Nw by Zadie Smith


  She turned up in high summer. Many days spent smoking weed together on Hampstead Heath, laughing madly, rolling about in the grass like young lovers. Jackie, Devon, Felix. At nights they sat up drinking. “I can’t believe how yellow this boy is! Look at them curls!” Emerging from the kitchen with a pack of biscuits, she told poor Devon quite casually that his father had died, some years ago—drowned. To Felix, it sounded like a tall tale. He kept quiet. In the end they were half-brothers: it wasn’t his business. He had his own father, his own troubles. In the early hours she stood in the middle of the floor, as if on stage, and spoke of how lonely and miserable she’d been in England, as a young woman. This Felix had never heard; he found he wanted to hear it, although he knew perfectly well she could have exchanged this life story for any other narrative and he would have accepted it just as readily. He wanted to love her. He tried to imagine life in notorious Garvey House, being “spat at by NF kids in the grocers.” She talked out her various conspiracy theories. These Felix did not interrupt. He wanted to be happy. There was one about the towers. There was one about the moon landings. The Virgin Mary was black. The planet was getting colder. 2012 would be the end of everything. She seemed to have spent the past few years in Internet cafes around the country, gathering this information. Devon followed her willingly on every point. Felix, more skeptical, let it wash over him, without comment. She had her hair tied in two thick plaits like a Red Indian, a thin gold band tied across her forehead. And lo, there would come a perfect future world with no money and no shops, just storehouses in the middle of town, with everything you needed in them and no locks on the doors. People living all together with no religion. Her eyes, he knew, had the taint of madness.

  The next day she was gone, with Felix’s cashpoint card, his watch, all his chains. Two months later Devon walked into Khandi’s Gem Express and Jewelry on the high road, with a kid from South Kilburn, Curtis Ainger, and a gun. Smile, you’re on CCTV. Nineteen when he went in. Twenty-three this summer.

  • • •

  “Sorry, could you ask your friend to move his feet?”

  Felix took out his earbuds. A white woman, hugely pregnant and sweating, stood over him.

  “I’d like to sit down?” she said.

  Felix looked at his motionless “friend” opposite, and thought it best to speak to the other one. He leaned forward. This guy had his head against the glass, oblivious and half hidden by his hood, nodding to his music. Felix touched him lightly on the knee.

  “Oi, bruv—I think the lady wants to sit down.”

  The guy removed one can of his bulky earphones.

  “What?”

  “I think the lady wants to sit down.”

  The pregnant woman smiled tightly. It was a hot day to be in that state. Looking at her made the sweat break out across Felix’s nose.

  “Yeah? Why you asking me though? Why you touching me?”

  “What?”

  “Why you asking me. Why don’t she ask me?”

  “Your man’s got his feet on her seat, blud.”

  “But is it your business, though? Why you tryna make it your business? Who you callin’ blud? I ain’t your blud.”

  “I didn’t say it was my—”

  “Is it your business, though? You got a seat—you fucking get up.” Felix tried to defend himself; the kid waved a hand in his face. “Shut up—fool.”

  The other guy opened one eye and laughed quietly. Felix stood up.

  “Take mine—I’m getting off.”

  “Thank you.” Felix saw how badly she was shaking, and that her eyes were watery. He angled himself out of her way, and felt the moist skin of her arms against his own. She sat down. She looked directly at the two men. Her voice was wobbly: “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” she said.

  They were pulling into Kilburn Station. The carriage was silent. No one looked—or they looked so quickly their glances were undetectable. Felix felt a great wave of approval, smothering and unwanted, directed toward him, and just as surely, contempt and disgust enveloping the two men and separating them, from Felix, from the rest of the carriage, from humanity. They seemed to feel it: abruptly they both stood and hustled toward the door, where Felix already stood waiting. He could hear the inevitable thrum of cusses, directed at him. The doors blessedly opened; Felix found himself shoulder-charged; he stumbled onto the platform like a clown. Laughter, close, then vanishing. He looked up to see the soles of their trainers as they took the stairs two at a time, jumped the barrier and disappeared.

