Nw by Zadie Smith


  Hampstead Heath

  I see you trying to work me out.

  I’m not trying to do anything. Face front!

  You finished? You take long.

  There’s more involved for a woman.

  Best hurry up. Some geezer and his dog heading in.

  What!

  Nah. Chill.

  I wish you’d leave me alone.

  I ain’t saying nothing.

  But you are saying something.

  Pick-er-nick time. Let’s all have a pick-er-nick.

  So? I used to go to picnics here. Picnics. You never had a picnic? I’m trying to describe to you what a normal life looks like.

  Yeah. You love up explaining.

  I used to come up here with my church.

  There you go.

  There you go what? You never came up here?

  Nope.

  Never. You never were on Hampstead Heath. When we were kids. You never came up here.

  Why would I come up here?

  I don’t know, because it’s free, because it’s beautiful. Trees, fresh air, ponds, grass.

  Weren’t my scene.

  What do you mean it wasn’t your scene? It’s everybody’s scene! It’s nature!

  Calm down. Pull your knickers up.

  Corner of Hornsey Lane

  Stop following me. You keep talking to me. I can’t hear myself think. I need to be alone now.

  But I ain’t in your dream Keisha. You’re in mine.

  I’m serious. I need you to go now.

  No, but you’re missing it. Listen: my dream is my dream. You get me? Your dream is your dream. You can’t dream my dream. What you eat don’t make me shit. You get me? That’s my dream—you can’t get in there.

  Jesus Christ you sound like the Magic Negro.

  I’m pure magic.

  Just go home!

  I ain’t going nowhere.

  If you’re going to hurt me, there’s no point. You’re too late.

  Now why would you even say that to me? We’re walking nice and friendly. I’m not a bad person, Keisha. Why you acting like I’m some kind of bad man. You remember me. You know who I am.

  I don’t know who you are. I don’t know who anybody is. Stop following me.

  Why you being cold to me now? What have I done to you? I ain’t done nothing to you.

  Who was that girl, the little one, in the headscarf?

  Huh? Why you worrying about her?

  You live with her?

  That’s your problem: you want to be up in everybody else’s dream. We’re friendly—we’ve been walking nice and friendly. Why’re you stepping to me now?

  Wasn’t she at Brayton? She looked familiar to me. Is her name Shar?

  Didn’t know her then. That ain’t her name with me.

  What’s her name with you?

  We in court? I call my girls all sorts.

  What do you do to your girls? You send them out to thieve? You pimp them out? Do you phone women up? Do you threaten them?

  Whoa whoa, slow down, man. You got me twisted. Listen, me and my girls stick together. That’s all you need to know. They got my back. I’ve got theirs. We’re many but we’re one. Fingers on a hand.

  You hiding from someone, Nathan? Who’re you hiding from?

  I ain’t hiding from no-one! Who says I’m hiding?

  Who is that girl, Nathan? What do you do to your girls?

  You’re not right in your head. You’re talking some pure craziness now.

  Answer the question! Be responsible for yourself! You’re free!

  Nah, man, that’s where you’re wrong. I ain’t free. Ain’t never been free.

  We’re all free!

  But I don’t live like you though.

  What?

  I don’t live like you. You don’t know nothing about me. Don’t know nothing about my girls. We’re a family.

  Strange family.

  Only kind there is.

  Hornsey Lane

  Hornsey Lane. Said Natalie Blake. This is where I was heading.

  That was true. Although it could be said that it did not really become true until the moment she saw the bridge. Nathan looked around. He scratched at the sore on his neck.

  No-one lives here. Who you looking to see up here? Middle of nowhere up here.

  Go home, Nathan.

  Natalie walked toward the bridge. The lampposts at either end were cast-iron, and their bases molded into fish with their mouths open wide. They had the tails of dragons, winding round the stem, and each lamp was topped by an orange glass orb. They glowed, they were as big as footballs. Natalie had forgotten that the bridge was not purely functional. She tried her best but could not completely ignore its beauty.

  Keisha, come back here, man. I’m talking to you. Don’t be like that.

  Natalie stepped up onto the first little ledge, just a few inches off the ground. She had remembered only one layer of obstruction, but the six-foot barrier before her was topped by spikes, like a medieval fortification: spikes up and spikes down, an iron imitation of barbed wire. This must be how they stopped people going nowhere.

  Keisha?

  The view was cross-hatched. St. Paul’s in one box. The Gherkin in another. Half a tree. Half a car. Cupolas, spires. Squares, rectangles, half moons, stars. It was impossible to get any sense of the whole. From up here the bus lane was a red gash through the city. The tower blocks were the only thing she could see that made any sense, separated from each other, yet communicating. From this distance they had a logic, stone posts driven into an ancient field, waiting for something to be laid on top of them, a statue, perhaps, or a platform. A man and a woman walked over and stood next to Natalie at the railing. Beautiful view, said the woman. She had a French accent. She didn’t sound at all convinced by what she’d said. After a minute the couple walked back down the hill.

  Keisha?

