Nw by Zadie Smith

  Tom waited for the bit about the mechanic thing—it didn’t come. Like a man who has been thrown a lot of strange-shaped objects, he clung to the one that struck him first.

  “You used to make t-shirts?”

  Felix frowned. It was not the thing that usually interested people. He stood up and pulled at his own t-shirt so its faded message at least read straight without creases.

  “I’m sorry, I don’t speak—is it Polish?”

  “Exactly! Says: I Love Polish Girls.”

  “Oh. Are you Polish?” asked Tom doubtfully.

  That struck Felix as very funny. He fell back in his seat and was a good time repeating the question, slapping the table and laughing, while Tom took quiet sips off the head of his pint like a little bird swooping over a puddle.

  “Nah, Tom, nah, not Polish. London born and bred. These I did a long time back—business venture. Five years back—know what? It’s seven. Time flies, innit! Truthfully it was my old man’s idea, I was more like . . . the money man,” said Felix awkwardly, for it was a bold way to describe his thousand-pound stake, “Each one was in its own language. I love Spanish girls in Spanish, I love German girls in German, I love Italian girls in Italian, I love Brazilian girls in Brazilian—”

  “Portuguese,” said Tom, but the list continued.

  “I love Norwegian girls in Norwegian, I love Swedish girls in Swedish, I love Welsh girls in Welsh—that was more of a joke one, you get me?—nah, that’s harsh, but you know what I’m saying—I love Russian girls in Russian, I love Chinese girls in Chinese. But there’s two types of Chinese—not many people know that, my mate Alan told me. You got to have both. I love Indian girls in Hindi, and we had a lot of different ones in Arabic, and I love African girls in I think it was Yoruba or something. Got the translations off the Internet.”

  “Yes,” said Tom.

  “Made three thousand of them and took them to Ibiza, to sell them, didn’t I. Imagine you’re walking through Ibiza town with a t-shirt says I love Italian Girls in Italian! You’d clean up!”

  Repeating the idea, with Lloyd’s enthusiasm, as Lloyd had first conveyed it to him, Felix was almost able to forget that they had not cleaned up, that he had lost his stake, along with the good job at the Thai restaurant he had given up, at Lloyd’s insistence, so that he could go to Ibiza. Two thousand five hundred t-shirts still sat in boxes in Lloyd’s cousin Clive’s lock-up, under the railway arches of King’s Cross.

  “Tom, what about you?”

  “What about me what?”

  Felix grinned: “Don’t be shy now. What would I put you down for? Everyone got a type. Let me guess: bet you like some of that Brazilian!”

  Tom, somewhat dazzled by the gleaming hardware in Felix’s mouth, said, “I’ll say French,” and wondered what the true answer was, and found it troubling.

  “French girls. Right. I’ll throw one of them in with the deal. Still got a few.”

  “Isn’t it me who’s making the deal?”

  Felix reached over the table and patted Tom on the shoulder.

  “Course it is, Tom, course it is.”

  The phrase “the drug thing” still hovered over the table. Tom left it alone.

  “And are you married, Felix?”

  “Not yet. Planning to. That your Missus keeps belling you?”

  “Christ, no. We’ve only been going out nine months. I’m only twenty-five!”

  “I had two kids when I was your age,” said Felix and flashed the screen of his phone at Tom. “That’s them in their Sunday best. Felix Jr. . . . ; he’s a man now himself, almost fourteen. And Whitney, she’s nine.”

  “They’re beautiful,” said Tom, though he hadn’t seen anything. “You must be very proud.”

  “I don’t see much of them, to tell you the truth. They live with their Mum. We ain’t together. To be honest, me and the mum don’t really get on. She’s one of them real . . . oppositional women.”

  Tom laughed, and then saw that Felix had not meant to be funny.

  “Sorry—I just—well, it’s a good phrase for it. I think that may be what I’ve got on my hands. An oppositional woman.”

