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Crash
Zadie Smith


‘You're fine,’ she said. ‘Absolutely. You're like someone's victim in Madame Tussaud's.’

‘Try to come tomorrow.’

‘I will.’ She touched my forehead, gingerly peering at the scalp wound. ‘I'll bring some make-up for you. I imagine the only cosmetic attention given to the patients here is at Ashford Mortuary.’

I looked up at her more clearly. Her show of warmth and wifely concern pleasantly surprised me. The mental distance between my work at the television commercial studios in Shepperton and her own burgeoning career in the overseas tours section of Pan American had separated us more and more during the past years. Catherine was now taking flying lessons, and with one of her boyfriends had started a small air-tourist charter firm. All these activities she pursued with a single mind, deliberately marking out her independence and self-reliance as if staking her claim to a terrain that would later soar in value. I had reacted to all this like most husbands, quickly developing an extensive repertory of resigned attitudes. The small but determined drone of her light aircraft crossed the sky over our apartment house each weekend, a tocsin that sounded the note of our relationship.

The blond-haired doctor walked through the ward, nodding to Catherine. She turned away from me, her bare legs revealing her thighs as far as her plump pubis, shrewdly summing up the sexual potential of this young man. I noticed that she was dressed more for a smart lunch with an airline executive than to visit her husband in hospital. Later I learned that she had been badgered at the airport by police officers investigating the road-death. Clearly the accident and any possible manslaughter charges against me had made her something of a celebrity.

‘This ward is reserved for air-crash victims,’ I told Catherine. ‘The beds are kept waiting.’

‘If I groundloop on Saturday you might wake up and find me next to you.’ Catherine peered at the deserted beds, presumably visualizing each imaginary injury. ‘You're getting out of bed tomorrow. They want you to walk.’ She looked down at me solicitously. ‘Poor man. Have you antagonized them in any way?’

I let this pass, but Catherine added, ‘The other man's wife is a doctor – Dr Helen Remington.’

Crossing her legs, she began the business of lighting a cigarette, fumbling with an unfamiliar lighter. From which new lover had she borrowed this ugly machine, all too clearly a man's? Tooled from an aircraft cannon shell, it was more like a weapon. For years I had been able to spot Catherine's affairs within almost a few hours of her first sex act simply by glancing over any new physical or mental furniture – a sudden interest in some third-rate wine or film-maker, a different tack across the waters of aviation politics. Often I could guess the name of her latest lover long before she released it at the climax of our sexual acts. This teasing game she and I needed to play. As we lay together we would describe a complete amatory encounter, from the first chit-chat at an airline cocktail party to the sexual act itself. The climax of these games was the name of the illicit partner. Held back until the last moment, it would always produce the most exquisite orgasms for both of us. There were times when I felt that these affairs took place merely to provide the raw material for our sexual games.

Watching her cigarette smoke move away across the empty ward, I wondered with whom she spent the past few days. No doubt the thought that her husband had killed another man lent an unexpected dimension to their sex acts, presumably conducted on our bed in sight of the chromium telephone which had brought Catherine the first news of my accident. The elements of new technologies linked our affections.

Irritated by the aircraft noise, I sat up on one elbow. The bruises across my chest wall made it painful for me to breathe. Catherine peered down at me with a worried gaze, obviously concerned that I might die on the spot. She put the cigarette between my lips. I drew uncertainly on the geranium-flavoured smoke. The warm tip of the cigarette, stained with pink lipstick, carried with it the unique taste of Catherine's body, a flavour I had forgotten in the phenol-saturated odour of the hospital. Catherine reached for the cigarette, but I held on to it like a child. The grease-smeared tip reminded me of her nipples, liberally painted with lipstick, which I would press against my face, arms and chest, secretly imagining the imprints to be wounds. In a nightmare I had once seen her giving birth to a devil's child, her swollen breasts spurting liquid faeces.

