Wednesday, 8 February 2012

TWENTY MINUTES WITH MRS. OAKENTUBB by Frank Arthur


Frank Arthur, civil servant, novelist and playwright, was born in London in 1902.
Pseudonym of Arthur Frank Ebert. 
He was a novelist and historian. 
He served as an accountant in Fiji and New Zealand before returning to England as a Civil Servant.
His first publication was Who Killed Netta Maul?, later published by Penguin Books as The Sava Harbour Mystery.
His plays include Time’s A Thief (French) and She Would Not Dance (Evans).
Twenty Minutes with Mrs. Oakentubb is an effective little piece of melodrama, notable for its skilful manipulation of suspense.

CHARACTERS
She
The Porter
He

SCENE
A railway waiting room.

TIME
A stormy winter’s evening.

The waiting room of a small country railway junction. A gasfire at a side wall; a gas-light above; a chair beside the fire, a bench against the back wall, and a table. The room is empty and, as the gas-light is turned low, almost in darkness. Rain and wind are audible outside (and continue throughout the action, increasing whenever the door is opened). The door opens, and a lady comes in, carrying a suit-case, which has a tie-on label. She is heavily wrapped up, with hat, scarf, gloves and far coat, all slightly wet from the rain. A porter follows her in and turns the gas full on. His cap and coat glisten with rain drops. The lady puts her suitcase down on the bench, and stands hesitate and a little meekly.

PORTER: Well, that’ll throw a bit of light on the situation. (Chuckles.) And I’ll light the fire for you, love, so that you can warm your tootsies. (Kneels down at gas-fire and puts a match to it; it begins to glow red.)

SHE: (making a statement, with no hint of either criticism or self-pity.) There was no heating at all on that train.

PORTER: There never is, love-nor eating, neither.
(The lady takes off her gloves and spreads her hands to the fire. A man comes in briskly. He is wearing a trench-coat (a short overcoat of the pattern worn in the trenches of the front line during the First World War.) and a trilby hat (soft felt hat with a broad brim.) both wet-and he carries a very large suitcase, which he puts down at once. He shuts the door behind him, takes off his coat and shakes it.)

HE: What a night! I got quite wet coming from the back of the train.

PORTER: (making to go out.) And I’ll get soaked to the skin trotting to the luggage office at the other end of the platform. This job’s only fit for a shaggy dog! You two have twenty minutes to get dry and warm (Goes out into the storm and shuts the door behind him.)

(The lady, meanwhile, has taken off her hat and scarf, placed them on the table, and opened her coat. Her hair is mouse-brown, well streaked with grey, and nicely done. She is wearing a wedding-ring. Her dress and speech define her as the wife of a prosperous professional or business man. The man has taken off his coat, shaken it and thrown it down on the bench with his hat. As he does so, his glance falls on the label of the lady’s suitcase; it apparently means nothing to him. His dress and speech define him as slightly lower in the social scale-a clerk or a superior artisan; he is clean-shaven, and at first exhibits a rather flamboyant air. For a moment or so after the porter’s departure, the two take no notice of each other. They appear to be strangers, and they display some of the constraint natural to strangers thrown casually together for a few moments. Then she moves aside, so that he can share the fire; she its on the chair, half turning to warm her hands and feel; and he stands in front, a little to the side, holding out his hands to the glow.)

HE: So we have exactly twenty minutes to wait.

SHE: Just right.

HE: You don’t object to a little conversation?

SHE: We may as well, as we have twenty minutes.

HE: (grumbling.) Why can’t they have a roof over the platform?

SHE: (placidly.) This station’s not used very much. Only for people changing on the loop-line to Stainthrope. 

HE: It’s long time since I was here.

SHE: I live at Stainthrope (Laughs a little nervously.) so I know this waiting room quite well.

(There is a pause. They are beginning to get warm, and both with-draw a little from the fire.)

HE: You live there? Do you know a Mrs. Judy Oakentubb?
(He turns slightly away as he speaks, and does not appear to observe the start of surprise with which she hear this name.)

SHE: (recovering and speaking with indifference.) Yes. She lives at Stainthrope.

HE: What’s she like?

SHE: (nervously.) You mean: in appearance or in character?

HE: In appearance. (Grimly.) I know all about her character.

SHE: (started at this, but trying to appear normal.) oh. She’s fairly ordinary, you know. Nothing very remarkable about her. Short rather than tall-about five foot three: weighs a little under eight stone. (Lightly.) No special distinguished marks. (Note: This description must be amended, if necessary, to fit the actress playing the part.)

HE: (giving no sign that he appreciates that the description fits her.) I saw a photograph of her once in a newspaper. It was well, a newspaper photograph. You couldn’t tell whether she was dark or fair. But I was told she was a banana-blonde.

