N.W. by Zadie Smith

  She lay back down on his chest. She kissed the skin round the neck of his T-shirt. He put his fingers in her hair.

  ‘You should probably take one of them other pills – the ones you take after. To be safe.’

  Annie made an exasperated sound.

  ‘I don’t want your babies, Felix. I can assure you I’m not sitting up here like some tragic fallen woman every night dreaming of having your babies.’ She began tracing a figure of eight with her fingernail along his stomach. The movement looked idle but the nail pressed in hard. ‘You realize of course that if it were the other way round there would be a law, there would be an actual law: John versus Jen in the high court. And John would put it to Jen that she did wilfully fuck him for five years, before dumping him without warning in the twilight of his procreative window, and taking up with young Jack-the-lad, only twenty-four years old and with a cock as long as my arm. The court rules in favour of John. Every time. Jen must pay damages. Huge sums. Plus six months in jail. No – nine. Poetic justice. And you wouldn’t be able to –’

  ‘You know what? I should chip.’ He slid her head off his body, pulled his T-shirt down and stood. She sat up and crossed her arms over her breasts. She looked in the direction of the river.

  ‘Yes, why don’t you?’

  He reached down to kiss her goodbye but she jerked her head away like a child.

  ‘Why you being like that? I’ve got to go, that’s all.’ Felix felt something was off: he looked down and saw his zip was open. He pulled it closed. It occurred to him that he had said and done exactly the opposite of all he’d intended to say and do ever since he walked through her door.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

  ‘No need. I’m fine. Next time bring your Grace lady. I like conscious types. They’re so much livelier. I find that most people are in a semivegetative state.’

  ‘I’m really sorry.’ Felix kissed her on the forehead.

  He started walking towards the trapdoor. After a moment he heard footsteps coming up behind, and saw the flicker of her dressing gown, a few silk swallows on the wing, then a hand clamping down on his shoulder.

  ‘You know, Felix –’ a dainty little voice, like a waitress reciting the specials – ‘not everyone wants this conventional little life you’re rowing your boat towards. I like my river of fire. And when it’s time for me to go I fully intend to roll off my one-person dinghy into the flames and be consumed. I’m not afraid! I’ve never been afraid. Most people are, you know. But I’m not like most people. You’ve never done anything for me and I don’t need you to do anything for me.’

  ‘Never done anything for you? When you was lying on this roof, dribbling out your mouth, with your eyes rolling back in your head, who was here, who put their fingers –’

  Annie’s nostrils flared and her face turned cruel. ‘Felix, what is this pathological need of yours to be the good guy? It’s very dull. Frankly, you were more fun when you were my dealer. You don’t have to save my life. Or anyone’s life. We’re all fine. We don’t need you to ride in on a white horse. You’re nobody’s saviour.’

  They were speaking softly enough, but putting their hands on each other, more and more violently, and pulling them off, and Felix realized it was happening, it was bad as it could be, the dreaded scene that had kept him from this place for months, and the strange thing was how precisely he knew what it was like to be Annie at this moment – he had been in Annie’s role many times, with his mother, with other women – and the more he understood it the more he wanted to escape her, as if losing in the way she was losing right now was a kind of virus and pity the way you caught it.

  ‘You act like we’re in a relationship, but this ain’t a relationship. I’m in a relationship – that’s what I come here to tell you. But this? This ain’t shit, it’s nothing, it’s –’

  ‘Christ, another hideous word! God save me from “relationships!” ’

  Desperate now to leave, Felix played what he believed was his trump card. ‘You’re forty-whatever. Look at you. You’re still living like this. I want to have kids. I want to get on with my life.’

  Annie forced out some approximation of a laugh: ‘You mean “more kids”, don’t you? Or are you one of these optimistic souls who feel they become a new person every seven years, once the cells have regenerated – blank page, start again – never mind who you hurt, never mind what went on before. Now it’s time for my new relationship.’