A dark-haired student nurse came into the ward. Smiling at my wife, she pulled back the bedclothes and dug the urine bottle from between my legs. Inspecting its level, she flipped back the sheets. Immediately my penis began to dribble; with an effort I controlled the sphincter, numbed by the long succession of anaesthetics. Lying there with a weak bladder, I wondered why, after this tragic accident involving the death of an unknown young man – his identity, despite the questions I asked Catherine, remained an enigma to me, like an anonymous opponent killed in a pointless duel – all these women around me seemed to attend only to my most infantile zones. The nurses who emptied my urinal and worked my bowels with their enema contraption, who steered my penis through the vent of my pyjama shorts and adjusted the drainage tubes in my knees, who cleansed the pus from the dressings on my scalp and wiped my mouth with their hard hands – these starched women in all their roles reminded me of those who attended my childhood, commissionaires guarding my orifices.

A student nurse moved around my bed, sly thighs under her gingham, eyes fixed on Catherine's glamorous figure. Was she calculating how many lovers Catherine had taken since the accident, excited by the strange posture of her husband in his bed, or – more banal – the cost of her expensive suit and jewellery? By contrast, Catherine gazed frankly at this young girl's body. Her assessment of the contours of thigh and buttock, breast and armpit, and their relationship with the chromium bars of my leg harness, an abstract sculpture designed to show off her slim figure, was open and interested. An interesting lesbian streak ran through Catherine's mind. Often as we made love she asked me to visualize her in intercourse with another woman – usually her secretary Karen, an unsmiling girl with silver lipstick who spent the entire office party before Christmas staring motionlessly at my wife like a pointer in rut. Catherine often asked me how she could allow herself to be seduced by Karen. She soon came up with the suggestion that they visit a department store together, where she would ask Karen's help in choosing various kinds of underwear. I waited for them among the racks of nightdresses outside their cubicle. Now and then I glanced through the curtains and watched them together, their bodies and fingers involved in the soft technology of Catherine's breasts and the brassières designed to show them off to this or that advantage. Karen was touching my wife with peculiar caresses, tapping her lightly with the tips of her fingers, first upon the shoulders along the pink grooves left by her underwear, then across her back, where the metal clasps of her brassière had left a medallion of impressed skin, and finally to the elastic-patterned grooves beneath Catherine's breasts themselves. My wife stood through this in a trance-like state, gabbling to herself in a low voice, as the tip of Karen's right forefinger touched her nipple.

I thought of the bored glance which the assistant, a middle-aged woman with the small face of a corrupt doll, had given me as the two young women had left, flicking back the curtain as if some little sexual playlet had ended. In her expression was the clear assumption that not only did I know what had been going on, and that these booths were often used for these purposes, but that Catherine and I would later exploit the experience for our own complex pleasures. As I sat in the car beside my wife, my fingers moved across the control panel, switching on the ignition, the direction indicator, selecting the drive lever. I realized that I was almost exactly modelling my responses to the car on the way in which Karen had touched Catherine's body. Her sullen eroticism, the elegant distance she placed between her fingertips and my wife's nipples, were recapitulated in the distance between myself and the car.

Catherine's continuing erotic interest in her secretary seemed an interest as much in the idea of making love to her as in the physical pleasures of the sex act itself. Nonetheless, these pursuits had begun to make all our relationships, both between ourselves and with other people, more and more abstract. She soon became unable to reach an orgasm without an elaborate fantasy of a lesbian sex-act with Karen, of her clitoris being tongued, nipples erected, anus caressed. These descriptions seemed to be a language in search of objects, or even, perhaps, the beginnings of a new sexuality divorced from any possible physical expression.

I assumed that she had at least once made love to Karen, but we had now reached the point where it no longer mattered, or had any reference to anything but a few square inches of vaginal mucosa, fingernails and bruised lips and nipples. Lying in my hospital ward, I watched Catherine summing up the student nurse's slim legs and strong buttocks, the deep-blue belt that outlined her waist and broad hips. I half expected Catherine to reach out and put her hand on this young woman's breast, or slip it under her short skirt, the edge of her palm sliding between the natal cleft into the sticky perineum. Far from giving a squeal of outrage, or even pleasure, the nurse would probably continue folding her hospital corner, unmoved by this sexual gesture, no more significant than the most commonplace spoken remark.

Catherine pulled a manila folder from her bag. I recognized the treatment of a television commercial I had prepared. For this high-budget film, a thirty-second commercial advertising Ford's entire new sports car range, we hoped to use one of a number of well-known actresses. On the afternoon of my accident I had attended a conference with Aida James, a freelance director we had brought in. By chance, one of the actresses, Elizabeth Taylor, was about to start work on a new feature film at Shepperton.

