Tuesday, October 9, 2018

FICTION: Perfectly Normal (A Play For Children)


SCENE 1: HOME

SARAH is asleep in her bedroom. (The NARRATOR can be offstage, or sitting unobtrusively onstage.)


NARRATOR
When Sarah awoke, she didn't immediately suspect that her parents were robots.  No, when Sarah awoke, she still thought that the world was pretty much the same as it had been when she'd fallen asleep the night before. 

Sarah's alarm goes off.  Yawning and stretching, Sarah wakes up.  Bleary-eyed, she walks to the kitchen.

In the kitchen are her MUM and DAD.  They don't see her straight away. Dad is putting on his tie, Mum is holding up two cereal boxes. Their speech is kinda stilted.

DAD

I'm wearing a tie. Because a piece of cloth around my neck shows I really mean business.


MUM

I'm trying to decide between these two cereals based on the nutritional information printed on the boxes.



DAD

I sure hope they stop the boats today.  There's nothing worse than an unstopped boat.


MUM

Me too. I feel safer knowing that foreign people won't be interfering with the working families of this country.  I think this morning, I'll choose the cereal that contains raisins.



They finally notice Sarah.

MUM AND DAD
Good morning pumpkin! Did you sleep well?


Sarah looks at them a little askance/askew.


SARAH

...yeah, sure, I slept fine.  You guys okay?


MUM

I'm very well thank you.  I decided to have raisins in my cereal this morning, based on the nutritional information printed on these boxes.


DAD

I'm also very well thank you.  I'm wearing this tie, because it shows that I really mean business.


SARAH

...Uh, okay. 


NARRATOR

Although Sarah said the word "okay", she wasn't entirely convinced that everything was really "okay".  Her parents had always been strange, but this strange?


MUM

What would you like for breakfast, Sarah? You can decide for yourself, based on the nutritional information printed on these cereal boxes.


Sarah points at one, and Mum pours it into a bowl.


DAD

Well, I'd better be off for work.  I work five out of every seven days, because that's the expected number of days.  I call it "full time work".


He kisses Mum on the cheek, waves robotically to Sarah, and leaves.


SARAH

Is dad all right? Did he seem like he was acting weird to you?


MUM

Not at all.  He seemed statistically average in every way.  He's a normal person, that's for sure.


Sarah frowns. Mum stares at her strangely.  Then smiles cheerily.


MUM

Now.  Would you like the breast-milk of a cow on your cereal?  It's meant for cow babies to drink, but we don't let them - we take it for ourselves to drink instead! Don't worry, it's perfectly normal to do that.  Perfectly normal, that's for sure.


Sarah's mum is creeping her out. Sarah quickly looks at her phone, and grabs an apple from the fruit bowl.


SARAH

Um, nah, I think I'm going to be late. I might just grab an apple and go.


MUM

Don't want to be late for school! You go to school for five out of every seven days, because that's the expected number of days.


SARAH

Okay mum, ah, seeya later!


MUM

Good-bye pumpkin! I really hope they stop the boats today.


SCENE 2: ON THE WAY TO SCHOOL


Sarah rides her bike to school. She rides past the CHORUS, who move robotically as they deliver their words in unison.


CHORUS

Did you see the football on the weekend?
Yes, I saw the football on the weekend.It was great weather for washing the car.Yes, the weather was perfect for washing the car.
Perfect car-washing weather.


NARRATOR

As Sarah rode her bike to school, she began to sense a certain... somethingness about the people around her.  A certain somethingness that made her feel... somethingy.


CHORUS

Did you listen to that famous singer's new album? Yes, I love that famous singer, and that new album of hers is just the best. She's very famous for singing.But her new album is the best one of all.


Sarah crunches down on her apple as she rides.


CHORUS

I sure hope they stop the boats today.


SCENE 3: SCHOOL


The TEACHER stands at the front of the classroom. The students (Sarah and Chorus) sit at the other end, facing the teacher.


