Simon: an aspiring actor
Jean Paul Sartre: philosopher
Adele: Sartre’s assistant
Clara Calshott: a seaside landlady
George Calshott: her husband
Mary Beth O’Donnell: an American student
Jacqueline: } Mary Beth’s flatmates
Man with dog:
[music, reflective but not insistent. Fades slowly]
Simon: I hate writing letters. Who writes letters these days?
[Music starts again, a different track. Clicks off abruptly]
Enough of that.
“Dear Mr Ayckbourn,” well that part sounds alright.
“I hope you won’t think that my referring to you in the third person in this letter is intended as cold or aggressive. The fact is that I don’t know you and a more direct address would seem presumptuous. In fact I want to ask a small favour, but I’ll come to that later.
No one would deny the contribution that Ayckbourn has made to the English theatre, or indeed his achievement in establishing a flourishing playhouse in an out of the way place like Scarborough. The Stephen Joseph Theatre is like a prize marrow grown at an uncertain climate in unpromising soil.”
No; marrow is no good, better say an especially succulent tomato plant. A tomato has more fruitiness. And then, people only admire a marrow: no one actually wants to taste it. In fact, better drop the horticultural bit altogether. Want to give this letter a northern flavour though.
“Being Yorkshire bred, I do take a vicarious pride in the success of the playhouse, even if I never go there myself. I confess to that sort of civic pride that leaves me complacently smug without demanding that I should take an interest; like the feeling you have when your home town football team has some minor success, even though you haven’t been through the turnstiles for years.
“I never much cared for farce personally and so perhaps I never gave Ayckbourn his due. It’s true that, with one notable exception, the versions of his work that I have attended have been the performances of enthusiastic amateurs: occasions when crafted dramatic tension is overshadowed by the more primitive thrill of uncertainty as to whether the thing will be accomplished at all: half the audience willing the actors on; half waiting for them to falter and stumble. The delicious peril of scenery that wobbles and may or may not tumble. The not knowing whether my heavy lidded neighbour, chin lowering with each lengthy exhalation, will finally succumb to drowsiness, and if so will snoring ensue? At times like this, the play is incidental to the entertainment; or torment, depending on your point of view.
“But I was always more drawn to the theatre of ideas than to low comedy, or so I used to believe. The truth is I don’t remember the last time I went to any theatre. And personal tastes change. A famous man once told me that one day I might learn to admire craft more than novelty on the stage, though it was a strange comment coming from him. In fact that man has something to do with this letter.”
This isn’t going well. It’s one thing to avoid flattery but you don’t want to be insulting. Just get on with what you have to say.
“So far as Sartre is concerned; his plays were all ideas and not much theatre at all, to my mind at least. Anyway he’s safely dead so I and a thousand other literary crows are free to pick at the carcass. You could say that I’ve dishonoured the man to the extent of making him speak perfect English for my own selfish purposes.
Back then, he was a giant of course. At least everyone knew his name and had one or two of his books. I don’t know whether they read more than the first few pages. It was a name that was somehow linked to rebellion, to new music and to new ways of living; and so, I suppose, indefinably and inevitably to sex. I mean, even if you didn’t know what he was talking about you knew that he was a part of sweeping away the old way of thinking and it was clear that in the new society everything would be different and sex especially. There’d be more of it for a start and with none of the false promises and loss of freedom that had been part and parcel of it for our parents. Life was going to become the opposite of farce – honest at least and maybe even brave. I don’t know what happened.
Anyway, Sartre is dead but Ayckbourn is alive and so I want to ask your blessing for this project, for reasons that will become clear. I hope that you can spare the time in your busy schedule, etcetera, etcetera…”
Need to finish with something personal to get his interest.
“By the way the knocking on the door was real. At least, I stayed in a place like that once: it was a guest house too, as I remember; where some of the rooms were really close to a narrow road and there was this loose grate in the gutter that you hardly noticed in the day; but in the night whenever a car went over it, there was this double thump that sounded just like knocking. Of course in those days there weren’t so many cars passing as there would be now.”
No, that won’t do. The tone is completely wrong. I’ll have to rethink it completely.
[sound of paper being crumpled]
[A seaside guest house in the north of England many years earlier]
Sartre: Was I recognized do you think?
Adele: Jean Paul, we are in England, where philosophers are of no importance to anyone; in a small boarding house in a provincial seaside town where you are not expected. Of course no one recognized you. You told me that’s what you wanted.
Sartre: I signed the book with the name of Mathieu. Quite clever don’t you think: to remain incognito?
Adele: The name of the main character in your most famous book, yes. Are you sure you’re not really testing whether these people might know you; hoping just a little that they might?
Sartre: Why should I want to be known when I can be here alone with a very beautiful girl? You know I hate crowds. Hell is other people
Adele: It’s such a long time since you wrote that. You must be bored with saying it by now. And I hate it when you say what people expect of you. You can’t become like one of those cabaret entertainers with their horrible catch phrases. So far as the other thing is concerned, we’ve already spoken about that. I’ll be in my room down the hall if you need me for anything concerning my job. It’s the tiny one next to the stairs.
Sartre: I don’t know why you needed to book us in separate rooms. It’s terribly bourgeois of you.
Adele: Down the hall is close enough for our professional relationship.
Sartre: You know that I do value you as a professional. I couldn’t be without you. But don’t leave right away. I was reflecting. This place is perfect you know: a seaside town; vulgar and provincial but with pretensions. And this guest house with its landlady who is so pleased to have our custom because we are, what was her word; continental?
Adele: You haven’t even seen the town yet so don’t criticize. Anyway it was you who wanted to come here. To see the theatre you said.
Sartre: I’m being sincere. That is my point exactly. The theatre and the place: the illusion is completely bourgeois and so is the reality. Farce is the most perfect form of bourgeois drama, since it depends for its effects on the pretensions and social delusions of its protagonists. Such a place is its natural home.
Adele: I’ve heard you laughing out loud at Feydau.
Sartre: Perhaps. That’s not important. But you know that it is necessary for us to fully appreciate the absurdity of life before we can begin to be authentic.
Adele: Go on.
Sartre: The old comedy reinforces the values it mocks and finally it is static. The characters find themselves back where they started. They don’t change: at most the truth of their natures is made apparent, but there is nothing they can do to develop. The action is only the mechanism by which their inescapable and cyclical futures are driven on.
Adele: Yes, that’s true.
Sartre: in the new theatre, values should be demolished, together with the pretensions of the protagonists. They will learn that even if life is farce our actions have consequences that can’t be taken back, and there is no invisible guiding hand waiting to restore balance.
Adele: Yes. We are condemned to be free. Oh Jean Paul.
[sound of knocking]
Sartre: Someone at the door
Adele: You don’t have to answer.
Sartre: Perhaps I was recognized at the desk after all.
[opens door] Monsieur.
