Things That Happened When I Was Beautiful

The following are fragments of short stories taken from an unpublished collection entitled: Things That Happened When I Was Beautiful, A Stockpile of Short Stories, written by A. Grace Johnson. All rights reserved by the author.

Disclaimer: Any similarity existing to anyone living or dead is entirely coincidental.

A Queen By Any Other Name

It was December of 1992 and I was 14 years old. I had very recently been ‘discovered’ in a pizza parlour in my hometown of DeLand, FL, when the husband of the hairdresser of a model scout called Flick Goldblum, walked up to me and asked how tall I was. I had no idea then, but I certainly know now, I am 5’9 ¾ in my stocking feet. I have been that height since I grew five inches the summer I turned 14 and have never grown any taller since. I have often wondered what would have happened instead if I had chosen differently when my Grampa John and his wife Ada asked me whether I’d rather eat at McDonalds, or at the local pizza place in the strip mall that afternoon.

After pleading with my parents incessantly for weeks to let me ring this Flick Goldblum, they finally relented. It eventually transpired that he came over to the house to meet us with his dark-haired wife Rachel. Flick seemed to think I had a real shot at a fantastic opportunity; thought he could get me a major contract, with a few minor adjustments. He coached me a little bit in how to look into peoples eyes when you speak to them, instructed me lose 10 pounds, bought me some fancy, subtle clothes (I came down the stairs to meet him for the first time wearing a rhinestone incrusted red dress and matching wide-brimmed hat). And, after getting my teeth fixed, he took a few photos. My teeth were unusual looking to say the least; my adult canines were growing in like fangs but I had yet to lose my baby canine teeth. I was still a baby but I had a desperate urge to run. But I had found my one-way ticket out of small town central Florida and I was determined to be on that train (or plane).

So it was that I was booked on a flight to Miami from Daytona International Airport. It would be the first time I flew by myself. I arrived at the small, tourist-orientated airport with plenty of time. I checked my bag in and went to sit in a cafeteria-style restaurant until it was time for my flight. It was there that I sat until around the time it said on my ticket. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the gate only to see the doors closing and the plane taxiing off. Why were they leaving without me? I was there at the time it said on my ticket. I was so fresh off the turnip truck that I did not realise the time on my ticket was the time the plane actually departed. Foiled at the first hurdle. I then had to get a flight the following day.

Once I finally make it down to sunny south Florida, Flick takes me around to meet all of the agencies he has bidding against each other to represent me. In the end it is decided I will go with an agency that offer me a contract for $1m US dollars to be paid in ever-increasing increments until my 18th birthday. Flick also receives $40,000.00 for signing me. My mother will travel everywhere with me and I will be home-schooled. There are just a few small catches. I must be on call 350 days a year (that means not turning any work down apart from two weeks at Christmas.) I must not gain any weight during the duration of the contract (while I am growing into a woman.) Basically, I must do as I am told. At the time, this seems simple enough.

Rachel and my mother have driven down to meet me, as Flick has had to go somewhere else on business. There is another girl in Miami that has been scouted by Flick called Trisha. She hadn’t quite hit it yet, but within a year she will be a supermodel. Trisha, Rachel, my mother and I meet at a café on Ocean Drive for dinner. The streets are abuzz and electric. I have never seen such a commotion. We are sitting outside at a table surrounded by many other diners. Everyone looks impossibly chic. The food all looks incredible. I am drunk on choice and the atmosphere itself is intoxicating. Everyone would all be in bed by now where I come from, yet here they all are, eating and drinking like there’s no tomorrow. After dinner, Trisha brings us back to her house. She attempts to make me look older in order to take me out to a party at a club she intends to go to tonight, I believe it is called Hell. I am completely in awe of her; she seems so sophisticated; she is 16. Trisha dresses me up in her clothes like an oversized doll. She puts a wide headband on me, slathers me in make-up. They all try to assess whether she has been successful in making me look old enough to get in to the club. As we walk over to 2nd and Ocean Drive where the open-air club is it is decided I no longer look 14, but 21 is still going to be a stretch. That may not be an issue though because Trisha has a hand-written note from the promoter saying,

“This is my cousin, don’t give her any shit”

Trisha hands this note over to the door staff and the four of us are preparing to be let in when, at the curb, to my left, a beautiful limousine pulls up. I turn to watch as the most glamorous woman I have ever seen steps out of the car. She is wearing a full ball gown to the floor and a crown atop her perfectly coiffed locks.

