From the award-winning author of Hotel World and The Accidental, a dazzling, funny, and wonderfully exhilarating new novel.
At a dinner party in the posh London suburb of Greenwich, Miles Garth suddenly leaves the table midway through the meal, locks himself in an upstairs room, and refuses to leave. An eclectic group of neighbors and friends slowly gathers around the house, and Miles's story is told from the points of view of four of them: Anna, a woman in her forties; Mark, a man in his sixties; May, a woman in her eighties; and a ten-year-old named Brooke. The thing is, none of these people knows Miles more than slightly. How much is it possible for us to know about a stranger? And what are the consequences of even the most casual, fleeting moments we share every day with one another?
Brilliantly audacious, disarmingly playful, and full of Smith's trademark wit and puns, There but for the is a deft exploration of the human need for separation--from our pasts and from one another--and the redemptive possibilities for connections. It is a tour de force by one of our finest writers.
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September 13, 2011
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Excerpt from There but for The by Ali Smith
was once a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house
of the people who were giving the dinner party.
There was once a woman who had met this man thirty years before, had known him slightly for roughly two weeks in the middle of a summer when they were
both seventeen, and hadn't seen him since, though they'd occasionally, for a few years after, exchanged Christmas cards, that kind of thing.
Right now the woman, whose name was Anna, was standing outside the locked bedroom door behind which the man, whose name was Miles, theoretically was. She had her arm raised and her hand ready to - to what? Tap? Knock discreetly? This beautiful, perfectly done-out, perfectly dulled house would not stand for
noise; every creak was an affront to it, and the woman who owned it, emanating disapproval, was just two feet behind her. But it was her fist she was standing there holding up, like a 1980s clich� of a revolutionary, ready to, well, nothing quiet. Batter. Beat. Pound. Rain blows.
Strange phrase, to rain blows. Somewhere over the rainblow. She didn't remember much about him, but they'd never have been friends in the first place if he wasn't the sort to enjoy a bad pun. Was he, unlike Anna right now, the kind of person who'd know what to say to a shut door if he were standing outside one trying to get someone on the other side to open it? The kind who could turn to that child stretched on her front as far up the staircase as her whole small self would go, the toes of her bare feet on the wood of the downstairs hall floor and her chin in her hands on the fifth step lying there watching, and straight off be making the right kind of joke, what do you call two mushrooms on holiday? Fun guys, straight off be holding forth about things like where a phrase like to rain blows came from in the first place?
The woman standing behind Anna sighed. She somehow made a sigh sound cavernous. After it the silence was even louder. Anna cleared her throat.
Miles, she said to the wood of the door. Are you there?
But the bleat of her voice left her somehow less there herself. Ah, now, see - that's what it took, the good inappropriateness of that child. Half boy, all girl, she'd elbowed herself up off the staircase, run up the stairs and was about to hammer on the door.
Bang bang bang.
Anna felt each thud go through her as if the child were hammering her on the chest.
Come out come out wherever you are, the child yelled.
Open sesame, the child yelled.
She had ducked under Anna's arm to knock. She looked up at her from under her arm.
It makes the rock in the side of the mountain open, the child said. They say it in the story, therefore the rock just like opens.
The child put her mouth to the door and spoke again, this time without shouting.
Knock knock, she said. Who's there?
There were several reasons at that particular time in Anna Hardie's life for her wondering what it meant, herself, to be there.
One was her job, which she had just given up, in what she and her colleagues laughingly called Senior Liaison, at what she and her colleagues only half-laughingly called the Centre for Temporary Permanence (or, interchangeably, the Centre for Permanent Temporariness).
Another was that Anna had woken up a couple of weeks ago in the middle of her forties in the middle of the night, from a dream in which she saw her own heart behind its ribcage. It was having great trouble beating because it was heavily crusted over with a caul made of what looked like the stuff we clean out of the corners of our eyes in the mornings when we wake up. She woke up, sat up and put her hand on her heart. Then she got up, went to the bathroom mirror and looked. There she was.
The phrase reminded her of something Denny at the Evening News, with whom she'd worked on neighbourhood liaison pieces and with whom she'd had a short liaison herself, had told her some time ago, on their second and last lunchtime. He was a sweet man, Denny. He'd stood in front of her in her kitchen, their first time, and presented his penis to her very sweetly, rueful and hopeful both, a little apologetic about his erection and at the same time proud of it; she liked this. She liked him. But two lunchtimes was all it was, and they both knew it. Denny had a wife, her name was Sheila, and their two girls and their boy were at Clemont High. Anna made a pot of tea, put sugar and milk on the tray because she wasn't sure what he took, carried it upstairs, slid back into the bed. It was a quarter past one. They had just under half an hour left. He'd asked could he smoke. She'd said, okay, since it's the last lunch. He'd smiled. Then he'd turned over in the bed, lit the cigarette, changed the subject. He'd said did she know he could sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words?
Go on then, she said.
I was there. There I was, he said.
It was a commonplace, he said. By the middle of the twentieth century every important report put it like this: I was there. Nowadays: There I was.
Soon it would be seven words, Anna said. The new century had already added a seventh word. There I was, guys. She and Denny had laughed, drunk their tea, put their clothes back on and gone back to their different jobs. The last time they'd spoken was some months ago, about how to handle the story with the local kids giving urine to the asylum kids in lemonade bottles to drink.
In the middle of the night, some months later, holding her own heart, feeling nothing, Anna had looked at herself in the mirror in the bathroom. There she was. It was the there-she-was guise.
There she was again, then, two evenings ago, sitting in front of her laptop one summer evening with the noise of Wimbledon coming from neighbours' TVs through the open windows of the houses all around. Wimbledon was on her own TV too. Her own TV's sound was turned down. It was sunny in London and the Wimbledon grass was still bright green, only a little scuffed. The TV screen flickered away by itself beyond the laptop screen. Pock noises and oohs and ahs, strangely disconnected from their source, accompanied the little noises she was making on her keyboard. It was as if the whole outside world was TV soundtrack.