Nw by Zadie Smith

  “Politically conscious, racially conscious, as in she gets it, the struggle. Conscious.”

  “She’s awake and she understands,” Annie closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “Bully for you.”

  But some flicker of imperiousness in her face tipped Felix over. He started shouting.

  “All you know how to do is take the piss. That’s all you know. What you doing that’s so amazing? What you getting accomplished?”

  Annie opened one startled eye: “What am I—what on earth are you talking about? I was joking, for Godssake. What exactly am I meant to be getting accomplished?”

  “I’m talking about what are your goals? What do you want for your life to be like?”

  “What do I want for my life to be like? I’m sorry, grammatically I’m finding that question extremely peculiar.”

  “Fuck you, Annie.”

  She tried to laugh this off, too, and reached out for his wrist, but he pushed her away: “Nah, but there’s no point with you, is there? I’m trying to tell you where I’m going in my life, and you’re just taking the piss. Pointless. You’re pointless.”

  It came out more brutal than he’d meant. She winced.

  “I think you’re being very cruel. I’m only trying to understand.”

  Felix took it down a notch. He didn’t want to be cruel. He didn’t want to be seen to be cruel. He sat down next to her. He had his speech prepared, but also the sense that they were both speaking lines, that really she was as prepared as he was.

  “I’m tired of living the way I been living. I been feeling like I’ve been in the game, at this level, and I had a good time at this level—but, come on, Annie: even you would say it’s a level with a lot of demons. A lot of demons. Demons and—”

  “Excuse me—you’re talking to a nice Catholic girl, who—”

  “Let me finish talking! For one time!”

  Annie nodded mutely.

  “Lost my thread now.”

  “Demons,” said Annie.

  “Right. And I’ve killed them. And it was hard, and now they’re dead and I’ve completed the level, and it’s time to move to the next level. It ain’t even a matter of taking you to the next level. You blatantly don’t want to go.”

  This was the speech he had prepared. Now it was out of his mouth it didn’t seem to have the subtle depth it had taken on in his mind, but still he saw it had had some effect: her eyes were open and her yoga pose was over, arms unfolded, hands flat on the floor.

  “You listening? Next level. People can spend their whole lives just dwelling. I could spend my whole life dwelling on some of the shit that’s happened to me. I done that. Now it’s time for the next level. I’m moving up in the game. And I’m ready for it.”

  “Yes, yes, I’ve grasped the metaphor, you don’t have to keep repeating it.” Annie lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and exhaled it through her nose. “Life’s not a video game, Felix—there aren’t a certain number of points that send you to the next level. There isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is everybody dies at the end. Game over.”

  The few clouds left in the sky were shunting toward Trafalgar. Felix looked up at them with what he hoped was a spiritual look upon his face. “Well, that’s your opinion, innit. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.”

  “Mine, Nietzsche’s, Sartre’s, a lot of people. Felix, darling, I appreciate you coming here for this ‘serious talk’ and sharing your thoughts about God, but I’m quite bored of talking now and personally I’d really like to know: are we going to fuck today or not?”

  She pulled playfully at his leg. He tried to get up, but she started kissing up his ankles and he soon sunk back down on his knees. It was a defeat, and he blamed her. He got her by the shoulders, not gently, and together they scrabbled to the edge of the wall, where they told themselves they couldn’t be seen. He had a handful of her hair tight in his fist, and tried to land a harsh kiss but she had the knack of turning every malevolent stroke into passion. They fit together. They always had. But what was the point of fitting in this way and no other? He felt her hands on his shoulders, pushing him lower, and soon he was level with her appendix scar. She lifted her arse. He grabbed it with both hands and put his face in her crotch. Fourteen when Lloyd first explained that to eat a woman was unhygienic, a humiliation. Only at gunpoint, that was his father’s opinion, and even then only if every last hair has been removed. Annie was the first time. Years of conditioning broken in an afternoon. He wondered what Lloyd might think of him now, with his nose nestled in so much abundant straight hair, and this strange taste in his mouth.