‘Aida telephoned to say how sorry she was. Can you look at the treatment again? She's made a number of changes.’

I waved the folder away, gazing at the reflection of myself in Catherine's hand-mirror. The severed nerve in my scalp had fractionally lowered my right eyebrow, a built-in eye-patch that seemed to conceal my new character from myself. This marked tilt was evident in everything around me. I stared at my pale, mannequin-like face, trying to read its lines. The smooth skin almost belonged to someone in a science-fiction film, stepping out of his capsule after an immense inward journey on to the overlit soil of an unfamiliar planet. At any moment the skies might slide …

On an impulse I asked, ‘Where's the car?’

‘Outside – in the consultant's car-park.’

‘What?’ I sat up on one elbow, trying to see through the window behind my bed. ‘My car, not yours.’ I had visualized it mounted as some kind of cautionary exhibit outside the operating theatres.

‘It's a complete wreck. The police dragged it to the pound behind the station.’

‘Have you seen it?’

‘The sergeant asked me to identify it. He didn't believe you'd got out alive.’ She crushed her cigarette. ‘I'm sorry for the other man – Dr Hamilton's husband.’

I stared pointedly at the clock over the door, hoping that she would soon leave. This bogus commiseration over the dead man irritated me, merely an excuse for an exercise in moral gymnastics. The brusqueness of the young nurses was part of the same pantomime of regret. I had thought for hours about the dead man, visualizing the effects of his death on his wife and family. I had thought of his last moments alive, frantic milliseconds of pain and violence in which he had been catapulted from a pleasant domestic interlude into a concertina of metallized death. These feelings existed within my relationship with the dead man, within the reality of the wounds on my chest and legs, and within the unforgettable collision between my own body and the interior of my car. By comparison, Catherine's mock-grief was a mere stylization of a gesture – I waited for her to break into song, tap her forehead, touch every second temperature chart around the ward, switch on every fourth set of radio headphones.

At the same time, I knew that my feelings towards the dead man and his doctor wife were already overlaid by certain undefined hostilities, half-formed dreams of revenge.

Catherine watched me trying to catch my breath. I took her left hand and pressed it to my sternum. In her sophisticated eyes I was already becoming a kind of emotional cassette, taking my place with all those scenes of pain and violence that illuminated the margins of our lives – television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the colour TV set in our bedroom as we masturbated each other. This violence experienced at so many removes had become intimately associated with our sex acts. The beatings and burnings married in our minds with the delicious tremors of our erectile tissues, the spilt blood of students with the genital fluids that irrigated our fingers and mouths. Even my own pain as I lay in the hospital bed, while Catherine steered the glass urinal between my legs, painted fingernails pricking my penis, even the vagal flushes that seized at my chest seemed extensions of that real world of violence calmed and tamed within our television programmes and the pages of news magazines.

Catherine left me to rest, taking with her half the flowers she had brought. As the elder of the Asian doctors watched her from the doorway she hesitated at the foot of my bed, smiling at me with sudden warmth as if unsure whether she would ever see me again.

A nurse came into the ward with a bowl in one hand. She was a new recruit to the casualty section, a refined-looking woman in her late thirties. After a pleasant greeting, she drew back the bedclothes and began a careful examination of my dressings, her serious eyes following the bruised contours. I caught her attention once, but she stared back at me evenly, and went on with her work, steering her sponge around the central bandage that ran from the waistband between my legs. What was she thinking about – her husband's evening meal, her children's latest minor infection? Was she aware of the automobile components shadowed like contact prints in my skin and musculature? Perhaps she was wondering which model of the car I drove, guessing at the weight of the saloon, estimating the rake of the steering column.

‘Which side do you want it?’

I looked down. She was holding my limp penis between thumb and forefinger, waiting for me to decide whether I wanted it to lie to right or left of the central bandage.

As I thought about this strange decision, the brief glimmer of my first erection since the accident stirred through the cavernosa of my penis, reflected in a slight release of tension in her neat fingers.

