N.W. by Zadie Smith


  57. Ambition

  They were going to be lawyers, the first people in either of their families to become professionals. They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization.

  58. Leah’s third visit

  Springtime. Blossom overhead. Ms Blake waited in the coach station of eagerness and hope, unable to remember why she had ever experienced any tension whatsoever with regard to her very dearest friend from home, Leah Hanwell. The coach arrived, the doors opened. Human figures with faces streamed into view, and Ms Blake’s brain sought a match between a recent memory and a material reality. Her mistake was to cling to ideas that properly belonged to previous visits. Ideas like ‘red hair’ and ‘black jeans/black boots/black T-shirt’. Fashions change. University is a time of experimentation and metamorphosis. The person who gripped her by the shoulders could no longer be mistaken for a member of a riot girrrl band or a minor Berlin artist. She was now some kind of dirty blonde warrior for the planet, with hair that was dreadlocking itself and army trousers that would not pass an inspection.

  59. Proper names

  It was not that Ms Blake hadn’t noticed the white people walking around with the climbing equipment, or the white people huddled in stairwells discussing the best method to chain themselves to an oak tree. She had experienced her usual anthropological curiosity with regard to these matters. But she had thought it was more of an aesthetic than a protest. The details of the project were hazy in her mind. ‘This is Jed,’ said Leah, ‘and this is Katie and Liam and this is Paul. Guys, this is Keisha, she –’ ‘No. Natalie.’ ‘Sorry, this is Natalie, we went to school together,’ said Leah. ‘She goes here, she’s a lawyer. It’s so weird to see you guys!’ When Leah proceeded to offer these people a round – ‘No, you sit, we’ll get’ – Natalie Blake panicked, her budget being extremely tightly managed with no space for rounds of drinks for crusties to whom she had never before spoken in her life. But at the bar, Leah handed over a twenty and Natalie’s only job was to arrange six pints on a round tray best suited for five.

  ‘Lee, how do you even know these people?’

  ‘Newbury!’

  60. And the scales fell from her eyes

  It was apparently important to ‘keep the pressure up’ if they were going to stop the government building this by-road. Rodney listened but only pointed at the books on his desk, which had the imposing heft of the law, thousands of pages long with brutal, functional covers. Leah tried a different tack: ‘It’s basically a legal issue – there’s a lot of law kids down there right now. It’s good experience, Rodney, even you would agree, even Judge Rodney of the court of the world.’ Natalie Blake found herself smiling. She could at this moment think of no more wonderful thing than sitting up a tree with her good friend Leah Hanwell many hundreds of miles away from this claustrophobic room. Rodney raised his head from his tort casebook. He had a ruthless look on his face. ‘We don’t care about trees, Leah,’ he said. ‘That’s your luxury. We haven’t got the time to care about trees.’

  61. Coup de foudre

  ‘Mr De Angelis, could you carry on from “the power of habit”– top of the second page,’ said Professor Kirkwood, and an extraordinary young man stood up in the front row. He was not a law student, but he was here, in a ‘philosophy of law’ lecture. He was made of parts Natalie considered mutually exclusive, and found difficult to understand together. He had a collection of unexpected freckles. His nose was very long and dramatic in a style she did not know enough to call ‘Roman’. His hair was twisted into dreadlocks that were the opposite of Leah’s, too pristine. They framed his face neatly, ending just below his chin. He wore chinos with no socks, and those shoes that have ropes threaded along the sides, a blue blazer and a pink shirt. An indescribable accent. Like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren.

