The Book of Other People by Zadie Smith


  A big man physically, far bigger than Hanwell. And then later, maybe that same year, maybe the next, on November the fifth, suddenly at the back door in the blackness with the gift of some penny bangers. He didn’t stay to light these with Hanwell. Then gone again. ‘Went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back’: a common enough refrain in England, then and now. Only, Hanwell Snr was one of the periodic returnees. This makes it worse, as previously discussed. Leaving Hanwell standing in the blackness in short trousers holding bangers. This was never forgotten. It persists, a fleck of the late 1920s. It is recorded here by a descendant of Hanwell Snr of whom he could have had no notion, being as unreal to him as broadband or goblins. No one can explain the process by which these things are retained while much else vanishes - a lot of sentimental rubbish is written on the subject. Hanwell himself kept faith with scientific explanations. He knew nothing whatsoever of science. Dimly, he imagined chemical flare-ups in the brain chemistry, arresting moving images (his analogy came from photographic film, of which he had some experience), and that these ‘flare-ups’ are random in their occasion and unobservable at the moment they happen. Of course, the writing of this is also a kind of ‘flare-up’, albeit of a sadder, secondary and parasitic kind.

  In the mid-thirties, Hanwell Snr went to Canada, an attempt to make his fortune in logging. Hanwell was given a brief, thrilling tour of the ship before it sailed, although not by his father; a crewman put a candle on a thick brass rail and thus demonstrated to Hanwell how crosswise scratches turn orderly and concentric in thrown light. Three years later Hanwell Snr returned, still with no money. He was now able to roll a cigarette with one hand the way the cowboys did. Hanwell was not especially impressed. Subsequently, Hanwell Snr became a conductor on the buses. Then came the war, from which he never really returned, having fallen for a middle-class lady who drove an ambulance. Turned up once at Hanwell’s own barracks, with a new name - ‘Bill’ - and the affectations of an Irishman. It was eerie to witness. Words held no security with Hanwell Snr, served as no anchor, bore no relation to the things of the world. A darker shade of this same tendency is called ‘psychopathy’. He took out a few filthy photos from the Far East and told amusing, believable anecdotes set in Kerry. This, to a stranger, would appear to fit well with the copper-wire hair and the close eyes. Hanwell wished himself more of a stranger. As it stood, he could only wince inwardly at this second, false personality, while making a good show of laughing along as Bill made a friend of all the young soldiers whom Hanwell himself had not yet managed to befriend. ‘Good sort, your old man! Lively, good for a laugh!’ Said approvingly, and probably true (Hanwell tried hard to be generous in his interpretations), if you happened not to be his son. If you happened not to be his son. Bill walked out two hours later, merry as Christmas. Wasn’t seen again by Hanwell for twelve years.

  It was August of 1956. Hanwell got word that his father was nicely set up with a little business in an obscure village in the county of Kent. Without any real expectation - or none he could confess to himself - Hanwell got on his bike. This time, he would appear. It was nothing to him, back then, to ride from London to Kent. He was young, relatively speaking, though he wouldn’t have thought himself especially so, with a young family already. He did not know then that a second family lay in wait for him, not yet sprung, coiled in his future.

  A roasting August day. Hanwell had devised a water carrier out of an old plastic kerosene bottle and strapped it to the crossbar - an invention a little ahead of its time. He powered along a newly built stretch of the A20, wherever possible nipping off and taking byroads through the villages, feeling that the air was purer there. I hope I can say ‘hedgerow’ and it will be clear that I don’t mean to be poetic, but only historically accurate. Hedgerow, thick and briary, caught his shirt twice and made it ragged round the elbow. He had it in his mind - as I have it in mine, with equal stubbornness, when I am writing at length - not to stop before a certain point; he would eat at his destination and not before. One more mile, one more chapter, one more mile, one more chapter. The village was in a little valley; Hanwell swooned round the bends and rolled into town, stopping at the village green, which was all the village there was. Two establishments stood nearby: a redbrick pub with pretty clumps of lavender growing in the window pots and, on the other side of the green, a luridly painted fish-and-chip van. Hanwell knew better than to hope. He got off his bike and pushed it with a sure touch round the perimeter, the faintest pressure of left hand to saddle. It was four o’clock - the van was shut up. He leaned the bike against gypsy-red lettering outlined in gold: HANWELL’S FINEST FISH AND CHIPS. He went to sit in the grass, beneath a tree, overlooking the cricket pitch and the marshy land near the ponds. He was unable to absorb these various lessons in the colour green. Instead, there was smell: sear-leaved, blowzy roses, last of the summer. Collect them, give them to your sister, 1931.

