Nw by Zadie Smith


  Here Felix jumped up, passed his hands around Annie’s waist, and drew her back into the room. With a sigh she wilted into the chaise and gave all her attention to Karenin, who looked like he considered it no less than his due. Erik opened his binder, detached a sheaf of papers and pushed them toward Felix.

  “I need Miss Bedford to sign this. It obligates her to pay her share of the works that—”

  “You need it right now?”

  “I need it this week, for sure.”

  “This is what we’ll do. Leave it here, right? Come back for it, end of the week—it’ll be signed, promise you.”

  “We have sent many letters—”

  “I appreciate that—but—she’s not well, boss. She ain’t in her right . . . she’s got this agrophobia,” said Felix, an old error no amount of Annie’s eye-rolling had been able to correct, maybe because his portmanteau version expressed a deeper truth: she wasn’t really afraid of open spaces, she was afraid of what might happen between her and the other people in them. “Come back later, it’ll be signed. I’ll get it signed.”

  “Well, that was dull,” said Annie, before the door had quite shut. “I’ve been thinking, Felix—ever since the sun came out—let’s spend what’s left of this summer on my roof. We used to love knocking around up there. This weekend, stay over—Monday’s the bank holiday! Long weekend.”

  “It’s carnival this weekend.”

  But this she didn’t seem to hear: “Not with a lot of people. Just us. We’ll make that chicken thing you like, barbecue up there. Jerk. Jerk chicken. For us two jerks.”

  “You eating now as well?”

  Annie stopped laughing, flinched, turned her face. She crossed her hands delicately in her lap. “It’s always nice to watch other people eat. I eat mushrooms. We could get some of those legal mushrooms. Do you remember? Just trying to get from here to there”—she pointed from the chair to the chaise—“took about a year. I was convinced this was France, for some reason. I felt I needed a passport to cross the room.”

  Felix reached for his tobacco. He would not be drawn into fond reminiscences.

  “Can’t buy ’em anymore. Government shut it down. Few months ago.”

  “Did they? How boring of them.”

  “Some kid in Highgate thought he was a TV and switched himself off. Jumped off that bridge. Hornsey Lane Bridge.”

  “Oh, Felix, that one’s as old as I am—I heard that in the playground of Camden School for Girls in about 1985. ‘Suicide Bridge.’ It’s what’s called an urban myth.” She walked over to him, took off his cap and rubbed his shaved head. “Let’s go up there right now, and tan. Well, I’ll tan. You can sweat. Inaugurate the summer.”

  “Annie, man: summer’s almost over. I’m working. All the time.”

  “You don’t appear to be working now.”

  “Usually I’d be working Saturdays.”

  “Well let’s do another day then, you choose, make it regular, like,” said Annie, in her idea of a Northern accent.

  “Can’t do it.”

  “Is it my charms he can’t resist”—an American accent—“or my roof?”

  “Annie—sit down, I want to talk to you. Serious.”

  “Talk to me on the roof!”

  He tried to grab her wrist, but she quickened and passed him. He followed her into the bedroom. She had pulled down the ladder from the trapdoor in the ceiling and was already halfway up.

  “No peeking!” But she made her way up in a manner that made it impossible not to, including the little white mouse-tail of a tampon’s string. “Be careful—glass.”

  Felix emerged into light—it took a moment to see clearly. He placed his knee carefully—between one broken beer bottle and another—and pulled himself up. His hands came away covered with white flakes of sun-baked, rain-ruined wood. He had helped lay this deck, and painted it, along with a few techies and even one of the producers, because time and the budget were so tight. Everything covered in a thick white gloss to maximize the light. It was done very quickly, to service a fiction. It was never intended for use in the real world. Now she picked up a crushed cigarette packet and an empty bottle of vodka, fastidiously cramming them into an overflowing bin, as if the removal of these two items could make a serious difference to the sea of crap everywhere. Felix stepped over a sodden sleeping bag, heavy with water and filled with something, not a person, thank God. It had rained last night—there was a dewy freshness—but a serious smell was coming, and every minute of the sun made it slightly more serious. Felix headed for the far eastern corner, by the chimney, for its shade and relative unpopularity. The boards under his feet made desperate noises.

  “This all needs redoing.”

  “Yes. But you just can’t find the help these days. Once upon a time you’d get a lovely young film crew turning up, they’d pay you two thousand pounds a week, lay a deck, paint it, fuck you passionately and tell you they loved you—but that kind of service is a thing of the past, I’m afraid.”

  Felix put his head in his hands.

  “Annie, man. You give me jokes, for real.”

  Annie smiled sadly: “I’m glad I still give you something, at least . . .” She righted an upturned deckchair. “Looks a bit rough at the moment, I know . . . But I’ve been entertaining—I had one of my big nights, last Friday, such a nice time, you should have been here. I did send a text. You contrive not to see my texts. Lovely crowd, the sweetest people. Hot as Ibiza up here.”

  She made it sound like a society party, filled with the great and good. Felix picked up an empty bottle of Strongbow cider that had been repurposed into a bong.

  “You need to stop letting people take advantage.”

  Annie snorted: “What nonsense!” She sat wide legged on the little bridge of bricks between the chimney stacks. “That’s what people are for. They take advantage of each other. What else are they for?”

  “They’re only hanging round you because you’ve got something they want. Soho liggers. Just want somewhere to crash. And if there’s free shit—bonus.”

  “Good. That’s what I’ve got. Why shouldn’t people take advantage of me if what I have is useful to them?” She crossed one leg over the other like a teacher reaching the substance of her lecture. “It happens that in this matter of property and drugs I am strong and they are weak. In other matters it’s the other way round. The weak should take advantage of the strong, don’t you think? Better that than the other way round. I want my friends to take advantage. I want them to feed off me. I want them drinking my blood. Why not? They’re my friends. What else am I to do in this place? Raise a family?”

  That line of conversation Felix knew to be a trap. He swerved to avoid it.

  “I’m saying they ain’t your friends. They’re users.”

  Annie fixed him with a look over her shades: “You sound very sure. Are you speaking from personal experience?”

  “Why you trying to mix up my words?” He was easily flustered and it mistranslated as anger. People thought he was on the verge of hitting someone when he was only nervous, or slightly annoyed. Annie lifted a shaky finger into the air.

  “Don’t raise your voice at me, Felix. I hope you haven’t come round here for a fight because I’m feeling really quite delicate.”

  Felix groaned and sat next to her on the bridge of bricks. He put his hand softly on her knee, meaning it like a father or friend, but she grabbed it and held it tightly in her own.

  “Can you see? Over there? Flag’s up. Somebody’s home. Best view in town.”

  “Annie—”

  “My mother was presented at the palace, you know. And my grandmother.”

  “Is it.”

  “Yes, Felix, it is. Surely I’ve told you that before.”

  “Yeah, you have, as it goes.”

  He
worked his hand free and stood up again.

  “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” said Annie quietly, removed her robe and lay naked in the sun. “There’s some vodka in the freezer.”

  “I told you I don’t drink no more.”

  “Still?”

  “I told you. That’s why I ain’t been round. Not just that, other reasons, too. I’m clean. You should think about it yourself.”

  “But darling, I am clean. Two years clean.”

  “Cept the coke, weed, drink, pills . . .”

  “I said I’m clean, not a bloody Mormon!”

  “I’m talking about doing it properly.”

  Annie got up on her elbows and pushed her shades into her hair: “And spend every day listening to people bang on about the time they found themselves in a bin covered with vomit? And pretend that every good time I’ve ever had in my life was some kind of extended adolescent delusion?” She lay back down and replaced the shades. “No thank you. Could you fetch me a vodka please? With lemon, if you can find it.”

