White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “Sam? Sam? You don’t look right, Sam. Please, they’ll be here in a minute . . . Sam?”

  Self-hatred makes a man turn on the first person he sees. But it was particularly aggravating to Samad that this should be Archie, who looked down at him with a gentle concern, with a mix of fear and anger all mixed up in that shapeless face so ill-equipped to express emotion.

  “Don’t call me Sam,” he growled, in a voice Archie did not recognize, “I’m not one of your English matey-boys. My name is Samad Miah Iqbal. Not Sam. Not Sammy. And not—God forbid—Samuel. It is Samad.”

  Archie looked crestfallen.

  “Well, anyway,” said Samad, suddenly officious and wishing to avoid an emotional scene, “I am glad you are here because I wanted to tell you that I am the worse for wear, Lieutenant Jones. I am, as you say, out of sorts. I am very much the worse for wear.”

  He stood, but then stumbled onto his boulder once more.

  “Get up,” hissed Archie between his teeth. “Get up. What’s the matter with you?”

  “It’s true, I am very much the worse for the wearing. But I have been thinking,” said Samad, taking his gun in his good hand.

  “Put that away.”

  “I have been thinking that I am buggered, Lieutenant Jones. I see no future. I realize this may come as a surprise to you—my upper lip, I’m afraid, is not of the required stiffness—but the fact remains. I see only—”

  “Put that away.”

  “Blackness. I’m a cripple, Jones.” The gun did a merry dance in his good hand as he swung himself from side to side. “And my faith is crippled, do you understand? I’m fit for nothing now, not even Allah, who is all powerful in his mercy. What am I going to do, after this war is over, this war that is already over—what am I going to do? Go back to Bengal? Or to Delhi? Who would have such an Englishman there? To England? Who would have such an Indian? They promise us independence in exchange for the men we were. But it is a devilish deal. What should I do? Stay here? Go elsewhere? What laboratory needs one-handed men? What am I suited for?”

  “Look, Sam . . . you’re making a fool of yourself.”

  “Really? And is that how it is to be, friend?” asked Samad, standing, tripping over a stone, and colliding back into Archie. “In one afternoon I promote you from Private Shitbag to lieutenant of the British army and this is my thanks? Where are you in my hour of need? Gozan!” he shouted to the fat café owner, who was struggling round the bend, at the very back, sweating profusely. “Gozan—my fellow Muslim—in Allah’s name, is this right?”

  “Shut up,” snapped Archie. “Do you want everyone to hear you? Put it down.”

  Samad’s gun arm shot out of the darkness and wrapped itself around Archie’s neck, so the gun and both their heads were pressed together in an odious group hug.

  “What am I good for, Jones? If I were to pull this trigger, what will I leave behind? An Indian, a turncoat English Indian with a limp wrist like a faggot and no medals that they can ship home with me.” He let go of Archie and grabbed his own collar instead.

  “Have some of these, for God’s sake,” said Archie, taking three from his lapel and throwing them at him. “I’ve got loads.”

  “And what about that little matter? Do you realize we’re deserters? Effectively deserters? Step back a minute, my friend, and look at us. Our captain is dead. We are dressed in his uniforms, taking control of officers, men of higher rank than ourselves, and how? By deceit. Doesn’t that make us deserters?”

  “The war was over! I mean, we made an effort to contact the rest.”

  “Did we? Archie, my friend, did we? Really? Or did we sit around on our arses like deserters, hiding in a church while the world was falling apart around our ears, while men were dying in the fields?”

  They tussled a little as Archie tried to get the gun from him, Samad lashing out at him with not inconsiderable strength. In the distance, Archie could see the rest of their motley crew turning the corner, a great gray mass in the twilight, pitching from side to side, singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”

  “Look, keep your voice down. And calm down,” said Archie, releasing him.

  “We’re impostors; turncoats in other people’s coats. Did we do our duty, Archibald? Did we? In all honesty? I have dragged you down with me, Archie, and for that I am sorry. The truth is, this was my fate. This was all written for me long ago.”

