N.W. by Zadie Smith

  177. Envy

  Leah wished Natalie Blake would speak at a charity auction for a young black women’s collective Leah had helped fund. She kept going on about it. But the hall they’d managed to rent for the occasion was south of the river.

  ‘I don’t go south,’ protested Natalie Blake.

  ‘It’s a really good cause,’ insisted Leah Hanwell.

  Natalie Blake thanked Leah for her introduction and stood in front of the podium. She gave a speech about time management, identifying goals, working hard, respecting oneself and one’s partner, and the importance of a good education. ‘Anything purely based on physicality is doomed to failure,’ she read. ‘To survive, your ambitions should be in the same direction.’ One day she would probably find herself having to say something of this kind to Leah. Not right now, but some day. She would water it down, of course. Poor Leah.

  In between the top of page two and the beginning of page three she must have been reading out loud and making sense, there must have appeared to be an unbroken continuity – no one in the audience was looking at her like she was crazy – yet she found her mind travelling to obscene tableaux. She wondered what Leah and Michel, who always seemed to have their hands on each other, did in the privacy of their bedroom. Orifices, positions, climaxes. ‘And it was by refusing to set myself artificial limits,’ explained Natalie Blake to the collective of young black women, ‘that I was able to reach my full potential.’

  178. Beehive

  The lovely voice came through the speakers in the park café. Natalie Blake and her friend Leah Hanwell had long ago agreed that this voice sounded like London – especially its northern and north-western zones – as if its owner were patron saint of their neighbourhoods. Is a voice something you can own? Natalie’s daughter and many other children were bouncing up and down and dancing to the song as their parents discreetly nodded their heads. The sun was out. Unfortunately Leah Hanwell was habitually late and soon the song had finished and Naomi was screaming about something and Spike had woken up and Leah had missed a perfectly staged demonstration of the joy of life – of family life in particular. ‘She’s really depressed,’ said Natalie to Frank as they waited. ‘She thinks I can’t see it. I see it. Completely stuck. Stasis. She can’t seem to dig herself out of this hole she’s in.’ But as soon as she’d said it the possibility confronted her that this judgement had merely arisen from the song, was really only a final verse Natalie herself had added on the spur of the moment, and that by saying it out loud she had made herself ridiculous. Frank looked up from his paper and caught her face arrested in its state of calamity. ‘Leah and Michel are happy as Larry,’ he said.

  Some time later Natalie saw the singer interviewed on the television: ‘When I was growing up, I didn’t think I was anything special. I thought everybody could sing.’ Her voice was the same miracle Natalie had once heard, through a pub window, in Camden. But the woman who did or didn’t own it had all but disappeared. Natalie stared at the knock-kneed girl-child, hardly there, almost nothing.

  179. Aphorism

  What a difficult thing a gift is for a woman! She’ll punish herself for receiving it.

  180. All the mod cons

  Charming Primrose Hill. After much negotiation on email, a daytime assignation was agreed: three o’clock. The woman opened the front door and said: Phew! Weave, dressing gown, heels, beautiful, unmistakably African. Her main objective was curling an arm around Natalie Blake and getting her into the giant house before anyone saw. Sartorially, Natalie kept to the same theme: gold hoops, denim skirt, suede boots with tassels, the hair bobble with the black and white dice, and her work clothes in a rucksack on her back. Catching herself in a huge gilt mirror in the hall, she found herself convincing. At this point she was determined. At least they were attractive. Natalie Blake still believed that attraction was what mattered.

  Farrow & Ball Utopia Green (matt) in the hall. African wall sculpture. Modern minimalist pieces. A gold record framed. A picture of Marley framed. Front page of a newspaper framed. A sort of horrible ‘good taste’ everywhere. Natalie Blake looked up and saw the husband or boyfriend at the top of the stairs. He was especially handsome, with a shaved head, finely shaped. Good-looking couple, they looked like each other. Like something from an advert for American life insurance. He smiled at Natalie and showed a lot of dentistry, luminous and perfectly straight. Silky dressing gown. Cheesy. We’re so pleased you’re here, Keisha, we weren’t sure you were for real. Can you believe she’s for real? Too good to be true. Come up here, sista, so I can really take you in. Soul music playing upstairs. 2009 limited edition Bloom baby highchair, like a space station, levitating in the kitchen. MacBook Air open on the kitchen table. An older Mac closed on the stairs. He stretched out his hand. Beautiful crib you got, said Natalie Blake. You’re beautiful, he said. Natalie felt his wife or girlfriend’s hand on her backside.

