N.W. by Zadie Smith


  18

  – Oh, I used to faint a lot. A lot! They thought it was a sign of a delicate constitution, sensitive, a bit artistic. But everyone went into the nursing or secretarial back then, you see. That’s simply how it was. We didn’t have the opportunities.

  – It was just hot.

  – Because you had a lot of potential, no, listen, you did: piano, the recorder, the dancing, the thing with the … the … what’s its name now, oh you know – sculpting – you liked the sculpting for a while, and the violin, you were a wonder on the violin, and lots of little things like that.

  – I bought one pot home from school. I played the violin for a month.

  – We made sure you had all the lessons, fifty pee here, fifty pee there, it all adds up! And we didn’t always have it! That was your father – God rest him – he didn’t want you to grow up feeling poor, even though we were poor. But you never really settled on the one thing, that’s what I mean. This lawn needs watering.

  Pauline stoops down suddenly, coming up with a handful of grass and earth.

  – London clay. Very dry. Of course, you girls do everything differently now. You wait and wait and wait. Though what you’re waiting for I don’t know.

  Almost purple with the effort, the bowl of white hair damp and flat round her face. Mothers are urgently trying to tell something to their daughters, and this urgency is precisely what repels their daughters, forcing them to turn away. Mothers are left stranded, madly holding a lump of London clay, some grass, some white tubers, a dandelion, a fat worm passing the world through itself.

  – Eugh. Probably put the mud down now, Mum.

  They sit together on a park bench Michel discovered some years ago. Somebody had left it in the middle of the road, up at Cricklewood Broadway. Calm as you like! Just sitting there in traffic! It looked like it had grown out of the tarmac. All other cars swerved to avoid it. Michel stopped the Mini Metro, put the seats down flat, opened the boot and wedged it in, with Pauline adding an unhelpful hand, to a chorus of car horns. When they got it home they found it had the seal of the Royal Parks upon it. Pauline calls it the throne. Let us sit on the throne for a wee while.

  – It was the heat. Olive, come here, baby.

  – Not near me! I don’t want my eyes going up! That’s my grandchild, there. Only one I’m likely to get if things go on the way they are. I’m allergic to my own grandchild.

  – Mum, enough!

  They sit on the throne in silence, staring out in different directions. The problem seems to be two different conceptions of time. She knows the pull of her animal nature should, by now, be making the decisions. Perhaps she’s been a city fox too long. Every new arrival – the announcements seem to come now every day – feels like a terrible betrayal. Why won’t everybody stay still? She has forced a stillness in herself, but it has not stopped the world from continuing on. And then the things that happen only serve to horribly close down the possibilities of all the other things that didn’t happen, and so number 37, and so the door opening at the moment that she stands there, her hand full of Leaflets, and Shar saying: put those down, take my hand. Shall we run? Are you ready? Shall we run? Leave all this! Let’s be outlaws! Sleeping in hedgerows. Following the railway line till it reaches the sea. Waking up with that long black hair in her eyes, in her mouth. Phoning home from fantasy boxes that still take the old two pees. We’re fine, don’t worry. I want to stay still and to keep moving. I want this life and another. Don’t look for me!

  – and just trying to help, but I’ll get no thanks for it. I can’t tell if you’re even listening to me. Anyway. It’s your life.

  – What d’you want with a shrine anyway?

  – What d’you mean by that, a shrine? Her Ladyship? Oh, I don’t bother myself about her. She’s perfectly harmless. It’s says Anglican on the door and it’s been Anglican for a thousand years. That’s good enough for me. People from the colonies, and the Russiany lot, they’re superstitious, and who can blame them? They’ve had a terrible time. Who am I to deprive a person of their comforts?

  Pauline looks pointedly towards their old estate, full of people from the colonies and the Russiany lot. Today, as it has been almost all days since the sun began, the foghorn girl is out, locked in debate with whoever is on the end of her handless device. You disrespecting me? Don’t disrespect me! Whatever else is to be said of her, she is of unmistakable Irish descent. Short criminal forehead, widely set eyes. There is a special contempt Pauline reserves for the fallen members of her own tribe.

  – Not even the virgin could help the likes of her. Well, hello Edward, dear!

