N.W. by Zadie Smith

Karenin was on the mat. Felix gathered him sloppily into his arms. The cat’s huge weight kept displacing itself: it wasn’t possible to hold up its backside, belly and neck at the same time, something always fell through the gap. He whispered into its ear, ‘All right, K?’ and stepped inside. This same fat cat in his arms, the yellowing old playbills and photos on the wall, the boxes full of sheet music for a non-existent piano, sold to a pawnshop before even Felix’s time. The old-school everything. He knew it all too well. The grimy sameness, the way nothing was ever refreshed. She called them antiques. Another way of saying there’s no more money. Five years! He dropped the cat down on the chaise: springless, the seat sank to receive it. How did he ever come to know this place? Unknowing it would just be the restoring of things to their natural, healthy state.

  ‘Annie? You coming out?’

  ‘In the bath! S’heavenly. Come in!’

  ‘Nah, you’re all right. I’ll wait.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘I’LL WAIT.’

  ‘Don’t be ludicrous. Bring an ashtray.’

  Felix looked about him. On a clothes hanger hooked to the window frame an outfit hung disembodied and flooded with light. Purple jeans, a complicated vest with safety pins on the front, some kind of tartan cape, and below on the floor a pair of yellow leather boots with heels of four or five inches, all of which would be seen by no one except the boy from the off licence who delivered her ‘groceries’.

  ‘Can’t see no ashtray.’

  Piled on top of various envelopes and pages of newspapers were small mountains of spent fags and ash. It was hard to manoeuvre – some attempt at reorganization was under way. Towers of paper dotted the floor. It was worse than his father’s situation, yet he saw now that the spirit was much the same: a large life contracted into a small space. He had never visited one then the other in quick succession like this. The sense of suffocation and impatience was identical, the longing he had to be free.

  ‘Dear Lord – by the Pavlovas. “The Russian bird with the long face”. Underneath her.’

  He would never again have to pretend to be interested in things in which he had no interest. Ballet dancers, novels, the long and torturous history of her family. He stepped over a glass coffee table to where eight photographs of Pavlova formed a diamond on the wall, echoing the pyramid of fags below, the only decoration on a small side table.

  ‘If full, use the plastic bag on the doorknob,’ called Annie. ‘Empty into.’

  He did as he was told. He came into the bathroom, put the packet of fags in the ashtray and the ashtray on the lip of the bath.

  ‘What you got them on for?’

  She ran her fingertips along a pair of mother-of-pearl vintage sunglasses. ‘This is a terribly bright bathroom, Felix. Blinding. Could you? My hands.’

  What looked like a single breakfast oat sat on her bottom lip, painted over with scarlet. Felix put a cigarette in her mouth and lit it. Even in the few months since he’d last been here the lines under her eyes seemed to have lengthened and deepened, fanning out beyond the shades. The powder she’d doused herself in gathered lumpenly here and there and made everything worse. He retreated to the toilet seat. It was the correct distance. She made a little adjustment to the costume – plumping up the big brown pile of hair and letting the wet strands fall around her made-up face, framing it. Her narrow shoulders rose out of the bubbles, and he knew every blue vein and brown mole. She was grinning in a certain way that had started the whole thing off, the day he watched her bring up a tray of tea to the film crew on her roof, hair tied in a headscarf like one of those women in the war. The thin lips drawn back and an inch of shiny gum all round.

  ‘How’ve you been, Annie?’

  ‘Sorry?’ She cupped her hand facetiously round her ear.

  ‘How’ve you been?’

  ‘How have I been? Is that the question?’ She leant back into the bubbles. ‘How have I been? How have I been? Well, I’ve been fucking desolate, really.’ She tapped some ash, missing the ashtray, dusting the bubbles. ‘Not entirely due to your disappearance, don’t flatter yourself. Someone at Westminster Council has taken it upon themselves to reevaluate my claim. Because somebody else, some citizen, took it upon themselves to notify the council. My money’s been frozen, I’m reduced to a rather tragic diet of grilled sardines. And various other necessities have been severely reduced …’ She made the unhappy face of a child. ‘Guess who.’

