Nw by Zadie Smith


  13.

  –Finished with the computer?

  –Need to wait till they close.

  –It’s almost seven o’clock? I need it.

  –It’s not seven online. Why don’t you get on with your own things?

  –That’s what I need it for.

  –Leah, I’ll call you when I’m done.

  Currency trading. The exploitation of volatility. She can only understand words, not numbers. The words are ominous. Add them to that look Michel has, right now, of arrested attention. Internal time stretched and stilled, inattentive to the minutes and hours outside of itself. Five minutes! He says it irritably whether thirty have gone by or a hundred or two hundred. Pornography does that, too. Art, too, so they say.

  Leah stands behind Michel in the darkness of the box room. Blue shimmer of the screen. He is two feet away. He is on the other side of the world. Why don’t you get on with your own things?

  She has the idea that there are a lot of things she has been waiting for weeks to do and now she will do them with the bright quickness of montage, like the middle section of a movie. In the living room the TV is on. More blue light in the hallway. In the box room, the computer plays angry hip hop, a sign that things are going badly. Sometimes she says to him: have you lost it? He becomes furious, he says it doesn’t work that way. Some days I lose, some days I win. How can he be losing or winning that same eight thousand pounds, over and over? Leah’s only inheritance from Hanwell, their only savings. The money itself has become notional, a notion materialist Hanwell—who kept his real paper money in a cardboard box in a mahogany credenza—would never understand. No more does Leah understand it. She sits on a chair in the open doorway between kitchen and garden. Toes in the grass. The skies are empty and silent. Outrage travels from next-door’s talk radio: It’s taken me fifty-two hours to get back from Singapore! A new old lesson about time. Broccoli comes from Kenya. Blood must be transported. Soldiers need supplies. Much of the better part of NW went on holiday, for Easter, with their little darlings. Maybe they will never return. A thought to float away on.

  Ned clonks down the wrought-iron steps, looking up at the sky.

  –Really weird.

  –I like it. I like the quiet.

  –Freaks me out. Like Cocoon.

  –Not really.

  –Town was totally empty. Arbus at the Portrait Gallery with no crowds. Awesome. Real experience.

  Leah submits to Ned’s long, excited description. She envies his enthusiasm for the city. He does not pass his time with his ex-countrymen in their suburban enclaves, cracking beers, watching the rugby: he does everything to avoid them. Admirable. Exploring the city alone, seeking out gigs and talks and screenings and exhibitions, far-off parks and mystery Lidos. Leah, born and bred, never goes anywhere.

  –is really about integrity of like a, like a, like an idea? Blew me away. Anyway. I’m starving. Gonna go up and make myself some pasta and pesto. Listen, I’ll leave you a couple to be getting on with.

  He sets three on the window sill, pre-rolled. She looks at them lined up in the flat of her palm. She smokes the first quickly, to the orange cardboard butt. Olive chases rustlings through shadows. Then the second. The upstairs windows are open: Gloria screaming at her children. You nah listen! Me nah got all day to tell you da same damn ting over and over! Leah calls to Olive, who comes lolloping. Leah scoops her in both arms. Shammy leather skin. Vulnerable little ribcage with a gap for every finger. Wrong to love a dog so much, says Michel, who has wrung the necks of chicken, slit the throat of a goat. Olive’s throat between Leah’s hands—how could a child be held with any more tenderness? Post-Olive it is easy to believe in consciousness of animals. Even the bubble-breathing crabs in the fishmonger’s have taken on a tragic aspect. Yet she eats them all, still. What a monster she is. Don’t let me come over dere and box you! She smokes the third.

  It gets dark slowly, then suddenly. Fairy lights wrapped student-wise in the apple tree. Contact lenses so dry it’s hard to see. Beyond the tree, the fence, the railway, Willesden. Number 37. It is from this direction that her father walks toward her. He comes no closer than Ned’s failed rosebush. He wears a hat.

  How’s your little dog, he asks.