  O Lydia O Lydia O have you met Lydia O Lydia the Taaaatooooed Lady!

  Samad put the pistol absentmindedly in his mouth and cocked the trigger.

  “Ick-Ball, listen to me,” said Archie. “When we were in that tank with the captain, with Roy and the rest.”

  O Lydia the Queen of tattoos! On her back is the battle of Waterloo . . .

  “You were always going on about being a hero and all that—like your great-uncle whatsis name.”

  Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus too . . .

  Samad took the gun out of his mouth.

  “Pande,” he said. “Great-grandfather,” and put the gun back in.

  “And here it is—a chance—it’s staring you in the face. You didn’t want to miss the bus and we’re not going to, not if we do this properly. So don’t be such a silly fucker about it.”

  And proudly above waves the red, white, and bloooo,

  You can learn a lot from Lydia!

  “Comrade! What in God’s name.”

  Without them noticing, the friendly Russian had ambled up behind them and was looking in horror at Samad, sucking his gun like a lollipop.

  “Cleaning it,” stuttered Samad, clearly shaken, removing the gun from his mouth.

  “That’s how they do it,” Archie explained, “in Bengal.”

  The war that twelve men expected to find in the grand old house on the hill, the war that Samad wanted pickled in a jar to hand to his grandchildren as a souvenir of his youth, was not there. Dr. Sick was as good as his name, sitting in an armchair in front of a wood-burning fire. Sick. Huddled in a rug. Pale. Very thin. In no uniform, just an open-necked white shirt and some dark-colored trousers. He was a young man too, not over twenty-five, and he did not flinch or make any protest when they all burst in, guns at the ready. It was as if they had just dropped in on a pleasant French farmhouse, making the faux pas of coming without invitation and bringing guns to the dinner table. The room was lit entirely by gas lamps in their tiny lady-shaped casings, and the light danced up the wall, illuminating a set of eight paintings that showed a continuous scene of Bulgarian countryside. In the fifth one Samad recognized his church, a blip of sandy paint on the horizon. The paintings were placed at intervals and wrapped round the room in a panorama. Unframed and in a mawkish attempt at the modern style, a ninth sat a little too close to the fireplace on an easel, the paint still wet. Twelve guns were pointed at the artist. And when the artist-doctor turned to face them, he had what looked like blood-tinged tears rolling down his face.

  Samad stepped forward. He had had a gun in his mouth and was emboldened by it. He had eaten an absurd amount of morphine, fallen through the hole morphine creates, and survived. You are never stronger, thought Samad as he approached the doctor, than when you land on the other side of despair.

  “Are you Dr. Perret?” he demanded, making the Frenchman wince at the anglicized pronunciation, sending more bloody tears down his cheeks. Samad kept his gun pointed at him.

  “Yes, I am he.”

  “What is that? That in your eyes?” asked Samad.

  “I have diabetic retinopathy, monsieur.”

  “What?” asked Samad, still pointing the gun, determined not to undermine his moment of glory with an unheroic medical debate.

  “It means that when I do not receive insulin, I excrete blood, my friend. Through my eyes. It makes my hobby,” he gestured at the paintings that surrounded him, “not a little difficult. There were to be ten. A 180-degree view. But it seems you have come to disturb me.” He sighed and stood up. “So. Are you going to kill me, my friend?”

/>   “I’m not your friend.”

  “No, I do not suppose that you are. But is it your intention to kill me? Pardon me if I say you do not look old enough to squash flies.” He looked at Samad’s uniform. “Mon Dieu, you are very young to have got so far in life, captain.” Samad shifted uncomfortably, catching Archie’s look of panic in the corner of his vision. Samad placed his feet a little further apart and stood firm.

  “I’m sorry if I seem tiresome on this point but . . . is it your intention, then, to kill me?”

