White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “No, no. My great-grandfather is not up for discussion today. We have other business.”

  “Well, thank fuck. Repetitive syndrome is what it is.” Mickey patted his book, affectionately. “’Sall in ’ere, mate. Best four ninety-five I ever spent. Talking of moolah, you ’aving a flutter today?” asked Mickey, signaling downstairs.

  “I am a Muslim, Mickey, I don’t indulge anymore.”

  “Well, obviously, yeah, we’re all Brothers—but a man’s gotta live, now. Hasn’t he? I mean, hasn’t he?”

  “I don’t know, Mickey, does he?”

  Mickey slapped Samad firmly on the back. “’Course he does! I was saying to my brother Abdul—”

  “Which Abdul?”

  It was a tradition, in both Mickey’s wider and nuclear family, to name all sons Abdul to teach them the vanity of assuming higher status than any other man, which was all very well and good but tended to cause confusion in the formative years. However, children are creative, and all the many Abduls added an English name as a kind of buffer to the first.



  “So, you know Abdul-Colin went a bit fundamental—EGGS, BEANS, CHIPS, TOAST—big fucking beard, no pig, no drink, no pussy, the fuckin’ works, mate—there you are, guvnor.”

  Abdul-Mickey pushed a plate of festering carbohydrate to a sunken old man whose trousers were so high up his body they were gradually swallowing him whole.

  “Well, where do you think I slap eyes on Abdul-Colin last week? Only in the Mickey Finn, down Harrow Road way, and I says, ‘Oi, Abdul-Colin, this is a fucking turn-up for the fucking books’ and he says, all solemn, you know, all fully bearded, he says—”

  “Mickey, Mickey—do you mind very much if we leave the story for later . . . it is just that . . .”

  “No, fine, fine. Wish I knew why the fuck I bother.”

  “If you could possibly tell Archibald I am sitting in the booth behind the pinball when he comes in. Oh, and my usual.”

  “No problemo, mate.”

  About ten minutes later the door went and Mickey looked up from Chapter 6, “There’s a Fly in My Soup: Dealing with Frameworks of Hostility Regarding Health Issues,” to see Archibald Jones, cheap suitcase in hand, approaching the counter.

  “All right, Arch. How’s the folding business?”

  “Oh, you know. Comme si, comme sar. Samad about?”

  “Is he about? Is he about? He’s been hanging round like a bad fucking smell for half a fucking hour. Face as long as shit. Someone wants to get a Poop-a-Scoop and clean him up.”

  Archie put his suitcase on the counter and furrowed his brow. “In a bad way, is he? Between you and me, Mickey, I’m really worried about him.”

  “Go tell it to the fucking mountain,” said Mickey, who had been aggravated by Chapter 6’s assertion that you should rinse plates in piping hot water. “Or, alternatively, go to the booth behind the pinball.”

  “Thanks, Mickey. Oh, omelette and—”

  “I know. Mushrooms.”

  Archie walked down the linoleum aisles of O’Connell’s.

  “Hello, Denzel, evening, Clarence.”

  Denzel and Clarence were two uniquely rude, foul-mouthed octogenarian Jamaicans. Denzel was impossibly fat, Clarence was horribly thin, both their families had died, they both wore trilbies, and they sat in the corner playing dominoes all the hours that were left to them.

  “What dat bambaclaat say?”

  “’Im say evenin’.”

  “Can’t ’im see me playin’ domino?”

  “No man! ’Im ’ave a pussy for a face. How you expec’ ’im to see any little ting?”

  Archie took it on the chin as it was meant and slipped into the booth, opposite Samad. “I don’t understand,” said Archie, picking up immediately where their phone conversation had terminated. “Are you saying you’re seeing them there in your imagination or you’re seeing them there in real life?”

  “It is really very simple. The first time, the very first time, they were there. But since then, Archie, these past few weeks, I see the twins whenever I am with her—like apparitions! Even when we are . . . I see them there. Smiling at me.”

  “Are you sure you’re not just overworked?”

