Nw by Zadie Smith


  “More fool her.”

  Squeals, and a small hand-holding dance. Apart from Marcia scoring a point off the situation—“See how quick you all get yourselves ready when you’re going somewhere you want to go?”—joy was unconfined, and everything colluded to extend it; Marcia did not make them talk to every church lady on the high road and Gus called Keisha “Madam One” and Leah “Madam Two” and did not get angry when Jayden ran ahead toward the twin arcs of the golden M.

  8. Radiography

  But on the way home they bumped into Pauline Hanwell, alone, pulling a shopping bag on wheels. It was true she looked like the actor George Peppard. Jayden held the toy of his Happy Meal up for Mrs. Hanwell’s inspection. Mrs. Hanwell did not see it—she was looking at Leah. Keisha Blake looked at her friend Leah Hanwell and saw the red climbing up her throat. Mrs. Blake asked Mrs. Hanwell how she was and Mrs. Hanwell said fine and the reverse inquiry was made with the same result. Mrs. Hanwell was a general nurse at The Royal Free Hospital and Mr. Blake a health visitor affiliated with St. Mary’s, Paddington. Neither woman was in any sense a member of the bourgeoisie but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either. They spoke briefly about the National Health Service, with a mixture of complaint and pride. Mrs. Hanwell told the Blakes that she was retraining to become a radiographer and Keisha could not tell if Mrs. Hanwell realized she had told them the very same thing a few days ago in front of the bins. “Now, Augustus: Colin said if you’re still wanting those parking permits for your van, he can help you.” Mr. Colin Hanwell worked for the council. His main responsibility was bike safety, but he had also some minimal power in the matter of parking. Keisha thought: now she is going to say she’s heading to Marks & Sparks and when this was exactly what she did say Keisha experienced an unforgettable pulse of authorial omnipotence. Maybe the world really was hers for the making. “Leah,” said Mrs. Hanwell, “you coming?” The gap between the posing of this question and its answer was experienced by Keisha Blake as an intolerable tension extending far beyond her ability to withstand it and almost infinite in length.

  9. Thrown

  It was clear that Keisha Blake could not start something without finishing it. If she climbed the boundary wall of Caldwell she was compelled to walk the entire wall, no matter the obstructions in her path (beer cans, branches). This compulsion, applied to other fields, manifested itself as “intelligence.” Every unknown word sent her to a dictionary—in search of something like “completion” —and every book led to another book, a process which of course could never be completed. This route through early life gave her no small portion of joy, and indeed it seemed at first that her desires and her capacities were basically aligned. She wanted to read things—could not resist wanting to read things—and reading was easily done, and relatively inexpensive. On the other hand, that she should receive any praise for such reflexive habits baffled the girl, for she knew herself to be fantastically stupid about many things. Wasn’t it possible that what others mistook for intelligence might in fact be only a sort of mutation of the will? She could sit in one place longer than other children, be bored for hours without complaint, and was completely devoted to filling in every last corner of the coloring books Augustus Blake sometimes brought home. She could not help her mutated will—no more than she could help the shape of her feet or the street on which she was born. She was unable to glean real satisfaction from accidents. In the child’s mind a breach now appeared: between what she believed she knew of herself, essentially, and her essence as others seemed to understand it. She began to exist for other people, and if ever asked a question to which she did not know the answer she was wont to fold her arms across her body and look upward. As if the question itself were too obvious to truly concern her.

  10. Speak, radio

  A coincidence? Coincidence has its limitations. The DJ on Colin Hanwell’s kitchen radio could not always be between tracks. He could not always be between tracks at the very moment Keisha Blake walked into the Hanwell kitchen. She made inquiries. But Leah’s father, who was at the counter shelling peas from their pods, did not seem to understand the question.

  “How d’you mean? There isn’t any music. It’s Radio 4. They just talk.”

  An early example of the maxim: “Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.”

