An extract from Ella Thompson’s play We’re Sorry We Cut Off His Head, winner of the UEA undergraduate Snoo Wilson Award 2020
HEROD’S BIRTHDAY PARTY
A room in a university.
Three men sit at a table. A girl sits away from them. She is holding a piece of paper.
CELIA: It’s quarter past six and I leave the office.
I have fifteen minutes to make it there.
It’s Doable but it’s not easy.
There is a callus-like Blister, thing, squished between my big toe and my second.
This Ambiguous Lump has burst and I can feel a surprising amount of liquid (pus or blood) Collecting in my heel.
I have spent the last half hour of the meeting worrying that it will seep through the material of my shoe.
I’m on the bus now. I like the bus- gives me a moment to-
Choose the back seat on the bus. Next to the window.
Getting the bus in six o’clock traffic in London is one of the most masochistic things you can do. And I check my phone every forty seconds.
Above all I try not to see how Rough my reflection looks in my screen.
Instead I spend the journey rubbing my two toes together, causing Sharp Stinging hurt-
But I can’t help it. It feels nice. Feels oddly comforting-
Better than looking at the time, the minutes or worse: unplucked eyebrows and peeling lips. Falling off eyelash…
I don’t have any eyelash glue. Shit!
I attempt to stick it back on my face but my nails get in the way.
He recently paid for me to have them done at Nail Garden Spa.
They are an inch long and make wanking impossible.
Time? Six twenty-five. Mother (fucker)…
We pull up to my stop. It’s not a long journey, doesn’t feel long either.
I squeeze my toes together really tight. Ding, ding.
I approach the back entrance of the building and let my hair down as Oscar opens the Door for me. He knows I’m late. Knows I’ve gotta be fast.
Some girls need ages to get in the mind set- Psssh.
Who has time for that?
I’m always in a rush.
Always thinking about something I shouldn’t be.
One of the men coughs.
As I enter I see a small red patch that is growing on the fabric of my heel.
(to the men) Do you want me to keep going?
And It’s dark. In here. It’s always…
I can’t see but I button down my blouse and slip off my skirt. Try and stick this cunting eyelash back on my face.
I think he likes us getting ready in the black, makes us look a bit more messy- bit wild.
The bell rings.
And I open the door.
‘Let there be light.’
It’s a big room: The Throne Room. There’s all these colours and music. And there’s a disco ball. Men sculk around in the sidelines, they drink, talk to girls.
I wonder if they’re having fun. Wonder what their lives are like when they’re not here.
Wonder if they think the same about me.
King sits in the middle, on the Throne: Obviously.
He smiles when he sees me. A Big Warm Birthday smile.
I walk into the centre of the room.
As I do so, he gives me a nod, presses play on a remote.
It’s ritual now.
Groove Is In The Heart starts playing. And I Begin To Dance. This is my Art; I know what to do.
I begin to convulse my body, starting slow then allowing myself to move- to be lead around the room. I isolate my body parts allowing each one of them in turn to tell the story of my movement. At one point in the piece, I pull down the banner that says ‘Happy Birthday Herod’ and Use It. Spin it, dance with it. It becomes an extension of my body. I wrap it around his neck at the end and he shifts in his chair, still smiling that Great Big Smile.
He’s got Nothing on my Joy though. When I dance. When I’m making That, I’m the happiest in the world.
I’m not me when I’m dancing; I’m some other-
And King Herod asks me to sit on his lap as I catch my breath. He says although it’s His Birthday, I can have anything in the world. Anything I want; up to half his kingdom.
If I asked.
And I don’t have to think. Don’t have to pause. Don’t have to ask someone for advice.
‘I want St John’s head on a platter.’ I say.
Conversation’s stopped. The room goes quiet.
Everyone’s looking at Herod.
His smile’s gone now.
‘Anything else?’ He says.
‘Yeah. Can the platter be silver?’
Here’s the part they got wrong: Salome Killed him.
No one did it for me, did me a ‘solid’.
They brought him into the middle of the room. A bag over his head. Soon to be mine.
I took off the bag; I wanted him to see his eyes as I-
You want me to?
The men nod again.
When I began: cutting- it felt like dancing.
I felt Ecstatic. Every movement felt like I was telling a story. Telling everyone in the room what he had done to my family- me.
I was disappointed with my audience. Now they looked away. I heard some puke. I heard some leave the room.
I don’t know what Herod did, when it got to the grisly parts; I wasn’t paying attention.
I was focusing on
Back and forth. Back and forth. Cutting stubborn ligaments with my newly done nails.
But it takes a long time to cut off a head.
And by the time I had got through the bone I was a different person.
