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23 March 2022

Day and age

A new short story by Ali Smith, the acclaimed author of the Seasonal Quartet.

By Ali Smith

Someone was hammering on the front door. The hammering was alarming, like something might matter. But whoever it was was standing at an angle that meant I couldn’t properly make them out through the doorbell camera.

I opened the door still on its chain and angled myself at the thin slice of the opening to see.

It was someone quite old, a man with a very long straggly grey beard, beard all the way to his midriff and lank grey hair down past his shoulders. What I could see of his face was weathered and red like he drank way too much.

He held up a thin hand open towards me through the door gap. I stepped right back.

Can I help you at all? I said.             

Not as much as I can help you, he said.

No thank you, I’m not looking for any help today. But thanks very much, I said.

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I went to shut the door.

Your purchase, he said.

I opened the door against the chain again (I was expecting an evening primrose oil capsule pack from Amazon). But his gnarly hands were empty and there was nothing, no packet or Amazon box at his feet. There was nothing on his feet. His feet were bare, and filthy.

Are you Amazon? I said.

Saw it once, he said, seen it all, me. Seen the rivers, seen the seas. Water. Everywhere. Couldn’t drink it, though.

He shook his head.

You mentioned my purchase, I said.

Without me, he said. None. On anything. Listen. There was a ship – .

Uh, I said. I think you might have the wrong house.

He looked off to his left as if counting.          

Nope, he said. Definitely your turn.

For what?

To hear about how I killed the big bird and what happened after I did.

Sorry? I said.

Very, he said. I shouldn’t have. You will be too. If you don’t hear me out.

Are you actually threatening me? I said.

First it came and played with us all on the deck, he said, it was a very friendly bird. Then I shot it. I don’t know why. I just did. It was one of those things you can do, so you do it. Well, after that everything, I mean everything. Scuppered. Rotten. Dead.

That’s when I realised what the dead fish smell coming off the old man was; I’d thought he was just both very thin and overweight, swollen at the stomach like beer drinkers or malnourished people, his wrists like sticks and his filthy coat buttoned tight over a swollen stomach. But he’d buttoned it over what I now saw was a massive dead bird hung upside down by its legs, tied round his neck with a knotted hairy rope.

The dead bird was like a very large seagull. It was so long its head swung about upside down between his feet, its eye was clouded and sunken and that thing splayed out on the path behind the man’s ankles, the thing I’d thought was the kind of improvised bag contraption-thing a person with nowhere to live lugs their stuff around in, was actually a very big broken and soiled bird wing.

I braced my own foot against the bottom of my front door in case he tried to force it and get into my house. I took a deep breath. I spoke loudly and clearly.

OK, I said. So. What I’m going to do is. I’m going to close my door now and go away for a couple of minutes. I’m also going to send security my front door camera feed. Because, I should tell you, you should know. You’re on film right now. This is being recorded. And not just by me, but by at least three security cameras connected to the security hub.

Hub, he said like he’d never heard of the word.

His lower lip stuck out, dried and peeling.

This is a gated estate, I said. We’re a private community. This place is regularly patrolled. You won’t’ve got through the gates without them knowing. And if you broke in through the fencing to get in, well, the fences are all alarmed and CCTV’d. So. If I were you. I’d get myself out of here sharpish. They can be quite rough on intruders, the firm that looks after us here. I’m telling you this for your own good.

The old man blinked the one eye I could see. Or maybe that was him winking. Anyway, I took it as assent.

I’m saying goodbye now, I said. OK? OK.

I shut the door.

I stood behind it and watched through the small glass panel the hair on the top of his head blowing about in a wispy way.

Then I went through to the kitchen where I stood looking out of the window at the lip of the ha-ha and the turned-off water feature beyond it (no point unless the kids are home from school for the holidays).

But when I came back into the hall and checked through the doorbell camera, he was still there. So I got my phone out and I was scrolling to find the number for security when I noticed there was a lot of white stuff between the door and the door frame, like a still life of froth, or like when you’re in the countryside and see tufts of sheep’s wool caught on a barbed wire fence. Some of the man’s beard, quite a lot of it, was trapped in the shut door.

I’d done that.

Damn.

I went back through to the kitchen to get the scissors. But when I stood with their blades opened and ready round the lowest down of the tufts I suddenly felt really strange. For a start it felt way too intimate.

It also felt a bit dangerous, like how they tell you never to take that sheep’s wool tufty stuff off the barbed wire in case you cut yourself and get tetanus.

More. It felt like I was doing something wrong.

I don’t know why it felt like that. I wasn’t. I mean, this was private property and he was trespassing. His beard was completely unasked for and unwanted in my doorframe. It was as simple as that.

I readied the scissors again.

But. If I was to take scissors to this man’s beard something of his DNA would be in my house, in the crack between the door and the doorframe and on my floor. Worse. Invisible fragments of it, freed by me, would enter the air in my house. I might breathe some of that old man in without even knowing.