Simon : I beg your pardon. I was only standing in the hall admiring the view from this window. Look, you can see the castle and across the harbour. My room has no view you see.
Sartre: Perhaps you should step in here for a moment. My room has an excellent view. Why did you knock?
Simon: That’s very kind. Thank you. But I didn’t knock. You must have heard something else. Lots of strange sounds in these old buildings.
Sartre: You seem very preoccupied my friend. Something on your mind?
Simon: It’s my work. I’m an actor. Well at least I’m hoping to be an actor. I’m here for an audition. But … forgive me. You’re that French writer aren’t you?
Sartre: Ah, you think that you know me?
Simon: Of course, it’s Camus. No, I’m sorry he’s younger. You must be the other one: Jean Paul Sartre; that’s it.
Sartre: Camus is dead.
Adele: You mustn’t tell anyone we are here. No one is supposed to know.
Simon: And you must be …
Adele: I’m not anyone. Just his assistant. Our relationship is professional. I have the room down the hall.
Simon: Then we’re neighbours. But really sir, I am a great admirer of your work. The Roads to Freedom: Chemins de la Liberte: I’ve got all three volumes. They’re in paperback in England and everyone has them. You can find them cheap in all the second hand bookshops. You’re famous for them; and for that other one about the man who shoots the Arab for no reason and finally he’s condemned. Everyone likes that one.
Sartre: L’Etranger is Camus.
Adele: So you work in the theatre. It must be fascinating. Tell us about it.
Simon: Not much to tell I’m afraid
Sartre: You talk to Adele about it. She’s going to be a little bored to be here with only an old man like me for company. And I’m going out for a short walk. Only to buy a newspaper and smoke a pipe: it helps me to think. Make yourselves at home here
Simon: But I don’t want to interfere
Sartre: My boy, as you heard, Adele is my assistant not my lover.
Simon: But when I was in the hall. I mean, it wasn’t that I was listening, but it sounded like…
Sartre: And even if that were right, why should I be jealous if a pretty girl wishes to talk with a handsome youth? Jealousy is not authentic: it is the most proprietorial and bourgeois of emotions. I’m going now. Do we need anything besides a newspaper? No, then I’ll see you both later.
Adele: Well. How are you called?
Adele: Simon. It’s very French.
Simon: No Si-mon. It’s very Yorkshire.
Adele: Do you know Simone?
Simon: The female form.
Adele: I really hate that woman.
Simon: Your English is very good.
Adele: Not really. I’m not surprised that you’re an actor. You’re very pretty.
Simon: We say handsome.
Adele: No, you’re pretty.
Simon: Adele, I’m really embarrassed about mixing up his work with Albert Camus. I know perfectly well who wrote what. It’s just that when I’m speaking I make these stupid mistakes and I can’t stop myself. I only have to think of something that I must not do and then I’m bound to do it. It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff and telling yourself that you mustn’t fall. And now I’ve offended him, I know.
Adele: If you have, it does him good to be offended sometimes. But it sounds as though your problem would be dangerous for an actor.
Simon: I’m not really an actor yet. I only have an audition; it’s in a few days from now. That’s why I’m staying here. But if I can’t be an actor I don’t know what else I could do. I’m useless for other things. It would be the end for me to fail.
Adele: That’s cute. We’re here for the theatre as well. My boss claims that he wants to study farce for some intellectual reason, but I think that really he just enjoys the plays. He’ll never admit it though. Everything has to be part of some grand purpose for him. I told him that he needed to take a break from all the attention that he gets wherever we go. You wouldn’t believe it. We came from New York. There were people following him all around, even in the street.
Simon: That won’t happen in Scarborough. I suppose the hotels in New York weren’t much like this.
Adele: Not really. But Jean Paul doesn’t mind. He says that in England he can be anonymous, because even if there is some vague respect for thinkers and intellectuals, the English have no idea what they are for; and so they leave them well alone.
Simon: Around here that’s true, but I expect it’s different in London. That’s where I mean to go finally. But is he really only your boss? I mean …
Adele: He’s not so very dangerous. And I don’t believe he is really so fascinated by me as he pretends. He’s very old. I think it’s more that he feels it’s expected of him to flirt. I’ve met a few famous people now and it seems they all behave as if they have an image to maintain, even when no one is around to be impressed. Oof, it must be very tiring for them, I think.
Simon: He’s right though, you are very pretty.
Adele: Do you think so. Would you like to give me a kiss?
[sound of knocking. Simon opens door]
Adele: Jean Paul.
Sartre: Why did you open the door?
Simon: Didn’t you knock?
Sartre: Of course not.
Adele: I thought you were going for a walk.
Sartre: Yes. I only came back because I forgot something – my tobacco. Ah, there it is. I’ll be on my way then.
Simon: I have to go as well. I need to learn my lines.
Adele: Perhaps I can help you with that; later. It will be good for my English.
[George and Clara Calshott at breakfast. The radio news is a soft almost inaudible background to the teacups and cutlery]
Clara: Pass the marmalade dear … The breakfasts seemed to go well today. You don’t think that bacon is too salty … I suppose it will be fine. I need you to help me with the new evening menus later on, when you’ve finished messing about in that garden.
[more noises of breakfast things]
Clara: There’s something about that couple in rooms seven and three don’t you think? He’s old enough to be her grandfather.
George: If they’re in separate rooms, they aren’t a couple. Maybe he is her grandfather.
Clara: No, he’s not. But there’s something peculiar about them. Him in particular, though she’s quite striking, in that French way. I’ll admit it does add tone to the establishment, our having guests from the continent; and you know I think he might be someone famous. It’s the way he carries himself. There’s something proud about him.
George: He’s French what do you expect? I suppose they just want to be left alone.
Clara: But it could be good for the business, if we only knew who they were. I wonder how we can find out.
George: Clara, he’s a philosopher.
Clara: Oh, is that all it is? Shame. You can’t boast about having a philosopher staying with you; no one’s impressed. Well not a live one anyway. If he’d stayed a hundred years ago and we had one of those blue plaques on the wall, then maybe. But a live philosopher is no use to anyone. I thought he seemed a bit … you know, disreputable. That explains it. How are they paying the bill?
George: Don’t worry, they’re not going to run away.
Clara: Oh well, never mind then. I suppose you know best. I’ve got to make sure the girl does the linen properly. You’ve got your roses to fuss over I suppose. Can’t sit here all morning talking. Though I’d like to know how you understand so much about philosophy all of a sudden. Have you been smuggling books into that potting shed on the quiet?
Clara: So if you need anything at all Mr Mathieu, just let us know. Either myself or George is always around downstairs; you only have to call. You must make sure that you see the North Bay. My husband tells me you’re some sort of writer, so I expect you will want to savour the historic charm of the harbour area and the sweeping vistas of the north promenade.
Sartre: I’m a thinker Mrs Calshott, not a romantic poet. However I will keep your suggestions in mind.
