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On Beauty: A Novelby Zadie Smith
The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Nah it ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red.
I am the sole
I am the sole author
Pencil leaves no mark on magazine pages. Somewhere she has read that the gloss gives you cancer. Everyone knows it shouldn’t be this hot. Shriveled blossom and bitter little apples. Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year. Don’t you bloody start! Look up: the girl’s burned paunch rests on the railing. Here’s what Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century. Cruel opinion—she doesn’t share it. In marriage not everything is shared. Yellow sun high in the sky. Blue cross on a white stick, clear, definitive. What to do? Michel is at work. He is still at work.
I am the
Ash drifts into the garden below, then comes the butt, then the box. Louder than the birds and the trains and the traffic. Sole sign of sanity: a tiny device tucked in her ear. I told im stop takin liberties. Where’s my cheque? And she’s in my face chattin breeze. Fuckin liberty.
I am the sole. The sole. The sole
She unfurls her fist, lets the pencil roll. Takes her liberty. Nothing else to listen to but this bloody girl. At least with eyes closed there is something else to see. Viscous black specks. Darting water boatmen, zig-zagging. Zig. Zag. Red river? Molten lake in hell? The hammock tips. The papers flop to the ground. World events and property and film and music lie in the grass. Also sport and the short descriptions of the dead.
Doorbell! She stumbles through the grass barefoot, sun-huddled, drowsy. The back door leads to a poky kitchen, tiled brightly in the taste of a previous tenant. The bell is not being rung. It is being held down.
In the textured glass, a body, blurred. Wrong collection of pixels to be Michel. Between her body and the door, the hallway floorboards, golden in reflected sun. This hallway can only lead to good things. Yet a woman is screaming PLEASE and crying. A woman thumps the front door with her fist. Pulling the lock aside, she finds it stops halfway, the chain pulls tight, and a little hand f lies through the gap.
– PLEASE—oh my God help me—please Miss, I live here—I live just here, please God—check, please—
Dirty nails. Waving a gas bill? Phone bill? Pushed through the opening, past the chain, so close she must draw back to focus on what she is being shown. 37 Ridley Avenue—a street on the corner of her own. This is all she reads. She has a quick vision of Michel as he would be if he were here, examining the envelope’s plastic window, checking on credentials. Michel is at work. She releases the chain.
The stranger’s knees go, she falls forward, crumpling. Girl or woman? They’re the same age: thirties, mid-way, or thereabouts. Tears shake the stranger’s little body. She pulls at her clothes and wails. Woman begging the public for witnesses. Woman in a warzone standing in the rubble of her home.
– You’re hurt?
Her hands are in her hair. Her head collides with the doorframe.
– Nah, not me, my mum—I need some help. I’ve been to every fuckin door—please. Shar—my name is Shar. I’m local. I live here. Check!
– Come in. Please. I’m Leah.
Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries. She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence. She arranges her face to signify compassion. Shar closes her eyes, nods. She makes quick movements with her mouth, inaudible, speaking to herself. To Leah she says
– You’re so good.
Shar’s diaphragm rises and falls, slower now. The shuddering tears wind down.
– Thank you, yeah? You’re so good.
Shar’s small hands grip the hands that support her. Shar is tiny. Her skin looks papery and dry, with patches of psoriasis on the forehead and on the jaw. The face is familiar. Leah has seen this face many times in these streets. A peculiarity of London villages: faces without names. The eyes are memorable, around the deep brown clear white is visible, above and below. An air of avidity, of consuming what she sees. Long lashes. Babies look like this. Leah smiles. The smile offered back is blank, without recognition. Sweetly crooked. Leah is only the good stranger who opened the door and did not close it again. Shar repeats: you are so good, you are so good— until the thread of pleasure that runs through that phrase (of course for Leah there is a little pleasure) is broken. Leah shakes her head. No, no, no, no.
Leah directs Shar to the kitchen. Big hands on the girl’s narrow shoulders. She watches Shar’s buttocks rise up and against her rolled-down jogging pants, the little downy dip in her back, pronounced, sweaty in the heat. The tiny waist opening out into curves. Leah is hipless, gangly like a boy. Perhaps Shar needs money. Her clothes are not clean. In the back of her right knee there is a wide tear in the nasty fabric. Dirty heels rise up out of disintegrating flip-f lops. She smells.
