N.W. by Zadie Smith

  In the hall, forcing his feet back into his Nike, Felix heard Lloyd’s hand come down hard upon a page. ‘Felix: come!’ He returned to find his father bending the spine of the book back, pressing at the crease between two pages until it was flat. ‘Right there at the edge: with the flowery dress – I remember the flowers, they was purple. Hundred and twenty per cent. Serious! Why you always doubting me? That’s Jackie. Listen, when she was big with the girls she wore flat shoes, right? Always. Never wore flats unless she had to, right? Too vain.’ Lloyd reached out for his smoke, content with this logic. Felix sat on the arm of the sofa and looked down at the alleged elbow and left foot of his mother. Some hopeful muscle in him tried to flex, but it was weak from past misuse. He leant against the wall. Lloyd moved to bring the book closer to Felix’s face. It was a greenhouse in this place, it was unbearable. The walls were sweating! Lloyd slapped the page again. ‘That. Is. Jackie. Hundred and twenty per cent.’ ‘I’ve got to chip,’ said Felix, kissed Lloyd briefly on his cheek, and fled.

  The air outside was cool by comparison; he wiped his face and concentrated on breathing like a normal person. As he pulled the door to, the next flat along did the same. Phil Barnes. Sixty, now? He was trying to lift the heavy flower pot that sat outside his front door. He peered over at Felix, who smiled and pushed his cap back off his face.

  ‘All right, Felix!’

  ‘All right, Mr Barnes.’

  ‘Held him on my knee. Now he calls me Mr Barnes.’

  ‘All right, Barnesy.’

  ‘More like it. Christ, this is heavy. Don’t just stand there looking like a “youth”, Felix. Like a ne’er-do-well YOUTH. Give us a hand with this, will you?’ Felix held the pot up. ‘That’s the ticket.’

  Felix watched as Phil Barnes looked up and down the walkway like a secret agent, dropped a key on the floor and kicked it underneath.

  ‘Terrible isn’t it? Me, worried about my property like an old lady. Like a PLUTOCRAT. Before you know it I’ll be saying things like “You can never be too careful!” Just kill me when I get to that point, all right, Felix? Just put a bullet between my eyes.’ He laughed and took off his little round Lennon glasses to clean them with his T-shirt. He looked searchingly at Felix, suddenly mole-like and vulnerable. ‘You off to carnival, Felix?’

  ‘Yeah. Probably. Tomorrow. Saturday today, though, innit.’

  ‘Course it is, course it is. My brain’s failing me. How’s your dad? Not seen him out and about much, recently.’

  ‘Lloyd’s all right. Lloyd’s Lloyd.’

  It touched Felix that Phil Barnes was kind enough to pretend, to Felix, that he, Barnes, and his neighbour of thirty years were on speaking terms. ‘That’s eloquence, Felix! “A word can paint a thousand pictures!” Well it can, can’t it? Though thinking about it, isn’t it the other way round, come to think of it: a picture can paint a thousand words?’

  Felix shrugged pleasantly.

  ‘Ignore me, Felix! I’ve become one of the doddering old. Must bore you to tears listening to the likes of me. I remember when I was young, I couldn’t be having it, old people complaining, going on. Let the young get on with it! Have a bit faith in them! Let them do their own thing! I’m a bit anti-establishment, you know, but then I was a Mod, wasn’t I? Still am, in my own way. But these days,’ said Phil, and put a hand on the balcony rail, ‘well, they just feel no hope, the young people, Felix, no hope. We’ve used all their resources, haven’t we, used them up, well, we have! And now I’m giving you another lecture, aren’t I? Run away! Run away! I’m like the “Silver Tsunami”! You read that? It was in the Guardian the other week. “Silver Tsunami”. That’s me, apparently. Born between 1949 and 19 something else. selfish baby-boomer. We’ve taken all the resources, you see. I said that to Amy and she said: “Well, what have we got to bloody show for it?!” That made me laugh. She’s not very politically minded, Amy, you see, but she means well. She does mean well,’ said Phil, and looked troubled, for he had strayed too far from small talk right to the centre of things – it happened more and more these days – and now must try to return to the things that didn’t matter. ‘How old are you now, Felix?’

  Felix punched a fist into his other waiting palm. ‘Thirty-two. I’m getting old. Ain’t even funny no more.’

