N.W., p.28Zadie Smith
She turned and walked back in the direction of Caldwell. Walking was what she did now, walking was what she was. She was nothing more or less than the phenomenon of walking. She had no name, no biography, no characteristics. They had all fled into paradox. Certain physical memories remained. She could feel the puffiness of her skin beneath her eyes and the fact that her throat was sore from shouting and yelping. She had a mark on her wrist where she had been gripped tightly. She put her hand in her hair and knew it to be wild and everywhere and that in the midst of an argument she had ripped a bit out at the right temple. She reached Caldwell’s boundary wall. She walked the length of the back wall, looking down at the green verge that climbs from the low basin up to street level. She walked along the wall from one end to the other and back again. She seemed to be seeking some sign of perforation in the brick. She kept retracing the same area. She was lifting her knee to climb when a man’s voice called out for her.
Across the road and to her left. He stood beneath a horse chestnut tree with his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his hoodie.
Keisha Blake. Hold up.
He jogged across the road, fidgeting as he went: hands to nose, ears, the back of his neck.
You trying to break back in?
He jumped up on to the wall.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
Ain’t even going to ask me how I am though. That’s cold.
He crouched down and looked into her face.
You don’t look too good, Keisha. Reach for me.
Natalie crossed her wrists. Nathan looked at her shaking hands. He pulled her up. They jumped down to the other side together, landing lightly in the bushes. As he straightened up he looked over his shoulder at the street.
He scrabbled down through the scrub to the small grassy area where the residents park. He leant against an old car. Natalie made her way down more slowly, clinging to the woody parts of bushes, sliding in her slippers.
You don’t look too good at all.
I don’t know what I’m doing here.
Arguing with your mans, innit.
Yes. How –
You don’t look like you got no real problems. Come join me. I’m flying.
Now she noticed his pupils, huge and glassy, and so she tried to put herself in the old role. It would be something to replace this absence of sensation, this nothing. She placed a hand on his shoulder. The fabric of his hoodie was stiff, unclean.
He made a sound in the back of his throat like a gasp. It caught at some phlegm, and he coughed a long time.
It’s either Oy or give it up tonight. You heading to your mum’s?
Tried to get the tube at Kilburn. The road’s blocked off.
Is it. Come on, let’s walk. This ain’t the place I want to be right now. Spent nuff time in this place.
They stood in the centre of Caldwell’s basin. Five blocks connected by walkways and bridges and staircases, and lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built. Smith, Hobbes, Bentham, Locke, Russell. Here is the door, here is the window. And repeat, and repeat. Some of the residents had placed pretty pots of geraniums and African violets on their balconies. Others had their windows fixed with brown tape, grubby net curtains, no door number, no bell. Opposite, on the long concrete balcony that runs the length of Bentham, a fat white boy stood with a telescope on a stand, pointed down, into the car park instead of up at the moon. Nathan looked at him and stayed looking. The boy shrank the telescope, collected the stand under his arm and hurried indoors. The smell of weed was everywhere.
Long time, Keisha.
You got a cigarette?
Natalie put her hands on her body to demonstrate a lack of pockets.
Nathan stopped where he was and pulled a loose cigarette from his own back pocket. He split it down the middle with a long thumbnail, yellow and thick, with a wide crack running down its centre. Tobacco spilled into his hands. Dry black creases crossed both palms. He reached into his jeans and came back with a large packet of orange Rizlas and a little baggy, held between his teeth.
Which one was you again?
He nodded towards Russell.
Nathan got Natalie by the shoulders and moved her until she stood directly in front of him. There was some relief in becoming an object. Without making any errors she could serve as a useful buffer between the breeze and these two Rizlas being set carefully in an L construction.
Wait up one more minute. Oi: you crying?
Light passed over them and a mechanical roar; a helicopter flying low.
Come on, Keisha, now. Your man’s not that harsh. He’ll take you back.
People shouldn’t do a lot of things they do. OK, done.
He held out the joint, face upturned to the night sky.
No. I need to be clear in my head.
Don’t pretend you’re a nice girl, Keisha. I known you from time.
Know your family. Cheryl. Suit yourself.
He put the joint behind his ear.
Ain’t just weed in there you know. Few surprises in there. Try it.
We’ll go plot somewhere quiet. This is it now.
He started walking. Natalie followed. Walking was what she did now. As she walked she tried to place the people back there, in the house, into the present current of her thought. But her relation with each person was now unrecognizable to her and her imagination – due to a long process of neglect, almost as long as her life – did not have the generative power to muster an alternative future for itself. All she could envision was suburban shame, choking everything. She thought to the left and thought to the right but there was no exit. Though perhaps Jayden? Again, she stalled. Though perhaps Jayden what?
What time is it, Keisha?
I don’t know.