4 (#ulink_895c8b68-d7f7-5259-80d6-a77caf433215)

THIS QUICKENING IMPULSE, my loins soon at full cock, lifted me almost literally from the sick-bed. Within three days I hobbled to the physiotherapy department, ran errands for the nurses and hung around the staff room, trying to talk shop to the bored doctors. The sense of a vital sex cut through my unhappy euphoria, my confused guilt over the man I had killed. The week after the accident had been a maze of pain and insane fantasies. After the commonplaces of everyday life, with their muffled dramas, all my organic expertise for dealing with physical injury had long been blunted or forgotten. The crash was the only real experience I had been through for years. For the first time I was in physical confrontation with my own body, an inexhaustible encyclopedia of pains and discharges, with the hostile gaze of other people, and with the fact of the dead man. After being bombarded endlessly by road-safety propaganda it was almost a relief to find myself in an actual accident. Like everyone else bludgeoned by these billboard harangues and television films of imaginary accidents, I had felt a vague sense of unease that the gruesome climax of my life was being rehearsed years in advance, and would take place on some highway or road junction known only to the makers of these films. At times I had even speculated on the kind of traffic accident in which I would die.

I was sent to the X-ray department, where a pleasant young woman who discussed the state of the film industry with me began to photograph my knees. I enjoyed her conversation, the contrast between her idealistic view of the commercial feature-film and the matter-of-fact way in which she operated her own bizarre equipment. Like all laboratory technicians, there was something clinically sexual about her plump body in its white coat. Her strong arms steered me around, arranging my legs as if I were some huge jointed doll, one of those elaborate humanoid dummies fitted with every conceivable orifice and pain response.

I lay back as she concentrated on the eye-piece of her machine. Her left breast rose inside the jacket of her white coat, the chest wall swelling below the collar bone. Somewhere within that complex of nylon and starched cotton lay a large inert nipple, its pink face crushed by the scented fabrics. I watched her mouth, no more than ten inches from mine as she arranged my arms in a new posture. Unaware of my curiosity about her body, she walked to the remote control switch. How could I bring her to life – by ramming one of these massive steel plugs into a socket at the base of her spine? Perhaps she would then leap into life, talk to me in animated tones about the latest Hitchcock retrospective, launch an aggressive discussion about women's rights, cock one hip in a provocative way, bare a nipple.

Instead, we faced each other in this maze of electronic machinery as if completely de-cerebrated. The languages of invisible eroticisms, of undiscovered sexual acts, lay waiting among this complex equipment. The same unseen sexuality hovered over the queues of passengers moving through airport terminals, the junctions of their barely concealed genitalia and the engine nacelles of giant aircraft, the buccal pouts of airline hostesses. Two months before my accident, during a journey to Paris, I had become so excited by the conjunction of an air hostess's fawn gaberdine skirt on the escalator in front of me and the distant fuselages of the aircraft, each inclined like a silver penis towards her natal cleft, that I had involuntarily touched her left buttock. I laid my palm across a small dimple in the slightly worn fabric, as this young woman, completely faceless to me, switched her weight from left thigh to right. After a long pause, she looked down at me with a knowing eye. I waved my briefcase at her and murmured something in pidgin French, at the same time going through an elaborate pantomime of falling down an upcoming escalator, nearly throwing myself off-balance. The flight to Orly took place under the sceptical gaze of two passengers who witnessed this episode, a Dutch businessman and his wife. During the short flight I was in a state of intense excitement, thinking of the strange tactile and geometric landscape of the airport buildings, the ribbons of dulled aluminium and areas of imitation wood laminates. Even my relationship with a young mezzanine bartender had been brought alive by the contoured lighting systems above his balding head, by the tiled bar and his stylized uniform. I thought of my last forced orgasms with Catherine, the sluggish semen urged into her vagina by my bored pelvis. Over the profiles of her body now presided the metallized excitements of our shared dreams of technology. The elegant aluminized air-vents in the walls of the X-ray department beckoned as invitingly as the warmest organic orifice.

‘All right, you've finished.’ She put a strong arm under my back and lifted me into a sitting position, her body as close to mine as it would have been in a sexual act. I held her arm above the elbow, my wrist pressing against her breast. Behind her was the X-ray camera on its high pivot, heavy cables trailing across the floor. As I shuffled away along the corridor I could still feel the pressure of her strong hands on various parts of my body.

