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18 September 2013

“The Human Claim“: a short story by Ali Smith

A new short story by Ali Smith.

By Ali Smith

I had been planning to write this story about the ashes of D H Lawrence. I hadn’t known what had happened to him after he was dead. Now that I did – at least, if what the biography I’d been reading claimed was true – I couldn’t get it out of my head. On the train home that night, even though it was a couple of months since I’d finished reading it, I’d got my notebook out of my bag and made some notes about it and about some other things too that the biography said had happened to him.

For instance, he’d be walking past a theatre or picture house in London in the First World War and the crowd would jeer at his beard, which marked him out, made him a visible slacker, a refuser, not enlisted, maybe even a conscientious objector. Then, the cottage he’d taken for some of the war years had been raided by the Home Office or the military authorities, who’d confiscated not just some letters in German (his wife Frieda was related to the German military) but also a copy of a Hebridean song, because they thought it was secret code, and some drawings Lawrence had made of the stems of plants which, the biographer said, they’d decided were secret maps.

I’d thought I’d known quite a lot about Lawrence’s actual life. I’ve been reading him since I was sixteen, when I chose a copy of St Mawr for a school prize – mostly because I knew it would discomfit the Provost and his wife who annually gave out the prizes. Lawrence was still reasonably notorious in Inverness in the 1970s. (It makes me laugh even now that the prize sticker inside my paperback says I’m being awarded for Oral French.) Now I was six years older than he’d been when he died. I’d felt for him all through reading this fine and thoughtful biography. Sitting on the train weeks later I was still preoccupied with him, his little red beard jutting in fury at all the patriotic clichés. All these weeks later it still made me laugh with real satisfaction that the authorities had been stupid enough to think Gaelic was some kind of code.

Above all, though, it was the story of what may have happened to his body five years after his death that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I was still amazed by it now, cycling my bike home from the station.

But then I got home and opened my mail and I stopped thinking about anything because there was a Barclaycard statement waiting for me which claimed that I’d spent a fortune.

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I only very rarely use that credit card, or any of my credit cards. I’m quite good credit-wise, honest. In fact, that card had actually been a hundred pounds in credit for months, which is why I’d recently used it to buy some shirts for Christmas in a clothes shop in London called Folk.

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I looked at the total again. £1,597.67. Had I really spent that much money on four shirts?

I turned the statement over. Previous balance from last statement £100.37. 11 Dec Folk, London £531.00. 21 Dec Lufthansa Köln £1,167.04 1,840.70 US Dollar, USA, Exch Rate 0.6340 Incl Non Sterling Trans Fee of £33.88. 03 Jan New Balance £1,597.67. Lufthansa.

I hadn’t bought anything from Lufthansa ever.

I phoned the Barclaycard number at the top of my statement.

Hi there!

An automaton instructed me that I could answer its questions either by pressing the buttons on my phone or by speaking into the gaps it would leave for me. It had been recorded by someone with a north-of-England voice, friendly, like a not too abrasive stand-up comedian. I gave this matey automaton my card number and it offered me some options. When none of these involved speaking to someone about a fraudulent claim and I didn’t answer quickly enough either with button-pushing or by saying something, the automaton asked me to tell it out loud what I wanted.

I’d like to speak to someone, I said.

I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that, the automaton said. Try again.

I’d like to speak to someone, I said again.

I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that, the nor­thern automaton said. Try again. Try saying something like: Pay my bill.

Speak to someone, I said.

I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that, the automaton said.

I stayed silent.

I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that, the automaton said. Hold on. I’ll just put you through to a member of our team who’ll be able to help you. Just so you know, all our calls are recorded for training and legal purposes.

I listened to the muzak for a bit.

Hello, you’re speaking to indecipherable, how can I help you, a real person said to me down the phone from somewhere that had the sound of very far away.

He asked me some security questions, to check it was really me.

There’s a transaction on here, I said, that I didn’t make and I didn’t authorise.

Don’t worry, Ms Smith, he said. Thank you, Ms Smith. I can see that, Ms Smith. Yes, Ms Smith, thank you. He put me through to some more muzak. Some minutes later a woman answered.

