From Lear in the Storm, George Romney, 19th Century
by Christopher Woodall
1 . The brief.
Call me foreign, hopelessly unBritish, incurably strange, but what interests me here is neither story nor characters nor, it must be said, winning this or any other short-story contest. Stories are two-a-penny and, famously, come in seven, nine or eleven canonical varieties, depending on your taste in literary theorising.
As for characters, however much you bulk them out with quirks and backgrounds, they rarely leave much of a mark.
Have you noticed that I’m addressing you directly? Is dialogue permissible? Who gets to vote these days? Will the young be excluded? Who decides who decides? And will the final judgement be delivered by acclamation?
What interests me is what is meant. What is the meaning that attaches to this or to any story? More particularly, what can it possibly mean to hold a short-story competition in the UK in 2018 on the theme of ‘Strangers’?
So let’s get the story and the characters out of the way. Then maybe we can get down to something meaningful.
Story: Someone more or less pushes someone else into the river. More or less? How so? Does or does not the pushee get wet?
Characters: There’s a man and a woman, both as definitely middle-aged as it’s possible to be. Each is needy, but in different ways. They have never met before. As I said, ‘Strangers’ was the brief…
Narrator: And me, you ask? I’m the classic bystander. I was out for a stroll, taking the evening air, fuming and fretting about Brexit – of all stupid things. I saw the splash from a bridge, stood there and watched the incident unfold. And somehow got pulled in. No, not quite literally: I didn’t get wet.
Given that I missed the start of this thing, I’ll now hand over to Alex, the man, the pushee in fact.
You had better get used to this leaping around.
2 . The encounter.
Alex: I was having a bad Friday evening. We had come down from Manchester for the weekend and were staying at my girlfriend’s mother’s place. She had just put some home- baked dessert in front of us when I heard a ping and glanced down. It was from my boss. He had tweeted me to announce that I – or, rather, my character, Brian – was being written out. Even though my ratings had sagged, this was an unexpected blow. After thirteen years. ‘Sorry’ was his final word.
I pushed away the home bake and said I needed air. I gave Jane my phone and a lingering apologetic glance, then let myself out. It wasn’t in fact raining but, pathetically, probably ought to have been.
By the time I had had a couple of beers, I felt awful. So, naturally, I changed pubs. I settled in a place called The Adam and Eve, and started on spirits.
By ten o’clock I was contemplating suicide. Quite seriously. I had a high-maintenance estranged wife, three kids in private school, an exorbitantly mortgaged quayside penthouse that I shared with girlfriend Jane, two BMWs and a hovel in Umbria.
I was forty. Jane just hates losers. We both do. My life was over. All because my stupid boss had lost his wits, was taking early retirement and had drafted in three fresh young writers. Damn cowboys. Except that they were ‘girls’.
Then, of course, I noticed a woman sit down next to me. I thought maybe she recognised me. It does happen. At least in Manchester. But when she spoke she sounded French. What self-respecting continental European watches British soaps?
She said her name was Sophie. She said it with a short ‘o’, so it rhymed with ‘toffee’. In my addled state this sounded sexy. Suddenly the swirling river and the top ledge of the multi-storey car-park seemed less tempting. What was she saying? Hey, Sophie, what were you saying?
3 . The talk.
Sophie: I had seen Alex as soon as I walked into the bar. He looked miserable. I think he had been weeping. But so had I.
I’ve found there are several ways of dealing with depression. You can take pills, get counselling, do yoga, go swimming. Or – and this is my favourite – you can seek out someone as miserable as yourself and have a macabre argument about who’s unhappier. It’s always worked for me.
Alex and I quickly found we had a lot in common. We’re both actors. I had abandoned an academic career and a completely academic husband in Charleroi – if you have any geography you’ll know that makes me Belgian – to come to this country to teach at a secondary school. My day job.
Teaching’s okay. But what I really love is acting. I’m a devotee of your famous Bard. My ambition was always to become a Shakespearean actor. I was born in the wrong country, the wrong language and, I long assumed, the wrong gender. So when I heard that women in England were getting to play lead roles – Lear, Hamlet, Iago, Titus – I thought I would try my luck.
