Nw by Zadie Smith


  YOU CANNOT SMOKE IN A CHILDREN’S PLAYGROUND. Shouted the old lady. From the bench.

  But why did she have to get in my face in that manner? Inquired the boy.

  She has a right! Insisted the Rasta woman.

  Just put it out. Said Natalie. This is a playground.

  Listen, I don’t do like you lot do round here. This ain’t my manor. We don’t do like you do here. In Queen’s Park. You can’t really chat to me. I’m Hackney, so.

  • • •

  This was an unwise move, rhetorically speaking. Even the lounging girl groaned.

  • • •

  Oh, NO. Said the Rasta. No you didn’t. No no no. You having a laugh? I’m Hackney? So? SO? Listen, you can try and mess with these people but you can’t mess with me, sunshine. I know you. In a deep way. I’m not Queen’s Park, love, I’m HARLESDEN. Why would you talk about yourself in that way? Why would you talk about your area that way? Oh you just pissed me off, boy. I’m from Harlesden—certified youth worker. Twenty years. I am ashamed of you right now. You’re the reason why we’re where we are right now. Shame. Shame!

  Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Said the boy. The girl laughed.

  You think this is funny? Said the Rasta. Keep laughing, my sista. Where do you think this leads? Said the Rasta, to the girl.

  Me? But I ain’t even involved! How am I even involved?

  Nowhere. Said Natalie. Nowhere. Nowhere. NOWHERE.

  Mummy stop shouting! Said Naomi.

  Natalie did not know why she was shouting. She began to fear she was making herself ridiculous.

  I feel sorry for you, really. Said a previously uninvolved Indian man, who now joined the circle of judgment. You’re obviously very unhappy, dissatisfied young people.

  Oh my days don’t you fucking start! Cried the girl. The white boy she was lounging with looked at the gathering crowd and opened his eyes very wide. He started to laugh.

  You lot crease me up. He said.

  How did this even get like this to this level? Asked the girl, laughing. I’m just sitting here, chillin! How am I even involved? Marcus, man, you’re bait. This is on you. Next thing I know I’m on fucking Jeremy Kyle.

  Why are you laughing? Asked the old white woman, who now stood with the rest, by the roundabout. I don’t think this is very funny.

  Oh man, this is long. Said the girl. This one’s back at it now. Old Mother Hubbard’s on the fucking case again. Shit is crazy!

  All of this? Asked Marcus. For a fag. Is it really worth it though? Just sit down back where you was and calm yourselves. Go handle your business. Sit down, man.

  Fools. Said the girl.

  Just put it out, man. Said Natalie. She had not ended a sentence in “man” for quite some time.

  Oi, Marcus. Said the girl. Just put that fag out please, shut this woman up. This is just getting to be ridiculous now.

  You should be ashamed of yourself. Said the old white lady.

  I was willing to chat with you, right? Said the Rasta. Adult to adult and try and comprehend your point of view. But you just lost me with that nonsense. Shame on you, brother. And the sad thing is I’ve seen where it leads.

  Don’t worry ’bout me. Said Marcus. I get paid. I do all right. Said Marcus.

  Marcus popped his collar. This gesture was not convincing.

  I get paid, I do all right. Repeated Natalie. Her lip was curled up in a snarl. I get paid, I do all right. She repeated. Yeah, sure you do. I’m a lawyer, mate. That’s paid. That’s really paid.

  These people are fucking mental. Said the girl.

  If she come over and ask me respectfully, yeah? I would have just done it. Argued Marcus. I’m actually an intelligent young man? But when someone don’t respect me then they’re disrespecting to me and then I’m going to step to them.

  If you had any real self-respect or self-esteem, argued Natalie, one person asking you to put a cigarette out in a fucking playground would not register as an attack on your precious little ego.

  • • •

  A small crowd had gathered, of other parents, concerned citizens. This last point of Natalie’s was a great popular success, and she sensed her victory as surely as if a jury had gasped at a cache of photographs in her hand. Easing into triumph, she accidentally locked eyes with Marcus—briefly causing her to stutter—but soon she found a void above his right shoulder and addressed all further remarks to this vanishing point. Around them the argument devolved into smaller disputes. The girl argued with the old lady. Her beau argued with the Rasta. Several people joined together with Natalie to keep yelling at poor Marcus, who by this point had finished his cigarette and looked utterly exhausted.

