Nw by Zadie Smith

  Naomi related this odyssey in far greater detail to her father when he came home.

  “You’re amazing,” said Frank, and kissed Natalie Blake’s cheek. “I would have just sat around wasting my time, playing with them all day.”

  182. Love in the ruins

  They were nice young men, and clearly astounded that anyone had replied to their premise. Natalie felt certain they must have posted when they were pissed. Cousins? Brothers? A 1950’s semi, in Wembley, facing the North Circular, double-glazed to within an inch of its life. It was a family house with the family missing. What Brayton kids used to call a “Cornershop Villa.” Natalie Blake could not explain why she knew they weren’t going to kill her. She had to recognize in herself a perfectly irrational belief that whether or not a person has murderous intent toward you is one of those things “you can just tell” about people. Certainly it helped that when they opened the door they looked more scared than she did. Oh my days. I told you, Dinesh. I told you. I told you it ain’t no bloke. Come in, love. Come in, Keisha. Oh my days. You’re fit and all. What you saying that for! Why not? She knows and we know. She knows and we know. No surprises. Oh my days! Go that way, lovely. We ain’t gonna hurt you innit we’re nice boys. Oh my word, no one is gonna believe this, man. I don’t even believe this. Go in there. We gonna take turns or what? What? I don’t want to see you naked, bruv! That’s some gay madness. Yeah but she wants to double team innit! That ain’t one then another! That’s two simulty-simultany-simu—at the same time. Don’t you know what double team means bruv? Double team. You don’t know what you’re even chatting about. Double team! Shut up you joker. Natalie listened to them arguing in the hall. She sat waiting in the kitchen. A large puddle of water surrounded the freezer. All the doors said FIRE DOOR. They came back in. Shyly they suggested that everybody adjourn to a bedroom. It was peculiar how shy they were, given the circumstance. Constantly bickering. In here. Are you mental? I ain’t doing it in there. Bibi sleeps in there! In there, man. Chief. Follow me, Keisha, make yourself comfortable, yeah? Dinesh man there ain’t even no sheet! Go get a sheet! Stop using my name! No names. We’re gonna get a sheet, wait right here don’t move.

  Natalie Blake lay back on the mattress. On top of the wardrobe there was a lot of boxed-up stuff. Stuff that no-one was coming back for. Surplus to requirements. There was something terribly sad about the whole place. She wished she could take the boxes down and sift through them and save whatever needed to be saved.

  The door opened and the young men re-emerged in only their Calvin Kleins, one black pair, one white, like two featherweights in a boxing ring. No older than 20. They got out a laptop. The idea appeared to be like roulette. You click and a human being appears, in real time. Click again. Click again. Eighty percent of the time they got a penis. The rest were quiet girls playing with their hair, groups of students who wanted to talk, shaven-headed thugs standing in front of their national flags. On the rare occasions it was a girl they would at once started typing: GET YOUR TITS OUT. Natalie asked them: boys, why are we doing this? You’ve got the real thing right here. But they kept on with the Internet. It seemed to Natalie that they were stalling for time. Or maybe they couldn’t do anything without the Net somewhere in the mix. You try it, Keisha, you try it, see who you get. Natalie sat at the laptop. She got a lonely boy in Israel who typed YOU NICE and took out his penis. You like being watched Keisha? Do you like it? We’ll leave it there, on the dresser. How d’you want it Keisha? Just tell us and we’ll do it. Anything. And still Natalie Blake knew she was in no danger. Just do what you want, said Natalie Blake.

  But neither of them could really manage it at all, and soon they blamed each other. It’s him! It’s cos I’m looking at him, man. He’s messing with my groove. Don’t listen to him he ain’t got no groove.

  They were satisfied to play about like teenagers. Natalie became very impatient. She was not a teenager anymore. She knew what she was doing. She did not feel she had to wait around hoping to be penetrated. She could envelop. She could hold. She could release.