She also had the slight delay round her voice which signalled that although she was here in my ear, I was maybe on the phone to somebody on a totally different planet. She asked me the same security questions. Then she told me that this card had been presented for use yesterday for a transaction costing two pounds –

Two pounds! I said and this is what went through my head as I said it:

I’d never use a credit card for something so small. It was as if I needed proof that I hadn’t used my credit card even though I knew full well that I hadn’t. Meanwhile the woman was still speaking.

– card was then withdrawn just before the transaction went through, she said.

It wasn’t me, I said. I’d just like to make that really clear.

She told me Barclaycard would be in touch with me, that I’d hear from them over the next three weeks and that I was to be sure to reply within the requested time frame or they would consider the matter resolved and charge my card accordingly.

For a transaction that I didn’t make? I said.

Be sure to reply within the requested time frame, Ms Smith, she said.

And look – it’s in dollars, I said. I haven’t been to the States since 2002. I want it noted right now that I made no such transaction and that my card has been defrauded. I want this sum of money, for a ticket I never bought and a transaction I never carried out, wiped off my account. And I want you to stop this card this instant.

Yes, I can do that, Ms Smith, the woman said. There. Just a moment.

Now. The card is now stopped. Please now destroy this card, Ms Smith. Barclaycard will send you a new card within the next five days or so.

I don’t want a new card, I said. Someone’ll probably just get its details and defraud it too. And how did Lufthansa get my details? Why did Lufthansa believe that this was me buying a ticket when it wasn’t? It will now go forward for further investigation so that we can ascertain the facts of this situation, thank you, Ms Smith, the woman said.

It wasn’t me, I said again.

I sounded petulant. I sounded like a child.

Thank you for being in touch with Barclaycard, Ms Smith, she said. Have a lovely evening.

I pressed the hang-up button on my phone and found I was in my front room.

What I mean is, even though I’d been there the whole time, I’d actually just spent the last half-hour somewhere which made my own front room irrelevant, even to me.

I stood by the fireplace and it was as if I had been filled with live ants. I went antsily around the house from room to room for about half an hour. Then finally I stopped, stood by the dark window, sat down on the edge of the couch. I told myself there was nothing to do about it but laugh it off. It happens all the time. People are always getting scammed. That’s life.

I picked up a book, but I couldn’t concentrate to read.

I began to wonder instead who the person was, the person who’d pretended, somewhere else in the world, to be me. What did he or she look like? Was he or she part of a group of people who did this kind of thing? Or was it a single individual somewhere in a room by him – or herself? Somewhere in the world this person knew enough about the numbers on a card in my wallet in the dark of my pocket to fool a respectable airline company into selling them an expensive ticket.

I looked at the statement again. It didn’t say anything about where the ticket was from or to. 21 Dec. Maybe this other me had been going home for Christmas. Did she have a family? Did the family know this other me wasn’t me, was a fraudster? Were they maybe a family of fraudsters? I could see them all round a long table set for Christmas; I stood, ghost at their feast, and watched them hugging each other, their arms round their shoulders as Hogmanay gave way to New Year. How could she be me? I hadn’t sat in Departures with a print-out ticket paid for by me. I hadn’t walked down the tunnel that led to the door of the aeroplane, or climbed the steps out in the cold of the winter airport air.

Oh Christ. Passport.

I ran upstairs. I pulled open the cupboard door. But my passport was safe there on the underwear shelf.

I put it back. I closed the door. I laughed. Oh well. I came downstairs and put the kettle on, thought about making something to eat. But it was after nine o’clock and if I ate now I’d not sleep.

