A dark-grey comedy in one act by
Peter D. Wilson
ALAN Ineffectual, unambitious and henpecked. His belated access of self-recognition is crucial, not only raising his own moral stature but triggering a gradual realignment of all the characters.
MARGARET His mistress, younger, harder, elegant, with a veneer of worldly wisdom. Genuinely fond of Alan, though impatient with his deficiencies, and using him in the hope for a happiness she has never really known since adolescence.
BARBARA His wife, an intelligent but frustrated former academic, embittered by the unmerited curtailment of her career; cloaking her resentment and impatience with Alan under a mask of ironic detachment; nevertheless the first to recognise the significance of the crisis and ready to respond.
The sitting room of Alan and Barbara’s flat; a door upstage leads by way of a hall to the unseen entrance door, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Furniture includes the usual suite, and a drinks table with gin, whisky, mixers, glasses and a box of tissues. A telephone is beside the settee. A large picture window is probably on the "fourth wall" with a vestigial frame.
The present. A Spring evening, though there is not necessarily any indication of season.
Peter D. Wilson
Seascale, April 1997
Revised January 2001
Copyright © 2001, 2016
Alan bursts in from the hallway, breathless, dishevelled and shaking. He pauses to steady himself, crosses to the drinks table, pours himself a neat whisky, and takes a gulp from it, half choking himself. He moves to the settee, collapses into it, and wipes his forehead with a handkerchief. Noticing blood on the fabric, he dabs feebly at the scratches responsible. After regaining some composure, he telephones. The ring is quickly answered.
ALAN (somewhere between triumph and panic) Margaret - I’ve done it. She’s dead. (Squeaks from the receiver) Yes, after all our dithering, I’ve finally done it. (More squeaks.) All right, my dithering. (Yet more) To be honest, neither did I. No, you come round here - if you don’t mind. My nerves are shot.
He finishes his drink, still shaking, notices his state of disarray, and is about to go to the bedroom, then thinks better of it, takes a comb from his pocket and makes a rather futile attempt to tidy his hair, straighten his collar, fasten shirt buttons (finding some missing), and so on. The door bell rings, and Alan admits Margaret. They kiss, he fiercely, she with an element of reserve.
MARGARET My, you are shaking.
ALAN Sorry. I haven’t got over the shock. I’m not used to this sort of thing.
MARGARET (thinking of the embrace) You could have fooled me.
ALAN You know what I mean. Violence. Particularly ...
MARGARET What eventually drove you to it?
ALAN It’s peculiar, I can’t make much sense of what led up to it. All a blur. (They move to the settee.) We were having an argument, I remember that much. Nothing unusual, of course. She wanted me to apply for a new job. I wasn’t keen - Ah, it’s coming back a bit - apart from anything else, it would have meant moving and made things a lot more difficult for us, not just popping round the corner. But of course I had to give her other reasons. Then she must have said something extra nasty - one of her bitchy comments - and I suppose I finally saw red. I found myself shaking her, she tried to throw me off, we both fell on the bed, she was cursing me, and mocking at the same time - calling me all sorts of names - I put my hand over her mouth to shut her up, and she bit it - so I shoved a pillow over her face - she struggled - God, I’d never have believed she had such strength - then she was still. No breathing, no pulse. That was it.
MARGARET So she’s still in there.
ALAN Well, of course. I was too shaken to move her - just staggered out here and called you. I suppose we’d better do something about it.
MARGARET Understatement of the year. Pity you didn’t think of that before.
ALAN I know. But it all happened too quickly.
MARGARET I dunno, we scheme for months, concoct all sorts of ways we might make it look like an accident or suicide, or simply a disappearance, and then you go and blow the whole thing by losing your temper. Why oh why couldn’t you have waited and done it with a clear head?
ALAN With a clear head I’d never have done it at all. Not in cold blood. I can see that now.
MARGARET After all our plans?
ALAN Just daydreams, I’m afraid.
MARGARET (bitterly) Yours may have been. Mine weren’t. No, I might as well face facts, you probably couldn’t have done it. You always were a bit soft that way. I should have realised it was all talk and no action.
ALAN Don’t you start. I’ve had quite enough with her nagging me - "No drive - no guts - how do you think you’ll ever get on if you don’t assert yourself?"
MARGARET Sorry, dear. It’s just that - well, she did have a point. And you have landed us in rather a mess, haven’t you? To put it mildly.