  She sat the boy in the black Calvins on the edge of bed, rolled his foreskin down, got on him, advised him not to touch her or otherwise move unless she said so. A narrow cock but not ugly. He said: you’re quite strong-minded innit Keisha. Know what you want and that. They say that about sistas don’t they? And to this, Natalie Blake replied: I really couldn’t give a fuck what they say. She could see the boy had no useful rhythm—it was better for both of them if he simply stayed still. She ground down on to him. Rocked. Finished very quickly, though not as quickly as his circumcised friend on the other side of the bed who gave a little groan, spurted dribblingly into his own hand and disappeared into the bathroom. Dinesh you little chief. Come back in here. Um. This is a bit weird. Where’s he gone? Just you and me. You come already, yeah? Fair enough. You know what I don’t think I’m gonna get there right at the moment Keisha. I feel a bit hot and bothered right now if I’m honest.

  She released him. The boy flopped out of her, much reduced. She tucked it back in his pants. She started putting her clothes back on. The other one re-emerged from the loo looking sheepish. She had a spliff left over from Camden, and together they smoked it. She tried to get them to tell her something, anything, about the people who lived in this house but they wouldn’t be distracted from what they called their “chirpsing.” We should worship this girl man. Sista, are you ready to be worshipped? You’re a goddess in my eyes. All night long baby. Till you’re gonna be begging me to stop. Till six in the morning. Dinesh, man, I gotta be at work at eight.

  183. Catching up

  Natalie Blake fired Anna and hired Maria, who was Brazilian. The basement was completed. Maria moved into it. A new arena of paid time opened up. Natalie and Leah went out to the Irish.

  “What’s up with you?” asked Leah Hanwell.

  “Nothing much,” said Natalie Blake. “You?”

  “Same old.”

  Natalie told a story about a boy smoking in the park, emphasizing her own heroic opposition to persistent incivility. She told a story about how mean and miserable their mutual acquaintance Layla Dean had become, in ways intended to subtly flatter Natalie Blake herself. She told a story concerning the children’s preparations for carnival, which could hardly avoid demonstrating the happy fullness of her life.

  “But Cheryl wants all ‘the cousins’ on a church float. I don’t want to go on a church float!”

  Leah defended Natalie’s right not to accept religion disguised as carnival fun. Leah told a story about her mother being impossible. Natalie defended Leah’s right to be outraged by her mother’s misdemeanors, be they ever so small. Leah told a funny story about upstairs Ned. She told a funny story about Michel’s bathroom habits. Natalie noticed with anxiety that Leah’s stories had no special emphasis or intention.

  “Did you ever see that girl again?” asked Natalie Blake. “The one who scammed you—who came to the door?”

  “All the time,” said Leah Hanwell. “I see her all the time.”

  They drank two bottles of white wine between them.

  184. Caught

  “What is this? ‘[email protected].’ What the fuck is this? Fiction?”

  They stood opposite each other in the hallway. He waved a piece of paper at her. Six feet away their kids and the cousins and Cheryl and Jayden were practicing dance routines to be performed on a carnival float the following morning. Marcia was helping sew sequins and feathers on to dayglo leotards. Hearing raised voices, the many members of Natalie Blake’s family paused what they were doing and looked into the hallway.

  “Please let’s go upstairs,” said Natalie Blake.

  They got up one flight of stairs to the spare room, which had a charming Moroccan theme. Natalie Blake’s husband held her wrist very tightly.

  “Who are you?”

  Natalie Blake tried to free her wrist.

  “You have two children downstairs. You’re meant to be a fucking adult. Who are you? Is this real? Who the fuck is wildinwembley? What is that on your computer?”

  “Why are you looking at my computer?” asked Natalie Blake in a small voice, a ludicrous voice.

  185. Onwards

  Frank sat on the bed with his back to her, a hand over his eyes. Natalie Blake stood up and left the spare room and closed the door. An odd sense of calm followed her downstairs. On the ground floor, in the hall, she bumped into the Brazilian girl, Maria, who regarded her with the same obtuse confusion of last week, when she’d arrived and discovered her employer to be several shades darker than she was herself.

