Some years ago, I wrote this short play. It was my first attempt at writing for the stage, and my only one. It was intended to be put on in a small fringe theatre in London, and last for around twenty minutes, as part of a season of shorts. It would be cheap to stage, and has a small cast, of only two (or three) people. Props are minimal, and it all takes place in one small room, sparsely furnished. As it turned out, it didn’t make the cut. I showed it to some family and friends. Some liked it, others thought it needed work. The most common criticism was that the main character was unsympathetic, and hard to like. That was very much the point though. The experiences in his life that had made him turn out this way are explained to some extent. There is some swearing, and it is quite a long read. If you feel inclined to imagine this as a short play, and are wiling to invest your time in reading it, I would appreciate your thoughts. There is a little of me in the character, which is not uncommon, but it is mainly based on my experiences in the Ambulance Service, and being in countless situations like this one. This was the working script.
CITY OF CRANES
Setting; The living room of a 20th floor Council Flat in North London, Present Day.
Props ; Ironing Board, Iron, Window, Small Suitcase, 2 Armchairs or similar.
Transistor Radio, Photos in frames, Trousers, Shirt. Watch, Slippers, Dressing Gown, Clip-board.
Cast ; White Male approx 60 Years old, born in 1947. His name is Derek Lee.
Black male or female approx 30 years old, African origin. (Social Worker)
Ambulance attendant, any sex or age. (Can be voice off stage)
Small, dingy flat, poorly decorated and furnished. A man about 60 years old is standing next to an ironing board, looking out of the only window. He is dressed in a faded dressing gown, under which he wears a vest, underpants, socks, and slippers. He has placed a small case on a chair nearby, and he is arranging a pair of trousers and shirt, ready for ironing. It is around three in the afternoon, the last week of November.
He constantly re-folds the trousers, all the time staring out of the window.
Sound of doorbell/knocker
Derek checks his watch, then folds the trousers again before carefully placing them on the ironing board. He wraps the dressing gown around him, tying the cord tightly, then goes to answer the door. A young person enters, smartly dressed, carrying a clipboard. They have a breezy demeanour.
SW ‘Hello Mr Lee. Can I call you Derek, or how do you like to be called?’
DL ‘Most people call me Del, call me what you like’
SW ‘Derek then. Did you remember I was coming this afternoon, did you get my letter?’
DL (Points to case and ironing) ‘Well I’m not packing for a cruise, am I? What’s your name then?’
SW ‘You can call me Adye’. Are you nearly ready then Derek? The Ambulance will be here soon’
DL ‘Why do I need an Ambulance? I’m not ill.’
SW ‘It just makes it easier, better than waiting for cabs’
DL ‘You better sit down. I’ve got to iron this stuff yet. Want a tea or something?’
SW ‘I’m OK thanks, I have this water. (Shows plastic bottle of mineral water, sits)
DL ‘I remember when water came out of taps. Never did us any harm either. Public Drinking Fountains in parks. Remember them? Course you don’t, you’re too young. Hot Summer day, playing out, nothing tasted better, cool fountain water. So cold it made your teeth hurt. Nothing more refreshing, except a Jubbly, or a Calypso, if you had thruppence on you. Don’t ‘spose you will know what they are either? Ice Poles? Mivvis? Nah, you haven’t got a clue, I might as well be talking Albanian. Anyway, we had good stuff then, and we didn’t need to waste money on water, that’s for bloody sure!’
SW ‘Shall we get on with the ironing, Time’s getting on’
DL ‘Shall WE get on with the ironing? Are you gonna do it then? No. It has to be done right. Don’t want tramlines, or double creases, do WE? Can’t have a shiny arse either. I used to use brown paper for that. Soap in the seams, keep them sharp. Folded them under the mattress at night. It’s the pressure see? Better than a Corby press, like you see in hotels. Gets you ready for the morning. Strides pressed, tie slipped off with knot intact, cuts down on creases. Quick sluice, and off you go, gives you ten minutes more kip.’
(Derek folds the trousers over his arm. He walks to the window and parts the net curtain so he can see out)
DL ‘Ever since I can remember, London has been a city of cranes. I’ve lived high up, and in basements. I’ve been to Crystal palace, Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath, even up on that bloody useless Eye. Never seen a decent view once. Fucking cranes always spoil it. Always in the way of the best bits. They’re not even level. Big tall ones, some pointing one way, some another. Little stubby ones, cranes on lorries, cranes on docks, cranes on quaysides. I tell you, they’re everywhere! (Turns to face SW)
Ever see a crane go up? Bet you haven’t. Never met anyone that has. You go to bed one night, and they are all there the next morning. Never seen a crane taken down either. One day you’re staring at a 90 footer, next morning it’s gone. Think about it. You’ll realise I’m right. How does that happen then Adye? I tell you, it’s God’s Meccano.