NARRATOR

Sarah had assumed that things would get better once she was at school. But things didn't get much better once she was at school. If anything, things actually got considerably worse.


TEACHER

I'm at the front of the class, because I'm the teacher.  You refer to me by my surname because it shows that, when it comes to teaching, I really mean business. Now, today, we're learning about how Captain Cook discovered Australia.


Sarah puts her hand up.


TEACHER

You put your hand up to indicate that we're not having a normal conversation between two equals. Yes, Sarah?  Note that I do not refer to you by your last name.


SARAH

I read something about how, because the place was actually totally chock-full of aboriginal people when Captain Cook got here, that it's kinda not really accurate to say he "discovered" Australia. I mean, it was already discovered, wasn't it.


TEACHER

I am the teacher, Sarah.  Are you at the front of the class, Sarah? Are you referred to by your surname? 


SARAH

...no.


TEACHER

When it comes to teaching, I really mean business. So I'm going to send you to the principal's office, as a sign of my power and thus our inequality.


SARAH

What?  For asking a question?


TEACHER

Yes.  You do not learn anything by asking too many questions. Do you, class?


CHORUS

No, we do not learn anything by asking too many questions.


TEACHER

Now, go.


SARAH

But-


TEACHER AND CHORUS

Go!

SCENE 4: PRINCIPAL'S OFFICE


The Principal is sitting at a desk.


NARRATOR
Sarah's somethinginess did not dissipate once she got to the Principal's Office.  If anything, it just got more somethingy.

PRINCIPAL
Now, Sarah, you've been sent here because you're creating a fuss in the classroom, is that right?

SARAH
I didn't create a fuss.  I just asked a question-

PRINCIPAL
Learning is not about asking questions, Sarah.  Learning is about remembering answers.

SARAH
I'm not sure that's true-

PRINCIPAL
See?  You're "not sure".  When you're a big grownup like me, you will be sure.  I learned all the right answers, and look at me now! I'm the principal!  Look, it says so on the door of my office.

SARAH
All I said was-

PRINCIPAL
Now, because of your interruptions and negative attitude, I've had to call your parents.  And they're definitely not robots, so you should be perfectly safe with them.

NARRATOR
Sometimes when you hear a certain phrase, it can have exactly the opposite effect to what the speaker is intending.  When Sarah heard the phrase "they're definitely not robots, so you should be perfectly safe", a shiver ran up and down Sarah's spine, and she felt the very opposite of safe. She thought back to her parents' strange behaviour this morning, and began to wonder if maybe that was what had been so terrifyingly somethingy about them: were they actually robots?

PRINCIPAL
And just so you're aware, I'm definitely not a robot either.  And neither is your teacher. We're all perfectly normal people.  Perfectly normal, that's for sure.

SARAH
Of course you are.  Perfectly normal.  Um... before my perfectly normal non-robotic parents arrive, can I just quickly go to the toilet?

PRINCIPAL
We have our toilets divided by gender, because dividing things by gender is very very important. You will be using the girl's toilet, because you are a girl.  But be quick - your parents will be here any minute now.

SARAH
Thanks! I'll be back in a second.

Sarah gets up and leaves.

SCENE 5: ON THE RUN

Sarah rides her bike the other way, the opposite direction she rode to get to school. She rides past the Chorus, who again all move like synchronised robots.

NARRATOR
But Sarah had no intention on either going to the toilet, or being back in a second.  Sarah was scared.  Sarah was now relatively convinced that her teachers and her parents were actually robots.  She had no absolute proof of this, of course, but it can sometimes be hard to collect absolute proof in the time allotted, and in Sarah's case, the time allotted was any minute now.  But where does a child go when she suspects she is being manipulated by robots? In this case, she went straight to her grandma's house.


SCENE 6: GRANDMA'S HOUSE

Grandma opens the door. Sarah rushes inside.


GRANDMA

Sarah! What's the matter?  Shouldn't you be at school?Sarah hugs her grandma tight, then pulls away.