  Recipe for Irene Hanwell’s Lady’s Perfume

  Six roses (stolen, petals removed)

  Water from the tap

  Empty milk bottle

  Squish petals in fist to release the odour. Put in bottle. Fill with water.

  His feet stank. He took off his shoes. At home he had a wife who was not well, not well in a manner he could do nothing about nor understand, but, as he sat here now in the sun, the tense, resistant nub of flesh inside his back resolved itself for the first time in months. He lay down. His spine pressed into the soil a notch at a time, undid him. Upside down was a land of female legs. He was fond of these new bell-shaped skirts, wide enough to crawl under and be kept safe, and wished he had waited to marry, or married differently. He thought, What if I stayed here? Let the sun swallow me, and the orange dazzle under my eyelids become not just the thing I see but the thing that I am, and let the one daisy with the bent stem and the rose smell and the girl upside down on the pub bench eating an upside-down ploughman’s with her upside-down friend be the whole of the law and the girth of the world. Wasn’t it the work of moments, of a little paint, to change HANWELL’S FINEST to HANWELL & HANWELL?

  Note: I have reconstituted Hanwell’s thoughts for you, as seem likely to me, and as sound nicest. In the novel Middlemarch, we find the old adage of a man’s charity growing in direct proportion to its distance from his own door. This is reminiscent of all the dutiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren lingering over deathbeds with digital recorders, or else manically pursuing their ancestors through the online genealogy sites at three in the morning, so very eager to reconstitute the lives and thoughts of dead and soon-to-be-dead men, though they may regularly screen the phone calls of their own mothers. I am of that generation. I will do anything for my family except see them.

  It was 1956, as mentioned above. There was nothing but the sun, and Hanwell and the sun. Lying in a patch of long grass, Hanwell dreamed a conversation:

  HANWELL SNR: (lying beside Hanwell) So you found me, then.

  HANWELL: Yes, Alf. Wasn’t I meant to?

  HANWELL SNR: Now, look: have a smoke - don’t get ahead of yourself.

  HANWELL: (taking a Senior Service from its packet) Thank you.

  HANWELL SNR: So, boy. How are you? I’m doing all right for myself, as you can see.

  HANWELL: Ah, yes, indeed, and even so. Thus is it much liketh the great novel by George Eliot -

  HANWELL SNR: Oh, don’t talk guff, boy. You always do that - pretend you’re something you’re not and never have been. You never did read any of that. Anyone’d think you’d been up to the university, talking like I don’t know what.

  HANWELL: (sadly) We couldn’t afford the uniform for the grammar. I passed the eleven-plus, but we couldn’t afford it.

  HANWELL SNR: (laughing till he cries) Still telling that old chestnut? Dear, oh dear. Bit antique that story, isn’t it? I’d rather call a spade a spade, let everything come up roses. Well, whatever floats your boat, Hanwell, I’m sure.

  HANWELL: (sung) I put a chestnut in a boat . . . I rowed it with a spade
. . . A rose I gave my love that day.

  HANWELL SNR: You’ve gone soft.

  ‘Whose bike is this?’

  Hanwell sat up and was greeted - not with any particular surprise, although with a little sheepishness - and offered the first chips out of the fryer, which he accepted.

  ‘I’ve a little fold-up table somewhere here . . .’