  Leah finds she can answer him without opening her mouth. She tells him about all the things Olive has been up to since he died, last November, every little thing, all the little things! Even the dullest detail of the dog’s day entertains him. He says, dear oh dear, and brushes the crumbs off his ratty blue cardie, chuckling. He is dressed exactly as they dressed him in Morehurst, except this trilby she’s never seen before, which is the only word Leah knows for the old style of hats. He has a white stain on his thigh, like semen, crusty in a ridge of his faded brown cords that no one has bothered to clean. Those pretty Ukrainian nurses who never stayed long.

  Behind here it’s nothing but bleedin’ foxes, says Hanwell, sadly.

  It’s really an epidemic. That is, they were always there, in the same numbers as they are now, but now it is called an epidemic. A recent headline in The Standard, NORTHWEST FOX EPIDEMIC, and a photograph of a man kneeling in a garden surrounded by the corpses of foxes he’d shot. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Dozens and dozens! says Leah, and that’s how we live now, defending our own little patch, it didn’t used to be like that, but everything’s changed, hasn’t it, that’s what they say, everything’s changed. Colin Hanwell tries to listen. Really he isn’t very interested in foxes and what they might symbolize.

  Well, I can see how they got that impression, says Hanwell.

  What?

  I say I can see how they would have got that idea, the way you carry on.

  What?

  If you tell me you’re happy, says Hanwell, you’re happy and there’s an end to it.

  The talk turns to other matters. You never get your own pillowcase back from laundry. The really important things is that Chef Maureen accepts your frozen wheat-free lasagnas, that you might be allowed to eat these while others have their dietary requirements ignored and as a consequence shit blood and have convulsions and contract hiccups that never stop. Yes, concedes Leah, yes, Dad, perhaps. Perhaps shitting blood is worse than symbols and sadness and the global situation. You can’t speak to doctors like that, whispers Hanwell, you might be overheard, you never know when they’ll come by. You just have to pray that they do.

  Leah begins to feel she is in control and that she might shape what remains of this meeting to her own satisfaction. She starts to make her father say things, directing him, moving his arms and manipulating his expressions, first innocently, and then with deliberation, so he says I love you, you know. And then: Love, you know I’ve always loved you. And: I love you don’t worry it’s nice here. And even: I can see a light. After a while he looks strange doing it and Leah feels ashamed and stops. And still he stays, and by doing so holds out the delicious possibility of madness, such a lovely indulgence. If she didn’t have this everyday life to go to with its admin and rent and husband and work she could go mad! Why not go mad!

  And remember to lock the gate with the water pressure where the gas is hot in the oven of the plug to switch it off when you leave it using only red onions and a pinch of cinnamon then getting back before you need to use a minicab—without drinking, advises Hanwell.

  She can’t make him come any closer. Yet his hand seems to be in her hand and his cheek is on hers and Leah kisses his hand and feels his tear in her ear because he was always such a sentimental old fool. She presses his hand between her hands. They are autumn dry. She can feel the pulpy bruise of the persistent wound, in the center of his hand, still not healed because at a certain age these things stop healing. It is purple and fills now with blood, scraped so lightly, so insignificantly, months and months ago, on the edge of the games table in the community room. The skin fell away. They rolled it
back and taped it in place. But for all of that last year it stayed purple and full of blood.

  Leah says, Dad! Don’t go!

  Hanwell says, Do I have to go somewhere?

  Michel says, Computer’s free!

  14.

  A great hill straddles NW, rising in Hampstead, West Hampstead, Kilburn, Willesden, Brondesbury, Cricklewood. It is no stranger to the world of letters. The Woman in White walks up one side to meet the highwayman Jack Sheppard on the other. Sometimes Dickens himself comes this far west and north for a pint or to bury someone. Look, there, on the library carpet between Science Fiction and Local History: a knotted condom filled with sperm. Once this was all farm and field with country villas nodding at each other along the ridge of this hill. Train stations have replaced them, at half-mile intervals.

