Nw by Zadie Smith


  “We have a very effective diversity scheme here,” said Dr. Singh primly and turned to speak to the blonde girl on her left.

  91. Wednesday 12:45 p.m.: Advocacy

  Four students and an instructor took their places at the top of the classroom. Appellant and respondent were given Happy Family names: Mr. Fortune the Money Launderer. Mr. Torch the Arsonist. At this point Natalie Blake was forced to leave the room and seek out the toilets, to deal with her hair. The weather was unseasonably warm, she had not planned for it. Sweat leaked from the roots of her weave, fuzzing it up, and the more she thought about this the more it happened. Ambitious though she was, she was still an NW girl at heart, and could not ignore the coming crisis. She hurried down the hall. In the toilets she filled the sink with cold water, held her hair back and put her face in it. By the time she returned the only free seat was next to Francesco De Angelis. Had he kept it for her? The invention of love, part three. As she sat down, she felt his hand on her knee. Above the table he passed her a pencil.

  “Sorry about the other night, Blake. Sometimes I’m an idiot. Often.”

  This was a phenomenon previously unknown to Natalie Blake: a man spontaneously recognizing an error and apologizing for it. Much later in their lives it occurred to Natalie Blake that her husband’s candor might be only another consequence of his unusual privilege. But this afternoon she was simply disarmed by it, and grateful.

  “Best be quick, you’ve missed a load.” He began whispering the Agreed Facts in her ear, over-confidently and with enough bluff and extraneous commentary that she had to edit him in real time as she scribbled the information down, making bullet points of the grounds for appeal. “And now here comes the Junior Counsel. That’s it—you’re up to date.” The Junior Counsel rose. Natalie turned to look at Frank in profile. He was really the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Broad, imposing. His eyes a shade lighter than his skin. She turned back to examine the Junior Counsel. He looked pre-pubescent. His presentation was awkward; he barely moved his eyes from a thick sheaf of A4 paper and twice called the female instructor “Your Lordship.”

  92. Post Prandial

  “Where are we? Why am I here?”

  “Marylebone. London doesn’t begin and end on the Kilburn High Road.”

  “I’ve got my room in the Inn.”

  “Mary’s argument.”

  “Frank, take me back. I don’t know where I am.”

  “Good to be uncertain sometimes.”

  “We’ve got moot in the morning. Mate, that food was so bad. And too much wine. You go home, too.”

  “I am home. I live just here.”

  “No one lives here.”

  “O ye of little faith. It’s my grandmother’s. Why don’t you just try to enjoy yourself for once?”

  93. Simpatica

  The only thing in the fridge was a large pink box from Fortnum & Mason. Inside were four rows of macaroons, in tasteful pastel shades. Natalie Blake brought these over to where Frank sat, shipwrecked on the kitchen “island.” White space in all directions. He took the box from her and put his hands on her shoulders.

  “Blake, try to relax.”

  “Can’t relax in a yard like this.”

  “Inverted snobbery.”

  “I’m so hungry. That food was nasty. Feed me.”

  “Afterward.”

  He carried her upstairs, past paintings and lithographs, family photographs and a fainting couch in the hall. They went into a little attic room at the very top of the flat. The bed sat right under the eaves; she kept knocking her elbow against a bookshelf. Law tomes, Tolkien, a lot of 80’s horror paperbacks, memoirs of businessmen and politicians. She spotted a solitary friend, The Fire Next Time.

  “You read this?”

  “I think he knew my grandmother in Paris.”

  “It’s a good book.”

  “I’ll believe you, Junior Counsel.”

  94. The pleasures of naming

  Perhaps sex isn’t of the body at all. Perhaps it is a function of language. The gestures themselves are limited—there are only so many places for so many things to go—and Rodney was in no way deficient technically. He was silent. Whereas all Frank’s silly, uncontrolled, unselfconscious, embarrassing storytelling found its purpose here, in a bedroom.