“Wow”, I whisper excitedly to Trisha, “Who is that?”

To which she replies, “Ah, just some Queen.”

“Oh. Oh my god”, I say, “A queen of what country?”

Trisha looks at me incredulously. “Are you serious? A drag queen, silly”

I am still in the dark. “A what?”

Trisha is still giving me that look. Her face has become frozen into it. “It is a man dressed as a woman”

“Oh, okay. What do you mean?”

I had never heard of such a thing. I was born in the countryside outside of a small town. This was my first time in the big city. These were the days before the Internet. I did not have a television between the ages of 7 and 13. I am an innocent. But, not for long. No, this wouldn’t be the story for long.

So, we make it into Hell. Trisha informs me that if you drink amaretto and ginger ale and anyone asks what you’re drinking, you can say it is ‘cherry coke’, as apparently- it tastes just like cherry cola.

She drinks champagne and it tastes just like Cherry Cola. C- o- l- a- Cola.

Trisha tells me about the guy who had given her the note that got us into the club. She says his name is Ike Capone; that he is a bit of the man about town, that he has an even more impossibly glamorous girlfriend called Frangelica who lives far, far away- probably in New York. Trisha tells me that she and Ike have not had sex, but they lay sleeping, holding each other. I sigh and think how incredibly grown up and romantic that sounds. Trisha lifts her beautiful arm and gestures up to the point, a block further down at the tip of South Beach where you can actually see this Ike’s salmon coloured building towering above all else. I look off to where she points, towards the distance, and for a second am sure I can hear the night breezes whispering my name, calling me to follow. I set off immediately on a quest to answer that siren’s song.

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The following is a fragment of a short story, taken from an unpublished collection entitled: Things That Happened When I Was Beautiful, A Stockpile of Short Stories, written by A. Grace Johnson. All rights reserved by the author.

Disclaimer: Any similarity existing to anyone living or dead is entirely coincidental.

Decadent Dreams

It was exactly two weeks after my sweet 16th birthday. I was booked on a German catalogue photo-shoot in Islamorada, one of the Florida Keys. After one day’s shooting I discover the photo assistant is driving up to Miami to get some film processed. I manage to convince him it would be a good idea to let me tag along for the ride as I had some business to attend to. He agrees to give me a ride as long as I don’t tell anyone. This suits me just fine. So off we set on the 2½ hr drive to Miami Beach.

We arrive on the Beach and the guy drops me off on Ocean Drive. My ‘friend’ Pierre Morrison picks me up and we make a beeline for his high-rise building. I look up at it looming there and think how I already have many sordid memories of this luxury salmon coloured building. Memories of the seduction of my teenage innocence during thunderstorms, by full moons and in early morning light. Times when, having snuck out of the house and out from under their watchful eyes, my parents would have no idea of my whereabouts. Orgies going on in other rooms while Pierre showed me how to do speedballs on his bed- an activity which is incredibly dangerous and that is apparently part of the thrill (kids, don’t try this at home). It was the way River Phoenix and countless other less famous wasted youth met their untimely demise.

The elevator doors open onto Pierre’s floor. We make our way into the apartment. I breathe in the smell of clove cigarettes and flowery Aveda hair pomade. These are some of the scents he carries with him. Also at home is Miriem, a dark-haired girl who works for Pierre. She is corrupt and slutty and willing to do things, the full extent of which I do not know, have not the where-with-all to imagine. I had heard tales of her and another girl hired by Pierre for the sole purpose to sit with his richest clients at his parties and pour entire bottles of the most expensive champagne into plant pots when they were not looking so they would feel obliged to order another and another. All the while the guys thinking they are getting somewhere with these girls who obviously must be getting very drunk by now. But here in his apartment, encircled by huge windows and the vast ocean behind her, Miriem seems very small indeed. She speaks with the high-pitched nasal of a little girl. She is a beautiful girl who has been ruined by bad deeds and wrong doing, by her as well as to her. It has made her ugly and obnoxious to Pierre. It is apparent to her that I am his new flavour of the month and she is bitter and jealous towards me. I am blissfully unaware of any of these things and can only perceive them with the foresight of experience now looking back. As far as I know in the moment, Miriem is my friend and is going to help me find something to wear to a very exciting party Pierre is taking me to this evening. I still do not know where. She leads me into her room and helps me choose a party dress to borrow. Velvet Underground’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is blaring from the other room. The irony is lost on me, as it is lost to everyone there. The one we decide on is black and velvet, long to the floor with a halter-neck that scoops right down to the small of my back. She helps me to apply some mascara and lipstick, we find some matching black velvet mules (the year is 1994, after all) and I am good to go. I smile warmly and thank Miriem for her help and the loan of the dress.

