The Shoe-Horn Sonata


John Misto

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The Shoe-Horn Sonata Summary

It is 1995, fifty years after Bridie and Sheila were released from a Japanese prison camp during World War II. They are now coming together for the first time since then, reuniting to appear on a television documentary about their wartime experiences. Bridie is an Australian who signed up to be a military nurse, traveling as a young woman to an area just north of Singapore. In the play’s opening scene, Bridie tells Rick—the interviewer—that her father was proud she joined the Australian Army, telling her, “There are three things every young soldier should know. Always use a shoe-horn—it’ll make your boots last longer. Don’t sit on a toilet till you’ve lined the seat with paper. And never kiss a Pommie on the lips.” Saying this, he gave her a shoe-horn, and she set off for war. Talking about what it was like in the initial days of the war, Bridie explains to Rick that rumors circulated about a Japanese invasion, and though no one believed these stories at first, Australian and British forces eventually moved to Singapore, where Bridie treated wounded soldiers in a chaotic hospital as bombs fell overhead. Before long, she boarded a ship with 300 other women and children and made haste out of the region.

When Bridie’s interview with Rick ends, she meets Sheila at the hotel. An exceedingly proper British woman, Sheila is hesitant to share her stories on television, finding it “[un]dignified.” As she unpacks her suitcase, Bridie guilt-trips Sheila for never coming to see her in the five decades since the war ended. Although Sheila said she was going to return to England after she was set free, she ended up spending the rest of her life in Australia without even telling Bridie. As the two friends talk, it’s evident that there is tension lurking beneath the surface of their relationship.

The next day, Sheila and Bridie sit down for a joint interview with Rick, who asks why Sheila—who was living with her family in Singapore—didn’t leave before the Japanese invasion in 1942. “We were patriotic,” she replies. “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…” Nevertheless, her mother soon decided to send her to Australia, though she herself stayed behind to “stop the Japs looting her silver.” Unfortunately, though, Sheila’s ship was—like Bridie’s—caught and bombed by Japanese forces, sending Sheila into the frigid water with nothing to cling to but a piece of floating wood. This, the two women tell Rick, is when they met, as Bridie heard Sheila singing over the crashing waves. Unlike Sheila, Bridie had a lifejacket, but she couldn’t hold Sheila afloat. Worse, the water was so cold that Sheila kept slipping off her piece of wood. Because of this, Bridie started talking to this stranger and hitting her on the head with her shoe-horn to keep her awake. And although this kept her alive, the two women were later picked up by a Japanese boat and brought to a prison camp.

In Sheila’s hotel room, the two friends talk about the interview, bickering about how they each presented the story. Sheila, for her part, doesn’t like how Bridie spoke disparagingly at one point about the British forces, but Bridie ignores her, making fun of her unflinching patriotism. “You can snicker all you like,” Sheila replies, “but at the very worst times in the camp—I’d remind myself I was part of an Empire—and if others could endure it, so could I.”

The next day, Rick asks whether or not the Japanese guards tried to sexually harass the prisoners. Bridie tells him that the guards did indeed set up a “glorified brothel,” which they brought her to one night with several other nurses. At the end of the evening, one of the nurses coughed into a handkerchief she’d stolen from the hospital supplies. This handkerchief was already stained with blood, but she acted like she had just coughed up the red droplets, terrifying the guards, who feared tuberculosis. Seeing this, Bridie and the other nurses began to cough, and the guards sent them away. Chiming in, Sheila tells Rick that an Australian male prisoner gave the officers the idea to set up this “brothel.” When Bridie hears her say this, though, she accuses a number of British women of making it hard for other prisoners to refuse the guards, saying that they sold themselves to the Japanese. In response, Sheila reminds Bridie that these women “had children to feed,” adding that she didn’t blame them for doing what they needed to. Bridie, on the other hand, doesn’t agree with what they did, saying, “To go with a Jap—to give him pleasure—how could you ever live with yourself?” When Rick asks how Bridie and Sheila maintained hope, they tell him that a fellow prisoner named Miss Dryburgh organized a choir in which they both participated. Sheila sang, and Bridie tapped out the beat with her shoe-horn, and through this they found relief.

Back at the hotel, Bridie and Sheila argue about whether or not it was acceptable to sleep with the Japanese guards, and Bridie reiterates that she’d “never have done that” for “anyone.” The next day, Bridie is alone at the interview. Emphasizing how common it was for prisoners to die in the camp, she tells Rick that she made a will saying that if she were to die, all of her possessions should go to Sheila, including her shoe-horn and her share of a piece of caramel. When Rick asks about the caramel, she says that Sheila managed to obtain the candy by selling a brooch. Throughout their time in the camps, then, Bridie and Sheila sucked on the caramel once a week for “one minute each,” always staving off temptation so the candy would last until the end of the war. One day, though, a collection of Australian men—all of whom had “broken away from a working party”—appeared at the prison fence and began to sing. As this happened, one of the men waved at Bridie, and this made her day. Later, when the men were gone, Sheila and Bridie finished the caramel as a Christmas treat. Lying in bed that night, Bridie wondered if she’d ever see the man who waved at her, and when Rick asks if she did, she says, “Yes. As a matter of fact I did. After the war I married him.”