ALAN I’ve landed myself in one. There’s no need for you to be involved.
MARGARET If I hadn’t come round, there might not have been. But now I’m here, I’m in it. Perhaps not up to the neck, but definitely in it - an accessory after the fact, and probably an accomplice, too.
ALAN I didn’t think of that.
MARGARET The old story - "I didn’t think."
ALAN Sorry, darling. God, I feel awful. (He wipes his brow again.)
MARGARET So you should, most people would say.
ALAN I meant physically.
MARGARET Huh. I should have realised it wasn’t remorse. Have a drink.
ALAN That won’t help. I’ve tried it. And I don’t want to ruin what’s left of my mental capacity.
MARGARET What you need is not mental capacity, it’s a miracle - or a good lawyer.
ALAN But as neither happens to be handy ...
MARGARET I suppose I’ll have to do. Now ... Whether you need a drink or not, I certainly do. No, don’t get up - you’d probably throw it all over me. I’ll help myself.
She is about to pour from the gin bottle, but Alan stops her.
ALAN No, not that ...
MARGARET Why ever not?
ALAN It was her tipple.
MARGARET Well, she’s hardly going to need it now, is she?
ALAN No, but ... Well, I just don’t like to associate you with her habits.
MARGARET It never bothered you before.
ALAN But now it’s after. Things are different.
MARGARET I see. Are there any other pitfalls I ought to know about before I sink irretrievably in your estimation?
ALAN Don’t be like that. None that I can think of, anyway.
MARGARET Thank goodness for small mercies. But until you get over that particular little foible, I’ll have to change my drinks, at least while I’m with you. What else have you got?
ALAN That’s all there is in the way of spirits, I’m afraid. The gin and whisky
MARGARET Not even cooking brandy?
ALAN No, we’re out of it. I was going to bring some more, but I forgot.
MARGARET (with an impatient sigh and an unspoken "Typical!") Whisky it’ll have to be, then. (Pouring for herself and tasting it.) Ugh! The things I do for love. How you can knock back this stuff ... (Grimacing, she half finishes the glass) Now, where were we?
ALAN Discussing the various deficiencies of my character.
MARGARET Clown! Before that, I meant.
ALAN What to do about Barbara - or what was Barbara.
MARGARET I’d better see what state she’s in. Through there, is it?
ALAN Half right across the hall. Are you sure you want to?
MARGARET I’m quite sure I don’t want to, but needs must. And assuming that we either have to get rid of the body or find some plausible explanation that doesn’t leave us in the soup, you might as well try to think on the possibilities yourself.
She goes to the bedroom. Alan sits dejectedly, mentally going through various options and rejecting each in turn with a shake of the head. Margaret returns.
MARGARET Ugh! There’s no chance of passing that off as anything but murder. Or perhaps manslaughter on grounds of provocation. Lots of bruising - a ghastly expression - traces of blood under the fingernails. Oh, and you were right, no breath, no pulse.
ALAN You didn’t think I’d make a mistake about that, did you?
MARGARET Knowing you ... It would be a shade embarrassing if she were to walk in on an earnest discussion of how to dispose of her body. Might take a bit of explaining.
ALAN So does the present situation.
MARGARET Don’t rub it in. Any ideas?
ALAN None that help much. I don’t seem able to concentrate.
MARGARET Well, how about sizing up the position? Let’s get a bit of system into it.
Alan starts prowling round the room, ticking off possibilities on his fingers.
ALAN Well, there are two basic options. One, get rid of the body. Two, keep it and fake a burglary or something of the sort.
MARGARET Right, that’s a start. If not much of one. For and against?
ALAN Dumped bodies have a nasty habit of turning up again. In any case we’d have to account for her disappearance - or rather, I’d have to account for it. Best if we can keep you out of the business altogether.
MARGARET I don’t give much for the chances. But go on.
ALAN Faking a burglary avoids both those problems, but it might not fool the police. And there’s always the risk of landing someone innocent with the blame.
MARGARET Does that really bother you?
ALAN Not as much as it ought.
MARGARET Right. But frankly I don’t trust you not to give the game away on the burglary, so we’ll concentrate for the moment on plan A. How would you get rid of a body without arousing suspicions?
ALAN It’s pretty quiet here at night. I could bring the car to the door ...
MARGARET What about neighbours?