– Heart attack! I was asking them is she dyin? Is she dyin? Is she dyin? She goes in the ambulance—don’t get no answer do I! I got three kids that is home alone innit—I have to get hospital—what they talking about car for? I ain’t got no car! I’m saying help me—no one did a fuckin thing to help me.
Leah grips Shar’s wrist, sets her down in a chair at the kitchen table and passes over a roll of tissue. She puts her hands once more on Shar’s shoulders. Their foreheads are inches from each other.
– I understand, it’s OK. Which hospital?
– It’s like . . . I ain’t written it . . . In Middlesex or—Far, though. Don’t know eggzak’ly.
Leah squeezes Shar’s hands.
– Look, I don’t drive—but—
Checks her watch. Ten to five.
– If you wait, maybe twenty minutes? If I call him now, he can—or maybe a taxi . . .
Shar eases her hands from Leah’s. She presses her knuckles into her eyes, breathing out fully: the panic is over.
– Need to be there . . . no numbers—nothing—no money . . .
Shar tears some skin from her right thumb with her teeth. A spot of blood rises and contains itself. Leah takes Shar again by the wrist. Draws her fingers from her mouth.
– Maybe The Middlesex? Name of the hospital, not the place. Down Acton way, isn’t it?
The girl’s face is dreamy, slow. Touched, the Irish say. Possible that she’s touched.
– Yeah . . . could be . . . yeah, no, yeah that’s it. The Middlesex. That’s it.
Leah straightens up, takes a phone from her back pocket and dials.
– I’LL COME BY TOMORROW.
Leah nods and Shar continues, making no concession for the phone call.
– PAY YOU BACK. GET MY CHEQUE TOMORROW, YEAH?
Leah keeps her phone to her ear, smiles and nods, gives her address. She mimes a cup of tea. But Shar is looking at the apple blossom. She wipes tears from her face with the fabric of her grubby t-shirt. Her belly-button is a tight knot f lush with her stomach, a button sewn in a divan. Leah recites her own phone number.
She turns to the sideboard, picks up the kettle with her free hand, fumbling it because she expected it to be empty. A little water spills. She replaces the kettle on its stand, and remains where she is, her back to her guest. There is no natural place to sit or stand. In front of her, on the long windowsill that stretches the room, some of the things of her life—photos, knick-knacks, some of Dad’s ashes, vases, plants, herbs. In the window’s reflection Shar is bringing her little feet up to the seat of her chair, holding her ankles. The emergency was less awkward, more natural than this. This is not the country for making a stranger tea. They smile at each other in the glass. There is goodwill. There is nothing to say.
– I’ll get cups.
Leah is naming all her actions. She opens the cupboard. It is full of cups; cups on cups on cups.
– Nice place.
Leah turns too quickly, makes irrelevant motions with her hands.
– Not ours—we rent—ours is just this—there’s two flats upstairs. Shared garden. It’s council, so . . .
Leah pours out the tea as Shar looks around. Bottom lip out, head nodding gently. Appreciative, like an estate agent. Now she comes to Leah. What’s to see? Wrinkled checked flannel shirt, raggedy jean shorts, freckled legs, bare feet—someone absurd, maybe, a slacker, a lady of leisure. Leah crosses her arms across her abdomen.
– Nice for council. Lot of bedrooms and that?
The lip stays low. It slurs her speech a little. Something is wrong with Shar’s face, Leah notices, and is embarrassed by noticing, and looks away.
– Two. The second’s a box. We sort of use it as . . .
Shar meanwhile burrows for something else entirely; she’s slower than Leah, but she’s there now, they’re in the same place. She points her finger in Leah’s face.
– Wait—you went Brayton?
She bounces on her chair. Elated. But this must be wrong.
– I swear when you was on the phone I was thinking: I know you. You went Brayton!
Leah perches her backside on the counter and gives her dates. Shar is impatient with chronology. She wants to know if Leah remembers when the science wing flooded, the time Jake Fowler had his head placed in a vise. In relation to these coordinates, like moon landings and the deaths of presidents, they position their own times.
– Two years below you, innit. What’s your name again?
Leah struggles with the stiff lid of a biscuit tin.
– Leah. Hanwell.
– Leah. You went Brayton. Still see anyone?
Leah lists her names, with their potted biographies. Shar beats a rhythm on the table-top with her fingers.