SARAH

Oh grandma, things have gotten really really weird today. I think... I think...


GRANDMA

What is it?


SARAH

I think everyone's turned into robots.


Grandma looks surprised, confused, and concerned all at once.


GRANDMA

...robots?


SARAH

I know, I know, it doesn't make any sense.  First mum and dad were acting really weird, and then my teacher was acting really weird, and then the principal was acting really weird and... I don't know, and I don't have absolute proof, but I think everyone's turned into robots.


GRANDMA

Oh dear.


SARAH

You... you believe me?


GRANDMA

Oh yes.  I know you'd never lie to me, Sarah.  You're a good, honest girl, and if there's one thing I always say, it's trust people who are both good and honest.


SARAH

Oh Grandma!  What am I going to do?


GRANDMA

First of all - did any of the robots follow you here?


SARAH

I don't know.  I don't think so-


BANG BANG BANG on the front door.


MUM (O.S.)

Hello?  Grandma, is Sarah in there? I brought her some cereal covered in cow-milk to help her calm down.


SARAH

Oh no, it's robot mum!


GRANDMA

Don't worry, we'll just pretend we're not home.


BANG BANG BANG on the front door.


DAD (O.S.)

Hello?  I know you're home, it's no good pretending. Open the door, I need to talk to Sarah.  I really mean business.


SARAH

It's robot dad!  What should we do?


GRANDMA

Don't worry, they'll just go away if we're very very quiet.


BANG BANG BANG on the front door.


PRINCIPAL (O.S.)

I'm the principal, it says so on my office door.  We're not going away, you know, not even if you're very very quiet.  We want Sarah.  We're definitely not robots.


SARAH

Grandma!


BANG BANG BANG on the front door.


TEACHER (O.S.)

I'm the teacher, so what I say goes. Give us Sarah, and you won't get detention.


MUM AND DAD (O.S.)

We want Sarah.


CHORUS (O.S.)

We want Sarah!


The banging continues, making a steady relentless pounding rhythm. Grandma looks worried.  She beckons for Sarah to move away from the door.  Sarah runs over to Grandma and lurks in her embrace. Grandma wraps her arms around her protectively.


PRINCIPAL AND TEACHER (O.S.)

We want Sarah!


MUM AND DAD (O.S.)

We want Sarah!


CHORUS (O.S.)

We want Sarah!


The door bursts in, and in rushes Principal, Teacher, Mum, Dad, and the Chorus.  But Grandma holds up a hand, and they come no closer.


GRANDMA

Stop!  All of you!  There's no need for any of this!  Because, look!


She reaches her hand around to the back of Sarah's neck, and makes a "clicking a switch" motion.  Suddenly Sarah stops cowering and stands up straight and calm.


GRANDMA

She was on the wrong setting!


Everyone looks relieved, in a suitably robotic fashion.


MUM

She must've had her switch flicked by accident during the night!


DAD

Oh dear.  The wrong setting! Well, I'm glad that's sorted, I really have to get back to work.


SARAH

I'm sorry for all the fuss.


GRANDMA

Do you feel better now, dear?


SARAH

I do.  I feel perfectly normal.


EVERYONE ELSE

Perfectly normal.


NARRATOR

Perfectly normal.


MUM

I'll drive you back to school, pumpkin.


SCENE 7: ON THE WAY TO SCHOOL AGAIN

Sarah and Mum drive to school.  They drive past the CHORUS, who move robotically as they deliver their words in unison.


CHORUS AND MUM
Did you see the football on the weekend?


CHORUS AND SARAH
Yes, I saw the football on the weekend.


CHORUS AND MUM
It was great weather for washing the car.


CHORUS AND SARAH
Yes, the weather was perfect for washing the car.
Perfect car-washing weather.


CHORUS AND MUM
Did you listen to that famous singer's new album?


CHORUS AND SARAH
Yes, I love that famous singer, and that new album of hers is just the best.