  95. Post-coital

  “He was from Trinidad, he lived in South London, he worked for the trains. She says ‘driver’ for effect—not true. A guard. Later he worked in an office somewhere. She met him in a park. I never knew him. Harris. Really I should be ‘Frank Harris.’ He’s dead. That’s it.”

  Even naked he blustered. Natalie Blake maneuvered until she was on top and looked into his eyes. Boyish expressions of vulnerability, pride and fear were all still perfectly visible in the adult face. It was of course these qualities that compelled her. “Back to Milan pregnant with me. It was the Seventies. Then Puglia. Then England for school. It’s not a problem, it was a great way to grow up. I loved my school.” An only child. A storied family, rich though not as rich as they once were. “Once upon a time every decent family in Italy had a De Angelis gas oven . . .” No-one had known what to do with his hair. No spoken English. Dangerously pretty. Eight years old.

  96. The sole author

  “But you’re making me sound like a victim, my point is I had a very good time, these were just small things, I don’t really know why we’re even talking about them. All your questions are leading. Rare Negroid Italian has happy childhood, learns Latin, the end. Then nothing very interesting happens between 1987 and tonight.” He kissed her extravagantly. Perhaps she would always look after him, help him become a real person. After all, she was strong! Even relative weakness in Caldwell translated to impressive strength in the world. The world asked so much less of a person, and was of simpler construction.

  97. Nota bene

  Natalie did not stop to wonder whether Frank’s boarding school might have done the same job for him.

  98. Sixth-month anniversary

  “Frank, I’m going downstairs, I can’t work with the telly on. Can I take Smith and Hogan?”

  “Yeah, and burn it.”

  “How are you going to pass this exam?”

  “Ingenuity.”

  “What is that?”

  “MTV Base. Music videos are the only joyful modern art form. Look at that joy.”

  He reached forward on the bed and put his finger over a dancing B-girl in a white shell suit. “I was in Puglia when he died. Nobody understood. Some fat gangster? Who cares? This was the attitude. It’s not even music as far as they’re concerned.”

  Everything he said sounded wonderful. He only lacked what the Italians call forza, which Natalie Blake herself would provide (see above).

  99. Frank seeks Leah

  The sun pierced through the blinds in long shadows. Natalie Blake stood in the doorway of the lounge, nervous, holding a tumbler of vodka, ready to smooth over any rupture. Leah and Frank sat side by side on his grandmother’s Chesterfield. Natalie could see how Leah had grown into herself. No longer gangly: tall. No longer ginger—“auburn.” The experimental period had ended. Denim skirt, hoodie, furry boots, a thick gold hoop in each ear. Back to her roots. Natalie Blake watched her boyfriend Frank De Angelis cut out crooked white lines on a glass-topped table, while her good friend Leah Hanwell rolled a twenty-pound note into a thin tube. She saw how he listened intently as Leah spoke of a man called, in her pronunciation, Me-shell. They’d just met in Ibiza. Frank was taking the task seriously. He understood that there could be no loving Natalie Blake without loving Leah Hanwell first.

  “Here’s something that interests me: you girls—you like your Eurotrash brothers. But isn’t it true? It’s a strange coincidence. There aren’t that many of us. Is it a competition?”

  “Look, mate: you’re Eurotrash. He’s from
Guadeloupe! His dad was in the underground resistance movement thing—basically, he went on the run, the whole family had to. His dad’s a school janitor in Marseilles now. His mum’s Algerian. She can’t read or write.”

  Frank dipped his head and made his mouth into a comic moue.

  “Points to Hanwell. He certainly sounds like the salt of the earth. Child-of-a-freedom-fighter. I am forced to cede the moral high ground. I am decidedly not the salt of the earth.”

  Leah laughed: “You’re the cocaine on the mirror. The badly cut cocaine.”