  Diagonally across the street from them, on another roof terrace, a severely dressed Japanese woman—narrow black trousers and black V-neck—dropped a tray she was carrying. A glass smashed and one plate of food went flying; the other she somehow managed to hold on to. She had been heading for a small wrought-iron table at which sat a lanky Frenchman, in parodic red braces with his jeans rolled up to the calf. Now he jumped up. At the same moment a little girl ran out, looked at this domestic tragedy and put her hand over her mouth. They were all three familiar to Felix; he’d seen them many times over the years. First her alone; then he moved in. Then the baby turned up, who looked now to be four or five years old. Where had the time gone? Quite often, in good weather, he had watched the woman take pictures of her family on a proper camera set atop a tripod base.

  “Oops,” said Annie, “trouble in paradise.”

  “Annie, listen: remember that girl I was telling you about. The serious one.”

  “I’m afraid it really does serve them right. They couldn’t just eat in their flat. That would be too much of a hardship. Instead they have to bring up each piece of individually miso-stained balsamic glaze cod fillet up on a tray, so they can eat them on the sodding terrace, all the time no doubt saying to themselves: how lucky we are to be eating on the terrace! Why, we could be in Tuscany! Have you tried these, darling? They’re tempura zucchini flowers. Japanese-Italian fusion! My own invention. Shall I photograph it? We can put it on our blog.”

  “Annie.”

  “Our blog called Jules et Kim.”

  “Me and that girl. Grace. It’s serious. I’m not going to be coming round here no more.”

  Annie held a hand up in the air and seemed to examine her nails, though each one was lower than the finger’s tip, with skin torn from either side and old blood-tracks all round the cuticles. “I see. Didn’t she have another lover, too?”

  “That’s done with.”

  “I see,” said Annie again, rolled onto her stomach and kicked her feet with their extraordinary arches into the air. “Age?”

  Felix couldn’t help but smile: “Twenty-four, coming up, I think. In November. But it ain’t even about that.”

  “And still no vodka.”

  Felix sighed and started walking back to the trapdoor.

  “I shall think of the other lover!” he heard Annie call after him as he descended. “I shall pity him! It’s so important that we pity each other!”

  Marlon. It was done with finally on a Sunday in February while Felix sat on Grace’s stairwell, rolling a fag and shivering, peeking through the net curtain. The man had watched the other man as he trudged through the flat, collecting a bike lock, some ugly clothes, a music dock for an iPod, a pair of hair clippers. He was heavy, Marlon, not fat exactly, but soft and ungainly. He was a long time in the bathroom, re-emerging with several jars of wax and tubes of cream, at least one of which was Felix’s—but Felix had won the woman and considered he could live without his Dax. After Marlon was done retrieving his things, Felix watched him as he took Grace’s hands in his own like a man about to perform a religious ritual and said, “I’m thankful for the time we spent together.” Poor Marlon. He really didn’t have a fucking clue. He even turned up a few times after that—with mix-tapes of soca music, and handwritten notes, and tears. None of which helped his case. In the end, all the things Grace claimed to like about Marlon—that he was not a “playa,” that he was gentle and awkward and not interested in money—were all the reasons she left him. Being so gentle, it was a while before he got the message. Finally he had taken his “I’m-a-male-nurse-I-find-hip-hop-too-negative-I-can-cook-curried-goat-I-want-to-move-to-Nigeria” routine back to South London where, in Felix’s opinion, it belonged.

  “Fridge,” said Felix to himself now and opened it—two family-sized bottles of Diet Coke, three lemons and a can of mackerel—and then remembered, and opened the freezer instead. He lifted out the bottle of vodka. He returned to the fridge and removed the least white lemon. He looked about him. The kitchen was a tiny cupboard with a cracked Belfast sink and no space to store anything and no bin. The sink was full; there were no clean glasses. A curtain-rag fluttered at the half-open window. A line of ants processed from the sink to the window and back, carrying little specks of food on their backs, with a confidence that suggested they did not expect to see tap water here in their lifetimes. Felix found a mug. He sawed at the lemon with a blunt knife. He poured the vodka. He put the top back on, replaced the bottle in the freezer and thought of how he would describe this scene of sobriety on Tuesday at seven pm to a group of fellow travellers who would appreciate its heroic quality.