Those drivers you know. They can’t come down once they start work. Take too long to climb down the ladders. Up in the morning, down at the end of work, all day in that cab. I expect they have to piss in a bottle or something. Don’t know how they manage a shit. What do they do after? Tip it over the side or carry it back down? I reckon they tip it out, don’t you? Not right is it? I mean, stuck up there all day, looking down at the world, shitting in a bucket and eating sandwiches. Not right.’
SW (Agitated) ‘Come on Derek. We have to get on. It’s nearly Time. Get packing now.’
DL ‘WE again! It’s not you being locked up is it? Carted off to the loony bin for nothing, for no good reason I can see.’
SW ‘It’s only for an assessment Derek. Only 72 hours, you will be home soon, all being well. Back here for Christmas, I’m sure.’
DL ‘Home, call this home? I’ve had homes, and believe me, this isn’t even close.’
(DL walks back to the window, stares out at the view)
‘Christmas… They light them up at Christmas, did you know? Lights all over the jibs, down the superstructure, each firm trying to better the other, adverts, or seasonal messages. That’s a new thing, that is, didn’t used to happen. American, I reckon, like most things now.’
SW ‘We need cranes though Derek, or nothing would be built. Your flat wouldn’t be here without cranes, and you would have nowhere to live’
DL ‘After the War, maybe. There was a lot of building needed then. All the bomb sites and whole areas flattened. But it never stops. More and more cranes, ‘til the whole sky is just one long crane. I’ve seen some bloody cranes in my time, I can tell you.’
(Derek sighs. He puts the trousers back on the ironing Board and sits on the vacant chair)
SW ‘Please get on with it Derek. We don’t really have time for this.’ (SW looks at clipboard and flips over the top sheet)
DL (sarcastic, menacing) ‘Oh you’ve got a clipboard. Makes you very important doesn’t it? Was a time when only the bosses had them. Ticked you off lists, marked you down on charts, cancelled your time, docked your pay. They clipped their keys and whistles to them, on a chrome chain. Tied their pencils to them with string, so they were never without something to scribble with. They held them up against their chests, to keep the rain off, or to stop you seeing what was on them. No normal person, no working man, ever had use or reason for a clipboard. Nowadays, they are ten a penny. Every tosser’s got one. Kids in supermarkets, stupid charity collectors in the street, survey women in shopping centres, AA men at motorway services. Shield of Ignorance I call it. They hold it like a shield, so we can’t see they’re ignorant. Don’t mean nothing now, clipboards.’
SW ‘Please don’t start getting angry Derek. You are supposed to be controlling that aren’t you? Remember, that’s how it came to this in the first place.’
DL ‘Oh, really? That’s not what I remember. I recall the doctor telling me I was acting strangely because I was talking to people in the street. I was having a conversation at a bus stop, what’s strange about that? The way I was brought up, it was polite to chat to people at bus stops. Everyone chatted, made small-talk, about the weather, or football.
What changed? You tell me. Was a time you could walk in a park. Watch the kids play, feed the ducks, look at babies in prams, and tell the mums how much they looked like them. Not any more. Now you’re a perv, a nonce. You get reported for being strange.
I can remember when grown-ups played with kids. “Give us a kick of the ball son”, they would say. We would ask them to help us in the park. “Ere missus, give us a push on the swing”, we would call out. If you grazed your knee, you went to any adult for help. They took you to the Parky’s hut, for Germolene and plasters. How did we lose that trust? And what has society lost with it, I ask you?’
SW ‘ But Derek, times have changed. Child abductions, increased access to pornography; more people preying on children. They have to be more careful, don’t you agree?’
DL ‘ That’s bollocks. There was just as much, if not more abuse in Victorian times. Most of your famous child crimes, The Moors Murders, Mary Bell, all happened when I was still young, at the time I’m talking about. Times didn’t change. Media hysteria made it all happen, made prisoners of children and adults alike, both afraid to go out, for different reasons. Now, I don’t go out. Can’t talk to anyone, can’t look at anyone. Kids stay in with their video games, never see the seasons, never graze their knees, never develop any social skills. And they wonder why it’s all gone to shit. I don’t wonder. I know why.’