After her solo interview, Bridie goes to Sheila’s hotel room. Sheila is hungover from the night before, having drunk so much that she said cruel things to Bridie, telling her to go away. Bridie now suggests that Sheila has a drinking problem, but what truly bothers her is the idea that drunk people always tell the truth. Because of this, she can’t ignore the hateful things Sheila said. Hurt, she asks why Sheila neglected her for so many years, and Sheila says, “All we had in common was the camp. 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.” She then cruelly asks, “What did you expect—we’d all settle down in Chatswood—you, me and Benny?” Hearing this mention of her dead husband’s name, Bridie slaps Sheila and says, “You’re alive today because of me. And don’t you ever forget it.” In turn, Sheila opens a drawer and takes out Bridie’s shoe-horn, saying that she has “spent fifty years” trying to forget the fact that they depended upon one another during the war.

Bridie is baffled to see the shoe-horn. After all, she thought it was gone forever. Indeed, Sheila told her she traded it for antimalarial medication when Bridie contracted malaria in the final months of their internment. In truth, though, Sheila went to a guard named Lipstick Larry and agreed to have sex with him in exchange for quinine tablets. Listening to this story, Bridie tries to get Sheila to stop, saying she doesn’t want to hear it. Still, Sheila pushes on, and when she’s finished, she asks if Bridie was telling the truth when she said she would never have done such a thing for anyone in the world, and though Bridie doesn’t reply, it’s clear she meant what she said.

During the next interview, Sheila tells Rick that the majority of their choir was dead by 1945. Although the war was drawing to a close, the prisoners had no idea. In order to hide them, the guards transported all of the detainees to Belalau, where they thought no one would find them. Apparently, “an order had been issued” by the Japanese government saying that “every prisoner of war” should “die by October 1945.” Oddly enough, though, the guards didn’t have to do much to carry out this order, since so many prisoners died of malaria in Belalau. Telling this to Rick, Sheila lies and says that she saved Bridie’s life by trading the shoe-horn for antimalarial tablets.

After this interview, Bridie asks why Sheila never told her the truth about how she saved her life, and Sheila explains that she was worried the story might “shock” Bridie too much. After all, when they were released from the camps, Bridie had to have several medical procedures, and Sheila didn’t want to add to her struggle by revealing the truth. As such, she snuck away while Bridie was still sleeping, knowing she wouldn’t be able to bear staying, since that would mean lying to her best friend. As they talk about this, Bridie still finds herself resenting Sheila for making such a sacrifice, saying, “You should have let me die.” In response, Sheila says, “Yes. Perhaps I should have.”

Sheila and Bridie tell Rick in the next interview that the choir ended in April of 1945 because too many of its members had died. As such, Sheila arranged sonatas that she and Bridie could sing together, since they wanted everyone to know that “there was still music left.” Later, in Sheila’s hotel room, Bridie tells her friend that she was arrested once for running out of a store without paying. She did this because a group of Japanese tourists had entered, and she was overcome with a visceral fear while listening to them speak in Japanese. Too embarrassed to explain what happened, she went to court and accepted a fine. And though Sheila tries to tell her this is nothing to be ashamed of, Bridie says she never intended to tell anyone. “Keeping a secret wears you down,” Sheila says. “Believe me—I know.” Having said this, Sheila considers telling the story of her rape on television during the final interview the next day. Bridie tries to stop her from doing this, saying that people will call her a “whore,” but Sheila doesn’t listen, saying, “The war hasn’t ended. Not for me. For me it goes on. And now I want peace.”

The next day, Sheila and Bridie tell Rick about their last days in the camp, when they were marched up a hill and serenaded by a military band because the Japanese were told that the Geneva Convention required all prisoners to be exposed to “culture.” As the music played, Bridie and Sheila realized they might make it through the war alive, and so they made a pact to go dancing when they gained their freedom. Not long after that, an Australian journalist found the prison camp in Belalau, and the Japanese fled, leaving the gates open. At this point in the interview, Rick tells Sheila and Bridie that they can take a break, but Bridie—who has started holding Sheila’s hand while speaking emotionally about the end of the war—tells him that they have to keep going because they’ve “left out something.” Going on, she tells the story of Sheila’s rape, and then Sheila tells the story of Bridie’s arrest. Having aired their secrets, the two women finish the interview and return to the hotel room, where they finally fulfill their promise to dance in celebration of their freedom.