N.W. by Zadie Smith

  ‘Felix! Felix Cooper. ’Sup, bruv?’

  A giant kid, with a foolish gappy smile and mono-brow and thick black hair sticking up the back of the T-shirt. Felix wedged the heavy envelope under his armpit and submitted to a laborious, complicated handshake. He was standing only two feet from his own front door. ‘Long time … You don’t remember me, innit.’ Felix found he disliked being punched like that, too hard, and on the shoulder, but he smiled thinly and lied: ‘Course I do, bruv. Long time.’ This satisfied the kid. He punched Felix again. ‘Good to see you, man! Where you headed?’ Felix rubbed his eyes. ‘Family business. See my old man. Gotta be done.’ The young man laughed: ‘Lloyd! Used to come in for his Rizlas. Ain’t seen him for time.’ Yeah, old Lloyd. Yeah, old Lloyd was all right, still up in the old estate, in Caldwell, yeah, never left. Still Rasta, yeah. Still got his Camden stall. Selling his knick-knacks. Still doing all that. Felix laughed, as he understood he was meant to, at this point. Together they looked over at the towers of Caldwell, not five hundred yards away. ‘Apple ain’t fallen far from the tree, bruv, for real.’ This trigger gave up at least the surname: Khan. Of Khan’s minimart, Willesden. All that family looked the same, many brothers, running the place for their father. This must be the youngest. Caldwell boys back in the day, two floors below the Coopers. He didn’t remember them being especially friendly. Felix had arrived too late in Caldwell to make good friends. To do that you had to be born and bred. ‘Good times,’ said the Khan kid. To be polite, Felix agreed. ‘And you living back here now?’ ‘My girl lives just there.’ He indicated the supermarket sign with his chin. ‘Felix, man, you properly local. I remember when you was working in there. ’Member when I saw you on the tills that time I was like –’ ‘Yeah, well, I ain’t there no more.’ Felix glared over the boy’s head to the empty basketball cage across the street in which no one had ever played basketball or ever would. ‘I’m in Hendon now, innit,’ said the kid, a little bashfully, as if it was too much good luck to confess to. ‘Loving it. Married. Nice girl, traditional. Little one on the way, Inshallah.’ He held up a twinkling ring finger for Felix to inspect. ‘Life is good, man. Life is good.’ People got to have their little victories. ‘Oi, Felix, you going carnival?’ ‘Yeah. Probably just Monday, though. I’m getting old, man.’ ‘Maybe I’ll see you down there.’ Felix smiled nicely. Pointed his envelope towards Caldwell.


  He had seen BROKEN DOORBELL many times before, also KEEP OUT. NO DOORBELL suggested a new level of surrender. Where the Post-it was peeling Felix thumbed it back down again. He knocked for a while without result: the reggae was loud enough to rattle the letterbox on its hinges. He stepped across to the kitchen window and put his mouth to the four-inch gap. Lloyd wandered into view, barefoot and bare-chested, idly munching a piece of toast. His locks were secured in a bun, a wooden spoon thrust through them like a geisha’s chopstick.

  ‘Lloyd – I been knocking. Let me in, dred.’

  From around a dead cactus on the windowsill, Lloyd plucked a single key strung on a once-white shoelace and passed it out to his son.

  ‘Like a sauna in here!’ Felix dropped his coat to the floor and kicked off his trainers. In the narrow hall he remembered to give a wide berth to the first of several molten radiators, which, if you made even the faintest contact with them, burnt your skin. His feet sank into the carpet, a thick, synthetic purple pelt, unchanged in twenty years.

  ‘Listen, I ain’t staying. Got to be in town at twelve. I just brought something to show you.’

  Felix squeezed into the galley kitchen behind his father. Even this room was a mess of African masks and drums and the rest of that heritage whatnot. More every visit, it was piling up. A huge pot, bubbling yellow at the rim, sat on a gas ring. Felix watched Lloyd wrap a cloth round his hand and lift the lid.

