Decode: Employ Ashamed is a monologue, originally entitled I Had One of Those!, written for a theatre evening, Scene at the Museum, organised by WriteOn, a Cambridge-based theatre writers’ group, and hosted by the Museum of Cambridge.
Decode: Employ Ashamed takes place in the museum’s playroom, where a number of toys from the past are on display; it was inspired by one of the exhibits – a child’s printing outfit. The monologue is a meditation on childhood and memory.
This is the full script.
COLIN A middle-aged man (40s or 50s)
Scene: A toy museum: a room set out as a playroom, with Victorian dolls and toys, including a puppet theatre, as well as later toys and games all in glass display cases. There is a ‘storytelling chair’ and a child’s two-sided blackboard on an easel.
Enter COLIN. He is visiting the museum and he looks round the room with interest.
COLIN: Ah, I see what they’ve done here. They’ve made a playroom. Very clever. A puppet theatre – yes, I remember those. We had one at school – a bit larger, I think – though, I don’t know: when you’re small, everything seems huge. And this is the Storytelling Chair, is it? (He sits in it) Very comfy. Just right. Would you like a story? I’ll see what I can do. What have they got up here? (Gets up and looks round) All these toys. Well, I say toys – they’re not toys any more, are they? A toy is something you play with. You can’t play with these. They’re exhibits now. But they were toys once. With children who loved them and played with them and gave them names.
(He looks at the Victorian dolls and toys)
Actually, even when I was young I only ever saw toys like these in museums. My father took me once, in London. Was it him? Or was it Aunt Rose? I can’t remember. It may have been my father. He did take me to places sometimes. Pollock’s Toy Museum, it must have been. It had all those lovely toy theatres. Beautiful colourful things, with scenery and characters and playscripts you could act out. You could buy your own one in the museum shop. How I longed to have one. Ah, well.
(He goes over to a display case and looks at the toys in it.)
Ah, now, these were more of my father’s time. I recognise the style. He didn’t have a train as splendid as that one, mind. But he had toy cannons just like those. And dominoes of course. We used to play dominoes sometimes, the two of us. When he was home. (He spots something in the case) Oh. Oh, now I had one of those. I definitely had one of those. A ‘John Bull’ printing outfit. Good Lord. It was just like that. Exactly like that. (He reads the card in the display case.) Dates from the nineteen-thirties? That would be right. It was my father’s originally – he passed it to me. Good heavens. The ‘John Bull’ Printing Outfit. Well, well. That brings back memories.
It was the days before computers – yes, there were days before computers – and you could print things with one of these. It worked just like a rubber stamp – well, it was a set of rubber stamps, now I come to think of it. They had slots where you could fit the letters in to make sentences. You had all these little letters made of rubber – yes, and there were tweezers, weren’t there? That’s right. To help you put them in, or pick them up – I was always dropping them. And the letters were all back to front and you had to remember to put them all in back to front as well, so that when you pressed the holder onto the ink pad and then onto your paper it would all come out the right way round. I didn’t realise that at first – I couldn’t work out what on earth had happened. And then Aunt Rose explained. Dear Aunt Rose.
I used to spend hours with it. I’d make up stories for all my toys – I had animals from when I was little, a lion and two teddies, and I had an Action Man and hundreds of soldiers. I used to make up adventures for them and write them out, and then I’d print them. Only it took too long to print the whole story, so I’d do a short version. That’s right – and I put them all in the newspaper. I made a whole newspaper – yes, I really did. Aunt Rose helped me with the title page – oh, what was it called? The Herald? The Trumpet? The Clarion – that was it. The Clarion. And we did potato prints, didn’t we? For the headlines. That’s right. We worked out the headlines and Aunt Rose helped me get them down to only a few words and then we’d print them. And I had a name. A by-line. Not Colin Farmer – it didn’t sound exciting enough. Oh, what was it? It had initials – I remember that. R.K. R.K. Steady. That was it. R.K. Steady. Rock Steady. Good Lord. The Clarion. Special Edition. By R.K. Steady.
(He sits in the Story Chair)
I wrote lots of battle reports, of course, from battles with my soldiers. British versus Germans. The British officer was Colonel Canning, I remember – because there was shop I used to go to called Canning’s. And the German General was called Schultz. I think it was the only German name I knew. They had battles everywhere – in the countryside, in the woods, at sea once – that must have been in the bath with my toy dolphin acting as a U boat. And I wrote them all up and printed them out. I found some backing paper from the wallpapering when my father decorated the house and used a big sheet of that. And I included some of the real news stories from Aunt Rose’s newspapers. That must have been where I first read about the Russian spy scandal. I remember I wanted to include it in my newspaper, but Aunt Rose said better not.
