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Ali Smith: a story

True short story

There were two men in the café at the table next to mine. One was younger, one was older. They could have been father and son, but there was none of that practised diffidence, none of the cloudy anger that there almost always is between fathers and sons. Maybe they were the result of a divorce, the father keen to be a father now that his son was properly into his adulthood, the son keen to be a man in front of his father now that his father was opposite him for at least the length of time of a cup of coffee. No. More likely the older man was the kind of family friend who provides a fathership on summer weekends for the small boy of a divorce-family; a man who knows his responsibility, and now look, the boy had grown up, the man was an older man, and there was this unsaid understanding between them.

I stopped making them up. It felt a bit wrong to. Instead, I listened to what they were saying. They were talking about literature, which happens to be interesting to me, though it wouldn't interest a lot of people. The younger man was talking about the difference between the novel and the short story.

The novel, he was saying, was a flabby old whore.

A flabby old whore! the older man said looking delighted.

She was serviceable, roomy, warm and familiar, the younger was saying, but really a bit used up, really a bit too slack and loose.

Slack and loose! the older said laughing.

Whereas the short story, by comparison, was a nimble goddess, a slim nymph. Because so few people had mastered the short story she was still in very good shape.

Very good shape! The older man was smiling from ear to ear at this. He was presumably old enough to remember years in his life, and not so long ago, when it would have been at least a bit dodgy to talk like this. I idly wondered how many of the books in my house were fuckable and how good they'd be in bed. Then I sighed, and got my mobile out and phoned my friend, with whom I usually go to this café on Friday mornings.

She knows a lot about the short story. She's spent much of her life reading them, writing about them, teaching them, even on occasion writing them. She's read more short stories than most people know exist. I suppose you could call it a lifelong act of love, though she's not very old, she's in her late thirties. A life-so-far act of love. But already she knows more about the short story, and about the people who write and have written short stories, than anyone I've ever met.

She was in hospital on this particular Friday because a course of chemotherapy had destroyed every single one of her tiny white blood cells and then she'd picked up an infection in a wisdom tooth.

I waited for the automaton voice of the hospital phone system to tell me all about itself, then to recite robotically back to me the number I'd just called, then to mispronounce robotically my friend's name, which is Kasia, then to tell me exactly how much it was charging me to listen to it tell me all this, and then to tell me how much it would cost to speak to my friend per minute. Then it connected me.

Hi, I said. It's me.

Are you on your mobile? she said. Don't, Ali, it's expensive on this system. I'll call you back.

No worries, I said. It's just a quickie. Listen. Is the short story a goddess and a nymph and is the novel an old whore?

Is what what? she said.

An old whore, kind of Dickensian one, maybe, I said. Like that prostitute who first teaches David Niven how to have sex in that book.

David Niven? she said.

You know, I said. The prostitute he goes to in The Moon's a Balloon when he's about fourteen, and she's really sweet and she initiates him and he loses his virginity, and he's still wearing his socks, or maybe that's the prostitute who's still wearing the socks, I can't remember, anyway, she's really sweet to him and then he goes back to see her in later life when she's an old whore and he's an internationally famous movie star, and he brings her lots of presents because he's such a nice man and never forgets a kindness. And is the short story more like Princess Diana?

The short story like Princess Diana, she said. Right. OK.

I sensed the two men, who were getting ready to leave the café, looking at me curiously. I held up my phone.

I'm just asking my friend what she thinks about your nymph thesis, I said.

Both men looked slightly startled. Then both men left the café without looking back.

I told her about the conversation I'd overheard.

I was thinking of Diana because she was a bit nymphy, I suppose, I said. I can't think of a goddess who's like a nymph. All the goddesses that come into my head are, like, Kali, or Sheela-Na-Gig. Or Aphrodite, she was pretty tough. All that deer-slaying. Didn't she slay deer?

Why is the short story like a nymph? Kasia said. Sounds like a dirty joke. Ha.

OK, I said. Come on then. Why is the short story like a nymph?

I'll think about it, she said. It'll give me something to do in here.

Kasia and I have been friends now for nearly twenty years, which doesn't feel at all long, though it sounds quite long. "Long" and "short" are relative. What was long was every single day she was spending in hospital; today was her tenth long day in one of the cancer wards, being injected with a cocktail of antibiotics and waiting for her temperature to come down and her white cell count to go up. When those two tiny personal adjustments happened in the world, then she'd be allowed to go home. Also, there was a lot of sadness round her in the ward. After ten long days the heaviness of that sadness, which might sound bearably small if you're not a person who has to think about it or is being forced by circumstance to address it, but is close to epic if you are, was considerable.

She phoned me back later that afternoon and left a message on the answerphone. I could hear the clanking hospital and the voices of other people in the ward in the recorded air around her voice.

