A Short by James FitzRoy
Are you paying attention? Focused… more focused then me, I hope? Then I suppose I should begin.
And the beginning is always a fascinating place to start. It is never as subtle or delicate as the beginning of any event in real life – there are always gossamer filaments of events that lead to the beginning – lines that intersect and combine to create a new strand. But perhaps these can be included within character and motivation as the story progresses. Or perhaps they can just be inferred by the reader.
The story should begin with a captivating hook that draws the reader in, but sometimes even the most profound lives do not have this moment. The hook draws the reader onto a path that might twist and turn, sometimes even change directions completely but it should always lead towards a strong conclusion. But does real life have such a dramatic and final point at which to call the end? Perhaps the dramatic part isn’t the start of the story after all; perhaps it’s the meandering middle that holds the most interest and the story just peters off into nothing or evolves into another story entirely…
With this in mind, I direct your attention to the protagonist of the story: This individual will be the eyes and ears and soul on the world. She will be the person we inhabit, the person we become on our journey through her story. Her thoughts will become our thoughts, her goals, our goals. In this we will have to suspend who we are in order to fall into her character – but we will also have to bring with us our experiences – our wealth of history to help us decipher and connect; use our empathy to slip into her shoes and follow her emotional development.
The protagonist will be seen lying flat on her back, semiconscious in a bed. Bright crisp white sheets enclosing her like a caterpillar in a cocoon. She stares up at the white tiles on the ceiling. She can hear the small hum of machines, the whispers of people outside, or close by, or right next to her – she cannot determine space and time. Something is very wrong but she lacks the mental acuity to focus on the problem. Where is this place? What is she doing here? Is she the character in some horror story of her own making?
Why can’t she focus?
She tries to look around her, to get a better understanding of her environment but everything is a dreamlike haze. So she takes a deep breath – that still seems normal – and dives backward into her mind. She remembers being in an accident; a car crash but no matter how much she tries to recollect, she cannot refine the details. She begins to panic. What if she was paralysed? What if someone had died? What if she had killed someone? Did she have a passenger? No, no, she was alone. It was late, it was raining and she had been crying…
It was becoming clear! She had just broken up with her partner of four years; she was exhausted and in tatters. Anna had been her whole life, her whole universe, but in recent months their relationship had become strained. She tried to trace it back – what had happened? She determined that it had been Anna’s new job that was the catalyst. The move away from their beloved basement flat into that big empty house had demolished the comforts, the change of location had put a strain on her social and work life – the commute had become torturous. And as she struggled, Anna’s attention altered to her new job, her new work colleagues and her new burgeoning career… And Chris had slowly become a secondary concern.
Where was Anna now? Where was she?
Chris was trying to stay calm – to keep her mind working on the problem. But it wasn’t working. Fighting the grogginess, she forced her arm up, used all the strength she could muster to hit the red button she knew must exist. Surely this was a hospital: She had been in an accident and that she could call for assistance. Surely someone could come to comfort her and tell her that everything was okay.
Someone could tell her when she could go home.
Wasn’t she the protagonist in her story? Wasn’t she supposed to be the key player; the one who fights adversity to achieve happiness for the ending? She had been lost within too many stories of late; this wasn’t a story, this was real life. Real life didn’t adhere to the conventions of the three act structure. Real life wasn’t as black and white… Had her life dissolved through the pages of her fiction? Was she so disconnected with reality that she could no longer tell the difference between her life and her writing?
Okay, okay, maybe her creative mind could work her way out of this mess. Maybe this was just the beginning of her story, the one where the protagonist wakes up on a hospital bed with a fractured memory from a shattered mess of a life. What had happened to the woman to bring her to this state? Perhaps the tired old trope of flashbacks would reveal the progression of the story leading up to the accident and by association reveal character and motivation. The drama of the backstory would lead to the beginning of a thriller; maybe things weren’t quite what they seemed, perhaps a visit from Anna and other loved ones would reveal that her memory of the events was not entirely true. Maybe this was a horror and this wasn’t a hospital but she was trapped in a prison.
Perception of people and events is like a ship navigating treacherous waters on a foggy night. People hide their true emotions, they don’t say exactly what they intend or, if they do, sometimes language fails or people get defensive or try to play to a character trope… A perceived manufactured image of themselves.
