Familiar Haunts

a one act play by Peter Taylor

From Presences: Seven Dramatic Pieces (c) 1973 (courtesy of Taylor estate)

cover of Presences Seven Dramatic Pieces by Peter Taylor

Meg, a woman of thirty-five, wears an elegant, floor-length negligee.  She stands before a monumental pink marble mantelpiece which has carved nude figures on either side of the relatively small fireplace opening as well as on either side of the expanse of mirror in the overmantel.  Between two enormour brass andirons is a tiny glow of flames.  On one side of the fireplace opening is an embossed, brass-plated woodbox.  On the other side is an elaborate brass fire set — shovel, poker, tongs, etcetera, all highly polished.  The resto of the room, except for the chair in which Meg’s brother Nicky is seated, is furnished more like a lady’s boudoir than the proportions of the room indicate.  There is no bed, but among other tables and chairs there is perhaps a chaise and a small writing desk and a fragile chair or two.

Nicky, tow three years younger than Meg and still very youthful looking, wears a topcoat and is holding his hat in his lap.  He is sitting very erect in a straight, high-backed armchair — a reproduction of Stuart oak.  The chair is placed against the wall beside a large entrance, closed off by double doors.

NICKY

I used always to be known hearabouts as my father’s son.  Now I’m known as the brother of the rich Mrs. Bitch.

MEG
(sharply)

I may not be as rich a bitch as you think I am.

NICKY
(placating)

Why, you’re not a bitch at all, Meg.  That’s only an expression.  But they do say you’re right rich.  At the moment they say you’re the richest single woman in St. Louis.

MEG
(pleased)

They say.

NICKY

 You are single at the moment, aren’t you?

MEG

Now and forevermore.  I have gone into retirement.

NICKY

But a woman doesn’t marry and divorce four times in a dozen years without clearing something.  Every time I come home either you’ve got a new hubby or you’ve just shed one.  I find myself always introduced as the brother-in-law of a different tycoon.

MEG

You ought to come home more often.

NICKY

Dearest Meg, you have never said that before.

MEG

I don’t know of course how often you come.  You don’t usually honor me with a call.  To what do I owe —

NICKY

One time you will be Mrs. Harris, and the next Mrs. Amesbury, and the next Mrs. So-and-so.  What is you name now, Meg?

MEG laughs

NICKY

And each hubby richer than the one before, they say.

MEG

They say. (her tone hardening)

NICKY

I have to believe them.  I see how you live.  You keep the old homeplace up wonderfully.  And, dearest Meg, you would not have been allowed to marry that pigeon-toed little brewer the first time if Father had not known his worth.  But Father saw your talent.  Father set you on the right path.

MEG

How dare you! How dare you say such a thing!  You — you spineless ne’er-do-well.

NICKY

Lord, what have I said now?

MEG

How dare you speak that way of Father!

NICKY

Oh.  Oh, of Father.

MEG

He would die a thousand deaths to hear you.  You and I were everything to him.  And whatever he did for me, he left you every cent he had.  Remember that.

NICKY

And now it’s all gone.

MEG

Can that be true?  In less than ten years you’ve run through it all?

NICKY

It’s gone, at any rate.

MEG

Oh, Nicky, how could you? … But, anyway, you mustn’t sit there like a beggar, hat in hand.  Come closer to the fire.  We’ll have a drink.

NICKY

But I am a beggar!  I need —

MEG

Nicky!  I won’t have you asking me for money.  I will entertain you.  You may even come here and live in the house again if you like.  We can be children together again.  But I won’t give you money.

NICKY

Why not, Meg?  What’s so important about money?

MEG
(laughing)

Ah, Nicky, Nicky.  The same old Nicky.  I will never give you money.  No woman should ever give money to a man — not even to her brother.  It has to work the other way round.  Don’t you remember that Father would always try to keep me from giving you money even when you were a boy.  Father used to say that I spoiled you when you were growing up worse than Mother had done when you were a little thing.  In most respects I suppose I did.  If Mother had lived, she couldn’t have had more concern for your welfare than I did.  And Father gave his life to the two of us.  He was an attractive, vital man, but because of us he never thought of marrying again.

NICKY

No, Meg, not of marrying.  But marriage isn’t of course the only solution to such a man’s needs.  He took the other solution, my solution.

MEG
(quite angry)

Now, I won’t have you talking that way in this house!  Not sitting there in Father’s favorite chair.

NICKY
(rising)

Then I’d better go.  But I have to say it was he who suggested I see you tonight.

MEG
(staring at him in silence for a moment, then:)

I don’t believe you have any intention of going until you’ve got the money you came for.  (He smiles and sits down again.) And though I love you dearly, Nicky I have no intention of giving you the money.  (She offers him the highball she has been mixing for him, but he holds up his hand and shakes his head, refusing it.  She shrugs and sips her own drink.

