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  • Published: 7 September 2017
  • ISBN: 9780241973318
  • Imprint: Penguin General UK
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 272
  • RRP: $19.99

Autumn

SHORTLISTED for the Man Booker Prize 2017

Extract

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.

Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago. The sea’s been rough. It has taken the shirt off his back; naked as the day I was born are the words in the head he moves on its neck, but it hurts to. So try not to move the head. What’s this in his mouth, grit? it’s sand, it’s under his tongue, he can feel it, he can hear it grinding when his teeth move against each other, singing its sand-song: I’m ground so small, but in the end I’m all, I’m softer if I’m underneath you when you fall, in sun I glitter, wind heaps me over litter, put a message in a bottle, throw the bottle in the sea, the bottle’s made of me, I’m the hardest grain to harvest

to harvest

the words for the song trickle away. He is tired. The sand in his mouth and his eyes is the last of the grains in the neck of the sandglass.

Daniel Gluck, your luck’s run out at last.

He prises open one stuck eye. But –

Daniel sits up on the sand and the stones

– is this it? really? this? is death?

He shades his eyes. Very bright.

Sunlit. Terribly cold, though.

He is on a sandy stony strand, the wind distinctly harsh, the sun out, yes, but no heat off it. Naked, too. No wonder he’s cold. He looks down and sees that his body’s still the old body, the ruined knees.

He’d imagined death would distil a person, strip the rotting rot away till everything was light as a cloud.

Seems the self you get left with on the shore, in the end, is the self that you were when you went.

If I’d known, Daniel thinks, I’d have made sure to go at twenty, twenty five.

Only the good.

Or perhaps (he thinks, one hand shielding his face so if anyone can see him no one will be offended by him picking out what’s in the lining of his nose, or giving it a look to see what it is – it’s sand, beautiful the detail, the different array of colours of even the pulverized world, then he rubs it away off his fingertips) this is my self distilled. If so then death’s a sorry disappointment.

Thank you for having me, death. Please excuse me, must get back to it, life.

He stands up. It doesn’t hurt, not so much, to.

Now then.

Home. Which way?

He turns a half circle. Sea, shoreline, sand, stones. Tall grass, dunes. Flatland behind the dunes. Trees past the flatland, a line of woods, all the way back round to the sea again.

The sea is strange and calm.

Then it strikes him how unusually good his eyes are today.

I mean, I can see not just those woods, I can see not just that tree, I can see not just that leaf on that tree. I can see the stem connecting that leaf to that tree.

He can focus on the loaded seedhead at the end of any piece of grass on those dunes over there pretty much as if he were using a camera zoom. And did he just look down at his own hand and see not just his hand, in focus, and not just a scuff of sand on the side of his hand, but several separate grains of sand so clearly delineated that he can see their edges, and (hand goes to his forehead) no glasses?

Well.

He rubs sand off his legs and arms and chest then off his hands. He watches the flight of the grains of it as it dusts away from him in the air. He reaches down, fills his hand with sand. Look at that. So many.

Chorus:

How many worlds can you hold in a hand.

In a handful of sand.

(Repeat.)

He opens his fingers. The sand drifts down.

Now that he’s up on his feet he is hungry. Can you be hungry and dead? Course you can, all those hungry ghosts eating people’s hearts and minds. He turns the full circle back to the sea. He hasn’t been on a boat for more than fifty years, and that wasn’t really a boat, it was a terrible novelty bar, party place on the river. He sits down on the sand and stones again but the bones are hurting in his, he doesn’t want to use impolite language, there’s a girl there further up the shore, are hurting like, he doesn’t want to use impolite –

A girl?

Yes, with a ring of girls round her, all doing a wavy ancient Greek looking dance. The girls are quite close. They’re coming closer.

This won’t do. The nakedness.

Then he looks down again with his new eyes at where his old body was a moment ago and he knows he is dead, he must be dead, he is surely dead, because his body looks different from the last time he looked down at it, it looks better, it looks rather good as bodies go. It looks very familiar, very like his own body but back when it was young.

A girl is nearby. Girls. Sweet deep panic and shame flood through him.

He makes a dash for the long grass dunes (he can run, really run!), he puts his head round the side of a grass tuft to check nobody can see him, nobody coming, and up and off (again! not even breathless) across the flatland towards those woods.

There will be cover in the woods.

There will maybe be something too with which to cover himself up. But pure joy! He’d forgotten what it feels like, to feel. To feel even just the thought of one’s own bared self near someone else’s beauty.

There’s a little copse of trees. He slips into the copse. Perfect, the ground in the shade, carpeted with leaves, the fallen leaves under his (handsome, young) feet are dry and firm, and on the lower branches of the trees too a wealth of leaves still bright green, and look, the hair on his body is dark black again all up his arms, and from his chest down to the groin where it’s thick, ah, not just the hair, everything is thickening, look.

This is heaven all right.

Above all, he doesn’t want to offend.

He can make a bed here. He can stay here while he gets his bearings. Bare-ings. (Puns, the poor man’s currency; poor old John Keats, well, poor all right, though you couldn’t exactly call him old. Autumn poet, winter Italy, days away from dying he found himself punning like there was no tomorrow. Poor chap. There really was no tomorrow.) He can heap these leaves up over himself to keep him warm at night, if there’s such a thing as night when you’re dead, and if that girl, those girls, come any closer he’ll heap a yard of them over his whole self so as not to dishonour.

Decent.

