Used to Be
3rd Place Prizewinner
Elizabeth Baines’ collection of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World, is published by Salt. She is also the author of prize-winning plays for radio and stage and is an occasional actor. She writes the Fictionbitch blog and also blogs at her website, www.elizabethbaines.com. She has recently completed a novel.
I’m holding my seat with both hands here, we’re hurtling along the motorway, nose to tail, towards the set of a student film we’ve both agreed to be in, Sally’s giving me a lift and no way is she driving with concentration, she’s laughing her head off, she’s telling me a story, how she spent a year in Lanzarotte. What a life, she says, My God, life-a-Reilly, fantastic cheap food, drinks in the bar all day long, I only came back because I got fat, you wouldn’t think it, would you, I used to be fat? No you wouldn’t, just look at her, stomach flat as a teenage anorexic’s, on show in her hipster micro-mini, schoolgirl hair down her back, you’d never know she was forty, though that’s what she’s playing in the film because nowadays all the heroes and goodies must look as though they never had a past.
Well also, she says, laughing, we’d outstayed our visas, though but actually we outstayed them ages before, but the cops, see, they were our mates, once a week they rounded us up and stuck us in the cell for an hour and then came for a drink! And she gives a loud crack: whenever she laughs she throws her head back—eyes off the road—and when she talks she always shouts; and now she flings her skinny bare arm out, she’s driving one-handed, and in the hand she’s flailing she’s holding a nut bar, she’s eating too.
She slides me a look—my grip tightens—her wide mouth pursed now over a grin, maybe she thinks I’m shocked by the visa-dodging story, or maybe that’s just the way her mouth happens to close on her teeth: I didn’t know then—it wasn’t exactly my priority—and I don’t know now, now that I’m writing it down.
I used to be a writer who decided for her characters what they were thinking. But something happened, call it age or call it time or call it all the stuff that’s happening now in the world. I used to write in measured sentences but now mostly I haven’t the patience, not now the world is running away with us. I used to hide behind the third person, but I’m admitting it now, that was me, this is me, clinging onto my seat while she guns us along and yatters: maybe she’s just oblivious, she’s onto another story now. She’ll miss the exit, she’s done it both times before, however soon beforehand I warn her, and while she’s off in the world of her story the car in front zooms closer and the dial on the clock nudges 90, and my life as well as the road begins rushing by.
You wouldn’t believe it, she is saying, this morning, broad daylight, we had the front door to our flats kicked in, we heard this banging and then this splintering! And I’m seeing the crackhead, which she says he was, which he must be, the way things are now, kicking the door in the brilliant summer morning, her boyfriend running down through the shadowed corridors to accost him, and yet my past life is flashing, a memory gleaming brightly of bright-green marsh all around me: I was six, I had gone to pick a flower, a bright-red flower; somehow, oblivious, I’d found my way without sinking, and then suddenly I was trapped by water and lethal green moss on all sides….
But the images of her story are also unfolding: the little rundown front garden, the gate which doesn’t fit banging on the gatepost as the boyfriend ejects the crackhead, and all the leaves on the trees in that street glittering in the morning sun. And there in bright sunshine too are the motorway barriers whipping beside us, and in my head also the image of the film set we’re driving towards: a small suburban semi, a white plastic door with stained-glass roses; and, since we might not make it the way things are going, the image of us arriving if we do; and the story of the film, a young woman violently attacked, and the characters we’re playing—me a loud-mouthed factory-worker neighbour, and she the girl’s calm and sensible mother—which we’ll have to believe in and make real, and with a bit of luck will. And up above, a plane, small and bright in the late afternoon sky, going down towards the airport but seeming suspended because of the speed we’re doing, and therefore unreal, an uncertain symbol now that what has happened has happened, bright-coloured, I’d say it looked like a toy, but I no longer trust metaphors, now it’s so hard to know what things mean. And all the while, out of sequence, the images from my own life are flicking.
I used to believe in plots, but they’re too insistent and simple; there’s no such thing as a single setting or a stable scenario, they’re always an author’s lie.
It’s terrible, shouts Sally, it’s awful round our way now, it’s getting dead rough—and pictures come to me of the time I once happened to live there: the elder tree in my garden which I took as a metaphor for the life I had then, single-parent and lefty: a tree from old wives’ tales, i.e., the tales of independent women, with magical or medicinal properties, with flat creamy blossoms which I said to myself at the time were like sacrament plates. I was hopeful, I was tough and brave. And the image of the spider plant sweeping down from my mantelpiece with all its optimistic vegetative spider plant babies; and then the image of it smashed: I threw it at my married lover. I wasn’t tough, I wasn’t brave, I wept and despaired.
And flashing past with the bridges are all my selves, the single mother, the hippy student, the middle-class housewife giving dinners, the teacher’s pet swot, the efficient no-nonsense young professional. And the victim: the young woman put down by her macho male boss, the child the boys threw stones at, flicked school-dinner custard to land in her hair. And then a memory popping up to surprise and shame me: the day I lay in wait with my sister for two girls from the slums and taunted them all the way to school and pulled their hair. The bully.