So I sat on the kitchen stool until the kettle boiled and I thought about how once, years ago, I had been really well pickpocketed in an Italian seaside resort by a mere child. The child, a dark-haired girl with a miniature accordion slung on her shoulder, had been walking up and down outside the restaurant we’d decided to eat at playing the opening riff of “Volare”. I must’ve looked an easy touch; she had approached me and asked for money and when I’d said no she had talked to me briefly and shyly while thieving from me with such fine sleight of hand that when I’d put my hand in my pocket half an hour later for the roll of cash I was carrying so I could pay the bill, my pocket was empty. She’d done it with such artistry that I almost didn’t regret what she’d taken. On the contrary, I’d felt strangely blessed. It was as if I’d been specially chosen.

How was this different? It felt different. It felt like it had been nothing to do with me. There’d been no real exchange. More, it somehow made me the suspect. No amount of speaking down a phone to someone in a call centre could restore my innocence.

I got my Barclaycard out of my wallet and folded it in two. I folded it back on itself the other way. I did this several times very fast until the fold gave off heat. When I could no longer put the tip of my finger on it because it was so hot, I ripped the card in two, one half valid from, the other expires end.

Five days later a new card with a new number and my name on it arrived from Barclaycard. Ten days after that, a form arrived. It asked me to tick a box which confirmed whether I agreed or disagreed that I had made the transaction in question with Lufthansa.

I ticked the box which disagreed. I wrote underneath in capitals: I HAVE NEVER IN MY LIFE CARRIED OUT ANY TRANSACTION WITH LUFTHANSA, WITH THIS OR ANY OTHER CARD and I signed the form with my name.

Two weeks after that, a letter arrived from Barclaycard which said they’d credited my Barclaycard with the amount involved while they made further inquiries.

Meanwhile, here’s the story of what maybe happened to the remains of D H Lawrence. After he died in 1930 at the age of forty-four, his wife Frieda married her lover, Angelo Ravagli, and they moved to New Mexico. In 1935 she sent her husband back to Vence in France where Lawrence had died and was buried, with the instruction that he have Lawrence’s body exhumed and cremated so that she could put his ashes in a beautiful vase.

Ravagli took the vase to Vence. He came back to New Mexico with the vase full of ashes. Frieda sealed the ashes up in a res­plendent memorial shrine – inside a block of concrete, in case of thieves. When she died in 1956, she was buried next to this shrine. There’s a photograph of the shrine on Wikipedia. It has a risen phoenix carved in stone or concrete above it and the letters DHL surrounded by bright painted sunflowers and foliage on the front.

But in the biography I’d been reading, which is by John Worthen, Worthen says that after Frieda died, Ravagli announced: “I threw away the DH cinders.” He’d had him exhumed and burnt as instructed, Ravagli claimed, but then he’d dumped the ashes – maybe in Marseilles, Worthen thinks, maybe at the harbour, into the sea. When he got back to New York, Ravagli filled the vase with the ashes of God knows what or who. He gave it to Frieda who buried it with honours and died believing she’d be buried next to what was left of Lawrence.

Wikipedia, too, seems to suggest that the ashes in that shrine are actually those of Lawrence.

Who knows? Maybe they are.

But whether they are or they aren’t, imagine the husband, faithful and lying, seething, triumphant, steady in deception for twenty whole years till Frieda dies. Imagine his foul, understandable need, his satisfaction, changing D H Lawrence to DH cinders.

Imagine the ashes of Lawrence shaken into the air, dissolving in the ocean.

Fish, oh Fish,
So little matters!

That’s from the poem called “Fish”. In another poem he calls the mosquito he’s hunting “Monsieur”, then “Winged Victory”. “Am I not mosquito enough to out-mosquito you?” In another he declares that for his part he prefers his heart to be broken, cracked open like a pomegranate spilling its red seeds. In one of his most famous, he watches a snake drink at a waterhole and then throws a log at it to show it who’s boss. The moment he does this he understands his own pettiness; he knows he’s cheated himself.

Sexual intercourse began in 1963 because of him. Literary merit went to court and won because of him. Class in the English novel radically shifted because of him. His mother, poor, ruined by work, dirt and poverty, would be delighted by a tuppenny bunch of spring flowers; at least that’s what Frieda says in an article she wrote in 1955 for the New Statesman, where she’s responding to a newly published 1950s biography of Lawrence which, according to her, is full of laughable untruths and inaccuracies.