Pierre and I retrieve his car from the building’s valet and set out over the bridge away from the Beach, towards Coconut Grove. We soon arrive at a lavish mansion and are promptly told by a huge security guard that we are not on the list and therefore not coming inside. We get back in the car and Pierre spends some time pleading with someone on the other end of the phone. This someone, as it turns out, is a musician and super producer from the 80’s. He tells us to meet him by the front gates. We are suddenly granted the magic ticket and are quickly ushered inside the golden gates of a bay front mansion. We have arrived at the 36th birthday party of one of the world’s most famous pop stars, for anonymity’s sake we shall call her Mona-Lisa.

We are led out to the poolside. There are around 30 guests scattered around tables of food and drinks. In the distance, beyond the backyard, I can make out the lights on ships crossing the harbour. I drink it all in. I have never seen such a grand display. An incredible house, smartly dressed people, many of who are famous, and a spread reminiscent of a Roman feast. I start being introduced around. I meet some film stars, a couple of the Beastie Boys and a few others who I may or not recognise.

I spin around in response to a tap on my shoulder and am informed that someone would like to meet me. What must be a reply to a look on my face is some verbal reassurance. I am brought to a large round table with all the chairs occupied. If a round table can have a head, this is where I am deposited. Here in a blue silk slip dress is the blonde head of Mona-Lisa. The head speaks to me. It says that it doesn’t know me, that it knows everyone here, that I seem to be having a good time, that it wanted to meet me. I answer all of her questions politely but I am starting to feel nervous. As I said, all of the chairs were taken and as I spoke, everyone stared and listened. ‘M’ (as her friends call her) seemed to pick up on my discomfort and pulls me down by my hand to sit on her lap. This does not seem odd and on the contrary at least everyone stops staring, after an initial moment of shock. ‘M’ begins inquiring about my life, asking about my friends and boys, what I get up to, that kind of thing. She asks me what I did for my sweet 16th and I tell her nothing really. At this point, she pushes me up from her lap, stands up on her chair and announces that this birthday party is also in celebration of my 16th! I thank her and I compliment her on her house, especially the pool. I suggest that maybe we should go for a swim. She seems to like this idea and so we both leap into the pool, fully clothed. This seems to catch on like a fire in an oil factory. Almost everyone leaps into the pool, dresses and hats bobbing in the waves we all make. We have really started something. It is now too crowded to swim freely. I sit on the side of the pool and examine the shoes that Miriem had lent me. They are like velvet washcloths, with heels. ‘M’ notices me lost in thought over my borrowed wet shoes and in response she says, “Isn’t this decadent”. I ask her if that is even a real word. ‘M’ assures me that it is. I begin to shiver in the night breeze. Mona-Lisa climbs out of the pool, reaches down and helps pull me up. We begin to move and sway to the music. I begin to warm up. A well-known drag queen approaches us. She tells us, “Girls, you have got to fix your make-up, it is running down your faces.” She asks if I want to touch up my face. I nod my agreement and follow Mona Lisa.

We make our way into the house and up the stairs. Everything is beautiful and luxurious. There are iconic photographs on the walls. ‘M’ leads me through her bedroom and into her en-suite bathroom. We begin to clean up our make-up and take turns peeing while she continues to ask me questions. She seems to be intrigued by my innocence. That is the prevailing mood when there comes a loud knock at the door. I am told to ignore it. I do. A couple of minutes later it comes again, louder and more insistent this time. ‘M’ unlocks the door and her current boyfriend, a red headed man, bursts in, points at me and shouts,

“You, out!”

