N.W. by Zadie Smith


  Dog.

  Car.

  Flat.

  Cooking together, like this.

  Seven years ago: you were on the dole. I was washing hair.

  Things change! We’re getting there, no?

  The woman does not know where there is. She did not know they had set off, nor in which direction the wind is blowing. She does not want to arrive. The truth is she had believed they would be naked in these sheets forever and nothing would come to them ever, nothing but satisfaction. Why must love ‘move forward’? Which way is forward? No one can say she has not been warned. No one can say that. A thirty-five-year-old woman married to a man she loves has most certainly been warned, should be paying attention, should be listening, and not be at all surprised when her husband says

  – many days in which the woman is fertile. Only, I think, three. So it’s no good to just say, ‘Oh, it’ll happen when it will happen.’ We’re not so young. So we have to be a bit more, I mean, military about it, like plan.

  Objectively speaking, he is correct.

  6

  We are the village green preservation society. God save little shops, china cups and virginity! Saturday morning. ALL KINKS ALL DAY. Girl. You really got me going. You got me so I don’t know what I’m doing. On Saturday mornings Michel helps the ladies and gentlemen of NW look right for their Saturday nights, look fresh and correct, and there, in the salon, he is free to blast his treacly R&B, his oh baby oh shorty till six in the mawnin till the break a’ dawn. On Saturday mornings she is free! God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards! Preserving the old ways from being abused. Protecting the new ways for me and for you. What more can we do? Stomping around in pyjama bottoms, singing tunelessly. Ned is in the garden. Ned approves of loud music of white origin. He sings along. Well I tried to settle down in Fulham Broadway. And I tried to make my home in Golders Green. In this weekend abandon there is always something manic and melancholy: the internal countdown to the working week already begun. In the mirror she is her own dance partner, nose to nose with the reflection. The physical person is smiling and singing. Oh how I miss the folks back home in Willesden Green! Meanwhile something inside reels at the mirror’s news: the grey streak coming out of the crown, the puffy creases round the eyes, the soft belly. She dances like a girl. She is not a girl any more. YOU REALLY GOT ME. YOU REALLY GOT ME. YOU REALLY GOT ME. Where did the time go? She only realizes the doorbell has gone when Olive begins barking madly.

  – My mum had a heart – a heart attack? Five … pounds.

  This girl has hair burnt flat by a curling iron. Either fat or pregnant.

  She looks down dully, puzzled by frantic Olive weaving between her legs. She looks up at Leah and laughs. HA! Too far gone to remember her lines. She turns clumsily on her heel, a dancer executing a move too late. Heads back down the path to the street, swaying and laughing.

  7

  Apple tree, apple tree.

  Thing that has apples on it. Apple blossom.

  So symbolic. Network of branches, roots. Tunnelling under.

  The fuller, the more fruitful.

  The more the worms. The more the rats.

  Apple tree, apple tree. Apple. Tree. Which way is forward? Tick, tock.

  Three flats. One apple tree. Freehold, leasehold. Heavy with seed.

  In the treetop. When the bough breaks, the baby will

  Dead man’s ashes. Round the roots, in the roots?

  Hundred-year-old apple tree.

  Sitting on your laurens. Under an apple tree. Have a little boy?

  New branches. New blossom. New apples. Same tree?

  Born and bred. Same streets.

  Same girl? Next step.

  Appletreeapple

  Trunk, bark.

  Alice, dreaming.

  Eve, eating.

  Under which nice girls make mistakes.

  Michel is a good man, full of hope. Sometimes hope is exhausting.