  – All right there, Mrs H!

  – Oh, it’s good to see you, Ned. How are you, love? You’re looking well, considering. Not still smoking the dope, I hope.

  – ’Fraid so, ’fraid so. I like the flavour.

  – It’ll rob you of your ambition.

  – I’ve only got the one ambition anyway.

  – And what would that be?

  – To marry you, of course. Can’t rob me of that now, can it?

  – Oh go on with you.

  Quite happy, really quite happy, and the sun thins out and purples and arranges itself in strips behind the aquamarine of the minaret and what breeze there is ripples the flag of St George, on top of the old estate, hung from a satellite dish in preparation for the football. Maybe it doesn’t matter that life never blossomed into something larger than itself. Moored to the shore she set out from, as almost all women were, once.

  – Leah love, that’s your phone.

  Look at that: the fence on the right side almost completely done for.

  The ivy from the estate invades the gaps and smothers anything Michel tries to grow, apart from the apple tree itself, which grows despite them all, unaided. She writes to the council, they don’t listen, Ned never writes, nor Gloria, they live communally but she is the only one who thinks communally and oh Christ that poor homeless worm livid in the sun. Like foreskin moving forward and back, forward and back, over itself. Nobody loves me everybody hates me because I’m a wriggly worm. But who is this

  this voice

  so quiet

  and so violent, right in her ear, and she thinks she must have misheard, she thinks she must be going crazy, she thinks

  – Excuse me?

  – You hear me? Don’t be coming round this place.

  – Excuse me? How did you get this number?

  – That girl is my business. Don’t be coming round this place pushing shit through the door, you hear me? Watch for me. I know you. You come here again you best watch for me.

  – Who is this?

  – Fuckin dyke cunt.

  The worm grinds its middle together, having nothing else. Flagstone to the left of it, flagstone to the right.

  – and then in Poundland the very same box – same brand, mind – is only two forty-nine! But if you shop in these places you’re simply a fool to yourself, and that’s all there is to be said. Leah love? Leah? Leah? Who was that? On the phone? You feeling all right?

  19

  A wife’s honour must be defended. It is a primal thing, he explains, referencing the great apes in a documentary. As female ape defends baby ape so male ape protects his female. Michel is very happy in his anger, they are drawn together under its canopy. It is the nicest time they’ve had together in months. She sits at the kitchen table clutching herself while he walks up and down waving his arms in the air like a great ape. She is a good ape, too; she wants to contribute to the greater happiness of her ape family. It is this perfectly decent desire that makes her say:

  – I think so. I think it was him. It’s hard to tell from a voice. Look, it’s almost twenty years since I knew him at all well. But I would say: yes. If you’re asking me for a hundred per cent, then no, I can’t say it like that, but my first thought was yes that’s him, that’s Nathan.

  So little happens in this corner of NW. When there is a drama it’s natural enough that one should want
to place oneself in the picture, right at the centre. It sounded like him. It really did. She tells Michel. She tells Michel all of it bar one word.

  20

  On the way back from the chain supermarket where they shop, though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.

  They are not good people. They do not even have the integrity to be the sort of people who don’t worry about being good people. They worry all the time. They are stuck in the middle again. They buy always Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay because these are the only words they know that relate to wine. They are attending a dinner party and for this you need to bring a bottle of wine. This much they have learnt. They do not purchase ethical things because they can’t afford them, Michel claims, and Leah says, no, it’s because you can’t be bothered. Privately she thinks: you want to be rich like them but you can’t be bothered with their morals, whereas I am more interested in their morals than their money, and this thought, this opposition, makes her feel good. Marriage as the art of invidious comparison. And shit that’s him in the phone box and if she had thought about it for more than a split second she would never have said:

  – Shit that’s him in the phone box.

  – That’s him?

  – Yes, but – no, I don’t know. No. I thought. Doesn’t matter. Forget it.

  – Leah, you just said it was him. Is it or isn’t it?

