Nuclear

17 min. read Submitted 05/11/2010 Last Edited 24/09/2021 #writing #creative

This is a play I wrote in 2010. I am proud to say it was selected as the best play in the state of NSW and performed professionally in a program called Writers OnStage. It's about a young man returning home. It's strange to read, all these years later, but some of the jokes still make me laugh. It's evidently the work of a teenager, and I hope you'll take it as such.

CHARACTERS:

  • JOHN – A soldier, returning home after serving in the army. Quiet, introspective, he joined the army to escape. He has returned to try and revisit his childhood.

  • LUCILLE – John’s eccentric mother. She has created her own world, and is overtly hostile to anything that threatens its stability.

  • ALBERT – John’s father, an office worker and train enthusiast. His and Lucille’s marriage is strained. He retreats into his trains like a turtle retreats into a shell.

  • ELLY – John’s sister, in the final year of school. An activist with no tangible passion for her causes.

NB: This play should be performed in an intimate space.

The play opens on a small apartment. Two doors stage-left lead to the kitchen and to Elly’s room. A door stage right leads to John’s room. A door upstage centre leads out of the apartment into the hallway. This is Lucille’s territory. Everything is floral and extremely tidy. The only items of set are: A fold out couch centre-stage, covered in plastic protective wrap. The base of the couch is secured by a padlock, preventing it from opening. One barred window, next to the front door. A model train track emerging from a cat-flap on John’s door, running from John’s room across downstage and then up behind the couch, making a circuit of the stage. Occasionally, a model train makes the circuit.

(JOHN enters carrying his duffel bag and wearing his army fatigues. He drops the bag and sits on the couch. He looks around, and looks restlessly at the kitchen door. He gets up, goes to the door, and raises his hand to knock. He stops himself, suddenly thinking better of the whole thing and goes and grabs his bag. He heads towards the door just as LUCILLE bursts through the kitchen door wearing an atrociously floral apron, sees John, and screams with happiness.)

LUCILLE: John! It’s so good to see you! Oh when you called and said you’d be coming back, I nearly died with happiness!

(She throws her hands up and rushes to hug John, grabbing hold of his bag as she does so.)

JOHN: Mum, I didn’t say I was coming back, I said I might-

LUCILLE: Nonsense! Absolute nonsense! You can stay for as long as you like, John, absolutely no limits! This is your home, and it’s great to be back - isn’t it?

(John shakes his head and begins to walk to his room, but is pulled back by Lucille holding his bag.)

Oh… John, I’m afraid I turned your room into a rumpus parlour!

JOHN: (he stops) A what?

LUCILLE: A rumpus parlour. That's what I call it, anyway. Your father calls it a games room, but I much prefer “rumpus”. It’s such a neglected word, and I feel so sorry for it – it’s sort of like “girt”… You only ever hear the word “girt” in the national anthem, and nowhere else. I mean, have you ever heard someone use it outside of the anthem? Of course not! Why just the other day, I decided to use it in conversation with Miriam - you remember Miriam, the rather decrepit old darling downstairs? Well I was talking about the state of her balcony and I said “Miriam, I simply adore the way your roses girt your petunias”. I mean the poor girl knew what I meant straight away when I reminded her of its use in our anthem, but it's the fact that I had to remind her that really makes my point! (A pause. A train comes from John’s room and begins to make the circuit around the room. Lucille and John stare at it as it passes. It spurs Lucille into conversation again.) Ah, yes. The room has your father's model train set in it, as well as the pool table and the stereo. It’s sort of expanded a little bit since he first bought it…

JOHN: (He is annoyed. He looks at his old room longingly) I really wanted to pick up some things from my old room...

LUCILLE: Well, your father and I were thinking we'd fold out the sofa, just like we used to when you had your little friends over for sleepovers. And you can sleep there for as long as you like – we don’t want you to feel that you’re an inconvenience. You can stay as long as you like - as long as you keep it spic and span and fold it up every morning… Now, are you hungry?

JOHN: Mum, I don’t think I made myself clear. I’m not stay-

LUCILLE: (interrupting) I've got some cold frankfurters in the fridge. I don't know what you've been eating, but I can barely see you, you're so thin! I'll heat them up.

(Lucille exits into the kitchen, and John takes a seat on the sofa.)

