Nw by Zadie Smith


  A queue forms behind her. They are trying to decide if she is crazy. Sectioning is a common procedure in NW, and it is not always the people you’d think. The Indian woman in the white coat behind the counter flicks once more through her box of yellow envelopes.

  –Ah—Hanwell. It was not in H. It’s been put in the wrong place, you see. I’m so sorry, Madam.

  She is not crazy. Photographs. Easy to forget about real photographs, their gloss and pleasure. But the first is entirely black, and so is the second; the third shows only a red aura, like a torch held beneath a sheet.

  –Look, these aren’t mine, I don’t want these—

  The fourth is Shar. Unmistakable. Shar laughing at whoever is taking the picture, pressing herself against a door, holding a little bottle of something, vodka? Underneath a dartboard. No other furniture in the filthy room. The fifth is Shar, still laughing, now sat on the floor, looking destroyed. The sixth is a skaggy redhead, skin and bone and track marks, with a fag hanging out her mouth, and if you squinted—

  –I’m sorry, Madam. Let me take those, somehow we’ve had a mixing up.

  Michel, who has been looking at shaving creams, comes over. He is not surprised. Infuriating, this perverse refusal to be either amazed or surprised.

  NW, a small place.

  With two pharmacies.

  Photographs get mixed up.

  Sounds reasonable but she can’t take it reasonably. She is enraged by the possibility that he does not believe her. This is the girl! Don’t you believe me? That’s an insane coincidence! Her photos are in my envelope! Don’t you believe me? But why should he believe her when she has lied about everything? The queue shuffles impatiently. She is shouting, and people look at her like she is mad. Michel yanks her toward the exit, the little bell over the door rings, it is all over so quickly. It is somehow the brevity of it that muddles things—those too few seconds, in which she looked and saw what was there. The girl. Her photos. My envelope. That’s what happened. Like a riddle in a dream. There is no answer. Nor is there any way that she can take back what she has so loudly proclaimed, in front of all these decent local people, or to ask to see photos that are clearly not hers, again. What would people think?

  GUEST

  NW6

  The man was naked, the woman dressed. It didn’t look right, but the woman had somewhere to go. He lay clowning in bed, holding her wrist. She tried to put a shoe on. Under their window they heard truck doors opening, boxes of produce heaved onto tarmac. Felix sat up and looked to the car park below. He watched a man in an orange tabard, three stacked crates of apples in his arms, struggle through electric doors. Grace tapped the window with a long fake nail: “Babe—they can see you.” Felix stretched. He made no effort to cover himself. “Some people shameless,” noted Grace and squeezed round the bed to straighten the figurines on the windowsill. It was a dumb place to keep them—the man had knocked a few princesses over during the night, and now the woman wanted to know where “Ariel” was. The man turned back to the window. “Felix, I’m talking to you: what you done with her?” “I ain’t touched her. Which one is it? The ginger one?” “Shut up about ginger—she’s red. She’s stuck behind the thing—it’s nasty down there!” It was an opportunity for manly display. Felix thrust his skinny arm behind the radiator and drew out an ex-mermaid. He held her up to the light by her hard-won feet: “Blatantly. Ginger.” Grace put the doll back in place between the brown one and the blonde one. “Keep laughing,” she said, “Won’t be laughing when I kick you out on the street.” True. The sheets were white and clean, bar the wet patch he had made himself, and the carpet worn thin from hoovering. On the only chair his clothes from the night before had already been folded and placed in a pile. The pink telephone on the glass dresser shone, and so did the glass dresser. He had known many women: he didn’t think he had ever known anyone quite so female. “Lift!” He raised his backside so she could retrieve a sock. Even the bottle of perfume in her hand was shaped like a woman, a cheap knock-off from the market. He wished he could buy her the things she wanted! There were so many things she wanted. “And if you go past Wilsons on the high road—Fee, listen to me. If you go past ask Ricky—you know which one I’m talking about? Little light-skin boy with the twists. Ask ’im if he can come round and look at that sink. What’s the time? Shit—I’m late.” He watched her spray herself now in the hollow of her neck, the underside of her wrist, furtively, as if he was never to know she ever smelled of anything but roses and sandalwood. “Oyster card?” The man put his hands behind his head in a manful shrug. The woman sucked her teeth and went off to search the tiny lounge. It was hard to remain manful alone. He did all these sit-ups. All these sit-ups! His belly stayed concave, a curtain sucked through an open window. He picked yesterday’s paper from the floor. Maybe the key was to make less effort. Hadn’t the men she’d loved most cared least? “Fee, you working today?” “Nah, this week they only needed me Friday.” “They need to be guaranteeing you Saturdays. That’s when the work comes in. It’s disrespectful. You’re trained. You got your certificate. You’ve got to stop letting people disrespect you like that.” “True,” said Felix, and turned to Page Three. The woman came right up close to the man and made a sentence of words and kisses, alternating. “Never. Ignorant. Getting. Goals. Accomplished.” She frowned absently at the nipples of the white woman in his newspaper which Felix—although certainly more familiar with such nipples than Grace—also found curious, so pink and tiny, like a cat’s. “You ain’t even done that thing have you? Fee? Have you?” “What thing?” “The list! You ain’t done it have you?” Felix made a noncommittal sound, but the truth was he had not made a list of things he wanted from the universe, and privately doubted it would change anything at work. There wasn’t enough work to justify five men working five days a week. He was the least experienced, the last one in. “Felix!” The beloved face appeared by the doorjamb: “Oi, it just arrived! I’ve got to go—it’s on the sofa. Take it round your dad’s, yeah?” The man wanted to object, he had his own errands to run, but they were secret errands and so he said nothing. “Go on, Fee. He’d like it. Don’t get in no trouble. And listen, yeah? I’m gonna stay at Angeline’s tonight and go carnival from hers. So bell me and let me know what time you’re gonna reach.” Felix made a face of protest. “Nah, Felix, I promised her we’d get done up together. It’s tradition. She’s on her own now, innit. You and me can go carnival any time. Don’t be selfish. We can go Monday. We got each other—Angeline got no one. Come on, don’t be like that.” She kissed two fingertips and pointed them at his heart. He grinned back at her. “That’s it. Laters.” How can you hide happiness? He listened to the front door click shut, the clatter of four flights of rotten boards taken at a clip, in heels.

  • • •

  “Felix! Felix Cooper. ’Sup, bruv?”

  A giant kid, with a foolish gappy smile and mono-brow and thick black hair sticking up the back of the t-shirt. Felix wedged the heavy envelope under his armpit and submitted to a laborious, complicated handshake. He was standing only two feet from his own front door. “Long time . . . You don’t remember me innit.” Felix found he disliked being punched like that, too hard, and on the shoulder, but he smiled thinly and lied: “Course I do, bruv. Long time.” This satisfied the kid. He punched Felix again. “Good to see you, man! Where you headed?” Felix rubbed his eyes. “Family business. See my old man. Gotta be done.” The young man laughed: “Lloyd! Used to come in for his Rizlas. Ain’t seen him for time.” Yeah, old Lloyd. Yeah, old Lloyd was all right, still up in the old estate, in Caldwell, yeah, never left. Still Rasta, yeah. Still got his Camden stall. Selling his knick-knacks. Still doing all that. Felix laughed, as he understood he was meant to, at this point. Together they looked over at the towers of Caldwell, not five hundred yards away. “Apple ain’t fallen far from the tree, bruv, for real.” This trigger gave up at least the surname: Khan. Of Khan’s minimart,
Willesden. All that family looked the same, many brothers, running the place for their father. This must be the youngest. Caldwell boys back in the day, two floors below the Coopers. He didn’t remember them being especially friendly. Felix had arrived too late in Caldwell to make good friends. To do that you had to be born and bred. “Good times,” said the Khan kid. To be polite, Felix agreed. “And you living back here now?” “My girl lives just there.” He indicated the supermarket sign with his chin. “Felix, man, you properly local. I remember when you was working in there. “Member when I saw you on the tills that time I was like—” “Yeah, well, I ain’t there no more.” Felix glared over the boy’s head to the empty basketball cage across the street in which no-one had ever played basketball or ever would. “I’m in Hendon now, innit,” said the kid, a little bashfully, as if it was too much good luck to confess to. “Loving it. Married. Nice girl, traditional. Little one on the way, Inshallah.” He held up a twinkling ring finger for Felix to inspect. “Life is good, man. Life is good.” People got to have their little victories. “Oi, Felix, you going carnival?” “Yeah. Probably just Monday, though. I’m getting old, man.” “Maybe I’ll see you down there.” Felix smiled nicely. Pointed his envelope toward Caldwell.

  NO DOORBELL.