  Natalie Blake looked out and down. She tried to locate the house, somewhere back down that hill, west of here. Rows of identical red brick chimneys, stretching to the suburbs. The wind picked up, shaking the trees below. She had the sense of being in the country. In the country, if a woman could not face her children, or her friends, or her family—if she were covered in shame—she would probably only need to lay herself down in a field and take her leave by merging, first with the grass underneath her, then with the mulch under that. A city child, Natalie Blake had always been naïve about country matters. Still, when it came to the city, she was not mistaken. Here nothing less than a break—a sudden and total rupture—would do. She could see the act perfectly clearly, it appeared before her like an object in her hand—and then the wind shook the trees once more and her feet touched the pavement. The act remained just that: an act, a prospect, always possible. Someone would surely soon come to this bridge and claim it, both the possibility and the act itself, as they had been doing with grim regularity ever since the bridge was built. But right at this moment there was no one left to do it.

  Keisha, it’s getting cold up here. I need some warmness. Come on, man. Keisha, don’t be moody. Chat to me some more. Step down.

  She bent over and put her hands on her knees. She was shaking with laughter. She looked up and saw Nathan frowning at her.

  Listen, I’m out. I got to keep moving. You’re a fucking liability. You coming or what? Asked Nathan Bogle.

  Good-bye, Nathan. Said Natalie Blake.

  She saw a night bus coming up the street and wished she had some money. She did not know what had been saved exactly, nor by whom.

  VISITATION

  The woman was naked, the man dressed. The woman had not realized that the man had somewhere to go. Outside their window came the noise of a carni
val float testing its sound system, somewhere to the west, in Kensal Rise. Out in the street they call it murda. After a few bars the music stopped and was replaced by the tinkle of a passing ice cream van. Here we go round the mulberry bush. The woman sat up and looked for the letter she had left on the man’s side of the bed, in the early hours of the morning. It had taken her a whole day and most of a night to “marshal her thoughts.” Finally, as Monday began, she had licked the glue on the white envelope and placed it on his pillow. He had moved it to a chair, unopened. Now she watched her husband place his feet in some fine Italian tasselled loafers and draw a baseball cap down low upon his curls. “Aren’t you going to open it?” asked Natalie. “I’m going out,” said Frank. The woman knelt up in an imploring position. She could hardly believe that she had awoken to find herself in the same situation as yesterday, and of the day before, that sleep could not erase it. That she would be in the same situation tomorrow. That this was her life now. Two silent enemies shepherding children to their social appointments. “I’ll be out for a few hours,” said the man. “When I get back I’ll take the kids till seven. You should find somewhere else to be.” The woman picked up the envelope and held it out to the man. “Frank, just take it with you.” The man took a thin volume from a bookshelf—she was too slow to identify it—and put it in his back pocket. “Confessions are self-serving,” he said. He left the room. She heard him go down the stairs, pausing briefly on the second floor. A few minutes later the front door slammed.

  • • •

  There was a choice of either stasis or propulsion. She got dressed quickly, dramatically, in bright blue and white, and ran down a flight of stairs. Her children met her in a hallway. Naomi was standing on an upturned box. Spike was flat on the floor on his stomach. Both were silver. Silver faces, silver sprayed clothes, foil hats. Natalie couldn’t tell if this was the consequence of a dramatic event, a form of game, or something else again.

  “Where’s Maria?” she asked, but then answered her own question: “Bank Holiday Monday. Why’re you wearing that?”

  “Carnival!”

  “Again? Who said both days?”

  “I’m a robot. There’s a competition. Maria made them. We finished up the foil.”

  “Both robots.”

  “No! Spike is a robot dog. I’m the main robot. It starts at two p.m. It is five pounds.”

  If she kept receiving these kinds of clear, helpful descriptions of phenomena from her children there was a possibility they might all get through the next few hours. The next few years.

  “What time is it now?” Natalie’s children waited for her to check her phone. “We can’t stay here. It’s a beautiful day. We need to get out.”

  • • •

  Each child had their own room—there was enough space in the house for them all to sleep alone—but ignorant of the logic of capital the children insisted on sleeping together, and in the smallest room, in bunk-beds, surrounded by a mountain of their own clothes. Natalie dug through this mess looking for something suitable.

  “I don’t want to get changed,” said Naomi.

  “I don’t want!” said Spike.

  “But you look ridiculous,” argued Natalie.

  In her daughter’s eyes Natalie saw her own celebrated will reflected back at her, at twice the intensity. Downstairs in the front hall she put the robot dog in the buggy and had an argument with the robot about whether or not it should be permitted to take the scooter. She lost that one, too. She closed the front door and looked up at an expensive pile of bricks and mortar. Soon it would surely be divided, have all its contents boxed and redistributed, its occupants separated, resettled. Finally a new arrangement of optimistic souls, intent on “building a life” for themselves, would cross its threshold. And in a sense it was not difficult to project oneself into the future in this way, so long as you stuck to abstractions.

  Two minutes down the road, Natalie’s daughter grew bored of her scooter and asked for a piggy-back. Natalie hooked the scooter to the buggy and accepted her daughter upon her back. Naomi stretched her head round so her soft cheek pressed against her mother’s face and her wild hair flew in her mother’s mouth.

