The Book of Other People by Zadie Smith


  In the kitchen, silence swelled up. Butterflies fussed on the nodding buddleia outside. A divine July, but someone hadn’t put the window key back where it lives, so I couldn’t air the place. I began a round of pelvic-floor exercises. Somewhere nearby, a car alarm was going on and on and on and on and on and on, like an incurable migraine. God, I despise people who can’t set their car alarms properly. I despise Fancy-Piece’s pleased-to-see-you smile. I despise liver cooked in cream.

  Where the hell was everyone?

  ‘June, where the hell is everyone?’

  ‘Who is this and where the hell is who?’

  What sort of actress doesn’t know her whos from her whoms?

  ‘Judith, of course. Doesn’t your mobile tell you who’s calling? Didn’t have you down as a technophobe, June. Let me show you how. Then you’ll always know who’s trying to reach you.’

  ‘I know perfectly well how to do it, thank you, Judith. Your number isn’t programmed in, for some bizarre reason.’

  ‘Well, I’m here at the theatre and not a soul has shown up for the meeting, and if people think they can put on a musical worthy of the name with this level of commitment, they - ’

  ‘The meeting was yesterday.’

  ‘I beg your pardon?’

  ‘The meeting was yesterday.’

  ‘Since when were Phantom meetings held on a Thursday?’

  ‘Since last meeting. Nadine couldn’t make it this Friday, so Janice switched it to Thursday. Don’t you remember?’

  ‘No wonder people get muddled, if days get swapped around at the drop of a - ’

  ‘Nobody else managed to get muddled, Judith.’

  If June Nolan weren’t such a Lady Muck - Terry’s a big nob at the cider factory in Hereford better known for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease than for cider - I’d never have let it slip. ‘Well, I am a tad distracted. My lover has died. It’s rather thrown me for a loop, I confess.’

  ‘Oh.’ That made Lady Muck change her tune. ‘How . . . did it happen, Judith? Were you very close?’

  ‘A hit-and-run. The police are still hunting the killer. Oh, I’m not sure if anyone could understand how close Olly and I were. It was beyond closeness. We were one, June. One. I shall never be whole again.’

  When June Nolan finally let me go, Muggins here cleaned up the needlessly made tray of coffees, locked up my theatre and headed back towards the clinic car-park. That car alarm was still blaring. Outside the clinic stood a young family, which sounds sweet, but this one made my heart sink. She was about sixteen, fat, dressed like a sporty tramp, and holding a newborn baby in one hand and a giant sausage roll in the other. He looked about eleven, had a lip stud, a rice-pudding complexion, and that hairstyle where strands drip over the criminal forehead. He was a two-thirds scale model of one of those English yobs you see littering European street cafés since budget air-travel came to the masses. Right outside the clinic, right next to his own baby, this boy-father was smoking. Had it been any other morning I might have passed by, but the universe, via Leo, had just sent me a message about the fragility of life.

  ‘How dare you smoke near that baby!’

  The boy-father looked at me with dead eyes.

  ‘Haven’t you heard of lung cancer?’

  Instead of yelling abuse, he inhaled, bent over his baby and blew out cigarette smoke straight into the poor moppet’s face.

  Is that family the future of Great Britain?

  Yes? Then perhaps eugenics is due a rethink.

  A care home spies on the clinic car-park. Yvonne, an aromatherapist I was briefly friendly with, told me that on average its inmates last only eighteen months. The elderly wilt when transplanted. Queen Elizabeth opened this very building a few years ago. I made sure I got to shake the royal hand. She’s smiling at me, in our photograph. Thankful for my assurance that not all her loyal subjects think she organized poor Diana’s assassination. Mind you, I’d put nothing past that Duke of Edinburgh. Told her that, too. A subject has a duty to tell her monarch what’s what.

  A janitor-type was peering into my Saab with a knotted-up face.

  I realized the offending alarm was, in fact, mine.

  With a crisp ‘Excuse me’, I nudged him to one side.

  The janitor reared his bulk at me. ‘Is this your car?’

  Without responding, I unlocked my car and disabled the alarm.

  ‘Is this’ - in the sudden silence he was shouting - ‘is this your car?’

  ‘Do I look like a joy-rider?’

  ‘Thirty minutes, this sodding alarm’s been going. Nobody over there’ - he gestured at the care home’s windows, each framing a pale wispy face with less than eighteen months to live - ‘could hear themselves think!’

  ‘I doubt much thinking goes on there. Shouldn’t you be more concerned about thieves tampering with vehicles under your very nose?’