He had forgotten there is a physicality in not wanting to offend. Sweet the feeling of decency flooding him now, surprisingly like you imagine it would be to drink nectar. The beak of the hummingbird entering the corolla. That rich. That sweet. What rhymes with nectar? He will make a green suit for himself out of leaves, and – as soon as he thinks it, a needle and some kind of gold coloured threading stuff on a little bobbin appears here in his hand, look. He is dead. He must be. It is perhaps rather fine, after all, being dead. Highly underrated in the modern western world. Someone should tell them. Someone should let them know. Someone should be sent, scramble back to, wherever it is. Recollect her. Affect her. Neglect her. Lie detector. Film projector. Director. Collector. Objector.

He picks a green leaf off the branch by his head.

He picks another. He puts their edges together. He stitches one to the other with a neat, what is it, running stitch? blanket stitch? Look at that. He can sew. Not something he could do while he was alive. Death. Full of surprises. He picks up a layering of leaves. He sits down, matches an edge to an edge and sews. Remember that postcard he bought off a rack in the middle of Paris in the 1980s, of the little girl in one of the parks? She looked like she was dressed in dead leaves, black and white photo dated not long after the war ended, the child from behind, dressed in the leaves, standing in the park looking at scattered leaves and trees ahead of her. But it was a tragic as well as a fetching picture. Something about the child plus the dead leaves, terrible anomaly, a bit like she was wearing rags. Then again, the rags weren’t rags. They were leaves, so it was a picture about magic and transformation too. But then again again, a picture taken not long after, in a time when a child just playing in leaves could look, for the first time to the casual eye, like a rounded- up and offed child (it hurts to think it)

or maybe also a nuclear after-child, the leaves hanging off her looked like skin become rags, hanging to one side as if skin is nothing but leaves.

So it was fetching in the other sense of fetch too, the picture, like a picture of your fetch, the one who comes to fetch you off to the other world. One blink of a camera eye (can’t quite put his finger on the name of the photographer) and that child dressed in leaves became all these things: sad, terrible, beautiful, funny, terrifying, dark, light, charming, fairystory, folkstory, truth. The more mundane truth was, he’d bought that postcard (Boubat! he took it) when he visited the city of love with yet another woman he wanted to love him but she didn’t, course she didn’t, a woman in her forties, a man in his late sixties, well, be honest, nearer seventy, and anyway he didn’t love her either. Not truly. Matter of profound mismatch nothing to do with age, since at the Pompidou Centre he’d been so moved by the wildness in a painting by Dubuffet that he’d taken his shoes off and knelt down in front of it to show respect, and the woman, her name was Sophie something, had been embarrassed and in the taxi to the airport told him he was too old to take off his shoes in an art gallery, even a modern one.

In fact all he can remember of her is that he sent her a postcard he wished afterwards he’d kept for himself.

He wrote on the back of it, with love from an old child.

He is always looking out for that picture.

He has never found it again.

He has always regretted not keeping it.

Regrets when you’re dead? A past when you’re dead? Is there never any escaping the junkshop of the self?

He looks out from the copse at the edge of the land, the sea.

Well, wherever it is I’ve ended, it’s given me this very swanky green coat.

He wraps it around him. It’s a good fit, it smells leafy and fresh. He would make a good tailor. He has made something, made something of himself. His mother would be pleased at last.

Oh God. Is there still mother after death?

He is a boy collecting chestnuts from the ground under the trees. He splits the bright green prickly cauls and frees them brown and shining from the waxy pith. He fills his cap with them. He takes them to his mother. She is over here with the new baby.

Don’t be stupid, Daniel. She can’t eat these. Nothing eats these, not even horses, far too bitter.

Daniel Gluck, seven years old, in good clothes he’s always being told how lucky he is to have in a world where so many have so little, looks down at the conkers he should never have sullied his good cap with and sees the brown shine on them go dull.

Bitter memories, even when you’re dead.

How very disheartening.

Never mind. Hearten up.

He’s on his feet. He is his respectable self again. He scouts around him, finds some large rocks and a couple of good-sized sticks with which he marks the door of his copse so he’ll find it again.

In his bright green coat he comes out of the woods, across the plain and back towards the shore.

But the sea? Silent, like sea in a dream.

The girl? No sign. The ring of dancers round her? Gone. On the shore, though, there’s a washed- up body. He goes to look. Is it his own?

No. It is a dead person.

Just along from this dead person, there is another dead person. Beyond it, another, and another.

He looks along the shore at the dark line of the tide-dumped dead.

Some of the bodies are of very small children. He crouches down near a swollen man who has a child, just a baby really, still zipped inside his jacket, its mouth open, dripping sea, its head resting dead on the bloated man’s chest.

Further up the beach there are more people. These people are human, like the ones on the shore, but these are alive. They’re under parasols. They are holidaying up the shore from the dead.

There is music coming out of a screen. One of the people is working on a computer. Another is sitting in the shade reading a little screen. Another is dozing under the same parasol, another is rubbing suncream into his shoulder and down his arm.

A child squealing with laughter is running in and out of the water, dodging the bigger waves.

Daniel Gluck looks from the death to the life, then back to the death again.

The world’s sadness.

Definitely still in the world.

He looks down at his leaf coat, still green.

He holds out a forearm, still miraculous, young.

It will not last, the dream.

He takes hold of one leaf at the corner of his coat. He holds it hard. He will take it back with him if he can. Proof of where he’s been.

What else can he bring?

How did that chorus go, again?

How many worlds

Handful of sand


Autumn Ali Smith

'The novel of the year is obviously Ali Smith's Autumn... Expansive, shape-shifting, at once more stringent and more consoling than anything I've read this year' Olivia Laing, Observer

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