N.W. by Zadie Smith


  Leah laughed: ‘You’re the cocaine on the mirror. The badly cut cocaine.’

  100. Natalie seeks Elena

  A Mayfair lunch. A beautiful woman slips an oyster down her throat. Her phone is so slim and light it sits easily in the silk pocket of her blouse. ‘And he is working hard?’ she asks. Elena De Angelis tapped a thin cigarette on the tablecloth and gave Natalie Blake a sideways look of fierce cunning. Before Natalie could even stutter an answer, Elena laughed. ‘Don’t worry – I don’t ask you to lie. It’s not going to be the law for ’Cesco, of course it is not. But I hoped it would be a useful thing generally, for his character. It was like this for his uncle. Well. He met you. You are the first real woman he has ever brought to meet me. This is something. Tell me, is it true you have to have dinner a certain number of times in the year or you cannot be a barrister?’ Natalie watched Elena tap ash on to her dinner plate. She urgently wanted to know how this woman loved and lost a Trinidadian train guard. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘twelve times. In the great hall. Used to be thirty-six.’ Elena blew two jets of smoke through her nostrils. ‘What a curious country this is!’ A waiter came over and the bill was settled somehow without any ugly groping after purses and money. No one mentioned the smoking ban. ‘’Cesco, please call your cousin. I said you would ring two weeks ago, and they can’t hold a position forever. It’s embarrassing.’

  101. Onwards, upwards

  Frank flunked the bar spectacularly, turning up forty-five minutes late, leaving ten minutes early. Afterwards the first thing he did was call his mother. Natalie saw how this conversation cheered him. Elena was the kind of woman to prefer a spectacular disaster to a conventional failure.

  Leah Hanwell found a bleak flat south of the river, in New Cross, and Natalie Blake, out of respect for an old friendship, became her flatmate. She read briefs on the long triangulated tube rides: New Cross, Lincoln’s Inn, Marylebone. She slipped into Frank’s bed. Slipped out. Slipped in. ‘What time is it?’ ‘Eleven fifteen.’ ‘I’ve gotta chip!’ She tried to force herself to get up and on to a night bus, heading south. ‘Your principles spend more time in that dump than you do,’ he observed. She sank back into the pillows.

  Perceptive in sudden, hard to predict, bursts.

  Goofy and always affectionate. He called a lot.

  Going through the ticket barrier, the phone he’d bought her rang: ‘Natalie Blake, you’re literally the only person in the world I can stand.’

  That was the year people began saying ‘literally’.

  Frank was at his desk at Durham and Macaulay Investments, betting on the future price of things he was quite unable to describe to her. More symbols, she presumed, though of a kind she couldn’t decode.

  102. Save yourself

  To explain herself to herself, Natalie Blake employed a conventional image. Broad river. Turbulent water. Stepping stones. Caldwell, exams, college, the bar – pupillage. This last gap was almost too wide to jump. There were no scholarships, and no way of earning any real money through the first half of the pupillage year. It had to be another loan, combined with the building society savings, untouched since childhood. This building society, a local concern, happened also to operate at the level of conventional images.

  103. Capitalist pigs

  He was called Peter: he had a coin-shaped slot in his back. Marcia Blake had kept the little red pocket book, and dealt with the cashiers. As certain key sums were achieved (twenty-five pounds, fifty pounds, a hundred), the child received first Peter, and then various members of the building society’s branded pig family. In the Blake home these pigs were considered ornaments, and stood all together on a shelf in the lounge. Sometimes Marcia would offer a glimpse of the ‘credit’ column with the extraordinary (untouchable) sum of seventy-one pounds or something like that. Natalie never touched it, and now, twenty years later, it had finally amounted to something. Ah, memories! And perhaps she even remembered handling the old one-pound paper notes? Hard to say: nostalgia is such a distorting force.

  ‘You in this line?’

  Natalie looked down at the feisty old lady at her elbow, clutching her little red book. She raised her own red book vaguely: ‘I think so.’

  But the line was an amorphous crowd of noisy NW people holding pocket books and shouting and pushing. Someone said: ‘We need system up in this queue, man! Always chaos in here!’ Someone else: ‘These people don’t know what is British queue.’

