes.
DICK: (Voice off.) Hullo Minnie! How’re you?
DORA: It’s Dicky! He sounds cheerful!
DICK: (Voice off.) Still letting the ruling classes oppress you? Don’t stand for it! No need to announce me. (Enters.) Hello hello hello! Here we all are, then!
DORA: Dicky! You seem very festive!
ALICE: My God! Dicky you’re drunk!
DICK: Who, me? Never! Constitution like a battleship. Listing to port a bit. Some guns rendered useless.
OSWALD: You’d better sit down, Dick, old man. You’ve certainly been celebrating somewhere.
DORA: I’d better see Minnie. Perhaps we ought to have tea now. (Exit.)
ALICE: I’ll come and help. (Exit.)
DICK: That’s the stuff. Off you go.
OSWALD: Dick, this is pretty average bad form! You can’t just turn up to your sister’s house drunk!
DICK: Oh, have no fear Ozzie dear. I’ll behave myself. Shan’t disgrace the family escutcheon. What the hell is an escutcheon, anyway? Can you disgrace it? Some sort of flag, I suppose, or coat of arms or something. Isn’t this fog ghastly! I think I walked past the house three times before I found my way.
OSWALD: Where have you been, anyway?
DICK: Here and there. Hither and yon. Chatting to old acquaintances. Finally found a place in Greenwich that serves a decent glass of whisky. Scotch chap runs it. Scotch by name, scotch by nature. Something like that. You know what I mean, don’t you. Anyway, better shut up now. Ladies present. No swearing in the mess and all that.
OSWALD: Just keep quiet. If you can’t keep quiet, keep it decent.
DICK: Right ho, Captain. Carry on. Just remember I outrank you, that’s all.
OSWALD: We’re not in uniform any more. And I’m your elder brother! That gives me certain privileges.
DICK: Quite so. Don’t worry. I shall be a perfect model of behaviour.
OSWALD: See that you are. (Enter MINNIE with loaded tray, ALICE with tray and DORA with tea things in each hand. OSWALD takes ALICE’s tray and sets it on the table.)
ALICE: (Whispers to OSWALD.) How is he?
OSWALD: He’ll be all right. He’s just a bit talkative.
DORA: Here we are. Thanks Minnie. We’ll manage now. (MINNIE exits. DORA pours out tea and ALICE hands it round.) I hope you like these sandwiches. It’s quite difficult to get anchovy paste at the moment.
DICK: Good old Dodo! Trust you to look after us all!
ALICE: I’m sure they’re wonderful.
OSWALD: I can get anchovy paste for you, if you like. There’s a little shop not far from the Inns of Court.
DICK: Good old Inns of Court. Ins and outs of court. Reminds me of tennis. Silence in court! Love fifteen! Game set and match to the counsel for the prosecution. Take the man down and string him up! (OSWALD looks at him severely.) Sorry.
ALICE: (Raising her teacup.) Well, here’s to all of us!
DORA: So nice to be together again. And H.O. will be here soon.
OSWALD: Any day now, I believe.
DICK: Good old Horace Octavius! I say, what do you think the Yanks make of a chap with a name like that? I bet they don’t call him Horace Octavius.
DORA: I expect they call him H.O., as we do.
DICK: (American accent.) Aitch Owe! Aitch two Owe. Limejuice and water.
OSWALD: Dick! Softly does it.
DICK: That’s what they call us, you know. Limejuicers, or limeys. American Navy does, anyway. Pitched battles between our boys and theirs in some of the bars in the far eastern ports. So I’m told.
OSWALD: (Trying to keep things light.) That’s enough of your rough seaman’s talk, Dick! Present company, and all that.
ALICE: Don’t worry on my behalf. I hear far worse things every day in Bow.
DORA: Alice’s factory makes some lovely toys. Really something to be proud of.
DICK: Hooray! Christmas presents for the kiddies!
ALICE: The Germans used to make the best dolls, so they say. But ours are every bit as good, if not better.
DORA: Oh, I’m sure they are!
DICK: Of course they are! Up with British dolls and hang the Kaiser!
ALICE: Dicky! You seem to have hanging on the brain!
OSWALD: Dick! Steady!
DICK: All right, old man. Just high spirits. I shall lapse into a state of silent serenity. You shan’t hear another peep. Honour bright.
OSWALD: These dolls of yours, Alice. Do you help make them, and so on?
ALICE: No. I’m in the office most of the time. But we all eat together. It’s frightfully democratic.
DICK: Long live the Norman Road Doll’s Soviet!
DORA: I suppose that’s when you hear these dreadful expressions that you use.
ALICE: It’s not all the time, Dodo! You can’t say that I’m a foul-mouthed fishwife.
DORA: Well, you have surprised me sometimes, dear. (To OSWALD.) Honestly! Worse than a bargee at times.
