Nw by Zadie Smith

  –Parish founded in 938 . . . nothing of the original church remains . . . present church dates from around 1315 . . . Cromwellian bullet holes in the door, original . . .

  Naomi runs ahead and climbs the font (c. 1150, Purbeck marble). Leah tries to escape the aural range of Natalie’s lecture. The service ends: the parishioners begin to file out. In the doorway, the young vicar attempts to engage them. He holds a hand to his doughy waist like a nervous old woman, a flop of brown hair falls across one temple. He has a face that hopes to please but cannot owing to chinlessness. He is as he would have been in 1920 or 1880 or 1660. He is the same, but his congregation is different. Polish, Indian, African, Caribbean. The adults sharply dressed in shiny suits and clinging dresses from the market. The boys wear three-piece pinstripe, the girls clutch tiny Spanish shawls, their hair elaborately pressed and kiss-curled. The congregation pity the vicar, who is full of gentle suggestions. Let’s see if we can start on time next week. Anything you can spare. Anything at all. They smile and nod, not taking him too seriously. The vicar, too, is not listening to himself. He is intent on Leah, seeking her over the heads of his fleeing flock. Light streams in from the east. Leah moves that way instinctively, toward a monument in black and white marble hung upon the wall from which she learns that IT WAS HER HAPPINESS TO MAKE HIM YE JOYFUL FATHER OF 10 SONS & 7 DAUGHTERS AND IT IS HER PIETIE TO DEDICATE THIS MONUMENT TO YE PRESERVATION OF HIS MEMORY. HE DIED IN YE 48 YEAR OF HIS AGE. MARCH YE 24 1647. Nothing further is said of Her. Leah is drawn to put her fingers to the letters to measure their coolness. But Natalie says better not to, she says Spike don’t splash the holy water WOW the same sculptor fashioned the tomb of ELIZABETH 1ST no darling not that one she was a queen darling from LONG AGO no darling from before then even but did you know it was once W I L S D O N meaning well meaning spring at the foot of a hill which is where this water’s coming from I SAID STOP SPLASHING. Leah is suddenly so thirsty, she is made of thirst, she is only thirst. She kneels to examine the tap, reads the sign. Not Potable. Holy, but not potable.


  –No, not Mummy. This is somebody else. “Thought to be more powerful than the traditional Madonna, she has miraculous powers, including: the gift of serendipity, restoring lost memories, resuscitating dead babies . . .” Marcia would love this—sometimes people see visions of her in the churchyard. Marcia’s always having visions. Usually of white Madonnas, though, with blond hair and nice blouses from M & S. . . .

  How did she walk past it? At her back a Madonna, fashioned of jet limewood. The Madonna holds a mammoth baby in swaddling clothes. The Christ Child it says on the sign, his arms stretched out at either side, his hands big with blessing it says on the sign, but to Leah there seems no blessing in it. It looks more like accusation. The baby is cruciform; he is the shape of the thing that will destroy him. He reaches out for Leah. He reaches out to stop any escape, to the right or to the left.

  –“becoming the famous shrine of Our Lady of Willesden, “The Black Madonna,” destroyed in the reformation and burned, along with the ladies of Walshingham, Ipswich and Worcester—by the Lord Privy Seal.” Also a Cromwell. Different Cromwell? Doesn’t say. This is where decent history GCSE level teaching would have come in helpful. . . . “was shrine here since—” wait is this the original then? 1200s? Can’t be. Very craply written, not clear which—NAOMI COME AWAY FROM


  “How have you lived your whole life in these streets and never known me? How long did you think you could avoid me? What made you think you were exempt? Don’t you know that I have been here as long as people cried out for help? Hear me: I am not like those mealy-mouthed pale Madonnas, those simpering virgins! I am older than this place! Older even than the faith that takes my name in vain! Spirit of these beech woods and phone boxes, hedgerows and lampposts, freshwater springs and tube stations, ancient yews and one-stop-shops, grazing land and 3D multiplexes. Unruly England of the real life, the animal life! Of the old church, of the new, of a time before churches. Are you feeling hot? Is it all too much? Did you hope for something else? Were you misinformed? Was there more to it than that? Or less? If we give it a different name will the weightless sensation disappear? Are your knees going? Who are you? Would you like a glass of water? Is the sky falling? Could things have been differently arranged, in a different order, in a different place?”