  ‘Well, it never is, is it? That’s why they complain all the time, the old. I’m beginning to have some sympathy with them, I can tell you – aches and pains. Press that button now, will you? Broken? Ah well, let’s take the stairs – better for you. Those lifts are really a disgrace.’ Felix pushed the fire door wide and held it open for Barnesy. ‘On the other hand they’ve got nothing else to do, have they, these kids? That’s what gets me. That’s what someone should say.’

  Together they made their way down the narrow breeze-block stairwell, Barnesy in front, Felix behind. From the back it was a sort of time travel to look at him, no fatter or thinner, no change in the clothes, no sign of the twenty-year distance between then and now. His fine, fair hair was turning white in a subtle silvery way, so it seemed to be simply getting blonder, and it still fell, in a young man’s style, just to his shoulders, which were rounded and bear-like and soft as they always had been. He still wore a black waistcoat, undone, with a CND badge on the lapel, over an enormous white T-shirt, and elasticated jeans in a light blue wash. In his back pockets he kept a pair of soft slippers, for putting on the moment his rounds were finished. You’d see him in Rose’s café on the high road, slippers on, eating his lunch. Felix had thought this an eccentric touch until he, too, delivered the post, for five months only, at the turn of the century, and found it to be the most exhausting work he’d ever done.

  ‘They always say “youth” don’t they?’ said Phil and stopped once more, halfway down the stairs, in a thoughtful pose. Felix leant against the handrail and waited, though he had heard this speech many times. ‘Never the boys from the posh bit up by the park, they’re just boys, but our lot are “youths”, our working-class lads are youths, bloody terrible isn’t it? They come round here, Felix – I was trying to tell your dad, but he wasn’t bothered, you know him, usually thinking more about the ladies than anything else – the police come round here asking after our kids (not our kids, literally, obviously our kids are long gone, but the community’s kids), looking for information, you know. Save their big houses on the park from our kids! It’s shameful, it really is. But you don’t care about all that rubbish, do you, Felix, your lot? Just wanna have fun. And why shouldn’t you? Leave them kids alone, I say. It’s my opinion – the wife thinks I’ve got too many, but there you are. This new lot in here, they just don’t want to know. Breaks my heart. Just watching all that reality TV, reading the rags, all that bloody rubbish, just shut your mouth and buy a new phone – that’s how people are round here these days. They’re not organized, they’re not political – now, I used to have some good conversations with your mum way back when. Very good conversations, very interesting. She had a lot of interesting ideas, you know. Of course, I realize she was troubled, very troubled. But she had that thing most people don’t have: curiosity. She might not have always got the right answers but she wanted to ask the questions. I value that in a person. We used to call each other “Comrade”– wind your dad up! She was an interesting woman, your mum, I could talk to her – it’s very hard, Felix, you see, if you are interested in ideas and all that, ideas and philosophies of the past – it’s very hard to find someone round here to really talk to, that’s the tragedy of the thing, really, I mean, when you think about it. Certainly I can’t find anyone round here to talk to any more. And for a woman it’s even harder, you see. They can feel very trapped. Because of the patriarchy. I do feel everyone needs to have these little chats now and then. Yes, very interesting woman, your mother, very delicate. It’s hard for someone like that.’

  ‘Yeah,’ said Felix.

  ‘You sound doubtful. Course, I didn’t know your mum very well, I’m sure … I know your dad hasn’t got much good to s
ay about her. I don’t know. Complicated, innit. Families. You’re too close to it, it’s hard to see. I’ll give you an analogy. See them paintings your dad sells sometimes, the dots, with the secret picture? If you stand too close, you can’t see. But I’m across the room, aren’t I? Different perspective. When my old man was in his residential home – dump, terrible dump – but I’ll tell you, some of them nurses told me things about him I just had not a clue about. Not a clue. Knew him better than I did. In some senses. Not all. But. You see what I’m trying to say, anyway. It’s a context thing, really.’

  Now they stepped out on to the communal grass, under a mighty sun, huge and orange in the sky.

  ‘And your sisters, they’re well are they? Still can’t tell them apart, I bet.’

  ‘Those girls, man. Tia’s just long. Ruby’s bare lazy.’

