A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day Fourteen – The Embassy Of Cambodia

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day fourteen – The Embassy Of Cambodia, by Zadie Smith

Read it online here:

The Embassy Of Cambodia

I played badminton a lot, for some reason, when I was a kid. When summer came along, the cheap filmy net with its too-delicate poles and always-tangled stays would come out and be pinned into the yard somewhere. We would each get a delicate racket and then the shuttlecock would fly. I never met anyone, among the hundreds that I know I played badminton with, that actually had any idea of what the rules of the game were. It didn’t matter anyway – I always seemed to live in windy climes and the motion of the shuttlecock in the air was always more random than not – no fair game was possible.

I don’t see badminton played in people’s yards anymore – they play washers or cornhole or pool volleyball. Maybe it’s a Texas thing. Sometimes, though, when I’m randomly punching channels into the remote, I see a game taking place in a professional badminton league. Professional badminton players. Professionals.

This is a strange world.

Zadie Smith is a writer, possibly the premier writer, of the immigrant experience. I know her, as you probably do, as the author of White Teeth – a touchstone novel.

Today’s story The Embassy Of Cambodia is a long short story – or a very short novel (complete with numbered chapters) that was actually published in book form after appearing in the New Yorker. It’s the harrowing story of a semi-legal immigrant housekeeper in London. She is doing the best she can to maintain a life of her own.

In a discarded Metro found on the floor of the Derawal kitchen, Fatou read with interest a story about a Sudanese “slave” living in a rich man’s house in London. It was not the first time that Fatou had wondered if she herself was a slave, but this story, brief as it was, confirmed in her own mind that she was not. After all, it was her father, and not a kidnapper, who had taken her from Ivory Coast to Ghana, and when they reached Accra they had both found employment in the same hotel. Two years later, when she was eighteen, it was her father again who had organized her difficult passage to Libya and then on to Italy—a not insignificant financial sacrifice on his part. Also, Fatou could read English—and speak a little Italian—and this girl in the paper could not read or speak anything except the language of her tribe. And nobody beat Fatou, although Mrs. Derawal had twice slapped her in the face, and the two older children spoke to her with no respect at all and thanked her for nothing. (Sometimes she heard her name used as a term of abuse between them. “You’re as black as Fatou.” Or “You’re as stupid as Fatou.”) On the other hand, just like the girl in the newspaper, she had not seen her passport with her own eyes since she arrived at the Derawals’, and she had been told from the start that her wages were to be retained by the Derawals to pay for the food and water and heat she would require during her stay, as well as to cover the rent for the room she slept in. In the final analysis, however, Fatou was not confined to the house. She had an Oyster Card, given to her by the Derawals, and was trusted to do the food shopping and other outside tasks for which she was given cash and told to return with change and receipts for everything. If she did not go out in the evenings that was only because she had no money with which to go out, and anyway knew very few people in London. Whereas the girl in the paper was not allowed to leave her employers’ premises, not ever—she was a prisoner.

On Sunday mornings, for example, Fatou regularly left the house to meet her church friend Andrew Okonkwo at the 98 bus stop and go with him to worship at the Sacred Heart of Jesus, just off the Kilburn High Road. Afterward Andrew always took her to a Tunisian café, where they had coffee and cake, which Andrew, who worked as a night guard in the City, always paid for. And on Mondays Fatou swam. In very warm water, and thankful for the semi-darkness in which the health club, for some reason, kept its clientele, as if the place were a night club, or a midnight Mass. The darkness helped disguise the fact that her swimming costume was in fact a sturdy black bra and a pair of plain black cotton knickers. No, on balance she did not think she was a slave.

On the way to her illicit swim every Monday she passes the Cambodian Embassy where she notices two people playing badminton beyond the high brick walls. They are unseen – only the shuttlecock is visible as it arcs above the barrier. In one direction it is smashed – in the other it is returned in a high, graceful arc.

And then Fatou does something terrible – she saves the life of one of her employer’s children. That upsets the whole thing – the power doesn’t work anymore. Fatou is sent packing – though somehow we feel that she will make it through OK, depending, of course, on what your definition of OK is. Yours is probably different that Fatou’s.

And these are the days of our lives.