  ‘I’m out,’ said Felix, and began walking away.

  ‘What a mealy-mouthed pathetic word, “relationship”. For people who haven’t the guts to live, haven’t the imagination to Tll their three score and ten with anything other than –’

  Felix knew better than to get into it: he had no more cards and she was anyway playing by herself. When she was like this she could have an argument with a coat-stand, with a broom. And how could he know how much she’d taken before he’d even turned up? Now he turned from her and opened the trapdoor and made his way down, but she followed him.

  ‘It’s what people do these days, isn’t it? When they can’t think of anything else to do. No politics, no ideas, no balls. Get married. But I’ve transcended all that. Long time ago. Aeons ago. This idea that all your happiness lies in this other person. This idea of happiness! I’m on a different plane of consciousness, darling. I’ve got more balls than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I was engaged at nineteen, I was engaged at twenty-three, I could be mouldering in some Hampshire pile at this very moment, covering and re-covering sofas with some baron in perfect sexless harmony. That’s what my people do. While your lot have a lot of babies they can’t afford or take care of. I’m sure it’s all perfectly delightful, but you can count me the fuck out!’

  In the hall between the bedroom and lounge, Felix turned round and grabbed both her wrists. He was shaking. He hadn’t realized till now what he wanted. Not just that she lose, but that she not exist.

  ‘You’re lucky that you find life easy, Felix. You’re lucky that you’re happy, that you know how to be happy, that you’re a good person – and you want everyone to be happy and good because you are, and to find things easy because you do. Does it never occur to you some people might not find life as easy to live as you do?’

  She looked triumphant. He watched her coke-jaw grinding against itself.

  ‘My life? My life is easy?’

  ‘I didn’t say it was easy. I said you find it easy. There’s a difference.

  That’s why I like the ballet: it’s hard for everybody. Felix, let go, it hurts.’

  Felix let go. Touching each other for so long, even in anger, made the anger unsustainable, and they both softened, and lowered their voices, and looked away.

  ‘I’m in the way, I see that. Well. No harm done. By which I mean of course: nothing but harm done.’

  ‘Every time I come round here, same drama. Same drama.’ Felix shook his head at the floor. ‘I don’t get it. I never been nothing but nice to you. Why you trying to ruin my life?’

  She gave him a penetrating look.

  ‘How funny,’ he said. ‘But of course that’s how it must seem to you.’

  After that they walked to the door quite calmly, the man slightly ahead. A stranger coming across the scene would have thought the man had tried to sell the woman a Bible or set of encyclopedias, with no success. For his own part, Felix felt absolute certainty that this was the last time – the last time of passing this picture, the last time seeing that crack in the plaster – and in his mind he said a little prayer of thanks. He almost wished he could tell the woman he loved all about it, so fine an example was it of all that she had taught him. The universe wants you to be free. You must shake yourself free of the negative. The universe wants only that you ask, so that you shall receive. Behind him now he heard this woman quietly weeping. It was his cue to turn round, but he didn’t, and at the threshold the weeping became a sob. He hurried to the stairs, and was a few steps down when he heard a thud on the carpet above as
she went down on her knees, and he knew he was meant to feel heavy, but the truth was he felt like a man undergoing some not-yet-invented process called particle transfer, wonderfully, blissfully light.


  Felix inched deeper into the carriage. He gripped the safety rail. He considered the tube map. It did not express his reality. The centre was not ‘Oxford Circus’ but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. ‘Wimbledon’ was the countryside, ‘Pimlico’ pure science fiction. He put his right index finger over Pimlico’s blue bar. It was nowhere. Who lived there? Who even passed through it?

  Two seats came free in a bank of four. Felix roused himself and sat down. The guy opposite nodded to a loud break-beat. His friend next to him put his feet up on the seat. Pupils enormous, laughing into his neck every now and again, amused by some private delirium. Felix established a private space of his own, opening his legs wide and slouching. At Finchley Road, as underground came over ground, his phone revived, bleeping to register a missed call. His thumb worked hopefully down the list. Same number, three times. It had only one physical referent in the world: a battered public call box, riveted to a wall, halfway down a concrete corridor. He had seen it many times through the reinforced glass of the visiting room. He put the phone back into his pocket.