He accuses us of making out and ruining the party he is throwing. I do not leave yet. I stand my ground and I tell him we are doing no such thing, because we are not. No such thing has even crossed my young mind. I then decide that this is between the two of them and decide to leave them to it. I make my way down the stairs and back out to the party. I go to where Pierre is sitting and plop myself down in a chair.

This is what Pierre loudly says to me and whomever else is within earshot, “that was quick, she must’ve been good”

I am dumbstruck, flabbergasted even, but resolve not to let it ruin my night. I know in my heart that there is nothing to his comment even if others may suspect otherwise.

Mona Lisa returns with the Gingerman still hot on her heels. She takes over the middle of the dance floor, with people all around her and removes her royal blue silk dress and dances up a storm. It is plain for all to see why she thought she should become a dancer in the first place. Her body is pretty awesome but oh, what a mover! The only person who looks entirely unimpressed is her boyfriend.

I chat with Mickey Rourke a bit. He invites me out for dinner with Mona Lisa and him later this week. When I ask ‘M’ about this she declines and insinuates that she must be careful whom she associates with. I am not sure if she is referring to him or me.

I am starting to feel past caring. All of these glamorous people have problems that are beginning to seem positively dull compared to the one that is creeping around inside my skull. It is getting late and I am due back in Islamorada very soon, before the working days shooting begins, before they realise I am missing.

‘M’ gives me a dry, comfortable change of clothes for the journey south. I put them on, give the wet bag that Miriem’s dress has become to Pierre, say my goodbyes and am ushered into the back of a taxi. This is where I get my only sleep of the long night, lost in decadent dreams.

I make it back to the resort and cross the lawn to my villa, hidden by the death throes of night, the sun just beginning to rise. I go inside, take a shower, eat some breakfast and then head over to the make-up artist’s villa, just in the nick of time.

The day is a struggle to get through but probably the hardest part is not being able to tell anyone of last night’s adventures. It would be bad for my freedom if my parents or my agency were to find out. Besides the fact that the client wouldn’t be happy if they discovered that they were paying for damaged goods. I am consoled by the idea that no one would believe such a far-fetched story coming from a small town girl like me anyway.

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The following is a fragment of a short story, taken from an unpublished collection entitled: Things That Happened When I Was Beautiful, A Stockpile of Short Stories, written by A. Grace Johnson. All rights reserved by the author.

Disclaimer: Any similarity existing to anyone living or dead is entirely coincidental.

Switzerland or Bust

We have been driving for days. They say time flies when you are having fun. I am no longer having fun. In the car are Ike, Dora, Xavier and I. We have been attempting to steer clear of Switzerland as we have discovered after a month’s joy riding through Europe that Xavier is not holding his passport. We had “hired” Xavier in Brussels to help us to drive as we joy rode. He is also a drug dealer. This suits Ike’s predilections. After diverting miles out of our way we found the tunnel to Austria snowed under. Our only choice now is to attempt to head straight through Switzerland. We are attempting to get me on a train, as I am long overdue in Milan to catch a plane home. I have already missed it several times and my parents are starting to panic. I must be on tomorrow’s plane but everything seems to be conspiring against that from happening.

We pull over by the side of the road. Ike is coughing up part of his lung: You can actually see something that looks like a chunk of flesh on the tarmac where he spits. His cigarettes are made of clove and clearly hard on the lungs. I roll my eyes, light a smoke and get a lecture from him about compassion. My patience is as thin as my cigarette. I don’t put it out. I notice Dora smells like feet and has a thick film on her teeth. I imagine I probably do too. Xavier looks over at me and smiles a toothy laugh. I mimic his gesture. He has enormous chompers on an even bigger black body. He doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak French. Our communication is limited to such primal exchanges.

