N.W. by Zadie Smith

  36. Your enemy’s enemy

  In Keisha Blake’s break with Leah Hanwell we must admit that Marcia Blake spied an opportunity. The break coincided with the problem of sex, which anyway could no longer be ignored. A simple ban would have backfired – they had been through all that already with Cheryl, who was presently twenty years old and six months pregnant. Pushing Keisha Blake towards Rodney Banks was Mrs Blake’s elegant solution: at exactly the moment her daughter was about to detonate, she was defused. Rodney lived on the same corridor, attended the same school. He was one of the few Caribbean children in the church. His mother, Christine, was a close friend. ‘You should give Rodney some time,’ said Marcia, passing Keisha Blake a plate to dry. ‘He’s like you, always reading.’ For precisely this reason Keisha had always been wary of Rodney and keen to avoid him – as much as that was possible in a place like Caldwell – on the principle that the last thing a drowning person needs is another drowning person clinging to them.

  38. On the other hand

  Beggars cannot be choosers.

  39. Reading with Rodney

  Keisha Blake sat on Rodney Banks’s bed, feet tucked underneath her. She was already five foot eight, while Rodney had stopped growing the previous summer. To be Christian to Rodney Banks, Keisha Blake tried to sit in most situations. Rodney had in his hand an abridged library copy of an infamous book by Albert Camus. Both Keisha Blake and Rodney Banks sounded the T and the S in this name, not knowing any better: such are the perils of autodidacticism. Rodney Banks was reading the text aloud, with his own sceptical running commentary. He called this ‘putting faith to the test’. Pastor liked to recommend this muscular approach to his teenage flock, although when he did so it is unlikely that he had Camus in mind. Rodney Banks looked somewhat like Martin Luther King: the same rounded, gentle face. When he made a point that interested him, he made a little illegal note on the page, which Keisha read and tried to admire. She found it hard to concentrate on the book because she was very concerned about when and how the heavy petting would begin. It had happened last Friday and the Friday before, but both times she had not known it was going to happen until the very last moment, as they were both somehow unable to refer to it verbally, or build up to it in a natural manner. Instead she had violently launched herself at Rodney both times and hoped for a response, which she had received, more or less. ‘We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking,’ read Rodney, and then made a note by this sentence: ‘So what? (fallacious argument)’

  40. Rumpole

  The cooling-off period between Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell coincided with their A level exams, and this was partly a pragmatic decision on Keisha Blake’s part. Leah Hanwell was by this point taking the popular club amphetamine Ecstasy most weekends and Keisha did not have the faith that she herself could be involved in that life and still pass the exams she was beginning to comprehend would be essential. Which comprehension arrived partly through the efforts of a visiting careers oNcer. Reader: keep up! A young woman, from Barbados, new in the job, optimistic. Name unimportant. She was especially impressed by Rodney, taking him seriously and listening to him when he talked about the law. Where Rodney Banks had even got the idea of ‘the law’ it was difficult to say. His mother was a dinner lady. His father drove a bus.

  41. Parenthetical

  (Much later in life, while taking a long walk through north-west London, it occurred to Keisha Blake that the young man she had turned into a comic anecdote to be told at dinner parties was in many ways himself a miracle of self-invention, a young man with a tremendous will, far outstripping her own.)

  42. Good place/no place

  The Bajan told Keisha Blake and Rodney Banks they must have a plan. All three were aware that Marcia Blake had her own plan: enrolment in a oneyear Business Administration course at ‘Coles Academy’, really just a corridor of office space above the old Woolworths on the Kilburn High Road. A racket, an uncredited institution, taught by some Nairobi acquaintance of Pastor Akinwande, and requiring no move away from home.

  43. Contra

  The careers officer from Barbados chose five institutions for Keisha Blake and Rodney Banks – the same five; they had decided they could not be parted – and showed them how to fill in the necessary forms. She wrote to Marcia on Leah’s behalf. It won’t cost any money. She’ll get a full council grant. There’s a church. The train goes straight there, she’ll be safe, she won’t be the only one. Keisha Blake was advised to carry on this campaign of reassurance through the winter. Rodney was told to do the same with his mother, Christine. Keisha did not expect these campaigns to succeed. Marcia had been to the ‘countryside’ and did not consider it a safe environment, preferring London, where at least you knew what you were up against. Then in April, that ‘poor defenceless boy’ – Marcia invariably called him that – was stabbed at an Eltham bus stop, overwhelmed by ‘a pack of animals’. Keisha Blake, Marcia Blake, Augustus Blake, Cheryl Blake and Jayden Blake gathered round the television to watch the white boys walk free from court, swinging punches at the photographers. The boy’s body was taken to Jamaica, buried in Marcia’s parish.

  44. Brideshead unvisited

  The front door was on the latch. Rodney walked straight through into Keisha and Cheryl Blake’s bedroom and said: ‘Where is it?’ and Keisha said: ‘On the bed,’ and Rodney said: ‘Let me see it,’ and Keisha showed him the strange letter stamped with a coat of arms and said: ‘But if you’re not going, I’m not,’ and Rodney said: ‘Just let me read it,’ and Keisha said: ‘It’s only the interview offer. I’m not going to go. Anyway, it must be big money,’ and Rodney said: ‘If you get in, government pays for it. Don’t you even know that?’ and Cheryl said: ‘You two better shut up, man, baby’s sleeping!’ and Keisha said: ‘I don’t even want to go!’ and Rodney said: ‘Can I just read it please!’ and after he read it, he did not mention it again, and neither did Keisha Blake. That night they went to the Swiss Cottage Odeon to see a film about a man dressed as a woman so that he could keep an eye on his children for reasons Keisha found herself too distracted to even begin to comprehend.

  45. Economics

  The interviews for Manchester were scheduled between ten and eleven a.m. To reach Manchester from London’s Euston Station would require taking a train that left well before nine thirty. These trains cost one hundred and three pounds return. A similar – even more expensive – problem ruled out Edinburgh.

  46. Pause for an abstract idea

  In households all over the world, in many languages, this sentence usually emerges, eventually: ‘I don’t know you any more.’ It was always there, hiding in some private corner of the house, biding its time. Stacked with the cups, or squeezed between the DVDs or another terminal format. ‘I don’t know you any more!’

  47. A further pause

  In popular science magazines they give the biological example, the regeneration of cells. Many years after the events presently being recounted, at a dinner in her own house, a philosopher sitting to the right of our heroine suggested she undertake a thought experiment: what if your brain cells were replaced individually with the brain cells of another person? At what point would you cease to be yourself? At what point would you become another person? His breath was nasty. He put his hand on her knee, which she didn’t remove, not wanting to make a fuss in front of his wife. Mrs Blake had become by that point quite extraordinarily well behaved. The wife of the philosopher was a grey-haired QC. In the philosopher’s brilliant mind she was too old to conceivably still be his wife. And yet.

  48. Residents’ meeting

  At a meeting of the Caldwell residents’ committee – at which Leah and Keisha, compelled by their parents, were the only young people in attendance – Keisha saw a seat free next to Leah but did not go towards it. Afterwards, she tried to get away without being noticed but Leah Hanwell called from across the room and Keisha turned and found the familiar open face smiling at her, unaffected by Keisha Blake’s own
attempts to imaginatively traduce it.

  ‘Hey,’ said Leah Hanwell.

  ‘All right,’ said Keisha Blake.

  They spoke of the boredom of the meeting, and of Cheryl’s baby, but the other subject could not be repressed for very long.

  ‘What did you think of Manchester? Did you see Michael Konstantinou? He was your day. But he’s for Media Studies.’

  ‘We’re not going there, any more,’ said Keisha Blake. She put a deliberate emphasis on the plural pronoun. ‘It’s either Bristol or Hull.’

  ‘I see Rodney in history. Never speaks a word.’

  Keisha, hearing this comment as a personal insult, began defending Rodney robustly. Leah looked confused and fiddled with the three rings that hung from the upper cartilage of her ear.

  ‘No, I meant: he’s got no questions, he knows it all already. Silent but deadly. You two will just fly through for sure. At least you can say C in maths. Mine’s a U. A lot of them won’t even consider your A levels if you failed your maths. I’m on a wing and a prayer at this point.’

  Keisha tried to back-pedal from her overreaction by suggesting her old friend Leah Hanwell join Keisha and her new boyfriend for study sessions.

  ‘I reckon I need to just get down to it and concentrate. It’ll be OK. Would be good to see you soon, though, before the move. Pauline’s loving it. I don’t care, I’ll be in Edinburgh by September anyway – we pray. She’s acting like she’s given me some big present. A new life. “It’s practically Maida Vale. Better late than never, I suppose.” ’ This last was done in Pauline’s voice.

  49. Mobility

  The Hanwells were moving into a maisonette. Practically in Maida Vale. Keisha had already heard all about it from Marcia; the shared garden, the three bedrooms. Something called a ‘study’.

  50. Rodney makes a note

  ‘Our pre-eminence: we live in the age of comparison’ (Nietzsche).

  51. Undercover

  Rodney Banks didn’t cause chaos in class, nor did he speak, and the combination made him invisible, anonymous. Keisha Blake asked him why he never spoke to the teachers. He said it was a strategy. He, like Keisha, was fond of strategies. This was one of the things they had in common, though it should be noted that the substance of their strategies was quite different. Keisha meant to charm her way through the front door. Rodney intended to slip through the back, unnoticed. Rodney Banks highlighted so many passages in Machiavelli’s The Prince it became one block of yellow and he didn’t dare return it to the library. ‘The difficult situation and the newness of my kingdom force me to do these things, and guard my borders everywhere.’ He always seemed to have this book with him, along with the King James, a combination in which he saw no contradiction.

  52. Nirvana

  Leah would surely be in her room, clutching his picture, weeping. Keisha found it difficult to suppress a feeling of pleasure at this imagined scenario. Then, in the middle of the news report, Marcia said something incredible, quoting a doctor at the clinic as a source, and the next morning Keisha went directly to the library to investigate. She was infuriated to find that statistically speaking Marcia’s boast was correct: our people hardly ever do that.

  53. Parity

  By July Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake had been offered university places. Both had lovers. (Leah’s lover played the bass in a band called No No Never.) Both the universities and the lovers were of an equal standard, despite their many differences. Both girls had grown into decent-looking women with no serious health or mental problems. Neither had any interest in tanning. It was Leah’s plan to spend a large part of this final NW summer under the shade of an oak tree on Hampstead Heath, with an assortment of friends, a picnic, a lot of alcohol, a little weed. She kept inviting Keisha, who longed to go. But Keisha was working part-time in a bakery on the Kilburn High Road, and when she was not in the bakery she was in church, or helping Cheryl with the baby. At the bakery she was paid three twenty-five an hour. She had to wear regulation flat black shoes with rounded toes and chunky soles, and a brown and white striped outfit topped off by a ‘baker’s hat’, with an elastic rim, under which every last strand of your hair was to be placed. It left an indentation along her forehead. She had to wash out the croissant moulds and get to the doughnut sugar that caught in the thin gulley between the presentation case and the glass. And many other bits of drudgery. She had thought she would prefer it to clothes retail, but in the end even her great enthusiasm for sausage rolls and iced fingers could not sustain her. She kept the university’s prospectus in her locker and would often spend her lunch break slowly turning the glossy pages.

  Every other Saturday she had a half-day and on a few occasions she managed to sneak to the Heath, alone. Rodney would not enjoy the scene on the Heath and could not reasonably be told about it, for this would lead to questions about the two sets of accounts Keisha was now in the habit of keeping. On one side of the ledger she placed Rodney, Marcia, her siblings, the church, and Jesus Christ himself. On the other, Leah was lounging in the high grass drinking cider and asking her good friend Keisha Blake if she would take the opportunity to kill P. W. Botha if he happened to be standing in front of her. ‘I’m not capable of murder,’ protested Keisha Blake. ‘Everyone’s capable of everything,’ insisted Leah Hanwell.

  54. Further education

  That autumn, Keisha Blake and Rodney Banks began attending a church in the Bristol suburbs, the Holy Spirit Ministry, identical in spirit to Kilburn Pentecostal – it came with a recommendation from Pastor. They did most of their socializing there, that first term, with an assortment of kindly people, all in their sixties and seventies. With young people of their own age they were less successful. Rodney left church literature under every door in Keisha’s corridor, and after that they were avoided by fellow students and avoided them in turn. There seemed no point of entry. The students were tired of things Keisha had never heard of, and horriTed by the only thing she knew well: the Bible. In the evenings Rodney and Keisha sat at either end of a small desk in Keisha’s room and studied, as they had studied for their school exams, wearing earplugs and writing everything out by hand, first in draft copies, then in ‘best’– a habit picked up from Sunday school. There was a newly built computer centre in the basement of Keisha’s building that might have made their lives easier: they went in the first week to check it out. A boy in a wide fedora with a leather thong hanging from its brim sat playing ‘Doom’, that dark corridor opening on to itself over and over. The rest were either programming or using some early intra-university form of email. Keisha Blake glanced over a shoulder at a chaotic-looking screen.

  55. Keisha’s first visit

  Their material circumstances were quite different. Keisha occupied a Sixties-build dormitory of indifferent architectural design. Leah a nineteenth-century terraced house, with a defunct fireplace in every room and nine housemates. Instead of a lounge, a ‘chill-out room’. Enormous speakers, no sofa. Keisha had not expected a party on her first night, nor had she worn the right sort of skirt for sitting on a beanbag. The volume of techno or whatever it was made conversation a chore. Everybody was white. Leah was giving a speech and holding the fridge open. It was making the whole kitchen cold. She had been holding it open for a long time. She seemed to have forgotten why.

  ‘Look, say you’re Einstein and you’re just thinking, moment to moment, and suddenly you have your big thought, about the nature of the universe or whatever. So that thought, it’s not like the other moments, because though you’ve had the thought within normal time, the thought itself is basically about the nature of the universe, which is sort of infinite? So that’s a different kind of moment. So Kierkegaard calls that an “instant”. It’s not part of normal time like the others. It’s a lot of stuff like that. I have to pinch myself in class. Like: what am I doing here, with all these smart bastards? Has someone made a mistake somewhere?’

  Keisha scooped some hummus up in a pitta bread and looked into her friend’s dilated pupils.<
br />
  ‘I was thinking about doing philosophy at one point,’ said Keisha, ‘but then I heard about all the maths.’

  ‘Oh, there’s no maths,’ said Leah.

  ‘Really? I thought there was maths.’

  ‘No,’ said Leah, and turned from Keisha to pull out a bottle of beer finally. ‘There’s not.’

  The boy who was sleeping with Leah was also awkward. If you did not keep asking him questions about himself, or about his short films, he stopped talking and stared into space.

  ‘About boredom,’ he explained.

  ‘That sounds interesting,’ said Keisha Blake.

  ‘No. The opposite. This party, full of interesting people, is a perfect example. It’s totally uninteresting.’


  ‘They’re all about boredom essentially. It’s the only subject left.

  We’re all bored. Aren’t you bored?’

  ‘In law,’ said Keisha Blake, ‘there’s a lot of boring memorization. Like in medicine.’

  ‘I think we’re talking about two different things,’ said the boy who was sleeping with Leah.

  56. Family romance

  The phone in the communal hallway rang. Rodney nodded. Keisha stood up. When the phone rang it was usually for Rodney or Keisha – either Marcia or Christine – and they took these calls interchangeably. They were like siblings in every way, aside from the fact they occasionally had sex with each other. The sex itself was cosy and familiar, without any hint of eroticism or orgasms vaginal or clitoral. Rodney was a careful young man, preoccupied with condoms, terrified of pregnancy and disease. When he finally allowed Keisha Blake to have sex with him it turned out to be a technical transition. She learnt nothing new about Rodney’s body, or Rodney, only a lot of facts about condoms: their relative efficacy, the thickness of rubber, the right moment – the safest moment – to remove them afterwards.

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