  11. Push it

  It had never occurred to Keisha Blake that her friend Leah Hanwell was in possession of a particular type of personality. Like most children, theirs was a relation based on verbs, not nouns. Leah Hanwell was a person willing and available to do a variety of things that Keisha Blake was willing and available to do. Together they ran, jumped, danced, sang, bathed, colored-in, rode bikes, pushed a Valentine under Nathan Bogle’s door, read magazines, shared chips, sneaked a cigarette, read Cheryl’s diary, wrote the word FUCK on the first page of a Bible, tried to get The Exorcist out of the video shop, watched a prostitute or loose woman or a girl just crazy in love suck someone off in a phone box, found Cheryl’s weed, found Cheryl’s vodka, shaved Leah’s forearm with Cheryl’s razor, did the moonwalk, learned the obscene dance popularized by Salt-N-Pepa, and many other things of this nature. But now they were leaving Quinton Primary for Brayton Comprehensive, where everybody seemed to have a personality, and so Keisha looked at Leah and tried to ascertain the outline of her personality.

  12. Portrait

  A generous person, wide open to the entire world—with the possible exception of her own mother. Ceased eating tuna because of the dolphins, and now all meat because of animals generally. If there happened to be a homeless man sitting on the ground outside the supermarket in Cricklewood Keisha Blake had to wait until Leah Hanwell had finished bending down and speaking with the homeless man, not simply asking him if there was anything he wanted, but making conversation. If she was more curt with her own family than a homeless man this only suggested that generosity was not an infinite quantity and had to be employed strategically where it was most needed. Within Brayton she befriended everyone without distinction or boundary, but the hopeless cases did not alienate her from the popular and vice versa and how this was managed Keisha Blake had no understanding. A little of this universal good feeling spread to Keisha by association, though no one ever mistook Keisha’s cerebral willfulness for her friend’s generosity of spirit.

  13. Gravel

  Walking back from school with a girl called Anita, Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell found themselves being told a terrible story. Anita’s mother had been raped by a cousin in 1976 and this man was Anita’s father. He had been put in jail and then got out and Anita had never met him and did not want to. Some of the family thought her father had raped her mother and some did not. It was a domestic drama but also a kind of thrilling horror because who could say if Anita’s rapist father wasn’t living in NW itself and/or watching them from some vantage point at this very moment? The three girls stopped in the gravel courtyard of a church and sat on a bench. Anita cried, and Leah cried too. Anita asked: “How do I know which half of me is evil?” But parental legacy meant little to Keisha Blake; it was her solid sense that she was in no way the creation of her parents and as a result could not seriously believe that anybody else was the creation of theirs. Indeed, a non-existent father and/or mother was a persistent fantasy of hers, and the children’s books she had most enjoyed always began with the protagonist inheriting a terrible freedom after some form of parental apocalypse. She made a figure of eight on the ground with her left trainer and considered the two pages she had to write about the 1804 corn laws before tomorrow morning.

  14. That obscure object of desire

  The red and white air technology of the Greek goddess of victory. Keisha Blake put her hand against the reinforced shop-front glass. Separated from happiness. It had been everywhere, the air, free for the taking, but she had only come to desire it now that she saw it thus defined, extracted, rendered visible. T
he infinitely available thing, now enclosed in the sole of a shoe! You had to admire the audacity. Ninety-nine quid. Maybe at Christmas.

  15. Evian

  The exact same thing had been achieved with water. When Marcia Blake spotted the bottle hiding under a bag of carrots she cussed Keisha Blake, snatched it out of the trolley and placed it back on the wrong shelf next to the jams.

  16. The new timetable

  “There: he’s in your French class. And your drama class.”

  “Who is?”


  “Bogle? So?”


  “Oh my gosh, Keisha. We were babies. You’re so dumb sometimes.”

