Nw by Zadie Smith


  49. Mobility

  The Hanwells were moving into a maisonette. Practically in Maida Vale. Keisha had already heard all about it from Marcia; the shared garden, the three bedrooms. Something called a “study.”

  50. Rodney makes a note

  “Our pre-eminence: we live in the age of comparison” (Nietzsche).

  51. Undercover

  Rodney Banks didn’t cause chaos in class nor did he speak and the combination made him invisible, anonymous. Keisha Blake asked him why he never spoke to the teachers. He said it was a strategy. He, like Keisha, was fond of strategies. This was one of the things they had in common, though it should be noted that the substance of their strategies was quite different. Keisha meant to charm her way through the front door. Rodney intended to slip through the back, unnoticed. Rodney Banks highlighted so many passages in Machiavelli’s The Prince it became one block of yellow and he didn’t dare return it to the library. “The difficult situation and the newness of my kingdom force me to do these things, and guard my borders everywhere.” He always seemed to have this book with him, along with the King James, a combination in which he saw no contradiction.

  52. Parity

  By July Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake had been offered university places. Both had lovers. (Leah’s lover played the bass in a band called No No Never.) Both the universities and the lovers were of an equal standard, despite their many differences. Both girls had grown into decent-looking women with no serious health or mental problems. Neither had any interest in tanning. It was Leah’s plan to spend a large part of this final NW summer under the shade of an oak tree on Hampstead Heath, with an assortment of friends, a picnic, a lot of alcohol, a little weed. She kept inviting Keisha, who longed to go. But Keisha was working part-time in a bakery on the Kilburn High Road, and when she was not in the bakery she was in church, or helping Cheryl with the baby. At the bakery she was paid three twenty-five an hour. She had to wear regulation flat black shoes with rounded toes and chunky soles, and a brown and white striped outfit topped off by a “baker’s hat,” with an elastic rim, under which every last strand of your hair was to be placed. It left an indentation along her forehead. She had to wash out the croissant molds and get to the donut sugar that caught in the thin gulley between the presentation case and the glass. And many other bits of drudgery. She had thought she would prefer it to clothes retail, but in the end even her great enthusiasm for sausage rolls and iced fingers could not sustain her. She kept the university’s prospectus in her locker and often spent her lunch break slowly turning the glossy pages.

  Every other Saturday she had a half-day and on a few occasions she managed to sneak to the heath, alone. Rodney would not enjoy the scene on the heath and could not reasonably be told about it, for this would lead to questions about the two sets of accounts Keisha was in the habit of keeping. On one side of the ledger she placed Rodney, Marcia, her siblings, the church, and Jesus Christ himself. In the other, Leah was lounging in the high grass drinking cider and asking her good friend Keisha Blake if she would take the opportunity to kill PW Botha if he happened to be standing in front of her. “I’m not capable of murder,” protested Keisha Blake. “Everyone’s capable of everything,” insisted Leah Hanwell.

  53. Nirvana

  Leah would surely be in her room, clutching his picture, weeping. Keisha found it difficult to suppress a feeling of pleasure at this imagined scenario. Then, in the middle of the news report, Marcia said something incredible, quoting a doctor at the clinic as a source, and the next morning Keisha went directly to the library to investigate. She was infuriated to find that statistically speaking Marcia’s boast was correct: our people hardly ever do that.