  The aluminium poles that should have been planted at intervals in the filthy carpet had not been set out. Natalie could see them piled up in a corner by the cashiers’ desks.

  ‘You now. Go!’ said the old lady, and Natalie Blake, uncertain whether justice had been done or no, walked up to the desk indicated, had a disturbing conversation with a teller called Doreen Bayles, made her way out of the scrum to the Kilburn High Road, leant on a bus stop and wept.

  104. One hundred and ten per cent

  ‘I am so angry with Pastor,’ said Marcia, weeping. ‘It’s so terrible, when I gave it to him in good faith, and he absolutely promised me it was one hundred and ten per cent guaranteed your money back – he promised me with his hand on his heart, because it’s for the church, and it’s short term! We’re growing the church in Laos, getting the word out over there, where the people really need it. I can’t believe it because I was just going to take it out and put it back in and you weren’t even going to notice because it was short term, it was just as a bridge, that’s what he said, and I believed him, of course! He’s a good man. I’m so angry with Pastor right now, Keisha! When I found out I went crazy for real. I’m just too trusting, this is the thing, which is the worst thing, because I think people are telling the truth when they’re being very deceptive, very untruthful. It’s very difficult after that to have trust. Very difficult.’

  105. A romantic scene in Green Park

  Natalie had established a rule that romantic activities should be affordable for both parties. Sometimes this caused a row. Today it was unobjectionable. Weekend papers. Celebrity interviews. Movie reviews. Opinion. Lonely Hearts. Strong sun. Packed lunch. Red Stripes.

  ‘Oh, and I talked it over with Elena – she agrees.’

  ‘There’s the guard. Frank, let’s just move to the grass – I’m not paying two quid for a deckchair.’

  ‘Are you listening to me? I talked with my mother. We want to give you the money.’

  Natalie put down the Saturday magazine, turned from Francesco De Angelis and pressed her face into the canvas, expecting to weep, to be ‘overwhelmed’. Instead her face was dry, her mind strangely occupied.

  106. Parklife

  Female individual seeks male individual for loving relationship. And vice versa.

  Low-status person with intellectual capital but no surplus wealth seeks high-status person of substantial surplus wealth for enjoyment of mutual advantages, including longer life expectancy, better nutrition, fewer working hours and earlier retirement, among other benefits.

  Human animal in need of food and shelter seeks human animal of opposite gender to provide her with offspring and remain with her until the independent survival of aforementioned offspring is probable.

  Some genes, seeking their own survival, pursue whatever will most likely result in their replication.

  107. Let’s not argue, boo

  He was still talking. He had his grown-up face on, the one he wore daily to work. She knew it was a fake. The reason he couldn’t explain to her what he was doing at work was not because it was too complicated for her to understand (though it was) but because he himself didn’t truly understand it. He bluffed his way through each day. She had known all along that his ego was delicate and built on uncertain foundations and she considered this trait – universal among men, as far as her own experiences went – to be a small price to pay for his aforementioned honesty and sexual openness and beauty.

  ‘… which then I just said to Elena: this girl gets the second highest pass in the year – even if I didn’t
love her, it doesn’t make sense to let this kind of ability go to waste for the lack of means – it doesn’t make economic sense. Your family for whatever reason refuse to help you –’

  ‘They don’t refuse to help me, Frank – they can’t!’ cried Natalie Blake, and launched into a passionate defence of her family, despite the fact she was not speaking to any of them.

  108. Politics on the move

  ‘Cheryl could stop having children. Your brother could get a job. They could leave that money-grabbing cult. Your family make poor life choices – that’s just a fact.’

  ‘You should stop talking because you really don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t want to talk about this on the damn tube.’

  It seemed that Natalie Blake and Francesco De Angelis had opposite understandings of this word ‘choice’. Both believed their own interpretation to be objectively considered and in no way the product of their contrasting upbringings.

  109. John Donne, Lincoln’s Inn, 1592

  A commotion could be heard in the clerks’ room above. Polly provided a clever phrase for it: ‘a cockney symphony of expletives’.

  ‘Nat, what time’s your flight?’

  ‘Tomorrow morning at seven.’

  ‘Look, where would you rather be: Tuscany or West London Youth Court? I’m serious, get out of here while you still can.’

