White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “What? Who? No . . . I’d—you know . . . make love—to a lady,” said Archie, whose inexperience made him prudish. “You know . . . for the last time.”

  Samad broke into a laugh. “For the first time, is more likely.”

  “Oh, go on, I’m serious.”

  “All right. And if there were no ‘ladies’ in the vicinity?”

  “Well, you can always”—and here Archie went a pillar-box red, this being his own version of cementing a friendship—“slap the salami, as the GIs say!”

  “Slap,” repeated Samad contemptuously, “the salami . . . and that is it, is it? The last thing you would wish to do before you shuffled off this mortal coil is ‘slap your salami.’ Achieve orgasm.”

  Archie, who came from Brighton, where nobody ever, ever said words like orgasm, began to convulse with hysterical embarrassment.

  “Who is funny? Something is funny?” asked Samad, lighting a fag distractedly despite the heat, his mind carried elsewhere by the morphine.

  “Nobody,” began Archie haltingly, “nothing.”

  “Can’t you see it, Jones? Can’t you see . . .” Samad lay half in, half out of the doorway, his arms stretched up to the ceiling, “. . . the intention? They weren’t slapping their salamis—spreading the white stuff—they were looking for something a little more permanent.”

  “I can’t see the difference, frankly,” said Archie. “When you’re dead, you’re dead.”

  “Oh no, Archibald, no,” whispered Samad, melancholic. “You don’t believe that. You must live life with the full knowledge that your actions will remain. We are creatures of consequence, Archibald,” he said, gesturing to the church walls. “They knew it. My great-grandfather knew it. Someday our children will know it.”

  “Our children!” sniggered Archie, simply amused. The possibility of offspring seemed so distant.

  “Our children will be born of our actions. Our accidents will become their destinies. Oh, the actions will remain. It is a simple matter of what you will do when the chips are down, my friend. When the fat lady is singing. When the walls are falling in, and the sky is dark, and the ground is rumbling. In that moment our actions will define us. And it makes no difference whether you are being watched by Allah, Jesus, Buddah, or whether you are not. On cold days a man can see his breath, on a hot day he can’t. On both occasions, the man breathes.”

  “Do you know,” said Archie, after a pause, “just before I left from Felixstowe I saw this new drill they have now which breaks in two and you can put different things on the end—spanner, hammer, even a bottle-opener. Very useful in a tight spot, I’d imagine. I tell you, I’d bloody love one of those.”

  Samad looked at Archie for a moment and then shook his head. “Come on, let’s get inside. This Bulgarian food. Turns my stomach over. I need a bit of sleep.”

  “You look pale,” said Archie, helping him up.

  “It’s for my sins, Jones, for my sins and yet I am more sinned against than sinning.” Samad giggled to himself.

  “You what?”

  Archie bore the weight of Samad on one side as they walked inside.

  “I have eaten something,” said Samad, putting on a cut-glass English accent, “that is about to disagree with me.”

  Archie knew very well that Samad sneaked morphine from the cabinets, but he could see Samad wanted him not to know, so “Let’s get you into bed” was all he said, bringing Samad over to a mattress.

  “When this is over, we will meet again in England, OK?” said Samad, lunging toward his mattress.

  “Yes,” said Archie, trying to imagine walking along Brighton pier with Samad.

  “Because you are a rare Englishman, Sapper Jones. I consider you my friend.”

  Archie was not sure what he considered Samad, but he smiled gently in recognition of the sentiment.

  “You will have dinner with my wife and I in the year 1975. When we are big-bellied men sitting on our money-mountains. Somehow we will meet.”

  Archie, dubious of foreign food, smiled weakly.

  “We will know each other throughout our lives!”

  Archie laid Samad down, got himself a mattress, and maneuvered himself into a position for sleep.

  “Good night, friend,” said Samad, pure contentment in his voice.

  In the morning, the circus came to town. Woken by shouts and whooping laughter, Samad struggled into uniform and wrapped one hand around his gun. He stepped into the sun-drenched courtyard to find Russian soldiers in their dun-colored uniforms leapfrogging over each other, shooting tin cans off one another’s heads, and throwing knives at potatoes stuck on sticks, each potato sporting a short black twig mustache. With all the exhaustion of revelation, Samad collapsed onto the front steps, sighed, and sat with his hands on his knees, his face turned up toward the heat. A moment later Archie tripped out, trousers half-mast, waving his gun, looking for the enemy, and shot a frightened bullet in the air. The circus continued, without noticing. Samad pulled Archie wearily by the trouser leg and gestured for him to sit down.