  –Oh, I used to faint a lot. A lot! They thought it was a sign of a delicate constitution, sensitive, a bit artistic. But everyone went into the nursing or secretarial back then, you see. That’s simply how it was. We didn’t have the opportunities.

  –It was just hot.

  –Because you had a lot of potential, no, listen, you did: piano, the recorder, the dancing, the thing with the . . . the . . . what’s its name now, oh you know—sculpting—you liked the sculpting for a while, and the violin, you were a wonder on the violin, and lots of little things like that.

  –I brought one pot home from school. I played the violin for a month.

  –We made sure you had all the lessons, fifty pee here, fifty pee there, it all adds up! And we didn’t always have it! That was your father—God rest him—he didn’t want you to grow up feeling poor, even though we were poor. But you never really settled on the one thing, that’s what I mean. This lawn needs watering.

  Pauline stoops down suddenly, coming up with a handful of grass and earth.

  –London clay. Very dry. Of course, you girls do everything differently now. You wait and wait and wait. Though what you’re waiting for I don’t know.

  Almost purple with the effort, the bowl of white hair damp and flat round her face. Mothers are urgently trying to tell something to their daughters, and this urgency is precisely what repels their daughters, forcing them to turn away. Mothers are left stranded, madly holding a lump of London clay, some grass, some white tubers, a dandelion, a fat worm passing the world through itself.

  –Eugh. Probably put the mud down now, Mum.

  • • •

  They sit together on a park bench Michel discovered some years ago. Somebody had left it in the middle of the road, up at Cricklewood Broadway. Calm as you like! Just sitting there in traffic! It looked like it had grown out of the tarmac. All other cars swerved to avoid it. Michel stopped the Mini Metro, put the seats down flat, opened the boot and wedged it in, with Pauline adding an unhelpful hand, to a chorus of car horns. When they got it home they found it had the seal of the Royal Parks upon it. Pauline calls it the throne. Let us sit on the throne for a wee while.

  –It was the heat. Olive, come here, baby.

  –Not near me! I don’t want my eyes going up! That’s my grandchild, there. Only one I’m likely to get if things go on the way they are. I’m allergic to my own grandchild.

  –Mum, enough!

  They sit on the throne in silence, staring out in different directions. The problem seems to be two different conceptions of time. She knows the pull of her animal nature should, by now, be making the decisions. Perhaps she’s been a city fox too long. Every new arrival—the announcements seem to come now every day—feels like a terrible betrayal. Why won’t everybody stay still? She has forced a stillness in herself, but it has not stopped the world from continuing on. And then the things that happen only serve to horribly close down the possibilities of all the other things that didn’t happen, and so number 37, and so the door opening at the moment that she stands there, her hand full of leaflets, and Shar saying: put those down, take my hand. Shall we run? Are you ready? Shall we run? Leave all this! Let’s be outlaws! Sleeping in hedgerows. Following the railway line till it reaches the sea. Waking up with that long black hair in her eyes, in her mouth. Phoning home from fantasy boxes that still take the old 2 pees. We’re fine, don’t worry. I want to stay still and to keep moving. I want this life and another. Don’t look for me!

  –and just trying to he
lp, but I’ll get no thanks for it. I can’t tell if you’re even listening to me. Anyway. It’s your life.

  –What d’you want with a shrine anyway?

  –What d’you mean by that, a shrine? Her Ladyship? Oh, I don’t bother myself about her. She’s perfectly harmless. It’s says Anglican on the door and it’s been Anglican for a thousand years. That’s good enough for me. People from the colonies, and the Russiany lot, they’re superstitious, and who can blame them? They’ve had a terrible time. Who am I to deprive a person of their comforts?

  Pauline looks pointedly toward their old estate, full of people from the colonies and the Russiany lot. Today, as it has been almost all days since the sun began, the foghorn girl is out, locked in debate with whoever is on the end of her handless device. You disrespecting me? Don’t disrespect me! Whatever else is to be said of her, she is of unmistakable Irish descent. Short criminal forehead, widely set eyes. There is a special contempt Pauline reserves for the fallen members of her own tribe.

  –Not even the virgin could help the likes of her. Well, hello Edward, dear!

  –All right there Mrs. H!

  –Oh, it’s good to see you, Ned. How are you love? You’re looking well, considering. Not still smoking the dope, I hope.

  –’Fraid so, ’fraid so. I like the flavor.

  –It’ll rob you of your ambition.

  –I’ve only got the one ambition anyway.

  –And what would that be?

  –Marrying you, of course. Can’t rob me of that now can it?

  –Oh go on with you.

  Quite happy, really quite happy, and the sun thins out and purples and arranges itself in strips behind the aquamarine of the minaret and what breeze there is ripples the flag of St. George, on top of the old estate, hung from a satellite dish in preparation for the football. Maybe it doesn’t matter that life never blossomed into something larger than itself. Moored to the shore she set out from, as almost all women were, once.

  –Leah love, that’s your phone.

  Look at that: the fence on the right side almost completely done for. The ivy from the estate invades the gaps and smothers anything Michel tries to grow, apart from the apple tree itself, which grows despite them all, unaided. She writes to the council, they don’t listen, Ned never writes, nor Gloria, they live communally but she is the only one who thinks communally and oh Christ that poor homeless worm livid in the sun. Like foreskin moving forward and back, forward and back, over itself. Nobody loves me everybody hates me because I’m a wriggly worm. But who is this

  this voice

  so quiet

  and so violent, right in her ear, and she thinks she must have misheard, she thinks she must be going crazy, she thinks

  –Excuse me?

  –You hear me? Don’t be coming round this place.

  –Excuse me? How did you get this number?

  –That girl is my business. Don’t be coming round this place pushing shit through the door, you hear me? Watch for me. I know you. You come here again you best watch for me.

  –Who is this?

  –Fuckin dyke cunt.

  The worm grinds its middle together, having nothing else. Flagstone to the left of it, flagstone to the right.

  –and then in Poundland the very same box—same brand, mind—is only two forty-nine! But if you shop in these places you’re simply a fool to yourself, and that’s all there is to be said. Leah love? Leah? Leah? Who was that? On the phone? You feeling all right?


  A wife’s honor must be defended. It is a primal thing, he explains, referencing the great apes in a documentary. As female ape defends baby ape so male ape protects his female. Michel is very happy in his anger, they are drawn together under its canopy. It is the nicest time they’ve had together in months. She sits at the kitchen table clutching herself while he walks up and down waving his arms in the air like a great ape. She is a good ape, too; she wants to contribute to the greater happiness of her ape family. It is this perfectly decent desire that makes her say:

  –I think so. I think it was him. It’s hard to tell from a voice. Look, it’s almost twenty years since I knew him at all well. But I would say: yes. If you’re asking me for a hundred percent, then no, I can’t say it like that but my first thought was yes that’s him, that’s Nathan.

  So little happens in this corner of NW. When there is a drama it’s natural enough that one should want to place oneself in the picture, right at the center. It sounded like him. It really did. She tells Michel. She tells Michel all of it bar one word.


  On the way back from the chain supermarket where they shop, though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.

