The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

  ‘Believe me, that’s a natural law, Fatou, pure and simple. Only God cries for us all, because we are all his children. It’s very, very logical. You just have to think about it for a moment.’

  Fatou sighed, and spooned some coffee foam into her mouth. ‘But I still think we have more pain. I’ve seen it myself. Chinese people have never been slaves. They are always protected from the worst.’

  Andrew took off his glasses and rubbed them on the end of his shirt. Fatou could tell that he was preparing to lay knowledge upon her.

  ‘Fatou, think about it for a moment, please: what about Hiroshima?’

  It was a name Fatou had heard before, but sometimes Andrew’s superior knowledge made her nervous. She would find herself struggling to remember even the things she had believed she already knew.

  ‘The big wave …’ she began, uncertainly – it was the wrong answer. He laughed mightily and shook his head at her.

  ‘No, man! Big bomb. Biggest bomb in the world, made by the USA, of course. They killed five million people in one second. Can you imagine that? You think just because your eyes are like this’ – he tugged the skin at both temples – ‘you’re always protected? Think again. This bomb, even if it didn’t blow you up, a week later it melted the skin off your bones.’

  Fatou realized she had heard this story before, or some version of it. But she felt the same vague impatience with it as she did with all accounts of suffering in the distant past. For what could be done about the suffering of the distant past?

  ‘OK,’ she said. ‘Maybe all people have their hard times, in the past of history, but I still say –’

  ‘Here is a counterpoint,’ Andrew said, reaching out and gripping her shoulder. ‘Let me ask you, Fatou, seriously, think about this. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I have thought a lot about this and I want to pass it on to you, because I know you care about things seriously, not like these people –’ He waved a hand at the assortment of cake eaters at other tables. ‘You’re not like the other girls I know, just thinking about the club and their hair. You’re a person who thinks. I told you before, anything you want to know about, ask me – I’ll look it up, I’ll do the research. I have access. Then I’ll bring it to you.’

  ‘You’re a very good friend to me, Andrew, I know that.’

  ‘Listen, we are friends to each other. In this world you need friends. But, Fatou, listen to my question. It’s a counterpoint to what you have been saying. Tell me, why would God choose us especially for suffering when we, above all others, praise his name? Africa is the fastest-growing Christian continent! Just think about it for a minute! It doesn’t even make sense!’

  ‘But it’s not him,’ Fatou said quietly, looking over Andrew’s shoulder to the rain beating on the window. ‘It’s the Devil.’


  Andrew and Fatou sat in the Tunisian coffee shop, waiting for it to stop raining, but it did not stop raining and at three p.m. Fatou said she would just have to get wet. She shared Andrew’s umbrella as far as the Overground, letting him pull her into his clammy, high-smelling body as they walked. At Brondesbury station Andrew had to get the train, and so they said goodbye. Several times he tried to press his umbrella on her, but Fatou knew the walk from Acton Central to Andrew’s bedsit was long and she refused to let him suffer on her account.

  ‘Big woman. Won’t let anybody protect you.’

  ‘Rain doesn’t scare me.’

  Fatou took from her pocket a swimming cap she had found on the floor of the health club changing room. She wound her plaits into a bun and pulled the cap over her head.

  ‘That’s a very original idea,’ Andrew said, laughing. ‘You should market that! Make your first million!’

  ‘Peace be with you,’ Fatou said, and kissed him chastely on the cheek.

  Andrew did the same, lingering a little longer with his kiss than was necessary.


  By the time Fatou reached the Derawals’ only her hair was dry, but before going to get changed she rushed to the kitchen to take the lamb out of the freezer, though it was pointless – there were not enough hours before dinner – and then upstairs to collect the dirty clothes from the matching wicker baskets in four different bedrooms. There was no one in the master bedroom, or in Faizul’s or Julie’s. Downstairs a television was blaring. Entering Asma’s room, hearing nothing, assuming it empty, Fatou headed straight for the laundry basket in the corner. As she opened the lid she felt a hand hit her hard on the back; she turned around.

