When a Stranger Showed Up in Our Home
Michael Donkor on Interlopers, in Fiction and In Life
Early on in Ali Smith’s coruscating There but for The (2011), in post-coital badinage, two characters mockingly debate the essence of 21st-century journalism. One character sums up the style, content and intention of contemporary reporting with the following phrase:
“There I was, guys.”
I like this spiky little line. And even though in the text it’s delivered in a throwaway manner, I actually think it’s rather insightful. It makes me reflect on the fact that much storytelling, anecdotalizing rests on the extraordinary erupting into the everyday—”So there I was guys, minding my own business, when suddenly…” It also encourages us to consider the idea that when the extraordinary occurs we can only begin to wrest some meaning from it—however slippery or partial that meaning might be—through the act of sharing the tale with others.
So this is one I’ve told many, many times.
It was 1993. I was eight. My older sister Jenny—she’s seven years my senior—was tasked with picking me up from primary school while my Mum worked. At the end of every day, teachers waved me off into Jenny’s care, gifting her all manner of glittering compliments about her competence and kindness—praise that would have left me beaming and boastful but that did nothing for her.
On one particular afternoon, Jenny and I made our way home down Lille Road as normal. Jenny trotted beside me, reappointing her uniform to give it fashionable dishevelment. I was an annoying, precocious little fellow and spent the journey bouncing my yellow rucksack and providing Pollyanna-ish commentary about our surroundings: the toyshop’s tantalizing offerings, the tempting swings in the park. I described the day’s playground dramas in precise detail, like when Michael Cooney had run after boys during kiss chase rather than girls. Sometimes I would whistle shrilly, setting Jenny’s teeth on edge, to provoke a response. Jenny was in no mood for idle chit chat. She focused on getting the job done; briskly taking us over zebra crossings, dancing us around slow, crumpled women with tartan shopping trolleys.
I wasn’t troubled by her lack of interest. Soon enough we’d be at home and Jenny would disappear to her room to listen to Jodeci and I’d plonk myself in front of The Animals of Farthing Wood with paper and pencils sprawled around me, switching my attention between the talking animals on the screen and the stories I scrawled in my notebooks about artists whose paintings came to life. In the Victorian maisonette we lived in I would entertain myself until Mum returned to prepare dinner while I bothered her.
Our maisonette had particular symbolic value for my mother. She had bought it after separating from my father when I was four, and it was the first place she had independently owned in London after moving to the UK from Kumasi in 1971. Mum was immensely house-proud and took pleasure in the spaciousness of the flat. It was a discernible step up from the more cramped property we had previously lived in with my dad.
I loved that maisonette too, with its dreamily high ceilings and prim cornices. Its old features seemed so at odds with the messiness of our life: Mum’s loud conversations on the phone to relatives back in Ghana; Jenny and my other big sister Olivia’s negotiations about borrowing clothes, all this noise testing the patience of our neighbors.
But things were less comfortable, predictable, routine that particular afternoon.
When Jenny and I thumped up the stairs, we were surprised by the unmistakable smell of recently burnt rice. Neither Olivia nor my Mum had said anything about coming home early today, so Jenny and I were confused. Thinking little of it, we headed into the living room and found a complete stranger sitting on our sofa.
The stranger, a biracial woman wearing a white shirt and simple grey trousers, was in her mid-twenties and had watery eyes. In a wavering voice she asked what we were doing in her house. She looked up and around, at the stilted photograph of myself, my mother and my sisters hanging between the sash windows. She asked the question again, now clutching one of the cushions at her side, screwing up its tassels in her grasp. She moved her hands a lot.