Clara: And remember, anything at all, just shout.
Sartre: Ha, the husband knew me: he was not fooled. Unless he believes I am Camus. Poor dead Albert. He was the healthy one, so proud of his physique, but the cigarettes got him just the same. His fiction was better than mine too. His books had a life to them that kept people reading even though so much of what he wrote was mistaken. Mine had only ideas perhaps.
Look at this face in the mirror. Which is my best side? The face is wrinkled like an autumn apple that has fallen and been left on the grass too long. But maybe some women could find it interesting even now. Not so many years left perhaps. I need to make use of them. I wonder where Adele is now
Adele [[from the hall]: Jean Paul! Come quick. It’s the boy. He’s tried to do something stupid.
[Simon propped up in the bed in Sartre’s room. Adele in attendance]
Adele: Oh, you’re awake.
Simon: What happened?
Adele: That’s what we’ve been waiting to ask you.
Simon: The last thing I remember, I was balancing on a chair, and then I think I slipped.
Adele: You’re lucky you didn’t break your neck. You were trying to hang yourself but I heard a noise from outside and your door wasn’t locked. Jean Paul and I managed to cut you down and get you to bed.
Simon: You haven’t told anybody?
Adele: Of course not. It’s a personal matter. I don’t think Mrs Calshott would be happy to let you stay if she knew.
Simon: And Jean Paul has not said anything?
Adele: If you imagine that Jean Paul would wish to make an official business of anything concerning private life then you know nothing of him.
Simon: I’ve made a complete idiot of myself.
Adele: I’m afraid so, but still you are alive. For myself I think that to hang yourself is a very bad way to make the suicide. It can be horrible if it goes wrong and the body you leave behind is very ugly. You know, that expression with the mouth open and the tongue sticking out? The sea is much better and here is the perfect place. You leave your clothes on the beach and no one sees you again.
Simon: I’m not a very strong swimmer
Adele: I think that is the point. Not so easy if you are. But tell me why you did it.
Simon: I’m at the end. I realized I can’t go through with the audition. I don’t have the confidence. I’ll never be able to do it, and it’s all I ever really wanted to do. All I’m fit for. I promised myself when I came here that if I couldn’t get the part then I should give up on everything; and now it turns out I’m too feeble even to try for it.
Adele: You are too young to say there is only one thing you can do. It could be acting or something else. Life brings changes you know. In the war, they told my uncle he was part Jewish. If that was true he‘d never known it before, but they sent him to the camps just the same, on one of those trains. It would have been easier to die than to live, but the real Jews told him that he were to kill himself he would never find out what happened to him. And then he came back and his life went on. It’s a family story for us: it can mean anything you like: but things are not really so bad for you.
Simon: You’re laughing at me.
Adele: No I’m not. But your situation is interesting. Are you a homosexual do you think?
Simon: What a question. I don’t believe so. I hope not. Why?
Adele: I thought you might be struggling to find your true nature. I read that it happens a lot.
Simon: Well thank you, but no.
Adele: But you’ve never been with a woman?
Simon: That’s personal.
Adele: How can it be more personal than whether you are homosexual?
Simon: I don’t know. That’s a trick question.
Adele: I don’t agree.
Simon: Why am I here?
Adele: If you mean, why are you in this bed, it’s because we couldn’t leave you alone and Jean Paul’s room has two beds. You are in bed because of course you need to rest. If you mean more generally why are you here, you should ask Jean Paul. That’s more his specialism than mine. But anyway, you can ask him yourself. One of us has been staying with you all the time and he’ll be back in a minute. Then I’m going to the shops. Let me know if you want anything or if I should contact anyone for you. Here’s Jean Paul now.
[Sartre enters and kisses Adele on the cheek in greeting]
Sartre: I see our friend is awake. Adele; and the weather is becoming English. If you are going out, take a coat with you.
Adele: I’ll see you both in an hour.
Sartre: Now that she’s gone I can light my pipe in tranquillity. You don’t mind? Good. I’ll open the window. You need air as well as rest after your experience.
Simon: I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve caused. You must be angry with me.
Sartre: Not at all. In fact you’ve provided me with the solution to a problem of the drama that I’ve been pondering. Even in farce, death breaks the cycle of absurdity, though death itself is merely absurd.
Simon: I haven’t died. I’m a coward and a failure. You believe that suicide is not permitted, I’m sure.
Sartre: If we are to be free to do what we choose with life, then I suppose that includes the choice to end it. I’m with Dostoevsky: if god is dead then everything is permitted and it seems to me that god is certainly not alive. Kill yourself by all means if you have a good reason for it. What was the reason by the way?
Simon: I realized that I can’t act. I can’t even make myself go to my audition.
Sartre: And at what moment did you realize this?
Simon: Yesterday, in the evening. I was walking on the beach thinking about the play and there was a man exercising his dog. I was sure it was Mr Ayckbourn and so it was a great chance to speak to him before the audition, so that he’d remember my face. Only my nerve failed and I couldn’t even approach him. Later, I realized if I couldn’t say hello to a man on the beach, there is no way I can walk onto a stage in front of a crowd of people.
Sartre: But you’ve already acted on stage in front of people: this is only about doing it as a profession for a slightly bigger crowd. It’s easy to see that you haven’t made any kind of reasoned decision to end your life. You are only mistaken about something. Think; your knowledge of the world begins and ends with your own existence. To kill yourself in good faith, you must first be persuaded that suicide is the best option for humanity in general, since it is illogical to suppose that you would wish anything for your own person other than the best possible human outcome. What we choose for ourselves is what we consider to be the best for all. I thought you would try to convince me that oblivion is the best option, as the Buddhists pretend.
Simon: I’m not sure I understand.
Sartre: My friend you are not suicidal. You’ve have only made a series of logical errors. We can address the most proximate ones easily. To begin with, you have concluded that because you did not speak to the stranger, it means you are afraid of important people. And yet here you are talking to me quite comfortably.
Simon: That’s different. You’re not…
Sartre: I’m not important you were about to say. Don’t worry, my vanity is not injured by your slight. And yet it’s true that I do command a degree of recognition in my own circle. Prominent citizens seek my views on certain issues. But to you I am unimportant. C’est vrai et juste, since you have nothing staked on the outcome of our conversation. If you were seeking a research fellowship rather than an acting job, it would be a different story.
Your difficulty with this playwright has to do with the importance you attach to meeting him and the implication that the meeting has for you. You attach an abnormally strong importance to realizing your ambition to act: if you did not, the meeting would hold no terror for you, and yet without this abnormal desire, how could you hope to succeed in the theatre? The actors who perform my plays assure me that their profession is very competitive and demanding and that their skills deserve a level of respect bordering on reverence. There is no chance to succeed in such a case unless success is an absolute physical necessity. Necessity is the mother of genius, as I wrote in my biography of Flaubert. Don’t worry that you haven’t read that book yet; it’s not quite finished.
