2010 Short-Story Contest: 1st place
Published: January 7, 2011
Footnotes and Footlights
by Mark Wagstaff
Silly, how things happen. Ask my children, grown up now and appalled by silly things. Of course they’re right. Right as their parents made them. We do so want our children to do well, don’t we? To avoid the wiles of silly things.
Now my father, I should say, was a gourmet of good sense. From that last generation perennially expecting disaster, he met the most hideous setbacks with fortitude and a proper full windsor. My mother was a paragon of self-effacing toughness, braving the most frightful privations with a tightly turned plait and a whispered “Oh dear!” Or, in extremis, “That’s a bit much!” Young, I thought them ridiculous, although not, I fear, to the same degree my children view me.
I married late—29—but lastingly: just shy of 23 years. Exceptional events—three children born; houses gained and lost; business triumphs and disasters; dogs dying; parents dying—erupted, insistent as volcanoes. But, looking back, those eruptions merely mark and don’t disturb the landscape of years. Everything is tolerable, in the end.
I felt tested most when my husband died. A little older than me, but no great age, it was a shock I hadn’t yet thought I’d need to be prepared for. Two years on I’m still raw with it: the way illness comes to take a life and—even now—all the doctors can do is watch. The poor specialist, the poor surgeon, in that hateful little room, telling me it was all too much, too fast. Their clever, learned fingers twisted tight with the inadequacy of knowledge against this small, deadly thing. I felt so sorry for them: professional, committed, and utterly beyond what they could control.
That’s where I got the idea. Oh, I know it’s a cliché: widows and evening classes. But marriage absorbs a great deal of time. Evenings, sorting household matters; business dinners; nights out. Just being with someone takes time. And it’s a thin enjoyment, making cakes for one. When, conversationally, I mentioned evening classes, the children heard it as their mother going on the pull. All those single gentlemen. Indeed! And when I said I was studying medicine and health, it was suddenly morbid. As though every doctor in every age was a product of despair and all a mother is good for is flower arranging or advanced tarte Tatin. I should say, my mother, for all her starch, could strip an engine.
That’s why, two years on, I was three nights a week in the college library, grappling with footnotes, a mountain of texts, and a hill of learning to climb. Not for exams, but to understand how we live, how we give way. The librarians—sorry, Resource Consultants—were a youthful, jolly bunch. Their particular pride was remembering names without looking at your card. Amnesiac newcomers always stood out. Like the louche young man who studied my card like an opportune cheque and said, “Alison Sawyer?”
He peered forensically. “Have you always been called that?”
My secret is I’m a footnote. I didn’t tell him, with a queue grumbling behind me. But when I went out to contemplate digestion over a cup of the celebrity caterer’s chokingly overpriced coffee, he beetled into the cafeteria and asked if a plainly vacant chair was taken. What could I say? I didn’t actually want conversation, but by 54 one’s mask of pleasantry has become a second dermis, inured by parents’ evenings, dinner parties, and periodic readings of wills.
He was very earnest—that property of the young—and thinking not of Alison Sawyer, but Alison Bliss. Neither, of course, is my name. I was married Sawyer, born Cartwright. A Surrey Cartwright, in fact. And I should confess, when I left school, I didn’t do as my parents wanted. Their preference was social advancement through marriage to some clean young man. But, as a stopgap, I could have a career. Sadly, I chose neither. My costly and hideous country school was pretty much good for nothing, but it had Miss Bradley. Miss Bradley taught drama, and through her passionate, rather loopy, tuition, I fell heart over head for the stage. To my shame, I became an actress.
My parents—indeed, everyone—gratifyingly miffed at this turn of events, I grew my hair, shortened my skirts, and headed for London. Obviously, I should say, the business was easier then: A girl could get noticed with none of this theory and exegesis which nowadays precedes unemployment.
I did rather well. Had several seasons working my way up the bill and appeared, although as a footnote, in a handful of those solidly made social dramas the suburban film studios churned out then. The kind that occasionally find their level on obscure corners of the digital range. I took the name Alison Bliss, remembering—from a footnote—the classifications in the school library were Bliss, rather than that other system no one understands. And it’s near the top of the alphabet, which is good marketing. And in London, in those times, with all that was going on, it seemed a rather hopeful name, as youth and love were on the verge of conquering the world. Indeed.