Should have gone from here time ago. Sometimes I don’t get myself. Who’s chaining me? No one. Should have gone Dalston. Too late now.
From behind a parked black taxi a boy of nine or so emerged, riding a bike without hands and with great slowness and skill. Trailing him were two more boys no older than six, and a girl of about four. They had the long faces and sloe-eyes Natalie thought of as Somalian, and their boredom was familiar to her, she remembered it. The girl kicked a dented can over and over. One of the boys had a long branch he held loosely in his hand, letting it collide with whatever got in its way. They glared as they passed, and spoke their language. The stick strayed into Nathan’s path. He only had to look at it for the boy to slowly raise it above their heads and away.
What are we doing? Nathan? What are we doing?
That’s where you want to go, right?
There is a connection between boredom and the desire for chaos.
Despite many disguises and bluffs perhaps she had never stopped wanting chaos.
Got any tunes, Keisha?
We should go back to your yard, get some tunes. LOCKE!
He shouted and pointed at it, as if by naming it he had brought the block into existence.
Keisha, name some Locke people.
Leah Hanwell. John-Michael. Tina Haynes. Rodney Banks.
The effort of naming made Natalie sit down exactly where she was.
She lay back and put her head on the ground until the moon was all she was looking at and all that she thought.
I seen Rodney – time ago, in Wembley. Got a dry cleaners there now. Done well. He’s safe, though, Rodney, still humble. He chatted with me. Some people act like they don’t know you. Get up, Keisha.
Natalie got up on her elbows to look at him. She had not lain on pavement in decades.
Come on, get up
For the second time tonight she crossed her wrists and felt herself lifted up as if she were barely there, almost nothing.
Leah. She was obsessed with you. Obsessed.
I seen her. Other things, though. Good with numbers.
I was, man! I was good! You remember. Most people don’t know me from then. You remember. Got them gold stars all day long.
You were good with everything. That’s how I remember it. You had a trial.
’Zackly. Queens Park Rangers. Everyone says they had a trial. I had a real trial.
I know you did. Your mum told my mum.
Bad tendons. I played on. No one told me. Lot of things would be different, Keisha. Lot of things. That’s how it is. That’s it. I don’t like to think about them days, to be truthful. At the end of the day I’m just out here on the street, grinding. Bustin’ a gut, day in day out. Tryna get paid. I done some bad things, Keisha, I’m not gonna lie. But you know that ain’t really me. You know me from back in the day.
He swiped at three beer cans and sent them clattering into the grass. They’d reached the end of nostalgia. Here the boundary wall had been partially destroyed – it looked like someone had torn it apart with their hands, brick by brick. They crossed the street, past the basketball court. Four shadowed figures stood in the far corner, the tips of their cigarettes glowing in the dark. Nathan raised a hand to the men. They raised a hand back.
Stop here. I’m gonna smoke this.
OK, me too.
He leant into the high iron gates of the cemetery, looking in. He took the pre-rolled from behind his ear and they passed the joint back and forth and blew smoke through the bars. The something else mixed in with the tobacco had a bitter taste. Natalie’s lower lip went numb. The top of her head came off. Her mouth grew rigid and slow. It became laborious to translate thought into sound or to know what thoughts could be made into sound.
Fall back fall back fall back. Keisha, fall back.
Natalie found herself nudged a few feet along by his shoulder until they were standing at the furthest point between two street lights. On the other side of the railings one spindly Victorian lamp post cast a weak glare over the flowerbeds. When Naomi was small Natalie had strapped her daughter to her chest and walked figure of eights in this cemetery, hoping the child would take her afternoon nap. Local people claimed Arthur Orton was buried in here somewhere. In all her figure of eights she never found him.
Let’s go in. I want to climb in.
Hold up. Keisha’s gone crazy.
Let’s go in. Come on. I’m not scared. What are you scared of? The dead?
Don’t know about duppies, Keisha. Don’t want to know about them.
Natalie tried to return the joint but Nathan directed it back to her mouth.
Why you even out here, Keisha? You should be home.
I’m not going home.
You got kids, Nathan?
There came a gentle whirring sound, growing louder, then a screech. A bike made a sharp-angled stop in front of them. A young man with messy cane rows, one trouser leg rolled up to the knee, leant his bike to one side, reached over and muttered into Nathan’s ear. Nathan listened for a moment, shook his head, stepped back.
Leave me, man. Too late.
The kid shrugged and put his foot to the pedal. Natalie watched the bike speed away past the old cinema.
It’s just a death sentence.
Kids. If they get born, they’re gonna die. So that’s what you’re giving them at the end of the day. See, that’s why I like talking to you, Keisha, you’re real. We always have deep talks you and me.
I wish we could have talked more often.