  Past the hall where her laptop sat on a side table, the screen still open for anyone to read. Past her family who called out for her. She heard Frank running down the stairs. She saw her coat slung across the banister, keys and phone in the pocket. At the door she had another chance to take something with her (on the hallway table she could see her purse, an oyster card, another set of keys). She walked out of the house with nothing and closed the front door behind her. Out of the bay window Frank De Angelis asked his wife Natalie Blake where she was going. Where she thought she was going. Where the fuck she thought she was going. “Nowhere,” said Natalie Blake.


  Willesden Lane to Kilburn High Road

  She turned left. Walked to the end of her road and the end of the next. Walked quickly away from Queen’s Park. She passed into where Willesden meets Kilburn. Went by Leah’s place, then Caldwell. In the old flat the kitchen window was open. A duvet cover—decorated with the logo of a football club—had been hung over the balcony to dry. Without looking where she was going, she began climbing the hill that begins in Willesden and ends in Highgate. She was making a queer keening noise, like a fox. As she crossed the road a 98 bus swung by her steeply—it looked like it might capsize—and at first it seemed to be somehow the source of the strange red and blue light coloring the white stripes of the zebra crossing. Now she saw the police car parked in its shadow, roof lights turning silently. A line of police, parked at right angles to each other, making Albert Road inaccessible to traffic. On the public side of this barrier a group of people had gathered, and a tall policeman in a turban stood in the middle of them, answering questions. But I live on Albert! said a young woman. She was carrying too many shopping bags in each hand, with more hanging from her wrists and digging into her skin. What number? asked the policeman. The woman told him. You’ll have to walk round. You’ll find officers at the far end who’ll walk you to your door. For Christ’s sake, said the woman, but after a moment she walked in the direction indicated. Can’t I walk down there? asked Natalie. Incident, said the officer. He looked down at her. A big T-shirt, leggings and a pair of filthy red slippers, like a junkie. He looked at his watch. It’s eight now. This road will be blocked for another hour or so. She tried to reach up on her toes to see round him. All she could see were more policemen and a white canvas tent off to the left, on the pavement opposite the bus stop. What kind of incident? He didn’t answer. She was no-one. She didn’t merit answering. A kid on a BMX racer said, Someone got juked innit.

  • • •

  She turned and walked back in the direction of Caldwell. Walking was what she did now, walking was what she was. She was nothing more or less than the phenomenon of walking. She had no name, no biography, no characteristics. They had all fled into paradox. Certain physical memories remained. She could feel the puffiness of her skin beneath her eyes and the fact that her throat was sore from shouting and yelping. She had a mark on her wrist where she had been gripped tightly. She put her hand in her hair and knew it to be wild and everywhere and that in the midst of an argument she had ripped a bit out at the right temple. She reached Caldwell’s boundary wall. She walked the length of the back wall, looking down at the green verge that climbs from the low basin up to street level. She walked along the wall from one end to the other and back again. She seemed to be seeking some sign of perforation in the brick. She kept retracing the same area. She was lifting her knee to climb when a man’s voice called out for her.

  Keisha Blake.

  Across the road and to her left. He stood beneath a horse chestnut tree with his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his hoodie.

  Keisha Blake. Hold up.

  He jogged across the road, fidgeting as he went: hands to nose, ears, the back of his neck.


  You trying to break back in?

  He jumped up on to the wall.

  I don’t know what I’m doing.

  Ain’t even going to ask me how I am though. That’s cold.

  He crouched down and looked into her face.

  You don’t look too good, Keisha. Reach for me.

  Natalie crossed her wrists. Nathan looked at her shaking hands. He pulled her up. They jumped down to the other side together, landing lightly in the bushes. As he straightened up he looked over his shoulder at the street.

  Come then.

  He scrabbled down through the scrub to the small grassy area where the residents park. He leaned against an old car. Natalie made her way down more slowly, clinging to the woody parts of bushes, sliding in her slippers.

  You don’t look too good at all.

