In Sheila’s hotel room, Bridie gives her friend a glass of Alka-Seltzer because she’s horribly hungover, though she claims she simply has a headache. After Bridie urges her to drink, Sheila asks if Rick was mad that she missed the day’s interview, and Bridie tells her Rick was simply surprised she was still alive. Indeed, although she doesn’t remember it, Sheila was so drunk the night before that she stood on a table and sang “God Save the King,” then re-enacted scenes from the prison camps. Worse, she said a number of disparaging things about Bridie.
It’s important to remember that the last conversation Bridie and Sheila had ended with Sheila staring at the shoe-horn and plunging into a painful memory. Having been forced to reckon with this memory (whatever it is), she clearly felt like she needed to get drunk to escape it. This, of course, is yet another indication that she has some rather troublesome emotions—emotions she hasn’t yet unpacked. Indeed, her decision to drink herself into oblivion rather than confront her past aligns with her tendency to avoid talking about the war.
Bridie tells Sheila that she doesn’t want to be “judgmental,” but says she thinks Sheila has a drinking problem. Wanting to change the subject after hearing about how she treated Bridie, Sheila asks what she and Rick covered that day during the interview, and Bridie tells her they talked about Christmas in 1943, then asks—rather randomly—why Sheila never tried to see her again after the war. “Are you upset because I married?” Sheila denies this, and so Bridie asks why she “push[es]” her away. “We never had secrets in the camp,” she says, but Sheila only reminds her that they’re no longer in camp. Still, Bridie sadly points out that she doesn’t know the faintest thing about how Sheila has “spent [her] life.”
It's evident that Bridie resents Sheila for disappearing after the war. What she fails to see, though, is that her own presence seems to evoke uncomfortable emotions for Sheila. Indeed, the audience understands that there is something in Sheila and Bridie’s past that makes it difficult for Sheila to be around her former best friend. Unfortunately, though, Sheila is unwilling or unable to speak openly about whatever happened to her, and so she simply withdraws from their friendship. As a result, tension builds between the two women, estranging them from one another and making it almost impossible for them to merely sit in a hotel room without bickering.
Bridie notes that drunk people almost “always tell the truth.” This is why she’s so upset about what happened the night before, she tells Sheila: “You looked at me with hate and said: ‘Don’t come near me, Bridie.’” She then asks why Sheila has kept her out of her life for so long, and when Sheila defends herself by saying that she wrote a letter, Bridie reminds her that this only happened once, right after the war, when Sheila wrote to tell her that she was leaving for England and that she’d send along a new address. “All we had in common was the camp,” Sheila insists. “I didn’t want to keep talking about it—I couldn’t, Bridie—it hurt too much. And when something hurts you run away…or you dig a hole and bury it.”
In this conversation, Sheila articulates her tendency to “run away” from painful emotional experiences. By telling Bridie that it was too painful to keep rehashing their time in the Japanese prison camps, she confirms the notion that Bridie’s presence only forces her to confront traumatic memories she isn’t ready to confront. “When something hurts you run away…or you dig a hole and bury it,” she says. Interestingly enough, Sheila seems to have both “run away” from her emotional pain and “bur[ied] it,” since she has spent the past fifty years avoiding Bridie while simultaneously repressing her emotions.
Bridie asks if Sheila ever missed her, and Sheila says she did, but it’s clear she’s lying. When Bridie points this out, Sheila says, “What did you expect—we’d all settle down in Chatswood—you, me and [your husband] Benny?” Hurt, Bridie slaps her across the face and says, “You’re alive today because of me. And don’t you ever forget it.” “I’ve spent fifty years trying to—if only I could!” Sheila says. “You want to know why I pushed you away. Here, Bridie—here’s your answer.” With this, she yanks open the dresser drawer and takes out the shoe-horn.
When Bridie reminds Sheila that she’s “alive today” because of her, she tries to emphasize the extent to which they are bound to one another. However, this is an ineffective rhetorical move, since the mere fact that their lives are so intertwined is the exact reason Sheila wants to keep her distance in the first place. After all, she has clearly experienced something traumatic that Bridie doesn’t even know about, something that has to do with Bridie herself. This, it seems, is why Sheila finds spending time with Bridie so difficult; when Sheila is with Bridie, she’s forced to recall whatever it is that happened to her.
Bridie is shocked to see her own initials engraved on the shoe-horn. “But you swapped this,” she says. “For quinine—when I came down with the fever.” She then asks Sheila how she managed to retrieve the shoe-horn, and Sheila begins telling a story about the final camp they were sent to, a place called Belalau—“the camp nobody talks about.” During their time here, many of the women became sick with malarial fever, and Bridie eventually contracted the disease. “I remember,” Bridie says, but Sheila tells her that she doesn’t actually know what happened while she was sick. “I took you to the hospital hut,” she says. “But they said you wouldn’t survive. Your skull was bursting from it. From cerebral malaria.” Interrupting her story, Bridie asks again how Sheila got back the shoe-horn after trading it for medication, but Sheila doesn’t give her an answer just yet.
