We Need to Talk is an extract from a new play from Juliet Jacques, currently in-development. Set at the moment that the first UK lockdown was announced, we are presenting the opening as the country is about to go into a historic second lockdown.
Content warning: The play contains mature language.
The living room of a small flat in south London. The furniture is crammed in: there is a glass coffee table, sofa and armchair, all of which look second-hand. They have two bookshelves, with books on art, design and left-wing politics, as well as fashionable 20th and 21st century novels popular with a certain type of young man – Coupland, Easton Ellis, Palahniuk, Salinger etc. They have some prints, the most obvious end of modern art, such as Picasso’s Guernica and Warhol’s soup cans, as well as a few houseplants. There is a large TV with a games console and speakers, and a DAB radio on one of the bookshelves.
Steve sits on the armchair, with a laptop on his knees. Julia tidies the flat, dusting the shelves and the floor, clearing up magazines from the coffee table and watering the plants.
Steve Fuck’s sake!
Julia What’s the matter?
Steve Fucking internet! I just want to transfer my fucking designs to my fucking client before my fucking deadline. Not that they’ve paid me, obviously.
Steve angrily and repeatedly clicks the laptop’s touchpad with his finger.
Julia It was bad even before all this.
Steve clicks again, sighs and gives up, throwing himself into the chair.
Steve If only someone had put proper broadband in their manifesto, eh?
Julia Oh darling, don’t start on that again. Maybe Ryan’s on it.
Steve (Shouts) Ryan! Are you on Zoom?
Ryan (Offstage) Yes.
Steve Is it for work?
Steve (Shouts) Alright, cheers. (To Julia) The internet is basically a mix between the libraries and the roads, isn’t it? Absolutely essential at this point, you can’t even sign on without it. Stupid fucking hacks laughed it out of the room.
Julia Maybe we should try another provider?
Steve What’s the point? They’re all as slow as shit. (He picks up his smartphone and starts scrolling, angrily sighs and puts it down.)
Julia Did you go to the shop?
Steve Yes, the local was shut and the supermarkets were all out of everything.
Julia How am I supposed to wash my hands?
Steve Singing ‘Happy Birthday’, apparently. (Silence.) How was school?
Julia Weird. One of my class was off sick and people started freaking out.
Steve Probably just a cough or something, right?
Julia Yeah, but we still had to write to all the parents telling them not to send their kids in if they’ve got anything. (She sees Steve looking at his phone.) Steve!
Steve Sorry. (He puts down the phone.) Are you going to shut down?
Julia I don’t know. Did you hear back from the council?
Steve Yeah, they don’t want anything designing at the moment. No-one does.
Julia It’s a hard time for everyone, don’t take it personally.
Steve I’m not. (Looking at his laptop screen.) Fucking dickhead.
Steve (Laughs) Not you – it’s some posh prick who writes for The Times. I was going to ask where they keep coming from, but it’s fucking Oxford, isn’t it?
Julia I guess so, yeah. Do you mind if I put the radio on?
Steve Go for it.
Julia turns the radio on. A song ends – some Nineties indie number, or something more recent that sounds like a Nineties indie number – and the news comes on. Steve closes his laptop.
Newsreader The Prime Minister has announced a strict national lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic, to begin immediately.
Steve Most of us have already started.
Newsreader Addressing a press conference this afternoon, Boris Johnson said-
Steve (Impersonating Johnson) Ah-blah-blah, herd immunity ... ah-blah-blah, keep making us money, povvos! Ah-blah-blah! I shook hands with everybody!
Julia I’m trying to listen.
Johnson All over the world we are seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer.
Steve And all over Britain, we’re seeing the devastating impact of this irresponsible shagger.
Johnson And I want to begin by reminding you why the UK has been taking the approach that we have.
Steve Oh, let me guess ...
Steve It’ll all be online. (Looks at his phone) Bash Street cunt.
Julia turns the radio up.
Johnson And as we have seen elsewhere, in other countries that also have fantastic health care systems, that is the moment of real danger.
Steve (To himself) The moment of real danger was about six weeks ago.
Newsreader The Prime Minister went on to say that more needed to be done to control the spread of the virus.
Julia sits on the sofa. Steve closes his laptop and pays attention to the announcement.
Johnson From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home. People will only be allowed to leave their home for the following, very limited purposes: shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible; one form of exercise a day; any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person; and travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home. That’s all.
Newsreader The Prime Minister went on to say that people should not be meeting friends, or family members who do not live in their home. Shops selling non-essential goods are to close, and all social events except funerals will be put on hold. The police will enforce the rules and make sure that public gatherings in parks will be dispersed if necessary.
Julia turns the radio off. Steve sighs, loudly, and opens his laptop.
Julia That’s the schools shut then.
Steve Most likely, yeah.
Julia What are we going to do?
Steve I don’t know.