  – which I’ve always believed. Look: you know what is the true difference between these people and me? They don’t want to move forward, they don’t want to have nothing better than this. But I’m always moving forward, thinking of the next thing. People back home, they don’t get me at all. I’m too advanced for them. So when they try to contact me, I don’t let this – I don’t let drama in my life like that. No way! I’ve worked too hard. I love you too much, this life. You are what you do. This is how it is. I’m always thinking: is this me? What I’m doing? Is this really me? If I sit and do nothing I know that makes me nothing. From the first day I was stepping into this country I have my head on correctly; I was very clear: I am going up the ladder, one rung at least. In France, you’re African, you’re Algerian, who wants to know? There’s no opportunity, you can’t move! Here, you can move. You still have to work! You have to work very hard to separate yourself from this drama below! This is my point: I don’t like to let it in. But this is what you do, perfect example, this girl, you let her in – I don’t even know what is in your mind – but I don’t allow this drama in. I know this country has opportunities if you want to grab them, you can do it. Don’t eat that one – worm hole, right there, see? Look at your mother – we are not such great friends, but please look at what she did: she got you out of that nightmare over there, into a proper place, proper flat, mortgage … Of course, your skin is white, it’s different, it’s more easy, you’ve had opportunities I didn’t have. The redder ones don’t taste so good. We’re all just trying to take that next, that next, next, step. Climbing that ladder. Brent Housing Partnership. I don’t want to have this written on the front of a place where I am living. I walk past it I feel like oof– it’s humiliating to me. If we ever have a little boy I want him to live somewhere – to live proud– somewhere we have the freehold. Right! This grass it’s not my grass! This tree is not my tree! We scattered your father round this tree we don’t own even. Poor Mr Hanwell. It breaks my heart. This was your father! This is why I’m on the laptop every night, I’m trying to do this – because it’s pure market on there, nothing about skin, about is your English perfect, do you have the right piece of university paper or some bullshit like this. I can trade like anyone. There’s money to be got out there, you know? Market is so crazy right now. That’s what nobody tell you. I keep thinking what Frank said at the dinner: the smart guys get right back in the game. It’s crazy not to try to get some of it. I’m not like these Jamaicans – this new girl, Gloria, whatever is her name, up there, she still has no curtains. Two babies, no husband, taking benefits. I’m married, where’s my benefit? When I have children, I knew, I said it to myself: I’m going to stay by this woman that I love, that I really love so much, I’m going to always be with her. Come here. The bottom line is like this: I was never just OK to sit on my laurens and take charity, I never was interested in that. I am an African. I have a destiny. I love you, and I love where we are going together! I’m always moving towards my destiny, thinking of the next achievement, the next thing, taking it higher, so we, so both of us, can make that next –

  – Laurels.

  – What?

  – Laurels. And you rest on them, you don’t sit on them. You sit on your arse.

  – You’re not even listening.

  It’s true: she is thinking of apples.

  8

  Elsewhere in London, offices are open plan/floor to ceiling glass/sites of synergy/wireless/gleaming. There persists a belief in the importance of a ping-pong table. Here is not there. Here offices are boxy cramped Victorian damp. Five people share them, the carpet is threadbare, the hole-punch will never be found.

  – of money coming in. Question: how did this get so far down the line without intervention? I’d really like to know. Checks and balances, people! Because when you do it like this you’re handing our heads metaphorically on a plate, to them, meaning my head also. And the next thing you hear: efficiency savings. Not meaning reusing the tea bags. Meaning your job and mine. Which is exactly how

  Here a
nation’s bad bets morph into a semblance of the collective good: after-school play groups, translation services, garden clearance for the elderly, quilting for prisoners. Five women work here, their backs to each other. Further down the hall, the rumour of a man – Leah has never seen him. This work requires empathy and so attracts women, for women are the empathic sex. This is the opinion of Adina George, Team Leader, who speaks, who will not stop speaking. Adina’s mouth opens and closes.

  Former prison guard, social worker, local councillor. How did she get anything done with those talons? Long and curved and painted with miniature renderings of the Jamaican flag. Clawed her way up through the system. Born and bred. Is wary of those, like Leah, whose degrees have thus installed them. To Adina a university degree is like a bungee cord, lowering in and pulling out with dangerous velocity. Of course, you won’t be here long. Look, I don’t want to give you projects you’re not going to be here to finish …

  Six years have gone by: such things aren’t said any more. It occurred to Leah today, when Adina referred to her as ‘the graduate’, that no one – not the institution that conferred it, not her peers, not the job market itself – has a higher estimation of the value of her degree than Adina.