  Hanwell watched Hanwell Snr struggle with the household bric-a-brac and shabby furniture piled up in the back of the van. A tall lamp with a tasselled shade and a coat stand lay across each other: a coat of arms for the house of Hanwell. The ambulance driver, Bunty, who might have kept things clean for him, had died the year before - her money had bought this little concern. Maybe she had cooked him his greens, too, and watched his drink, and it was only now that the ghastly bloat took hold, and the blood vessels broke and dispersed beneath the skin of the nose and cheeks, and the orange whiskers grew wild and laced with grey. It was a shock. Historically, Hanwell Snr was physically superior to Hanwell: Sit on my back - go on, sit on it! You won’t break me! Usually said to a lady, and then when she was settled like the Buddha he’d do a press-up or two, sometimes five. Now he turned, holding the little table upside down against his vast belly, and this soft thing, more than all the rest, announced him as a man deserted by women.

  ‘There we are’ - his great arse pressed on the tabletop; the cast-iron legs sunk deep into the lawn - ‘I don’t believe in standing and eating.’

  He brought out two little stools, and Hanwell sat on the one handed to him. For a time, Hanwell Snr made his own reluctance to sit appear quite natural, busying himself with the hot oil and dismissing certain chips as not fit to be thrown in the fryer if his only son was to eat them. When the fuss of frying was over, Hanwell realized the obvious: his father couldn’t stand to look at him. They remained looking out on the meadow beyond the green, Hanwell Snr leaning against the van, despite his beliefs, with his sweaty cone of newspaper and chewing each chip a long time. He looked across Hanwell if Hanwell spoke, but never at him.

  Of their conversation, Hanwell could retain practically nothing, finding it quite as unreal as their dream talk earlier. While Hanwell silently pursued a series of unlikely but longed-for confessions (Well, son, the thing is . . . To tell you the truth, I regret terribly . . .), in the real, thick ripple of the air Hanwell Snr was sweating and rambling about the Suez business and the Araby bastards and other matters of the world that Hanwell - the least political of men, a man for whom the world was, and could consist only of, those people he saw or spoke to every day, fed, washed or made love to - could not comprehend. At last the topic turned to the people who concerned Hanwell - Hanwell’s wife, Hanwell’s daughters. Hanwell shyly described his current difficulty, making use of the doctor’s careful and superior phrases (‘mental disturbance’ and ‘a tendency toward hysteria’). Hanwell Snr drew a hankie from his back pocket, worked it round the grime on the back of his neck. He took his time folding it back into quarters. Hanwell saw at once that his father thought it entirely typical of Hanwell to marry a woman who was broken in some way, and now felt much the same satirical disgust he’d expressed when the boy Hanwell, instead of laughing at being dangled from a pier, took it in his head to cry.

  ‘Well, I’ll say this,’ he said, finishing his lecture about Hanwell’s ineptitude at choosing things right and seeing the way of things, and moving on to the more general subject of ‘women’, which allowed, at least, the concession that Hanwell’s trouble might not be Hanwell’s fault alone: ‘They rewrite history - can’t let a man be himself. Always telling you what you would be and should be and might be, rather than what you are. And what they’re offering in return for all that isn’t half as good as they think it is - or I’ve never found it so. But maybe you’ve done better - Lord knows, they look a damn sight better these days than in my day . . .’

  Twenty yards from where they sat, two young women in sun-dresses were helping each other achieve a handstand. Hanwell Snr nudged Hanwell in his gut, and Hanwell felt strongly the implicit insult to his own mother, who still lived, and still wore her flapper curls - white now - close to her forehead, and the same heavy felt cloche caps and Harold Lloyd glasses, perfectly round and thick-rimmed. He said nothing. He ate his chips as the blonde, peaky-looking girl firmed her body in preparation for the arrival of the lovely thick ankles of the brunette, well fed as they never were ten years earlier, and when this brunette overreached, and her breasts pressed tight against the cotton of her yellow dress and her legs went backwards, and the crinoline frothed over her blonde friend’s narrow shoulders, Hanwell and Hanwell watched them laugh and shake together and fall, finally, in a human heap on the grass. Soon after, Hanwell Snr gathered the two empty paper cones and pressed them into a soggy ball in his hands, and said he’d better open the shutters, as it was teatime and folk would be wanting their food. Hanwell never saw him again.

