The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith


  Fatou sighed. ‘I never met a man who didn’t want to tell everybody how to think and what to do,’ she said.

  Andrew laughed. ‘Fatou, you include me? Are you a feminist now, too?’

  Fatou brought her mug up to her lips and looked penetratingly at Andrew. There were good and bad kinds of weakness in men, and she had come to the conclusion that the key was to know which kind you were dealing with.

  ‘Andrew,’ she said, putting her hand on his, ‘would you like to come swimming with me?’

  0–19

  Because Fatou believed that the Derawals’ neighbours had been instructed to spy on her, she would not let Andrew come to the house to pick her up on Monday, instead leaving as she always did, just before ten, carrying misleading Sainsbury’s bags and walking towards the health centre. She spotted him from a long way off – the road was so straight and he had arrived early. He stood shivering in the drizzle. She felt sorry, but also a little prideful: it was the prospect of seeing her body that had raised this big man from his bed. Still, it was a sacrifice, she knew, for her friend to come out to meet her on a weekday morning. He worked all night long and kept the daytime for sleeping. She watched him waving at her from their agreed meeting spot, just on the corner, in front of the Embassy of Cambodia. After a while, he stopped waving – because she was still so far away – and then, a little later, he began waving again. She waved back, and when she finally reached him they surprised each other by holding hands. ‘I’m an excellent badminton player,’ Andrew said, as they passed the Embassy of Cambodia. ‘I would make you weep for mercy! Next time, instead of swimming we should play badminton somewhere.’ Next time, we should go to Paris. Next time, we should go to the moon. He was a dreamer. But there are worse things, Fatou thought, than being a dreamer.

  0–20

  ‘So you’re a guest and this is your guest?’ the girl behind the desk asked.

  ‘I am a guest and this is another guest,’ Fatou replied.

  ‘Yeah … that’s not really how it works?’

  ‘Please,’ Fatou said. ‘We’ve come from a long way.’

  ‘I appreciate that,’ the girl said. ‘But I really shouldn’t let you in, to be honest.’

  ‘Please,’ Fatou said again. She could think of no other argument.

  The girl took out a pen and made a mark on Fatou’s guest pass.

  ‘This one time. Don’t tell no one I did this, please. One time only! I’ll need to cross off two separate visits.’

  For one time only, then, Andrew and Fatou approached the changing rooms together and parted at the doors that led to the men’s and the women’s. In her changing room, Fatou got ready with lightning speed. Yet somehow he was already there on a lounger when she came out, eyes trained on the women’s changing-room door, waiting for her to emerge.

  ‘Man, this is the life!’ he said, putting his arms behind his head.

  ‘Are you getting in?’ Fatou asked, and tried to place her hands, casually, in front of her groin.

  ‘Not yet, man, I’m just taking it all in, taking it all in. You go in. I’ll come in a moment.’

  Fatou climbed down the steps and began to swim. Not elegant, not especially fast, but consistent and determined. Every now and then she would angle her head to try to see if Andrew was still on his chair, smiling to himself. After twenty laps, she swam to where he lay and put her elbows on the tiles.

  ‘You’re not coming in? It’s so warm. Like a bath.’

  ‘Sure, sure,’ he said. ‘I’ll try it.’

  As he sat up his stomach folded in on itself, and Fatou wondered whether he had spent all that time on the lounger to avoid her seeing its precise bulk and wobble. He came towards the stairs; Fatou held out a hand to him, but he pushed it away. He made his way down and stood in the shallow end, splashing water over his shoulders like a prince fanning himself, and then crouching down into it.

  ‘It is warm! Very nice. This is the life, man! You go, swim – I’ll follow you.’

  Fatou kicked off, creating so much splash she heard someone in the adjacent lane complain. At the wall, she turned and looked for Andrew. His method, such as it was, involved dipping deep under the water and hanging there like a hippo, then batting his arms till he crested for air, and then diving down again and hanging. It was a lot of energy to expend on a short distance, and by the time he reached the wall he was panting like a maniac. His eyes – he had no goggles – were painfully red.

  ‘It’s OK,’ Fatou said, trying to take his hand again. ‘If you let me, I’ll show you how.’ But he shrugged her off and rubbed at his eyes.

  ‘There’s too much bloody chlorine in this pool.’

  ‘You want to leave?’

  Andrew turned back to look at Fatou. His eyes were streaming. He looked, to Fatou, like a little boy trying to disguise the fact he had been crying. But then he held her hand, under the water.

  ‘No. I’m just going to take it easy right here.’

  ‘OK,’ Fatou said.

  ‘You swim. You’re good. You swim.’

  ‘OK,’ Fatou said, and set off, and she found that each lap was more distracted and rhythmless than the last. She was not used to being watched while she swam. Ten laps later, she suddenly stood up halfway down the lane and walked the rest of the distance to the wall.

  ‘You want to go in the Jacuzzi?’ she asked him, pointing to it.

