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Authors: Muriel Spark

The Driver's Seat

BOOK: The Driver's Seat
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THE

DRIVER’S SEAT

 

 

Muriel Spark

 

 

 

 

 

ONE

 

 

 

‘And the material doesn’t
stain,’ the salesgirl says.

‘Doesn’t
stain?’

‘It’s
the new fabric,’ the salesgirl says. ‘Specially treated. Won’t mark. If you
spill like a bit of ice-cream or a drop of coffee, like, down the front of this
dress it won’t hold the stain.’

The
customer, a young woman, is suddenly tearing at the fastener at the neck,
pulling at the zip of the dress. She is saying, ‘Get this thing off me. Off me,
at once.

The
salesgirl shouts at the customer who, up to now, has been delighted with the
bright coloured dress. It is patterned with green and purple squares on a white
background, with blue spots within the green squares, cyclamen spots within the
purple. This dress has not been a successful line; other dresses in the new
stainless fabric have sold, but this, of which three others, identical but for
sizes, hang in the back storeroom awaiting the drastic reductions of next week’s
sale, has been too vivid for most customers’ taste. But the customer who now
steps speedily out of it, throwing it on the floor with the utmost irritation,
had almost smiled with satisfaction when she had tried it on. She had said, ‘That’s
my dress.’ The salesgirl had said it needed taking up at the hem. ‘All right,’
the customer had said, ‘but I need it for tomorrow.’ ‘We can’t do it before
Friday, I’m sorry,’ the salesgirl had said. ‘Oh, I’ll do it myself, then,’ the
customer had said, and turned round to admire it sideways in the long mirror. ‘It’s
a good fit. Lovely colours,’ she said.

‘And it
doesn’t stain,’ the salesgirl had said, with her eye wandering to another
unstainable and equally unsaleable summer dress which evidently she hoped, now,
to offer the satisfied customer.

‘Doesn’t
stain?’

The
customer has flung the dress aside.

The
salesgirl shouts, as if to assist her explanation. ‘Specially treated fabric… If you spill like a drop of sherry you just wipe it off. Look, Miss, you’re
tearing the neck.’

‘Do you
think I spill things on my clothes?’ the customer shrieks. ‘Do I look as if I
don’t eat properly?’

‘Miss,
I only remarked on the fabric, that when you tell me you’re going abroad for
your vacation, there is always the marks that you pick up on your journey. Don’t
treat our clothes like that if you please. Miss, I only said stain-resisting
and then you carry on, after you liked it.’

‘Who
asked you for a stain-resisting dress?’ the customer shouts, getting quickly,
with absolute purpose, into her own blouse and skirt.

‘You
liked the colours, didn’t you?’ shouts the girl. ‘What difference does it
make, so it resists stains, if you liked the fabric before you knew?’

The
customer picks up her bag and goes to the door almost at a run, while two other
salesgirls and two other customers gasp and gape. At the door she turns to look
back and says, with a look of satisfaction at her own dominance over the
situation with an undoubtable excuse, ‘I won’t be insulted!’

 

 

She walks along the broad
street, scanning the windows for the dress she needs, the necessary dress. Her
lips are slightly parted; she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the
daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually,
except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for
sixteen years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are
normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked
straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and a judging mouth, a
precision instrument, a detail-warden of a mouth; she has five girls under her
and two men. Over her are two women and five men. Her immediate superior had
given her the afternoon off, in kindness, Friday afternoon. ‘You’ve got your
packing to do, Lise. Go home, pack and rest.’ She had resisted. ‘I don’t need a
rest. I’ve got all this work to finish. Look — all this.’ The superior, a fat
small man, looked at her with frightened eyeglasses. Lise smiled and bent her
head over her desk. ‘It can wait till you get back,’ said the man, and when she
looked up at him he showed courage and defiance in his rimless spectacles. Then
she had begun to laugh hysterically. She finished laughing and started crying
all in a flood, while a flurry at the other desks, the jerky backward movements
of her little fat superior, conveyed to her that she had done again what she
had not done for five years. As she ran to the lavatory she shouted to the
whole office who somehow or other were trying to follow or help her. ‘Leave me
alone! It doesn’t matter. What does it matter?’ Half an hour later they said, ‘You
need a good holiday, Lise. You need your vacation.’ ‘I’m going to have it,’ she
said, ‘I’m going to have the time of my life,’ and she had looked at the two
men and five girls under her, and at her quivering superior, one by one, with
her lips straight as a line which could cancel them all out completely.

