Sign of the Whale Extract

Extract from ACES participant James McAleavey's play, Sign of the Whale

'Dermy and Tony are alone in the eye ward of the Royal Victoria Hospital. Dermy was blinded after being abducted in a sectarian attack – although he hasn’t told the 14-year-old Tony this. Tony was blinded after a nail bomb exploded – although he hasn’t told Dermy it was his bomb.'

They have saved up their painkillers to get out of their heads.


They are in bed. Dermy is still and silent. Tony is still laughing.

TONY: I don’t feel anything. (Laughs) I mean anything. How many did you take?
What about you? (No answer) Are you asleep?

Complete silence from Dermy.

Are you there?

Dermy is corpse-like.

Are you all right? Come on!

Tony swings his legs out of bed. He stands up, unsteadily, as if for the first time since he came into hospital.

Are you there? Are you still there?

He gropes his way to Dermy’s bed. He finally reaches it and he shakes Dermy with no success.

Wake up! It was for a laugh! You weren’t supposed to take them all!

He hauls him into a sitting position then drags him out of bed. He tries to walk him across the floor. He drags him up and down.

Come on!

DERMY: (Casually) Where are we going?

TONY: For fuck’s sake! I thought you were dead!

Dermy springs back to life in an instant, dangerously sprightly. He drags Tony with him.

DERMY: Ah yes. This way! Underwater. Underworld.

TONY: In your underpants!

: All we need is water!

He spits on the floor and stands on it.

TONY: Spot the loony, spot spot spot spot the loony bin!

DERMY: Give me your hand. Come on.

There’s another city beneath this one. You get a glimpse of it every now and then be it in a puddle or the mighty Lagan. You think it’s just a reflection of Belfast but it isn’t. It is an upside-down city which you’re actually seeing through the water. All you need to do is capsize!

: Jump on a whale’s back, takes you there.

DERMY: Splash!

: Splash!

Dermy takes a big breath as if he has emerged from being underwater.

DERMY: Ladies and gentlemen, here we are! This other city hangs as you can see from two enormous yellow skyhooks, emblazoned with the initials H&M. Harmony and Merriweather. Hot air balloon manufacturers. This city was founded on silk and hot air.

Tony is writing letters in the air. He is working out an anagram.

: You’d be at home here.

DERMY: As you can see, there are streets and streets of back-to-back mulberry bushes – that’s where the silk worms were raised to provide the raw material. At times the perfume near chokes you.

The citizens were well paid for raising the silk worms. As a consequence, there were huge rates of infant normality. They are famous here also for their cuisine. Their favourite dish is a ‘full-stir fry’, with carrots, broccoli… give us another vegetable…

TONY: Um… potatoes.

: Potatoes… the works.

TONY: They built the biggest airship ever seen, Merriweather and whatyamacallit.

DERMY: Yes. It ended in triumph. What was it called again?

TONY: Flytanic!

DERMY: The balloon industry declined after that and M&H got into silk lingerie. The manufacture of, precipitating the influx from their homes in the city’s rural hinterland large numbers of native underwear designers. Up until then it had been a Catholic city. Indeed, you can still see the enormous white marble holy water stoup, like an upturned dome, in the city centre.

TONY: The City Hole. They all got baptised in it.

DERMY: Previously the city had been famously tolerant of alternative sexuality because no fruits actually lived there… but now. Every year the lingerie designers would hang out bunting made of knickers and bras to commemorate their hero Willy the Pink. Willy the Pink entered Ireland and conquered King James, sorry, entered King James and conquered Ireland. Every year Pink men would mince on the city streets wearing suggestive hats. This did not go down well with the Catholic establishment.

TONY: There was trouble. People got hurt.

DERMY: They would come to a hospital just like this to…

TONY: …die DERMY: …get better

TONY: …get better. DERMY: …die

Dermy holds up a finger then puffs an imaginary pipe.

DERMY: Ah yes, I see now. A hospital is a reflection of its very self. Its own opposite. It’s a portal, dear boy. A crossing to another world.

TONY: We should go there. Felbast… Elfbast… no… Bestlaf!

DERMY: Bestlaf!

TONY: We should go there!


TONY: Get eyes. Get new eyes.

An uncomfortable pause.
They walk toward the audience.