  • • •

  Trees shaggy overhead. Hedges wild over fences. Every crack in the pavement, every tree root. The way the sun hits the top deck of the 98. The walls have grown taller outside the Jewish school, and outside the Muslim one. The Kilburn Tavern has been repainted, shiny black with gold lettering. If he hurries he may even get home before her. Lie down in that clean room, that good place. Pull her into his body. Start all over again, fresh.

  Outside the Tavern, Felix spotted Hifan and Kelly eating a tray of chips at a picnic table, both of them from his year at school—he bald, she still looking fine. To get a laugh Felix high-fived Hifan, kissed Kelly on her cheek, stole a chip, and walked on, like it was all one movement, a form of dance. “What you so happy about?” Kelly called after him, and Felix shouted, “Love, shorty, L.O.V.E. LOVE!” without turning round, and did his pimp-roll walk, and enjoyed the laughter as he disappeared smoothly round the corner. Nobody to see him collide with the gray bins out the back. He steadied himself with a hand to the Tavern’s back door: fancy colored glass now and a new brass doorknob. Wood floors where carpets used to be, real food instead of crisps and scratchings. About six quid for a glass of wine! Jackie wouldn’t recognize it. Maybe by now she’d be one of those exiles on the steps of the betting shop, clutching a can of Special Brew, driven from the pubs by the refits. Maybe she was never that bad. It was impossible to know, with Lloyd, how much was true, how much pure venom. Felix glanced through the window to the interior: no more velvety corner booth. Where he had sat with his sisters, six little feet not even touching the ground, earnestly listening to Jackie give her leaving speech. Some new man she’d met who made her feel free. Lived in Southampton, some white guy. At seven you don’t know. He didn’t know that freedom was something you could feel. He thought it was something you simply were. He didn’t know where Southampton was. He loved his own father and did not want to go and live with a strange white man. Only when the conversation was almost over did it occur to Felix that she wasn’t asking him to come to Southampton. Two years later, she turned up in London with a light brown baby boy. Left Devon with Lloyd and went—wherever. Wherever she went.

  • • •

  On Albert Road Felix fell in step behind a tall girl in tight red jeans and black spaghetti-strapped vest. She had broad shoulders and a square trunk. She had more muscles than Felix, and as she walked her muscles moved together, fluid and complicated: the way the arms attached to the back and to the backside and to the hips. Not like Grace at all, who was shorter and curvier and softer. This woman could pick Felix up and run with him all the way home, put him down on his doorstep like a baby. She wore a lot of cheap silver rings, green round their bands, and running down one forearm a tattoo of a flower with a long, winding stem. Her heels were dry and cracked. The label on her top was showing. Should he tuck it in? A trickle of sweat ran from her ear, along her neck and down her back, straight down that muscled division—strongly defined—between her left side and her right. Her phone rang. She answered it and called somebody “Baby.” She turned right. Another life. Felix felt someone push two fingers hard into his back.

  “Money. Phone. Now.”

  They were either side of him. Hoods up but perfectly visible. Same two from the train. Not much taller than he was. Not much wider, either. It had just turned six o’clock.

  “NOW.”
r />   He felt himself being jostled, manhandled. He looked up at their faces. The talkative one, the one doing all the cussing, was truly a kid; the other, the silent one, was closer to Felix’s own age, and too old for such foolishness. He had ashy hands, like Felix’s own, and the same dull sheen to his face. Along his cheek a scar ran. He was local somehow, familiar. Felix tried turning away but they swung him back round. He swore at them at length, creatively, and looked to his right: four houses down the tall girl put a key to a lock and went inside.

  “Listen, I ain’t giving you nothing. Nothing!”