ALAN The people downstairs are away for the week. Upstairs, they went out earlier. Looked as though they were going to a party or something.
MARGARET Better wait until they’re back, then. Don’t want to bump into them on the stair. We’d hear them arrive, I suppose?
ALAN It’s usually obvious enough.
MARGARET No chance of their calling in to see Barbara, is there?
ALAN No, they weren’t on chatting terms. Civil, but reserved.
MARGARET That’s something. Right, supposing the coast’s clear and we get her into the car. What then?
No answer. Alan is out of Margaret’s sight, swaying a little and looking anxious.
MARGARET I said, what then? (Turning) Are you all right?
ALAN Actually, I do feel rather woozy.
MARGARET Nervous reaction, I suppose. Get your head down; I’ll fetch you some water.
She moves to do so. Alan stumbles, falling behind the settee, then slowly emerges and finds his way dazedly to a chair, putting his head between his knees. Margaret returns after a slightly longer delay than might be expected.
MARGARET There. (She perches on the chair arm. Alan drinks the water.) Feeling better.
ALAN Still a bit strange. Improving, though. Sorry about that - not the sort of thing I normally do.
MARGARET Neither is murdering your wife - I hope.
ALAN Only on special occasions.
MARGARET That sounds more like your usual self. Sorry I took so long. For some reason I felt rather queer myself - had to sit down for a moment.
ALAN It’s been a shock for you too. How are you now?
MARGARET All right, I think. Where were we?
ALAN Trying to think of what to do with the body once we’ve got it to the car.
MARGARET Any suggestions yet?
ALAN Nothing much. Just for the moment, I can’t think of anything better than the river.
MARGARET Go on.
ALAN If you turn off before the bridge, there’s a track that runs down under it. Goes to an old anglers’ hut.
MARGARET It’d be just our luck to meet someone fishing.
ALAN No, it hasn’t been used for years. Just a half-ruined shack. No one would take responsibility for shifting it, that’s all. You know, the Chinese parcel approach to local government – passing the buck until the music stops. And it hasn’t yet.
MARGARET Smooching couples?
ALAN Better check. Pretending to be that ourselves, perhaps.
MARGARET This is beginning to look faintly workable.
ALAN And I do believe my brain’s clearing a bit. So let’s see. We wait till it’s all quiet here - I bring the car to the front. You come down and look to see if anyone’s around, then if there is, pretend to have forgotten something ...
While they are preoccupied, Barbara has entered quietly from the bedroom. Signs of a struggle are still showing. She is at first unnoticed, until she moves to the drinks table and pours a gin and something.
BARBARA Perhaps you have.
BARBARA Yes, Alan? You seem surprised.
ALAN (feebly) Well ... Yes.
BARBARA And who’s this? Obviously someone pretty well at home here. Someone I should know better. Aren’t you going to introduce us?
ALAN But I thought ...
BARBARA Yes, dear, you always did think too much. Your substitute for doing, of course. Not that you were much good at either. (To Margaret.) As Alan doesn’t seem disposed to play the gentleman, it looks as though we shall have to introduce ourselves. I’m Barbara, as you’ve no doubt gathered. You, I take it, are Margaret. Oh yes, I’ve known about your little liaison for some time. But is suited me to do nothing about it - until today.
MARGARET Alan, I don’t know what’s happened and I’m not staying to find out. This is one you’ll have to sort out yourself.
ALAN Margaret - for goodness’ sake, don’t go now.
MARGARET Sorry, darling, but I’m out of my depth. I might just about cope with a corpse in the bedroom, but a resurrection is beyond me.
BARBARA Completely wrong, dearie. But I dare say you’ll find out for yourself.
MARGARET What’s that supposed to mean? Oh, never mind. Alan, I’ll see you when this is straightened out. Perhaps. If Barbara doesn’t object, of course.
BARBARA I doubt if my objections would make much difference. They haven’t so far, have they?
Margaret ignores her and moves to the outer door. It fails to open, and she returns.
MARGARET It’s locked!
ALAN It can’t be. You came in not so long ago, and I haven’t been near it since. Unless Barbara ...
BARBARA Not guilty. I haven’t touched it. Why should I want to, anyway?
ALAN I don’t know. I gave up long ago trying to understand how your mind worked.
