Helen and Robert – a play
Act 1: Scene 1
Inside an Oxfam shop specialising in books and music.
Helen is speeding around checking this and that – and then pauses to examine a new in-take of books. Robert enters the shop and picks up a book that he finds in the late summer sale. He then looks through the records and chooses an early LP by Joni Mitchell, another by the B52s and a copy of Bob Dylan’s ‘Greatest hits’.
Helen: Well hello! And where have you been?
Robert: Goodness! Hello Helen. Hang on – Let me put these records down here …
Helen: But where have you been? I haven’t seen you for weeks! Ages! Years!
Robert Where have I been? I’ve just come back from Berlin.
Robert: Well, I’m still in Berlin – as it were. All in a dream really …
Helen: So what was it like?
Robert: Well, I’d like to live there.
Helen: So you’re all ‘Berlin’ at the moment.
Helen: And where is your gorgeous wife, Joleen? Is she still in Berlin too?
Robert: No; she’s at a french ladies’ do.
Helen: Oh yes, I remember – their regular lunch thingy.
Robert: Yes – but now that you’re here and I tell her you’re here she’ll probably pop in to say ‘Hello’ – perhaps tomorrow …
Helen: Good. Listen listen listen: It’s finally happening: after all these months they’re opening the new Oxfam shop here – and this one is moving up the road. I love this space. It’s a dream – perfect. So this is what I’m going to manage when they move. I’m so happy. I’ve been waiting for this for nearly a year.
Robert: Comme il faut: I’m really pleased. Yes – you’ve been waiting months for this. You could turn it into a very special space. Anyway, how’s things?
Helen: Just a mo. I’m not supposed to hang around talking to customers. It’s about ‘work’ here. Not too much levity. I’ve been told not to be frivolous. Work. And more work. The atmosphere is different here, quite different. It’s more reflective – all rather serious. Work and more work and not dallying with customers. No repartee.
Robert: What? Oh. Well never-mind. Talking to me is work.
Helen: I’ll be back in a mo…
Robert: You’ve got so much energy. Always on the go. You turn on a sixpence. This woman Helen – a blitz of a girl …
Helen: Come and sit down. I’ll stick prices on these books.
(They sit down on a somewhat dated but stylish vintage faded-lime-coloured sofa. Helen is seated on the right as you look at the sofa and Robert on the left. A pile of books lies between them. Helen begins sticking prices on the books.)
Helen: And how are your girls?
Robert: Well, first tell me about how things are with you.
Helen: Nothing much that is new – except everything is new: Daughter number 1 has started teaching maths at All Hallows; my son is teaching to level 3 at you-know-where and daughter number 2 is off in Tanzania doing charity work for Save the Children – And my lovely grandchildren are growing up quickly. The eldest is now 8. So nothing to complain about.
Robert: (After a pause of a moment or two) So, although things were really tough for you as a youngster, you know, when you were growing up, you’re a really successful person. It’s impressive. Three children all doing good things. I’m not a successful person – but that’s another matter …
Helen: Robert, what are you talking about? You’ve got a gorgeous wife and two stunning daughters.
Robert: Yes – but sometimes I wonder if I lumbered them with the fall-out from my psycho-pathologies. (He pauses again) And anyway, after the ethos of Berlin I wonder what on earth I’m doing here. I mean here in the UK. Brexit has really left me feeling fed up. Cheesed off. And the visit to Berlin just rammed it all home.
Helen: See – you’re all Berlin Berlin Berlin at the moment. It’ll pass.
(Helen continues sticking prices onto the books – and then)
Helen: Who on earth reads …
Robert: … this rubbish. Incidentally what are these books about?
Helen: Don’t ask me, Robert.
The manager of Oxfam books and music appears in the near distance.
Robert: Helen you’re doing loads of work. You’d put the workhouse to shame. A Mars a day helps you work rest and play. And may the Lord see your good works … Work makes one free …
Helen: Yes Robert we get the idea ..
