The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  “Yeah?”

  “Oh, yes. Unless my memory plays tricks. Not nicer, mind you—just smaller.”

  “The record,” says Adam, “for a man being buried alive belongs to Rodríguez Jésus Montí of Tampa, Florida, who spent forty-six days buried in the Arizona desert breathing through a very long straw-type device.”

  “Where’d you see all this, exactly?” demands Rubinfine, furiously. “What channel? What’d it look like?”

  “Not on telly at all. In a book. Of records. I read it.”

  “Well, shut up, then.”

  Taking one hand off the wheel, Li-Jin grips an inch of the skin by his temple and starts to rub it between thumb and forefinger. He used to tell his patients that it is useful to imagine the center of your pain as a ball of plasticine or clay and that by kneading it thus you can narrow it down to a thread and then break it off completely. This was a lie.

  “Mercy!” shrieks Rubinfine. “Me and Ads first. Alex plays the winner.”

  Rubinfine and Adam lock their fingers together. It’s some kind of a game. They want Li-Jin to count to three. But Li-Jin is elsewhere, deep in his own headache. He looks at two waving six-year-olds in an adjacent car, smudgy through the rain-streaked glass, like a sentimental watercolor. He tries to remember when all the children seemed small and unsure. But no, even at six years old Rubinfine was the same suburban tyrant, though with different tactics. Back then, it was all screams and snot and hunger strikes. Rubinfine was the kind of child who would set fire to his own clothing just to see the look on his mother’s face. Adam, if Li-Jin is remembering correctly, has changed utterly. When he was six, he was American. More than this, he had no parents. He was like something out of a book. They all turned up in Li-Jin’s surgery one winter: a blue-black grandfather, one Isaac Jacobs, Adam, and Adam’s little sister . . . name? Anyway, she was the reason. An almond-eyed girl with a bad heart, in need of the United Kingdom’s free medical assistance. All of them black Harlem Jews, claiming the tribe of Judah. Dressed like Ethiopian kings! The adults of Mountjoy took their time accepting the idea of Isaac Jacobs. For Adam it was different. Adam was instantly lord of the playground. Li-Jin smiled at the memory of Alex coming home one day speaking of a “boy from the films,” as if Adam had stepped off the screen into the suburbs, one of those beings of the cinema who never die. But for Adam, it couldn’t last. His accent melted, his body grew. Seven years later and Adam Jacobs is still being punished for ever turning up in a suburb, acting like he was made of magic.

  ESTHER—THE GIRL was called Esther. With hair plaited like a puzzle. They fitted her with a pacemaker.

  AND NOW, RUBINFINE, bored with waiting for permission, has bent back Adam’s wrists. Adam is howling, but Rubinfine is unforgiving.

  “The word is mercy,” says Rubinfine coolly, releasing Adam, who weeps and blows on his knuckles. “That’s all you had to say.”

  “We’re stopping here,” says Li-Jin, pulling up suddenly outside a pharmacy. “Any complaints?”

  “You smell?” says Rubinfine.

  YHWH

  When Alex was eleven, when Li-Jin first began to experience his headaches, a Chinese doctor in Soho diagnosed it as the influence of Alex-Li obstructing his father’s qi. This doctor told Li-Jin he loved his son too much, loved him like the widower whose child is the last remnant of his wife. Li-Jin was loving Alex in a feminine way instead of a masculine. His “mu qi” (maternal air) was excessive, blocking his “qi-men” (air gates). This had caused the disturbance. Nonsense. Li-Jin rebuked himself for ever succumbing to the superstitions of his own Beijing childhood; he never went to see this man or any other Chinese doctor again. Air gates? Everybody in Mountjoy had a headache. Plane noise, pollution, stress. The unholy trinity of Mountjoy life. It was vanity, surely, to assume that he had been singled out for something special, for the rare tumor, the underresearched virus. Vanity! Why would it be anything more? For a year after the encounter this clever doctor behaved like any one of his stupid patients. Telling himself it was nothing. No tests, continuous pain, muddling on. Even though, somewhere in him, he knew. He always knew.

  THE BELL GOES ting-a-ling. Ting-a-ling!