  “If it’s in the way, just take it out!”

  He grabbed the mouse-tail between his teeth and pulled. It came out easily. He left it like a dead thing, red on the white deck. He turned back to her and dug in with his tongue. He looked like he was frantically tunnelling somewhere and hoping to reach the other side. She tasted of iron, and when he came up for air five minutes later he imagined a ring of blood around his mouth. In fact there was only a speck; she kissed it away. The rest was quick. They were old lovers and had their familiar positions. On their knees, looking out over town, they came swiftly to reliably pleasurable, reliably separate, conclusions, that were yet somehow an anticlimax when compared to those five minutes, five minutes ago, when it had seemed possible to climb inside another person, head first, and disappear entirely.

  Afterward he lay on top of her feeling the unpleasant, sweaty closeness, wondering when it would be polite to move. He did not wait very long. He rolled over onto his back. She swept her hair to one side and put her head on his chest. They watched a police helicopter pass by on its way to Covent Garden.

  “I’m sorry,” said Felix.

  “Whatever for?”

  Felix reached down and pulled his jeans back up. “You still taking your thing?”

  Felix saw a flash of fury pass over her face, and also how it was contained and dispersed in the action of opening the cigarettes, tapping one out, lighting it, smiling grimly, laughing.

  “No need. More chance of being struck by lightning. The blood just about still runs, but trust me: the well is almost dry. Nature, the enforcer. The destroyer! Speaking of which, dear brother James is meant to be taking me out to The Wolseley for a celebration of our mutual decrepitude—he phoned up yesterday, completely natural on the phone. You’d think we spoke every other day. Just ridiculous. But I played along, I said, ‘Hello, twin dear!’ He suggests a birthday lunch—our birthday’s not till October, mind you—and I say fine, but of course I know precisely what he’s up to, he wants me to sign the bloody deed so he can sell out from under me. He doesn’t seem to understand that no matter what he thinks a part of that place is mine and who knows how much he’s already mortgaged it to pay for his little darlings’ education, up to the hilt, I’m sure, I doubt there’s a penny left in it, and we all know he wished he’d gobbled me up in the womb, but I’m afraid he didn’t manage it and as long as our mother is alive I really don’t see why it should be sold—where is she to go if it is? And who’s going to pay for it? That kind of care costs money. But he’s always been like that: James has always acted like he is an only child and I don’t exist at all. Do you know what he and Daddy used to call me behind my back? The afterbirth. Shall we have another drink? It’s so muggy.”

  She lay back down on his chest. She kissed the skin round the neck of his t-shirt. He put his fingers in her hair.

  “You should probably take one of them other pills—the ones you take after. To be safe.”

  Annie made an exasperated sound.

  “I don’t want your babies, Felix. I can assure you I’m not sitting up here like some tragic fallen woman every night dreaming of having your babies.” She began tracing a figure of eight with her fingernail along his stomach. The movement looked idle but the nail pressed in hard. “Yo
u realize of course that if it were the other way round there would be a law, there would be an actual law: John versus Jen in the high court. And John would put it to Jen that she did wilfully fuck him for five years, before dumping him without warning in the twilight of his procreative window, and taking up with young Jack-the-lad, only twenty-four years old and with a cock as long as my arm. The court rules in favor of John. Every time. Jen must pay damages. Huge sums. Plus six months in jail. No—nine. Poetic justice. And you wouldn’t be able to—”

  “You know what? I should chip.” He slid her head off his body, pulled his t-shirt down and stood. She sat up and crossed her arms over her breasts. She looked in the direction of the river.

  “Yes, why don’t you?”

  He reached down to kiss her good-bye but she jerked her head away like a child.

  “Why you being like that? I’ve got to go, that’s all.” Felix felt something was off: he looked down and saw his zip was open. He pulled it closed. It occurred to him that he had said and done exactly the opposite of all he’d intended to say and do ever since he walked through her door.

