Nw by Zadie Smith


  As brunch tipped into lunch, Imran ordered pancakes like an American. After decades of disappointment, the coffee was finally real coffee. Wouldn’t it be cruel to leave, now, when they’d come this far? They were all four of them providing a service for the rest of the people in the café, simply by being here. They were the “local vibrancy” to which the estate agents referred. For this reason, too, they needn’t concern themselves too much with politics. They simply were political facts, in their very persons. “Polly not coming?” asked Frank. All four checked their phones for news of their last remaining single friend. The smooth feel of the handset in one’s palm. A blinking envelope with the promise of external connection, work, engagement. Natalie Blake had become a person unsuited to self-reflection. Left to her own mental devices she quickly spiraled into self-contempt. Work suited her, and where Frank longed for weekends, she could not hide her enthusiasm for Monday mornings. She could only justify herself to herself when she worked. If only she could go to the bathroom and spend the next hour alone with her e-mail. “Working the weekend. Again,” said Imran. He had the fastest connection. “Shame,” said Natalie Blake. But was it? If Polly came she would only sit down and speak of her good works—police inquests and civil litigation and international arbitration for underdog nations; recently published opinions on the legality of the war. Headhunted by a new, modern, right-on set, where she was both very well paid and morally unimpeachable. Living the dream. It was the year people began to say “living the dream,” sometimes sincerely but usually ironically. Natalie Blake, who was also very well paid, found having to listen to Polly these days an almost impossible provocation.

  136. Apple blossom, 1st of March

  Surprised by beauty, in the front garden of a house on Hopefield Avenue. Had it been there yesterday? Upon closer inspection the cloud of white separated into thousands of tiny flowers with yellow centers and green bits and pink flecks. A city animal, she did not have the proper name for anything natural. She reached up to break off a blossom-heavy twig—intending a simple, carefree gesture—but the twig was sinewy and green inside and not brittle enough to snap. Once she’d begun she felt she couldn’t give up (the street was not empty, she was being observed.) She lay her briefcase on somebody’s front garden wall, applied both hands and wrestled with it. What came away finally was less twig than branch, being connected to several other twigs, themselves heavy with blossom, and the vandal Natalie Blake hurried away and round the corner with it. She was on her way to the tube. What could she do with a branch?

  137. Train of thought

  The screenwriter Dennis Potter was interviewed on television. Sometime during the early nineties. He was asked what it felt like to have a few weeks to live. Natalie Blake remembered this answer: “I look out of my window and I see the blossom. And it’s more blossomy than it’s ever been.” Once she got within network she would check the year and whether or not that was the correct wording. Then again, perhaps the way she had remembered it was the thing that was important. The branch lay abandoned outside a phone box at Kilburn station. Sitting in her tube seat, Natalie Blake moved her pelvis very subtly back and forth. Blossom was always intensely blossomy to Natalie Blake. Beauty created a special awareness in her. “The difference between a moment and an instant.” She couldn’t remember very much about the philosophical significance of this distinction other than that her good friend Leah Hanwell had once tried to understand it, and to make Natalie Blake understand it, a long time ago, when they were students, and far smarter than they were today. And for a brief period in 1995, perhaps a week or so, she had thought that she understood it.

  138. http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=kierkegaard&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

  Such a moment has a peculiar character. It is brief and temporal indeed, like every moment; it is transient as all moments are; it is past, like every moment in the next moment. And yet it is decisive, and filled with the eternal. Such a moment ought to have a distinctive name; let us call it the Fullness of Time.

  139. Doublethink

  Commercial barrister Natalie Blake did pro bono death row cases in the Caribbean islands of her ancestry and instructed an accountant to tithe 10 percent of her income, to be split between charitable contributions and supporting her family. She assumed it was the remnants of her faith that made her fretful and suspicious that these good deeds were, in fact, a further, veiled, example of self-interest, representing only the assuaging of conscience. Acknowledging the root of this suspicion did nothing to disperse it. Nor did she find any relief in the person of her husband, Frank De Angelis, who objected to her actions on quite other grounds: sentimentality, wooly mindedness.