Now, as
she walks along the street after leaving the shop, her lips are slightly parted
as if to receive a secret flavour. In fact her nostrils and eyes are a fragment
more open than usual, imperceptibly but thoroughly they accompany her parted
lips in one mission, the sensing of the dress that she must get.

She
swerves in her course at the door of a department store and enters. Resort
Department: she has seen the dress. A lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned
in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue. ‘Is it made of that stain-resisting
material?’ she asks when she has put it on and is looking at herself in the
mirror. ‘Stain-resisting? I don’t know, Madam. It’s a washable cotton, but if I
were you I’d have it dry-cleaned. It might shrink.’ Lise laughs, and the girl
says, ‘I’m afraid we haven’t anything really stain-resisting. I’ve never heard
of anything like that.’ Lise makes her mouth into a straight line. Then she
says, ‘I’ll have it.’ Meanwhile she is pulling off a hanger a summer coat with
narrow stripes, red and white, with a white collar; very quickly she tries it
on over the new dress. ‘Of course, the two don’t go well together,’ says the
salesgirl. ‘You’d have to see them on separate.’

Lise
does not appear to listen. She studies herself. This way and that, in the
mirror of the fitting room. She lets the coat hang open over the dress. Her
lips part, and her eyes narrow; she breathes for a moment as in a trance.

The
salesgirl says, ‘You can’t really see the coat at its best, Madam, over that
frock.’

Lise
appears suddenly to hear her, opening her eyes and closing her lips. The girl
is saying, ‘You won’t be able to wear them together, but it’s a lovely coat,
over a plain dress, white or navy, or for the evenings …’

‘They
go very well together,’ Lise says, and taking off the coat she hands it
carefully to the girl. ‘I’ll have it; also, the dress. I can take up the hem
myself.’ She reaches for her blouse and skirt and says to the girl, ‘Those
colours of the dress and the coat are absolutely right for me. Very natural
colours.’

The
girl, placating, says, ‘Oh, it’s how you feel in things yourself, Madam, isn’t
it? It’s you’s got to wear them.’ Lise buttons her blouse disapprovingly. She
follows the girl to the shop-floor, pays the bill, waits for the change and,
when the girl hands her first the change then the large bag of heavy paper
containing her new purchases, she opens the top of the bag enough to enable her
to peep inside, to put in her hand and tear a corner of the tissue paper which
enfolds each garment. She is obviously making sure she is being handed the
right garments. The girl is about to speak, probably to say, ‘Everything all
right?’ or ‘Thank you, Madam, goodbye,’ or even, ‘Don’t worry; everything’s
there all right.’ But Lise speaks first; she says, ‘The colours go together
perfectly. People here in the North are ignorant of colours. Conservative;
old-fashioned. If only you knew! These colours are a natural blend for me.
Absolutely natural.’ She does not wait for a reply; she does not turn towards
the lift, she turns, instead, towards the down escalator, purposefully making
her way through a short lane of dresses that hang in their stands.

She
stops abruptly at the top of the escalator and looks back, then smiles as if
she sees and hears what she had expected. The salesgirl, thinking her customer
is already on the escalator out of sight, out of hearing, has turned to another
black-frocked salesgirl. ‘All those colours together!’ she is saying. ‘Those
incredible colours! She said they were perfectly natural. Natural! Here in the
North, she said …’ Her voice stops as she sees that Lise is looking and
hearing. The girl affects to be fumbling with a dress on the rack and to be
saying something else without changing her expression too noticeably. Lise
laughs aloud and descends the escalator.