As Chris thinks more seriously about the protagonist and the structure of her story, she begins to realise the precise nature of her deepest love: the act of communication, the extreme intricacies of emotion and intent through the delicate structure of language. The words on a page when strung together correctly can lead the reader on the most amazing of adventures.
At that moment, her thoughts were rudely interrupted by the nurse. It wasn’t a prison. She could relax.
Later that day, Chris had eaten a light meal, had been helped to get to the bathroom and learned that she had indeed been in a car accident. She had been rushed to A&E in the early hours of the morning and that, apart from a leg broken in two places, a nasty knock to her head and some minor gashes and bruising, she was going to be fine. She had been very lucky. Later, the doctor had sauntered in like a hippy entering a peace tent, pottered around her bed and checked her vitals and the stitching on her head and in other places. He seemed happy with her progress and told her that she had been here for several days. He had told her that the injury to her head and the shock had sent her into unconsciousness. They had kept her in this state for many hours while they worked on her.
Her hair had been shaven around her left temple and she had gingerly touched the bare skin. A day after waking, she was beginning to recollect moments of semi-wakefulness and fragments of dreams between accident and waking that were madly woven together like the fibres of a quilt – pull one out to examine it in closer detail and she risked unravelling the whole façade. The thought made her wince as she touched the stitches of her wounds.
With a little bit of separation from the event, her mind was beginning to come into focus – was she to write this as a story? Was she to use the experience like she had inevitably used all prior events – after all, she was a writer – a weaver of stories. But this somehow felt different and she couldn’t understand why. No matter the length of time she spent staring at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, it remained oddly strange. A whole universe of things had happened as the backstory to the accident. A matrix of details had flashed in and through existence in the moment of the crash, as if the event had been slowed down to microscopic speed. She was unable to fully grasp the complex nature of the event. And yet, beyond all this there was something else – she felt a deeper resonance like some barely heard distant rumble that was felt more than heard. That resonance was trying to tell her something – trying to lead her somewhere she had never been physically and emotionally.
At the very fringes of her mind, she sensed the event and its overarching spark of separation that pulled her away from her previous life and toward something new.
She was a writer. A storyteller. She was well-versed in manipulating the story to direct characters, navigating them where they needed to go in the service or composure of the story. Both were interchangeable and both were vital instruments for the storyteller. Neither could exist in a vacuum because the very existence of character impelled a story – the very nature of story could not exist without character to populate and impel it. Anything could have a character and a story could exist in any state or length – the simple narrative of a woman waking from an accident in a hospital and formulating her plans for her recovery was a story in and of itself and the woman willed the character into existence.
A simple transition state for a person between one life that plays as back-story and the future of dreams and new-found goals.
But what was the arc of the character of Chris to be? Was she the character in her late twenties who’d managed to find a cosy little life, a small-time journalist, part-time blogger and occasional self-published author – a young woman content with her life and her loving relationship – suddenly forced to make a drastic change in her life? Was her arc to be a moment of forced recollection and reflection? Was she forcing herself to study what had been in order to understand what she needed to become?
During her next and final day in the hospital, Chris found herself staring at her reflection: The pallid nature of her skin, the deep rings under her eyes, and bruises and even the scars, the stitches and scrapes all showed signs of healing – fading away to allow the old memory of herself to come back into view.
But things were not the same. She had experienced a fright that had thrown her life upside down. That old life was over, her comfort-zone was gone, her relationship with Anna ended. It was time to move on.
As she walked out of the hospital, leg in plaster, crutch under arm, the tattered remains recovered from the car-wreck in the suitcase she had hastily thrown into the boot and a new change of clothes – a smile touched her lips for the first time in longer than she could remember.
She was the protagonist of her own story; she was a survivor and after that dramatic beginning, she would write herself a new chapter in the book of her own life; she had been given a second chance – had taken time out to reflect and would begin a new story filled with adventure and travel… well that was all going to unfold in the new novel of her life.
(c) James FitzRoy January-February 2017
Independent writer and filmmaker. Passionate advocate of science, reason and human rights. Founder of Flux Motion Pictures, my small pocket in the vast universe.