  The thing with Devon was you wanted to talk to him, but at the same time, you didn’t want to. It wasn’t Devon any more, really, but a hardvoiced stranger, who rang and said hard things, hurtful things. Jackie talking, through Devon’s mouth. She was sending Devon letters. Felix learnt this from Lloyd (Devon had not said; Felix had not asked). Their mother had a strange power over people – Felix did not discount witchcraft. (Jackie claimed a Ghanaian grandmother. These things were not unknown there.) She surely had a power over Felix, once upon a time. A power over the girls. But she was a person with whom there would always be a ‘last straw’. Devon would have to learn this, as Felix and the girls had all learnt it. The end for Felix was clearly marked. On that occasion it was eight years since her last ‘visit’. The girls refused to see her. Always sentimental, Felix took her in, cautiously, promising nothing. For moral support, he asked his brother to come round. Devon began the evening at the other end of the room, standing against the wall, glaring. He ended the night cosy on the sofa, accepting Jackie’s sloppy kisses all over his face. Felix softened, too. He brought down the white rum from a high shelf. Foolish. Tia called it early, as did Ruby. Lloyd. Everybody called it. Jackie’s sister, Karen, said: ‘Listen to me. Put her out your door and change the locks.’ But at the time it had seemed that Devon’s acquiescence allowed – necessitated – Felix’s. He had suffered so much more than Felix over the years, yet held no grudge.

  She turned up in high summer. Many days spent smoking weed together on Hampstead Heath, laughing madly, rolling about in the grass like young lovers. Jackie, Devon, Felix. At nights they sat up drinking. ‘I can’t believe how yellow this boy is! Look at them curls!’ Emerging from the kitchen with a pack of biscuits, she told poor Devon quite casually that his father had died, some years ago – drowned. To Felix, it sounded like a tall tale. He kept quiet. In the end they were halfbrothers: it wasn’t his business. He had his own father, his own troubles. In the early hours she stood in the middle of the floor, as if on stage, and spoke of how lonely and miserable she’d been in England, as a young woman. This Felix had never heard; he found he wanted to hear it, although he knew perfectly well she could have exchanged this life story for any other narrative and he would have accepted it just as readily. He wanted to love her. He tried to imagine life in notorious Garvey House, being ‘spat at by NF kids in the grocers’. She talked out her various conspiracy theories. These Felix did not interrupt. He wanted to be happy. There was one about the towers. There was one about the moon landings. The Virgin Mary was black. The planet was getting colder. 2012 would be the end of everything. She seemed to have spent the past few years in Internet cafés around the country, gathering this information. Devon followed her willingly on every point. Felix, more sceptical, let it wash over him, without comment. She had her hair tied in two thick plaits like a Red Indian, a thin gold band tied across her forehead. And lo, there would come a perfect future world with no money and no shops, just storehouses in the middle of town, with everything you needed in them and no locks on the doors. People living all together with no religion. Her eyes, he knew, had the taint of madness.

  The next day she was gone, with Felix’s cashpoint card, his watch, all his chains. Two months later Devon walked into Khandi’s Gem Express and Jewellery on the high road, with a kid from south Kilburn, Curtis Ainger, and a gun. Smile, you’re on CCTV. Nineteen when he went in. Twenty-three, this summer.

  ‘Sorry, could you ask your friend to move his feet?’

  Felix took out his earbuds. A white woman, hugely pregnant and sweating, stood over him.

  ‘I’d like to sit down?’ she said.

  Felix looked at his motionless ‘friend’ opposite, and thought it best to speak to the other one. He leant forward. This guy had his head against the glass, oblivious and half hidden by his hood, nodding to his music. Felix touched him lightly on the knee.