  54. Further education

  That autumn, Keisha Blake and Rodney Banks began attending a church in the Bristol suburbs, the Holy Spirit Ministry, identical in spirit to Kilburn Pentecostal—it came with a recommendation from Pastor. They did most of their socializing there, that first term, with an assortment of kindly people, all in their sixties and seventies. With young people of their own age they were less successful. Rodney left church literature under every door in Keisha’s corridor, and after that they were avoided by fellow students and avoided them in turn. There seemed no point of entry. The students were tired of things Keisha had never heard of, and horrified by the only thing she knew well: the Bible. In the evenings Rodney and Keisha sat at either end of a small desk in Keisha’s room and studied, as they had studied for their school exams, wearing earplugs and writing everything out by hand, first in draft copies, then in “best”—a habit picked up from Sunday school. There was a newly built computer center in the basement of Keisha’s building that might have made their lives easier: they went in the first week to check it out. A boy in a wide fedora with a leather thong hanging from its brim sat playing Doom, that dark corridor opening on to itself over and over. The rest were either programming or using some early intra-university form of e-mail. Keisha Blake glanced over a shoulder at a chaotic-looking screen.

  55. Keisha’s first visit

  Their material circumstances were quite different. Keisha occupied a 60s-build dormitory of indifferent architectural design. Leah a 19th-century terraced house, with a defunct fireplace in every room and nine housemates. Instead of a lounge, a “chill out room.” Enormous speakers, no sofa. Keisha had not expected a party on her first night nor had she worn the right sort of skirt for sitting on a beanbag. The volume of techno or whatever it was made conversation a chore. Everybody was white. Leah was giving a speech and holding the fridge open. It was making the whole kitchen cold. She had been holding it open for a long time. She seemed to have forgotten why.

  “Look, say you’re Einstein and you’re just thinking, moment to moment, and suddenly you have your big thought, about the nature of the universe or whatever. So that thought, it’s not like the other moments, because though you’ve had the thought within normal time, the thought itself is basically about the nature of the universe, which is sort of infinite? So that’s a different kind of moment. So Kierkegaard calls that an “instant.” It’s not part of normal time like the others. It’s a lot of stuff like that. I have to pinch myself in class. Like: what am I doing here, with all these smart bastards? Has someone made a mistake somewhere?”

  Keisha scooped some hummus up in a pita bread and looked into her friend’s dilated pupils.

  “I was thinking about doing philosophy at one point,” said Keisha, “but then I heard about all the maths.”

  “Oh, there’s no maths,” said Leah.

  “Really? I thought there was maths.”

  “No,” said Leah, and turned from Keisha to pull out a bottle of beer finally, “there’s not.”

  The boy who was sleeping with Leah was also awkward. If you did not keep asking him questions about himself, or about his short films, he stopped talking and stared into space.

  “About boredom,” he explained.

  “That sounds interesting,” said Keisha Blake.

  “No. The opposite. This party, full of interesting people, is a perfect example. It’s totally uninteresting.”

  “Oh.”

  “They’re all about boredom essentially. It’s the only subject left. We’re all bored. Aren’t you bored?”

  “In law,” said Keisha Blake, “there’s a lot of boring memorization. Like in medicine.”

  “I think we’re talking about two different things,” said the boy who was sleeping with Leah.

  56. Family romance

  The phone in the communal hallway rang. Rodney nodded. Keisha stood up. When the phone rang it was usually for Rodney or Keisha—either Marcia or Christine—and they took these calls interchangeably. They were like siblings in every way, aside from the fact they occasionally had sex with each other. The sex itself was cozy and familiar, without any hint of eroticism or orgasms vaginal or clitoral. Rodney was a careful young man, pr
eoccupied with condoms, terrified of pregnancy and disease. When he finally allowed Keisha Blake to have sex with him it turned out to be a technical transition. She learned nothing new about Rodney’s body, or Rodney, only a lot of facts about condoms: their relative efficacy, the thickness of rubber, the right moment—the safest moment—to remove them afterward.

  57. Ambition

  They were going to be lawyers, the first people in either of their families to become professionals. They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization.

