White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “Samad Miah, oh! So smart-looking today—it cannot be without a reason.”

  Zinat Mahal: a mouth as large as the Blackwall Tunnel and Samad was relying upon it.

  “Thank you, Zinat,” said Samad, looking deliberately disingenuous. “As for a reason . . . I am not sure that I should say.”

  “Samad! My mouth is like the grave! Whatever is told to me dies with me.”

  Whatever was told to Zinat invariably lit up the telephone network, rebounded off aerials, radio waves, and satellites along the way, picked up finally by advanced alien civilizations as it bounced through the atmosphere of planets far removed from this one.

  “Well, the truth is . . .”

  “By Allah, get on with it!” cried Zinat, who was now almost on the other side of the counter, such was her delight in gossip. “Where are you off to?”

  “Well . . . I am off to see a man in Park Royal about life insurance. I want my Alsana well provided for after my death—but!” he said, waggling a finger at his sparkling, jewel-covered interrogator, who wore too much eyeshadow, “I don’t want her to know! Thoughts of death are abhorrent to her, Zinat.”

  “Do you hear that, Hakim? Some men worry about the future of their wives! Go on—get out of here, don’t let me keep you, cousin. And don’t worry,” she called after him, simultaneously reaching for the phone with her long curling fingernails, “I won’t say one word to Alsi.”

  Alibi done, three minutes were left for Samad to consider what an old man brings a young girl; something an old brown man brings a young white girl at the crossroads of four black streets; something suitable . . .

  “A coconut?”

  Poppy Burt-Jones took the hairy object into her hands and looked up at Samad with a perplexed smile.

  “It is a mixed-up thing,” began Samad nervously. “With juice like a fruit but hard like a nut. Brown and old on the outside, white and fresh on the inside. But the mix is not, I think, bad. We use it sometimes,” he added, not knowing what else to say, “in curry.”

  Poppy smiled; a terrific smile that accentuated every natural beauty of that face and had in it, Samad thought, something better than this, something with no shame in it, something better and purer than what they were doing.

  “It’s lovely,” she said.

  Out in the street and five minutes from the address on their school sheets, Irie still felt the irritable hot sting of shame and wanted a rematch.

  “Tax that,” she said, pointing to a rather beat-up motorbike leaning by Kensal Rise tube. “Tax that, and that,” indicating two BMXs beside it.

  Millat and Magid jumped into action. The practice of “taxing” something, whereby one lays claim, like a newly arrived colonizer, to items in a street that do not belong to you, was well known and beloved to both of them.

  “Cha, man! Believe, I don’t want to tax dat crap,” said Millat with the Jamaican accent that all kids, whatever their nationality, used to express scorn. “I tax dat,” he said, pointing out an admittedly impressive small, shiny, red MG about to turn the corner. “And dat!” he cried, getting there just before Magid as a BMW whizzed past. “Man, you know I tax that,” he said to Magid, who offered no dispute. “Blatantly.”

  Irie, a little dejected by this turn of events, turned her eyes from the road to the floor, where she was suddenly struck by a flash of inspiration.

  “I tax those!”

  Magid and Millat stopped and looked in awe at the perfectly white Nikes that were now in Irie’s possession (with one red tick, one blue; so beautiful, as Millat later remarked, it made you want to kill yourself), though to the naked eye they appeared to be walking toward Queens Park attached to a tall natty-dread black kid.

  Millat nodded grudgingly. “Respect to that. I wish I’d seed dem.”

  “Tax!” said Magid suddenly, pushing his grubby finger up against the glass of a shop window in the direction of a four-foot-long chemistry set with an aging TV personality’s face on the front.

  He thumped the window. “Wow! I tax that!”

  A brief silence ensued.

  “You tax that?” asked Millat, incredulous. “That? You tax a chemistry set?”

  Before poor Magid knew where he was, two palms had made a ferocious slap on his forehead, and were doing much rubbing for good measure. Magid gave Irie an et tu, Brute type of pleading look, in the full knowledge that it was useless. There is no honesty among almost-ten-year-olds.

  “Shame! Shame! Know your name!”

  “But Mr. J. P. Hamilton,” moaned Magid from under the heat of shame. “We’re here now. His house is just there. It’s a quiet street, you can’t make all this noise. He’s old.”

