Nw by Zadie Smith


  30. Surplus value, schizophrenia, adolescence

  “We should go like this here,” said Layla and sang a new note and Keisha made a notation. “Role models,” sang Layla, in the new key, “bringing the truth, bringing the light.” Keisha made a further note. “Making it right,” said Layla, and then repeated the same words but sung as music, and Keisha nodded and made a further notation. Layla was genuinely musical and her voice was beautiful. Her mother was a well-known singer in Sierra Leone. Keisha could not sing and played the recorder rather badly. She had taught herself musical notation in a few weeks using piano music taken from church. As with everything that involved symbols and/or signification it had not been difficult for Keisha to do this and she did not know why that should be so or what such facility meant, nor why her sister Cheryl had not been similarly blessed, nor what she was meant to do about it or with it, or if “it” was a noun or a verb or had any material reality at all, outside of her own mind. The two girls were writing a song for the under-12 faith group that met in this back room on Thursdays after service. They were good friends, Keisha and Layla, though not as close as Keisha and Leah. The fact was they had not been bonded by a dramatic event, although in the mind of the church they belonged together in a natural and inevitable way. “Leading the way,” sang Layla. Keisha made a note. She could smell her own vagina on her hands. Now Layla reverted to speaking: “Or something like, ‘Sisters today, leading the way.’” Keisha made a note of this and placed parentheses around it to signify it was not yet a lyric set in stone. If these are “talents”—the ability to sing, or to quickly comprehend and reproduce musical notation—what kind of a thing is “talent?” A commodity? A gift? A prize? A reward? For what? “We follow the truth, we follow the light!” sang Layla, which had already been set in stone both musically and lyrically. With nothing to note down Keisha became anxious. Across the room hung a mirror. Two admirable young sisters, their hair still plaited by their mothers, sat on the edge of a makeshift stage, one singing and the other transforming music into its own shadow, musical notation. That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. Look closer. Look away. She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along. She must never know. “And then from here to here,” sang Layla, singing these words and therefore putting the instruction itself to music. Keisha made the notation.

  31. Permission to enter

  Though they were five, the Blakes occupied a three-bed, one bathroom unit, in which only the youngest boy, Jayden, had a room of his own. As far as Keisha could make out, privacy did not seem of any importance to her brother, who was eleven, and still prone to streaks of domestic nudity, but for her own person it was a necessity, more so with every passing day, and the arrival of the dildo prompted her to reopen an old debate with her mother.

  “It’s a human right!” cried Keisha Blake. History GCSE module B16: The American Civil Rights Movement. Module D5: The Chartists.

  “If there’s a fire you’d burn up in your room,” said her mother, “This Cheryl’s idea? People who want locks got something to hide.”

  “People who want locks just want a basic human right, which is privacy, look it up,” said Keisha, although with less heat this time, alarmed that her mother, in the general reach of a maternal cliché, should have gathered in the truth so precisely. She retreated to her room and thought about Jesus, another deeply godly person who was not understood as godly by the sort of clichéd people who called themselves godly, though to be fair those people were probably also sometimes godly in their own uneducated way, but only by accident, and only a bit.

  32. Difference

  A clitoral orgasm is a localized phenomena restricted to the clitoris itself. Perversely, direct stimulation of the clitoris tends not to provoke it, causing instead pain and annoyance, and sometimes an intense boredom. A vigorous and circular manipulation of the clitoris and the labia together, with a hand, is the most direct route. The resulting spasm is sharp, intensely pleasurable, but brief, like male orgasm. On the charged question of clitoral versus vaginal orgasm Keisha found herself to be an agnostic. One might as well be asked whether blue is a superior color to green.

  A vaginal orgasm can be provoked by penetration, but also by simply moving one’s pelvis forward and backward in a small motion while thinking about something interesting. This latter method is especially effective on a bus or a plane. There seems to be a small piece of raised flesh—about the size of a ten-pence piece—halfway up the wall of the vaginal canal on the side nearest your belly-button that is stimulated by this “rocking,” but whether this is what is meant by the phrase “g-spot” and whether it is the cause of the almost unbearably pleasurable sensation, Keisha Blake could not verify one way or another. However it is achieved, what is noticeable about vaginal orgasm is its length and intensity. It is experienced as a series of spasms as if the vagina itself is opening and closing like a fist. Perhaps it is. But whether this is what is meant by the phrase “multiple orgasm” was also unclear to Keisha Blake, though it seemed typical of the unassuming tendencies of feminine descriptors to accept one “close of the fist” as an orgasm in and of itself. It was perhaps simply a phenomenological problem. If Leah Hanwell said the flower is blue and Keisha Blake said the flower is blue how could they be sure that by the word “blue” they were apprehending the same phenomena?

