White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  Patiently, he fixed the Hoover and vacuumed the living room with a strange methodical finality, shoving the nozzle into the most difficult corners. Solemnly he flipped a coin (heads, life, tails, death) and felt nothing in particular when he found himself staring at the dancing lion. Quietly he detached the Hoover tube, put it in a suitcase, and left the house for the last time.

  But dying’s no easy trick. And suicide can’t be put on a list of Things to Do in between cleaning the grill pan and leveling the sofa leg with a brick. It is the decision not to do, to un-do; a kiss blown at oblivion. No matter what anyone says, suicide takes guts. It’s for heroes and martyrs, truly vainglorious men. Archie was none of these. He was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios:

  Pebble: Beach.

  Raindrop: Ocean.

  Needle: Haystack.

  So for a few days he ignored the decision of the coin and just drove around with the Hoover tube. At nights he looked out through the windshield into the monstropolous sky and had the old realization of his universal proportions, feeling what it was to be tiny and rootless. He thought about the dent he might make on the world if he disappeared, and it seemed negligible, too small to calculate. He squandered spare minutes wondering whether “Hoover” had become a generic term for vacuum cleaners or whether it was, as others have argued, just a brand name. And all the time the Hoover tube lay like a great flaccid cock on his back seat, mocking his quiet fear, laughing at his pigeon-steps as he approached the executioner, sneering at his impotent indecision.

  Then, on December 29, he went to see his old friend Samad Miah Iqbal. An unlikely compadre possibly, but still the oldest friend he had—a Bengali Muslim he had fought alongside back when the fighting had to be done, who reminded him of that war; that war that reminded some people of fatty bacon and painted-on stockings, but recalled in Archie gunshots and card games and the taste of a sharp, foreign alcohol.

  “Archie, my dear friend,” Samad had said, in his warm, hearty tones. “You must forget all this wife trouble. Try a new life. That is what you need. Now, enough of all this: I will match your five bob and raise you five.”

  They were sitting in their new haunt, O’Connell’s Poolroom, playing poker with only three hands, two of Archie’s and one of Samad’s—Samad’s right hand being a broken thing, gray-skinned and unmoving, dead in every way bar the blood that ran through it. The place they sat in, where they met each evening for dinner, was half café, half gambling den, owned by an Iraqi family, the many members of which shared a bad skin condition.

  “Look at me. Marrying Alsana has given me this new lease on living, you understand? She opens up for me the new possibilities. She’s so young, so vital—like a breath of fresh air. You come to me for advice? Here it is. Don’t live this old life—it’s a sick life, Archibald. It does you no good. No good whatsoever.”

  Samad had looked at him with a great sympathy, for he felt very tenderly for Archie. Their wartime friendship had been severed by thirty years of separation across continents, but in the spring of 1973 Samad had come to England, a middle-aged man seeking a new life with his twenty-year-old new bride, the diminutive, moon-faced Alsana Begum, with her shrewd eyes. In a fit of nostalgia, and because he was the only man Samad knew on this little island, Samad had sought Archie out, moved into the same London borough. And slowly but surely a kind of friendship was being rekindled between the two men.

  “You play like a faggot,” said Samad, laying down the winning queens back to back. He flicked them with the thumb of his left hand in one elegant move, making them fall to the table in a fan shape.

  “I’m old,” said Archie, throwing his cards in, “I’m old. Who’d have me now? It was hard enough convincing anybody the first time.”

  “That is nonsense, Archibald. You have not even met the right one yet. This Ophelia, Archie, she is not the right one. From what you leave me to understand, she is not even for this time—”

  He referred to Ophelia’s madness, which led her to believe, half of the time, that she was the maid of the celebrated fifteenth-century art lover Cosimo de’ Medici.