  Very quickly Michel is out of earshot and over there, squaring up for another invidious comparison: his compact, well-proportioned dancer’s frame against a tall muscled threat, who turns, and turns out not to be Nathan, who is surely the other boy she saw with Shar, though maybe not. The cap, the hooded top, the low jeans, it’s a uniform – they look the same. From where Leah stands anyway it is still all dumb show, hand gestures and primal frowns, and of course some awful potential news story that explains everything except the misery and the particulars: one youth knifed another youth, on Kilburn High Road. They had names and ages and it’s terribly sad, an indictment of something or another and also not good for house prices. Leah cannot breathe for fear. She is running to catch up, Olive clattering along beside her, and while she runs she finds herself noticing something that should not matter: she looks older than both of them. The boy is a boy and Michel is a man but they look the same age.

  – I don’t know what you’re chattin about bruv but you BEST NOT STEP TO ME.

  – Michel – please. Leave it, please.

  – Tell your mans to step back off me.

  – Don’t call my house again, OK? Leave my wife alone! You understand me?

  – What the fuck are you chattin about? You want some?

  They bump chests like primates; Michel is knocked back in an ignoble stumble to the pavement, landing next to his ridiculous dog, who licks him in his ear. Now his opponent towers over him and draws his foot back, preparing for a penalty kick. Leah inserts herself between the two of them, stretching out her hands to separate them, an imploring woman in an ancient story.

  – Michel! Stop it! It’s not him. Please – this is my husband, he’s confused, please don’t hurt him, please leave us alone, please.

  The foot, indifferent, draws further back, for greater range. Leah begins to cry. In the corner of her eye she observes a young white couple in suits crossing the road to avoid them. No one will help. She puts her hands together in prayer.

  – Please leave him alone, please. I’m pregnant – please leave us alone. The foot retreats. A hand looms over Michel as he struggles to his feet, a hand in the shape of a gun, pointed at his head.

  – Step to me again – brrp brrp!– you’ll be gone.

  – Fuck you. OK? I’m not scared of you!

  In a blink the foot is drawn back once more and released into Olive’s belly. She is propelled several yards into the doorway of the sweet shop. She makes a noise Leah has never heard before.

  – Olive!

  – You’re lucky your gal came for you bruv. Otherwise.

  He is already halfway across the road, shouting over his shoulder.

  – Otherwise what? You fucking coward! You kick my dog! I’ll call the police!

  – MICHEL. Don’t make it worse.

  She has a hand to his chest. To any bystander it would appear that she is holding him back. Only she knows that he is not really trying to push her away. In this way the two men part, abusing each other roundly as they go, playing with the idea that they are not finished, that any moment they might turn back and set upon each other. It is only more makebelieve: the presence of a woman has released them from their obligation.

  21

  Leah believes in objectivity. She is a little calmer now, they are almost home. Who was that woman at the moment of crisis, screaming and weeping, begging on her knees in the street? Silly to admit it, but she had thought of herself as ‘brave’. A fighter. Now she is introduced to a deal-maker, a pleader, a tactical liar. Please don’t destroy the thing I love! And her petition had been heard, and a lesser sacrifice made in its place, and in the moment she was simply, pathetically grateful for the concession.

  Afterwards, too, she could not instantly put herself back together. It is Michel who holds Olive in his arms and thumps upon their own front door while Leah goes on not being able to discover which shopping bag contains the key.

  – Is she OK?

  – She’s fine. Unless she’s hurt inside. To me she looks fine. Shocked.

  – Are you OK?

  The answer is in his face. Humiliation. Fury. Of course, it’s harder for a man to be objective. They have the problem of pride.

  – Ned!

  – Guys, you OK?

  – Help Lee with those bags.

  They go into the kitchen and lay the beloved dog in its bed. She looks OK. Feed her? She eats. Throw a ball? She runs. Maybe she’s OK, but for the humans there is still too much adrenalin and trauma to move on. Leah tells Ned the story, purging it of any possible fury or humiliation. Michel the brave! Michel the defender! She puts a hand on her husband’s arm. He shrugs it off.

  – She pretended she was pregnant. He took pity on us! I was lying on the floor like an idiot.

  – No. You stopped it getting any worse than it needed to be.

  She puts a hand on his arm again. This time he lets her.

  – Do you think we should leave her tonight? I don’t know. Ned, could you keep an eye out? Call if there’s any problem? Or maybe we should just stay in. Cancel.

