THE MOUSE COAT – a radio play

Blooded skies webPhoto and play © A.N. Burchardt

THE MOUSECOAT – a radio play (30 minutes)

Synopsis

Paris, 1942 under German occupation.

A few days after the wearing of the yellow star is imposed on all Jewish men, women and children, even babies.

Two small girls, Bina, 11 and Lara 7 are the daughters of a Jewish hairdresser in the Marais quarter, home to many Jewish families.

Throughout the play, Lara, now adult, acts as narrator.

The girls learn to make do at a young age, but their imagination has no limit. Although it is summer, they know that the most precious thing one can possess in winter is a fur coat. Bina’s plan is to skin the mice regularly caught in her mother’s mouse trap to provide her with the fur to make a coat.

Their mother has had to sew the yellow star onto their coats. Overnight the school yard becomes a place where they are subjected to anti-semitic abuse.

Paul, the ten year-old son of a neighbour however perceives the yellow star as a medal of some sort. He persuades Bina to swop it for a kitten and a postcard of Marseilles, a city to which many Parisians are fleeing.

When they return home, their parents are preparing to flee Paris by crossing into the free zone illegally.

As they approach the dividing line between the German occupied zone and the South of France, the train is searched by German guards. Two nuns sharing the compartment lift their skirts and hide the girls under their habits as the parents are forced off the train, never to be seen again.

At first the nuns hide the girls in a defunct baking oven in their convent, but soon they have to hand them over Resistance fighters to ensure their survival.

Alone, the girls are passed from hand to hand in the Resistance network and arrive in Marseilles. Bina has brought a little box. It is the last mouse she intended to skin for the fur coat. In the heat of the Mediterranean sun, the girls decide to launch the box with the mouse into the sea, like a miniature boat.

They spot the barber’s shop belonging to Léon. They are hungry. The shop reminds them of their father’s Paris shop and they approach Léon to ask for food. Léon is widowed and also Jewish. In the days that follow both he and his daughter Esther become surrogate parents to the two girls.

After Italy signs an armistice with the allies, the Germans arrive in the South of France within hours by the thousands and begin to round up the Jews. The girls return from school and find Léon’s shop ransacked. He has disappeared. Esther races through the back alleys with the children to find a place of safety until she and the girls can be smuggled into the mountains to be hidden by a shepherd.

The play ends with the two girls huddling under Esther’s fur coat, high up in the mountain in an abandoned goat shed in the bitter cold. As a last regret, shivering Bina rues the day when she launched the mouse, which was meant to provide a precious piece of fur for her coat, onto the sea in Marseilles.

The narrator tells the story of their eventual return to Paris after the war.

Ten year-old Paul was picked up by the Germans in the street the day after he swopped the kitten for the yellow star. He was never seen again.

THE PLAY – Act 1

Sound of two children running up wooden stairs. A creaky door opens

BINA whispers

Yuk. It stinks in here …

Hold the door open. The mousetrap is behind the brooms.

Clutter of objects

 Look, the wire has snapped on the neck. That’s good.

NARRATOR

That’s the way my sister liked it. She had a plan. She always had a plan. She never seemed to have feelings. Maybe that’s why we survived.

BINA

We’ll just have to get enough mice. I’ll skin them and I’ll make a fur coat.

LARA

How many do we need for a whole coat?

BINA

Never mind how many… I’ll stretch the skins

LARA

Can I wear it too? Pleeeease, let me wear it.

BINA

I’ll wear it on Thursdays … when I go to the library, on Friday,

Saturday and on Sunday when we go for a walk …

You can have it on the other days.

LARA

But you’ll have it for almost the whole week! … I’ll freeze.

BINA

Only on four days. Anyway, I’m making it, aren’t I?

LARA

I suppose so.

NARRATOR

A simple fur coat was all that stood between life and death

when we were hiding in the mountains.

LARA

Marianne says the fire went out in a house in the Rue Pavée and a boy froze to death in the night and all the sheets were stuck to him and they had to break them off.

NARRATOR

I imagined the boy in his bed with the white sheets wrapped around him like a boiled sweet.

LARA

And then what, when we’ve made a fur coat?

BINA

We’ll look like rich people.

LARA

But the Germans are taking the rich people too. The Rosenbaums got taken last night. Maman saw it.