  “Nice weather for ducks!” says the girl behind the counter. Li-Jin brushes off some raindrops and shakes his perfectly straight black hair that becomes wet so easily. Somehow, just by walking into the chemist, he has made her laugh. She is a bird-featured girl, with stiff yellow fans of hair, one under the other under the other, as Li-Jin has seen in the cinema (but surely some years ago?). She has a vast burgundy birthmark climbing her throat by way of five tentacles, like the shadow of some man’s hand.

  “It doesn’t rain but it pours!” begins Li-Jin, confidently striding to the till. He parts his legs slightly and lays his small hands on the counter. In the village that crouched at the foot of his English boarding school, Li-Jin learnt all there is to know about this particular conversation and how to have it. Before TV was everywhere, before the catch-phrases, one learnt the sayings, the homilies.

  “Of course,” he says, preparing to invent an area at the back of his house that does not exist and never could in the current property market, “my garden will be grateful. There was that cold dry snap last month . . .”

  But the girl has decided to be indignant. “Well, I wouldn’t mind, but it went and rained all bloody last week anyway! I don’t know, I really don’t . . .”

  Li-Jin bends and nods, agreeing that he also does not know, no, not about the rain or about the world and what it is coming to, what with one thing and another; smiling and nodding; waiting patiently for the girl to turn matters around to the transaction. She talks too much. But maybe she has stood here for a long time, bony hip pressed against the counter, eye on the door, forgetting and then cruelly remembering her own birthmark—all of this, for several hours, alone. She could die in here. No one would notice until the smell brought them leering over the counter. Ting-a-ling!

  Into this stillness comes the bell again, and Alex walks in, clunks across the room and stands just behind his father, his second in any duel.

  “Er, how long you gonner be?” he asks urgently, turning from his father and looking with alarm at the burgundy throat-climber.

  “A minute.”

  “Sixty elephant, fifty-nine elephant, fifty-eight elephant, fifty-seven elephant, fifty-six elephant—”

  “All right. Five minutes. Why aren’t you in the car?”

  “I think Adam Jacobs may have emotional problems at home. He says the world record for kissing is nine days and seven hours and is held by Katie and George Brumpton of Madison, Wisconsin. With food breaks. Is that—” he begins, raising his hand to point at the girl’s neck, but Li-Jin catches his wrist.

  “Day trip,” explains Li-Jin. “My son, his friends. Very noisy. Boys will be boys. Headache-inducing.”

  “I see,” says the girl. “Now, any particular brand? Only, they do different sorts of things for different pains these days, you know. No point taking something meant for, well, for example, frontal head pain if you’ve got . . . you know . . . some other type of pain.”

  “Dad,” says Alex, tugging at him. “There’s no time.”

  Finally, finally, he gives her some money and she hands him a bottle of perfectly ordinary paracetamol, which Li-Jin grabs and begins to struggle with. He is still struggling with it in the street, in the rain, even though nothing in that little bottle can help him and he knows it.

  “Oh, come on—can’t you wait till we’re in the car?”

  “No, Alex. My head is hurting now. Go on into the car, if I am embarrassing.”

  “Dad, I swear I think Rubinfine might be a—wotsit—a paranoid schizophrenic. I’m worried for our safety in an enclosed vehicle.”

  “Alex, please. Damn this thing!”

  “Fifteen is the age for boys. Fifteen is when it starts. Do you think the girl in the shop had skin cancer?”

  “Birthmark, only.”

  “Didn’t you just want
it to grow and take over her whole face?”

  They get in the car.

  “But his foot,” Rubinfine is saying very slowly, as one would speak to a retard, “which was inside his shoe, came down on Big Daddy’s face. Understand? On his face. Shoe. Face. Shoe. Face. Capeech-ay? Speaka da Engleesh? You cannot fake a shoe coming down on a face.”

  Adam, who believes himself to be right, begins the whisper of the defeated that only God hears: “Well, I still say . . .”

  “Bloody childproof—” says Li-Jin.

  Rubinfine, the eldest child in the car, reaches forward, snatches the bottle, and with great disdain and pity uncaps it and hands it back.

  YHWH

  They sit parked as Li-Jin hunts for a thermos of tea on the floor of the car. Everyone has an argument about fame quantifiables on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 = Michael Jackson and 1 would be somebody like the black woman painted green with two trunks coming out of the top of her head who played the alien Kolig in the film Battle for Mars. Okay, so on this scale, where is the wrestler Giant Haystacks?