  It’s dinner, says Michel, I don’t think we can cancel. She’s OK. You’re OK, baby, aren’t you? You’re OK? The two humans look into the animal’s eyes for reassurance. Leah struggles to be objective. Wouldn’t one of the humans have said the word ‘vet’ by now if they did not fear how much money saying ‘vet’ would entail?

  22

  Hanwell never gave dinner parties. Nor did he go out for dinner. That’s not true: on special occasions he took his little family to Vijay’s on Willesden Lane, where they took a table near the door, ate quickly and grew self-conscious of their conversation. Nothing in Leah’s childhood prepared her for the frequency with which she now attends dinner parties, most often at Natalie’s house, where she and Michel are invited to provide something like local colour. Neither of them knows what to say to barristers and bankers, to the occasional judge. Natalie cannot believe that they are shy. Each time she blames some error of placement but each time the awkwardness remains. They are shy, whether Natalie believes it or not. They have no gift for anecdote. They look down at their plates and cut their food with great care, letting Natalie tell their stories for them, nodding to confirm points of fact, names, times, places. Offered to the table for general dissection, these anecdotes take on their own life, separate, impressive.

  – or just ran. I would have run like the bloody wind and left them to it. No offence, Michel. You’re very brave.

>   – And then did you just both go your separate ways? ‘Thank you, I’ve been your potential murderer today, now I must be off …’

  – Ha!

  – ‘Got a rather full day of muggings to attend to with my pretend gun.’

  – Ha!

  – Can you pass that salsa thing? Do you think if you make a gun sign with your fingers that means you actually have a gun or that’s like basically your only gun? Recession bites everyone, I suppose … why should gangsters be immune? Look, I’ve got one, too. Brrrp!

  – Ha! Ha!

  – Wait, but, sorry – you’re pregnant?

  Twelve people at Nat’s long oak dining table stop talking and laughing and look at Leah caught wrestling the breast of a duck.

  – No.

  – No, it was just something she said, you know, to stop him.

  – Very brave. Quick thinking.

  Natalie’s version of Leah and Michel’s anecdote is over. The conversational baton passes to others, who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of the wider culture, debates in the newspapers. Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn’t care. The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots. Meanwhile parents have become old and ill at the very moment their children want to have their own babies. Many of the parents are immigrants – from Jamaica, from Ireland, from India, from China – and they can’t understand why they have not yet been invited to live with their children, as is the custom in their countries. Technology is offered as a substitute for that impossible request. Stair lifts. Pacemakers. Hip replacements. Dialysis machines. But nothing satisfies them. They worked hard so we children might live like this. They ‘literally’ will not be happy until they’ve moved into our houses. They can never move into our houses. Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam. Let me tell you about Islam. The thing about the trouble with Islam. Everyone is suddenly an expert on Islam. But what do you think, Samhita, yeah what do you think, Samhita, what’s your take on this? Samhita, the copyright lawyer. Pass the tuna. Solutions are passed across the table, strategies. Private wards. Private cinemas. Christmas abroad. A restaurant with only five tables in it. Security systems. Fences. The carriage of a 4x4 that lets you sit alone above traffic. There is a perfect isolation out there somewhere, you can get it, although it doesn’t come cheap. But Leah, someone is saying, but Leah, in the end, at the end of the day, don’t you just want to give your individual child the very best opportunities you can give them individually? Pass the green beans with shaved almonds. Define best. Pass the lemon tart. Whatever brings a child the greatest possibility of success. Pass the berries. Define success. Pass the crème fraîche. You think that the difference between you and me is that you want to give your child the best opportunities? Pass the dessert spoon. It’s the job of the hostess to smooth things over, to point out that these arguments are still hypothetical. Why argue over the unborn? All I know is I don’t want to push something the size of a watermelon out of something the size of a lemon. Nurse, bring on the drugs! Have you thought about doing it in water? Everyone says the same things in the same way. Conversations tinged with terror. Captive animals, contemplating a return to nature. Natalie is calm, having already travelled to the other side. Pass the laptop. You’ve got to see this, it’s only two minutes long, it’s hilarious.

 
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