  100. Natalie seeks Elena

  A Mayfair lunch. A beautiful woman slips an oyster down her throat. Her phone is so slim and light it sits easily in the silk pocket of her blouse. “And he is working hard?” she asks. Elena De Angelis tapped a thin cigarette on the tablecloth and gave Natalie Blake a sideways look of fierce cunning. Before Natalie could even stutter an answer, Elena laughed. “Don’t worry—I don’t ask you to lie. It’s not going to be the law for ’Cesco, of course it is not. But I hoped it would be a useful thing generally, for his character. It was like this for his uncle. Well. He met you. You are the first real woman he has ever brought to meet me. This is something. Tell me, is it true you have to have dinner a certain number of times in the year or you cannot be a barrister?” Natalie watched Elena tap ash into her dinner plate. She urgently wanted to know how this woman loved and lost a Trinidadian train guard. “Yes,” she said, “twelve times. In the great hall. Used to be thirty-six.” Elena blew two jets of smoke through her nostrils: “What a curious country this is!” A waiter came over and the bill was settled somehow without any ugly groping after purses and money. “’Cesco, please call your cousin. I said you would ring two weeks ago, and they can’t hold a position forever. It’s embarrassing.”

  101. Onwards, upward

  Frank flunked the bar spectacularly, turning up forty-five minutes late, leaving ten minutes early. Afterward the first thing he did was call his mother. Natalie saw how this conversation cheered him. Elena was the kind of woman to prefer a spectacular disaster to a conventional failure.

  Leah Hanwell found a bleak flat south of the river, in New Cross, and Natalie Blake, out of respect for an old friendship, became her flatmate. She read briefs on the long triangulated tube rides: New Cross, Lincoln’s Inn, Marylebone. She slipped into Frank’s bed. Slipped out. Slipped in. “What time is it?” “Eleven fifteen.” “I’ve gotta chip!” She tried to force herself to get up and onto a night bus, heading south. “Your principles spend more time in that dump than you do,” he observed. She sank back into the pillows.

  Perceptive in sudden, hard-to-predict bursts.

  Goofy and always affectionate. He called a lot.

  Going through the ticket barrier, the phone he’d bought her rang:

  “Natalie Blake you’re literally the only person in the world I can stand.”

  That was the year people began saying “literally.”

  Frank was at his desk at Durham and Macaulay Investments, betting on the future price of things he was quite unable to describe to her. More symbols, she presumed, though of a kind she coudn’t decode.

  102. Save yourself

  To explain herself to herself, Natalie Blake employed a conventional image. Broad river. Turbulent water. Stepping-stones. Caldwell, exams, college, the bar—pupillage. This last gap was almost too wide to jump. There were no scholarships, and no way of earning any real money through the first half of the pupillage year. It had to be another loan, combined with the building society savings, untouched since childhood. This building society, a local concern, happened also to operate at the level of conventional images.

  103. Capitalist pigs

  He was called Peter: he had a coin-shaped slot in his back. Marcia Blake had kept the little red pocket book, and dealt with the cashiers. As certain key sums were achieved (twenty-five pounds, fifty pounds, a hundred), the child received first Peter, and then various members of the building society’s branded pig family. In the Blake home these pigs were considered ornaments, and stood all together on a shelf in the lounge. Sometimes Marcia would offer a glimpse of the “credit” column with the extraordinary (untouchable) sum of 71 pounds or something like that. Natalie never touched it, and now, twenty years later, it had finally amounted to something. Ah, memories! And perhaps she even remembered handling the old one-pound paper notes? Hard to say: nostalgia is such a distorting force.

  “You in this line?”

  Natalie looked down at the feisty old lady at her elbow, clutching her little red book. She raised her own red book vaguely: “I think so.”

  But the line was an amorphous crowd of noisy NW people holding pocket books and shouting and pushing. Someone said: “We need system up in this queue, man! Always chaos in here!” Someone else: “These people don’t know what is British queue.”

  The aluminum poles that should have been planted at intervals in the filthy carpet had not been set out. Natalie could see them piled up in a corner by the cashiers’ desks.