  “Why do you insist on taking the scooter if you know you’re not going to want to use it?”

  The child spoke with her wet lips brushing the flesh of her mother’s ear: “I don’t know what I’m going to want until when I want it.”

  The mother looked into her children’s wire baskets.

  Naomi: Toothpaste, rubber ball, sticker set, a big red pitchfork, book.

  Spike: Rubber ball, rubber ball, flashing plastic duck, Brillo pads, plastic sword.

  Five pounds each, five items. Poundland. Natalie could remember doing this with Marcia in Woolworths, back in the day, but then it was one pound, and you got so much more for your money, and everything had to be “useful.”

  “I’m interested in the decision-making process here.”

  “I helped Spike choose. But he chose that.”

  “You don’t want a Brillo pad, honey.”

  “I DO WANT.”

  Natalie picked up the pitchfork.

  “It’s for Halloween.”

  “Nom, it’s August.”

  “I DO WANT!”

  “Seriously,” said Naomi, with a very serious look, “it’s a bargain.”

  At the counter they were selling the Kilburn Times for 25 pence.

  ALBERT ROAD SLAYING.

  FAMILY PLEA FOR WITNESSES

  On a tatty sofa a Rastafarian gentleman sat holding a picture of his adult son. Beside the father sat a beautiful young woman, clutching the left hand of the father between her own. There was a depth of misery in both these faces that Natalie found she could not look at in any sustained way. She turned over the top copy and folded the paper in half.

  “And one of those,” she said.

  • • •

  They had time to kill. Natalie had no idea what was to happen to them all after the time was killed. They walked to the pet shop. Natalie manumitted robot dog. She watched robot and robot dog run down the entrance ramp, to freedom. She unfolded the paper and tried to walk and read and push the buggy and keep an eye out for two beautiful children as they wandered about the cavernous store talking to lizards or arguing about the difference between a hamster and a gerbil. She felt an urge to call Frank—he had a stronger gift for reality than her, especially for chronology—but calling Frank would involve explaining things for which she had no explanation. Two nights ago. Six p.m. Albert Road. Her eyes kept returning to the same block of text, trying to squeeze a little more meaning from it. She could not tell whether she was trying to insert herself into somebody else’s drama—as Frank often said she was wont to do—or whether she really knew something of what had happened at that hour on that road. Now she tried to draw the word “Felix” out of the photograph within a photograph. The dimples and the cheery, laddish expression. The crisp black and yellow hooded top. It was easy to do. He was local, and she recognized him, without being able to say anything else definitive about him. Except perhaps that he looked exactly like a Felix.

  She raised her head from her newspaper. She called out. Nothing. She walked to the fish, the lizards, the dogs and the cats. Nowhere. She reassured herself she wasn’t the hysterical type. She walked at only a slighter faster pace back around the circuit she had just completed, calling their names in a perfectly reasonable tone. Nothing, nowhere. She abandoned the buggy and moved quickly to the counter. She asked two people a very simple question to which they replied with an infuriating lack of urgency. She went back to the fish, and the lizards, shouting. She understood that her children were not kidnapped or murdered or likely to be further than fifty feet from where she was presently standing but running through this logical series of statements did nothing to halt the falling away of everything that
now happened inside her. She peered over into the pit that separates people who have known intolerable pain from people who haven’t. Instantly she was sweating all over her body. A man in an apron came over to tell her to calm down. She pushed past him and ran out into the street. And it was into this pit that she had so nearly placed Frank, her children, her mother, Leah. Anyone who had ever cared for her.

  She took a step to the left, and stalled: it was a direction instinct for some reason rejected. She reversed course and ran into the next-door warehouse, and down another ramp into another cavern, filled with faceless mannequins in hijab and great swathes of black silk folded and arranged in many square piles on long shelves. She ran without any design around the racks of fabrics and scarfs and embroidered gowns and then back into the street and back down the ramp into the pet shop where she spotted them at once, sitting on the floor right at the back in front of the rabbit hutches.

  She fell to her knees and gripped them with both hands. She kissed them all over their faces, an offering they accepted without comment.

  “Can you eat a rabbit?” asked Naomi.

  “What?”

  “Did you ever eat a rabbit?”

  “No . . . I mean, people do. I don’t. Wait—that’s my phone. You shouldn’t disappear like that. You freaked me out.”

  “Why don’t you eat rabbits?”

  “Honey, I don’t know, I just never wanted to. Let me just answer this. Hello?”

  “You eat pigs and chickens and lambs. And fish.”

  “You’re right—it doesn’t really make sense. Hello? Who’s this?”

  Michel. She could hear at once he was very distressed. She stood up and took a few steps backward from the children and held a finger up to signify that they should stay where they were.

  “She’s lying out there in the sun,” said Michel. “She won’t speak. I don’t know what to do anymore. Why does she hate me?”

  Natalie tried to calm him down. She took on Frank’s role: establish chronology. But none of it made sense. Something about the pharmacy. Photographs.

 
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