If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand. There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same—as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both—and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height. But my face was ponderous and melancholy, with a long, serious nose, and my eyes turned down, as did my mouth. Tracey’s face was perky and round, she looked like a darker Shirley Temple, except her nose was as problematic as mine, I could see that much at once, a ridiculous nose—it went straight up in the air like a little piglet. Cute, but also obscene: her nostrils were on permanent display. On noses you could call it a draw. On hair she won comprehensively. She had spiral curls, they reached to her backside and were gathered into two long plaits, glossy with some kind of oil, tied at their ends with satin yellow bows.
Satin yellow bows were a phenomenon unknown to my mother. She pulled my great frizz back in a single cloud, tied with a black band. My mother was a feminist. She wore her hair in a half-inch Afro, her skull was perfectly shaped, she never wore make‑up and dressed us both as plainly as possible. Hair is not essential when you look like Nefertiti. She’d no need of make‑up or products or jewelry or expensive clothes, and in this way her financial circumstances, her politics and her aesthetic were all perfectly—conveniently—matched. Accessories only cramped her style, including, or so I felt at the time, the horse-faced seven-year-old by her side. Looking across at Tracey I diagnosed the opposite problem: her mother was white, obese, afflicted with acne. She wore her thin blond hair pulled back very tightly in what I knew my mother would call a “Kilburn facelift.” But Tracey’s personal glamour was the solution: she was her own mother’s most striking accessory. The family look, though not to my mother’s taste, I found captivating: logos, tin bangles and hoops, diamanté everything, expensive trainers of the kind my mother refused to recognize as a reality in the world—“Those aren’t shoes.”
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Despite appearances, though, there was not much to choose between our two families. We were both from the estates, neither of us received benefits. (A matter of pride for my mother, an outrage to Tracey’s: she had tried many times—and failed—to “get on the disability.”) In my mother’s view it was exactly these superficial similarities that lent so much weight to questions of taste. She dressed for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive. That’s what her plain white linen trousers were for, her blue-and-white-striped “Breton” T‑shirt, her frayed espadrilles, her severe and beautiful African head—everything so plain, so understated, completely out of step with the spirit of the time, and with the place. One day we would “get out of here,” she would complete her studies, become truly radical chic, perhaps even spoken of in the same breath as Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem . . . Straw-soled shoes were all a part of this bold vision, they pointed subtly at the higher concepts. I was an accessory only in the sense that in my very plainness I signified admirable maternal restraint, it being considered bad taste—in the circles to which my mother aspired—to dress your daughter like a little whore. But Tracey was unashamedly her mother’s aspiration and avatar, her only joy, in those thrilling yellow bows, a frou-frou skirt of many ruffles and a crop top revealing inches of childish nut-brown belly, and as we pressed up against the pair of them in this bottleneck of mothers and daughters entering the church I watched with interest as Tracey’s mother pushed the girl in front of herself—and in front of us—using her own body as a means of obstruction, the flesh on her arms swinging as she beat us back, until she arrived in Miss Isabel’s dance class, a look of great pride and anxiety on her face, ready to place her precious cargo into the temporary care of others. My mother’s attitude, by contrast, was one of weary, semi-ironic servitude, she thought the dance class ridiculous, she had better things to do, and after a few further Saturdays—in which she sat slumped in one of the plastic chairs that lined the left-hand wall, hardly able to contain her contempt for the whole exercise—a change was made and my father took over. I waited for Tracey’s father to take over, but he never did. It turned out—as my mother had guessed at once—that there was no “Tracey’s father,” at least not in the conventional, married sense. This, too, was an example of bad taste.
I want to describe the church now, and Miss Isabel. An unpretentious nineteenth-century building with large sandy stones on the façade, not unlike the cheap cladding you saw in the nastier houses—though it couldn’t have been that—and a satisfying, pointy steeple atop a plain, barn-like interior. It was called St. Christopher’s. It looked just like the church we made with our fingers when we sang:
Here is the church
Here is the steeple
Open the doors
There’s all the people.
The stained glass told the story of St. Christopher carrying the baby Jesus on his shoulders across a river. It was poorly done: the saint looked mutilated, one-armed. The original windows had blown out during the war. Opposite St. Christopher’s stood a high-rise estate of poor reputation, and this was where Tracey lived. (Mine was nicer, low-rise, in the next street.) Built in the sixties, it replaced a row of Victorian houses lost in the same bombing that had damaged the church, but here ended the relationship between the two buildings. The church, unable to tempt residents across the road for God, had made a pragmatic decision to diversify into other areas: a toddlers’ playgroup, ESL, driver training. These were popular, and well established, but Saturday-morning dance classes were a new addition and no one knew quite what to make of them. The class itself cost two pounds fifty, but a maternal rumor went round concerning the going rate for ballet shoes, one woman had heard three pounds, another seven, so‑and‑so swore the only place you could get them was Freed, in Covent Garden, where they’d take ten quid off you as soon as look at you—and then what about “tap” and what about “modern?” Could ballet shoes be worn for modern? What was modern? There was no one you could ask, no one who’d already done it, you were stuck. It was a rare mother whose curiosity extended to calling the number written on the homemade flyers stapled to the local trees. Many girls who might have made fine dancers never made it across that road, for fear of a homemade flyer.