SW ‘Well that’s as maybe Derek, and we still need to get you sorted and finish packing. Come on now, how about that shirt?’
(Derek returns to the Ironing Board, smooths out the shirt as if ready to begin)
DL ‘It will be dark soon, you’ll be able to see the lights on the cranes. Should have seen them on Bonfire Night, all silhouetted against the colours of the fireworks. My Dad used to do a good display when he was around. It was always cold and clear, sausages and hot potatoes, Sparklers, Catherine Wheels, Rockets. I looked forward to it all year, and it was always over too quick.’
SW ‘Is your Dad still alive Derek?’
DL ‘Fuck knows. He pissed off when I was about seven or eight. Never really got over the war you see. He came home in ’46. He had been in the Army of Occupation in Germany after VE Day, been away since 1941. The Desert, Italy, Normandy. He had a hard war. He had only been back a few times since he married Mum in 1940, didn’t really know each other. I was born nine months after he got back. He was never sure, you see. It was the Yanks. There was talk that Mum had put it about a bit during the War. With all the Yanks stationed in England, they were all at it. Lonely wives, and widows. Young, good-looking Yanks with money to burn. It’s understandable, I ‘spose. Dad never asked her about it. Just upped and went one day. Left for work, and never came home. Mum told me later, she reckoned he thought he wasn’t my Dad. Just did his head in. I used to quite like the idea that my real Dad was an American Pilot. I fancied his name was Hank, and he looked like Clark Gable. I half expected him to come back one day, and take me to live on his ranch in Texas. Mum didn’t hang about. She soon moved in another bloke. He was a meat porter in Smithfield. He didn’t like me much, so I learned to keep out of the way. In from school, tea, and bed with a book. In the holidays, I played out with my mates. Long hot summers, pavements burning; or freezing winters, snowball fights, and balaclava helmets. It was OK, didn’t know no different. At least we never went short of meat!’
SW ‘Isn’t that all a bit of a myth though Derek, the hot summers and snowy winters; the big smogs, and Sherlock Holmes fogs?’
DL ‘Myth? Myth? Course it’s not a fucking myth. I was there, I lived it. Look at the newsreels, the old telly. Beowulf is a myth, Mount Olympus is a myth. My life is not a fucking myth. I didn’t imagine it, didn’t dream it. Just take it all won’t you. Now my life and memories are just figments of a strange imagination. If you try hard enough you can just erase me from the records. I never existed. Winter wasn’t cold, summer wasn’t hot. It was all a FUCKING MYTH.’ (Shouting, leaning forward aggressively)
SW ‘That’s not what I’m saying. I just think that you remember it with intensity, exaggerated for effect, that’s all. The word myth is just an expression. All those old days, the characters, the weather, doors left open, I am just saying it’s seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses, that’s all.’
DL (Sarcastic tone, shouting)‘CHARACTERS! Don’t talk to me about characters. They really have gone. All that’s left are nutters shouting in the streets. We had real characters, we did. I tell you. Old men by braziers, you won’t remember them. They were night watchmen really. Kept an eye on the tools, they did, the holes in the ground. They had a nice brazier, big fire, sometimes a little corrugated iron hut to squat in, case it rained. If you were chatty to them, they would give you a cup of tea, maybe a half a sandwich; tell you some good stories, they would. What you got now? Iron cages, locked boxes, uniformed guards popping by in little vans. Lots of old boys out of work, with nobody to chat to. Tell me that’s progress. (Calms down) There used to be old women walked about with prams full of newspapers. They were a bit mad sometimes, I grant you that. Made a few bob though, selling the papers down the warehouse in Charlton, or Deptford. Now the papers just blow about in the wind, like all the carrier bags. Where’s the blokes who used to see you back? You only had to hear the crunch of a motor going into reverse and someone would be there. “C’mon, C’mon, C’mon, oooold ‘it”. Never wanted anything, just loved to see you back. Where did they all go?’
SW ‘I don’t know Derek. I do know that we have to get on please. Why don’t you just finish that shirt now? It really is almost time.’
DL (Ignores comment, gazing wistfully) ‘Respect, that’s what’s gone. You went into a shop, you behaved. I used to collect old bottles from all over. They paid deposits on them, never bothered to take them back. Me and my mates got them, took them back, got a penny for most, thruppeny bit for some. Waited our turn properly, then spent the money on sweets in the same shop. Knew the rules, the way it worked, respect. Coppers was the same. Give ‘em cheek, you got a clip round the ear, or they told your Mum on you. Kept out their way, we did, had respect.’
SW ‘I think I know about that Derek. I was brought up to respect my parents too, and Police, and Old People, and Education and Learning. I’m with you on that one.’
DL ‘Where was that then?’
SW ‘Enfield, Derek.’
DL ‘Oh, very funny. I mean originally, where your family came from.’
DL ‘Africa’s a big place. Where from? I know the countries, I’m not stupid you know.’
SW ‘Uganda Derek. I was born in Uganda.’
DL ‘Chucked out by old Idi Amin I guess?’
SW ‘Something like that. We came here when I was very young, I don’t remember it. But we have our values the same.’
DL ‘When I was a kid, there was some great countries in Africa. I had the stamps. Still remember them now. Bechuanaland, Nyasaland, Rhodesia, Belgian Congo, Liberia. ‘Ere. Do you know about Liberia? Given to the slaves by a Yank called Monroe it was, hence the capital is called Monrovia, after him, and the Liberia from liberation, see? Mind you, I never found out where he got it from in the first place, so he could give it to the slaves. Probably nicked it off some other poor sods, typical Yank. Done it again with Israel didn’t they? Snatched it off some piss-poor Arabs to give it to the Jews, They are good at that, deciding who has what, and who lives where.’
SW ‘It was the English who had the influence in Uganda Derek. The English who put him into the position he achieved.’
DL ‘Well we got the bill didn’t we? Got you lot here. We gave you homes, jobs, rights. What you got to moan about? Bet if you had stayed there your story would be very different. You wouldn’t be here now, telling me what to do, or where to go would you? Education? You would be walking 10 miles to school with no shoes probably, to learn English off a slate from a load of Nuns. I didn’t have the luxury of a real education. Learnings for poofs, my step-dad told me. A real man works for a living. Had to work on the Meat Market at fifteen, humping meat about at three in the morning, stinking of blood and fat. And the noise, you wouldn’t believe the noise… I had to learn from books. Read and digest, the hard way. I got out as soon as I could though, into the Print at eighteen. My Mum’s brother, Uncle Charl, was Father of the Chapel on the Telegraph. That’s like a shop-steward, a Union bloke. Got me in, and I never looked back. Not ‘til it all closed up, and went to the East End. Then came the strikes, the aggro. All grief, I took the redundancy.’
How about that cup of tea now? I’m a bit dry, I am.’
SW ‘There’s no time for tea Derek. Honestly, they will be here soon. You really must be ready. They are busy, and they won’t be able to wait, if you are not ready.’
DL ‘Have you been back? You know, to Africa?’
SW ‘ Never, since I came here. I have no family there, so no reason to go.’
DL ‘Why not go just for interest? I don’t have family there, I’ve been though.’
SW ‘ Really? Where did you go?’
DL ‘ Went on a Nile Cruise, and a Safari to Kenya. Spent some of me redundancy money. See the world. That surprised you eh?’
SW ‘ So, what did you think?’
DL ‘Got me camera nicked by a monkey in Kenya. Lost all me photos, didn’t I. Egypt was great. Sad about all the monuments though, just ruins really, they never kept them up nice. Thing about pyramids, take a lot of work to build. Must have been a lot of cranes around in them days. Bet if you were looking out the window of a place in Thebes then, couldn’t see sod all for cranes. They didn’t realise. Building’s not the thing. Good swords, bigger armies, that’s the thing. While they were trying to build bigger and better, the Romans came and nicked it all. Better armies, better swords, catapults, that’s what was needed. High-rise wasn’t necessary in the Ancient World. Ruthlessness, not cranes, that was the order of the day. Same thing today really. French had Versailles Palace, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame. Germans had better tanks, better guns and Blitzkrieg. Job done! Israel’s the benchmark. Name a famous building in Tel Aviv? Can’t, can you? They don’t have world class Architecture. They just have a fucking shit-hot army, so they rule the roost in the Middle East. Should have told your family in Uganda, or whatever it was called before we got there. Less grass huts, more spears, better discipline. Stop eating your neighbours, get off your arses, sharpen the spears, and bang-crash, no Colonials. Too late now, of course. You’re all trying too hard to be English, waving your passports in our faces. Well Adye, you can have it. This Sceptred Isle, this shit-hole called England. I don’t feel part of it any more. Take it, do what you like with it. I’m done. It’s not racism, I have never felt remotely like that. It’s fatigue. I have tried too hard, for too long, just to fit in. I’ve had enough now, putting in my papers. The typical Londoner, the typical Englishman. Jack the Lad, one of The Boys, Decent geezer, one of The Chaps, A Face. What’s that now? It’s not me, I can tell you.’
