Every time I sit down to try to write this story about death, life intervenes.
What I mean is, I have a friend who died far too young. In one of the fevers she was in, in hospital, she thought she was being abducted by art thieves. She believed that what was happening to her wasn’t that she was so ill she was hallucinating, but that she was a work of art and she was being stolen by unscrupulous people.
When she was recovering – before she caught an infection, became gravely ill all over again then, weak from having been ill for so long, died – she sent me a very funny text about thinking she was art and was being stolen and how deluded she’d been. She couldn’t eat or drink at this point but she could send texts. The texts were very much in her voice, and now that she’s dead I hear that voice in my ear a lot, what about you? that was her way of saying hello; she was Irish; and more and more I’m coming to understand that she was a work of art and that she has, after all, been stolen by art thieves who are keeping her hidden until they can work out how to make a fortune from her, or maybe they already have, maybe she’s been sold already to a massively rich art collector who keeps her out of the public eye, shows her only to a select number of extremely rich and equally unscrupulous colleagues.
That art collector’s lucky to be anywhere near my friend. My stolen friend will enhance that collector’s life. She will also alter his or her library shelves for the better; she will add a stack of bent old paperbacks, so well read that they barrel like accordions, to the shelves of stolen first editions and filched rare texts; she will add books by people that that collector’s never thought to read. She will fill the collector’s house with unimagined resonances, unexpected mythological, cultural, ancient and contemporary information and understanding, about which she was a walking library of rare things herself. She’ll change that person’s heart, whoever stole her, so that simply by dint of being in her presence he or she will soon be showing all the dodgily come-by artworks in the palazzo or mansion or wherever the collector lives to the public for free, and letting homeless people sleep in the 49 extra rooms that nobody else uses in that house – even sleep at the foot of his or her own bed.
Or if she’s been filched by amateurs, then right now somewhere in Europe an old woman is swearing to the prosecutor that she never saw her son do anything wrong, she knows he hasn’t, she’ll swear on her life he hasn’t, he never brought home anything or anyone untoward, and that those long rolled-up canvas things she burned in the brazier weren’t precious original artworks at all – and all the time she’ll be longing to get out of the police station and home again simply to sit by the empty brazier with my dead friend who, having saved the da Vincis and Matisses and Cézannes and Munchs from any such fate by persuading her not to burn them, is sitting alongside her and distracting her with story after story, stories maybe a bit like this one:
listen to this, an old woman who’s been fighting with all her closest relatives almost all her life, in fact hasn’t spoken to or had any contact with any of them for more than a decade, goes to the doctor and finds out she’s got terminal something. She comes home from the doctor’s and she’s troubled. Not about her death, she doesn’t think about that for a moment, she doesn’t give a toss about dying – except when it comes to who’s going to inherit her considerable wealth and belongings and estate. More than anything she wants to make sure none of what’s hers is going to go to any relatives she particularly dislikes.
The thing is, she can’t remember which of them it is she dislikes most. Or least. She decides to choose one of them and leave it all as incontestably as possible to the person of her choice. But which one?
So she writes and invites all five of her relatives to come and stay with her for a week. In that week, she thinks, she’ll be able to sort wheat from chaff. Because they all know she’s quite rich, and because they guess she might be dying, her relatives all write back immediately saying they’ve accepted her invitation and her offer of free plane tickets (they live in America or Australia, somewhere far away). The day approaches and she’s got everything ready for them, all the beds made up, all the food in the fridge. They arrive safely. One of them phones her from the airport to tell her they’ll be with her in a couple of hours.
Then the taxi they’re in on the way to her house crashes on the motorway and they’re all killed.
The old woman is more annoyed about her plan being ruined than that they’re dead. She arranges for a group funeral for them and doesn’t attend it. The week after that, she advertises in the papers and online for five actors. One of the conditions is that applicants must be able to sacrifice their Christmas holidays.
She turns on the radiators in the front room of her house and holds the auditions there. She provides each person auditioning with a list of attributes and characteristics. She chooses the five she imagines most resemble her dead family members.
Next, she hires a theatre director and tells him exactly what she wants the actors to do in the ten days they’ll spend with her.
The director schools the five actors she’s chosen for a week in the roles she’s outlined.
On Christmas Eve the five actors move into her house with her. The heating stays on in the front room throughout. On 2 January she pays them all handsomely as promised and waves them all out of her house.
She turns the radiators in the front room back to their off positions.
As she goes upstairs, her house feels cavernous. She realises she’s dying.
The doorbell rings when she’s halfway up the stairs. Two of her actor family members are at the door. They’d got as far as the bus stop. They’d looked at each other and they’d turned back to the house.
One of them says that they’d noticed their aunt isn’t keeping as well as she might.
They ask if they might move in with her.
In reality, it wasn’t my friend who died young who told me that story. It was told to me by a different friend, still as alive as you and me (well, me right now). The postscript to her telling me was funny. My (live) friend had heard half this story on the radio, come in halfway through and heard it maybe as a story or maybe as a dramatisation, and she had loved it, and had congratulated the writer Angela Huth (who’s a friend of hers and who she thought she heard the announcer credit at the end) the next time she saw her at some function or other, on writing such a good story.
