Horizon Review

Elizabeth Baines: Possibility



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Elizabeth Baines

Elizabeth Baines

Elizabeth Baines’ collection of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World, was recently published in Salt Modern Fiction. ‘Possibility’ is one of a new series of short stories on which she is working, and another has won third prize in the Raymond Carver Short Story Competition 2008. She is an award-winning playwright for radio and stage and the author of two novels, Body Cuts and the critically-acclaimed The Birth Machine. She is also an occasional actor. She writes the well-regarded Fiction Bitch blog and also blogs at http://elizabethbaines.blogspot.com. Her website is at www.elizabethbaines.com.

Author photo © Tom Wright

Possibility

So you have reached the age of possibility.

You woke in the early hours. Morning crouched in blackness. The cat watched you with his wide but unimpressed green eyes. Jake stirred as you left his side, giving off his faint yeasty smell. You fed the cat, you picked up your bags, ready-packed with your laptop and files, you stole out to the taxi and sped through London streets widened by emptiness, between buildings pulled back ready for the day. You caught the 6 p.m. train. And here you are now tucked up in the seat you reserved, in the quiet carriage at the front of the train, the tilting Pendolino which will whip you in only just over two hours to your part-time post as a lecturer of Art, with a table for your laptop so you can put the finishing touches your lecture, and facing the engine so when it starts to get light you can see the day opening up in the direction youíre going.

You settle back, you take off your shoes.

You are thirty-one years old. You have made it, as far as anyone can make it, in this age of short-term contracts, of the cult of the Next New Thing, and the consequent need to keep reinventing yourself. But then youíre an artist, your stock-in-trade is invention, and because of who you are now you look on that as a stimulating challenge.

You are not the person you were. You see that person, that girl, as another, moving on a coloured screen you switch on sometimes just to compare: and there she is, unsure, she never really knew what she wanted to do, she thought it was English, she thought sheíd be a writer, and at one time a musician. All those times she left her violin on the bus, the parachute of realization dropping around her as she stepped to the pavement and the bus pulled away. That was in the days when things and people gone from sight were out of touch, more or less, when you had to make efforts to contact them, when teenagers like you, like her, didnít have mobile phones. Youíd have to go home to phone the depot, and Mum and Dad would be rolling their eyes, humorous but weary: a scatterbrain, a kook, thatís what theyíd got you down as, that was the character in which you thought you were trapped.

But you made it out of it, didnít you? Now youíre a competent coper, here in an age when you simply press a button and, sitting in a London railway station, send the images to your students in Manchester, ready for the seminar today.

You get out your laptop.

A fortyish man in a pin-striped shirt takes the seat opposite, keying into his Blackberry.

OR:

You took your blue pin-striped shirt off the back of the door where you hung them all when the girl brought them back in their silky plastic covers and collected the dirty ones. Itís what youíve been doing, having them cleaned professionally, since Jenny left with the kids. Itís a cinch, no hassle, just the inconvenience of having to be in when she comes, and the ache in your chest when she shoves her short blonde hair behind her ear like that, which you know to squash, because you know itís only a rebound mechanism, and youíre not sentimental: if thereís one thing you can do in life, even when it comes to Jenny leaving, itís cope.

Letís face it, you despise anyone who canít.

And wouldnít you know it, the world is full of non-copers.

Like these jokers who run these trains. Last week: an hour late to your meeting in Manchester because some idiot forgot to get out of bed to drive the fucker you were booked on, and the chimpanzees in charge had no contingency plans for such an event. You canít believe it, or rather you can: no one thought that far ahead, or had the wit to conceive the contingency. A world of technology, of possibility, and all its potential wasted because itís in the hands of numbskulls and slackers.

And in the autumn: three hours late on account of a national joke, leaves on the line. And weíre meant to swallow it, the idea that when for two centuries such flimsy organic matter was never any trouble, it stops the heavier, faster trains of today in their tracks.

Here comes another non-coper: a bewildered-looking woman shrouded in Asian clothing, bundled onto the train by a smartly-dressed Asian man. You donít blame her, youíre not that much of a bastard; even so, incompetence and inexperience are not things you like to look at for long.

You turn to your laptop, and the figures youíll be presenting in just over three hoursí time.

