N.W. by Zadie Smith

  – He was a sweet kid. His mum was St Loo-shun. St Looshee-yan? All our mums knew each other. Very nice-looking, very mischievous. Played the drums? Quite well. He sat next to Keisha. Back when she was Keisha. I was very jealous about that, when I was eight. Innit, Keisha.

  Natalie chews at a nail, hating to be teased. She dislikes being reminded of her own inconsistencies. Leah dares herself to put it a little stronger: hypocrisies. Leah passes the old estate every day on the walk to the corner shop. She can see it from her backyard. Nat lives just far enough to avoid it. Anyway, all meetings happen here, at Nat’s house, because why wouldn’t they? Look at this beautiful house! Leah blushes as an illegal word thrusts itself into her mind, Shar’s word: coconut. And then Michel speaks, and makes it perfect:

  – You changed your name. I forget that you did this. It’s like: ‘Dress for the job you want not the one you have.’ And it’s the same with names, I feel.

  Ruined for Leah, though, by this depressing I feel, which he only ever says here, in this house, and which is embarrassing. Natalie’s eyes widen; she lunges at a change of subject, which children always seem to provide.

  – Michel, you can help me: what should I do about this?

  Nat grabs two handfuls of Naomi’s hair and demonstrates the knots by trying to pass her fingers through the nest of it as the child squirms beneath.

  – She won’t let me touch it, so I should give it to you to shave off, right? She can come into the salon tomorrow and see you and get it all shaved off.

  Naomi cries out. Michel answers the question, kindly, carefully, sincerely. Advising against drastic action, he recommends hair-food and coconut oil. Even after so many years in this country the English fondness for torturing children with irony remains strange to him. Nat keeps her bright smile pinned to her face.

  – OK, OK, Naomi. NAOMI. Mum was only joking … No one’s going to … yes, plaiting it in the evening should help, Michel, thank you …

  Frank says:

  – At my school there was no such thing as ‘school holiday’. My mother never saw me till Christmas.

  His wife smiles sadly and gives him a kiss on his cheek.

  – Oh, I bet there was. Knowing your mum she just probably never came to pick you up.

  Not so funny, says Frank. Pretty funny, says Natalie. Leah watches Nat accept a daisy chain that Naomi has begun. Split a stem with a thumbnail, thread the next daisy through.

  – I’m not sending my children to a boarding school. Completely alone in a class of thirty white kids. You’d have to be crazy.

  – Our children. Twenty white kids. Didn’t do me any harm.

  – You’re wearing loafers, Frank.

  Not so funny, says Frank. Pretty funny, says Natalie. Often Leah tries to diagnose a sickness here, between these two – something rotten, something virulent – but the patients persist in leaping from their beds and wisecracking. Kissing each other on the cheek.

  – You’re breakening it!

  Leah looks at the daisy chain. Naomi is correct: Nat has breakened it.

  Now Spike finishes the job, snatching it and scattering the pieces back over the lawn. The screaming starts up. Leah assumes the bland smile of child appreciation. Frank stands up and gathers a kicking child under each arm.

  – They’ll be going to church school, for our sins.

  Frank’s default mode with Leah is a sort of self-parody. Leah thwarts him by faking innocence, forcing him to spell out whatever he is trying to say obliquely.

  – Church school? Already?

  Natalie says:

  – It’s all ridiculous: it’s a free school, but apparently we need to start going to church. Put the effort in now. Otherwise they won’t get in. Somewhere not too stressful, I hope. What’s that one Pauline goes to?

  – Mum? Maybe she goes once a month. To St Somewhere, I don’t know it. I’ll ask, if you want.

  Frank releases his children and sighs.

  – Isn’t it your turn soon?

  Michel takes that one. His topic, his realm. A conversation now begins about the inside of Leah’s body and how, if Michel had been listened to, it would have been far busier these past few years. Leah concentrates on Natalie. She is here in her body but where is her mind? At work? In some glamorous extramarital passion? Or just wishing these people would leave so she could get back to her real life, family life?

  – Damn! The banana bread. I forgot about it. Naomi, come and help me serve it up.

  Leah watches Natalie stride over to her beautiful kitchen with her beautiful child. Everything behind those French doors is full and meaningful. The gestures, the glances, the conversation that can’t be heard. How do you get to be so full? And so full of only meaningful things? Everything else Nat has somehow managed to cast off. She is an adult.