SHE: (lightly) She was-once. But blonde hair doesn’t stay blonde forever, you know. I was blonde once.

HE: (causally.) Pretty?

SHE: Do you mean me, or Mrs. Oakentubb?

HE: Her.

SHE: Oh, I see. (considering, more at her ease.) It all depends on taste, doesn’t it? I know some people used to think she was pretty. But-may I ask why you are so curious about her?

HE: I’m going to Stainthrope on purpose to see her, that’s why; I asked what she looked like so that I’d recognize her when I saw her.

SHE: Well, you’ve only to go to her house and knock at that door. She’ll probably answer it herself, and then you’ll be able to form your opinion as to whether she’s pretty or not.

HE: (grimly.) That’s what I intend to do.

SHE: Does it matter?

HE: What do you mean?

SHE: Whether she’s pretty or not?

HE: Not in the least. I want just ten minutes alone with her, that’s all.

SHE: That shouldn’t be difficult. You’ve already had five minutes alone with me.

HE: That leaves us fifteen more. (He speaks grimly, looking straight at her.)

SHE: (both afraid and puzzled, speaking quickly and nervously.) Yes. You and I are alone for twenty minutes. We have never met before and we shall very likely never see each other again. I often think about these chances and casual meetings we have with people; thousands of them, in the course of a lifetime. People we pass in the street, stand behind in bus-queues, sit next to in the theatre, and soon. There they are: living their own lives, and then, just for a brief space, they come into your life-only to disappear, and, for all you know, to die the next day. Or perhaps they live, forgetting you completely, long after you are dead. Your life touches another life for a minute, or for an hour, and then it swings apart. You go your way, and I go mine.

HE: (inensely.) Sometimes one of these brief, casual meetings may alter your life.

SHE: (with a shiver.) Not in my experience.

HE: I wouldn’t be too sure. You never know what’s round the corner. I can tell you of two of these half-minute meetings which have had the most profound effect on my life. But for them everything would have been absolutely different.

SHE: (trying to keep the conversation light.) Can you really know that? Perhaps some other event-

HE: (interrupting forcibly.) I'll tell you of one of them. It was in a place you've never been to. It was in Korea, June 1953. (She makes to utter some sympathetic remark, but he talks her down.) I'd been wounded, and they'd strapped me on a stretcher and dumped me by the roadside to wait for an ambulance- if I didn't peg out (die) first. I wanted to die anyway. I'd nothing to live for. The pain was‑pretty bad. I guess I fainted. When I came to, there was a Korean girl bending over me. She was about fourteen; not pretty, of course; but friendly brown eyes, and long black plaits hanging in front of her shoulders. She didn't say anything. She just smiled. And I smiled back. Some busy - bodies chased her away. Then the ambulance came up, and I was jolted for miles to a hospital. The pain was much worse. But I could bear it now. I didn't want to die any more. I wanted to live. I knew I should live. I had a purpose. It was just for a moment or two that she and I met. We shall never meet again. But that one meeting gave me the strength and the courage to live. (He stops almost overcome.)

SHE: (gently.) Yes, I can understand that. Her smile made you realize-that there was still some goodness in life.

HE: (brokenly.) It made me realize what my daughter would have been like, if- if she had lived.

SHE: Oh!-I'm sorry.

HE: (pulling himself f together.) It gave me a purpose in life.

SHE: What purpose?

HE: (violently) Revenge!

SHE: That innocent child's smile persuaded you to dedicate your life to wickedness and hate?

HE: Vengeance is not wickedness. It is not wicked to punish the evil-doer.

SHE: (gently.) Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.

HE: I don't believe in that stuff -not after what happened to my little girl -and to my wife!

(He stares at her fiercely, and then smiles cruelly. There is a long pause as their eyes meet. Although he is plainly a malevolent man urged to desperation by violent passion, his attitude towards her may still be impersonal. She stares at him fascinated. She is afraid but it is by no means clear that she has need to be afraid. With an effort, she tears her gaze away, moistens her lips with her tongue, and then has to look at him again. She is repelled, but his will is the stranger, and she cannot escape him. He says nothing, but continues to smile evilly at her. She gets up, and strolls across the room. He follows her with his eyes. She takes up a position with her back to her suitcase, her hands behind her back, fronting him, shrinking and defiant. He moves towards the door, opens it, looks out, and shuts it again. It has been open just long enough to enable them to appreciate that the wind and the rain are as strong as ever. She returns to her seat by the fire. When she moves away from the suitcase, it appears that she has tucked the label under the flap, so that it it is no longer visible. He comes back; glancing with the greatest air of casualness at the suitcase draws herself up tensely, as if expecting physical attack.)

SHE: (in a casual tone which belies her attitude.) This Mrs. Oakentubb you’re going to Stainthrope to see-you made a very curious remark about her.

HE: Yes?

SHE: You don’t know her-but you know all about her character. Isn’t that rather a rash thing to say?

HE: I know all I need to know about her character.

SHE: That’s different. If you have only a minor matter of business to discuss. I don’t suppose you need to know very much about her character.

HE: It’s extremely important business-for both of us.

SHE: (still tense, but speaking brightly.) My husband’s a very successful salesman. He says you can’t know too much about the character of a man you’re doing really important business with.

HE: Men-yes. There are several sorts of men. But there are only two kinds of women.

SHE: (lightly.) You mean those who are good-looking and those who are not?

HE: (forcibly.) No! I mean those who are good and those are not!

SHE: (after a pause, meditatively.) And you are quite sure in which category to place Mrs. Oakentubb?

HE: (confronting her.) Now look here! You know this woman! You know what she did! Don’t you?

SHE: (faintly.) I Think I know what you mean.

HE: (brutally.) You know what I mean all right! She murdered my wife and daughter.

SHE: (faintly.) She was not convicted to murder. She was not even charged with murder.

HE: (scornfully.) They called it manslaughter. But you know what I call it. I call it murder-plain deliberate heartless cruel murder.

SHE: (desperately.) It was an accident!

HE: Not much of an accident! In an accident there is an element of chance. But-in what your precious Judy Oakentubb did, there was no chance about it. It was a million to one she would kill someone.

SHE: (weakly.) No. That’s not true.

HE: (relentless.) It is true and you know it. She was driving at fifty miles an hour in a built-up area. She pulled out to overtake a bus on a blind bend and she saw herself running slap into a lorry coming the other way. She had a choice: she could ram the lorry and kill herself or she could swerve on to the pavement and kill two innocent pedestrians. She didn’t hesitate. It was her life or theirs. She mounted the pavement. And she’s alive today. And my wife and little girl are dead!

SHE: (very much moved, covering her face in her hands.) I’m very sorry-how can I say how sorry?

HE: (relentless.) And do you know why she was driving so criminally fast? She was drunk!

SHE: (protesting.) She was not drunk!

HE: (bearing her down.) She had been to a cocktail party, and she was driving fast for a bet. One of her rotten set had wagered her five pounds she wouldn’t drive from Stainthrope Cross to the coast in under fifteen minutes. You know the road! You know the distance! You know the bends and the blind corners and the traffic on that road! You know it can’t be done reasonably in much under half an hour. You can’t tell me it wasn’t deliberate murder.

SHE: The police didn’t call it murder.

HE: I call it murder! And so do you! In your heart you know it was murder! What were my wife and child to her? Absolute strangers. You spoke just now about meeting people once for a moment, and never seeing them again. Mrs. Judy Oakentubb met my wife and daughter for one split second-and she crushed the life out of them! I said they met; but they had their backs to her. They didn’t even see her!

SHE: (rising.) How do you know she saw them?

HE: She said at the trial that she didn’t see them. But she saw them all right. She had to choose between her life or theirs; and she choose to murder them.

SHE: How can you be sure of that? It must have all happened in a flash.

HE: (scornfully.) Her counsel told her to say she didn’t see them. He made a great point of it. That was why she got away with only eighteen months in gaol.

SHE: Eighteen months in prison! She served that sentence, didn’t she?

HE: (gloating.) She hadn’t any option.

SHE: She’s had her punishment. I’m not try to excuse her. I’m not saying it wasn’t criminal folly on her part to drive as she did. But she’s had her punishment.

HE: She has not. Her punishment is coming to her! A few months in prison! For crushing an innocent woman and child to death! (They stare at each other, he bitter, she fascinated. Then he turns away.)

SHE: (unable to change the subject.) And when meet this Mrs. Oakentubb, What do you propose to do?

HE: (calmly.) I shall kill her.

SHE: (wildly.) Kill her! No! You can’t do that!

HE: I haven’t quite made up my mind how. I want to do it in the most painful way.

SHE: Will you give her any warning?

HE: Naturally she will know why she is being punished.

SHE: (after a pause, controlling herself with difficulty.) So tomorrow morning, you are going out to commit murder?

HE: To excuse justice. But I don’t think I shall wait till tomorrow morning. I think I shall kill her tonight.

SHE: (alarmed.) Tonight?

HE: I may not have very much time. (There is a long pause. He stares grimly at her, and then away. She meets his glance in horror, but when he looks away, she pulls herself together.)

SHE: (brightly.) But why tell me your plans in advance? If I tell the police-

HE: I’ve thought of that. (Turns on her suddenly and advances malevolently. She shrinks back in terror and is about to scream. But his whole expression changes; he smiles cheerfully, stretches out his hands to the fire, and speaks in a friendly way.) Our meeting is almost over. Was that a nice little story to pass the time? We could spend these twenty minutes in looking at each other which would have been pleasant enough for me, but not much fun for you. So I thought I’d tell you a story to keep you amused.

