N.W., p.20Zadie Smith
80. Ideology in popular entertainment
In case anyone was in danger of forgetting, the most popular TV show in the world pressed the point home, five times a week.
81. The unconsoled (Leah’s sixth visit)
‘Oh Jesus I just saw Rodney in Sainsbury’s!’ said Leah, distraught, dropping two shopping bags on the table. ‘I looked in his basket. He had a meat pie and two cans of ginger beer and a bottle of that hot sauce you put on everything. I came up behind him in the queue, and he pretended he’d forgotten something and hurried off. But then I saw him a few minutes later at a far-end queue and he had exactly the same four items.’
82. Milk round
A festive, chaotic scene, as well attended as the Freshers’ Fair, although this time the banners were not home-made, and instead of Tolkien societies and choral clubs they had printed upon them the melodic names of law firms and the familiar names of banks. Girls in cheerleader outfits bearing the logo of a management consulting firm went round the room giving out little pots of ice cream and cans of energy drinks. Natalie Blake twisted the can in her hand to read the tag that ran round it. Claim Your Future. She dug into the ice cream with a little blond-wood panel, and watched the green balloons of a German bank slip from their tethers and float slowly up to the ceiling. She heard Rodney’s voice coming from somewhere. He was three tables along, sitting with monstrous keenness on the very edge of a plastic chair. Opposite him, an amused man in a suit and tie made notes on a clipboard.
83. Mixed metaphors
A year and a half later, when everyone had returned or else moved to London and Natalie was studying for the bar, Rodney Banks sent a letter c/o Marcia Blake that began: ‘Keisha, you talk about following your heart, but weird how your heart always seems to know which side its bread is buttered.’ Frank De Angelis took this letter from Natalie Blake and kissed the side of her head. ‘Poor old Rodney. He’s not still trying to become a lawyer, is he?’
A television advert for the army. A group of soldiers leap from a low helicopter to the ground. Chaotic camerawork: we’re to understand these men are under attack. They run through a harsh landscape of wind and dust, through a clearing, emerging at the edge of a chasm. The wooden bridge they hoped would take them across is half destroyed. The broken slats tumble into the ravine below. The soldiers look at the ravine, at each other, at the heavy packs they carry.
85. Lincoln’s Inn
A crowd of new arrivals in evening wear sat watching this advert, slouched over chairs and sofas, making boisterous conversation. Natalie Blake was a new arrival too, but more shy. She stood at the back of the rec room, trying to busy herself at the refreshments table. Now some text appeared, branded with hot irons into the screen. It was accompanied by the voice of a drill sergeant:
IF YOU’RE THINKING: HOW DO I GET ACROSS, THE ARMY’S NOT FOR YOU.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: HOW DO WE GET ACROSS, GIVE US A CALL.
‘I’m thinking: how are you getting across?’
He was pointing at the television and all around him people were laughing. She recognized his voice at once, its louche trace of Milan.
The dreadlocks were gone. His dinner jacket was simple, elegant. A starched pink handkerchief peeked out of the top pocket and his socks were brightly clocked with diamonds. His Nike were slightly outrageous and box fresh. He no longer seemed strange. (Any number of rappers now dressed like this. Money was the fashion.)
87. The first Sponsorship Night dinner of the Michaelmas term
Natalie Blake was ‘captain’ of her section. She was unsure what this meant. She stood behind her dining chair at the appointed table and waited for her sponsor, a Dr Singh. She looked up at the vaulted ceiling. A white girl in a satin gown came and stood next to her. ‘Lovely, isn’t it? That majestical roof fretted with golden fire! Hello, I’m Polly. I’m in your team.’ Next to Polly came a boy called Jonathan, who said that ‘captain’ only meant the food was served to the left of you. Portraits of the venerable dead. Heavy silverware. Fish forks. The Benchers filed into hall in their black flapping gowns and bowed. A Latin grace began. Bored, contented voices repeated alien words.
88. The invention of love: part two
Natalie Blake flattened her thick linen napkin over her lap and spotted Frank De Angelis running late, moving towards her table, spotting her. He looked devastating; more like Orfeu than ever. She was flattered by his reaction: ‘Blake? You look great! It’s great to see you. O Captain! my Captain …’ He did a little bow and sat down extremely close, thigh to thigh, examined the menu card, made a face. ‘Cottage pie. I miss Italy.’ ‘Oh, you’ll survive.’ ‘You two already know each other?’ asked Polly. And there was indeed something intimate about the way they spoke to each other, heads close, looking out across the room. Natalie fell so easily into the role, she had to remind herself that this intimacy had not existed before tonight. It was being manufactured at this present moment, along with its history.
