MR CULVERSON'S APOSTLE
Semi-darkness. A figure, mid-stage centre. The figure (Pete) comes forward, stands, turns stage right, leans as if looking out of a window. Pause.
Pete: Thought so. It’s clouding over. We’ll have rain—the rain they promised wouldn’t touch us here. Turns to audience. I’m not long back. Holiday. Just last week. Pembrokeshire. Haven’t been there in years. Every night, I watched the weather forecast: some bloke or woman, permanent grin, dabbing at the map—just where I was staying. ‘But this area will remain dry,’ they said. Every night, little grey electronic clouds were raining on the coast; raining on the English border. Where I was, they were white as lambs. And every day, I got rained on. Just me. Nowhere else. Not the coast, not the borders. Scorching there. Smiles. You’ve got to admire that kind of hope. Night after night—wrong again, try again. I can remember feeling that way as a kid, doing that kind of thing. Going at something in . . . blind hope, full of conviction. Sliding back, hurling forward, over and over. A right little bull at a gate. Smiles. Faded with the years, that feeling. I thought it had gone completely. Till this summer. But now it’s back—well and truly. Not because of the holiday—though I needed one, no doubt of it. No: because of something else. Something earlier. Something . . . indelible.
Stage lightens. Pete strolls up and down.
Anyway, now I’m back here. Where? My house—but that doesn’t matter. It’s nowhere in particular. It’s anywhere. I’m just standing in a space—a space big enough for my story. The one I’ve been entrusted with. The one that will make me try and try again. Pause. A story. About what?
Strikes attitude, as if to recite.
Ladeez an’ gen’men—I give you a broken man (mournfully)—aahhh!—a sexy wife (knowingly)—wooooohh!—an endless, secret passion—(with more gusto)—Wooooohhhh!—the man’s kids—who really weren’t (taps side of nose in exaggerated manner)—the snowbound reaches of Norway (wraps arms round shoulders, gives out a ‘Brrrr’)—death in a tartan travelling-rug (widens eyes)—and—and!—a night-school teacher!
Pause, look of triumph at his last words. Then gives a ‘big deal’ shrug and collects himself. More quietly.
No . . . let’s just say, I give you us. Jim and me.
Walks up and down stage. Thoughtfully:
Can . . . can you ever be friends with a neighbour? It’s not on the cards, really. Yes, you can be pleasant—you know, time of day, how’re your kids doing, shared bellyaches. Strikes pose of mock outrage; pretends to have conversation. Have you heard what they’re up to with that new bypass?
What? Yes, I know, that’s what they promised . . . we were consulted, weren’t we? Consulted, we were. Then he comes on the tv last night, big as you please—and he only says it’s going ahead! Yes, him from . . . that department . . . that consortium . . . that lobby . . . him that was-- Breaks off, shaking head. To audience: Plenty of that with neighbours. But anything more--? Thoughtful. It’s choice, really. You choose your friends—wisely or (pause) not—but neighbours . . . and family. Shrugs. Well, you know. So there I was, this summer, before getting soaked in Pembrokeshire—Jim’s neighbour. A life accidentally pitched next to his. Shakes head ruefully. Jim. Jim-down-the-drive. Jim the cackler (breaks off, gives impression: ‘Ha-ra-rar’). Jim the doomed. Shrugs. Actually, I was barely a neighbour to him—just a bod in transit, really.
Moves to middle-stage front, folds left arm under right elbow, mimes telephone at right ear. Nick walks down from upstage right, stands, talks out over audience.
Nick: Look, Pete, it makes perfect sense. You’ve got a week off coming up, we’ve had to bring the Seville holiday forward. Have a break at our house. Everything fits. Plenty for you to do. Stratford just up the road, Brum the other way, your magician friends at Upton.
Pete: Musicians, Nick.
Nick: Well, they look like a right bunch of wizards to me. Anyway, Lucy says you’d only brood at home. Turns head sharp right. Isn’t that right, Luce? He’d only brood?
Pete takes ‘telephone’ away from ear. To audience:
Pete: That was true enough.
Now Katryn walks down from upstage left, takes up similar position to Nick, about as far away from Pete’s left side as Nick is from his right. Pete now mimes—very wearily—putting ‘phone’ to left ear.
Katryn talks out over audience.
