The Possibilities of Elizabeth is being written with the support of The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, The National Lottery and North Down Borough Council. Below is a short synopsis, and a chapter from the book.
Elizabeth Rose lies in a coma, the result of a car crash which may or may not have been an attempt to end her own life. She can’t remember. She does know that with no family (they’re all dead) and no friends (they’ve all given up on her) her life was barely worth living at the time of the accident, but isn’t sure if she deliberately drove her car into a brick wall to end it, or not. As she adjusts to her comatose state, Elizabeth realises that she has a second chance; another opportunity to either live or die. It’s her decision. In a series of trips to scenes from her past, Little Me, her younger self, helps Elizabeth to make up her mind, revealing a shocking family secret in the process. If she chooses life, can she really face a future knowing the truth about her past? And which one of the 30-odd derivatives of her name should she finally settle on? Or if she decides on death, will she float off as plain old Elizabeth, and eternally regret allowing the past to destroy a future which could have been magnificent? The possibilities of both, it seems, are overwhelming. Which one will she choose?
I think I tell you about The Car.
This was my fourth trip and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’d been trying to go to sleep, or at least zone out, escape into the very back of my blackness. Something horrible was going on at the bed beside me you see, Bed Two, and I didn’t want to hear it anymore. Bed Two was occupied by Frankie, a fifty two year old builder who had fallen off some scaffolding. Frankie was already here when I arrived, though for how long I haven’t got a clue.
I kind of gathered early on that Frankie was in a bad way, well, we all are here I suppose, but his prognosis seemed particularly bleak. And there was always a lot of sobbing going on at Frankie’s bedside, from the constant stream of visitors who came to see him. Between Vera, his wife, and Sandra, his girlfriend, Frankie seemed to have a rather complicated personal life. Vera was plump, I could tell from the way she walked: slowish steps in flat shoes. Probably trainers. She stank of smoke. Sandra was taller and slimmer and wore high heels. I would hear her quick, small clippity-cloppity steps as soon as she entered the ward. The noise she made sitting down on the chair next to Frankie was softer than the one Vera made – less of a puff, so I knew she was slimmer. She chewed gum and smelled of strawberries. It turned my stomach almost as much as Vera’s smoke pong. Between them they produced six children and a hoard of grandchildren. Young Frankie, Debs, Di and Wee Sue belonged to Vera, as did Roy – who never appeared but was often whispered about, especially by the daughters. Has that fucker phoned me ma yet? Or, he’ll be sorry, you know. He’ll leave it too fucking late and then he’ll be sorry, followed by more wailing.
Young Frankie’s son, Marky, was the only grandchild who ever appeared (I think the rest, the collection of Chantelles and Brooklyns and Beyonces must have been too young). I’d say Marky was about 15, as although his voice had broken, he smelled of teenage sweat. He never spoke, but he did sniff a lot.
Then there was Bianca, child number six, who belonged to Sandra and was, I suspect, much the same age as Marky. The only time I heard Marky speak was once when Bianca and Sandra arrived for their shift. Marky was there with Young Frankie, waiting to be relieved. You’re late, Young Frankie snarled as he stood up to leave. Fuck away off, snapped Sandra, as she sat down. For a couple of seconds Marky and Bianca were standing beside each other. I could hear them. He was sniffing and she was biting her nails. Right? He said. Right, she replied. That was it. Bianca slumped around in Ugg’s and smelled of something sharp and citrusy. She bit her nails a lot.
Vera and Sandra were, obviously, never there at the same time. They must have worked out some kind of rota system. I presumed that Vera organised it, being the wife. She was the only one I heard Dr Leonard talk to. Talk at, rather. I wondered did they know about each other before Frankie’s accident. They must have, don’t you think? Especially with children involved. And Sandra had obviously been on the scene for quite some time. I mean, you can’t keep a secret like that buried forever, can you?
Anyway, just before Trip Four things were bad at Bed Two. Really bad. There was a lot of commotion, people coming and going, sobbing, shouting, kissing Frankie, telling him they loved him, how sorry they were, how much they’d miss him, what would they do without him? Frankie’s time was obviously up. They’d been weaning him off his sedation drugs for a while but he still hadn’t shown any signs of breathing on his own. No respiratory effort whatsoever, apparently. That’s what Dr Leonard says anyway. It looked to me like Frankie had made his mind up. The machine was about to be switched off when Sandra came bursting through the doors yelling I don’t care what she says, I deserve to have my fucking place. That’s when I tried to tune out. It was all becoming too much and I didn’t want to witness any more grief and anger. I was also a bit jealous, to tell you the truth, A, because Frankie had managed to make his decision and it seemed like mine was still a long way off, and, B, because he had all these people around him who were pleading with him to stay. Not like me: no mates Bed Three. Come to think about it, maybe that’s precisely why he decided to go. Maybe, they overwhelmed him. Maybe all the love and the excess baggage became way too complicated. Maybe he was jealous of me.