  ‘That book came – that Grace found?’ He held out the envelope. ‘You should take all this stuff to the stall, man. Weather’s good for it. You could sell it at carnival.’

  Lloyd dismissed his son with a hand. ‘No time for that nonsense. That’s not my music any more. It’s just noise.’

  The dishes were piled high in the sink and a small hill of bed linen had been stuffed in a corner, not yet taken to the launderette. A bulb hung naked. Half a blunt smouldered in an ashtray.

  ‘Lloyd, man … You need to do some cleaning. Why’s the immersion on? Where’s Sylvia?’

  ‘Not here.’

  ‘What do you mean “not here”?’

  ‘The woman is not here. The woman has gone. She left a week ago but you ain’t phoned for a week – it’s news to you. Ain’t news to me. She long gone. This means freedom, this means lib-er-ty! ’ These last lines came from the song presently, fortuitously, playing. Lloyd danced a woozy two-step towards Felix.

  ‘She owed me forty quid,’ said Felix.

  ‘Look at this. Grey!’ Lloyd pressed his hands along his own hairline and pulled: a little nest of white hairs sprang forth. There were only seventeen years between the two men. ‘The woman made me grey. In three months she made me an old man.’

  Kept your flat clean. Hid the spliff till midday. Brought in a little money so you didn’t come begging off me. Felix looked at his fingers.

  ‘This is it, Fee, this is it: how can you stop people going when they want to go? How can you stop them? You can’t stop them. Listen: if you can’t stop a grown woman with four kids then you can’t stop a stupid girl like Sylvia who’s got nothing. She got no one.’ This emphasis drew his lips back for a moment and he looked just like a dog. ‘People need to go their own way, Felix! If you love someone, set them free! Never go out with a Spanish girl, though, seriously, that is serious advice. They ain’t rational. For real! Their brains ain’t wired normal.’ Something moist fell from above on to Felix’s shoulder. The constant central heating, the cooking, the lack of ventilation, caused large mould flowers to bloom on the ceiling. Scraps drifted down now and then, like petals. ‘Listen, I got along without your mother. I can get along now. Don’t stress, man – I’ll be all right. Been all right this long.’

  ‘What happened to the lampshade?’

  ‘I woke up and she’d stripped the place. Honest to God, Felix. I should have called the police. She’s probably back in fucking Madrid by now. DVD player. Bathmat. Toaster. If it weren’t screwed down, believe – she took it. She took the van. How can I sell anything without the van? Tell me that.’

  ‘She owed me forty quid,’ said Felix again, although it was pointless. Lloyd clapped his son’s face affectionately between his hands. Felix held up the envelope with the book in it.

  ‘Why can’t your fine woman come and see it though?’ said Lloyd, taking the package from his son. ‘I want to impress her not you, man! That’s the whole point, right? That’s the whole point of the exercise! She wants to know a real Garvey House man. You was just born there. I lived it, bruv. Nah, I’m joking you. Let me take a piss first. There’s ginger tea somewhere.’

  In the lounge Felix tore the envelope badly: a cloud of grey fluff exploded over the carpet. In little rusted heart-shaped frames his siblings sat on top of the TV watching him make a poor job of it. Devon aged about six, in the snow, in Garvey House, and the twins, Ruby and Tia, more recently, sitting on different concrete steps in a stairwell somewhere on Caldwell Estate. Whichever way he tore the mess got worse. He took a big breath and blew, clearing the glossy back cover. Twenty-nine quid! For a book! And when would he get paid for it? Never. Hard-backed, large like an atlas. GARVEY HOUSE: A Photographic Portrait. Felix turned randomly to a page, Russian roulette. No bullet: a shy couple, just married, skinny, country-looking, with uneven Afros and acne scars, done up in someone else’s too-large wedding gear. No wedding guests, or no guests in the shot. They were celebrating alone with a half-empty bottle of Martini Rosso. He bit his lip and flicked forward. Four handsome sistas in headscarves, covering a stretch of graffiti with a tub of fresh paint (colour unknown. All was black and white). In
the background, broken chairs and a mattress and a boy smoking a blunt. Felix heard the toilet flush. Lloyd came back out, sniffing, suspiciously perky. He drew a freshly rolled one from his pyjama bottoms and lit up. ‘Come on, then. Let’s be having it.’

