Nw by Zadie Smith


  Shar’s hands drop, her face glazes over once more with boredom. She starts talking of things. All things are equal. Leah or tea or rape or bedroom or heart attack or school or who had a baby.

  –That school. . . . it was rubbish but them people who went there. . . . quite a few people did all right, didn’t they? Like, Calvin—remember Calvin?

  Leah pours out the tea, nodding fiercely. She does not remember Calvin.

  –He’s got a gym on the Finchley Road.

  Leah spins her spoon in her tea, a drink she never takes, especially in this weather. She has pressed the bag too hard. The leaves break their borders and swarm.

  –Not running it—owns it. I go past there sometimes. Never thought little Calvin would get his shit together—he was always with Jermaine and Louie and Michael. Them lot was trouble . . . I don’t see none of them. Don’t need the drama. Still see Nathan Bogle. Used to see Tommy and James Haven but I aint seen them recent. Not for time.

  Shar keeps talking. The kitchen slants and Leah steadies herself with a hand to the sideboard.

  –Sorry, what?

  Shar frowns, she speaks round the lit fag in her mouth.

  –I said, can I have that tea?

  Together they look like old friends on a winter’s night, holding their mugs with both hands. The door is open, every window is open. No air moves. Leah takes her shirt in hand and shakes it free of her skin. A vent opens, air scoots through. The sweat pooled beneath each breast leaves its shameful trace on the cotton.

  –I used to know . . . I mean . . .

  Leah presses on with this phony hesitation and looks deep into her mug, but Shar isn’t interested, she’s knocking on the glass of the door, speaking over her.

  –Yeah you looked different in school, definitely. You’re better now innit. You was all ginger and bony. All long.

  Leah is still all of these things. The change must be in other people, or in the times themselves.

  –Done well, though. How come you aint at work? What d’you do again?

  Shar is already nodding as Leah begins to speak.

  –Phoned in sick. I wasn’t feeling good. It’s sort of general admin, basically. For a good cause. We hand out money. From the lottery, to charities, nonprofits—small local organizations in the community that need . . .

  They are not listening to their own conversation. The girl from the estate is still out on her balcony, screaming. Shar shakes her head and whistles. She gives Leah a look of neighborly sympathy.

  –Silly fat bitch.

  Leah traces a knight’s move from the girl with her finger. Two floors up, one window across.

  –I was born just there.

  From there to here, a journey longer than it looks. For a second, this local detail holds Shar’s interest. Then she looks away, ashing her cigarette on the kitchen floor, though the door is open and the grass only a foot away. She is slow, maybe, and possibly clumsy; or she is traumatized, or distracted.

  –Done well. Living right. Probably got a lot of friends, out on a Friday, clubbing, all that.

  –Not really.

  Shar blows a short burst of smoke out of her mouth, and makes a rueful sort of sound, nodding her head over and over.

  –Proper snobby, this street. You the only one let me in. Rest of them wouldn’t piss on you if you was on fire.

  –I’ve got to go upstairs. Get some money for this cab.

  Leah has money in her pocket. Upstairs she walks into the nearest room, the toilet, closes the door, sits on the floor and cries. With her foot she reaches over and knocks the toilet paper off its perch. She is rolling it toward her when the doorbell goes.

  –DOOR! DOOR! WILL I?

  Leah stands, tries to wash away the redness in the tiny sink. She finds Shar in the hallway, in front of a shelf filled with books from college, drawing her finger along the spines.

  –You read all these?

  –No, not really. No time nowadays.

  Leah takes the key from where it sits on the middle shelf and opens the front door. Nothing makes sense. The driver who stands by the gate makes a gesture she doesn’t understand, points to the other end of the street and starts walking. Shar follows. Leah follows. Leah is growing into a new meekness.

  –How much do you need?

  There is a shade of pity in Shar’s face.

  –Twenty? Thirty . . . is safe.