It’s obvious that Sheila is finally telling Bridie the secret, traumatizing thing that happened to her at Belalau. Indeed, even Bridie senses that her friend is about to reveal something troubling, so she tries to speed her along, urging her skip ahead by asking how she retrieved the shoe-horn. However, Sheila has been holding onto this traumatic story for five decades, so it’s unlikely that she’ll simply cut to the chase. Rather, she knows she must start from the beginning, making sure to tell Bridie all of the details, since she clearly doesn’t want to hold onto this toxic secret any longer.
“Don’t you see?” Sheila says. “I was scared.” She tells Bridie that she didn’t want to put her in a coffin and carry her away. “I couldn’t let you die and leave me. I wouldn’t have survived,” she says. “So I went to the Japs—” As she continues, Bridie begins to whisper the word “no,” not wanting to hear what comes next. Still, though, Sheila pushes on, saying that she went to Lipstick Larry because he was “always smiling at [her].” She offered him all of their belongings in exchange for quinine, but he only laughed. Knowing what she had to do, then, Sheila offered herself to him. “You didn’t,” Bridie says, horrified. “Tell me you didn’t.” When Sheila reminds her that she was the one who “wanted to know,” Bridie adds, “You didn’t sleep with a Jap. Not you.”
Suddenly, Bridie doesn’t want to know how Sheila retrieved the shoe-horn. Although she wants Sheila to cut to the chase at first, now she doesn’t want to hear the rest of the story, as if this travesty won’t have happened if she continues on in ignorance. Of course, this isn’t the case, and so Bridie has to face the fact that Sheila made a painful sacrifice in order to save her. And though it can be argued that Bridie’s unfriendly response has to do with the idea she’ll never be able to repay Sheila, it’s hard to deny that her resentment in this moment is fueled by her tendency to blame rape victims for their own abuse. Indeed, Bridie has trouble empathizing with the women in the prison camps who had sex with the guards in order to save their loved ones, and now she’s forced to reckon with the fact that she wouldn’t be alive if Sheila hadn’t done this exact same thing.
Continuing her story, Sheila says that Lipstick Larry showed her the quinine tablets and then brought her to the barracks, where a group of officers were “waiting” for her. “Don’t!” Bridie yells. “I don’t want to hear this!” Nevertheless, Sheila goes on, saying that she kept her eyes fixed on the guards’ feet. When they told her to sing, though, she obliged, singing so beautifully that they all began to cry. “They’ll let me go,” she thought at the time. “If men can cry, they’ll let me go.” Just as she went to leave, though, they “dragged” her back.
Bridie’s desire to make Sheila stop telling the story of her rape is similar to Sheila’s own decision to keep the story to herself for so many years. Indeed, this impulse to keep quiet about trauma is a common one, as many survivors hope that stuffing down their pain will enable them to avoid it altogether. However, Bridie wants Sheila to stop telling this story for slightly different reasons, since she herself wasn’t the one that went through this particular hardship. As such, it becomes clear that she isn’t willing or ready to take on the burden of Sheila’s pain, possibly because she feels guilty that Sheila made this sacrifice to save her.
Bridie is distraught to learn that Sheila had sex with the guards in order to save her life. Sheila, for her part, admits that she has always told herself that Bridie would have “done the same” for her. “I was wrong, though, wasn’t I?” she asks. “You said you’d let your family die before you’d give in to the Japs. Did you mean it? Is it true?” Once this question is in the air, Bridie is unable to speak, but her silence makes it clear that she would not have made the same sacrifice Sheila made for her. As the two women quietly face one another, the audience hears young Sheila’s voice, saying, “Bridie, love—it’s me. Look—I’ve got tablets. I sold your shoe-horn. I’ve got tablets. Come on now—try and swallow them… Don’t leave me, Bridie. Please don’t leave me…”
In this moment, the central question of The Shoe-Horn Sonata comes to the forefront of the play: how far are Bridie and Sheila willing to go to save one another? Bridie, for her part, isn’t willing to perform sexual favors to save Sheila. Sheila, on the other hand, is willing to do seemingly anything in order to keep Bridie alive. This, of course, is partially because losing Bridie would mean having to adjust to a solitary life in the prison camp, leaving her to endure the horrors of the environment on her own. This is why she begs Bridie not to “leave” her while giving her the quinine tablets. Unfortunately, though, the fact that Sheila is willing to sacrifice herself in ways that Bridie isn’t becomes problematic, ultimately creating tension and resentment in their relationship.