A play! To be serialised scene-by-scene;
Mr. Stokoe, 65.
Ms. Bullock, 50.
Mrs. Taylor, 50.
Mr. Taylor, 60.
(Mr. Stokoe and Mr. Taylor, and Ms. Bullock and Mrs. Taylor, are intended to be doubled.)
CHILDRENS’ VOICES. I had a little bird.
His name was Enza.
I opened the window
And In Flew Enza!
(A sterile place. Enter Ms. Bullock, followed by Mr. Stokoe. Stokoe wheels on a large hospital trolley, which carries a coffin. He is exhausted.)
STOKOE. Lead! Lead! Why lead?
BULLOCK. If it wasn’t lead then it wouldn’t have been any use to us.
Are you okay?
STOKOE. Give me a minute.
BULLOCK. You should have let me help.
STOKOE. It is my job. Lead!
BULLOCK. I don’t imagine that we’ll ever see one of these again. Nobody can have been buried in a lead-lined coffin since- what- the fifties?
STOKOE. If the Health & Safety Officer was to walk in now!
BULLOCK. If you feel that you ought to consult a senior manager-
STOKOE. Well, it’s done now.
BULLOCK. She’s been preserved in an airtight box for eighty-five years. We don’t have to open it this very minute.
STOKOE. Let me get my breath back. Sit down!
BULLOCK. You must have done this before.
STOKOE. Not pushing lead around I haven’t, no. I’ve been doing this job for thirty-five years. I’ve seen more dead bodies than you’ve drunk cups of tea.
BULLOCK. I don’t drink caffeine.
STOKOE. Only in the last few years that this digging people up has really taken off. Before
DNA testing came in it almost never happened. Before DNA… It did happen, though. I can remember… At least twice. The first time it was a park keeper that they thought had been killed by a falling tree. Then they thought that he might have been murdered, so we had to bring him back to find out how his bones had broken. The second time was the mistress of a notorious felon. When she was buried she was wearing six necklaces and eighteen rings that weren’t hers, so we had to take them back from her. They were just skeletons - no skin off my nose.
BULLOCK. I wouldn’t like to wear anything that had been on a dead body.
STOKOE. It was stolen property. Being a corpse didn’t make her the rightful owner.
BULLOCK. You must be due to retire soon.
STOKOE. Got thirteen months to go. I can still do this job as well as some school leaver.
BULLOCK. I didn’t mean to imply that -
STOKOE. The job’s still the same, it’s only the paperwork that changes. Early retirement?
That’s an insult. I’m a working man, a professional. When I go, I’ll have worked for the council for fifty years. You won’t find many who can tell you that.
BULLOCK. No. What will you do once you retire?
STOKOE. Er - thought that I might try to breed greyhounds, perhaps. Never had the time before. Maybe.
BULLOCK. You ought to work out a retirement plan.
STOKOE. Hm. (He exhales.) Lead!
BULLOCK. If you’re concerned that it might be dangerous to handle -
STOKOE. I’m not bothered about that. It’s just, y’know heavy, that’s all.
BULLOCK. I don’t know that I’d care to work with corpses all of the time. I’m a virologist by trade.
STOKOE. Dead bodies don’t give you no aggro. It’s the senior management that you want to watch out for.
BULLOCK. Shall we…
STOKOE. In a minute in a minute!
BULLOCK. What’s the best sort of corpse to work with?
STOKOE. Recent heart attack. No complications, least paperwork. With cancer, the body’s already started to die before the client has. About your age is ideal -
STOKOE. – because old bodies are too frail. You’re always liable to create a few tears and bruises. I can remember that when I was in my first week here, I broke some old biddy’s shoulder. I thought that I was going to get the sack. And there’s much more work to do if they’re young.
BULLOCK. Women or men?
STOKOE. Men. Fewer internal organs. Mind you, dead women tend to be less dirty. But it’s the variety that keeps the job interesting.
BULLOCK. I couldn’t do it.
STOKOE. You say that, but you’d soon get used to it. Everybody’s got to die sometime.
BULLOCK. Maybe the ordinary ones, but suicides, accidental deaths…
STOKOE. Oh, we like a good murder victim here. I mean, obviously we feel sorry for them and all, but it gives us something to talk about. And the police are all good lads. This one wasn’t murdered, was she?
BULLOCK. Not at all. She was a nurse. Phyllis Taylor. I’ve been doing some detective work on her. I had to get permission from a relative as well as from the priest. Her niece is still alive, still lives around here. When I asked her she told me that our lady here would have been only too glad to know that she could help.
STOKOE. She must have been old.