We lay Xavier on the back seat and cover him with blankets. Dora and I lay on top of him, close our eyes and pretend to sleep. I am not sure if we are in Italy or Switzerland until at one of the stops, a man’s voice, obviously an Italian border guard, asks us to step out of the vehicle. They instantly find our stowaway and ask us what we think we are doing as they frog march us inside the checkpoint. They inform us we must wait here while they bring in the dogs. This is bad news. Ike apparently agrees as he immediately takes some Valium and passes out. Glancing sideways at Dora and Xavier staring out the window, I realise any hope of surviving this situation rests on my 16 year old shoulders. I begin to flirt with the border guards. It doesn’t help that I haven’t had a shower. I decide to use this to my advantage and attempt to explain we have been in the car for too long and I need to freshen up. I am grateful they allow it but surprised they let me go into the bathroom carrying the bag of toiletries. The bag I mistakenly believe to contain a certain deodorant canister with a screw off bottom. I can feel all the blood rush to my face when I realise it’s not in the bag but in-between the two front seats of the car, the car that’s seconds from being searched by drug-hunting dogs. I leave the bathroom and approach the guards. I nervously ask if I can go to the car to get what I explain with a gesture that looks like applying deodorant. Unbelievably, they agree. In the distance I can see the sun starting to set. I slip Ike’s jacket on and make my way to the back of the building where the car is parked. I retrieve the deodorant and start back inside. At that moment, a guard with an Alsatian appears in my path. The medal buttons on his uniform and the dog’s beady eyes glint in the late afternoon sun. The dog leaps at me. My heart leaps at the dog. The guard looks me straight in the eye, pulls the dog back and marches on towards our car. Wasting no time back in the loo, I open the can and dump the evidence down the drain. Inhaling a deep breath to steady myself, I hold my gaze in the mirror, splash some cold water on my face, clean my teeth and brush my hair. I apply some of the deodorant. It is men’s and heavily perfumed. Allowing myself a little smile, I re-join the group.

Having satisfied themselves there is nothing interesting in the car, they begin to search us. It is my turn next. I slip off Ike’s jacket and allow them to pat me down. They find nothing. There is nothing to find, I smugly think to myself. Disaster narrowly avoided they usher us through the checkpoint. They wave and smile like old friends seeing us off on a trip. I think we are home free.

Does this mean we are in Switzerland now? Sadly not, we have only reached a strange in-between-a-country no mans land. There is a café in this odd stretch. We go inside for refreshments, or so I think. Ike has decided to wake up now. He follows me into the toilet and makes me aware of something I wish I didn’t know. Or rather something I wish I’d known earlier. Wrapped in the inside pocket of his jacket I had been wearing as we were being searched was a massive lump of heroin.

Ike lifts up a bit of the toilet I didn’t know could be removed. He demonstrates how this will serve as a stash place. I look on dubiously as I have never tried drugs. Why don’t we just get rid of it? When will he ever even be able to get to this little joyless bundle again if we are headed on into Switzerland? How can he make such a fuss over a little bit of white powder? The severity of the situation has obviously not sunk into his drug-addled skull.

We get back in the car and start heading for the border. The Swiss guards take one look at us, shake their heads and pull us over. We must make a ridiculous sight- a seven foot tall Moroccan, two unwashed teenage girls and a junkie. I mistakenly assume they won’t bother searching us after observing the Italians do theirs. I am wrong.

A female guard brings Dora and I into a room. They pick through our hair like apes, pull apart the lining of our underwear. On us they stop short of performing a full cavity search, the boys are not so lucky. They pour shampoo, flick through books and squeeze out toothpaste. There is an air of determination to find something. They find nothing but it is decided that there is still no way we are coming into that country on their watch.

We prepare to turn around and head back into Italy and the uncertain night. Again, the Swiss guards have other ideas. They will not let us enter but they will also not let Xavier go anywhere without a passport. I reassure them that our chums the Italians will surely allow us to pass back through. This silly request is even entertained to the point of allowing me to walk over to ask permission. It is swiftly, certainly and hilariously rebuffed. Those Italian border guards actually laugh in my face.

The Swiss decide that Xavier will be kept in a holding cell until someone returns with his passport. This unwelcome information sinks like a lead balloon in our stomachs. We console ourselves with the thought that if you must be in a ‘holding cell’, let it be in Switzerland over all other places. There is no doubt he will eat a meal, watch some TV, hell; he’ll probably have a shower before sleeping in a bed, that lucky bastard.

We make a brief stop at the café and prepare to head back into Italy. There is just one hitch. They’ll allow us back through the border but we must pay a fine. They name a figure that is the exact amount we have, information they know because they searched us. We have no choice but to pay up and drive on.