I remember the swift movement of Jenny’s feet, her deft planting of her body in front of mine. I burst into hot tears and loud sobs and unsettled the stranger into standing up. In a voice as unsteady as the stranger’s, Jenny apologized: for our intruding, for my crying. In a moment of unprecedented intimacy, I found myself clinging to Jenny’s sweatshirt, pressing into her spine. I could feel Jenny shift and flinch as the stranger walked past us, to the bathroom.“I loved that maisonette too, with its dreamily high ceilings and prim cornices. Its old features seemed so at odds with the messiness of our life: Mum’s loud conversations on the phone about to relatives back in Ghana; Jenny and my other big sister Olivia’s negotiations about borrowing clothes, all this noise testing the patience of our neighbors.”
With a kind of impassiveness both weird and understandable; with a kind of resignation that now seems curiously adult, Jenny and I waited for something dreadful to happen to us. Frozen with disbelief and impotence, we were still. Pale sunlight illuminated the space, its red carpet and kitsch, tiled 70s fireplace. It looked and felt so alien.
The toilet above roared and I decided to do something heroic. Hearing the stranger making her way back towards us I threw myself against the door to block her entry. I bellowed that she should leave, leave now. Maybe I was trying to fulfill my father’s instructions about “being a man” that appended his fortnightly visits to us. I don’t know. My puny weight against the door was useless. The stranger pushed the door, moving me to one side without any trouble. She returned to her sofa and I to my crying.
Then our sister Olivia arrived back from college. I think she let out a rather comic sound when she walked in on the odd scene, a noise not unlike a sound of disagreement Scooby Doo might make. Olivia’s entry ruffled the stranger again. The stranger’s lips wobbled.
“Olivia,” Jenny began measuredly, nodding. “This lady thinks she lives here.”
Olivia tossed her head, swinging hoop earrings, and let her duffel bag sink to the floor. Jenny raised her eyebrows.
With remarkable speed and intelligence, Olivia asked if we could use a phone to call our mother, to see if she could help us work out where we actually lived. The stranger seemed placated. But then a thought darkened her expression.
“I don’t know where the phone is.”
“It’s OK. I can find it.” Olivia went over to the bookcase where the cordless was stowed between torn Airmail from Kumasi and Jilly Cooper novels. She dialed, whispered. I could just about make out snatches of Mum’s yelped incredulity on the other end of the line.
Ali Smith’s work has puzzled and fascinated me since I first read Hotel World when I was at university. She writes the kinds of novels—are they novels?—you want to break apart to examine each glittering bit and better understand how she makes impossible plots, paragraphs, sentences work with such agility.
In her deliciously idiosyncratic There but for The, Miles Garth, an uninvited guest at a dinner party, gets up from the table and locks himself in his hosts’ spare bedroom, refusing to depart. He stays for weeks. This brilliant conceit, this destabilizing presence of an enigmatic stranger in the midst of the quotidian and familiar calls into question the constituency and meaning of “ordinary life” and “ordinary behavior.” It also encourages readers—well, it encouraged this reader—to consider how they might be strangers in and to their own lives. The outsider’s self-imprisonment—or should we think of it as a piece of performance art? Or an act of rebellion?—nudges both readers and characters towards the beginnings of self-reflection and complicated kinds of learning.
When I first encountered There but for The, I thought about the story I’m telling you now. Like Smith’s work, my tale of an unwelcome guest who found herself into our maisonette on a spring day was educative. It taught us unexpected, troubling things.
The first lesson this episode taught me was a kind of confirmation of truths I already knew about my mother’s personality: that she possessed a kind of incomprehensible fearlessness and her protective instinct was powerful, raw.
After Olivia hung up, my sisters managed to create an uneasy peace. I stopped weeping. We discovered the stranger’s name was Pearl. Pearl didn’t want us to go anywhere else in the flat so we stayed close to her, promised we wouldn’t move and that our mother would get us soon.
When Mum arrived with police in tow, she took off and shook her shoe and screamed at the woman on the sofa who was confused and cowed. Mum threatened and railed, ignoring the officers. As the police started working with Pearl and saying serious things into their fizzing walkie-talkies, Mum turned to us and let her shoulders ease a little.