  She smokes without hands, squeezing the vapor out of a corner of her mouth.

  The manic froth of cherry blossom. Through a corridor of pink, Michel appears, walking up the street, on the other side. Too hot—his face is soaked. The little towel he keeps for days like this pokes from his bag. Leah raises a finger up in the air, a request for him to stay where he is. She points to Shar, though Shar is hidden by the car. Michel is short-sighted; he squints in their direction, stops, smiles tensely, takes his jacket off, throws it over his arm. Leah can see him plucking at his t-shirt, trying to shed the the remnants of his day: many tiny hairs, clippings from strangers, some blonde, some brown.

  –Who that?

  –Michel, my husband.

  –Girl’s name?

  –French.

  –Nice looking, innit—nice looking babies!

  Shar winks: a grotesque compression of one side of her face.

  Shar drops her cigarette and gets in the car, leaving the door open. The money remains in Leah’s hand.

  –He local? Seen him about.

  –He works in the hairdressers, by the station? From Marseilles—he’s French. Been here forever.

  –African, though.

  –Originally. Look—do you want me to come with you?

  Shar says nothing for a moment. Then she steps out of the car and reaches up to Leah’s face with both hands.

  –You’re a really good person. I was meant to come to your door. Seriously! You’re a spiritual person. There’s something spiritual inside you.

  Leah grips Shar’s little hand tight and submits to a kiss. Shar’s mouth is slightly open on Leah’s cheek for thank and now closes with you. In reply, Leah says something she has never said in her life: God bless you. They pull apart—Shar backs away awkwardly, and turns toward the car, almost gone. Leah presses the money into Shar’s hand with defiance. But already the grandeur of experience threatens to flatten into the conventional, into anecdote: only thirty pounds, only an ill mother, neither a murder, nor a rape. Nothing survives its telling.

  –Mental weather.

  Shar uses her scarf to blot the sweat on her face, and will not look at Leah.

  –Come by tomorrow. Pay you back. Swear to God, yeah? Thanks, seriously. You saved me today.

  Leah shrugs.

  –Nah don’t be like that, I swear—I’ll be there, serious.

  –I just hope she’s OK. Your mum.

  –Tomorrow, yeah? Thank you!

  The door closes. The car pulls off.

  3.

  It is obvious to everyone except Leah. To her mother, it is obvious.

  –How d’you get so soft?

  –Seemed desperate. She was.

  –I was desperate on Grafton Street and I was desperate on Buckley Road, we were all desperate. We didn’t go robbing.

  Static cloud of sigh. Leah can well imagine: the snowy fringe flutters, the floral bosom lifts. A well-feathered Irish owl her mother has become. Still in Willesden, perched for life.

  –Thirty pounds! Thirty pounds for a taxi to The Middlesex. It’s not that to Heathrow. If we’re giving money away you might chuck some in this direction.

  –Might still come back.

  –Christ himself’ll be back quicker than she will! Two of them here on the weekend. I saw them coming down the road, ringing on bells. Knew them straight o
ff. Crack. Filthy habit! See them down our end every day, by the station. Jenny Fowler on the corner opened the door to one of them—said she was high as a kite in the sky. Thirty pounds! That’s your father in you. No-one who had my blood in them would fall for something so idiotic as that. What’s your Michael saying?

  Easier, finally, to permit Michael than to hear Meeee-Shell swill round the mouth like the taste of something dubious.

  –He says I’m an idiot.

  –Well that’s no less than what you are. You can’t con his people so easy.

  All of them are Nigerian, all of them, even if they are French, or Algerian, they are Nigerian, the whole of Africa being, for Pauline, essentially Nigeria, and the Nigerians wily, owning those things in Kilburn that once were Irish, and five of the nurses on her own team being Nigerian where once they were Irish, or at least Pauline judges them to be Nigerian, and they’re perfectly fine as long as you keep an eye on them every minute. Leah puts her thumbnail to her wedding ring. Pushes the band hard.