  There was the youngest, Asma, in front of her, her mouth open like a trout fish. Before Fatou could understand, Asma punched the huge pile of clothes out of her hands. Fatou stooped to retrieve them. While she was kneeling on the floor, another strike came, a kick to her arm. She left the clothes where they were and got up, frightened by her own anger. But when she looked at Asma now she saw the girl gesturing frantically at her own throat, then putting her hands together in prayer and then back to her throat once more. Her eyes were bulging. She veered suddenly to the right; she threw herself over the back of a chair. When she turned back to Fatou her face was grey and Fatou understood finally and ran to her, grabbed her round her waist and pulled upwards as she had been taught in the hotel. A marble – with an iridescent ribbon of blue at its centre, like a wave – flew from the child’s mouth and landed wetly in the carpet’s plush.

  Asma wept and drew in frantic gulps of air. Fatou gave her a hug, and worried when the clothes would get done. Together they went down to the den, where the rest of the family was watching Britain’s Got Talent on a flat-screen TV attached to the wall. Everybody stood at the sight of Asma’s wild weeping. Mr Derawal paused the Sky box. Fatou explained about the marble.

  ‘How many times I tell you not to put things in your mouth?’ Mr Derawal asked, and Mrs Derawal said something in their language – Fatou heard the name of their God – and pulled Asma on to the sofa and stroked her daughter’s silky black hair.

  ‘I couldn’t breathe, man! I couldn’t call nobody,’ Asma cried. ‘I was gonna die!’

  ‘What you putting marbles in your mouth for anyway, you idiot?’ Faizul said, and unpaused the Sky box. ‘What kind of chief puts a marble in her mouth? Idiot. Bet you was bricking it.’

  ‘Oi, she saved your life,’ said Julie, the eldest child, whom Fatou generally liked the least. ‘Fatou saved your life. That’s deep.’

  ‘I woulda just done this,’ Faizul said, and performed an especially dramatic Heimlich to his own skinny body. ‘And if that didn’t work I woulda just start pounding myself karate style, bam bam bam bam bam –’

  ‘Faizul!’ Mr Derawal shouted, and then turned stiffly to Fatou, and spoke not to her, exactly, but to a point somewhere between her elbow and the sunburst mirror behind her head. ‘Thank you, Fatou. It’s lucky you were there.’

  Fatou nodded and went to leave, but at the doorway to the den Mrs Derawal asked her if the lamb had defrosted and Fatou had to confess that she had only just taken it out. Mrs Derawal said something sharply in her language. Fatou waited for something further, but Mr Derawal only smiled awkwardly at her, and nodded as a sign that she could go now. Fatou went upstairs to collect the clothes.


  ‘To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss’ was one of the mottoes of the Khmer Rouge. It referred to the New People, those city dwellers who could not be made to give up city life and work on a farm. By returning everybody back to the land, the regime hoped to create a society of Old People – that is to say, of agrarian peasants. When a New Person was relocated from the city to the country, it was vital not to show weakness in the fields. Vulnerability was punishable by death.

  In Willesden, we are almost all New People, though some of us, like Fatou, were, until quite recently, Old People, working the land in our various countries of origin. Of the Old and New People of Willesden I speak; I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not choose me and must wonder what gives me the right. I cou
ld say, ‘Because I was born at the crossroads of Willesden, Kilburn and Queen’s Park!’ But the reply would be swift and damning: ‘Oh, don’t be foolish, many people were born right there; it doesn’t mean anything at all. We are not one people and no one can speak for us. It’s all a lot of nonsense. We see you standing on the balcony, overlooking the Embassy of Cambodia, in your dressing gown, staring into the chestnut trees, looking gormless. The real reason you speak in this way is because you can’t think of anything better to do.’