(offstage) Oh yes, you haven't seen the new microwave. It's a Samsung. I always said the Japanese know appliances, even if your father is always “LG” this and “LG” that. I could never own anything LG! I’ll never trust the Koreans. Not after Apocalypse Now!

JOHN: (noticing the padlock on the couch) Why is there a padlock on the couch?

LUCILLE: (offstage) Oh, the darn thing’s broken. Won’t lock, or something like that, it won’t sit right if you don’t stick that thing on now. Your father put it on, with his new skills in DIY no doubt. Now don’t tell your father I said this, but I think he has a faint anti-Japanese sentiment. It’s the only explanation for why he doesn’t trust one of the most reliable brands on the planet!

(She re-enters carrying a frankfurter, making it “walk” in the air as she goes to John.)

(In a bad German accent) Here comes Mr Frankfurter!

JOHN: I’m not hungry.

LUCILLE: You’re just like your father! He never likes it when I personify food... Like him in every way but the racism, of course. Not to be critical, not to be critical... but I think he gets it from his father, from the war. We all have our vices, remember John. We all have our little nagging flaws, but that's no reason to be critical.

(She has forgotten the frankfurter during her spiel, but now offers it to John.)

JOHN: I don’t want it.

(She hears nothing of it and shoves it into his hands.)

LUCILLE: I mean you’re father is the... decent... man he’s always been; and you can’t criticise, not in this day and age... Yes, well, hopefully that will put some meat on your bones. Your father should be home any moment, then Eleanor gets home from school, and then we'll get that sofa business sorted out and have a good little catch-up-

JOHN: Do I at least get a plate?

LUCILLE: (ignoring John) A bit of a reminisce, a new exploration of how we've all evolved and changed in our time of separation. I'm sure you have lots of stories!

JOHN: What do you expect me to do with this?

LUCILLE: (taking it back) Well if you didn’t want it, John, you should have said! Well, I’m sure you’ve had some absolutely life changing and affirming experiences in your time in the army, and I’m sure that we’d all like to get to know the new you... (Lucille suddenly becomes very serious. She takes a slow bite of frankfurter.) Don’t do that to me again. Do you know how I found out that you’d joined up, John? The police told me! After I filed a missing persons report! It wasn’t right John. It wasn’t good. Do not. Do it. Again. (John stays silent, not breaking eye contact. After a pause, Lucille suddenly bursts into a cheerful smile, the moment forgotten, and takes another bite.) Oh, you’re forgiven John! Of course you are! (She finishes off the frankfurter) Perhaps just give us a little warning the next time you decide to enlist in the armed forces…

(John gives her an annoyed look, rises, grabs his pack and moves to his bedroom door. He attempts to open it, but finds it is locked. Another train comes out, nearly hitting his foot, with a roll of toilet paper sitting on a car. He jumps to avoid it. Lucille sees the train, and suddenly remembers something.)

Ah! “Ply”.

JOHN: What are you talking about? Mum, why is this locked?

(He continues in his efforts to open the door.)

LUCILLE: (slowly creeping closer to John) “Ply”. That's another word you don't hear a lot. The only place you hear the word “ply” is when toilet paper is concerned. Or wood. I suppose it means “layers” or something similar. But really, if I was to use the word “ply” in everyday conversation, you wouldn't have a clue what I meant! If I said that I wanted you to get me a multi-ply cloth, you wouldn't know- Oh. That doesn't really work, does it? I suppose it's a pun, of sorts. Multi-ply, multiply... Yes, well you do get what I'm trying to say, don't you?

(She has reached John, and now looks at him expectantly for some input.)

JOHN: Um... Yes, Mum. People forget words when they don't have much use.

LUCILLE: Exactly! You always sum things up so well, John. You summed up my multi-plyer. Ha! Do you get it? It's another pun. I do believe if I pull off one more I'll have a running joke on my hands... (the train whistles on the other side of stage, drawing both their attentions) Ah! Before I forget, John, Miriam was ecstatic about your return. She has this one missing false tooth now, makes her whistle like a steamboat whenever she lets loose a plosive. She says you must visit before the end of the week, and she'll even bake up some of those... homely biscuits. You remember those, don't you John? (The train has finished its circuit, and goes back into the room. John bends down and attempts to get his hand in the cat flap to see inside, but he cannot get it back open.) John? John, it’s rude to ignore people when they’re speaking!