DICK: I vote we hear Alice’s frightful expressions! And bags I go next with mine!
OSWALD: (Still trying to keep things light.) Oh, surely not! Not Alice.
DICK: (His tone is gradually becoming more and more bitter.) Three cheers for the salty mouthed suffragettes!
OSWALD: Please, Dick!
ALICE: No! It’s all the most dreadful exaggeration. (Mock sententious.) I remain uncorrupted in my heart. (Giggles.)
DICK: Good old Alice. That’s the stuff! Her strength is as the strength of ten because her heart is pure. She remains unsullied by the company she keeps.
ALICE: Oh, shut up, Dicky!
DORA: I know. I am proud of you really, dear. I know you think I’m old fashioned in my attitudes, but I do think you’re doing something good in the world.
OSWALD: It’s nice for children to have nice toys, after all.
DORA: No, not only that; I mean trying to help people who need it.
ALICE: They need far more than I can provide. What I do is just a drop in the ocean.
DICK: That’s what I’d do. Drop the lot in the ocean! Over the side with the whole shooting match!
ALICE: What do you mean? Drop what in the ocean? The toys we make?
DICK: Toys? Toys? No! Your precious chums in the East End! I’d as soon see the lot thrown over the side than see Alice waste away to nothing!
OSWALD: Dick, for heaven’s sake!
DICK: No, I won’t sit here and listen to Alice telling us about the poor suffering lower classes.
OSWALD: Dick, that’s quite enough!
DICK: Quite enough? It’s not nearly enough! Alice goes trudging and traipsing all the way down to the East End every day to do her bit for the very people who killed her brother!
OSWALD: Richard! Just be quiet! (Starts to cough quietly but unable to say anything.)
ALICE: Don’t be absurd, Dicky!
DORA: Oh, Dicky! Please! You can’t blame the women in the East End for Noel’s death. He died fighting the Boche!
DICK: He died stabbed to death with a bayonet! Stabbed in the back, what’s more by some cowardly swine.
DORA: Don’t! Please don’t!
DICK: But it wasn’t a German! It was one of Alice’s poor little lower classes, who thought he was too bullshit and blanco for the trenches! It was an English soldier killed Noel.
DORA: (Putting her hands over her ears.) I can’t listen! Dicky, please be quiet!
OSWALD: (Moves towards DICK as if to take him outside, but is overcome by a fit of coughing and has to sit.)
ALICE: (Quiet and deliberate.) What do you mean?
DICK: Let Truth Be Our Watchword, and all that, eh? Look! Here! Noel’s last letter. ‘Breach of trench etiquette’ was his phrase. (He takes the letter out of his pocket and throws it on the table. ALICE gathers it up.) Well, it got him killed. By one of the men in his trench. They were afraid he was about to try bringing some sort of military discipline into things.
OSWALD: (Trying to talk through coughs.) Dick…For heaven’s sake…Stop…
DICK: They had to be a different sort of soldier at the front, you see, didn’t they, Oswald? All chums together sort of thing. More or less. More like Boy Scouts than soldiers. Oh, don’t worry. Whoever it was probably got killed themselves, pretty horribly. Cartwright told me. Told me the whole thing. There were a couple of fellows he thought might have done it. One was blown to bits and the other was, I don’t know, shot or something. Big hole where his chest used to be, apparently. (Beat.) But I can’t stand to hear about Alice working herself to a shadow on behalf of those people!
ALICE: (Quietly and coldly.) What do you mean, Dicky?
DICK: They hate us. They loathe and despise us. And they’re the people who killed her own twin brother. That’s all. The Lower Classes. The workers. They’d turn on us as soon as look at us. Look at Russia!
DORA: Oswald, what is he saying? What does it all mean?
ALICE: Dicky, what do you mean about Noel?
DICK: I found it all out. It’s true. Every word. Isn’t it, Oswald! He knows! He wasn’t there to hear the whole thing, but I got it from the horse’s mouth. Noel was killed by one of ours. One of Alice’s working classes. And all because he didn’t understand that things were different in a trench than they were back in dear old Blighty. Oswald’ll tell you. The lower classes and us, we just don’t understand each other, that’s what it comes down to.
ALICE: Dicky, please tell me what you mean.
DICK: Chap called Cartwright waiting for his lunch or dinner, or whatever it was. Noel says: Not like the Ritz, is it? Cartwright just nods and laughs. Poor old Noel expected him to jump to attention and salute, just like at training camp. Ha ha, sir, very good sir. Life in the trench wasn’t like that, though, was it, Oswald! And if the licentious bloody soldiery thought a chap was being too much of a stickler for camp discipline, well, that was the end of him. (Beat.) That was the end of Noel. But the awful thing is, the ghastly bloody tragic thing is that Noel wasn’t being all disciplinarian, was he, Alice? Like it says in his letter, he just wasn’t used to life in the trenches. It was all a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding between him and the salt of the earth. Jolly bad luck, in other words. Beastly bad luck! Poor old Noel. He was just too nice. He was too…innocent. But the reason he was killed was purely and simply because they thought he was a pompous ass.
