Nw by Zadie Smith

  Very soon after there were flowers and cards and photographs and friends and family who came round bearing gifts that demonstrated different degrees of taste and sense and the mysterious black-eyed other was replaced by a sweet-tempered seven-pound baby called Naomi. People came with advice. Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs. Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee. She had never been so happy to see Caldwell people. She could not place Leah Hanwell in this schema with any accuracy, as it is hardest to caricature the people you’ve loved best in your life. Leah came round with a soft white rabbit, and looked at Natalie as if she had passed over a chasm into another land.

  162. Evidence

  Fourteen months after her first child was born, Natalie Blake had a second. He was meant to be called Benjamin, but he arrived with a little tuft of hair on top of his head, like a spike, and they called him Spike for three days, and then recalled a romantic, childless afternoon, years earlier, spent watching a matinee revival of She’s Gotta Have It.

  Frank was joyful, and forgetful of practicalities, and for a while Natalie found she had to treat him as a third child, a fourth child—if she included the nanny—to be managed and directed along with the rest of them so that time was maximized and everybody got to where they needed to be. Only Natalie herself was allowed to waste time, sitting at her desk, looking through digital images of her brood. This action, considered objectively, was identical to the occasions in which she had been called upon to review photographs of a crime scene. One morning Melanie caught her midway through this reverie and could not hide her delight. Hidden behind the image of Spike was another window, of listings. Natalie submitted, irritably, to a hug.

  163. Architecture as destiny

  To Leah it was sitting room, to Natalie living room, to Marcia, lounge. The light was always lovely. And she still liked to stand in the bay and admire her view of park. Looking around at the things she and Frank had bought and placed in this house, Natalie liked to think they told a story about their lives, in which the reality of the house itself was incidental, but it was also of course quite possible that it was the house that was the unimpeachable reality and Natalie, Frank and their daughter just a lot of human shadow-play on the wall. Shadows had been passing over the walls of this house since 1888 sitting, living, lounging. On a good day Natalie prided herself on small differences, between past residents, present neighbors and herself. Look at these African masks. Abstract of a Kingston alleyway. Minimalist table with four throne-like chairs. At other times—especially when the nanny was out with Naomi and she was alone in the living room feeding the baby—she had the defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest, and to the house next door, and the house next door to that.

  All along the street that autumn the sound of babies crying kept the lights on, late into the night. In Natalie’s house on the park, the shock of The Crash dislodged a little plaster in the wall in a shape of a fist and stopped plans for a basement extension. Off work and eager to feel useful, Natalie Blake waited till Spike’s nap, opened a Word document and with a great sense of purpose typed the title

  Following the money: A wife’s account

  She had a professional gift for expressing herself, and it was infuriating to listen to attacks on the radio and television upon what she thought of as the good character of her husband. As if poor Frank—whose bonus was, proportionally speaking, negligible—were no different in kind to all these epic crooks and fraudsters.

  She was keen to engage him on this subject when he came home. He looked up from his take-away.

  “You’ve never asked me a single thing about work, ever.”

  Natalie denied this, though it was substantively true. In the name of journalism, she pursued her point.

  “It shouldn’t be a question of individual morals, should it? It should be a legal question of regulation.”

  Frank put his chopsticks down: “Why are we talking about this?”

  “It’s history. You’re a part of it.”

  Frank denied being a part of history. He returned to his chow mein. Natalie Blake could not be stopped.

  “A lot of our tenants write pieces online these days, for the papers. Thought pieces. I should be doing more things like that. At least it’s something I can do from home.”

  Frank nodded at the remote control. “Can we watch TV now? I’m tired to death.”

  There was no relief to be found on the television.

  “Turn it over,” said Frank, after five minutes of the news. Natalie turned it over.

  “If the city closed tomorrow,” said Frank, without looking at his wife, “this country would collapse. End of story.”

  Upstairs the baby started crying.

  Over the next few days Natalie was able to add only two more lines to her attempt at social criticism:

  I am very aware that I am not what most people have in mind when they think of a “banker’s wife.” I am a highly educated black woman. I am a successful lawyer.

  She blamed her slow progress on Spike, but in fact the child was a good sleeper and Natalie had the Polish woman, Anna. She had plenty of time. A week later, in the course of attending to her e-mail, she caught sight of the document on her desktop and quietly moved it to a part of her computer where she would not easily stumble across it again. She watched TV in the living room and fed her child. The light failed earlier and earlier. The leaves turned brown and orange and gold. The foxes screamed. Sometimes she checked the listings. The young men on television cleared their desks. Walked out with their boxes held in front of them like shields.

  164. Semi-detached

  Each time she returned to work, the challenge was perfectly clear: make it happen so it seems like it never happened. There was much written about this phenomena in the “Woman” section of Sunday supplements, and Natalie read this material with interest. The key to it all was the management of time. Fortunately, time management was Natalie’s gift. She found a great deal of time was saved by simple ambivalence. She had no strong opinions about what young children ate, wore, watched, listened to, or what kind of beverage holder they utilized to drink milk or something other than milk.