  “Listen, if I told Jasmine: the sky’s blue, she’d say it’s green, you get me?” said Felix, clawing at the label on his bottle of ginger beer. “Got a lot of mental issues. Grew up in care. My mum was in care—same thing. Does something to you. Does something. I known Jasmine since we was sixteen and she was like that from time. Depressed, don’t leave the flat for days, don’t clean, place is like a pigsty, all of that. She’s had a hard time. Anyway.”

  “Yes, that must be hard,” said Tom, quietly, and took another large swig of his pint.

  After that they sat in silence, both looking out upon the street, as if only accidentally sat together.

  “Felix, could I maybe trouble you for one of those? Terrible roller.”

  Felix lit his own, nodded and silently started work on another. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He read the message and thrust the handset once more in Tom’s face.

  “Oi, Tom, you’re an advertiser—what d’you make of that?”

  Tom, who was long-sighted, drew back from the screen in order to read it: “Our records indicate you still haven’t claimed compensation for your accident. You may be entitled up to £3650. To claim free reply ‘CLAIM.’ To opt out text ‘STOP.’”

  “Scam, innit.”

  “Oh, I should think so, yes.”

  “Cos how could they know if I’d had an accident? Evil. Imagine if you were old, or ill, getting that.”

  “Yes, said Tom, not really following, “I think they just have these . . . databases.”

  “Databases,” said Felix and shook his head in despair, “and you reply and five quid comes off your bill. But that’s the way people are these days. Everyone’s looking out for themselves. My girl gave me this book, Ten Secrets of Successful Leaders. You read it?”


  “Should read it. She was like, ‘Fee, you know who reads this book? Bill Gates. The Mafia. The Royal family. Bankers. Tupac read it. Jewish people read this book. Educate yourself.’ She’s a smart one. I’m not even a reader but that one opened my eyes. There you go.”

  Tom took the cigarette and lit it and inhaled with the deep relief of a man who had given up smoking entirely only a few hours before.

  “Listen—Felix, this is a bit of a weird one,” said Tom, nodding at the packet of Amber Leaf between them, lowering his voice, “But you wouldn’t by any chance have anything stronger? Not to buy, just a pinch. I find it takes the edge off.”

  Felix sighed and leaned back into his bench and began murmuring. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

  “Oh dear,” said Tom. He cringed to the right, then somehow reversed his body and cringed to the left. “I didn’t mean to—”

  “You’re all right. My girl thinks I’ve got an invisible tattoo on my forehead: PLEASE ASK ME FOR WEED. Must have one of them faces.”

  Tom lifted his drink and finished it off. Did this mean there was weed or there wasn’t? He examined a distorted Felix through the bottom of his pint glass.

  “Well, she sounds sensible,” said Tom, at last. Felix passed him the finished fag.

  “Come again?”

  “The girl you mentioned, your girlfriend person.”

  Felix smiled enormously: “Oh. Grace. Yeah. She is. Never been happier in my life, Tom, to tell you the truth. Changed my life. I tell her, all the time: you’re a lifesaver. And she is.”

  Tom held up his ringing phone and gave it the evil eye.

  “I seem to be stuck with a life-destroyer.”

  “Nobody can do that, Tom. Only you have the power to do that.”
  Felix was sincere, but saw he had provoked a sort of smirk in Tom, which in turn provoked in Felix a need to press his point home more strongly: “Listen, this girl changed my outlook totally. Globally. She sees my potential. And in the end, you just got to be the best you that you can be. The rest will follow naturally. I’ve been through it, Tom, right? So I know. The personal is eternal. Think about it.”

  How close to superfluous his job was these days! The slogans came pre-embedded, in people’s souls. A smart thought: Tom discreetly congratulated himself for having it. He nodded at Felix deeply, satirically, samurai-style. “Thank you, Felix,” he said, “I’ll remember that. Best you that you can be. Personal equals eternal. You seem like a bloke who’s got it all figured out.” He lifted his empty glass to clink against Felix’s, but Felix was not impervious to irony and left his own glass where it was.

  “Seeming ain’t being,” he said quietly and looked away. “Listen—” He drew a folded envelope from his back pocket. “—I’ve got things to do, so . . .”

  The boy saw he had overstepped: “Of course. Look—where were we? You need to make me an offer.”

  “You need to give me a reasonable price, mate.”