  On Monday, Fatou went swimming. She paused to watch the badminton. She thought that the arm that delivered the smashes must make a movement similar to the one she made in the pool, with her clumsy yet effective front crawl. She entered the health centre and gave a guest pass to the girl behind the desk. In the dimly lit changing room, she put on her sturdy black underwear. As she swam, she thought of Carib Beach. Her father serving snapper to the guests on the deck, his bow tie always a little askew, the ugly tourists, the whole scene there. Of course, it was not surprising in the least to see old white men from Germany with beautiful local girls on their laps, but she would never forget the two old white women from England – red women, really, thanks to the sun – each of them as big as two women put together, with Kweku and Osai lying by their sides, the boys hooking their scrawny black bird-arms round the women’s massive red shoulders, and dancing with them in the hotel ‘ballroom’, answering to the names Michael and David, and disappearing into the women’s cabins at night. She had known the boys’ real girlfriends; they were chambermaids like Fatou. Sometimes they cleaned the rooms where Kweku and Osai spent the night with the English women. And the girls themselves had ‘boyfriends’ among the guests. It was not a holy place, that hotel. And the pool was shaped like a kidney bean: nobody could really swim in it, or showed any sign of wanting to. Mostly, they stood in it and drank cocktails. Sometimes they even had their burgers delivered to the pool. Fatou hated to watch her father crouching to hand a burger to a man waist-high in water.

  The only good thing that happened in Carib Beach was this: once a month, on a Sunday, the congregation of a local church poured out of a coach at the front gates, lined up fully dressed in the courtyard and then walked into the pool for a mass baptism. The tourists were never warned, and Fatou never understood why the congregants were allowed to do it. But she loved to watch their white shirts bloat and spread across the surface of the water, and to hear the weeping and singing. At the time – though she was not then a member of that church, or of any church except the one in her heart – she had felt that this baptism was for her, too, and that it kept her safe, and that this was somehow the reason she did not become one of the ‘girls’ at the Carib Beach Resort. In almost two years – between her father’s efforts and the grace of an unseen and unacknowledged God – she did her work, and swam Sunday mornings at the crack of dawn, and got along all right. But the Devil was waiting.

  She had only a month left in Accra when she entered a bedroom to clean it one morning and heard the door shut softly behind her before she could put a hand to it. He came, this time, in Russian form. Afterwards, he cried and begged her not to tell anyone: his wife had gone to see the Cape Coast Castle and they were leaving the following morning. Fatou listened to his blubbering and realized that he thought the hotel would punish him for his action, or that the police would be called. That was when she knew that the Devil was stupid as well as evil. She spat in his face and left. Thinking about the Devil now made her swimming fast and angry, and for a while she easily lapped the young white man in the lane next to hers, the faster lane.


  ‘Don’t give the Devil your anger, it is his food,’ Andrew said to her, when they first met, a year ago. He handed her a leaflet as she sat eating a sandwich on a bench in Kilburn Park. ‘Don’t make it so easy for him.’ Without being invited, he took the seat next to hers and began going through the text of his leaflet. It was printed to look like a newspaper, and he started with the headline: ‘WHY IS THERE PAIN?’ She liked him. They began a theological conversation. It continued in the Tunisian café, and every Sunday for several months. A lot of the things he said she had heard before from other people, and they did not succeed in changing her attitude. In the end, it was one thing that he said to her that really made the difference. It was after she’d told him this story:

  ‘One day, at the hotel, I heard a commotion on the beach. It was early morning. I went out and I saw nine children washed up dead on the beach. Ten or eleven years old, boys and girls. They had gone into the water, but they didn’t know how to swim. Some people were crying, maybe two people. Everyone else just shook their heads and carried on walking to where they were going. After a long time, the police came. The bodies were taken away. People said, “Well, they are with God now.” Everybody carried on like before. I went back to work. The next year I was in Rome. I saw a boy who was about fifteen years old knocked down on his bike. He was dead. People were screaming and crying in the street. Everybody crying. They were not his family. They were only strangers. The next day, it was in the paper.’

  And Andrew replied, ‘A tap runs fast the first time you switch it on.’