  “Listen to me, Archie: I see them. It is a sign.”

  “Sam, let’s try and deal with the facts. When they really saw you—what did you do?”

  “What could I do? I said, ‘Hello, sons. Say hello to Miss Burt-Jones.’ ”

  “And what did they say?”

  “They said hello.”

  “And what did you say?”

  “Archibald, do you think I could simply tell you what occurred without this constant inane interjection?”


  “Sam, that’s yours.”

  “I resent that accusation. It is not mine. I never order tomato. I do not want some poor peeled tomato boiled to death, then fried to death.”

  “Well, it’s not mine. I asked for omelette.”

  “Well, it is not mine. Now: may I continue?”

  “With pleasure.”

  “I looked at my boys, Archie . . . I looked at my beautiful boys . . . and my heart cracked—no, more than this—it shattered. It shattered into so many pieces and each piece stabbed me like a mortal wound. I kept thinking: how can I teach my boys anything, how can I show them the straight road when I have lost my own bearings?”

  “I thought,” began Archie haltingly, “that the problem was the woman. If you really don’t know what to do about her, well . . . we could flip this coin, heads you stay, tails you go—at least you’d have made a—”

  Samad slammed his good fist on the table. “I don’t want to flip a bloody coin! Besides, it is too late for that. Can’t you see? What is done is done. I am hell-bound, I see that now. So I must concentrate on saving my sons. I have a choice to make, a choice of morality.” Samad lowered his voice, and even before he spoke Archie knew to what he was about to refer. “You have made hard choices yourself, Archie, many years ago. You hide it well, but I know you have not forgotten what it is like. You have a bit of bullet in the leg to prove it. You struggled with him. You won out. I have not forgotten. I have always admired you because of it, Archibald.”

  Archie looked at the floor. “I’d rather not—”

  “Believe me, I take no pleasure from dragging up that which is distasteful to you, my friend. But I am just trying to make you understand my situation. Then, as now, the question is always: what kind of a world do I want my children to grow up in? You took action on that matter once. And now it is my turn.”

  Archie, making no more sense of Samad’s speeches than he had forty years ago, played with a toothpick for a moment.

  “Well . . . why don’t you just stop, well, seeing her?”

  “I try . . . I try.”

  “That good, is it?”

  “No, well, that is not strictly . . . what I mean to say is, it is nice, yes . . . but it is not debauched . . . we kiss, we embrace.”

  “But no—”

  “Not strictly speaking, no.”

  “But some—”

  “Archibald, are you concerned about my sons or my sperm?”

  “Sons,” said Archie. “Definitely sons.”

  “Because there is rebellion in them, Archie. I can see it—it is small now but it is growing. I tell you, I don’t know what is happening to our children in this country. Everywhere you look, it is the same. Last week, Zinat’s son was found smoking marijuana. Like a Jamaican!”

  Archie raised his eyebrows.

  “Oh, I meant no offense, Archibald.”

  “None taken, mate. But you shouldn’t judge before you’ve tried it. Being married to a Jamaican has done wonders for my arthritis. But that’s by the by. Carry on.”

  “Well, take Alsana’s sisters—all their children are nothing but trouble. They won’t go to mosque, they don’t pray, they speak strangely, they dre
ss strangely, they eat all kinds of rubbish, they have intercourse with God knows who. No respect for tradition. People call it assimilation when it is nothing but corruption. Corruption!”

  Archie tried to look shocked and then tried disgusted, not knowing what to say. He liked people to get on with things, Archie. He kind of felt people should just live together, you know, in peace or harmony or something.


  Samad raised his hand and turned to the counter. “Abdul-Mickey!” he yelled, his voice assuming a slight, comic, Cockney twinge. “Over here, my guvnor, please.”

  Mickey looked at Samad, leaned on the counter, and wiped his nose with his apron.

  “Now you know better than that. It’s self-service around here, gentlemen. This ain’t the fucking Waldorf.”

  “I’ll get it,” said Archie, sliding out of his seat.

  “How is he?” asked Mickey under his breath, as he pushed the plate toward Archie.