Simon: But even if that were true. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to the man.
Sartre: Another error. You allow the difficulties to multiply and then you want to confront them all at once head on. You must learn to analyse a situation to see it truly.
Consider, you were born English and therefore crippled by an excess of reserve. You have a reluctance to approach any stranger. You haven’t thought of what you might say and anyway it could be the wrong man. The more you think about it, the higher grows the wall that you must climb until it is impossible to continue.
But a man walking his dog; it’s so easy. You can find whether this man Ayckbourn owns such a dog. Does he have a dog at all? You don’t know, but it is easy to discover. I am sure that Mrs Calshott would supply you with such a detail in a moment.
He has a dog and it’s the right breed. Good. You feel more comfortable. Better; a dog requires exercise daily and the man and his animal fall into a routine. You still have two days before the audition and it is likely you will find them in the same place at the same time. You may see the man again and in the meantime think what you would say. It makes more sense to break down your problem into manageable sections than to blame yourself for lacking the courage for a frontal assault, which may be foolish.
Simon: What you say sounds reasonable, but there seems to be a degree of calculation to it.
Sartre: But of course. We are humans not beasts. Is Odysseus the true hero of Homer, or that idiot Achilles? Take my own problem; Adele. Of course I really do need an assistant, but for a month I’ve been besotted by this girl. If I proposition her directly, there’s no chance: I’m too old and ugly. But she has a weakness for philosophy and when I get the chance to talk shop with her I can feel her yielding. It’s just another problem that needs to be addressed in the right way.
Simon: But you’re not in love with her?
Sartre: Of course not. Do you take me for a degenerate? I’m too old to be her father.
Simon: Then it’s wrong of you to plan to seduce her.
Sartre: My boy, you are even younger than you look. You’ve never experienced that release of killing tension that only having a woman you’ve strongly desired can give. Or wait, do you imagine that you are in love with Adele? We need to explore your feelings further, but later, later. She’ll be back in a moment.
[George and Clara Calshott at breakfast again. Same sounds of breakfast things for a while before any voices]
Clara: Can you manage a bit more bacon George? Otherwise it’s to throw away. Never mind then. Pour me another tea but not so much milk as that last cup.
I saw that young man in room five last night. He’s very handsome don’t you think? Going to be an actor. I can see him doing well at it. You know he’s a bit like Dirke Bogarde was before he got older and started to make all those strange films. He was a bit creepy after that … Dirke Bogarde I mean. I suppose that Simon should go to America. He’d have to change his name though.
George: From the Stephen Joseph Theatre to Hollywood is some distance Clara.
Clara: Everyone has to start somewhere George. He could be a star of the future. But I was going to say; he looks not quite right these last few days; like he’s had a shock of some kind. His expression is odd. And he’s spending all his time with that strange French couple.
George: Why do you insist they’re a couple?
Clara: The three of them go everywhere together. They were all at the theatre last night for the final performance of that thing that’s moving down to London. I hope they aren’t giving him continental ideas: maybe that’s why he seems so confused. And such a nice boy.
George: I thought you were happy that we had some overseas guests.
Clara: Well I am, but they’re different to us: more exotic. It’s a worry. I’m only hoping they won’t be a bad influence on Simon when he’s looking at his big chance. That’s all. They’re casting for the new play tomorrow and he’ll need his wits about him.
George: I’ll be in the garden if you need me love. We don’t get too many days as nice as this and there’s a lot to do.
[Adele and Simon in Sartre’s room]
Adele: I love this room when the weather is good. You can look out at the town and the sea and believe this is a place where nothing will change ever.
Simon: You don’t want things to change.
Adele: I want there to be change in my life, but I want everything else to stay the same always.
Simon: I feel guilty about being here. I’m being a terrible inconvenience to Jean Paul.
Adele: Not at all. He has persuaded Mrs Calshott to let him use a small room downstairs for writing. It’s tiny and there’s hardly a window at all so he’s much happier without distractions. He’s working all the time you know, in the night as well as the day. I think that the landlady is suspicious of what he might be up to, but it has been good for him to be away from the cities and their demands. Still we shall be leaving soon.
Simon: I’ll be going as well, though I’ll be coming back if tomorrow goes well. I shall miss you though.
Adele: I’m so tired. And it’s so hot in this room with the sun. I need to take my shoes off at least; and these nylons.
Simon: Your legs are very pretty.
Adele: You think so? You don’t find me too thin? But I have this horrible mark on my leg; just inside the knee, look. Here feel it. Some kind of mole: it’s disgusting.
Simon: It seems fine, honestly.
Adele: You should go to Paris, where the girls are pretty like me. Here they all have heavy bones and plenty of meat on them. Unless you think that you prefer boys after all.
Simon: Just now I’m almost certain that I don’t.
[knock at door]
Adele: It must be Jean Paul. But that’s strange. There’s no one there. Wait. Mrs Calshott, did you knock?
Clara: Of course not dear, I was just … passing by the room. Sometimes we get that noise from the traffic outside. There’s a loose grate in the street and it can sound like knocking when a car goes by. I’ve written to the Council about it, but they never do anything.
Adele: You seem out of breath. Did something startle you?
Clara: No, of course not. It’s the stairs. I was just coming up to ask … if you would be dining with us tonight.
Adele: You should ask the boss, but later. Don’t disturb him if he’s working.
Clara: Very good. Well, bye.
[exits. Clara giggles and Simon joins the laughter]
[On the north promenade. Sartre walking with Simon. Sounds of gulls and the sea]
Sartre: I believe here are the biggest gulls in Europe.
Simon: quite noisy aren’t they? They like the cliffs.
Sartre: And I suppose from here the seagulls follow the fishing boats?
Simon: Perhaps, but they like to steal ice creams and fish and chips as well.
Sartre: Certainly they have aggression. And did you go fishing yesterday – for our elusive playwright I mean?
Simon: I’m afraid I didn’t. It would have felt too much like stalking. Anyway there’s no need. I feel much better in myself. I have to thank you for that.
Sartre: Perhaps I should thank you. Our time together has been instructive. And Adele has a little interest in you too I think.
Simon: Doesn’t that make you jealous?
Sartre: To be jealous is to be in bad faith. And it would be so bourgeois. Besides, a woman whose passion has been aroused by one man is more receptive to the attractions of men in general. I still have my hopes. Unless of course, you and she…
Simon: Well, no. Not exactly. I mean, I’d like to. I’d like to very much. It’s just that…
Sartre: Still you need to learn to seize your opportunities. They will not be there always, just as not every day can be as agreeable as this one. And now our walk has almost brought us back to the boarding house, and to that hill that we must climb, which for a person of my advanced years is not so agreeable at all. Leave me here. I shall sit on a bench for a while and contemplate the ocean as our landlady commanded. I will see you later.