Now we are tired, hungry, filthy, missing a man and flat broke. We need a Plan B as we will not be driving through Switzerland tonight. Instead of any attempt at a regroup this is what happens: Ike pulls over to the side of the road and it becomes apparent that the guards were not as thorough as they thought. He opens a hollow book containing the mother lode, at least ten times the amount that had been in the jacket’s pocket. Dora and I look on, dumbstruck, as he relieves himself of the world’s pressures with some tin foil and a puff of smoke.

Somehow it is decided that Innsbruck, Austria, is our destination. It is 300 km away and we must make it by early morning. As we have no clock we have no idea what time it is. But this seems like a goal, seems like this is my only hope of getting out of this car locked in a trajectory of doom.

We enter Austria and find ourselves on a desolate stretch of the autobahn. There is a sky full of stars and mountains on either side. Ike starts driving full speed with the music loud and the headlights off while I stand up through the sunroof. It is suicidal and silly but incredibly fun. I have never felt more terrified or exhilarated in all my life. I plead with him to turn the lights on while laughing with glee.

Eventually we reach our destination just as daylight breaks. The train is not coming for two hours. We park up outside the station and fall asleep on the spot.

My next moment of consciousness goes like this. I open my sleepy eyes to the sound of the train and the conductor delivering a message in German that could only be ‘all aboard’. I stand up, grab my things, say goodbye and rush to the train. I jump on as it starts to move. I wave at my cohorts stuck to the scene retreating quickly through the window behind me and find a seat.

This is where I am sitting, drifting in and out of sleep, when the conductor appears and demands my documents. I try to explain why I’m here, with no ticket or money, unwashed, exhausted and hungry but still 16, with a face shining full of tears. I plead with him but his mind is made up. I am to be ejected at the next station.

The next station turns out to be in Italy and therefore I am no longer the responsibility of the irate conductor. He delivers me to an office containing another uniformed man, instructs him to call the police and marches onto his duties. This Italian conductor is sitting at a desk with his back to me, scribbling paperwork. I am filled with terror and apprehension. He leisurely finishes and turns around. He smiles. His eyes are kindly and he has grey hair. He asks me what the problem is and through floods of tears I share a toned down version of the story. Amazingly, the man gets me a cup of coffee and a mozzarella Panini and leads me to the train. He hands me a ticket and shows me to a bench next to a window. My tears of fear have morphed into tears of joy. I thank him but realise there is no way I will ever be able to repay this kindness. He leaves the train just seconds before it departs. I sit in a cloud of disbelief as I reflect on the seemingly endless past days. I breathe sighs of relief as I watch the Alps get smaller and smaller, then finally disappear.

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The following is a fragment of a short story, taken from an unpublished collection entitled: Things That Happened When I Was Beautiful, A Stockpile of Short Stories, written by A. Grace Johnson. All rights reserved by the author.

Disclaimer: Any similarity existing to anyone living or dead is entirely coincidental.

Spring Is At Your Heels

It was a dark and rainy night in London. This was not out of the ordinary for any season of the year in this city, but I believe it was the spring of my first few months in London. I had spent the recent part of the evening drinking champagne with my friend Zeighroy at a wine bar in Notting Hill. Zeigh was a member of a band that was famous in the 80s. He is constantly regaling me with hilarious anecdotes of rock-n-roll debauchery, and is a bit of a wild card. Now, as we emerge from the dimmed lighting and cosy comfort to head towards the car, I breezily suggest that I take a turn at the wheel. As I’m a bit tipsy and such an inexperienced driver I commit to the task whole-heartedly. After all, it’s only a short drive to where I am staying on Bassett Rd, in Ladbroke Grove.

We set off giggling into the night. I have a mile-wide grin and a look in my eye as I speed down the hill catching families of pigeons off-guard. We swiftly approach a roundabout. To Zeigh’s horror I progress through it at breakneck speed, going the wrong way. Like I said, I hadn’t been in England for very long and am not even adept at driving in America. To our relief there is no one coming the other way. I somehow manage to safely navigate the vehicle to Bassett Rd, at which point I announce I have not had enough road fun yet, and will continue driving until I am finished getting my kicks. I keep the car moving before he has a chance to change his mind.