  This is a photographic account of a fascinating period in London’s history. A mix of squat, halfway house and commune, Garvey House welcomed vulnerable young adults from the edges of

  ‘Don’t read me shit I already know. I don’t need the man dem telling me what I already know. Who was there, me or he?’ The book flipped itself back to the page Felix had just passed. ‘I knew all these girls, man. That’s Anita, Prissy, that’s Vicky, Queen Vicky we called her; she I don’t know – fine-looking women! That little bastard at the back is Denzel Baker. Scoundrel. I knew all of them! What does it say there – ain’t got my glasses.’

  May, 1977. The young women decorated and redecorated. Sometimes the boys came home late and smashed the place up, perhaps out of boredom, or in the hope that Brother Raymond would pay them to fix the place up once more.

  ‘Yeah, that’s about right. Brother Raymond got Islington Council funding it, and we did mess with them a bit, that’s true. The boys messed things up, and the girls tried to fix it up, ha!– can’t deny it. Except your mother. She messed things up, too. This was the heatwave. We just took off the door. It was too hot! Where am I? Should be in this one. There’s Marilyn! And – that’s Brother Raymond. Turned the wrong way but that’s him.’

  Felix looked closely. Garvey House spilled out into the concrete backyard. Kids barefoot, parents looking like kids themselves. Afros, headscarves, cane rows, weird stiff wigs, a tall, skinny, spiritual- looking Rasta resting on a big stick. He could not be sure if he had a memory of this, or whether the photograph itself was creating the memory for him. When the council rehoused the Coopers, he was only eight years old. ‘Fee, look how fresh we were, though! Look at that shirt! Kids don’t fresh it up like that any more. Jeans hanging down your batty crease. We was fresh!’ Felix had to concede it: style without money, without any means whatsoever. Charity-store nylons worn sharply. Battered Clarks coming off like the finest Italian shoes. BLACK POWER sprayed in three-foot-high letters on the garden wall. Strange to see here, confirmed in black and white, what he had all his life assumed to be a self-serving exaggeration. ‘Let me find you a proper one of Brother Raymond. How many times I told you about Raymond! He was the reason.’ Lloyd flicked sloppily through the glossy pages, missing wads of photos at a time. He passed Felix the spliff; Felix declined it silently. Nine months, two weeks, three days. ‘If it weren’t for Brother Raymond I’d be sleeping in King’s Cross to this day. He was a good man. He never –’ ‘Wait up!’ Felix thrust his hand into the book.

  Page 37. Lloyd flat out on a stained mattress reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Broad flares and little glasses, shirtless here, too. Barely aged. Not the familiar locks but a well-kept Afro, about four inches all round. ‘See? You never believe me: always reading, I was always reading. That’s where you kids get your brains. They called me “Professor”. Everybody did. That’s why Jackie hunt me down in the first place. She wanted to get in here.’ Lloyd tapped his own temple and made a face to suggest the mysteries inside were frightening in their intensity, even to their owner. ‘Vampire business. She was sucking out the knowledge.’ Felix nodded. He tried looking more intently at the photograph. He asked after the names of three other guys in the picture – sat round a card table, smoking and playing Black Jack. ‘Two of them boys went down for murder. That one with the little face, can’t remember his name, and him, Antoine Greene. Hard times! You lot don’t even know. People now … That fool-man Barnes. What’s he talking about? “The struggle!” He’s the one with the three-bedroom Oat, isn’t he? Full pension coming from the post office in a couple years. I don’t need no lessons from that fool. I seen the struggle.’ Lloyd hit his fist against the wall for emphasis, and Felix’s thoughts followed the reverberation to next door. ‘Barnesy’s safe, man. He’s a good guy,’ he said, in an automatic way, to defend a particular set of memories. Playing with Phil’s daughters round by the bins, looking through Phil’s fossils, growing mustard cress on cotton wool on Phil’s balcony. Growing up, Felix had imagined that the adult world would be full of men like Phil Barnes. That they were as common in England as wildflowers. ‘He’s a fool,’ said Lloyd, and found his glasses between two cushions on the sofa.