  “She is born, she lives, simply in the wrong time! This is just not her day! Maybe not her millennium. Modern life has caught that woman completely unawares and up the arse. Her mind is gone. Buggered. And you? You have picked up the wrong life in the cloakroom and you must return it. Besides, she has not blessed you with children . . . and life without children, Archie, what is it for? But there are second chances; oh yes, there are second chances in life. Believe me, I know. You,” he continued, raking in the 10ps with the side of his bad hand, “should never have married her.”

  Bloody hindsight, thought Archie. It’s always 20/20.

  Finally, two days after this discussion, early on New Year’s morning, the pain had reached such a piercing level that Archie was no longer able to cling to Samad’s advice. He had decided instead to mortify his own flesh, to take his own life, to free himself from a path that had taken him down numerous wrong turnings, led him deep into the wilderness, and finally petered out completely, its bread-crumb trail gobbled up by the birds.

  Once the car started to fill with carbon monoxide, he had experienced the obligatory flashback of his life to date. It turned out to be a short, unedifying viewing experience, low on entertainment value, the metaphysical equivalent of the Queen’s Speech. A dull childhood, a bad marriage, a dead-end job—that classic triumvirate—they all flicked by quickly, silently, with little dialogue, feeling pretty much the same as they did the first time round. He was no great believer in destiny, Archie, but on reflection it did seem that a special effort of predestination had ensured his life had been picked out for him like a company Christmas present—early, and the same as everyone else’s.

  There was the war, of course; he had been in the war, only for the last year of it, aged just seventeen, but it hardly counted. Not frontline, nothing like that. He and Samad, old Sam, Sammy-boy, they had a few tales to tell, mind. Archie even had a bit of shrapnel in the leg for anyone who cared to see it—but nobody did. No one wanted to talk about that anymore. It was like a clubfoot, or a disfiguring mole. It was like nose hair. People looked away. If someone said to Archie, What have you done in life, then? or What’s your biggest memory? well, God help him if he mentioned the war; eyes glazed over, fingers tapped, everybody offered to buy the next round. No one really wanted to know.

  Summer of 1955, Archie went to Fleet Street with his best winkle-pickers on, looking for work as a war correspondent. Poncey-looking bloke with a thin mustache and a thin voice had said, Any experience, Mr. Jones? And Archie had explained. All about Samad. All about their Churchill tank. Then this poncey one had leaned over the desk, all smug, all suited, and said, We would require something other than merely having fought in a war, Mr. Jones. War experience isn’t really relevant.

  And that was it, wasn’t it? There was no relevance in the war—not in 1955, even less now in 1974. Nothing he did then mattered now. The skills you learned were, in the modern parlance, not relevant, not transferable.

  Was there anything else, Mr. Jones?

  But of course there bloody wasn’t anything else, the British education system having tripped him up with a snigger many years previously. Still, he had a good eye for the look of a thing, for the shape of a thing, and that’s how he had ended up in the job at MorganHero, twenty years and counting in a printing firm in the Euston Road, designing the way all kinds of things should be folded—envelopes, direct mail, brochures, leaflets—not much of an achievement, maybe, but you’ll find things need folds, they need to overlap, otherwise life would be like a broadsheet: flapping in the wind and down the street so you lose the important sections. Not that Archie had much time for the broadsheets. If they couldn’t be bothered to fold them properly, why should he bother to read them (that’s what he wanted to know)?

  What else? Well, Archie hadn’t always folded paper. Once upon a time he
had been a track cyclist. What Archie liked about track cycling was the way you went round and round. Round and round. Giving you chance after chance to get a bit better at it, to make a faster lap, to do it right. Except the thing about Archie was he never did get any better. 62.8 seconds. Which is a pretty good time, world-class standard, even. But for three years he got precisely 62.8 seconds on every single lap. The other cyclists used to take breaks to watch him do it. Lean their bikes against the incline and time him with the second hand of their wristwatches. 62.8 every time. That kind of inability to improve is really very rare. That kind of consistency is miraculous, in a way.