  On a date in 1986, one that only the record office would remember now, the phone rang in Hanwell’s kitchen as he cooked. He was making pizza with homemade dough for the young children of his second family, and his topping was a loose, watery, fresh tomato sauce, laced with anchovies and black olives, so piquant and delicious you could eat it by the spoonful and forgo the crust altogether. It is possible only I liked to do that. I extrapolate my feelings too generally.

  ‘Yes, I see - thank you . . . it was good of you to let us know,’ said Hanwell in a voice a shade more posh than his own. He put down the phone and left the room. After the pizza was finished, he came back in, pale, but composed. He said his father had died, a sentence that required us - my mother, my brother, and me - to invent a whole human in one second and kill him off the next. Hanwell had said nothing to prepare us. He had known weeks earlier that his father’s death was imminent - he did not go to him. Twenty years later, Hanwell’s son would not go to Hanwell when his hour came. It happens that in the course of my professional duties I am often found making the statement ‘I don’t believe in patterns.’ A butterfly on a pin has no idea what a pretty shape it makes.

  ‘He never settled,’ said Hanwell, ‘and now he’s come to the end of the road,’ a quaint metaphor, like those that Borges enjoyed, and we, equally, interpreted it literally, thinking of Brighton pier, Brighton being Hanwell country for us, and the place where Hanwell’s people generally died. When I was a kid, I had a dream - never forgotten! - of the cool, flat Brighton pebbles being placed over my body, as the Jews place stones on top of their dead; piled up and up over my corpse, until I was entirely buried and families came to picnic over me, not knowing, for I was Brighton bedrock now, as Hanwells had been (in my dream logic) since there were Hanwells in England. There have always been Hanwells in England. But I am a female Hanwell and lost my name when I married.

  J. Johnson

  Nick Hornby, with illustrations by Posy Simmonds

  A Writing Life

  JAMIE JOHNSON was born in 1955, in Southend, Essex. He studied English at Cambridge University, and has contributed to the TLS, the Literary Review, the Independent and Mojo. This is his first book. He lives in North London.

  JAMIE JOHNSON is the author of JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH, a memoir about sex addiction, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award. He was born in 1955 in Southend, Essex, and has contributed to Esquire, Playboy and Nuts. He lives in Essex with his wife and two children. (CAN’T GET NO) SATISFACTION is his first novel.

  JAMES JOHNSON rereads the poems of John Donne every year. He is the author of two previous books, and has been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award. He has contributed to the TLS, the Literary Review and the Independent. He is currently a Visiting Writer at Essex University, and lives just outside Shoeburyness with his wife and four children. HOW DRY A CINDER is his second novel.

  JIM JOHNSON is the author of several books for adults, including HOW DRY A CINDER, a historical novel about the last years of the poet John Donne, which was longlisted for the John Donne Prize. He lives in
Hartlepool in the North-East of England with his wife, five children, two cats, one dog, two gerbils called Romulus and Remus, and Dylan the goldfish. This is his first children’s book.

  ANNIE GREEN is an artist, and the illustrator of the much loved Elvis the Elephant series. She too lives in the North-East of England, with a large menagerie including a snake. She drives an old 2CV called Poppy.

  J. THOMAS JOHNSON is the author of several books. He has worked as a bartender, lumberjack, nightclub bouncer, pearl-fisherman, police-dog trainer, professional wrestler, private detective, Nepalese tour-guide, assassin, and writer-in-residence at a number of British universities. He has been fascinated by the Alaskan wilderness ever since he was a child. He lives with his partner, the illustrator Annie Green, just outside Hartlepool in the North-East of England.

 
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