BULLOCK. The niece? Not particularly. She was born long after Phyllis died. She only knew what her mother had said about her.
STOKOE. What do you want from Mrs. Taylor, then?
BULLOCK. Miss Taylor. 1898-1918. The virus only severely affected young, healthy people.
Oh – I want to take a swab from her tongue and cut a few slices out of her lungs. I’m very much hoping that some of the fluid that choked her has still been preserved. Her parents displayed remarkable foresight in choosing to bury her in a lead-lined coffin.
STOKOE. How considerate.
BULLOCK. We know five of the six parts of the genetic code for the virus of the great ‘flu pandemic. If traces of this fluid still exist we can discover the sixth part and create an antibody. I could be the virologist who prevents the next SARS outbreak.
STOKOE. All because some dead nurse got buried in an expensive coffin.
BULLOCK. Quite. Are you ready now?
STOKOE. Yes yes. Of course.
(Stokoe attempts to prise the coffin open with a crowbar. It does not yield easily.)
BULLOCK. Are you entirely sure that this is the best way to open it?
STOKOE. I know what I’m doing!
(Another try. A great physical effort.)
BULLOCK. Can I do anything to help?
STOKOE. Stand back! Get out of the way.
(Another great effort.)
STOKOE. OH COME ON YOU SODDING BASTARD COFFIN!
(Loud icebreaking sound of seal being broken. The lid comes free.)
STOKOE. (drained) See, I told you it would work.
(Stokoe removes the coffin lid. Phyllis has been preserved in an unnervingly perfect state.
She is dressed in mourning clothes suitable for a woman of 1918.)
BULLOCK. Yes! Perfect conditions
STOKOE. Oh my God.
BULLOCK. Blue eyes.
STOKOE. Oh my God.
BULLOCK. I think that you’re going to be a great help to us, Phyllis.
STOKOE. She looks like she died yesterday.
BULLOCK. She has been dead for eighty-five years, Mr. Stokoe.
STOKOE. She looks like she died yesterday.
BULLOCK. What were you expecting?
STOKOE. Well, something a bit more… pickled looking. Like Lenin, maybe.
BULLOCK. Or stuffed, like Jeremy Bentham. Right - are you okay?
BULLOCK. Right then. Let’s strip her and bag her.
STOKOE. Oh yes. Undress her. Yes.
STOKOE. You want me to do it?
STOKOE. Would you not prefer…
BULLOCK. No, I would not. You’re the one that’s handled more dead bodies than I’ve had cups of tea.
STOKOE. That’s true. They were all a bit more… recently deceased, though. And the ones that weren’t all looked a bit more dead than her. Couldn’t we just strip her to the waist?
BULLOCK. Her clothes could be teeming with mites!
STOKOE. I don’t know about this. I’m not used to handling corsets and things.
BULLOCK. I’m sure that you’ll soon get the hang of it.
Look, she’s not going to stay in this condition for very long. She’ll start to decompose as quickly as an apple core.
Would you like me to find someone else to do it?
STOKOE. No! Of course I’ll do it.
BULLOCK. Well then.
I’m sure that your Senior Manager will be sending me an assessment form.
STOKOE. I am a professional, you know.
(He warily approaches Phyllis and considers how to handle her.)
STOKOE. I can do this.
BULLOCK. I know that you can, Mr. Stokoe.
Look, I’m sorry if I sounded as though I…
STOKOE. I need a cigarette.
BULLOCK. You can’t smoke in here!
STOKOE. No, outside - the porters’ lodge. I’m sorry. It’s just… I know that I’ll be able to do it once I’ve had a fag. You could have a cup of tea if you like. No, not tea! There was a coffee and walnut cake in there this morning.
BULLOCK. Five minutes, then. Only five.
STOKOE. Thank you.BULLOCK. Well, come on then!
(Exit Bullock. Stokoe hesitates. He still feels awkward in the presence of Phyllis.)
STOKOE. Be with you in a minute, old girl.
(He gently touches her on the shoulder and exits.)
(Herbert is lying in a hospital bed. He is agitated. The Phyllis that speaks is – at least initially – the ‘corpse’ Phyllis, and she is not in the same space and time as Herbert until she speaks to him.)
PHYLLIS. At last I find myself half an hour in which to read my book after my work at the sanatorium and my duties at home, when Mother calls me and asks me to find Father for tea.
This makes me cross. I try to remember how Mother has worked and the sacrifices that she has made for me and how wrath is a corrupting sin. This makes me feel guilty, but I still feel cross. Wrap up. Step out into the cold. Winter now, these last few days I have been able to see my breath. Chilblains again soon. Cut across the graveyard - most of the leaves now gone, hear evensong - “Nearer Thy God To Thee”. Forget my irritation. Want to sit on the bench, listen to the singing, see the light through the stained glass, think about myself: Phyllis, young woman sat in churchyard, what it might mean, feels to be me. But that would be indulgence, when the table has been laid and the muton and the carrots and the gravy are getting cold.
