N.W. by Zadie Smith


  Water shortage. Food wars. Strain A(H5N1). Manhattan slips into the sea. England freezes. Iran presses the button. A tornado blows through Kensal Rise. There must be something attractive about the idea of apocalypse. Neighbourhoods reduced to scavenging zones. Setting up schools in abandoned supermarkets and churches. New groupings, new connections, multiple partners, children free of all this dull protection. On every street corner music streaming out of giant jerry-rigged sound systems. People moving in great anonymous crowds, leaderless, in wave formations, masked, looking for food, weaponry. ‘Steam-rushing’ Caldwell, on a Sunday, running down the halls in packs, ringing every bell.

  Those were the days. Weren’t they, Leah? Those were really the days. Pass the whisky. Because it’s a facile comparison: you can’t be responsible for a complex economic event in the same way you’re responsible for going out on the street with the intention to steal. Pass the coffee. It’s not any coffee, it’s extremely good coffee.

  – It’s just disappointing.

  – It’s so disappointing.

  – Especially when you’ve really gone out of your way to help somebody and they just throw it back in your face. That’s what I can’t stand. Like actually what happened with Leah – Lee, tell them about the girl.

  – Sorry?

  – The girl in the headscarf. Who came to the door. It’s a really sad story. All right: I’ll tell it –

  It’s only when they have been kissed on both cheeks, when the heavy front door closes, when they are released once more into the night, that Leah and Michel come alive. But even this camaraderie of contempt can quickly fall apart. By the time they reach the mouth of the tube, Leah has somehow said too much, complained too much, and the delicate spirit level of their relation, their us-against-them, slips, and shows a crooked angle.

  – Don’t you think they’re as bored as you are? You think you’re somebody special? You think I wake up every day so happy to see you? You’re a snob, just in the other way. Do you think you are the only one who wants something else? Another life?

  They ride home in silence, infuriated. They walk through Willesden in silence. They come to the door in silence, both reaching for separate keys at the same time. They do comic battle at the keyhole, and Leah is the one to crack. By the time they are in the hallway they are laughing, and soon after, kissing. If only they could be alone all the time. If the world was just you and me, says Leah, we’d be happy all the time. You sound just like them, says Michel, and puts his tongue in his wife’s ear.

  The next morning, they arrive in the kitchen in mellow mood, in T-shirts and pants, sloping into the wide expanse of a Saturday morning. Leah goes to check the post. She sees her first. Innocent, beloved little animal, cold, not yet stiff, far from her bed, under the table in the box room, on her side. Bloody foam at her mouth. Michel! Michel! It won’t come out loud enough. Or he is in the garden, admiring the tree. The doorbell goes. It is Pauline. Olive’s dead! She’s dead! Oh my God! She’s dead! Where? says Pauline. Show me. It’s the nurse in her. And when Michel comes and sees and is no less hysterical than Leah, Leah is surprised how grateful she is for her mother’s practical way of being in the world. Leah wants to cry and only to cry. Michel wants to go over and over the order of events. He wants to establish a timeline, as if this would change anything. Pauline wants to make sure the area under the table is made antiseptic and that the shoebox is buried at least one foot under the communal grass. No point asking the others, says Pauline – meaning the other occupants – they’ll only say no. Hurry up now, she says, try and pull yourselves together. We need to get this done. Have some tea. Calm down. She asks: did it not occur to you she didn’t bark when you came in?

  23

  It could be said that one of Michel’s dreams has come true: they have gone up one rung, at least in the quality and elaboration of their fear. It is in Leah’s nature to blame Michel for this – their new wariness, the Chubb lock, the fact he now picks her up from the station, the way they cross the street to avoid ‘certain elements’ and continually discuss moving out. Michel is longer at the computer, dreaming of a windfall that will transport them to another urban suburb more to his taste, which means more African, less Caribbean. To which Leah offers no comment. She is submerged, July is a lost month. She lets these little changes happen, up there, on the surface, while she walks on the bottom of the ocean. She is in terrible mourning. She is unfamiliar with the rules concerning the mourning of animals. For a cat: one week. For a dog: two will be tolerated, three is to begin to look absurd, especially in the office, where – in the Caribbean spirit – all animals smaller than a donkey are considered vermin. She is mourning for her dog. She thinks the sadness will kill her. Spotting one of Olive’s many twins shuffling up the Edgware Road, suffering in the heat, she is overcome. At work, Adina squints at her puffy tear-stained face. Not still the dog. Still? And if it is indeed false consciousness, if the mourning is for something other than her dog, it can make no practical difference to the mourner: it is Olive that she knew, and Olive whom she misses. Leah has become the sort of crazy person who stops other dog owners in the street to tell them her tale of woe.