  “But if he’s old, he’ll be deaf,” reasoned Millat. “And if you’re deaf you can’t hear.”

  “It doesn’t work like that. It’s hard for old people. You don’t understand.”

  “He’s probably too old to take the stuff out of the bags,” said Irie. “We should take them out and carry them in our hands.”

  This was agreed upon, and some time was taken arranging all the foodstuffs in the hands and crevices of the body, so that they might “surprise” Mr. J. P. Hamilton with the extent of their charity when he answered the door. Mr. J. P. Hamilton, confronted on his doorstep by three dark-skinned children clutching a myriad of projectiles, was duly surprised. As old as they had imagined, but far taller and cleaner, he opened the door only slightly, keeping his hand, with its mountain range of blue veins, upon the knob, while his head curled around the frame. To Irie he was reminiscent of some genteel elderly eagle: tufts of featherlike hair protruded from ears, shirt cuffs, and neck, with one white spray falling over his forehead, his fingers lay in a permanent tight spasm like talons, and he was well dressed, as one might expect of an elderly English bird in Wonderland—a suede waistcoat and a tweed jacket, and a watch on a gold chain.

  And twinkling like a magpie, from the blue scattering in his eyes undimmed by the white and red surround, to the gleam of a signet ring, four argent medals perched just above his heart, and the silver rim of a Senior Service cigarette package peeping over the breast pocket.

  “Please,” came the voice from the bird-man, a voice that even the children sensed was from a different class, a different era. “I must ask that you remove yourselves from my doorstep. I have no money whatsoever; so be your intention robbing or selling I’m afraid you will be disappointed.”

  Magid stepped forward, trying to place himself in the line of the old man’s sight, for the left eye, blue as Rayleigh scattering, had looked beyond them, while the right was so compacted beneath wrinkles it hardly opened. “Mr. Hamilton, don’t you remember, the school sent us, these are—”

  He said, “Good-bye, now,” as if he were bidding farewell to an elderly aunt embarking on a train journey, then once more “Good-bye,” and through two panels of cheap stained glass on the closed door the children watched the elongated figure of Mr. Hamilton, blurred as if by heat, walking slowly away from them down a corridor until the brown flecks of him merged with the brown flecks of the household furnishings and the former all but disappeared.

  Millat pulled his Tomytronic down around his neck, frowned, and purposefully slammed his little fist into the doorbell, holding it down.

  “Maybe,” suggested Irie, “he doesn’t want the stuff.”

  Millat released the doorbell briefly. “He’s got to want it. He asked for it,” he growled, pushing the bell back down with his full force. “’SGod’s harvest, innit? Mr. Hamilton! Mr. J. P. Hamilton!”

  And then that slow process of disappearance began to rewind as Mr. J. P. Hamilton reconstituted himself via the atoms of a staircase and a dresser until he was large as life once more, curled around the door.

  Millat, lacking patience, thrust his school information sheet into Mr. Hamilton’s hand. “’SGod’s harvest.”

  But the old man shook his head like a bird in a birdbath. “No, no, I really won’t be intimidated into purchases on my own doorste
p. I don’t know what you are selling—please God let it not be encyclopedias—at my age it is not more information one requires but less.”

  “But it’s free!”

  “Oh . . . yes, I see . . . why?”

  “’SGod’s harvest,” repeated Magid.

  “Helping the local community. Mr. Hamilton, you must have spoken to our teacher, because she sent us here. Maybe it slipped your mind,” added Irie in her grown-up voice.

  Mr. Hamilton touched his temple sadly as if to retrieve the memory and then ever so slowly opened his front door to full tilt and took a pigeon-step forward into the autumn sunlight. “Well . . . you’d better come in.”

  They followed Mr. Hamilton into the town-house gloom of his hall. Filled to the brim with battered and chipped Victoriana punctuated by signs of more recent life—children’s broken bikes, a discarded Speak-and-Spell, four pairs of muddy wellies in a family’s variant sizes.

  “Now,” he said cheerily, as they reached the living room with its beautiful bay windows through which a sweeping garden could be seen, “what have we got here?”

  The children released their load onto a moth-eaten chaise longue, Magid reeling off the contents like items from a shopping list, while Mr. Hamilton lit a cigarette and inspected the urban picnic with doddering fingers.

