N.W. by Zadie Smith

  ‘I just really need to not be here!’ This problem sounded interesting, and quite unexpected coming from plain-speaking, reliable Melanie, whom Natalie often described as ‘her rock’. (It was the year everyone was saying that such and such a person was ‘their rock’.) But now Melanie turned blandly practical: ‘Not all the time! The fact is I’ve got Rafs and I love her and I don’t want to pretend that I don’t have Rafs any more! Look at her – she’s so bloody brilliant now, she’s almost two.’

  Natalie leant forward to peer at an image on a screen. A grand seigneur to whom a frightened peasant has come, with a confession about the harvest.

  157. On the park

  Natalie Blake was busy with the Kashmiri border dispute, at least as far as it related to importing stereos into India through Dubai on behalf of her giant Japanese electronics manufacturing client. Her husband, Frank De Angelis, was out entertaining clients. They were ‘time poor’. They didn’t even have time to collect their latest reward for all their hard work. Marcia kindly went to get the key before the estate agent closed, and Natalie met her mother and Leah at the front door. They whispered as they entered. It was unclear why. There were no blinds in yet and their shadows rose over the fireplace and up to the ceiling. Natalie led them around, pointing out where sofas and chairs and tables were to be placed, what would be knocked through and what kept, what carpeted and what stripped and polished. Natalie encouraged her mother and her friend to stand in front of the bay window and admire the view of the park. She recognized in herself a need for total submission.

  She ran a little ahead to admire a bedroom. Look at this original cornicing. Here is a working fireplace. She waited for her mother and Leah to join her. She picked at a piece of loose plaster with a fingernail. When she had been a pupil and on the ‘wrong’ side of a criminal case, Marcia had wanted her to ‘think of the victim’s family’. Now, if she was instructed by some large multinational company, she had to listen to Leah’s self-righteous, ill-informed lectures about the evils of globalization. Only Frank supported her. Only he ever seemed proud. The more high profile the case, the more it pleased him. Cheryl, years ago: ‘Every time I try and go back to school, Cole tries to knock me up.’ There but for the grace of God. Thinking of Cheryl was always helpful in moments of anxiety. At least Natalie Blake and Frank De Angelis weren’t working against each other, or in competition. They were incorporated. An advert for themselves. Let me show you round this advert for myself. Here is the window, here is the door. And repeat, and repeat.

  Natalie was opening the door to what she had decided would be her office when Marcia said something probably quite innocent – ‘Plenty of space for a family in here’– and Natalie manufactured a row out of it and wouldn’t back down. She watched her mother walk the black and white tiled hallway to the door, no longer the indomitable mistress of her childhood, but a small, grey-haired woman in a sagging woolly hat who surely deserved gentler treatment than she received.

  ‘You all right?’ said Leah.

  ‘Yes, yes,’ said Natalie. ‘It’s just the usual.’

  Leah found some tea bags in a kitchen cupboard and a single cup.

  ‘People actually think I’m early QC material. Doesn’t mean anything to her. All you have to do with her is move back in. Cheryl’s her angel now. They get on like a house on fire.’

  ‘You’re difficult for her to understand.’

  ‘Why? What’s difficult about me?’

  ‘You have your work. You have Frank. You’ve got all these friends. You’re getting to be so successful. You’re never lonely.’

  Natalie tried to picture the woman being described. Leah sat down on the step.

  ‘Trust me, Pauline’s the same.’

  158. Conspiracy

  Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell were of the belief that people were willing them to reproduce. Relatives, strangers on the street, people on television, everyone. In fact the conspiracy went deeper than Hanwell imagined. Blake was a double agent. She had no intention of being made ridiculous by failing to do whatever was expected of her. For her, it was only a question of timing.

  159. In the park

  Leah was late. Natalie sat in the park café, outside, at one of the wooden tables, protected from the drizzle by a broad green umbrella. The first ten minutes she spent on her phone. Checking the listings, checking her email, checking the newspapers. She put her phone in her pocket. For ten further minutes no one spoke to her and she did not speak to anyone. Squirrels and birds passed in and out of view. The longer she spent alone the more indistinct she became to herself. A liquid decanted from a jar. She saw herself slip from the bench to the ground and take the shape of an animal. Moving on all fours, she reached the end of the damp tarmac and passed over into the grass and mulch. Continuing on, quicker now, getting the hang of four-legged locomotion, moving swiftly across the lawn and the artificial hillocks, the Quiet Garden and the flowerbeds, into the bushes, across the road, and on to the railway sidings, howling.

  ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry. Central line. Jesus, it’s like a crèche out here.’ Natalie looked up at the kids and chaos at every table and smiled neutrally at her friend and wondered at what point during their lunch date she should give Leah her news.

  160. Time speeds up

  There is an image system at work in the world. We wait for an experience large or brutal enough to disturb it or break it open completely, but this moment never quite arrives. Maybe it comes at the very end, when everything breaks and no more images are possible. In Africa, presumably, the images that give shape and meaning to a life, and into whose dimensions a person pours themselves – the journey from son to chief, from daughter to protector – are drawn from the natural world and the collective imagination of the people. (When Natalie Blake said ‘in Africa’ what she meant was ‘at an earlier point in time’.) In that circumstance there would probably be something beautiful in the alignment between the one and the many.

