It was the middle of October and the leaves on the trees still green; it was a weekend, it was the Saturday, we’d woken up late. I came downstairs in my pyjamas and went to the front room to get some oranges to make the orange juice. I opened the door. The front room was full of children.
This was a bit of a shock, since we don’t actually have any children, and there were quite a lot of them, all about eight or nine years old, overfilling the two seats and the couch. A child with its back to me was halfway up the bookcase balancing one small-shoed foot on the second bookshelf and the other on the arm of the couch, stretching across the front of the picture of the boats as if straightening the picture. The others were all sitting quiet, good as gold. Several were watching the off television as if any moment it’d turn itself on and they didn’t want to miss that.
I backed out of the doorway and closed the door. I stood outside it for a moment. I opened it again. They were all still there. The one who’d been up on the bookcase was now lying on her front along the back of the couch, chin on hands, watching the blank television like the others. Draped along the top of the frame of the boat picture there was a thick silver-looking ribbon of, what was it? It looked synthetic. It glinted in the autumn sun. I closed the door again.
I went upstairs.
Full of what? you said.
I think one of them is putting up Christmas decorations, I said.
You pulled on a dressing gown. I went round the bedroom finding clothes to put on. We both went downstairs, opened the door and stood in the doorway.
Whose are they? I said.
You brightened next to me. You crossed the room.
Hi everyone, you said.
Hi-i! the children sang back.
I looked round the room. All the pictures on our walls now had tinsel topping their frames. There was tinsel stuck with Sellotape round the light switch. You stood at the coffee table and switched the TV on with the remote.
Yeah, the girl in the hacking jacket said from under her riding helmet.
Thank you very much, the girl in the pink tutu said.
There were those two, the one in the pony-riding clothes and the ballet one, and there were a boy and a girl dressed in peculiar Robin Hood costumes with great exaggerated jagged hems on their clothes, like they were wearing cartoon rags. There was a girlish boy or maybe it was a boyish girl, hard to tell, in jeans and a little suede waistcoat with an apple-shaped piece of suede for a pocket. There was the child who’d first been up at the picture-rail. She was wearing something like Beatles Sgt Pepper clothes and she was perched up on the back of the couch now cutting bits out of folded white cardboard with our kitchen scissors. A snow of little white triangles fell away from the blades and down behind the cushions.
The air in the room smelled high and sweet. I leaned a little against the open door and the door resisted. There was possibly another one, or maybe more than one, there behind it.
A rough-looking boy pushed a demure-looking girl. The girl pushed him back twice as hard. One of the other children told them to stop it. I gesticulated at you. You stepped back over and through them and across the room and we left them settling down round the John Wayne film, the one where he’s old and has the eyepatch on.
I shut the door. We stood on the other side of it in the hall for a bit, not speaking. We could hear John Wayne behind it. I never shot nobody I didn’t have to.
Through in the kitchen I sat down at the table. You hoisted yourself up on to the unit and sat with your legs dangling down over the doors.
What’s going on? I said.
No idea, you said.
You said it sheepishly. You kicked your legs against the doors.
Doesn’t that film have a scene in it with a snakepit? I said.
He takes on the girl even though she’s a bit of a schoolmarm, you said. Then he rides down the hill at the bad guys with both his hands in the air. Remember? He puts his reins in his mouth and rides right at them down the slope. He reloads his rifle as he goes, he sort of tosses it in the air and reloads it at full gallop – it’s amazing. Remember?
No, I said. How did they get in? Shouldn’t we be phoning the police or the council or someone?
Look, you said. Listen. You know that book.
What book? I said.
The one I was reading last week, you said. The week before. The one where I kept asking you to listen to the bits I was reading out and you kept getting annoyed.
The boring self-help psychology one? I said.
The book you told me was drivel, you said.
The one called Release Your Inner Child? I said.
You jumped down off the unit. All the things in the kitchen shook.
I’ll be back in a minute, you said. I’m just going to teach them how to use the remote. In case they don’t like the snakes.
Won’t they know already? Aren’t kids these days all, like, born already technologically savvy?
The kitchen door closed. I’d said the word savvy to an empty room.
They were still there at lunchtime. By lunchtime I’d heard through the wall, several times, a song whose words were about keeping your spirits up if you’re lost in the woods. By lunchtime, when I knocked on my own front-room door as if I was a stranger in someone else’s house, and opened it and went in, you were sitting in front of the fireplace. You were surrounded by children.