 

 

‘Well, enjoy yourself
Lise,’ says the voice on the telephone. ‘Send me a card.’

‘Oh, of
course,’ Lise says, and when she has hung up she laughs heartily. She does not
stop. She goes to the wash-basin and fills a glass of water, which she drinks,
gurgling, then another, and still nearly choking she drinks another. She has
stopped laughing, and now breathing heavily says to the mute telephone, ‘Of
course. Oh, of course.’ Still heaving with exhaustion she pulls out the hard
wall-seat which adapts to a bed and takes off her shoes, placing them beside
the bed. She puts the large carrier-bag containing her new coat and dress in a
cupboard beside her suitcase which is already packed. She places her hand-bag
on the lamp-shelf beside the bed and lies down.

Her
face is solemn as she lies, at first staring at the brown pinewood door as if
to see beyond it. Presently her breathing becomes normal. The room is
meticulously neat. It is a one-room flat in an apartment house. Since it was
put up the designer has won prizes for his interiors, he has become known
throughout the country and far beyond and is now no longer to be obtained by
landlords of moderate price. The lines of the room are pure; space is used as a
pattern in itself, circumscribed by the dexterous pinewood outlines that ensued
from the designer’s ingenuity and austere taste when he was young, unknown,
studious and strict-principled. The company that owns the apartment house knows
the worth of these pinewood interiors. Pinewood alone is now nearly as scarce
as the architect himself, but the law, so far, prevents them from raising the
rents very much. The tenants have long leases. Lise moved in when the house was
new, ten years ago. She has added very little to the room; very little is
needed, for the furniture is all fixed, adaptable to various uses, and
stackable. Stacked into a panel are six folding chairs, should the tenant
decide to entertain six for dinner. The writing desk extends to a dining table,
and when the desk is not in use it, too, disappears into the pinewood wall, its
bracket-lamp hingeing outward and upward to form a wall-lamp. The bed is by day
a narrow seat with overhanging bookcases; by night it swivels out to
accommodate the sleeper. Lise has put down a patterned rug from Greece. She has
fitted a hopsack covering on the seat of the divan. Unlike the other tenants
she has not put unnecessary curtains in the window; her flat is not closely
overlooked and in summer she keeps the venetian blinds down over the windows
and slightly opened to let in the light. A small pantry-kitchen adjoins this
room. Here, too, everything is contrived to fold away into the dignity of
unvarnished pinewood. And in the bathroom as well, nothing need be seen,
nothing need be left lying about. The bed-supports, the door, the window frame,
the hanging cupboard, the storage space, the shelves, the desk that extends,
the tables that stack — they are made of such pinewood as one may never see
again in a modest bachelor apartment. Lise keeps her flat as clean-lined and
clear to return to after her work as if it were uninhabited. The swaying tall
pines among the litter of cones on the forest floor have been subdued into
silence and into obedient bulks.

Lise
breathes as if sleeping, deeply tired, but her eye-slits open from time to
time. Her hand moves to her brown leather bag on the lamp-shelf and she raises
herself, pulling the bag towards her. She leans on one elbow and empties the
contents on the bed. She lifts them one by one, checking carefully, and puts
them back; there is a folded envelope from the travel agency containing her air
ticket, a powder compact, a lipstick, a comb. There is a bunch of keys. She
smiles at them and her lips are parted. There are six keys on the steel ring,
two Yale door-keys, a key that might belong to a functional cupboard or drawer,
a small silver-metal key of the type commonly belonging to zip-fastened
luggage, and two tarnished car-keys. Lise takes the car-keys off the ring and
lays them aside; the rest go back in her bag. Her passport, in its transparent
plastic envelope, goes back in her bag. With straightened lips she prepares for
her departure the next day. She unpacks the new coat and dress and hangs them
on hangers.

BOOK: The Driver's Seat
6.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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