Nw by Zadie Smith

  “I don’t understand,” said Natalie Blake, a little impatiently.

  “So then I ask her: what’s wrong? What’s really wrong? She says: ‘Look in the box in the drawer.’ So I look.”

  “And what was it?” asked Natalie, feeling that really the story was being milked for every last drop of unnecessary drama. She was eager to return to her children.

  “Pills. We’ve been trying for a year! I don’t know if she’s been taking them the whole time. They got your name on them. Did you give them to her, Natalie? Why would you do that to me? What the fuck, man!”

  Natalie’s children came now to her side and each took a leg and starting pulling, as Natalie defended herself against the imputation of collaboration. Normally all of her energies would be in defense—she was trained in it—but as she spoke her mind traveled to what felt like open ground, where she was able to almost imagine something like her friend’s pain, and in imagining it, recreate some version of it in herself.

  “I’m really so sorry.”

  “Why does she lie to me? She’s not herself. She told me she started praying. She’s not herself. Ever since Olive died she’s not herself.”

  “No, she is. She’s still Leah.”

  “Why does she hate me?”

  “Mum—let’s go, Mum. Now! Let’s go!”

  “Leah loves you. She always has. She just doesn’t want to have a baby.” Clarity. Bright, blinding, free of judgment, impossible to contemplate for longer than a moment, and soon transfigured into something else. Still, for a moment it was there.

  “Please come.”

  • • •

  The three of them sat at the bus stop outside Poundland waiting for the 98. A lady in her seventies with a fetching white streak in her black hair explained how she had escaped the revolution with a Yorkshire terrier in her hand-luggage on a plane chartered by the Shah himself. Not this terrier, the one two before this one. But in a sense I really did not become a good Muslim until I came to Kilburn. This is where I really became very holy. I thought dogs were Haraam, said Natalie. Not my dog. Mindy-Lou is a gift from God. Let her lick your children. It’s a blessing in disguise.

  The bus came. Natalie sat with her forehead rumbling on the glass. The Cock Tavern. MacDonalds. The old Woolworths. The betting shop. The State Empire. Willesden Lane. The cemetery. Whoever said these were fixed coordinates to which she had to be forever faithful? How could she play them false? Freedom was absolute and everywhere, constantly moving location. You couldn’t hope to find it only in the old, familiar places. Nor could you force other people to take off their clothes and give it to you like a gift. Clarity! And when I realized Mindy-Lou could actually speak to me through my mind, well, then I really had a moment, like in a story-book or a film, and I knew I would always be watched over and loved by everybody I met forever the end. OK, said Natalie, and lifted up Naomi and maneuvered the buggy to the doors. It was nice chatting with you. We get off here.

  • • •

  At the door Michel took Natalie’s hand and led her down the hall, through the kitchen and across the grass as if it were an expedition and she wouldn’t be able to find her way without him. “Maybe I should get a new dog. I don’t know what she wants.” He was in pieces. Such a sweet man. Natalie put a hand to her brow to block the August sun. She spotted Leah lying in the hammock in the garden, totally exposed. Here she had lain for several hours, refusing to speak. Natalie had been brought in for an emergency consultation. She tried to approach quietly with her kids, but they were dragging on her, both too hot and crying, slowing her down. Michel offered to take them into the kitchen. They clung to their mother. “Maybe fill these,” said Natalie and passed Michel two plastic drinks holders. “Kids, go. Go with Michel.” She sat down on the bench across from the hammock, and said her good friend’s name. Nothing. She asked Leah what the matter was. Nothing. She took her sandals off and put her bare feet in the grass. With what was left of clarity she offered her friend a selection of aphorisms, axioms and proverbs the truth content of which she could only assume from their common circulation, the way one puts one’s faith in the face value of paper money. Honesty is always the best policy. Love conquers all. Each to her own.

  She spoke and Leah did not stop her, but Natalie was wasting her time. She was in breach of that feminine law that states no weakness may be shown by a woman to another woman without a sacrifice of equal value being made in return. Until Natalie paid up, in the form of a newly minted story, preferably intimate, hopefully secret, she wouldn’t be told anything in return nor would her good friend Leah Hanwell listen to any advice.

  “Leah,” cried Natalie Blake, “Leah. I’m talking to you. Leah!”

  She heard Spike wailing; he was running toward her, silver paint running down his face, and was soon upon her, and she picked him up and tried to listen and understand the injustice he believed had been done to him. Leah turned her head to Natalie very slowly. Spike was laid flat out in his mother’s lap. Leah’s nose was burned and peeling.

  “Look at you,” said Leah, “Mother and child. Look at you. You look like the fucking Madonna.”

  • • •

  A child. Children. Not babies, not something to be merely managed any longer. Beautiful, unknowable, and not her arms or legs or any other extension of her. Natalie pressed Spike so tightly to her person he started to complain. It was knowledge as a sublime sort of gift, inadvertently given. She wanted to give her friend something of equal value in return. If candor were a thing in the world that a person could hold and retain, if it were an object, maybe Natalie Blake would have seen that the perfect gift at this moment was an honest account of her own difficulties and ambivalences, clearly stated, without disguise, embellishment or prettification. But Natalie Blake’s instinct for self-defense, for self-preservation, was simply too strong.

  “I’m not going to apologize for my choices,” she said.

  “Oh, God, Nat, who’s asking you to? Let’s just forget it. I don’t want to argue with you.”

  “Nobody’s arguing. I’m trying to understand what’s really the matter with you. I don’t believe you’re sitting here flirting with skin cancer because you don’t want a baby.”

  Leah turned in her hammock and showed Natalie her back.

  “I just don’t understand why I have this life,” she said, quietly.