Julia Twitter going to tell you, is it?
Steve Have the school said anything?
Julia Nothing since this morning. We’ll probably move everything online.
Steve You’re going to teach seven-year-olds on Zoom?
Julia We might have to. I doubt they’ll need any teaching assistants though.
Steve I dunno – some of the old soaks might need a bit of help with the tech. (Laughs) Speaking of which, did you see what those kids in Wuhan did? Their teachers kept trying to set them homework on an app – so they all gave it one-star reviews until it got taken off the App Store.
Julia starts crying.
Julia How are we going to pay the rent?
Steve You should be alright – you’d think even this lot would keep paying you. No idea what’ll happen to the self-employed, I doubt they’ve even thought about it. (He puts his arm around Julia.) Come on love, we’ll find a way.
Julia I’d just been looking at flats on Gumtree, I thought I’d found somewhere.
Steve There’ll still be things going when this has passed.
Julia Yes darling, but I’m sick of sharing. We need our own space.
Steve We’ll be alright.
Julia (Whispers) Is Ryan still talking about moving out?
Steve He hasn’t mentioned it for a while, but he was talking about going back to his parents’ place for lockdown – a few of my friends have already left.
Julia Isn’t it too late now?
Steve He said his dad would come and pick him up, no-one’ll know.
Julia Have you two been planning this?
Steve Not really, they just know before everyone else. The Civil Service started their internal briefings about this a couple of weeks ago.
Julia (Whispers) Why didn’t he say anything?
Steve I guess he didn’t want to alarm you. The Comms teams are working overtime, obviously. Anyway, if he goes, we can see what it’s like to have our own place.
Julia I’m not sure we can wait that long.
Steve What do you mean?
Julia I think I might be pregnant.
Steve stares at the coffee table.
Julia What's wrong?
Steve Nothing. I just ... wasn’t expecting this.
Julia Neither was I.
Steve I thought you were on the pill.
Julia I stopped. Months ago.
Steve Why didn’t you tell me?
Julia You always used protection.
Steve Then why did you let me ...
Julia I was on my period. (Steve sighs.) I thought you wanted a baby?
Steve When did I say that?
Julia A couple of years ago.
Steve Yeah, but the climate crisis has got so much worse since then. Someone was posting the other day about how much of the polar ice caps have gone in the last ten years ...
Julia That hasn’t stopped you doing anything else.
Steve No, but I watched the fires in Australia and thought, “How could I bring another person into this world?”
Julia Maybe they’ll grow up to be an environmental activist. One who actually does something.
Steve The virus is going to make everything worse.
Julia We don’t know that. Those mutual aid groups you joined on Facebook – perhaps they’ll teach people to look out for each other more.
Steve Maybe – but every time I think things can’t carry on like this, they just do. If anything, they get worse.
Julia Then that’s no excuse not to do the things we want to, is it? And again – we can raise a child to fight it.
Steve I just don’t think we’re ready – especially not now we’re stuck here for God knows how long. Have you been tested?
Julia Not yet.
Steve Let’s do that before we worry about anything else. Right now, if you can.
Julia I’ll order a kit from Boots. (She takes Steve’s hand.) I’ve been thinking about it all week. I think I’ll want to keep it.
Steve lets go of her hand, sighs and falls back in his chair.
Julia What’s up?
Steve I don’t know how to tell you this ... I’ve been seeing someone else.
Julia What? With who?
Steve It’s nothing serious.
Julia Who is it?
Steve Just another graphic designer.
Julia How did you meet her?
Steve She’s mates with Ryan.
Julia What? (Shouts) Ryan!
Steve It’s not his fault.
Ryan comes in.
Ryan What’s up?
Julia Steve says he’s been seeing one of your friends.
Ryan I thought you knew?
Julia How would I know?
Ryan I thought you guys had an open relationship.
Julia Years ago.
Steve You never said we stopped.
Julia I thought it was obvious, as we were talking about getting married. (To Steve) What’s her name? Where does she live?
Steve It doesn’t matter, I can’t see her now anyway.
Ryan Sorry guys, I’m supposed to be on a call. I’ll see if I can rearrange.
Julia There’s nothing to say.
Ryan rushes back to his room.
Ryan (Offstage) Oh, for fuck’s sake!
Juliet Jacques (b. Redhill, 1981) is a writer and filmmaker based in London. She has published two books, Rayner Heppenstall: A Critical Study (Dalkey Archive, 2007) and Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015). Her short fiction, essays and journalism have appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, New York Times, Frieze, Granta, London Review of Books, Sight & Sound and many others. Her short films have screened in festivals and galleries worldwide. She also hosts the radio programme/podcast Suite (212), which looks at the arts in their social, cultural and political contexts. Her next book, a volume of short stories that tell the history of British trans and non-binary people entitled Variations, will be published by Influx Press in June 2021.