  174. Peach, peonies

  She couldn’t find the address and walked past it several times. It was a non-descript door with a double-glazed panel, squeezed between Habitat and Waitrose on the Finchley Road. Run-down, a 1930s block. She pressed the button and was immediately buzzed up. She stopped to examine some plastic flowers in the hall, extraordinary in their verisimilitude. Four flights, no lift. Natalie Blake stood at the inner door for a long time. In order to ring the bell she had to perform an act she later characterized to herself as “leaving her own body.” Through the glass she could see peach carpet and peach walls, and a corner of the living room where a puffy white leather sofa stood, with walnut legs and arms. Opposite the sofa she spotted a matching chair and giant pouffe, done in the same style. On a hallway table sat a newspaper. She strained to see which one and concluded it was a copy of The Daily Express, partially obscured by an old-fashioned finger dial telephone, also in cream with a brass handle. She thought of the listing, which had described this couple as “upscale.” Two bodies approached the door. She saw them clearly through the glass. Much older than they’d said. In their sixties. Awful, crepey white skin with blue veins. Everyone’s seeking a BF 18–35. Why? What do they think we can do? What is it we have that they want? She heard them calling: Come back!

  175. Golders Green Crematorium

  It was not difficult for Natalie Blake to get dressed for a funeral. Most of her clothes had a funereal aspect. It was harder to dress the children and she made this the focus of her anxiety, banging cupboard doors and throwing whatever got in her way to the floor.

  In the car her husband Frank De Angelis asked: “Was he a good guy?”

  “I don’t know what that means,” replied Natalie Blake.

  As they pulled into the car park there was not a face in the rearview mirror that she didn’t recognize, even if she lacked their names. Caldwell people, Brayton people, Kilburn people, Willesden people. Each marking a particular period. Surely she was no more than a narcissistic form of timepiece for them, too. And yet. She stepped down from her car to the courtyard. A friend of her mother’s touched her arm. She moved toward the memorial garden. A man who ran the Caldwell Residents Association lay his big hand on her neck and squeezed. Was it possible not only to have contempt for the people who kept time for you? Was it also possible to love them? “You all right, Keisha?” “Natalie, good to see you.” “All right, love?” “Miss Blake, long time.” The weird nod of recognition people give each other at funerals. Not only was Colin Hanwell dead but a hundred people who had shared the same square mile of streets with the man now recognized that relation, which was both intimate and accidental, close and distant. Natalie had not really known Colin (it was not possible to have really known Colin) but she had known what it was to know of Colin. To have Colin be an object presented to her consciousness. So had all these others.

  People spoke. People sang. And did those feet, in ancient times. Natalie was forced to come and go as each of her children kicked up a fuss. Finally the curtain opened and the coffin disappeared. Dusty Springfield. There are things you can only learn about people after they’re dead. As the congregation filed out, Leah stood in t
he doorway with her mother. She wore a terrible long black skirt and blouse that someone must have lent her. Natalie could hear well-meaning strangers burdening Leah with long, irrelevant memories. Story-telling. “Thank you for coming,” said Leah, mechanically, as each passed by. She looked very pale. No siblings. No cousins. Only Michel to help.

  “Oh, Lee,” exclaimed Natalie Blake, when it was her turn, and wept and held her good friend Leah Hanwell very tightly. If only someone could have forced Natalie Blake to attend a funeral every day of her life!

  176. Oblivion

  The Cranley Estate, Camden. More N than NW. A skinny man who called himself “JJ” and looked not unlike her uncle Jeffrey. And an Iranian girl, with an equally unlikely moniker: “Honey.” They were in their early twenties, disasters. Natalie Blake assumed crack, but it could easily have been meth or something else again. Honey had one tooth missing. Their living room barely deserved the name. Nasty, filthy futon, TV on the whole time. The whole place stank of weed. They were sat on beanbags, barely conscious, watching Deal or No Deal. They did not appear nervous. JJ said: Chill here first for a bit. I just got in and I’m bushed. He did not indicate a chair. Ever accommodating, Natalie Blake found a spot on the floor between the two of them.