  In the hot tub sat a woman dressed in a soaking tracksuit, her head covered with a headscarf. A man next to the woman, perhaps her husband, stared at Fatou and said something to the woman. He was so hairy he was almost as covered as she was. Together they rose up out of the water and left. He was wearing the tiniest of Speedos, the kind Fatou had feared Andrew might wear, and was grateful he had not. Andrew’s shorts were perfectly nice, knee-length, red and solid, and looked good against his skin.

  ‘No,’ Andrew said. ‘It’s great just to be here with you, watching the world go by.’

  0–21

  That same evening, Fatou was fired. Not for the guest passes – the Derawals never found out how many miles Fatou had travelled on their membership. In fact, it was hard for Fatou to understand exactly why she was being fired, as Mrs Derawal herself did not seem able to explain it very precisely.

  ‘What you don’t understand is that we have no need for a nanny,’ she said, standing in the doorway of Fatou’s room – there was not really enough space in there for two people to stand without one of them being practically on the bed. ‘The children are grown. We need a housekeeper, one who cleans properly. These days, you care more about the children than the cleaning,’ Mrs Derawal added, though Fatou had never cared for the children, not even slightly. ‘And that is of no use to us.’

  Fatou said nothing. She was thinking that she did not have a proper suitcase and would have to take her things from Mrs Derawal’s house in plastic bags.

  ‘And so you will want to find somewhere else to live as soon as possible,’ Mrs Derawal said. ‘My husband’s cousin is coming to stay in this room on Friday – this Friday.’

  Fatou thought about that for a moment. Then she said, ‘Can I please use the phone for one call?’

  Mrs Derawal inspected a piece of wood that had flaked from the doorframe. But she nodded.

  ‘And I would like to have my passport, please.’

  ‘Excuse me?’

  ‘My passport, please.’

  At last Mrs Derawal looked at Fatou, right into her eyes, but her face was twisted, as if Fatou had just reached over and slapped her. Anyone could see the Devil had climbed inside poor Mrs Derawal. He was lighting her up with a pure fury.

  ‘For goodness’ sake, girl, I don’t have your passport! What would I want with your passport? It’s probably in a drawer in the kitchen somewhere. Is that my job now, too, to look for your things?’

  Fatou was left alone. She packed her things into the decoy shopping bags she usually took to the swimming pool. While she was doing this, someone pushed her passport under her
door. An hour later she carried her bags downstairs and went directly to the phone in the hall. Faizul walked by and lifted his hand for a high-five. Fatou ignored him and dialled Andrew’s number. From her friend’s voice she knew that she had woken him, but he was not even the slightest bit angry. He listened to all she had to say and seemed to understand, too, without her having to say so, that at this moment she could not speak freely. After she had said her part, he asked a few quick technical questions and then explained clearly and carefully what was to happen.

  ‘It will all be OK. They need cleaners in my offices – I will ask for you. In the meantime, you come here. We’ll sleep in shifts. You can trust me. I respect you, Fatou.’

  But she did not have her Oyster Card; it was in the kitchen, on the fridge under a magnet of Florida, and she would rather die than go in there. Fine: he could meet her at six p.m. at Brondesbury Overground station. Fatou looked at the grandfather clock in front of her: she had four hours to kill.

  ‘Six o’clock,’ she repeated. She put the phone down, took the rest of the guest passes from the drawer of the faux-Louis XVI console and left the house.

  ‘Weighed down a bit today,’ the girl at the desk of the health club said, nodding at Fatou’s collection of plastic bags. Fatou held out a guest pass for a stamp and did not smile. ‘See you next time,’ this same girl said, an hour and a half later, as Fatou strode past, still weighed down and still unwilling to be grateful for past favours. Gratitude was just another kind of servitude. Better to make your own arrangements.

  Walking out into the cold grey, Fatou felt a sense of brightness, of being washed clean, that neither the weather nor her new circumstances could dim. Still, her limbs were weary and her hair was wet; she would probably catch a cold, waiting out here. It was only four thirty. She put her bags on the pavement and sat down next to them, just by the bus stop opposite the Embassy of Cambodia. Buses came and went, slowing down for her and then jerking forward when they realized that she had no interest in getting up and on. Many of us walked past her that afternoon, or spotted her as we rode the bus, or through the windscreens of our cars, or from our balconies. Naturally, we wondered what this girl was doing, sitting on the damp pavement in the middle of the day. We worried for her. We tend to assume the worst, here in Willesden. We watched her watching the shuttlecock. Pock, smash. Pock, smash. As if one player could imagine only a violent conclusion and the other only a hopeful return.

  THE BEGINNING

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  First published in the USA in the New Yorker 2013

  Published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton 2013

  Copyright © Zadie Smith, 2013

  The moral right of the author has been asserted

  Cover design: gray318

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  Typeset by Jouve (UK), Milton Keynes

  ISBN: 978-0-241-96768-3

 


 

  Zadie Smith, The Embassy of Cambodia

  (Series: # )

 

 


 

 
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