As the lights come up on the television studio, Rick asks how long Sheila and Bridie have known each other, and Sheila says they met the night their respective ships sank in February, 1942. Rick then asks why Sheila and her family hadn’t already left Singapore by that point, and before Sheila can properly answer, Bridie says, “The British were a bit thick sometimes.” Frustrated by this remark, Sheila cuts in, saying, “We were patriotic. We didn’t want to leave. I remember mother saying, ‘Sheila, you and I are English women. We do not run away from a few Orientals…’”
The remarks that Sheila’s mother makes demonstrate once again the extent to which pride and patriotism can blind people to the reality of danger. Sheila’s mother allows herself to believe wholeheartedly in her own superiority, thinking that the Japanese are somehow beneath her because she and her daughter are “English women.” In turn, she ends up endangering her family by insisting that they stay in Singapore even when it’s obvious the Japanese will stage a successful invasion.
Behind Sheila, photographs appear of the evacuation of Singapore on February 13, 1942. As these images of chaos are projected on the screen, Sheila explains that she boarded a boat for Australia while her mother stayed in order to “stop the Japs looting her silver.” A Bridie’s behest, Sheila hesitantly tells Rick what her mother said upon her departure. “You’ll be living with Colonials now, so set a good example,” she told her daughter. “Always wear gloves—wherever you go. Don’t socialize with Catholics—unless they’re French or titled. And never kiss an Australian on the lips.”
The fact that Sheila’s mother tells her not to “kiss an Australian on the lips” is humorous and worth noting, since Bridie’s father told her the opposite, saying that she shouldn’t kiss a “Pommie” (British person) on the lips. Through these twinned comments, the audience sees the light rivalry and resentment that passes between Australians and Brits during this time period. What’s more, the nature of Bridie and Sheila’s tense friendship becomes a bit clearer in this moment, as Misto intimates that their friction might have something to do with the fact that they both let their patriotic pride interfere with their connection.
Sheila tells Rick that she boarded the escape boat under the impression that she’d return to Singapore several weeks later. Because the boat was so crowded, everyone slept above deck, which is why Sheila awoke to the Japanese military’s harsh spotlights when the ship was found at three in the morning. “For a while nothing happened,” Sheila says, but then the Japanese began shooting at the ship and people started jumping overboard. When a man turned to Sheila and asked if she could swim, Sheila said, “A bit,” and so he threw her into the water. Seconds later, the Japanese bombed the ship, which “rose up from the water” and then “crashed on its side.” Luckily, Sheila found a piece of wood to help her stay afloat, and so she drifted along like that, shouting all the while for help.
Throughout The Shoe-Horn Sonata, Misto examines the nature of survival, frequently considering the psychological angle of what it means to withstand hardship. In this moment, though, he looks at a much simpler form of survival, one that has to do with life and death in a very physical, immediate sense. As Sheila recalls jumping off a boat that explodes seconds after she’s plunged into the water, the audience remembers that the entire backdrop of this play is one of violence and calamity. In turn, it becomes easier to understand why Sheila is so hesitant to talk about these memories.
“You must have been scared,” Rick says, to which Sheila proudly replies, “Not really,” though Bridie chimes in to say that she was “petrified.” As Sheila continues her story, the sound of waves plays over the speakers. Before long, Sheila explains, her body grew numb from the cold water, at which point she stopped caring whether or not she drowned. As such, she closed her eyes and sang a hymn. At this point in her narration, the voice of Young Sheila sounds over the speaker system as she sings “Jerusalem,” “a very moving and stirring hymn about the greatness of England—God’s chosen Empire.”
Sheila’s strong sense of pride surfaces once again, this time manifesting itself in her unwillingness to admit that she was “scared” to be floating in frigid water after her boat was bombed. When she sings “Jerusalem,” though, the audience sees that her patriotism—which has until this point done nothing but blind her to danger—actually helps her maintain a sense of hope in an otherwise hopeless moment. Indeed, as she sings about “the greatness of England,” she focuses on something she believes is worth living for, thereby lending her a sense of resilience she might not have if she wasn’t such a proud patriot.