  ‘Oi, bruv – I think the lady wants to sit down.’

  The guy removed one can of his bulky earphones.


  ‘I think the lady wants to sit down.’

  The pregnant woman smiled tightly. It was a hot day to be in that state. Looking at her made the sweat break out across Felix’s nose.

  ‘Yeah? Why you asking me, though? Why you touching me?’


  ‘Why you asking me? Why don’t she ask me?’

  ‘Your man’s got his feet on her seat, blud.’

  ‘But is it your business, though? Why you tryna make it your business? Who you calling blud? I ain’t your blud.’

  ‘I didn’t say it was my –’

  ‘Is it your business, though? You got a seat – you fucking get up.’ Felix tried to defend himself; the kid waved a hand in his face. ‘Shut up – fool.’

  The other guy opened one eye and laughed quietly. Felix stood up. ‘Take mine – I’m getting off.’

  ‘Thank you.’ Felix saw how badly she was shaking, and that her eyes were watery. He angled himself out of her way, and felt the moist skin of her arms against his own. She sat down. She looked directly at the two men. Her voice was wobbly: ‘You should be ashamed of yourselves,’ she said.

  They were pulling into Kilburn Station. The carriage was silent. No one looked – or they looked so quickly their glances were undetectable. Felix felt a great wave of approval, smothering and unwanted, directed towards him, and just as surely, contempt and disgust enveloping the two men and separating them, from Felix, from the rest of the carriage, from humanity. They seemed to feel it: abruptly they both stood and hustled towards the door, where Felix already stood waiting. He could hear the inevitable thrum of cusses, directed at him. The doors blessedly opened; Felix found himself shoulder-charged; he stumbled on to the platform like a clown. Laughter, close, then vanishing. He looked up to see the soles of their trainers as they took the stairs two at a time, jumped the barrier and disappeared.

  Trees shaggy overhead. Hedges wild over fences. Every crack in the pavement, every tree root. The way the sun hits the top deck of the 98. The walls have grown taller outside the Jewish school and outside the Muslim one. The Kilburn Tavern has been repainted, shiny black with gold lettering. If he hurries he may even get home before her. Lie down in that clean room, that good place. Pull her into his body. Start all over again, fresh.

  Outside the Tavern, Felix spotted Hifan and Kelly eating a tray of chips at a picnic table, both of them from his year at school – he bald, she still looking fine. To get a laugh Felix high-fived Hifan, kissed Kelly on her cheek, stole a chip and walked on, like it was all one movement, a form of dance. ‘What you so happy about?’ Kelly called after him, and Felix shouted: ‘Love, shorty, L.O.V.E. LOVE!’ without turn
ing round, and did his pimp-roll walk, and enjoyed the laughter as he disappeared smoothly round the corner. Nobody to see him collide with the grey bins out the back. He steadied himself with a hand to the Tavern’s back door: fancy coloured glass now and a new brass doorknob. Wood floors where carpets used to be, real food instead of crisps and scratchings. About six quid for a glass of wine! Jackie wouldn’t recognize it. Maybe by now she’d be one of those exiles on the steps of the betting shop, clutching a can of Special Brew, driven from the pubs by the refits. Maybe she was never that bad. It was impossible to know, with Lloyd, how much was true, how much pure venom. Felix glanced through the window to the interior: no more velvety corner booth. Where he had sat with his sisters, six little feet not even touching the ground, earnestly listening to Jackie give her leaving speech. Some new man she’d met who made her feel free. Lived in Southampton, some white guy. At seven you don’t know. He didn’t know that freedom was something you could feel. He thought it was something you simply were. He didn’t know where Southampton was. He loved his own father and did not want to go and live with a strange white man. Only when the conversation was almost over did it occur to Felix that she wasn’t asking him to come to Southampton. Two years later, she turned up in London with a light brown baby boy. Left Devon with Lloyd and went – wherever. Wherever she went.

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