The bad wine flowed. An ancient judge rose to give a speech. His eyebrows sprang owlishly from his head, and he did not neglect to mention Twelfth Night’s first performance or paint a bloody picture of marauding peasants burning law books: ‘… and if we look to Oman’s translation of the Anonimalle Chronicle, we find, I’m afraid, a somewhat dispiriting portrait of the profession … For, upon being cornered in our own Temple Church, our not-so-noble predecessors did little to deter the angry mob. If I may quote: It was marvellous to see how even the most aged and infirm of them scrambled off, with the agility of rats or evil spirits … These days I can reassure you that beheading – in London at least!C – is gratifyingly rare, and abuse of lawyers generally limited to …’ Natalie was enthralled. The idea that her own existence might be linked to people living six hundred years past! No longer an accidental guest at the table – as she had always understood herself to be – but a host, with other hosts, continuing a tradition. ‘And so it falls to you,’ said the judge, and Frank looked over at Natalie, trying to catch her eye and yawning comically. Natalie folded her arms more firmly on the table and turned her head towards the judge. As soon as she’d done it, she felt it was a betrayal. But who was Frank De Angelis to her? And yet. She looked back at him and raised her eyebrows very slightly. He winked.
89. Time slows down
A Polish waitress moved discreetly round the table, seeking the vegetarians. Frank spoke, a lot, and indiscriminately, lurching from topic to topic. Where she had once seen only obnoxious entitlement Natalie now saw anxiety running straight and true beneath everything. Was it possible she made him nervous? Yet all she was doing was sitting here quietly, looking at her plate. ‘Your hair’s different. Real? That your butter? Have you seen James Percy? Tenant, now. On the first try. You look good, Blake. You look great. Honestly, I thought you’d be gone by the time I got here. What have you been doing for a year? Here’s my confession through a mouthful of bread: I’ve been skiing. Listen, I also fitted in the law conversion. I’m not totally the waste of space you think I am.’ ‘I don’t think you’re a waste of space.’ ‘Yes, you do. No, I’ll have the beef, please. But what’s up with you?’ Natalie Blake had not been skiing. She’d been working in a shoe shop in Brent Cross shopping centre, saving money, living with her parents in Caldwell, and dreaming of winning the Mansfield scholarship, which had actually –
An apologetic Dr Singh materialized, displacing the turbaned worthy of Natalie’s imagination with a petite shaven-headed woman in her thirties, a purple sink blouse peeping out from between the folds of her gown. She sat down. The judge finished. The applause sounded like braying.
90. Difficulties with context
Natalie Blake turned from flirting with Francesco De Angelis to listing all her academic achievements to Dr Singh. Dr Singh looked tired. She poured some water into Natalie’s glass. ‘And what do you do for fun?’ Frank leant over. ‘No time for fun – sista’s a slave to the wage.’ Surely meant as a j
‘We have a very effective diversity scheme here,’ said Dr Singh primly, and turned to speak to the blonde girl on her left.
91. Wednesday, 12.45 p.m.: advocacy
Four students and an instructor took their places at the top of the classroom. Appellant and respondent were given Happy Family names: Mr Fortune the Money Launderer, Mr Torch the Arsonist. At this point Natalie Blake was forced to leave the room and seek out the toilets, to deal with her hair. The weather was unseasonably warm, she had not planned for it. Sweat leaked from the roots of her weave, fuzzing it up, and the more she thought about this the more it happened. Ambitious though she was,Cshe was still an NW girl at heart and could not ignore the coming crisis. She hurried down the hall. In the toilets she filled the sink with cold water, held her hair back and put her face in it. By the time she returned the only free seat was next to Francesco De Angelis. Had he kept it for her? The invention of love: part three. As she sat down, sheCfelt his hand on her knee. Above the table he passed her a pencil.
‘Sorry about the other night, Blake. Sometimes I’m an idiot. Often.’
This was a phenomenon previously unknown to Natalie Blake: a man spontaneously recognizing an error and apologizing for it. Much later in their lives it occurred to Natalie Blake that her husband’s candour might be only another consequence of his unusual privilege. But this afternoon she was simply disarmed by it, and grateful.
‘Best be quick, you’ve missed a load.’ He began whispering the Agreed Facts in her ear, over-confidently and with enough bluff and extraneous commentary that she had to edit him in real time as she scribbled the information down, making bullet points of the grounds for appeal. ‘And now here comes the Junior Counsel. That’s it – you’re up to date.’ The Junior Counsel rose. Natalie turned to look at Frank in profile. He was really the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Broad, imposing. His eyes a shade lighter than his skin. She turned back to examine the Junior Counsel. He looked pre-pubescent. His presentation was awkward; he barely moved his eyes from a thick sheaf of A4 paper and twice called the female instructor ‘Your Lordship’.
‘Where are we? Why am I here?’
‘Marylebone. London doesn’t begin and end on the Kilburn High Road.’
‘I’ve got my room in the Inn.’ ‘Mary’s argument.’
‘Frank, take me back. I don’t know where I am.’
‘Good to be uncertain sometimes.’