OR:

You try to stop your heart thumping as Ahmed drives you through the dark early-morning streets. Youíre brave now, which is why you insisted on making this trip, youíre in a brave new world where women travel alone. Youíve come so far already, alone by air to join Ahmed, though that was easier of course, with Ahmed waiting at the other end. This is more of an adventure, even though your cousin will meet you: youíve never met him after all, or most of the cousins up there in the unknown damp north of this land.

You ought to be excited, and you are. Not afraid.

Youíve come so far already. Youíve learnt the language, youíve even started to think in it. And youíre someone arenít you, the wife of a rich businessman, driven to the station in comfort, leaning on plush leather, Ahmedís large hands lightly controlling the wheel. But thatís the trouble: in a very short while heíll no longer be there, youíll be alone in a world where people see your jilaabah as a sign of repression or simply strange and unwelcome and, with discomfort or distaste, look away.

Or is this the real trouble: the fact that you do after all need Ahmed in this way?

You hate these thoughts; they make a knot in your stomach, best to squash them, concentrate on the practicalities, although of course Ahmed takes care of those: parking the car, quickly finding a trolley for your bag, marching you along the platform without any hesitation, right to the front of the train. So quickly, you hardly notice how he does it all, you miss the signs, the details passing you by so quickly that once youíre left on your own you wonít have the knowledge or experience to cope Ö

Ahmed stacks your case, settles you finally, and then heís going, heís gone and your heart empties out.

You catch the eyes of the two people with laptops on the other side of the aisle.

The young woman smiles but the man looks away quickly.

The train begins to move.

OR:

You ease the power lever, you pull the train out of the station and under the light-polluted sky. The monitor flickers, translating the signals transmitted to track-mounted receivers and picked up by the trainís antennae.

Your stomach rumbles. You think of your kids still asleep as you left them, way to your left beneath the sulphur-coloured sky.

Youíre a meld of human and machine, at the nub of a vast sophisticated system, not long before it will be even vaster and more sophisticated, guided by satellites in the orange sky.

Youíre in control but you also know that no system is infallible. Thereís always human error, and each technological innovation brings its new, often unimagined problems. Take leaves on the line: the new previously unimagined speeds and weight of trains blasting the leaves into a carbonized coating which can cause the wheels to spin and fatally damage the lines. The unknown factor: itís remembering this which is part of your control.

The monitor flickers: clearance for tilting speed  You slide the accelerator, the grey houses become fluid, the north-London suburb where your kids are still sleeping flicks by in an instant, turned invisible

The cab around you explodes.

AND THEN:

You hear the bang, you hear no feel the wheels hit an object and then the screeching fills your ears, your brain, your every cavity and vein; you know it: the train is being derailed, you took your shoes off, the train is crashing and youíll need them, but you canít reach them, as the train goes on braking youíre pushed forward over the table  

– youíre pushed backwards, your backís to the engine, the safest place for a crash, but all to no avail because when the impact comes that woman across the table will come flying towards you, smash your skull

– and the screaming inside you is the scream of the dreadful possibility which has always been inside you and which Ahmed never understood Ö and all the other, better possibilities are flying away from you, and Ahmed himself, his long face, his comfortable hands

– Jake curled in the bed is flying away from you

– your kids, their futures without you sealed now anyway forever, screaming off into the black impassive night.

The screaming stops. The train stops.

The lights go out, a missed heartbeat, a moment of blankness, and then the blinking fluorescence of emergency lights coming on.

There is silence, dead silence, as everyone adjusts to the fact: the train didnít crash. And then the murmurs begin, people asking each other what happened.

What happened. Itís over, you think, adjusting your pin-striped collar: whatever happened, the safety system kicked in. Whatever it was, it didnít lead to calamity, to the end-stop which in those moments you thought was coming. You were wrong. To feel afraid was an error. Whatever happened was an error, overcome. You tap your keyboard, the screen lights up again, the wi-fi kicks back, you get back to the true reality: your network, people you can influence, people who can help you, your own beautiful system. The door behind you, the door leading to the cab, opens and someone bursts out, the train manager, and rushes down the carriage with an air of panic, unable presumably to take calmly a glitch in the system, in other words do his job; too preoccupied to answer the passengers attempting to ask him what happened though no doubt in reality what happened isnít worth comment, and itís over, no point in fuelling the wide-eyed stress of the women the Asian one across the aisle, leaning over to ask the one opposite you whatís going on, pointlessly perpetuating a sense of drama, which although youíre not sexist you have to say in your experience women do. You get back to your figures.