  Samad’s arm stayed perfectly still, the gun unmoving. He could kill him, he could kill him in cold blood. Samad did not need the cover of darkness or the excuse of war. He could kill him and they both knew it. The Russian, seeing the look in the Indian’s eye, stepped forward. “Pardon me, Captain.”

  Samad remained silent, facing the doctor, so the Russian stepped forward. “We do not have intentions in this matter,” said the Russian, addressing Dr. Sick. “We have orders to bring you to Poland.”

  “And there, will I be killed?”

  “That will be for the proper authorities to decide.”

  The doctor cocked his head at an angle and narrowed his eyes. “It is just . . . it is just a thing a man likes to be told. It is curiously significant to a man to be told. It is only polite, at the very least. To be told whether he shall die or whether he shall be spared.”

  “That will be for the proper authorities to decide,” repeated the Russian.

  Samad walked behind the doctor and stuck the gun into the back of his head. “Walk,” he said.

  “For the proper authorities to decide . . . Isn’t peacetime civilized?” remarked Dr. Sick, as a group of twelve men, all pointing guns at his head, led him out of the house.

  Later that night, at the bottom of the hill, the battalion left Dr. Sick handcuffed to the jeep and adjourned to the café.

  “You play poker?” asked a very merry Nikolai, addressing Samad and Archie as they entered the room.

  “I play anything, me,” said Archie.

  “The more pertinent question,” said Samad, taking his seat with a wry smile, “is: do I play it well?”

  “And do you, Captain Iqbal?”

  “Like a master,” said Samad, picking up the cards dealt to him and fanning them out in his one hand.

  “Well,” said Nikolai, pouring more Sambuca for everyone, “since our friend Iqbal is so confident, it may be best to start relatively small. We’ll start with cigarettes and let’s see where that takes us.”

  Cigarettes took them to medals, which took them to guns, which took them to radios, which took them to jeeps. By midnight, Samad had won three jeeps, seven guns, fourteen medals, the land attached to Gozan’s sister’s house, and an IOU for four horses, three chickens, and a duck.

  “My friend,” said Nikolai Pesotsky, his warm, open manner replaced by an anxious gravity. “You must give us a chance to win back our possessions. We cannot possibly leave things as they are.”

  “I want the doctor,” said Samad, refusing to catch the eye of Archibald Jones, who sat open-mouthed and drunk in his chair. “In exchange for the things I have won.”

  “What on earth for?” said Nikolai, astonished, leaning back in his chair. “What possible use—”

  “My own reasons. I wish to take him tonight and not to be followed, and for the incident to go unreported.”

  Nikolai Pesotsky looked at his hands, looked round the table, and then at his hands once more. Then he reached into his pocket and threw Samad the keys.

  Once outside, Samad and Archie got into the jeep containing Dr. Sick, who was asleep on the dashboard, started the engine, and drove into the blackness.

  Thirty miles from the village, Dr. Sick woke up to a hushed argument concerning his imminent future.

  “But why?” hissed Archie.

  “Because, from my point of view, the very problem is that we need blood on our hands, you see? As an atonement. Do you not see, Jones? We have been playing silly buggers in this war, you and I. There is a great evil that we have failed to fight and now it is too late. Except we have him, this opportunity. Let me ask you: why was this war fought?”

  “Don’t talk nonsense,” blustered Archie, in lieu of an answer.

  “So that in the future we may be free. The question was always: what kind of a world do you want your children to grow up in? And we have done nothing. We are at a moral crossroads.”

  “Look, I don’t know what you’re on about and I don’t want to know,” snapped Archie. “We’re going to dump this one”—he motioned to the semiconscious Sick—“at the first barracks we come across, then you and me are going our separate ways and that’s the only crossroads I care about.”

  “What I have realized, is that the generations,” Samad continued as they sped through miles and miles of unchanging flatlands, “they speak to each other, Jones. It’s not a line, life is not a line—this is not palm-reading—it’s a circle, and they speak to us. That is why you cannot read fate; you must experience it.” Samad could feel the morphine bringing the information to him again—all the information in the universe and all the information on walls—in one fantastic revelation.