That was when my father went away. A few days after the Russian scandal. Well, you don’t want to know about that.
(He gets up and goes back to the case.)
Dinky toys. These are old: my ones were much more up to date. Oh, and Junior Scrabble. I definitely had one of those. I used to love it. I’d play against myself – my father wasn’t often there and Aunt Rose wasn’t fond of word games. And Raymond couldn’t play, of course. He was my cousin. Aunt Rose’s son. He was about my age but he – well, in those days we called people like Raymond Mongols. It wasn’t meant unkindly. It just meant their eyes made them look – Asiatic. Which they did: really. No-one talked about Down’s Syndrome in those days. I don’t think we’d have known what you meant. I used to like playing with Raymond – he was very affectionate: he was always hugging me. And he liked ball games and running. But he couldn’t cope with Scrabble. So, I used to play on my own, playing against myself. And when I got tired of that, I used to lay all the letters out and try to make as many words as I could: the idea was to have no letters left over. I got quite good.
And one day I was laying them all out on the floor and I looked round and I smelt my father’s pipe and I looked round and there he was, watching me. I loved the smell of his pipe – it meant he was home. And he knelt down next to me and looked at the letters. He didn’t say a word. He just looked over the letters and then he turned and looked at me and – it was the first time I’d ever seen him do this – he gave me a wink. And he took one of the words I had made and he shuffled the letters around, just as if they were cards, and then he laid them out – the same letters – so they made a different word. Then – still not saying a word – he looked at another of my words and he did the same thing. And then another. He must have done it four or five times. And then he just got up and walked out of the room. I wanted him to say something, or at least turn round, but he didn’t. He didn’t need to.
He had been teaching me – showing me the mystery of the anagram. So, I jumbled all the letters up and started making anagrams. Sometimes I’d make a whole word – PEAR became REAP, SPACE became CAPES, that sort of thing. In time I tried longer words – FORENSIC became CONIFERS and ORCHESTRA became CARTHORSE: I loved that one. Then I started playing games with words I saw around me, in newspapers, on posters, even on the television. I got a sort of sixth sense for words with anagram potential. It didn’t have to make a single word – I was just as pleased when I found a sentence or a phrase. PICTURESQUE became EPIC RU QUEST, I remember – I looked up RU and found it stood for Rugby Union, which sort of made sense. It wasn’t long before I discovered crosswords. Proper cryptic ones.
Which turned out to be very handy, because they’re a good way to pass the time if you don’t have many friends at school. I wasn’t bullied – nothing like that. I just preferred my own company and people left me alone. Well, I was used to that at home.
I never did know exactly what my father did. I knew he worked for the government, but that was all. I know now he was a cryptographer, but I didn’t know then. I just knew he enjoyed word games. Number games too, though I never took to those. I often wonder if he was lonely. It must be a solitary life, cryptography. Maybe he craved adventure. Who can blame him?
It was the early sixties. The Berlin Wall, the Cuban crisis – they must have been busy times. I only saw him at weekends, and not always then. So, I often stayed at Aunt Rose’s. She was his sister: her husband had died so she only had Raymond. And me. She was very kind – I remember she was the first person to serve me alphabet spaghetti, which I thought was wonderful – well, I would – but Raymond took up a lot of her time, of course. Poor Raymond. I was really very fond of him; everyone was. Poor, poor Raymond.
Mind you, you had to keep an eye on him. We went on a trip to the woods once. My father took us – and that was rare – Aunt Rose, Raymond and me, in his Bentley. A big family treat. We sat down and had a picnic: that was when he took the Mars bar and cut it in four for all of us – that’s how big a Mars bar was in those days. And Raymond wandered off and we all had to split up to find him. My father found him. Aunt Rose gave him a good telling-off. But she wasn’t cross really, just relieved. At least, that’s what she said, but actually I think she was cross. He’d let her down, you see.
