Nw by Zadie Smith


  Afterward, too, she could not instantly put herself back together. It is Michel who holds Olive in his arms, and thumps upon their own front door while Leah goes on not being able to discover which shopping bag contains the key.

  –Is she OK?

  –She’s fine. Unless she’s hurt inside. To me she looks fine. Shocked.

  –Are you OK?

  The answer is in his face. Humiliation. Fury. Of course, it’s harder for a man to be objective. They have the problem of pride.

  –Ned!

  –Guys, you OK?

  –Help Lee with those bags.

  They go into the kitchen and lay the beloved dog in its bed. She looks OK. Feed her? She eats. Throw a ball? She runs. Maybe she’s OK, but for the humans there is still too much adrenaline and trauma to move on. Leah tells Ned the story, purging it of any possible fury or humiliation. Michel the brave! Michel the defender! She puts a hand on her husband’s arm. He shrugs it off.

  –She pretended she was pregnant. He took pity on us! I was lying on the floor like an idiot.

  –No. You stopped it getting any worse than it needed to be.

  She puts a hand on his arm again. This time he lets her.

  –Do you think we should leave her tonight? I don’t know. Ned, could you keep an eye out? Call if there’s any problem? Or maybe we should just stay in. Cancel.

  It’s dinner, says Michel, I don’t think we can cancel. She’s OK. You’re OK, baby, aren’t you? You’re OK? The two humans look into the animal’s eyes for reassurance. Leah struggles to be objective. Wouldn’t one of the humans have said the word “vet” by now if they did not fear how much money saying “vet” would entail?

  22.

  Hanwell never gave dinner parties. Nor did he go out for dinner. That’s not true: on special occasions he took his little family to Vijay’s on Willesden Lane where they took a table near the door, ate quickly, and grew self-conscious of their conversation. Nothing in Leah’s childhood prepared her for the frequency with which she now attends dinner parties, most often at Natalie’s house, where she and Michel are invited to provide something like local color. Neither of them know what to say to barristers and bankers, to the occasional judge. Natalie cannot believe that they are shy. Each time she blames some error of placement but each time the awkwardness remains. They are shy, whether Natalie believes it or not. They have no gift for anecdote. They look down at their plates and cut their food with great care, letting Natalie tell their stories for them, nodding to confirm points of fact, names, times, places. Offered to the table for general dissection these anecdotes take on their own life, separate, impressive.

  –or just ran. I would have run like the bloody wind and left them to it. No offense, Michel. You’re very brave.

  –And then did you just both go your separate ways? “Thank you, I’ve been your potential murderer today, now I must be off . . .”

  –Ha!

  –“Got a rather full day of muggings to attend to with my pretend gun.”

  –Ha!

  –Can you pass that salsa thing? Do you think if you make a gun sign with your fingers that means you actually have a gun or that’s like basically your only gun? Recession bites everyone, I suppose . . . why should gangsters be immune? Look, I’ve got one, too. Brrrp!

  –Ha! Ha!

  –Wait, but, sorry—you’re pregnant?

  Twelve people at Nat’s long oak dining table stop talking and laughing and look at Leah caught wrestling the breast of a duck.

  –No.

  –No, it was just something she said, you know, to stop him.

  –Very brave. Quick thinking.

  Natalie’s version of Leah and Michel’s anecdote is over. The conversational baton passes to others, who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of the wider culture, debates in the newspapers. Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn’t care. The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots. Meanwhile parents have become old and ill at the very moment their children want to have their own babies. Many of the parents are immigrants—from Jamaica, from Ireland, from India, from China—and they can’t understand why they have not yet been invited to live with their children, as is the custom, in their countries. Technology is offered as a substitute for that impossible request. Stair lifts. Pacemakers. Hip replacements. Dialysis machines. But nothing satisfies them. They worked hard so we children might live like this. They “literally” will not be happy until they’ve moved into our houses. They can never move into our houses. Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam. Let me tell you about Islam. The thing about the trouble with Islam. Everyone is suddenly an expert on Islam. But what do you think, Samhita, yeah what do you think, Samhita, what’s your take on this? Samhita, the copyright lawyer. Pass the tuna. Solutions are passed across the table, strategies. Private wards. Private cinemas. Christmas abroad. A restaurant with only five tables in it. Security systems. Fences. The carriage of a 4x4 that lets you sit alone above traffic. There is a perfect isolation out there somewhere, you can get it, although it doesn’t come cheap. But Leah, someone is saying, but Leah, in the end, at the end of the day, don’t you just want to give your individual child the very best opportunities you can give them individually? Pass the green beans with shaved almonds. Define best. Pass the lemon tart. Whatever brings a child the greatest possibility of success. Pass the berries. Define success. Pass the crème fraîche. You think that the difference between you and me is that you want to give your child the best opportunities? Pass the dessert spoon. It’s the job of the hostess to smooth things over, to point out that these arguments are still hypothetical. Why argue over the unborn? All I know is I don’t want to push something the size of a watermelon out of something the size of a lemon. Nurse: bring on the drugs! Have you thought about doing it in water? Everyone says the same things in the same way. Conversations tinged with terror. Captive animals, contemplating a return to nature. Natalie is calm, having already traveled to the other side. Pass the laptop. You’ve got to see this, it’s only two minutes long, it’s hilarious.