  Archie frowned. “Dunno. He’s on about tradition again. He’s worried about his sons, you see. Easy for children to go off the rails in this day and age, you know. I don’t really know what to say to him.”

  “Don’t have to tell me, mate,” said Mickey, shaking his head. “I wrote the fucking book, didn’t I? Look at my littlest, Abdul-Jimmy. Up in juvenile court next week for swiping fucking VW medallions. I says to ’im, you fucking stupid or sommink? What the fuck is the point of that? At least steal the fucking car, if that’s the way you feel about it. I mean, why? ’E says it’s sommink to do wiv some fucking Beetie Boys or some such bollocks. Well, I says to him, that lot are dead as shit if I get hold of ’em, and I can tell you that for fucking nothing. No sense of tradition, no fucking morality, is the problem.”

  Archie nodded and picked up a wad of napkins with which to handle the hot dishes.

  “If you want my advice—and you do, ’cos that’s part of the special relationship between caff owner and caff customer—you tell Samad he has two options. He can either send them back to the old country, back to India—”

  “Bangladesh,” corrected Archie, nicking a chip from Samad’s meal.

  “Whereverthefuckitis. He can send ’em back there and have ’em brought up proper, by their granddads and grandmums, have ’em learn about their fucking culture, have ’em grow up with some fucking principles. Or—one minute—CHIPS, BEANS, PATTIE, AND MUSHROOMS! FOR TWO!”

  Denzel and Clarence ever so slowly sidled up to the hot plates.

  “Dat pattie look strange,” said Clarence.

  “’Im try to poison us,” said Denzel.

  “Dem mushroom look peculiar,” said Clarence.

  “’Im try to infiltrate a good man with de devil’s food,” said Denzel.

  Mickey slapped his spatula down on Denzel’s fingers, “Oi. Tweedledum and fucking Dee. Get a new fucking routine, all right?”

  “Or what?” persisted Archie.

  “’Im tryin’ to kill an ol’ man. An ol’ weak man,” muttered Denzel, as the two of them shuffled back to their seats.

  “Fucking ’ell, those two. They’re only alive ’cos they’re too stingy to pay for the fucking cremation.”

  “Or what?”


  “What’s the second option?”

  “Oh, yeah. Well, second option’s obvious, innit?”

  “Is it?”

  “Accept it. He’ll have to accept it, won’t he? We’re all English now, mate. Like it or lump it, as the rhubarb said to the custard. And that’ll be two fifty, Archibald, my good man. The golden age of Luncheon Vouchers is over.”

  The golden age of Luncheon Vouchers ended ten years ago. For ten years Mickey had been saying, “The golden age of Luncheon Vouchers is over.” And that’s what Archie loved about O’Connell’s. Everything was remembered, nothing was lost. History was never revised or reinterpreted, adapted or whitewashed. It was as solid and as simple as the encrusted egg on the clock.

  When Archie returned to table eight, Samad was like Jeeves: if not exactly disgruntled, then some way from being gruntled.

  “Archibald, did you take a wrong turn at the Ganges? Weren’t you listening to my dilemma? I am corrupt, my sons are becoming corrupt, we are all soon to burn in the fires of hell. These are problems of some urgency, Archibald.”

  Archie smiled serenely and stole another chip. “Problem solved, Samad, mate.”

  “Problem solved?”

  “Problem solved. Now, the way I see it, you have two options . . .”

  Around the beginning of this century, the Queen of Thailand was aboard a boat, floating along with her many courtiers, manservants, maids, feet-bathers, and food-tasters, when suddenly the stern hit a wave and the queen was thrown overboard into the turquoise waters of the Nippon-Kai, where, despite her pleas for help, she drowned, for not one person on that boat went to her aid. Mysterious to the outside world, to the Thai the explanation was immediately clear: tradition demanded, as it does to this day, that no man or woman may touch the queen.