Robert: And in Berlin I listened to Kraftwerk …
Helen: Shut up Robert
Robert: OK, I won’t mention W – O – R – K again. A propos of nothing – have you bought anything new recently?
Robert: Not even hair dye.
Helen: Well of course I buy things like Hair dye.
The manager: Are you two doing a sit-com?
Helen: (to the manager) Can’t you see? It’s soon to be released.
Robert: This is just a first take.
Helen: First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin.
Robert: I went to Hard Wax. I had to go for a Hard Wax.
Helen: (Laughing – and perhaps blushing) What in the world is Hard Wax? Robert, this sounds a little bit, well not quite right…
Robert: Hard Wax is the edgiest coolest – at least that’s what they say – record store in Berlin. You get the hard-core techno stuff there. And so I went to Hard Wax.
Helen: But who wants to listen to that stuff?
Robert: God knows. James does – apparently – so I went to get some stuff for James. And I asked the young woman who was working there at Hard Wax what was the best most recent hard core techno music and she fished out some records and Jo and I listened to them and Jo actually thought they were really good. I bought three.
Later I taught a dog to do the hokey-cokey to a hard-core techno beat. Not in German though. That’s why it failed.
Helen: Robert, what are you talking about?
Robert: I’m talking about my dog-sitting in Berlin.
Helen: What? You dog-sat in Berlin?
Robert: Well, I didn’t expect to – but ‘yes’. I did some dog-sitting in Berlin. That’s where the hokey-cokey came in.
Helen: Like this?
She gets up and does the hokey-cokey. Then she sits down on the sofa.
Robert gazes at Helen. Helen gazes at Robert.
Helen: You put your left leg in your left leg out – in out in out – shake it all about … so what’s this dog-sitting all about?
Robert: It was all very odd. We’d found an airbnb in a district called Neukolln in Berlin – but the person hosting it, Magdelena, didn’t seem to get off first-base when it came to the idea of being an ‘host’. She was cool and caustic and found fault with everything. Anyway, she had a dog called Clementine. And the dog was bipolar: Sometimes it was all tail wags – and then, for no apparent reason, it went off into a crazy horrid bark that turned into an eerie penetrating howl. (Robert imitates the howl.) And, to my surprise, Magdalena announced one evening that she was off to a party and we were to look after the dog. ‘She’ll yell, for a while and then she’ll quieten down,’ she said: And then she was out of the door and into the night. Helen are you listening? Well, I went to sleep but at around midnight the dog started to bark and then the dreadful howling began. I mean it was really awful. I got up and tried to reassure the dog but nothing worked. In the end I started to feel as if I was going potty because of the racket – so I turned it into farce and did the hokey cokey. It was successful for about 30 seconds – but it only brought out the beast in the dog. Teeth were bared and the yowling intensified. By this time I thought the neighbours were certain to complain. So Jo, who is tougher than me, called the woman. Jo used the term ‘inconsolable’. ‘Clementine is inconsolable, please can you come back and care for her.’ Incredibly when the host – this Magdelena – returned she rather rebuked me for not having the skill to manage the dog. I actually felt really puzzled by it all. Anyway that’s the dog-sitting bit.
Helen: Isn’t there a thing called the Berlin Schnauze? You got the Berlin Schnauzer…
Robert: Very funny. But then I had the opposite kind of experience at the airport. One of the security chaps spotted the fact that I was carrying a bag from Hard Wax. And he simply had to look inside. So he took out the three records. ‘Please be careful,’ I said. ‘Of course,’ he replied. And then he said something in german to the effect that this music was not only uber-german but also the best thing since sliced brot. And do you know what he then said? He said: ‘Thank you so much. Thank you so much.’ And he looked at me with a kind of real gratitude. I’d made his day – and he’d made mine.
Helen: Nice one: Ooops: Here comes the manager – Robert – off you go. I’ve work to do.
Robert: OK: I’ll tell Jo that you’re here. Bye.
Helen: Love to Joleen, Bye Bye, love you …
To be continued.