  “I’m sorry,” he said.

  “No need. I’m fine. Next time bring your Grace lady. I like conscious types. They’re so much livelier. I find that most people are in a semi-vegetative state.”

  “I’m really sorry.” Felix kissed her on the forehead.

  He started walking toward the trapdoor. After a moment he heard footsteps coming up behind, and saw the flicker of her dressing gown, a few silk swallows on the wing, then a hand clamping down on his shoulder.

  “You know, Felix”—a dainty little voice, like a waitress reciting the specials—“not everyone wants this conventional little life you’re rowing your boat toward. I like my river of fire. And when it’s time for me to go I fully intend to roll off my one-person dinghy into the flames and be consumed. I’m not afraid! I’ve never been afraid. Most people are, you know. But I’m not like most people. You’ve never done anything for me and I don’t need you to do anything for me.”

  “Never done anything for you? When you was lying on this roof, dribbling out your mouth, with your eyes rolling back in your head, who was here, who put their fingers—”

  Annie’s nostrils flared and her face turned cruel: “Felix: what is this pathological need of yours to be the good guy? It’s very dull. Frankly, you were more fun when you were my dealer. You don’t have to save my life. Or anyone’s life. We’re all fine. We don’t need you to ride in on a white horse. You’re nobody’s savior.”

  They were speaking softly enough, but putting their hands on each other, more and more violently, and pulling them off, and Felix realized it was happening, it was bad as it could be, the dreaded scene that had kept him from this place for months, and the strange thing was how precisely he knew what it was like to be Annie at this moment—he had been in Annie’s role many times, with his mother, with other women—and the more he understood it the more he wanted to escape her, as if losing in the way she was losing right now was a kind of virus and pity the way you caught it.

  “You act like we’re in a relationship, but this ain’t a relationship. I’m in a relationship—that’s what I come here to tell you. But this? This ain’t shit, it’s nothing, it’s—”

  “Christ, another hideous word! God save me from ‘relationships!’”

  Desperate now to leave, Felix played what he believed was his trump card. “You’re forty-whatever. Look at you. You’re still living like this. I want to have kids. I want to get on with my life.”

  Annie forced out some approximation of a laugh: “You mean ‘more kids,’ don’t you? Or are you one of these optimistic souls who feels they become a new person every seven years, once the cells have regenerated—blank page, start again—never mind who you hurt, never mind what went on before. Now it’s time for my new relationship.”

  “I’m out,” said Felix, and began walking away.

  “What a mealy-mouthed pathetic word, ‘relationship.’ For people who haven’t the guts to live, haven’t the imagination to fill their three score and ten with anything other than—”

  Felix knew better than to get into it: he had no more cards and she was anyway playing by herself. When she was like this she could have an argument with a coat-stand, with a broom. And how could he know how much she’d taken before he’d even turned up? Now he turned from her and opened the trap door and made his way down, but she followed him.

  “It’s what people do these days, isn’t it? When they can’t think of anything else to do. No politics, no ideas, no balls. Get married. But I’ve transcended all that. Long time ago. Eons ago. This idea that all your happiness lies in this other person. This idea of happiness! I’m on a different plane of consciousness, darling. I’ve got more balls than are dreamed of in your philosophy. I was engaged at 19, I was engaged at 23, I could be moldering in some Hampshire pile at this very moment, covering and recovering sofas with some Baron in perfect sexless harmony. That’s what my people do. While your lot have a lot of babies they can’t afford or take care of. I’m sure it’s all perfectly delightful, but you can count me the fuck out!”

  In the hall between the bedroom and lounge, Felix turned round and grabbed both her wrists. He was shaking. He hadn’t realized till now what he wanted. Not just that she lose, but that she not exist.

  “You’re lucky that you find life easy, Felix. You’re lucky that you’re happy, that you know how to be happy, that you’re a good person—and you want everyone to be happy and good because you are, and to find things easy because you do. Does it never occur to you some people might not find life as easy to live as you do?”