  17. GCSE

  In the office of Keisha Blake’s Head of Year baseball caps and inappropriate jewelry were confiscated and hung from the wall on hooks. Keisha Blake had not been called in for a reprimand, she had come to discuss her options for a set of exams still three years in the future. She did not really want to discuss these exams, she simply wanted it to be noted that she was the kind of person who thought three years ahead about the important things in life. As she got up to leave she spotted a silver chain from which drooped a tiny pistol picked out in diamante crystals. “That’s my sister’s,” she said. “Oh, is it?” said the teacher and looked out of the window. Keisha persisted: “She doesn’t go here anymore. She got expelled.” The teacher frowned. He took the necklace from the wall and passed it to Keisha. He said: “It’s hard to believe that you and Cheryl Blake are even related.”

  18. Sony Walkman (borrowed)

  That Keisha should be able to hear the Rebel MC in her ears and at the same time walk down Willesden Lane, was a kind of miracle and modern ecstasy, and yet there was very little space in the day for anything like ecstasy or abandon or even simple laziness, for whatever you did in life you would have to do it twice as well as they did it “just to break even,” a troubling belief held simultaneously by Keisha Blake’s mother and her Uncle Jeffrey, known to be “gifted” but also “beyond the pale.”

  19. Detour into the perfect past tense

  (Sometimes Jeffrey—who was not a member of the church—cornered his thirteen-year-old niece and told her perplexing things. “Look it up! Look it up!” he had said, yesterday, at Cousin Gale’s wedding. Keisha could only presume he was referring to a prior conversation, that had taken place many weeks earlier. Therefore he had meant: “Look up the CIA’s practice of flooding poor black neighbourhoods with crack cocaine and you will see that I am right.” How? Where?)

  20. Sony Walkman redux

  That two such different personalities as her mother and Uncle Jeffrey should hold an opinion simultaneously lent that opinion some force. Yet surely none of you would begrudge Keisha Blake this present pleasure of thinking to music? Oh, this outdoor soundtrack! Oh, this orchestral existence!

  21. Jane Eyre

  When being bullied Keisha Blake found it useful to remember that if you read the relevant literature or watched the pertinent movies you soon found that being bullied was practically a sign of a superior personality, and the greater the intensity of the bullying the more likely it was to be avenged at the other end of life, when qualities of the kind Keisha Blake possessed—cleverness, will-to-power—became “their own reward,” and that this remained true even if the people in the literature and the movies looked nothing like you, came from a different socio-economic and historical universe, and—had they ever met you—would very likely have enslaved you or, at best, bullied you to precisely the same extent as Lorna Mackenzie who had a problem with the way you acted like you were better than everyone else.

  22. Citation

  Further confirmation of this principle was to be found in the Bible itself.

  23. Spectrum 128k

  For her fourteenth birthday Leah received a home computer. Keisha Blake read through the accompanying booklet and was able to figure out how to program a basic series of commands so that in answer to particular prompts text would come up on the screen as if the computer itself were “talking.” They did one for Mr. Hanwell:

  >> gt;>> gt;WHAT IS YOUR NAME

  “I’m to type it in here? I feel silly.”



  “My word! Did you do that, Keisha? How do you do these things? I can’t keep up with you these days. Pauline, come and look at this, you won’t believe it.”

  After they had finished dazzling the Hanwells, they did one for their private amusement:

  >> gt;>> gt;WHAT IS YOUR NAME?

  >> gt;>> gt;LEAH HANWELL


  24. The number 37

  On Sundays, Keisha Blake attended Kilburn Pentecostal with her family, minus Cheryl, and Leah often came along, not because she was in any sense a believer, but rather motivated by the generosity of spirit described above. Now a new policy revealed itself. When they reached the corner by the McDonald’s Leah Hanwell said to Keisha Blake, “Actually I think I might get on the 37, go to the Lock, see that lot.” “Fair enough,” said Keisha Blake. There had been an attempt over the summer to mix that Camden Lock lot with this Caldwell lot, but Keisha Blake did not especially care for Baudelaire or Bukowski or Nick Drake or Sonic Youth or Joy Division or boys who looked like girls or vice versa or Anne Rice or William Burroughs or Kafka’s Metamorphosis or CND or Glastonbury or the Situationists or Breathless or Samuel Beckett or Andy Warhol or a million other Camden things, and when Keisha brought a wondrous Monie Love 7-inch to play on Leah’s hi-fi there was something awful in the way Leah blushed and conceded it was probably OK to dance to. They had only Prince left, and he was wearing thin.