SHE: (faintly, recovering her composure.) How did you know I wanted to be amused?

HE: (gallantly.) All ladies like to be amused. That’s what men are for-to amuse the ladies.

SHE: (between laughter and indignation.) Your idea of an amusing story is too violent for my taste.

HE: (smiling down at her.) Confess to me that you loved it-that little shivers of delight were running up and down your spine all the time.

SHE: No. I didn’t enjoy it. You see-the story is partly true. There really is a Mrs. Judy Oakentubb at Stainthrope. I do know her. She did kill a woman and child in a motor accident-driving fast for a bet. She did serve eighteen months in prison.

HE: (serious again.) I know.

SHE: As for the husband-you may be he for all I know.

HE: (with grim emphasis.) I am.

SHE: So everything is true about your story except that you’ve come here to kill Mr.s Oakentubb?

HE: (with quiet intensity.) That’s true too.

SHE: (realizing that he has been playing with her; rising to her feet-violently.) I can’t stand this! I shall scream!

HE: (his back to the door.) No one will hear you. If anyone does, he’ll only take it for the wind, Listen! (He moves slightly forward, and, still with his back to the door and his eyes fixed on hers, opens is slightly. The screaming wind and the lashing rain confirm his words. He shuts the door again.) Nothing you can do will save her. If you try to give me away-(He pulls a revolver from his pocket and points it at her. She recoils. There is a rattling at the door behind him, and he moves forward, pocketing the weapon but keeping his hands on it. He frowns threateningly at her, as the porter pushes the door open and comes in.)
Hello! Train signaled?

PORTER: No, sir. Not yet, sir. I’ve just come along to tell you that the express is running a bit late. It won’t be in till 9.05; so you needn’t turn out in the rain yet awhile.

HE: (politely.) Thanks for letting us know.

PORTER: Are you all comfy here?

HE: Yes, quite, thank you.

(The porter turns to go out.)
SHE: (stepping forward.) Porter!

PORTER: (pausing and looking round at her-oblivious of the man, who, behind his back, is making warning gestures at her.) Yes, love?

SHE: Is there a restaurant car on the express?

PORTER: There is, love, but the staff has packed up and gone home before the express reaches here.

SHE: Gone home?

PORTER: In a manner of speaking, love. (Chuckles and goes out.)

HE: (stepping swiftly to the door and putting his back to it.) So we have five more minutes!

SHE: (desperately.) What do you propose to do with them?

HE: It’s just the amount of time I need for killing you.

SHE: (with feigned surprise.) Me!

HE: Yes: You, Mrs. Judy Oakentubb!

SHE: (agitated.) Oh! Oh, no! You can’t mean that!

HE: I do mean it! (Produces revolver and points it at her.) You killed my wife and daughter! You took their lives and wrecked mine. Haven’t I the right to take yours?

SHE: (meekly.) Yes-perhaps you have. But my punishment has been very bitter-more bitter than you can imagine.

HE: (scornfully.) A few months in a comfortable prison! Go down on your knees and beg for your life!

SHE: You don’t understand. That was only part of it. What do you suppose I thought of during those long months in prison?

HE: (bitterly.) Of how soon you could get back to your cocktail parties I expect.

SHE: All the time I had one picture in my mind, I swear to you that I did not see them before the smash. But I saw them afterwards! You were spared that. But I see it always! It is with me wherever I am and whatever I am doing. I can see it now more vividly than see you. That awful scene will haunt me as long as I live! That is my real punishment-to have ever before my eyes the picture of that I have done. Till I die! Often I think that I cannot bear it! (Shrieks.) I cannot bear it! (Hiding her face in her hands.) Can you punish me more?

HE: Is that how you beg for your life?

SHE: (half hysterical) No. I beg for my death! (She claps her hands towards him.) Kill me! Blot out that picture which is always before my eyes and which I cannot endure!

HE: (doubtful.) Do you mean that to kill you would be merciful-to allow to live would be my true revenge?

SHE: (imploring.) Yes. Yes. Kill me!

HE: (lowering the revolver.) I never thought of that.

SHE: (desperately.) But it’s true! It’s true! If you really hate me, condemn me to live! (She kneels again, clasping his arms imploringly; but he pushes her away and she collapses on the floor sobbing.)

HE: Yes! You’re right! I would be a greater punishment to live. (He puts on his hat and coat, pockets the revolver, and walks out, closing the door behind him.)

(As soon as he is gone, she springs to her feet, turns to the door and puts her fingers to her nose at him. While she is standing thus, he opens the door suddenly, sees her, raises the revolver and fires. She falls dead.
He pockets the revolver again, picks up his suitcase and hurries out.)

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