Of course, as I neared my 30s, ingénue parts got harder and the eternal lack of money wasn’t quite the lark anymore. Friends were starting to settle and, when I met the rather dishy man soon to be my husband, I was bowled out my pumps by what I believed was a whole new adventure. And it was: I never, not for one moment, regretted getting married. And he was rather dishy. Right to the end.
The earnest young man was just filling time, misplacing books at the library, while waiting for his real career to take flight. He was, he told me alarmingly, a graduate of film. In a rather sticky leaflet mined from his pocket, he showed me the Barbican season on some great British director. They were running a famous film in which I had a modest part. The young man had recognised me. The first time in over 20 years anyone recognised me. I went rather hot and cold. I mean, it was a shock—I’m hardly Hollywood-tidy. He wanted to talk about this director, and I struggled to remember much beyond a bossy little type with no respect for lunch. But the young man seemed charmed by my hazy recollections, and bought me a muffin. And said I was a good actress.
To my shame, I never quite escaped the stain of vanity, and a few nights later paid rather a lot for a Barbican seat and wallowed. There’s a seasickness, seeing one’s young self on screen. The years reverse, conflated. I didn’t think I handled the role, being honest: too scrubbed and plummy, though I would have gagged if someone else said so. But I did linger after in the poster exhibition and felt ridiculously miffed that no one noticed.
When the earnest young man approached me again, I had a dizzy thought he’d want my autograph. But he’d found more treasure in the reference section of his pockets: a cutting from a local rag about amateur dramatics. He thought, with touching shyness, I might be interested. Silly. I thought it silly. All the way there on the train. Of course, I said nothing about my past—that would have been ghastly—but presented as the hopeful widow short on things to do. They were doing some creaky old farce, with a comedy dipso mother. Incredibly, my drunk act was least-worst on the night.
Oh, lord, but I was shocking scared getting up on stage. All the horror re-turned: the lights, the expectation. The audience, wanting something, anticipating something. I was rather croaky first off but then, it happened. I’m not sure when or how, but I had the sensation of wings unfolding, as everything beyond the footlights melted away. And the applause, that sound: My heart raced like a hummingbird’s. Couldn’t sleep when I got home. Just curled up with his picture, and cried.
Silly, that scene on the Sunday. My children are in the big world now. They’ve been lucky, with skills to pay the bills. It was one of our Sunday lunches, not cooking; lord, no: We go to that place on the Common. It was the lull after main course, when ice cream looks inviting, and everyone weighs the calorie footprint of pastry over pears. We’d had an hour and more of their job news and, cracking another bottle, the youngest asked how my medical studies were going. That’s when, as he would say, it all got messy. I confessed I’d been neglectful, that respiration had found me wanting, as I’d been doing rather than reading about it, on the amateur stage. They know my history, of course, but are unimpressed by it, as children are always un-impressed by life before they were born. For years, I was indifferent to my mother’s time in the army, where she learnt to handle guns.
There was some polite condescension about how important it is to stay active, as if I was some old fossil propped on a tatting frame. Miffed, I mentioned a nice young man had said nice things about me, and that sank as lead-balloonishly as one might expect. They went back to their terribly exciting talk of the contract, the deal.
I love my children; I’ll love them till I drop. But I’d had three glasses of red and formed what was, no doubt, an unreasonable opinion that they saw themselves as moving and me as standing still. I didn’t like that. To my shame, I resented it. They were supposing a future for me exactly as my parents had. And with the same result. Oh dear. I broke into the conversation. Entered, one might say, with alarums and excursions. Told them I meant to go back, full time. Work my card again. None of this went down well.
What would I do for money? How would I cope with the stress, the disappointment? From being an old fossil, I was a child again. I pointed out—perhaps more coarsely than I should—that, unlike them, I didn’t need money. The house was bought, thanks to their father’s clever business brain, and the golden web of assets and interests he’d woven kept body and soul together. Apart from college fees and my fondness for Italian leather, I hardly had greater expenses than anyone living alone. Living alone: I made a point of that. No strings, no obligations. As for stress and disappointment: If I got a part, marvelous. If not, I could make jam. I thought we were having a conversation, but the silence that followed sequestered me in monologue. Or a rant, as my daughter said, getting her coat: a silly, silly rant.
