N.W. by Zadie Smith


  ‘Good. That’s what I’ve got. Why shouldn’t people take advantage of me if what I have is useful to them?’ She crossed one leg over the other like a teacher reaching the substance of her lecture. ‘It happens that in this matter of property and drugs I am strong and they are weak. In other matters it’s the other way round. The weak should take advantage of the strong, don’t you think? Better that than the other way round. I want my friends to take advantage. I want them to feed off me. I want them drinking my blood. Why not? They’re my friends. What else am I to do in this place? Raise a family?’

  That line of conversation Felix knew to be a trap. He swerved to avoid it.

  ‘I’m saying they ain’t your friends. They’re users.’

  Annie fixed him with a look over her shades. ‘You sound very sure.

  Are you speaking from personal experience?’

  ‘Why you trying to mix up my words?’ He was easily flustered and it mistranslated as anger. People thought he was on the verge of hitting someone when he was only nervous, or slightly annoyed. Annie lifted a shaky finger into the air.

  ‘Don’t raise your voice at me, Felix. I hope you haven’t come round here for a fight, because I’m feeling really quite delicate.’

  Felix groaned and sat next to her on the bridge of bricks. He put his hand softly on her knee, meaning it like a father or friend, but she grabbed it and held it tightly in her own.

  ‘Can you see? Over there? Flag’s up. Somebody’s home. Best view in town.’

  ‘Annie –’

  ‘My mother was presented at the palace, you know. And my grandmother.’

  ‘Is it.’

  ‘Yes, Felix, it is. Surely I’ve told you that before.’

  ‘Yeah, you have, as it goes.’

  He worked his hand free and stood up again.

  ‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek,’ said Annie quietly, removed her robe and lay naked in the sun. ‘There’s some vodka in the freezer.’

  ‘I told you I don’t drink no more.’

  ‘Still? ’

  ‘I told you. That’s why I ain’t been round. Not just that, other reasons, too. I’m clean. You should think about it yourself.’

  ‘But darling, I am clean. Two years clean.’

  ‘’Cept the coke, weed, drink, pills …’

  ‘I said I’m clean, not a bloody Mormon!’

  ‘I’m talking about doing it properly.’

  Annie got up on her elbows and pushed her shades into her hair. ‘And spend every day listening to people bang on about the time they found themselves in a bin covered with vomit? And pretend that every good time I’ve ever had in my life was some kind of extended adolescent delusion?’ She lay back down and replaced the shades. ‘No thank you. Could you fetch me a vodka please? With lemon, if you can find it.’

  Diagonally across the street from them, on another roof terrace, a severely dressed Japanese woman – narrow black trousers and black V-neck – dropped a tray she was carrying. A glass smashed and one plate of food went flying; the other she somehow managed to hold on to. She had been heading for a small wrought-iron table at which sat a lanky Frenchman, in parodic red braces with his jeans rolled up to the calf. Now he jumped up. At the same moment a little girl ran out, looked at this domestic tragedy and put her hand over her mouth. They were all three familiar to Felix; he’d seen them many times over the years. First her alone; then he moved in. Then the baby turned up, who looked now to be four or five years old. Where had the time gone? Quite often, in good weather, he had watched the woman take pictures of her family on a proper camera set atop a tripod base.

  ‘Oops,’ said Annie. ‘Trouble in paradise.’

  ‘Annie, listen: remember that girl I was telling you about. The serious one.’

  ‘I’m afraid it really does serve them right. They couldn’t just eat in their flat. That would be too much of a hardship. Instead they have to bring up each piece of individually miso-stained balsamic glaze cod Tllet up on a tray, so they can eat them on the sodding terrace, all the time no doubt saying to themselves: how lucky we are to be eating on the terrace! Why, we could be in Tuscany! Have you tried these, darling? They’re tempura zucchini flowers. Japanese-Italian fusion! My own invention. Shall I photograph it? We can put it on our blog.’

  ‘Annie.’

  ‘Our blog called Jules et Kim.’

  ‘Me and that girl. Grace. It’s serious. I’m not going to be coming round here no more.’

  Annie held a hand up in the air and seemed to examine her nails, though each one was lower than the finger’s tip, with skin torn from either side and old blood-tracks all round the cuticles. ‘I see. Didn’t she have another lover, too?’

  ‘That’s done with.’