JOHN: (irritated) No… No I don’t remember.

LUCILLE: Of course you do! She's a lovely lady, and she loves your company. It would be extremely nice of you if you paid her a visit. I'm sure it would considerably brighten up her existence. There's not much to it these days - poor dear. Apart from those two great hounds of hers - the Great Danes. You remember those? Of course you do. Great, equine beasts. I could never, in my life, permit such an animal in this apartment. For one thing, an animal should not nearly outclass their owner in terms of size - it's simply unnatural! (Lucille begins to panic at the image.) Great hanging jowls! Mucus everywhere, no sense of cleanliness. Unhygienic! Oh, but that's not the worst part. The worst part is, of course, that their heads are the same height as the dinner table! They can just walk right up, and have their choice of the pickings. Imagine that! Sitting at the table, enjoying your meal, when a great big slobbering snout edges past and ruins your entire meal! That is not the action of a pet, but an animal marauder in your very home!

JOHN: (giving up on the cat flap) Dammit!

LUCILLE: I know it's a terrible thing to say, and I do adore Miriam and all, but sometimes I wish... I wish she was a “cat” kind of senior...

(ALBERT enters through the front door after a long day’s work. He does not initially acknowledge or notice John or Lucille. He removes a train conductor hat from his briefcase and heads towards John’s room, but stops when he sees John.)

ALBERT: John! (Albert runs to embrace his son, but trips and falls flat on his face. John looks embarrassed.)

LUCILLE: Yes. Well. Cats are fundamentally cleaner animals. They can be trained to go... you know... in litter boxes. They clean themselves. They're very clean - why else do you think the Egyptians worshipped them?

ALBERT: (picking himself up) What's the old bat on about now?

LUCILLE: Albert!

ALBERT: Bat!

LUCILLE: Albert, I really... Well would you like a frankfurter, anyway?

JOHN: How are you, Dad?

ALBERT: I’m fine, but she’s mad. Not really sure what the tipping point was... I am sorry, but your mother wouldn't let me use the guest room, and I got this huge set for a bargain from the hobby shop... so I sort of... stole your room. I only meant it for the train set, but your mother took it as a call to arms and made the whole thing a games room-

LUCILLE: Rumpus parlour!

ALBERT: -what we normal people call a games room. I've been meaning to turn it back into your room all week, but I sort of got side-tracked. It’s just... Model train sets have a way of growing entirely by themselves. Look here! (He reaches into his briefcase again and pulls out a model set.) Pastoral hills! A small slice of rural-northern-English paradise. I was going to assemble it straight away, maybe get you to help with the gluing.... But now that you’re back... I suppose the room is rightly yours.

JOHN: Look, I’m sorry to disappoint you two but I’m not staying.

LUCILLE: (ignoring him) Albert, I worked my fingers to the bone for that games... Rumpus parlour. Are you really going to throw away all of that work?

(Albert has opened the box and begins showing the contents to John. John is uninterested, but smiles anyway. To Albert’s surprise, the set seems to consist mainly of large power-lines: around 9 inches long, with long, entangled power cords.)

ALBERT: This can’t be right… Man at the shop must have made a mistake… Anyway, Lucille, you worked my fingers to the bone. I don't know why you insisted on a pool table. I don’t even play pool!

LUCILLE: Nobody actually plays pool! It's a casual sport! And what will you do with your train set? That guest room is off-limits to you and that evil, evil super-glue you use. It’s bad enough you let it scab over your fingers and you pick at it over and over.

ALBERT: Well, I...

(Albert appears to go through some kind of huge inner struggle. He puts the train set down on the couch, keeping a power-line, looks at it, and sighs. Another train comes from John’s room. John dives towards the door, trying to get his hand into the flap, but it closes again. He tries to pry it open, but it doesn't budge.)

I... guess I'll throw the set out.

LUCILLE: Throw it out? That was expensive! We may not run the tightest ship Albert, financially I mean, but I know exorbitant wastage when I see it!

ALBERT: We’ve got to put ourselves before... John before ourselves!

LUCILLE: Well... But... What about all your work? All those hours wasted? Sometimes you’re just too stubborn, Albert!

ALBERT: (He idly begins untangling the wires) Well I could just migrate to the guest room-

LUCILLE: Over my cold, dead corpse! Oh dear. I hate arguing! What if Miriam heard?