  They were the only two left in the pupils’ room. Everyone was either in court or already in the pub.

  ‘You can even take my last fag. Consider it part of the trousseau.’

  Natalie put her arms in her coat, while Polly worked the lighter, but they were not quick enough to avoid a clerk, Ian Cross, appearing at the bottom of the stairs carrying a brief.

  ‘Oi. Put that out. Concentrate. Who wants this?’

  ‘What is it?’

  Ian turned the brief over in his hands: ‘Junkies. Robbery. Bit of mild arson. That’s young Mr Hampton-Rowe’s notes on the back of it – over at Bridgestone. He got a higher calling last minute. That Reverend Marsden fuck-up. High profile.’

  Natalie watched Polly blush and reach out for the brief with an imitation of mild interest: ‘Reverend who?’

  ‘You’re joking, aren’t you? Vicar cut up a prozzie and dumped her in Camden Lock. Been wall to wall. Don’t you read the papers?’

  ‘Not those sort of papers.’

  ‘You should join the twenty-first century, love. There’s only one kind of paper these days.’ As he smiled, the port-wine stain around his left eye crinkled horribly. Another of Polly’s clever phrases: ‘whole personality constructed around a stain’.

  ‘Give it here. She can’t. Nat’s getting married Sunday.’

  ‘Salutations. Everyone should do it. No man is an island, I always say.’

  ‘Oh, that was you, was it? I was wondering who that was. Nat, darling, flee from here. Save yourself. Have a drink on me.’

  110. Personality parenthesis

  (Sometimes, when enjoying Pol’s capsule descriptions of the personalities of others, Natalie feared that in her own – Natalie’s – absence, her own – Natalie’s – personality was also being encapsulated by Pol, although she could not bring herself to truly fear this possibility because at base she could not believe that she – Natalie – could ever be spoken about in the way she – Natalie – spoke about others and heard others spoken about. But for the sake of a thought experiment: what was Natalie Blake’s personality constructed around?)

  111. Work drinks

  Natalie Blake hurried up the steps and past the clerks’ room to avoid any other briefs. She stepped out into the slipstream of Middle Temple Lane. Everyone flowing in the same direction, towards Chancery Lane, and she fell in step, found two friends, and then two more. By the time they reached the Seven Stars they were too large a party for an inside table. The only other woman – Ameeta – offered to get the drinks and Natalie offered to help her. ‘Vodka shots or beer?’ They had forgotten to ask. Ameeta, another working-class girl, but from Lancashire, was anxious to get it right – as working-class female pupils they were often anxious to get it right. Natalie Blake counselled for both. A few minutes later they emerged in their sensible skirt suits holding two wobbly trays sloppy with foam. The men were lined up by the railings of the Royal Courts, smoking. It was a lovely late summer evening in London. The men whistled. The women approached.

  112. Sir Thomas More, Lincoln’s Inn, 1496

  ‘Someone give this girl the bumps! She’s getting married. Ah, the good die young. What’s his name again? Francesco. An eye-tie? I move for a mistrial. Half-Trini, actually. IT’S POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD. Seriously, though, Nat. Best of luck. We all wish you the best of luck. I don’t believe in luck. Where’s my invite? Yeah, where’s my invite? Watch that glass! No one’s invited, not even family. We want to be alone. Ooh, exclusive! Someone lift her up. Pol says he’s loaded, too. Durham and Macaulay. Quickie in Islington town hall. Honeymoon in Positano. Business class. Oh, we know all about it. Oh yes, we know. Blake’s no fool. Ouch! No hitting. Point is, you’re joining the other side. Enemy camp. We will be forced to continue the hunt for love in your absence. This Francesco fellow: he approve of sex after marriage? Italians tend to. Catholic, we presume. Oh yes, we presume. Frank. Everyone just calls him Frank. He’s only half Italian. Jake, get her right leg. Ezra, get the left. Ameeta, get the arse. Put me down! You’re on arse duty, Ameeta, love. Objection! How come Ameeta gets the best bit? Because I do. Objection overruled. Why can’t a gentleman refer to the posterior of a lady any more these days? I TELL YOU IT’S POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE – oh, fuck it. One two three LIFT.’

