Nw by Zadie Smith


  • • •

  “Grace what?” “Grace. End of.” “You don’t have a last name?” “Not for you.” At this same bus stop. Eyes on the ankles of her dark blue jeans, straightening the cuffs over and over so they sat right on her high black boots. Kiss curl cemented to her forehead. He thought he had never seen anything so beautiful. “Come on now, don’t be like that. Listen: know what ‘Felix’ means? Happy. I bring happiness, innit? But can I ask you something? Does it bother you if I sit here? Grace? Can I speak to you? Both waiting for the same bus, innit? Might as well. But does it bother you if I sit here?” She had looked up at him finally, with manufactured eyes, the light brown kind you buy on the high road. She looked supernatural. And he had known at once: this is my happiness. I’ve been waiting at this bus stop all my life and my happiness has finally arrived. She spoke! “Felix—that’s your name, yeah? You ain’t bothering me, Felix. You would have to matter to me to bother me, you get me? Yeah. It’s like that.” Her bus coming over the hill. Then. Now. “Nah, wait, don’t be like that, listen to me: I’m not trying to chirps you. You just struck me. I want to know you that’s all. You got a face that’s very . . . intensified.” Lift of a movie star’s eyebrow: “Is it. You got a face like somebody who chirpses girls at bus stops.”

  • • •

  Five and innocent at this bus stop. Fourteen and drunk. Twenty-six and stoned. Twenty-nine in utter oblivion, out of his mind on coke and K: “You can’t sleep here, son. You either need to move it along or we’ll have to take you in to the station to sleep it off.” You live in the same place long enough, you get memory overlap. “Thanks for seeing me off, Felix, love. Good to see you. Knock on my door any time. Send my love to Lloyd. I’m just downstairs and you’re always welcome.” Felix jumped back on the bus. He waved at Phil Barnes, who gave him a double thumbs up. He waved at Mrs. Mulherne as the bus climbed the hill and overtook her. He pressed a hand against the glass. Grace at seventy. The Tinkerbell tattoo in the base of her back, wrinkled, or expanded. But how could Grace ever be seventy? Look at her. (“And, Fee, remember: I weren’t even meant to be there. I was meant to be at my aunt’s in Wembley. Remember? That’s the day I was meant to be looking after her kids, but she broke her foot, she was home. So then I was like: might as well get the bus into town, do some shopping. Felix, please don’t try and tell me that weren’t fate. I don’t care what nobody says, blatantly everything happens for a reason. Don’t try and tell me that the universe didn’t want me to be there, at that moment!”)

  • • •

  Mind the gap. Felix stepped in the second carriage from the end and looked at a tube map like a tourist, taking a moment to convince himself of details no life-long Londoner should need to check: Kilburn to Baker Street (Jubilee): Baker street to Oxford Circus (Bakerloo). Other people trust themselves. A variation of the same instinct had his hand deep in his pocket clutching a piece of paper with a name on it. A train barrelled past, knocking him into the seat he’d been heading for. After a moment the two trains seemed to cruise together. He looked out now at his counterpart, in the other train. Small woman, whom he would have judged Jewish without being able to articulate any very precise reason why: dark, pretty, smiling to herself, in a blue dress from the seventies—big collar, tiny white bird print. She was frowning at his t-shirt. Trying to figure it. He felt like it: he smiled! A broad smile that emphasized his dimples and revealed three gold teeth. The girl’s little dark face pulled tight like a net bag. Her train pulled ahead, then his did.

  (W1)

  “You’re Felix? Hi! Great! You’re Felix!”

  He was standing outside Topshop. A tall, skinny white boy, with a lot of chestnut fringe floppy in his face. Drainpipe jeans, boxy black spectacles. He seemed to need a moment to re-arrange his brain, which Felix allowed him, taking out his tobacco and beginning to roll while the boy said, “Tom Mercer—it’s just round the corner; well, a few streets over,” and laughed as a way of covering his surprise. Felix did not know why his own voice so often misled on the phone.

  “Shall we? I mean, can you do that and walk?”

  “With one hand and running, bruv.”

  “Ha. Very good. This way.”

  But he did not seem to know how to negotiate the corner crush between Oxford and Regent streets; after a few false starts he was half a foot further back than he had been a moment ago. Felix licked a Rizla and watched the boy concede to a Peruvian holding a twelve-foot banner: BARGAIN CARPET SALE 100 YARDS. Not from London, not originally, thought Felix, who had been to Wiltshire once and returned astounded. Felix stepped in front and took control, walking through a crowd of Indian girls with luxurious black ponytails and little gold Selfridges badges pinned to their lapels. They walked against the natural flow, the white boy and Felix—it took them five minutes to cross the road. Felix diagnosed a hangover. Cracked lips and panda eyes. A delicate reaction to light.

  Felix tried: “You had her long or . . . ?”

  The boy looked startled. He put his hand in his fringe.

  “Have I . . . ? Oh, I see. No. I mean, she was a present a few years ago, my 21st—hand-me-down from my father—he’d had her a long time . . . Not a very practical present. But you’re a specialist, of course—you won’t have the same sort of trouble.”

  “Mechanic.”

  “Right. My father knows your garage. He’s had these cars for thirty years—longer—he knows all the specialist garages. Kilburn, isn’t it?”

  “Yeah.”

  “That’s sort of Notting Hill way, isn’t it?”

  “Nah, not really.”

  “Ah, now, Felix? We’ll do a left here. Escape this chaos.”

  They ducked down a cobbled side street. Fifty yards away, on Oxford Street, people pressed against people, dense as carnival, almost as loud. Back here all was silent, empty. Slick black doors, brass knobs, brass letterboxes, lamp-posts out of fairy stories. Old paintings in ornate gold frames, resting on easels, angled toward the street. PRICE UPON APPLICATION. Ladies’ hats, each on its own perch, feathered, ready to fly. RING FOR ASSISTANCE. Shop after shop without a soul in it. At the end of this little row, Felix spotted a customer through a mullioned, glittering, window sitting on a leather pouf, trying on one of those green jackets, waxy like a tablecloth, with the tartan inside. Halfway up, the window glass became clear, revealing a big pink face, with scraps of white hair here and there, mostly in the ears. The type Felix saw all the time, especially in this part of town. A great tribe of them. Didn’t mix much—kept to their own kind. THE HORSE AND HARE.

  “Good pub, that pub,” said Felix. It was something to say.

  “My father swears by it. When he’s in London it’s his second home.”

  “Is it. I used to work round here, back in the day. Bit of film work.”

  “Really? Which company?”

  “All about. Wardour Street and that,” Felix added and regretted it at once.

  “I have a cousin who’s a VP at Sony, I wonder if you ever came across him? Daniel Palmer. In Soho Square?”

  “Yeah, nah . . . I was just a runner, really. Here and there. Different places.”

  “Got you,” said Tom, and looked satisfied. A small puzzle had been resolved. “I’m very interested in film—I used to dabble a bit in all that, you know, the way narrative works, how you can tell a story through images . . .”

  Felix put his hood up. “You in the industry, yeah?”

  “Not exactly, I mean, no, not at the moment, no. I mean I’m sure I could have been, but it’s a very unstable business, film. When I was in college I was really a film guy, buff, type. No, I’m sort of in the creative industries. Sort of media-related creative industry. It’s hard to explain—I work for a company that creates ideas for brand consolidation? So that brands can better target receptivity for their products—cutting-edge brand manipulation, basically.”

&
nbsp; Felix stopped walking, forcing the boy to stop. He looked vacantly at his unlit fag.

  “Like advertising?”

  “Basically, yes,” said Tom irritably, and then, when Felix didn’t follow him: “Need a light?”

  “Nah. Got one here somewhere. Like advertising campaigns?”

  “Well, no not really, because—it’s difficult to explain—basically we don’t see campaigns as a way forward anymore. It’s more about the integration of luxury brands into your everyday consciousness.”

  “Advertising,” concluded Felix, drew his lighter out of his pocket and assumed a face of innocence.

  “It’s just this next right, if you’ll . . .”

  “Right behind you, bruv.”

  They walked through a grand square, and then off into a side street, although the houses here were no less grand: white-fronted and many stories high. Somewhere church bells rang. Felix slipped his hood off.

  “Here we are—here she is. I mean, obviously this is not the sort of thing where—sorry, Felix, will you excuse me a moment? I better take this.”