Thanks, but it wasn’t me. I don’t know that story. I didn’t write it, Angela Huth said.
Ah well, my (live) friend said to me when she told me it, never mind whose story it is, I stole it off the radio and now I’m giving it to you.
And now I’ve passed it on to you, whoever you are, reading this story. We’re all in receipt of stolen goods, which is probably the only conclusion I can draw in a story meant to be about death, a story which, when I sat down today to write it, I’d decided would be about the terrible beauty of a French woman dead in a ditch in 1940, after a German plane has sprayed a line of people walking along a treelined road trying to get away from bombardments in the city. I’d planned that it would be all about her, that this is what I’d write about, before my friends (dead and alive regardless) intervened.
There she is, her coat flung open, her blouse still pristine, for five seconds or so, it’s not long after her death, on an episode of The World at War, playing yesterday lunchtime on BBC2 (you can see it on iPlayer catch-up for the next fifty-three days). I stole her; I’d thought this might be a story about how beautiful she was, and about how the realising of the fact of her beauty, as I watched the programme, filled me with disgust at my being able to see, and so effortlessly, not one, not two, not three, but five whole seconds of her life and just-happened death in a way that was so far beyond that woman’s power or choice – never mind my being able to have the luxury of any aesthetic response. Most obscene, though, is the knowledge that there was a future, and that I, or anyone, could so casually inhabit it after such a thing happening even to just one person of all the millions and millions and millions and so on whose ends were futile and foul in a war several wars back, seventy-five years ago.
And since we’re talking violent unfair death: is it easier to feel fury and hurt, or simply just to feel, about something like that woman’s death so long ago, than it is when it comes to the ubiquity of deaths, deaths on deaths, in the world in all the papers and on all the news sites right now in the form of the most up-to-date of our dead: a pilot burned alive, a poet shot in the square by the police where she was laying memorial flowers, the journalists and the aid workers filmed in the act of their dying, the students, the townfuls of kidnapped and casually executed people, all the hundreds of stolen lives just over the past ten days – and those are only the ones we know about?
What about you? There’s my dead friend again, nudging my arm. Hello. Yesterday, after I saw that episode of World at War, I was on a train reading the paper all about the latest deaths and thinking how I’d like to kill the man behind me who kept coughing in that way that meant that probably he’d got a contagious cold and that my chair jolted every time he coughed since he had long legs, he was too big for the train seats, his knees were jammed up the back of my seat. To stop myself minding, I played the game on my phone, the one where you cancel all the dots of the same colour to win points, Two Dots, which ought to be called Thanatos, not Two Dots, being the perfect example of the stasis at the heart of the death-drive —
which reminds me. Here’s a story about death, etc. I once went to Greece with a friend (I don’t know whether this friend’s alive or dead. I could look on Facebook to try and find out – though there’s a chance I’d still be none the wiser since so many people on Facebook who are in reality dead still get happy birthday wishes year in year out from automated Friends on their automated birthdays). We stayed in a tiny village a couple of miles inland on an island, and on the second day there, having failed to find our way to a beach or even just to the sea, we started asking locals to point us in the right direction. It was a tiny island, a place there weren’t many other tourists, and no one we met in the street spoke English. My friend could speak a little Greek. But people kept treating us strangely. One woman took us to a church; it was very beautiful, full of freesias for Easter. An old man put his hand on my friend’s arm. He looked at us kindly, he patted us both on the back. By the end of the day the whole village was nodding at us as we passed, and people kept coming out of houses to give us gifts – halva; a picture of a saint with a blackbird bringing him things to eat; a collection of little tin rectangles, one with an eye imprinted in it, one with a heart, one with a leg.
At the airport in Athens, on our stop-off on the way home, the waitress who served us laughed out loud.
That’s not the word for sea, she said. You’ve been asking people the way to death and demise.
I wish I could tell my friend who died that story. But then, if she was still alive, I probably wouldn’t think to, wouldn’t want to in the same way. And in some ways here I am doing exactly that, telling all this in the direction of my friend who died young and was a work of art, no: a work of life, though she died so roughly, and wherever those thieves are hiding her till they can sell her, they have to tape blankets over the windows because the light coming off her mind, even though she’s dead, gives away her whereabouts, and they have to keep pulling up and cutting back the flowers and tendrils and green stuff that persistently crack the stone of the floors of wherever they’ve got her. That’s the art of dying all right.
Pretty soon that whole place will resemble I don’t know what, probably a library, one with trees growing right through its floors up past its shelves and piercing its roof. They’ll try and stop it happening; they’ll move her to the next empty cave or mansion or cellar or wherever, but it doesn’t matter where she is. She’ll do the same to it and to the one after it and to the one after that, and so on.
Ali Smith’s “How to Be Both” won the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize. “Public Library and Other Stories” will be published next month by Hamish Hamilton. She will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 29 November