  Water shortage. Food wars. Strain A-H5N1. Manhattan slips into the sea. England freezes. Iran presses the button. A tornado blows through Kensal Rise. There must be something attractive about the idea of apocalypse. Neighborhoods reduced to scavenging zones. Setting up schools in abandoned supermarkets and churches. New groupings, new connections, multiple partners, children free of all this dull protection. On every street corner music streaming out of giant jerry-rigged sound-systems. People moving in great anonymous crowds, leaderless, in wave formations, masked, looking for food, weaponry. “Steam rushing” Caldwell, on a Sunday, running down the halls in packs, ringing every bell. Those were the days. Weren’t they, Leah? Those were really the days. Pass the whisky. Because it’s a facile comparison: you can’t be responsible for a complex economic event in the same way you’re responsible for going out on the street with the intention to steal. Pass the coffee. It’s not any coffee, it’s extremely good coffee.

  –It’s just disappointing.

  –It’s so disappointing.

  –Especially when you’ve really gone out of your way to help somebody and they just throw it back in your face. That’s what I can’t stand. Like actually what happened with Leah—Lee tell them about the girl.

  –Sorry?

  –The girl in the headscarf. Who came to the door. It’s a really sad story. All right: I’ll tell it—

  It’s only when they have been kissed on both cheeks, when the heavy front door closes, when they are released once more into the night, that Leah and Michel come alive. But even this camaraderie of contempt can quick
ly fall apart. By the time they reach the mouth of the tube, Leah has somehow said too much, complained too much, and the delicate spirit level of their relation, their us-against-them, slips, and shows a crooked angle.

  –Don’t you think they’re as bored as you are? You think you’re somebody special? You think I wake up every day so happy to see you? You’re a snob, just in the other way. Do you think you are the only one who wants something else? Another life?

  They ride home in silence, infuriated. They walk through Willesden in silence. They come to the door in silence, both reaching for separate keys at the same time. They do comic battle at the keyhole, and Leah is the one to crack. By the time they are in the hallway they are laughing, and soon after, kissing. If only they could be alone all the time. If the world was just you and me, says Leah, we’d be happy all the time. You sound just like them, says Michel, and puts his tongue in his wife’s ear.

  The next morning, they arrive in the kitchen in mellow mood, in t-shirts and pants, sloping into the wide expanse of a Saturday morning. Leah goes to check the post. She sees her first. Innocent, beloved little animal, cold, not yet stiff, far from her bed, under the table in the box room, on her side. Bloody foam at her mouth. Michel! Michel! It won’t come out loud enough. Or he is in the garden, admiring the tree. The doorbell goes. It is Pauline. Olive’s dead! She’s dead! Oh my God! She’s dead! Where? Says Pauline. Show me. It’s the nurse in her. And when Michel comes and sees and is no less hysterical than Leah, Leah is surprised how grateful she is for her mother’s practical way of being in the world. Leah wants to cry and only to cry. Michel wants to go over and over the order of events. He wants to establish a timeline, as if this would change anything. Pauline wants to make sure the area under the table is made antiseptic and that the shoebox is buried at least one foot under the communal grass. No point asking the others, says Pauline—meaning the other occupants—they’ll only say no. Hurry up now, she says, try and pull yourselves together. We need to get this done. Have some tea. Calm down. She asks: did it not occur to you she didn’t bark when you came in?

  23.

  It could be said that one of Michel’s dreams has come true: they have gone up one rung, at least in the quality and elaboration of their fear. It is in Leah’s nature to blame Michel for this—their new wariness, the Chubb lock, the fact he now picks her up from the station, the way they cross the street to avoid “certain elements” and continually discuss moving out. Michel is longer at the computer, dreaming of a windfall that will transport them to another urban suburb more to his taste, which means more African, less Caribbean. To which Leah offers no comment. She is submerged, July is a lost month. She lets these little changes happen, up there, on the surface, while she walks on the bottom of the ocean. She is in terrible mourning. She is unfamiliar with the rules concerning the mourning of animals. For a cat: one week. For a dog, two will be tolerated, three is to begin to look absurd, especially in the office where—in the Caribbean spirit—all animals smaller than a donkey are considered vermin. She is mourning for her dog. She thinks the sadness will kill her. Spotting one of Olive’s many twins shuffling up the Edgware Road, suffering in the heat, she is overcome. At work, Adina squints at her puffy tear-stained face. Not still the dog. Still? And if it is indeed false consciousness, if the mourning is for something other than her dog, it can make no practical difference to the mourner: it is Olive that she knew, and Olive whom she misses. Leah has become the sort of crazy person who stops other dog owners in the street to tell them her tale of woe.