In the hours and days that followed, other lessons occurred as things became clearer.
Pearl had been recently discharged from a psychiatric ward and had been wandering up and down our street. She had called the fire brigade and told them she was locked out of her house—our house. Because were the only black family on the street, neighbors assumed this biracial woman must be related to us, was “one of us” and so vouched for her when the fire brigade did their scant inquiries.
My primary school, the one Jenny had met me at that afternoon, was my world. Indeed, it was a microcosm of the world; a richly multicultural place. Little flags of the nations represented by the school’s diverse community brightened the walls of the assembly hall. Children from Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Bangladesh existed together, all agreeing chocolate sponge and chocolate custard was the canteen’s best pudding, all loving it when PE was Rounders.
But in this upsetting Pearl debacle, here we was a reminder of our difference; of the singularity of our blackness and of disturbing perceptions of our blackness. Here, a harsh illustration of the precariousness of our position as an ethnic minority on our street and in society more broadly.
Further lessons included that:
“They” think we all look the same.
“They” think we’re not worth looking after properly.
Maybe “they” should have been, and maybe “they” were, the real target of Mum’s ire when she wielded her stiletto: attitudes, structures and institutions that had willfully failed to protect us and a vulnerable, young brown woman.
In There but for The, Genevieve Lee—who, with her husband, owns the house where Miles Garth holes up indefinitely—tries all manner of tricks to lure their “unwanted tenant” out of his seclusion. Genevieve rifles through Miles’ belongings and stumbles upon the contact details of one of Miles’ long-lost friends, Anna. In her desperation, Genevieve gets in touch with this woman, in the hope she might be able to “talk some sense” into the stranger on the other side of the locked, spare room door. When Anna arrives at the Lees’ home, initially Genevieve stares at Anna when Anna absentmindedly drapes her jacket on the sofa. Genevieve apologies for her rude staring and then reveals that since Miles arrived in their life, she has been wary and frightened of anyone who walks into their home and takes off their coat, worried that said guest might never leave, worried that there might be a repeat performance.
This odd and fleeting exchange is, of course, an example of Smith’s dry and pleasingly jarring sense of humor. But it is also an early indication of how disturbed—traumatized?—the Lees are by Miles’ seemingly inexplicable actions. Reflecting on this moment in Smith’s narrative, I try to remember what fears myself and my family had in the wake of the Pearl incident. Did we feel vulnerable, open to that “kind of thing” happening again? I do very clearly remember sensing that the sanctity, security and privacy of our home were not as guaranteed as I had once imagined, and wondering if home had somehow become this permeable space that wasn’t entirely safe, where was?
In the weeks and months that followed—although she would roundly dispute this—Mum was a little twitchy when mail noisily flapped through the letterbox, or when the old bones of the maisonette and our tired central heating system did their habitual creakings. But those momentary jitters passed.
Even though the tale of Pearl is now, among my friends and our wider family, somewhat folkloric and much-repeated, there are details that I don’t include when I talk about this odd encounter. Often I miss out what has, in fact, stayed with me most: the image of the silent sorrow, shame and confusion in Pearl’s large, dark eyes as she was escorted away. That expression—so impenetrable, so distant—frightened the 8 year old me deeply; here was something, someone that could not be easily understood, maybe could not be understood at all. In the naïve little stories I scrawled in my note books, characters had bold, distinct outlines, were accessible and offered up their personalities to the reader readily. But in Pearl’s strange gaze lay the complex reality: people had the potential to be unknowable.
Her name was Pearl.
Pearl had spent hours in the maisonette before Jenny and I arrived. In those hours she had tried on my mother’s shoes—kicking them off with abandon all over the place. She had tried on mum’s dresses too, flinging this one then that onto the bed as she pretended to be someone else, tried out new guises, evaded whatever illness or terror or sadness pursued her.
It was an afternoon of play cut short.