Katryn: Thing is, they want me to stay on in Atlanta for another fortnight.
Pete: I see. Well, look, Katryn, I can phone you while you’re—
Katryn: No, Peter—when I’m back, okay? We’ll talk everything out then.
Pete mimes switching ‘phone’ back to right ear.
Nick: You can put your car in the garage. Use ours. Have to show you the trick with third gear, but that’s no bother when you’ve done it once. Well—twice, maybe. Anyway, Lucy insists you come down. Best thing, she says.
Pete: Not the first time I’d heard those words.
Pete changes back to ‘phone’ at left ear.
Katryn: Best thing, Peter, the way things are for me now.
Pete: But I distinctly remember you saying—
Katryn: I know what I said. And, yes, I thought life at the Chester office would suit me fine. But . . . it’s all about change. Do you understand? More quickly, accusingly. You’ve changed, Peter . . . we all change. Things are really taking off Stateside—
Pete mouths ‘Stateside’ with a grimace.
--the Georgia contract’s as good as sorted out, and they need someone there, someone on the ground, someone who’ll . . . you know, they don’t want someone who’ll simply . . . I don’t want them to think I can’t . . . look, in the longer term, we may find it a blessing . . . the best for both of us.
Pete: Sorry, are you giving me the--?
Katryn (tetchily): I’m not giving you anything, Peter, I’m not giving you anything, before you jump down my throat. I’m not saying ‘It’s all for the best,’ not in that way. You’d say it like that, obviously, because that’s how you’ve taken it.
Pete (wearily): I’m not saying anything. I’m just trying to understand.
Katryn (exasperated): Peter. Listen. I’m saying ‘the best for both of us’—not ‘it’s all for the best.’
Pete frowns, stays silent.
Katryn: It’s all about the long term, Peter. Not long, long, long. I don’t mean hanging about for the sake of . . . you know, just to keep up . . . while we simply . . . . Look, I need this, Peter. And it’ll be all to the good.
Pete: Which isn’t ‘all for the best’?
Katryn: I’m not saying everything again, Peter. If you’d been listening—really listening . . . .
Pete mimes putting the phone down slowly.
Katryn: Peter? Are you still there?
Katryn stays put. Pete changes back to ‘phone’ at right ear.
Nick: And you’ve met folk down here. We’ve introduced you.
Pete: Yes . . . have you?
Nick: Oh, don’t be dense. Mrs. Hartnoll from over the road—her with that footie-mad grandson, ball whizzing about everywhere. And Frija and Jim, look, down the drive.
Pete: Oh, right, I remember them—that barbecue you had.
Nick: Now you’re catching up! Mind you, Frija’s going away just before us. Seeing relatives, I think, back where she comes from—Bergen, Hilversum—one of those radio-transmitter places. So you’ll find Jim all on his tod. He’ll be badgering you morning and night.
Pete: Swinging the lead, is he?
Nick: Retired. Only just. Stress and stuff, I gather. Not that I’ve pressed him about it. Give him more than the time of day and—phhht!—he nails you. Holds left hand up, opens and closes it rapidly. Endless rabbit, rabbit.
Pete: I’m sure I’ll manage him.
Nick: We-ell, don’t forget Stratford and Brum. And Malvern’s quaite naice. Plenty of bolt-holes for you. Dirty chuckle. Probably just as well Frija’s heading off. What with Jim out to grass, all useless and deflated, and you a free young buck . . . well, possibly free . . . youngish . . . . Sucks in his breath. Beats me how a woman her age can still look like that. Not a hint of Botox in sight, either—or out of it. Lucy swears it.
Pause. Nick leaves stage right; Katryn leaves stage left. Pete addresses audience.
Pete: So . . . I sort of fell into the arrangement. It was somewhere different. And I hadn’t seen my Upton friends in an age. Shakes his head. Magicians, says Nick. Worst listener in the universe. Sometimes he seems to think he’s the only one using real language. Everyone else is just spouting static—and he simply waits till it fizzles out, then he starts up again.
Moves up and down stage.
Third week in July. That’s when I went to Nick and Lucy’s. I got to their house round lunchtime on the Saturday. And found the usual pre-holiday commotions. In what follows, when Pete is listening to Nick or Lucy, he turns his head vaguely in the direction of the voice. When talking, he addresses audience.