  “Three,” says Rubinfine.

  “Six,” says Li-Jin. This is widely scorned.

  “Three and a half,” says Adam.

  “Two point one,” says Alex-Li.

  “Don’t be a royal ug all your life, Alex.”

  “No, look, it makes sense. About ten million people watch World of Sport every Saturday. I think that’s about right. And then there are about forty-nine million people in Britain. That’s twenty-one percent. So two point one. And you can only really say that in the first place if you pretend America doesn’t exist.”

  “Alex-Li Tandem, you have just won the Most Boring Idiot of the Year award. Please come and collect your prize. And then piss off.”

  “You know how much he weighs, though, don’t you?” says Li-Jin, reaching a hand back to stop Rubinfine delivering his prize punch. “You do know we have a real match on our hands. You do understand how big he is?”

  “Uh? Who?”

  Adam leans forward with that marvelous impression of a frown Li-Jin has noticed in his young patients when he approaches them with a needle. A creased forehead on which the lines are not permanent, a sort of magic.

  “Giant Haystacks.”

  “Dad. Don’t be rubbish. That’s all fixed. Moves may be real or realish, but the end is fixed. Everybody knows that. Doesn’t matter how heavy he is. He still won’t win. Can’t win.”

  “Forty-five stone. Forty-five. Four. Tee. Five. Now: observe this money.”

  Li-Jin, chortling to himself, pulls three pound notes and a pen from his shirt pocket and places them on the dashboard. “I am going to write your three names on these three notes. And if Giant Haystacks loses, I will give each of you your note.”

  “And what do we have to give you if he wins?” asks Rubinfine.

  “You have to promise to be good boys, forever.”

  “Oh, great. Ug, ug.”

  “I WANNA LEARN HOW TO FLY!”

  “Electric uggaloo.”

  Carefully, in a neat hand, Li-Jin writes the names on the notes and holds them out very slowly and with great ceremony, like a man who has all the time in the bloody world.

  “I’ll take mine now, then,” says his son, reaching across for a note. “BIG DADDY RULES OKAY!”

  The children speak in slogans now. Li-Jin grew up with clichés. The slogans make the clichés look innocent.

  “You’ll take it if and when you have won it,” says Li-Jin, with a serious face, covering the money with his palm. “Albert Hall, here we come.”

  Because it is magic, yes, but there are rules.

  And now here are some facts. When Queen Victoria first met Albert she wasn’t really all that smitten. She was sixteen. He was her cousin. They got on well enough, but it was not what you would call a lightning/fireworks situation. Three years later, however, and suddenly he was right up her street. It was love at second sight. She was queen by then. It’s hard to tell whether that’s a significant fact in the story of How Victoria Fell in Love with Albert the Second Time She Met Him Rather Than the First Like Most People Would If They Were Intending to Fall in Love Suddenly. What can be said for sure is that after this second visit, Victoria describes Albert in her diary as “excessively handsome, such beautiful eyes . . . my heart is quite going,” and then proposes to him, which seems fairly fresh to us with our ideas about the Victorians and how unfresh they were. And then they went and had nine children, which seems rather more than fresh. To process the nine-children fact you have to, at some point, imagine Victoria as pretty fresh in the bedroom, and that takes some doing. But still, the facts are the facts. Here’s another one: after Albert dies, Victoria continues to have his razor and shaving bowl—filled to the brim with hot water—brought in every morning to their bedroom as if he were in a position to remove facial hair. She wears black for forty years. These days, there is most likely a name for that sort of thing. Something like: Excessive Grief Syndrome (EGS). But in the late nineteenth century, with a few exceptions, most people were still prepared to call it love. “Ah, how she loved him,” they say to each other, shaking their heads and buying posies for tuppence a bag in Covent Garden or somewhere. A lot of things that are syndromes now had simpler names back then. It was a simpler time. That’s why some people like to call them the good old days.

