Ali Smith

August 25, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Ali Smith's final installment of her Seasonal Quartet, Summer. Smith is the author of many works of fiction, including, most recently, Spring, Winter, Autumn, Public library and other stories, and How to be both, which won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize, and the Costa Novel of the Year Award. Her work has four times been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Born in Inverness, Scotland, she lives in Cambridge, England.

What Robert Greenlaw finds most curious about playing ABUSEHEAP (subheading die a thousand deaths ) is that it doesn’t matter what era/s you’re in, torture really hasn’t changed much. When electricity starts to be available it gets more everyday since every room has a socket and there are so many ordinary things that can be plugged into that socket, drills and saws, and others more excitingly innocent like lamps, toasters, hair curling irons. One of the first things they did with the invention of the telephone is work out a way, by connecting it by wire to a human and turning its little crank handle, to deliver pain. They called it?

Article continues below

The Telephone.

Riches, ironies. Robert Greenlaw is an Iron(y) Man. Just as well, since across the aeons and the global distances what all the peoples of the world really have in common is so many similar ways of doing humiliating and painful things to each other.

Dislocation, discomfort via acute ways of sitting / standing / squatting / hanging. Boiling oil / tar / wax / water. Just water. Dripping it very slowly on to someone, in exactitude. Or just filling people with too much of it. Heat, cold, roasting, freezing. Heavy stones. Iron chairs or contraptions featuring spikes and blades. Finger screws. Toe screws. A global variety of boot-like contraptions via which the foot and leg bones can be wedged till broken or crumbled.

The contraptions which hold the whole body in place are often, interestingly, designated female. Skevington’s Daughter, Duke of Exeter’s Daughter, Iron Maiden. There’s also the claw-like metal thing called The Spider, for when Victim is itself a female.

Article continues below

That stuff’s level 3 and 4 on ABUSEHEAP. Robert Greenlaw is way beyond that now. He is Perp level 7, has access to early electricals and a chat room entry key so he can access Victim data and profiles and compare and discuss tortures in conference with other Perps. Plus, up until level 5 Perps have to do the tracking, chasing and capturing of Victims themselves but from level 6 on, they’re presented with Victim after Victim as gifts of the game. But the twist – so to speak heh heh – is that you have to outwit Victim in interrogation and succeed in getting information, and if Victim dies before delivering the info you drop back to level 3 Drudge. If you get it badly wrong and Victim escapes, game profile plummets you into Victimzone.

There are a lot more Victims than Perps.

It is easy, to end up killing. Rat torture might look a sure bet to get someone to spill their guts – cut skin above the stomach of Victim into bloody strips then tie bag with rat in it round Victim and rat starts to eat – but it almost always ends in death, too-literal gut-spill. Robert Greenlaw’s own favorite way of killing someone who’s no longer valid (having given up all info), if he’s okay for point totals and can afford it, is Torn in Two, original medieval, in which one arm and one leg are attached to one large horse, the other arm and leg to another horse, and the horses sent in different directions. For not-killing he favors Pear of Pain, which stops people speaking until you let them again, and Pitchcap, which the English did to the Irish in the C18th: pour hot tar into paper cap attached to Victim’s head then rip it off taking the scalp with it. (You can also fill orifices with pitch or tar but Victim’ll definitely die if you do, so use it only on Victim you don’t need anything else from.)

So far he has found that the simplest abuse gets the best results.

Jetlining (ancient practice with modernized name). You don’t need anything but a wall for that.

Article continues below

Fingernailing (ancient).

Dryboarding (ancient and bang up to date; if it’s working right now for the CIA it’ll probably work for you).

Level 10 gives you the latest electromagnetic torture gadgets and Robert Greenlaw is looking forward to those. Mind-altering! But only the best Perps reach level 10.


Only ten minutes into the game today and Robert Greenlaw is feeling the usual nothing.

Article continues below

He just doesn’t give a shit what Victim knows or doesn’t know.

Anyway the Perp room is practically empty.

Everybody is at school.

He leaves Victim dangling, pauses the game. Bit distracted now.


Article continues below

There’s someone downstairs, on a visit. He heard them there when he came in

(and here’s what Robert Greenlaw’s achieved since he arrived at the front door half an hour ago, opened it noiselessly and shut it noiselessly: furniture polish from cleaning cupboard + hinges = noiseless entry).

Only ten minutes into the game today and Robert Greenlaw is feeling the usual nothing.

a.) he had a good look in whoever’s visiting’s bag by the umbrella Canvas. Heavy. No wonder. A quite large, completely round stone in it. Like a small stone football. Garden thing? Thing for top of a pillar? Old unused cannonball? He’d put it back down very very carefully. He’d climbed the stair, missed out the creaker step.