  At other times she was surprised to meet herself down a dark alley. It filled her with panic and rage to see her spoiled children sat upon the floor, flicking through past images, moving images, of themselves, on their father’s phone, an experience of self-awareness literally unknown in the history of human existence—outside dream and miracle—until very recently. Until just before just now.

  165. Stage directions

  Interior. Night. Artificial light.

  Left and right back, high, one small window. Closed blind.

  Front right, a door, ajar. Bookshelves to the right and left.

  Simple desk. Folding chair. Books upon it.

  Nat comes through door. Looks up at window. Stands close to window.

  Opens blind. Closes blind. Leaves. Returns. Leaves.

  A pause.

  Returns with urgency, opens blind. Removes books from chair. Sits. Stands.

  Walks to door. Returns. Sits. Opens laptop. Closes. Opens.


  FRANK [mechanical tone, out of sight] Bed. Coming? [pause] Coming?

  NAT Yes. [types quickly] No. Yes.

  166. Time speeds up

  Now that there was so much work to do—now that the whole of her life had essentially become work—Natalie Blake felt a calm and contentment she had previously only experienced during the run up to university examinations or during pre-trial. If only she could slow the whole thing down! She had been eight for a hundred years. She was thirty-four for seven minutes. Quite often she thought of a chalk diagram drawn on a blackboard, a long time
ago, when things moved at a reasonable pace. A clock-face, meant to signify the history of the universe in a twelve-hour stretch. The big bang came at midday. The dinosaurs arrived mid-afternoon sometime. Everything that concerned humans could be accounted for in the five minutes leading up to midnight.

  167. Doubt

  Spike began to speak. His favorite thing to say was: “This is my mummy.” The emphasis varied. “This is my mummy. This is my mummy. This is my mummy.”

  168. African minimart endgame

  She had a new urge for something other than pure forward momentum. She wanted to conserve. To this end, she began going in search of the food of her childhood. On Saturday mornings, straight after visiting the enormous British supermarket, she struggled up the high road with two children in a double buggy and no help to the little African minimart to buy things like yam and salted cod and plantain. It was raining. Horizontal rain. Both children were screaming. Could there be misery loftier than hers?

  Naomi threw things in the cart. Natalie threw them out. Naomi threw them in. Spike soiled himself. People looked at Natalie. She looked at them. Back and forth went the looks of paranoia and contempt. It was freezing outside, freezing inside. They managed to join a queue. Just. They only just managed it.

  “I’ll tell you a story, Nom-Nom, if you stop that, I’ll tell you a story. Do you want to listen to my story?” asked Natalie Blake.

  “No,” said Naomi De Angelis.

  Natalie wiped the cold sweat from her forehead with her scarf and looked up to see if anyone was admiring her maternal calm in the face of such impossible provocation. The woman in front of her in the queue came into view. She was emptying her pockets onto the counter, offering to relinquish this and that item. Her children, four of them, cringed around her legs.

  Natalie Blake had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand.

  169. Lunch with Layla

  Her old friend Layla Thompson was now Layla Dean. She’d left the church many years earlier. She worked at a Black and Asian radio station as the head of music programming. She was married to a man who owned and ran two internet café/copy shops in Harlesden. Damien. Three children. Whenever Natalie Blake was having an argument about education (she had arguments of this kind constantly) she held up her old friend Layla as a positive example of all that she was trying to say.

  When using Layla as a positive example in this manner she usually neglected to mention that she had not seen Layla for a couple of years. Layla had been having her children and Natalie had not been having children and during this period Natalie had found it difficult to have lunch with Layla, Layla’s concerns seeming so myopic, so narrowly focused. Now that Natalie had children of her own it occurred to her that she would really love to have regular lunches with Layla once again. There were so many things she would be able say to Layla that she had not been able to say to anyone else. Lunch was arranged. And now she found herself speaking very fast and fully availing herself of Layla’s hospitality at this beautiful soul food restaurant in Camden High Street. There was a sense in which she couldn’t speak fast enough to get out all the things she wanted to say.

  “‘It’s such a relief not to have to pretend to be interested in the news,’” said Natalie Blake, quoting another woman, and eating a small china ladle full of prawns in coconut milk broth. “And I just sat in a circle of these freaks and thought: I really don’t belong here. Show me the exit. I need people I can go out dancing with.” Outside, a car passed playing “Billie Jean.”

  “I’ll come dancing with you, Natalie.”

  “Thank you! There’s an old school hip-hop night in Farringdon somewhere, my brother told me about it. We could go next Saturday. I could get my friend Ameeta on board. Beats singing Old Macdonald.”

  “I like those kid classes. I used to go all the time.”