It turns out that if gender is no longer a major barrier on the English stage, a foreign accent is insurmountable. You know how they exclude me? They inform me I can’t do iambic pentameter. That I turn everything into alexandrines. That I should go home and do Racine. Racine sucks, I reply. Sucks is American, they snap back, putting Janey Foreigner in her place, relishing my exhibition of linguistic insensitivity. Little fucking Englanders, I mutter.
Recently, I had been turned down for the role of Edgar in King Lear in a local semi- professional production. I had instead been cast as the King of France, a much smaller part. Classic typecasting. Friends told me I absolutely stole Act One, Scene One. The Edgar they cast was rubbish, they also said.
Now, where was I? Hey, Alex, what happened next?
Alex: It was nice to hear someone else’s troubles. But in the misery stakes there was no competition. Sophie had no dependents, no debts, no hovel in Umbria to lose, no Cheshire- raised kids to shunt into some sink school in Whalley Range. And no BMWs. She doesn’t even own a car. That’s how superior she is.
Besides, how sorry can you feel for someone who makes sacrifices to follow their dream? Especially when it seemed to be coming true. Her school was letting her direct Romeo and Juliet and she had cast herself as Juliet’s nurse, a great part. Also, she was taking evening classes in ‘drama therapy’. I could have thrown up. You used me, Sophie. Do you realize that?
Sophie: Poor Alex. Of course I used him. Yet at the same time I really did want to help. Sincerely.
It seems he had never intended to be a soap actor. Sort of slipped into it, he said. Get it? Soap? Slipped? I didn’t laugh either. I could never have drunk that much. Then he put on a silly posh voice and said, ‘I say, I do have a degree in drama!’ Then an equally silly accent, some kind of Cockney, to say, ‘Not a lot of people know that.’
When I raised my eyebrows, he used the same accent to say, ‘Michael Caine.’ As if I had asked him a question.
Alex: Sophie made me feel ashamed of appearing in a soap. I’m sure she didn’t mean to. I told her, truthfully, that I had originally wanted to do Brecht and Brenton and Strindberg and Lorca. Even Shakespeare.
Soap still doesn’t feel like proper acting, I told her. And it has always been too easy. Brian is just a rougher, earlier, version of myself. And on account of my aunt Edna who had raised me, I had been a shoo-in for the part. For twenty-seven years, Edna was one of the show’s mainstays. I grew up hanging around the set and knew everyone, from the star actors all the way down to the cleaners and writers.
Edna had started out in music hall and adored soaps, even South American and Australian ones. She enjoyed having money, took all her holidays abroad. Till her character one day got hit by a truck. I kept wondering how they would kill me off. I thought I might get stabbed. There hadn’t been a stabbing for years. Brian had made a ton of enemies. It would be easy to plot.
4 . The walk.
Sophie: Alex had almost finished his glass. He kept looking at me in that classic, British, drunken-and-needy way. Sad, not threatening. Besides, I can look after myself. That was when I had the idea. It would be fun and also a kind of therapy. I would pool my skills.
Let’s go for a walk, I said.
Alex looked surprised but he seemed to like the idea. Maybe he thought it was his lucky night.
Alex: I don’t remember much of this. What I do recall is you asking, as the cold night air hit me, whether I knew King Lear. Sure, I said. One of Dickens’ later novels.
You actually laughed. For a moment, I did think I might have a chance. I’m a man and men like to fool themselves. Besides, if you can get a woman to laugh, the other thing is a cinch… Whoever said that?
But then you went all school-teacherly and recounted the scene between Edgar and Gloucester. I was feeling patronised. You told me to imagine Beachy Head.
That’s easy, I said. If I was there now, I would jump. Just to get out of your impromptu English schoolroom.
You laughed again. I began noticing your lips and imagining how the evening might end. Well, here’s your opportunity to do some Shakespeare, you told me. In this scene, Edgar– that’s me, you said – disguised as a madman ranting about ‘the fiend’, leads his blinded and suicidal father to what he claims is the edge of a cliff but is actually a patch of even ground. Gloucester jumps and lands safely on all fours. Edgar switches accent, becoming a local peasant, and helps Gloucester – his father, remember? – to get to his feet, telling him he saw him fall from a giddying height. It’s a miracle! Edgar-as-local-peasant cries out. Gloucester regains his will to live.