  It’s a little more than a month since the girl came to the door—late May. The horse chestnuts look fine in their bushy fullness, though everyone knows they have blight. Leah is on one side of the Brondesbury ridge, climbing in the glare, unaware of who or what rises to meet her. She is so surprised she resorts to a reflex emotion: contempt. Cuts her eyes at the girl the way kids used to do at school. Coming so late and so close to Shar’s face it is a gesture more violent than intended. If Michel were here! Michel is not here. Leah attempts a last second side-step, hoping to pass by. A little hand grabs her wrist.

  –OI. YOU.

  Her head is uncovered. Thick black hair falls free everywhere. In between its cloaking folds, Leah spies a catastrophic purple yellow black eye. Water weeps out of it, tears or something else involuntary. Leah tries to speak but only stutters.

  –What you want from me? What you want me to say? I robbed you? I’m an addict. I stole your money. All right? ALL RIGHT?

  –Let me help, maybe I can . . . there are places that . . . that help.

  Leah cringes at her own voice. How feeble it is! Like a child pleading.

  –I aint got your money, yeah? I’ve got a problem. Do you understand me? I AINT GOT NOTHING FOR YOU. I don’t need you and your bredrin fuckin with me every fuckin day. Pointin, shoutin. I can’t take no more of it to be honest with you. What you want from me? Want me on my knees?

  –No, I . . . Can I help you, somehow? Can I do something?

  Shar releases, shrugs and turns, wobbles, almost falls. Her eyes roll up in her pretty head. Leah puts out a hand to steady her. Shar pushes it roughly aside.

  –Take my number. Please. I’ll write it on this. I work with, I’m connected to, a lot of charities, through work, you know, that could maybe . . .

  Leah pushes a crumpled envelope into Shar’s pocket. Shar puts her finger in Leah’s face.

  –Can’t take no more. Can’t take it.

  Leah watches her stumble over the peak and down.

  15.

  On the 98, a woman sits opposite with a baby girl on her lap. She presents a pack of illustrated cards to the child for the purposes of stimulation. Elephant. Mouse. Teacup. Sun. Meadow, with moo cows. The child is particularly stimulated by the card with a human face. It is the only card for which she reaches out, giggling. Clever Lucia! Her fat fingers claw at it. Then she reaches up to her mother’s face with the same violence. No, Lucia! The child threatens tears. Some things are people, explains her mother, and some things are images and some things are soft and some things are hard. Leah looks out the window. The rain is relentless. The planes are back in the sky. Work is work. Time has ceased being uncanny. It is just time again. She has taken some literature from work, from the literature cupboard. Professional organizations offering professional help. This is “as much as you can do.” Now it is time for the addict “to make their own decisions.” Because “nobody can force anyone else to get the help they need.” Everyone says the same things. Everyone says the same things in the same way. Leah gets off at Willesden Lane and starts walking quickly but the bus pulls up beside her and stalls. She has the lower deck as an audience as she doubles up over a hedge outside of a church. Vomit that is mostly water, indistinguishable from the rain. This church of her childhood, in which she was a Saturday Brownie, has been converted into luxury apartments, each with its own section of jaunty stained-glass window. Outside, a gathering of sporty little cars parked where once there was a small graveyard. The bus lumbers off in the direction of the high road. She straightens up, wipes her mouth with her scarf. Walks briskly with one hand gripping an inadequate umbrella and rain trickling down her right sleeve. Number 37. She flicks through the leaflets quickly like a good girl at a post-box checking the postage is sound before pushing them through.

  37

  She had hoped to find another method. Some old wives’ remedy that might be discreetly applied at home using everyday products from the bathroom cabinet. Anything else will be expensive. Anything else will show up on the joint account. On-line she finds only moralists and no practical advice at all besides the old horror stories from the pre-moral past: gin baths and hat pins. Who has hat pins? She is here instead, with an old credit card from college days. Strange place. No place. Could be a dentist, a chiropractor. Private medicine! Plush sofas, glass-topped coffee tables, privacy. No clipboard. No-one to ask:

  a) Is it your own decision to undertake the procedure?

  b) Do you have someone to take you home after the procedure?

