Nw by Zadie Smith

  Anflex, my darling, how will you be getting home?

  Particle transfer. See you in a second, my dear Gracian. In a nano-second.

  Shit like that. Just rolling in his brain. Sometimes he went and told a whole film in words to Grace, and she was totally into it, and it wasn’t just because she loved him: the fact was that the films in Felix’s mind were blatantly better than anything people paid good money to see. Now Felix collided with a real live young man leaving a glass-walled video emporium, walking backward through the double doors while waving good-bye to his friends, still wrestling with their joysticks. Felix touched the guy gently on the elbows, and the stranger, with equal care, reached back and held Felix where his waist met his back; they both laughed lightly and apologized, called each other “Boss” before separating quickly, the stranger striding back toward Eros, and Felix onwards to Soho.

  • • •

  On her street he reached into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and typed: On yr St. U free? The answer came back: Door open.

  He had not stood on this street for three months. His phone buzzed again: Five mins please. Why not pick up cigs?

  This addition was annoying: it put him back in the wrong position. He made his way over to the unventilated corner shop and spent a hot ten minutes in the queue, trying to finesse the brief speech he thought he had decided on, realizing in fact that he had decided on very little. Why did he need to come down here and say anything at all? She didn’t matter anymore. News of her irrelevance should reach Soho without any effort on his part; she should just walk out of her front door and sniff it in the air. “Don’t need this,” said the woman at the counter. She handed him back fifty pence. Someone behind him sighed; he moved aside quickly with the shame of a Londoner who has inconvenienced, even for a moment, another Londoner. The box of fags was in his pocket. Here was the change in his hand. He couldn’t remember anything about the transaction. He was sweating like a fool.

  Outside he tried to calm himself and realign with the exuberant mood in the street. The sun was an incitement, collapsing day into night. Young bluds had stripped to their bare chests as if in a nightclub already. The white boys wore flip-flops and cargo shorts and drank import beers from the bottle. A small gang danced mildly in the doorway of G.A.Y, on autopilot from the night before. Felix chuckled into his chest and leaned against a lamppost to roll a fag. He had the sense that someone was watching and taking it all down (“Felix was a solid bloke, with his heart in the right place, who liked to watch the world go by”) but when that fancy was finished there was nothing else for him to do. A car with tinted windows rolled by. It took a moment to put together the fearful child in the passing reflection with what he knew of his own face. He looked up and over to her door. It was open; two of the girls stood on the doorstep chatting amiably with the Somali drivers, one doorway along. Felix squared his shoulders, put a cheerful limp in his walk. (“Sometimes you got to do what you got to do!”) But there was no kind of smile you could bring to these girls that would make them go easy on you. Chantelle was cutting her eyes at him when he was still twenty yards away. By the time he reached her she had already, as far as she was concerned, dispensed with greetings; she got a grip of his thin hooded top between two fingers, examined its material briefly and then released it again, like a filthy thing picked up off the floor.

  “You look summery. Jesus Christ. Mr. Sunshine.”

  “This ain’t hot to me tho. I’m skinny—I need the layers.”

  “Long time,” said the white one with the sour face, Cherry.

  “Been busy.”

  “Wouldn’t bother with Her Majesty upstairs, if I were you: get better down here.”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Felix, and showed his gold teeth, but he had never been sure if upstairs truly was a separate world. Her Majesty upstairs swore it was. They used to argue about it. It didn’t matter now.

  “Can I go?”

  They were both big girls and it was their evergreen joke not to move for him, he had to squeeze between them. Felix led with his bony shoulders.

  “Like a chicken bone!”

  “Pure rib!”

  Cherry pinched his backside—three floors up he could still hear cackling. He rounded the last banister. Classical violins were going at it, you could hear taps running hard in the bathroom. At the threshold he was wreathed in steam.

  “Felix? Darling, is that you? Door’s open! Is Karenin out there? Bring the bastard in.”

  Karenin was on the mat. Felix gathered him sloppily into his arms. The cat’s huge weight kept displacing itself: it wasn’t possible to hold up its backside, belly and neck at the same time, something always fell through the gap. He whispered into its ear—“All right, K”—and stepped inside. This same fat cat in his arms, the yellowing old playbills and photos on the wall, the boxes full of sheet music for a non-existent piano, sold to a pawnshop before even Felix’s time. The old-school everything. He knew it all too well. The grimy sameness, the way nothing was ever refreshed. She called them antiques. Another way of saying there’s no more money. Five years! He dropped the cat down on the chaise: spring-less, the seat sunk to receive it. How did he ever come to know this place? Unknowing it would just be the restoring of things to their natural, healthy state.

  “Annie? You coming out?”

  “In the bath! S’heavenly. Come in!”

  “Nah, you’re all right. I’ll wait.”


  “I’LL WAIT.”

  “Don’t be ludicrous. Bring an ashtray.”