It was kind of lovely.
But then I noticed that the front-room big light had a lot of cardboard snowflakes hanging off a snarl of bright red thread wound round its flex.
They couldn’t have reached to do that. You must have helped them.
You noticed me, finally.
Are they going to need lunch? I said.
Do you guys need lunch? you said to the room.
No thank you! they chorused, polite and old-fashioned.
When you stood up and came over to me they formed a semicircle round the lit television. They were amusing themselves by flicking channels. It was as if they’d never seen channels flicking before. It was as if they’d never seen so many channels. They kept exclaiming in amazement. They seemed particularly to like the commercials. When the commercial breaks ended and the programmes started again they flicked channels expressly to find more commercials, and every time the single commercial which mentioned Christmas came on, the one about sofas, the whole room shimmered with excitement.
They can’t all be your inner children, I said. (I said it quietly. I didn’t want to offend them.) I mean, that one’s quite like you. But the others?
I pointed at the two in the Robin Hood clothes.
Babes in the Wood, you said. Panto I got taken to when I was about ten, at the local theatre, and it had that man from Basil Brush in it as The Storyteller or The Woodcutter, and someone from, you know, those sisters, as his wife, the Nolan Sisters. She was such a good singer.
The panto children burst into song.
In the wood, in the wood, things don’t look like they’re so good
When you can’t see the wood for the trees.
Never fear, never fear, cause with me beside you here
Being lost in the woods is a breeze.
I went seven times, you whispered. It made me want to be an actor. Made my mother furious.
Don’t even think about moping, the children sang. For wherever we happen to roam.
You started to hum along. Then you joined in. You knew the words.
Together we’ll keep ourselves hoping. Till we hope ourselves all the way home.
I pointed at the girl in the tutu then the girl in the pony clothes. They were in a huddle on the floor in front of the fireplace with a couple of others, taking little wooden figures out of a weather-beaten cardboard box and placing them round a tiny empty crib on the hearth.
What can I say? you said. I was a versatile child.
I pointed at the one wearing the bright military-looking jacket, the one who’d been doing the decorating. She had a tall hat on now with a little peaked cap. She’d taken the riding crop off the pony girl and was spinning it expertly in the air well above the height of the hat.
Were you in some kind of brass band as well? I said.
No, you said, I’ve no idea who she is. Oh, but wait. I know. I know who she might be. Caitlin was a champion baton twirler, I think she used to –
Caitlin? I said. As in Caitlin your ex?
She had a drawerful of medals, you said, she’d won them all by the age of eleven, and one day she showed me –
You’re carrying your ex’s inner child around with you? I said.
She was good, you said. She was still good even in her thirties. One day when we were first together she actually got out her baton and we went out into her driveway and she –
And now she’s here in my house? I said.
Our house, you said. No, but listen, she was really good. She did this show right there in the driveway and all the neighbours came out of their houses and clapped.
You noticed the look on my face.
Well, I can hardly ask her to go, can I? you said. And she seems quite important to the group dynamics. And I mean, I don’t even know that she’s actually Caitlin’s. What if she’s mine, too? What if, say, something in her childhood simply appealed to something in my –
Not just her, I said. I need you to make them all leave.
Your face fell. Then you looked straight at me and gave the slightest shake of your head.
No? I said.
You stood with your shoulders helpless and your eyes defiant.
The children were all now ignoring the TV and making cooing noises round the boy who’d earlier been having the pushing fight with the girl. Now he and that same girl were passing the little wooden baby Jesus between them, cupped from hand to hand like a baby mouse, a precious insect.
I pushed you out of the way, bent down and picked up the beaten-up old cardboard box. It had a few painted figures still left in the bottom of it, the three kings, it looked like, left till last. I marched out of the room. I rattled the kings against each other through the kitchen. I opened the back door. I went to the far end of the garden, held the box high in the air over the neighbours’ fence, above the place where they keep their mulch pile. I turned it upside down. The kings fell out.
Follow that star, why don’t you? I said.
Then I dropped the empty box after them over the fence, too.
I came back up to the house. I stood in the front room. I looked right past you. I cleared my throat:
Right. Come on everybody. It’s been lovely having you. Thank you for coming. But it’s time you all left now.