  – which is essential for the smooth running here. The decision- making is obviously about relatability and yeah, empathy, and a personal connection but it’s also about follow-through and visibility in the sense of value for money, that we get to be conscious of via a process of paperwork. Paperworkpaperworkpaperwork. In the current climate every i has to be dotted and every t crossed so when I am put in a position, as Team Leader, by the people upstairs I can say: yup, fully accountable. Here’s x, y and z, fully accountable. Not splitting the atom, ladies, I should hope.

  Question: what happened to her classmates, those keen young graduates, most of them men? Bankers, lawyers. Meanwhile Leah, a state-school wild card, with no Latin, no Greek, no maths, no foreign language, did badly – by the standards of the day – and now sits on a replacement chair borrowed six years ago from the break room, just flooded with empathy. Right foot asleep. Computer screen frozen. IT nowhere to be seen. No air-conditioning. Adina going on and on, doing that thing to language that she does.

  – This was a question of communication? A blockage between parties. Who should have a tighter grasp on how their behaviours are impacting others?

  This too will pass. Four forty-five. Zig, zag. Tick, tock. Sometimes bitterness makes a grab for Leah. Pulls her down, holds her. What was the point of it all? Three years of useless study. Out of pocket, out of her depth. It was only philosophy in the first place because she was scared of dying and thought it might help and because she could not add or draw or remember lists of facts or speak a language other than her own. In the university prospectus, an italic script over a picture of the Firth of Forth: Philosophy is learning how to die. Philosophy is listening to warbling posh boys, it is being more bored than you have ever been in your life, more bored than you thought it possible to be. It is wishing yourself anywhere else, in a different spot somewhere in the multiverse, which is a concept you will never truly understand. In the end, only one idea reliably retained: time as a relative experience, different for the jogger, the lover, the tortured, the leisured. Like right now, when a minute seems to stretch itself into an hour. Otherwise useless. An unpaid, growing debt. Along with a feeling of resentment: what was the purpose of preparing for a life never intended for her? Years too disconnected from everything else to feel real. Edinburgh’s dour hill-climb and unexpected-alley, castle-shadow and fifty-pence whisky chaser, WalterScottStone and student loan shopping. Out of her mouth: a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone. Never, never forgotten: the bastard in that first class, sniggering. I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY, Leah writes, and doodles passionately around it. Great fiery arcs, long pointed shadows.

  – Questions? Problems?

  A pen breaks noisily. Plastic shards, a blue tongue. Adina George looks over and glares but Leah is not responsible for the Albanians. She has a mouth full of pen but she is not responsible for the Albanians, nor their misappropriation of funds meant for a Hackney women’s refuge. That was on Claire Morgan’s watch. Although Leah has a blue tongue and a fancy degree and a hot husband and no offence, but for the women in our community, in the Afro-Caribbean community, no offence, but when we see one of our lot with someone like you it’s a real issue. It’s just a real issue that you should be aware of. No offence. (Brighton weekend, team-building exercise, hotel bar, 2004.) What kind of issue exactly was never made clear. Sweet Love sang Anita Baker, and Adina fell over a chair trying to get to the dance floor. Blockage.

  Leah spits plastic shards into her hands. No questions or problems. Adina sighs, leaves. The folder-shutting and bag-packing begin with an eagerness no different from when they were all six years old and the bell rang. Maybe that was the real life? Leah plants her feet on the ground and pushes back in her chair. Lifts and coasts to the filing cabinet and this is the most enjoyable thing that has happened today. Bump.

  – Oi! Fuckssake, Leah. Careful!

  The great swell of it. Leah is nose to Tori’s belly button and observes how this innermost thing now thrusts out, marking a physical limit. Beyond this point we can’t continue and be human.