  It was only now that Tom realized he did not, after all, despise Felix’s habit of over-familiarity. On the contrary, to be called “mate” at this late point in their acquaintance felt like a melancholy step down in the world. And why am I only able to enjoy things once they’ve passed, wondered Tom, and tried to place a mental finger upon a hazy quote from a French book, which made exactly this point, and helpfully gave the answer, too. Candide? Proust? Why hadn’t he kept up with his French? He thought of Pere Mercer, on the phone, this morning: “The trouble is you don’t follow through, Tom. That’s always been your trouble.” And of course Sophie was making essentially the same point. Some days have a depressing thematic coherence. Maybe next the cloud overhead would open up and a huge cartoon hand emerge from below, pointing at him, accompanied by a thunderous, authorial voice: TOM MERCER. EPIC FAIL. But it had already been pointed out to him—also this morning!—that this approach, too, was only another kind of trap: “Tom, darling, it’s really terribly narcissistic to think the whole world is against you.” Listening to his mother’s voice down the line he had been impressed by how calm and kind she sounded and how satisfied she was with her diagnosis of his personality. Thank God for his mother! She didn’t take him seriously, and laughed when he was being funny, even when she didn’t understand, as she almost never did. They were country people, his parents, and of grandparental age, for this was a second marriage for them both. They could not conceive of his daily life, did not e-mail, had never heard of Sussex University until he attended it, had no experience of either a “downstairs neighbor,” a “night bus,” the realities of an “unpaid internship” (“Just go in there and present a few ideas, Tom, and show them what you’re worth. At the very least Charlie will listen. We worked together for seven years for Christ’s sake!”) or the sort of nightclub where you leave your clothes—and much else—at the door. They did not have double lives, as far as he could tell. They drank with dinner, never to excess. Where his father found Tom infuriating and inexplicable, his mother went a little gentler on him, at least allowing for the possibility that he really was suffering from some varietal of twenty-first-century intellectual ennui that made it impossible for him to take advantage of the good fortune he’d been born with. There were limits, however. One shouldn’t pretend that Brixton was any sort of place to live. “But Tom: if you’re feeling low, 20 Baresfield is empty until at least July. I don’t know what you have against Mayfair. And you’ll have somewhere to park the car without fear of it being burned to a shell in some riot.” “That was twenty years ago!” “Tom, I refer you to the Aesop fable: leopard, spots.” “That’s not a fable!” “Honestly, I don’t know why you didn’t move into it in the first place.” Because sometimes one wants to have the illusion that one is making one’s own life, out of one’s own resources. He didn’t say that. He said: “Mother, your wisdom surpasseth all understanding.” To which she said, “Don’t be facetious. And don’t make a mess!” But he was making a mess. With this girl. It was all a terrible mess.

  “A reasonable price,” repeated Tom and touched the side of his head, as if the strange thoughts were a misfiring synapse, and a tap to the temple might tamp them back down.

  “’Cos you’re talking silly money,” said Felix, and began packing away his tobacco and Rizlas and phone in a manner that seemed, to Tom, to perfectly convey disappointment, not only in the failure of the deal, but in Tom himself.

  “But you can’t seriously be asking me to give it to you for less than six hundred!”

  Halfway through this sentence Tom recognized the strange, inappropriate plea in his own voice.

  “Four hundred’s more like it, bruv. My lot will tow it. That’s generous! You wouldn’t get that much for scrap. You’d probably have to pay that much to get it towed.”

  The audaciousness of this made Tom smile: “Seriously? Come on. Let’s be serious.”

  Felix kept his poker face. Tom, still smiling, put his chin in his hand, and “thought” like a cartoon of somebody “thinking.”

  “Five hundred? Then we can both go home. I really can’t go lower than that. It’s an MG!”

  “Four fifty. Ain’t going no higher than that.”

  Tom’s phone started up once more. He wore an inconclusive expression: he reminded Felix of the actors milling backstage after the matinee, with the evening performance still before them. Not fully in character, but not free of it either.

  “Life-destroyer on line one. You’re not easy, Felix. I can see nothing gets past Felix.”

