The lounge of a large seaside hotel. A middle-aged Miss Plunkett sits in an upright easy chair, the chair beside it is empty. A middle-aged Mr Mortimer approaches her.
MR MORTIMER: Is this anyone’s chair?
MISS PLUNKETT: Not this minute.
MR MORTIMER: And I’m not … trespassing on your preserves? ‘Invading your space’, as I believe they say nowadays?
MISS PLUNKETT: No.
MR MORTIMER: Good. Well I’ll bag it while I can. These chairs at the window are always at a premium.
MISS PLUNKETT: It’s the sea.
MR MORTIMER: I beg your pardon?
MISS PLUNKETT: It comes in, it goes out. Anything else and it would be called shilly-shallying.
MR MORTIMER: Ye-es. (Pause) Still thinking about raining. Can’t seem to make up its mind.
MISS PLUNKETT: My point exactly. More indecision.
MR MORTIMER: First the sea, now the sky. You seem at odds with the entire universe.
MISS PLUNKETT: Perhaps I am.
MR MORTIMER: Alone today?
MISS PLUNKETT: I beg your pardon?
MR MORTIMER: No ‘boss lady’?
MISS PLUNKETT: Lying down. We had a walk on to the clock tower. She overdid it. She often overdoes it. Are you two acquainted?
MR MORTIMER: One nods. We smile. A fellow guest. She is a handsome woman.
MISS PLUNKETT: Yes. ‘Very good for her age’ is a frequent comment. ‘She looks after herself’ is the other.
MR MORTIMER: But is that true? It is you who look after her.
MISS PLUNKETT: I’m glad someone has noticed.
MR MORTIMER: How could one help but notice . . . the drudgery, the devotion, the readiness always to fetch and carry. It warms the heart.
MISS PLUNKETT: Not mine.
MR MORTIMER: Well, you see, I’m old-fashioned. Sentimental even. There are so few of your sort left. Once a feature of our spas and seaside resorts, those selfless, mild-mannered, often (as I’m sure in your case) highly intelligent ladies trailing in the wake of their more well-to-do employers, carrying their impedimenta . . . they’re nowadays seldom come across.
MISS PLUNKETT: I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.
MR MORTIMER: Dear lady, look at yourself. The knitting bag, the shapeless cardigan, the self-effacing attention to your employer’s every whim. Like the horse trough and the drinking fountain, you are a piece of social history. You are that thing of the past – the companion.
MISS PLUNKETT: The companion! The companion? I am not the companion. Mrs Plunkett is not my employer. She is my mother!
MR MORTIMER: Oh.
MISS PLUNKETT: And anyway my cardigan is meant to be shapeless. This sort is very fashionable now. Mother says it suits me.
MR MORTIMER: Do forgive me. Of course I see the resemblance now.
MISS PLUNKETT: No you don’t. And even if there was a resemblance you wouldn’t see it. Because, unlike my mother, I don’t spend every other afternoon at the hairdresser’s. I’m not dolled up to the nines in dresses designed for a woman half my age. And I don’t spend every moment of my waking life thinking of me, me, me, me.
MR MORTIMER: I seem to have touched a raw nerve.
MISS PLUNKETT: How? I have no nerves. No feelings, no emotions. After forty years of servitude there is nothing left in my heart that could even be called human.
MR MORTIMER: Surely, Miss . . . it is Miss?
MISS PLUNKETT: (Venomously) What do you think?
MR MORTIMER: Surely, Miss Plunkett, things aren’t as bleak as all that?
MISS PLUNKETT: Bleak? Is the surface of the moon bleak? Is Warrington on a Sunday morning bleak? Is the square on the hypotenuse equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides? I spend my days catering to the needs of a three-quarters empty bottle of Jeyes fluid . . . Of course it’s bleak.
MR MORTIMER: Miss Plunkett. Betty.
MISS PLUNKETT: You know my name?
MR MORTIMER: It’s embroidered on your knitting bag. Betty. There is hope.
MISS PLUNKETT: Where?
MR MORTIMER: It is in the nature of the companion that she is never entirely extinguished. A spark must always linger, an ember that one day will begin to glow so that the spirit takes fire. She takes off her glasses . . . May I? . . . unpins her hair, hurls away her knitting bag, and leaving her employer outraged and weeping, sets off in search of love and life. It’s what always happened to Bette Davis. Why should it not happen to you?
MISS PLUNKETT: Because, you verbose fool, I have no money. I have no skills. I cannot drive. I cannot even type. All I can do is keep mother company.
MR MORTIMER: And wait.
MISS PLUNKETT: Yes, wait.
MR MORTIMER: Until she dies. (Pause) They do die of course, parents. Eventually.
MISS PLUNKETT: Did you have a mother, Mr . . .?
MR MORTIMER: Mortimer. I had a father, which comes to the same thing. He died. There are no other relations?
MISS PLUNKETT: No. There is only me.