  “You, me, all of us. Why that girl and not us. Why that poor bastard on Albert Road. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

  Natalie frowned and folded her arms across her body. She had expected a more difficult question.

  “Because we worked harder,” she said, laying her head on the back of the bench to consider the wide-open sky. “We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out. People like Bogle—they didn’t want it enough. I’m sorry if you find that answer ugly, Lee, but it’s the truth. This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve. You know, one advantage of kids is you don’t have so much time to sit in hammocks getting depressed about these kinds of abstract questions. From where I’m sitting you’re doing all right. You’ve got a husband who you love and who loves you—and he’s not going to stop doing that if you just tell him the truth about what you’re feeling. You’ve got a job, friends, family, somewhere to,” said Natalie, and carried on with her bright list, but it had by this point become automatic, self-referential, and her only real thought was of Frank and how much she wanted to speak to him.

  “Let’s talk about something else,” said Leah Hanwell.

  Michel came across the lawn with Naomi, a tray of drinks, two sippy cups and a bottle of white with glasses.

  “Does she speak?” he asked.

  “She speaks,” said Leah.

  Michel poured wine for the adults.

/>   “Please,” said Leah, accepting a glass, “I don’t want to do this in front of the kids. Let’s talk about something else.”

  “I think I know what happened in Albert Road,” said Natalie Blake.

  • • •

  First they sent an e-mail. A police website for anonymous tips. But that was anti-climactic, not very satisfying, and once it was done they stared at the screen, and felt disappointed. They decided to make the call to Kilburn Police Station.

  “At the very least,” said Leah Hanwell, who seemed infused with a new energy, “Nathan Bogle is a person of interest. From what you’ve said. Added to what we already knew. About his character. At the very least he’s a person of interest.”

  Certainly a person of interest.

  “You’re right,” said Natalie Blake. “It’s just the right thing to do,” and a few minutes later, as they went over the disparate bits of the tale once again, Leah said the same thing back to Natalie. Through the glass doors they watched the children spinning in the lawn. Leah found the number online. Natalie dialed it. It was Keisha who did the talking. Apart from the fact she drew the phone from her own pocket, the whole process reminded her of nothing so much as those calls the two good friends used to make to boys they liked, back in the day, and always in a slightly hysterical state of mind, two heads pressed together over a handset. “I got something to tell you,” said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice.

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  For creating the time: Mariya Shopova, Sharon Singh, Seeta Oosman, Freedom©, Self Control©.

  For creating the author: Yvonne Bailey-Smith.

  For reading the book: Simon Prosser, Georgia Garrett, Ann Godoff, Sarah Manguso, Gemma Seiff, Hilton Als, Tamara Barnett-Herrin, Devorah Baum, Sarah Kellas, Darryl Pinckney, Sarah Woolley, Daniel Kehlmann, Anelise Chen, Josh Appignanesi.

  For being local: Jim Ford, Len Snow.

  For knowing the law: Alison Macdonald, Matthew Ryder.

  For inspiration: The Black House, by Colin Jones, a model for “Garvey House.”

  For being an ideal friend: Sarah Kellas.

  For all of the above, much more, everything: Nick Laird. Thank you.

  Copyright Acknowledgments

  Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following copyrighted works:

  “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That),” words and music by Kurt Walker, Aaron O’Bryant, David Reeves, Jalil Hutchins, Lawrence Smith, Nasir Jones, Allan Felder, Norman Harris, Jean Claude Olivier and Samuel Barnes. Copyright © 1996 Universal-Polygram International Publishing, Inc., Kuwa Music, Davy-D Music, Scratch Master Music, Universal Music-Z Tunes LLC, Funk Groove Music Publishing Co., Universal Music-Z Songs, Chrysalis One Songs, Jumping Bean Songs LLC, Twelve and Under Music, Slam U Well and Nickel Shoe Music Co., Inc. All rights for Kuwa Music, Davy-D Music, and Scratch Master Music controlled and administered by Universal-Polygram International Publishing, Inc. All rights for Funk Groove Music Publishing Co. controlled and administered by Universal Music-Z Tunes LLC. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Contains elements of “If I Ruled the World,” words and music by Kurt Walker, Aaron O’Bryant and David Reeves and “Friends,” words and music by Jalil Hutchins and Lawrence Smith. Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.

  “Village Green,” words and music by Ray Davies. © 1969 (renewed) Davray Music Ltd. (PRS) and ABKCO Music, Inc., 85 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10003. All rights for Davray Music Ltd. in the U.S. and Canada administered by Unichappell Music Inc. Used by permission of Alfred Music Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved.

  “Welcome to Jamrock,” words and music by Damian Marley, Stephen Marley, and Ini Kamoze. © 2005 EMI April Music Inc., ZNS Music Publishing, Biddah Muzik, Inc., Universal-Polygram International, Inc. and Ixat Music. All rights for ZNS Music Publishing controlled and administered by EMI April Music Inc. All rights for Biddah Muzik, Inc. in the U.S. and Canada controlled and administered by Universal Music-MGB Songs. All rights for Ixat Music controlled and administered by Universal-Songs of Polygram International, Inc. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission. Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.

  “Willesden Green,” words and music by Ray Davies. © 1969, 1971 (copyrights renewed) EMI Al Gallico Music Corp. Exclusive print rights administered by Alfred Music Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

  “You Really Got Me,” words and music by Ray Davies. Copyright 1964 Kassner Associated Publishers Ltd. All rights administered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, 8 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


  Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

  The Book of Other People (editor)

  On Beauty

  The Autograph Man

  White Teeth



  Zadie Smith, Nw

  (Series: # )




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