Nw by Zadie Smith

  What are we doing? Nathan? What are we doing?

  Traipsing. North.


  That’s where you want to go, right?


  There is a connection between boredom and the desire for chaos. Despite many disguises and bluffs perhaps she had never stopped wanting chaos.

  Got any tunes Keisha?


  We should go back to your yard, get some tunes. LOCKE!

  He shouted and pointed at it, as if by naming it he had brought the block into existence.

  Keisha name some Locke people.

  Leah Hanwell. John-Michael. Tina Haynes. Rodney Banks.

  The effort of naming made Natalie sit down exactly where she was. She lay back and put her head on the ground until the moon was all she was looking at and all that she thought.

  I seen Rodney—time ago, in Wembley. Got a dry cleaners there now. Done well. He’s safe, though, Rodney, still humble. He chatted with me. Some people act like they don’t know you. Get up, Keisha.

  Natalie got up on her elbows to look at him. She had not lain on pavement in decades.

  Come on get up. Chat to me. Like usual. Go on, man.

  For the second time tonight she crossed her wrists and felt herself lifted up as if she were barely there, almost nothing.

  Leah. She was obsessed with you. Obsessed.

  I seen her. Other things, though. Good with numbers.


  I was, man! I was good! You remember. Most people don’t know me from then. You remember. Got them gold stars all day long.

  You were good with everything. That’s how I remember it. You had a trial.

  ’Zackly. Queen’s Park Rangers. Everyone says they had a trial. I had a real trial.

  I know you did. Your mum told my mum.

  Bad tendons. I played on. No-one told me. Lot of things would be different, Keisha. Lot of things. That’s how it is. That’s it. I don’t like to think about them days, to be truthful. At the end of the day I’m just out here on the street, grinding. Bustin’ a gut, day in day out. Tryna get paid. I done some bad things Keisha I’m not gonna lie. But you know that ain’t really me. You know me from back in the day.

  He swiped at three beer cans and sent them clattering into the grass. They’d reached the end of nostalgia. Here the boundary wall had been partially destroyed—it looked like someone had torn it apart with their hands, brick by brick. They crossed the street, past the basketball court. Four shadowed figures stood in the far corner, the tips of their cigarettes glowing in the dark. Nathan raised a hand to the men. They raised a hand back.

  Stop here. I’m gonna smoke this.

  Ok me too.

  He leaned into the high iron gates of the cemetery, looking in. He took the pre-rolled from behind his ear and they passed the joint back and forth and blew smoke through the bars. The something else mixed in with the tobacco had a bitter taste. Natalie’s lower lip went numb. The top of her head came off. Her mouth grew rigid and slow. It became laborious to translate thought into sound or to know what thoughts could be made into sound.

  Fall back fall back fall back. Keisha, fall back.


  Move up.

  Natalie found herself nudged a few feet along by his shoulder until they were standing at the furthest point between two streetlights. On the other side of the railings one spindly Victorian lamppost cast a weak glare over the flowerbeds. When Naomi was small Natalie had strapped her daughter to her chest and walked figure of eights in this cemetery hoping the child would take her afternoon nap. Local people claimed Arthur Orton was buried in here somewhere. In all her figure of eights she never found him.

  Let’s go in. I want to climb in.

  Hold up. Keisha’s gone crazy.

  Let’s go in. Come on. I’m not scared. What are you scared of? The dead?

  Don’t know about duppies, Keisha. Don’t want to know about them.

  Natalie tried to return the joint but Nathan directed it back to her mouth.

  Why you even out here Keisha? You should be home.

  I’m not going home.

  Suit yourself.

  You got kids, Nathan?

  Me? Nah.

  There came a gentle whirring sound, growing louder, then a screech. A bike made a sharp-angled stop in front of them. A young man with messy cane-rows, one trouser leg rolled up to the knee, leaned his bike to one side, reached over and muttered into Nathan’s ear. Nathan listened for a moment, shook his head, stepped back.

  Leave me, man. Too late.

  The kid shrugged and put his foot to the pedal. Natalie watched the bike speed away past the old cinema.

  It’s just a death sentence.


  Kids. If they get born, they’re gonna die. So that’s what you’re giving them at the end of the day. See, that’s why I like talking to you, Keisha, you’re real. We always have deep talks you and me.

  I wish we could have talked more often.

  I’m on the street, Keisha. I had some bad luck. Novlene don’t tell people the truth. But I’m not going to lie. You can see. Here I am. What you see is what you get.

  Natalie kept looking in the direction of the boy on the bike. She had picked up the habit of being embarrassed by other people’s bad luck.

  I ran into Novlene, on the high road, a while back.

  Smart Keisha.


  She tell you she don’t let me in the house no more? Bet she didn’t. Go on, Smart Keisha. Tell me something smart. You’re a lawyer now, innit.

  Yes. Barrister. It doesn’t matter.

  You got a wig on your head. Hammer in your hand.