I’m on the street, Keisha. I had some bad luck. Novlene don’t tell people the truth. But I’m not going to lie. You can see. Here I am. What you see is what you get.
Natalie kept looking in the direction of the boy on the bike. She had picked up the habit of being embarrassed by other people’s bad luck.
I ran into Novlene, on the high road, a while back.
She tell you she don’t let me in the house no more? Bet she didn’t. Go on, Smart Keisha. Tell me something smart. You’re a lawyer now, innit.
Yes. Barrister. It doesn’t matter.
You got a wig on your head. Hammer in your hand.
No. It doesn’t matter.
Nah, but you did well. My mum loves up telling me about you. Smart Keisha. Oi, look at that fox! Slinking through.
He had a little torch on the end of his phone and he shone it through the bars. The end of an ugly tail – like a bent old brush – vanished behind an oak tree.
Sneaky animals. Foxes are everywhere. If you ask me, they run tings.
The fox was scrawny and seemed to be running sideways, over the gravestones. Nathan’s torch followed it as far as it could before the animal leapt into nothingness and disappeared.
How’d you get into that business?
Yeah. How’d you get into that?
I don’t know. It just happened.
You was always smart. You deserve it.
That doesn’t follow.
There he is again! They’re fast, them foxes!
I’ve got to go.
The strength went from Nathan’s legs. He wilted. First into the bars and then sideways into Natalie. She had not expected to be anybody else’s support. Together they slid down the bars to the ground.
Jesus – you need to stop smoking.
Keisha, stay and chat with me a bit. Chat to me, Keisha.
They stretched their legs out on the pavement.
People don’t chat to me no more. Look at me like they don’t know me. People I used to know, people I used to run with.
He put his hand flat on his chest.
Too much speed in this thing. Heart is running. That little chief.
Don’t know why I ever give him my time. This is on him. Always taking shit too far. How can I stop Tyler though? Tyler should stop Tyler. I shouldn’t even be chatting with you, I should be in Dalston, cos this isn’t even on me, it’s on him. But I’m looking at myself asking myself: Nathan, why you still here? Why you still here? And I don’t even know why. I ain’t even joking. I should just run from myself.
Calm down. Take long breaths.
Let me get myself straight, Keisha. Keep walking with me.
He slipped off his hood, took off his cap. At the nape of his neck there was a coin-sized blotch of white skin.
Come on, let’s move.
He was on his feet in a second. A red and blue light passed over the cemetery wall.
What about this?
Just drop it on the ground. Come on. Be speedy.
Shoot Up Hill to Fortune Green
Where Shoot Up Hill meets Kilburn High Road they stopped, in the forecourt of the tube station.
Nathan left Natalie by the ticket machines and walked in the direction of the flower shop. She waited until he was out of sight and then followed, stopping by the edge of the awning. He was in the doorway of the Chinese takeaway, talking with two girls, whispering with them. One in a short Lycra skirt and a hoodie, the other a small girl in a tracksuit with a headscarf that had fallen far back on her skull. The three of them stood huddled together. Something changed hands. Natalie watched him put a hand on the head of the smaller girl.
What did I just say? Don’t make me say shit twice.
I ain’t saying anything.
Good. Keep it that way.
Nathan stepped out of the doorway, spotted Natalie, groaned. The girls walked off in the opposite direction.
Who were those girls?
I know things. I used to be down the Bow Street cells every night.
That’s right, they do.
I know some things too, Keisha. I’m deep. You ain’t the only smart one round here.
I see that. Who are those girls?
Let’s go Shoot Up Hill, then cut across.
The street was longer and wider than ever. The houses and flats are set far back on that road, they look like hideouts, as if the people who live here still fear the highwaymen who gave the place its name. To Natalie it seemed impossible that they would ever get to the end of it.
You got money on you?
We could get two tins.
I don’t have anything on me, Nathan.
They walked for a time without speaking. Nathan kept close to the walls, never taking up the centre of the pavement. It struck Natalie that she was no longer crying or shaking, and that dread was the hardest emotion in the world to hold on to for more than a moment. She couldn’t resist this display of the textures of the world: white stone, green turf, red rust, grey slate, brown shit. It was almost pleasant, strolling to nowhere. They crossed over, Natalie Blake and Nathan Bogle, and kept climbing, past the narrow red mansion flats, up into money. The world of council flats lay far behind them, at the bottom of the hill. Victorian houses began to appear, only a few at first, then multiplying. Fresh gravel in the drives, white wooden blinds in the windows. Estate agent’s hoarding strapped to the front gate.
Some of these houses are worth twenty times what they were worth a decade ago. Thirty times.
They walked on. At intervals along the pavement the council had planted an optimistic line of plane trees, little saplings protected by a coil of plastic round their trunks. One had already been pulled up at the roots and another snapped in half.
N.W. by Zadie Smith / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes