You know what I'm like. I know what you're like. But we can't say it rightby Ali Smith / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
You’re something else. You really are.
This is the kind of thing you’d do. Say you were standing outside a music shop. You’d go into that shop and just buy an accordion. You’d buy one that cost hundreds of pounds, one of the really big ones. It would be huge. It would be a pretty substantial thing just to lift or to carry across a room, never mind actually play.
You would buy this accordion precisely because you can’t play the accordion.
You’d go into the shop. You’d go straight to the place they keep the accordions. You’d stand and look at them through the glass of the case. When the assistant, who’d have noticed you as soon as you came in—partly because you look (you always look) like a person of purpose and partly because you happen to be, yes, very eye-catching—came straight over to serve you, you’d point at the one you wanted. The shop probably wouldn’t have that many makes of accordion, maybe just five or six. You’d point at the one whose name you liked the sound of best. You’d like the sound of a word like Stephanelli more than you’d like the sound of a word like Hohner. It would also be the one you liked the look of best, with its frame (if that’s what they’re called) made of light brown wood, a good workaday colour; the other accordion makes in the case would look too lacquered for you, too varnished, less ready for the world.
When the assistant asked you if you’d like to try the Stephanelli before you purchased it, you’d simply hand her your bank card. You’d take the heavy accordion home. You’d sit here on the couch and heave it out of its box and on to your knees. You’d press the button or unhook the leather strap or whatever keeps its pleats shut. You’d let it fall heavily open like a huge single wing. You’d let it fill itself with air like a huge single lung.
But then that thought of the accordion being a bit like a single wing or a single lung would make you uneasy. So this is what you’d do. You’d go back to that shop. And although you can’t really afford it, although you can’t even play one accordion, never mind more than one, and although playing two accordions at once is actually humanly impossible, you would catch the eye of the same assistant and point into the glass case again, at the accordion next to the space left by the one you’ve just bought.
That one too, please, you’d say.
That’s what you’re like.
No it isn’t, you say.
I feel you get annoyed beside me.
That’s nothing like me, you say.
You move beside me on the couch. You move your arm, which has been tucked there between us against my side like a reassurance. You pretend you’re doing this because you need to reach for your coffee cup.
I didn’t mean it in a horrible way, I say. I meant it in a nice way.
But you’re sitting forward now, not looking at me, looking away.
What amazes me about you, you say still looking away, is that after all these years, all the years of dialogue between us, you think you’ve got the right to just decide, like you’re God, who I am and who I’m not and what I’m like and what I’m not and what I’d do and what I wouldn’t. Well, you don’t. Just because you’ve got, you know, a new life and a new love and a whole new day and dawn and dusk and everything new and shiny like in some glorious pop song, it doesn’t make me a fiction you can play with or some well-known old used-up song you can choose not to listen to or choose to keep on repeat in your ears whenever you like just so you can feel better about yourself.
I don’t need to feel better about myself, I say. And I’m not playing with anything. I’m not keeping anything on repeat.
But as I say it I notice there’s something out of place on what was our window ledge. There’s what looks like a piece of wood there I’ve never seen before. It’s new, like the new mirror in the bathroom, the clothes in the kitchen by the washing machine that aren’t really your style, the slight trace in the air of what was our house of the scent of something or someone else.
You don’t put your arm back where it was. So I move too. I make it look like I’m moving to be more comfortable, to lean on the far arm of the couch. I look at the place on the couch arm where there’s the old coffee cup ring. It’s been there for years, we made it not long after we bought this couch. Hoovering didn’t remove it. Working at it with a brush and some kind of cleaning stuff only made the area of plush round it less plush, making it even more obvious. I can’t remember which one of us is responsible for it, which one of us put the cup down that made that mark in the first place. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me, but I can’t remember for definite. I trace the ring with my finger, then I trace the square of worn plush round it like a frame.
God, you’re saying next to me now. This is what you’re like.
You say it in a voice like it’s supposed to be my voice, though in reality it’s nothing like my voice.
This is what you’re like, I say. I say it in the mimic voice you’ve just used.
You’ve really changed, you say.
No I haven’t, I say.
You’re so self-righteous now, you say. You’re so unbelievable that if it was you who went into that music shop you just invented for me to be made to look wasteful and whimsical and stupid in—
I never said anything about stupid, I say. Or whimsical.