DORA: But what sort of person would do such a terrible thing?
DICK: God alone knows. Some unknown soldier.
(Silence. Finally, ALICE picks up her shawl and slowly exits.)
DORA: (Following her to the door.) Alice! Please don’t go! (Exit.)
OSWALD: You utter swine, Dick.
DICK: All right. Probably said too much. (Loudly.) But it had to be said!
OSWALD: No it didn’t. It didn’t do any good at all. You’ve probably broken Dora’s heart. God knows what you’ve done to Alice.
DICK: All right. Sorry.
OSWALD: Sorry isn’t really enough to cover the case, is it.
DICK: Damn it, he was my brother, too!
OSWALD: Yes, and these are your sisters! You fool, Dick. You bloody, drunken fool!
(Silence. Finally DICK stands.)
DICK: All right. I’d better go. I’ll go.
OSWALD: Yes. I think that’s best.
(DICK slowly exits. He pauses at the door as if to say something, thinks better of it and goes.)
DORA: I heard the door. Has he gone?
OSWALD: Out into the fog.
DORA: Alice has gone, too.
OSWALD: You can’t really blame her.
DORA: But it can’t be true, can it? It can’t possibly be true, a thing like that?
OSWALD: (Beat.) Uh – No, I don’t suppose for a moment it can.
DORA: Of course it can’t be true. British soldiers murdering their own officers? I mean, it wouldn’t make sense, would it?
OSWALD: Of course not. Dicky’s just got things all mixed up, somehow. It was a night recce, I expect, like it said in the C.O’s letter.
DORA: I think Dicky was drunk! I think he must have been drunk!
OSWALD: (Beat) Yes, I rather think he was a bit.
DORA: He must have been to say such terrible things. Such language! Now I feel as though there’s an awful chasm between us.
OSWALD: No, no. Not as bad as that, I’m sure.
DORA: What a thing for poor H.O. to come back to! Everything in pieces. I’ve tried so hard to keep us together as a family, and now this! (Weeps. OSWALD crosses to comfort her.)
OSWALD: Bear up, old thing. Bear up.
DORA: (Utterly without irony) Yes. That’s the Bastable way, isn’t it.
OSWALD: The Bastable way. Of course it is. We need it now, the way things are in the world.
DORA: Goodness knows what we’d do without it. Anyway, I’d better buck up. I can’t let Minnie see me like this. One has to set a good example.
OSWALD: I’m sure you do, Dodo. I’m sure you do.
Scene 13 – Coda. 1916 – The Bastable home. ALICE. Enter NOEL to her, in uniform.
NOEL: How’s my dear sister?
ALICE: Noel! (Runs to him.) How smart you look!
NOEL: I haven’t got more than a minute. The car’s waiting outside. I just wanted to look in before I went off.
ALICE: I’m so glad you did. I would never have forgiven you if you’d just gone off without saying goodbye.
NOEL: Is Dodo about?
ALICE: No. Oh, she’ll be so sad not to have seen you!
NOEL: Never mind. I’ll have a spot of leave before too long, anyway. I’ll come back and see her then. And you, of course.
ALICE: Oh, look! I found something!
NOEL: What is it? What’s this?
ALICE: I found it among reams of your poetry, the stuff you used to write when we were little. Look.
NOEL: Oh no! Put it away!
ALICE: (Reads.) This is the story of Agincourt.
If you don’t know it, you jolly well ought.
NOEL: Stop! For heaven’s sake!
ALICE: It was a famous battle fair,
And all your ancestors fought there.
That is if you come of a family old.
NOEL: Oh, it’s terrible! Stop! It’s embarrassing!
ALICE: It gets better! Listen:
That is if you come of a family old.
The Bastables do; they were always very bold.
And at Agincourt
As they ought;
So we have been taught.
And so on, for absolutely pages. There. It’s positively immortal, isn’t it.
NOEL: All I can say is I’ve written better stuff since. At least, I hope to goodness I have.
ALICE: I keep all your old poems, you know.
NOEL: I hope you keep some of the newer ones, too?
ALICE: Every word.
NOEL: Well, I must go. Car’s waiting. Lovely to see you. I’ll come back to see you as soon as I can. Honour bright.
ALICE: Yes, please do. (Beat.) Well, off you go. Off you go to add honour to the name of Bastable.
NOEL: Yes, or join the noble Bastable ancestors in the attempt. Cheerio, you ghastly suffragette.
ALICE: Cheerio, you effete poet. Remember the Bastable ancestors.
NOEL: How could I ever forget them? Bye then. (Exit.)
ALICE: (Softly.) Goodbye Noel.
(She gathers the poems together and holds them to her breast.)