He’d heard, as he went up, people in the lounge talking.

No TV noise. Must’ve unplugged it.

He’d halted on the landing to listen for a moment.

No one was talking about the eggtimer. Nobody sounded outraged.

But he couldn’t hear for definite.

They were talking about – Worthing? Or – something worthy.


b.) he’d gone up the next flight then up into the loft. He got a pair of socks out of the sock drawer, put his pods in and watched a bit of porn like any self respecting 13 year old boy is ancestrally and congenitally bound to do. He’d felt bad again after. It always makes him think (it is so fucking annoying even to have it in his head) of the story of the hunter out hunting who sees the virgins all bathing naked and of course he sits and watches them for as long as he can, who wouldn’t? so the goddess of the hunt catches him and is so furious with him for desecrating her virgins by looking at them impurely that she turns him into a stag which his own dogs not recognizing their master and seeing only a stag instead then subsequently maul to death. Robert Greenlaw, inward balladeer, soul of patience in exactitude, once wrote an essay for school based on that story and proclaiming how if you go about life seeing the pure thing when you aren’t pure yourself then the dog inside you will tear you apart.

Good boy.


After which Robert Greenlaw, outward outlaw, tore that essay up and threw it away on his way to school, told Milton he hadn’t done the homework and gave him a good insolent stare back throughout the reprimand

troubled? me?

So he clicked away the 16 yr old (more like 35 really, hair in bunches doesn’t mean you’re not old) French au pair getting done by father of family, groan, banal beyond banal, anal beyond anal, fake-moaning and stilettos in the air, and tipped his invisible hat to whoever was recording him watching it through his computer’s camera since someone somewhere will have been. Given that we all live in an open prison now and ought just to admit it and stop imagining we don’t.


c.) he watched on YouTube instead the clip he likes from the black and white German film where the jester does the crazy jerking Dance of Death in the inn and all the peasants go into a trance and follow him doing the dance too like automatons, shaking and jerking like sweaty It is called Paracelsus. It is something to do with Hitler even though it’s set in the middle ages. The jester gets into the town bringing the plague because unscrupulous merchants who don’t want to lose trade and money import their goods through the blockade. Then Robert Greenlaw stood up and did some of the jerky dance moves soundlessly round his room.

But was he the jester – or the follower? Heh.


All the same:


d.) he brought up the link to the live Echo feed to see if it had spoken One day an Echo in someone’s house woke itself up unasked and said out loud to the room, with its Echo-owners staring at it amazed, this sentence:

every time I close my eyes all I see is people dying.

Of course it became a viral news story; of course some random canny Echo-owner was clever enough to set up an Echo-cam on their own Echo and since then there’s been more than a million people every day watching and listening to a live 24 hour feed for the moment when this Echo, or the god who speaks through the Echo, says something else.

Which of course it never will.

It is brilliant, Robert Greenlaw thought again looking at the screen showing an Echo, any old Echo, on a sideboard, and the number of people online watching it right then, 360,746 (America is asleep). I mean. Who programmed an Echo to be so poetic? Who placed that little primed grenade at the heart of the machine? It always makes him laugh, the people out there hooked and waiting for the god, or the machine, same thing, to give them the message.

30 seconds later?


e.) he sat on his bed and tore the photograph out of the Einstein book, Einstein in an overcoat standing on a lot of cut grass in a field in England, hands in his pockets, cheery-melancholy.

He cut its edge straight with scissors, neat.

He tore out the one of Einstein with the sculptor standing outside a hut on either side of a clay head the sculptor’s just made of him.

He did the same, scissors, neat edge.

He stuck them both on the wall with Blu-tak.

Albert Einstein on the wall looked past him, melancholy-cheery, into the distance in his room.

What does soul of patience in exactitude actually mean?

Uh-oh. When he starts to question himself –


f.) he brought up his ABUSEHEAP a + b + c + d + e + f = ?

Now. New Victim on The Donkey. No guts spilled yet. Robert Greenlaw has the lackeys tie Victim’s hands behind back and suspend from the rafters.

Crack. Dislocation. Still nothing.

Then Victim presses the button. I’ll talk. Uch.

Robert Greenlaw sighs the sigh of an ancient tyrant who’s seen it all.


He clicks the game off before Victim can follow through and save itself.

Almost wishes he’d gone to school after all.

Wonders if his sister still has time on her hands ha ha.

Wonders who it is, downstairs.

Robert Greenlaw silents himself out of his room and down the loft stairs again. Then silents himself down the staircases. Halfway down the last flight Robert Greenlaw sits, but with his feet well up off the next step because it’s the creaker.