Simon: Jean Paul, I asked Adele what she thought love was; I mean true love. She said she didn’t know, but she was very young and would need to have many lovers before she could decide if there was such a thing and what it might be.
Sartre: A good answer, wouldn’t you say? And encouraging for you, if you reflect on it. Later.
Perhaps this bench would be a good place to rest. Ah, a companion already seated.
Excuse me sir, is this your dog?
Stranger: It is.
Sartre: I only ask because you and the dog fit a description of someone given to me by a friend of mine. Does it disturb you if I sit here?
Stranger: Go ahead.
Sartre: I like to talk you see. I’m always expressing myself. Of course I’m French. Say if it bothers you. We came here for the theatre as well as the sea air.
Stranger: Did you enjoy it?
Sartre: Yes, yes; the farce. I enjoyed it very much. It was well done, and very neat.
Stranger: They’re not a bad company I understand. And some of the work is passable.
Sartre: When I was young, I was, I think you call it a practical joker. Everything was very stuffy you know in those days. Even more than now. And it seemed like the easiest way to be subversive. But anyway I always liked the jokes even when they got me into trouble.
I think about the past too much, questioning my motives. As we become older we learn to distrust ourselves don’t you think? Everything we do or have done is under suspicion. Sometimes I feel that I was a fraud from the beginning.
Stranger: Dog seems to like you.
Sartre: And so I attempted to reconstruct my ideas from first principles, to expose the implicit reasoning of my beliefs. And the result is that I am accused of metaphysics. What do you think of it?
Well in my case, I plead guilty. I was more concerned to discover the nature of man and what he should do than to impress the Academy with the rigour of my logic.
I sometimes think that I was wrong to abandon literature. It’s a valid way of understanding after all, even if you can’t trust it entirely. And one or two of the things I wrote I’m happy with.
Stranger: It’s important to keep working.
Sartre: I think so. It has been nice to talk to you. [rises wearily]
Now for this climb.
Poor Simon believes he may be in love. He should consider our Mr and Mrs Calshott who met and wooed probably without passion: at least it is difficult to imagine either of them inflamed by desire. And now they stay joined because their lives slip by easily together. I can see George now; busying himself in the garden as always. The eternal gardener.
Georges, comment ca va? Always the peaceful life for you eh?
George: Quite right sir. All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
George: Blaise Pascal Mr Mathieu. In translation I’m afraid.
Sartre: Yes, Pascal of course: but it’s the living people around us who surprise and interest, rather than dead authors, don’t you find?
[Adele in Sartre’s room, in the bath]
Adele: A private moment at last. How I like this bath, even if the water is not so hot as I should like. There should be a bath in my room, but there’s no space. Only room for a bed and an armoire that is useless. It’s not like the place where we stayed in New York at all.
Look at my body. For now it’s nice, but I wonder how long it will last. Maybe I’ll become fat like my mother; with a pot belly. I want to have some fun first though.
[a knock at the door]
Again it’s that noise that sounds like someone at the door. I don’t know how Jean Paul stands it. But then he’s never here. All the time in his hermit’s cell, writing and drinking coffee. And there’s no good coffee here. So much for a holiday: he can’t rest. Probably he doesn’t even notice that noise when he’s thinking.
[second knock at the door]
And another one; but it didn’t sound quite the same.
Oh my dear. It really is someone at the door. Wait a minute. No, I can’t go out wrapped in that towel: it’s too horrible. Where’s my robe? Wait a moment.
Too late. No one there. Why didn’t he call out? And look there are flowers. It just says, from Simon, typewritten. I expect the poor boy was too shy to leave a proper note.
Simon [older]: They left for France the next day. Adele kissed me and gave me her address in Paris. I wrote her two letters that were clumsy and over long and she sent me a postcard with a telephone number on it. I still have the card somewhere.
I can still almost feel Adele hugging me and thanking me for the wonderful flowers. She told me she was cross with me because I hadn’t waited for her to come to the door to get them. But of course, I never bought her any flowers. I wouldn’t have had the nerve. I didn’t say anything to Adele but I knew that Jean Paul had left them with my name. He was still the practical joker, old as he was; or maybe he was just being kind.
I went to the audition and I did alright: I got the part anyway. I didn’t have many lines and I suppose the role was more important for me than it was for the play. I had a good time though; working with proper professional actors and everyone being so kind to me. I didn’t forget my lines and I don’t think I let them down. But even the best writers can’t have a success every time; and though we told ourselves it was the funniest thing ever written, our little play only had a short run. We never got that transfer to the West End.
I didn’t mind that. I was too young to make my name in comedies about suburban couples worrying over bad sex. Now that I had my start I would head for London to become a star of serious intelligent drama.
And I did go to London, but nothing really happened for me there: just little bits and pieces that dried up eventually and temporary jobs to pay the rent. I don’t know where the time went really. It was more than two years on when I realized that I didn’t have any opportunities left to give up. Soon after that, I found myself back in the little room in my parents’ house, wondering what to do next.
You see, it turned out that I was more good looking than talented; and mine were the kind of looks that fade quickly. As I got older, my face would grow weak rather than distinguished looking. I was still glad that I hadn’t managed to kill myself, on balance, but I knew that I would have to find another path for my life.
I got a job in an insurance company, and eventually I did meet a girl. She wasn’t as pretty as Adele; or the Adele of my memory at least; but we got on with each other and life turned out not too bad. We had a house and two kids and a second hand car and both the kids went to university eventually.
Well that’s one possible version of my future anyway.
But I was talking about when I moved back to my parents’ house. I was going to say that one day I came across her postcard in a forgotten drawer; but that’s not true: I had always remembered exactly where it was.
[A different seaside sound. Waves washing over pebbles. Soft jazz and the clink of glasses and cutlery from the private plage nearby. The sound of knitting needles followed by noise of someone crunching over the shale beach].
Simon: Excuse me.
Mary Beth: Yes?
Simon: Do you mind if I sit here?
Mary Beth: They claim it’s a free country [pauses knitting]. You could see I wasn’t French, huh?
Simon: Yes. Not many people around here with such pale skin. I’m sorry; I mean it’s very nice skin. Not that I’m trying to chat you up. I mean… please don’t…sorry.
Mary Beth: You apologized twice in one sentence. You must be from England.
Simon: Yes, that’s right. And you are, let me guess; American?
Mary Beth: I’m from South Carolina. Mary Beth O’Donnell. Pleased to meet you.
Simon: Oh. Sorry I’m not used to shaking hands. It seems quite formal. I’m Simon. Anyway it’s nice to hear an English voice. I mean a voice speaking English.
Mary Beth: Have you been in Nice a long time?
Simon: Three days. You?
Mary Beth: I’m halfway through my study year. At the institute you know. Are you on holiday?
Simon: Not really. I came here looking for a girl.
Mary Beth: Well that’s not so unusual, but … you’re very direct about it.
Simon: Oh, I didn’t mean it like that.