  “Apples . . . oh, dear me, no . . . chickpeas . . . no, no, no, potato chips . . .”

  It went on like this, each article being picked up in its turn and chastised, until the old man looked up at them with faint tears in his eyes. “I can’t eat any of this, you see . . . too hard, too bloody hard. The most I could manage is probably the milk in that coconut. Still . . . we will have tea, won’t we? You’ll stay for tea?”

  The children looked at him blankly.

  “Go on, my dears, do sit down.”

  Irie, Magid, and Millat shuffled up nervously on the chaise longue. Then there was a click-clack sound and when they looked up Mr. Hamilton’s teeth were on his tongue, as if a second mouth had come out of the first. And then in a flash they were back in.

  “I simply cannot eat anything unless it has been pulverized beforehand, you see. My own fault. Years and years of neglect. Clean teeth—never a priority in the army.” He signaled himself clumsily, an awkward jab at his own chest with a shaking hand. “I was an army man, you see. Now: how many times do you young people brush your teeth?”

  “Three times a day,” said Irie, lying.

  “LIAR!” chorused Millat and Magid. “PANTS ON FIRE!”

  “Two and a half times.”

  “Well, dear me, which is it?” said Mr. Hamilton, smoothing down his trousers with one hand and lifting his tea with the other.

  “Once a day,” said Irie sheepishly, the concern in his voice compelling her to tell the truth. “Most days.”

  “I fear you will come to regret that. And you two?”

  Magid was midway through formulating some elaborate fantasy of a toothbrush machine that did it while you slept, but Millat came clean. “Same. Once a day. More or less.”

  Mr. Hamilton leaned back contemplatively in his chair. “One sometimes forgets the significance of one’s teeth. We’re not like the lower animals—teeth replaced regularly and all that—we’re of the mammals, you see. And mammals only get two chances, with teeth. More sugar?”

  The children, mindful of their two chances, declined.

  “But like all things, the business has two sides. Clean white teeth are not always wise, now are they? Par exemplum: when I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery, it was. And they died because of it, you see? Poor bastards. Or rather I survived, to look at it in another way, do you see?”

  The children sat silently. And then Irie began to cry, ever so quietly.

  Mr. Hamilton continued, “Those are the split decisions you make in war. See a flash of white and bang! as it were . . . Dark as buggery. Terrible times. All these beautiful boys lying dead there, right in front of me, right at my feet. Stomachs open, you know, with their guts on my shoes. Like the end of the bloody world. Beautiful men, enlisted by the Krauts, black as the ace of spades; poor fools didn’t even know why they were there, what people they were fighting for, who they were shooting at. The decision of the gun. So quick, children. So brutal. Biscuit?”

  “I want to go home,” whispered Irie.

  “My dad was in the war. He played for England,” piped up Millat, red-faced and furious.

  “Well, boy, do you mean the football team or the army?”

  “The British army. He drove a tank. A Mr. Churchill. With her dad,” explained Magid.

  “I’m afraid you must be mistaken,” said Mr. Hamilton, genteel as ever. “There were certainly no wogs as I remember—though you’re probably not allowed to say that these days, are you? But no . . . no Pakistanis . . . what would we have fed them? No, no,” he grumbled, assessing the question as if he were being given the opportunity to rewrite history here and now. “Quite out of the question. I could not possibly have stomached that rich food. No Pakistanis. The Pakistanis would have been in the Pakistani army, you see, whatever that was. As for the poor Brits, they had enough on their hands with us old queens . . .”

  Mr. Hamilton laughed softly to himself, turned his head, and silently admired the roaming branches of a cherry tree that dominated one whole corner of his garden. After a long pause he turned back and tears were visible in his eyes again—fast, sharp tears as if he had been slapped in the face. “Now, you young men shouldn’t tell fibs should you? Fibs will rot your teeth.”

  “It’s not a lie, Mr. J. P. Hamilton, he really was,” said Magid, always the peacemaker, always the negotiator. “He was shot in the hand. He has medals. He was a hero.”

  “And when your teeth rot—”

  “It’s the truth!” shouted Millat, kicking over the tea tray that sat on the floor between them. “You stupid fucking old man.”