You donít know, you tell the Asian woman. The train has stopped with the first carriage, this carriage, just inside a suburban station, you canít tell which, thereís no sign in sight. The train manager comes back, making for the cab again; heís past before you can accost him and gone through the door. But a moment later heís back at a rush again, and this time you see his face: ashen white. You stand up in his path, you demand: Whatís happened? Heís trembling, his voice is shaking as he tells you: Weíve hit a person.

What? What is it? you ask the woman who spoke to the manager.  You can say this without having to think, you can think in the language now, but when she answers you canít make sense of the words, you just know that theyíre the leaking edges of the black pit  youíve been afraid of always and about which Ahmed has never guessed. The sense of the words settles at last, they form into concrete sounds and a terrifying picture: someone threw themselves off a bridge and landed on the cab. You move over to the aisle seat, closer to the young English woman who is giving you these monumental words.

You stay in the aisle seat, you sense the Asian woman needs you to. Now someoneís running on the platform with a torch, and off the end of the platform towards the carriages behind. You remember the judder of the wheels and the sound like a crunch. You feel sick. After a short while he comes back again, and the train manager comes back too, hurrying parallel inside the train, and disappears once more towards the cab. Without warning, the lights go out again. Blackness, punctured by the wondering exclamations of people further down the carriage, people who wouldnít have heard what the manager told you. Your eyes begin to adjust: a weak light from the platform is infiltrating the darkness and picking out the guy opposite. And you canít believe it, you canít fucking believe it: heís still working on his laptop. He stops working though now, and gets out his phone.

You tell them in Manchester: you wonít be making the meeting now; fatality on the line. A phrase you hear so often itís hard to believe itís no less of an excuse than those leaves, and these guys running around like headless chickens have no experience of dealing with it, it seems. And hereís two more jokers, lit up in the doorway by a bundle of glo-sticks one of them is carrying: two young lads, catering staff, dithering before the door and making it open and shut and hover halfway, and whispering nervously: Shall we do it now? Ö Yes! Ö What, now? Ö Yes, go on! And one of them pushes the other into the compartment. The one with the glo-sticks leans above you and places one in a bracket, and you can see your keyboard properly again.

You canít believe it, you canít fucking believe it, but the guy opposite is tapping away at his laptop again. One of the catering lads is carrying a box. He turns to the guy, hesitates, turns away again and catches your eye. Somewhere in the distance thereís the wail of an ambulance siren, coming closer, and it hits you why itís dark again, why they would need to turn off the electricity, and just as the nausea threatens to overwhelm you the lad puts his hand in the box and brings something out and asks you: Díyou  want a Twix? And then the ambulance arrives screaming, and in the darkness outside luminous jackets flicker, making their way down the outside of the train. Here inside theyíre still giving out the Twixes, but before theyíre halfway down the carriage the train manager comes in and announces theyíre evacuating the train.

You spin: evacuating, what does this word mean? You should know, you do yet you donít, youíve lost your bearings and the words are spinning, you ask the English woman to be sure: What did he say?

You tell her, and she jumps up quickly, you know why, she wants to stay close, sheís relying on you now, the one who thought to ask what happened, the coper, but youíre not actually coping, you feel sick.

You put your laptop away smartly, youíre in the front carriage and just in the station, which is lucky, but the others will be herded this way, so youíd better get off quick. You grab your coat and youíre off, ready to be the first on whatever emergency transport theyíve laid on.

Thereís no emergency transport. The Asian woman sticks close as you question the station guard. He shrugs his shoulders: youíll need to go to Watford Junction. You ask him how. He tells you thereís a bus stop outside the station. People are pouring now from the front door of the train, soon the platform will be crowded and the sight will be hidden: the knot of luminous jackets crouched down beside the train. The Asian woman is asking, What shall we do? And you gather your wits, you realize you need to be quick to the bus stop, you avert your eyes from the huge dent in the cab, and lead her forward to the exit. You canít believe it, you canít fucking believe it, that thereís no system, nothing, to get people out of this situation, and nothing for the trauma beside a fucking tricksy box of Twix. You get to the bus stop, and the man with the pin-striped shirt is there before you, talking on his phone.

