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An excerpt from'The Beholder'

I had been having difficulty breathing so I went to the doctor. He couldn’t find anything wrong. My respiratory function tests came out clear and strong. My heart was fine, my blood was fine. My colour was fine.

Tell me again, about the breathing, he said.

It starts slight, then gets sorer and sorer, I said. It’s sore at the very top of my breath then sore at the very bottom of my breath. It feels like I’ve been winded. It’s very unpredictable. I never know when it’ll come or when it’s going to go.

The doctor looked again at his computer screen. He clicked his tongue.

And life generally? he asked. How’s life?

Fine, I said.

Nothing out of the ordinary? he said.

No, I said, not really, well, my dad died and my siblings went mad and we’ve all stopped speaking to each other and my ex-partner is suing me for half the value of everything I own and I got made redundant and about a month ago my next door neighbour bought a drum kit, but other than that, just, you know, the usual.

The doctor printed something out and signed it then handed it to me.

Take these, he said. Come back in a few weeks if life hasn’t improved.

I went to Superdrug and they gave me a little box. In it was a blisterpack, three months’ worth of antidepressant. I read the piece of paper that came with the blisterpack. It said that one of the side-effects was that these antidepressants would make you depressed. I left the pills unopened on the shelf in the bathroom. The pain came and went. When it came I sat very still, if I could, and tried not to think of anything. But it’s hard not to think of anything. I often ended up thinking of something.

I thought of us going through the old clothes in a wardrobe in his house and outside all the apples in the grass going soft, just falling off his trees because none of us had thought to pick them. I thought of the liquidiser on the sideboard in the kitchen back when we were married, a thing which we simply used, in the days when things were simple, to make soup. I thought of the sheen on the surfaces of the tables all pushed together in the meeting room and the way that when I came back to my desk nobody, not even the people I had thought were my friends, would look at me. I thought of sleep, how much I missed sleep. I thought how it was something I had never imagined about myself, that one day I would end up half in love with easeful sleep.

A little bit about Ali Smith

Shortlist

Ali Smith is the author of five collections of short stories and seven novels, including How to Be Both, which was shorlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and the Folio Prize and won the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize, the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Novel Award in the 2014 Costa Book Awards. She was made a CBE in 2015.


See the full Shortlist