That must have been the weekend before the Spy Scandal. Yes, I think it was. We went to the woods on the Saturday and then on the Sunday my father took me to Greenwich and we stood on the meridian. And we had tea and we had fondant fancies, which was a great treat, and he told me about other puzzles you could do with letters – hidden words and acrostics and double meanings – all the tricks of the crossword-setter. Or a cryptologist, of course. He taught me what to look for in the clues – “Remember, Colin”, he said, “the answer is in the clue: nowhere else”. And he taught me to check the answers if I got stuck – “It’s not cheating”, he said; “it’s learning”. I felt so proud. And so happy. That was when he gave me his printing outfit – just like the one in that case. And I knew it was a special gift, because it had given him so much joy when he was little. And now he had given it to me. And on the Monday morning I got up, had breakfast, waved him goodbye and walked to school – and I never saw him again.
Aunt Rose met me at the school gate – that was unusual. And she drove me home – to her home, not mine. She gave me tea with Raymond – egg and chips, my favourite – and she said I would be staying with her for a few weeks. I didn’t mind – it was a bit of an adventure, really. But it wasn’t for a few weeks. It was a few months. And then it was a lot of months. And then it was a year. I thought he’d write, but Aunt Rose said he couldn’t. And I couldn’t write to him – no-one knew where to send it. Which seemed strange. I just had to wait.
But I wrote even so. I wrote letter after letter, telling him what I’d been doing at school, and about how I won the spelling contest and came second in the chess championship. I put each one in an envelope and I wrote the date on, so he could open them in the right order when he came home.
One day, I heard Aunt Rose crying in the kitchen.
That was when I decided not to write any more letters. I’d send him a message instead. A secret message that only he and I would understand. I’d use a code – an anagram. So, I got my Scrabble set and I tipped all the letters out and I spread them around a bit until I knew what I wanted to say. Then I spelled it out and put all the other letters back. And then I jumbled up the letters – I wanted as many anagrams as I could find. It wasn’t easy. I’d spot a couple of words and make those and then see if I could get something with the ones that were left. I had to cheat a bit. But I got my messages. And then I got my printing set, my John Bull Printing Outfit, that had been his and he had given to me. And I printed my messages on little slips of paper.
I still have them. I keep them in my wallet.
(He takes out some small slips of paper from his wallet and reads the messages on them.)
COMPOSED MEDLEY AHEAD – that seemed a good one to start with.
AH! MAYPOLES DECODED ME! I suppose that “ah” was a bit of a cheat, but I didn’t mind.
MODELED SHEEPDO ACADEMY – I think that one was a bit of fun. It made me giggle – “sheepdo” was meant to be poo. And I checked in the dictionary and discovered you can spell “modeled” with one “l”.
I liked all of them, but in the end I decided to use this one: DECODE: EMPLOY ASHAMED
(He writes this message on the side of the blackboard facing the audience. He then writes a message on the other side of the blackboard, but does not turn the blackboard round.)
I wondered about making that EMPLOY A SHAM ED – you know, “ed” as in “editor” – but I decided not to. I printed it out a few times and put all the slips in envelopes but I still had to get them to him. I didn’t have an address, so I addressed them to ‘Henry Farmer, Esquire, OHMS’ – because OHMS was what was written on all the letters he got from the Inland Revenue and I knew it meant they came from the government. And I sent one to the Houses of Parliament, London, and one to the Prime Minister and one to the Queen. I didn’t hear anything back – well, I didn’t write my address on them – but somehow I thought I would hear something.
It was Raymond who told me. We were playing chase in the garden one day and Raymond said Aunt Rose was sad because my dad was dead. I knew Raymond wouldn’t lie. Not like the adults.
Aunt Rose said it was a road accident. He’d been knocked down by a truck in Prague. Later I gathered that it was true – he had been. It may even have been an accident, I suppose. I never did know the whole story. As far as I understand, there was an almighty hoo-hah after the Russian Spy Scandal and they needed people to go into the field, and my father volunteered. As I say, I think maybe he always wanted some adventure in his life. Ah, well.
So, there was no point in sending any more messages. I gathered up all the ones I’d printed and, in November, on Guy Fawkes night, I through them all on the bonfire. I was going to throw my printing outfit too, but Aunt Rose wouldn’t let me. She said it would be a waste. So I kept it. But I never played with it again. It stopped being a toy: it became an exhibit.
Well, have you worked out the message? The real message behind the anagram? You can work it out at home if you like. Or you can check the answer. Remember: it’s not cheating: it’s learning.
(He makes to go, but then relents and goes back to the blackboard and turns it round, so the audience can see the message on the back. It reads: PLEASE DADDY, COME HOME. Then he exits.)
Andrew Bailey as Colin in I Had One of Those!, Museum of Cambridge, November 2018