  Here is a girl to ask whether she would like a glass of water, how she would like to pay. That is all. Money avoids relationship, obligation. It is quite different. Back then she was nineteen, the university nurse organized everything. She sat with a kind ex-lover in their summer skirts on the edge of the hospital bed, legs dangling, like little girls scolded, and the thing that interested them most was the workings of anesthetic.

  –It seemed like he held my wrist, said ten, nine, eight and the next second—the next second—was just now, was you kissing my forehead.

  –It’s been two and a half hours!

  In its way, a greater revelation than the confusing lectures on consciousness, on Descartes, on Berkeley.

  Ten nine eight. . . .

  It’s been two and a half hours!

  • • •

  No book could ever have convinced her as that day did. Ten nine eight . . . oblivion. Kind girl! It was more than she needed to do. One of the advantages of loving women, of being loved by women: they will always do things far beyond the call of duty. Ten nine eight. Back to life. Kiss on the forehead. And also a child’s transfer, half rubbed off, on the wall in front of her eyes. Tigger and Christopher Robin and Pooh, all missing their heads. Spare bed in the children’s ward? She remembers only ten nine eight—the painless death-rehearsal. A useful episode to recall in moments of mortal fear. (In small planes, in deep water.) That first time, she was two months gone. The second time, two months and three weeks. This is her third.

  The receptionist is limping across the room. Sprained ankle, grubby white bandage flapping. Leah flushes. She is ashamed before an imagined nobody who isn’t real and yet monitors our thoughts. She reprimands herself. Of course, all this was not a question of her own non-existence, of course, but rather of the non-existence of another. Of course. Yes, that’s what I meant, what I meant to think, of course. The sort of thing normal women think.

  –Mrs. Hanwell? In your own time.

  16.

  –Not relevant? What do you mean? How could you tell me that whole story and not mention the headscarf?

  Natalie laughs. Frank laughs. Michel laughs hardest. Slightly drunk. Not only on the Prosecco in his hand. On the grandeur of this Victorian house, the length of the garden, that he should know a barrister and a banker, that he should find funny the things they find funny. The children wheel manically round the garden, laughing because everyone else is. Leah looks down at Olive and strokes her ardently, until the dog is discomfited and slinks away. She looks up at her best fri
end, Natalie Blake, and hates her.

  –Leah . . . always trying to save somebody.

  –Isn’t that your job?

  –Defending someone is very different from saving them. Anyway, I mostly do commercial these days.

  Natalie crosses one bare leg over the other. Sleek ebony statuary. Tilts her head directly to the sun. Frank, too. They look like a king and queen in profile on an ancient coin. Leah must stick to the shade of something Frank calls the gazebo. The two women squint at each other across an expanse of well-kept lawn. They are annoying each other. They have been annoying each other all afternoon.

  –I keep bumping into her.

  –Naomi, stop doing that.

  –She was at school with us. It’s hard to believe.

  –Is it? Why? Naomi stop it. Come away from the barbecue. It’s fire, hot, come here.

  –Never mind.

  –Sorry, tell me again. I’m listening. Shar. Don’t remember the name at all. Maybe it was during our “break”? You were hanging with a load of people back then I never met.

  –No. I never knew her in school.

  –Naomi! I’m serious. Sorry—so, wait: what’s the issue?

  –No issue. Nothing.

  –It’s just in the scheme of things it’s not very . . .

  –“She said, trailing off.”

  –What? Naomi, come here!

  –Nothing.

  Frank comes over with the bottle, as expansive with Leah as his wife is brusque. His face is very close. He smells expensive. Leah leans back to let him pour.

  –Why is it that everyone from your school is a criminal crackhead?

  –Why’s everyone from yours a Tory minister?

  Frank smiles. He is handsome his shirt is perfect his trousers are perfect his children are perfect his wife is perfect this is a perfectly chilled glass of Prosecco. He says:

 
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