  “Do you know who this man is, Jones?” Samad grabbed the doctor by the back of his hair and bent his neck over the back seat. “The Russians told me. He’s a scientist, like me—but what is his science? Choosing who shall be born and who shall not—breeding people as if they were so many chickens, destroying them if the specifications are not correct. He wants to control, to dictate the future. He wants a race of men, a race of indestructible men, that will survive the last days of this earth. But it cannot be done in a laboratory. It must be done, it can only be done, with faith! Only Allah saves! I am no religious man—I have never possessed the strength—but I am not fool enough to deny the truth!”

  “Ah, now, but you said, didn’t you, you said it wasn’t your argument. On the hill—that’s what you said,” gabbled Archie, excited to have caught Samad out on something. “So, so, so—so what if this bloke does . . . whatever he does—you said that was our problem, us in the West, that’s what you said.”

  Dr. Sick, watery eye-blood now streaming like rivers, was still being held by the hair by Samad and was gagging, now, on his own tongue.

  “Watch out, you’re choking him,” said Archie.

  “What of it!” yelled Samad into the echoless landscape. “Men like him believe that living organs should answer to design. They worship the science of the body, but not who has given it to us! He’s a Nazi. The worst kind.”

  “But you said—” Archie pressed on, determined to make his point. “You said that was nothing to do with you. Not your argument. If anyone in this jeep should have a score to settle with mad Jerry here—”

  “French. He’s French.”

  “All right, French—well if anyone’s got a score to settle it’d probably have to be me. It’s England’s future we’ve been fighting for. For England. You know,” said Archie, searching his brain, “democracy and Sunday dinners, and . . . and . . . promenades and piers, and bangers and mash—and the things that are ours. Not yours.”

  “Precisely,” said Samad.

  “You what?”

  “You must do it, Archie.”

  “I should cocoa!”

  “Jones, your destiny is staring you in the face and here you are slapping the salami,” said Samad with a nasty laugh in his voice, and still holding the doctor by the hair across the front seat.

  “Steady on,” said Archie, trying to keep an eye on the road, as Samad bent the doctor’s neck almost to breaking point. “Look, I’m not saying that he doesn’t deserve to die.”

  “Then do it. Do it.”

  “But why’s it so bloody important to you that I do it? You know, I’ve never killed a man—not like that, not face-to-face. A man shouldn’t die in a car . . . I can’t do that.”

  “Jones, it is simply a question of what you will do when the chips are down. This is a qu
estion that interests me a great deal. Call tonight the practical application of a long-held belief. An experiment, if you like.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “I want to know what kind of a man you are, Jones. I want to know what you are capable of. Are you a coward, Jones?”

  Archie brought the jeep to a shattering halt.

  “You’re bloody asking for it, you are.”

  “You don’t stand for anything, Jones,” continued Samad. “Not for a faith, not for a politics. Not even for your country. How your lot ever conquered my lot is a bloody mystery. You’re a cipher, no?”

  “A what?”

  “And an idiot. What are you going to tell your children when they ask who you are, what you are? Will you know? Will you ever know?”

  “What are you that’s so bloody fantastic?”

  “I’m a Muslim and a Man and a Son and a Believer. I will survive the last days.”

  “You’re a bloody drunkard, and you’re—you’re drugged, you’re drugged tonight, aren’t you?”

  “I am a Muslim and a Man and a Son and a Believer. I will survive the last days,” Samad repeated, as if it were a chant.

  “And what the bloody hell does that mean?” As he shouted, Archie made a grab for Dr. Sick. Pulled his now blood-covered face near his own until their noses touched.

  “You,” Archie barked. “You’re coming with me.”

  “I would but, monsieur . . .” The doctor held up his handcuffed wrists.

  Archie wrestled them open with the rusty key, pulled the doctor out of the jeep, and started walking away from the road into the darkness, a gun pointed at the base point of Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret’s cranium.

  “Are you going to kill me, boy?” asked Dr. Sick as they walked.

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