  ‘Your words! Not my words! Let the record show!’ said Phil, chuckling, and put his hands up in the air like an innocent man. ‘Now let me get this right: “long” means always late, doesn’t it? I think you told me that last time. See! No flies on me. I keep up with the slang. And “bare” means “a lot of ” or “very” or “really”. It’s an intensifier, more or less. I keep up. Helps living in here, you hear the kids talking, you stop and ask them. They look at me like I’m a mental case, as you might imagine.’ He sighed. Then came the difficult segue, always difficult in the same way.

  ‘And the youngest lad? Devon? How’s he doing?’

  Felix nodded, to convey his respect for the question. Phil was the only person on the whole estate who ever asked after his brother.

  ‘He’s all right, man. He’s doing all right.’

  They crossed the lawn in silence.

  ‘If it wasn’t for these, I tell you, Felix, I sometimes think I’d be gone from here, I really would. Move to Bournemouth with all the other old bastards.’ He rapped the tree with a knuckle and made Felix stop under it and look up: an enclosing canopy of thick foliage, like standing under the bell skirts of a Disney princess. Felix never knew what to say about nature. He waited.

  ‘A bit of green is very powerful, Felix. Very powerful. ’Specially in England. Even us Londoners born and bred, we need it, we go up the Heath, don’t we, we crave it. Even our little park here is important. Bit of green. In some melodious plot/Of beechen green, and shadows numberless … Name that verse! “Ode to a Nightingale”! Very famous poem, that. Keats. Londoner he was, you see. But why should you know it! Who would have taught it to you? You’ve got your music, haven’t you, your hip hop, and your rap – what’s the difference between those two? I’ve never been sure. I have to say I can’t understand the bling bling business at all, Felix – seems very backward to me, all that focus on money. Maybe it’s a symbol for something else – I can’t tell. Anyway I’ve got my verses, at least. But I had to learn them myself! In those days, you failed the eleven plus and that was it – on your bike. That’s how it used to be. What education I’ve got I’ve had to get myself. I grew up angry about it. But that’s how it used to be in England for our sort of people. It’s the same thing now with a different name. You should be angry about it, too, Felix, you should!’

  ‘I’m more about the day-to-day.’ Felix nudged Phil Barnes in his side. ‘You’re a proper old leftie, Barnesy, proper commie.’

  Laughter again, bent with laughter, hands on knees. When he reared back up Felix saw tears in his eyes.

  ‘I am! You must think: what’s he on about, half the time. Propaganda! What’s he on about?’ His face went slack and sentimental. ‘But I believe in the people, you see, Felix. I believe in them. Not that it’s done me any good, but I do. I really do.’

  ‘Yes, Barnesy. Take it to the bridge,’ said Felix, and thumped his old friend on the back.

  They made their way out of the estate, up the hill, towards the street.

  ‘I’m going up the depot, Felix. Afternoon shift. Sorting. Where’re you going? You walking down the high road?’

  ‘Nah. I’m late – I’m going into town. Best get the train. Might get this bus first.’

  It was right in front of them, opening its doors. Mrs Mulherne, another Caldwell resident, was dragging a shopping bag backwards out of the wrong door, her back bent, her tights wrinkled at her fragile ankles – Barnes ran forward to help her. Felix thought he’d better help, too. She felt light, almost fly-away. Women aged differently. When he was twelve Mrs Mulherne had seemed just a little too old to be running around with his dad; now she seemed like his father’s mother. Nextmorning glimpse of a pair of sturdy pink legs, wrapped in a ratty bath towel, dashing down the corridor to the only loo. Not the only one, either. ‘So brave, looking after them four wee ones by yourself. She’s not good enough for you, dear. You deserve better. Everyone feels so bad for you.’ The ladies of Caldwell expressing their sympathies. At bus stops, in doctor’s waiting rooms, in Woolworths. Like a hit song that follows you from shop to shop. ‘Does everything for them kids. Die for them kids. More than I can say for her.’ One of them, Mrs Steele, was his own dinner lady. A great blush whenever she saw him – and extra chips. Funny what you remember later – what you realize.