There is nothing to save, now all is lost,
but a tiny core of stillness in the heart like the eye of a violet.

That’s from a poem called “Nothing to Save”. “High in the sky a star seemed to be walking. It was an aeroplane with a light. Its buzz rattled above. Not a space, not a speck of this country that wasn’t humanised, occupied by the human claim. Not even the sky.” That’s from St Mawr, a novel about how human beings will never be able to be fully natural or free while they give in to civilisation’s pressures and ex­pectations, also about how women and stallions will never understand each other, especially when the woman is handicapped by being clever.

His clever friend Katherine Mansfield suggested to him that he call the cottage he was living in The Phallus. Her letters and notebooks are full of her anger and frustration at him. At the same time she typically writes this kind of thing in her letters to friends. “He is the only writer living whom I really profoundly care for. It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may ‘disagree’, is important. And after all even what one objects to is a sign of life in him.” And: “what makes Law­rence a real writer is his passion. Without passion one writes in the air or on the sands of the seashore.”

He himself wrote this in a letter in 1927 to Gertie Cooper, a friend and neighbour from his home in the north of England who was about to start treatment for tuberculosis, from which he also suffered and which killed him in the end: “While we live we must be game. And when we come to die, we’ll die game too.” There’s a fury, a burning energy associated with TB suffering. Some see it as one of the driving forces of Lawrence’s temperament and his writing. The same could be said for a writer like Mansfield, who also died far too young of the same condition, a condition completely curable so few years later.

Meanwhile, a little less than a hundred years later, I was sitting at my desk on the one hand pondering hopeless fury and in the other literally holding my latest letter from Barclaycard.

According to Barclaycard, Lufthansa claimed that I had reserved a ticket with them and that they had issued me this ticket, as yet unused, on 21 December last year. So, did I agree with the merchant (Lufthansa) that I had bought this ticket? If I didn’t, I was to write back and tell Barclaycard, and I was to do it within ten days of the date at the top of this letter.

The letter had taken eight days to arrive. I had two days left to reply and one of them was a Sunday.

Phish, oh phish. So little matters!

Was there even any connection here, between the life, death and dissemination of Lawrence and me battling a fraudulent claim on a credit card statement? All I knew was, it cheered me up to think of Lawrence, whose individualism meant he’d fight anyone with both hands tied behind his back and whose magnetic pull always towards some kind of sympathy meant he’d grant a mosquito formal address in French and even compare it to an ancient work of art in the Louvre before he swatted it.

Imagine Lawrence in the virtual world. The very thought of him railing at an internet porn site, yelling at the net and all its computer games for not being nearly gamey enough, meant I forgot for a moment the letter in my hand from Barclaycard.

But back to Google Earth – I googled the address for the Lufthansa office in London. I was thinking I could maybe go, in person, and explain to them personally that it hadn’t been me who’d bought or reserved any ticket with them, used or unused, on 21 December or ever. Google told me that the London office is in Bath Road, at the postcode UB7 0DQ. I looked it up on Google Maps. It’s near Heathrow; Google Street View indicates it’s a huge warehouse or hangar at the back of the airport, off the kinds of street that are practically motorway, the kinds almost nobody walks along.

The photos on Google Street View had been taken in the early summer; the trees were leafy and the may was in bloom on the low dual-carriageway bushes outside the Holiday Inn. At one point you could see right inside people’s cars. Google Street View had protected privacy by pixellating the number plates of the cars. But at one point two cars were level at a junction and a man was in one, a woman in the other, and a lone pedestrian was waiting behind them at a bus stop. It was good to see some people coinciding, even unknowingly, just going somewhere one day, caught by a surveillance car and immortalised online (well, until Google Street View updates itself). Seeing them made me wonder briefly what was happening in their lives on the day this picture was taken. I wondered what had happened to them since. I hoped they’d been OK in the recession. I hoped they’d arrived safely wherever they were going.

Then I wondered if any of them was going to Lufthansa to complain about being charged for a ticket he or she hadn’t bought.