NICKY

I came tonight because Father suggested I come.  Father says —

MEG
(pointedly ignoring his last speech)

Father used to say that if one understood the correct female role and the correct male role in our corner of the world, then one hardly needed to understand anything else.

NICKY

You and Father talked openly about sex!  With me he never acknowledged such a thing existed — not during his lifetime.

MEG
(stomping her foot)

Nicky, stop it!

NICKY

Father never spoke directly to me about anything but work.  It was always work in mind for me, not sex.  When he was alive, I mean.  It’s a different matter now, of course.

Silence

MEG

Nicky, it was your own good that Father always had in mind for you.  I consider it very unmanly of you to be so critical of him when he is not here to defend himself.

NICKY

Ha!

MEG

I also consider that you’re being unfair to me, to come begging money from me.  And making all those innuendoes about Father!  I don’t know what half your remarks have meant.  I don’t want to know.  But I know you, Nicky.  You could be up to anything, anything.  You’re not going to frighten me, though, with your insinuations.  Let me tell you this, if Father didn’t speak directly about many things, he did speak directly to me about you.  Oh, we had it out many a time about you and your unwillingness to work and about your expensive tastes.

NICKY

As for all that, he spoke directly enough with me about it.  But he doesn’t get away with such talk any more.

MEG

Nicky, that is absolutely enough.  You are not going to scare me with those little parentheses of yours.  When I was a girl, I really thought sometimes you were going mad.  But I used to call your hand on such games even then.  So don’t try to pull any tricks out of that old bag.

NICKY

I was never more sane in my life than now.

MEG
(moving further away from him)

And you were never more unfair to me.  There is something I have never told you before, Nicky.  It was I who persuaded Father to leave you the entire estate, except for the house.  “Nicky has expensive tastes,” I said, “and as for me, I can look after myself.”  We talked about it many times, Father and I.  It was very hard to make him understand.  He said I was spoiling you.  He said, “Meg, you’re worse than any mother would be.”  Why, he and I used to sit right here before the fire and talk about such matters, hour after hour.  Even then, Nicky, I felt as though you were my own child and I was setting matters right between you and your father.  I would be monogramming a shirt for him or knitting a sweater.  Oh, Nicky, how he loved to have everything he wore especially made for him and when I was working on something for him he would say what a good wife I would make somebody.  “That,” I would say, “is why I don’t need money of my own.  All I want is the house, Father,” I would say, “because whatever or whoever my husband may be, I intend to spend the rest of my life right here where we have been so happy together.

NICKY has come up behind the couch where she is now sitting

NICKY

It was always clear to me you didn’t want his money.  You would not have it!  But why?  Why, Meg?  It was tainted money for you, somehow.

MEG

That’s not true!  It’s not true!  How can you be such an ingrate! (rising from couch)

NICKY

But it is true.  It was tainted for you but not for me.  That’s how you thought of it.  I was not too good to receive it.  And you knew I would “run through it.”  You wanted me to run through it, Meg.  What was wrong with his money?  Was it ill gotten?  Was there something low and crooked about the way Father made his pile?

She slaps him.

MEG

You common, ungrateful brat!  Get out of this house!  There is nothing you will not accuse your own father of!

NICKY

But he doesn’t care, Meg.  He doesn’t care what I accuse him of, Meg.  And he doesn’t know why you wouldn’t have his money, Meg.  I have asked him … just last night.

She slaps him again.

MEG

I will not listen to such rot.  I will not listen to such nonsense … about … the dead.

NICKY

He told me to come here to see you.  He wants to know why you did not want his money.  It disturbs him.  It disturbs his peace.

MEG

I tell you not to talk that kind of rot to me.  Either you are hoping to make me think you are mad or you hope to drive me mad.  But I warn you, Nicky —

NICKY

He thinks maybe you suspect himof having accepted money from his lady-friends.

Silence.

MEG

He never had any lady-friends.  Not after he was married to mother.  Not after Mother died.  His interest was all in … in us, in his family.

NICKY
(laughing)

Oh, Meg.

MEG

Don’t “oh Meg” me.  Get out of my house.  Go on, get out, I tell you.

NICKY
(fearless)

He had as many lady-friends when we were growing up as I’ve had lady-friends in my lifetime, as you’ve had husbands in ten years.  And why shouldn’t he?  It was all after Mother died, of course.

MEG goes and rests her arm on the mantel shelf, putting her forehead on her arm, and looks desolately into the fire.

NICKY

There was Mrs. Susie Morris, the rich and voluptuous widow of old Judge Joe Morris.  Father used to go to see her just after noon on Sunday.

MEG

You’re lying, Nicky.  Father played golf on Sunday afternoons.

