Ten year old Polly and a 79 year old author write to each other, with the girl demanding a new book in the writer's fantasy series. But the writer, taking care of the farm house left to her by her recently deceased brother, is suffering from writer's block.
Things aren't quite what they seem: Polly's antique advice to "make up the fire" and "switch on the wireless" sits awkwardly with her more modern language, and it's soon clear that Polly is "Paula"'s younger self.
Through a series of remembered incidents, the writer pulls us deeper into her early family life, and begins to peel away the layers of defence that she's developed since running away from home so long ago. Although we only ever hear two voices, Anna Massey and Leah Verity White bring these episodes vividly to life, with each one reaching closer and closer to the painful truth about Polly/Paula's mother.
The story of the melting doll, hurled into the fire by Polly in anger and confusion at her mother's hysteria, is unsettling and ignites our need to understand the strange dynamics of this big, stressed family.
The past can't be changed, but we can alter the way it affects us in the present. The writer finds a way through the block by imagining the story she can never know: the reason behind her mother's depression. Paradoxically, the breakthrough comes through telling a story that doesn't centre on "you" - that is, herself. It's as if the writer has to get out of her own light in order to see something new. And that something isn't a new story, but a new side to an old story.
I thought I might lose it when both characters (or both aspects of the character) begin to weep at the culmination of the tragic story the writer has created. But the play doesn't leave us at this low, albeit cathartic, moment. In the final part we meet Polly and her siblings in the winter, tracking a snow leopard in the snow, and finding their own footprints magically turned into those of giants.
It's difficult to present an entire world, and people it with real characters, with just two voices and minimal sound effects. But this sparse production is absolutely engaging. We feel as if we have lived through the writer's years of self-blame and self-denial, and the relationship between the young and old Polly never feels artificial or forced. Stirring, satisfying and even suspenseful, this is an excellent example of the intimate, emotional drama that radio can do so well.
Writer ...... Anna Massey
Polly ...... Leah Verity White
Produced by Clive Brill at Pacificus and broadcast on Thursday 13 August 2009 at 14:15 on BBC Radio 4.