  He found himself on the pavement. As he got back up on his knees he heard one of them say, “Big man on the train. Ain’t the big man now.” And instead of fear, a feeling of pity came over him; he remembered when being the big man was all that mattered. He reached into his pockets. They could have his phone. They could have the lone twenty in his pocket if it came to that. He’d been mugged many times and knew the drill. When he was younger they might have wounded his ego; now the old fury and humiliation were gone—they could have it all. Everything he cared about was elsewhere. He tried to laugh at them as he handed over his meager valuables: “Should have caught me two hours ago, blud. Two hours ago I was loaded.” The kid gave him a dead-eyed look, face set in a violent pout. It was a necessary mask, without which he could not do what he was doing. “And the stones,” said the kid. Felix touched his ears. Treasured zirconias, a present from Grace.

  “You’re dreamin’,” he said.

  He turned once more toward the street. A breeze passed over the three of them, filling their hoods and sending a cloud of sycamore leaves spinning to the pavement. A firm punch came to his side. Punch? The pain sliced to the left, deep and down. Warm liquid reversed up his throat. Over his lips. Yet it couldn’t be oblivion as long as he could name it, and with this in mind he said aloud what had been done to him, what was being done to him, he tried to say it, he said nothing. Grace! Down Willesden Lane a bus came rumbling; at the same moment in which Felix glimpsed the handle and the blade he saw the 98 reopen its doors to accept the last soul in sight—a young girl in a yellow summer dress. She ran with her ticket held high above her head like the proof of something, got there just in time, cried out “Thank you!” and let the doors fold neatly behind her.

  HOST

  1. These red pigtails

  There had been an event. To speak of it required the pluperfect. Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell, the protagonists in this event, were four-year-old children. The outdoor pool—really a shallow trough in the park, one foot at its deepest end—had been full of kids, “splashing all ways, causing madness.” There was no lifeguard at the time of the event, and parents were left to keep an eye as best they could. “They had a guard up the hill, in Hampstead, for them. Nothing for us.” This was an interesting detail. Keisha—now ten years old and curious about the tensions between grown people—tried to get at its meaning. “Stop gazing. Lift your foot,” said her mother. They sat on a bench in a shoe shop on the Kilburn High Road getting measured for a pair of dull brown shoes with a t-strap that did not express any of the joy that must surely exist in the world, despite everything. “I’ve got Cheryl acting wild in one corner, I got Jayden in my arms bawling, and I’m trying to see where you are, trying to keep it all together . . .” It was in this ellipsis that the event had occurred: a child nearly drowned. Yet the significance of the event lay elsewhere. “You rose up with these red pigtails in your hand. You dragged her up. You were the only one saw she was in trouble.” After the event, the mother of the child, an Irish woman, thanked Marcia Blake many times, and this in itself was a kind of event. “I knew Pauline to look at but not to speak to. She was a bit snooty with me back then.” Keisha could neither contradict nor verify this account—she had no memory of it. However, the foreshadowing could be considered suspicious. Her own celebrated will and foresight so firmly established, and Cheryl already wild and unreliable. Also, Jayden could not have been born at the time of the event, being five years younger than Keisha. “Keep still now,” murmured Marcia, pushing the steel bar down to meet her daughter’s toes.

  2. Kiwi fruit

  In the lethal quiet of the Hanwell flat a highlight was snack-time. It was taken seriously by Mrs. Hanwell, who kept a trolley for the purpose. Three tiered with swiveling wheels of brass. It was too low to the ground to be pushed without a person bending absurdly as they did so. “There’s no point bringing it all out for two, but when there’s three I like to get it out.” Keisha Blake sat cross-legged in front of the television with her good friend Leah Hanwell, with whom she had bonded over a dramatic event. She turned to monitor the trolley’s progress: food delighted Keisha Blake and she looked forward to it above all things. Blocking the girls’ view, Mrs. Hanwell now asked the television a question: “Who are all these dangerous-looking fellas in a van?” Leah turned up the volume. She pointed to the TV, at Hannibal’s gleaming white hair, and then at her mother, in reality. “That hair makes you look well old,” she said. Keisha tried to imagine saying something of this kind to her own mother. Silently she mourned the loss of the biscuit plate and whatever novelty was contained in those furry brown eggs. She put her feet together ready to stand up and go home. But Mrs. Hanwell did not start yelling or hitting. She only touched her bowl of hair and sighed. “It went this color when I had you.”