  He had seen BROKEN DOORBELL many times before, also KEEP OUT. NO DOORBELL suggested a new level of surrender. Where the Post-it was peeling Felix thumbed it back down again. He knocked for a while without result: the reggae was loud enough to rattle the letterbox on its hinges. He stepped across to the kitchen window and put his mouth to the four-inch gap. Lloyd wandered into view, barefoot and bare-chested, idly munching a piece of toast. His locks were secured in a bun, a wooden spoon thrust through them like a geisha’s chopstick.

  “Lloyd—I been knocking. Let me in, dred.”

  From around a dead cactus on the windowsill, Lloyd plucked a single key strung on a once-white shoelace, and passed it out to his son.

  “Like a sauna in here!” Felix dropped his coat to the floor and kicked off his trainers. In the narrow hall he remembered to give a wide berth to the first of several molten radiators, which, if you made even the faintest contact with them, burned your skin. His feet sunk into the carpet, a thick, synthetic purple pelt, unchanged in twenty years.

  “Listen, I ain’t staying. Got to be in town at twelve. I just brought something to show you.”

  Felix squeezed into the galley kitchen behind his father. Even this room was a mess of African masks and drums and the rest of that heritage whatnot. More every visit, it was piling up. A huge pot, bubbling yellow at the rim, sat on a gas ring. Felix watched Lloyd wrap a cloth round his hand and lift the lid.

  “That book came—that Grace found?” He held out the envelope. “You should take all this stuff to the stall, man. Weather’s good for it. You could sell it at carnival.”

  Lloyd dismissed his son with a hand. “No time for that nonsense. That’s not my music anymore. It’s just noise.”

  The dishes were piled high in the sink and a small hill of bed linen had been stuffed in a corner, not yet taken to the launderette. A bulb hung naked. Half a blunt smoldered in an ashtray.

  “Lloyd, man . . . You need to do some cleaning. Why’s the immersion on? Where’s Sylvia?”

  “Not here.”

  “What do you mean ‘not here?’”

  “The woman is not here. The woman has gone. She left a week ago but you ain’t phoned for a week—it’s news to you. Ain’t news to me. She long gone. This means freedom, this means lib-er-ty!” These last lines came from the song presently, fortuitously, playing. Lloyd danced a woozy two-step toward Felix.

  “She owed me forty quid,” said Felix.

  “Look at this. Gray!” Lloyd pressed his hands along his own hairline and pulled: a little nest of white hairs sprung forth. There were only seventeen years between the two men. “The woman made me gray. In three months she made me an old man.”

  Kept your flat clean. Hid the spliff till midday. Brought in a little money so you didn’t come begging off me. Felix looked at his fingers.

  “This is it, Fee, this is it: how can you stop people going when they want to go? How can you stop them? You can’t stop them. Listen: if you can’t stop a grown woman with four kids then you can’t stop a stupid girl like Sylvia who’s got nothing. She got no one.” This emphasis drew his lips back for a moment and he looked just like a dog. “People need to go their own way, Felix! If you love someone, set them free! Never go out with a Spanish girl, though, seriously, that is serious advice. They ain’t rational. For real! Their brains ain’t wired normal.” Something moist fell from above onto Felix’s shoulder. The constant central heating, the cooking, the lack of ventilation, caused large mold flowers to bloom on the ceiling. Scraps drifted down now and then, like petals. “Listen, I got along without your mother. I can get along now. Don’t stress, man—I’ll be all right. Been all right this long.”

  “What happened to the lampshade?”

  “I woke up and she’d stripped the place. Honest to God, Felix. I should have called the police. She’s probably back in fucking Madrid by now. DVD player. Bath mat. Toaster. If it weren’t screwed down, believe—she took it. She took the van. How can I sell anything without the van? Tell me that.”

  “She owed me forty quid,” said Felix again, although it was pointless. Lloyd clapped his son’s face affectionately between his hands. Felix held up the envelope with the book in it.

  “Why can’t your fine woman come and see it though?” said Lloyd, taking the package from his son, “I want to impress her not you, man! That’s the whole point, right? That’s the whole point of the exercise! She wants to know a real Garvey House man. You was just born there. I lived it, bruv. Nah, I’m joking you. Let me take a piss first. There’s ginger tea somewhere.”