BINA

Only because they put the yellow star on their coats yesterday. Anyway, I’ll put this mouse in my box. I’ll skin it tonight.

Cries from outside. A boy’s voice, about ten years old

PAUL / BOY

Ohéy, les Bigoudis. Are you coming down?

BINA

That’s Paul. Come on.

NARRATOR

Paul always called us Bigoudi because my father was a ladies hairdresser. It means hair curler. That name saved our lives.

Sounds of children running downstairs into the street

PAUL

What’s in that box?

BINA

It’s a secret.

PAUL

Let me see … Let me see!

Sounds of Paul and Bina wrestling over the box.

He tears it away from her

PAUL

WOOHOOHOO! What’s that?

BINA

A mouse

PAUL

No. The other thing. The yellow star.

MARIANNE

A man with one of those came to the Sunday mass yesterday,

but the priest sent him away

LARA whispers to BINA

What’s the star from your coat doing in there? Maman only stitched it on yesterday

BINA whispers

I took it off; I’m going to take yours off too.They say we’re Jewish, but I say we’re not.

We go to church with the catholic kids, don’t we?

Those pictures they’ve put up everywhere … of a horrible old man with a big nose and an ugly face, and nasty eyes. Do we look like that?

LARA whispers

Noooo… but …

BINA whispers

There! So we’re not Jewish.

LARA whispers

But they said we have to wear the star …

NARRATOR

On the previous night my mother had sat with needle and thread and a strange smile on her face, sewing the stars onto our coats. The next morning the Marais quarter looked like a sea of daffodils.

PAUL

Waah! It’s like a medal! Here. I’ll swop you.

BINA

What? The mouse?

PAUL

No, silly! The yellow star.

BINA

For what?

PAUL

For this …

A tiny meowing is heard

LARA

A kitten!

BINA

Umm…

PAUL

And this, if you like. That’s a postcard of Marseilles. My uncle sent that. There are no Boche in Marseilles.

BINA

I’ll swop you, but only if swear to tell NOBODY that I gave it to you! Not even … the gendarmes.

PAUL

I swear. I swear! Even if the Boche torture me to death, honest. I’m going to put it on my jacket, like my granddad with his war medals!

*

NARRATOR

When we got home that night there were two suitcases standing on the kitchen floor, all packed. My mother and father were sitting, holding each other’s hands across the table.

MOTHER

We’re going to take a trip, altogether.

So go and wash your hands so we can eat. Quickly now.

FATHER

Do as your mother says!

Sounds of eating soup

FATHER

Don’t slurp, Bina

BINA

It’s too hot, Papa. Where are we going?

FATHER

Marseilles. I hear they need lots of hairdressers and barbers there, all those Italian soldiers sneaking over from Nice who want to look handsome for the ladies.

BINA

I know what Marseilles looks like.

FATHER

Do you now?

BINA

There. I swopped a postcard with Paul.

FATHER

Swopped it for what?

BINA

Errr … A mouse.

LARA chokes on her soup

MOTHER

Lara? What are you not telling me?

BINA

We…

FATHER

Bina. Your mother is asking Lara. Well, Lara?

LARA

Mama, please don’t be angry. Promise you won’t take it away.

Tiny meaouing

MOTHER

Lara? Open your cardigan, now!

FATHER

Oh,yoi, yoi. We can’t take a kitten with us.

in a low whisper to MOTHER

We’re going to cross into the free zone through the woods, at night, with the Boche patrolling with guns.

BINA & LARA together

Please, please Papa! Look. It can sleep inside my cardigan. No one will see it.

FATHER

You meshugene girls!

MOTHER

Milo! Don’t call my girls crazy! There’s plenty more crazy stuff in this world than swopping a dead mouse for a kitten and a postcard. Huh! If you ask me, that boy doesn’t know how to drive a bargain.

Urgent knocking on the door

MAYOUSHA

Milo, Monsieur Milo, it’s Mayousha. Come quick. It’s Papa, he’s had an accident

Chairs scrape, door opens

MAYOUSHA

Please, please help us. Papa, he has fallen through a broken floorboard and we can’t get him out … oh,please … hurry

FATHER

Bina, Lara, you stay at the table. And don’t move.

MOTHER and FATHER running upstairs

MADAME HENRI and MONSIEUR HENRI calling from the ground floor

MADAME HENRI

Look at you, Milo, running to help the damned Pole.