  “What’s going on?” demanded Archie, watery-eyed.

  “Nothing. Nothing absolutely is going on. In fact, it’s gone off.”

  “But these might be the men who—”

  “Look at the potatoes, Jones.”

  Archie gazed wildly about him. “What have potatoes got to do with it?”

  “They’re Hitler potatoes, my friend. They are vegetable dictators. Ex-dictators.” He pulled one off its stick. “See the little mustaches? It’s over, Jones. Someone has finished it for us.”

  Archie took the potato in his hand.

  “Like a bus, Jones. We have missed the bloody war.”

  Archie shouted over to a lanky Russian in mid-spear of a Hitler potato. “Speak English? How long has it been over?”

  “The fighting?” He laughed incredulously. “Two weeks, comrade! You will have to go to Japan if you want any more!”

  “Like a bus,” repeated Samad, shaking his head. A great fury was rising in him, bile blocking his throat. This war was to have been his opportunity. He was expected to come home covered in glory, and then to return to Delhi triumphant. When would he ever have another chance? There were going to be no more wars like this one, everybody knew that. The soldier who had spoken to Archie wandered over. He was dressed in the summer uniform of the Russians: the thin material, high-necked collar, and oversized floppy cap; he wore a belt around a substantial waist, the buckle of which caught the sun and shot a beam into Archie’s eye. When the glare passed, Archie focused on a big, open face, a squint in the left eye, and a head of sandy hair that struck off in several directions. He was altogether a rather jolly apparition on a bright morning, and when he spoke it was in a fluent, American-accented English that lapped at your ears like surf.

  “The war has been over for two weeks and you were not aware?”

  “Our radio . . . it wasn’t . . .” Archie’s sentence gave up on itself.

  The soldier grinned widely and shook each man’s hand vigorously. “Welcome to peacetime, gentlemen! And we thought the Russians were an ill-informed nation!” He laughed his big laugh again. Directing his question to Samad, he asked, “Now, where are the rest of you?”

  “There is no rest of us, comrade. The rest of the men in our tank are dead, and there is no sign of our battalion.”

  “You’re not here for any purpose?”

  “Er . . . no,” said Archie, suddenly abashed.

  “Purpose, comrade,” said Samad, feeling quite sick to his stomach. “The war is over and so we find ourselves here quite without purpose.” He smiled grimly and shook the Russian’s hand with his good hand. “I’m going in. Sun,” he said, squinting. “Hurts my little peepers. It was nice to have met you.”

  “Yes, indeed,” said the Russian, following Samad with his eyes until he had disappeared into the recesses of the church. Then he turned his attention to Archie.

  “Strange guy.”

  “Hmm,” said Arch
ie. “Why are you here?” he asked, taking a hand-rolled cigarette the Russian offered him. It turned out the Russian and the seven men with him were on their way to Poland, to liberate the work camps one heard about sometimes in hushed tones. They had stopped here, west of Tokat, to catch themselves a Nazi.

  “But there’s no one here, mate,” said Archie affably. “No one but me and the Indian and some old folk and children from the village. Everyone else is dead or fled.”

  “Dead or fled . . . dead or fled,” said the Russian, highly amused, turning a matchstick over and over between his finger and thumb. “Good phrase this . . . funny phrase. No, well, you see, I would have thought the same, but we have reliable information—from your own secret service, in fact—that there is a senior officer, at this very moment, hiding in that house. There.” He pointed to the house on the horizon.

  “The doctor? Some little lads told us about him. I mean, he must be shitting himself with fear if you lot are after him,” said Archie, by way of a compliment, “but I’m sure they said he’s just some sick bloke; they called him Dr. Sick. Oi: he ain’t English, is he? Traitor or something?”

  “Hmm? Oh no. No, no, no, no. Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret. A young Frenchman. A prodigy. Very brilliant. He has worked in a scientific capacity for the Nazis since before the war. On the sterilization program, and later the euthanasia policy. Internal German matters. He was one of the very loyal.”