  Back up on the roof Annie had changed position—a cross-legged yoga pose, eyes closed—and was now wearing a green bikini. He placed the mug in front of her and she nodded, like a goddess accepting an offering.

  “Where’d you get that bikini?”

  “Questions, questions.”

  Without opening her eyes she pointed at the family on the terrace. “Now all that’s left to them is to pick up the pieces. Lunch has been ruined, the Sancerre runs dry, but somehow, somehow, they’ll find a way to carry on.”

  “Annie—”

  “And what else? I’ve no idea what’s up with you anymore. Any movement on the film front? How’s your brother?”

  “I left that place time ago. I’m apprenticed at this garage now, I told you.”

  “Vintage cars are a nice hobby. “

  “Not a hobby—it’s my work.”

  “Felix: you’re a very talented filmmaker.”

  “Come on, man. What was my job? Getting the coffees, getting the coke. That was my job. That was it. They weren’t gonna let me get no further than that, believe. Why you always going on about shit that ain’t even real?”

  “I just happen to feel you’re very talented, that’s all. And that you criminally undersell yourself.”

  “Leave it, man!”

  Annie sighed and took the clip out of her hair. She separated the hair into sections and started working on two long, childish plaits. “How’s poor Devon doing?”

  “Fine.”

  “You’re mistaking me for one of those people who ask questions out of politeness.”

  “He’s fine. He’s got a provisional release date: 16th June.”

  “But that’s wonderful!” cried Annie, and Felix felt a great, impractical warmth toward her. In Grace’s company Devon was rarely mentioned. He was one of the “negative sources of energy” they were meant to be cleansing from their lives.

  “Why ‘provisional?’”

  “Depends on how he acts. He has to not piss anyone off between now and then.”

  “If you ask me, he seems to have somewhat overpaid his debt to society for a little stick-em-up with a toy shooter.”


  “It weren’t a toy. It was unloaded. They still call it armed robbery.”

  “Oh, but someone on Friday told me the funniest joke—you’d like it. Oh gosh: wording. Something like: do you know what poor people . . . ? No. Sorry, start again. Poor people—Oh God: ‘In poor areas people steal your phone. In rich areas the people steal your pension.’” Felix smiled minutely. “Only, it was much better done than that.”

  She was shouting, without realizing it. Over on the other terrace, the Japanese woman turned and peered politely into the middle distance.

  “I mean, look at this woman: she’s obsessed with me. Look at her. She desperately wants to photograph me but can’t bear to ask. It’s very sad, really.” Annie waved a hand at the woman and her family. “Eat your lunch! Proceed with your lives!”

  Felix put himself between Annie and the view. “She’s half Jamaican, half Nigerian. Her mum teaches at William Keble down Harlesden way—serious woman. She’s like her mum, she’s got that Nigerian education thing: focused. You’d like her.”

  “Hmmm.”

  “You know that place York’s on Monmouth Street?”

  “Naturally. People went there in the eighties.”

  “She just got promoted,” said Felix, proudly. “She’s like the top waitress, what do you call that again? She doesn’t do the tables no more. What do you call that?”

  “Maitre D.”

  “Yeah. Probably end up managing it. It’s full every day—lots of people go there.”

  “Yes, but what type of people?” Annie put her drink to her lips and knocked it back in one. “Anything else?”

  Felix got flustered again: “We got a lot in common, like . . . just a lot of things.”

  “Long walks in the country, red wine, the operas of Verdi, GSOH . . .” Annie held her arms wide and put her fingers together as in a yogic chant.

  “She’s knows what she’s about. She’s conscious.”

  Annie looked at him oddly: “That’s setting the bar rather low, don’t you think? I mean, bully for you she’s not in a coma . . .”

  Felix laughed, and spotted her grinning gummily with pleasure.

 
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