BARBARA That, if I may say so, was a great mistake. You might have found it quite instructive. And saved you from cooking up all those silly little subterfuges that you thought I didn’t see through. Not that I minded greatly...
MARGARET You didn’t? (She takes up her half-finished whisky)
BARBARA Of course not. You obviously haven’t had time to realise that Alan is rather like French bread - delicious first thing, but by lunch time it’s getting stale and in the evening even the birds won’t touch it. Only the birds - with one evident exception - generally find Alan quite resistible at any time. So you can hardly be surprised that I had other things to occupy my attention.
MARGARET So you’d have been willing just to let him go?
BARBARA I didn’t say that. Very wrong of me, no doubt, but I’m not so charitable - quite vindictive in fact. Aren’t I, Alan?
ALAN Well, I have noticed odd occasions ...
BARBARA Only odd occasions? Oh, dear. What a waste of effort. But then you always were unobservant, weren’t you?
ALAN I wouldn’t say that.
BARBARA No, I don’t suppose you would. You’d never have noticed. (To Margaret) Men never are aware of their own limitations, are they?
ALAN Another of your wild generalisations.
BARBARA You may have a point there. However, in the case of this particular specimen ...
ALAN (indignantly) Do you mind?
BARBARA All right, in the case of Alan here, I tested it once. You know how he prides himself on always having a special whisky?
MARGARET I didn’t, but what’s that got to do with it anyway?
BARBARA More than you think.
MARGARET And what the devil do you mean by that? Do you have to be so damned cryptic?
BARBARA Patience, dearie - all in good time. He always insisted that it had to be from the particular distillery - nothing else would do. Bragged about it to all his friends and insisted they sample it. He isn’t mean, I’ll grant him that.
ALAN (ironically) Thanks very much.
BARBARA Don’t mention it. Gave quite a new meaning to a double-blind test. Anyway, just to try him, I once swapped his prize single malt for a supermarket blend. Different colour, different flavour. Perfectly obvious to me - though as I was in the know before trying it that probably doesn’t count. Did he notice? Did he hell!
ALAN Single malts do vary a bit from year to year.
BARBARA Not that much, or who would bother with them? And I don’t suppose for a moment you noticed another difference this evening.
ALAN What was it this time? (With heavy sarcasm) Industrial alcohol or something like that?
BARBARA No, dear, that has no colour at all. Margaret, I see you have whisky as well. Did you spot anything odd?
MARGARET I’m not used to whisky. It seems rather bitter, but I thought that was normal.
BARBARA Yes, I’m afraid I couldn’t get hold of a poison that was soluble enough and completely tasteless.
ALAN Poison? You haven’t!
BARBARA I most definitely have. Did it never once occur to your tiny mind that I might be just as anxious to be rid of you as you were of me?
ALAN In that case, why can’t we come to some arrangement?
MARGARET Alan - for goodness sake! There’s no time for that. If we’ve both been poisoned, we need help. Get a doctor or something. No, get us to the casualty department - it’s only half a mile away ...
BARBARA What about the jammed door?
MARGARET There must be some way to open it. Or a window - where’s the fire escape?
ALAN The window stuck weeks ago - I meant to have it seen to ...
BARBARA But as usual, never got round to it.
MARGARET We could break it.
ALAN Burglar-proof glass. Seemed a good idea at the time.
MARGARET How about an emetic? Salt solution, that’s the thing. Where is it?
BARBARA We’re probably out of that, too, apart from what’s in the cruet. Too late anyway, dear. It was a fairly quick-acting poison.
MARGARET Then it must have gone off. I did feel a bit peculiar for a while, come to think of it, but it doesn’t seem to have done much else.
BARBARA So you haven’t noticed either? You do disappoint me.
ALAN What are you driving at? For goodness’ sake stop talking in riddles.
BARBARA And spoil my little moment of fun? You really must try not to be so selfish. On second thoughts, it’s probably too late for that, too. And I shouldn’t expect you to understand. Margaret might have a bit more about her, though. Have you read any Sartre?
MARGARET A few odd pieces, years ago. Why?
BARBARA Did you ever come across "Huis clos"? Translated as "In camera?"
ALAN For crying out loud! We’ve both been poisoned, and you let her rabbit on about some ruddy book!
MARGARET Losing your temper again won’t help. If you’ve got anything helpful to say, Barbara, then for goodness’ sake say it.
BARBARA Well, you don’t really suppose that I’ve risen from the dead, do you?