It’s a bind, but I had to do it. Otherwise I’d never be able to tell them off again. I bought papers, checked websites. Saw a man in Soho, in one of those rackety top-floor offices braced on a solid foundation of dreams. I told him I’m Alison Bliss, and he said, with touchingly skewed chivalry, that he’d heard of me from his father. He made a call. Something out of town, looking for a dotty old bag.
There’s always openings for dotty old bags, shrewish mothers, truculent widows. Got a fortnight in Hampshire coming up. I’m petrified. Found myself on a website the other day, in a footnote on some leading man I remember as rather priggish. I’m a perennial footnote; in its way, that’s rather jolly. What you find from digging deep is always more special, I think. We’re in Andover, Winchester, and finish in Basingstoke. Do come along if you can. I’ll be the grey-haired girl, terrified and fearless, silly and young in the footlights.
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Our judge's comments on the winning story:
Susan Breen judged the finalists in this competition. Her short stories have appeared in many literary publications, including this month’s issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009. Plume published her first novel, The Fiction Class, in 2008. Breen teaches for Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City. Web: www.susanjbreen.com.
A good story surprises. You think you know a character and what she’s likely to do. But then the story twists around, as it does in “Footnotes and Footlights,” and suddenly you’re in unexpected territory with people you don’t know. But like a lot.
I enjoyed following around Alison Bliss. She’s a warmhearted protagonist with a wry sense of humor. She’s self-described as grey-haired, terrified and fearless. She’s insightful. You can’t help but love a character who accuses herself of the “stain of vanity.”
When I got to the story’s last line, which I loved, I realized how much I was rooting for this heroine. What an accomplishment to create a living character in fewer than 2,000 words. The author built her up out of many small, nuanced details. Alison’s not a cliché, though she’s lived through life events that will be familiar to many readers—children born, parents dying, dogs dying, widowhood. “Exceptional events ... erupted,” as Alison puts it, “insistent as volcanoes.”
The story takes off when, following her widowhood, she discovers that she’s a footnote in a world she thought she’d left behind. The end brings genuine transformation.
This story pleases on many levels, but the energy of the writing made it stand out. There were word combinations I’d never considered before, such as, “He peered forensically,” a simple, but visual, construction. I also liked the description of Alison’s father as “a gourmet of good sense.” Not only was the writing clever, it was also insightful, such as the moment of Alison’s triumph, when she describes feeling “the sensation of wings unfolding.” Yes, I thought. Just right.
“Footnotes and Footlights” charms, entertains, teaches and offers a bit of grace. I was happy to choose it as the winner of The Writer’s competition.
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A look at the winning writer:
Where in imagination or experience does a short story about an aging one-time actress come from? In the case of “Footnotes and Footlights,” you’d never guess.
“I was traveling on the tube—the London subway—leaning against a door, so I could read standing up,” our winning writer, Mark Wagstaff, recalled via e-mail. “At one stop, I didn’t move fast enough and caught my arm in the door as it shut.
“I looked around to acknowledge my foolishness to others and caught the eye of an older woman with smart grey hair who giggled at me in really a girlish way. The gesture was unexpected—sweet and young-seeming—and I started to wonder what her story might be, what she might do other than travel at rush hour. I thought it was possible she could once have been an actress, and the story unfolded from there.”
Wagstaff, a 44-year-old Londoner, said he has had about 40 short stories published and has self-published some novels. “I’ve had one novel published at someone else’s expense, and my ambition remains to have a lot more of those,” he says. “Some of my books have now been reissued as e-books.”
He works a day job for the British government, though, he adds, “the economic climate may mean I soon get to spend more time with my pen. I’d be comfortable with that.”
The challenge of writing as a woman in “Footnotes and Footlights” was nothing new to Wagstaff. “I haven’t counted, but I think I write more often as women,” he reports. “Mostly, when I write as men, the characters are angry or scared of something. Women seem to offer more nuance. And in this instance, the economics of a widow with no need to work seemed more plausible. Plus, I wanted Alison to intrigue younger men, as the woman on the tube did me.”
Learn more at www.markwagstaff.com.