MR MORTIMER: And your mother is not passionate about any cause in particular? I’m thinking about the will.
MISS PLUNKETT: My mother’s sole interest is in herself.
MR MORTIMER: Don’t be too certain.
MISS PLUNKETT: What do you mean?
MR MORTIMER: Making a will is a dangerous moment. Life, after all, is on the turn. The timid become bold, the faint-hearted draw courage. The act of writing a will will often induce a fit of insane benevolence towards anyone and everything except those who have properly deserved it – dogs, cats, sailors, donkeys, the widows of clergymen, the friends of Jane Austen. There is no cause, however undeserving, proof against the fatuous generosity of the ageing testator. Or in your case, testatrix. Has she made a will?
MISS PLUNKETT: Yes.
MR MORTIMER: And have you seen it?
MISS PLUNKETT: No. (Pause) She says she has left me everything.
MR MORTIMER: She says that cardigan suits you.
MISS PLUNKETT: What can I do?
MR MORTIMER: What is there to do but wait?
MISS PLUNKETT: And wait and wait until nature takes its course.
MR MORTIMER: Quite. But as nature takes its course with her, so it is taking its course with you. None of us gets any younger.
MISS PLUNKETT: And I haven’t lived! When is my life going to start?
MR MORTIMER: Miss Plunkett, please. Look on the bright side. Anything can happen. A faulty electric blanket perhaps. Food poisoning – a bout of salmonella, some tepid chicken, a dodgy prawn. A dizzy do on a tall balcony . . . It can be so simple.
MISS PLUNKETT: You’re not suggesting . . .
MR MORTIMER: That you should do away with your mother? No. You would immediately fall under suspicion.
MISS PLUNKETT: But you wouldn’t.
MR MORTIMER: I? Why should I want to murder your mother?
MISS PLUNKETT: Money.
MR MORTIMER: You have none.
MISS PLUNKETT: I will have when the time comes. She would not be missed, except by her hairdresser and her chiropodist. The sales of Steradent might show a slight hiccup. That apart, who cares?
MR MORTIMER: You? . . . Well?
MISS PLUNKETT: No. I could not do it. Ask you to do it.
MR MORTIMER: Sure?
MISS PLUNKETT: Yes.
MR MORTIMER: The right decision, I’m glad. Now you can return to your task with renewed dedication: Mother and her continuing welfare, making her comfortable, Miss Plunkett, exhausting yourself in her service day in and day out, prolonging her days even at the risk of shortening your own.
MISS PLUNKETT: Oh God.
MR MORTIMER: And here, unless I’m very much mistaken, comes Mother. Her lie-down seems to have done her good. There’s a spring in her step . . . though she seems a little peeved.
MISS PLUNKETT: Yes. You’re sitting in her chair.
MR MORTIMER: I’d better push off. (He goes)
MISS PLUNKETT: (In an entirely different voice) Damn. Damn. Damn.
A few days later.
MR MORTIMER: Ah, Miss Plunkett. We meet again. Did you enjoy the lunch? How was your fish?
MISS PLUNKETT: Swimming in water.
MR MORTIMER: No Mother?
MISS PLUNKETT: Today is the anniversary of Father’s death. She likes to spend it turning over her cherished mementoes . . . letters of credit chiefly, share certificates and suchlike. They grow more precious year by year.
MR MORTIMER: And how is she in herself?
MISS PLUNKETT: Never better.
MR MORTIMER: Well it doesn’t surprise me. I saw in the Reader’s Digest the other day that there is no reason why useful, productive life nowadays should not go on beyond ninety.
MISS PLUNKETT: Ninety?
MR MORTIMER: Yes! And the good news is, women last longer than men.
MISS PLUNKETT: (Dropping her voice) Listen Mr Mortimer. Are you prepared to cast the suggestions you made to me the other day in the form of a definite proposition?
MR MORTIMER: I’m sorry? What suggestions were those?
MISS PLUNKETT: When we spoke, the other day.
MR MORTIMER: I recall no suggestions Miss Plunkett. Perhaps you could refresh my memory. (She sighs) What are you saying Miss Plunkett?
MISS PLUNKETT: Do I have to spell it out?
MR MORTIMER: I would prefer it. I wouldn’t like there to be any misunderstanding.
MISS PLUNKETT: I am saying, Mr Mortimer, that I would like my mother to suffer an unfortunate accident.
MR MORTIMER: And?
MISS PLUNKETT: (She sighs again) That I would like you to arrange it. As soon as possible.
MR MORTIMER: I see. Good. (Pause) Now Miss Plunkett. I wonder if I might draw your attention to this bulge in my trousers? It is not, perhaps, quite what you may imagine. Nature, while fair, has not been over-generous. No. Alas, this distinct protuberance is only a radio transmitter. I have to tell you, Miss Plunkett: I am bugged.
MISS PLUNKETT: Bugged?