  Pregnancy brought Natalie only more broken images from the great mass of cultural detritus she took in every day on a number of different devices, some hand-held, some not. To behave in accordance with these images bored her. To deviate from them filled her with the old anxiety. She grew anxious that she was not anxious about the things you were meant to be anxious about. Her very equanimity made her anxious. It didn’t seem to fit into the system of images. She drank and ate as before and smoked on occasion. She welcomed, at last, the arrival of some shape to her dull straight lines.

  Of the coming birth her old friend Layla, who had three children already, said: ‘Like meeting yourself at the end of a dark alley.’

  That was not to be for Natalie Blake. The drugs she requested were astonishing, transcendent; not quite as good as Ecstasy yet with some faint memory of the lucidity and joy of those happy days. She felt euphoric, like she’d gone clubbing and kept on clubbing instead of going home when someone more sensible suggested the night bus. She put her earphones in and danced around her hospital bed to Big Pun. It was not a very dramatic event. Hours turned to minutes. At the vital moment she was able to say to herself quite calmly: ‘Oh, look, I’m giving birth.’

  Which is all to say that the brutal awareness of the real that she had so hoped for and desired – that she hadn’t even realized she was counting on – failed to arrive.

  161. Otherness

  There was, however, a moment – a few minutes after the event, once the child had been washed of gunk and returned to her – that she almost thought she possibly felt it. She looked into the slick black eyes of a being not in any way identical with the entity Natalie Blake, who was, in some sense, proof that no such distinct entity existed. And yet was not this being also an attribute of Natalie Blake? An extension? At that moment she wept and felt a terrific humility.

  Very soon after there were flowers and cards and photographs and friends and family who came round bearing gifts that demonstrated different degrees of taste and sense and the mysterious black-eyed other was r
eplaced by a sweet-tempered seven-pound baby called Naomi. People came with advice. Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs. Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee. She had never been so happy to see Caldwell people. She could not place Leah Hanwell in this schema with any accuracy, as it is hardest to caricature the people you’ve loved best in your life. Leah came round with a soft white rabbit, and looked at Natalie as if she had passed over a chasm into another land.

  162. Evidence

  Fourteen months after her first child was born, Natalie Blake had a second. He was meant to be called Benjamin, but he arrived with a little tuft of hair on top of his head, like a spike, and they called him Spike for three days, and then recalled a romantic, childless afternoon, years earlier, spent watching a matinee revival of She’s Gotta Have It.

  Frank was joyful, and forgetful of practicalities, and for a while Natalie found she had to treat him as a third child, a fourth child – if she included the nanny – to be managed and directed along with the rest of them so that time was maximized and everybody got to where they needed to be. Only Natalie herself was allowed to waste time, sitting at her desk, looking through digital images of her brood. This action, considered objectively, was identical to the occasions in which she had been called upon to review photographs of a crime scene. One morning Melanie caught her midway through this reverie and could not hide her delight. Hidden behind the image of Spike was another window, of listings. Natalie submitted, irritably, to a hug.

  163. Architecture as destiny

  To Leah it was sitting room, to Natalie living room, to Marcia lounge. The light was always lovely. And she still liked to stand in the bay and admire her view of the park. Looking around at the things she and Frank had bought and placed in this house, Natalie liked to think they told a story about their lives, in which the reality of the house itself was incidental, but it was also of course quite possible that it was the house that was the unimpeachable reality and Natalie, Frank and their daughter just a lot of human shadow-play on the wall. Shadows had been passing over the walls of this house since 1888 sitting, living, lounging. On a good day Natalie prided herself on small differences, between past residents, present neighbours and herself. Look at these African masks. Abstract of a Kingston alleyway. Minimalist table with four throne-like chairs. At other times – especially when the nanny was out with Naomi and she was alone in the living room feeding the baby – she had the defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest, and to the house next door, and the house next door to that.

  All along the street that autumn the sound of babies crying kept the lights on, late into the night. In Natalie’s house on the park, the shock of The Crash dislodged a little plaster in the wall in the shape of a fist and stopped plans for a basement extension. Off work and eager to feel useful, Natalie Blake waited till Spike’s nap, opened a Word document and with a great sense of purpose typed the title

  Following the money: A wife’s account

  She had a professional gift for expressing herself, and it was infuriating to listen to attacks on the radio and television upon what she thought of as the good character of her husband. As if poor Frank – whose bonus was, proportionally speaking, negligible – were no different in kind to all these epic crooks and fraudsters.

  She was keen to engage him on this subject when he came home. He looked up from his takeaway.

  ‘You’ve never asked me a single thing about work, ever.’

  Natalie denied this, though it was substantively true. In the name of journalism, she pursued her point.

  ‘It shouldn’t be a question of individual morals, should it? It should be a legal question of regulation.’

  Frank put his chopsticks down. ‘Why are we talking about this?’

  ‘It’s history. You’re a part of it.’

  Frank denied being a part of history. He returned to his chow mein.