  Felix looked about him. On a clothes hanger hooked to the window frame an outfit hung disembodied and flooded with light. Purple jeans, a complicated vest with safety pins on the front, some kind of tartan cape, and below on the floor a pair of yellow leather boots with heels of four or five inches, all of which would be seen by no-one except the boy from the off license who delivered her “groceries.”

  “Can’t see no ashtray.”

  Piled on top of various envelopes and pages of newspapers were small mountains of spent fags and ash. It was hard to maneuver—some attempt at reorganization was under way. Towers of paper dotted the floor. It was worse than his father’s situation, yet he saw now that the spirit was much the same: a large life contracted into a small space. He had never visited one then the other in quick succession like this. The sense of suffocation and impatience was identical, the longing he had to be free.

  “Dear Lord—by the Pavlovas. ‘The Russian bird with the long face.’ Underneath her.”

  He would never again have to pretend to be interested in things in which he had no interest. Ballet dancers, novels, the long and torturous history of her family. He stepped over a glass coffee table to where eight photographs of Pavlova formed a diamond on the wall, echoing the pyramid of fags below, the only decoration on a small side table.

  “If full, use the plastic bag on the doorknob,” called Annie. “Empty into.”

  • • •

  He did as he was told. He came into the bathroom, put the packet of fags in the ashtray and the ashtray on the lip of the bath.

  “What you got them on for?”

  She ran her fingertips along a pair of mother-of-pearl vintage sunglasses: “This is a terribly bright bathroom, Felix. Blinding. Could you? My hands.”

  What looked like a single breakfast oat sat on her bottom lip, painted over with scarlet. Felix put a cigarette in her mouth and lit it. Even in the few months since he’d last been here the lines under her eyes seemed to have lengthened and deepened, fanning out beyond the shades. The powder she’d doused herself in gathered lumpenly here and there and made everything worse. He retreated to the toilet seat. It was the correct distance. She made a little adjustment to the costume—plumping up the big brown pile of hair, and letting the wet strands fall around her made-up face, framing it. Her narro
w shoulders rose out of the bubbles, and he knew every blue vein and brown mole. She was grinning in a certain way that had started the whole thing off, the day he watched her bring up a tray of tea to the film crew on her roof, hair tied in a headscarf like one of those women in the war. The thin lips drawn back and an inch of shiny gum all round.

  “How’ve you been, Annie?”

  “Sorry?” She cupped her hand facetiously round her ear.

  “How’ve you been?”

  “How have I been? Is that the question?” She leaned back into the bubbles. “How have I been? How have I been. Well, I’ve been fucking desolate, really.” She tapped some ash, missing the ashtray, dusting the bubbles. “Not entirely due to your disappearance, don’t flatter yourself. Someone at Westminster Council has taken it upon themselves to reevaluate my claim. Because somebody else, some citizen, took it upon themselves to notify the council. My money’s been frozen, I’m reduced to a rather tragic diet of grilled sardines. And various other necessities have been severely reduced . . .” She made the unhappy face of a child. “Guess who.”

  “Barrett,” said Felix sullenly; he would have her in any mood but this one. He discreetly scanned the room, and soon found what he was looking for: the rolled-up twenty and the vanity mirror, peeking out from behind a leg of the old-fashioned tub.

  “He’s trying to bankrupt me, I suppose. So they can all just get on with charging some—”

  “Russian a thousand a week,” murmured Felix, matching her word for word.

  “I’m sorry I’m so boring.”

  She stood up. If it was a challenge he was equal to it. He watched the suds slink down her body. She had a dancer’s frame, with all the curves at the back. What he was now confronted with had only a pale utility to it: breasts, like two muscles, sitting high above a carriage of stringent pulleys and levers, all of it designed for a life that never happened.

  “You might pass a girl a towel.”

  A dingy rag hung over the door. He tried to reach around her to drape it chastely over her shoulders, but she sunk into his body, soaking him.

  “Brrrr. That’s cozy.”


  She whispered into his ear: “The good news is if they claim I’m out and about I might as well go out and about. We might as well.”

  Felix stepped back, got on his hands and knees and stretched an arm under the bath.

  “According to them I’ve already been out. I’m in Heaven every night dancing it up with the Twinks, without my knowledge. Sleep-living. Maybe this is the start of a whole new life for me! For God’s sake, what are you doing down there? Oh, don’t be such a bore, Felix. Leave that alone . . .”

  Felix re-emerged holding a silver-handled mirror from a fairy tale with four thick lines of powder cut along it, crossed by a straw, like a coat of arms. Annie stretched her arms out toward him with the wrists turned up. The veins seemed bigger, bluer.

  “Not even lunch time.”

  “On the contrary, that is lunch. Do you mind terribly putting it back where you found it?”

  They stood either side of the toilet: the obvious gesture suggested itself. It would be one way of saying what he had to say.

  “Put. It. Back. Please.” Annie smiled with all her showgirl teeth. Someone was knocking at the door. Felix spotted a wayward shiver in her eyelid, a struggle between the pretense of lightness and the reality of weight. He knew all about that struggle. He put it back. “Coming!”