  How do you do that?

  – So … Michel. How’s it going, man? Let’s get an update. How is the hair business? Do people still … in a bad economy?

  Frank’s face registers the mild panic of being left with his wife’s strange friends.

  – Actually, I am moving into your region, Frank, in a small way.

  – My region?

  – Day trading. On the Internet. After we spoke last time, you know, I bought a book and …

  – You bought a book?

  – A guide … and I’ve been trying a little myself, small amounts, just to begin.

  Frank’s face suggests a further explanation is needed, he detects an improbability somewhere. It is a very subtle form of humiliation but it will still be passed from Michel to Leah in some converted form, like a liquid turning to a gas, later today, or tomorrow, in an argument, in bed.

  – Well, Leah’s father left her, us, a small amount.

  – Oh, OK! Well, a small amount is a good place to start. But now look, I don’t want to be responsible for you losing your shirt, Michel … I work for one of the big boys, you see, and we have a sort of safety net, but when it comes to individual traders, you know, it’s worth remembering that –

  Leah sighs, loudly. It’s childish but she can’t help it. Frank turns to Leah with a pacifying, weary smile. He places a corrective finger on her shoulder, a little tap.

  – Michel, all I was going to say is it’s worth signing on with an online site, like Today Trader, or something like it, and playing with fake money first of all, get in the swing of things …

  – Can I be excused? I think Olive needs a shit and I don’t want her to do it on your perfect lawn.

  – Leah.

  – No, no, no, it’s fine. Michel, we’ve known each other a very long time, Leah and I. I’m used to her funny ideas. Spike, why don’t we take Olive to the corner and back, before she goes home. Let’s go find some bags, OK?

  Leah and Michel are left sitting on the grass, cross-legged, like children. This house makes her feel like a child. Cake ingredients and fancy rugs and throw cushions and upholstered chairs in chosen fabrics. Not a futon in sight. Overnight everyone has grown up. While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.

  – Why do you treat me like an idiot all the time?

  – What?

  – I ask you a question, Leah.

  – I didn’t mean to. I just can’t stand him talking down to you like that.

  – He didn’t. You did.

  – Who is she? Who is this person? This bourgeois existence!

  – Bourgeois, bourgeois, bourgeois. I think this is the only French word you know. You’ve become one of these English people … who hate all their friends.

  Frank re-emerges through the French doors. If Frank were more observant he might catch them in their Punch and Judy mode, frozen in attitudes of disgust and fury. But Frank is not terribly observant, and by the time he looks up they are what they always seem to be: a happy couple in love.

  – Do you know where the lead is?

  Behind him, Nat strides back out, looking serene, unreadable. Naomi is hitched up on her hip like the baby she was not too long ago
. Her wild Afro curls shoot out in a million directions. Leah observes Michel staring at the child. He has an expression of deep longing on his face.


  – Auntie Leah! Auntie Leah! Mummy says SLOW DOWN.

  Leah stops, looks back. There is no one and then round a corner Nat

  appears, sighing dramatically. The buggy is empty, Spike is in her arms, Naomi is tugging at her T-shirt. Gulliver, about to be pinned to the ground by Lilliputians.

  – Lee, you sure this is right? Doesn’t look right.

  – End of this road. On the map it sort of winds round and back on itself. Pauline said it’s hard to find.

  – I can see the magistrates’ court and … a roundabout? Kids, stay close, stay in. It’s like walking the hard shoulder on the motorway. Nightmare. Kennedy Fried Chicken. Polish Bar and Pool. Euphoria Massage. Glad we took the scenic route. This can’t still be Willesden. Feels like we’re in Neasden already.

  – The church is what makes it Willesden. It marks the parish of Willesden.

  – Yeah but where is it? How does Pauline even get here?

  – Bus, I spose. I dunno.

  – Nightmare.

  The road winds. They find themselves on a thin strip of pavement with a bollard at the end, clutching the children as the cars zoom by either side. To their right, a foreclosed shopping arcade and a misconceived office block, empty, every other window broken. To their left, a grassy island nestled beside a dual carriageway. Intended as a green oasis, it is a fly-tipping zone. A waterlogged mattress. An upturned sofa with ripped cushions, foully stained. More eccentric items, suggesting lives abandoned in a hurry: half a scooter, a decapitated Anglepoise, a car door, a hat stand, enough rolled-up lino for a bathroom floor.

