White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “For your own safety, don’t look,” said Samad. “Just keep on walking in a straight line. I had no idea she traveled this far into Harlesden.”

  Poppy snatched the quickest glance at the multicolored streaming flash galloping down the high street on an imaginary horse.

  She laughed. “Who is that?”

  Samad quickened the pace. “She is Mad Mary. And she is not remotely funny. She is dangerous.”

  “Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Just because she’s homeless and has mental health . . . difficulties, doesn’t mean she wants to hurt anyone. Poor woman, can you imagine what must have happened in her life to make her like that?”

  Samad sighed. “First of all, she is not homeless. She has stolen every garbage can in West Hampstead and has built quite a significant structure out of them in Fortune Green. And secondly she is not a ‘poor woman.’ Everyone is terrified of her, from the council downward, she receives free food from every corner shop in North London ever since she cursed the Ramchandra place and business collapsed within the month.” Samad’s portly figure was working up quite a sweat now, as he shifted another gear in response to Mad Mary doing the same on the other side of the street.

  Breathless, he whispered, “And she doesn’t like white people.”

  Poppy’s eyes widened. “Really?” she said, as if such an idea had never occurred to her, and turned round to make the fatal mistake of looking. In a second, Mad Mary was upon them.

  A thick globule of spit hit Samad directly between his eyes, on the bridge of his nose. He wiped it away, pulled Poppy to him, and tried to sidestep Mad Mary by ducking into the courtyard of St. Andrew’s Church, but the Hoodoo stick slammed down in front of them both, marking a line in the pebbles and dust that could not be crossed over.

  She spoke slowly, and with such a menacing scowl that the left side of her face seemed paralyzed. “You . . . lookin’ . . . at . . . some . . . ting?”

  Poppy managed a squeak. “No!”

  Mad Mary whacked Poppy’s calf with the Hoodoo stick and turned to Samad. “You, sir! You . . . lookin’ . . . at . . . some . . . ting?”

  Samad shook his head.

  Suddenly she was screaming. “BLACK MAN! DEM BLOCK YOU EVERYWHERE YOU TURN!”

  “Please,” stuttered Poppy, clearly terrified. “We don’t want any trouble.”

  “BLACK MAN!” (She liked to speak in rhyming couplets.) “DE BITCH SHE WISH TO SEE YOU BURN!”

  “We are minding our own business—” began Samad, but he was stopped by a second projectile of phlegm, this time hitting him on the cheek.

  “Tru hill and gully, dem follow you dem follow you, Tru hill and gully, de devil swallow you ’im swallow you.” This was delivered in a kind of singing stage whisper, accompanied by a dance from side to side, arms outstretched and Hoodoo stick resting firmly underneath Poppy Burt-Jones’s chin.

  “What ’as dem ever done for us body bot kill us and enslave us? What ’as dem done for our minds bot hurt us an’ enrage us? What’s de pollution?”

  Mad Mary lifted Poppy’s chin with her stick and asked again, “WHAT’S DE POLLUTION?”

  Poppy was weeping. “Please . . . I don’t know what you want me to—”

  Mad Mary sucked her teeth and turned her attention once more to Samad. “WHAT’S DE SOLUTION?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Mad Mary slapped him around the ankles with her stick. “WHAT’S DE SOLUTION, BLACK MAN?”

  Mad Mary was a beautiful, a striking woman: a noble forehead, a prominent nose, ageless midnight skin and a long neck such as queens can only dream about. But it was her alarming eyes, which shot out an anger on the brink of total collapse, that Samad was concentrated on, because he saw that they were speaking to him and him alone. Poppy had nothing to do with this. Mad Mary was looking at him with recognition. Mad Mary had spotted a fellow traveler. She had spotted the madman in him (which is to say, the prophet); he felt sure she had spotted the angry man, the masturbating man, the man stranded in the desert far from his sons, the foreign man in a foreign land caught between borders . . . the man who, if you push him far enough, will suddenly see sense. Why else had she picked him from a street full of people? Simply because she recognized him. Simply because they were from the same place, he and Mad Mary, which is to say: far away.

  “Satyagraha,” said Samad, surprising himself with his own calmness.

  Mad Mary, unused to having her interrogations answered, looked at him in astonishment. “WHAT’S DE SOLUTION?”

  “Satyagraha. It is Sanskrit for ‘truth and firmness.’ Gandhi-gee’s word. You see, he did not like ‘passive resistance’ or ‘civil disobedience.’ ”

  Mad Mary was beginning to twitch and swear compulsively under her breath, but Samad sensed that in some way this was Mad Mary listening, this was Mad Mary’s mind trying to process words other than her own.

  “Those words weren’t big enough for him. He wanted to show what we call weakness to be a strength. He understood that sometimes not to act is a man’s greatest triumph. He was a Hindu. I am a Muslim. My friend here is—”

  “A Roman Catholic,” said Poppy shakily. “Lapsed.”

  “And you are?” began Samad.

  Mad Mary said cunt, bitch, rhasclaat several times and spat on the ground, which Samad took as a sign of cooling hostilities.

  “What I am trying to say . . .”

  Samad looked at the small group of Methodists who, hearing the noise, had begun to gather nervously at the door of St. Andrew’s. He grew confident. There had always been a manqué preacher in Samad. A know-it-all, a walker-and-a-talker. With a small audience and a lot of fresh air he had always been able to convince himself that all the knowledge in the universe, all the knowledge on walls, was his.

  “I am trying to say that life is a broad church, is it not?” He pointed to the ugly red-brick building full of its quivering believers. “With wide aisles.” He pointed to the smelly bustle of black, white, brown, and yellow shuffling up and down the High Street. To the albino woman who stood outside the Cash and Carry, selling daisies picked from the churchyard. “Which my friend and I would like to continue walking along, if it is all right with you. Believe me, I understand your concerns,” said Samad, taking his inspiration now from that other great North London street-preacher, Ken Livingstone, “I am having difficulties myself—we are all having difficulties in this country, this country which is new to us and old to us all at the same time. We are divided people, aren’t we?”

  And here Samad did what no one had done to Mad Mary for well over fifteen years: he touched her. Very lightly, on the shoulder.

  “We are split people. For myself, half of me wishes to sit quietly with my legs crossed, letting the things that are beyond my control wash over me. But the other half wants to fight the holy war. Jihad! And certainly we could argue this out in the street, but I think, in the end, your past is not my past and your truth is not my truth and your solution—it is not my solution. So I do not know what it is you would like me to say. Truth and firmness is one suggestion, though there are many other people you can ask if that answer does not satisfy. Personally, my hope lies in the last days. The prophet Muhammad—peace be upon Him!—tells us that on the Day of Resurrection everyone will be struck unconscious. Deaf and dumb. No chitchat. Tongueless. And what a bloody relief that will be. Now, if you will excuse me.”

  Samad took Poppy firmly by the hand and walked on, while Mad Mary stood dumbstruck only briefly before rushing to the church door and spraying saliva upon the congregation.

  Poppy wiped away a frightened tear and sighed.

  She said, “Calm in a crisis. Impressive.”

  Samad, increasingly given to visions, saw that great-grandfather of his, Mangal Pande, flailing with a musket; fighting against the new, holding on to tradition.

  “It runs in the family,” he said.

  Later, Samad and Poppy walked up through Harlesden, around Dollis Hill, and then, when it seemed they were hover
ing too near to Willesden, Samad waited till the sun went down, bought a box of sticky Indian sweets, and turned into Roundwood Park; admired the last of the flowers. He talked and talked, the kind of talking you do to stave off the inevitable physical desire, the kind of talking that only increases it. He told her about Delhi circa 1942, she told him about St. Albans circa 1972. She complained about a long list of entirely unsuitable boyfriends, and Samad, not able to criticize Alsana or even mention her name, spoke of his children: fear of Millat’s passion for obscenities and a noisy TV show about an A-team; worries about whether Magid got enough direct sunlight. What was the country doing to his sons, he wanted to know, what was it doing?

  “I like you,” she said finally. “A lot. You’re very funny. Do you know that you’re funny?”

  Samad smiled and shook his head. “I have never thought of myself as a great comic wit.”

  “No—you are funny. That thing you said about camels . . .” She began to laugh, and her laugh was infectious.

  “What thing?”

  “About camels—when we were walking.”

  “Oh, you mean, ‘Men are like camels: there is barely one in a hundred that you would trust with your life.’ ”

  “Yes!”

  “That’s not comedy, that is the Bukhr, part eight, page one hundred and thirty,” said Samad. “And it is good advice. I have certainly found it to be true.”

  “Well, it’s still funny.”

  She sat closer to him on the bench and kissed his ear. “Seriously, I like you.”

  “I’m old enough to be your father. I’m married. I am a Muslim.”

  “OK, so Dateline wouldn’t have matched our forms. So what?”

  “What kind of a phrase is this: ‘So what?’ Is that English? That is not English. Only the immigrants can speak the Queen’s English these days.”

  Poppy giggled. “I still say: So—”

  But Samad covered her mouth with his hand, and looked for a moment almost as if he intended to hit her. “So everything. So everything. There is nothing funny about this situation. There is nothing good about it. I do not wish to discuss the rights or wrongs of this with you. Let us stick to what we are obviously here for,” he spat out. “The physical, not the metaphysical.”

  Poppy moved to the other end of the bench and leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees. “I know,” she began slowly, “that this is no more than it is. But I won’t be spoken to like that.”

  “I am sorry. It was wrong of me—”

  “Just because you feel guilty, I’ve nothing to feel—”

  “Yes, I’m sorry. I have no—”

  “Because you can go if you—”

  Half thoughts. Stick them all together and you have less than you began with.

  “I don’t want to go. I want you.”

  Poppy brightened a bit and smiled her half-sad, half-goofy smile.

  “I want to spend the night . . . with you.”

  “Good,” she replied. “Because I bought this for you while you were next door buying those sugary sweets.”

  “What is it?”

  She dived into her handbag, and in the attenuated minute in which she scrabbled through lipsticks and car-keys and spare change, two things happened.

  1.1 Samad closed his eyes and heard the words To the pure all things are pure and then, almost immediately afterwards, Can’t say fairer than that.

  1.2 Samad opened his eyes and saw quite clearly by the bandstand his two sons, their white teeth biting into two waxy apples, waving, smiling.

  And then Poppy resurfaced, triumphant, with a piece of red plastic in her hand.

  “A toothbrush,” she said.

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  Mitosis

  The stranger who wanders into O’Connell’s Poolroom at random, hoping for the soft rise and fall of his grandfather’s brogue, perhaps, or seeking to rebound a red ball off the side cushion and into the corner pocket, is immediately disappointed to find the place is neither Irish nor a poolroom. He will survey the carpeted walls, the reproductions of George Stubbs’s racehorse paintings, the framed fragments of some foreign, Eastern script, with not a little confusion. He will look for a snooker table and find instead a tall, brown man with terrible acne standing behind a counter, frying eggs and mushrooms. His eye will land with suspicion upon an Irish flag and a map of the Arab Emirates knotted together and hung from wall to wall, partitioning him from the rest of the customers. Then he will become aware of several pairs of eyes upon him, some condescending, some incredulous; the hapless stranger will stumble out, warily, backward, knocking over the life-size cutout of Viv Richards as he goes. The customers will laugh. O’Connell’s is no place for strangers.

  O’Connell’s is the kind of place family men come to for a different kind of family. Unlike blood relations, it is necessary here to earn one’s position in the community; it takes years of devoted fucking around, time-wasting, lying-about, shooting the breeze, watching paint dry—far more dedication than men invest in the careless moment of procreation. You need to know the place. For example, there are reasons why O’Connell’s is an Irish poolroom run by Arabs with no pool tables. And there are reasons why the pustule-covered Mickey will cook you chips, egg, and beans, or egg, chips, and beans, or beans, chips, eggs, and mushrooms but not, under any circumstances, chips, beans, eggs, and bacon. But you need to hang around for that kind of information. We’ll get into that later. For now, suffice it to say this is Archie and Samad’s home from home; for ten years they have come here between six (the time Archie finishes work) and eight (the time Samad starts) to discuss everything from the meaning of Revelation to the prices of plumbers. And women. Hypothetical women. If a woman walked past the yolk-stained window of O’Connell’s (a woman had never been known to venture inside) they would smile and speculate—depending on Samad’s religious sensibilities that evening—on matters as far-reaching as whether one would kick her out of bed in a hurry, to the relative merits of stockings or tights, and then on, inevitably, to the great debate: small breasts (that stand up) vs big breasts (that flop to the sides). But there was never any question of real women, real flesh and blood and wet and sticky women. Not until now. And so the unprecedented events of the past few months called for an earlier O’Connell’s summit than usual. Samad had finally phoned Archie and confessed the whole terrible mess: he had cheated, he was cheating; he had been seen by the children and now he was seeing the children, like visions, day and night. Archie had been silent for a bit, and then said, “Bloody hell. Four o’clock it is, then. Bloody hell.” He was like that, Archie. Calm in a crisis.

  But come 4:15 and still no sign of him, a desperate Samad had chewed every fingernail he possessed to the cuticle and collapsed on the counter, nose squished up against the hot glass where the battered burgers were kept, eye to eye with a postcard showing the eight different local charms of County Antrim.

  Mickey, chef, waiter, and proprietor, who prided himself on knowing each customer’s name and knowing when each customer was out of sorts, pried Samad’s face off the hot glass with a spatula.

  “Oi.”

  “Hello, Mickey, how are you?”

  “Same old, same old. But enough about me. What’s the fucking matter wiv you, mate? Eh? Eh? I’ve been watching you, Sammy, since the minute you stepped in here. Face as long as shit. Tell your uncle Mickey.”

  Samad groaned.

  “Oi. No. None of that. You know me. I’m the sympathetic side of the service industry, I’m service with a fucking smile, I’d wear a little red tie and a little red hat like them fuckwits in Mr. Burger if my fuckin’ head weren’t so big.”

  This was not a metaphor. Mickey had a very large head, almost as if his acne had demanded more room and received planning permission.

  “What’s the problem?”

  Samad looked up at Mickey’s big red head.

  “I am just waiting for Archibald, Mickey. Please, do not concern yourself. I will be fine.”

 
“’Sbit early, innit?”

  “Pardon?”

  Mickey checked the clock behind him, the one with the paleolithic piece of encrusted egg on the dial. “I say ’sbit early, innit? For you and the Archie-boy. Six is when I expect you. One chips, beans, egg, and mushroom. And one omelette and mushrooms. With seasonal variations, naturally.”

  Samad sighed. “We have much to discuss.”

  Mickey rolled his eyes. “You ain’t starting on that Mangy Pandy whateverthefuckitis again, are you? Who shot who, and who hanged who, my grandad ruled the Pakis or whateverthefuckitwas, as if any poor fucker gives a flying fuck. You’re driving the custom away. You’re creating—” Mickey flicked through his new bible, Food for Thought: A Guideline for Employers and Employees Working in the Food Service Industry—Customer Strategy and Consumer Relations. “You’re creating a repetitive syndrome that puts all these buggers off their culinary experience.”

 
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