  – Just be careful. You coming or what? Last-day drinks. You got the email?

  Piled up in a corner of the Internet with the bank statements, student loan reminders, memos from management, maternal epics, in that place where not to be opened is not to exist. She knew perfectly well there was an email and what it was about, but she is on the run from people in Tori’s condition. She is on the run from herself.

  – Me, Claire, Kelly, Beverley, Shweta. You’re next!

  Tori counts the names off on swollen fingers. She’s in the final stages.

  Her face has a leonine cast, the cheeks puffed up, newly prominent. A big cat’s smile. Predacious. Leah stares at the thumb meant to represent her.

  – Trying. It’s not so easy.

  – Trying’s half the fun.

  A room full of women laughing. Some shared knowledge of their sex to which Leah is not party. She puts her hands either side of the bump, and smiles, hoping that this is the sort of thing that normal women do, women for whom trying is half the fun and ‘you’re next’ does not sound like the cry of a guard in a dark place. Then they get going, a traditional round in which no voice is separated from the other and Leah lays her head on the desk and closes her eyes and lets them take the piss:

  Specially when he looks like yours. And he’s so lovely.

  He’s so lovely your Meeshell. Lovely way about him.

  Bev, d’you remember when we was round Leah’s that time and my car window weren’t working and Meeshell got on his knees with a wire coat hanger? After I’d been telling Leon about it for a MONTH.

  He’s proper sensitive. Proper family-orientated.

  Whenever I’m thinking: where did all the good brothers get to? I think, breathe: at least there’s Meeshell.

  Yeah but they’re all already taken!

  HAHAHAHAHAHAHA By the white girls!

  Nah, don’t be like that. Leah, she’s only messing with you.

  Don’t mess with Leah! Not her fault Leon’s a useless bastard.

  Leon’s all right.

  (Bloody useless. ‘Leon, what you doing tonight?’ ‘Chillin with my man dem.’ He’s always bloody ‘chillin’.)

  Leon’s all right. Seriously though, you’re lucky.

  And she gets a blow-dry thrown in!

  A man who can do your hair. That’s paradise right there. He can do cane row, he can do extensions …

  Kelly, what she need cane row for?

  She’s not Bo Derek.

  HA! (Nah, Leah, no offence – sorry that’s funny tho.)

  I’m talking about he’s a professional. I’m talking about he can do any kind of hair.

  And he’s straight. Innit!

>   Innit! Hahaha Innit.

  Yeah. (He best be!)

  That’s what kills me! Best of both worlds! You have tho. You don’t know you’re born.

  She doesn’t, she doesn’t know she’s born.

  You don’t know you’re born.

  You don’t. You don’t know you’re born.

  Finally, five o’clock. Leah looks up. Kelly slaps the top of her desk.

  – Quittin’ time!

  Same joke every day. A joke you can make if you are not Leah, if you are not the only white girl on the Fund Distribution Team. In the corridor the women spill out of every room, into the heat, cocoa- buttered, ready for a warm night out on the Edgware Road. From St Kitts, Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, India, Pakistan, in their forties, fifties, sixties, and yet busts and butts and shiny legs and arms still open to the sexiness of an early summer in a manner that the women of Leah’s family can never be. For them the sun is fatal. So red, so pale. Leah is wearing long white linen everything. Looks like a minor saint. She falls in step. Passes the scene of the crime, a wastepaper bin filled with vomit and tucked behind a pot plant in the break room because the bathroom was too far.

  9

  From A to B:

  A. Yates Lane, London NW8, UK

  B. Bartlett Avenue, London NW6, UK

  Walking directions to Bartlett Avenue, London NW6, UK Suggested routes

  A5

  47 mins

  2.4 miles

  A5 and Salusbury Rd

  50 mins

  2.5 miles

  A404/Harrow Rd

  58 mins

  2.8 miles

  1. Turn left on Yates Lane

 
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