  Upstairs she was introduced to a sleigh bed, of the kind that was fashionable about five years earlier. The shoe cupboard was open. Red-soled from floor to ceiling. Above the bed they had that too-familiar tube map with the stops replaced by icons of the last millennium, gathered in cliques and movements. Natalie looked for Kilburn: Pelé. On the bed an iPad played pornography, threesomes, and this was the first time Natalie had ever seen that particular piece of technology. Two girls ate each other out while a man sat on a desk with his dick in his hand. They were all German.

  The beautiful African woman kept talking. Where are you from? Are you in college? What do you want to be? Don’t ever give up. It’s all about dreaming big. Having aspirations. Working hard. Not accepting no for an answer. Being whoever you want to be.

  The more Natalie Blake stood there, fully dressed and unresponsive, the more nervous they got, the more they talked. Finally Natalie asked to go to the bathroom. En-suite. She climbed into a reclaimed Victorian bath clad in brass and porcelain from the Water Monopoly. She knew she was finished here. She lay back. Acqua di Parma. Chanel. Molton Brown. Marc Jacobs. Tommy Hilfiger. Prada. Gucci.

  181. Easter holidays

  Anna had gone to Poland for a few days to see her family but now the volcano meant she could not return. Natalie googled. She stared at the great cloud of ash.

  ‘You’re more flexible than I am,’ argued Frank, and left the house. The basement was back on track. Builders were everywhere. Frank had worked hard to put things back on track. They both had. They deserved everything that was coming to them.

  Got any more tea, love? Better keep these kids out of the way. They’re liable to get hurt. Don’t spose there’s a biscuit going begging?

  By ten a.m. she found herself trapped in a white painted box with two mysterious black-eyed others who seemed to want something from her that she had no way of either comprehending or providing. Men in orange tabards went back and forth. This milk is off, love. Got any jam? She gathered the children in her arms and left this building site, her kitchen. She took them to her mother’s flat. To the park. To the zoo. To Kilburn market. To the African minimart. To Cricklewood Toys R Us. Home.

  Naomi related this odyssey in far greater detail to her father when he came home.

  ‘You’re amazing,’ said Frank, and kissed Natalie Blake’s cheek. ‘I would have just sat around wasting my time, playing with them all day.’

  182. Love in the ruins

  They were nice young men, and clearly astounded that anyone had replied to their premise. Natalie felt certain they must have posted when they were pissed. Cousins? Brothers? A Fifties semi in Wembley, facing the North Circular, double-glazed to within an inch of its life. It was a family house with the family missing. What Brayton kids used to call a ‘Cornershop Villa’. Natalie Blake could not explain why she knew they weren’t going to kill her. She had to recognize in herself a perfectly irrational belief that whether or not a person has murderous intent towards you is one of those things ‘you can just tell’ about people. Certainly it helped that when they opened the door they looked mor
e scared than she did. Oh my days. I told you, Dinesh. I told you. I told you it ain’t no bloke. Come in, love. Come in, Keisha. Oh my days. You’re fit and all. What you saying that for! Why not? She knows and we know. She knows and we know. No surprises. Oh my days! Go that way, lovely. We ain’t gonna hurt you, innit, we’re nice boys. Oh my word, no one is gonna believe this, man. I don’t even believe this. Go in there. We gonna take turns or what? What? I don’t want to see you naked, bruv! That’s some gay madness. Yeah, but she wants to double team, innit! That ain’t one then another! That’s two simulty-simultany – simu – at the same time. Don’t you know what double team means, bruv? Double team. You don’t know what you’re even chatting about. Double team! Shut up, you joker. Natalie listened to them arguing in the hall. She sat waiting in the kitchen. A large puddle of water surrounded the freezer. All the doors said FIRE DOOR. They came back in. Shyly they suggested that everybody adjourn to a bedroom. It was peculiar how shy they were, given the circumstances. Constantly bickering. In here. Are you mental? I ain’t doing it in there. Bibi sleeps in there! In there, man. Chief. Follow me, Keisha, make yourself comfortable, yeah? Dinesh, man, there ain’t even no sheet! Go get a sheet! Stop using my name! No names. We’re gonna get a sheet, wait right here, don’t move.