  ‘I see,’ said Annie again, rolled on to her stomach and kicked her feet with their extraordinary arches into the air. ‘Age?’

  Felix couldn’t help but smile. ‘Twenty-four, coming up, I think. In November. But it ain’t even about that.’

  ‘And still no vodka.’

  Felix sighed and started walking back to the trapdoor.

  ‘I shall think of the other lover!’ he heard Annie call after him as he descended. ‘I shall pity him! It’s so important that we pity each other!’

  Marlon. It was done with finally on a Sunday in February while Felix sat on Grace’s stairwell, rolling a fag and shivering, peeking through the net curtain. The man had watched the other man as he trudged through the flat, collecting a bike lock, some ugly clothes, a music dock for an iPod, a pair of hair clippers. He was heavy, Marlon, not fat exactly, but soft and ungainly. He was a long time in the bathroom, re-emerging with several jars of wax and tubes of cream, at least one of which was Felix’s – but Felix had won the woman and considered he could live without his Dax. After Marlon was done retrieving his things, Felix watched him as he took Grace’s hands in his own like a man about to perform a religious ritual and said: ‘I’m thankful for the time we spent together.’ Poor Marlon. He really didn’t have a fucking clue. He even turned up a few times after that – with mix-tapes of soca music, and handwritten notes, and tears. None of which helped his case. In the end, all the things Grace claimed to like about Marlon – that he was not a ‘playa’, that he was gentle and awkward and not interested in money – were all the reasons she left him. Being so gentle, it was a while before he got the message. Finally he had taken his ‘I’m-a-male-nurse-I-findhip-hop-too-negative-I-can-cook-curried-goat-I-want-to-move-to-Nigeria’ routine back to south London, where, in Felix’s opinion, it belonged.

  ‘Fridge,’ said Felix to himself now, and opened it – two family-sized bottles of Coke, three lemons and a can of mackerel – and then remembered, and opened the freezer instead. He lifted out the bottle of vodka. He returned to the fridge and removed the least white lemon. He looked about him. The kitchen was a tiny cupboard with a cracked Belfast sink and no space to store anything and no bin. The sink was full; there were no clean glasses. A curtain-rag fluttered at the half-open window. A line of ants processed from the sink to the window and back, carrying little specks of food on their backs, with a confidence that suggested they did not expect to see tap water here in their lifetimes. Felix found a mug. He sawed at the lemon with a blunt knife. He poured the vodka. He put the top back on, replaced the bottle in the freezer and thought of how he would describe this scene of sobriety on Tuesday at seven p.m. to a group of fellow travellers who would appreciate its heroic quality.

  Back up on the roof Annie had changed position – a cross-legged yoga pose, eyes closed – and was now wearing a green bikini. He placed the mug in front of her and she nodded, like a goddess accepting an offering.

  ‘Where’d you get that bikini?’

  ‘Questions, questions.’

  Without opening her eyes she pointed at the family on the terrace. ‘Now all that’s left to them is to pick up the pieces. Lunch has been ruined, the Sancerre runs dry, but somehow, somehow, they’ll find a way to carry on.’


  ‘Annie –’

  ‘And what else? I’ve no idea what’s up with you any more. Any movement on the film front? How’s your brother?’

  ‘I left that place time ago. I’m apprenticed at this garage now, I told you.’

  ‘Vintage cars are a nice hobby.’

  ‘Not a hobby – it’s my work.’

  ‘Felix, you’re a very talented film-maker.’

  ‘Come on, man. What was my job? Getting the coffees, getting the coke. That was my job. That was it. They weren’t gonna let me get no further than that, believe. Why you always going on about shit that ain’t even real?’

  ‘I just happen to feel you’re very talented, that’s all. And that you criminally undersell yourself.’

  ‘Leave it, man!’

  Annie sighed and took the clip out of her hair. She separated the hair into sections and started working on two long, childish plaits. ‘How’s poor Devon doing?’

  ‘Fine.’

  ‘You’re mistaking me for one of those people who ask questions out of politeness.’

  ‘He’s Tne. He’s got a provisional release date: 16 June.’

  ‘But that’s wonderful!’ cried Annie, and Felix felt a great, impractical warmth towards her. In Grace’s company Devon was rarely mentioned. He was one of the ‘negative sources of energy’ they were meant to be cleansing from their lives.

  ‘Why “provisional”?’

  ‘Depends on how he acts. He has to not piss anyone off between now and then.’