  Walking back from a training day in Harlesden, she finds herself lost in the back streets. She takes a series of random left turns to keep moving, to lose a surely innocent hooded stranger, and then here is that strange little church again, tolling six o’clock. She goes in. Half an hour later she comes out. She does not tell Michel or anybody. She begins to do this most days. In late July, Michel insists: they must go forward. Leah agrees. They are placed on the NHS waiting list. But every morning, she locks the bathroom door and takes her little contraceptive pill. Stolen boxes from Natalie’s bathroom cabinet, hidden in a drawer. She doesn’t want to ‘go forward’. For Leah, that way is not forward. She wants just him and her forever.

  August comes.

  August comes.

  Carnival! Girls from work, boys from the salon, old school friends, Michel’s cousins from south London, all walk the streets with a million others. Seeking out the good sound systems, winding their bodies close to complete strangers and each other, eating jerk, ending up in Meanwhile Gardens, stoned in the grass. Usually. Not this year. This year they finally accept Frank’s annual invitation to a friend of a friend’s with ‘an amazing carnival pad’. An Italian. They turn up early on the Sunday morning, as advised, to get there before the street is closed off. They feel a bit stupid, wandering around the empty flat of people they do not know. No sign of Frank or Nat. Michel goes to help in the kitchen. Leah accepts a rum and Coke and sits in a corner chair, looking out the window, watching the police lining up along the barricades. In the corner of the room a television talks. It talks for a long time before Leah notices it, and then only because it names a local road, one street from her own.

  – on Albert Road, in Kilburn, where yesterday evening hopes for a peaceful carnival weekend were marred by reports of a fatal stabbing, here, on the border of the carnival route through north-west London, as people prepared for today’s festivities –

  Albert Road! shouts Michel, from the kitchen. Leah shouts back:

  YEAH BUT IT’S GOT NOTHING TO DO WITH CARNIVAL– IT WAS LAST NIGHT. IT’S JUST–

  Michel walks through the door.

  – it’s just typical sensational reporting. They want there to be –

  – Can I hear it please?

  The television says:

  – The young man, named locally as Felix Cooper, was thirty-two years old. He grew up in the notorious Garvey House project in Holloway, but had moved with his family to this relatively quiet corner of Kilburn, in search of a better life. Yet it was here, in Kilburn, that he was accosted by two youths early Saturday evening, moments from his own front door. It is not known if the victim knew –

  – He was murdered! Why does it matter where he grew up?

  I put music on now, says an Italian, and switches off the television. We need to move out, says Michel. I don??
?t want to move, it’s my home, says Leah. She accepts a kiss on her neck. No arguing, says Michel, OK? Let’s try and have a nice time. I’m not arguing, says Leah. OK, but you’re being naïve.

  In ill temper they separate. Leah goes up one floor, to a terrace. Michel returns to the kitchen. Now the flat fills very quickly. The doorbell rings continuously. It would be easier just to leave the front door open but the host is anxious to see each guest on the video phone before they come in. People stream into the party like soldiers into triage. It’s hell out there! I thought we weren’t going to make it. Everyone takes turns to stand on the white stucco balconies, dancing, blowing whistles painted in Rastafarian colours at the carnival crowds, far below. Very soon Leah is drunk. She started too early. She can’t find Michel. She spots Frank, not difficult to find in this crowd. They stand in the hall. The music is so loud, both outside and in, that information can only be passed sparingly. Nat’s coming later. She’s with the kids on one of Marcia’s church floats. Sausage roll?

  – So what’s the secret?

  – What?

  – OF YOUR HAPPINESS, FRANCESCO.

  – I CAN’T HEAR YOU. ARE YOU DRUNK?

  They move into the kitchen, where the bass can’t find them. She repeats her query. We tell each other everything, he says. Punch?

  The kitchen is packed. She needs water. She tries to make her way to the taps. Clean cup or glass or mug? Fags and food in the plughole. Time has not stood still during this procedure. Frank is lost. Michel is lost. Who are all these people? Why do they keep telling themselves what a good time they’re all having? No need to queue for the toilets, no accumulated street filth between the toes, no six pounds for a can of Red Stripe. See! I’ve been telling you all these years! Perfect spot. You can see everything from here. And suddenly there’s Nat, standing on the balcony alone, looking out. She turns. Frank is in the doorway. Leah is at a midpoint between them, unnoticed in the crowd. She sees the husband look at the wife, and the wife look at the husband. She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all. Bowls of disposable cameras in cheery colours are being distributed. The host encourages people to record the occasion. Everyone takes turns trying on the Rasta wig. Leah surprises herself: she has a great time.

  37

  – What do you mean they’re not here? I dropped the camera in two hours ago. It’s a one-hour service.

  – I’m sorry, madam, I can’t find anything under that name.

  – Hanwell, Leah. Please check again.

  Leah puts both hands on the pharmacy counter.

  – Are you sure it was today?

  – I don’t understand. Are you saying you’ve lost them? I was in two hours ago. Today. Monday. A man served me.

  – I have no record of the name you’re giving me. I just got here, madam. Do you know who was serving you? Was it a young man or an older gentleman?

  – I don’t remember who served me. I know I came in here.

  – Madam, there’s another pharmacy at the station, are you sure it wasn’t that one?

  – Yes I’m sure. Hanwell, Leah. Can you look again?

  A queue forms behind her. They are trying to decide if she is crazy.

  Sectioning is a common procedure in NW and it is not always the people you’d think. The Indian woman in the white coat behind the counter flicks once more through her box of yellow envelopes.

  – Ah – Hanwell. It was not in H. It’s been put in the wrong place, you see. I’m so sorry, madam.

  She is not crazy. Photographs. Easy to forget about real photographs, their gloss and pleasure. But the first is entirely black, and so is the second; the third shows only a red aura, like a torch held beneath a sheet.

  – Look, these aren’t mine, I don’t want these –

  The fourth is Shar. Unmistakable. Shar laughing at whoever is taking the picture, pressing herself against a door, holding a little bottle of something, vodka? Underneath a dartboard. No other furniture in the filthy room. The fifth is Shar, still laughing, now sat on the floor, looking destroyed. The sixth is a skaggy redhead, skin and bone and track marks, with a fag hanging out her mouth, and if you squinted –

  – I’m sorry, madam. Let me take those, somehow we’ve had a mixing up.

  Michel, who has been looking at shaving creams, comes over. He is not surprised. Infuriating, this perverse refusal to be either amazed or surprised.

  NW, a small place.

  With two pharmacies.

  Photographs get mixed up.

  Sounds reasonable but she can’t take it reasonably. She is enraged by the possibility that he does not believe her. This is the girl! Don’t you believe me? That’s an insane coincidence! Her photos are in my envelope! Don’t you believe me? But why should he believe her when she has lied about everything? The queue shuffles impatiently. She is shouting, and people look at her like she is mad. Michel yanks her towards the exit, the little bell over the door rings, it is all over so quickly. It is somehow the brevity of it that muddles things – those too few seconds, in which she looked and saw what was there. The girl. Her photos. My envelope. That’s what happened. Like a riddle in a dream. There is no answer. Nor is there any way that she can take back what she has so loudly proclaimed, in front of all these decent local people, or ask to see photos that are clearly not hers again. What would people think?

