by Catherine Harvey
Setting: Bare stage
Character: PAUL, a man in his 40s
PAUL sits on a chair. He occasionally breathes with difficulty.
You only live once, innit? That’s what I said to Debbie. She’s my wife—well, I call her my wife, she’s actually my best mate’s wife. I mean, he was my best mate ‘til…
(Laughs. Coughs uneasily.)
God, you lot make me nervous. (Takes a drink of water.) Last summer we climbed that Vesuvius. It was well misty and cold up there—like being on the moon. Debbie was moaning that her feet hurt and she felt sick from the cab ride. I was just gazing into the volcano—little strings of smoke puffing out. Not exactly dormant, not exactly active—bit like my mate Dave. (Laughs.) Inside just ashes—no fire nor nothing. Made you want to jump in and roll about where it was soft and warm. Far away below us, Naples sprawling in the mist. Like a postcard it was. Another world. All sparkly and safe. Water glistening in the sunshine. And I thought, how can you live there knowing that a lake of hot fire is rising and rising that will one day explode and kill you all? (Laughs.) I mean, you’d have to be an idiot, wouldn’t you?
(Coughs. Drinks water.)
We saw them ash people. In Pompeii. Frozen they was. Stretched out like this. (He lightly imitates a dead body screaming in agony.) I watched a programme about it on the telly. They said the first breath was like swallowing fire. The second your lungs fill up with ash. By the third your insides have turned to cement—you suffocate. Hundreds of years later they’re still there. That’s what I couldn’t get my head round. I put my hand in one of them big jars—you know, on a shop counter—used to hold wine and grain and honey. I put my hand inside and it was cool, even in the hottest part of a blistering hot day. At the bottom there was nothing only tiny pebbles. (He holds up a piece of very ordinary grit.) I kept it to remember ‘em by—the ash people. It’s from the volcano, straight from the centre of the Earth. One of them might have inhaled this and coughed it out. By the end there was just us. Me and Debbie. The sun going down, and the edges of the buildings glowing pale blue and orange. Our feet echoing down those streets filled with the spirits of dead people in togas. Empty spaces at the front of the houses where their gods used to watch over them. Frescos painted on the walls. Mosaic floors. Beware of the dog one said. Beware of the bloody big active volcano above you heads more like. I looked down and—and you’re not going to believe this—there was this… (Laughs.) this massive great cock on the floor. No messing. Directing you the way to the nearest brothel. (Laughs.) Sorry, love, but that’s the Italians for you. So not being one to turn down a polite invitation, I followed the signs and went inside. It was dark by then—not a soul in sight. I asked Debbie if she fancied a quickie. But she went all prim and said it was too historical and I should have more respect like Simon Sharma. Respect! There was folks in togas shagging on the walls. I mean in togas with dirty big wreaths of leaves round their heads! (Laughs so much he starts to cough through following impersonations of a very cockney Pompeian man and extremely Italian prostitute.) “I’ll have a number sixty-nine please, love.” “It’ll cost you extra, baby, if you want to keep your leaves on.” “Go on love, work away, and don’t mind the rustling.”
(Laughs. Coughs. Takes a drink of water.)
You’ll probably have noticed that my throat in’t too healthy, and if you was to cut my lungs in two, they’d look like some piece of old half-chewed black pudding. It’s not the cough that carries you off it’s the coffin they carry you off in, eh, love? (Laughs nervously.) Sorry, force of habit. (Coughs.) Bad taste, I know. My old man died of the ciggies. Now beneath the sod the old sod lies.
(Pauses to take a sip of water.)
Recently I’ve been putting my affairs in order as they advise you to do. On Saturday I got the kitchen scissors and cut up all my credit cards. Some of them were surprisingly sturdy. Then we had a little ceremony. Quite moving it was. Buried their remains in the garden in a matchbox next to the hamster. Shame. I really wanted one of them flash sports cars. That’s the life. Burning up the tarmac like Lewis Hamilton. In court for debt one week, speeding the next, cemetery the week after. Go quick, in a blaze of glory. (Coughs.) Not like this. This is…no offence, love, but it’s shit, isn’t it? It’s the ciggies, see. They’ve been my downfall, just like my dear old dad. (Coughs. Drinks water.) I still see them in my dreams—those ash people—their faces twisted in agony. They say the first breath was like fire. Second your lungs fill with ash. By the third your insides turn to cement and you can’t breathe any more. (Smiles.) Poor sods.
(Stifles a cough, then takes a sip of water.)
copyright © 2010 Catherine Harvey. All rights reserved. ___________________________________________
Catherine Harvey trained as an actor at Central School of Speech and Drama after reading English at Hertford College, Oxford. She writes drama and comedy for theatre, radio and film, and for a time worked as a journalist. Catherine also works as an actor and director in theatre, radio, TV and film.