  3. Holes

  The stick jammed the doors of the lift—this had been the whole point of the exercise. An alarm sounded. All three children went screaming and laughing down the stairs, up the incline, and over the boundary wall to sit on the pavement on the other side. Nathan Bogle pulled his knees right up to his chin and put his arms around them. “How many holes you got?” he asked. Both girls were silent. “What?” said Leah, finally. “Down there”—he jabbed a finger at Keisha’s crotch to demonstrate—“How many? You don’t even know.” Keisha dared lift her eyes from the road to her friend. Leah was hopelessly red in the face. “Everybody knows that,” countered Keisha Blake, trying to muster the further boldness she sensed was required. “You should fuck off and find out.” “You don’t even know,” Nathan concluded, and Leah stood up suddenly and kicked him on his ankle and shouted, “But she does though!” and took Keisha’s hand and ran back to the flat holding hands the whole way because they were best friends bonded for life by a dramatic event and everyone in Caldwell best know about it.

  4. Uncertainty

  They found Cheryl watching television, plaiting her own hair, from the back of her head forwards. Keisha Blake challenged her elder sister to say how many holes there were. It was not good to have Cheryl laugh at you. It was a loud, relentless laugh, fueled by the other person’s mortification.

  5. Philosophical disagreement

  Keisha Blake was eager to replicate some of the conditions she had seen at the Hanwells’. Cup, teabag, then water, then—only then—milk. On a tea-tray. Her mother was of the opinion that anyone who is in another person’s flat as often as Leah Hanwell was in the Blakes’ forgoes the right to be a guest and should simply be treated as a member of the family, with all the dispensation and latitude that suggests. Cheryl took a third position: “She’s always hanging round here. Don’t she like her own place? What’s she up in my makeup all the time for? Who does she think she is?”

  “Mum, you got a tea-tray?”

  “Just take it in to her. Lord!”

  6. Some answers

  Keisha Blake

  Leah Hanwell

  Purple

  Yellow

  Cameo, Culture Club, Bob Marley

  Madonna, Culture Club, Thompson Twins

  Rather have the money

  Be really famous

  Michael Jackson

 
Harrison Ford

  Nobody. If I had to, Rahim.

  Top secret: Nathan Bogle

  Don’t know

  Daisies or buttercups

  Doctor or Missionary

  Manager

  Leah Hanwell

  Keisha Blake

  World peace in South Africa

  No bombs

  Deaf

  Deaf

  Hurricane

  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

  E.T.

  E.T.

  7. Filet-O-Fish, large fries, apple pie

  It was a Caldwell assumption that plumbers did very well for themselves. Keisha saw little evidence of this. Either the personal wealth of plumbers was a myth or her father was incompetent. She had in the past prayed for work for Augustus Blake, without results. Now it was almost midday on a Saturday and no news had arrived of pipes leaking or backed-up toilets. During periods of stress Augustus Blake stood on the balcony and smoked Lambert & Butlers and this he did now. Keisha could not tell if Leah felt the anxiety of the phone not-ringing in the flat as the rest of them did. The two girls lay on their bellies in front of the television set. They watched four hours of morning shows and cartoons. Each one they ridiculed in turn and spoiled for Jayden, but there was no other way of explaining to each other why they should want to watch the same things as a six-year-old boy. When the lunchtime news began, Gus came in and asked where Cheryl was.

 
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