  Felix withdrew the crumpled notes and began slowly counting them out into a neat pile.

  • • •

  So the garage lent you an MG.

  Nah, dred, I bought it.

  Is it. You must be doing all right.

  Weren’t that much. Been saving. Doing it up myself as a gift for Grace project for myself. A project car.

  You know why you bought that though, don’t you? Do you know? You don’t know, do you? Do you wanna know? I’m going to impart some wisdom on you, blud, get ready. You think you know why, but you don’t know . . .

  Felix heard it as clearly as any actual conversation with his father: it seemed to exist on the same plane of reality. Maybe it was simply like spotting a train very early, far down the track. The boys at the garage were to pick the car up later today and have it delivered to the resident parking bays in Caldwell. To do that they would have to ask his father for a parking pass. A little after that his father would call him. The prospect of this took the shine off the triumph that should accompany purchase. The further he got down Regent Street the worse it got.

  Felix, listen: you can’t buy a woman. You can’t buy her love. She’s gonna leave you that way. Love’s gonna leave you anyway so you might as well not bother with the cars and the jewels. Serious.

  Felix passed in front of the Valentine kid with his leg in the air and arrow primed. Who would be happy for him? His thumb hovered over the roller ball on his phone, moving back and forth through the various digits of his siblings, but connecting with each a potential headache that made him hesitate and finally put the handset back in his pocket. Tia would have her children underfoot, and her loneliness and boredom turned easily to jealousy, even for things she cared nothing about, like cars. Ruby would only want to know what the car could do for her—when she could borrow it, where she could drive it. She lived in her twin’s spare room, had nothing and no-one, and pitied herself deeply. She expected charity always, while simultaneously wanting the best of everything. Why’d you buy that wreck? Fool. Both twins had a horror of second-hand goods. Grace, too. He wouldn’t be telling her anything about it until it looked like it had just rolled off the assembly
line. Devon was the only one who might be interested, but you couldn’t call him, you had to wait for him to call.

  • • •

  From Felix’s pocket a digital orchestra played a piece of classical music from an aftershave advert from his childhood. He answered it joyfully, but his love sounded stressed and skipped the hellos. “Did you go see Ricky?” “Nah, sorry—forgot. I’ll call him.” “How you gonna call him? I ain’t got his number—have you?” “When I go back I’ll go past.” “Downstairs called. The leak’s gone through the floor.” “I’ll go see him, chill.” “Where are you?” “At my dad’s.” “You show him? What did he say? Tell him I can order some more copies off the Internet. Actually let me chat to him.” “Yeah, man. He’s looking through it. He’s into it. Told a lot of stories—you know how he is. Trip down memory lane, innit. Listen, I gotta go.” “Put Lloyd on—” An ambulance passed Felix on the street. “I’m on the balcony—he’s in the bathroom. Listen, I’ll call you back in a bit. I gotta go.” “You gotta go! I gotta work.” “True!” The conversation descended into baby talk, and then briefly turned explicit. Grace was fond of proclaiming her “nastiness,” although in bed she was tame, almost prudish, and in their six months together Felix had not quite managed to unite the girl on the phone and the one in his arms. “I love you, baby,” she said, and Felix repeated it passionately, trying to return himself to that moment of optimism before he’d answered the phone. Weird to think she was only a few streets from him, at this moment. Her manager in the background said something about a booking for twelve at two—she was gone again without saying good-bye. Like a ghost on your shoulder and then vanished, the everyday miracle. He remembered when you turned the dial with your finger. Sometimes lines crossed and four ghosts spoke. And now Felix Jr. and his nieces spoke to videos of each other. You wait long enough, the films come true—and everybody acts like it’s nothing. Still, he was glad he got to see the future. Touch and go for a while. A comic book reader, sci-fi fan, it had always been obvious, to Felix, that the future would suit him. Hollywood had nothing on Felix when it came to imagining the future. He didn’t even have to go to the movies anymore, he could just walk down the street like this and see the whole damn spectacular just playing in his mind. Script by Felix Cooper. Directed by Felix Cooper. Starring Felix Cooper.

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