  ‘Grace what?’ ‘Grace. End of.’ ‘You don’t have a last name?’ ‘Not for you.’ At this same bus stop. Eyes on the ankles of her dark blue jeans, straightening the cuffs over and over so they sat right on her high black boots. Kiss curl cemented to her forehead. He thought he had never seen anything so beautiful. ‘Come on now, don’t be like that. Listen: know what “Felix” means? Happy. I bring happiness, innit? But can I ask you something? Does it bother you if I sit here? Grace? Can I speak to you? Both waiting for the same bus, innit? Might as well. But does it bother you if I sit here?’ She had looked up at him finally, with manufactured eyes, the light brown kind you buy on the high road. She looked supernatural. And he had known at once: this is my happiness. I’ve been waiting at this bus stop all my life and my happiness has finally arrived. She spoke! ‘Felix – that’s your name, yeah? You ain’t bothering me, Felix. You would have to matter to me to bother me, you get me? Yeah. It’s like that.’ Her bus coming over the hill. Then. Now. ‘Nah, wait, don’t be like that, listen to me: I’m not trying to chirps you. You just struck me. I want to know you that’s all. You got a face that’s very … intensified.’ Lift of a movie star’s eyebrow. ‘Is it. You got a face like somebody who chirpses girls at bus stops.’

  Five and innocent at this bus stop. Fourteen and drunk. Twenty-six and stoned. Twenty-nine in utter oblivion, out of his mind on coke and K: ‘You can’t sleep here, son. You either need to move it along or we’ll have to take you in to the station to sleep it off.’ You live in the same place long enough, you get memory overlap. ‘Thanks for seeing me off, Felix, love. Good to see you. Knock on my door any time. Send my love to Lloyd. I’m just downstairs and you’re always welcome.’ Felix jumped back on the bus. He waved at Phil Barnes, who gave him a double thumbs up. He waved at Mrs Mulherne as the bus climbed the hill and overtook her. He pressed a hand against the glass. Grace at seventy. The Tinkerbell tattoo in the base of her back, wrinkled, or expanded. But how could Grace ever be seventy? Look at her. (‘And, Fee, remember: I weren’t even meant to be there. I was meant to be at my aunt’s in Wembley. Remember? That’s the day I was meant to be looking after her kids, but she broke her foot, she was home. So then I was like: might as well get the bus into town, do some shopping. Felix, please don’t try and tell me that weren’t fate. I don’t care what nobody says, blatantly everything happens for a reason. Don’t try and tell me that the universe didn’t want me to be there, at that moment!’)

  Mind the gap. Felix stepped in the second carriage from the end and looked at a tube map like a tourist, taking a moment to convince himself of details no life-long Londoner should need to check: Kilburn to Baker Street (Jubilee); Baker Street to Oxford Circus (Bakerloo). Other people trust themselves. A variation of the same instinct had his hand deep in his pocket clutching a piece of paper with a name on it. A train
barrelled past, knocking him into the seat he’d been heading for. After a moment the two trains seemed to cruise together. He looked out now at his counterpart, in the other train. Small woman, whom he would have judged Jewish without being able to articulate any very precise reason why: dark, pretty, smiling to herself, in a blue dress from the Seventies – big collar, tiny white bird print. She was frowning at his T-shirt. Trying to figure it. He felt like it: he smiled! A broad smile that emphasized his dimples and revealed three gold teeth. The girl’s little dark face pulled tight like a net bag. Her train pulled ahead, then his did.


  ‘You’re Felix? Hi! Great! You’re Felix!’

  He was standing outside Topshop. A tall, skinny white boy with a lot of chestnut fringe floppy in his face. Drainpipe jeans, boxy black spectacles. He seemed to need a moment to rearrange his brain, which Felix allowed him, taking out his tobacco and beginning to roll while the boy said: ‘Tom Mercer – it’s just round the corner; well, a few streets over,’ and laughed as a way of covering his surprise. Felix did not know why his own voice so often misled on the phone.

  ‘Shall we? I mean, can you do that and walk?’

  ‘With one hand and running, bruv.’

  ‘Ha. Very good. This way.’

  But he did not seem to know how to negotiate the corner crush between Oxford and Regent streets; after a few false starts he was half a foot further back than he had been a moment ago. Felix licked a Rizla and watched the boy concede to a Peruvian holding a twelve-foot banner: BARGAIN CARPET SALE 100 YARDS. Not from London, not originally, thought Felix, who had been to Wiltshire once and returned astounded. Felix stepped in front and took control, walking through a crowd of Indian girls with luxurious black ponytails and little gold Selfridges badges pinned to their lapels. They walked against the natural flow, the white boy and Felix – it took them five minutes to cross the road. Felix diagnosed a hangover. Cracked lips and panda eyes. A delicate reaction to light.

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