  “Blimey,” said Archie, wishing he knew what it all meant. “Wotchyagunnadoo?”

  “Catch him and take him to Poland, where he will be dealt with by the authorities.”

  “Authorities,” said Archie, still impressed but not really paying attention. “Blimey.”

  Archie’s attention span was always short, and he had become distracted by the big, amiable Russian’s strange habit of looking in two directions at once.

  “As the information we received was from your secret service and as you are the highest-ranking officer here, Captain . . . Captain . . .”

  A glass eye. It was a glass eye with a muscle behind it that would not behave.

  “I’m afraid I don’t know your name or rank,” said the Russian, looking at Archie with one eye and at some ivy creeping round the church door with the other.

  “Who? Me? Jones,” said Archie, following the eye’s revolving path: tree, potato, Archie, potato.

  “Well, Captain Jones, it would be an honor if you would lead the expedition up the hill.”

  “Captain—what? Blimey, no, you’ve got it arse-ways-up,” said Archie, escaping the magnetic force of the eye, and refocusing on himself, dressed in Dickinson-Smith’s shiny buttoned uniform.

  “I’m not a bloody—”

  “The lieutenant and I would be pleased to take charge,” broke in a voice behind him. “We’ve been out of the action for quite a while. It is about time we got back in the thick of it, as they say.”

  Samad had stepped out onto the front steps silently as a shadow, in another of Dickinson-Smith’s uniforms and with a cigarette hanging casually off his lower lip like a sophisticated sentence. He was always a good-looking boy, and dressed in the shiny buttons of authority this was only accentuated; in the sharp daylight, framed by the church door, he cut quite an awesome figure.

  “What my friend meant,” said Samad in his most charming Anglo-Indian lilt, “is that he is not the bloody captain. I am the bloody captain. Captain Samad Iqbal.”

  “Comrade Nikolai—Nick—Pesotsky.”

  Samad and the Russian laughed together heartily, shook hands again. Samad lit a cigarette.

  “He is my lieutenant. Archibald Jones. I must apologize if I behaved strangely earlier; the food’s been disagreeing with me. Now: we’ll set off tonight, after dark shall we? Lieutenant?” said Samad, looking at Archie with a private encoded intensity.

  “Yes,” blurted Archie.

  “By the way, comrade,” said Samad, striking a match off the wall and lighting up, “I hope you do not mind if I ask—is that a glass eye? It is most realistic.”

  “Yes! I purchased it in St. Petersburg. I was separated from my own in Berlin. It’s a quite incredible likeness, don’t you think?”

  The friendly Russian popped the eye out of its socket, and laid the slimy pearl in his palm for Samad and Archie to see. When the war started, thought Archie, all us boys were crowded around a fag-card of Grable’s legs. Now the war’s ended we’re huddled round some poor bastard’s eye. Blimey.

  For a moment the eye slid up and down each side of the Russian’s hand, then came to a restful halt in the center of his longish, creased life line. It looked up at Lieutenant Archie and Captain Samad with an unblinking stare.

  That evening Lieutenant Jones got his first taste of real war. In two army jeeps, Archie, the eight Russians, Gozan the café owner, and Gozan’s nephew were led by Samad on a mission up the hill to catch a Nazi. While the Russians swigged away at bottles of Sambuca until not a man among them could remember the first lines of their own national anthem, while Gozan sold roasted chicken pieces to the highest bidders, Samad stood atop the first jeep, high as a kite on his white dust, his arms flailing around, cutting the night into bits and pieces, screaming instructions that his battalion were too drunk to listen to and he himself was too far gone to understand.

  Archie sat at the back of the second jeep, quiet, sober, frightened, and in awe of his friend. Archie had never had a hero: he was five when his father went out for a proverbial pack of fags and neglected to return, and, never being much of a reader, the many awful books written to provide young men with fatuous heroes had never crossed his path—no swashbucklers, no one-eyed pirates, no fearless rapscallions for Archie. But Samad, as he stood up there with his shiny officer buttons glistening in the moonlight like coins in a wishing-well, had struck the seventeen-year-old Archie full square, an uppercut to the jaw that said: here is a man for whom no life-path is too steep. Here was a raving lunatic standing on a tank, here was a friend, here was a hero, in a form Archie had never expected. Three quarters of the way up, however, the ad hoc road the tanks had been following thinned unexpectedly, forcing the tank to brake suddenly and throwing the heroic captain in a backward somersault over the tank, arse in the air.

