N.W. Read online
By the same author
The Autograph Man
The Book of Other People (editor)
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
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Published in Hamish Hamilton hardcover by Penguin Canada, 2012.
Simultaneously published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books.
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Copyright © Zadie Smith, 2012
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When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line – write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement float. Fenced in, on all sides.
Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Nah it ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red.
I am the sole
I am the sole author
Pencil leaves no mark on magazine pages. Somewhere she has read that the gloss gives you cancer. Everyone knows it shouldn’t be this hot. Shrivelled blossom and bitter little apples. Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year. Don’t you bloody start! Look up: the girl’s burnt paunch rests on the railing. Here’s what Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century. Cruel opinion – she doesn’t share it. In marriage not everything is shared. Yellow sun high in the sky. Blue cross on a white stick, clear, definitive. What to do? Michel is at work. He is still at work.
I am the
Ash drifts into the garden below, then comes the butt, then the box.
Louder than the birds and the trains and the traffic. Sole sign of sanity: a tiny device tucked in her ear. I told im stop takin liberties. Where’s my cheque? And she’s in my face chattin breeze. Fuckin liberty.
I am the sole. The sole. The sole
She unfurls her fist, lets the pencil roll. Takes her liberty. Nothing else to listen to but this bloody girl. At least with eyes closed there is something else to see. Viscous black specks. Darting water boatmen, zigzagging. Zig. Zag. Red river? Molten lake in hell? The hammock tips. The papers flop to the ground. World events and property and film and music lie in the grass. Also sport and the short descriptions of the dead.
Doorbell! She stumbles through the grass barefoot, sun-huddled, drowsy. The back door leads to a poky kitchen, tiled brightly in the taste of a previous tenant. The bell is not being rung. It is being held down.
In the textured glass, a body, blurred. Wrong collection of pixels to be Michel. Between her body and the door, the hallway floorboards, golden in reflected sun. This hallway can only lead to good things. Yet a woman is screaming PLEASE and crying. A woman thumps the front door with her fist. Pulling the lock aside, she finds it stops halfway, the chain pulls tight, and a little hand flies through the gap.
– PLEASE – oh my God help me – please Miss, I live here – I live just here, please God – check, please –
Dirty nails. Waving a gas bill? Phone bill? Pushed through the opening, past the chain, so close she must draw back to focus on what she is being shown. 37 Ridley Avenue– a street on the corner of her own. This is all she reads. She has a quick vision of Michel as he would be if he were here, examining the envelope’s plastic window, checking on credentials. Michel is at work. She releases the chain.
The stranger’s knees go, she falls forward, crumpling. Girl or woman? They’re the same age: thirties, midway, or thereabouts. Tears shake the stranger’s little body. She pulls at her clothes and wails. Woman begging the public for witnesses. Woman in a war zone standing in the rubble of her home.
– You’re hurt?
Her hands are in her hair. Her head collides with the door frame.
– Nah, not me, my mum – I need some help. I’ve been to every fuckin door – please. Shar – my name is Shar. I’m local. I live here. Check!
– Come in. Please. I’m Leah.
Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries. She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence. She arranges her face to signify compassion. Shar closes her eyes, nods. She makes quick movements with her mouth, inaudible, speaking to herself. To Leah she says
– You’re so good.
Shar’s diaphragm rises and falls, slower now. The shuddering tears wind down.
– Thank you, yeah? You’re so good.
Shar’s small hands grip the hands that support her. Shar is tiny. Her skin looks papery and dry, with patches of psoriasis on the forehead and on the jaw. The face is familiar. Leah has seen this face many times in these streets. A peculiarity of London villages: faces without names. The eyes are memorable, around the deep brown clear white is visible, above and below. An air of avidity, of consuming what she sees.