DERMY: See this hospital, they never knock anything down, just keep building wards on top of labs and operating theatres over boiler rooms and putting doors where there were windows and walls where there were doors. Nobody could draw you a map except maybe the rats.

There was this porter took a wrong turn, found himself in a ward with all these ancient people, their hair had grown all over their beds, all over the floor, all this grey hair. Turned out it was a children’s ward they thought they had closed in 1936.

TONY: All right, all right, I get the picture.

DERMY: You ok? Come on. There’s somewhere I want to take you. You’ll be ok.

They reach the end of the stage. Dermy opens an imaginary door in the fourth wall.

DERMY: A secret door.

TONY: This is where you come to die.

Tony sniffs the audience.

DERMY: And get babies.

TONY: I smell something.

DERMY: This is where they keep them till they’re ready to hatch.

TONY: People! Jesus! We’re in the morgue!


TONY: Then why don’t they say anything?

DERMY: They’re quiet because… they’re not entirely here. They’re the future people. It’s 2000-and-odd in their world.

The two of them peer blindly at the audience.

TONY: Am I there?

DERMY: You might be busy.

TONY: Doing what?

DERMY: All these people are going to make a new country.

TONY: Can I see but?

DERMY: I don’t know… I don’t know that it really matters. It’ll be so exciting otherwise.

TONY: What like?

DERMY: Well… peace for a start.

TONY: Justice?

DERMY: Of course. And they’re very busy you know with… health… education.


DERMY: What do you mean ‘oh’?

TONY: It just sounds a bit… boring.

DERMY: It’s not boring!

TONY: We don’t want to be boring like everywhere else. Maybe that’s why it will never end.

DERMY: No! It ends! And it’s not boring! And kids don’t get nails in their face! And people don’t get their eyes poked out! People walk around and they can’t believe their luck, the future people. They can start from scratch. They can invent their own country. A whole new philosophy, a new economic system. That’s why they need people like you.

TONY: Can I see?

DERMY: Anyone can see! They need people with vision! People that believe in things!

TONY: Miracles don’t happen! That gear is wearing off. I’m going back to bed.

Dermy dismisses this future world as make-believe.

DERMY: Bestlaf.

They return to their beds.

TONY: ‘People don’t get their eyes poked out?’ What happened to you?

DERMY: I told you. Car.

TONY: You never finished your story. Go on. You walked down Albert Street, down Durham Street, all the way to Corporation Street…

DERMY: Albert Street?

TONY: What about it?

DERMY: You said Albert Street. You said I came down Albert Street.

TONY: No I didn’t. You did.

DERMY: I said I came down Durham Street. I didn’t say how I got to Durham Street.

TONY: You must have done.

DERMY: Deliberately. I could have come down Sandy Row. You said you saw me in the town. In the library. Passing the 147 Club. And what? You also saw me coming down Albert Street? You would have to have been following me!

Jesus, you’re one of them!

He tumbles out of the bed. He shuffles backwards on his arse. He gropes for an exit, terrified.

I’m still there amn’t I? They brought you in. To fool me. A kid!
Ah Jesus no.

TONY: Who would go to all that trouble? Who would interrogate you for days?

DERMY: Ah Jesus no.

TONY: You?

DERMY: Ah Jesus no.

Pause. Tony knows he has to reveal his secret.

TONY: It’s not all about you. We watch everything. Foot patrols. What time the helicopter comes over. Who is waiting for Confessions to start every week. Who is getting a sofa delivered they can’t afford.

I told you, I made a decision.

We play our part in the struggle to support the volunteers. It’s our job.


Dermy sits still and considers the humiliation just wrought upon him.

DERMY: It’s your job, you wee shit? You’re fourteen.

TONY: I’m not the one crying like a baby. Have a bit of dignity.

Dermy moves as quickly as he can toward Tony’s bed. He finds Ton’s head and grabs him by the hair. He pulls him out of bed.

DERMY: That nail bomb, it was yours wasn’t it? And you had me feeling sorry for you. Was anyone else hurt? Killed?

TONY: (Shaken) I don’t know. I’ve been here ever since.

DERMY: You want to know what happened to me?

He crouches beside him and puts his mouth to Tony’s ear.

I was looking for the whale. Then there was a car. I didn’t hear it.

Dermy stands with his eyes screwed shut.