  ‘Oh, I very much doubt there was ever any thief !’

  Water off a duck’s back. ‘Oh, so we live in a yob-free oasis, do we? See that midget thug over by the clinic? How do you know it wasn’t him? You’ll excuse me. I’m in rather a hurry.’

  Thankfully, my Saab started first time.

  I reversed out of the tight spot.

  I found myself heading not homewards, but on the road to Black Swan Green. I very nearly turned around: Daddy and Marion weren’t expecting me until Sunday. But the universe had told me to cherish my loved ones, so onwards I journeyed, onwards, until the steeple of Saint Gabriel’s and its two giant redwoods sailed closer, closer, over the orchards. Philip and I would explore that graveyard, while our parents chatted after church. How long ago? When Mummy could still go outside, so the late 1970s. Philip found a crack at the base of the steeple. A crack of black. A door to the land of the dead, Philip told me. Left ajar. Philip heard voices, he swore, crying lonely, lonely, lonely.

  And it occurred to me that Olly wasn’t the only victim of that hit-and-run murderer, because the Mrs Judith Dunbar-Castle whom I would have become had also been slain.

  No, ‘Dunbar-Castle’ sounds like a National Trust property.

  Judith Castle-Dunbar was a woman in her fifties, though she could pass for her forties. She was content, and contentment is the best beautician, as Maeve, the owner of an organic shop who pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes, not just mine, used to say. Olly and I would have pooled our funds and bought a spacious house near Charmouth. The Dunbar family would have embraced me. Unlike that gold-digging Patricia creature, who bled him white. Leo would have been Olly’s best man, and Camilla my bridesmaid. Olly’s grown-up son would have wept for joy into his champagne. I don’t think of you as a stepmother - you’re the big sister I never had. A chamber orchestra would have performed Jesus Christ Superstar for us as, one by one, Olly’s friends would have let slip that my husband was on the ropes before he met little old moi.

  Magpies loitered with intent on Saint Gabriel’s lychgate.

  Once, I was taller than the beech hedge around Daddy’s house. Now it’s as high as the car port. When one returns to childhood haunts, one is supposed to find how much smaller everything has become. But in Black Swan Green, I always feel that I’m the shrinking one.

  ‘Daddy! So here’s where you’re hiding!’

  ‘Why would I “hide” in my own greenhouse?’ Daddy was bent over a cactus, stroking it with a special brush. He switched off the radio cricket. ‘You aren’t due until Sunday.’

  ‘I was just passing. Don’t switch the radio off on my account.’

  ‘I switched it off because the agony’s too much. We’re 139 for 8 against Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka.’

  ‘That’s a gorgeous bloom, Daddy.’

  ‘This, you mean? Mexicans call it the Phoenix Tree. The Yanks call it the Blue Moon. I call it a waste of bloody time. Six years of fussing and fretting, all you get is this mouldy mauve flower and the aroma of cat litter.’

  ‘Oh, Daddy!’

  ‘You can cut me eighteen inches of that twine.’
<
br />   ‘Sure. Is Marion not around, Daddy?’

  ‘She’s at her book group. You’re too old to say “sure”.’

  ‘Her book group? Jilly Cooper’s got a new one out?’

  ‘They’re reading an Icelander. Halldor Laxless, I believe.’

  ‘ “Halldor Laxless”. My.’

  ‘The only writer I can stomach is Wilbur Smith. All the rest are bloody Nancy boys. Eighteen inches, I said. That’s more like two feet.’

  ‘I put a punnet of strawberries on the kitchen sill.’

  ‘They bring me out in a rash. You’re staying for lunch, I suppose.’

  Mummy used to complain that Daddy loved his greenhouse more than his real house. Neighbours’ children’s frisbees and shuttlecocks would get confiscated for landing too near it, never mind that they ganged up on me to vent their displeasure. And no silky mistress was ever cared for as much as the green velvet lawn upon which Daddy lavished vitamins and weedkiller. I remember the day Philip was shown how to mow it. It’s a man’s job, Judith. Women are congenitally incapable of straight lines. End of story. A lesser woman would still be bitter.

  ‘Did Philip’s birthday card ever arrive, Daddy?’

  ‘Philip has to lick the Adelaide office into shape.’ With tweezers and a surgeon’s delicacy of touch, Daddy tied a droopy cactus limb to a bamboo splint. ‘I raised that boy to see a job through. Not to ponce around with cards and Interflora and ghastly ties.’