MR MORTIMER: Every word of our conversation has been digitally recorded . . . No, please Miss Plunkett. Do not attempt to wrest the offending apparatus from between my legs. Not merely would the gesture be open to misinterpretation, it would also be futile, as this . . . package . . . is only the transmitter tuned to recording apparatus which is elsewhere. What is important to grasp is that everything you have said, particularly your suggestion that I should do away with your mother – has been recorded and can be played back to any . . . interested party.
MISS PLUNKETT: You mean – my mother?
MR MORTIMER: Your mother. The police. Help the Aged. Anybody.
MISS PLUNKETT: But it was you. You asked me if I wanted her murdered.
MR MORTIMER: Come, come Miss Plunkett. Do I look like a contract killer? No no. I never had any intention of murdering your mother . . . Excuse me one moment while I unzip my trousers and switch off the recording apparatus. There we are. No, as I was saying, my intentions – dishonourable as they were – were much less dramatic. I shall require a payment now and again, just so that I keep my mouth shut. After all, we don’t want Mother upsetting. Upset her, and she might leave everything to the cats’ home.
MISS PLUNKETT: But I have no money. Mother has the money. That is the point.
MR MORTIMER: She has diamond earrings, some ruby clips, not to mention a wonderful emerald brooch . . . a whole repertoire of noble and distinguished jewellery she delights in displaying. And she is getting on. The memory fails. Were the odd item to disappear, she might think it mislaid. You are a resourceful woman. You have proved that.
MISS PLUNKETT: Blackmail!
MR MORTIMER: Yes, Betty. The ugly word.
MISS PLUNKETT: Betty.
MR MORTIMER: I feel we know each other well enough. And we shall probably get to know each other better as time goes on. In the meantime perhaps you could give me a modest cheque to cover the hire of sound equipment and so on. Shall we say . . . £100?
MISS PLUNKETT: And shall I make it out to Mr Mortimer? Mr Arthur Mortimer?
MR MORTIMER: Yes.
MISS PLUNKETT: Not to Mr Cyril Copestake? Or Mr Percy Tessimond? Mr Duncan Bracegirdle or Mr Hubert Crisp?
MR MORTIMER: I don’t understand.
MISS PLUNKETT: Don’t you? Then take a look at my bust. Ample, as I’m sure you have noticed, and made ampler by this copious cardigan. But even swathed in dun-coloured knitwear, a certain asymmetry must be obvious, my left breast ampler than my right. Lay this not at nature’s door, but blame it rather upon the presence of – yes – yet another radio transmitter, which has faithfully recorded every detail of your sordid scheme.
MR MORTIMER: My sordid scheme? You wanted me to murder your mother.
MISS PLUNKETT: Except that I have no mother.
MR MORTIMER: But . . . the old lady?
MISS PLUNKETT: Far from being my mother, she is an ex-member of the BBC Radio Drama Repertory Company, retired but eminently respectable.
MR MORTIMER: And you? Who are you?
MISS PLUNKETT: I am Detective Sergeant Alma Briscoe of the Torquay Vice Squad, and I must warn you, Mr Sattherthwaite, that anything you may say etc etc . . . I’m sure that you are familiar with the form. I cannot tell you what pleasure it gives me to lay you by the heels. For too long your foul little antics have brought wretchedness and misery to the Ocean Lounges of our grander seaside hotels. You have preyed too long on the natural antipathy all children feel for their parents, turning the thoughts of blameless elderly daughters and retiring sons to thoughts of felony and murder. A shadow has been lifted from the Cornish Riviera, Mr Cutbush. Your career is over. I see you scanning the lounge for a means of escape. Do not even think of it, Mr Archbold. That waitress serving tea who has just tipped hot water over the elderly gentleman . . . she is a policewoman. The pianist now taking his place at the piano in the Atlantic Lounge . . . a detective constable. (We hear the cocktail music start smoothly enough, then the pianist hits a terrible bum note.) No, Mr F. Jack Pickersgill, this is what is known as a sting. So, if you will kindly accompany me to the foyer without any fuss (we don’t want a scene, after all) I will put the cuffs on you there.
MR MORTIMER: One question, Detective Sergeant.
MISS PLUNKETT: Yes?
MR MORTIMER: Just how did your own mother die?
MISS PLUNKETT: Tragically. Having partaken of a plentiful meal of some pre-cooked chicken stuffed with dubious prawns, she decided to have a cup of Horlicks prior to taking her bath. As the salmonella, if such it was, began to take hold, she became dizzy and spilt the hot drink over her defective electric blanket, the shock from which, combined with a faulty brake on her wheelchair, caused her to precipitate herself over the side of the bath, where, had she not swiftly drowned, she must surely have died of exposure. I was hardly surprised when the verdict was brought in of death by misadventure. I loved her, Mr Mortimer. My genuine grief made a most favourable impression on the coroner.
MR MORTIMER: You fiend.
MISS PLUNKETT: After you, Mr Cunliffe.