The writer of this piece, Tabitha Lee, would prefer not to give the game away…all we will say is that this thrilling modern adaptation of a well-known play covers the descent of a patriarch into madness. Any guesses for which play this is?
Acres and acres of wide, open fields stretched out before them. The old man paced forward unrelentingly, his estate manager trailing just a step behind him. What—what was the meaning of this? What was the meaning of all this? The heavy evening sky let fall some drops that fell on his wrinkled skin.
“Sir, pardon me, but it’s getting dark, and it looks like it’s going to pour —”
“Know your place! Know all of you your rightful places!” the old man turned sharply.
His mind, still reeling from shock, attempted in vain to piece the fragments. His daughters, his two lovely older daughters whom he had single-handedly raised and provided for and protected, that is, lovely till an hour ago, yes that dreadful hour, had committed heinous treason. Downright treason that was! Betrayal in its fullest, ugliest form! Lightning streaked suddenly across the sky, blinding him momentarily. Ah, nature making its mockery – is there no kindness at all on this earth? Blind I was indeed, he thought, to have bought into their flatteries.
The thunder clapped sardonically, shaking the ground with its cruel wrath. Why had he clapped so? The sarcastic clap with which he applauded his youngest daughter, his pride and joy, rang in his ears – a testament to his folly. She loved him truly; the scales had fallen from his eyes. She had made no pledge, no praise, no declaration, but with a stoic “Nothing, my father” made reply to his question. “What would you say to declare how much you love me?” he had self-importantly – oh, damned ego! – asked of his three daughters. What folly, what misjudgment.
The drops of rain turned into sheets, then buckets, then torrents. God sends His rain on the just and on the unjust. Unjust he had been, to judge depth of love by lip service. Love no more diminishes in substance that is not given form through words. Unjust he had been, to throw his youngest daughter out, no more to set foot in his mansion, no longer to gain her rightful portion of the inheritance. O wretched fool!
The old man felt weary. He did not know where he was going; the fields seemed to go on forever, further than his aged eye could see: there was no end, and now that he looked back, there was no beginning either – they seemed to stretch out on all sides into nothingness. Nothing will come of nothing. And with that he sat down quite suddenly, right in the middle of the field, right in the middle of the vast expanse of land around him, right in the middle of nothingness.
“Sir…” the estate manager was taken aback. The day’s events had proven to be a rude shock to his employer, but little did he expect such a forsaking of dignity from the most highly esteemed tycoon in Birmingham. Within a span of hours, he seemed to have aged another ten years.
“Tell me honestly, do I look like a fool to you?”
“What? Sir… I…”
“Just speak your mind. I can’t be more wounded than I already am.”
“Well, Sir… I suppose, sitting out in a storm may be regarded by some as a foolish act.”
“Naturally. Wise words.”
“Sir, you’re tired, and to be out in this rain in your frail health… Please, let’s head back.”
“And what do you suggest I do when I’ve reached the doorstep?”
“Sir, if I may suggest… Entreat your daughters to let you in. That would be better than suffering out here in the heavy rain.”
“Ha! Entreat, you say? Entreat those hard-hearted stones? Ha! Those wretches. Are you blind? Didn’t you personally witness the crimes they have committed against me?”
The estate manager fell silent. Surely his employer had never spoken so passionately.
“I am a man more sinned against than sinning. Don’t you agree? Do you not agree?”
The thunder roared its reply; lightning electrified the sky overhead. Oh nature, oh gods, was there any justice in this world? All the shares of his company – the family business that had been passed on for generations – split among the two of them. It had been meant for his three daughters to inherit equally upon his retirement. But anger brewed in his heart like a storm ready to spend itself when his youngest daughter made her reply. In a lightning flash of rage, he cut her off from her rightful portion of the shares. With the shares split among his two older daughters, and a rash decision to instate them as co-directors with immediate effect, he had, too trustingly, made a premature divestment of power. Who knew, within days they had forced him to ‘early retirement’ and had wrested the management of the company completely out of his hands. And now, as though throwing him out of his own mansion was not enough, they had even gone so far as to throw him out of his own country house. He was left with nothing. The gods had been too cruel, too heartless. Rage, rage! You winds and rains, rage! No more shall I acknowledge these my daughters, my own flesh and blood, he thought, these ungrateful brats!
“Sir, I’m sorry for your harsh fate. But let’s make our way to that little hut over in the distance, to seek some shelter from this storm.”
The old man looked at the shivering estate manager, and for the first time in his life, felt for him. He had always regarded him as just another of his many employees, someone bustling around the mansion, someone dispensable, someone who did not make much difference present or absent. But now, in his darkest hour of calamity, he was his only companion: the only person to share his grief and pain.
“Let’s go, my son. Let’s get you to shelter.”