Yes, you did, you say. You suggested I’m wasteful and whimsical. You suggested, in your story of me buying musical instruments I can’t play, that I’m completely ridiculous and laughable.
No I didn’t, I say. I was actually trying to suggest—
Don’t interrupt me, you say. You always—
No I don’t, I say.
I know what you’d be like in that shop, you say. I know what it’d be like as soon as you pushed the door open.
What? I say. What then? What exactly? What would I be like?
I know exactly what you’d be like in there, you say.
Go on, I say. Go on, then. I’m longing to hear just exactly what you think of me.
You’d push open the door, you say—
I bet I know, I say. I bet I push open the door and I go really peremptorily to the counter and I ask to see every stringed instrument in the shop, and then I sit at the counter until the assistant brings the first one to me, it’s a guitar, and she puts it down in front of me. And when she goes to get the next one I take a pair of pliers out of my bag. And I take the first string on the guitar and get a grip on it with the sharp bit of the pliers and then I cut it so it snaps. And then I cut the next string. And then I cut the next string. And the next, until I’ve done all the strings and I’m ready for the next guitar. Is that what happens? And then do I cut every string on every stringed thing in the shop? And do I take particular pleasure in cutting the many strings of the pretty harp that was in the window? Is that what happens? Is that what I’m like?
You are looking at me, shocked.
No, you say.
That’s what you’d like to think, though, isn’t it? I say. That’s what you’d like to think about me.
You’re looking at me now with your eyes guarded and hurt. What I was going to say was this, you say. Do you want to know what I was going to say?
No, I say.
You push open the door, you say, and it’s like you’ve entered a Hollywood musical.
Oh, right. I see, I say.
There’s a bright build of soundtrack, you say, and it starts when you push the door open and the bell above the door makes a little pinging sound. And you’re in the place with all the pianos, and there’s a man just sitting there playing the beginnings of a song like “Taking a Chance on Love” or “Almost Like Being in Love” or no, no, I know what it is, it’s “A Tisket, A Tasket, I Lost My Yellow Basket.” And you can’t help it, you lean forward over the piano to speak to the man and you say, did you know that this song was a huge hit for Ella Fitzgerald a mere year before Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit?” And if you put the two songs together and compare them you get a real picture of race politics and what was acceptable and what was true from that particular time in recent history? Think about it, you say to the man. They’re both all about colour, but one’s about what’s really happening in the world, and the other’s a piece of absurdist nonsense, like a denial that words could ever mean anything, about a girl who loses a yellow basket and doesn’t know where she’ll find it. And guess which one was the huge hit-parade hit and stayed at number one for seventeen weeks?
So I’m a know-all, I say. Right. I see.
And the man smiles at you and keeps playing, you say, and then someone else on another piano joins in behind him in a harmony, and then another person on one of the others, until the whole room is a mess of joyful piano harmony, and you go on into the next room where the violins and so on are for sale, you can still hear the pianos in the background, and then three rather beautiful girls on fiddles pick up the tune too, and it’s romantic, the song has turned into a very romantic version of itself. And you tell the girls as you go past, did you know that there’s actually a much less famous follow-up song where Ella Fitzgerald finds her yellow basket again after all? It’s almost better than the original, well, I prefer it, though it wasn’t such a huge hit at the time. And the pretty violinists nod and smile, and as if to oblige you all round you the tune everybody’s suddenly playing is the follow-up tune, the tune you just mentioned, and now the whole shop is resounding with it, the horn department full of people playing trumpets and saxes and clarinets which flash in the lights from the shop ceiling and the noise they make, complementing the pianos and the strings, is as wide as a sky. The trumpet player at the front winks at you and there’s a girl on the sax who winks too. Then you go into the next room and the next room is full of children on kazoos, ocarinas, recorders, glockenspiels, chime bars, castanets, they’re all joining in, playing the same tune, in fact anywhere, everywhere you go, up or down the stairs, from department to department people are playing the same happy tune on every single instrument in this shop, it’s like the whole shop is alive, its walls are moving to the rhythm, and the tune builds and builds, only threatening to come to an end, only fading down, as you walk towards the shop door and reach your hand out to open it. Down, down, down goes the tune, but then, just to see what will happen, you let the door handle go and you take three steps back from the door, and like a joke the music soars out really loud again. And then, on the right rhythm, the perfect final three notes, you open the door, go through the door, shut the door, and the whole thing ends on the single ping of the bell as you close it behind you.