Lucy (from offstage right): Nick, I’m phoning them again. Pause. No, I am. I told you not to book ‘Speedeezee Cabs.’ Remember Amsterdam? Five minutes past four—if I said once, I said it a dozen times. ‘Ooh,’ says the girl when it was too late, ‘I’d got you down as four minutes past five. I remember thinking, “this valued client’s a bit particular.”’ Well, I’m not losing the first night of this holiday.
Nick (from offstage left): Luce, why are you taking two of these things? Pause. Yes, I mean them. ‘Cos I can’t even get one in my case, not unless we ditch the sun-stuff and buy fresh . . . oh, look, Luce, you’ve got canyons of room in your case. I’m putting them in there. Pause. Luce, I say they’re both going in yours. Pause. Where’ve you got to? Pause. Oh . . . he’s here, is he?
Pete: Seville in July. Not my cuppa. Still, by three o’clock, they’d gone—Nick having given me a swift run-down on house management—
Nick (offstage): Now remember what I said about the thermostat and the hot water.
Pete: --and a painfully detailed lesson on their car’s third gear—
Nick (offstage): So, one more time, you do this, then this—then the thump—then this.
Pete: Lucy gave me their hotel number, a peck on the cheek and a motherly farewell.
Lucy (offstage): Now, don’t you get fretting. And be strong—leave her ladyship to get on with being important. Just make yourself at home, Pete. Oh, and the thermostat doesn’t need touching. Never mind him.
Nick (offstage): Frija went yesterday, young Pete. Jim ahoy. Brace yourself.
Lucy (offstage): Nick, don’t be nasty. Come on, the bloke’s waiting to take your case. At mid-stage front, Pete faces half-left. Waves them off. Drops his hand slowly as Jim shuffles on from stage left.
Pete (brief head-turn to audience): And by four o’clock, there he was.
Jim (slowly stretches hand out, catches Pete’s as it descends from his wave): It’s Pete, yes? Ha-ra-rar.
End scene one.
Jim still standing to Pete’s left, in profile. Pete addresses audience. Jim looks at Pete.
Pete: He could have taught them a thing or two. Double-glazers, utility reps, the roof-and-fascia crew. I’ve never known such mighty doorstepping. A good hour he stood there, half-in and half-out of the front door, in that classic ‘No, I won’t come in’ routine. Cup of tea? No thanks, Pete. Coffee? Ah, don’t trouble yourself. Comfy chair? Noo, noo, noo.
Jim weaves a little, as though hovering in a doorway. In what follows, half of Jim’s comments are made by him, and half are reported to the audience by Pete.
Pete: The questions came flooding out. We’d met before— was he right?
Jim: I’m told you’re here for a week. Minding the shop, eh?
Pete: By the way, there was a short cut to the shops. . . .
Jim: Past the kids’ playground.
Pete: Had Nick and Lucy mentioned that?
Jim: Bet they haven’t.
Pete: Had they reminded me where the shops were?
Jim: Bet they haven’t.
Pete: Their car. That third gear. Had I got the knack of it?
Jim: ‘Strewth, you should hear it some mornings. Sounds like the Last Trump of Judgement Day.
Pete: Never mind getting it fixed. . . .
Jim: They should get a new one—easy-peasy, I’d’ve though, both of them earning.
Pete: Did I know there were no decent pubs in over a mile?
Jim: Well, there’s ‘The Schooner’ up by Pentree Bridge. Grimace. All right at a push, but . . . well, new management.
Pete: Fancy glasses.
Jim: Short measures.
Pete: Just a big restaurant, really.
Jim: Mind, I say ‘restaurant’. . .
Pete: A glorified caff, let’s be honest.
Jim: With a bar tacked on.
Pete: Heaving all weekend.
Jim: Screaming kids.
Pete: Beer at home.
Jim: That’s the answer round here.
Pete: Did I remember that commercial?
Jim (sings hesitantly, tunelessly): ‘Beer at home means Davenport’s.’
Pete: ‘That’s the beer. . . ‘
Jim: ‘Lots of cheer. . .’
Pete: Not that he bothered with the stuff.
Jim: Not right for me.
Pete: The after-taste.
Jim: Hangs round your mouth for days.
Pete: What’s my line?
Jim: College teaching, isn’t it?
Pete: Gave it up.