  In a pause between cars they run as one animal across the wide road, and then release each other, panting, hands on knees. Advised to ‘take it easy’ for forty-eight hours, Leah feels a lightness in her head. She turns away, lifting her head slowly and spots it first: an ancient crenellation and spire, just visible through the branches of a towering ash. Another twenty yards and the full improbability of the scene is revealed. A little country church, a medieval country church, stranded on this half-acre, in the middle of a roundabout. Out of time, out of place. A force field of serenity surrounds it. A cherry tree at the east window. A low encircling brick wall marks the ancient boundary, no more a defence than a ring of daisies. The family vaults have their doors kicked in. Many brightly tagged gravestones. Leah and Nat and the children pass through the lychgate and pause under the bell tower. Blue clockface brilliant in the sun. It is eleven thirty in the morning, in another century, another England. Nat uses the baby’s muslin to wipe her forehead of sweat. The children, till now raucous and complaining in the heat, turn quiet. A path threads through the shady graveyard, the Victorian stones marking only the most recent layer of the dead. Natalie manoeuvres the buggy over uneven ground.

  – Crazy. Never seen it before. Must have driven by hundreds of times. Lee, you got that thing of water? Probably why Pauline likes it. Cos it’s so old. Because you can be surer of the old ones.

  Leah folds her arms flat across her bust and becomes her mother, assumes her mother’s face: mouth drawn downwards, eyelids fluttering against the world’s specks and their determination to fly into Pauline’s eyes. Natalie, mid-glug, laughs violently, spreading water down her front.

  – I wouldn’t be liking the newer churches, no. I wouldn’t be dying over them. You can be surer of the older ones, so you can.

  – Stop it – I’m going to choke. I lived here my whole life, I never knew this place even existed. All those years stuck with Marcia in that Pentecostal tin can when we could have been here. Keisha, hear me now. I just want the spirit of the Lord to settle upon us all.

  They can ridicule their mothers but they can’t break the sombre spell of this place. The children step gingerly between graves, they want to know if there are really and truly dead people underfoot. Leah speeds up, abandoning the path and tramping into high grass, leaving Nat equivocating with her brood upon the difference between the recently dead and the long dead. Leah stretches her arms out either side of herself. Her fingers brush the top of the taller monuments, a broken stone urn, a crumbling cross. Soon she is behind the church. The past crowds round, partially legible on worn stones set at disappointed angles. Child death and lethal confinements. War and disease. Massive tablets covered in ivy, in lichen, in spots of yellow mould and moss.

  Emily W–– of this parish was taken from this life

  In her thirty –– year of life in the year of our Lord eighteen –– seven

  Leaving behind six children and a husband, Albert,

  Who joined her soon after in this ––

  Marion –– of this pari ––

  Died 17 December 1878 aged 2–– years

  And also Dora, infant daug –– of the above,

  Died II December 1878

  Take it easy for forty-eight hours.

  In this terrible sun

  Take it easy, Leah Hanwell of this parish,

  Only daughter of Colin Hanwell, also of this parish.

  Take it easy for the rest of your life.

  Leah leans against a stone tall as herself. Here are three figures in haut relief, almost entirely effaced. She fits her fingers into the mossy grooves. A lady in gathered skirts is clutching something to her body, a featureless lump, something she has been given, maybe, and two young boys in frock coats reach out for her on either side. She is no one. Time has eaten away all detail: no name no date no face no knees no feet no explanation of the mysterious gift –

  – Lee, you all right?

  – Hot. It’s so hot.

  They pass through a pair of heavy wooden doors to the interior.

  ACservice is just finishing. The queer incense smell of high church lingers. They walk round the perimeter and avoid the eyes of the faithful. Deliciously cool in here, better than air-conditioning. Natalie picks up a leaflet. Congenital autodidact, always wanting to know. It must have been that break. The break made the difference. She became Natalie Blake in that brief pause in their long history, between sixteen and eighteen. Educated herself on the floor of Kensal Rise Library while Leah smoked weed all the live-long day. Natalie always picks up the Leaflets, the Leaflets and everything else.