  33. For the prosecution.

  Marcia found Leah’s gift during one of her routine sweeps. These sweeps really had Cheryl as their object—she had begun disappearing on Fridays and returning Monday—and nothing would have been easier for Keisha than to add dildo possession to her older sister’s already ruined reputation. Unable to look any longer at Marcia brandishing the plastic bag, Keisha Blake threw herself face down on the bed to commence fake crying, but in the middle of this procedure found herself locked in a genuine struggle, unable to countenance blaming either her sister or Leah, but equally unable to imagine the second option—her father being informed—with which she was now being presented. Keisha Blake thought to the left and thought to the right but there was no exit, and this was very likely the first time she became aware of the problem of suicide.

  “And don’t tell me you bought it,” said her mother, “because I don’t know where you think you would have got the money.” In the course of this interrogation Marcia went through most of the girls on the estate before working herself round to the painful possibility of Leah and finding the confirmation in her daughter’s face.

  34. Rupture

  There followed a break between Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake, enforced by Marcia, followed by a cooling off that could not be blamed on Marcia alone. The girls were 16. This period lasted a year and a half.

  35. Angst!

  In the absence of Leah—at school, on the streets, in Caldwell—Keisha Blake felt herself to be revealed and exposed. She had not noticed until the break that the state of “being Leah Hanwell’s friend” constituted a sort of passport, lending Keisha a protected form of access in most situations. She was now relegated to the conceptual realm of “those church kids,” most of whom were Nigerian or otherwise African, and did not share Keisha Blake’s anthropological curiosity regarding sin nor her love of rap music. To the children of her own background she believed, rightly or wrongly, that she was an anomaly, and to the ravers and indie kids she knew for certain she was the wrong kind of outcast. It did not strike Keisha Blake that such feelings of alienation are the banal fate of adolescents everywhere. She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world.

  36. Your enemy’s enemy

  In Keisha Blake’s break with Leah Hanwell we must admit that Marcia Blake spied an opportunity. The break coincided with the problem of sex, which anyway could no longer be igno
red. A simple ban would have backfired—they had been through all that already with Cheryl, who was presently twenty years old and six months pregnant. Pushing Keisha Blake toward Rodney Banks was Mrs. Blake’s elegant solution: at exactly the moment her daughter was about to detonate, she was defused. Rodney lived on the same corridor, attended the same school. He was one of the few Caribbean children in the church. His mother, Christine, was a close friend. “You should give Rodney some time,” said Marcia, passing Keisha Blake a plate to dry. “He’s like you, always reading.” For precisely this reason Keisha had always been wary of Rodney and keen to avoid him—as much as that was possible in a place like Caldwell—on the principle that the last thing a drowning person needs is another drowning person clinging to them.

  38. On the other hand

  Beggars cannot be choosers.

  39. Reading with Rodney

  Keisha Blake sat on Rodney Banks’ bed, feet tucked underneath her. She was already five foot eight, while Rodney had stopped growing the previous summer. To be Christian to Rodney Banks, Keisha Blake tried to sit in most situations. Rodney had in his hand an abridged library copy of an infamous book by Albert Camus. Both Keisha Blake and Rodney Banks sounded the T and the S in this name, not knowing any better: such are the perils of autodidacticism. Rodney Banks was reading the text aloud, with his own skeptical running commentary. He called this “putting faith to the test.” Pastor liked to recommend this muscular approach to his teenage flock, although when he did so it is unlikely that he had Camus in mind. Rodney Banks looked somewhat like Martin Luther King: the same rounded, gentle face. When he made a point that interested him, he scribbled a little illegal note on the page, which Keisha read and tried to admire. She found it hard to concentrate on the book because she was concerned about when and how the heavy petting would begin. It had happened last Friday and the Friday before, but she had not known it was going to happen until the very last moment since they were both somehow unable to refer to it verbally, or build up to it in a natural manner. Instead she had launched herself at Rodney both times and hoped for a response, which she had received, more or less. “We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking,” read Rodney, and then made a note by this sentence: “So what? (fallacious argument.)”

  40. Rumpole

  The cooling-off period between Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell continued through their A level exams, and this was partly a pragmatic decision on Keisha Blake’s part. Leah Hanwell was by this point taking the popular club amphetamine Ecstasy most weekends and Keisha did not have the faith that she herself could be involved in that life and still pass the exams she was beginning to comprehend would be essential. Which comprehension arrived partly through the efforts of a visiting careers officer. Reader: keep up! A young woman, from Barbados, new in the job, optimistic. Name unimportant. She was especially impressed by Rodney, taking him seriously and listening to him when he talked about the law. Where Rodney Banks had even got the idea of “the law” it was difficult to say. His mother was a dinner lady. His father drove a bus.

  41. Parenthetical

  (Much later in life, while taking a long walk through North West London, it occurred to Keisha Blake that the young man she had turned into a comic anecdote to be told at dinner parties was in many ways himself a miracle of self-invention, a young man with a tremendous will, far out-stripping her own.)

  42. Good place/No place

  The Baijan told Keisha Blake and Rodney Banks they must have a plan. All three were aware that Marcia Blake had her own plan: enrollment in a one-year Business Administration course at “Coles Academy,” really just a corridor of office space above the old Woolworths on the Kilburn High Road. A racket, an unaccredited institution, taught by some Nairobi acquaintance of Pastor Akinwande, and requiring no move away from home.