  –He wants to go round there.

  –And why shouldn’t he? You were robbed on your own doorstep by a gypsy, weren’t you?

  Everything translated into its own terms.

  –Nope. Sub-continental.

  –Indian, you mean by that.

  –Somewhere in that region. Second generation. English, to listen to.

  –I see.

  –From school! Crying on my doorstep!

  Another static cloud.

  –Sometimes I think it’s because there’s just the one of you. If we’d had more you might have learned more about people and how people really are.

  No matter where Leah attempts to begin, Pauline returns to this point. The whole story gets run through: from Dublin to Kilburn, a rare Prod on the wing, back when most were of the other persuasion. Heading for the wards, though, like the rest of the girls. Flirted with the O’Rourke boys, the brickies, but wanted better, being so auburn and fine-featured and already a midwife. Waited too long. Nested at twilight with a quiet widower, an Englishman who didn’t drink. The O’Rourkes ended up builder’s merchants with half of Kilburn High Road in their pockets. For which she would have put up with a bit of drink. Thank God she retrained. (Radiography.) Where would she be otherwise? This story, once rationed, offered a few times a year, now bursts through every phone call, including this one, which has nothing at all to do with Pauline. Time is compressing for the mother, she has a short distance left to go. She means to squeeze the past into a thing small enough to take with her. It’s the daughter’s job to listen. She’s no good at it.

  –Were we too old? Were you lonely?

  –Mum, please.

  –I only mean you’d have a better understanding of human nature. Now, any news? On that front?

  –On what front?

  –On the grandma front. On the ticking clock front.

  –Still ticking.

  –Ah, well. Don’t worry too much, love. It’ll happen when it happens. Now is Michael there? Can I speak with him?

  • • •

  Between Pauline and Michel there exists nothing but mistrust and misunderstanding except in this blessed alignment, once rare, now more frequent, in which Leah has been an idiot and this fact forms a coalition between natural enemies. Pauline excited and pink and sweary. Michel exercising his little store of hard-won colloquialisms, treasure of any migrant: at the end of the day, know what I mean, and if that wasn’t enough, and I says to him, and I was like, that’s a good one, I’ll have to remember that one.

  –Unbelievable. Wish I’d been there, Pauline, let me tell you. I wish I had been there.

  To avoid listening to this conversation Leah steps into the garden. Ned from upstairs is in her hammock, which is communal and so not her hammock. Ned partaking of the herb under the apple tree. Lion hair graying now, gathered in an ignoble elastic band. An ancient Leica rests on his stomach, awaiting the sunset over NW, for the sunsets in this part of the world are strangely vivid. Leah walks up to the tree and makes the victory sign.

  –Buy your own.

  –Quit.

  –Evidently.

  Ned places a smoke between her splayed fingers. She takes it in hard, harsh against the throat.

  –Pace yourself. From Afghanistan. Psychotropic!

  –I’m a big girl.

  –Six twenty-three today. It’s getting longer and longer.

  –Until it gets shorter.

  –Whoah.

  Almost anything Leah says to Ned, no matter how factual or obvious, he finds philosophy in it. A serious smoker, time congeals around him. Simple things take on a stretched-out significance. It seems to Leah that he has been twenty-eight since they met, ten years ago.

  –Hey, did your visitor return?

  –Nope.

  It goes against the grain of Ned’s optimistic nature. Leah watches him fail to find a story that will fit.

  –On time. Real beauty.

  Leah looks up. The sky has gone pink. The Heathrow flight paths streak white against it. In the kitchen, Michel is enjoying himself.

  –That’s a good one. I’ll have to remember that one. Jesus Christ himself!

  4.