  “And when your teeth rot,” continued Mr. Hamilton, smiling at the ceiling, “aaah, there’s no return. They won’t look at you like they used to. The pretty ones won’t give you a second glance, not for love or money. But while you’re still young, the important matter is the third molars. They are more commonly referred to as the wisdom teeth, I believe. You simply must deal with the third molars before anything else. That was my downfall. You won’t have them yet, but my great-grandchildren are just feeling them now. The problem with third molars is one is never sure whether one’s mouth will be quite large enough to accommodate them. They are the only part of the body that a man must grow into. He must be a big enough man for these teeth, do you see? Because if not—oh dear me, they grow crooked or any which way, or refuse to grow at all. They stay locked up there with the bone—an impaction, I believe, is the term—and terrible, terrible infection ensues. Have them out early, that’s what I tell my granddaughter Jocelyn in regard to her sons. You simply must. You can’t fight against it. I wish I had. I wish I’d given up early and hedged my bets, as it were. Because they’re your father’s teeth, you see, wisdom teeth are passed down by the father, I’m certain of it. So you must be big enough for them. God knows, I wasn’t big enough for mine . . . Have them out and brush three times a day, if my advice means anything.”

  By the time Mr. J. P. Hamilton looked down to see whether his advice meant anything, his three dun-colored visitors had already disappeared, taking with them the bag of apples (apples he had been contemplating asking Jocelyn to put through the food processor); tripping over themselves, running to get to a green space, to get to one of the lungs of the city, some place where free breathing was possible.

  Now, the children knew the city. And they knew the city breeds the Mad. They knew Mr. White-Face, an Indian who walks the streets of Willesden with his face painted white, his lips painted blue, wearing a pair of tights and some hiking boots; they knew Mr. Newspaper, a tall skinny man in an ankle-length raincoat who sits in
Brent libraries removing the day’s newspapers from his briefcase and methodically tearing them into strips; they knew Mad Mary, a black voodoo woman with a red face whose territory stretches from Kilburn to Oxford Street but who performs her spells from a garbage can in West Hampstead; they knew Mr. Toupee, who has no eyebrows and wears a toupee not on his head but on a string around his neck. But these people announced their madness—they were better, less scary than Mr. J. P. Hamilton—they flaunted their insanity, they weren’t half mad and half not, curled around a door frame. They were properly mad in the Shakespearean sense, talking sense when you least expected it. In North London, where councillors once voted to change the name of the area to Nirvana, it is not unusual to walk the streets and be suddenly confronted by sage words from the chalk-faced, blue-lipped, or eyebrowless. From across the street or from the other end of a tube carriage they will use their schizophrenic talent for seeing connections in the random (for discerning the whole world in a grain of sand, for deriving narrative from nothing) to riddle you, to rhyme you, to strip you down, to tell you who you are and where you’re going (usually Baker Street—the great majority of modern-day seers travel the Metropolitan Line) and why. But as a city we are not appreciative of these people. Our gut instinct is that they intend to embarrass us, that they’re out to shame us somehow as they lurch down the train aisle, bulbous-eyed and with carbuncled nose, preparing to ask us, inevitably, what we are looking at. What the fuck we are looking at. As a kind of preemptive defense mechanism, Londoners have learned not to look, never to look, to avoid eyes at all times so that the dreaded question “What you looking at?” and its pitiful, gutless, useless answer—“Nothing”—might be avoided. But as the prey evolves (and we are prey to the Mad who are pursuing us, desperate to impart their own brand of truth to the hapless commuter) so does the hunter, and the true professionals begin to tire of that old catchphrase “What you looking at?” and move into more exotic territory. Take Mad Mary. Oh, the principle’s still the same, it’s still all about eye contact and the danger of making it, but now she’s making eye contact from a hundred, two hundred, even three hundred yards away, and if she catches you doing the same she roars down the street, dreads and feathers and cape afloat, Hoodoo stick in hand, until she gets to where you are, spits on you, and begins. Samad knew all of this—they’d had dealings before, he and red-faced Mad Mary; he’d even suffered the misfortune of having her sit next to him on a bus. Any other day and Samad would have given her as good as he got. But today he was feeling guilty and vulnerable, today he was holding Poppy’s hand as the sun crept away; he could not face Mad Mary and her vicious truth-telling, her ugly madness—which of course was precisely why she was stalking him, quite deliberately stalking him down Church Road.

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