In a coffee shop on the high street customers grab a hot drink for the journey home or a quick ‘made fresh on the premises today’ meal before a night out. A torn sugar packet lies in a little pool of spilled milk. The smell of coffee, cinnamon and the next table’s tuna sandwich hang in the air mingling with the sound of Dinner jazz and Latin American rhythms. He tries to ignore the screaming toddler its face a blur of snot and tears, red and contorted, a gargoyle that has lost its cute. It hangs by the arm from its mothers hand as she tries to get the tantrum to stand on his feet by lifting up and placing him down again, repeatedly.
He checks his watch for the third time. She was late the first time he looked. Sitting back he looks out of the window through the reflection of himself and onto the street. People rush, saunter and amble by, he watches them and wonders about their lives.
Another time check. He is looking forward to her arrival, her smile, her noisy crash landing into the evening. She is late again, but only a little. She is always late. When she eventually arrives the world of others will shrink from view. It will be just the two of them. He doodles on a paper napkin, the ink bleeds into its fibers making the spirals spread and grow as they appear. She is worth the wait.
* * * * *
Her legs shoot out of burgundy high heeled boots, long legs in tights that soar up into a green pencil skirt. Her bag swings over her shoulder, heavy with a little ‘light’ shopping. She is cosy and warm in a fawn cardigan and cream blouse, dotted with embroidered roses. With mobile phone pressed to her ear she looks around to get her bearings. Long brown hair flows in the breeze, rolling off her shoulders and cascading down her back. Checking her hastily scrawled directions she lightly bites the very tip of her tongue then scans the street. After a few moments she spots the landmark that she was looking for cancels the call and strides off, back the way she came.
* * * * *
As she walks in to the cafe she sees his face light up. Creases shoot out from the corner of his eyes. She smiles back and then laughs, exclaiming “Oh my god, I just got so lost! Sorry have you been waiting long?” He had but did not care. They exchanged highlights from their day, condensed it into a few sentences. They huff, puff and blow the cares of the day away. She pours brandy from a hip flash into their coffees. They laugh, gulp back their drinks and head out into the cold, towards the theater.
* * * * *
The old man spits then takes a drag from his cigarette and frowns, blowing smoke at the amber lamp lit street. A young couple walk by arm in arm, laughing. They make him smile. His hip aches. The scar on his head tingles in the cold air. He drops the cigarette butt onto the pavement and crushes it with the toe of his scuffed leather shoe, glancing once more at the couple walking off down the street he admires her shapely bum and their happy companionship before turning back into the pub for another bitter ale.
The football match is about to start, he cares little about the result, just hopes for some drama along the way, a punch up, an injustice, a last minute winner. A couple of hours would pass, he would be a little more drunk and perhaps a little happier or a little more sad who could tell? No one really cared either way. The world continued to turn, people fall in and out of love, babies get borne, people die, fish swim and monkeys eat bananas. Swirling the remainder of his pint around the bottom of his glass he wonders at its frothy tides washing against the sides. Becoming transfixed by the ever changing, swirling pattern he mutters to himself and is overheard by a man standing on the edge of a group of friends. The man looks at him, his pint glass stalled on its way to his lips. Then he turns back to the group and edges a little closer to his mates, a little further away from the old man.
* * * * *
They settle down into red velvet seats as the house lights dim, rolling their coats and shoving them under the seats with the dust, sweat rappers and discarded paper cups. He wedges his knees against the seat in front but finds it too uncomfortable so turns sideways, slanting his legs to make the most of the cramped space. Remembering his phone that is squeezed into the front of his jeans he forces his hand into the tight denim pocket touching the top of it. Grasping at it with finger tips, he succeeds only in knocking it this way and that a few times before giving in, standing up to retrieve his phone and switch it to silent. Conversation begins to settle around them, dust cascades through the quietening air and a hush falls across the audience. There is a whisper, a phone bleeps. Laughter intrudes from high up and is met with a ‘shush’. A late arrival excuses themselves along the row. There is muttering. Bums shift to find more comfortable positions and necks crane to avoid fat heads.
THE FINAL CURTAIN
ACT I SCENE 1
(A couple in the full throws of sexual congress writhe in a tangle of bed sheets and limbs. Bouncing bodies collide in an ecstasy of groaning and creaking springs. Buttocks buck and bump with increasing, thumping speed.)
It’s a boy!
ACT I SCENE 2
Slide 1: The proud father with new borne in his arms.
Slide 2: Mum with a glass of brandy in one hand and a toddler in an ill fitting Christmas hat on her lap.
Slide 3: Third birthday cake.
Slide 4: Boys first day at school. A second hand uniform, pressed and almost spotless, selves hang from the arms.
Sound track: A mix of nursery rhymes, popular songs, the laughter of children and news headlines from the late 1970s.
This images take him back to his own child hood. His gaze turns inward, away from the stage and to memories of his own childhood: Baths and playtime with his big, pink stegosaurus, tree climbing in dungarees and playing knights in armor with sticks for swords and a branch for a horse. He recognises nursery rhymes from the sound track, familiar couplets remind him of his mother, her soothing tone, gentle, long hair and sing-song softness.
Slide 5: The boy holds a proud potato print picture.
Slide 6: A muddy boy with a football and a medal.
Slide 7: A puppy with a bone wrapped in Christmas bow.
The man and woman bend their postures a little. The woman puts on a pair of glasses and the man takes a stick. Their boy goes from his knees to standing and adopts the awkward gait of an adolescent.
He thinks of his childhood home in the time before his Mum and Dad split up. He loved that old house, the red peeling paint of the front door. The living room warmed by gas fire. He remembered the food most of all – curry, roast dinner, spaghetti bolognese, sausage and mash, lamb stew and dumplings and fish and chips. He started to feel hungry.
ACT I SCENE 3
A school playground. Kids lean against the wall and smoke to stage left. A group of boys play football to center stage. A boy and a girl are holding hands stage right.
Chris and Jenny do real kisses now with open mouths and everything.
That’s nothing! I bet they don’t French kiss.
French kiss? What’s that?
I’ll show you if you like.
If you like.
The sound of calling gulls transports him back to his own adolescence and the birds that took refuge from the cold winter sea on the playing fields of his school, gauging themselves on discarded fish paste sandwiches, chocolate biscuits and crisps. He becomes lost in the memory of wet playing fields, Sally Jackson, cold fingers and the parting of lips, a catching of teeth. He remembers the tantalising revulsion of probing wet tongues, like two giant slugs investigating each other as they kissed. He remembered the jolt of excitement, an electric buzz, a shot of energy that coursed through him. A shy smile as they break apart, a spot on the side of her nose. The smell of her cheap perfume, a girl’s first perfume applied a little over enthusiastically. A smell, that when picked up today elicited that same adolescent excitement but just for a fleeting moment.
ACT I SCENE 4
The boy who is now a young man carries a ruck sack and other baggage across stage and slings them into a corner. He is joined by several other young people under an archway across which is slung a banner reading ‘University of Bristol’.
Music plays as they drink and dance.
The music stops and they sit at desks and study.
The music starts they drink and stagger around with traffic cones on their heads.
The music stops again and they study.
A kind of musical chairs ensues where instead of chairs being removed students become less able to get from their dancing and drinking to the seats.
He can almost smell the sea breeze of his own university town and taste the rubbery, overcooked scrambled eggs from the canteen. It is becoming increasingly difficult for him to focus on the content of the play, each scene triggering such vivid memories in which he wallows with glassy and glaze eyes. Perhaps fatigue is effecting his ability to concentrate. He is easily distracted at the best of times, struggling to focus on one thing for any length of time. Work has bent his mind to flit from one thing to the next. The play is not delivering what he wants. It is not the escape from reality he desired but a strange feeling that he has seen it all before. He forces himself to focus back on the play where two men are acting out a heated exchange.
I thought that we were mates. You don’t do that to your mates!
It’s not like you were an item, we were drunk and why do you care anyway? You said she was a dick head.
I fucking didn’t
Just because you were too pissed to remember saying it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. She’s a slut anyway. Get over it.
Don’t call her that you prick!
He remembers an argument that led to a fight with his best friend, the taste of blood and grit between his teeth. He remembers it as something very similar is played out by actors in front of him on the stage. He leans over to her to comment. He wants her to laugh at him, tell him to stop being such an idiot. He only gets as far as uttering a couple of words before she hushes, dismisses him with a wave. He sits back with a frown angered by her dismissal and confused by the plays unnerving familiarity. He leans forward. The once comfortably familiar and nostalgic play was now making him a little uneasy. He looks around at the other audience members, their features barely visible in the low light, quietly they watch the Play.
ACT I SCENE 5
A high street coffee shop. The young man sits alone checking his watch. He is waiting for some one.
A woman paces up and down the front of the stage. She looks lost.
A series of images are projected onto the back drop:
Slide 1: Young man stands proudly in cap and gown on graduation day.
Slide 2: Situations vacant adverts from a newspaper.
Slide 3. Young man leaving his flat for work in a cheap new suit.