  guest

  NW6

  The man was naked, the woman dressed. It didn’t look right, but the woman had somewhere to go. He lay clowning in bed, holding her wrist. She tried to put a shoe on. Under their window they heard truck doors opening, boxes of produce heaved on to tarmac. Felix sat up and looked to the car park below. He watched a man in an orange tabard, three stacked crates of apples in his arms, struggle through electric doors. Grace tapped the window with a long fake nail. ‘Babe – they can see you.’ Felix stretched. He made no effort to cover himself. ‘Some people shameless,’ noted Grace and squeezed round the bed to straighten the figurines on the windowsill. It was a dumb place to keep them – the man had knocked a few princesses over during the night, and now the woman wanted to know where ‘Ariel’ was. The man turned back to the window. ‘Felix, I’m talking to you: what you done with her?’ ‘I ain’t touched her. Which one is it? The ginger one?’ ‘Shut up about ginger – she’s red. She’s stuck behind the thing – it’s nasty down there!’ It was an opportunity for manly display. Felix thrust his skinny arm behind the radiator and drew out an ex-mermaid. He held her up to the light by her hard-won feet: ‘Blatantly. Ginger.’ Grace put the doll back in place between the brown one and the blonde one. ‘Keep laughing,’ she said. ‘Won’t be laughing when I kick you out on the street.’ True. The sheets were white and clean, bar the wet patch he had made himself, and the carpet worn thin from hoovering. On the only chair his clothes from the night before had already been folded and placed in a pile. The pink telephone on the glass dresser shone, and so did the glass dresser. He had known many women: he didn’t think he had ever known anyone quite so female. ‘Lift!’ He raised his backside so she could retrieve a sock. Even the bottle of perfume in her hand was shaped like a woman, a cheap knock-off from the market. He wished he could buy her the things she wanted! There were so many things she wanted. ‘And if you go past Wilsons on the high road – Fee, listen to me. If you go past ask Ricky – you know which one I’m talking about? Little light-skin boy with the twists. Ask ’im if he can come round and look at that sink. What’s the time? Shit – I’m late.’ He watched her spray herself now in the hollow of her neck, the underside of her wrist, furtively, as if he was never to know she ever smelt of anything but roses and sandalwood. ‘Oyster card?’ The man put his hands behind his head in a manful shrug. The woman sucked her teeth and went off to search the tiny lounge. It was hard to remain manful alone. He did all these sit-ups. All these sit-ups! His belly stayed concave, a curtain sucked through an open window. He picked yesterday’s paper from the floor. Maybe the key was to make less eff
ort. Hadn’t the men she’d loved most cared least? ‘Fee, you working today?’ ‘Nah, this week they only needed me Friday.’ ‘They need to be guaranteeing you Saturdays. That’s when the work comes in. It’s disrespectful. You’re trained. You got your certificate. You’ve got to stop letting people disrespect you like that.’ ‘True,’ said Felix, and turned to Page Three. The woman came right up close to the man and made a sentence of words and kisses, alternating. ‘Never. Ignorant. Getting. Goals. Accomplished.’ She frowned absently at the nipples of the white woman in his newspaper which Felix – although certainly more familiar with such nipples than Grace – also found curious, so pink and tiny, like a cat’s. ‘You ain’t even done that thing have you? Fee? Have you?’ ‘What thing?’ ‘The list! You ain’t done it have you?’ Felix made a noncommittal sound, but the truth was he had not made a list of things he wanted from the universe, and privately doubted it would change anything at work. There wasn’t enough work to justify five men working five days a week. He was the least experienced, the last one in. ‘Felix!’ The beloved face appeared by the door jamb: ‘Oi, it just arrived! I’ve got to go – it’s on the sofa. Take it round your dad’s, yeah?’ The man wanted to object, he had his own errands to run, but they were secret errands and so he said nothing. ‘Go on, Fee. He’d like it. Don’t get in no trouble. And listen, yeah? I’m gonna stay at Angeline’s tonight and go carnival from hers. So bell me and let me know what time you’re gonna reach.’ Felix made a face of protest. ‘Nah, Felix, I promised her we’d get done up together. It’s tradition. She’s on her own now, innit. You and me can go carnival any time. Don’t be selfish. We can go Monday. We got each other – Angeline got no one. Come on, don’t be like that.’ She kissed two fingertips and pointed them at his heart. He grinned back at her. ‘That’s it. Laters.’ How can you hide happiness? He listened to the front door click shut, the clatter of four flights of rotten boards taken at a clip, in heels.

 
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