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Breaking out of the Menagerie: a monologue

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Stage lights come on gradually to reveal LAURA. She is standing, leaning to a railing a little, facing slightly towards stage-right. In the harsh lights she looks wan and worn, fragile. She is in her mid-to-late twenties, but looks ageless, both younger and older than she actually is. She is neatly dressed in an unremarkable, slightly drab dark-blue skirt and light-gray blouse.

The stage set is bare except a full-length mirror standing on right-hand side. There is a faint spotlight on the mirror throughout the play, suggesting that LAURA is directing her words to it, talking to herself rather than addressing an audience.

At different points in the monologue, images are shown at the screen at the back of the stage.

LAURA: My name is Laura Wingfield, and I’m coming to realize that if I don’t tell my story, nobody will. It might not be a very interesting story, the stuff of movies or books, but I suspect few people’s are. My brother has shared his and in his story I am not an active agent, just somebody affected by other people’s actions. I’m the painfully shy girl in the corner, a burden to my brother’s dreams of escape and a worry to Mother, unable to get anything done while my brother and my mother hustle and bustle, unhappy with their lives but not paralyzed by them.

So if you’ve heard my brother’s story, you know my mother dreamed a future for me. A future with gentleman callers swarming around me as if I were a queen bee. A future without care, without worry. A future with a man strong and handsome to look after me, a man who wants to stay, unlike my father who walked out on my mother, on all of us. She wanted it all for me, no matter how unlikely it seemed, considering our circumstances and the times we were living in. And I guess I forgot I could dream my own dreams, imagine my own future, and make it happen. When she wanted me to make a wish on the moon, I had to ask her what to wish for, I didn’t know what I wanted.

What did I have if I didn’t have any dreams? My collection of glass, my old records, the brace on my leg, endless hours to fill, the tedium of housework while my mother worked to keep us in the little nice things that she craved.

I spent the first week after the disastrous dinner party hiding from the world, dizzy and nauseous.

Mother tried to get me up the first two or three days.

Images on the screen: AMANDA, wearing her coat and pulling her gloves on, standing by LAURA’s sofa-bed, shaking her by the shoulder, pulling the blankets.

AMANDA (in voice-over): Rise and shine, darling! Rise and shine! Laura, you must get up, you can’t spend all day in bed, you’ll be sick. I will give you two more minutes, but that’s it, you will get up. Laura, I mean it. Oh, is that the time? I must dash, darling, but I want to see you up and dressed when I come home.

LAURA: Eventually she let it go, more out of lack of time and weariness than anything else. She was too busy trying to scrape together the money for the light bill that Tom hadn’t paid, for the rent and for the little nice things she’d got for the party. She was out of the apartment most of the day that week, so I stayed in, in semi-darkness with the curtains drawn.

I felt so small. I was nearly twenty-four, and I had done nothing with my life.

LAURA pauses for a moment.

LAURA: One afternoon during that week I got my little glass animals out again; after all, they had never failed to make me feel better. I loved to see how they caught the light and polish them to make sure they were spotless. But for the first time ever they didn’t make me happy.

Jim’s reaction to them had tainted them: he hadn’t understood them, had thought them childish and unimportant, and now I couldn’t help feeling they were just that. They had given me something to do, but that wasn’t enough anymore. Before, I had seen beautiful craftsmanship and imagined endless stories for the pieces, individually and together; now I just saw cheap glass designed to charm empty-headed girls like me. I pushed them all aside and left the cloth I had used for dusting them on top, hiding them from view and turned my back to them for a good measure. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting by the fire escape, watching other people getting on with their lives in the street. I was too far away to see their faces very well, but I could still see young women with their heads held up high, confident and purposeful, young men strutting to impress, middle-aged women with their bulging bags and minds focused on their numerous errands, enjoying the busy streets, young boys breaking into a run every now and then, too alive to simply walk. That afternoon, I yearned for all the normalcy of it.

Tom barely came in the apartment that week; restless as ever, he’d usually come back in the small hours, waking me up on my sofa-bed by tripping over something, and snatch whatever sleep he could. In the morning he was gone before Mother started her bustling for breakfast.

Images on the screen: AMANDA making coffee, slicing bread, breaking eggs, getting the frying-pan out, tiptoeing out to Tom’s little bedroom to wake him up. Her face falls in dismay when she sees his bed hasn’t been slept in.

LAURA: After that week mostly in bed, I felt the walls were too close and I had to get out. So I went for a walk in the park. It was a beautiful day, the sunshine felt almost blinding after a week indoors, and everyone I saw seemed to be smiling, happy. A little girl ran to get her ball from near the bench where I was sitting and smiled to me and I found myself smiling back to her. For that one afternoon I didn’t feel as clumsy and awkward as usual.

Maybe that’s why I came home and packed up all my glass animals in a spare shoebox and pushed the box in the corner of the sitting-room, shadowed by mother’s stack of dusty women’s homemaker magazines and Tom’s piles of books.

LAURA looks down for a moment.