You should see it at night now, yells Sally, her voice scandalous but also filled with relish, and a sign comes up, we’re halfway there, at least we’ve made it halfway there, to the tiny hall beyond the plastic door, and the two student director-producers in their jeans, and the intent cameraman with his cowboy gait who has a problem, in that cramped kitchen, with camera angles. And I take my eyes off the road and look out at the fields, a flat plain reclaimed from the sea, and my recurring nightmare comes to me, the dream of flooding I’ve had since a child, the sea surging inland or slipping round insidiously, slyly, and very soon the deadly silver stretching to the horizon all round. I used to think it was insecurity, but maybe it was a premonition, the way the world is going. Or maybe it was telling me that in spite of what narrative so often tells us, nothing, including our personalities, is stable, but fluid.
Sally rubs her nose: takes the hand still holding the nut bar and puts the heel of it on her nose and vigorously wiggles, and I tense, she has to be obscuring her view. She takes it away again—I relax just a little—she says, garrulous, excuse me, I’m not being rude, I have to do that, I have trouble breathing—I tense again—my nose got broken, I was badly beaten up last year. My jaw as well, she says, I had to have it set, I don’t want to talk about any of it, though. And she’s already onto something else and laughing. Maybe she was lying, maybe it’s just the tyranny of stories, the way they take you over with their own internal logic and their pull towards drama, you say one thing and the story turns it into something else.
Yet the scene comes to me vividly: the dark suburb she says is dangerous now, the muggers huddled in hoodies and Sally approaching with vulnerably naked legs and arms…. But my own life’s still unspooling, and I’m hearing a sound from a day when my marriage was failing, I took the pushchair to the park, it was a winter afternoon and going dark already, and the sound was the sound of ducks landing on the pond, a sound of slicing, or tearing, I heard it then as a symbol for what was happening to my marriage, a central symbol in a story of ending, mine. Which would only be one story because then I got happy, but I have to say I can’t hear ducks landing on water without that particular story surfacing and its sadness sweeping me again.
Sally’s scrabbling in her pocket—she’s finished her nut bar—someone hoots, we must have swerved; she pulls out a pair of sunspecs, white with a little strawberry to echo the big one on her tiny T-shirt, she says, I love sunpsecs, I’ve got eight pairs, all different colours! It’s like bras and pants, she tells me, I have to match them, which is why I wear a different bra every day. And she laughs. She’s put the specs on now, they’re like a child’s specs, she looks about ten. I’m in danger of constructing a character now: I’m not privy to how she’s feeling but I can’t help thinking she’s just not a serious person.
We miss the exit. And this time we miss the next one, the last one off before the bridge across the river south, there’s no choice but to cross it and then turn around. On the bridge there are road works: we hit the build-up and she leans on the brakes. Now we’re crawling.
My life has stopped flying by me, the past sinks back; the bright bollards, the glittering cars, the high-up bridge girders, take on a vivid pressing presence. I have room to think of being irritated—I told her once again to get ready for the exit, once again she didn’t—there’s a potential drama between us now, me being annoyed and maybe trying not to show it, but I don’t know if I am, I no longer even know if I’m a person who gets annoyed about such a thing, and I wouldn’t like to say how she’d feel if I did. We’re practically standing and the queue stretches ahead right across the half-mile bridge. We have to call to say we’ll be late for filming.
Of course, she tells me many stories, laughing as we crawl to the other side, about Lanzarotte, about the band she sings in, about where she shops for clothes and what this outrageous shop assistant said. Trying to turn back we get lost on a ring-road freeway; we take a turn towards the south and I fail for several miles to persuade her to turn back again. We inch back across the bridge. This is the turning, I tell her, but she misses it, and we have to take another, a long way round. We get lost in the town. This is it, I say, this is the way we went the both times before. No, it’s not, she says, and drives on and round and round.
At last we’re there. She laughs in delight as she pulls up. She breezes before me through the plastic door with roses, and they’re all waiting, the other actors, the directors and the film crew: my god, we got lost! She’s regaling them, entertaining them with our adventure, our story, what a hoot, and what a menace those road signs, really confusing, and those roadworks shouldn’t be allowed in rush hour: all scandalized relish and laughter.
. . .
It’s night filming we’re doing. It’s dark now. Here we are, dressed for the characters we’re playing, me in my factory overall, she in a housewife’s apron. We’ve been waiting for hours while they set up the shoot for this scene, this construct, in which we find the girl, the daughter of the character Sally is playing, who’s been violently attacked.
The clock has eased into the early hours. We’re exhausted, so tired we don’t need makeup after all to make us look our haggard parts.
She’s petulant suddenly, stroppy: she says, if this was an Equity job we could demand time and a half.
She says, drama-queen peevish, this scene is really difficult.
Then, as if she realizes she’s overstepped it: I think it’s really important, this film, I think it’s wonderful they’re making it—and now she sounds pious and even precious. Stripped of her makeup she looks more her age, I’ve noticed, yet there’s something more childlike in her bluish unadorned skin.
I suddenly see that her nose and eyes are red with unshed tears.
She sees that I’ve seen. She says, okay, I’ll tell you.
Tell me what?
Who it was beat me up last year.
She says, my last boyfriend, the guy I went to Lanzarotte with. She says, that’s who I thought the crackhead was this morning, I thought he’d found where I live.
And there it was, a different plot about Sally from the one I’d after all been constructing (plots as refuge, plots as traps), and which has still been working itself out as I’ve written, pushing up its fear and sadness and making me remember some scenes from my own life better than others which flashed before me on the motorway that day….
But then she rallied and dried her eyes, and the studious-looking young actor playing the hoodie came in, transformed in his costume, and she gave a loud cracking laugh.