ALBERT: That wasn't an argument. It was just a... rumpus.

LUCILLE: Now that's just cruel, Albert.

ALBERT: No, it's effective. Very different things.

JOHN: The cat flap is broken, I can’t open it. And I think my door is locked. (He gives up and rises.) You don’t have to worry about my room. I’m not staying.

LUCILLE: Oh!

ALBERT: I thought you were back for good!

JOHN: No, I’m sleeping at an friend’s place for a while and then getting my own apartment.

ALBERT: This... (He pauses for a second to attack a particularly fiendish knot.)...is still your home!

LUCILLE: Of course it is, John! I wasn’t serious about the sofa. We'll get your room up and sorted. I didn't think it would be a big deal, personally, but if it's an issue for you then it's absolutely no trouble.

ALBERT: Exactly John. No rush.

JOHN: No, it’s ok, really!

LUCILLE: I thought you could stay!

ALBERT: It’s alright, John. I can restructure Albertville to allow for a bed!

LUCILLE: I won’t stand for it! You heard your father; he’s ready and willing to alter the trains to make room.

ALBERT: No question about it! (He gives up on the knot, putting it back in the box) It is possible to co-exist with the trains, John.

LUCILLE: Please stay, John! I’ll get you some more frankfurters!

(Elly enters through the front door and sees John. She does not want to see him. She attempts to sneak past everybody and into her room. Albert, however, spots her.)

ALBERT: Elly!

LUCILLE: Look, Eleanor, John’s home. (To John) See, John! You can’t leave; you’ve got so much catching up with Eleanor to do!

JOHN: Hey. Long-time, no-see.

ELLY: I will not be silenced!

(She exits into her room and slams the door. There is an uncomfortable pause. A train comes from John’s room.)

LUCILLE: Oh dear… I'm sure she's just tired, John.

ALBERT: Come on Lucille, I think we both know-

(John goes to Elly’s door.)

JOHN: (knocking) Elly?

LUCILLE: She's just tired, Albert. She's probably had a big day.

ELLY: Go away!

LUCILLE: (desperately) She's at a stressful stage in her schooling and we have to support her through these troubled times!

ALBERT: Lucille, I don't think that that's the problem here. She's always been a bit iffy about John's decision to-

JOHN: Elly, what the hell is wrong?

ALBERT: -join the armed forces.

(Elly opens the door, holding a palm-card – in doing so forcing John to jump backwards, knocking the train off the tracks.)

ELLY: (reading) As a proud member of the Youth Against War movement, I hereby announce my protest against being forced to share residence with a member of the military, who has engaged and assisted in illegal occupation of numerous foreign countries and the persecution of the population of said countries. I believe, as a free and concerned citizen, that assisting this war criminal in any manner including but not limited to board is tantamount to treason. The form of this protest will be boycott, of both family gatherings and activities involving said member of the military. (She slams the door in John’s face. Albert wails, and runs over to the derailed train.)

JOHN: Oh. (He retreats back to the sofa area and sits heavily.)

ALBERT: My train! Eleanor Macrae Smith, you get out here right now!

ELLY: (offstage) I respectfully refuse.

ALBERT: (Cradling the train) Not too much damage… (To Elly’s door) Let me in! You’ve gone too far this time!

ELLY: (reluctantly) You may enter to negotiate terms.

(Albert puts his conductor cap on, braces himself and exits into Elly’s room, still holding the crippled train.)

LUCILLE: Oh John, I'm very sorry that Elly is being so immature. Ever since she got involved with that damn movement she’s been so opinionated! She’s really “divided” the family... There! There it is! Another mathematical pun. It's a running joke now! Oh I knew those classes would pay off. (John rises and grabs his bag. Lucille ignores him.) I did a course down at TAFE on Public Speaking, and one of the subjects was Complex Humour. It's really opened my eyes to the world of Subversion and Unexpectedness. (He goes to the front door and attempts to open it, but finds it locked.) The lecturer said - three jokes, following the same pattern, and it becomes “running”. The jokes feed off each other to make more a more humour as time goes on. It's fascinating really. I tried it out Miriam the other day, and I can tell you she almost died of laughter! (John has been struggling with the door, and now looks at Lucille suspiciously.) Oh, my... What a terrible thing to say, at her age! But she did enjoy it, there's no doubt about it...