Sophie: I was so sure it would help. And Alex seemed to be warming to the idea. When he objected that Gloucester was blind and said he’d never acted blind before, I pulled off my scarf and said I would blindfold him once he had learned his lines. I was pleased to see I could recall both mine and his. This, after all, was the scene I had auditioned. I had had to practise it for weeks on end.
We walked to the river, going over the lines. Even pissed, Alex was good. He knew just what he was doing. Brisk, excellent pentameter. Needed no direction. What a waste of talent, I thought.
5 . The jump.
Alex: I was getting into my character, becoming Gloucester. It was all too easy. After all, my own boss had gone mad and I had lost my position, my home, my authority, my children. I was bewildered and world-weary and believed myself to be in the company of a total stranger who was getting ready to blind me. I was Gloucester, damn it!
Also, I think I wanted to show Sophie that I was better than soap. As I imagined myself preparing to leap to my death, I felt suddenly happy. This is what I should be doing, I told myself. Real theatre. Cutting edge. Improvisational. Classic.
Sophie: We went down to the river, stood near a couple of old benches and went through the scene again. I placed the blindfold over his eyes. He was supposed to jump towards me. I’d given him clear direction. Instead, at the crucial moment, he took a couple of steps sideways and leapt into the river.
Alex: For a split second it seemed like a great idea. It certainly sobered me up. I think I wanted to impress Sophie with my commitment. But I landed on a shopping trolley, skewered my left foot.
Sophie: But you remembered your line. Like a trouper.
Alex: ‘Away and let me die.’ A good line.
6 . The hurt.
Narrator: For such a slight man, Alex made a big splash. I had been watching and wondering what they were doing. I thought maybe they were having a row. A lover’s tiff. I got there as fast as I could. In case the lady needed assistance. Then, as Alex climbed out of the river, I recognised him.
Hey, you’re Brian off…
Don’t say it, he said. I’m Gloucester. Gloucester off King Lear.
I could see he’d been drinking. I helped him remove his left shoe. His foot was bleeding a little. I offered to take him to the hospital. Sophie said he would be better off going home.
Sophie: That’s right. And that’s what happened. Alex seemed almost sober now. And strangely elated.
It’s all going to be fine, he told me. I’m going to go back to Manchester, start again. I don’t really need the penthouse, the BMWs, the hovel in Umbria. My kids have had too much pampering already. The local comp will be character-forming. And you, Sophie, will turn to directing. I can see it all.
That’s right, I said, humouring him. It’s called catharsis. Saved by the Bard, said Alex.
And the river, I said.
7 . The meaning.
A story is part of a larger history, long before that history gets written. In this instance, it’s also part of a competition. What happens in a story is often irrelevant: what matters is the story’s context. That’s what Sophie would surely say. In any language other than English, it wouldn’t sound pretentious.
In Britain in 2018, ‘Strangers’ is an inevitable topic for a short-story competition because people are saying there are too damn many of them, while government prepares to mint whole swathes of new strangers overnight. Laws are being drafted to strip away the social and political rights that come with pan-European citizenship, turning all those who dwell in the United Kingdom, on the final stroke of midnight, into merely national subjects, either Brits or non-Brits, a simple binary. Were it ever to come to pass, we should all be midnight’s orphans, strangers on our own continent, strangers to our neighbours, strangers to ourselves.
Yet nobody is born a stranger and you don’t get to be one just by travelling. You might think the only person who could translate another person into a stranger – or stand idly by and watch the basis for banishment take shape – is somebody else, or somebody else’s government.
But it’s worse than that: in this singular instance, the estrangement of others and the estrangement of ourselves is seamless, inextricable because reciprocal, and imbued with all the calamitous authority that only an accidental plebiscite can impart. If we are to be orphans – if we let this thing happen – we shall have orphaned ourselves.
About the Author:
Christopher Woodall was born in London. Between leaving school in 1971 and starting work ten years later as a jobbing translator, he travelled in Europe, the Maghreb and East Africa, worked in factories, a restaurant, language schools, a crude-oil facility, and on the land, took two degrees (BA English at Cambridge, Sciences du Langage at Bordeaux), acquainting himself along the way with the French, Italian, Spanish and German languages. His novel November was published in December 2016 by Dalkey Archive Press.