ALAN Of course not. I just mistook your condition, that’s all.
BARBARA And Margaret equally mistook it, I suppose?
ALAN Of course. It’s happened to other people on occasion.
BARBARA Oh dear, you do make it difficult. Then let me explain: just for once in your ineffectual life, you did a thorough job.
ALAN Oh, hell!
BARBARA Precisely. Well, there is a hypothetical alternative, but in the circumstances I don’t think any of us qualifies for it.
MARGARET What the devil are you talking about?
BARBARA Ah, now you’re coming to the point.
MARGARET Look, Alan, I don’t know just what sort of mess you’ve got us into, but it’s a damn sight weirder than I took it for, and it’s up to you to get us out of it.
BARBARA Some hope!
BARBARA To be fair, Margaret, although Alan may be more than commonly useless, this time you can’t really blame him. At least, not beyond getting you into the mess. Nobody could get you out of it.
MARGARET Well, I’m damned if I’m just going to live with it.
BARBARA You can’t be damned and live with it. Otherwise you’re quite right.
BARBARA You are damned. As we all are. So it follows ...
MARGARET We’re already dead? (She stays silent for a while, pondering the implications.)
BARBARA At last. The penny’s dropped! It took long enough, didn’t it?
ALAN Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t feel any different from usual.
BARBARA As someone said, that’s because you were never more than half alive anyway.
ALAN Oh, very funny. But there’s a hell of a difference between being even half alive and completely dead. And I don’t feel it.
BARBARA Then how did you expect to feel?
ALAN Well ... I never gave it much thought ...
ALAN ... but I suppose I didn’t expect to feel anything - be anything.
BARBARA Always one for wishful thinking.
ALAN But ... poisoning us ... how on earth did you expect to get away with it? And why all that fuss about applying for another job?
BARBARA It occurred to me to give you one last chance - see if you’d make anything of yourself. Otherwise I’d have let your habits take their course, then disposed of the whisky, put the rest of the poison in a half-eaten takeaway. If that failed to convince, I didn’t greatly care. I was too desperate. Courts tend to be lenient with cheated wives, anyway.
MARGARET Look, if we’re damned, then this is hell ...
BARBARA Of course. "... nor am I out of it."
MARGARET (missing the allusion)... but it’s nothing like the usual idea - flames - rivers of fire ...
BARBARA Oh dear. How painfully conventional. That’s just one notion - a metaphor, really. Dante had the very depth of hell to be a frozen lake. To be sure, there was plenty of fire higher up.
ALAN (still sceptical) So we’re on the mezzanine, I suppose.
BARBARA You’ve got it all wrong, as usual. Hell isn’t a place; it’s a state of being.
MARGARET Hey, how come you know so much about it?
BARBARA Because, unlike some people, (a) I’ve done a bit of reading, and (b) I’m capable sometimes of putting two and two together without making five.
ALAN So you’ll be telling us the demons and tormentors are all a misconception as well? We haven’t seen much sign of them so far.
BARBARA I didn’t say that.
MARGARET Look, Alan, we’ve got enough problems as it is without your wishing any more on us.
ALAN I just want to know what to expect, that’s all. Nothing so unreasonable about that, is there?
MARGARET Always the same - going to meet trouble half way.
ALAN Now that’s not fair. I’ve never ... Oh ...
MARGARET Now what?
ALAN Well, there was the crucial bit of this evening’s argument.
MARGARET What’s the good of going into that? Oh, what the hell, we may as well have it. Get it off your chest - you never could keep anything to yourself.
ALAN That’s it. I couldn’t keep up the deception any longer. I had to tell Barbara about us, and ...
MARGARET (furious) You what? After all the trouble we had to keep it secret ...
BARBARA ... or failing to keep it a secret, as it happened ...
ALAN Yes, that’s a point. If you knew all about it, why did you cut up so nasty when I told you?
BARBARA It wasn’t your telling me, it was the way you went about it. Whining on about "facing the fact that characters change ... not the same as when we married ... dealing with it like civilised people ..." All the old clichés from a third-rate novelette. You made me sick! What it boiled down to was that your bit on the side was getting too demanding, and ...
MARGARET Bit on the side! Too demanding! I’ll have you know I loved Alan - though goodness knows why. I wanted to make him happy. That was all I asked. And I could have done, too, if you hadn’t been in the way. You were just ...