  62. Montaigne

  In one country, virgins openly display their private parts while married women cover them. In another, male brothels exist. In yet another heavy golden rods are worn through the breasts and buttocks and after dinner people wipe their hands on their testicles. In some places they eat people. In others the fathers decide, when the children are still in the womb, which will be kept and brought up and which killed or abandoned. Kirkwood put his hand up to halt this narrative. ‘Naturally,’ he said, ‘all these people find their own habits to be unremarkable.’ A few students laughed. Natalie Blake and Rodney Banks tried to find the essay between the covers of the cheap edition they shared (they tended to buy one copy of a textbook and then, when it was finished, immediately sell it back to one of the second-hand stores by the university library). The title did not seem to be in the contents or the index, and the fact that they were still not talking to each other made cooperation difficult. ‘What is the lesson here for a lawyer?’ asked Kirkwood. The notable young man’s hand went up. Even from where Natalie Blake was sitting she could see the jewellery on his brown fingers, and an elegant watch with a crocodileskin strap that looked older than Kirkwood. He said: ‘Although you may turn up in court armed with reason, we live in an unreasonable world.’ Natalie Blake tried to work out if this was an interesting answer. Kirkwood paused, smiled, and said: ‘You put a lot of faith in reason, Mr De Angelis. But think of last week’s example. Hundreds of witnesses stand in the dock: good friends, ex-teachers, ex-nurses, ex-lovers. They all say: That’s Tichborne. The man’s own mother gets up there and points: That’s my son. Reason tells us the claimant is ten stone heavier than the man he’s claiming to be. Reason tells us the real Tichborne could speak French. And yet. And when “reason prevailed”, why did people riot in the streets? Don’t put too much faith in reason. Look, I think Montaigne is more sceptical. I think his point is not that you, the lawyers, are reasonable and they, the people, are unreasonable, or even that the laws the people submit to are unreasonable, but that those who submit to traditional laws have at least the defence of “simplicity, obedience and example”– can you see that? End of the third page? While those who try to change them, that is, the laws, are usually terrible in some way, monstrous. We see ourselves as perfect exceptions.’ Natalie Blake was lost. The young man gave a slow, approving nod, the kind a man gives to his equal. His confidence seemed unwarranted, not following from anything he’d said or done. A piece of paper passed round the room. The students were asked to add their full name and from which department they hailed. Even before writing her own Natalie Blake looked for his.

  63. Reconnaissance

  Francesco De Angelis. Second-year economics. Universally known as ‘Frank’. Running for African and Caribbean Soc president next month. Likely to win. Attended a ‘second-rate boarding school’. This from someone who attended a ‘grammar school’. Further: ‘His mum’s Italian or something. His dad was probably some African prince, that’s usually the case.’

  64. Educational parenthesis

  (Some schools you ‘attended’. Brayton you ‘went’ to.)

  65. 8 March

  It happened that Leah’s third visit coincided with a dinner for International Women’s Day. A useful excuse not to see Rodney. Leah wore a green dress and Natalie wore a purple one, and they got ready together and walked to the dining hall arm in arm. The obvious pleasure they took in each other, their deep familiarity and ease in each other’s company, made them more attractive as a pair than they ever could have been alone, and perfectly conscious of this fact they emphasized their similarities of height and build, and kept their long legs in stride with each other. By the time they reached their table Natalie was quite giddy with the power of being young, almost free of a man who bored her and soon to embark on a meal of more than two courses.

  66. Menu

  Honeydew melon with tiger prawn salad

  Chicken breast wrapped in pancetta with green beans and Juliette

  potatoes

  Warm chocolate fondant with vanilla bean ice cream

  Cheeses

  Coffee, mints
r />   67. Desire

  ‘Who that?’ asked Leah Hanwell.

  ‘The dean,’ said Natalie Blake, and licked some chocolate off her teeth. ‘If she stopped speechifying we could go to the bar.’

  ‘No, the girl at the end of that table. In the top hat.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Chinese or Japanese – there.’

  ‘Oh, I don’t know her.’

  ‘She’s so beautiful!’

  68. Valentino

  Korean. In the bar she put her hat on the table, and as Natalie Blake spoke to someone else in their booth, she, Natalie Blake, frequently reached out for this hat and stroked its satin brim. At her back she could hear her good friend Leah Hanwell talking to the Korean, whose name was Alice, making her laugh, and when Natalie went to the bar to buy drinks she had an unobstructed view of Leah as old-school Lothario – one hand over the back of the couch, another on Alice’s knee, breathing on the girl’s lovely neck. Natalie Blake had seen Leah do this many times, but with boys, and there had always seemed something a little shocking and perverse in it, whereas here the relation looked natural. This thought made Natalie wonder at herself and where she was with God these days, or if she was with him at all. Unable to stop staring, she made herself walk over to the jukebox and put on the song ‘Electric Relaxation’ by A Tribe Called Quest in the hope that it would relax her.