His mother is telling the visitor one of her stories about how proud she is of her children, how clever they are, how one of them at a very early age, maybe eight years old, had said at the dinner table that if a TV series could be as good as the planet Ceres and the goddess Ceres then finally we would be fulfilling our true human capacity, and how she and Jeff had been amazed that their children knew about outer space and mythology and had done all that reading by themselves.

Yeah, that was me, he hears his sister say.

It wasn’t her who said the Ceres thing. It was him. She knows nothing about anything.

The visitor sounds like a member of the educated elite. She is here because she was doing something research-wise over in Worthing and stayed overnight last night here in a hotel. She says something he can’t make out. Then she says,

and that makes you a terrorist. They’re listed as a terrorist group now.

Everybody laughs.

His mother talks about the day someone broke all the windscreens on all the cars up the street.

His environ/mental sister starts blahing about how solar panels and not eating meat one day a week isn’t going to make enough of a dent.

It’s truly terrible. But this new generation of responsible young people will sort it out, his mother says. Thank God for the young people. I trust them.

Yeah, that’s it. Give us the responsibility for everything you’ve all messed up but don’t give us any power with which to change anything, his sister says.

His mother says something apologetic about her revolutionary daughter.

Yeah, because the planet is really dangerously near being fucked, his sister says.

Don’t swear. And darling, his mother says. It’s just not as simple as that.

Yes it is, his sister says. And you being patronizing to me doesn’t make it any less simple.

The visitor says something about how important it is to have a voice.

Almost in unison his mother and his sister start telling the visitor about his father’s girlfriend.

Visitor: Stopped speaking?

His mother: Just stopped. Can’t make any sounds at all.

Visitor: She’s lost her voice?

His sister: Yeah but it’s somehow sort of more than just losing her voice.

His mother: Her ability to make any sound at all has literally gone. When we go next door all she’ll do is shrug her shoulders. Even when Sacha stood on one of her feet when she wasn’t expecting it –

His sister: – to see what would happen, not out of meanness or cause I wanted to hurt her –

His mother: – even then –

His sister: she just opened her mouth in an O and no sound came out, though you could see it was sore by her face. I said sorry, I told her I was doing it to try to be helpful, then we asked what if we tried burning her arm unexpectedly with a hot teaspoon, you know, something when she least expected it, would that help, and she wrote down on a piece of paper, nothing works, don’t think I haven’t tried myself.

Visitor: She’d tried to burn herself? With a teaspoon?

His mother: I think she just meant she’d tried, I don’t know how, to get herself to make a noise.

Visitor: You can’t trick your unconscious.

His mother: You think it’s psychological? I think it’s definitely psychological. I said it was. Didn’t I say that, Sacha? I said psychosomatic.

His sister: Like Greta.

His mother: How?

His sister: She stopped speaking.

His mother: No, the whole thing about her was that she did speak, Garbo Speaks. Garbo Laughs. My father used to say: the ideal woman until she spoke. [impersonates her father, Bradford accent] Should never have opened her mouth. All downhill after that. [back to her usual voice] He really did!

His sister: No, mum. Greta Thunberg. When she was a little kid she went into a state of shock when she realized what was happening to the earth, and she actually stopped being able to speak. And then she realized the whole point was that she had to speak. That she had to use her voice. I asked Ashley about that, actually.

His mother: Asked her what?

His sister: If it was about the world, if she was trying to save the world. And she wrote on the pad, not any more.

Robert Greenlaw, porous understander of his time and times, sits halfway up the stairs like in the AA Milne poem for children and remembers verbatim one of the first conversations he had with his father’s girlfriend.

His father’s girlfriend: In times of injustice you always have to be ready to speak up, to speak out loudly against it.

Robert Greenlaw: If you do, you’ll be one of the first they’ll kill.

His father’s girlfriend: It won’t come to that. Not if enough people speak out.

Robert Greenlaw: Yeah but what if it does?

His father’s girlfriend: If it does, then I’m not worried, they can kill me if they like, because I trust and I know there’ll be so many more who’ll come after me to speak out just as loud.

Robert Greenlaw: They’ll all get killed too.

His father’s girlfriend: Justice will always win.

Robert Greenlaw: Yeah but that totally depends on what the people who make the laws decide to define justice as.

His father’s girlfriend: You’re impossible.

Robert Greenlaw: You’re all too plausible.

Along with stopping speaking, his father’s girlfriend seems to have stopped writing her “book” about “politics”. He rather hopes it’s because he sneaked into her “study” at the start of January and wrote with a Sharpie on the top page of the sheaf of printed-out pages next to her name MEMBER OF THE EDUCATED ELITE.