  Walking back from a training day in Harlesden she finds herself lost in the back streets. She takes a series of random left turns to keep moving, to lose a surely innocent hooded stranger, and then here is that strange little church again, tolling six o’clock. She goes in. Half an hour later she comes out. She does not tell Michel or anybody. She begins to do this most days. In late July, Michel insists: they must go forward. Leah agrees. They are placed on the NHS waiting list. But every morning, she locks the bathroom door and takes her little contraceptive pill. Stolen boxes from Natalie’s bathroom cabinet, hidden in a drawer. She doesn’t want to “go forward.” For Leah, that way is not forward. She wants just him and her forever.

  August comes.

  August comes.

  • • •

  Carnival! Girls from work, boys from the salon, old school friends, Michel’s cousins from south London, all walk the streets with a million others. Seeking out the good sound systems, winding their bodies close to complete strangers and each other, eating jerk, ending up in Meanwhile Gardens, stoned in the grass. Usually. Not this year. This year they finally accept Frank’s annual invitation to a friend of a friend’s with “an amazing carnival pad.” An Italian. They turn up early on the Sunday morning, as advised, to get there before the street is closed off. They feel a bit stupid, wandering around the empty flat of people they do not know. No sign of Frank or Nat. Michel goes to help in the kitchen. Leah accepts a rum and Coke and sits in a corner chair, looking out the window, watching the police lining up along the barricades. In the corner of the room a television talks. It talks for a long time before Leah notices it, and then only because it names a local road, one street from her own.

  –on Albert Road, in Kilburn, where yesterday evening hopes for a peaceful carnival weekend were marred by reports of a fatal stabbing, here, on the border of the carnival route through North West London, as people prepared for today’s festivities—

  • • •

  Albert Road! shouts Michel, from the kitchen. Leah shouts back:

  –YEAH BUT IT’S GOT NOTHING TO DO WITH CARNIVAL—IT WAS LAST NIGHT. IT’S JUST—

  Michel walks through the door.

  –it’s just typical sensational reporting. They want there to be—

  –Leah can I hear it please?

  The television says:

  –The young man, named locally as Felix Cooper, was 32 years old. He grew up in the notorious Garvey House project in Holloway, but had moved with his family to this relatively quiet corner of Kilburn, in search of a better life. Yet it was here, in Kilburn, that he was accosted by two youths early Saturday evening, moments from his own front door. It is not known if the victim knew—

  –He was murdered! Why does it matter where he grew up?

  I put music on now, says an Italian, and switches off the television. We need to move out, says Michel. I don’t want to move, it’s my home, says Leah. She accepts a kiss on her neck. No arguing, says Michel, OK? Let’s try and have a nice time. I’m not arguing, says Leah. OK, but you’re being naïve.

  In ill temper they separate. Leah goes up one floor, to a terrace. Michel returns to the kitchen. Now the flat fills very quickly. The doorbell rings continuously. It would be easier just to leave the front door open but the host is anxious to see each guest on the videophone before they come in. People stream into the party like soldiers into triage. It’s hell out there! I thought we weren’t going to make it. Everyone takes turns to stand on the white stucco balconies, dancing, blowing whistles painted in Rastafarian colors at the carnival crowds, far below. Very soon Leah is drunk. She started too early. She can’t find Michel. She spots Frank, not difficult to find in this crowd. They stand in the hall. The music is so loud, both outside and in, that information can only be passed sparingly. Nat’s coming later. She’s with the kids on one of Marcia’s church floats. Sausage roll?

  –So what’s the secret?

  –What?

  –OF YOUR HAPPINESS. FRANCESCO.

  –I CAN’T HEAR YOU. ARE YOU DRUNK?

  They move into the kitchen where the bass can’t find them. She repeats her query. We tell each other everything, he says. Punch?

  The kitchen is packed. She needs water. She tries to make her way to the taps. Clean cup or glass or mug? Fags and food in the plughole. Time has not stood still during this procedure. Frank
is lost. Michel is lost. Who are all these people? Why do they keep telling themselves what a good time they’re all having? No need to queue for the toilets, no accumulated street filth between the toes, no six pounds for a can of Red Stripe. See! I’ve been telling you all these years! Perfect spot. You can see everything from here. And suddenly there’s Nat, standing in the balcony alone, looking out. She turns. Frank is in the doorway. Leah is at a midpoint between them, unnoticed in the crowd. She sees the husband look at the wife, and the wife look at the husband. She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all. Bowls of disposable cameras in cheery colors are being distributed. The host encourages people to record the occasion. Everyone takes turns trying on the Rasta wig. Leah surprises herself: she has a great time.

  37.

  –What do you mean they’re not here? I dropped the camera in two hours ago. It’s a one-hour service.

  –I’m sorry, Madam, I can’t find anything under that name.

  –Hanwell, Leah. Please check again.

  Leah puts both hands on the pharmacy counter.

  –Are you sure it was today?

  –I don’t understand. Are you saying you’ve lost them? I was in two hours ago. Today. Monday. A man served me.

  –I have no record of the name you’re giving me. I just got here, Madam. Do you know who was serving you? Was it a young man or an older gentleman?

  –I don’t remember who served me. I know I came in here.

  –Madam, there’s another pharmacy at the station, are you sure it wasn’t that one?

  –Yes I’m sure. Hanwell, Leah. Can you look again?

 
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