  Twenty more laps. Fatou tried to think of the last time she had cried. It was in Rome, but it wasn’t for the boy on the bike. She was cleaning toilets in a Catholic girls’ school. She did not know Jesus then, so it made no difference what kind of school it was – she only knew she was cleaning toilets. At midday, she had a fifteen-minute break. She would go to the little walled garden across the road to smoke a cigarette. One day, she was sitting on a bench near a fountain and spotted something odd in the bushes. A tin of green paint. A gold spray can. A Statue of Liberty costume. An identity card with the name Rajib Devanga. One shoe. An empty wallet. A plastic tub with a slit cut in the top meant for coins and euro notes – empty. A little stain of what looked like blood on this tub. Until that point, she had been envious of the Bengali boys on Via Nazionale. She felt that she, too, could paint herself green and stand still for an hour. But when she tried to find out more the Bengalis would not talk to her. It was a closed shop, for brown men only. Her place was in the toilet stalls. She thought those men had it easy. Then she saw that little sad pile of belongings in the bush and cried; for herself or for Rajib, she wasn’t sure.

  Now she turned on to her back in the water for the final two laps, relaxed her arms and kicked her feet out like a frog. Water made her think of more water. ‘When you’re baptized in our church, all sin is wiped, you start again’: Andrew’s promise. She had never told Andrew of the sin precisely, but she knew that he knew she was not a virgin. The day she finally became a Catholic, 6 February 2011, Andrew had taken her, hair still wet, to the Tunisian café and asked her how it felt.

  She was joyful! She said, ‘I feel like a new person!’

  But happiness like that is hard to hold on to. Back at work the next day, picking Julie’s dirty underwear up off the floor inches from the wicker basket, she had to keep reminding herself of her new relationship with Jesus and how it changed everything. Didn’t it change everything? The following Sunday she expressed some of her doubt, cautiously, to Andrew.

  ‘But did you think you’d never feel sad again? Never angry or tired or just pissed off – sorry about my language. Come on, Fatou! Wise up, man!’

  Was it wrong to hope to be happy?


  Lost to these watery thoughts, Fatou got home a little later than usual and was through the door only minutes before Mrs Derawal.

  ‘How is Asma?’ Fatou asked. She had heard the girl cry out in the night.

  ‘My goodness, it was just a little marble,’ Mrs Derawal said, and Fatou realized that it was not in her imagination: since Sunday night, neither of the adult Derawals had been able to look her in the eye. ‘What a fuss everybody is making. I have a list for you – it’s on the table.’


  Fatou watched
Andrew pick his way through the tables in the Tunisian café, holding a tray with a pair of mochas on it and some croissants. He hit the elbow of one man with his backside and then trailed the belt of his long, silly leather coat through the lunch of another, apologizing as he went. You could not say he was an elegant man. But he was generous, he was thoughtful. She stood up to push a teetering croissant back on to its plate. They sat down at the same time, and smiled at each other.

  ‘A while ago you asked me about Cambodia,’ Andrew said. ‘Well, it’s a very interesting case.’ He tapped the frame of his glasses. ‘If you even wore a pair of these? They would kill you. Glasses meant you thought too much. They had very primitive ideas. They were enemies of logic and progress. They wanted everybody to go back to the country and live like simple people.’

  ‘But sometimes it’s true that things are simpler in the country.’

  ‘In some ways. I don’t really know. I’ve never lived in the country.’

  I don’t really know. It was good to hear him say that! It was a good sign. She smiled cheekily at him. ‘People are less sinful in the country,’ she said, but he did not seem to see she was flirting with him, and began upon another lecture.

  ‘That’s true. But you can’t force people to live in the country. That’s what I call a Big Man Policy. I invented this phrase for my dissertation. We know all about Big Man Policies in Nigeria. They come from the top and they crush you. There’s always somebody who wants to be the Big Man, and take everything for themselves, and tell everybody how to think and what to do. When, actually, it’s he who is weak. But if the Big Men see that you see that they are weak they have no choice but to destroy you. That is the real tragedy.’

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