  If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made. To Samad, as to the people of Thailand, tradition was culture, and culture led to roots, and these were good, these were untainted principles. That didn’t mean he could live by them, abide by them, or grow in the manner they demanded, but roots were roots and roots were good. You would get nowhere telling him that weeds too have tubers, or that the first sign of loose teeth is something rotten, something degenerate, deep within the gums. Roots were what saved, the ropes one throws out to rescue drowning men, to Save Their Souls. And the further Samad himself floated out to sea, pulled down to the depths by a siren named Poppy Burt-Jones, the more determined he became to create for his boys roots on shore, deep roots that no storm or gale could displace. Easier said than done. He was in Poppy’s poky little flat, going through his own household accounts, when it became obvious to him that he had more sons than money. If he was to send them back, he would need two dowries for the grandparents, two amounts for the schooling, two amounts for the clothes. As it was he could barely cover both airfares. Poppy had said: “What about your wife? She’s from a rich family, isn’t she?” But Samad had not yet revealed his plan to Alsana. He had only tested the water, mentioning it in a passing, hypothetical way to Clara while she did her gardening. How would she react if someone, acting in Irie’s best interest, took the child away to a better life? Clara rose from her flower bed and stared at him in silent concern, and then laughed long and loud. The man who did that, she said finally, brandishing a large pair of garden shears inches from his crotch, chop, chop. Chop, chop, thought Samad; and it became clear to him what he was going to do.

  “One of them?”

  O’Connell’s again. 6:25. One chips, beans, egg, and mushrooms. And one omelette and mushrooms with peas (seasonal variation).

  “Just one of them?”

  “Archibald, please keep your voice down.”

  “But—just one of them?”

  “That is what I said. Chop, chop.” He divided the fried egg on his plate down the middle. “There is no other way.”


  Archie was thinking again, as best he could. The same old stuff. You know, why couldn’t people just get on with things, just live together, you know, in peace or harmony or something. But he didn’t say any of that. He just said, “But—” And then, “But—”

  And then finally, “But which one?”

  And that (if you’re counting airfare, dowry, initial schooling fee) was the three thousand, two hundred and forty-five–quid question. Once the money was sorted—yes, he remortgaged the house, he risked his land, the greatest mistake an immigrant can make—it was simply a matter of cho
osing the child. For the first week it was going to be Magid, definitely Magid. Magid had the brains, Magid would settle down quicker, learn the language quicker, and Archie had a vested interest in keeping Millat in the country because he was the best striker Willesden Athletic Football Club (under fifteens) had seen in decades. So Samad began stealing Magid’s clothes away for surreptitious packing, arranged a separate passport (he would be traveling with auntie Zinat on November 4), and had a word in the ear of the school (long holiday, could he be given some homework to take with him, etc.).

  But then the next week there was a change of heart and it was Millat, because Magid was really Samad’s favorite, and he wanted to watch him grow older, and Millat was the one more in need of moral direction anyway. So his clothes were pilfered, his passport arranged, his name whispered into the right ears.

  The following week it was Magid until Wednesday and then Millat, because Archie’s old penpal Horst Ibelgaufts wrote the following letter, which Archie, familiar now with the strangely prophetic nature of Horst’s correspondence, brought to Samad’s attention:

  September 15, 1984

  Dearest Archibald,

  It is some time since my last letter, but I felt compelled to write to you about a wonderful development in my garden which has brought me no little pleasure these past few months. To make a long story shorter and sweeter, I have finally gone for the chop and removed that old oak tree from the far corner and I cannot begin to describe to you the difference it has made! Now the weaker seeds are receiving so much more sun and are so healthy I am able even to make cuttings from them—for the first year in my memory each of my children has a vase of peonies on their windowsill. I had been suffering under the misapprehension all these years that I was simply an indifferent gardener—when all the time it was that grand old tree, taking up half the garden with its roots and not allowing anything else to grow.

  The letter went on, but Samad stopped there. Irritably he said, “And I am meant to divine from this precisely . . . what?”

  Archie tapped the side of his nose knowingly. “Chop, chop. It’s got to be Millat. An omen, mate. You can trust Ibelgaufts.”

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