Jim: Oh . . . Nick and Lucy didn’t mention. Not that I’ve had much chance to speak to them.
Pete: Not that he saw them much at all.
Jim: Always seem to be haring off when I’m about. Specially Nick.
Pete turns to Jim, mouths something, turns back to audience.
Jim: Really? Nods head a little, rubs chin. Copy-editing. Good pay?
Pete: Can be.
Pete: Not bad.
Jim (more nodding and chin-rubbing): I should think it would be.
Pete: Shaping up folks’ thoughts.
Jim: Getting rid of the gremlins.
Pete: Making the odd diplomatic suggestion.
Jim: Teasing out the—what do the French say?
Pete: Mot juste.
Jim: Bon mot. Keeping an eye on the good old—
Pete and Jim together: --Plain English.
Jim stays put, but Pete now breaks away a little, wondering up and down, ranging between front- and mid-stage right. His movements should be slow, suggesting reflection. He shouldn’t go too far from Jim. Sometimes, as he talks, he looks at audience, sometimes at Jim or just thin air.
Pete: Sheer fluke. Same phrase at the same moment. His questions dried up. He began to hand himself over, piece by piece, like he was (smiles at the phrase that’s occurred to him; shrugs) turning out the pockets of his heart.
Jim: If it weren’t for plain English, Pete, I’d still be on the seven seas.
Pete: Until five o’clock—at least—I was back nearly forty years ago. With a man who’d joined the Merchant Navy at fifteen.
Jim: No, no, sixteen--tell a lie. Fifteen when I signed the papers, but—mumbles to himself; does calculations on his fingers—yes, just turned sixteen.
Pete: For six years he sailed to all four corners.
Jim: I’ve got one of those school maps. Huge job. Stickers all over it: destination, length of voyage, date of departure and arrival, length of berth, cargo carried, new cargo taken on. Show you sometime. Bit tatty now. Creases starting to split. Should get a frame for it.
Pete: Then it happened.
Pete: Loading accident.
Jim: Proper agony.
Pete: Proper gyp.
Jim: Deep gyp.
Pete: When he got home, he took a test or two. Then got transferred to the company’s offices--
Jim: (cuts in): Do you know Poole?
Pete: I’ve been to Lyme Regis.
Jim (wags finger): Ah, that’s that . . . film, isn’t it? That Lieutenant, isn’t it? Yank actress catching her death on the Cobb—jigs hand about—what’s her name?
Pete opens mouth, about to tell him.
Jim (points at Pete confidently): Melanie Streep. Nice place, Lyme. Raw in winter, mind. Poole’s better.
Pete (shifting about a little): He was the office gofer.
Jim: Pretty crawly gofer, what with the deep gyp. But they didn’t mind.
Pete: Easier days back then.
Jim: Some of them took ten minutes licking a stamp.
Pete: But then he found himself getting a bit peeved.
Jim: Then troubled.
Pete: Then truly narked.
Jim: The standard of English in that place. Well, I couldn’t help noticing—looking over this one’s shoulder, hearing that one on the phone.
Pete: He passed an assistant manager’s door once.
Jim (looking aggrieved): Dictation? Call that dictation? A kid could have done better with his ‘A is for apple, B is for ball.’
Pete shakes head slowly.
Pete: Rotten time for plain English, back there, back then.
Jim: Mangled it, they did. Morning to night. Every single word cut off at the knee. Written, spoken—
He breaks off, mimes flushing a toilet.
Pete: So (spreads hands) that’s how he found his mission.
Jim: Well, I thought, I left school with nothing . . . nary a poke in the eye . . . but I still remembered—you know . . . .
Pete: His parsing.
Jim: My subject.
Pete: His predicate.
Jim (briefly to Pete) I suppose you’re on top of all that, in your line.
Pete (to Jim, nodding, sounding confident): Ah, well. Jim turns gaze from Pete, who takes opportunity to give a show shrug and grimace to the audience, suggesting ‘I don’t know about that.’
Jim: ‘I’ before ‘e.’ You know? Don’t leave your preposition hanging out the arse of your sentence. ‘She couldn’t bear his singing.’
Pete: He remembered his nouns.
Jim: Singular. Plural.
Pete: And collective.
Jim: A murder of crows.
Pete: A parliament of rooks.
Jim: A clowder of cats.