  No. It doesn’t matter.

  Nah, but you did well. My mum loves up telling me about you. Smart Keisha. Oi, look at that fox! Slinking through.

  He had a little torch on the end of his phone and he shone it through the bars. The end of an ugly tail—like a bent old brush—vanished behind an oak tree.

  Sneaky animals. Foxes are everywhere. If you ask me, they run tings.

  The fox was scrawny and seemed to be running sideways, over the gravestones. Nathan’s torch followed it as far as it could before the animal leapt into nothingness and disappeared.

  How’d you get into that business?


  Yeah. How’d you get into that?

  I don’t know. It just happened.

  You was always smart. You deserve it.

  That doesn’t follow.

  There he is again! They’re fast, them foxes!

  I’ve got to go.

  The strength went from Nathan’s legs. He wilted. First into the bars and then sideways into Natalie. She had not expected to be anybody else’s support. Together they slid down the bars to the ground.

  Jesus—you need to stop smoking.

  Keisha, stay and chat with me a bit. Chat to me, Keisha.

  They stretched their legs out on the pavement.

  People don’t chat to me no more. Look at me like they don’t know me. People I used to know, people I used to run with.

  He put his hand flat on his chest.

  Too much speed in this thing. Heart is running. That little chief. Don’t know why I ever give him my time. This is on him. Always taking shit too far. How can I stop Tyler though? Tyler should stop Tyler. I shouldn’t even be chatting with you, I should be in Dalston, cos this isn’t even on me, it’s on him. But I’m looking at myself asking myself Nathan why you still here? Why you still here? And I don’t even know why. I ain’t even joking. I should just run from myself.

  Calm down. Take long breaths.

  Let me get myself straight, Keisha. Keep walking with me.

nbsp; He slipped off his hood, took off his cap. At the nape of his neck there was a coin-sized blotch of white skin.

  Come on, let’s move.

  He was on his feet in a second. A red and blue light passed over the cemetery wall.

  What about this?

  Just drop it on the ground. Come on. Be speedy.

  Shoot Up Hill to Fortune Green

  Where Shoot Up Hill meets Kilburn High Road they stopped, in the forecourt of the tube station.

  Wait here.

  Nathan left Natalie by the ticket machines and walked in the direction of the flower shop. She waited until he was out of sight and then followed, stopping by the edge of the awning. He was in the doorway of the Chinese takeaway, talking with two girls, whispering with them. One in a short lycra skirt and a hoodie, the other a small girl in a tracksuit with a headscarf that had fallen far back on her skull. The three of them stood huddled together. Something changed hands. Natalie watched him put a hand on the head of the smaller girl.

  What did I just say? Don’t make me say shit twice.

  I ain’t saying anything.

  Good. Keep it that way.

  Nathan stepped out of the doorway, spotted Natalie, groaned. The girls walked off in the opposite direction.

  Who were those girls?


  I know things. I used to be down the Bow Street cells every night.

  Closed now. They take you down Horseferry now.

  That’s right, they do.

  I know some things too, Keisha. I’m deep. You ain’t the only smart one round here.

  I see that. Who are those girls?

  Let’s go Shoot Up Hill then cut across.

  The street was longer and wider than ever. The houses and flats are set far back on that road, they look like hide-outs, as if the people who live here still fear the highwaymen who gave the place its name. To Natalie it seemed impossible that they would ever get to the end of it.

  You got money on you?


  We could get two tins.

  I don’t have anything on me, Nathan.

  They walked for a time without speaking. Nathan kept close to the walls, never taking up the center of the pavement. It struck Natalie that she was no longer crying or shaking, and that dread was the hardest emotion in the world to hold on to for more than a moment. She couldn’t resist this display of the textures of the world; white stone, green turf, red rust, gray slate, brown shit. It was almost pleasant, strolling to nowhere. They crossed over, Natalie Blake and Nathan Bogle, and kept climbing, past the narrow red mansion flats, up into money. The world of council flats lay far behind them, at the bottom of the hill. Victorian houses began to appear, only a few at first, then multiplying. Fresh gravel in the drives, white wooden blinds in the windows. Estate agent’s hoarding strapped to the front gate.

  Some of these houses are worth twenty times what they were worth a decade ago. Thirty times.

  Is it.

  They walked on. At intervals along the pavement the council had planted an optimistic line of plane trees, little saplings protected by a coil of plastic round their trunks. One had already been pulled up at the roots and another snapped in half.

  Hampstead to Archway

  That bit of the Heath where the main road runs right through and the pavement disappears. It was dark and raining softly. They walked the tarmac in single file. Natalie felt the cars very close on her right and on her left brambles and bushes. Nathan had his hood and cap to protect him. Her own half-destroyed horseshoe-braid was wet to the scalp. Now and then he offered a warning over his shoulder. Keep to the left. Dog shit. Slippy. She couldn’t have asked for a better companion.