  “You now. Go!” said the old lady and Natalie Blake, uncertain whether justice had been done or no, walked up to the desk indicated, had a disturbing conversation with a teller called Doreen Bayles, made her way out of the scrum to the Kilburn high road, leaned on a bus stop and wept.

  104. One hundred and ten percent

  “I am so angry with Pastor,” said Marcia, weeping. “It’s so terrible, when I gave it to him in good faith, and he absolutely promised me it was one hundred and ten percent guaranteed your money back—he promised me with his hand on his heart, because it’s for the church, and it’s short term! We’re growing the church in Laos, getting the word out over there, where the people really need it. I can’t believe it because I was just going to take it out and put it back in and you weren’t even going to notice because it was short term, it was just as a bridge, that’s what he said, and I believed him, of course! He’s a good man. I’m so angry with Pastor right now, Keisha! When I found out I went crazy for real. I’m just too trusting, this is the thing, which is the worst thing, because I think people are telling the truth when they’re being very deceptive, very untruthful. It’s very difficult after that to have trust. Very difficult.”

  105. A romantic scene in Green Park

  Natalie had established a rule that romantic activities should be affordable for both parties. Sometimes this caused a row. Today it was unobjectionable. Weekend papers. Celebrity interviews. Movie reviews. Opinion. Lonely Hearts. Strong sun. Packed lunch. Red Stripes.

  “Oh, and I talked it over with Elena—she agrees.”

  “There’s the guard. Frank, let’s just move to the grass—I’m not paying two quid for a deck chair.”

  “Are you listening to me? I talked with my mother. We want to give you the money.”

  Natalie put down the Saturday magazine, turned from Francesco De Angelis, and pressed her face into the canvas, expecting to weep, to be “overwhelmed.” Instead her face was dry, her mind strangely occupied.

  106. Parklife

  Female individual seeks male individual for loving relationship. And vice versa.

  Low-status person with intellectual capital but no surplus wealth seeks high-status person of substantial surplus wealth for enjoyment of mutual advantages, including longer life-expectancy, better nutrition, fewer working hours and earlier retirement, among other benefits.

  Human animal in need of food and shelter seeks human animal of opposite gender to provide her with offspring and remain with her until the independent survival of aforementioned offspring is probable.

  Some genes, seeking their own survival, pursue whatever will most likely result in their replication.

  107. Let’s not argue, boo

  He was still talking. He had his grown-up face on, the one he wore daily to work. She knew it was a fake. The reason he couldn’t explain to her what
he was doing at work was not because it was too complicated for her to understand (though it was) but because he himself didn’t truly understand it. He bluffed his way through each day. She had known all along that his ego was delicate and built on uncertain foundations and she considered this trait—universal among men, as far as her own experiences went—to be a small price to pay for his aforementioned honesty and sexual openness and beauty.

  “. . . which then I just said to Elena: this girl gets the second-highest pass in the year—even if I didn’t love her, it doesn’t make sense to let this kind of ability go to waste for the lack of means—it doesn’t make economic sense. Your family for whatever reason refuse to help you—”

  “They don’t refuse to help me, Frank—they can’t!” cried Natalie Blake, and launched into a passionate defense of her family, despite the fact she was not speaking to any of them.

  108. Politics on the move

  “Cheryl could stop having children. Your brother could get a job. They could leave that money-grabbing cult. Your family make poor life choices—that’s just a fact.”

  “You should stop talking because you really don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t want to talk about this on the damn tube.”

  It seemed that Natalie Blake and Francesco De Angelis had opposite understandings of this word “choice.” Both believed their own interpretation to be objectively considered and in no way the product of their contrasting upbringings.

  109. John Donne, Lincoln’s Inn, 1592

  A commotion could be heard in the clerks’ room above. Polly provided a clever phrase for it: “a cockney symphony of expletives.”

  “Nat, what time’s your flight?”

  “Tomorrow morning at seven.”

  “Look: where would you rather be: Tuscany or West London Youth Court? I’m serious, get out of here while you still can.”

 
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