OK. Listen to this. It depends what you mean by "nymph". So, depending. A short story is like a nymph because satyrs want to sleep with it all the time. A short story is like a nymph because both like to live on mountains and in groves and by springs and rivers and in valleys and cool grottoes. A short story is like a nymph because it likes to accompany Artemis on her travels. Not very funny yet, I know, but I'm working on it.

I heard the phone being hung up. Message received at four forty three, my answerphone's robot voice said. I called her back and went through the exact echo of the morning's call to the system. She answered and before I could even say hello she said:

Listen! Listen! A short story is like a nympho-maniac because both like to sleep around – or get into lots of anthologies – but neither accepts money for the pleasure.

I laughed out loud.

Unlike the bawdy old whore, the novel, ha ha, she said. And when I was speaking to my father at lunchtime he told me you can fish for trout with a nymph. They're a kind of fishing fly. He says there are people who carry magnifying glasses around with them all the time in case they get the chance to look at real nymphs, so as to be able to echo them even better in the fishing flies they make.

The world is full of astounding things, I said.

I know, she said. What d'you reckon to the anthology joke?

Six out of ten, I said.

Rubbish then, she said. OK. I'll try and think of something better.

Maybe there's mileage in the nymphs-at-your-flies thing, I said.

Ha ha. she said. But I'll have to leave the nymph thing now and get back on the Herceptin trail.

God, I said.

I'm exhausted, she said. We're drafting letters.

When is an anti-cancer drug not an anti-cancer drug? I said.

When people can't afford it, she said. Ha ha.

Lots of love, I said.

You too, she said. Cup of tea?

I'll make us one, I said. Speak soon.

I heard the phone go dead. I put my end of it down and went through and put the kettle on. I watched it reach the boil and the steam come out of the spout. I filled two cups with boiling water and dropped the teabags in. I drank my tea watching the steam rise off the other cup.

This is what Kasia meant by "Herceptin trail".

Herceptin is a drug that's been used in cancer treatment for a while now. Doctors have very recently discovered that it really helps some women who have one particular type of cancer, HER2, when this type is found in early diagnosis. When given to a receptive case it can cut the risk of the recurrence of cancer by fifty per cent. Doctors all over the world are excited about it. It amounts to a paradigm shift in cancer treatment.

I had never heard of any of this till Kasia told me, and she had never heard of any of it until a small truth, less than two centimetres in size, which a doctor found in April in one of her breasts, had meant a paradigm shift in everyday life. It was now August. In May her doctor had told her about how good Herceptin is and how she'd definitely be able to have it at the end of her chemotherapy on the NHS. Then at the end of July her doctor was visited by a member of the PCT, which stands for the words Primary, Care and Trust, and is concerned with NHS funding. The PCT member instructed my friend's doctor not to tell any more of the women affected in the hospital's catchment area about the availability of Herceptin on the NHS, because the PCT had decided that although Herceptin was available all over the world it simply wouldn't be routinely available here till a group called NICE approved its use (which is just another way of saying they were putting it off because of lack of responsibility over who would fund it). Though if anyone wanted to buy it on BUPA, for roughly £27,000, they could, right now.

"Primary." "Care." "Trust." "Nice."

Here's a short story that most people already think they know about a nymph. (It also happens to be one of the earliest manifestations in literature of what we now call anorexia.)

Echo was an Oread, which is a kind of mountain nymph. She was well known among the nymphs and shepherds not just for her glorious garrulousness but for her ability to save her nymph friends from the wrath of the goddess Juno. For instance, her friends would be lying about on the hillside in the sun and Juno would come round the corner, about to catch them slacking, and Echo, who had a talent for knowing when Juno was about to turn up, would leap to her feet and head the goddess off by running up to her and distracting her with stories and talk, talk and stories, until all the slacker nymphs were up and working like they'd never been slacking at all.

When Juno worked out what Echo was doing she was a bit annoyed. She pointed at her with her curse-finger and threw off the first suitable curse that came into her head.

From now on, she said, you will be able only to repeat out loud the words you've heard others say just a moment before. Won't you?

Won't you, Echo said.

Her eyes grew large. Her mouth fell open.

That's you sorted, Juno said.

You sordid, Echo said.

Right. I'm off back to the hunt, Juno said.

The cunt, Echo said.

Actually I'm making up that small rebellion. There is actually no rebelliousness for Echo in Ovid's original version of her story. It seems that after she was robbed of being able to talk on her own terms, and of being able to watch her friends' backs for them, there was nothing left for her, in terms of story, but to fall in love with a boy so in love with himself that he spent all his days bent over a pool of his own desire and eventually pined to near-death (then transformed, instead of dying, from a boy into a little white flower).