  69. The invention of love: part one

  Frank was not at the bar or anywhere else in view.

  70. Partings

  On the bus back to the coach station, after what had been, let’s face it, a signiTcant visit, perhaps even approaching the status of a dramatic event, Leah Hanwell said rather sheepishly: ‘Hope it was all right, me disappearing. Least you and Rodders got the room back,’ and this was all that was said that day about Leah Hanwell’s night with Alice Nho, nor did Natalie Blake mention the fact that she had not asked Rodney to come to her room that night and never again would do so. The bus started to climb what felt like a vertical hill. Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell were pressed back in their seats and against each other. ‘Really good to see you,’ said Leah. ‘You’re the only person I can be all of myself with.’ Which comment made Natalie begin to cry, not really at the sentiment but rather out of a fearful knowledge that if reversed the statement would be rendered practically meaningless, Ms Blake having no self to be, not with Leah, or anyone.

  71. Helping Leah get her heavy rucksack up the steps to the coach

  Natalie Blake had an urge to tell her friend about the exotic brother she had seen in Kirkwood’s class. She said nothing. Quite apart from the fact that the doors were closing she feared what, precisely, the gaping socio-economic difference between Frank De Angelis and Rodney Banks might say to her friend Leah Hanwell about her, Natalie Blake, psychologically, as a person.

  72. Romance languages

  Many of the men Natalie Blake became involved with after Rodney Banks were as alien to her socio-economically and culturally as Frank was, and were far less attractive, but still she didn’t approach Frank, nor did he approach her, despite their keen awareness of each other. A poetic way of putting this would be to say:

  ‘There was an inevitability about the road towards each other which encouraged meandering along the route.’

  73. The sole author

  More prosaically, Natalie Blake was crazy busy with self-invention. She lost God so smoothly and painlessly she had to wonder what she’d ever meant by the word. She found politics and literature, music, cinema. ‘Found’ is not the right word. She put her faith in these things, and couldn’t understand why – at exactly the moment she’d discovered them – her classmates seemed to be giving them up for dead. When asked by other students about Frank De Angelis – she was not the only person who had noted their fundamental compatibility – she said that he was too full of himself and vain and posh and racially confused and not her scene at all, and yet the silent and invisible bond between them strengthened, for who else but Frank De Angelis – or someone exactly like Frank De Angelis – could she ask to accompany her on the strange life journey she was preparing to undertake?

  74. A sighting

  Five rows in front at the midnight showing of Black Orpheus, looking up at his doppelgänger.

  75. Activism

  Natalie was cycling down University Walk when a young man she was sleeping with stood in her path, blocking her way. He had a frantic look about him and at first Natalie thought he was preparing to announce his undying love. ‘Have you got half an hour?’ asked Imran. ‘There’s something I want you to see.’ Natalie wheeled her bike round to Woodland Road and chained it up outside Imran’s hall of residence. In his small bedroom there were two other girls from their year and a grad student she didn’t know. ‘This is the action group,’ said Imran, and put a video into the player. Of course, Natalie was aware of the Bosnian conflict, but it would be fair to say that the war had not been uppermost in her mind. She told herself this was because she had no television and spent most of her time in the library. Similarly, two years earlier the existence of a country called ‘Rwanda’ and the reality of its genocide had come to her simultaneously, in a single newspaper article. Now she sat cross-legged and watched the soldiers marching and listened to the recorded speech of the crazed man screaming, and read the subtitles about racial purity and a fantasy place called ‘Greater Serbia’. This had just happened? Just now? At the end of history? She thought of all the times she and Leah had asked them-selves – for the sake of a thought experiment – what they would have done, had they been in Berlin in 1933. ‘We’re going to drive an ambulance of supplies to Sarajevo,’ said Imran. ‘To help with the reconstruction. You should come.’ To do so would break the first commandment of Natalie Blake’s family: do not put thyself in unnecessary physical peril.