Robert Greenlaw knows there is no point in making lists of the lies a PM or POTUS tells.

It is an amazing time to be alive. World order is changing.

But he also admits to himself that some bits of his father’s girlfriend’s book made quite interesting reading:

(where blah marks Robert Greenlaw’s loss of interest)

language distorted, used as tool of taking control of a populace by sloganeering and emotional manipulation, is in fact the opposite of giving back control to populace blah

use of classical references and display of knowledge as rhetorical power-tools are surreptitiously also used as a marker of class and of who owns culture, who owns knowledge blah

truth gives way to the authentic lie, in other words what the voter emotionally supports, or emotional truth, which is where factual truth stops mattering, which leads in turn to total collapse of integrity and to tribalism blah

It is more likely, though, that it’s nothing to do with him. More likely she stopped writing it because a couple of nights before she stopped speaking altogether—as Robert Greenlaw, silent outlaw, knows because he has a key, often goes next door without anyone knowing, goes in quite often to see what’s in the fridge, to pick things up in their rooms and put things down again, occasionally to pocket things, to listen to them having sex (when they still did) thinking nobody could possibly be watching or listening, to take a seat on the landing, they leave the door open—that night she was talking and talking, wouldn’t shut up, telling his father in her mad girl way about a program about WW2 home movies she’d just seen and how there was a sequence of old footage of a Nazi town having a summer festival, floats were going through the streets with women and children on them in national costume waving to people on the pavement, she talked about how the floats were hung with garlands of flowers and how at the very end, the very back of the procession, the very last image in the home movie was a caricature of a Jewish person looking out of a prison truck window through the bars, being driven away to jail and everybody laughing and waving goodbye.

It was supposed to be funny, she said. It was like a cartoon. The film was silent but everybody laughed and cheered all the same.

She was crying by then. His father said some sort of comforting-sounding things but Robert Greenlaw could tell he couldn’t really be bothered, had already had enough of this. She didn’t take the hint. She kept on being upset. She told his father about the other home movie of a country fair, the one showing people dressed as German citizens acting like they’re sweeping the streets, with huge cartoon-sized brooms, and what they’re sweeping off the streets is people dressed in costumes of Jewish caricatures.

What she was most upset about, she said, was the way that then and now were meeting up and that it was such a caricature time then and it’s such a caricature time again.

That’s what she kept repeating through the noise of her crying. His father in the end fell asleep, or pretended to, and Robert Greenlaw didn’t blame him.

What’s her problem?

There is endless stuff always on TV and all over the net about the Nazis. All Robert’s life there always has been.

Down in the lounge, meanwhile, the visitor has clearly just worked out that their father and his girlfriend are living next door.

She is saying something congratulatory about what a grown-up way it is to do things.

His mother says marry in May and you’ll rue the day.

His parents are laughable.

They are having a meltdown about their own deaths getting closer and closer now they are so ancient.

His father: Call no man happy till he is dead.

His mother: Kill yourself. Then you’ll be happy.

His father: Tell you what. It’ll be you that’s the death of me.

Remembering that particular fight Robert Greenlaw forgets where he is, forgets to take care, finds he’s braced himself against the memory of the fight without knowing his body is even doing it, and in unbracing himself puts both feet on the creaker step by mistake.



Everyone stops speaking in the lounge.

Then his mother comes to the lounge door and looks up. She sees the top of his head.

Robert? she says. Actress pause.

She comes round and up three of the steps. Why on earth aren’t you at school? she says.

She says it with parental indignation rather than the usual deadpan way because there’s a visitor in.

Robert Greenlaw stands up so that he is even higher above her.

In one of my quantum lives I am actually in school right now, he says. Doing uh (he checks the time on his phone), maths.

His mother has no idea what quantum is or what he’s talking about. As per. She looks at him in bewilderment.

So Robert Greenlaw, quantum son, who knows he can get away with quite a bit by simply acting like he has the right and believes in his right to do whatever it is he’s doing, adjusts his stance to superior by squaring his shoulders and turning his head and comes down the stairs as if there’s no question.

Oh, and Robert, his mother says. What’ve you done with the remote?

I am The Remote, he says as if The Remote is an anti-hero with the superpower of being, yes, remote.

Where is it? she says again.

It’s somewhere miles away from here by now, he says going into the lounge.

And that’ll be why they call it a remote, the beautiful visitor says.


From Summer: A Novel by Ali Smith. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Ali Smith.

More Story
How Do Celebrity Conspiracy Theorists Become Who They Are? Richard McCaslin moved to Austin in 2000. His main motivating factor was to reconnect with his delivery driver friend...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.