  If I ruled the world!

  (Imagine that.)

  I’d free all my sons.

  Black diamonds and pearls.

  If I ruled the world!

  Was the song he was singing.

  The rain got heavy. They stopped in a pub’s doorway, Jack Straw’s Castle.

  Them shoes are bait.

  They’re not shoes, they’re slippers.

  They’re bait.

  What’s wrong with them?

  Why they so red?

  I don’t know. I think I like red.

  Yeah but why they got to be so bright? Can’t run can’t hide.

  I’m not trying to hide. I don’t think I’m hiding. Why are we hiding?

  Don’t ask me.

  He sat down on the damp stone step. He rubbed at his eyes, sighed.

  Bet there’s people that live in them woods, blud.

  In the Heath?

  Yeah. Deep in.

  Maybe. I really don’t know.

  Just living like animals in there. Had enough of this city. I’m tired of it right now for real. Bad luck follows me, Keisha. That’s the thing. I don’t follow bad luck. Bad luck follows me.

  I don’t believe in luck.

  You should. It rules the world.

  He started singing again. Singing and rapping, though the two were so low and melancholy and close in sound that Natalie could barely tell the difference.

  There’s that fucking ’copter again.

  As he spoke, he took a packet of Golden Virginia from his pocket and flattened a Rizla on his knee. Natalie looked up. Nathan tried to tuck himself in the shadow of the doorway. Together they watched the rotating blades slice through a cover of cloud. They had smoked and smoked. She was as high as she’d ever been in her life.

  This rain ain’t stopping neither.

  I could show you a diary. Your name. Every third line—your name. My friend Leah, her diary. That was basically my childhood—listening to her talk about you! She’d never admit it but the man she ended up marrying—he looks like you.

  Is it.

  It’s just weird to me that you can be so vital to another person and never know it. You were so . . . loved. Why are you doing that? Don’t you believe me?

  Nah, it’s just. That’s one piece of truth my mum did speak. Everyone loves up a bredrin when he’s ten. With his lickle ball’ead. All cute and lively. Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten. After that he’s a problem. Can’t stay ten always.

  That’s a horrible thing to say to a child.

  See but that’s how you see it—I don’t see it like that. To me it’s just truth. She was trying to tell me something true. But you don’t want to hear that. You want to hear some other shit. Oh Nathan I remember when you were this and that and you were all fucking sweet and shit, you get me? Nice memory. Last time I was in your yard I was ten, blud. Your mum ain’t let me past the gate after that, believe.

  That’s not true!

  Once I got fourteen she’s crossing the street acting like she ain’t even seen me. That’s how it is in my eyes. There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown. Not at all. They don’t want you, your own people don’t want you, no one wants you. Ain’t the same for girls, it’s a man ting. That’s the truth of it right there.

  But don’t you remember—

  Oh Nathan ’member this, ’member that—truthfully Keisha I don’t remember. I’ve burned that whole business out of my brain. Different life. No use to me. I don’t live in them towers no more, I’m on the streets now, different attitude. Survival. That’s it. Survival. That’s all there is. Talking ’bout “we went to the same school.” And what? What do you know about my life? When you been walking in my shoes? What do you know about living the way I live, coming up the way I came up? Sit on your bench judging me. Arksing me about “who are dem girls?” Keep your head in your own business, love. You and your fucking lezza friend. Bring her here I’ll tell her too. “You was so good at football, everybody loved you.” What good’s that to me? And you go home to you
r green and your life and where’s my green and my life? Sit on your bench. Talking out your neck about me. “How does it feel to be a problem?” What do you know about it? What do you know about me? Nothing. Who are you, to chat to me? Nobody. No-one.

  Just in front of them a little drenched bird landed on a leaf and shook itself. A passing car took the corner sharply, sending up a sheet of water.

  What you crying for now? You ain’t got shit to cry about.

  Leave me alone. I know where I’m going. I don’t need you to walk me there.

  Drama. You’re one of them types. Love drama.

  I just want you to go. GO!

  But I ain’t going nowhere though. Can’t run, can’t hide. Look, you don’t have to get all moody and that just because I talk some truth at you.

  I want to be alone!

  Want to feel sorry for yourself. Had some bust-up with your man. Half-caste, your man is. I seen him getting on at Kilburn with his briefcase. Look at you all sorry for yourself. You know you made it when you’re crying over that shit. You give me jokes.

  I don’t feel sorry for myself. I don’t feel anything for myself. I just want to be alone.

  Yeah well you don’t always get what you want.

  Natalie stood up and tried to run. Almost at once she caught a soggy slipper in a divot in the road and was down on her knees.

  Where you going? Give it up, man! Give it up! How many more times?

  The rain fell harder than before. She saw his hand stretched out for her. She ignored it, put her hands on her right knee and sprang up. She shook her arms and legs out like a gymnast. She stood up and started walking as fast as she could but when she looked over her shoulder he was still behind her.

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