N.W. by Zadie Smith

  14. That obscure object of desire

  The red and white air technology of the Greek goddess of victory. Keisha Blake put her hand against the reinforced shop-front glass. Separated from happiness. It had been everywhere, the air, free for the taking, but she had only come to desire it now that she saw it thus Defined, extracted, rendered visible. The infinitely available thing, now enclosed in the sole of a shoe! You had to admire the audacity. Ninety-nine quid. Maybe at Christmas.

  15. Evian

  The exact same thing had been achieved with water. When Marcia Blake spotted the bottle hiding under a bag of carrots she cussed Keisha Blake, snatched it out of the trolley and placed it back on the wrong shelf next to the jams.

  16. The new timetable

  ‘There. He’s in your French class. And your drama class.’

  ‘Who is?’


  ‘Bogle? So?’


  ‘Oh my gosh, Keisha. We were babies. You’re so dumb sometimes.’

  17. GCSE

  In the office of Keisha Blake’s Head of Year baseball caps and inappropriate jewellery were confiscated and hung from the wall on hooks. Keisha Blake had not been called in for a reprimand, she had come to discuss her options for a set of exams still three years in the future. She did not really want to discuss these exams, she simply wanted it to be noted that she was the kind of person who thought three years ahead about the important things in life. As she got up to leave she spotted a silver chain from which drooped a tiny pistol picked out in diamanté crystals. ‘That’s my sister’s,’ she said. ‘Oh, is it?’ said the teacher, and looked out of the window. Keisha persisted: ‘She doesn’t go here any more. She got expelled.’ The teacher frowned. He took the necklace from the wall and passed it to Keisha. He said: ‘It’s hard to believe that you and Cheryl Blake are even related.’

  18. Sony Walkman (borrowed)

  That Keisha should be able to hear the Rebel MC in her ears and at the same time walk down Willesden Lane was a kind of miracle and modern ecstasy, and yet there was very little space in the day for anything like ecstasy or abandon or even simple laziness, for whatever you did inC life you would have to do it twice as well as they did it ‘just to break even’, a troubling principle held simultaneously by Keisha Blake’s mother and her uncle Jeffrey, known to be ‘gifted’ but also ‘beyond the pale’.

  19. Detour into the perfect past tense

  (Sometimes Jeffrey – who was not a member of the church – cornered his thirteen-year-old niece and told her perplexing things. ‘Look it up! Look it up!’ he had said, yesterday, at Cousin Gale’s wedding. Keisha could only presume he was referring to a prior conversation that had taken place many weeks earlier. Therefore he had meant: ‘Look up the CIA’s practice of flooding poor black neighbourhoods with crack cocaine and you will see that I am right.’ How? Where?)

  20. Sony Walkman redux

  That two such different personalities as her mother and Uncle Jeffrey should hold an opinion simultaneously lent that opinion some force. Yet surely none of you would begrudge Keisha Blake this present pleasure of thinking to music? Oh, this outdoor soundtrack! Oh, this orchestral existence!

  21. Jane Eyre

  When being bullied Keisha Blake found it useful to remember that if you read the relevant literature or watched the pertinent movies you soon found that being bullied was practically a sign of a superior personality, and the greater the intensity of the bullying the more likely it was to be avenged at the other end of life, when qualities of the kind Keisha Blake possessed – cleverness, will-to-power – became ‘their own reward’, and that this remained true even if the people in the literature and the movies looked nothing like you, came from a different socio-economic and historical universe, and would have – had they ever met you – very likely enslaved you or at best bullied you to precisely the same extent as Lorna Mackenzie, who had a problem with the way you acted like you were better than everyone else.

  22. Citation

  Further confirmation of this principle was to be found in the Bible itself.

  23. Spectrum 128k

  For her fourteenth birthday Leah received a home computer. Keisha Blake read through the accompanying booklet and was able to figure out how to program a basic series of commands so that in answer to particular prompts text would come up on the screen as if the computer itself were ‘talking’. They did one for Mr Hanwell:


  ‘I’m to type it in here? I feel silly.’