  Natalie Blake could not be stopped.

  ‘A lot of our tenants write pieces online these days for the papers. Thought pieces. I should be doing more things like that. At least it’s something I can do from home.’

  Frank nodded at the remote control. ‘Can we watch TV now? I’m tired to death.’

  There was no relief to be found on the television.

  ‘Turn it over,’ said Frank, after five minutes of the news. Natalie turned it over.

  ‘If the City closed tomorrow,’ said Frank, without looking at his wife, ‘this country would collapse. End of story.’

  Upstairs the baby started crying.

  Over the next few days Natalie was able to add only two more lines to her attempt at social criticism:

  I am very aware that I am not what most people have in mind when they think of a ‘banker’s wife’. I am a highly educated black woman. I am a successful lawyer.

  She blamed her slow progress on Spike, but in fact the child was a good sleeper and Natalie had the Polish woman, Anna. She had plenty of time. A week later, in the course of attending to her email, she caught sight of the document on her desktop and quietly moved it to a part of her computer where she would not easily stumble across it again. She watched TV in the living room and fed her child. The light failed earlier and earlier. The leaves turned brown and orange and gold. The foxes screamed. Sometimes she checked the listings. The young men on television cleared their desks. Walked out with their boxes held in front of them like shields.

  164. Semi-detached

  Each time she returned to work, the challenge was perfectly clear: make it happen so it seems like it never happened. There was much written about this phenomenon in the ‘Woman’ section of Sunday supplements, and Natalie read this material with interest. The key to it all was the management of time. Fortunately, time management was Natalie’s gift. She found a great deal of time was saved by simple ambivalence. She had no strong opinions about what young children ate, wore, watched, listened to, or what kind of beverage holder they utilized to drink milk or something other than milk.

  At other times she was surprised to meet herself down a dark alley. It filled her with panic and rage to see her spoilt children sat upon the floor, flicking through past images, moving images, of themselves, on their father’s phone, an experience of self-awareness literally unknown in the history of human existence – outside dream and miracle – until very recently. Until just before just now.

  165. Stage directions

  Interior. Night. artificial light.

  Left and right back, high, one small window. Closed blind.

  Front right, a door, ajar. Bookshelves to the right and left.

  Simple desk. Folding chair. Books upon it.

  Nat comes through door. Looks up at window. Stands close to window.

  Opens blind. Closes blind. Leaves. Returns. Leaves.

  A pause.

  Returns with urgency, opens blind. Removes books from chair. Sits. Stands.

  Walks to door. Returns. Sits. Opens laptop. Closes. Opens.


  FRANK: [mechanical tone, out of sight] Bed. Coming? [pause]


  NAT: Yes. [types quickly] No. Yes.

  166. Time speeds up

  Now that there was so much work to do – now that the whole of her life had essentially become work – Natalie Blake felt a calm and contentment she had previously only experienced during the run-up to university examinations or during pre-trial. If only she could slow the whole thing down! She had been eight for a hundred years. She was thirty-four for seven minutes. Quite often she thought of a chalk diagram drawn on a blackboard, a long time ago, when things moved at aC reasonable pace. A clockface, meant to signify the history of the universe in a twelve-hour stretch. The big bang came at midday. The dinosaurs arrived mid-afternoon some time. Everything that concerned humans could be accounted for in the five minutes leading up to midnight.

  167. Doubt

  Spike began to speak. His favourite thing to say was: ‘This is my mummy.’ The emphasis varied. ‘This is my mummy. This is my mummy. This is my mummy.’

  168. African minimart endgame

  She had a new urge for something other than pure forward momentum. She wanted to conserve. To this end, she began going in search of the food of her childhood. On Saturday mornings, straight after visiting the enormous British supermarket, she struggled up the high road with two children in a double buggy and no help to the little African minimart to buy things like yam and salted cod and plantain. It was raining. Horizontal rain. Both children were screaming. Could there be misery loftier than hers?

  Naomi threw things in the cart. Natalie threw them out. Naomi threw them in. Spike soiled himself. People looked at Natalie. She looked at them. Back and forth went the looks of paranoia and contempt. It was freezing outside, freezing inside. They managed to join a queue. Just. They only just managed it.

  ‘I’ll tell you a story, Nom-Nom, if you stop that, I’ll tell you a story. Do you want to listen to my story?’ asked Natalie Blake.

  ‘No,’ said Naomi De Angelis.

  Natalie wiped the cold sweat from her forehead with her scarf and looked up to see if anyone was admiring her maternal calm in the face of such impossible provocation. The woman in front of her in the queue came into view. She was emptying her pockets on to the counter, offering to relinquish this and that item. Her children, four of them, cringed around her legs.

  Natalie Blake had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand.

  169. Lunch with Layla

  Her old friend Layla Thompson was now Layla Dean. She’d left the church many years earlier. She worked at a Black and Asian radio station as the head of music programming. She was married to a man who owned and ran two Internet café/copy shops in Harlesden. Damien. Three children. Whenever Natalie Blake was having an argument about education (she had arguments of this kind constantly) she held up her old friend Layla as a positive example of all that she was trying to say.

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