BARBARA The impediment? The dog in the manger? Or rather the tormentor? That’s it, isn’t it? There’s your answer, Alan. Old Jean-Paul had it all along. "Hell is other people."
ALAN (sadly) No, Barbara, he got it quite wrong.
BARBARA Oh, indeed?
ALAN Hell is not other people. Hell is ourselves.
MARGARET What do you mean?
ALAN Your jibes, and Barbara’s contempt, they’re a pain, right enough. From people I love - yes, both of you, in different ways, though I didn’t realise it - they hurt. Before tonight, I’d have said, like hell. Not true, of course; I could put up with them if I didn’t think they were justified. Now I know damn well that they are. And that’s infinitely worse.
BARBARA (impressed) That, Alan, is the most profound thought I have ever known you utter. If it weren’t too late I might have said there was hope for you yet.
MARGARET Profound my eye! It’s a load of codswallop. My problem is that I’m stuck here with you two for - well, I suppose for ever. That bothers me a damn sight more than anything on my conscience, if that’s what you call it.
ALAN Only you can tell what’s troubling your conscience - or ought to be. We’ll just have to differ.
BARBARA Leaving Margaret as the convert to Sartre, and me having doubts. How ironic. After all that, I need another drink. (She moves to pour one, but catches her finger on the chipped rim of a glass.) Oh, damn!
MARGARET Is that the right word - in the circumstances?
BARBARA It’ll do. (She sucks the finger, then wraps a tissue round it.) Alan, you really are the limit. I thought you’d got rid of the chipped glass.
ALAN I thought so too - Oh, no, the telephone rang just at that moment and I forgot.
BARBARA Well don’t just stand there - get me a plaster. I don’t want blood on the carpet.
ALAN I’d have thought that was the least of our worries.
BARBARA Look, if we’ve got to live here indefinitely ...
BARBARA All right, if you must be pedantic, reside ... I don’t want to have to look at a blood-stained carpet as well as all the other annoyances. There’s a box of plasters in the bedroom, Alan. Dressing table, top drawer, left hand side.
Alan dutifully goes. Margaret lifts a glass experimentally.
MARGARET Curious - can you put a plaster on - well, a ghost?
BARBARA Can a ghost drink gin? Can a ghost cut her finger? Can a ghost be held back by a locked door? It looks as though we’re stuck with much the same inconveniences as in life. Don’t ask me why.
MARGARET Maybe because we have to work out all the things that went wrong before.
BARBARA Interesting idea. That should keep us busy for long enough. But just for the moment I’m more concerned about getting a plaster on this blasted cut. (Calling) Can’t you find them?
ALAN Yes. Won’t be a moment. (He enters, subdued.) Where’s the damage?
BARBARA Here. (He applies the plaster) What kept you?
ALAN I saw ... what was on the bed.
BARBARA Not a pretty sight, is it?
ALAN The bruising’s terrible. I ... I’m sorry.
BARBARA (staring at him) Good God ... I do believe you mean it.
ALAN (equally surprised) I do. It’s a bit late, but God help me, I do.
BARBARA Well, if that upsets you, you’d better not look behind the settee. (Inevitably, he does.) Shakes you, doesn’t it? A genuine out-of-body experience.
Alan, shaken, goes back to his chair.
MARGARET (also taking a look, then surveying the room) But where’s mine?
BARBARA In the kitchen. Slumped against the chair - not, I’m afraid, in your customary state of elegance.
MARGARET Then I shan’t look. But what are we going to do about them all?
BARBARA Not our problem. Not any more. Almost a relief, isn’t it? No more visits to the dentist - to the hairdresser ... Unless they’re the kind of things we’re stuck with.
MARGARET I rather liked going to the hairdresser.
BARBARA Each to her own. I preferred the library. But then I haven’t got - didn’t have - your hair. Never could do anything with mine.
MARGARET Oh, it wasn’t just that. I liked the company - there were usually several of the regulars there at the same time. I’ll miss them.
BARBARA And I dare say they’ll miss you - for a while.
MARGARET (almost with satisfaction) Still, this’ll really give them something to talk about, won’t it? I mean, a triple murder ...When there’s usually nothing more interesting than a break-in at the off-licence.
BARBARA A nine-day wonder, I dare say. I hope no one else gets the blame for it.
MARGARET Could they?