  ‘Barrett,’ said Felix sullenly; he would have her in any mood but this one. He discreetly scanned the room, and soon found what he was looking for: the rolled-up twenty and the vanity mirror, peeking out from behind a leg of the old-fashioned tub. ‘He’s trying to bankrupt me, I suppose. So they can all just get on with charging some –’

  ‘Russian a thousand a week,’ murmured Felix, matching her word for word.

  ‘I’m sorry I’m so boring.’

  She stood up. If it was a challenge he was equal to it. He watched the suds slink down her body. She had a dancer’s frame, with all the curves at the back. What he was now confronted with had only a pale utility to it: breasts, like two muscles, sitting high above a carriage of stringent pulleys and levers, all of it designed for a life that never happened.

  ‘You might pass a girl a towel.’

  A dingy rag hung over the door. He tried to reach around her to drape it chastely over her shoulders, but she sank into his body, soaking him.

  ‘Brrrr. That’s cosy.’

  ‘Fuckssake!’

  She whispered into his ear: ‘The good news is if they claim I’m out and about I might as well go out and about. We might as well.’

  Felix stepped back, got on his hands and knees and stretched an arm under the bath.

  ‘According to them I’ve already been out. I’m in Heaven every night dancing it up with the Twinks, without my knowledge. Sleep-living. Maybe this is the start of a whole new life for me! For God’s sake, what are you doing down there? Oh, don’t be such a bore, Felix. Leave that alone …’

  Felix re-emerged holding a silver-handled mirror from a fairy tale with four thick lines of powder cut along it, crossed by a straw, like a coat of arms. Annie stretched her arms out towards him with the wrists turned up. The veins seemed bigger, bluer.

  ‘Not even lunchtime.’

  ‘On the contrary, that is lunch. Do you mind terribly putting it back where you found it?’

  They stood either side of the toilet: the obvious gesture suggested itself. It would be one way of saying what he had to say.

  ‘Put. It. Back. Please.’ Annie smiled with all her showgirl teeth. Someone was knocking at the door. Felix spotted a wayward shiver in her eyelid, a struggle between the pretence of lightness and the reality of weight. He knew all about that stuggle. He put it back. ‘Coming!’

  She grabbed a silk Japanese thing off a hook on the door and slipped into it, folding one side into the other so as to hide a gigantic rip. It had a flock of swallows on the back, swooping from her neck down her spine to the floor. She ran out, shutting Felix in. Out of habit he opened the glass-fronted cabinet above the sink. He pushed the first row aside – Pond’s Cream, Elizabeth Arden, an empty, historic bottle of Chanel No.5 – to reach the medications behind. Picked up a bottle of poxywhadyacallitrendridine, the one with the red cap, which, if mixed with alcohol, had a manic-mellow buzz, like ketamine-laced Ecstasy. Worked very well with vodka. He held it in his hand. He put it back in its place. From the other room he heard her, suddenly strident: ‘Well, no … I really don’t see that at all …’

  Bored, Felix wandered in and parked himself on an uncomfortable high-backed wooden chair that once graced the antechamber of Wentworth Castle.

  ‘I barely use the stairs. It may be a “shared area” but I don’t use it. My only traffic is the occasional deliveryman or friend coming up. Very occasional. I don’t go down, I can’t. Surely the people you should be talking to are the ladies downstairs, who, as we both know – I’m assuming you’re a man of the wor
ld – have people stomping up and down constantly. Up, down, up, down. Like Piccadilly bloody Circus.’

  She stepped forward to demonstrate, with a finger, this popular right of way, and Felix got a glimpse of the man in the doorway: a big blond, buff from the gym, in a navy suit, holding a ring binder that said Google on it.

  ‘Miss Bedford, please, I am only doing my job.’

  ‘Sorry – what’s your name? Can I see some sort of official …’

  The blond passed Annie a card.

  ‘Do you have instructions to come and harass me? Do you? I don’t think you do, Mr – I can’t possibly pronounce that name – I don’t think you do, Erik. Because I’m afraid I don’t answer to Mr Barrett. I answer to the actual landlord – I’m a relative of the actual landlord, as in the lord of the land. He’s a close relative, and I’m quite sure he wouldn’t want me harassed.’

  Erik opened his ring binder and closed it again. ‘We’re the subagents, and we’re instructed to advise the tenants that the shared areas are to be improved and the cost split between the flats. We’ve sent several letters to this address and received no reply.’