PHYLLIS. Move on faster. Try to think of father, his day at the lead foundry , today is
Thursday, will they have gone to The Railway Tavern or to The Piper? It’s foggy, I feel winter, The Railway is closer, try there first. The High Street. Most of the people walking in the opposite direction, to the Underground Station. They want to be home too, the warmth of the fireplace and the quiet of the carriage clock on the mantelpiece. They try not to jostle and knock against me, but they are worn out, still manage to push me back. Apologies are perfunctory, said for form’s sake, not to me myself. “Star News Standard”, evening papers, headlines about coupon election that I do not understand.
PHYLLIS. Father is not in The Railway Tavern, of course. Pipe smoking navvies, too much
noise. Smoke. Smell of hops. Start to feel cross again. Why am I doing this? I am twenty years old, want to be putting baby to bed, waiting for husband to return home, or at least engaged to a nice young man with prospects, not living at home with Father and Mother, sharing a bed with two little sisters anymore. Why am I alive? Feel blood rush to face. Wish that I could be more meek, stop this anger.
HERBERT. Nurse? Please.
(He coughs consumptively.)
PHYLLIS. Feel hot. Touch face. Wetness. Not rain? No. In me. Very hot. More wetness. Fluid. Throat rasping. Fluid. In my lungs! Oh God. Want to loosen collar. Coat like lead.
People swerve away. Face burning. Want to sit down. Oh God. Find a policeman. Too late. Face is red. Arms are heavy. Father. Mother. Skin is maroon. Loose balance. Oh God. I wish that I was good. Our father. Who art. In heaven. Hallowed.
HERBERT. Nurse! Please! Nurse?
(Phyllis, in nurse’s uniform, arrives at Herbert’s bed.)
PHYLLIS. I’m here.
(Phyllis hands Herbert a bowl, into which he spits blood.)
PHYLLIS. Any more?
(Herbert reflects and shakes his head.)
PHYLLIS. Don’t hurry yourself.
HERBERT. I haven’t seen you here before.
PHYLLIS. They normally put me on the south wing.
(She studies Herbert’s bedside notes.)
PHYLLIS. How regularly is the blood coming out?
HERBERT. Every… not every hour. Every two hours?
PHYLLIS. You’re not getting worse, then. Have you had much to drink?
HERBERT. Matron just gave me a cup of tea. I think that might of…
PHYLLIS. Yes, it would have done. Wait for it to cool down next time.
HERBERT. Can I have a cigarette?
PHYLLIS. Mr. Inglis, you want to soothe your throat.
HERBERT. It’ll calm my nerves.
(Phyllis takes a cigarette from a case on Herbert’s bedside table.)
HERBERT. Would you care for one, Sister?
PHYLLIS. I would, but I mayn’t smoke on duty.
HERBERT. Take one for the tram home, then.
PHYLLIS. I couldn’t.
HERBERT. No. Go on. I want you to.
PHYLLIS. Well, thank you then, Mr. Inglis.
HERBERT. Call me Herbert.
PHYLLIS. Well, thank you then, Herbert.
HERBERT. Can I smoke mine, then?
PHYLLIS. In a minute. I’ll just have to take your temperature first. When was your wound last dressed?
HERBERT. After breakfast.
PHYLLIS. We must keep you clean, Herbert Inglis.
HERBERT. What’s your name, Sister?
PHYLLIS. Phyllis. Come on. Don’t be shy.
(Herbert removes his pyjama top.)
PHYLLIS. (Surprised.) Did two Germans bayonette you, Herbert Inglis?
HERBERT. No, Phyllis. Guess how I got my wound.
(As Phyllis carefully washes Herbert’s wound -)
PHYLLIS. It does look like a bayonette.
HERBERT. It does, but it isn’t.
PHYLLIS. An unusual dagger? Shrapnel? I’ve never seen bullets do that.
HERBERT. Ooh - cold sponge. No, they wouldn’t, you’re right.
PHYLLIS. You must have got in the way of a shell, then?
HERBERT. No. Do you want a clue? I got it in hand-to-hand combat.
PHYLLIS. But it’s not a bayonette or a knife? That’s impossible. I don’t know - a mace? Oh,
I give up.
HERBERT. It wasn’t a German that did it.
PHYLLIS. Are you cavalry?
HERBERT. An animal! Correct. You win another cigarette.