NICKY

I would sometimes be in the vacant lot next to Billy Fletcher’s house.  There would be a whole gang of us, playing baseball or touch, and it never occurred to him that I was among those boys and watching him come and go.  He would arrive after Mrs. Morris’ servants left at noon and he would stay for three or four hours.  He would always arrive on foot; he must have parked the car several blocks away.  And although other people would sometimes come calling on those Sunday afternoons, Mrs. Morris and Father would never answer the door.

MEG

Your disordered mind!  Your perverse nature! You evil, evil creature!

NICKY

There were others, too, Meg.  You know there were others.  You could name them as well as I.  You have just never been willing to name  them to yourself.  Everybody in town knew about him and that “notorious old libertine” Mrs. Templeton. (laughing)  They took trips together all over the country.  While you and I were away at school, he and Mrs. T. were off to Florida and California — even Honolulu.  I know people who saw them there … His lady-friends were all rich women.  He was right clever about it.  They didn’t need his money, and they were so well fixed here in St. Louis they could behave pretty much as they pleased. (MEG goes and sits down on the couch.)  Oh, don’t tell me Meg, you never had any thoughts about Mrs. Linda Perkins, and Mrs. Rousse, and Mrs Battenberg.

MEG

He used to be put with them at dinner parties, that’s all.

NICKY

Why, you know more about life out here in St. Louis than that, Meg.  How can you pretend to such innocence.  You, the much married Mrs. Whatchamaycallher.  Just remember how most of those old lady-friends of his ended their days — hopeless alcoholics or married to some horse trainer or even to her chauffeur in one case, or jumping out a window or taking too many sleeping pills.  I’m not exaggerating.  And I’m not blaming him for how they ended.  I’m only pointing out the kind of company he kept.

MEG

I don’t believe a word you’re saying.  I don’t believe you believe it, either.  But I see now what it is you’re saying to me.  Those women you describe — you see me, Nicky, as one of their sort.  In your eyes I’m of that contemptible lot, another rich Mrs. Bitch.  Well, let me give you some small insight into what it is like to live as I have done.  I have never once been in love.  I have yearned for love.  I have dreamed of it.  But that is all.  Yet I have found the men I married interesting men.  Even “the pigeon-toed little brewer” interested me.  They were not idiots — any of them.  Maybe their money interested me first of all, but in each instance I sincerely believed I would come to love the man I was marrying.  I was sure I would; and then month after month went by, and it was the same story.  It wasn’t in me.  I was lacking the ability to love them.

NICKY

And don’t you really know why you haven’t the ability to love them?  Don’t you really know who is responsible for that?

MEG
(despondent)

You go back to him, you blame him for everything.  Yet when he was alive he dedicated his life to us.

NICKY
(angry)

Why couldn’t you ever see him as he is?  A greater hypocrite never lived than our father.  All those years when he was having one fine affair after another — in those very years — he was declining to acknowledge the existence of sex so far as I, his son, was concerned; and later on when he was still in hot pursuit of every woman within his reach, he was advising me, with the straightest face, to “beware of womanknd,” not to “involve myself,” that “a young man should go to his marriage bed pure as any virgin.”  When I had finished college he used to say I wouldn’t work, but when I was in my teens he wouldn’t allow me to take a little job after school — he said I should study or get “my exercise” — and he would not give me money to spend on girls.  You and he agreed I had expensive tastes because I learned to like clothes and cars.  I had to like something, by God!  And then when I did get a girl and she and I got drunk (on money you gave me, Meg dear) and were picked up asleep in my car at the roadside — because we had nowhere else to go, what did he do?  He came to the police station and beat me! (clenching his fists, enraged by the memory)

MEG

No, Nicky, he didn’t!  You know you’re lying!

NICKY
(pressing his fists against his temples)

Yes, he beat me while the cops held me.

MEG weeps.

NICKY
(suddenly laughing)

No, don’t cry Meg.  There’s no need crying about it now.  I’ve got back at him.  You should see how I treat him nowadays.

MEG
(looking up at him from the couch)

What are you saying, Nick — my poor Nick?

Silence

NICKY

I’m saying that he comes back to me.  All through the years he has.  I assumed he came back to you, too.

MEG

Oh, God.  Please, my dear, don’t say these things.

NICKY
(incredulous)

You’ve never seen him?  Why, it’s here in St. Louis that I see him nearly always.  In fact, I never come without seeing him.  He’ll turn up in a taxi or in a hotel room.  Once he turned up at the airport when I came in on a late flight.

MEG

No, Nick.  How crude of you.  You’re trying to torture me.  (passionately) I loved him.  I loved him.  (weeping) Don’t you know that if he were to appear anywhere at all it would certainly be here?  (She hides her face on the back of the couch as she sobs.)

