LISP 2nd Half 2021 Short Story Winner, 'Nothing Happens Until Something Moves' by Ali Seegar
Nothing Happens Until Something Moves
I wouldn’t even be in this blooming taxi if I hadn’t just been fired. But here I am, stuck in the back of a black cab that is itself stuck in a traffic jam round the back of Marylebone Station. It’s a massive traffic jam. We’ve been completely stationary for the last ten minutes. Everyone’s blowing their horns and shouting at each other, to themselves, their god, gesticulating here there and everywhere like a contingent of trainee traffic wardens. Smug people on bicycles and mopeds weave their way past; sniggering, no doubt. My cabbie has wound down the window and pulled out an Evening Standard and is now reading page five. At my expense!
I’m feeling really hot stuck here, not moving. I’ve never been stuck like this before; at least, not in a cab. There’s this medium-sized cardboard box balanced on my knee containing all the things that have constituted me at the place where I work – sorry, worked – for the past eighteen years. It’s a pitiful bunch of things: my makeup bag, the framed photo of mum and me on her eightieth, one scuffed black shoe, a certificate for my Assertiveness Training course, a half-used box of tissues, another of tampons, another of stale Hobnobs that I found at the back of my drawer, some other bits and bobs. The hastily typed-up dismissal letter with instructions on how to appeal – handed over by Tiffany from Human Resources – is in my bag on the seat. I’m not sure why I’m hugging the cardboard box except maybe I just need to hold something or have something need me, even if it is made from recycled tree pulp. There aren’t that many trees to hug round where I live, so a cardboard box is the next best thing.
I didn’t have long to pack the box. Tyron, the security guard, was standing behind me with this apologetic look on his face. Or maybe it was embarrassment. He and I had a bit of a thing at the office bash a few years back after he told me he was into older women. I hadn’t had a good snog for ages, but I suppose looking back on it I shouldn’t have expected more. This sea of faces kept popping above their computer screens as I packed my box, a ripple of whispers swilling around the floor as news of my appraisal meeting leaked out.
The taxi hasn’t budged a bloody inch and I’m suffocating now like I’ve been trapped in it for years. I want to smash my way through the window just to get some fresh air. My sweaty (and sadly menopausal) face stares at me from within the cab’s mirror. My mouth is as tight as a cat’s arse. If I tried moving it, what would come out? A laugh, a howl, a string of profanities? I feel like the mad woman who lives by the bus-stop. Did she get sacked from her job? Will I end up like her? I imagine us six months from now, when I’ve run out of money and lost my flat, fighting over the unwonky shopping trolley.
Lumps of words have been stuck in my throat for months (like an overtight cork in a vintage fizz) until this afternoon at ten past three when my boss ‘Rico’ said, ‘Well, Susan, we’ve decided to give the promotion to Angelo this year,’ and, well, the bottle just exploded. I’ve given my life to the company, you see. Evenings, weekends, holidays. ‘You’re indispensable, Susan,’ said my old boss ringing for help with his PowerPoint presentation the day I buried my dad. And you know what’s worse? I helped him. I actually helped him.
But not anymore. It’s gone. It’s over. Only— it’s really scary sitting in this cab right now wondering who am I. Who I actually am.
Then I realise I can’t bear being stuck here anymore in this cab. I glance at the meter and swallow. It’s already up to thirty pounds and that’s more than I can afford because, you know, I didn’t get the frigging promotion. Again. So— I give a little tap on the glass window that separates the driver and me and wait for him to open it, and when he doesn’t, I tap a bit harder and I see his shoulders slump like he’s just been given a piece of really bad news, and with exaggerated movements he folds the newspaper, before reaching back and sliding open the window.
‘Could you pull over, please,’ I say as politely as possible (I’m a bit intimidated by his passive-aggressiveness), ‘I’d like to get out.’
‘You can’t get out halfway through a fare,’ he replies, and my stomach clenches.
‘But we’re not going anywhere.’
‘Not my fault, love.’ He gestures towards the traffic as though I cannot see it myself, and I think, you little shit, and I say,
‘I’m ever so sorry but I need to get out.’
And he says (like he’s frigging Mike Jagger), ‘You can’t always get what you want,’ which is exactly what Rico sneered at me when I said I’d had efuckingnough of Angelo and Adrian and Amelia and everyone else who’s been in the company five minutes, taking the promotion I’ve been promised for ten blooming years.
Then I know I must absobloodylutely leave the cab right now, and before I know it, I’ve shoved a fifty at the cabbie, flung open the door and clambered outside.
It feels all strange being out here on my own. I stagger about like a new-born lamb trying to get my bearings before teetering across the road, cardboard box balanced before me, bag strapped safely across my chest. I can hear the cabbie effing and blinding but I don’t look back. I mean, come on, I’ve given him everything I have, which is way more than he deserves.
When I make it onto the pavement a funny thing happens. My feet just stop like they’ve got stuck in a massive piece of chewing gum. People are hurrying back and forth, tutting and swerving all around me because now I’ve become an obstacle to them. To make matters worse the traffic jam suddenly eases up and my taxi sails off. Without me.