Mary Beth: Sorry to disappoint, but I already have a boyfriend back in South Carolina. We’re engaged to be married. See this ring?
Simon: It’s very nice, but what I meant to say was, I came looking for a particular girl that I met some time ago in England but then she had to leave.
Mary Beth: That sounds so cute.
Simon: I always get my words mixed up. I’m fine with other people’s words but when I say my own they come out wrong.
Mary Beth: Everyone has that problem, I think.
Simon: I should start again. Hello, my name is Simon. I hope you won’t mind if I sit near to you on the beach. It’s quite crowded today and in any case I couldn’t help noticing that you appear to be English; or American. I don’t speak any French and one can start to feel rather strange after a few days only making gestures and saying s’il vous plait and merci.
Mary Beth: That’s better. But how could you tell I was not French?
Simon: I rather thought that you must be of Anglo-Saxon descent due to your complexion and fair hair. The other girls around here are darker and they only seem to wear half a bikini, which is rather…
Mary Beth: What?
Simon: Well I don’t know where to look.
Mary Beth: My great grandparents were from Clare not Saxony, but go on.
Simon: And you are wearing a floppy sun hat and knitting.
Mary Beth: French people knit. Lots of people knit. It’s very therapeutic
Simon: You’re the only girl I’ve seen sitting on this beach knitting. I saw a girl taking a Siamese cat for a walk on a lead yesterday, but the balls of wool seem more out of place to be honest.
Mary Beth: I can tell you in South Carolina it’s nothing unusual.
[sound of waves and knitting needles resume clicking]
Mary Beth: What did you mean about saying other people’s words before?
Simon: I’m an actor, or I used to be, or I’m trying to be. I’m not sure which.
Mary Beth: There seems to be a lot of uncertainty in your life generally. I can believe you’re an actor though. You’re handsome enough, in a dopey sort of way.
Simon: I’ve been told that, but looks aren’t enough unfortunately.
Mary Beth: In America, I think maybe. But are you going to be able to find the girl? I’d say your position seems quite desperate otherwise.
Simon: It’s worse than you think. I already did find her.
Mary Beth: So she turned you away. How unromantic.
Simon: It was my own fault really. I hadn’t seen her for more than two years. I rang this number she sent me on a postcard and some old lady answered. When she realised I didn’t understand anything she said, she put her husband on, but neither of them spoke English, so that didn’t help. I kept saying vieil ami and the man finally understood that I was trying to get in touch with Adele. He read out an address in Nice and I tried to write it down. There were a lot of numbers, but he told me the digits in English, so I was sure I had it right. He had a lot of other things to tell me but I didn’t understand anything, so I thanked him and got off the line. Then I started thinking about how I would get here.
When I arrived, it took me a day to find the place, and then I wanted to turn up at the right time of day so I waited for an hour trying to find my nerve; but then when I did go the first time there was no-one home. I was so nervous, but I didn’t want to seem like a stalker so I went away for another two hours before I knocked again.
Mary Beth: And then what?
Simon: She answered the door and she was even lovelier than I remembered. She was perfect. But she just stood there, looking surprised to see me. Well, more shocked than surprised to be honest. She knew it was me of course. She said it wasn’t a good time. She stood just inside the half open door and she seemed worried, like I was a crazy person who might try to force his way in. She asked how I was and I said I was fine and then neither of us said anything for a while; and then she closed the door.
Mary Beth: What did you do then?
Simon: I ran. But still it was my own fault. Almost three years and we’ve never been in touch. I don’t know what I expected.
[sound of beach vendor approaching and passing on up the beach “Biere, cola, eau minerale, orangina. Tous froids. Extra Cold” repeated]
Mary Beth: Do you have any place to stay?
Simon: When I arrived. But it’s more expensive than I thought. Last night I slept on the beach in the daytime and tried to keep moving in the night.
Mary Beth: If you can find your way to the institute we can give you a hot meal and a shower at least. There’s four of us sharing but there all sweet girls. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.
Simon: That would be very kind of you. But really I’ve got no money at all
Mary Beth: Don’t worry about that. It’s as easy to feed five as four. Wouldn’t be Christian to let you wander off on your own. Just don’t expect much and make sure to arrive before seven. We eat early here and to be honest you do need to clean up first.
Simon: Fine, thanks. Only, what you said about being Christian, well I’m not. I don’t want to pretend. I mean, I don’t believe, I think.
Mary Beth: You think that you don’t believe, or you think instead of believing? I’m sorry I’m making fun of you. I was talking about what Jesus would expect of me not what he expects of you. I’m offering you a meal not a prayer meeting.
Simon: Yes, thank you. I’ll be there. Sorry.
Mary Beth: [sighs]
[A room in halls of residence at the institute. A typical student flat where the kitchen and dining space is open. Mary Beth is not around. Isabel is absent as always. Jacqueline and Annette are preparing the meal. Both girls are English. Kitchen sounds]
Annette: If I had known we were going to have company I would have planned something a little more sophisticated. I feel embarrassed to be serving up spaghetti bolognese. And he’s a boy as well.
Jacqueline: I think he’s practically a tramp. He’ll be grateful for anything and at least there’s plenty of it. Mary Beth invited him out of charity.
Annette: She said that he’s very handsome.
Jacqueline: whether he’s handsome or ugly he’s sure to be hungry. I wouldn’t worry about the food.
Annette: Mary Beth is always meeting interesting people, even though she already has a boyfriend; though how you can have a boyfriend who’s on the other side of the world for a year, I don’t see. It’s really not fair. I never meet anyone; and my French accent is much better than hers. She never stops sounding American.
Jacqueline: This boy is English. Anyway, you know that Lizzie speaks to everyone as if she were their neighbour. She’s just very open and friendly and thinks the best of everyone.
Annette: Did you ever call her Lizzie to her face?
Jacqueline: No. She wouldn’t like it. But you never talk to anyone.
Annette: Well you never talk to anyone either.
Jacqueline: That’s because I have more important things to think about.
Annette: So you say. Do you think Isabel will be eating with us tonight?
Jacqueline: I don’t expect so. She came in earlier on and I don’t believe she recognized me. When I spoke to her she just paused for a moment, like she was trying to remember something not very important, then she glided across the floor like she was a centimetre above it, went into her room and closed the door. I think she’d been up all night and half the day. The door hasn’t opened so she must still be asleep.
Annette: She’s so pale. It doesn’t look healthy. I wonder where she goes.
Jacqueline: She’s beautiful anyway.
Annette: But so cold.
Mary Beth: Hi Guys, how’s things? This is Simon. Simon meet Jacqueline and Annette. They’re both from London.
Annette and Jacqueline: No we’re not.
Mary Beth: Well England anyway. I’ve been to make my call home and when I came back Simon was waiting downstairs. You could have come up you know.
Simon: I didn’t want to, you know, disturb anyone.
Jacqueline: Well you are very welcome.