  “No one comes here for long, long time,” said Gozan’s nephew, munching on a chicken bone philosophically. “This?” He looked at Samad (who had landed next to him) and pointed to the jeep they sat in. “No way.”

  So Samad gathered his now-paralytic battalion around him and began the march up the mountain in search of a war he could one day tell his grandchildren about, as his great-grandfather’s exploits had been told to him. Their progress was hampered by large clods of earth, torn from parts of the hill by the reverberation of past bombs and left at intervals along the pathway. From many, the roots of trees shot up impotently and languished in the air; to get by, it was necessary for them to be hacked away with the bayonets of the Russian guns.

  “Look like hell!” snorted Gozan’s nephew, drunkenly scrambling through one such set of roots. “Everything look like hell!”

  “Pardon him. He feel strongly because he is young. But it is the truth. It was not—how do you say—not argument of ours, Lieutenant Jones,” said Gozan, who had been bribed two pairs of boots to keep quiet about his friends’ sudden rise in rank. “What do we have to do with all this?” He wiped a tear, half inebriated, half overcome with emotion. “What we have to do with? We peaceful people. We don’t want be in war! This hill—once beautiful! Flowers, birds, they were singing, you understand? We are from the East. What have the battles of the West to do with us?”

  Instinctively, Archie turned to Samad, expecting one of his speeches; but before Gozan had even finished, Samad had suddenly picked up his pace, and within a minute was running, pushing ahead of the intoxicated Russians, who were flailing about with their bayonets. Such was his speed that he was soon out of sight, turning a blind corner and disappearing into the swallowing night. Archie dithered for a few minutes
, but then loosened himself from Gozan’s nephew’s merciless grip (he was just embarking upon the tale of a Cuban prostitute he had met in Amsterdam) and began to run to where he had last seen the flicker of a silver button, another one of the sharp turnings that the mountain path took whenever it liked.

  “Captain Ick-Ball! Wait, Captain Ick-Ball!”

  He ran on, repeating the phrase, waving his torch, which did nothing but light up the undergrowth in increasingly bizarre anthropomorphisms; here a man, here a woman on her knees, here three dogs howling at the moon. He spent some time like this, stumbling about in the darkness.

  “Put your light on! Captain Ick-Ball! Captain Ick-Ball!”

  No answer.

  “Captain Ick-Ball!”

  “Why do you call me that,” said a voice, close, on his right, “when you know I am no such thing?”

  “Ick-Ball?” and as he asked the question, Archie’s flash stumbled upon him, sitting on a boulder, head in hands.

  “Why—I mean, you are not really so much of an idiot, are you—you do know, I presume you know that I am in fact a private of His Majesty’s Army?”

  “’Course. We have to keep it up, though, don’t we? Our cover, and that.”

  “Our cover? Boy.” Samad chuckled to himself in a way that struck Archie as sinister, and when he lifted his head his eyes were both bloodshot and on the brink of tears. “What do you think this is? Are we playing silly-buggers?”

  “No, I . . . are you all right, Sam? You look out of sorts.”

  Samad was dimly aware that he looked out of sorts. Earlier that evening he had put a tiny line of the white stuff on the insides of his eyelids. The morphine had sharpened his mind to a knife edge and cut it open. It had been a luscious, eloquent high while it lasted, but then the thoughts thus released had been left to wallow in a pool of alcohol and had landed Samad in a malevolent trough. He saw his reflection this evening, and it was ugly. He saw where he was—at the farewell party for the end of Europe—and he longed for the East. He looked down at his useless hand with its five useless appendages; at his skin, burned to a chocolate-brown by the sun; he saw into his brain, made stupid by stupid conversation and the dull stimuli of death, and longed for the man he once was: erudite, handsome, light-skinned Samad Miah; so precious his mother kept him in from the sun’s rays, sent him to the best tutors, and covered him in linseed oil twice a day.

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