  – Parish founded in 938 … nothing of the original church remains … present church dates from around 1315 … Cromwellian bullet holes in the door, original …

  Naomi runs ahead and climbs the font (cII50, Purbeck marble). Leah tries to escape the aural range of Natalie’s lecture. The service ends: the parishioners begin to file out. In the doorway, the young vicar attempts to engage them. He holds a hand to his doughy waist like a nervous old woman, a flop of brown hair falls across one temple. He has a face that hopes to please but cannot owing to chinlessness. He is as he would have been in 1920 or 1880 or 1660. He is the same, but his congregation is different. Polish, Indian, African, Caribbean. The adults sharply dressed in shiny suits and clinging dresses from the market. The boys wear threepiece pinstripe, the girls clutch tiny Spanish shawls, their hair elaborately pressed and kiss-curled. The congregation pity the vicar, who is full of gentle suggestions. Let’s see if we can start on time next week. Anything you can spare. Anything at all. They smile and nod, not taking him too seriously. The vicar, too, is not listening to himself. He is intent on Leah, seeking her over the heads of his fleeing flock. Light streams in from the east. Leah moves that way instinctively, towards a monument in black and white marble hung upon the wall from which she learns that IT WAS HER HAPPINESS TO MAKE HIM YE JOYFUL FATHER OF I0 SONS & 7 DAUGHTERS AND IT IS HER PIETIE TO DEDICATE THIS MONUMENT TO YE PRESERVATION OF HIS MEMORY. HE DIED IN YE 48 YEAR OF HIS AGE. MARCH YE 24 1647. Nothing further is said of Her. Leah is drawn to put her fingers to the letters to measure their coolness. But Natalie says better not to, she says Spike don’t splash the holy water WOW the same sculptor fashioned the t
omb of ELIZABETH 1ST no darling not that one she was a queen darling from LONG AGO no darling from before then even but did you know it was once WILSDON meaning well meaning spring at the foot of a hill which is where this water’s coming from I SAID STOP SPLASHING. Leah is suddenly so thirsty, she is made of thirst, she is only thirst. She kneels to examine the tap, reads the sign. Not Potable. Holy, but not potable.

  – Mummy!

  – No, not Mummy. This is somebody else. ‘Thought to be more powerful than the traditional Madonna, she has miraculous powers, including: the gift of serendipity, restoring lost memories, resuscitating dead babies …’ Marcia would love this – sometimes people see visions of her in the churchyard. Marcia’s always having visions. Usually of white Madonnas, though, with blonde hair and nice blouses from M&S …

  How did she walk past it? At her back a Madonna, fashioned of jet limewood. The Madonna holds a mammoth baby in swaddling clothes. The Christ Child it says on the sign, his arms stretched out at either side, his hands big with blessing it says on the sign, but to Leah there seems no blessing in it. It looks more like accusation. The baby is cruciform; he is the shape of the thing that will destroy him. He reaches out for Leah. He reaches out to stop any escape, to the right or to the left.

  – ‘becoming the famous shrine of Our Lady of Willesden, “The Black Madonna”, destroyed in the Reformation and burnt, along with the ladies of Walsingham, Ipswich and Worcester – by the Lord Privy Seal’. Also a Cromwell. Different Cromwell? Doesn’t say. This is where decent history GCSE-level teaching would have come in helpful … ‘was shrine here since –’ wait, is this the original then? 1200s? Can’t be. Very craply written, not clear which – NAOMI COME AWAY FROM


  ‘How have you lived your whole life in these streets and never known me? How long did you think you could avoid me? What made you think you were exempt? Don’t you know that I have been here as long as people cried out for help? Hear me: I am not like those mealy-mouthed pale Madonnas, those simpering virgins! I am older than this place! Older even than the faith that takes my name in vain! Spirit of these beech woods and phone boxes, hedgerows and lamp posts, freshwater springs and tube stations, ancient yews and one-stop shops, grazing land and 3D multiplexes. Unruly England of the real life, the animal life! Of the old church, of the new, of a time before churches. Are you feeling hot? Is it all too much? Did you hope for something else? Were you misinformed? Was there more to it than that? Or less? If we give it a different name will the weightless sensation disappear? Are your knees going? Who are you? Would you like a glass of water? Is the sky falling? Could things have been differently arranged, in a different order, in a different place?’

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