My mother was rare: homemade flyers did not scare her. She had a terrific instinct for middle-class mores. She knew, for example, that a car-boot sale—despite its unpromising name—was where you could find a better quality of person, and also their old Penguin paperbacks, sometimes by Orwell, their old china pill-boxes, their cracked Cornish earthenware, their discarded potter’s wheels. Our flat was full of such things. No plastic flowers for us, sparkly with fake dew, and no crystal figurines. This was all part of the plan. Even things I hated—like my mother’s espadrilles—usually turned out to be attractive to the kind of people we were trying to attract, and I learned not to question her methods, even when they filled me with shame. A week before classes were due to begin I heard her doing her posh voice in the galley kitchen, but when she got off the phone she had all the answers: five pounds for ballet shoes—if you went to the shopping center instead of up into town—and the tap shoes could wait till later. Ballet shoes could be used for modern. What was modern? She hadn’t asked. The concerned parent she would play, but never, ever the ignorant one.
My father was sent to get the shoes. The pink of the leather turned out to be a lighter shade than I’d hoped, it looked like the underside of a kitten, and the sole was a dirty gray cat’s tongue, and there were no long pink satin ribbons to criss-cross over the ankles, no, only a sad little elastic strap which my father had sewn on himself. I was extremely bitter about it. But perhaps they were, like the espadrilles, deliberately “simple,” in good taste? It was possible to hold on to this idea right up to the moment when, having entered the hall, we were told to change into our dance clothes by the plastic chairs and go over to the opposite wall, to the barre. Almost everybody had the pink satin shoes, not the pale pink, piggy leather I was stuck with, and some—girls whom I knew to be on benefits, or fatherless, or both—had the shoes with long satin ribbons, criss-crossing round their ankles. Tracey, who was standing next to me, with her left foot in her mother’s hand, had both—the deep pink satin and the criss-cross—and also a full tutu, which no one else had even considered as a possibility, no more than turning up to a first swimming lesson in a diving suit. Miss Isabel, meanwhile, was sweet-faced and friendly, but old, perhaps as old as forty-five. It was disappointing. Solidly constructed, she looked more like a farmer’s wife than a ballet dancer and was all over pink and yellow, pink and yellow. Her hair was yellow, not blond, yellow like a canary. Her skin was very pink, raw pink, now that I think of it she probably suffered from rosacea. Her leotard was pink, her tracksuit bottoms were pink, her cover‑up ballet cardigan was mohair and pink—yet her shoes were silk and yellow, the same shade as her hair. I was bitter about this, too. Yellow had never been mentioned! Next to her, in the corner, a very old white man in a trilby sat playing an upright piano, “Night and Day,” a song I loved and was proud to recognize. I got the old songs from my father, whose own father had been a keen pub singer, the kind of man—or so my father believed—whose petty criminality represents, at least in part, some thwarted creative instinct. The piano player was called Mr. Booth. I hummed loudly along with him as he played, hoping to be heard, putting a lot of vibrato into my humming. I was a better singer than dancer—I was not a dancer at all—although I took too much pride in my singing, in a manner I knew my mother found obnoxious. Singing came naturally to me, but things that came naturally to females did not impress my mother, not at all. In her view you might as well be proud of breathing or walking or giving birth.
Our mothers served as our balance, as our foot-rests. We placed one hand on their shoulders, we placed one foot on their bended knees. My body was presently in the hands of my mother—being hoiked up and tied down, fastened and straightened, brushed off—but my mind was on Tracey, and on the soles of her ballet shoes, upon which I now read “Freed” clearly stamped in the leather. Her natural arches were two hummingbirds in flight, curved in on themselves. My own feet were square and flat, they seemed to grind through the positions. I felt like a toddler placing wooden blocks at a series of right angles to each other. Flutter, flutter, flutter said Isabel, yes that’s lovely Tracey. Compliments made Tracey throw her head back and flare her little pig nose awfully. Aside from that, she was perfection, I was besotted. Her mother seemed equally infatuated, her commitment to those classes the only consistent feature of what we would now call “her parenting.” She came to class more than any other mother, and while there her attention rarely wavered from her daughter’s feet. My own mother’s focus was always elsewhere. She could never simply sit somewhere and let time pass, she had to be learning something. She might arrive at the beginning of class with, say, The Black Jacobins in hand, and by the time I came over to ask her to swap my ballet shoes for tap she would already be a hundred pages through. Later, when my father took over, he either slept or “went for a walk,” the parental euphemism for smoking in the churchyard.
At this early stage Tracey and I were not friends or enemies or even acquaintances: we barely spoke. Yet there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others. Technically, I spoke more to Lily Bingham—who went to my school—and Tracey’s own standby was sad old Danika Babic´, with her ripped tights and thick accent, she lived on Tracey’s corridor. But though we giggled and joked with these white girls during class, and although they had every right to assume that they were our focus, our central concern—that we were, to them, the good friends we appeared to be—as soon as it came to break-time and squash and biscuits Tracey and I lined up next to each other, every time, it was almost unconscious, two iron filings drawn to a magnet.
It turned out Tracey was as curious about my family as I was about hers, arguing, with a certain authority, that we had things “the wrong way round.” I listened to her theory one day during break, dipping a biscuit anxiously into my orange squash. “With everyone else it’s the dad,” she said, and because I knew this to be more or less accurate I could think of nothing more to say. “When your dad’s white it means—” she continued, but at that moment Lily Bingham came and stood next to us and I never did learn what it meant when your dad was white. Lily was gangly, a foot taller than everyone else. She had long, perfectly straight blond hair, pink cheeks and a happy, open nature that seemed, both to Tracey and me, the direct consequence of 29 Exeter Road, a whole house, to which I had been recently invited, eagerly reporting back to Tracey—who had never been—a private garden, a giant jam-jar full of “spare change” and a Swatch watch as big as a human man hanging on a bedroom wall. There were, consequently, things you couldn’t discuss in front of Lily Bingham, and now Tracey shut her mouth, stuck her nose in the air and crossed the room to ask her mother for her ballet shoes.
Excerpted from Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Copyright © 2016 by Zadie Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.