There, you say. That’s what you’re like.
I am on my feet now. I am furious.
So, I say. So I’m a naive know-all boring unbearable self-dramatist who goes around the world thinking I’m really special, really something, really it? And wherever I go I take it for granted that everything in the whole world is nothing but a cutesy orchestra there to perform for me? Just to please me? As if the whole world can be controlled? As if the whole world’s there just to play my own private soundtrack?
You know I didn’t mean it like that, you say.
You look cowed. I feel suddenly very righteous.
And you think I’m the kind of person who’d maunder on, in a situation where it was totally inappropriate, about how one song is really more important than another song because of politics, yet really, in reality, I’d prefer to wallow about in some kitschy old nonsense that feeds my delusions of grandeur?
Eh? you say. You look astonished.
That’s how supercilious? That’s how solipsistic? I say.
I never said anything about solipsistic, you say. I don’t even know what it means. I never said super anything. You’re misunderstanding me.
You think I’m pedantic and irresponsible! I yell. Don’t you?
You’re on your feet too now. You’re shouting too. You shout something about a basket case. You shout that you’re not shallow or knowledgeless or wasteful or the kind of person who’d buy an accordion because of its brand name. Then, in a list of smarting adjectives, you tell me what I am.
What I am is out through the front door.
What I do is close it behind me with a self-righteous slam.
All the way across town, alongside the still-resonating slam of the door behind me, I have that maddening song in my head about the girl who loses her yellow basket. When I get back to the flat there’s nobody else in and I sit on the step between the kitchen and the living room and try to think up adjectives for you, adjectives I could fling at you like sharp little stones, but all I can really hear in my head is the argument Ella Fitzgerald is having with the boys in her band:
Was it green? No no no no! Was it red? No no no no! Was it blue? No no no no!
I think I remember Ella Fitzgerald’s voice becoming more and more comically annoyed at the backing singers getting the colour wrong each time, so that by the time she sings the final string of no’s she sounds almost irate.
Then I start to wonder if I’ve remembered the order of the colours in the argument correctly.
I go over to the pile of CDs. They’re my CDs; they weren’t hard to take with me, you’re not really one for jazz. I find the right one. I look on the listings for “A Tisket, A Tasket.” I insert it into the machine and keep the button pressed in until it reaches track eight.
The song is a piece of blunt charm, the way it courts misery then glances away from it with a loss at the heart of it that’s not really a loss after all, or a loss that’s pretending not to be a loss, and the slight hoarseness of Ella Fitzgerald’s younger, gruffer self as she sings it is so blithe, almost as if unaware of the modulation her voice will soon be capable of when she’s older and she’s wiser. But what is it all about, in the end? What’s the mysterious basket? Who’s the mysterious little girl who steals it? Why will Ella Fitzgerald die if she doesn’t get it back? When it ends I am sitting on the step laughing at you calling me a basket case; I am laughing so much with my arms round myself and at the same time am so near tears that the next track on the CD, the song’s near-twin, “I Found My Yellow Basket,” takes me by surprise.
The boys in the band who sing with Ella Fitzgerald on this second song are very gracious. They offer to cover the cost, for her, of the loss of her original basket in the other song. Oh no, you don’t have to, she tells them, I’ve got good news for you, and I realise, hearing the lightness in her voice as she sings about how now she’s on her way, feeling light and gay, what a total relief it is that there’s a song in the world where Ella Fitzgerald gets to track down that mysterious hidden basket-stealing girl and find the missing yellow basket. She sings about how happy she is. Then she sings the word now for the last time. It sounds so innocent, so like the happy peal of a bell, that I feel ashamed.
The doorbell goes.
Outside the door is a large black box. It looks expensive. It looks new. It’s so big it comes up to nearly my waist. The man who’s brought it up all the stairs is red and breathless. I sign for it and drag it inside. It’s very heavy. At first I have no idea what can be in it.
Then it dawns on me what’s in there, of course it is, with its black and white keys in the dark.
I know neither of us will have the first idea how to play one, never mind even open and close one properly. It’ll take some learning. I open the note that came with it instead. I presume, as I do, that it’ll tell me that this is one of a pair and that if I’m looking for the other one it’s over at yours.
This is what the note says:
You’re something else, you. You really are.