  Natalie Blake lay back on the mattress. On top of the wardrobe there was a lot of boxed-up stuff. Stuff that no one was coming back for. Surplus to requirements. There was something terribly sad about the whole place. She wished she could take the boxes down and sift through them and save whatever needed to be saved.

  The door opened and the young men re-emerged in only their Calvin Kleins, one black pair, one white, like two featherweights in a boxing ring. No older than twenty. They got out a laptop. The idea appeared to be like roulette. You click and a human being appears, in real time. Click again. Click again. Eighty per cent of the time they got a penis. The rest were quiet girls playing with their hair, groups of students who wanted to talk, shaven-headed thugs standing in front of their national flags. On the rare occasions it was a girl they would at once start typing: GET YOUR TITS OUT. Natalie asked them: boys, boys, why are we doing this? You’ve got the real thing right here. But they kept on with the Internet. It seemed to Natalie that they were stalling for time. Or maybe they couldn’t do anything without the net somewhere in the mix. You try it, Keisha, you try it, see who you get. Natalie sat at the laptop. She got a lonely boy in Israel who typed YOU NICE and took out his penis. You like being watched, Keisha? Do you like it? We’ll leave it there, on the dresser. How d’you want it, Keisha? Just tell us and we’ll do it. Anything. And still Natalie Blake knew she was in no danger. Just do what you want, said Natalie Blake.

  But neither of them could really manage it at all, and soon they blamed each other. It’s him! It’s cos I’m looking at him, man. He’s messing with my groove. Don’t listen to him, he ain’t got no groove.

  They were satisfied to play about like teenagers. Natalie became very impatient. She was not a teenager any more. She knew what she was doing. She did not feel she had to wait around hoping to be penetrated. She could envelop. She could hold. She could release.

  She sat the boy in the black Calvins on the edge of the bed, rolled his foreskin down, got on him, advised him not to touch her or otherwise move unless she said so. A narrow cock but not ugly. He said: You’re quite strong-minded, innit, Keisha. Know what you want and that. They say that about sistas, don’t they? And to this, Natalie Blake replied: I really couldn’t give a fuck what they say. She could see the boy had no useful rhythm – it was better for both of them if he simply stayed still. She ground down on to him. Rocked. Finished very quickly, though not as quickly as his circumcised friend on the other side of the bed, who gave a little groan, spurted dribblingly into his own hand and disappeared into the bathroom. Dinesh, you little chief. Come back in here. Um. This is a bit weird. Where’s he gone? Just you and me. You come already, yeah? Fair enough. You know what, I don’t think I’m gonna get there right at the moment, Keisha. I feel a bit hot and bothered right now if I’m honest.

  She released him. The boy flopped out of her, much reduced. She tucked it back in his pants. She started putting her clothes back on. The other one re-emerged from the loo looking sheepish. She had a spliff left over from Camden, and together they smoked it. She tried to get them to tell her something, anything, about the people who lived in this house, but they wouldn’t be distracted from what they called their ‘chirpsing’. We should worship this girl, man. Sista, are you ready to be worshipped? You’re a goddess in my eyes. All night long, baby. Till you’re gonna be begging me to stop. Till six in the morning. Dinesh, man, I gotta be at work at eight.

  183. Catching up

  Natalie Blake Tred Anna and hired Maria, who was Brazilian. The basement was completed. Maria moved into it. A new arena of paid time opened up. Natalie and Leah went out to the Irish.

  ‘What’s up with you?’ asked Leah Hanwell.

  ‘Nothing much,’ said Natalie Blake. ‘You?’

  ‘Same old.’

  Natalie told a story about a boy smoking in the park, emphasizing her own heroic opposition to persistent incivility. She told a story about how mean and miserable their mutual acquaintance Layla Dean had become, in ways intended to subtly flatter Natalie Blake herself. She told a story concerning the children’s preparations for carnival, which could hardly avoid demonstrating the happy fullness of her life.

  ‘But Cheryl wants all “the cousins” on a church float. I don’t want to go on a church float!’