For a moment I feel like running after it, begging the driver to take me back, but then this girl (who would look younger than my daughter, if I had one) flings out a perfectly toned arm and the taxi screeches to a halt. She gets in and off they go, and I stand there watching them continue the journey I had, until a moment ago, been on myself.
I take a deep breath. A couple of tears splatter onto my box; the rest, I blink away. I look at my still-stuck-bunion-bulged-two-inches-higher-than-is-good-for-me shoes and wonder, why have I spent my every working day squeezing into these things? I try wriggling my jammed-in toes. They don’t budge. I slip off my right shoe, wincing at the pain as my toes pop free, and place my numbed foot on the pavement. Once it has spread to its normal width, I try the other foot. I look back at my now-empty shoes. They stand there forlornly like they realise they belong to an invisible woman. Goodbye, I say and take a tiny step sideways. Then I take another, and another and, before I know it, I’m sidling down the street.
It’s hard going, though. Torrents of people surge around me. Every time I try turning towards my destination they knock me back, so I shuffle along all crab-like feeling pretty miserable until a sudden gust of wind has us all lurching westward and the flaps of my box fly open.
The contents – huddled together in a corner – look utterly despondent, like they already know I’ve labelled them as old and out-of-date. And they’re right. I am looking at them thinking, what do I want with a bunch of useless things that are weighing me down, stopping me from pushing through the crowd?
There’s a little bench up ahead. I stumble towards it. I sit and rummage through my things. My hand catches the Assertiveness Training certificate. As I pull it out, the word ‘Young-shoring’ rises in my mind.
It was six months ago at the morning team meeting when Rico introduced the new company strategy, ‘Young-shoring’. We were all standing in our usual circle. Rico, who’d just come back from a High Potentials’ Early Rise training session, was pontificating (everyone else just hoping the coffee machine wasn’t broken), when he announced,
‘From now on, the company will only be hiring young people.’
‘Why?’ someone asked.
‘Because only young people have ideas.’
There was a mumbled silence. Clive, I think it was – who’s in his mid-forties – asked him to repeat it, which he did; quite chirpily.
I suppose that’s when I knew deep down that I’d been put on the rubbish heap, although a part of me said, ‘you’re indispensable, Susan’. Nevertheless, I was a bit worried, so I asked Rico for a meeting.
‘You remember that promotion you promised me, that my boss before and my boss before him also promised me,’ I started.
‘The problem with you, Susan, is that you need to get noticed more,’ Rico replied, which rather flummoxed me.
‘But... everyone already knows me.’
Anyway, he handed me this Assertiveness Training leaflet and said, ‘We want to invest in your future.’
And I said, ‘So if I do this training, you’ll promote me?’
‘You’re indispensable, Susan,’ he said, and I’m sure he nodded.
Only— now I’m sat on this bench, jobless, because I probably took Assertiveness Lesson Three – Speak What’s On Your Mind rather too literally and I’m sure most bosses don’t like being told they’re useless prats and other ‘choice’ things.
I glance at the rest of my once-essential objects; the old shoe, the half-used packets of stuff, my old make-up bag with the clumpy mascara and lipstick that smells of potato starch. Carefully I extract the photo of mum and me and place it in my handbag. Then I lift the box from my knee and sit it on the bench, shifting to the right so there’s this neat little gulf in-between. I put my hands in my lap and sit for a moment determined not to look at the box until, without warning, I find myself walking away.
Everything is easier now. I stroll along (gingerly, as my stockinged feet aren’t used to the harsh London pavement) feeling light and carefree. I see patches of blue peeking through the smog, hear birds calling from someone’s ringtone, smile at the forest scene on the side of the double-decker bus. Crowds thin out. The streets become silent and squeezed.
I turn the last familiar corner and find myself staring up at the block of flats where I live. My eyes narrow and I take a step back. The building looks bigger than I remember, like a colossal concrete beast waiting to swallow me into anonymity. I know it’s stupid, but everything suddenly seems scary and unreal, and my heart starts racing faster than it’s ever done before because I don’t know if I can make it any further on my own.
I wonder if I’m dreaming. If I’m wandering into a nightmare of my very own making. I think about my comfortable desk in the office, with the view across to McDonalds. I waited nine years to get that space. But these last few months I’ve seen people eyeing it up, my chair has felt ‘sat on’ like someone was trying it for size.
Then I realise I must move right now because if I don’t, I’ll be stuck for the rest of my life. The thought urges me on. Slowly I mount the steps. My legs feel weak like they’re learning to walk. I touch the door, my palm slipping against the metal. As I wrap my fingers around the handle, my eyes fall upon my watch and my dream fades away. Two fifty-nine, I’m standing at Rico’s office door, my appraisal papers crumpled in my hand.
My heart jumps. It’s not too late. I can still change everything. I remember my shoe in the cardboard box. I think how similar we are, that shoe and me, both old and scuffed, with no significant other; dispensable, too, no matter what they say. But no one’s going to discard me. Assertiveness Lesson Five – Value Yourself And Protect Your Boundaries. I take a deep breath and push back my shoulders. Whatever will happen, my life’s about to change. I turn the handle and step inside.
(“Nothing Happens Until Something Moves” Albert Einstein.)