Echo pined too. Her weight dropped off her. She became fashionably skinny, then she became nothing but bones, then all that was left of her was a whiny, piny voice which floated bodilessly about saying over and over exactly the same things that everybody else was saying.

Here, by contrast, is the story of the moment I met my friend Kasia, nearly twenty years ago.

I was a postgraduate student at Cambridge and I had lost my voice. I don't mean I'd lost it because I had a cold or a throat infection, I mean that two years of a system of hierarchies so entrenched that girls and women were still a bit of a novelty to it had somehow knocked what voice I had out of me.

So I was sitting at the back of a room not even really listening properly any more, and I heard a voice. It was from somewhere up ahead of me. It was a girl's voice and it was directly asking the person giving the seminar and the chair of the seminar a question about the American writer Carson McCullers.

Because it seems to me that McCullers is very relevant at all levels in this discussion, the voice said.

The person and the chair of the meeting both looked a bit shocked that anyone had said anything out loud. The chair cleared his throat.

I found myself leaning forward. I hadn't heard anybody speak like this, with such an open and carefree display of knowledge and forthrightness, for a couple of years. More: earlier that day I had been talking with an undergraduate student who had been unable to find anyone in the whole of Cambridge University English department to supervise her dissertation on McCullers. It seemed nobody eligible to teach had read her.

Anyway I venture to say you'll find McCullers not at all of the same stature, the person giving the paper on Literature After Henry James said.

Well, I disagree, the voice said.

I laughed out loud. It was a noise never heard in such a room; heads turned to see who was making such an unlikely noise. The new girl carried on politely asking questions which no one answered. She mentioned, I remember, how McCullers had been fond of a maxim: nothing human is alien to me.

At the end of the seminar I ran after that girl. I stopped her in the street. It was winter. She was wearing a red coat.

She told me her name. I heard myself tell her mine.

Franz Kafka says that a short story is a cage in search of a bird. (Kafka's been dead for 81 years, but I can still say Kafka says. That's just one of the ways art deals with our mortality.)

Tzvetan Todorov says that the thing about a short story is that it's so short it doesn't allow us the time to forget that it's only literature and not actually life.

Nadine Gordimer says short stories are about the present moment, like the brief flash of a number of fireflies here and there in the dark.

Elizabeth Bowen says the short story has the advantage over the novel of a special kind of concentration, and that it creates narrative every time absolutely on its own terms.

Eudora Welty says that short stories often problematise their own best interests and that this is what makes them interesting.

Henry James says that the short story, being so condensed, can give a particularised perspective on both complexity and continuity.

Jorge Luis Borges says that short stories can be the perfect form for novelists too lazy to write anything longer than fifteen pages.

Ernest Hemingway says that short stories are made by their own change and movement, and that even when a story seems static and you can't make out any movement in it at all, it is probably changing and moving regardless, just unseen by you.

William Carlos Williams says that the short story, which acts like the flare of a match struck in the dark, is the only real form for describing the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people's lives.

Walter Benjamin says that short stories are stronger than the real, lived moment, because they can go on releasing the real, lived moment long after the real, lived moment is dead.

Cynthia Ozick says that the difference between a short story and a novel is that the novel is a book whose journey, if it's a good working novel, actually alters a reader, whereas a short story is more like the talismanic gift given to the protagonist of a fairy tale – something complete, powerful, whose power may yet not be understood, which can be held in the hands or tucked into the pocket and taken through the forest on the dark journey.

Grace Paley says that she has written only short stories in her life because art is too long and life is too short, and that short stories are, by nature, about life, and that life is itself always found in dialogue and argument.

Alice Munro says that every short story is at least two short stories.

There were two men in the café at the table next to mine. One was younger, one was older. We sat in the same café for only a brief amount of time but we disagreed for long enough for me to know there was a story in it.

This story has been written in discussion with my friend Kasia Boddy (39), writer, lecturer and critic, who happens at this live moment to be one of the 2,000 women in the UK who will have to pay for a drug they should all simply be eligible for right now.

So when is the short story like a nymph?

When the echo of it answers back.

From THE FIRST PERSON AND OTHER STORIES by Copyright © Ali Smith 2008. Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2008, 2009. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd. ©

Ali Smith's first book, Free Love and Other Stories (1995), won the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award and a Scottish Arts Council Award. In 1997 her first novel, Like, was published. After another book of short stories, she followed up with a novel that was shortlisted for both the Booker and Orange prizes – Hotel World (2001). A critical success, it won the Encore Award, a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award. In 2005, The Accidental was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and, in 2017, her novel Autumn was longlisted. In 2014, she won the Goldsmiths Prize for original fiction for her novel How to be Both.


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