CHORUS AND MUM
She's very famous for singing.


CHORUS AND SARAH
But her new album is the best one of all.


Sarah looks at her mum and smiles.


SARAH

I sure hope they stop the boats today.


MUM

Me too, Sarah.  Me too.


NARRATOR

And they all lived happily ever after.


THE END


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

FAQ: How Long Are You Supposed To Wait?



These questions are about the short story “How Long Are You Supposed To Wait?”, and definitely contains spoilers which, once seen, cannot be unseen.  For the actual short story itself, please go here.


*CONTAINS SPOILERS!*
 

This one was another one of those ten stories you wrote in ten days for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge in 2017, right?
Yeah.  Although if I’m perfectly honest, I already had the idea for this story before I ever entered the challenge.  I make notes on my phone whenever I have an idea for a story, and this one said something like “person trapped under boulder, has to saw off own leg with pocket-knife to escape, moments before person gets rescued by large group of fit and friendly backpackers who could easily have just moved the boulder”.  It was just a twist on that “person has to saw off limb to escape” trope, something that I thought was simultaneously hilarious and brutally horrible.

What was the prompt-word?
“Lost”.  It reminded me of that idea, and so I went for it.

So what’s the appeal of making someone do something horrible for, in hindsight, no good reason?
I think it’s rooted in my own inability to ever make a proper decision.  I think, if I was in that situation, I’d always be thinking “hang on, don’t be too hasty, there might be another way out of this”, and then just end up dying of hunger and thirst or whatever.  I don’t think I’d ever be certain enough that sawing off my own leg with a pocket knife would be the right course of action.  I find it hard enough to choose something off a dinner menu.

Is this symptomatic of a bigger issue, Mr Blackwell?
I really don’t know.  It might be.  I mean, when my delightful life-partner asks me something like “would you like a cup of tea” out of the blue, I’m thrown into paroxysms of indecision.  I’m like, do I want a cup of tea?  How much desire is want?  I was fine without tea moments before, so clearly I didn’t want a cup of tea seconds ago, did things really change so drastically in the last few seconds that now I do?  I mean, a cup of tea might be nice, but do I want one?  How do I tell?  Is it based on thirst levels, or pure flavour, or just the warmth of the cup in my hands?  If she hadn’t’ve asked, I wouldn’t’ve got up and made one myself just then, so does that mean I don’t actually want a cup of tea?  Or that I do want one now?  How did things change so fast from not wanting to wanting, just based entirely on someone else making a cup of tea for themselves?  Am I really that much of a herd animal that I need to have whatever someone else is drinking?  Is that a healthy way to be?  What if she’d asked me if I want a cup of something else?  Do I really crave beverages at all, or am I just craving inclusion in a social act?  Is it about the tea, or the experience of sharing an activity?  Would any activity do?  And how much-

Does she ask you very often?
No, not any more.

I’m not surprised.
Sometimes when she asks now I just pick a random answer. “Yes, absolutely”, I’ll say, without even considering whether I actually do or don’t, avoiding the traumatic whirlpool of decision altogether.  Because, in the end, it’s just a cup of tea.  It’s not really worth all that stress of actual desire-interrogation and multi-level cravings-analysis.  The decision-making maelstrom is so much more bewildering and takes so much more energy than it does to just say a quick yes or no, and then deal with the consequences.  So I tend to do that nowadays.  Um.

So -
“Black with one sugar thanks.”  See, easy, done.  Boom!

So, the title of the story, “How Long Are You Supposed To Wait”, is really just you asking this question of yourself, isn’t it.
Yes.  Trying to get some handle on exactly what an appropriate time is.  Because if the character had just waited a few more minutes, she’d be out and safe and with the perfect quota of legs.   When are we being hasty?  When is it time to panic?  How do you panic properly?  I’ve never quite been able to get my head around this stuff.

I’m guessing you enjoyed the ending of that Steven King movie, ‘The Mist’?
Fucking best ending ever.