It is winter, an ordinary day, no worse than any other. I drop my son at school. A few minutes after nine I am leaving the playground, along with the Muslim women, the Africans, the Czechs and the middle-class executives in their suits, already tapping into their Blackberries. I always enjoy the walk home, the relief and freedom of solitude, and will think over everything I have to do, errands, shopping, a lunch, before picking up the boy again.
Outside the school a woman catches my eye. We mothers see each other twice a day, often for years. She looks nice, the sort I might get along with. We smile, but have never spoken or gone for coffee.
'Want a lift?' she asks. It is beginning to rain. We introduce ourselves and get in her car. 'Don't you live by the park? I'll drop you on the corner,’ she says. 'I hope that's okay. I have a little time, but I have to get to work.’
I wonder why she offered to give me a lift, if she's not really going my way. Wearing black, she has a slightly frantic look, as though she didn't have time to finish getting ready. But which of us mothers doesn't look like that?
As I am pulling on my seat belt, she begins to tell me about her son, who is a year younger than mine. He has 'behavioural problems', odd and difficult moods. He is being tested for several illnesses, attention deficit, autism and something else, I forget. She describes their visits to the numerous specialists, experts and doctors he sees a lot of now. It is a moving story, and not an uninteresting or uncommon one.
A few moments later she stops the car where the streets diverge, and I open the car door, about to get out. I know this street, and today, on the pavement, there is a local madman, very tall, hair askew, talking furiously to himself, and with a strange gait, taking huge exaggerated steps, like a giant striding across continents. At the end of the street he stops and returns.
The woman continues to speak, and I nod and listen, as she describes a doctor. In my right hand is my phone and my bag; the other hand is still holding the door. Because of the madman, I close it again and lock it.
When I turn to her and mouth some comforting words, I begin to see that the woman has no interest in my response, that there is nothing she wants from me. I only have to be here, a person, that's all.
I look at her face, her clothes, her rings, her shoes, and she watches me reach for the metal door handle again. I see the madman has passed and it would be a good opportunity to get on with my day. I open the door. I appear to gather myself and my possessions up again, but she keeps going.
As I sit there, I become aware, amazed even, that nothing I might do, or attempt to say, will make any difference to this woman. I was brought up to be polite. In fact I believe that if I am rude, I will be hated. My husband is different: he is not afraid of being offensive, he even enjoys it. He would open the car door, say goodbye, and be gone. 'What does it matter?' he'd say. 'They'll survive.'
More than anything I want him to phone me now, to interrupt this, to help me understand. The woman is speaking quickly but every detail is clear; it is not the wild jumble of a psychotic, nor the monotonous tone of the depressive.
'The doctor was nice, he wore a suit, he asked my son many questions. He asked to talk to him privately. Well, I said ...' You would think there'd be a pause here, but she has clearly developed her gift for making her sentences run on. 'We tried another doctor, recommended by someone else ... Now, of course, my husband and I are having our difficulties ...'
I can see her eyes taking in my hand on the door handle; this is a look from her, not a glance, but my obvious desire to escape has no effect.
She begins to do this terrible thing. To prove to myself that I don't lack courage, I attempt to interrupt, opening my mouth to take a breath, but with hardly the first word out of my throat she raises her finger at me and says, 'Just let me finish.'
This must have been going on for fifteen or twenty minutes. Is there something about me which invites such abuse? What would it be? How could she have picked it up when I have never spoken to her before?
After an hour—yes, an hour—I am becoming claustrophobic; I cannot speak, cannot make myself heard. Unsaid words are throttling me. Something in my right eye is vibrating. My breathing is shallow, my legs feel crushed. Surely she can hear that I am angry, and see that she is assaulting me, that I am being crushed under an injustice. But I am mesmerised. My husband would say that this must have happened to me before, yes with mother, in the kitchen, or on the phone, and sometimes with friends, but does it follow that I want this all the time?
Soon an hour and a quarter has passed: more, even; I have lost my bearings. She has forgotten me, and I have forgotten myself, as if she has planted a virus in my mind which slowly wiped away my memory, my volition, my entire identity.
I watch the madman passing, and then I look at her again, the woman whose eyes have not left my face. A terrible thought occurs to me, not one I could bear to say to anyone. I know why her son has withdrawn inside himself, and why he cannot speak, if this is what she does to him. She has forced him into a compact ball, the only protection he has. But who will say this to her?
She is looking at her watch. She must have measured out exactly how much time she had to talk. 'That's it,’ she says. 'Sorry, I don't want to be late. We got distracted. Lovely to see you. Let's do it again.'
I get out of the car and take a few steps. I am weak; I need to lie down.
The woman waves and drives off, leaving me on the pavement in the rain with a madman striding towards me.
© Hanif Kureishi
This electronic version of ‘The Assault’ appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. It appears in Collected Stories by Hanif Kureishi, published by Faber and Faber Ltd, 2010. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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