  ‘My word! Did you do that, Keisha? How do you do these things? I can’t keep up with you these days. Pauline, come and look at this, you won’t believe it.’

  After they had finished dazzling the Hanwells, they did one for their private amusement:




  24. The number 37

  On Sundays, Keisha Blake attended Kilburn Pentecostal with her family, minus Cheryl, and Leah often came along, not because she was in any sense a believer, but rather motivated by the generosity of spirit described above. Now a new policy revealed itself. When they reached the corner by the McDonald’s Leah Hanwell said to Keisha Blake: ‘Actually I think I might get on the 37, go to the Lock, see that lot.’ ‘Fair enough,’ said Keisha Blake. There had been an attempt over the summer to mix that Camden Lock lot with this Caldwell lot, but Keisha Blake did not especially care for Baudelaire or Bukowski or Nick Drake or Sonic Youth or Joy Division or boys who looked like girls or vice versa or Anne Rice or William Burroughs or Kafka’s Metamorphosis or CND or Glastonbury or the Situationists or Breathless or Samuel Beckett or Andy Warhol or a million other Camden things, and when Keisha brought a wondrous Monie Love 7-inch to play on Leah’s hi-T there was something awful in the way Leah blushed and conceded it was probably OK to dance to. They had only Prince left, and he was wearing thin.

  25. Vivre sa vie

  This sudden and violent divergence in their tastes was shocking to Keisha, and she persisted in believing that Leah’s new tastes were an affectation, unrelated to anything essential in her being and largely taken up to annoy her oldest friend. ‘Bell me later,’ said Leah Hanwell, and jumped on the bus’s open rear end. Keisha Blake, whose celebrated will and focus did not leave her much room for angst, watched her friend ascend to the top deck in her new panda-eyed make-up and had a mauvais quart d’heure wondering whether she herself had in fact any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television.

  26. Relative time

  A number of factors – modest style of dress, early physical maturation, glasses – combined to make Keisha Blake look considerably older than she in fact was.

  27. 50ml vodka

  Instead of being known as a ‘personality’, Keisha Blake now became indirectly popular as a function. She bought alcohol for a lot of people who believed they looked too young to get it themselves, and the irrational belief in Keisha’s ‘talent’ in this area became self-fulfilling, as invested with all this belief in her infallibility she came to believe in it herself. Still, it was strange to buy booze for Leah. ‘It needs to be the size to Tt in my back pocket.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because there’ll be two hundred people moshing up and down and you can’t be pissing around with a wine glass.’ As the event did not start until late, Leah first came to Keisha Blake’s room to hang out and drink and talk until it was time for her to go. Probably later she would meet someone with hair in his eyes and do sex. ‘I saw Nathan at the chippy yesterday,’ said Keisha. ‘God, Nathan,’ said Leah Hanwell. ‘He’s not coming back next term,’ said Keisha Blake. ‘They turned it into an expulsion.’ ‘That was a matter of time,’ said Leah Hanwell, and opened the window to have a fag. Leah drank some more and spent a long time twisting the radio
knob looking for a pirate station she didn’t find. At around ten fifteen p.m. Leah Hanwell said: ‘I don’t think women can really be beautiful. I think they can be so attractive and you can want to shag them and love them and blah blah but I think really only men can be completely beautiful in the end.’ ‘You reckon?’ said Keisha, and disguised her confusion by drinking deeply from her mug of tea. She was not at all sure to whom the second-person pronoun was meant to refer.

  28. Rabbit

  On the eve of her sixteenth birthday a gift was left for Keisha Blake, outside the flat in the corridor. The wrapping showed a repeating butterfly pattern. The card, unsigned, read UNWRAP IN PRIVATE, but the slant of the P and the pointy W told her it was the hand of her good friend Leah Hanwell. She retreated to the bathroom. A vibrator, neon pink with revolving beads in its gigantic tip. Keisha sat on the closed lid of the toilet and made some strategic calculations. Wrapping the dildo in a towel, she hid it in the room she shared with Cheryl, then took the box and wrapping paper down to the courtyard to the public bins by the parking bays. The following Saturday morning she began approximating the early signs of a cold, and on Sunday claimed a severe cough and stomach ache. Her mother pressed her tongue down with a fork and said it was a shame, Pastor Akinwande was going to talk on the topic of Abraham and Isaac. From the balcony Keisha Blake watched her family walk to church, not without regret: she was sincerely interested in the topic of Abraham and Isaac.

  29. Rabbit, run

  But she had also privately decided she was a different kind of believer from her mother, and could survive the occasional anthropological adventure into sin. She returned inside and raided an alarm clock and calculator for their batteries. She did not employ any mood lighting or soft music or scented candles. She did not take off her clothes. Three minutes later she’d established several things previously unknown to her: what a vaginal orgasm was, the difference between a clitoral and a vaginal orgasm, and the existence of a viscous material, made from her body, that she had, afterwards, to rinse out of the ridges along the vibrator’s shaft, in the little sink in the corner of the room. She had the dildo only for a couple of weeks but in that time used it regularly, sometimes as much as several times a day, often without washing afterwards, and always in this businesslike way, as if delegating a task to somebody else.

  30. Surplus value, schizophrenia, adolescence

  ‘We should go like this here,’ said Layla and sang a new note, and Keisha made a notation. ‘Role models,’ sang Layla, in the new key, ‘bringing the truth, bringing the light.’ Keisha made a further note. ‘Making it right,’ said Layla, and then repeated the same words but sung as music, and Keisha nodded and made a further notation. Layla was genuinely musical and her voice was beautiful. Her mother was a well-known singer in Sierra Leone. Keisha could not sing and played the recorder rather badly. She had taught herself musical notation in a few weeks using piano music taken from church. As with everything that involved symbols and/or signification, it had not been difficult for Keisha to do this and she did not know why that should be so or what such facility meant, nor why her sister Cheryl had not been similarly blessed, nor what she was meant to do about it or with it, or if ‘it’ was a noun or a verb or had any material reality at all, outside of her own mind. The two girls were writing a song for the under-twelve faith group that met in this back room on Thursdays after service. They were good friends, Keisha and Layla, though not as close as Keisha and Leah. The fact was they had not been bonded by a dramatic event, although in the mind of the church they belonged together in a natural and inevitable way. ‘Leading the way,’ sang Layla. Keisha made a note. She could smell her own vagina on her hands. Now Layla reverted to speaking: ‘Or something like, “Sisters today, leading the way”.’ Keisha made a note of this and placed parentheses around it to signify it was not yet a lyric set in stone. If these are ‘talents’– the ability to sing, or to quickly comprehend and reproduce musical notation – what kind of a thing is ‘talent’? A commodity? A gift? A prize? A reward? For what? ‘We follow the truth, we follow the light!’ sang Layla, which had already been set in stone both musically and lyrically. With nothing to note down Keisha became anxious. Across the room hung a mirror. Two admirable young sisters, their hair still plaited by their mothers, sat on the edge of a makeshift stage, one singing and the other transforming music into its own shadow, musical notation. That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. Look closer. Look away. She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along. She must never know. ‘And then from here to here,’ sang Layla, singing these words and therefore putting the instruction itself to music. Keisha made the notation.

  31. Permission to enter

  Though they were five, the Blakes occupied a three-bed, one-bathroom unit, in which only the youngest boy, Jayden, had a room of his own. As far as Keisha could make out, privacy did not seem of any importance to her brother, he was eleven, and still prone to streaks of domestic nudity, but for her own person it was a necessity, more so with every passing day, and the arrival of the dildo prompted her to reopen an old debate with her mother.

  ‘It’s a human right!’ cried Keisha Blake. History GCSE module B16: The American Civil Rights Movement. Module D5: The Chartists.

  ‘If there’s a fire you’d burn up in your room,’ said her mother. ‘This Cheryl’s idea? People who want locks got something to hide.’

  ‘People who want locks just want a basic human right, which is privacy. Look it up,’ said Keisha, although with less heat this time, alarmed that her mother should have, in the general reach of a maternal cliché, gathered in the truth so precisely. She retreated to her room and thought about Jesus, another deeply godly person who was not understood as godly by the sort of clichéd people who called themselves godly, though to be fair those people were probably also sometimes godly in their own uneducated way, but only by accident, and only a bit.

  32. Difference

  A clitoral orgasm is a localized phenomenon restricted to the clitoris itself. Perversely, direct stimulation of the clitoris tends not to provoke it, causing instead pain and annoyance, and sometimes an intense boredom. A vigorous and circular manipulation of the clitoris and the labia together, with a hand, is the most direct route. The resulting spasm is sharp, intensely pleasurable, but brief, like male orgasm. On the charged question of clitoral versus vaginal orgasm, Keisha found herself to be an agnostic. One might as well be asked whether blue is a superior colour to green.

  A vaginal orgasm can be provoked by penetration, but also by simply moving one’s pelvis forward and backwards in a small motion while thinking about something interesting. This latter method is especially effective on a bus or a plane. There seems to be a small piece of raised flesh – about the size of a ten-pence piece – halfway up the wall of the vaginal canal on the side nearest your belly button that is stimulated by this ‘rocking’, but whether this is what is meant by the phrase ‘G-spot’ and whether it is the cause of the almost unbearably pleasurable sensation, Keisha Blake could not verify one way or another. However it is achieved, what is noticeable about vaginal orgasm is its length and intensity. It is experienced as a series of spasms as if the vagina itself is opening and closing like a fist. Perhaps it is. But whether this is what is meant by the phrase ‘multiple orgasm’ was also unclear to Keisha Blake, though it seemed typical of the unassuming tendencies of feminine descriptors to accept one ‘close of the fist’ as an orgasm in and of itself. It was perhaps simply a phenomenological problem. If Leah Hanwell said the flower is blue and Keisha Blake said the flower is blue how could they be sure that by the word ‘blue’ they were apprehending the same phenomenon?

  33. For the prosecution

  Marcia found Leah’s gift during one of her routine sweeps. These sweeps really had Cheryl as their object – she had begun disappearing on Fridays and returning Mondays – and nothing would have been easier for Keisha than adding dildo possession to her older sister’s already ruined reput
ation. Unable to look any longer at Marcia brandishing the plastic bag, Keisha Blake threw herself face down on the bed to commence fake crying, but in the middle of this procedure found herself locked in a genuine struggle, unable to countenance blaming either her sister or Leah, but equally unable to imagine the second option – her father being informed – with which she was now being presented. Keisha Blake thought to the left and thought to the right but there was no exit, and this was very likely the first time she became aware of the problem of suicide.

  ‘And don’t tell me you bought it,’ said her mother, ‘because I don’t know where you think you would have got the money.’ In the course of this interrogation Marcia went through most of the girls on the estate before working herself round to the painful possibility of Leah and finding the confirmation in her daughter’s face.

  34. Rupture

  There followed a break between Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake, enforced by Marcia, followed by a cooling off that could not be blamed on Marcia alone. The girls were sixteen. This period lasted a year and a half.

  35. Angst!

  In the absence of Leah – at school, on the streets, in Caldwell – Keisha Blake felt herself to be revealed and exposed. She had not noticed until the break that the state of ‘being Leah Hanwell’s friend’ constituted a sort of passport, bringing Keisha a protected form of access in most situations. She was now relegated to the conceptual realm of ‘those church kids’, most of whom were Nigerian or otherwise African, and did not share Keisha Blake’s anthropological curiosity regarding sin or her love of rap music. To the children of her own background she believed, rightly or wrongly, that she was an anomaly, and to the ravers and indie kids she knew for certain she was the wrong kind of outcast. It did not strike Keisha Blake that such feelings of alienation are the banal fate of adolescents everywhere. She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world.

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