  140. Spectacle

  The Blake–De Angelises started work early and tended to finish late, and in the gaps treated each other with an exaggerated tenderness, as if the slightest applied pressure would blow the whole thing to pieces. Sometimes in the mornings their commutes aligned, briefly, until Natalie changed at Finchley Road. More often Natalie left half an hour to an hour before her husband. She liked to meet early with the pupil with whom she shared a room, Melanie, to get the jump on all the business of the day. In the evenings the couple watched television, or went on-line to plan future holidays, itself an example of bad faith for Natalie hated holidays, preferring to work. They only truly came together at weekends, in front of friends, for whom they appeared fresh and vibrant (they were only thirty years old), and full of the old good humor, like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.

  141. Listings

  It was around this time that Natalie Blake began secretly checking the website. Why does anyone begin checking a website? Anthropological curiosity. The statement “I have heard that people are on this site” is soon followed by “I can’t believe that people really visit this site!” Then comes: “What kind of people would visit this site?” If the website is visited multiple times the question is answered. The problem becomes circular.

  142. Technology

  “I have it for work.” “It’s for work—I don’t pay for it.” “I’ve got to have it for work, and actually it makes a lot of things easier.” “It’s my work phone, otherwise I wouldn’t even have one.”

  143. The Present

  Natalie Blake, who told people she abhorred expensive gadgets and detested the Internet, adored her phone and was helplessly, compulsively, adverbly addicted to the Internet. Though incredibly fast, her phone was still too slow. It had not finished fully downloading the new website of her chambers before the doors closed on the elevator in Covent Garden station. For the length of a twenty-minute tube ride the screen in her hand obstinately froze on the sentence

  highest standards of legal representation in today’s fast-changing world.

  144. Speed

  At some point we became aware of being “modern,” of changing fast. Of coming after just now. John Donne was also a modern and surely saw change but we feel we are more modern and that the change is faster. Even the immutable is faster. Even blossom. While buying a samosa in the filthy shop inside Chancery Lane Station (one remnant of her upbringing was a willingness to buy food from anyone, anywhere) Natalie Blake once again checked the listings. By this point she was checking them two or three times a day, though still as a voyeur, without making a concrete contribution.

  145. Perfection

  For some reason this proposed picnic was very important to Natalie Blake, and she set about planning it meticulously. She cooked everything from scratch. She determined upon a hamper with real crockery and glasses. Even as she was ordering this stuff online she saw it was really “too much” but her course was set and she felt unable to change direction. At work she was deep into a dispute between a Chinese tech company and its British distributor. At the first video conference the Chinese Managing Director had been unable to conceal his surprise. She should not be going to a picnic. She should be in the office making her way th
rough the other side’s fresh disclosures. Natalie continued along her path. She picked an outfit. Glittering sandals and hoop earrings and bangles and a long ochre skirt and a brown vest and hair in a giant afro puff held off her face by means of one leg of a black pair of tights, cut off and knotted at the back of her head. She felt African in this outfit, although nothing she wore came from Africa except perhaps the earrings and bangles, conceptually. Her husband passed by the kitchen at the moment she was trying to force three extra Tupperware boxes into the gingham-lined hamper she had bought for the occasion.

  “Jesus. That’s ours?”

  “She’s my oldest friend, Frank.”

  “They’ll both be in tracksuits.”

  “A picnic is not just weed and a supermarket sandwich. We hardly see them anymore. It’s a beautiful day. I want it to be nice.”

  “OK.”

  He edged round her theatrically. Doctor avoiding a lunatic. He opened the fridge.

  “Don’t eat. It’s a picnic. Eat at the picnic.”

  “When did you start baking?”

  “Don’t touch that. It’s ginger cake. It’s Jamaican.”

  “You know I can’t eat anything with flour in it.”

  “It’s not for you!”

  He left the room silently, and it was not quite clear whether it was the beginning of a row or not. Probably he would decide later, depending on whether there was a practical advantage to be had in discord. Natalie Blake put her hands on the counter and spent a long time staring at the yellow kitchen tiles in front of her face. Who was it for? Leah? Michel?

