One day in post-Brexit, mid-pandemic Britain, artist Sandy Gray receives an unexpected phone call from university acquaintance Martina Pelf. Martina is calling Sandy to ask for help with a mysterious question she’s been left with after she’s spent half a day locked in a room by border control officials for no reason she can fathom:
‘Curlew or curfew? You choose.’
And what’s any of this got to do with the story of a young and talented blacksmith hounded from her trade and her home more than five hundred years ago?
Ali Smith’s novel takes wing, soaring between our atomized present and our medieval past in the hope we can open our locked-down homes and selves to all the other times, other species, other histories, other possibilities.
Hamish Hamilton, 2022
Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. She is the author of Spring, Winter, Autumn, Public library and other stories, How to be both, Shire, Artful, There but for the, The first person and other stories, Girl Meets Boy, The Accidental, The whole story and other stories, Hotel World, Other storiesand other stories, Like and Free Love. Hotel World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. The Accidental was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. How to be both won the Bailey’s Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Autumn was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and Winter was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize 2018. Ali Smith lives in Cambridge
You can read a short extract from the book below
Extract from Companion Piece
The following excerpt is published with permission from Ali Smith and Hamish Hamilton and should not be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced in any way.
’Ello ’ello ’ello. Wot’s all this then?
That’s the voice of Cerberus, the savage mythical three-headed dog (one ’ello per head). In ancient myth he guards the dead at the gates of the Underworld to make sure none of them can leave. He’s got very sharp teeth, he has the heads of snakes rising off his back like hackles and he’s talking in English music-hall comedy language to what appears to be a good old British bobby, which is an old-fashioned word for a British policeman.
This British policeman, though, is from right now, he’s the latest corrupt upgrade, and he’s crossed the river Styx and come to the entrance of the Underworld to show each of Cerberus’s heads some fun photos of himself and other uniforms doing fun things like making V signs over and adding fun racist / sexist commentary to the pictures of the bodies of real murdered people which he’s circulated on the fun police app he and his pals are using these days, in this land of union-jack-the-lads in the year of our lord two thousand and twenty one, in which this story, which starts with me staring at nothing in my front room on the sofa one evening imagining a meeting between some terrifying aspects of imagination and reality, takes place.
Cerberus doesn’t even raise an eyebrow (and he could, if he wants, raise six at once). Seen it all before. Let the bodies pile high, more the merrier in a country of people in mourning gaslit by the constant pressure to act like it’s not a country of people in mourning.
Tragedy versus farce.
Did dogs have eyebrows?
Yeah, because verisimilitude’s important in myth, Sand.
I could have, if I’d wanted to know for sure, got off the sofa, crossed the room and had a look at my father’s dog’s head to check.
But I was past caring whether dogs had eyebrows.
I didn’t care what season it was.
I didn’t even care what day of the week.
Everything was mulch of a mulchness to me right then. I even despised myself for that bit of wordplay, though this was uncharacteristic, since all my life I’d loved language, it was my main character, me its eternal loyal sidekick. But right then even words and everything they could and couldn’t do could fuck off and that was that.
Then my phone lit up on the table. I saw the light of it in the dark of the room.
I picked it up and stared at it.
Not the hospital.
A number I didn’t know.
It surprises me now that I even answered it. I’ll have thought it’d maybe be someone my father’d worked for or worked with who’d heard what had happened and was phoning to see how he was etc. I still felt a trace of responsibility about such things. So I got my responses ready. Not out of the woods yet. Under observation.
Hello? I said.
Yes, I said.
It’s me, a woman said.
Uh, I said none the wiser.
She told me her name.
My married name’s Pelf but I was Martina Inglis back then.
It took a moment. Then I remembered.
She was at college the same time as I was, same year, same course. She and I hadn’t been friends, more acquaintances. No, not even acquaintances. Less than acquaintances. I thought maybe she’d heard about my father (though God knows how she would’ve) and even though we hardly knew each other was maybe calling me now (though God knows where she’d’ve got my number) to be, I don’t know, supportive.
But she didn’t mention my father.
She didn’t ask how I was or about what I was doing or any of that stuff people generally say or ask.
I think that’s the reason I didn’t hang up. There was no pretence in her.
She said she’d wanted to talk to me for some time. She told me she was now assistant to the curator at a national museum (could you ever have imagined I’d end up doing something like that?) and she’d been travelling back from a day-return trip abroad where she’d been sent by the museum in one of the gaps between lockdowns personally to accompany home from a travelling exhibition of late medieval and early renaissance objects an English metal lock and key mechanism, a device, she explained, way ahead of its time and an unusually good and beautiful version, quite important historically.
So she’d arrived back here in the evening and stood in line at border control for the very long time it took to reach the front of the queue of people whose passports were being checked manually (most of the digital machines weren’t working). Then when she finally reached the front the man behind the screen told her she’d given him the wrong passport.
She couldn’t think what he meant. How was there such a thing as a wrong passport?
Ah, wait, she’d said. I know. I’m sorry, I’ve probably just given you the one I didn’t travel out on, wait a minute.
A passport you didn’t travel out on, the man behind the screen said.
I’ve got two, she said.
She fetched her other passport out of her inside jacket pocket.
Dual citizenship, she said.
Is one country not enough for you? the man behind the screen said.
I’m sorry? she said.
I said, is one country not enough for you? The man said again.
She looked at his eyes above his mask. They weren’t smiling.
I think that’s my business, not yours, she said.
He took the other passport from her, opened it, looked at it, looked at the two passports together, looked at his screen, typed something in, and she realized there were now two masked officials in uniform standing very close to her, just behind her, one on each side.