– Have you been married long?
– Too long.
– Do you want me to call someone? Your husband?
– Nah . . . nah . . . he’s over there. Ain’t seen him in two years. Abusive. Violent. Had issues. Had a lot of problems, in his head and that. Broke my arm, broke my collarbone, broke my knee, broke my fuckin face. Tell you the truth—
The next is said in a light aside, with a little hiccupping laugh, and is incomprehensible.
– Used to rape me and everything . . . it was crazy. Oh well.
Shar slides off her chair and walks toward the back door. Looks out on the garden, the parched yellow lawn.
– I’m so sorry.
– Ain’t your fault! Is what it is.
The feeling of feeling absurd. Leah puts her hands in her pockets. The kettle clicks.
– Truthfully, Layer, I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy. It’s been hard. But. Got away, you know? I’m alive. Three kids! Youngest is seven. So, good came, you get me?
Leah nods at the kettle.
– Got kids?
– No. A dog, Olive. She’s at my mate Nat’s house right now. Natalie Blake? Actually in school she was Keisha. Natalie De Angelis now. In my year. Used to have a big afro puff like—
Leah mimes an atomic mushroom behind her own head. Shar frowns.
– Yeah. Up herself. Coconut. Thought she was all that.
A look of blank contempt passes over Shar’s face. Leah talks into it.
– She’s got kids. Lives just over there, in the posh bit, on the park. She’s a lawyer now. Barrister. What’s the difference? Maybe there isn’t one. They’ve two kids. The kids love Olive, the dog’s called Olive.
She is just saying sentences, one after the other, they don’t stop.
– I’m pregnant, actually.
Shar leans against the glass of the door. Closes one eye, focusing on Leah’s stomach.
– Oh it’s early. Very. Actually I found out this morning.
Actually actually actually. Shar takes the revelation in her stride.
– No, I mean—I haven’t got that far.
Leah blushes not having intended to speak of this delicate, unfinished thing.
– Does your mans know?
– I took the test this morning. Then you came.
– Pray for a girl. Boys are hell.
Shar has a dark look. She grins satanically. Around each tooth the gum is black. She walks back to Leah and presses her hands flat against Leah’s stomach.
– Let me feel. I can tell things. Don’t matter how early. Come here. Not gonna hurt you. It’s like a gift. My mum was the same way. Come here.
She reaches for Leah and pulls her forward. Leah lets her. Shar places her hands back where they were.
– Gonna be a girl, definite. Scorpio, too, proper trouble. A runner.
Leah laughs. She feels a heat rising between the girl’s sweaty hands and her own clammy stomach.
– Like an athlete?
– Nah . . . the kind who runs away. You’ll need one eye on her, all the time.
Shar’s hands drop, her face glazes over once more with boredom. She starts talking of things. All things are equal. Leah or tea or rape or bedroom or heart attack or school or who had a baby.
– That school. . . . it was rubbish but them people who went there. . . . quite a few people did all right, didn’t they? Like, Calvin—remember Calvin?
Leah pours out the tea, nodding fiercely. She does not remember Calvin.
– He’s got a gym on the Finchley Road.
Leah spins her spoon in her tea, a drink she never takes, especially in this weather. She has pressed the bag too hard. The leaves break their borders and swarm.
– Not running it—owns it. I go past there sometimes. Never thought little Calvin would get his shit together—he was always with Jermaine and Louie and Michael. Them lot was trouble . . . I don’t see none of them. Don’t need the drama. Still see Nathan Bogle. Used to see Tommy and James Haven but I aint seen them recent. Not for time.
Shar keeps talking. The kitchen slants and Leah steadies herself with a hand to the sideboard.
– Sorry, what?
Shar frowns, she speaks round the lit fag in her mouth.
– I said, can I have that tea?
Together they look like old friends on a winter’s night, holding their mugs with both hands. The door is open, every window is open. No air moves. Leah takes her shirt in hand and shakes it free of her skin. A vent opens, air scoots through. The sweat pooled beneath each breast leaves its shameful trace on the cotton.
– I used to know . . . I mean . . .
Leah presses on with this phony hesitation and looks deep into her mug, but Shar isn’t interested, she’s knocking on the glass of the door, speaking over her.
– Yeah you looked different in school, definitely. You’re better now innit. You was all ginger and bony. All long.