I shuddered.

I pressed the doorbell intercom.

I’m so sorry, I said into the little mic hole. I seem to have trapped some of your beard in my door.

Silence, except for the sounds of outside, a plane from the airport, traffic on the bypass, birds.

You can reply to me through the doorbell, I said. You just speak into it.

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THANK YOU

Traffic. Over it, birdsong.

Are you there? Can you hear me?

Silence.

Maybe he was too decrepit to work out the tech.

I’m going to open the door again, I said. I’ll open it just wide enough for you to remove your beard from it, and I’m going to open it for a fraction of a second only, just long enough for you to move your head enough to remove your beard safely. And then you can go. Is that clear?

Illustration by Poan Pan

Bypass. Birdsong. Silence.

And also. To make up for my having inconvenienced you so carelessly I’ll fully remunerate you, for any time you’ve lost on my account.

Silence.

I checked for cash in my wallet. Lucky I had any at all. Who did, anymore? But I had two old £20 notes from before the pandemic, notes as old-fashioned and weird to the fingertips already as old leathery layers of skin. Would £40 cover it? Surely. I thought about folding them or rolling them into a little tube to make handing them over less ostentatious but in the end I decided just to hold them out by their edges so that he could take them by their other far edges and I wouldn’t have to come too close to his hands.

I readied the notes and opened the door still on the chain. He was standing exactly where he’d been. He looked back at me through the gap with that one small eye shining black in the red crease of his face, grey spume of the hair everywhere, torso of bird buttoned into his coat.

We were the first, he said.

I’m sorry? I said.

That ever burst, he said. Into that silent sea.

I thrust the money through the narrow opening without brushing my hand against any filthy beard hair.

Here. Take it. It’s for you. Just take it. It’s no trouble. Please.

He didn’t move a hair. He didn’t take the money. So I levered the beard stuff out of the door gap using the notes then I dropped the notes; they landed on the doorstep near the beak.

Then I shut the door.

I’d got almost all the beard out. The rest slithered away back through the seam between door and frame as I watched.

Phew. 

Glad that’s over.

Glad I stayed polite throughout. I went back to what I was doing before the noise at the door, which was watching my shares. Fracking stock was well up, and everything oil- and gas-based too via the Russian fandango. Nice to see.

Then I browsed about, looked up various cities of the world on Skyline Webcams instead. The Princess Tower panorama was offline. I looked up the Maldives, but it was night there already; all the views were of darkness. The sun was setting on St Moritz with a gold outline on the mountains. That was gorgeous, like someone was pencilling it in just for me to see.

On the Seychelles beach the sand was a ghostly white in the night. That was quite like poetry. A ghostly white / In the night.

But I could still hear him shouting at the front of the house. He was droning on about a permit being a good thing.

I was annoyed now. I’d paid him good money.

Lake Como looked like scattered silver in the nightfall. How lovely. But I couldn’t concentrate because he was shouting now about his heart. His heart was burning. Enough. I called security.

I’m sorry, the robot said. Calls to this number are not being connected. If you’ve dialled correctly, I’m afraid it means that the number is not available from this network.

I looked at my phone in disbelief.

I looked up the email for security. I sent a message. My email certainly went somewhere. I waited. Nothing. Well, I was angry now, and about a number of things, one of them being how substantial the annual security supplement was.

So I thought I’d just take the back path by the far fence beyond the end of our back garden and fetch Brian, or whoever was on, and the dogs, in the Jeep in person. The dogs would love the dead bird thing. I’d not complain, it doesn’t do any good. I’d say instead, I’m amazed they couldn’t smell it from wherever it is you’ve been, Brian.

But when I opened the back door, water burst into the house knocking me over like it was air and a gale was blowing. A huge slab of felted wood rolled in the door on a tide of it, turning over and over; it was the tool shed roof.

I got myself up on to the kitchen island. The electricity blew all round the house with a tremendous whipsnap. The water was as high as the table. Lake Como disappeared into it.

Damn.

Outrageous.

Somebody would pay.

Through the bowing glass of the French doors I saw someone. It wasn’t security. It was that absolute bastard of an old man, I don’t know how he got into the rear part of the garden, which isn’t accessible from the front.

He was in the upturned bowl of our water feature and he was literally using it as a boat. I could see the bird wing draped over the edge, floating alongside, and he was rowing away like a man three times younger using one of the garden shovels as an oar.

Where are you going with my water feature? That’s my spade! I shouted at his back.

Farewell! he called in a reedy voice. Farewell!

Bring those things back here right now! I shouted.

I held up my phone.          

I know who you are! Those things are mine not yours! I’m recording this! You hear me? It’s all on camera!

As he went, I saw him fling his long wet beard over his shoulder, heavy with water like a length of snapped rope.

Ali Smith’s new novel “Companion Piece” will be published by Hamish Hamilton on 7 April

This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain