Nw by Zadie Smith


  “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 Center 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 gray 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 doorframe 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, inquiring 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 cyan’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, and just about managed to make it out of the room.

  In the hall, forcing his feet back into his Nikes, 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 percent. 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 leaned 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 percent.” “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 neighbor 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 go
t 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 center 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 leaned 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 anymore. 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 say 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 onto 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, Barnsey. 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, toward 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 backward 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 Mulherne had seemed just a little too old to be running around with his dad: now she seemed like his father’s mother. Next-morning 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 doctors’ 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.

 
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