We didn’t immediately realize that Tom had left us. As I said, he had been at home erratically for the past few weeks, hadn’t come home every night. Then three nights in a row passed with no sign of him, and Mother thought it had been the best part of a week since she’d last seen him. She telephoned the warehouse and they told him he had been fired. We then looked through his belongings and saw that he couldn’t have taken many things. Travel light, these Wingfield men, Mother said. She was upset but trying not to show it.

I couldn’t help feeling Tom had left us a long ago.

So it was just the two of us then. Mother worked more, was at home less, and when she was in she was telephoning her subscriptions, or worrying about the bills.

Image on the screen: AMANDA on the telephone, a list of names in front of her, some names crossed out, notes scribbled down next to others.

LAURA: I did more household chores than I had done before, and slowly learned how to get on with things on my own than just waiting to be told what to do and when. I gained plenty of experience in trying not to flinch when they made faces about charging groceries to account when money was tight. And it was always tight.

Image on the screen: A typewriter.

LAURA: One of the things Tom had left behind was his typewriter; it was a big and heavy old thing. I had expected Mother would tidy it away now it was no longer in use, but it still sat on the rickety desk in the sitting-room. One afternoon after finishing all my chores, at a loss what else to do on a wet afternoon, I sat down at it, fondly remembering the occasional late-night bursts of Tom typing his poems for sending them to a magazine. I had found the sound of Tom’s typing comforting in its familiarity, and I suddenly missed him very much. On an impulse, I found a sheet of paper and started on the exercises that I still remembered from the exercise book at Rubicam’s, starting from the very basic asas alka asdf lkjh haha shjk and so on. The first line brought back a wave of nausea with memories of the cold noisy classroom with lines of efficient girls at their typewriters, the instructor with her stop-watch that I had been trying to suppress, and I faltered for a moment.

Images on the screen, side by side: a classroom with young women sitting at desks, typing; Tom by the rickety desk at his typewriter.

LAURA: I tried to push those memories aside and picture Tom typing at this desk instead, his poems on various scraps of paper on one side and a half-forgotten cup of coffee on the other. I started another row, and kept going, slowly, hesitantly. It started to feel soothing in a way I didn’t expect, feeling my fingers move on the keys, my eyes trained at the line of text appearing on the paper, catching some of the movement of the typebars as my fingers pressed the keys.

The spotlight on LAURA turns slightly softer and warmer; she looks more animated.

LAURA: Maybe it wasn’t quite as far beyond me as I had thought. Maybe if I practiced more, when I was quite alone, I might one day be able to do it when other people might be looking over my shoulder?

So weeks passed, months. We economized as much as we could; as Mother was out working most days I was chiefly in charge of household money, and of trying to make it stretch as far as it would go. I did my best to make it stretch to some more paper and typewriter ribbons as well as bread and milk and butter and other essentials. I kept it as a secret, of course; I couldn’t face telling her yet. I wasn’t ready for her excitement, her plans, dealing with other people.

Mother started going through our things to see what could be sold or at the very least re-purposed. She sold my collection of glass and my old records and I let her; at this point they only reminded me of a past I didn’t want to relive anymore. She wanted to sell Tom’s typewriter but I didn’t let her, arguing he still might come for it. It wasn’t a very good argument, and I didn’t really believe in it myself, but for the time being it was better than revealing my secret exercises and facing the pressure of the expectations she would surely have.

I had kept practicing: my fingers had found their places on the keyboard and I was able to type a sheet of text from a book or a magazine with hardly any errors, but I wasn’t sure about my speed, and I felt certain I’d still freeze if someone stood at my shoulder armed with a stop-watch to measure my words per minute. And it struck me one afternoon that I could easily enough copy a page from one of Tom’s obscure European novels reasonably accurately without taking too long doing it (depending on the page of course; I usually picked a page at random, but there had been one or two pages that made me blush and I had turned over to another page, and pages with lots of dialog made me slower than usual) but I had never tried to type something just out of my head. I sat at the typewriter for the best part of an hour trying to find a topic to write about, and felt that my brain was completely blank. I remembered finding Tom’s scribbled notes going on for pages and pages, and the easy staccato of his typing even when he wasn’t simply transcribing his handwritten notes, and couldn’t imagine ever having that many words flowing out of me.

Image on the screen: A typewriter with a blank sheet of paper ready for typing.

LAURA: Eventually I thought of trying to write a letter to the gas board asking them not to cut us off because we had been struggling to pay the bill on time, based on just a couple of lines of notes jotted down as a list of the things I thought the letter should cover. Typing it was slower than copying an existing text, but I didn’t think I was impossibly slow. So maybe there was still some hope for me.

At least if I could think of what to do next. If I wanted to become better at typing, I needed more practice, and maybe lessons, but the whole idea of a business college was so intimately tied to my memories of Rubicam’s Business College. I didn’t think I’d ever get over the embarrassment of what had happened there. Besides, I would have had to ask Mother for money, and I still wasn’t ready to face her eagerness to make something of me, and I most certainly didn’t want her working any harder than she was doing already to pay for me to turn out to be a failure again. She was always looking tired these days, tired and worn, thinner than she used to be, worrying about money, trying to find us a cheaper but still respectable apartment to live in.