Let him fall into a big hole for all I care … coming here and eating our rations!

MONSIEUR HENRI

It’s a miracle no one has denounced you yet. I’ve a good mind to do it myself one of these days …

under his breath

… damned Youd.

On the ground floor MONSIEUR HENRI slams his door shut

Voices & clutter in the attic followed by a big thump

MONSIEUR KOWALSKI

Thank you …oh, oh…oh, thank you, Milo. How can I ever repay you?

FATHER breathless

By looking where you tread up there. Consider yourself lucky to be alive. I know things are bad, but there’s no need to commit suicide quite yet!

Both men laugh

NARRATOR

The Kowalskis lived in the attic. They had fled from Poland and had no permits to stay in France. Papa was hiding them. After we left they moved into our rooms. They were picked up by the Germans who had come for us.

Kitchen noises, plates being washed. Door opens, shuts

BINA

I’m washing up, Maman.

MOTHER

Good girl. Now come and sit down and listen to me. Because we helped Monsieur Kowalski he has agreed to look after the kitten, as a special favour. We’ll be back very soon … won’t we? …

insisting, loud

WON’T WE, MILO!

FATHER

In couple of months… the war will be over, you’ll see

LARA

But Maman…

MOTHER gently

It’s too dangerous. We might lose the kitten in the woods, at night.

FATHER

You’ll never find it in the dark … and then it’ll starve to death. You don’t want that, do you, girls?

BINA, LARA

No, Papa.

FATHER

Now, off to bed.

BINA & LARA

Can we say good-bye to Paul and Marianne?

MOTHER

No, you can’t. Our trip is a secret. Promise you won’t tell?

BINA & LARA

Promise, Maman

*

Next morning just before dawn. Sounds of footsteps in empty streets

NARRATOR

We left at 4 in the morning, walked across Paris to the Gare de Lyon. It was cold. I was wearing all the clothes I had – two jumpers, two cardigans, two pairs of trousers and all the socks and underwear I possessed.

Train station, crowd noises, voices calling in French

The train platform was full to bursting. People were pushing. Bina’s coat got ripped by the train as it came in. Bags were trampled on. My father lifted us over the heads of people onto the train and we start hopping from one suitcase to another. There is was no floor space.

BINA

Papa was right about the kitten. It would have been minced meat by now.

NARRATOR

We each had a musette, a sausage shaped canvas bag on a string around our neck. It softened the blows when we fell between the cases.

A train whistle blows. A locomotive puffs. The train begins to rumble.

From a distance across the noise FATHER calls

Bina, Lara, we’re over here. Don’t move.

*

Rythmic chugging of train, fades out then in again. Some time has passed

FATHER urgent

Wake up Bina, Lara, wake up, we have to get ready.

NARRATOR

We must have fallen asleep, lying on the top of other people’s suitcases. When we woke up we were in a compartment with my parents, an old couple and two nuns. Their faces were pale triangles, wrinkled and fine like silk. The long black habits made them look like giant crows.

Train brakes screech, finally train stops. Locomotive puffs.

Heavy footsteps, doors being pulled open. Gruff German soldiers voices heard in train corridor, coming nearer

GERMAN SOLDIER

Papiere… Papiere, Ausweis … Ausweis

FATHER

Bina, Lara, get under the bench, quick.

BINA

Where? It’s full of luggage.

NARRATOR

One of the nuns suddenly pointed to her robe and lifted it, the other one did the same. Bina and I crawled under their black robes. I sat in the dark between the nuns legs. Her woolly stocking smelled of carbolic soap. It was dark. I rolled myself up, holding onto my knees and tucking my head down as the kitten had done inside my cardigan. I could hear our compartment door opening. After that I couldn’t tell what was going on.

GERMAN SOLDIER

Papiere, Ausweis … das sind Falsch-papiere …raus, schnell … raus!

NARRATOR

The nuns legs didn’t move. They must be talking to someone else, I remember thinking. The Germans with their sense of order could not imagine that two catholic nuns holding rosaries in their snow white hands could be smuggling two Jewish girls. I felt the soldier’s boot pushing into the nun’s habit at the hem. Then there was a loud cry, somewhere outside the train and suddenly the soldiers rushed out and it was quiet in the compartment. But outside there was a lot of screaming. I thought I heard my name, but it came from far away.

Puffing, whistles, train setting off again

Act 2 …

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