  ‘So nothing’s come of his plan to make it over this summer?’

  ‘Philip’s the project-leader.’ Daddy measured out a cup of cactus feed. ‘He has too much responsibility just to drop everything.’

  ‘Oh, dear. Still no Mrs Philip Castle on the horizon?’

  ‘How the bloody hell should I know, Judith? You’ll be the first to find out when he does get hitched, via your global intelligence network.’

  ‘Only asking, Daddy. Only asking. I see you got the CCTV installed around the front.’

  ‘And the back. The Old Vicarage had a break-in. I’d get myself a couple of lurchers - teach ’em to bite first and ask permission later, like my father in Rhodesia - but Marion isn’t having it. We booked that kayaking trip in Norway, so you’re on the garden-watering detail in September.’

  ‘If I’m around, I’ll be delighted to oblige.’

  Daddy gave me a significant look.

  I held it. You mustn’t let Daddy intimidate you, or he’ll turn you into Mummy. ‘A new development on the Glebe, I see.’

  ‘ “Development”? Don’t get me started. Once upon a time, this village was a village. These days, any Paddy O’Speculator can slip those human turds at the council a few quid and knock up a dozen houses overnight for seven hundred grand apiece. Ah, Marion’s back. I can hear her car.’

  ‘Such a shock!’ Marion poured the coffee while I stacked her gold-edged tableware in the dishwasher. ‘So much life ahead of him! Poor, poor man. And poor, poor Judith.’

  ‘I died with him, Marion. That’s how it feels.’

  ‘A photographer, you mentioned?’

  ‘Ha!’ Daddy dunked his biscuit. ‘That old chestnut.’

  ‘A very highly regarded one. His gallery’s in Lyme Regis. Daddy, what is so amusing about Lyme Regis?’

  ‘Nothing whatsoever.’

  Marion gave him a glare like Mummy never would. ‘The police are bound to catch the driver sooner or later, aren’t they?’

  ‘The police won’t shift their comfy arses an inch,’ muttered Daddy, getting up. ‘Not if it’s not about blowing up airports. Not these days.’

  ‘The sergeant told me the rain washed the clues away.’ I sat back down and sipped Marion’s excellent coffee. She replaces her machine every year, whether it needs replacing or not. Mummy used a percolator only once in her life. She put three filters in instead of one, and the kitchen floor was flooded. She cried about it for three nights running.

  Marion had reconditioned yew boards laid everywhere after she married Daddy. A hanging stitched by one of her sponsored African children adorns the Afrikaner fireplace: Happiness is not a Destination, it is a Method of Life. As long as flies aren’t drinking from your eyes, I suppose that’s true. A lesser woman would be upset at how Daddy has let all trace of Mummy disappear from her home. What would Mummy’s ghost recognize now? The alpine rockery, installed years ago to keep up with the Taylors; the cactii and their greenhouse of course; Mummy and Daddy’s honeymoon photograph on the dresser, bleached blue by four decades; the summer house Daddy built for her, in the vain hope it would help with her agoraphobia; the chill in the downstairs loo. That’s her lot. I haven’t been upstairs here for years. Nor do I care to. Marion and Daddy’s love-life is doubtless conducted on some space-age double mattress. They do have a love-life. I sense these things.

  ‘If your engagement was an open secret,’ Marion was saying, ‘Olly’s family must want you there for the funeral.’

  ‘They wouldn’t dream of burying him without me. Olly’s brother told me the dreadful tidings before he told Olly’s ex-wife.’

  ‘So, when is the service?’

  Daddy turned the kitchen radio on. ‘ - has announced that industrial action threatening rail travellers with chaos and misery this weekend has been averted, following the rail union’s acceptance of a 4.9 per cent pay increase over two years, with an enhanced system of bonuses. Officials say -’

  Daddy fiddled the dial, in search of cricket, grumbling incoherently.

  But the universe had spoken loud and clear.

  ‘My train leaves tomorrow. Crack of dawn.’

  The taxi-driver at Axminster Station flicked his cigarette away and heaved my suitcase into his unwashed cab. ‘Cheer up, love. May never happen.’ I replied, tartly, that ‘it’ already had happened. ‘I am here to bury my husband. He lost his long battle with leukemia.’ My words wove an instant magic. Off went his trashy local radio station, away went that ‘love’ and on came a proper air of respect. As he drove me down to Lyme Regis through the drizzle, he made attempts at informed conversation about his son’s school and the Ofsted table; about a proposed site for a low-security prison, shouted down by outraged locals; about a Victorian mansion once owned by Benny Hill and, rumour has it, home to all sorts of goings-on, obscured now by leylandii of gigantic height. My responses were polite but minimal. Widows should not be chatty, and I had my pelvic-floor exercises to run through.