  She grabbed a silk Japanese thing off a hook on the door and slipped into it, folding one side into the other so as to hide a gigantic rip. It had a flock of swallows on the back, swooping from her neck down her spine to the floor. She ran out, shutting Felix in. Out of habit he opened the glass-fronted cabinet above the sink. He pushed the first row aside—Pond’s Cream, Elizabeth Arden, an empty, historic bottle of Chanel No.5—to reach the medications behind. Picked up a bottle of poxywhadyacallitrendridine, the one with the red cap which, if mixed with alcohol, had a manic-mellow buzz, like ketamine-laced Ecstacy. Worked very well with vodka. He held it in his hand. He put it back in its place. From the other room he heard her, suddenly strident: “Well, no . . . I really don’t see that at all . . .”

  Bored, Felix wandered in and parked himself on an uncomfortable high-backed wooden chair that once graced the antechamber of Wentworth Castle.

  “I barely use the stairs. It may be a ‘shared area’ but I don’t use it. My only traffic is the occasional deliveryman or friend coming up. Very occasional. I don’t go down, I can’t. Surely the people you should be talking to are the ladies downstairs, who, as we both know—I’m assuming you’re a man of the world—have people stomping up and down constantly. Up, down, up, down. Like Piccadilly bloody Circus.”

  She stepped forward to demonstrate, with a finger, this popular right of way, and Felix got a glimpse of the man in the doorway: a big blonde, buff from the gym, in a navy suit, holding a ring binder that said Google on it.

  “Miss Bedford, please, I am only doing my job.”

  “Sorry—what’s your name? Can I see some sort of official . . .”

  The blonde passed Annie a card.

  “Do you have instructions to come and harass me? Do you? I don’t think you do, Mr.—I can’t possibly pronounce that name—I don’t think you do, Erik. Because I’m afraid I don’t answer to Mr. Barrett. I answer to the actual landlord—I’m a relative of the actual landlord, as in the lord of the land. He’s a close relative, and I’m quite sure he wouldn’t want me harassed.”

  Erik opened his ring binder and closed it again.

  “We’re the sub-agents, and we’re instructed to advise the tenants that the shared areas are to be improved and the cost split between the flats. We’ve sent several letters to this address and received no reply.”

  “What a funny accent you have. Is it Swedish?”

  Erik stood almost to attention: “I am from Norway.”

  “Oh, Norwegian! Norway. Lovely. I’ve never been, obviously—I never go anywhere. Felix,” she said turning round, with a louche lean into the doorframe, “Erik is Norwegian.”

  “Is it,” said Felix. He moved his jaw rigidly in impersonation of hers. She stuck her tongue out at him.

  “Now Erik, is it Sweden that had all the recent trouble?”

  “Excuse me?”

  “I mean, Norway. Oh, you know, with the money. Hard to believe a whole nation can go bankrupt. It happened to my aunt Helen, but of course she was really asking for it. A whole country seems rather . . . careless.”

  “You are speaking of Iceland, I think.”

  “Am I? Oh, perhaps I am. I always get the Nordic ones sort of . . .” Annie tangled her fingers together.

  “Miss Bedford—”

  “Look, the point is, nobody wants to see this place tarted up more than me—I mean, we haven’t had a film crew here since—whenever that was—and that roof is crying out to be filmed from, it really is, it’s just absurd to leave it lying fallow. It’s one of the best views in London. I really think it would be in your interests to make the place more attractive to outside investment. You’ve been very slack indeed as far as outside investment is concerned.”

  Erik shrank a little in his cheap suit. It didn’t matter what nonsense came out of her mouth, her accent worked a spell. Felix had seen it magic her out of some unpromising corners, even when the benefits people turned up, even when the police raided the brothel downstairs while a sizable bag of heroin sat just out of sight on her night table. She could talk anybody away from her door. She could fall and fall and fall and still never quite hit the ground. Her great uncle, the earl, owned the ground, beneath this building, beneath every building on the street, the theater, the coffee houses, the McDonald’s.

  “The idea that a vulnerable woman who lives alone and barely leaves her apart
ment is required to pay the same amount as a group of ‘business’ ladies who entertain their male visitors approximately every eight minutes—I think it’s incredible. Stomp stomp stomp,” she shouted, and marched out a rhythm on the doorstep. “That’s what’s wearing the bloody carpet away. Stomp stomp stomp. Gentleman callers on the stair.” Erik looked over—a little desperately—at Felix. “That,” said Annie, pointing, “is not a gentleman caller. That is my boyfriend. His name is Felix Cooper. He is a filmmaker. And he does not live here. He lives in North West London, a dinky part of it you’ve probably never heard of called Willesden, and I can tell you now you’d be wrong to dismiss it actually because actually it’s very interesting, very ‘diverse.’ Lord, what a word. And the fact is, we’re both very independent people from quite different walks of life and we simply prefer to keep our independence. It’s really not so unusual, is it, to have—”

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