  ‘If you ask me, he seems to have somewhat overpaid his debt to society for a little stick-em-up with a toy shooter.’

  ‘It weren’t a toy. It was unloaded. They still call it armed robbery.’

  ‘Oh, but someone on Friday told me the funniest joke – you’d like it. Oh gosh: wording. Something like: do you know what poor people … ? No. Sorry, start again. Poor people – Oh God: “In poor areas people steal your phone. In rich areas the people steal your pension.” ’ Felix smiled minutely. ‘Only, it was much better done than that.’

  She was shouting, without realizing it. Over on the other terrace, the Japanese woman turned and peered politely into the middle distance.

  ‘I mean, look at this woman: she’s obsessed with me. Look at her. She desperately wants to photograph me but can’t bear to ask. It’s very sad, really.’ Annie waved a hand at the woman and her family. ‘Eat your lunch! Proceed with your lives!’

  Felix put himself between Annie and the view. ‘She’s half Jamaican, half Nigerian. Her mum teaches at William Keble down Harlesden way – serious woman. She’s like her mum, she’s got that Nigerian education thing: focused. You’d like her.’

  ‘Hmmm.’

  ‘You know that place York’s on Monmouth Street?’

  ‘Naturally. People went there in the Eighties.’

  ‘She just got promoted,’ said Felix proudly. ‘She’s like the top waitress, what do you call that again? She doesn’t do the tables no more. What do you call that?’

  ‘Maitre d’.’

  ‘Yeah. Probably end up managing it. It’s full every day – lots of people go there.’

  ‘Yes, but what type of people?’ Annie put her drink to her lips and knocked it back in one. ‘Anything else?’

  Felix got flustered again. ‘We got a lot in common, like … just a lot of things.’

  ‘Long walks in the country, red wine, the operas of Verdi, GSOH …’ Annie held her arms wide and put her fingers together as in a yogic chant.

  ‘She’s knows what she’s about. She’s conscious.’

  Annie looked at him oddly: ‘That’s setting the bar rather low, don’t you think? I mean, bully for you she’s not in a coma …’

  Felix laughed, and spotted her grinning gummily with pleasure.

  ‘Politically conscious, racially conscious, as in she gets it, the struggle. Conscious.’

  ‘She’s awake and she understands.’ Annie closed her eyes and breathed deeply. ‘Bully for you.’

  But some flicker of imperiousness in her face tipped Felix over. He started shouting:

  ‘All you know how to do is take the piss. That’s all you know. What you doing that’s so amazing? What you getting accomplished?’

  Annie opened one startled eye. ‘What am I – what on earth are you talking about? I was joking, for God’s sake. What exactly am I meant to be getting accomplished?’

  ‘I’m talking about what are your goals? What do you want for your life to be like?’

  ‘What do I want for my life to be like? I’m sorry, grammatically I’m finding that question extremely peculiar.’

  ‘Fuck you, Annie.’

  She tried to laugh this off, too, and reached out for his wrist, but he pushed her away. ‘Nah, but there’s no point with you, is there? I’m trying to tell you where I’m going in my life and you’re just taking the piss. Pointless. You’re pointless.’

  It came out more brutal than he’d meant. She winced.

  ‘I think you’re being very cruel. I’m only trying to understand.’ Felix took it down a notch. He didn’t want to be cruel. He didn’t want to be seen to be cruel. He sat down next to her. He had his speech prepared, but also the sense that they were both speaking lines, that really she was as prepared as he was.

  ‘I’m tired of living the way I been living. I been feeling like I’ve been in the game, at this level, and I had a good time at this level – but, come on, Annie: even you would say it’s a level with a lot of demons. A lot of demons. Demons and –’

  ‘Excuse me – you’re talking to a nice Catholic girl who –’

  ‘Let me finish talking! For one time!’

  Annie nodded mutely.

  ‘Lost my thread now.’

  ‘Demons,’ said Annie.

  ‘Right. And I’ve killed them. And it was hard, and now they’re dead and I’ve completed the level, and it’s time to move to the next level. It ain’t even a matter of taking you to the next level. You blatantly don’t want to go.’

  This was the speech he had prepared. Now it was out of his mouth it didn’t seem to have the subtle depth it had taken on in his mind, but still he saw it had had some effect: her eyes were open and her yoga pose was over, arms unfolded, hands flat on the floor.