Indeed, what a tyrant he had been: never sparing a thought for the people who laboured in his service. He had thought that this was their rightful duty, that every person under heaven had his own place in this wide world – he an esteemed tycoon, they his lowly employees. “Count your lucky stars you get to work for me,” he remembered remarking often. The grass under his leather shoes was a mush of sticky brown mud, and as they trudged through this slosh, his ankles seem to be weighed down heavier and heavier. What irony: those who he had mercilessly trampled under foot now mocked him in his distress, now trapped him in their cruel hate – all except this faithful estate manager.
“On the bright side, Sir, we’ve been having a drought for way too long. This rain would fill these parched fields with renewed life.” The estate manager tried to make things better, and the old man felt a surge of gratitude. He looked up to the heavens. These skies that now fed the thirst of the fields had once showered him with blessings. What had he done with that? What had he done to better the lives of others around with his material wealth? Perhaps it was for this that the gods were punishing him now. He uttered a silent prayer for the poor, the homeless, the destitute – especially in a wild storm as this. He prayed for their deliverance and comfort, for a warm fire, for sufficient food and water, for love.
Love. What of love? What was love? Had he ever known love? He had given his love, of that he was sure. After his wife had died, he took it upon himself to shower his daughters with both a father’s and a mother’s love – more than they would ever need, so that they would never lack. He had spent so much on them: making sure they received the best education in the most prestigious schools, lavishing on them delicacies from every shore and coast, tailoring the most beautiful gowns for them. And how had they now repaid him? By seizing his company and then ousting him from his own estates. Those ingrates! Better had they not been born! Oh, who could tell just what he would do to them if ever he saw their cursed faces again. Blow, wind! Blow with frightful speed, and beat upon all corners of that abominable mansion. Let the rains unleash all their fury, torrent upon torrent, crashing on their house, their garden, with unspeakable wrath. Let the earth upon which that accursed house stands seethe with anger, right hot, melting all the elements of earth under it. Let it fall – fall to nothing.
A sudden flash of lightning. Too close, as it were, the impact sending shocks of static in the earth beneath. The ground trembled, as though the earth was going to split right open. A great crash of thunder boomed, greater than all the noise in the world compounded. The old man laughed. He laughed hysterically, wildly. The gods had heard him! The heavens were gleaming upon him with a look that bespoke concord. And in that instance, he felt it resonate deep in his soul. He knew.
“That was close! Sir — sir, are you alright?” the estate manager panicked.
The old man did not hear him, could not hear him, above the incessant chatter and conversation of the gods. Yes, yes – this was good! But no, not in that way. It had to be clean. Utter destruction. Yes – no, the skies were perfect. And the hurricane, yes of course. Oh, what humour!
“Sir? Sir?” the estate manager was afraid. The incomprehensible expression on his employer’s face unsettled him. A sense of rising alarm stirred from deep within him, although he could not say why. “We’ve made it to the hut. It seems there’s someone in there, but I’m sure he would be kind enough to share it with us.”
Shhhh — the old man was confounded. Before him, a man lay sound asleep in a corner of the hut, curled up in defense against the cold, unfeeling wind. His hair was unkempt, beard unshaven; this man was bare-footed, with an expression so forlorn it almost seemed to gnaw at his heart. Naked. No piece of fabric to cover his scrawny semblance of a body. Never in his life had the old man seen such a sight. What an unfortunate man! Had he no home to return to on such a night as this? Ah, perhaps he had daughters – it must be so! Only daughters, those venomous creatures, were capable of such heartless treatment. Only daughters could pierce hearts through with sorrow upon sorrow! There is not so much difference between you and I, then, he thought, we are one and the same man – what differentiates us is only our appearance. What made a tycoon? What made a beggar? He looked down at his apparel – a suit, tailor-made from Italy, now, of course, completely wet and caked in mud, rain, sweat. But under this veneer of wealth, he had nothing. No daughters, no family, no business, no money, no house! Nothing, my father. He had nothing! Nothing will come of nothing, speak again. There was nothing he could call his own, nothing to lay claim to, nothing to possess! A man more sinned against than sinning. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing! With a loud cry, he tore off his clothes. Off, you lendings! Now he was no more a tycoon. Nor was he a beggar. He was what he truly was. One and the same man! Every man! One’s true place in the world! Nothing!
Tabitha Lee is a final-year student of Literature at NUS, and is waiting to enter the big, wide world soon. In the meantime, she has gallantly accepted a challenge to read a Dickens novel, even though she really is a modernist/postmodernist at heart. Current favourite writers (the list is ever-expanding) include J.M. Coetzee, Virginia Woolf, Philip Larkin, Oscar Wilde, Marilynne Robinson, and Jose Carlos Somoza.
photo credit: freepik, silhouettegarden