  ‘Hope the weather picks up for you,’ he said, as I paid, ‘madam.’

  It was the same at the Hotel Excalibur. ‘Business or pleasure, is it?’ asked the bouncy creature in that cud-chewing Dorset accent. ‘Neither,’ I told her, with courage and dignity. ‘I am here to bury my husband. Iraq. I’m not at liberty to tell you any more.’ Before my very eyes, she transformed into a real receptionist. She checked if a quieter, more spacious room, away from the conference wing, was available. Lo and behold, it was. ‘At no extra charge?’ I verified. She was pleasingly shocked. ‘We wouldn’t dream of it, madam! You’ll be more comfortable there, Mrs’ - she glanced at my form - ‘Mrs Castle-Dunbar. Would you like a lie-down now? I can send some tea up to your room.’ I’d prefer to stretch my legs, I told her, and she got me an umbrella. Several ‘Made in China’ umbrellas were in the stand - left behind by forgetful guests, doubtless - but she picked me out a sturdy, Churchillian, raven-black affair.

  Yes, there are boxes of tatty junk in Lyme Regis, but also cabinets of bona fide rareties. Nestling between Cap’n Scallywag’s Diner and Wildest Dreams Amusement Arcade you’ll find Feay’s Fossils and Henry Jeffreys Antiquarian Maps. From a florist on Silver Street, I purchased twelve ruby roses. In a jeweller’s on Pound Street, a pearl necklace caught my eye. £395 is not small change, but one doesn’t bury one’s soul-mate every day of the week, and I negotiated a discount of £35. I got the elderly proprietor to snip off the tag so I could wear it now. ‘Very good, madam,’ he replied. England would be a superior country if everyone in shops spoke like that.

 
; Then I came to the Cobb.

  It curves out into the sea, this ancient stone wall, before dividing into two arms. One arm shelters the modest harbour. The other lunges into open water. Judith Castle-Dunbar followed the latter, cutting a swathe through a platoon of German pensioners. She booted their backsides into the briny drink, or imagined doing so, so vividly that she heard their cries and hearty Teutonic plop!s. Sir Andrew’s Requiem - more sublime than Mozart’s, who never knew when to stop - thundered over the water, for her, for the soul of Oliver Dunbar. Beadlets of mist clung to her overcoat. She reached the end. Judith Castle-Dunbar gazed towards France, obscured today by an inconsolable sky of tears. An inconsolable sky of tears. Judith Castle-Dunbar flung one red rose into the funereal waters below her. And another, another, another, sinking into the fathoms. Rest in peace. The widow has an uncanny sensation of being in a film.

  Gulls are her familiars. Damp tourists, anglers, local hoodies and drug addicts, bored rich Germans, spiteful June Nolans, soya-milk Winnifreds and bronzed Marions, holiday admirals in their affordable yachts . . . they watch on, wondering, Who is that woman? Why is her sadness so deep? She will remain anchored in the inlets of their memories, long after today. This woman moves in a separate realm. A Meryl Streep sort of realm. A realm which ordinary people can glimpse, but never inhabit.

  Tucked up on the toppermost shelf of the town, Oliver Dunbar Photography was open for business as usual. A bell greeted me: the very bell Olly must have heard every day of his working life here. Right here. I must obtain it, and have it rigged up to my door at home. Inside, a man was speaking on the telephone. Leo! I recognized him by his voice. Leo is a touch beefier than Olly, but he has those sensuous Dunbar eyes, and that Jeremy Irons bone structure. His black clothes - obviously he’ll be in mourning for weeks yet - suited him well, and what pluck, I thought, to keep the show on the road at a time like this. Doubtless the Dunbars are rallying round. Despite my discreet enquiries, Olly never mentioned Leo’s wife or girlfriend, and all ten fingers were free of rings. With the receiver still wedged between his ear and his manly shoulder, Leo smiled apologetically and gestured that I should make myself comfortable. An electricity passed between us. I sense these things. Why should it not? He is my dead lover’s brother. I am one of the family. Closing my umbrella, I stood it in a bucket, and withdrew into a side-gallery to give Leo some privacy. His conversation wasn’t worth overhearing, anyway: arrangements for wedding photographs at the council offices. Olly and I were to have married in a stone circle.

 
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