  MORE FACT. On the magnificent mosaic that wraps itself around the Albert Hall, the following is engraved: “This Hall was erected for the Advancement of the Arts and Sciences, and works of industry of all nations, in fulfillment of the intentions of Albert, Prince Consort.” He is dead, you see, by the time it opens in 1871, so whether his intentions are fulfilled is rather a matter for conjecture. Clearly, Victoria feels that intentions have been fulfilled sufficiently, for she opens it herself and praises the big red elliptical structure with its unfortunate echo problem; she visits it regularly throughout the rest of her life. We can even imagine her touring it alone sometimes, or maybe with one lady-in-waiting tracing the increasingly worn red velvet of the seats with her fingertips, ripped through by EGS, thinking of her dead husband and the fulfillment of his intentions. She feels very certain, Victoria, that she knows at all times precisely what Albert’s intentions were, or would have been had he ever thought about such and such a thing—she’s one of those types of women. She traces his death and her mourning around the country. She leaves a doleful trail of statues and street names, museums and galleries. Albert’s intention was ever to become something big in England. Something famous. Not just the awkward mustachioed slightly overweight German who brought us the Christmas tree, but something popular and loved. Victoria sees to it. Every new statue, every new building, causes someone to remark, “Ah, how she loved him,” while swishing their skirts and patting a little chimney sweep on the head in Whitechapel or wherever. She mourns in public, Victoria, and everybody mourns with her. That’s another reason they call it the good old days. Back then, people felt things in unison, like the sudden chorus that leaps from a country church when the choir starts to sing.

  FINAL FACTS: one could possibly, if one felt like it, date the current pliancy of the phrase “Arts and Sciences” to the inauguration of Victoria’s Albert Hall. “Arts and Sciences” did at one point mean Painting and Stuff and Petri Dishes and Stuff. It was quite a specific, stiff type of phrase and there wasn’t a lot of room in it. The Albert Hall (one could argue, if one had a mind to) helped change that. From the outset, you could go to see pretty peculiar things in that huge elliptical dome with the bad acoustics which caused every whisper in the stalls to be heard. In 1872, for example, you could see some people demonstrating Morse code (Gladys in Block M, Seat 72, to Mary sitting next to her: Q. What’s he doing, Mary, love? A. Tapping something, I should say, dear). In 1879, the first public display of electric lighting is given (Mr. P. Saunders, Block T, Seat 111, to his nephew, Tom: Marvelous. Bloody marvelous). In 1883, there is an exhibition of bicycles (Claire Royston, Block H, Seat 21: I
can’t see the point of that, Elsie, can you?) and in 1891 the hall is registered as a place of worship. It is agreed that people can pray here now, if they want. And in 1909 they run a marathon.

  Come on!

  He’s finished! No legs left on ’im.

  Go on, my son!

  Oh, Go on Georgie, go on—for us, Georgie! Go!

  Get the boy some water!

  They just kept on running round that stage until the race was done. Now, that’s an art. And a science. Onwards: rallies by the suffragettes, the Titanic Band Memorial Concert, complete theatrical performance of Coleridge-Taylor’s classic saga Hiawatha, Ford Motor Show, Yehudi Menuhin (aged thirteen), CLOSED FOR WAR, Churchill television broadcast, Kray Twins boxing, trade fairs, Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Proms, acoustics “greatly improved by the installation of fibreglass diffusers”—otherwise known as “mushrooms.”

  Okay, now shout! See? Ech (Oh, Oh, Oh)

  Re (Dew Dew Dew) uced. Substantially. That’s nice, isn’t it?

  Upwards: Muhammad Ali, Sinatra, ice skating and Liza Minnelli, tennis tournaments, the Bolshoi, the Kirov, displays of Mark Knopfler’s guitar skills, and Clapton’s, and B. B. King’s. Acrobats, contortionists, magicians, politicians. Poets. All kinds of parties. Very entertaining. Albert wanted arts and sciences, and Victoria delivered them year after year, and when she left this world somebody else delivered them year after year, until they too retired and passed the job to somebody new. And so it goes. There are many ways to remember the dead. One of them is to have Tracy Baldock, a dancer from Scotland who is down on her luck, and somewhat too large to achieve her dream—contemporary dance with a well-established European troupe—dress up as a mouse. You can have Tracy dress up as cartoon mouse for Disney’s Holiday on Ice, have her skate along the absence where a person used to be. That’s one way. Another is to have poor Mark Knopfler please his audience by playing “Money for Nothing” for the God knows how manyeth time, though he hates to do it, though it’s killing him inside—have Mark sing the words about the TVs and let Albert hear them, wherever he is.

 
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