  58. Leah’s third visit

  Springtime. Blossom overhead. Ms. Blake waited in the coach station of eagerness and hope, unable to remember why she had ever experienced any tension whatsoever with regard to her very dearest friend from home, Leah Hanwell. The coach arrived, the doors opened. Human figures with faces streamed into view, and Ms. Blake’s brain sought a match between a recent memory and a material reality. Her mistake was to cling to ideas that properly belonged to previous visits. Ideas like “red hair,” and “black jeans/black boots/ black t-shirt.” Fashions change. University is a time of experimentation and metamorphosis. The person who gripped her by the shoulders could no longer be mistaken for a member of a riot grrrl band or a minor Berlin artist. She was now some kind of dirty blonde warrior for the planet, with hair that was dreadlocking itself, and army trousers that would not pass an inspection.

  59. Proper names

  It was not that Ms. Blake hadn’t noticed the white people walking around with the climbing equipment, or the white people huddled in stairwells discussing the best method to chain themselves to an oak tree. She had experienced her usual anthropological curiosity with regard to these matters. But she had thought it was more of an aesthetic than a protest. The details of the project were hazy in her mind. “This is Jed,” said Leah, “and this is Katie and Liam and this is Paul. Guys, this is Keisha, she—” “No: Natalie.” “Sorry, this is Natalie, we went to school together,” said Leah. “She goes here, she’s a lawyer. It’s so weird to see you guys!” When Leah proceeded to offer these people a round—“No, you sit, we’ll get”—Natalie Blake panicked, her budget being extremely tightly managed with no space for rounds of drinks for Crusties to whom she had never before spoken in her life. But at the bar, Leah handed over a twenty and Natalie’s only job was to arrange six pints on a round tray best suited for five.

  “Lee, how do you even know these people?”

  “Newbury!”

  60. And the scales fell from her eyes

  It was apparently important to “keep the pressure up” if they were going to stop the government building this byroad. Rodney listened but only pointed at the books on his desk, which had the imposing heft of the law, thousands of pages long with brutal, functional covers. Leah tried a different tack: “It’s basically a legal issue—there’s a lot of law kids down there right now. It’s good experience, Rodney, even you would agree, even Judge Rodney of the court of the world.” Natalie Blake found herself smiling. She could at this moment think of no more wonderful thing than sitting up a tree with her good friend Leah Hanwell many hundreds of miles away from this claustrophobic room. Rodney raised his head from his tort casebook. He had a ruthless look on his face. “We don’t care about trees, Leah,” he said. “That’s your luxury. We haven’t got the time to care about trees.”

  61. Coup de foudre

  “Mr. De Angelis, could you carry on from ‘the power of habit’—top of the second page,” said Professor Kirkwood, and an extraordinary young man stood up in the front row. He was not a law student, but he was here, in a “philosophy of law” lecture. He was made of parts Natalie considered mutually exclusive, and found difficult to understand together. He had a collection of unexpected freckles. His nose was very long and dramatic in a style she did not know enough to call “Roman.” His hair was twisted into dreadlocks that were the opposite of Leah’s, too pristine. They framed his face neatly, ending just below his chin. He wore chinos with no socks, and those shoes that have ropes threaded along the sides, a blue blazer, and a pink shirt. An indescribable accent. Like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren.