  The young Sikh is bored. His turban leaks sweat. He looks down at his father’s counter where a pocketful of change is trying to add up to ten Rothmans. A cheap fan whirrs pointlessly. Leah is also bored, watching Michel squeeze pastries that will never please him, that will never be as good as they were in France. This is because they are made in the back of a sweetshop, off Willesden Lane. Real croissants may be purchased from the organic market, on a Sunday, in the playground of Leah’s old school. Today is Tuesday. From her new neighbours Leah has learned that Quinton Primary is a good enough place to buy a croissant but not a good enough place to send your children. Olive hoovers up the crumbs from the sweetshop floor. Olive is somewhat French, like Michel. Her grandfather was a champion in Paris. Unlike Michel she is not fussy about croissant. Orange and white, with silky Restoration ears. Ridiculous, adored.

  –and need to see a proper doctor. A clinic. We keep trying. And nothing. You’re thirty-five this year.

  Said Frenchly: nussing. Once they were the same age. Now Leah is aging in dog years. Her thirty-five is seven times his, and seven times more important, so important he has to keep reminding her of the numbers, in case she forgets.

  –We can’t afford clinics. What clinic?

  The small figure at the counter turns. She smiles at Leah first before anything else—out of the instinct that pairs recognition with happiness—and then a moment later, remembering, bites her lip and puts her hand to the door, making the little bell ring.

  –That’s her. That was her. Buying the fags.

  Leah expects a clean escape. Shar is out of luck. They both are. An elderly woman of dimension heads in as Shar attempts to leave. They do the awkward doorway dance. Michel is quick and bold and can’t be stopped.

  – Thief! You’re a thief! Where’s our money?

  Leah grips the finger that’s pointing and pulls it down. Each red freckle has flared and a flush is working up her neck, flooding her face. Shar stops dancing. Shoulder-charges the old dear out the way. Runs.

  5.

  Leah believes in objectivity in the bedroom:

  Here lie a man and a woman. The man is more beautiful than the woman. And for this reason there have been times when the woman has feared that she loves the man more than he loves her. He has always denied this. He can’t deny that he is more beautiful. It is easier for him to be beautiful. His skin is very dark and ages more slowly. He has good West African bone structure. Here is a man lying across a bed, naked. Brigitte Bardot in Contempt lay on a bed, naked. If only the man were like Brigitte Bardot, who never had children, preferring animals. Then again, s
he became inflexible in other areas. The woman tries to talk to the man who is her husband about the desperate girl who came to the door. What does it means to say the girl lied? Is it a lie to say she was desperate? She was desperate enough to come to the door. The husband can’t understand the woman’s preoccupation. Of course, he is missing a vital piece of information. There is no way for him to follow the submerged, feminine logic. He can only try to listen as she speaks. I just want to know if I did the right thing, says the woman, I just can’t work out if I

  But here the man stops her to say

  –the plug for the thing on your side? Mine’s gone. But there’s nothing to do. It’s the usual. A crackhead. A thief. It’s not so interesting. Come here, and

  When they met, the man and the woman, the physical attraction was immediate and overwhelming. This is still the case. Because of this unusual, acute attraction, their chronology is peculiar. The physical came first, always.

  Before he spoke to her he had already washed her hair, twice.

  They had sex before either knew the other’s surname.

  They had anal sex before they had vaginal sex.

  They had dozens of sexual partners before they married each other. Dance floor romances, Ibiza flings. The nineties, ecstatic decade! They were married though they needn’t have married, and though both had sworn they never would be. It is hard to explain—in that game of musical chairs—why they should have stopped, finally, at each other. Kindness, as a quality, had something to do with it. Many things were easy to find on those dance floors, but kindness was rare. Her husband was kinder than any man Leah Hanwell had ever known, aside from her father. And then of course they had been surprised by their own conventionality. The marriage pleased Pauline. It calmed the anxieties of Michel’s family. It was pleasing to please their families. Beyond this, the proper names “wife” and “husband” had a power neither party had expected. If it was voodoo, they were grateful for it. It allowed them to stop dancing round chairs without ever admitting they were tired of it.

  Things moved quickly.

 
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