It was the joy I get from dancing, but it had turned into something…
I’m scared of it.
But I just wanted everyone to know that it wasn’t Herod, it wasn’t my mother.
It was me.
TOM: And this, please.
CELIA: Well it’s an image.
CELIA: It’s… It’s an image of a severed head. Of a man-
TOM: And it’s labelled:
CELIA: It’s labelled in my appendix.
TOM: The appendix please.
Harry passes Tom the appendix. Tom passes it to Celia.
CELIA: It’s labelled St. John The Bag of Shit.
TOM: Thank you. We just wanted to clarify a few things.
He looks to the other men.
So, Celia. This is the opening to your dissertation.
CELIA: Yes, Correct
DICK: It’s Quite Rude, isn’t it?
TOM: And, what was your reasoning behind beginning the piece in such a graphic way?
CELIA: Well, I wouldn’t Exactly call it graphic-
DICK: You wouldn’t?
CELIA: Well, no.
DICK: The narrator decapitates a man.
CELIA: Well, yeah.
CELIA: The girl. In the piece. Herod’s dancer.
DICK: Yes. We’re Aware.
CELIA: I just thought maybe you didn’t get it.
TOM: (dry) I think we’ve all read the Bible.
DICK: And your commentary.
TOM: Did you draw this?
Tom holds up the drawing of the severed head.
CELIA: Yes… Yeah, I thought it would Help
CELIA: As a visual Aid.
TOM: And you don’t think this is Graphic?
CELIA: Well, I didn’t write the Bible.
TOM: Yes, Celia. We are aware that you… didn’t write the Bible. But that’s not how the story goes, in the Bible.
CELIA: I know, I wanted to do something different.
Beat. Tom writes something down.
CELIA: Because St. John Is Decapitated.
TOM: He is.
CELIA: I didn’t make that up.
TOM: He’s not decapitated with “inch long nails”.
DICK: -“That make wanking impossible.”
DICK: So that was Your Invention.
CELIA: It was but-
HARRY: I remember the Whole Thing gave me a terrible nightmare.
I remember when I read Celia’s first draft I was eating my dinner. It was some sort of Meat: Yes, it was Steak. I remember because it was stubborn. It was “back and forth”, “cutting stubborn ligaments”. Yes, it was very rare I think. No. No. That’s not right actually. It was chicken. I know it was definitely chicken because It was red near the bone. Not undercooked, but when frozen chicken thaws and the Redness of the flesh’s pigment seeps out near the bone. It was that. And I remember as I cut into the meat, thinking about how long it takes to cut off a head. And I thought: what a horrible thing to think, on a Sunday night by the fire, when you’re having your Roast Chicken. But I had to look it up! Had to look up: How Long Does It Take To Cut Off A Head. I’m sure you could get in Trouble for that- But, I thought it might help Celia. Maybe she got something wrong: like It takes an hour, blood spurts everywhere. I’m sure blood does spurt everywhere when you Clip the right artery. Anyway as I was typing this into Google, I feel something unexpected in my mouthful of chicken. And as I reached into my mouth, I pull out a little a bone from the bird. And It makes me think: what bones would Salome have to cut through? I tell a lie: Maybe it wasn’t chicken. Perhaps it was a Fish? Of some sort. A whole fish, the entire Body. Because I remember the empty eye sockets. And that was very key.
Stay with me; this has a Point. That night I had a dream and it was one of those dreams where you wake up in your own bed and everything appears identical to reality. Except I kept feeling something in my mouth. Something between my teeth or at the back of my throat. And. I thought I could hear a little girl crying, well a small child, But as it was a dream, for some reason I knew it was a girl. So, I crept down the stairs, tried not to wake my wife. The noise was coming from inside the Washing Machine, in the cupboard in the kitchen. The noise is louder now and I Really don’t want to wake my wife. I open up the washing machine, it’s not On by the way, I just think the Little Girl has crawled inside. And when I open it up, it’s filled with little girl’s dresses and I pull them out and I pull them out, pull them out more and I look inside the machine. And, at the very back, is a Severed Head. With empty eye sockets. Exactly Like The Fish.
I am so Revolted by this sight, so Irritated by this thing lodged at the back of my throat, that I vomit. Except, this is key: I vomit up Bones. But not just bones, Bones and Fingernails. Plastic fake nails amongst the vomit and bones. Horrifying. And guess what? I get woken up from this dream, by my wife who’s on the iPad. She wants to know why I’ve been looking up the ins and outs of cutting off a head. It was quite funny actually.
All that from fingernails.
CELIA: Maybe, maybe the chicken was undercooked?
HARRY: No; I’m sure it was fish