Terms of Endearment, by Ali Smith

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From Companion Piece, a novel, which was published last month by Pantheon.

Surface v depth:

and if you said someone was light-timbered it meant they were a weakling, I told my father. That’s a good one.

I was telling him, quietly, the hospital air coming in through my mask, about the book of words I’d been reading.

Specifically used by the poor, the rogues and vagabonds, in other words the people shunted to the edge of things in the 1690s, I tell him. A dumb or a dub was a key that could open any lock. A lanspresado was someone who regularly went out drinking with everyone but never brought their wallet. (I imagined him laughing at that one.) And if you like that one, you’ll like these. A lord was their word for deformed or crooked people. And a tale-teller was a servant hired to put people to sleep by talking a load of rubbish to them. Or another word for an author.

My father laughing like a storm several fathoms under a sea’s surface. My father / not my father in the bed. Visitors were now permitted in the non-virus wards for socially distanced, masked, and gloved brief visits only. He was in a kind of hiatus between conscious and un, so tired he was still partly elsewhere, his designated nurse, Viola, explained to me. But he’d know I was here, she said. So I was to speak to him. Tell him things, she said.

What else could I tell him?

Curlews actually turn up in one of the earliest English poems we’ve got, I said into the hope. For instance, in a poem from a thousand years ago, some of the first written-down poetry in English, there’s a couple of lines where there’s maybe a curlew. The poem’s about a person who’s miles from land, they’ve been at sea in a boat for a long long time, and it’s a sort of prayer about our aloneness and our surviving. All the seasons pass through it, or the poem’s speaker passes in the boat through all the seasons with nothing for company but the sea and the life of the sea. Except, Dad, and this is what I love about it, actually that speaker isn’t alone at all, because I’m reading or hearing the poem, or you are, if it’s you reading it. A conversation with someone or something that’s silent is still a conversation.

Plus, I mean, imagine. Us way out in the future still reading that poem, me sitting here telling you about that poem more than a thousand years after it was written. It fills me with sheer wonder when
I think how not alone the speaker is every time someone reads that poem. Anyway, down there in the middle of a lonely sea, the person in the boat says that the calls of gannets and the cries of curlews are what have replaced men’s laughter for them. In other words, taken the place of the happy noise that happens when people hang out with other people, I said through my mask into the silence round the beeping.

My father, at sea.

Or was it me at sea?

So there’s merriment and sadness in the sea air both at once, I said. Like merriment and sadness are natural traveling companions. And maybe this person always felt stranded and a bit separate, I mean in the company of other people, even when they weren’t anywhere near the sea.

I sat with the words I’d said out loud falling away in the hospital air.

Beep.    Beep.

V for visitor.

He was some place I couldn’t get into, its windows all dark to me.
Or maybe it was me who was in the dark place and he was in a bright elsewhere.

But great conversation we were having, some of the best we’d ever had, ha ha!

He’d laugh about this, wouldn’t he? when he came round and I told him all the things he’d had to listen to me holding forth about.

You’re beyond me now

to me at school.

You’re way beyond me now

to me at university.

It hurt—hurts—the heart.

Now I sat the right distance away at the door of his storeroom.

They call curlews local migrants, I said. Some of them leave the country but others just move themselves seasonally round the U.K. Numenius arquata. If their genus name comes from the Greek it’s related to how their beaks are curved like a new moon, or an archer’s bow. If it comes from the Latin it’s maybe also about how curlews are numinous, a sign of divine presence, so that seeing one is sort of like a god has just nodded at you in passing. They’re reputed to be the wildest of all birds, completely untameable. And they can live for thirty years. And they’re really, really endangered now. The people who care about birds reckon they’ll have died out completely in the U.K. about eight years from now. That’s less than a third of the lifespan of a curlew.

A curfew of curlews.

Viola came to signal to me that time was up.

She told me again to call her on her mobile any time night or day if I was worried or wanted an update and that she’d call me immediately if anything, and so on.

I told her again how much I thanked her and how I wished I could hug her.

Soon, she said, and her eyes were smiling but very tired.

I went down the stairs and out. I walked over to the car in the car park. But instead of getting in I went to the low fence round the car park in which there were now actual dips in the corrugated metal because so many people had been sitting on it over the last year doing this same thing in the days we weren’t allowed in, quite a few of us, at a safe distance from each other, sitting looking up at the building where our people were.

A bus driver.

A dinner lady.

Designs books.

Teacher.

Caught it on the street.

Caught it from my brother.

Caught it God knows how. Shielded till they told shielding people it was safe to go back out.

Came in for a fainting fit and caught it in the hospital.

Marathon runner, health fanatic, never ever ill.

A nurse. So many thank-you cards at home we can’t close the bureau drawers.

Garden full of dahlias, wins prizes every year they’re that good.

We only ate out the once.

Every day I go over and flush the toilet in his house so the rats won’t come up through the system.

We had the best time. We got so drunk and were so happy, and we ran past all the restaurants all the way along the pier to the lighthouse and when we got there we lay on the road holding our stomachs, we were laughing so much, and people kept walking past us and laughing too because we were.

I got better and he hasn’t.

My mother. My sister. My father. My brother. My love. My partner. My friend.

I’d nod.

I’d stare up at the building with them and we’d say things like

we’re not alone

and

you’re not alone.

I knew the grass-blades in the broken pavement and the sprig of something (no idea what) forcing its way upward on the patch of cracked-open tarmac next to the bus shelter.

The weeds growing up the side of that bus shelter were tenacious.


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