  For the next several weeks Natalie threw herself into the organization of this trip, and made love to Imran, and thought of this period, years later, as representing a sort of pinnacle of radical youthful possibility. Of sex, protest and travel, fused. That she never actually went on the trip seemed, in memory, somehow less important than the fact that she had fully intended to go. (A quarrel with Imran, a few days before. He didn’t call, so she didn’t call.)

  76. Abandon

  Natalie Blake took out a large student loan and made a point of spending it only on frivolous things. Meals and cabs and underwear. Trying to keep up with ‘these people’, she soon found herself with nothing again, but now when she put a debit card in the slot and hoped that five pounds would come out, she did it without the bottomless anxiety she’d once shared with Rodney Banks. She cultivated a spirit of decadence. Having glimpsed the possibility of a future by then, an overdraft did not hold the same power of terror over her. The vision Marcia Blake had of these people, and had passed on to her daughter, came tumbling down in a riot of casual blaspheming, weed and cocaine, indolence. Were these really the people for whom the Blakes had always been on their best behaviour? On the tube, in a park, in a shop. Why? Marcia: ‘To give them no excuse.’

  77. Sighting

  Dressed as Frantz Fanon on a staircase at a party at which Natalie herself was dressed as Angela Davis. His costume consisted of a name-tag and a white coat borrowed off a medical student. Natalie had made more effort: a dashiki and a combed-out ’fro that did not stand up well due to years of damage with a hot iron. The costume party was in the shared house of four philosophy students and the theme was Discourse Founders. His date came as Sappho.

  78. A theory about the tracking of Michelle Holland

  It is perhaps the profound way in which capitalism enters women’s minds and bodies that renders ‘ruthless comparison’ the basic mode of their relationships with others. Certainly Natalie Blake tracked the progress of Michelle Holland with a closer attention than she did her own life – without ever speaking to her. Besides Rodney, Michelle was the only other person from Brayton in the university. A maths prodigy. She did not have the luxury of medi
ocrity. Raised in the brutal high-rise towers of south Kilburn, which had nothing to recommend them, no genteel church culture, none of the pretty green areas of Caldwell or (Natalie presumed) the intimate neighbours. What could she be but exceptional? Father in jail, mother sectioned. She lived with her grandmother. She was sensitive and sincere, awkward, defensive, lonely. It was Natalie’s belief that she, Natalie Blake, didn’t have to say a word to Michelle Holland to know all of this – that she could look at the way Michelle walked and know it. I am the sole author. Consequently Natalie was not at all surprised to hear of Michelle’s decline and fall, halfway through the final year. No drink or drugs or bad behaviour. She just stopped. (This was Natalie’s interpretation.) Stopped going to lectures, studying, eating. She had been asked to pass the entirety of herself through a hole that would accept only part. (Natalie’s conclusion.)

  79. The end of history

  When Natalie now thought of adult life (she hardly ever thought of it) she envisioned a long corridor, off which came many rooms – each with a friend in it – a communal kitchen, a single gigantic bed in which all would sleep and screw, a world governed by the principles of friendship. The above is a metaphorical figure – but it is also a basically accurate representation of Natalie’s thinking at that time. For how can you oppress a friend? How can you cheat on a friend? How can you ask a friend to suffer while you thrive? In this simple way – without marches and slogans, without politics, without any of the mess you get ripping paving stones out of the ground – the revolution had arrived. Late to the party, Natalie Blake now enthusiastically took her good friend Leah Hanwell’s advice and started hugging strangers on dance floors. She looked at the little white pill in her palm. What could go wrong, now we were all friends? Remember to carry a bottle of water. Anyway, it was all already decided. Don’t chew. Swallow. Strobe lights flash. The beat goes on. (I will be a lawyer and you will be a doctor and he will be a teacher and she will be a banker and we will be artists and they will be soldiers, and I will be the first black woman and you will be the first Arab and she will be the first Chinese and everyone will be friends, everyone will understand each other.) Friends are friendly to each other, friends help each other out. No one need be exceptional. Friends know the difference between solicitors and barristers, and the best place to apply, and the likelihood of being accepted, and the names of the relevant scholarships and bursaries. ‘You choose your friends, you don’t choose your family.’ How many times did Natalie Blake hear that line?

 
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