N.W. by Zadie Smith


  When using Layla as a positive example in this manner she usually neglected to mention that she had not seen Layla for a couple of years. Layla had been having her children and Natalie had not been having children and during this period Natalie had found it difficult to have lunch with Layla, Layla’s concerns seeming so myopic, so narrowly focused. Now that Natalie had children of her own it occurred to her that she would really love to have regular lunches with Layla once again. There were so many things she would be able to say to Layla that she had not been able to say to anyone else. Lunch was arranged. And now she found herself speaking very fast and fully availing herself of Layla’s hospitality at this beautiful soul food restaurant in Camden High Street. There was a sense in which she couldn’t speak fast enough to get out all the things she wanted to say.

  ‘ “It’s such a relief not to have to pretend to be interested in the news,” ’ said Natalie Blake, quoting another woman, and eating a small china ladle full of prawns in coconut milk broth. ‘And I just sat in a circle of these freaks and thought: I really don’t belong here. Show me the exit. I need people I can go out dancing with.’ Outside, a car passed playing ‘Billie Jean’.

  ‘I’ll come dancing with you, Natalie.’

  ‘Thank you! There’s an old school hip hop night in Farringdon somewhere, my brother told me about it. We could go next Saturday. I could get my friend Ameeta on board. Beats singing “Old MacDonald”.’

  ‘I like those kid classes. I used to go all the time.’

  ‘Not this one. This one’s posh. But the bit I really can’t deal with is when they all –’ began Natalie, and continued in this vein through most of the main course. Men came with punch, they came with punch. Her glass was never half empty or half filled but always filling. Men came with punch. Outside, a car passed playing ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’.

  ‘What?’ asked Natalie Blake. She was really too drunk to return to chambers. Her friend Layla was smiling, a little sadly. She was looking at the tablecloth.

  ‘Nothing. You’re exactly the same.’

  Natalie was in the middle of texting Melanie to warn her she would not be in now until tomorrow morning.

  ‘Right. It’s not like I have to become another person just because –’

  ‘You always wanted to make it clear you weren’t like the rest of us.

  You’re still doing it.’

  A waiter came over to ask about dessert. Natalie Blake, though eager for dessert, felt now she could not really order one. She was struck with dread. Her heart beat madly. She had a schoolgirl’s impulse to report Layla Dean née Thompson to the waiter. Layla’s being horrible to me! Layla hates me! Outside, a car passed playing ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.’

  Layla did not look up at the waiter and after a moment he went away. She had a thick white napkin she was twisting in both hands.

  ‘Even when we used to do those songs you’d be with me but also totally not with me. Showing off. False. Fake. Signalling to the boys in the audience, or whatever.’

  ‘Layla, what are you talking about?’

  ‘And you’re still doing it.’

  170. In drag

  Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic.

  171. Me, myself and I

  Natalie put Naomi in her car seat and locked the buckle. Natalie put Spike in his car seat and locked the buckle. Natalie climbed up into the giant car. Natalie closed all the windows. Natalie put on the air-conditioning. Natalie put Reasonable Doubt in the stereo. Natalie instructed Frank to mute egregious profanity as and when it arrived.

  172. Box sets

  Walking down Kilburn High Road Natalie Blake had a strong desire to slip into the lives of other people. It was hard to see how this desire could be practicably satisfied or what, if anything, it really meant. ‘Slip into’ is an imprecise thought. Follow the Somali kid home? Sit with the old Russian lady at the bus stop outside Poundland? Join the Ukrainian gangster at his table in the cake shop? A local tip: the bus stop outside Kilburn’s Poundland is the site of many of the more engaging conversations to be heard in the city of London. You’re welcome.

  Listening was not enough. Natalie Blake wanted to know people. To be intimately involved with them.

  Meanwhile:

  Everyone in both Natalie’s workplace and Frank’s was intimately involved with the lives of a group of African-Americans, mostly male, who slung twenty-dollar vials of crack in the scrub between a concatenation of terribly designed tower blocks in a depressed and forgotten city with one of the highest murder rates in the United States. That everyone should be so intimately involved in the lives of these young men annoyed Frank, though he could not really put his finger on why, and in protest he exempted himself and his wife from what was by all accounts an ecstatic communal televisual experience.

