The First Person: And Other Stories - By Ali Smith


True short story

The child


The third person

Fidelio and Bess

The history of history

No exit

The second person

I know something you don’t know


Astute fiery luxurious

The first person

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 parental 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 etc.

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 out my mobile and phoned my friend, with whom I usually go to this café on Friday mornings.

She knows quite a lot about the short story. She’s spent a lot 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 (or care to know) exist. I suppose you could call it a lifelong act of love, though she’s not very old, was that morning still in her late thirties. A life-so-far act of love. But already she knew more about the short story and about the people all over the world who write and have written short stories, than anyone I’ve ever met.

She was in hospital, on this particular Friday a couple of years ago now, because a course of chemotherapy had destroyed every single one of her tiny white blood cells and after it had, 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 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 a 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