BARBARA It’s possible. There haven’t been any suspicious characters lurking around lately, have there?
ALAN Not that I know of. In any case, they say that most murders are committed in the family, and with the door locked ... my blood under your finger nails ...
BARBARA As in all the best detective stories.
MARGARET Was that what you got from the library?
BARBARA Eh? Oh, not as a rule. It was usually the reference library.
ALAN Barbara used to be quite a distinguished scholar, you know.
MARGARET Why "used to be"? Oh, of course ...
BARBARA It was long before that. An economy drive - cut-backs in the department. Not one of the sexy subjects.
MARGARET What was the subject?
BARBARA (wearily) What does it matter now?
ALAN Modern literature. Hence the references to Sartre. Never could see much in him myself. But she still hoped to get a paper on the existentialist movement published in one of the journals. How far had you got?
BARBARA To be honest, it wasn’t going at all well. I couldn’t settle to it. Do you know, I’ve only just realised, I missed the teaching. Yet I always used to complain when it took time from what I thought was my real work - funny, isn’t it? But there’s nothing like a bunch of enquiring youngsters for dusting off the cobwebs.
MARGARET (Suddenly) Could you teach me?
BARBARA Why ...?
MARGARET You see I never had much of a real education. My own fault - I didn’t pay attention. Always had other things to think about. Of course I saw the classic serials on TV, but they’re gone in a flash. And there must be a lot more in the books - particularly if I could see how they tied in together, and with what else was going on at the time ...
ALAN (amused) Sounds a lot more perceptive than most of your pupils I met. That should keep you pretty busy for a while!
BARBARA Particularly as it’s not my period. I shall have to mug it up myself. Oh, damn, I can’t get at the books. Apart from those we’ve got here, of course.
ALAN What are the chances of bumping into the authors, I wonder? I shouldn’t mind chatting up Jane Austen myself - particularly if she’s anything like Elizabeth Bennet.
BARBARA Trust you! Oh, well, at least she’s respectable. But don’t forget, we can’t get out of here. And we’ve no reason to expect callers.
ALAN Pity. I rather liked the idea.
BARBARA In any case, given the circumstances, you’d be more likely to meet someone like Machiavelli. Rochester, perhaps, though he’s supposed to have repented in later life. Or maybe Byron?
ALAN Byron might be fun. "But oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual, inform us truly, have they not hen-pecked you all?"
BARBARA I might have expected you to come out with that.
ALAN Still, going back to the immortal Jane. You could just imagine her and her model for Darcy wandering down by the river there. (Moving to the window) Hello, the sun’s coming up. Looks rather fine with the mist rising from the water, doesn’t it?
BARBARA (joining him) It certainly does. Oh, look!
BARBARA In the backwater. The swans are nesting again.
MARGARET (rapidly casting off all sophistication) Let me see! I used to love them when I was little.
Alan and Barbara give way to her at the window, and point her like a child in the right direction.
BARBARA There - just to the left of the old hut.
MARGARET Oh yes. Look at them chasing off the ducks!
ALAN It’s a beautiful morning. I could almost do with taking a walk.
BARBARA And how many years is it since you said that?
ALAN I hate to think. Pity we can’t get out.
MARGARET (whose hand is resting against the window frame) Alan ...
MARGARET There’s something odd about the window. I can’t feel the glass any more. I think perhaps we can get out after all!
BARBARA Careful - don’t forget we’re on the first floor.
MARGARET No, look, we can step straight out. (She does so. The others follow as convenient, Alan handing Barbara over the sill.)
BARBARA How strange. So we can. After all that!
ALAN Well, let’s be thankful. Quite a relief. I’d just noticed the seam where I mis-matched the wallpaper - it always annoyed me. I could see it becoming an obsession.
BARBARA Let’s take that walk. What do you say - down to the river?
MARGARET Can we go and see the swans?
ALAN Yes, why not?
MARGARET (impatiently) Come on, then!
ALAN You skip along. We’ll follow.
Margaret darts off, then pauses to look back at the other two.
BARBARA It’s funny, I haven’t given it any thought for years, but for some reason, a quotation from Julian of Norwich comes back to me.
ALAN What was it?
BARBARA "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, and you shall see it."
ALAN A comforting notion. You know, it looks as though we could be in for a rather interesting time.
BARBARA (hooking her arm through his) Not time, dear. Eternity.