Leah is still all of these things. The change must be in other people, or in the times themselves.
– Done well, though. How come you aint at work? What d’you do again?
Shar is already nodding as Leah begins to speak.
– Phoned in sick. I wasn’t feeling good. It’s sort of general admin, basically. For a good cause. We hand out money. From the lottery, to charities, nonprofits—small local organizations in the community that need . . .
They are not listening to their own conversation. The girl from the estate is still out on her balcony, screaming. Shar shakes her head and whistles. She gives Leah a look of neighborly sympathy.
– Silly fat bitch.
Leah traces a knight’s move from the girl with her finger. Two floors up, one window across.
– I was born just there.
From there to here, a journey longer than it looks. For a second, this local detail holds Shar’s interest. Then she looks away, ashing her cigarette on the kitchen floor, though the door is open and the grass only a foot away. She is slow, maybe, and possibly clumsy; or she is traumatized, or distracted.
– Done well. Living right. Probably got a lot of friends, out on a Friday, clubbing, all that.
– Not really.
Shar blows a short burst of smoke out of her mouth, and makes a rueful sort of sound, nodding her head over and over.
– Proper snobby, this street. You the only one let me in. Rest of them wouldn’t piss on you if you was on fire.
– I’ve got to go upstairs. Get some money for this cab.
Leah has money in her pocket. Upstairs she walks into the nearest room, the toilet, closes the door, sits on the floor and cries. With her foot she reaches over and knocks the toilet paper off its perch. She is rolling it toward her when the doorbell goes.
– DOOR! DOOR! WILL I?
Leah stands, tries to wash away the redness in the tiny sink. She finds Shar in the hallway, in front of a shelf filled with books from college, drawing her finger along the spines.
– You read all these?
– No, not really. No time nowadays.
Leah takes the key from where it sits on the middle shelf and opens the front door. Nothing makes sense. The driver who stands by the gate makes a gesture she doesn’t understand, points to the other end of the street and starts walking. Shar follows. Leah follows. Leah is growing into a new meekness.
– How much do you need?
There is a shade of pity in Shar’s face.
– Twenty? Thirty . . . is safe.
She smokes without hands, squeezing the vapor out of a corner of her mouth.
The manic froth of cherry blossom. Through a corridor of pink, Michel appears, walking up the street, on the other side. Too hot— his face is soaked. The little towel he keeps for days like this pokes from his bag. Leah raises a finger up in the air, a request for him to stay where he is. She points to Shar, though Shar is hidden by the car. Michel is short-sighted; he squints in their direction, stops, smiles tensely, takes his jacket off, throws it over his arm. Leah can see him plucking at his t-shirt, trying to shed the the remnants of his day: many tiny hairs, clippings from strangers, some blonde, some brown.
– Who that?
– Michel, my husband.
– Girl’s name?
– Nice looking, innit—nice looking babies!
Shar winks: a grotesque compression of one side of her face. Shar drops her cigarette and gets in the car, leaving the door open. The money remains in Leah’s hand.
– He local? Seen him about.
– He works in the hairdressers, by the station? From Marseilles—he’s French. Been here forever.
– African, though.
– Originally. Look—do you want me to come with you?
Shar says nothing for a moment. Then she steps out of the car and reaches up to Leah’s face with both hands.
– You’re a really good person. I was meant to come to your door. Seriously! You’re a spiritual person. There’s something spiritual inside you.
Leah grips Shar’s little hand tight and submits to a kiss. Shar’s mouth is slightly open on Leah’s cheek for thank and now closes with you. In reply, Leah says something she has never said in her life: God bless you. They pull apart—Shar backs away awkwardly, and turns toward the car, almost gone. Leah presses the money into Shar’s hand with defiance. But already the grandeur of experience threatens to f latten into the conventional, into anecdote: only thirty pounds, only an ill mother, neither a murder, nor a rape. Nothing survives its telling.
– Mental weather.
Shar uses her scarf to blot the sweat on her face, and will not look at Leah.
– Come by tomorrow. Pay you back. Swear to God, yeah? Thanks, seriously. You saved me today.
– Nah don’t be like that, I swear—I’ll be there, serious.
– I just hope she’s OK. Your mum.
– Tomorrow, yeah? Thank you!
The door closes. The car pulls off.
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