  62. Montaigne

  In one country, virgins openly display their private parts while married women cover them. In another, male brothels exist. In yet another heavy golden rods are worn through the breasts and buttocks and after dinner men wipe their hands on their testicles. In some places they eat people. In others the fathers decide, when the children are still in the womb, which will be kept and brought up and which killed or abandoned. Kirkwood put his hand up to halt this narrative. “Naturally,” he said, “all these people find their own habits to be unremarkable.” A few students laughed. Natalie Blake and Rodney Banks tried to find the essay between the covers of the cheap edition they shared (they tended to buy one copy of a text book, and then, when it was finished, immediately sell it back to one of the secondhand stores by the university library). The title did not seem to be in the contents or the index, and the fact that they were still not talking to each other made cooperation difficult. “What is the lesson here for a lawyer?” asked Kirkwood. The notable young man’s hand went up. Even from where Natalie Blake was sitting she could see the jewelry on his brown fingers, and an elegant watch with a crocodile-skin strap that looked older than Kirkwood. He said: “Although you may turn up in court armed with reason, we live in an unreasonable world.” Natalie Blake tried to work out if this was an interesting answer. Kirkwood paused, smiled, and said: “You put a lot of faith in reason, Mr. De Angelis. But think of last week’s example. Hundreds of witnesses stand in the dock: good friends, ex-teachers, ex-nurses, ex-lovers. They all say That’s Tichborne. The man’s own mother gets up there and points: That’s my son. Reason tells us the Claimant is ten stone heavier than the man he’s claiming to be. Reason tells us the real Tichborne could speak French. And yet. And when ‘reason prevailed,’ why did people riot in the streets? Don’t put too much faith in reason. Look, I think Montaigne is more skeptical. I think his point is not that you, the lawyers, are reasonable and they, the people, are unreasonable, or even that the laws the people submit to are unreasonable, but that those who submit to traditional laws have at least the defense of ‘simplicity, obedience and example’—Can you see that? End of the third page?—While those who try to change them, that is, the laws, are usually terrible in some way, monstrous. We see ourselves as perfect exceptions.” Natalie Blake was lost. The young man gave a slow, approving nod, the kind a man gives to his equal. His confidence seemed unwarranted, not following from anything he’d said or done. A piece of paper passed round the room. The students were asked to add their full name and from which department they hailed. Even before writing her own Natalie Blake looked for his.

  63. Reconnaissance

  Francesco De Angelis. 2nd year Economics. Universally known as “Frank.” Running for African and Caribbean Soc president next month. Likely to win. Attended a “second-rate boarding school.” This from someone who attended a “grammar school.” Further: “His mum’s Italian or something. His dad was probably some African prince, that’s usually the case.”

  64. Educational parenthesis

  (Some schools you “attended.” Brayton you “went” to.)

  65. 8th March

  It happened that Leah’s third visit coincided with a dinner for International Women’s Day. A useful excuse not to see Rodney. Leah wore a green dress and Natalie wore a purple one, and they got ready together and walked to the dining hall arm in arm. The obvious pleasure they took in each other, their deep familiarity and ease in each other’s company, made them more attractive as a pair than they ever could have been alone, and perfectly conscious of this fact they emphasized their similarities of height and build, and kept their long legs in stride. By the time they reached their table Natalie was quite giddy with the power of being young, almost free of a man who bored h
er and soon to embark on a meal of more than two courses.

  66. Menu

  Honeydew melon with tiger prawn salad

  Chicken breast wrapped in pancetta with green beans and Juliette potatoes

  Warm Chocolate fondant with vanilla bean ice cream

  Cheeses

  Coffee, mints

  67. Desire

  “Who that?” asked Leah Hanwell.

  “The dean,” said Natalie Blake, and licked some chocolate off her teeth. “If she stopped speechifying we could go to the bar.”

  “No, the girl at the end of that table. In the top hat.”

  “What?”

  “Chinese or Japanese—there.”

  “Oh, I don’t know her.”

  “She’s so beautiful!”

  68. Valentino

  Korean. In the bar she put her hat on the table, and as Natalie Blake spoke to someone else in their booth, she, Natalie Blake, frequently reached out for this hat and stroked its satin brim. At her back she could hear her good friend Leah Hanwell talking to the Korean, whose name was Alice, making her laugh, and when Natalie went to the bar to buy drinks she had an unobstructed view of Leah as old-school lothario—one hand over the back of the couch, another on Alice’s knee, breathing on the girl’s lovely neck. Natalie Blake had seen Leah do this many times, but with boys, and there had always seemed something a little shocking and perverse in it, whereas here the relation looked natural. This thought made Natalie wonder at herself and where she was with God these days, or if she was with him at all. Unable to stop staring she made herself walk over to the jukebox and put on the song Electric Relaxation by A Tribe Called Quest in the hope that it would relax her.

 
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