  ‘What a funny accent you have. Is it Swedish?’

  Erik stood almost to attention. ‘I am from Norway.’

  ‘Oh, Norwegian! Norway. Lovely. I’ve never been, obviously – I never go anywhere. Felix,’ she said, turning round with a louche lean into the door frame, ‘Erik is Norwegian.’

  ‘Is it,’ said Felix. He moved his jaw rigidly in impersonation of hers. She stuck her tongue out at him.

  ‘Now, Erik, is it Sweden that had all the recent trouble?’

  ‘Excuse me?’

  ‘I mean, Norway. Oh, you know, with the money. Hard to believe a whole nation can go bankrupt. It happened to my aunt Helen, but of course she was really asking for it. A whole country seems rather … careless.’

  ‘You are speaking of Iceland, I think.’

  ‘Am I? Oh, perhaps I am. I always get the Nordic ones sort of …’

  Annie tangled her fingers together.

  ‘Miss Bedford –’

  ‘Look, the point is, nobody wants to see this place tarted up more than me – I mean, we haven’t had a film crew here since – whenever that was – and that roof is crying out to be filmed from, it really is, it’s just absurd to leave it lying fallow. It’s one of the best views in London. I really think it would be in your interests to make the place more attractive to outside investment. You’ve been very slack indeed as far as outside investment is concerned.’

  Erik shrank a little in his cheap suit. It didn’t matter what nonsense came out of her mouth, her accent worked a spell. Felix had seen it magic her out of some unpromising corners, even when the benefits people turned up, even when the police raided the brothel downstairs while a sizeable bag of heroin sat just out of sight on her night table. She could talk anybody away from her door. She could fall and fall and fall and still never quite hit the ground. Her great-uncle, the earl, owned the ground, beneath this building, beneath every building on the street, the theatre, the coffee houses, the McDonald’s.

  ‘The idea that a vulnerable woman who lives alone and barely leaves her apartment is required to pay the same amount as a group of “business” ladies who entertain their male visitors approximately every eight minutes – I think it’s incredible. Stomp stomp stomp,’ she shouted, and marched out a rhythm on the doorstep, ‘that’s what’s wearing the bloody carpet away. Stomp stomp stomp. Gentleman callers on the stair.’ Erik looked over – a little desperately – at Felix. ‘That,’ said Annie, pointing, ‘is not a gentleman caller. That is my boyfriend. His name is Felix Cooper. He is a film-maker. And he does not live here. He lives in north-west London, a dinky part of it you’ve probably never heard of called Willesden, and I can tell you now you’d be wrong to dismiss it actually because actually it’s very interesting, very “diverse”. Lord, what a word. And the fact is, we’re both very independent people from quite different walks of life and we simply prefer to keep our independence. It’s really not so unusual, is it, to have –’

  Here Felix jumped up, passed his hands around Annie’s waist and drew her back into the room. With a sigh she wilted into the chaise and gave all her attention to Karenin, who looked like he considered it no less than his due. Erik opened his binder, detached a sheaf of papers and pushed them towards Felix.

  ‘I need Miss Bedford to sign this. It obligates her to pay her share of the works that –’

  ‘You need it right now?’

  ‘I need it this week, for sure.’

  ‘This is what we’ll do. Leave it here, right? Come back for it, end of the week – it’ll be signed, promise you.’

  ‘We have sent many letters –’

  ‘I appreciate that – but – she’s not well, boss. She ain’t in her right … she’s got this agrophobia,’ said Felix, an old error no amount of Annie’s eye-rolling had been able to correct, maybe because his portmanteau version expressed a deeper truth: she wasn’t really afraid of open spaces, she was afraid of what might happen between her and the other people in them. ‘Come back later, it’ll be signed. I’ll get it signed.’

  ‘Well, that was dull,’ said Annie, before the door had quite shut. ‘I’ve been thinking, Felix – ever since the sun came out – let’s spend what’s left of this summer on my roof. We used to love knocking around up there. This weekend, stay over – Monday’s the bank holiday! Long weekend.’

  ‘It’s carnival this weekend.’

  But this she didn’t seem to hear. ‘Not with a lot of people. Just us.