  The trainee barristers carried Natalie Blake across the road, whooping. Her nose came level with the arches of sixteenth-century doorways. So far from home!

  ‘SHE’S GETTING MARRIED IN THE MORNING.’

  ‘Morning after. Who’s that statue, up there?’

  ‘My Latin’s rusty – I have no fucking clue … Which way we heading? North? West! Which line do you need, Nat? The Jubilee?’

  113. Miele di Luna (two weeks)

  Sun.

  Prosecco.

  Sky, bleached.

  Swallows. Arc. Dip.

  Pebbles blue.

  Pebbles red.

  Elevator to the beach.

  Empty beach. Sunrise. Sunset.

  ‘You know how rare this is, in Italy?

  This is what you pay for

  – the silence!’

  Oh.

  He swims. Every day.

  ‘The water is perfect!’

  Wave.

  English newspapers. Two beers. Arancini.

  ‘Is it all right if we put it on this card? We’re in room 512. I have my passport.’

  ‘Of course, madam, you are the newlywed suite. You mind I ask something? Where you from?’

  Wave.

  The waiters wear white gloves.

  Obituaries. Reviews. Cover to cover.

  Rum and Coke. Cheesecake.

  ‘Can I put it straight on the room? The other guy said it was OK. 512.’

  ‘For sure, madam. How do you call this, in English?’

  ‘Binoculars. My husband likes birds. Weird saying that word.’

  ‘Binoculars?’

  ‘Husband.’

  The public beach is at the tip of the peninsula. Four miles hence.

  Whoops. Screams. Laughter. Music from loudspeakers. More bodies than sand.

  Wish you were here?

  Empty.

  Exclusive.

  ‘This is really like paradise!’

  oh

  wave

  Lone family. Red umbrella. Mother, father, son. Louis. LOOO-weee!

  Pink shorts. WAVE

  Nowhere and nothing.

  LOOO-WEEE!

  Vodka cocktail.

  ‘Have you got a pen? Do you know where they’re from?’

  ‘Paris, signora. She is American model. He is computer. French.’

  Louis stung
by a jellyfish.

  Dramatic event!

  Rum cocktail. Prawns. Chocolate cake.

  ‘512, please.’

  ‘Madam, I promise you this is not possible. There are no jellyfish here. We are a luxury resort. You don’t swim because of this?’

  ‘I don’t swim because I can’t swim.’

  Linguine con vongole, gin and tonic, rum cocktail.

  ‘Signora, where you from? American?’

  ‘512.’

  ‘This is your boyfriend swimming?’

  ‘Husband.’

  ‘He speak very good Italian.’

  ‘He is Italian.’

  ‘And you, signora? Dove sei? ’

  114. L’isola che non c’è

  ‘You should at least stand in the water one time,’ said Frank De Angelis, and Natalie Blake looked up at her husband’s beautiful brown torso dripping with saltwater and returned to her reading. ‘You’ve been dragging those papers around since the plane.’ He looked over her shoulder. ‘What’s so interesting?’ She showed him the wrinkled, water-damaged page of personal advertisements. He sighed and put on his sunglasses. ‘“Soulmates”. Che schifo! I don’t know why you love reading those things. They depress me. So many lonely people.’

  115. The Old Bailey

  Ian Cross put his head round the pupils’ door. A room full of pupils looked up hopefully. Cross looked at Natalie Blake.

  ‘Want to see a grown jury weep? Bridgestone need a random pupil to make up the numbers. Court One, Bailey. With Johnnie Hampton-Arse. Don’t worry, you won’t have to do anything, just look pretty. Grab your wig.’

  She was excited to be chosen. It proved the efficacy of her strategy as compared to, say, Polly’s. Don’t get romantically involved with the star tenants of criminal sets. Do good work. Wait for your good work to be noticed. This innocence and pride was preserved right up until the moment she took her seat and spotted the victim’s family in the gallery, unmistakably Jamaican, the men in shiny grey double-breasted suits, the women in their wide-brimmed hats topped with sprays of synthetic flowers.

  ‘Watch and learn,’ whispered Johnnie, rising for opening remarks.

  116. Voyeurism

 
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