Annette: To the young spinsters’ residence. We never have any men in here, except Faroukh, but he’s not interested in girls. If we become very flirtatious please don’t take it badly.
Mary Beth: Annette is always joking. English sense of humour, right? I think we have beer. Sit down and drink a beer and relax.
Simon: I should shower first.
Annette: Well you can’t put those clothes back on Simon. We have a washer and dryer down the hall. Put your stuff outside the bathroom and I’ll take it down there for you. Mary Beth is taller than you so you can put on some of her things while yours get dry.
Simon: What can I say? Thanks. Through there is it? [exits]
Annette: Why are you looking at me like that Jacqueline? What did I say? He needed a shower and his clothes could do with a wash. He wasn’t going to eat dinner and run away was he? Let’s have some music at least.
[Later, same place. Seventies europop music, fading to background]
Simon: This wine tastes so good.
Jacqueline: It’s rubbish actually. But it is very cheap. You can live here for nothing if you know how.
Simon: Then I should stay for good. As long as the shun keeps sining. I mean, as long as it’s sunny and warm.
Annette: Oh, it’s always warm here.
Jacqueline: There are storms through the winter and spring.
Annette: Do you like Nice, Simon?
Simon: What I’ve seen of it. I’ve only really been to the beach and all the art galleries where it’s easy to get in and you can stay for hours. The French take art seriously though don’t they? And I’ve walked around the market and the old town a lot. The buildings are pretty, but it’s the light that is amazing. Just like that painter Duffy, in the gallery.
Jacqueline: It’s Dufy.
Simon: That’s my problem you see; language. It never would have worked out with me and Adele: she’d have been ashamed of me wherever we went.
Mary Beth: What are your plans now Simon?
Simon: We need to finish this wine before I can plan Mary Beth. Won’t you have some? It doesn’t seem very American to drink only tea. Tea with lemon. I’ll make my way back home somehow I suppose, if only Annette will let me have my clothes back.
Annette: They’ll be dry in another hour.
Jacqueline: It will be midnight in a few minutes.
Annette: He could stay here couldn’t he? Better than walking the streets. Isabel! You made me jump. I didn’t see you there.
Isabel: The boy can use my room tonight.
Annette: But where will you be?
Isabel: Out [exits]
Annette: That’s it then Simon you have a bed. The only thing you have to worry about is the undead bothering you in the night.
[later still, outside the flat. Music heard from inside fading to background]
Jacqueline: It’s a beautiful night
Simon: I needed to get some air.
Jacqueline: Do you feel sick too? Annette doesn’t usually get like that. She just drank too much and got overexcited. She’s asleep in her room now. Passed out more like. Mary Beth will be asleep too. I think midnight is the latest she has ever gone to bed in her life.
Simon: So it’s just me and you. I don’t feel too bad. How about you?
Jacqueline: I’m fine of course. Isabel is the sexy one; Annette is the lively, chatty one; Mary Beth is just herself and that means I’m the serious one. The serious one doesn’t drink herself sick.
Simon: Lucky for you.
Jacqueline: Sometimes I’d like to be a little more lively, or sexy.
Simon: You’re not bad looking.
Jacqueline: I’m plain. While I’m young I might manage to look interesting on a good night. By the time I’m thirty I shall be invisible; or matronly if I have kids.
Simon: Why is that so bad?
Jacqueline: Maybe it’s not, but it’s not comforting to know. Do you want to share my bed tonight?
Simon: How much have you been drinking?
Jacqueline: Not so much. I think about things before I say them and I know what I’m saying.
Simon: I couldn’t offer you any kind of relationship.
Jacqueline: Exactly. I mean; you’re nice looking but I’d probably get bored with you quite quickly. But I don’t see why I shouldn’t have this sort of thing once in my life; that is if you don’t mind. Annette won’t speak to me for a week, but she’ll get over it.
Simon: Well, okay. If you’re sure.
Jacqueline: Come on then. Give me your hand and get up.
[Next afternoon. Simon on a bench overlooking a lawn at the institute. Birds chattering. Rustle of a newspaper]
Jacqueline: I thought you couldn’t read French.
Simon: What? Hi. Your lectures have finished then. Nice-Matin: I’ve been looking at the pictures, trying to make sense of the words that come up most often. Someone must have left it here.
Jacqueline: Don’t you have anything useful in that little bag of yours?
Simon: Like what?
Jacqueline: Like maybe a book. I can lend you one if you’d like
Simon: No, don’t bother.
Jacqueline: It’s no bother
Simon: Thanks but no.
Jacqueline: What sort of day have you had? You know you could have stayed in the flat.
Simon: No, I needed to get out. I’ve been walking around watching things. Spent a bit of time here. Mary Beth was back at lunchtime and introduced me to some people who speak a little English.
Jacqueline: Sounds interesting. What did you make of them then?
Simon: France is strange. Everyone is so interested in politics. Half of them wanted to tell me about the United States of Europe and the rest how Corsica needed to be free, or Occitania should be free; or other countries that I never heard the names of, if they are countries, to be free. Then there’s the talk about the Red Brigades and Marxism and Communism and Euro-Communism, which are all different things apparently; and there’s all these young African boys who speak French and love French culture but hate France, or so they say. I couldn’t keep up with it. I told them we don’t have politics in England. The truth is I think we are better off without it.
Jacqueline: Well it is an Institute of Studies you know. And the arguments only seem contradictory. Everyone’s more or less agreed.
Simon: I don’t know about that. Either we are going to be one big country or everyone will have his own private country, it seems.
Jacqueline: We’ll have a big federal government, like in the USA but all the different peoples of Europe will be free to have their own little nations that they feel comfortable in, like the US states. There’ll be no need to keep all the big countries whole because they will all be under the big federal umbrella.
Simon: You see, you are a lot cleverer than me.
Jacqueline: The only problem is that I’m still a student, and by the time I have my PhD all these big changes will have been made. But still it’s going to be my career: in politics.
Simon: Why are we talking about any of this?
Jacqueline: It’s interesting. And it’s important.
Simon: I have to go. I was only waiting to say goodbye.
Jacqueline: It was nice of you to wait. You have a return ticket to England don’t you?
Simon: It was the same price as a single.
Jacqueline: That was sensible.
Simon: I was making out like I didn’t know how I would get home because it felt wrong. If I was coming out here to stake my future on finding Adele like I said, I ought to have bought a one-way ticket.
Jacqueline: You don’t have to feel ashamed of not behaving like an idiot. When is your flight?
Simon: Tomorrow, late afternoon. Do you suppose we might meet sometime, when you’re back in England?
Jacqueline: I shouldn’t think so. Doesn’t really fit in with my plans. You never know.
Simon: You never gave me your address.
Jacqueline: No, but I could say the same. I don’t think you want mine really. Give me a kiss and I’ll walk down to the town with you instead.