PHYLLIS. Oh no, Herbert - One is enough.
HERBERT. Give it to your young man, then.
PHYLLIS. Impudent soldier! There is no young man.
HERBERT. You surprise me.
HERBERT. No, I was gored by a ram.
PHYLLIS. Well, the King won’t give you a VC for that, will he? How did this happen, then?
Don’t tell me - You got drunk and decided to wrestle with the regimental mascot for a bet.
HERBERT. I wouldn’t do a thing like that, Phyllis. No - my people have always been farmers, so I got stationed at the big Allied Forces farm at Rouen.
PHYLLIS. The agricultural front.
HERBERT. An army marches on its stomach. We certainly worked hard. We had a lot more to do than sitting in some trench somewhere. Pigs. Chickens. Geese. Cattle. Sheep! It was huge and none of the top brass knew the first thing about farming. Feeding, herding, penning, shearing, plucking, delivering litters, mucking out, milking… There was no planning. We never had time to wash, barely had time to sleep, busy, confused, exhausted.
PHYLLIS. And your ram?
HERBERT. All my fault. If I saw a bull in a field, all stamping his hooves and frothing at the snout, then I wouldn’t go in. But because the ram was smaller than me, I thought that I could handle him. He backed me into the hedgerow. That’s how he managed to push his horns in so deep.
PHYLLIS. Did they have to put him down?
HERBERT. No. Fine French beast, he was. I remember that once he’d had his fill of goring me he just turned quietly away and started to graze, gentle as a lamb, like. It was me who was reckless.
PHYLLIS. You needn’t fret about it. We all make mistakes. Now. Time to take your
PHYLLIS. Yes, Mr. Inglis?
HERBERT. Are you quite well?
PHYLLIS. Quite well, thank you for asking.
HERBERT. You look a bit washed-out.
PHYLLIS. Thank you!
HERBERT. You’re tired. Please talk to me.
PHYLLIS. Very well. Since you seem to be concerned.
(She puts the thermometer in Herbert’s mouth and looks at her watch. The following speech lasts for two minutes.)
PHYLLIS. No, you intuit me correctly. I do feel drawn today. Though I always try to remember that; my troubles are nothing, I work with dying men all day. No - don’t look at me in that alarmed way Herbert Inglis, you’ll survive for many years yet. I just didn’t manage to get any sleep last night, that’s all. I have to share a bed with my two little sisters; Maude, she’s twelve and Caroline, she’s eight. And because I’m the grown-up, the worker, I go to bed two hours later than they do and they have already spread themselves out and marked their territory across the bed. And I don’t want to wake them up, that would cause even more trouble, so I have to hunch myself up and it gives me cramp sometimes and my back can get kinked. Sometimes Caroline can have nightmares and get frightened and then she clings onto my arm or my leg so tightly that it can cut off the circulation of my blood so then I wake up with a dead arm or pins and needles at four in the morning and then I can’t get back to sleep again. When that happens I like to think of the soldiers here who have no arms or legs and try to count my blessings, but that doesn’t always stop me from getting cross.
Anyway, last night - No, last night wasn’t like that, it was worse. When I got to bed at ten o’clock Maude was still awake. Caroline has got this terrible cough at the moment and she makes this dreadful hacking, wheezing noise. She sounds much worse than you, Mr. Inglis, though I know that her sufferings cannot be as great as yours, of course. Anyway, her noise was keeping Maude awake and Maude lost her temper and started to kick at Caroline and
Caroline woke up and started to cry and this made me cross and I - I did a very bad thing and slapped Maude for her selfishness. And then Maude - who is a very wilful girl, a great worry to mama - she told me that she was not to be treated in such a way and got dressed and walked out of the house to the park. And once she had left, Caroline got frightened and took it into her head that Maude would be savaged by a guard dog, and started to cry again. And I was so worn out by my sisters, Herbert Inglis, that I was unkind to her and told her not to be such a silly crybaby.
And then, when Maude arrived back home - unharmed by dogs - at midnight, Father intercepted her on the stair. I heard him tell her that he was very angry with me for not informing him that Maude had absconded, and that he wants to talk to me about my lapse once I arrive home from work this evening.
So yes, I am a little washed-out at the moment, Herbert, though at least - apart from a cold that I fear I may have caught off Caroline - I am in good health, for which I thank God.
(Two minutes have passed. Phyllis removes the thermometer.)
PHYLLIS. You’re getting better now, Herbert. You should be restored to full health and running around on your farm again by 1919. I’m very glad. You’ve earned your cigarette now.
(She lights his cigarette for him.)
Next - Enza - Scene Two