So I needed to find my own solution. I went to the library every morning and read the advertisements in the newspaper: vacancies, list of courses at secretarial colleges, small ads. I walked past shops and small businesses and scanned the windows for advertisements. After two hours of steeling my resolve, I replied to an ad looking for someone to produce a typewritten manuscript from her handwritten one and never got a response. I remained hopeful for a couple of weeks before admitting to myself there wouldn’t be one. I spent ten minutes on the sidewalk near a small lawyer’s office looking for a junior typist to add to their typing pool and couldn’t muster up the courage to go in to inquire about the job. I telephoned an agency placing typists into offices but put the receiver down when I was being transferred from the switchboard to the woman in charge of responding to applicants. A woman saw me reading an ad in the window of another lawyer’s office, introduced herself as one of the typists, and offered to take me inside to meet the office manager if I was interested in the job, but the surprise of someone talking to me when I was silently rehearsing what I might say if I was able to steel myself to go inside and inquire meant I couldn’t even get a word out of my mouth, so I just fled. I mailed dozens of applications for typist positions, but most of them simply led to a polite slip of a reply thanking me for my letter but they had already filled their vacancies. One invited me to send further information about my secretarial qualifications, which I obviously couldn’t do as I didn’t have any. Another reply requested me to call at the office at a set time for typing and shorthand tests. I was sick from nerves that morning, and couldn’t work up the courage to go. And opening the mail became a chore in itself, one that I both dreaded and wanted to stay hopeful about. Any letter addressed to me made my hands shake, and the day I received three rejection letters that seemed slightly less generic than others I had received I cried until I was sick, and couldn’t find the will to send out any applications over the next few days. I wanted to give up searching many times.

We moved to a smaller and dingier apartment to reduce our outgoings: Mother slept in an alcove off the main room, and I had my sofa-bed in the main room. It was a fifth-story apartment, no elevator, and the entrance hall and the stairway always looked dirty and smelled of cooking. Mother had sold or otherwise disposed of various things that had been cluttering our old apartment: the new apartment, once she had set it up the way she wanted it, looked bare and unwelcoming, functional enough for our needs and routines but not somewhere where she could have brought her friends.

Images on the screen: AMANDA looking at a bare living-room critically, fussing with curtains, laying a lace tablecloth on a sidetable.

LAURA: I could see us making similar moves in the future: each apartment cheaper and smaller and dingier than the last one because we couldn’t afford anything better. It wasn’t an appealing prospect, but I didn’t know if we could ever have anything more than that.

I kept replying to small ads searching for typists for manuscripts, feeling that it would be the best way to build up some experience without meeting many strangers and having them hover by my shoulder making me nervous. I finally got one of those jobs, and spent all my free time (and some of my housekeeping time) over the next week typing a manuscript about cotton. There were a couple of pages that took me several tries to get right, but I found it reasonably easy to get into a rhythm and stay focused on the words I was typing. I mailed off the manuscript, and received a check in the return mail.

It gave me hope I could eventually earn enough regularly to help keep Mother and myself, give us some security and avoid the prospect of increasingly dingy apartments. But I also wondered if it was the one and only time that I would strike lucky.

I spent some of the check buying more paper and typewriter ribbons, and divided out the rest to supplement the housekeeping money Mother was giving me. I still didn’t want to tell her what I had done in case the cotton manuscript was the only typing work I’d ever finish successfully and get her hopes up for something bigger and better.

But my good luck held for the moment. As things sometimes come in threes, the next two replies to manuscript typing jobs were also positive, and I spent the next two weeks alternating between a manuscript about foraging for mushrooms and wild berries and another about the history of shipping on the Mississippi. I found it was easier to focus and avoid making too many errors when I kept switching from one manuscript to the other every now and then. Looking at either one too long in one sitting led my mind jumping too much ahead and missing two lines in the middle of a page, and having to re-type the entire sheet again.

Mother came in unexpectedly early on an afternoon I was collating the Mississippi shipping manuscript for mailing it to the writer, so I had to explain what it was all about. In the past she would probably have been excited about me showing an initiative, but all I got was a wan smile as she took off her coat and went over to her alcove to lie down for a while. I wasn’t sure what to do, but after a quarter of an hour of standing by the window and trying to keep as quiet as possible I returned to my manuscript and finished what I was doing.

We spoke about the manuscripts over our meager evening meal, about my hopes for getting more typing work of that kind. She was pleased for me, but wanted me to go to an agency to be placed as a typist, but I tried to get her lower her expectations about my ability to cope with strangers and the pressures of an actual office for a little longer. I wasn’t ready yet, and wanted to avoid another Rubicam’s fiasco. Eventually we settled for doing it my way for another month.

The lights are becoming softer and dimmer.

LAURA: So this is what I’m doing now. I don’t know if it’s enough to lead to the things I know I want now: being able to support myself, to look after my mother, to live somewhere nicer than this. But it’s a start, and it’s not scaring me as much as I dreaded it would.

The lights go out.