  I don’t know what I’m doing here.

  Arguing with your mans innit.

  Yes. How—

  You don’t look like you got no real problems. Come join me. I’m flying.

  Now she noticed his pupils, huge and glassy, and so she tried to put herself in the old role. It would be something to replace this absence of sensation, this nothing. She placed a hand on his shoulder. The fabric of his hoodie was stiff, unclean.

  You’re flying?

  He made a sound in the back of his throat like a gasp. It caught at some phlegm, and he coughed a long time.

  It’s either fly or give it up tonight. You heading to your mum’s?

  No. North.


  Tried to get the tube at Kilburn. The road’s blocked off.

  Is it. Come on let’s walk. This ain’t the place I want to be right now. Spent nuff time in this place.

  They stood in the center of Caldwell’s basin. Five blocks connected by walkways and bridges and staircases, and lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built. Smith, Hobbes, Bentham, Locke, Russell. Here is the door, here is the window. And repeat, and repeat. Some of the residents had placed pretty pots of geraniums and African violets on their balconies. Others had their windows fixed with brown tape, grubby net curtains, no door number, no bell. Opposite, on the long concrete balcony that runs the length of Bentham, a fat white boy stood with a telescope on a stand, pointed down, into the car park instead of up at the moon. Nathan looked at him and stayed looking. The boy shrunk the telescope, collected the stand under his arm and hurried indoors. The smell of weed was everywhere.

  Long time, Keisha.

  Long time.

  You got a cigarette?

  Natalie put her hands on her body to demonstrate a lack of pockets. Nathan stopped where he was and pulled a loose cigarette from his own back pocket. He split it down the middle with a long thumbnail, yellow and thick, with a wide crack running down its center. Tobacco spilled into his hands. Dry black creases crossed both palms. He reached into his jeans and came back with a large packet of orange Rizlas and a little baggy, held between his teeth.

  Which one was you again?

  Locke. You?

  He nodded toward Russell.

  Stand there.

  Nathan got Natalie by the shoulders and moved her until she stood directly in front of him. There was some relief in becoming an object. Without making any errors she could serve as a useful buffer between the breeze and these two Rizlas being set carefully in
an L construction.

  Wait up one more minute. Oi: you crying?

  Light passed over them and a mechanical roar; a helicopter flying low.

  Yes. Sorry.

  Come on Keisha now. Your man’s not that harsh. He’ll take you back.

  He shouldn’t.

  People shouldn’t do a lot of things they do. Ok, done.

  He held out the joint, face upturned to the night sky.

  No. I need to be clear in my head.

  Don’t pretend you’re a nice girl Keisha. I known you from time. Know your family. Cheryl. Suit yourself.

  He put the joint behind his ear.

  Ain’t just weed in there you know. Few surprises in there. Try it. We’ll go plot somewhere quiet. This is it now.

  He started walking. Natalie followed. Walking was what she did now. As she walked she tried to place the people back there, in the house, into the present current of her thought. But her relation with each person was now unrecognizable to her, and her imagination—due to a long process of neglect, almost as long as her life—did not have the generative power to muster an alternative future for itself. All she could envision was suburban shame, choking everything. She thought to the left and thought to the right but there was no exit. Though, perhaps, Jayden? Again she stalled. Though perhaps Jayden what?

  What time is it, Keisha?

  I don’t know.

  Should have gone from here time ago. Sometimes I don’t get myself. Who’s chaining me? No one. Should have gone Dalston. Too late now.

  From behind a parked black taxi a boy of nine or so emerged, riding a bike without hands and with great slowness and skill. Trailing him were two more boys no older than six, and a girl of about four. They had the long faces and sloe-eyes Natalie thought of as Somalian, and their boredom was familiar to her, she remembered it. The girl kicked a dented can over and over. One of the boys had a long branch he held loosely in his hand letting it collide with whatever got in its way. They glared as they passed, and spoke their language. The stick strayed into Nathan’s path. He only had to look at it for the boy to slowly raise it above their heads and away.

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