  She tried to concentrate on the show, having never seen it before. Her phone kept beeping with texts from work. JJ had an elaborate conspiracy theory about the order of the boxes. The only thing to do was to accept the joint and let the weed take her. Quite soon she lost track of time. At some point the TV watching finished and JJ started playing a videogame: goblins and swords and elves talking nonsense. Natalie excused herself to go to the loo. She opened the wrong door, saw a leg, heard a cry. That’s Kelvin, said JJ, he’s crashing here right now. He works nights.

  The toilet seat was see-through plexi with a goldfish print. The water out of the tap was brown. Head and Shoulders. Radox. Both empty.

  Natalie wandered back in. JJ was busy speaking to the screen. Tell me where the friggin’ grain store is. An enigmatic peasant woman smiled back at him. Natalie tried to make conversation. Had he ever done anything like this before? A few times, he said, when there’s fuck all else to do. They’re usually mad ugly though and I kick them out before they get in the door. Oh, said Natalie. She waited. Nothing. Honey, bored, turned to her guest. What you do Keisha? You seem nice girl. I’m a hairdresser, said Natalie Blake. Oh! Listen, she does hair. That’s nice. I am from Iran. JJ made a face: Axis of Evil! Honey smacked him, but with affection. She stroked Natalie’s face. You believe in auras, Keisha?

  More weed was rolled, and smoked. At some point Natalie remembered that Frank was also working late. She texted Anna and bribed her with time-and-a-half rate to stay till eleven and put the children to bed. JJ arrived at a castle where he was set a new list of tasks. Honey started wondering aloud about some MDMA powder she’d left in a gum wrapper somewhere. Natalie said: I don’t think this is going to really happen, is it? JJ said: Probably not, to be honest with you.

  177. Envy

  Leah wished Natalie Blake would speak at a charity auction for a young black women’s collective Leah had helped fund. She kept going on about it. But the hall they’d managed to rent for the occasion was south of the river.

  “I don’t go south,” protested Natalie Blake.

  “It’s a really good cause,” insisted Leah Hanwell.

  Natalie Blake thanked Leah for her introduction and stood in front of the podium. She gave a speech about time management, identifying goals, working hard, respecting oneself and one’s partner, and the importance of a good education. “Anything purely based on physicality is doomed to failure,” she read. “To survive, your ambitions should be in the same direction.” One day she would probably find herself having to say something of this kind to Leah. Not right now, but some day. She would water it down, of course. Poor Leah.

  In between the top of page two and the beginning of page three she must have been reading out loud and making sense, there must have appeared to be an unbroken continuity—no one in the audience was looking at her like she was crazy—yet she found her mind traveling to obscene tableaux. She wondered what Leah and Michel, who always seemed to have their hands on each other, did in the privacy of their bedroom. Orifices, positions, climaxes. “And it was by refusing to set myself artificial limits,” explained Natalie Blake to the collective of young black women, “that I was able to reach my full potential.”

  178. Beehive

  The lovely voice came through the speakers in the park café. Natalie Blake and her friend Leah Hanwell had long ago agreed that this voice sounded like London—especially its Northern and North Western zones—as if its owner were patron saint of their neighborhoods. Is a voice something you can own? Natalie’s daughter and many other children were bouncing up and down and dancing to the song as their parents discreetly nodded their heads. The sun was out. Unfortunately Leah Hanwell was habitually late and soon the song had finished and Naomi was screaming about something and Spike had woken up and Leah had missed a perfectly staged demonstration of the joy of life—of family life in particular. “She’s really depressed,” said Natalie to Frank as they waited. “She thinks I can’t see it. I see it. Completely stuck. Stasis. She can’t seem to dig herself out of this hole she’s in.” But as soon as she’d said it the possibility confronted her that this judgment had merely arisen from the song, was really only a final verse Natalie herself had added on the spur of the moment, and that by saying it out loud she had made herself ridiculous. Frank looked up from his paper and caught her face arrested in its state of calamity. “Leah and Michel are happy-as-Larry,” he said.