SW ‘It does sound racist Derek. Do you have issues you would like to discuss? You will have the next few days to talk things through, if you want.’
DL ‘Can’t you see it’s not about colour, religion or race? History has caught up with me, with everyone like me. We’ve had our day, and it’s gone. We just don’t know what to be anymore, what to do, or where to go. We used to be it, all there was. They looked to us to get it done. Now we are just in the way, embarrassing, past our time, needing to be shut up. You don’t see it now, but you will one day. Frustration is a terrible thing to bear.’
SW ‘That all sounds very interesting Derek. Why don’t you save it for the Hospital? We really don’t have the time to discuss all this at length at the moment. The clock is ticking…’
DL ‘ You only see me as I am now. You can’t possibly imagine how it was once. I had a wife, a nice flat, good job, a future. (Derek goes and fetches dusty photos in a frame, shows them to SW). Look, wedding snaps, 1967. I was twenty, she was eighteen. I had hair then, nice suits, looked sharp. She was my mate’s sister, worked in Woolworth’s in Holloway Road. Loved to dance, she did. Course, music was good in those days. Motown, Soul, Ska, none better, even today. It was great at first. We rented a nice basement in Kentish Town; two beds, inside bath and toilet. It was expensive, still we both worked and I was on shift, well-paid. Later on, I think she got bored. She started going to Bingo with her mates on Sundays. She said she wanted some excitement in her Life. First it was Gala in Holloway, then Top Rank in Kilburn. Bigger jackpots, apparently. Before I knew it, she went five days a week after work. Even as far as Tooting, chasing the big money, I thought. Never home ‘til late, always tired, going sick from Woolies. She almost never won anything, I couldn’t see the point. Didn’t see it coming really. All the shifts, always at work, what did I know? Got me dinner, washing done, occasional night out, even less occasional nookie, I was happy enough. Thought that was how it was. Seemed the same as everyone else, just life. One night, she tells me she doesn’t love me anymore, I’m not interesting or exciting, and I’m not the man she married. She’s off to Southend with a bingo caller, to start a new life at the seaside, ‘cos he’s got a job on the Pier Bingo, and she wants some fun in her life. I’m thirty one, been married for eleven years. Didn’t hear from her again, got the divorce papers in the post seven years later. I got a card from my mate, her brother, that Christmas. Seems she was up the duff. The bingo caller fucked off. Then she lost the baby at fourteen months old, from Meningitis. She lives in a mobile home on Canvey Island now. There’s a bit of fun for you! Couldn’t be arsed after that. They only lie don’t they? If you can’t keep up the fun and excitement, they’re off. What’s the point? Bet you’re not married are you?’
SW ‘No Derek, not yet. That is hardly relevant though, is it?’
DL ‘ You’ll see, you’ll see.’
SW ‘ I have to go outside to call the Ambulance. They should have been here by now. I can’t get a signal in here,’
(SW leaves the flat, voice heard off stage complaining about the delay. Derek throws the unironed shirt into the case, screws up the trousers and puts them in too. He looks at the photos, folds the stands, and places them carefully in the case. SW returns to the living room.)
SW ‘They’re here Derek. Just waiting for the lift, won’t be long now. (Notices the packed case) What about your shirt and trousers Derek, did you finish them?’
DL ‘What’s the point? I thought, going to hospital, they will give me pyjamas. Might as well stay like this. I’m only going from the lift to the van anyway.’ (Switches off iron)
Cheery Ambulance man/woman comes into flat (Or heard outside).
AM ‘Hello Derek. Are you ready then?’
DL ‘ Am I ready mate? It’s you we’ve been waiting for, bloody hours now. seems like’
AM ‘Sorry mate, we’re very busy today.’
(Derek gets up, looks around the flat, one last look out the window.)
DL ‘’Ere mate, bet you’ve never seen a crane go up or get taken down have you?’
AM ‘Funnily enough Derek, I was a crane driver before I joined the Ambulances. I’ll tell you all about it on the way…’
Pete Johnson, 2007. No reproduction without permission.