  She looked triumphant. He watched her coke-jaw grinding against itself.

  “My life? My life is easy?”

  “I didn’t say it was easy. I said you find it easy. There’s a difference. That’s why I like the ballet: it’s hard for everybody. Felix, let go, it hurts.”

  Felix let go. Touching each other for so long, even in anger, made the anger unsustainable, and they both softened, and lowered their voices, and looked away.

  “I’m in the way, I see that. Well. No harm done. By which I mean of course: nothing but harm done.”

  “Every time I come round here, same drama. Same drama.” Felix shook his head at the floor. “I don’t get it. I never been nothing but nice to you. Why you trying to ruin my life?”

  She gave him a penetrating look.

  “How funny,” she said, “but of course that’s how it must seem to you.”

  After that they walked to the door quite calmly, the man slightly ahead. A stranger coming across the scene would have thought the man had tried to sell the woman a bible or set of encyclopedias, with no success. For his own part, Felix felt absolute certainty that this was the last time—the last time of passing this picture, the last time seeing that crack in the plaster—and in his mind he said a little prayer of thanks. He almost wished he could tell the woman he loved all about it, so fine an example was it of all that she had taught him. The universe wants you to be free. You must shake yourself free of the negative. The universe wants only that you ask, so that you shall receive. Behind him now he heard this woman quietly weeping. It was his cue to turn round, but he didn’t, and at the threshold the weeping became a sob. He hurried to the stairs, and was a few steps down when he heard a thud on the carpet above as she went down on her knees, and he knew he was meant to feel heavy, but the truth was he felt like a man undergoing some not-yet-invented process called particle transfer, wonderfully, blissfully light.


  Felix inched deeper into the carriage. He gripped the safety rail. He considered the tube map. It did not express his reality. The center was not “Oxford Circus” but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. “Wimbledon” was the countryside, “Pimlico” pure science fiction. He put his r
ight index finger over Pimlico’s blue bar. It was nowhere. Who lived there? Who even passed through it?

  Two seats came free in a bank of four. Felix roused himself and sat down. The guy opposite nodded to a loud break-beat. His friend next to him put his feet up on the seat. Pupils enormous, laughing into his neck every now again, amused by some private delirium. Felix established a private space of his own, opening his legs wide and slouching. At Finchley Road, as underground came over ground, his phone revived, bleeping to register a missed call. His thumb worked hopefully down the list. Same number, three times. It had only one physical referent in the world: a battered public call box, riveted to a wall, halfway down a concrete corridor. He had seen it many times through the reinforced glass of the visiting room. He put his mobile back into his pocket.

  • • •

  The thing with Devon was you wanted to talk to him, but at the same time, you didn’t want to. It wasn’t Devon anymore, really, but a hard-voiced stranger, who rang and said hard things, hurtful things. Jackie talking, through Devon’s mouth. She was sending Devon letters. Felix learned this from Lloyd (Devon had not said; Felix had not asked). Their mother had a strange power over people—Felix did not discount witchcraft. (Jackie claimed a Ghanaian grandmother. These things were not unknown there.) She surely had a power over Felix, once upon a time. A power over the girls. But she was a person with whom there would always be a “last straw.” Devon would have to learn this, as Felix and the girls had all learned it. The end for Felix was clearly marked. On that occasion it was eight years since her last “visit.” The girls refused to see her. Always sentimental, Felix took her in, cautiously, promising nothing. For moral support, he asked his brother to come round. Devon began the evening at the other end of the room, standing against the wall, glaring. He ended the night cozy on the sofa, accepting Jackie’s sloppy kisses all over his face. Felix softened, too. He brought down the white rum from a high shelf. Foolish. Tia called it early, as did Ruby. Lloyd. Everybody called it. Jackie’s sister, Karen, said, “Listen to me: put her out your door and change the locks.” But at the time it had seemed that Devon’s acquiescence allowed—necessitated—Felix’s. He had suffered so much more than Felix over the years, yet held no grudge.

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