Pete looks wide-eyed at audience for a second; turns corners of mouth down as if to say, ‘new one on me.’
Jim: So I thought, right. Right, I thought. I made my decision.
Pete (directly to Jim): What decision was that--?
Jim (absorbed in his thoughts, ignoring him): I made my decision with bells on!
Pete waits. Silence. He tilts head and shrugs a little. Turns to audience:
Pete: He was meant to spend three months at the company’s offices, punctuated by regular trips to an osteopath.
Jim: Scot, he was. Dunfirmline man. Supported Kilmarnock on the q.t.
Pete: After that, if his gyp hadn’t shifted—
Jim: Deep gyp.
Pete (a little weary; with slight, impatient emphasis): Deep . . . gyp . . . then managerial decisions would have to be made.
Jim (quoting from memory): ‘My status would attract re-appraisal’—oh, yes, Pete, they had jargon back then, too—plenty of it. They’d’ve been pushed to spell a single word of it, mind.
Pete: But he got the jump on them.
Jim: I had my mission. Seaman’s mission, ha-ra-rar.
Jim: Aided by the wife, of course.
Pete (to audience, quoting Jim’s questions again): I’d met, Frija, hadn’t I?
Jim: Last year, wasn’t it?
Pete: It was never that barbecue, was it?
Jim (snaps fingers): Of course! Up here. Heatwave all day . . . and then . . . Looks up, then spreads arms and blows out as if miming downpour.
Pete: He’d never forget Lucy’s face.
Jim: A picture of desolation.
Pete: Nick effing and blinding.
Jim: Salad bowl swamped.
Pete: Patio deluged.
Jim: Not a sausage saved between us—ha-ra-rar.
Pete: Not that Frija was his wife in the first days of his—slight pause, makes face of incomprehension—mission.
Jim: Well, she’d not long arrived at the office. Or in England, for that matter. Pause. Pete moves a little further to front of stage, away from Jim. Takes audience into his confidence.
Pete: ‘Arrived.’ There was something about how he said that. Like another word for ‘abracadabra.’ Like he was scarce out of his teens all over again, falling head-first under a spell. Moves back to his previous position by Jim. I’d have heard more—but just then, he did this . . . .
Jim now waves downstage right, takes a few steps in that direction. Bends down, taps the air, circles his finger (as if signalling for a car window to be wound down). Hunches down a little, hands on knees.
Jim: Hello . . . thought we said tomorrow. Pause. Oh, you got ‘em already! Brilliant! Gestures along downstage to left, past Pete. Yes, go on down, be right with you.
Straightens up, looks steadily in the direction he’s indicated. Pete slowly turns head, looks too.
Pete: I didn’t hear the car. I didn’t see who it was. It turned out—
Jim (looking back at Pete, cutting in): --It’s a chap from my bike club. Davey. Claps hands. He’s got the brake shoes!
Pete (looks at him for a second; slight widening of the eyes. Then to audience): Was I into vintage bikes?
Jim: No? Oh, I’ll have to show you. That and the merchant map. Enfield Bullet, I’ve got. Been off the road a bit, waiting on those shoes. Others might have done the trick, but Davey—oh, he’s particular. Claps his hands again. Brilliant!
Jim walks offstage left in front of Pete, who makes to say ‘goodbye’ to him, then freezes, apparently ignored. Pause. Pete, to audience:
Pete: We must have said ‘goodbye.’ Or something like. I’m not sure now. All I remember is standing alone by the doorstep, looking at the path, at the cherry-tree to the right, the lawn to the left, sweeping round to the front of the house—as if they could tell me. Laughs quietly. Lawns. They always sweep, don’t they? I thought about Jim’s mission—the decision he didn’t actually explain. I thought about decision itself. As soon as I did that—snaps fingers, taps head—she was back again.
Katryn (from offstage left): You shouldn’t have left the college, Peter, bored or not. Copy-editing’s a cluttered market, you know. You’ll be scrambling for work. Oh, yes—a feral beast, the freelance world. Untameable, Peter. And you know what you’re like with stress.
Pete bows head a little. Jim’s voice from ‘down the drive,’ offstage left.
Jim: No, that’s fine, Davey my boy, leave the car there. Now, who did you kill to get those shoes? Ha-ra-rar.
End scene two.