  146. Cheryl (L.O.V.E.)

  “Just move that.” With Carly screaming on her hip, Cheryl bent down to sweep the Barbie and junk mail to the floor. Natalie found a hardback annual of some kind and put the mugs of tea upon it. “Let me try and get this little one down then we can go in the living room.” They sat opposite each other on their old twin beds. Natalie believed she had a memory of lying beside her sister on one of these beds, tracing spidery letters on her bare back, which Cheryl had to then guess and spell out as words. Cheryl gave Carly her bottle. She sat very straight with her third child in her arms. An adult with adult concerns. Natalie crossed her legs like a child and kept her fond memories to herself. Wasn’t there something juvenile in the very idea of “fond memories?”

  “Keesh, pass me that rag there. She’s chucking it all up.”

  Pocahontas printed on the closed blind. The sun made her golden. The room was not much changed from the old days except it was now roughly divided between a boy and a girl zone; the former red, blue and Spiderman, the latter diamanté-encrusted princess pink. Natalie picked up a dumper truck and drove it up and down her thigh.

  “Two against one.”

  Cheryl’s head lifted wearily; the baby was fussy and would not settle to eating.

  “Just—the pink-blue war. Poor old Ray won’t survive now there’s Cleo and Carly.”

  “Survive? What you on about?”

  “Nothing. Sorry, carry on.”

  On every surface there balanced things upon other things with more things hanging off and wrapped around and crammed in. No Blake could ever throw anything away. It was the same in Natalie’s place, except there the great towers of cheap consumer dreck were piled up behind cupboard doors, concealed by better storage.

  Cheryl plucked the bottle from the child’s mouth and sighed: “She ain’t going down. Let’s just go through.”

  Natalie followed her sister down the narrow hallway made almost impassable by laundry strung from a wire along both walls.

  “Can I do something?”

  “Yeah, take her for a minute while I have a piss. Carly, go to your auntie now.”

  • • •

  Natalie had no fear of handling babies; she’d too much practice. She placed Carly loosely on her hip and with the other hand called Melanie to give a series of unnecessary instructions that could have easily waited until they were both in the office. She walked up and down the room as she did this, jiggling the baby, talking loudly, entirely competent, casual. The baby, seeming to sense her extraordinary competency, grew quiet and looked up at her aunt with admiring eyes in which Natalie spotted even a hint of wistfulness.

  “But the thing is, yeah,” said Cheryl, as she walked back in, “Jay’s gone, there’s plenty of space here. And I don’t want to leave mum on her jacks.”

  “Eventually Gus is going to finish building. She’s going to move back to Jamaica.”

  Cheryl put both hands to the base of her back and thrust her stomach out in that depressing motherly gesture Natalie felt sure she would never perform, if and when she herself became a mother. “That’s way off,” said Cheryl, yawning as she stretched. “He sent pictures. Not e-mail—photos in an envelope. It’s a corrugated box with no roof. It’s got a palm tree growing out the bathroom.”

  This reminder of their father’s innocence, of his optimism and incompetence, made the sisters smile, and emboldened Natalie. She pressed her niece to her breast and kissed her forehead.

  “I just can’t stand to see you all living like this.”

  Cheryl sat down in their father’s old chair, shook her head at the floor and laughed unpleasantly.

  “There it is,” she said.

  Natalie Blake, who feared more than anything being made to look ridiculous—or being perceived, even for a moment, to be on the wrong side of a moral question—pretended she did not hear this and smiled at the baby and lifted the baby above her head to try and get her to giggle and when this did not work, lowered her to her lap once again.

  “If you hate Caldie so much, why d’you even come here? Seriously, man. No one asked you to come. Go back to your new manor. I’m busy—ain’t really got the time to sit and chat with you neither. You piss me off sometimes Keisha. No, but you do.”

  “When I was at RSN,” said Natalie firmly, in the voice she used in court, “you know how many of my clients were Caldies? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see you and the kids in a nice place somewhere.”

  “This is a nice place! There’s a lot worse. You done all right out of it. Keisha, if I wanted to get out of here I’d get another place off the council before I come to you, to be honest.”

  Natalie addressed her next comment to the four-month-old.

  “I don’t know why your mum talks to me like that. I’m her only sister!”

  Cheryl attended to a stain on her leggings. “We ain’t never been that close Keisha, come on now.”

  In Natalie’s bag, by the door, there were three Ambien, in the inside pocket next to her wallet.

  “There’s four years between us,” she heard herself say, in a small voice, a ludicrous voice.

  “Nah but it weren’t that, though,” said Cheryl, without looking up.

 
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