  • • •

  In the lounge Felix tore the envelope badly: a cloud of gray fluff exploded over the carpet. In little rusted heart-shaped frames his siblings sat on top of the TV watching him make a poor job of it. Devon aged about six, in the snow, in Garvey House, and the twins, Ruby and Tia, more recently, sitting on different concrete steps in a stairwell somewhere on Caldwell estate. Whichever way he tore the mess got worse. He took a big breath and blew, clearing the glossy back cover. Twenty-nine quid! For a book! And when would he get paid back for it? Never. Hard backed, large like an atlas. GARVEY HOUSE: A Photographic Portrait. Felix turned randomly to a page, Russian roulette. No bullet: a shy couple, just married, skinny, country-looking, with uneven afros and acne scars, done up in someone else’s too-large wedding gear. No wedding guests, or no guests in the shot. They were celebrating alone with a half-empty bottle of Martini Rosso. He bit his lip and flicked forward. Four handsome sistas in headscarves, covering a stretch of graffiti with a tub of fresh paint. (Color unknown. All was black and white.) In the background, broken chairs and a mattress and a boy smoking a blunt. Felix heard the toilet flush. Lloyd came back out, sniffing, suspiciously perky. He drew a freshly rolled one from his pajama bottoms and lit up. “Come on, then. Let’s be having it.”

  This is a photographic account of a fascinating period in London’s history. A mix of squat, halfway house and commune, Garvey House welcomed vulnerable young adults from the edges of

  “Don’t read me shit I already know. I don’t need the man dem telling me what I already know. Who was there, me or he?” The book flipped itself back to the page Felix had just passed. “I knew all these girls, man. That’s Anita, Prissy, that’s Vicky, Queen Vicky we called her; she I don’t know—fine-looking women! That little bastard at the back is Denzel Baker. Scoundrel. I knew all of them! What does it say there—ain’t got my glasses.”

  May, 1977. The young women decorated and redecorated. Sometimes the boys came home late and smashed the place up, perhaps out of boredom, or in the hope that Brother Raymond would pay them to fix the place
up once more.

  “Yeah, that’s about right. Brother Raymond got Islington council funding it, and we did mess with them a bit, that’s true. The boys messed things up, and the girls tried to fix it up, ha!—can’t deny it. Except your mother. She messed things up, too. This was the heat-wave. We just took off the door. It was too hot! Where am I? Should be in this one. There’s Marilyn! And—that’s Brother Raymond. Turned the wrong way but that’s him.”

  Felix looked closely. Garvey House spilled out into the concrete backyard. Kids barefoot, parents looking like kids themselves. Afros, headscarfs, cain rows, weird stiff wigs, a tall, skinny, spiritual-looking Rasta resting on a big stick. He could not be sure if he had a memory of this, or whether the photograph itself was creating the memory for him. When the council rehoused the Coopers, he was only eight years old. “Fee, look how fresh we were, though! Look at that shirt! Kids don’t fresh it up like that anymore. Jeans hanging down your batty crease. We was fresh!” Felix had to concede it: style without money, without any means whatsoever. Charity-store nylons worn sharply. Battered Clarks coming off like the finest Italian shoes. BLACK POWER sprayed in three-foot-high letters on the garden wall. Strange to see here, confirmed in black and white, what he had all his life assumed to be a self-serving exaggeration. “Let me find you a proper one of Brother Raymond. How many times I told you about Raymond! He was the reason.” Lloyd flicked sloppily through the glossy pages, missing wads of photos at a time. He passed Felix the spliff; Felix declined it silently. Nine months, two weeks, three days. “If it weren’t for Brother Raymond I’d be sleeping in Kings Cross to this day. He was a good man. He never—” “Wait up!” Felix thrust his hand into the book.

  • • •

  Page 37. Lloyd flat out on a stained mattress reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Broad flares and little glasses, shirtless here, too. Barely aged. Not the familiar locks but a well-kept afro, about four inches all round. “See? You never believe me: always reading, I was always reading. That’s where you kids get your brains. They called me ‘Professor.’ Everybody did. That’s why Jackie hunt me down in the first place. She wanted to get in here.” Lloyd tapped his own temple and made a face to suggest the mysteries inside were frightening in their intensity, even to their owner. “Vampire business. She was sucking out the knowledge.” Felix nodded. He tried looking more intently at the photograph. He asked after the names of three other guys in the picture—sat round a card table, smoking and playing Black Jack. “Two of them boys went down for murder. That one with the little face, can’t remember his name, and him, Antoine Greene. Hard times! You lot don’t even know. People now . . . That fool-man Barnes. What’s he talking about? ‘The struggle!’ He’s the one with the three-bedroom flat, isn’t he? Full pension coming from the post office in a couple years. I don’t need no lessons from that fool. I seen the struggle.” Lloyd hit his fist against the wall for emphasis, and Felix’s thoughts followed the reverberation to next door,

 
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