  Felix took control of the page-turning and quickly landed on Brother Raymond, seen clearly this time, helping to rebuild the front wall. ‘You see the Holloway Road, right? So where the Job Centre is now – that’s where it was.’ Brother Raymond turned out to be a small man, with a neat Trotskyite beard. ‘You said he was a priest.’ ‘He was!’ Felix traced a finger under the caption: ‘“Self-appointed social worker”.’ ‘Listen: brother was a priest. In spirit he was a priest.’ Felix yawned, not too discreetly. Lloyd grew annoyed at the captions. ‘Yeah, sure, OK, that was Ann. So what? Ann something or another – it was thirty years ago, man! Everyone been with Ann. She was loose! So what? Who said you could take a lot of pictures? We weren’t in the zoo!’ Felix recognized the mood arc of the weed. Next door in the kitchen an old-fashioned tin kettle whistled on the stove. ‘Fee, go make us some tea.’

  Opening the cupboards, Felix found the honey jar on its side, sticking the box of tea to the shelf. He went to work with a damp tea towel. Lloyd shouted at him through the thin wall: ‘Little white geezer – I remember him! Snap snap snap, bothering us, you know? One of them who wants to get in on the struggle when it ain’t even his struggle. That fool next door the same way – same mentality. We was trying to get on with our own business. Sometimes he was lucky to get out alive, you understand? Them boys weren’t fooling, they were not fooling at all. Nobody said nothing about a book, though, nothing about money. The council would have wanted to know about it, you understand? If you take an image, Felix, OK? If you take an image of a man, right? That’s copyrighted!’ Lloyd appeared at the kitchen door, eyes bloodshot. ‘That’s his soul in a way of speaking. How you gonna just sell that under English law? There’s no way. In a public building from the council? I don’t think so. Go to the library, look at the law books. Where’s my money? He’s selling my image on the Internets? My image? I don’t think so. Where’s my rights under the English law? Put a bit of honey in mine.’

  From the doorway, Felix watched Lloyd settle into the old grey velour couch with his book, arrange a little pile of Hobnobs on the glass side table, the tea next to it, carefully balancing the joint at a genteel angle so the table was saved while the ash crumbled to the carpet. He considered asking his father when he’d last spoken to Devon, but chose, instead, the path of self-preservation. ‘Lloyd, I’m gonna chip.’ ‘You just got here!’ ‘I know – but I gotta chip. Got shit to do.’ Felix slapped the door frame in what he hoped was a cheery, conclusive way. ‘For who?’ said Lloyd coolly, without looking up. ‘For you or she?’ It was that particular tone, enquiring and high – and suddenly Jamaican – coiling up to Felix like a snake rising from its basket. He tried to laugh it off – ‘Come on now, don’t start that, man’– but Lloyd knew to place his poison with precision. ‘I’m trying to train you up, right? It’s not that you don’t hear me, Felix, it’s that you don’t want to hear me. You’re the big man these days. But let me arks you some ting: why you still chasing after the females like they can save your life? Seriously. Why? Look at Jasmine. You nah learn. The man can’t satisfy the woman, right? Don’t matter how much he gives. The woman is a black hole. I’ve gone deep into the literature, Felix. Biological, social, historical, every kind of oracle. The woman is a black hole. Your mudder was a black hole. Jasmine was a black hole. This one you got now is the same, and she’s nice-looking, too, so she’s gonna suck you in all the way before you realize she’s sucked you dry. The finer they are, the worse it is.’ Lloyd took a large, satisfying slurp from his tea. ‘You give me jokes,’ said Felix weakly, an
d just about managed to make it out of the room.

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