Tired by the crutches, I paused near the entrance to the women's casualty ward, resting against the partition wall of the external corridor. An altercation was going on between the sister in charge and a young coloured nurse. Listening in a bored way, the women patients lay in their beds. Two of them were suspended with their legs in traction, as if involved in the fantasies of a demented gymnast. One of my first errands had been to collect the urine specimens of an elderly woman in this ward, who had been knocked down by a cycling child. Her right leg had been amputated, and she now spent all her time folding a silk scarf around the small stump, tying and retying the ends as if endlessly wrapping a parcel. During the day this senile old dear was the nurses' pride, but at night, when no visitors were present, she was humiliated over the bedpan and callously ignored by the two nuns knitting in the staff room.

The sister cut short her reprimand and turned on her heel. A young woman wearing a dressing-gown and a white-coated doctor stepped through the door of a private ward reserved for ‘friends’ of the hospital: members of the nursing staff, doctors and their families. I had often seen the man before, always bare-chested under his white coat, moving about on errands not much more exalted than my own. I assumed that he was a graduate student specializing in accident surgery at this airport hospital. His strong hands carried a briefcase filled with photographs. As his pock-marked jaws champed on a piece of gum I had the sudden feeling that he was hawking obscene pictures around the wards, pornographic X-ray plates and blacklisted urinalyses. A brass medallion swung on his bare chest from a black silk chord, but what marked him out was the scar tissue around his forehead and mouth, residues of some terrifying act of violence. I guessed that he was one of those ambitious young physicians who more and more fill the profession, opportunists with a fashionable hoodlum image, openly hostile to their patients. My brief stay at the hospital had already convinced me that the medical profession was an open door to anyone nursing a grudge against the human race.

He looked me up and down, taking in every detail of my injuries with evident interest, but I was more concerned with the young woman moving towards me on her stick. This aid was clearly an affectation, a postural disguise that allowed her to press her face into her raised shoulder and hide the bruise marking her right cheekbone. I had last seen her as she sat in the ambulance beside the body of her husband, staring at me with calm hatred.

‘Dr Remington –?’ Without thinking, I asked her name.

She came up to me, changing her grip on the stick as if ready to thrash me across the face with it. She moved her head in a peculiar gesture of the neck, deliberately forcing her injury on me. She paused when she reached the doorway, waiting for me to step out of her way. I looked down at the scar tissue on her face, a seam left by an invisible zip three inches long, running from the corner of her right eye to the apex of her mouth. With the nasolabial fold this new line formed an image like the palm-lines of a sensitive and elusive hand. Reading an imaginary biography into this history of the skin, I visualized her as a glamorous but overworked medical student, breaking out of a long adolescence when she qualified as a doctor into a series of uncertain sexual affairs, happily climaxed by a deep emotional and genital union with her engineer husband, each ransacking the other's body like Crusoe stripping his ship. Already the skin picked in a palisade of notches from her lower lip marked the arithmetic of widowhood, the desperate calculation that she would never find another lover. I was aware of her strong body underneath her mauve bathrobe, her rib-cage partly shielded by a sheath of white plaster that ran from one shoulder to the opposite armpit like a classical Hollywood ball-gown.

Deciding to ignore me, she walked stiffly along the communication corridor, parading her anger and her wound.

During my last days in the hospital I did not see Dr Helen Remington again, but as I lay in the empty ward I thought constantly of the crash that had brought us together. A powerful sense of eroticism had sprung up between me and this bereaved young woman, almost as if I unconsciously wished to re-conceive her dead husband in her womb. By entering her vagina among the metal cabinets and white cables of the X-ray department I would somehow conjure back her husband from the dead, from the conjunction of her left armpit and the chromium camera stand, from the marriage of our genitalia and the elegantly tooled lens shroud.

I listened to the nurses arguing in the staff room. Catherine visited me. She would soap her hand from the toilet bar in its wet saucer inside my cupboard, her pale eyes staring through the flower-filled window as she masturbated me, left hand holding an unfamiliar brand of cigarette. Without any prompting, she began to talk about my crash, and the police inquiries. She described the damage to the car with the persistence of a voyeur, almost nagging me with her lurid picture of the crushed radiator grille and the blood spattered across the bonnet.

‘You should have gone to the funeral,’ I told her.

‘I wish I had,’ she replied promptly. ‘They bury the dead so quickly – they should leave them lying around for months. I wasn't ready.’

‘Remington was ready.’
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