Come on, I said as brightly as I could. Gather your stuff. Make sure you take everything you brought with you.
Nothing. Then the very slight smatter of a giggle.
Don’t you hear me? I said.
Don’t you hear me? one of them echoed behind me and the room ran with the under-laughter.
Time you all went! I said.
Time you all went! the one behind me repeated in a copy of my voice that was pure insolence.
The room erupted in anarchic squeals. We turned to look. She was dark and very small, neatly dressed in clean school clothes though it was a Saturday. She was sitting behind the door on what looked like a little black slab, like a reinforced box or case – the kind of case a musical instrument gets kept in.
You shook your head.
I’ve absolutely no idea where that one’s come from, you said.
I woke up, turned over in bed, you snoring lightly next to me; it was an early Saturday morning in mid-October and the leaves outside still green. The temperature that day was 20 degrees and after we’d got up and had breakfast it was such a lovely autumn day we drove to the woods, the ones where we have a membership and can park the car in the special car park for nothing (well, for £25 annual membership paid in advance), and tramped around with all the other people in the unseasonal warm, and when we got back that night we sat in front of the television and watched the annual celebrities learning to dance and the annual real people, some of whom can sing and some of whom can’t, make the annual sacrifice of themselves under Albert Speer lighting, which is what you always say about The X Factor.
Then, in the middle of one of the ad breaks, my head filled with flute music.
Sumer is icumen in. Lhude sing cucuu, and I’d also played a version of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” on that flute at a Christmas school concert, and there was “Snowbird”, there was “Go Tell It On the Mountain”, there was “In the Bleak Midwinter” but with a different tune from the usual one. I’d actually forgotten for all these years that I’d once learned the flute.
I turned down the sound on the TV.
Have you ever heard this version of “In the Bleak Midwinter”? I said.
I hummed it.
No, you said. It’s pretty.
Then we turned the sound back up.
The weeks passed. On TV the Christmas commercials thickened themselves into stories. A geeky little girl wearing 1950s clothes but living in the present made biscuits for school with the help of a beautiful shopgirl. A small boy helped a CGI penguin find love. Some men on opposite sides in the trenches climbed over the mud, played football and slipped chocolate into each other’s pockets. The adverts were for buying things in shops. (Gallipoli, Verdun, Ypres, Somme. A hundred and eighty thousand, seven hundred and fifty thousand, eight hundred and fifty thousand, a million.)
The autumn-winter schedule dramas passed, all just-post-First World War haircuts, rough sex scenes and acts of violence happening to women and girls, but it was all right, because when someone was rough like that you knew he was definitely a bad guy. Gillian Anderson, her face doleful, was changing out of a police uniform. She seemed to be taking a very long time to undo the buttons of her shirt. Perhaps it was a shirt with more than the usual number of buttons, or maybe police uniforms have more buttons than normal clothes. I went through to dry some cups in the kitchen
and came back in again and she was still working her way down her front. A small boy was stolen and his parents stumbled brokenly about. Every episode got a little closer to the mystery and the taboo of what had actually happened to him. That story was very gripping. It was going to run almost all the way to Christmas.
Then it was Black Friday. All over the UK people rioted for half-price TVs. In the USA, where people were rioting about a lot more than TVs, armed police stood in a line waving their shields under the words SEASON’S GREETINGS strung across the road in tinsel the colour of fire.
(All that time, there at my side, I’d felt it, a slight pressure, size of a small clear self.)
You’ve had your time, a man was shouting on Newsnight. It’s our time now. Your time’s over.
I ignored him. I went back through to the kitchen and stared out into the darkness of the garden. The trees over our neighbours’ fence would be bare and hung with rain tonight. The branches would be diamonded. But I couldn’t see anything but myself in the electric reflection in the window.
(The kings were in the compost. They’d be deep in leaves. The paint on their turbans would be peeling, their faces maybe eaten. The gifts in their hands would have turned to paint-flaked wood.)
You came through.
What’s the matter? you said.
Matter? I said. Nothing.
I went back through with you. We sat down on our sofa together to watch Border Patrol or whatever was up next.
© 2014, Ali Smith. “How to be Both” by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) won the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize, awarded in association with the New Statesman
Illustrations by Eleanor Taylor