NICKY

Of course it would!  Of course!  See him there!  There, Meg!

GHOST appears.  An overweight, disheveled, middle-aged man.

NICKY
(to GHOST)

I didn’t really think you would follow me here and let her see you for what you are.  (laughing)  Put your shirttail in, you old bastard.  Do you want your own daughter to guess what you have been up to?  And fasten you tie.  I guess your collar won’t button.  (to MEG)  He got to be such a slob, you know — in those last years.  But he was always essentially that.  (walking around GHOST and addressing him)  Suck your gut in!  Do you want me to give you a kick in the pants?  (The GHOST throws back his head and laughs silently.  Then, suddenly he pulls himself up and strikes out at NICKY, missing him.)  You couldn’t hit a fly!  (to MEG)  Well, now what do you say!

MEG

You know very well what I say.  I don’t see a thing.  Or hear a thing.

NICKY
(to GHOST)

What the hell are you up to?  Make yourself known.  Speak up.  Tell her how much you regret all your sorry ways.  That’s the tune you are always singing to me.  Tell her how you appear to me for the very purpose of letting me abuse you and lighten your burden.  (The GHOST opens and closes its mouth as NICKY intones:) I am thy father’s ghost, doomed for a certain period of the night — (suddenly laughing)  Well, that’s they only Shakespeare you know.  (to MEG)  He’s only trying to impress you.  He could always make himself impressive to the ladies.

MEG
(seizing NICKY’s arm)

Nicky, darling — really, there is no one there!

NICKY

You were always blind as a bat, Meg.  But I can make him talk.  I can make him say things you’ll remember.  (to GHOST)  Tell us about your love-life, and tell us how you took money from those widow-ladies.  Oh, he had something the ladies liked.  He might look like an old slob to you and me, be he had something we couldn’t see at home.

MEG
(springing to her feet)

Nick, how much do you want?  I’ll fetch my checkbook.  It’s over here.  How much?  Say the amount and then go.  (She is already making out the check.)

NICKY

You really don’t see him, do you?

MEG

How much, Nick?

NICKY
(throws hand in air, gesturing to GHOST)

Take off!

GHOST leaves.

MEG

How much, Nick?  I want you to go.

NICKY

Twenty thousand.

MEG

And you won’t come back?  (writing check)

NICKY

Not unless you send for me.  Not unless he should turn up here, and you should need me.

MEG

Here, Nick.  Go quickly.  (She stuffs check in his jacket pocket.)

NICKY

Good-bye Meg.  (He extends a hand, but she turns away.)

MEG

Please go, Nick.  I am very tired.

Exit NICK.  MEG lowers the lights.  She goes to the fireplace and leans on the mantel, as before, her face hidden.  The SECOND GHOST appears in the room.  He is slender, straight, correct in his dress, moves with dignity.  As he moves silently across the room, she lifts her head, as if hearing his footsteps, but doesn’t turn around.

GHOST

Meg, darling.

She turns quickly from the fireplace but in the opposite direction from the GHOST.  She takes a sip from her drink, replaces glass on the table, puts away her checkbook.

GHOST

Meg, darling.

She stands very still, her back to him.

GHOST

Turn and face me, Meg.

She puts her hands to her ears.

GHOST

Meg.

Lowering her hands, she braces herself against a table, turns slowly toward him.  He is now standing directly beside the couch, with his hand on the couch back.

MEG
(in a hoarse whisper)

God in heaven!

GHOST

Meg, do you see me?  Do you hear me?

MEG

Yes.  Yes, I do.  I see you.  I hear you.  I must be out of my mind.

GHOST

No, you are not out of your mind.  But it took Nick — poor Nicky — to make you let yourself see me.  But it doesn’t matter how or who.  (He begins moving around the couch toward her.)

MEG

Stay where you are.  I am not afraid of you.  This is some kind of trick.  (backing away)   I will throw myself out that window if you come any nearer — whoever you are.

GHOST

But you know who I am, Meg.  And it is not as though you didn’t want to recognize me.  You do.  I am just as I always was, am I not, Meg?

MEG

If you come one step closer I’ll throw myself out that window.

GHOST
(laughing)

Meg, you and I know that window has a burglar guard.  I would be very difficult.

MEG

I’ll wake the neighbors.  I’ll call for help.  I’ll scream.  At least they would come in and tell me I am mad.

GHOST

But why these histrionics, Meg?  You have nothing to fear from me, have you, Meg?  (He is drawing very near to her.)

MEG
(looking up into his face, yielding completely)

But why have you never come before?

GHOST

I have been here always, Meg darling.

He takes her in his arms.  She puts her arms about his neck.  They kiss.  They remain in a lovers’ embrace as the curtain falls.

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