So, there I was, trying to get away from Frankie’s family when I suddenly thought about my own. Then, whoosh, I was with them, sitting in the backseat of a car. I didn’t realise it was a car at first, but by now I was familiar with the routine so I knew to relax and wait. I always feel a bit disorientated to begin with. It’s a bit like that woozy, bleary feeling you get when you waken up after falling asleep somewhere you shouldn’t, like the beach, or the bus, or the dentist. Then, when I begin to settle I’ll feel a sense of familiarity. Sometimes I know exactly where and when I am, other times it’s more of a vague notion. But whatever the scene, I know I’m going to see a younger me. So, when the foggy feeling lifts, I find myself sitting in the front seat of a car, the passenger side, and I know instantly I’m in Mushroom, my dad’s beloved old Citroen CX. Jamie christened it Mushroom when dad bought it because he said it was the colour of Heinz mushroom soup. That was before I was born, but I always agreed with Jamie’s observation. He was very observant, was Jamie, in a quirky, creative way. Always looking at things and people and places with a tilt of his head to see what they reminded him off. Neither of us liked mushroom soup, but we both loved Mushroom. Dad is driving and I stare at him for a few seconds, drinking in his him-ness. He looks so strong and handsome and young. The sleeves of his pale blue shirt are rolled up past his elbows showing off his tanned, muscular arms. The crown of his thick dark hair flickers slightly in the breeze from his open window. He’s wearing Aviator sunglasses, like the ones Tom Cruise wore in Top Gun. Come to think of it, he looks a bit like Tom Cruise. Actually, he looks like Jamie. I want to stretch out my hand and touch his face. I want to look at him forever. But then I remember, Me. If I’m here, then Little Me must be here too. I turn my head around and see Jamie in the back seat behind Dad, staring straight ahead of him, hands placed firmly on his thighs. He must be about eight, or nine perhaps. He’s wearing a white Adidas tee shirt and his arms are brown too. He’s the spit of dad. He looks a bit anxious, tense. I glance back at dad. So does he. I turn my head the other way and see mum sitting behind me. She’s paler than the other two, peaky looking actually. Her hair is swept back from her forehead with a thick multicoloured hair band but it hasn’t been brushed. She looks a bit dishevelled for mum. She’s looking down at something but I can’t see what, so I turn around in my seat, shift onto my knees and look over into the back. Oh my God, it’s a baby, a tiny, tiny baby, and it’s drinking from mum’s boob. It must be me. Well, of course it’s me, there’s no other Little Me in the car, so of course it is. I don’t know an awful lot about babies but I reckon I can only be days old, if even that. I lean further over the back of my seat to get a closer look. I can’t see my face, obviously as I’m feeding, but the back of my little head is smothered in soft black hair. Bloody hell, I think, I was born with black hair. I never, knew that. I never knew that I once had dark hair too. Mum has me wrapped in a blue and green towel. I think it’s a beach towel. It looks soft enough, but seems a bit odd. Why aren’t I wrapped in a blanket? I wonder, a nice fluffy pale pink blanket? Or even a white one, if they didn’t want to do the whole girly thing. I feel a bit indignant to be honest.
I’m making strange little noises, like squeaks, whilst I suck. Oh my God, I think, this is amazing. I feel quite emotional. I guess that’s why dad is looking so tense, he must be on edge with a tiny baby in the car, especially as I’m not strapped into a car seat. And then I think, Jesus, there’s no baby seat at all, not even one of those wee swingy things that clip onto a pram. That’s weird. Isn’t that weird? I’m pretty sure they must have been invented by then; I mean it’s not that long ago. Maybe that’s what’s stressing Jamie too, I think. Or perhaps he’s embarrassed by mum breastfeeding me beside him. But then again, that’s not really Jamie. He never really got embarrassed by anything. Mum definitely looks a touch bedraggled, not her usual sophisticated self, but she can’t take her eyes off me and they’re literally bulging with love. My heart flips.
Suddenly my little dark head jerks back and I make a satisfied cooing noise, a bit like a pigeon. Mum wipes my lips with a tissue and kisses my forehead. She rubs her lips into my mass of feathery hair then props me on her shoulder and gently pats my back. Have you had enough then, my little beauty? she whispers. Was mummy’s milk good? You’re my own little angel, aren’t you? My angel. Sent from heaven. She lowers me down and cradles me in the crook of her arm. My eyes are black and wide and locked into hers.
Jamie is looking at us now, Little Me and mum. He looks worried and bites his lip. Won’t she know, mum? he asks, his voice tight and raspy.
Of course she won’t, love, mum almost snaps, obviously agitated by the question, and she won’t ever know. Never.
Little Tiny Baby Me breaks my eyes away from mum. I roll them around in my sockets for a second and then turn and focus on me. Big Me. It’s the weirdest feeling, even weirder than the first trip at the beach. I mean I’m barely born but here I am, lying in my mother’s arms staring into the eyes of myself twenty two years later. And I’m absolutely sure that those newborn eyes, brimming with wonder, are trying to tell this piss up of a person I have become something. What? I try to shout, but of course, I can’t. I’m distracted then by Jamie shaking his head. No, he says softly and chews his lip again, I know that. But I meant about the milk. Won’t she know…
Then woosh…I’m back. Back here in black limbo land and I wasn’t happy, I can tell you. Why does this always happen? Just as the trip is getting interesting, bam, it’s over – and yet again I was left with too many questions. I mean, never mind all the stuff about the towel and the car seat, what the hell were they talking about? Why was Jamie worried about mum’s milk? What was I trying to tell me, and what can’t I never, ever know? What? What? What the fucking, fuck what?
I calmed down of course. I always do. And then it hit me. The silence. There was no one at Bed Two. There was no one in Bed Two. They had all gone, including Frankie.