  Meanwhile:

  Natalie Blake checked her listing. Replied to her replies.

  173. In the playground

  You can’t smoke in a playground. It’s obvious. Any half-civilized person ought to know that.

  Yes, agreed Natalie. Yes, of course.

  Is he still smoking? Asked the old white lady.

  Natalie leant forward on the bench. He was still smoking. About eighteen years old. He was with two other kids: a white boy with terrible acne and a very pretty girl in a grey tracksuit and neon-yellow Nike. The girl was doing what Natalie and her friends used to call ‘lounging’ or ‘plotting’ – i.e. she sat between the white boy’s legs with her elbows on his knees in a lazy summertime embrace. And they looked quite nice together, lounging on the roundabout. But it could not be denied: the smoking boy was standing on the roundabout. Smoking.

  I’m going to give them all a piece of my mind. Said the old white lady. They’re all off that bloody estate.

  The old lady went over and at the same moment Naomi ran from the paddling pool into her mother’s arms crying TOWEL TOWEL TOWEL. In case you were wondering, this was indeed the same pool in which the dramatic event had occurred, many years earlier. Natalie Blake wrapped a towel around her daughter and put plastic sandals on her feet.

  The old lady returned.

  Is he still smoking? He was very rude to me.

  Yes. Said Natalie Blake. Still smoking.

  PUT IT OUT. Shouted the old lady.

  Natalie picked Naomi up in her arms and walked over to the roundabout. As she approached, a middle-aged woman, a formidable-looking Rasta in a giant Zulu hat, joined her. The two of them stood by the roundabout. The Rasta folded her arms across her chest.

  You need to put that out. This is a playground. Said Natalie.

  NOW. Said the Rasta. You shouldn’t even be in here. I heard how you spoke to that lady. That lady is your elder. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  Just put it out. Said Natalie. My child is here. Said Natalie, though she really did not have strong feelings about second-hand smoke, particularly when it was outside in the open air.

  Listen, if someone comes disrespecting me, said the boy, I’m gonna tell them to get off my fucking case. Did she address me respectfully though? Don’t lie, cos they all heard you and no you didn’t.

  YOU CANNOT SMOKE IN A CHILDREN’S PLAYGROUND. Shouted the old lady. From the bench.

  But why did she have to get in my face in that manner? Enquired the boy.

  She has a right! Insisted the Rasta woman.

  Just put it out. Said Natalie. This is a playground.

  Listen, I don’t do like you lot do round here. This ain’t my manor.

  We don’t do like you do here. In Queen’s Park. You can’t really chat to me. I’m Hackney, so.

  This was an unwise move, rhetorically speaking. Even the lounging girl groaned.

  Oh, NO. Said the Rasta. No you didn’t. No no no. You
having a laugh? I’m Hackney? So? SO? Listen, you can try and mess with these people but you can’t mess with me, sunshine. I know you. In a deep way. I’m not Queen’s Park, love, I’m HARLESDEN. Why would you talk about yourself in that way? Why would you talk about your area that way? Oh you just pissed me off, boy. I’m from Harlesden – certified youth worker. Twenty years. I am ashamed of you right now. You’re the reason why we’re where we are right now. Shame. Shame!

  Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Said the boy. The girl laughed.

  You think this is funny? Said the Rasta. Keep laughing, my sista. Where do you think this leads? Said the Rasta, to the girl.

  Me? But I ain’t even involved! How am I even involved?

  Nowhere. Said Natalie. Nowhere. Nowhere. NOWHERE.

  Mummy stop shouting! Said Naomi.

  Natalie did not know why she was shouting. She began to fear she was making herself ridiculous.

  I feel sorry for you, really. Said a previously uninvolved Indian man, who now joined the circle of judgement. You’re obviously very unhappy, dissatisfied young people.

  Oh my days don’t you fucking start! Cried the girl.

  The white boy she was lounging with looked at the gathering crowd and opened his eyes very wide. He started to laugh.

  You lot crease me up. He said.