  ‘You listening? Next level. People can spend their whole lives just dwelling. I could spend my whole life dwelling on some of the shit that’s happened to me. I done that. Now it’s time for the next level. I’m moving up in the game and I’m ready for it.’

  ‘Yes, yes, I’ve grasped the metaphor, you don’t have to keep repeating it.’ Annie lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and exhaled it through her nose. ‘Life’s not a video game, Felix – there aren’t a certain number of points that send you to the next level. There isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is everybody dies at the end. Game over.’

  The few clouds left in the sky were shunting towards Trafalgar. Felix looked up at them with what he hoped was a spiritual look upon his face. ‘Well, that’s your opinion, innit. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.’

  ‘Mine, Nietzsche’s, Sartre’s, a lot of people. Felix, darling, I appreciate you coming here for this “serious talk” and sharing your thoughts about God, but I’m quite bored of talking now and personally I’d really like to know: are we going to fuck today or not?’

  She pulled playfully at his leg. He tried to get up, but she started kissing up his ankles and he soon sank back down on his knees. It was a defeat, and he blamed her. He got her by the shoulders, not gently, and together they scrabbled to the edge of the wall, where they told themselves they couldn’t be seen. He had a handful of her hair tight in his fist, and tried to land a harsh kiss, but she had the knack of turning every malevolent stroke into passion. They fitted together. They always had. But what was the point of fitting in this way and no other? He felt her hands on his shoulders, pushing him lower, and soon he was level with her appendix scar. She lifted her arse. He grabbed it with both hands and
put his face in her crotch. Fourteen when Lloyd first explained that to eat a woman was unhygienic, a humiliation. Only at gunpoint, that was his father’s opinion, and even then only if every last hair has been removed. Annie was the first time. Years of conditioning broken in an afternoon. He wondered what Lloyd might think of him now, with his nose nestled in so much abundant straight hair, and this strange taste in his mouth.

  ‘If it’s in the way, just take it out!’

  He grabbed the mouse-tail between his teeth and pulled. It came out easily. He left it like a dead thing, red on the white deck. He turned back to her and dug in with his tongue. He looked like he was frantically tunnelling somewhere and hoping to reach the other side. She tasted of iron, and when he came up for air five minutes later he imagined a ring of blood around his mouth. In fact there was only a speck; she kissed it away. The rest was quick. They were old lovers and had their familiar positions. On their knees, looking out over town, they came swiftly to reliably pleasurable, reliably separate, conclusions that were yet somehow an anticlimax when compared to those five minutes, five minutes ago, when it had seemed possible to climb inside another person, head first, and disappear entirely.

  Afterwards he lay on top of her feeling the unpleasant, sweaty closeness, wondering when it would be polite to move. He did not wait very long. He rolled over on to his back. She swept her hair to one side and put her head on his chest. They watched a police helicopter pass by on its way to Covent Garden.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ said Felix.

  ‘Whatever for?’

  Felix reached down and pulled his jeans back up. ‘You still taking your thing?’

  Felix saw a flash of fury pass over her face, and also how it was contained and dispersed in the action of opening the cigarettes, tapping one out, lighting it, smiling grimly, laughing.

  ‘No need. More chance of being struck by lightning. The blood just about still runs, but trust me: the well is almost dry. Nature, the enforcer. The destroyer! Speaking of which, dear brother James is meant to be taking me out to the Wolseley for a celebration of our mutual decrepitude – he phoned up yesterday, completely natural on the phone. You’d think we spoke every other day. Just ridiculous. But I played along, I said: “Hello, twin dear!” He suggests a birthday lunch – our birthday’s not till October, mind you – and I say fine, but of course I know precisely what he’s up to, he wants me to sign the bloody deed so he can sell out from under me. He doesn’t seem to understand that no matter what he thinks a part of that place is mine and who knows how much he’s already mortgaged it to pay for his little darlings’ education, up to the hilt, I’m sure, I doubt there’s a penny left in it, and we all know he wished he’d gobbled me up in the womb, but I’m afraid he didn’t manage it and as long as our mother is alive I really don’t see why it should be sold – where is she to go if it is? And who’s going to pay for it? That kind of care costs money. But he’s always been like that: James has always acted like he is an only child and I don’t exist at all. Do you know what he and Daddy used to call me behind my back? The afterbirth. Shall we have another drink? It’s so muggy.’

 
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