  We’ll make that chicken thing you like, barbecue up there. Jerk. Jerk chicken. For us two jerks.’

  ‘You eating now as well?’

  Annie stopped laughing, flinched, turned her face. She crossed her hands delicately in her lap. ‘It’s always nice to watch other people eat. I eat mushrooms. We could get some of those legal mushrooms. Do you remember? Just trying to get from here to there –’ she pointed from the chair to the chaise – ‘took about a year. I was convinced this was France, for some reason. I felt I needed a passport to cross the room.’

  Felix reached for his tobacco. He would not be drawn into fond reminiscences.

  ‘Can’t buy ’em any more. Government shut it down. Few months ago.’

  ‘Did they? How boring of them.’

  ‘Some kid in Highgate thought he was a TV and switched himself off. Jumped off that bridge. Hornsey Lane Bridge.’

  ‘Oh, Felix, that one’s as old as I am – I heard that in the playground of Camden School for Girls in about 1985. “Suicide Bridge”. It’s what’s called an urban myth.’ She walked over to him, took off his cap and rubbed his shaved head. ‘Let’s go up there right now and tan. Well, I’ll tan. You can sweat. Inaugurate the summer.’

  ‘Annie, man: summer’s almost over. I’m working. All the time.’

  ‘You don’t appear to be working now.’

  ‘Usually I’d be working Saturdays.’

  ‘Well let’s do another day then, you choose, make it regular, like,’

  said Annie, in her idea of a northern accent.

  ‘Can’t do it.’

  ‘Is it my charms he can’t resist –’ an American accent – ‘or my roof?’

  ‘Annie – sit down, I want to talk to you. Serious.’

  ‘Talk to me on the roof!’

  He tried to grab her wrist, but she quickened and passed him. He followed her into the bedroom. She had pulled down the ladder from the trapdoor in the ceiling and was already halfway up.

  ‘No peeking!’ But she made her way up in a manner that made it impossible not to, including the little white mouse-tail of a tampon’s string. ‘Be careful – glass.’

  Felix emerged into light – it took a moment to see clearly. He placed his knee carefully – between one broken beer bottle and another – and pulled himself up. His hands came away covered with white Oakes of sun-baked, rain-ruined wood. He had helped lay this deck,
and painted it, along with a few techies and even one of the producers, because time and the budget were so tight. Everything covered in a thick white gloss to maximize the light. It was done very quickly, to service a fiction. It was never intended for use in the real world. Now she picked up a crushed cigarette packet and an empty bottle of vodka, fastidiously cramming them into an overflowing bin, as if the removal of these two items could make a serious difference to the sea of crap everywhere. Felix stepped over a sodden sleeping bag, heavy with water and filled with something, not a person, thank God. It had rained last night – there was a dewy freshness – but a serious smell was coming, and every minute of the sun made it slightly more serious. Felix headed for the far eastern corner, by the chimney, for its shade and relative unpopularity. The boards under his feet made desperate noises.

  ‘This all needs redoing.’

  ‘Yes. But you just can’t find the help these days. Once upon a time you’d get a lovely young film crew turning up, they’d pay you two thousand pounds a week, lay a deck, paint it, fuck you passionately and tell you they loved you – but that kind of service is a thing of the past, I’m afraid.’

  Felix put his head in his hands.

  ‘Annie, man. You give me jokes, for real.’

  Annie smiled sadly. ‘I’m glad I still give you something, at least …’ She righted an upturned deckchair. ‘Looks a bit rough at the moment, I know … But I’ve been entertaining – I had one of my big nights, last Friday, such a nice time, you should have been here. I did send a text. You contrive not to see my texts. Lovely crowd, the sweetest people. Hot as Ibiza up here.’

  She made it sound like a society party, filled with the great and good. Felix picked up an empty bottle of Strongbow cider that had been repurposed into a bong.

  ‘You need to stop letting people take advantage.’

  Annie snorted: ‘What nonsense!’ She sat wide-legged on the little bridge of bricks between the chimney stacks. ‘That’s what people are for. They take advantage of each other. What else are they for?’

  ‘They’re only hanging round you because you’ve got something they want. Soho liggers. Just want somewhere to crash. And if there’s free shit – bonus.’

 
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