A comedy in two acts
Our protagonist is a lost, frequently misunderstood man from a ‘good’ background, who has been so institutionalised at boarding schools that, despite his clever brain, he can only drift through life, avoiding contact, trusting to his ‘guides’ to make the best choices on his behalf. As a result, while he has done some interesting things, he has never enjoyed success. Isolated from the world, he finds himself drifting down into a dream of useless old age, bringing final confirmation of what he has always known: that nothing he does or says has any real value.
Although he has an original and creative wit, and a natural air of authority, the man has pursued many careers only to be pushed down by more ambitious rivals, or to walk away spitefully, resentful at the willingness of his employers to exploit his cleverness, to take him for granted; reasoning that he may as well stand aside and let others have the prizes. For prizes too have no ultimate value. Nevertheless, he still feels betrayed that his eagerness to please has brought him so few rewards. All the world’s cleverest, most quoted men, Dr Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, even Donald Rumsfeld, had someone on hand to record their every utterance. Whereas all the brilliant, funny, perceptive things he has come out with in his lifetime just vanished on the breeze. Words clearly have little value either.
In his dresser, the man has a sheaf of writings. He observes how much cleverer he was, twenty, thirty years ago, compared with today. The political essays he writes obsessively, but never publishes, always precisely one thousand words, like this synopsis, seem to contain clever ideas that later became common currency. So frequent are the synchronicities and correspondences between whatever he writes, and what he subsequently sees materialising around him, the whorls and eddies in the popular stream that, in his isolation, he reads about in the newspaper and hears on the radio, that he begins – at first with detached amusement, then later with shame – to wonder if he is not in fact the reason for everything.
Disturbingly, because he has always taken a pride in his physical appearance, at this point in the drama the man emerges from contemplation to discover that his stomach has been expanding like a beachball. Nagged by his one remaining contact with the world, a former lover with whom he still enjoys long weekly telephone conversations, he finally goes to the doctor. Don’t worry, says the doctor, it is adipose tissue, not a tumour. Fat! You need to take more exercise.
Now age 60, stranded in a strange, benighted country, the only job the man can get is as a janitor in a deserted mansion. His orders, such as they are, arrive by email from an unseen employer, who continues to behave as if the mansion is a busy hotel, although there has not been a guest in over a year. Trapped in the freezing house – there is no money for heating – the man surrenders to the role of a shuffling, unkempt old concierge, a ‘Compo’ in a woolly hat, scarf and mouldering overcoat, with a drip at the end of his nose.
Aside from a smelly old dog, his only companion is a nightly bottle of wine. Mildly drunk, he continues to write off indiscriminately for important positions, relying on his ability to ‘cobble together a good letter’. Each job he applies for means that he has to create a new CV, continually reinventing himself, until he no longer knows who he really is. Like poor Yosser Hughes, the crumbling, unemployable character in the Alan Bleasdale plays, ‘I can do dat’ becomes his creed.
One day, a surveyor comes to inspect the premises and shortly afterwards workmen arrive to fit a fat trap in the kitchen – a filtration unit to prevent solid waste getting into the sewers. The foreman tells the janitor that the fat trap has to be inspected and emptied every week. Look, all you have to do is this, and this, he explains to the befuddled old man. He hands him a set of instructions, and leaves.
The man looks at the instructions, and is puzzled because, despite his cleverness, he does not understand the words. He cannot figure out how to remove the cover. The most menial of jobs, it is quite beyond him. Is he getting senile? He dares not put food down the sink, and so stops cooking altogether, surviving furtively on pork pies. The sheer inaccessibility of even such a simple device causes him to question whether there is in fact anything he can really do, or if the myth of his competence in so many spheres is simply self-delusion?
Thinking back, he realises that everything he says he can do, he has done only once. He once wrote a play. He sent it to a theatre. It was rejected, not because it was not clever – the director acknowledged that it was – but because it had too many speaking parts. It was too clever! Clearly, he has no business claiming to be a playwright.
Another time, he designed and built a pig ark. That’s right! He and one of his wives kept pigs. And he made a house for them. Only one, but it was a clever design, and he wrote an article about it. The article was accepted by a magazine: ‘Build Your Own Pig Ark’. For various reasons – lack of money, pigs, the effort he had put into it – he did not build another.
Is it right then, that he should promise even wryly on his CV that he ‘builds pig arks’? When he does not know how to remove a cover designed specifically for janitors to get, with gloved hands, at the putrid mess congealed inside the fat trap? He feels like a patient who wakes from the anaesthetic while the surgeon is still cutting, cutting through layers of adipose tissue to expose the lump of wasted opportunities beneath.
© May 2009