Of course in the end I wasn’t going to go there and explain anything. Of course it would make no difference. Of course it was impossible anyway to see anything of Lufthansa’s London office on Google Street View since it was on a bit of the map to which the little virtual person couldn’t be dragged.

So instead I skimmed along Bath Road for a bit, first one way, then the other, until at one point the address label at the top of the photograph told me that though I was still on Bath Road I was no longer in West Drayton and that I was now in Harmondsworth.

Harmondsworth. Something inside me chimed a kind of harmony. It took me a moment, then I remembered why: Harmondsworth is the place all the old Pen-guin paperbacks declare their place of issue. It was where the original Penguin copies of, for instance, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which caused all the excitement and led to the obscenity trial, will have issued from in 1960, the place where the thousands of copies sold after the trial will have been issued too. And all the other Penguin Law­rences. I looked across at where L was on my shelves. Almost all my Lawrence books were Penguin books. Pretty much all the Lawrence I’d ever read had come, one way or another, from this very place I happened to be looking at.

I stood up, pushed back my chair. I got my old copy of St Mawr/The Virgin and the Gypsy off the shelf. Oral French. I turned the page. Harmondsworth.

It was a ridiculous, glorious connection, and one that somehow made me bigger and truer than any false claim being made against me. It also made me laugh. I laughed out loud. I did a little dance round the room.

When I’d stopped, I closed the book and put it back in its place on the shelf. I stood at my desk for a moment. I reread the letter. I girded my loins. I sat down to reply.

Dear Barclaycard,

This is just to thank you and Lufthansa for the reminder that nothing in life is ever secure.

Thank you also for allowing me to find out how easy it is to be made to seem like a liar when you aren’t one.

Thank you, too, for introducing me to a whole new kind of anxiety, a burning and impotent fury which I truly believe has helped me understand, just for a moment, a sliver of what it must have felt like for a couple of writers I like very much from the first half of the twentieth century to have suffered from consumption. The experience has certainly brought a new layering of meaning to the word consumer for me.

Yours faithfully,

A Smith.

PS: If Lufthansa ever tell you where that ticket I didn’t buy was for, just out of natural curiosity, I’d love to know.

It felt good when I wrote it.

When I read it half an hour later I knew it was too anal, like an awful comedy letter someone would send in to a consumer rights programme on Radio 4.

I deleted it. I wrote the kind of letter I was supposed to write, in which I simply denied knowledge of the transaction which Luft­hansa claimed I’d made. I sealed the envelope and I put it on the hall table for recorded delivery tomorrow.

Then I went to bed, put the light out, slept.

Meanwhile, in my sleep, the freed-up me’s went wild.

They spray-painted the doors and windows of the banks, urinated daintily on the little mirror-cameras on the cash machines. They emptied the machines, threw the money on to the pavements. They stole the fattened horses out of the abattoir fields and galloped them down the high streets of all the small towns. They ignored traffic lights. They waved to surveillance. They broke into all the call centres. They sneaked up and down the lift shafts, slipped into the systems. They randomly wiped people’s debts for fun. They replaced the automaton messages with birdsong. They whispered dissent, comfort, hilarity, love, sparkling fresh unscripted human responses into the ears of the people working for a pittance answering phones for businesses whose CEOs earned thousands of times more per hour than their workforce. They flew inside aircraft fuselages and caused turbulence on every flight taken by everyone who ever ripped anyone else off. They replaced every music track on every fraudster’s phone, iPad or iPod with Sheena Easton singing “Modern Girl”. They marauded into porn shoots and made the girls and women laugh. They were tough and delicate. They were winged like the seeds of sycamores. There were hundreds of them. Soon there would be thousands. They spread like mushrooms. They spread like spores. There would be no stopping them.

Meanwhile, that snake that Lawrence threw the log at disappeared long, long ago into its hole unhurt, went freely about its ways, left the poem behind it. Meanwhile, right now, the ashes of D H Lawrence could be anywhere.

Ali Smith is the author of “Artful” (Hamish Hamilton, £20)