  How did this even get like this to this level? Asked the girl, laughing. I’m just sitting here, chillin! How am I even involved? Marcus, man, you’re bait. This is on you. Next thing I know I’m on fucking Jeremy Kyle.

  Why are you laughing? Asked the old white woman, who now stood with the rest, by the roundabout. I don’t think this is very funny.

  Oh man, this is long. Said the girl. This one’s back at it now. Old Mother Hubbard’s on the fucking case again. Shit is crazy!

  All of this? Asked Marcus. For a fag. Is it really worth it though? Just sit down back where you was and calm yourselves. Go handle your business. Sit down, man.

  Fools. Said the girl.

  Just put it out, man. Said Natalie. She had not ended a sentence in ‘man’ for quite some time.

  Oi, Marcus. Said the girl. Just put that fag out please, shut this woman up. This is just getting to be ridiculous now.

  You should be ashamed of yourself. Said the old white lady.

  I was willing to chat with you, right? Said the Rasta. Adult to adult and try and comprehend your point of view. But you just lost me with that nonsense. Shame on you, brother. And the sad thing is I’ve seen where it leads.

  Don’t worry ’bout me. Said Marcus. I get paid. I do all right. Said Marcus.

  Marcus popped his collar. This gesture was not convincing.

  I get paid, I do all right. Repeated Natalie. Her lip was curled up in a snarl. I get paid, I do all right. She repeated. Yeah, sure you do. I’m a lawyer, mate. That’s paid. That’s really paid.

  These people are fucking mental. Said the girl.

  If she come over and ask me respectfully, yeah? I would have just done it. Argued Marcus. I’m actually an intelligent young man? But when someone don’t respect me then they’re disrespecting to me and then I’m going to step to them.

  If you had any real self-respect or self-esteem, argued Natalie, one person asking you to put a cigarette out in a fucking playground would not register as an attack on your precious little ego.

  A small crowd had gathered, of other parents, concerned citizens. This last point of Natalie’s was a great popular success, and she sensed her victory as surely as if a jury had gasped at a cache of photographs in her hand. Easing into triumph, she accidentally locked eyes with Marcus – briefly causing her to stutter – but soon she found a void above his right shoulder and addressed all further remarks to this vanishing point. Around them the argument devolved into smaller disputes. The girl argued with the old lady. Her beau argued with the Rasta. Several people joined together with Natalie to keep yelling at poor Marcus, who by this point had finished his cigarette and looked utterly exhausted.

  174. Peach, peonies

  She couldn’t find the address and walked past it several times. It was a nondescript door with a double-glazed panel, squeezed between Habitat and Waitrose on the Finchley Road. Run-down, a Thirties block. She pressed the button and was immediately buzzed up. She stopped to examine some plastic flowers in the hall, extraordinary in their verisimilitude. Four flights, no lift. Natalie Blake stood at the inner door for a long time. In order to ring the bell she had to perform an act she later characterized to herself as ‘leaving her own body’. Through the glass she could see peach carpet and peach walls, and a corner of the living room where a puffy white leather sofa stood, with walnut legs and arms. Opposite the sofa she spotted a matching chair and giant pouffe, done in the same style. On a hallway table sat a newspaper. She strained to see which one and concluded it was a copy of the Daily Express, partially obscured by an old-fashioned finger-dial telephone, also in cream with a brass handle. She thought of the listing, which had described this couple as ‘upscale’. Two bodies approached the door. She saw them clearly through the glass. Much older than they’d said. In their sixties. Awful, crêpey white skin with blue veins. Everyone’s seeking a BF 18–35. Why? What do they think we can do? What is it we have that they want? She heard them calling: Come back!

  175. Golders Green Crematorium

  It was not difficult for Natalie Blake to get dressed for a funeral. Most of her clothes had a funereal aspect. It was harder to dress the children and she made this the focus of her anxiety, banging cupboard doors and throwing whatever got in her way to the floor.

  In the car her husband, Frank De Angelis, asked: ‘Was he a good guy?’

  ‘I don’t know what that means,’ replied Natalie Blake.