What happens next is a little bit blurry. The overall theme remains intact but the details of how we get there are a tad shaky. Somehow, he allows me to enter the on-ramp for the motorway. I had never driven on a motorway anywhere before. I had never even been on a motorway in the UK. There are cars whizzing past at breakneck speed and beeping their horns for us to get out of the way. I begin to feel like someone who walks into a firing range with loads of bravado and then has the swagger knocked right out of them simply by being handed a machine gun. But that is another story altogether.

My anxiety levels adjust to the amount proportionate to the situation. This is still lower than your normal garden variety given the circumstances. I take a deep breath and try to get a hold of myself. This is not to last for long. I am driving on the inside lane when I turn my head completely around to see if anything is coming before I change lanes. In my line of vision, as I return it to the front view, is a 10 ft high concrete wall barrelling straight towards us. Before I have a chance to respond, Zeigh grabs the wheel and jerks us out of our trajectory with the wall and across not one but three lanes of fast travelling automobiles. In amongst these lanes is the biggest, meanest looking lorry I have ever seen, equipped with the worlds loudest horn. The face on the front of that beast narrowly misses eating us as a midnight snack. It looks like it’s starving.

I am now driving just to blow off some steam and pent up adrenaline. I feel like I can’t stop or turn around or I will deflate, or some such similar teenage notion. I am due to turn 18 this summer, if I make it that far. That is my excuse. I don’t know what to say by way of excuse for Zeigh apart from maybe he was hypnotized under the spell of my youthful exuberance and arrogance. There are some half-hearted requests for me to pull over but nothing capable of stopping me. So I just keep on driving. And driving. I guess we drive a good deal of the night because the next thing I notice is a sign saying next exit for Manchester. This brings us back to reality with a cold thud and a headache.

Zeigh says he thinks we had better turn around, that we are almost out of petrol. The next stop on our adventure should be the garage to fill up on fuel but its not until this exact moment that we suddenly realise neither of us really has any money or cards on us. This is a sobering realisation. Our magical mystery tour has suddenly turned not so magical. And now the only mystery is how we are going to make it all the way back to London. We manage to scrape together whatever we can find, on the floor, from linty pockets, the bottom of my handbag. We amass something like £4.72. It doesn’t make much of a difference to the diminished petrol meter but we decide we might as well just go for it. Zeigh’s brow furrows above worried eyes inside a frame of blond hair as he begins to panic. At the filling station he asserts again that I should let him drive. I disagree and set his car back on course towards London. He asks me to slow down to conserve fuel. I remind him that as long as I am driving, I am calling the shots.

We go on like this for quite some time. The sun is starting to rise. Our heads are murky and with the alcohol worn off I am starting to shiver from cold. The car begins to splutter and shake and slow down. It appears we have reached the end of the line. I pull the car over to the side of the road just as it comes to a dead stop. Zeigh finds a blanket from the back and lets me wrap up while he goes out to find the emergency call box. We are not sure what the outcome of this call will be as calling a tow truck out will surely require money. I sit and wait in a haze of stupidity and hung over regret. Zeigh returns to the vehicle and joins me in all of these things.

A silver lining begins to emerge with the rising sun. The tow truck driver arrives and informs us that we broke down within inches of the end of a free zone, set up due to construction. This means that any cars breaking down will be towed free of charge to the next petrol station. So we are picked up and inch closer back towards London. The driver is a large, friendly teddy bear of a man named Darren. We ride up front with him and fill him in on the nights events and how we got to where we are now. As luck would have it, the next petrol station along the road happens to be on the outskirts of London. Not only that but it turns out that Darren is a compassionate sort of guy. Rather than just leave us there stranded, like he very well could have done, he hands us a crumpled five-pound note and wishes us luck getting home. We turn this into petrol and load into the car. I fall asleep as Zeigh takes over at the wheel and safely navigates me back to Ladbroke Grove, back to the depressing bedsit that requires a 10p coin to operate the shower. As all my coins have been converted to petrol, I do not have 10p, so I guess its no shower for me. We say goodnight and I go straight to sleep. Zeigh, having lost his drunken, determined and deranged teenaged chauffeur, must drive himself all the way back to Camden.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

The following is a fragment of a short story, taken from an unpublished collection entitled: Things That Happened When I Was Beautiful, A Stockpile of Short Stories, written by A. Grace Johnson. All rights reserved by the author.

Disclaimer: Any similarity existing to anyone living or dead is entirely coincidental.

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