  “Not this one. This one’s posh. But the bit I really can’t deal with is when they all—” began Natalie and continued in this vein through most of the main course. Men came with punch, they came with punch. Her glass was never half empty or half filled but always filling. Men came with punch. Outside, a car passed playing “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.”

  “What?” asked Natalie Blake. She was really too drunk to return to chambers. Her friend Layla was smiling, a little sadly. She was looking at the tablecloth.

  “Nothing. You’re exactly the same.”

  Natalie was in the middle of texting Melanie to warn her she would not be in now until tomorrow morning.

  “Right. It’s not like I have to become another person just because—”

  “You always wanted to make it clear you weren’t like the rest of us. You’re still doing it.”

  A waiter came over to ask about dessert. Natalie Blake, though eager for dessert, felt now she could not really order one. She was struck with dread. Her heart beat madly. She had a schoolgirl’s impulse to report Layla Dean née Thompson to the waiter. Layla’s being horrible to me! Layla hates me! Outside, a car passed playing “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”

  Layla did not look up at the waiter and after a moment he went away. She had a thick white napkin she was twisting in both hands.

  “Even when we used to do those songs you’d be with me but also totally not with me. Showing off. False. Fake. Signaling to the boys in the audience, or whatever.”

  “Layla, what are you talking about?”

  “And you’re still doing it.”

  170. In drag

  Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic.

  171. Me, myself and I

  Natalie put Naomi in her car-seat and locked the buckle. Natalie put Spike in his car-seat and locked the buckle. Natalie climbed up into the giant car. Natalie closed all the windows. Natalie put on the air conditioning. Natalie put Reasonable Doubt in the stereo. Natalie instructed Frank to mute egregious profanity as and when it arrived.

  172. Box sets

  Walking down Kilburn High Road Natalie Blake had a strong desire to slip into the lives of other people. It was hard to see how this desire could be practicably satisfied or what, if anything, it really meant. “Slip into” is an imprecise thought. Follow the Somali kid home? Sit with the old Russian lady at the bus-stop outside Poundland? Join the Ukrainian gangster at his table at the cake shop? A local tip: the bus stop outside Kilburn’s Poundland is the site of many of the more engaging conversations to be heard in the city of London. You’re welcome.

  Listening was not enough. Natalie Blake wanted to know people. To be intimately involved with them.


  Everyone in both Natalie’s workplace and Frank’s was intimately involved with the lives of a group of African-Americans, mostly male, who slung twenty-dollar vials of crack in the scrub between a concatenation of terribly designed tower blocks in a depressed and forgotten city with one of the highest murder rates in the United States. That everyone should be so intimately involved in the lives of these young men annoyed Frank, though he could not really put his finger on why, and in protest he exempted himself and his wife from what was by all accounts an ecstatic communal televisual experience.


  Natalie Blake checked her listing. Replied to her replies.

  173. In the playground

  You can’t smoke in a playground. It’s obvious. Any half-civilized person ought to know that.

  Yes, agreed Natalie. Yes, of course.

  Is he still smoking? Asked the old white lady.

  Natalie leaned forward on the bench. He was still smoking. About eighteen years old. He was with two othe
r kids: a white boy with terrible acne and a very pretty girl in a gray tracksuit and neon yellow Nikes. The girl was doing what Natalie and her friends used to call “lounging” or “plotting,” i.e., she sat between the white boy’s legs with her elbows on his knees in a lazy summertime embrace. And they looked quite nice together, lounging on the roundabout. But it could not be denied: the smoking boy was standing on the roundabout. Smoking.

  I’m going to give them all a piece of my mind. Said the old white lady. They’re all off that bloody estate.

  The old lady went over and at the same moment Naomi ran from the paddling pool into her mother’s arms crying TOWEL TOWEL TOWEL. In case you were wondering, this was indeed the same pool in which the dramatic event had occurred, many years earlier. Natalie Blake wrapped a towel around her daughter and put plastic sandals on her feet.

  The old lady returned.

  Is he still smoking? He was very rude to me.

  Yes. Said Natalie Blake. Still smoking.

  PUT IT OUT. Shouted the old lady.

  Natalie picked Naomi up in her arms and walked over to the roundabout. As she approached, a middle-aged woman, a formidable-looking Rasta in a giant Zulu hat, joined her. The two of them stood by the roundabout. The Rasta folded her arms across her chest.

  You need to put that out. This is a playground. Said Natalie.

  NOW. Said the Rasta. You shouldn’t even be in here. I heard how you spoke to that lady. That lady is your elder. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  Just put it out. Said Natalie. My child is here. Said Natalie, though she really did not have strong feelings about secondhand smoke, particularly when it was outside in the open air.

  Listen if someone comes disrespecting me, said the boy, I’m gonna tell them to get off my fucking case. Did she address me respectfully though? Don’t lie, cos they all heard you and no you didn’t.

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