  25. Vivre sa vie

  This sudden and violent divergence in their tastes was shocking to Keisha, and she persisted in believing that Leah’s new tastes were an affectation, unrelated to anything essential in her being and largely taken up to annoy her oldest friend. “Bell me later,” said Leah Hanwell and jumped on the bus’s open rear end. Keisha Blake, whose celebrated will and focus did not leave her much room for angst, watched her friend ascend to the top deck in her new panda-eyed makeup and had a mauvais quart d’heure wondering whether she herself had any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television.

  26. Relative time

  A number of factors—modest style of dress, early physical maturation, glasses—combined to make Keisha Blake look considerably older than she in fact was.

  27. 50ml vodka

  Instead of being known as a “personality,” Keisha Blake now became indirectly popular as a function. She bought alcohol for a lot of people who believed they looked too young to get it themselves, and the irrational belief in Keisha’s “talent” in this area became self-fulfilling, as invested with all this belief in her infallibility she came to believe in it herself. Still, it was strange to buy booze for Leah. “It needs to be the size to fit in my back pocket.” “Why?” “Because there’ll be two hundred people moshing up and down and you can’t be pissing around with a wine glass.” As the event did not start until late, Leah first came to Keisha Blake’s room to hang out and drink and talk until it was time for her to go. Probably later she would meet someone with hair in his eyes and do sex. “I saw Nathan at the chippy yesterday,” said Keisha. “God, Nathan,” said Leah Hanwell. “He’s not coming back next term,” said Keisha Blake. “They turned it into an expulsion.” “That was a matter of time,” said Leah Hanwell, and opened the window to have a fag. Leah drank some more and spent a long time twisting the radio knob looking for a pirate station she didn’t find. At around ten fifteen p.m. Leah Hanwell said: “I don’t think women can really be beautiful. I think they can be so attractive and you can want to shag them and love them and blah blah but I thin
k really only men can be completely beautiful in the end.” “You reckon?” said Keisha, and disguised her confusion by drinking deeply from her mug of tea. She was not at all sure to whom the second-person pronoun was meant to refer.

  28. Rabbit

  On the eve of her sixteenth birthday a gift was left for Keisha Blake, outside the flat in the corridor. The wrapping showed a repeating butterfly pattern. The card, unsigned, read UNWRAP IN PRIVATE, but the slant of the p and the pointy w told her it was the hand of her good friend Leah Hanwell. She retreated to the bathroom. A vibrator, neon pink with revolving beads in its gigantic tip. Keisha sat on the closed lid of the toilet and made some strategic calculations. Wrapping the dildo in a towel, she hid it in the room she shared with Cheryl, then took the box and wrapping paper down to the courtyard to the public bins by the parking bays. The following Saturday morning she began approximating the early signs of a cold, and on Sunday claimed a severe cough and stomach ache. Her mother pressed her tongue down with a fork and said it was a shame, Pastor Akinwande was going to talk on the topic of Abraham and Isaac. From the balcony Keisha Blake watched her family walk to church, not without regret: she was sincerely interested in the topic of Abraham and Isaac.

  29. Rabbit, run

  But she had also privately decided she was a different kind of believer from her mother, and could survive the occasional anthropological adventure into sin. She returned inside and raided an alarm clock and calculator for their batteries. She did not employ any mood lighting or soft music or scented candles. She did not take off her clothes. Three minutes later she’d established several things previously unknown to her: what a vaginal orgasm was; the difference between a clitoral and a vaginal orgasm, and the existence of a viscous material, produced by her body, that she had, afterward, to rinse out of the ridges along the vibrator’s shaft, in the little sink in the corner of the room. She had the dildo for only a couple of weeks but in that time used it regularly, sometimes as much as several times a day, often without washing in between, and always in this business-like way, as if delegating a task to somebody else.

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