Telling her own story, Bridie says that her ship was also bombed by the Japanese. Just when she was about to jump overboard with a lifejacket, a fellow passenger stopped her and urged her to look at the others who had jumped, all of whom had been killed when they hit the water because their lifejackets had broken their necks. Because of this, Bridie climbed down a rope while “trying not to panic,” since she didn’t know how to swim. Once she got in the water, she says, she “tried to say a rosary” but ultimately “dozed off.” It wasn’t until she heard Sheila that she woke up again. “Weather’s turned a bit chilly for this time of year,” Sheila said, adding, “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
The first thing Sheila says to Bridie is laced with a certain kind of gallows humor, as she makes a dark joke about the weather while the two women are in the midst of slowly freezing to death in frigid water. This remark ultimately foreshadows the fact that their friendship will later rely on their ability to laugh together in times of strife. Indeed, Sheila uses humor in this moment to maintain her spirits, ultimately demonstrating her resilient nature.
Telling Rick about her first conversation with Sheila, Bridie says that she found her new friend rather “stand-offish.” “Cartwright is an Irish name,” Sheila interjects. “Mother wouldn’t have approved.” Similarly, Bridie admits that she thought of Sheila as just “another stuck up Pom,” though she had no choice but to talk to her. In fact, she spoke at length to her because Sheila kept falling asleep and slipping off of her piece of wood. As such, Bridie peppered her with questions about food and movies and music, discovering that she was an avid Frank Sinatra fan, though Bridie herself prefers Bing Crosby. Unfortunately, though, their disagreements aren’t enough to keep Sheila awake, so Bridie starts hitting her on the forehead with her shoe-horn whenever she nods off. “Cut it out, you Catholic cow!” Sheila yelled after a while.
Right from the beginning of their friendship, Sheila and Bridie judge each other based on their respective nationalities. Bridie, for her part, thinks Sheila is “stuck up” because she’s British, and Sheila herself is hesitant to embrace Bridie with kindness because she senses that her mother wouldn’t “approve” of her befriending anyone who isn’t also a sophisticated British woman. Despite these differences, though, the two women still come together in this moment of danger. In fact, Bridie even goes out of her way to make sure that Sheila doesn’t fall asleep and drown, thereby proving that it’s possible to transcend superficial differences in order to help a person.
Thinking about how she used her shoe-horn to keep Sheila awake, Bridie notes that she lost the handy tool “later in the war.” Going back to the night their ships sank, though, she tells Rick that she was eventually too exhausted to hit Sheila. As such, Sheila was carried off by a large wave, and when Bridie yelled out for her, there was no response. Assuming Sheila had died, Bridie said a prayer “for her departed soul,” but then she heard her voice sounding out over the waves. Singing “Jerusalem” once again, Sheila appeared, still clinging to her plank of wood. “I was so darn relieved I even joined in,” Bridie says. “My Dad would have killed me—behaving like a Protestant.”
Bridie’s relief upon finding Sheila once more is worth noting, since it suggests that she’s especially invested in Sheila’s safety. Indeed, her happiness when Sheila returns indicates that she is afraid to be left alone in the sea. Although it was certainly kind of her to try to keep Sheila awake, this action was self-motivated, for Bridie wants a companion to help her face this dangerous situation. In this way, Misto shows the audience that acts of kindness are sometimes rather selfish, though this doesn’t negate the fact that Bridie did help Sheila stay alive.
Rick asks how long it took for Sheila and Bridie to find shore, and Bridie says they never “washed up” on land, since a ship saw them and picked them up. Although Sheila was excited at first, the two women soon realized that the boat belonged to the Japanese. “I wanted to cry,” Sheila says. “But I reminded myself I was a Woman of the Empire. And it just wasn’t done to show fear to the natives.” After she says this, the lights go out and the audience hears the end of “Jerusalem” as pictures of the invasion of Singapore appear overhead.
Once again, Sheila’s patriotic pride helps her embody a sense of resilience. This time, she thinks about the fact that she is “a Woman of the Empire,” an idea that accentuates her feelings of superiority. Furthermore, the capitalization of “Woman of the Empire” implies that it’s is a proper noun, imbuing Sheila with all the more properness and prestige. By thinking of herself as better than her captors, then, Sheila avoids feeling sorry for herself, ultimately managing to face this difficult situation with bravado and resolve.