[the seafront once more, on the boulevard of the Promenade des Anglais. Skaters, joggers and pedestrian’s chattering pass as Simon stands looking out at the Mediterranean]
Adele: What I said to you a long time ago, about drowning being the best way to end yourself. It was a joke, you know?
Adele: In any case the sea here is too calm and salty. You can’t help but float. And you might get a nasty sting from the jellyfish. It’s always denied, but there are many out there, ask anyone.
Simon: Adele, it’s so good to see you. How did you find me?
Adele: I didn’t find you. How could I? You turned up at the door when the baby was crying and my husband was not expecting an ex-lover to arrive. By the time I came back from sorting that out you had run away. You and I never had much luck with doors.
Simon: That’s too much for me to take in all at once. But then, why are you here? How?
Adele: There is such a thing as coincidence. But then I take this walk every day with little Juliet, so if you were here I would see you. Why did you run off anyway?
Simon: I thought you wanted me to go.
Adele: If that’s true then you must think me a very cruel person.
Simon: But you have a baby. And a husband.
Adele: Is that so remarkable? It’s been three years. Did you think I was so ugly I wouldn’t find a man who would have me?
Simon: No, you’re beautiful. You are as beautiful as you always were. More. It’s so good to see you. It’s just that everything is such a shock.
Adele: Juliet is beautiful not me. Look at her. I always wanted to have my children while I was still young and strong. She is more like Frederic than me in any case. We meet him for lunch when he gets out of work. You must come with us, if you can spare the time.
Simon: Of course I’ll come. Just one thing though. You did describe me as your ex-lover just now didn’t you?
Adele: It was a manner of speaking, don’t flatter yourself. But here is a kiss for you anyway.
[Restaurant terrace. The waiters are clearing up after lunch while the last diners linger over coffee]
Simon: Juliet is still fast asleep.
Adele: It’s very hot. She’ll wake up later and then she will be in a foul temper.
Simon: Your husband was very charming. It’s a shame he had to go back to work.
Adele: Yes, Frederic is so funny isn’t he? He’s always in a good mood. And he’s almost as pretty as you, but in a different way.
Simon: We say handsome.
Adele: No, you’re pretty. Both of you.
Simon: And you’re happy?
Adele: I’m very happy Simon.
Simon: I’m glad. Do you have a light?
Adele: You’re a smoker now? And Gauloises too. Very strong.
Simon: I’m trying to get into the habit.
Adele: Why? It’s very bad for you and the smell is disgusting.
Simon: I wanted to try something that was bad for me. I read this quote from a writer who said that he wasn’t going to waste one day of his life by seeking to prolong it.
Adele: That was Jack London; an American. We’re crazy for American authors in France; film directors too: even though we’re not sure about Americans generally.
Simon: Do you know anything about him?
Adele: He died aged forty, a diseased alcoholic who had ruined his life.
Simon: Maybe not a good role model then. I’ll put this out if you don’t like it.
Adele: Smoke if you want, but only to enjoy it, not to make a point. That’s what Jean Paul would have said.
Simon: I was so sorry about Jean Paul. He was such a great man and so kind to me.
Adele: He was quite old.
Simon: But do you think he was ever satisfied? He seemed so full of regrets that he didn’t allow himself to acknowledge.
Adele: Do you think it’s possible to live life honestly without regrets? I think maybe he was sorry that he didn’t have time to finish the work on Flaubert, although maybe it was one of those projects that would never have been completed. Myself I didn’t see the point. I could never finish a book by Flaubert let alone a book about Flaubert. Ugh. So many pages with nothing happening. Other than that, who can know? I had a small enough part of Jean Paul when he was alive. The moment that a man like that is dead, everyone feels entitled to a piece of him. At the very least you can say that he insisted on living his own life until he died.
Simon: Speaking of regrets, do you ever regret that you and I never got together properly?
Adele: What things you say sometimes Simon. You are still that young boy I knew. You haven’t changed a bit. We can’t answer those questions and it is not authentic to ask them.
Simon: You have changed, but not in a bad way. You’re more grown up. You seem to understand it all.
Adele: I’m a wife and a mother now. If you want to move your life forward, do something with it. But I think that maybe you have started to.
Simon: What do you mean?
Adele: that English girl that you met at the Institute. The way you were talking about her and how clever she was.
Simon: Oh, that’s going nowhere.
Adele: Perhaps, but that’s not my point. You slept with her didn’t you?
Simon: You can tell that only from what I said about her?
Adele: I knew it. So you really don’t prefer boys. Jean Paul assured me that you didn’t.
Simon: Adele, I never know when you are teasing me and when you are serious.
Adele: Perfect. The English think only they have the sense of humour. One more coffee with cognac for you and then I’ll drive you to the airport. My car is near. It will probably take as long as walking in this traffic but I’ll feel bad otherwise. And you will come back won’t you? Frederic is very amused to hear stories of when I was young and foolish.
Simon: I’ll try.
Adele: I was thinking of that trip to the north of England after you knocked on our door; and how much fun it was. There was that play we went to see because Jean Paul claimed he wanted to understand bourgeois theatre. I think he wanted a break really and he loved anything with jokes; especially practical jokes, which is what farce is really about, I suppose.
Simon: Can you remember what he said about it?
Adele: I can remember some of the things he told me almost word for word, even though I didn’t make any effort to store up what he said. Of course he was a very public man and it may be that he thought about some of his spontaneous comments for a long time before he made them. I think that happens a lot.
I remember that he was very pleased by your author; the man you met who was walking his dog.
Simon: I never knew whether that really was the man. I was a nervous wreck at the time.
Adele: Jean Paul claimed to have met the same man. He said that he found him very wise, more for what he didn’t say than for what he did. But maybe that was one of his inventions too: a story to make a point.
In any case the play was real and it pleased him greatly. Adele, he told me, you remember that book of Albert’s that everyone loves, about the man who pushes the rock up the hill every day and every night it rolls back down, and that’s what life is like and what we have to find is the courage to keep pushing the rock up the hill regardless? Of course I knew it.
Real life is not at all like that, he said. It all seems very satisfying to the reader, but the weakness of artists is that they are always trying to close the circle and force a resolution. That is why in farce the failings of the characters see them returned so often so the point at which they started. In real life, our actions have an effect for ourselves and for others, remember that. He said that what he liked about the play we saw was that the ending was not neat or artificial. The characters had lives, however horrible they were, that continued after the curtain fell. We could speculate about their future but the future was unwritten.
Simon: So no final soliloquy for me? What would be a good ending then – somebody dies?
Adele: Somebody always dies, but the others go on living. Unless it’s one of those old fashioned tragedies where everyone is dead or ruined at the end and it always makes me giggle. I can’t help it. It’s writers and a certain sort of politician who insist on having the final word, not life. You can make your big parting speech if you think there is some sudden insight you’ve learned that you need to share. No?
Come on then. It’s getting late and I don’t want to make you miss your flight.