  As they pulled into the car park there was not a face in the rear-view mirror that she didn’t recognize, even if she lacked their names. Caldwell people, Brayton people, Kilburn people, Willesden people. Each marking a particular period. Surely she was no more than a narcissistic form of timepiece for them, too. And yet. She stepped down from her car to the courtyard. A friend of her mother’s touched her arm. She moved towards the memorial garden. A man who ran the Caldwell Residents’ Association laid his big hand on her neck and squeezed. Was it possible not only to have contempt for the people who kept time for you? Was it also possible to love them? ‘You all right, Keisha?’ ‘Natalie, good to see you.’ ‘All right, love?’ ‘Miss Blake, long time.’ The weird nod of recognition people give each other at funerals. Not only was Colin Hanwell dead but a hundred people who had shared the same square mile of streets with the man now recognized that relation, which was both intimate and accidental, close and distant. Natalie had not really known Colin (it was not possible to have really known Colin) but she had known what it was to know of Colin. To have Colin be an object presented to her consciousness. So had all these others.

  People spoke. People sang. And did those feet, in ancient times.

  Natalie was forced to come and go as each of her children kicked up a fuss. Finally the curtain opened and the coffin disappeared. Dusty Springfield. There are things you can only learn about people after they’re dead. As the congregation filed out, Leah stood in the doorway with her mother. She wore a terrible long black skirt and blouse that someone must have lent her. Natalie could hear well-meaning strangers burdening Leah with long, irrelevant memories. Storytelling. ‘Thank you for coming,’ said Leah, mechanically, as each passed by. She looked very pale. No siblings. No cousins. Only Michel to help.

  ‘Oh, Lee,’ exclaimed Natalie Blake, when it was her turn, and wept and held her good friend Leah Hanwell very tightly. If only someone could have forced Natalie Blake to attend a funeral every day of her life!

  176. Oblivion

  The Cranley Estate, Camden. More N than NW. A skinny man who called himself ‘JJ’ and looked not unlike her uncle Jeffrey. And an Iranian girl, with an equally unlikely moniker: ‘Honey’. They were in their early twenties, disasters. Natalie
Blake assumed crack, but it could easily have been meth or something else again. Honey had one tooth missing. Their living room barely deserved the name. Nasty, filthy futon, TV on the whole time. The whole place stank of weed. They were sat on beanbags, barely conscious, watching Deal or No Deal. They did not appear nervous. JJ said: Chill here first for a bit. I just got in and I’m bushed. He did not indicate a chair. Ever accommodating, Natalie Blake found a spot on the floor between the two of them.

  She tried to concentrate on the show, having never seen it before. Her phone kept beeping with texts from work. JJ had an elaborate conspiracy theory about the order of the boxes. The only thing to do was to accept the joint and let the weed take her. Quite soon she lost track of time. At some point the TV watching finished and JJ started playing a video game: goblins and swords and elves talking nonsense. Natalie excused herself to go to the loo. She opened the wrong door, saw a leg, heard a cry. That’s Kelvin, said JJ, he’s crashing here right now. He works nights.

  The toilet seat was see-through plexi with a goldfish print. The water out of the tap was brown. Head & Shoulders. Radox. Both empty.

  Natalie wandered back in. JJ was busy speaking to the screen. Tell me where the friggin’ grain store is. An enigmatic peasant woman smiled back at him. Natalie tried to make conversation. Had he ever done anything like this before? A few times, he said, when there’s fuck all else to do. They’re usually mad ugly though and I kick them out before they get in the door. Oh, said Natalie. She waited. Nothing. Honey, bored, turned to her guest. What you do, Keisha? You seem nice girl. I’m a hairdresser, said Natalie Blake. Oh! Listen, she does hair. That’s nice. I am from Iran. JJ made a face: Axis of Evil! Honey smacked him, but with affection. She stroked Natalie’s face. You believe in auras, Keisha?

  More weed was rolled, and smoked. At some point Natalie remembered that Frank was also working late. She texted Anna and bribed her with time and a half rate to stay till eleven and put the children to bed. JJ arrived at a castle where he was set a new list of tasks. Honey started wondering aloud about some MDMA powder she’d left in a gum wrapper somewhere. Natalie said: I don’t think this is going to really happen, is it? JJ said: Probably not, to be honest with you.

 
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