They canít believe it in the Manchester office. You can believe it only too well, you tell them grimly, and put away your phone as others, headed by the two women, straggle up.

You struggle onto the bus with your case and the Englishwoman helps. You sit beside her all the way to Watford Junction, you follow her into the station, you stand close as you wait for the next train. When it comes, the standard carriages are crowded. Here, says the Englishwoman, rushing along the platform to first class. But we donít have the tickets, you protest as you catch up with her. Itís OK, she insists, they canít not let us, not after whatís happened, and she grabs at your bag and helps to heave it up.

You overtake the two women and hop into a different first-class carriage. And here you are, on course again. The day has closed back over the gruesome incident, the inconvenience has been minimized, the incompetence of railway management notwithstanding, and youíll only be an hour late for the meeting after all.

Youíve ended up in the first-class dining car. Youíre at a table with three others, and the Asian woman is once more seated across the aisle from you. The waiter comes along the carriage, asking to see peopleís breakfast tickets. You explain why you havenít got one. He says, Well, heíll have to ask you to move. You cry: What?!!  You hear the way it comes out of you, a high-pitched squawk, which makes others around you jump, and turn and stare. His face is impassive. No, heís sorry, but you donít have a ticket for breakfast, so he has to ask you to move. And then you lose it. Youíve just got off a train where someone committed suicide, youíve just been through an experience for which you ought have fucking counselling, leave alone a seat on a train, and heís quibbling about a ticket! And youíre yelling this, the plugís been pulled on all the tension and youíre really yelling, and youíre trembling, vibrating with anger and sorrow and all that old, old, fear of everything slipping out of controlÖ His face is a mask. He says heís sorry, you can stay in first class, but he really canít allow you to sit in the dining car. He waits for you to stand. Trembling, you do so. Trembling, you move to the next carriage. Through the window the horizon is now visible, tipping into view as the train tilts towards it on wide bend, and the sky above it is leaking open with a harsh naked light. You can hear the guy with the pinstripes a few seats away, talking with ghoulish yet chirpy satisfaction on his phone. You think of Jake, rising from the bed now and moving to his computer, and the image is a flat picture on a faraway screen Ö

You wait for the waiter to move you the way he moved the other young woman. He glances across at you. He looks away and bustles off. Something has stopped him, the fear of another harangue, perhaps, or maybe your clothes creating a barrier he didnít feel he could surmount. Youíre here alone now, without her. Youíre on your own. Well, youíre safe, after all. All you have to do now is get out your phone youíve remembered your phone because your cousin needs to know youíll be late. First of course you must ring Ahmed, you want to tell Ahmed, and Ahmed will want to know. And heíll say heíll ring your cousin, heíll take over, heíll wrap you in the blanket of his competence and concern, and youíll relax and be glad yet, as always, youíll also resent relaxing and being glad. Your finger hovers above the button. Through the window light is spreading rapidly over the moving plain. You punch in your cousinís number instead.

There is no system for dealing with this: the sound of the explosion above your head replaying over and over, and the moment you knew it was a body,  impacting with the huge metal machine of which you were the head, at a speed of one hundred and twenty miles per hour plus the rate at which it was falling, splitting the metal, opening up a black chasm which no counsellor sitting before you, no system in the world can breach, into which the horror of possibility will go on leaking foreverÖ.

OR:

You step into the night and shut the door behind you.

But if only a door could shut it off, if closing your eyes could shut it off, her face when she told you, her upper lip coming down over her slightly protruding front tooth. That was what hooked you, that first time you met her, that expression: the spirit, the determination it revealed. You wanted that, you needed that, you wanted to be linked to it, absorbed in it, it was what you had been yearning for all your life. Then there it was, that determined drop of the lip, moving against you, shutting you off, shutting you into this permanent loop where the picture of it plays, along with the other pictures: her shoulder turning as she finally left, the time you saw her with the other, two figures, tauntingly bright, on a technicolor screen. All night long they unfold, these pictures, behind your lids, smearing sometimes like an old-fashioned film slipping a reel, but then with a judder, a sudden slump, the reel will recover, and youíll be forced to watch them again.

Night after night. No rest, the cells of your body ragged.

Out here, the night air holds the icy breath of their indifference; it is leaking from the stars.

No escape from it.

Except this single possibility: an arrow of purpose scouring the night towards you.

It scoops you up as you plunge towards it and out of the loop at last.

 

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