‘We’ve got moot in the morning. Mate, that food was so bad. And too much wine. You go home, too.’
‘I am home. I live just here.’
‘No one lives here.’
‘O ye of little faith. It’s my grandmother’s. Why don’t you just try to enjoy yourself for once?’
The only thing in the fridge was a large pink box from Fortnum & Mason. Inside were four rows of macaroons, in tasteful pastel shades. Natalie Blake brought these over to where Frank sat, shipwrecked on the kitchen ‘island’. White space in all directions. He took the box from her and put his hands on her shoulders.
‘Blake, try to relax.’
‘Can’t relax in a yard like this.’
‘I’m so hungry. That food was nasty. Feed me.’
He carried her upstairs, past paintings and lithographs, family photographs and a fainting couch in the hall. They went into a little attic room at the very top of the flat. The bed sat right under the eaves; she kept knocking her elbow against a bookshelf. Law tomes, Tolkien, a lot of Eighties horror paperbacks, memoirs of businessmen and politicians. She spotted a solitary friend, The Fire Next Time.
‘You read this?’
‘I think he knew my grandmother in Paris.’
‘It’s a good book.’
‘I’ll believe you, Junior Counsel.’
94. The pleasures of naming
Perhaps sex isn’t of the body at all. Perhaps it is a function of language. The gestures themselves are limited – there are only so many places for so many things to go – and Rodney was in no way deficient technically. He was silent. Whereas all Frank’s silly, uncontrolled, unselfconscious, embarrassing storytelling found its purpose here, in a bedroom.
‘He was from Trinidad, he lived in south London, he worked for the trains. She says “driver” for effect – not true. A guard. Later he worked in an office somewhere. She met him in a park. I never knew him. Harris. Really I should be “Frank Harris”. He’s dead. That’s it.’
Even naked he blustered. Natalie Blake manoeuvred until she was on top and looked into his eyes. Boyish expressions of vulnerability, pride and fear were all still perfectly visible in the adult face. It was of course these qualities that compelled her. ‘Back to Milan pregnant with me. It was the Seventies. Then Puglia. Then England for school. It’s not a problem, it was a great way to grow up. I loved my school.’ An only child. A storied family, rich though not as rich as they once were. ‘Once upon a time every decent family in Italy had a De Angelis gas oven …’ No one had known what to do with his hair. No spoken English. Dangerously pretty. Eight years old.
96. The sole author
‘But you’re making me sound like a victim, my point is I had a very good time, these were just small things, I don’t really know why we’re even talking about them. All your questions are leading. Rare Negroid Italian has happy childhood, learns Latin, the end. Then nothing very interesting happens between 1987 and tonight.’ He kissed her extravagantly. Perhaps she would always look after him, help him become a real person. After all, she was strong! Even relative weakness in Caldwell translated to impressive strength in the world. The world asked so much less of a person and was of simpler construction.
97. Nota bene
Natalie did not stop to wonder whether Frank’s boarding school might have done the same job for him.
98. Sixth-month anniversary
‘Frank, I’m going downstairs, I can’t work with the telly on. Can I take Smith and Hogan?’
‘Yeah, and burn it.’
‘How are you going to pass this exam?’
‘What is that?’
‘MTV Base. Music videos are the only joyful modern art form. Look at that joy.’
He reached forward on the bed and put his finger over a dancing B-girl in a white shell suit. ‘I was in Puglia when he died. Nobody understood. Some fat gangster? Who cares? This was the attitude. It’s not even music as far as they’re concerned.’
Everything he said sounded wonderful. He only lacked what the Italians call forza, which Natalie Blake herself would provide (see above).
99. Frank seeks Leah
The sun pierced through the blinds in long shadows. Natalie Blake stood in the doorway of the lounge, nervous, holding a tumbler of vodka, ready to smooth over any rupture. Leah and Frank sat side by side on his grandmother’s Chesterfield. Natalie could see how Leah had grown into herself. No longer gangly: tall. No longer ginger: ‘auburn’. The experimental period had ended. Denim skirt, hoodie, furry boots, a thick gold hoop in each ear. Back to her roots. Natalie Blake watched her boyfriend Frank De Angelis cut out crooked white lines on a glass-t
‘Here’s something that interests me: you girls – you like your Eurotrash brothers. But isn’t it true? It’s a strange coincidence. There aren’t that many of us. Is it a competition?’
‘Look, mate: you’re Eurotrash. He’s from Guadeloupe! His dad was in the underground resistance movement thing – basically, he went on the run, the whole family had to. His dad’s a school janitor in Marseilles now. His mum’s Algerian. She can’t read or write.’
Frank dipped his head and made his mouth into a comic moue.
‘Points to Hanwell. He certainly sounds like the salt of the earth.
Child-of-a-freedom-fighter. I am forced to cede the moral high ground. I am decidedly not the salt of the earth.’
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