  The boy put his phone to his ear and sat on the black-and-white tiled steps of the nearest house, dead center between two potted orange trees. Felix walked a half circle until he was standing in the road. He crouched. She was smiling at him, but they all do that, no matter what state they’re in. Frog-eye headlamps, manic grille grin. One-eyed in this case. He touched the spot where the badge should be. When the time came it would be a silver octagon, with the two letters back to back, dancing. Not plastic. Metal. It was going to be done right. He straightened up. He put his hand through the giant slash in the soft top and rubbed the fabric between his fingers: a thin, faded polyester weave. Plastic window gone anyway. The rust he didn’t need to touch, he could see how bad it was. Worst at the rear left—it was like a continent there—but also pretty drastic all round the bonnet, which meant it had likely rusted through. Still: the right red. The original red. Good arch on the front wheels, square as they should be at the back, and a perfect rubber bumper—all of which marked it as authentically what it claimed to be, at least. M DGET. Easily fixed, like all of this external stuff—cosmetic. Under the hood was where the real news would be. In a funny way, the worse the news the better it was for him. Barry, at the garage: “If it moves, son, you can’t afford it.” He would make it move. Maybe not this month or the one after, but finally. A little impatiently he tried a door handle. He had an urge to rip through the blown-out window, taped shut with cardboard and masking tape.

  “It’s not a question of who feels more,” the boy said. He was pulling a pebble back and forth across the tile with a foot. Felix leaned against the car. “Soph? Soph? Look, I can’t talk now. Of course not! My phone was dead. No, not now. Please calm down. Soph, I’m in the middle of a thing. Soph?” The boy took the phone from his ear and looked at it curiously for a moment. He slid it back into the pocket of his coat. Felix whistled.

  “Ninety-nine problems. I hear you, bruv.”

  “Sorry—what?”

  “The car. It’s got some problems.”

  “Well, yes,” said Tom Mercer, and made an expansive gesture that meant to take in the whole vehicle. “Of course, it’s clearly a project car. This is not something you’re going to drive away in. Hence the price. Otherwise we’d be talking in the many thousands. Clearly a project car. Let me open it up, give you the full tour.”

  Felix watched Tom wrestle with the key.

  “I can do that if—” began Felix. The door popped.

  “Just needs a wangle. Project car, as I say. But doable.” The tour turned out to be somewhat limited. “Clutch” said Tom, and “Gears,” and “Steering wheel,” brushing these objects vaguely with his hand, and then, as they both looked dolefully at the moldy, curled carpet and rusted floor, the wool and wire bursting out of the stained upholstery, the hole where the radio should be, he murmured the year of manufacture.

  “Year I was born,” said Felix.

  “Then it’s fate.”

  Now the boy read off a series of facts from a small piece of paper he took from his pocket: “MG midget, one thousand five hundred cc Triumph 14 engine, 100,000 on the clock, manual, petrol, two-door roadster, transmission requires—”

  Felix couldn’t resist: “Two doors, yeah? Got it.”

  Tom blushed appealingly. “My father’s list. Not really a car man myself.”

  Felix felt moved to pat him in a friendly way on his high, bony shoulders. “Just messing with you. Can we get a look under the hood?”

  It creaked open. Beneath was all the bad news he could have hoped for. The battery overwhelmed by rust, the cylinder cracked. Pistons right through to the engine block.

  “Salvageable?” asked Tom. Felix looked perplexed. Tom tried again: “Can it be saved?”

  “Depends. What sort of money we talking about?”

  Tom looked once more at his piece of paper.

  “I’ve been instructed around the thousand mark.”

  Felix laughed and reached his hand into the engine. He scratched at the rust with a fingernail.

  “To be honest with you, Tom, I see these come in every day, in better condition than yours, much better—for six hundred. No-one’s gonna pay six hundred for this. This one you won’t be able to sell to no-one but a mechanic, I promise you.”

  The sun now hit the car directly: the bonnet lit up. Radiant wreck! Tom looked up, squinting.

  “Good thing you’re a mechanic, then, isn’t it?”

  There was something funny about the way he said it. Both men laughed: Felix in his big gulping way, Tom into his hand like a child. The phone in his pocket started up.