  43. Contra

  The careers officer from Barbados chose five institutions for Keisha Blake and Rodney Banks—the same five; they had decided they could not be parted—and showed them how to fill in the necessary forms. She wrote to Marcia on Leah’s behalf. It won’t cost any money. She’ll get a full council grant. There’s a church. The train goes straight there, she’ll be safe, she won’t be the only one. Keisha Blake was advised to carry on this campaign of reassurance through the winter. Rodney was told to do the same with his mother, Christine. Keisha did not expect these campaigns to succeed. Marcia had been to the “countryside” and did not consider it a safe environment, preferring London where at least you knew what you were up against. Then in April, that “poor defenseless boy”—Marcia invariably called him that—was stabbed at an Eltham bus stop, overwhelmed by “a pack of animals.” Keisha Blake, Marcia Blake, Augustus Blake, Cheryl Blake and Jayden Blake gathered round the television to watch the white boys walk free from court, swinging punches at the photographers. The boy’s body was taken to Jamaica, buried in Marcia’s parish.

  44. Brideshead Unvisited

  The front door was on the latch. Rodney walked straight through into Keisha and Cheryl Blake’s bedroom and said, “Where is it?” and Keisha said, “On the bed,” and Rodney said, “Let me see it,” and Keisha showed him the strange letter stamped with a coat of arms and said, “But if you’re not going, I’m not,” and Rodney said, “Just let me read it,” and Keisha said, “It’s only the interview offer. I’m not going to go. Anyway, it must be big money,” and Rodney said, “If you get in, government pays for it. Don’t you even know that?” and Cheryl said, “You two better shut up, man, baby’s sleeping!” and Keisha said, “I don’t even want to go!” and Rodney said, “Can I just read it please!” and after he read it, he did not mention it again, and neither did Keisha Blake. That night they went to the Swiss Cottage Odeon to see a film about a man dressed as a woman so that he could keep an eye on his children for reasons Keisha found herself too distracted to even begin to comprehend.

  45. Economics

  The interviews for Manchester were scheduled between ten and eleven a.m. To reach Manchester from London’s Euston station would require taking a train that left well before 9:30 a.m. These trains cost one hundred and three pounds return. A similar—even more expensive—problem ruled out Edinburgh.

  46. Pause for an abstract idea

  In households all over the world, in many languages, this sentence usually emerges, eventually: “I don’t know you anymore.” It was always there, hiding in some private corner of the house, biding its time. Stacked with the cups, or squeezed between the DVDs or another terminal format. “I don’t know you anymore!”

  47. A further pause

  In popular science magazines they give the biological example, the regeneration of cells. Many years after the events presently being recounted, at a dinner in her own house, a philosopher sitting to the right of our heroine suggested she undertake a thought experiment: what if your brain cells were replaced individually with the brain cells of another person? At what point would you cease to be yourself? At what point would you become another person? His breath was nasty. He put his hand on her knee, which she didn’t remove, not wanting to make a fuss in front of his wife. Mrs. Blake had become by that point quite extraordinarily well-behaved. The wife of the philosopher was a gray-haired QC. In the philosopher’s brilliant mind she was too old to conceivably still be his wife. And yet.

  48. Residents’ meeting

  At a meeting of the Caldwell residents’ committee—at which Leah and Keisha, compelled by their parents, were the only young people in attendance—Keisha saw a seat free next to Leah but did not go toward it. Afterward, she tried to get away without being noticed but Leah Hanwell called from across the room and Keisha turned and found the familiar open face smiling at her, unaffected by Keisha Blake’s own attempts to imaginatively traduce it.

  “Hey,” said Leah Hanwell.

  “All right,” said Keisha Blake.

  They spoke of the boredom of the meeting, and of Cheryl’s bab
y, but the other subject could not be repressed for very long.

  “What did you think of Manchester? Did you see Michael Konstantinou? He was your day. But he’s for Media Studies.”

  “We’re not going there, anymore,” said Keisha Blake. She put a deliberate emphasis on the plural pronoun. “It’s either Bristol or Hull.”

  “I see Rodney in history. Never speaks a word.”

  Keisha, hearing this comment as a personal insult, began defending Rodney robustly. Leah looked confused and fiddled with the three rings that hung from the upper cartilage of her ear.

  “No, I meant: he’s got no questions, he knows it all already. Silent but deadly. You two will just fly through for sure. At least you can say C in maths. Mine’s a U. A lot of them won’t even consider your A levels if you failed your maths. I’m on a wing and a prayer at this point.”

  Keisha tried to backpedal from her overreaction by suggesting her old friend Leah Hanwell join Keisha and her new boyfriend for study sessions.

  “I reckon I need to just get down to it and concentrate. It’ll be OK. Would be good to see you soon, though, before the move. Pauline’s loving it. I don’t care, I’ll be in Edinburgh by September anyway—we pray. She’s acting like she’s given me some big present. A new life. ‘It’s practically Maida Vale. Better late than never, I suppose.’” This last was done in Pauline’s voice.

 
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