  Leah defended Natalie’s right not to accept religion disguised as carnival fun. Leah told a story about her mother being impossible. Natalie defended Leah’s right to be outraged by her mother’s misdemeanours, be they ever so small. Leah told a funny story about upstairs Ned. She told a funny story about Michel’s bathroom habits. Natalie noticed with anxiety that Leah’s stories had no special emphasis or intention.

  ‘Did you ever see that girl again?’ asked Natalie Blake. ‘The one who scammed you – who came to the door?’

  ‘All the time,’ said Leah Hanwell. ‘I see her all the time.’

  They drank two bottles of white wine between them.

  184. Caught

  ‘What is this? “[email protected]”. What the fuck is this? Fiction?’

  They stood opposite each other in the hallway. He waved a piece of paper at her. Six feet away their kids and the cousins and Cheryl and Jayden were practising dance routines to be performed on a carnival float the following morning. Marcia was helping sew sequins and feathers on to Day-Glo leotards. Hearing raised voices, the many members of Natalie Blake’s family paused what they were doing and looked into the hallway.

  ‘Please let’s go upstairs,’ said Natalie Blake.

  They got up one flight of stairs to the spare room, which had a charming Moroccan theme. Natalie Blake’s husband held her wrist very tightly.

  ‘Who are you?’

  Natalie Blake tried to free her wrist.

  ‘You have two children downstairs. You’re meant to be a fucking adult. Who are you? Is this real? Who the fuck is wildinwembley? What is that on your computer?’

  ‘Why are you looking at my computer?’ asked Natalie Blake in a small voice, a ludicrous voice.

  185. Onwards

  Frank sat on the bed with his back to her, a hand over his eyes. Natalie Blake stood up and left the spare room and closed the door. An odd sense of calm followed her downstairs. On the ground floor, in the hall, she bumped into the Brazilian girl, Maria, who regarded her with the same obtuse confusion of last week, when she’d arrived and discovered her employer to be several shades darker than she was herself.

  Past the hall where her laptop sat on a side table, the screen still open for anyone to read. Past her family, who called out for her. She heard Frank running down the stairs. She saw her coat slung across the banister, keys and phone in the pocket. At the door she had another chance to take something with
her (on the hallway table she could see her purse, an Oyster card, another set of keys). She walked out of the house with nothing and closed the front door behind her. Out of the bay window Frank De Angelis asked his wife, Natalie Blake, where she was going. Where she thought she was going. Where the fuck she thought she was going. ‘Nowhere,’ said Natalie Blake.


  Willesden Lane to Kilburn High Road

  She turned left. Walked to the end of her road and the end of the next. Walked quickly away from Queen’s Park. She passed into where Willesden meets Kilburn. Went by Leah’s place, then Caldwell. In the old flat the kitchen window was open. A duvet cover – decorated with the logo of a football club – had been hung over the balcony to dry. Without looking where she was going, she began climbing the hill that begins in Willesden and ends in Highgate. She was making a queer keening noise, like a fox. As she crossed the road a 98 bus swung by her steeply – it looked like it might capsize – and at first it seemed to be somehow the source of the strange red and blue light colouring the white stripes of the zebra crossing. Now she saw the police car parked in its shadow, roof lights turning silently. A line of police, parked at right angles to each other, making Albert Road inaccessible to traffic. On the public side of this barrier a group of people had gathered, and a tall policeman in a turban stood in the middle of them, answering questions. But I live on Albert! said a young woman. She was carrying too many shopping bags in each hand, with more hanging from her wrists and digging into her skin. What number? asked the policeman. The woman told him. You’ll have to walk round. You’ll find officers at the far end who’ll walk you to your door. For Christ’s sake, said the woman, but after a moment she walked in the direction indicated. Can’t I walk down there? asked Natalie. Incident, said the officer. He looked down at her. A big T-shirt, leggings and a pair of filthy red slippers, like a junkie. He looked at his watch. It’s eight now. This road will be blocked for another hour or so. She tried to reach up on her toes to see round him. All she could see were more policemen and a white canvas tent off to the left, on the pavement opposite the bus stop. What kind of incident? He didn’t answer. She was no one. She didn’t merit answering. A kid on a BMX racer said, Someone got juked, innit.

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