  “Oh Jesus—look, it’s not really any skin off my nose, but if I tell my father I took less than seven hundred I’ll never hear the end of it. Personally I’d much rather be back in my bed. Excuse me a second—Soph, I’ll call you back in one minute—” But he kept the phone to his ear and Felix heard more than he wanted to as Tom mimed apologies at him. At the end of the road, a happy roar rose up from a crowd at one of the pub’s outdoor tables. Tom raised his eyebrows quizzically at Felix and made the “lifting a pint” gesture: Felix nodded.

  • • •

  “What’ll you have?”

  “Ginger beer, thanks.”

  “Ginger beer and?”

  “Nah, that’s it.”

  “Look, for me it’s hair of the dog—least you can do is join me.”

  “Nah, I’m all right. Just ginger beer.”

  “My father says there’s only two sentences a self-respecting Englishman should accept in this situation: I’m on antibiotics and I’m an alcoholic.”

  “I’m an alcoholic.”

  Felix looked up from the slats of the wooden table. Tom wiped the sweat from his forehead, opened his mouth but said nothing. Felix took a moment to appreciate that his own skin could not broadcast shame so quickly nor so well. Tom’s phone started up again.

  Felix rose up from the bench: “Don’t worry, mate, you take your call. I’ll go. Pint, yeah?”

  Outside it was a glorious Saturday lunchtime in late summer; inside it was ten o’clock at night on a Tuesday in October. The ceiling black and carved into hexagons, the carpet light-absorbing and dark green. Coffin-wood furniture, ancient and heavy. One old man sat in the corner by the jukebox, in a shabby donkey jacket, with white papery skin and yellow hair and nails, rolling a cigarette—he looked like a cigarette. At the bar, a skinny-legged old girl perched on a stool counted and recounted four piles of twenty-pence pieces. She stopped this activity to stare frankly at Felix, who only smiled back. “All right,” he said, and turned to the barmaid. The old woman sliced suddenly at the towers of coins with the side of her palm. Felix’s reflexes were quick; he saved one pile from flying off the bar altogether. In his peripher
al vision he saw Tom heading for the toilets. The barmaid mouthed “sorry” and screwed a finger into her temple. “No worries,” said Felix. He took a cold glass in each hand. He let the barmaid put a packet of salt-and-vinegar crisps between his teeth.

  • • •

  “How old are you, Felix?”

  “Thirty-two.”

  “But why d’you look younger than me?”

  Felix split the bag of crisps down the seam and laid them out on the table.

  “Is it. How old are you?”

  “Twenty-five. I’m already losing my bloody hair.”

  Felix bit down on his straw and smiled round it: “My old man’s the same way. No wrinkles. Genetics.”

  “Ah, genetics. Explanation for everything these days.” Tom shielded his eyes with his hand, to make out the sun was bothering him. Felix’s gaze was intense—he met your eyes no matter how you tried to avoid it—and Tom was not used to looking at even his closest friends that way, no matter a perfect stranger to whom he hoped to sell a car. He took a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on. “And how did you get from working in film to mechanic-ing, if you don’t mind me asking?”

  “I’ve done all sorts, Tom,” said Felix cheerfully, and got his fingers into position to count them off. “Cheffing, that’s where I started—I did a GNVQ in catering, didn’t I—got quite far with that when I was younger; head chef at one point at this little Thai place in Camden, all right place; chucked that in, did a bit of painting and decorating, bit of security, you know, in the clubs, bit of retail, drove a truck delivering them crisps you’re eating round the M25, worked for the Royal Mail,” said Felix, with an accent so peculiar it was hard to imagine who was being impersonated. “Used to make these.” He pointed at his chest. “Then got lucky, got into some stuff—you know the Cot-tes-low?” asked Felix, slowly, as a way of marking all the vital Ts. “It’s a theater,” he explained, abandoning all the Ts and adding an F, “near here. Was front of house for a year, box office that means. Then I was assistant backstage putting the props where they needed to be, all that—that’s how I got into the film thing. Just very very lucky. Always been lucky. But then I really got deep in the drug thing, to tell you the truth, Tom, and I’m just basically picking myself up off the floor from that the past few years, so.”

 
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