  • • •

  Some time later Natalie saw the singer interviewed on the television: “When I was growing up, I didn’t think I was anything special, I thought everybody could sing.” Her voice was the same miracle Natalie had once heard, through a pub window, in Camden. But the woman who did or didn’t own it had all but disappeared. Natalie stared at the knock-kneed girl-child, hardly there, almost nothing.

  179. Aphorism

  What a difficult thing a gift is for a woman! She’ll punish herself for receiving it.

  180. All the mod cons

  Charming Primrose Hill. After much negotiation on e-mail, a daytime assignation was agreed: three o’clock. The woman opened the front door and said Phew! Weave, dressing gown, heels, beautiful, unmistakeably African. Her main objective was curling an arm around Natalie Blake and getting her into the giant house before anyone saw. Sartorially, Natalie kept to the same theme: gold hoops, denim skirt, suede boots with tassels, the hair bobble with the black and white dice, and her work clothes in a rucksack on her back. Catching herself in a huge gilt mirror in the hall she found herself convincing. At this point she was determined. At least they were attractive. Natalie Blake still believed that attraction was what mattered.

  Farrow and Ball Utopia Green (matte) in the hall. African wall sculpture. Modern minimalist pieces. A gold record framed. A picture of Marley framed. Front page of a newspaper framed. A sort of horrible “good taste” everywhere. Natalie Blake looked up and saw the husband or boyfriend at the top of the stairs. He was especially handsome, with a shaved head, finely shaped. Good-looking couple, they looked like each other. Like something from an advert for American life insurance. He smiled at Natalie and showed a lot of dentistry, luminous and perfectly straight. Silky dressing gown. Cheesy. We’re so pleased you’re here, Keisha, we weren’t sure you were for real. Can you believe she’s for real? Too good to be true. Come up here Sista so I can really take you in. Soul music playing upstairs. 2009 limited-edition Bloom baby highchair, like a space station, levitating in the kitchen. MacBook Air open on the kitchen table. An older Mac closed on the stairs. He stretched out his hand. Beautiful crib you got, said Natalie Blake. You’re beautiful, he said. Natalie felt his wife or girlfriend’s hand on her backside.

  Upstair
s she was introduced to a sleigh bed, of the kind that was fashionable about five years earlier. The shoe cupboard was open. Red soled from floor to ceiling. Above the bed they had that too-familiar tube map with the stops replaced by icons of the last millenium, gathered in cliques and movements. Natalie looked for Kilburn: Pele. On the bed an iPad played pornography, threesomes, and this was the first time Natalie had ever seen that particular piece of technology. Two girls ate each other out while a man sat on a desk with his dick in his hand. They were all German.

  The beautiful African woman kept talking. Where are you from? Are you in college? What do you want to be? Don’t ever give up. It’s all about dreaming big. Having aspirations. Working hard. Not accepting no for an answer. Being whoever you want to be.

  The more Natalie Blake stood there, fully dressed and unresponsive, the more nervous they got, the more they talked. Finally Natalie asked to go to the bathroom. En-suite. She climbed into a reclaimed Victorian bath clad in brass and porcelain from The Water Monopoly. She knew she was finished here. She lay back. Acqua di Parma. Chanel. Molton Brown. Marc Jacobs. Tommy Hilfiger. Prada. Gucci.

  181. Easter Holidays

  Anna had gone to Poland for a few days to see her family but now the volcano meant she could not return. Natalie googled. She stared at the great cloud of ash.

  “You’re more flexible than I am,” argued Frank, and left the house. The basement was back on track. Builders were everywhere. Frank had worked hard to put things back on track. They both had. They deserved everything that was coming to them.

  Got any more tea, love? Better keep these kids out of the way, they’re liable to get hurt. Don’t spose there’s a biscuit going begging?

  By ten a.m. she found herself trapped in a white painted box with two mysterious black-eyed others who seemed to want something from her that she had no way of either comprehending or providing. Men in orange tabards went back and forth. This milk is off, love. Got any jam? She gathered the children in her arms and left this building site, her kitchen. She took them to her mother’s flat. To the park. To the zoo. To Kilburn market. To the African minimart. To Cricklewood Toys R Us. Home.

 
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