Bricks • Mortar • Imagination • Words

The Texts - Julia Copus

The St Dunstaners


SFX: A wind blows up, getting gradually louder.

VOICE: When it blows around these parts, it blows a hooley.

This one's a sou'wester, trying to shake itself free

of whatever is riling it, till, with considerable effort,

it peels itself straight off the sea, singing, Where's Billy Winters,

twenty years gone?

BILLY: Alone with my books in the dark.

My fingers became my eyes and, joy of joys, [The wind blows up the voices

I was able to read! of past St Dunstaners]

VOICE: And where is Nell Macaulay?

And Elsie-May Riley? Lost after dusk in the cemetery.

NELL: Our bindings glow like phosphorous in the dark.

We perched on the edge of this tombstone and sweated it out,

both of us recently blinded and heavily bandaged.

And the church bells struck nine before somebody finally came -

a lad and his starry-eyed girl. I got up from the stone

to ask them the way but before I could open my mouth,

we heard the pair spin on their heels and they didn't stop shrieking

till well past the gatehouse, and that's how we found our way home.

VOICE: Now the wind tags on after them, lumbering up to St Dunstan's -

RESIDENT 1: Left at the pier and follow the coastline along.

VOICE: It throws itself slantways, over the soft chalk hills,

pours up the eighty-five steps that lead from the sea,

up to the polished, bronze revolving doors.

RESIDENT 2: If it moves, salute it; if it doesn't,

polish it!

VOICE: The building feels itself

stretched like a squeeze-box, all four floors of it.

Foundation to rafter, it feels itself run through,

possessed by wind. And then is left hanging again,

limply, like a huge, exhausted lung.

[slight pause]

Inside, things have never been so quiet.

SFX: Footsteps approaching across an oak-block floor, with sound of long cane, tapping softly.

RESIDENT 1: Paving-stone, tarmac, granite, marble, oak?

VOICE: Who's this tapping his way over open spaces?

RESIDENT 1: The cane is an extension of your finger: [Long cane user]

a patch of grass, a cobble, brushwood, heath -

the stick absorbs them like a fingertip.

And then you learn to listen so each tap

becomes a question, and the ground responds.

One moment there'll be nothing in between

the sky and you, the next you're underneath

a shop-blind or a heavily-leaved tree -

the cane will pick that up. Sound falls away

like light does in a shadow. What I know

is always one step bigger than the ground

on which I stand.

VOICE: And who is this, his wardrobe

stuffed with books where his hats and shoes should be?

RESIDENT 2: I've changed but not in ways you might imagine. [Braille reader]

Before I lost my sight I was a heathen.

A book? What's that? I went straight from the Beano

to Page 3 of The Sun. I was never at home

for long enough to read. I'd be in the boozer.

Now I've gone right through the classics - Hardy, Dickens,

Tolstoy, Joyce. It takes a bit of space, mind -

thirty-seven volumes for the Bible -

if you stood beside it it would dwarf you.

War and Peace is thirty-six.

ALICE: Now that

could come in handy at a time like this.

VOICE: Here's Alice standing underneath her window,

the window that is five feet from the ground.

Alice is exactly four eleven.

An inch above her head, a view of the sea

is moving in the distance - the same sea

she knelt by as a girl in her cotton print dress,

her ear against the ground to hear the soft

slurp, slurp of it underneath the sand,

ALICE: The seagulls screaming "kee-ya" overhead?

RESIDENT 3: Eight miles off Clacton Beach; it was just before midnight. [former pilot]

We saw this glimmer - what I took for a star -

but as we climbed, and the plane came into view,

I could actually see the gunner in its belly!

He had the cockpit light on: he was reading.

We gave him a few quick bursts, then watched him fall -

bam! - straight into the sea. An absolute gift?

RESIDENT 4: I get these visions sometimes - a musical stave,

with the notes all jumping about. They can't keep still.

RESIDENT 5: The camera of the eye gets bored, you see,

when it's nothing to do.

RESIDENT 4: And lots of little boxes.

Sometimes they're outlined with red, and sometimes blue.

RESIDENT 5: I don't need to tell you what that is, do I? It's blood.

We all think blood is red, but of course it isn't.

RESIDENT 4: And tiny animals with spots all over,

like the hundred-and-one Dalmatians, strung together...

RESIDENT 6: The last thing I ever saw? I was 21.

I woke up in an army hospital,

instructions in German painted on the wall.

And this young staff-nurse - beautiful, she was -

was leaning over me, squeezing drops in my eyes.

Then they bandaged my head and that was that...

RESIDENT 7: Burma Railway, 1942. [former Japan P O W]

Eighteen hours a day with nothing on

but a G-string made of sacking. In that heat!

Dysentery, beri-beri, Dengue fever -

we had the lot - malaria, cholera.

And the jungle noise, that? constant whistling;

the snakes, the maggots, the sun, the sun. These days

I wear a truss to keep myself together;

you'd think it would stop me from dancing but it hasn't.

Disco's my favourite - Bangles, Sister Sledge,

Mungo Jerry, James Brown, Donna Summer...

Once I smuggled eggs off a Toyota,

the driver shooting me glances in the mirror.

He had his little hat on with the star,

cheekbone like a razor, one dark eye.

I thought, if he clocks me now, I'm dead for sure.

And I knew if I took one egg, I'd have to take two

to bribe the cook with - that was how things worked.

So I waited for a difficult turn in the road,

then slipped the two of them - wham, bam - into my G-string.

Boy, was I trembling. War is a terrible thing.

Permanent flak-jacket nerves; you never forget it,

the whine of the shell, the gun-burst, the crack of the bullet.

But we've all lived through it in here, wherever we've lived it -

Korea, Malaya, Palestine, Aden,

Cyprus, the Falklands, Iraq, Northern Ireland?

VOICE: Ssh now! Night has fallen over the building,

full of the feathery sound of people sleeping.

And like a bi-plane poised for flight,

or like a cockpit full of light;

like the aftermath of war,

and like whatever came before;

sea-spray, sunlight, shadow, stone,

a task in a briefcase, carried home;

like moonlight on an outhouse roof,

like the word and like the truth;

the dark at the end of the dark sea-lane

from which we came, from which we came;

or like a cork pushed underwater,

strong, recalcitrant, like laughter,

already the day to which we'll wake,

is pushing its way through the dark, as if for air.

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