JOHN: Is there a key for the door anywhere? I’d better go, it’s obvious she doesn’t want me here. I might meet up with some friends at the pub and catch up.

LUCILLE: Don’t be ridiculous John! You’re fresh from the army. Now isn’t the time to hang around a pub like some kind of distasteful veteran! You’ve got to mix with the right people, revitalise your social life – and quickly! Evangeline-

JOHN: I can’t open the door…

LUCILLE: -You remember Evangeline, my good friend from down the hall - she's having a dinner party in a few weeks, and her daughter is going to be there. You've always fancied her, so we thought it might be a good opportunity to meet up, and have a little chat.

JOHN: I don't remember her.

LUCILLE: Oh, I'm sure it will all come flooding back the moment you lay eyes on the little darling.

(Elly's door opens. Elly strides in, followed by a flustered Albert. He considers saying something, decides against it, and kneels down to place the train back on the track.)

JOHN: (moving towards the door) I really think I should…

ELLY: (yelling) I’m going out!

LUCILLE: Oh no you’re not! You are grounded for that last remark to John. Attacking him, unprovoked, just when he arrived home! Just when he was most vulnerable, most exposed, you attack him!

(Albert has fixed the train, and it begins to work its way around the track again. Albert follows it, keeping it safe and shoving Lucille out of the way. Elly reaches into her pocket and pulls out another palmcard.)

LUCILLE: Oh, God, not again!

ELLY: As I am over 18, and legally not a minor, I am able to come and go from my place of residence as I choose. My parent or guardian is legally unable to stop my passage. If my parent or guardian wishes it, he or she may choose to evict me from my place of residence. Does my parent or guardian wish to take this course of action, yes, no?

(The train goes into John’s room, and Albert opens it easily and follows it inside, the door closing behind him. John looks surprised, and tries to open it again, only to find it still locked.)

LUCILLE: Oh Elly no! Don’t leave us, anything but that!

JOHN: (turning to speak to Lucille) Is there any way I can get into my room? I just wanted to get some things before I go...

LUCILLE: (to Elly) Oh darling, we don’t resent you at all for your beliefs. We all have our little faults, but it’s the ability to look past them that defines us! (Albert re-enters, but closes the door before John can see inside.)

ELLY: I’m going to the protest at... that place near the cinema. It’s important! It means something! We’ve got to stop polluting... CFCs and ozone are threatening the arctic and it’s up to the youth of today to stop it! (fumbling with another palmcard) CO2 emissions! That’s the real culprit here! Every year, over- (She drops her palmcards) Crap!

JOHN: Look, it’s alright. I shouldn’t have come back; it’s just made things worse. I’m going to go…

ALBERT: (Placing himself in front of the door) Don’t leave, John, please? You’re just angry... At least stay until you’ve cooled off.

(Blocked unintentionally by Albert, Elly gives a huff of resignation and sits down on the couch armrest, looking longingly at the door. A train comes out of John’s door, with a key riding on a car. Albert sees is, giving a relieved gasp and throwing up his arms.)

It lives!

LUCILLE: See, now isn’t this nice. We’re finally together again, a big happy family! (The train lets loose another hoot, startling Lucille. John sees the key, grabs it and goes to the front door as Lucille has another revelation.) ‘Font’! A uniform style of lettering. Everybody knows what it means when you're talking about computers with Times New Greek, but god forbid you ever bring it up in common conversation! Just like the others – girt, ply… I’m going to make dinner! Ready in half an hour, then we’ll get this whole business sorted.

(She exits into the kitchen, humming happily. John attempts to open the door, but finds that the key does not fit. He looks at his own room, then down at the key.)

ALBERT: Well, I suppose there’s no time like the present to start the revolution in Albertville. I suppose a restructuring was inevitable, but alas that is the greatest burden of the serious model train enthusiast…

(He straightens his conductor cap and exits into John’s room. Elly’s phone beeps as she receives a text message.)

ELLY: (to John, reading off her phone) Fascist!

(She exits into her room, slamming the door. John looks at a loss. He goes to the front door again and gives it another try, but it is still locked. He goes to his bedroom door and tries to open it with the key, but it does not open it either. He goes and sits on the couch. He notices the padlock again, and tries the key. It unlocks, and he reluctantly begins to unfold the bed.)

(Black out. THE END.)