Slide 4: Excel spreadsheets, graphs and pie charts.
Slide 5: A meeting
Slide 6: A photo from after work drinks, tequila shots and a tie wrapped around the young mans head.
Slide 7: The young man at a restaurant with a woman.
The woman enters the coffee shop.
Oh god, Sorry, I got lost! Have you been waiting long?MAN:
Don’t worry about it. How was your day?
I’ll tell you on the way. We don’t want to miss the start of the play.
As the lights dim on the stage there is polite applause from the audience. People begin to leave their seats heading for the bar or toilets. She nudges him with her leg and nods towards the empty row between them that leads to the exit and their interval drinks. He starts as if woken from a dream and grabs his jacket.
‘Come on you dope’ she nudges him again.
‘Sorry’ he mutters and smiles up at her as he gets to his feet and shuffles sideways down the awkward space between the seats.
* * * * *
The bright lights and noisy chatter of the theatre bar are an unwelcome intrusion into the strange spell that the play had woven. He had been feeling quite nostalgic, but now he stands in the midst of chatter and sharp cackling laughter, his warm blanket of memories fading. He snaps himself out of the daze and focuses attention on getting served. Perfectly polite people become all elbows and squirming bones at the interval bar. Twenty pound notes are waved under the bar tenders nose by people standing on tip toes. Their eyes wide open, jaws jutting forward on elongated necks. It is a jostle of awfully civilised rudeness.
From across the room raised voices gather volume and intensity, reaching a pitch at which people are compelled to stop and turn, a sentence dying half completed in their mouth. Frightened eyes, intrigued eyes, annoyed eyes search for the source. Coins are held mid journey to pocket in tight fists, a programme page remains half turned. Fight or flight? But they all just freeze. A man throws a drink into the face of another, an explosion of violence is anticipated. The room tenses, a collective breath is held. Security moves through the crowd and gets between the two, who look strangely familiar. Then in the moment where relief is bought by the pacifying force of door men it dawns on him that the men are actors from the play. They are ushered towards exits at opposite ends of the theatre. The relief is palpable. There is some applause, some confusion and no little amount of chatter and discussion then people carry on doing what they were before the argument interrupted them in almost the same way but subtly, almost imperceptible it feels a little different.
She sips her interval Gin and Tonic enjoying its effervescence twist of lemon fizz. She scans the bar. He leans into the cosy familiar brush of her long brown hair. She feels his warm breath on her earlobe and hunches her shoulder, a little wince of delight. She feels a tiny, almost unbearable pleasure as he whispers in her ear. ‘See that couple over there….’
A man and woman push through the audience they seem loud and larger than life somehow. ‘Common we’ll miss the beginning’ the woman shouts.
‘Well if you hadn’t have got lost…’ the mans reply tails off.
The bell sounds ordering people back to their seats for Act two.
At the pub the football has reached half time and people turn from the wall mounted TV to the bar. Adverts, mostly ignored but subconsciously absorbed fill the screen. They show attractive young people, smiling at their own success in choosing the right soft drink, car insurance and holiday to enhance their perfect lives. ‘Perhaps if I drink Zero Max Cola I’ll be young and happy’ the old man chuckles to himself and almost orders one but the bar woman is already pulling on the real ale pump as soon as she notices his raised finger, lips parted ready to speak. He pulls out his wallet, flipping it open with a well practiced movement of thumb and index finger. The ten pound note that he pulls out is crisp, fresh and virginal. Not long baked in the cash machine from which it emerged. He hands it over and receives a dirty fiver and grubby coins for change. His hand shakes as he raises the pint glass to his lips and slurps the first frothy sip across its brim. The head of the pint lingers on his top lip before he wipes it away with the back of his sleeve. He would not have done that had he been enjoying a drink with her, but she was gone now. It seems like a life time ago, the time that they spent together. The laughter they shared just an echo, all long gone and what was it worth? What did it amount to? A few moments of pleasure that passed so quickly and vanished unlike the long, stodgy, grey seconds that counted out his life now. Happy, happy joy, joy have another drink. He belches and scans the bar. There is a group of young lads enjoying the excuse of watching the match for a midweek drink with mates. A couple sit under the window in the corner. She looks pissed off, he looks like he is apologising ‘Just like old times’ the old man mutters. There is a couple of other lonely old buggers sitting at a safe distance from each other, avoiding eye contact but enjoying the proximity of others rather than the solitude of their own living rooms that are crammed full of memories and loneliness.
The second half of the football game kicks off on the television and he is glad to be drawn out from his own thoughts and into the world again.