  They are not good people. They do not even have the integrity to be the sort of people who don’t worry about being good people. They worry all the time. They are stuck in the middle again. They buy always Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay because these are the only words they know that relate to wine. They are attending a dinner party and for this you need to bring a bottle of wine. This much they have learned. They do not purchase ethical things because they can’t afford them Michel claims and Leah says, no, it’s because you can’t be bothered. Privately she thinks: you want to be rich like them but you can’t be bothered with their morals, whereas I am more interested in their morals than their money, and this thought, this opposition, makes her feel good. Marriage as the art of invidious comparison. And shit that’s him in the phone box and if she had thought about it for more than a split second she would never have said:

  –Shit that’s him in the phone box.

  –That’s him?

  –Yes, but—no, I don’t know. No. I thought. Doesn’t matter. Forget it.

  –Leah, you just said it was him. Is it or isn’t it?

  Very quickly Michel is out of earshot and over there, squaring up for another invidious comparison: his compact, well-proportioned dancer’s frame against a tall muscled threat, who turns, and turns out not to be Nathan, who is surely the other boy she saw with Shar, though maybe not. The cap, the hooded top, the low jeans, it’s a uniform—they look the same. From where Leah stands anyway it is still all dumb show, hand gestures and primal frowns, and of course some awful potential news story that explains everything except the misery and the particulars: one youth knifed another youth, on Kilburn High Road. They had names and ages and it’s terribly sad, an indictment of something or another and also not good for house prices. Leah cannot breathe for fear. She is running to catch up, Olive clattering along beside her, and while she runs she finds herself noticing something that should not matter: she looks older than both of them. The boy is a boy and Michel is a man but they look the same age.

  –I don’t know what you’re chattin about bruv but you BEST NOT STEP TO ME.

  –Michel—please. Leave it, please.

  –Tell your mans to step back off me.

  –Don’t call my house again, OK? Leave my wife alone! You understand me?

  –What the fuck are you chattin’ about? You want some?

  They bump chests like primates; Michel is knocked back in an ignoble stumble to the pavement, landing next to his ridiculous dog, who licks him in his ear. Now his opponent towers over him and draws his foot back, preparing for a penalty kick. Leah inserts herself between the two of them, stretching out her hands to separate them, an imploring woman in an ancient story.

  –Michel! Stop it! It’s not him. Please—this is my husband, he’s confused, please don’t hurt him, please leave us alone, please.

  The foot, indifferent, draws further back, for greater range. Leah begins to cry. In the corner of her eye she observes a young white coup
le in suits crossing the road to avoid them. No one will help. She puts her hands together in prayer.

  –Please leave him alone, please. I’m pregnant—please leave us alone.

  The foot retreats. A hand looms over Michel as he struggles to his feet, a hand in the shape of a gun, pointed at his head.

  –Step to me again—brrp brrp!—you’ll be gone.

  –Fuck you. OK? I’m not scared of you!

  In a blink the foot is drawn back once more and released into Olive’s belly. She is propelled several yards into the doorway of the sweetshop. She makes a noise Leah has never heard before.


  –You’re lucky your gal came for you bruv. Otherwise.

  He is already half way across the road, shouting over his shoulder.

  –Otherwise what? You fucking coward! You kick my dog! I’ll call the police!

  –MICHEL. Don’t make it worse.

  She has a hand to his chest. To any bystander it would appear that she is holding him back. Only she knows that he is not really trying to push her away. In this way the two men part, abusing each other roundly as they go, playing with the idea that they are not finished, that any moment they might turn back and set upon each other. It is only more make-believe: the presence of a woman has released them from their obligation.


  Leah believes in objectivity. She is a little calmer now, they are almost home. Who was that woman at the moment of crisis, screaming and weeping, begging on her knees in the street? Silly to admit it, but she had thought of herself as “brave.” A fighter. Now she is introduced to a deal-maker, a pleader, a tactical liar. Please don’t destroy the thing I love! And her petition had been heard, and a lesser sacrifice made in its place, and in the moment she was simply, pathetically grateful for the concession.

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