  Archie liked track cycling, he was consistently good at it and it provided him with the only truly great memory he had. In 1948, Archie Jones had participated in the Olympics in London, sharing thirteenth place (62.8 seconds) with a Swedish gynecologist called Horst Ibelgaufts. Unfortunately this fact had been omitted from the Olympic records by a sloppy secretary who returned one morning after a coffee break with something else on her mind and missed his name as she transcribed one list to another piece of paper. Madam Posterity stuck Archie down the arm of the sofa and forgot about him. His only proof that the event had taken place at all were the periodic letters and notes he had received over the years from Ibelgaufts himself. Notes like:

  May 17, 1957

  Dear Archibald,

  I enclose a picture of my good wife and I in our garden in front of a rather unpleasant construction site. Though it may not look like Arcadia, it is here that I am building a crude velodrome—nothing like the one you and I raced in, but sufficient for my needs. It will be on a far smaller scale, but you see it is for the children we are yet to have. I see them pedaling around it in my dreams and wake up with a glorious smile upon my face! Once it is completed, we insist that you visit us. Who more worthy to christen the track of your earnest competitor,

  Horst Ibelgaufts?

  And the postcard that lay on the dashboard this very day, the day of his Almost Death:

  December 28, 1974

  Dear Archibald,

  I am taking up the harp. A New Year’s resolution, if you like. Late in the day, I realize, but you’re never too old to teach the old dog in you new tricks, don’t you feel? I tell you, it’s a heavy instrument to lay against your shoulder, but the sound of it is quite angelic and my wife thinks me quite sensitive because of it. Which is more than she could say for my old cycling obsession! But then, cycling was only ever understood by old boys like you, Archie, and of course the author of this little note, your old contender,

  Horst Ibelgaufts

  He had not met Horst since the race, but he remembered him affectionately as an enormous man with strawberry-blond hair, orange freckles, and misaligned nostrils, who dressed like an international playboy and seemed too large for his bike. After the race, Horst had got Archie horribly drunk and procured two Soho whores who seemed to know Horst well (“I make many business trips to your fair capital, Archibald,” Horst had explained). The last Archie had ever seen of Horst was an unwanted glimpse of his humongous pink arse bobbing up and down in the adjoining room of an Olympic chalet. The next morning, waiting at the front desk, was the first letter of his large correspondence:

  Dear Archibald,

  In an oasis of work and competition, women are truly sweet and easy refreshment, don’t you agree? I’m afraid I had to leave early to catch the necessary plane, but I compel you, Archie: don’t be a stranger! I think of us now as two men as close as our finish! I tell you, whoever said thirteenth was unlucky was a bigger fool than your friend,

  Horst Ibelgaufts

  P.S. Please make sure that Daria and Melanie get home fine and well.

  Daria was his one. Terribly skinny, ribs like lobster traps and no chest to speak of, but she was a lovely sort: kind; soft with her kisses and with double-jointed wrists she liked to show off in a pair of long silk gloves—set you back four clothing coupons at least. “I like you,” Archie remembered saying helplessly, as she replaced the gloves and put on her stockings. She turned, smiled. And though she was a professional, he got the feeling she liked him too. Maybe he should have left with her right then, run to the hills. But at the time it seemed impossible, too involved, what with a young wife with one in the oven (an hysterical, fictional pregnancy, as it turned out, a big bump full of hot air), what with his game leg, what with the lack of hills.

  Strangely, Daria was the final pulse of thought that passed through Archie just before he blacked out. It was the thought of a whore he met once twenty years ago, it was Daria and her smile that made him cover Mo’s apron with tears of joy as the butcher saved his life. He had seen her in his mind: a beautiful woman in a doorway with a come-hither look; and realized he regretted not coming hither. If there was any chance of ever seeing a look like that again, then he wanted the second chance, he wanted the extra time. Not just this second, but the next and the next—all the time in the world.

  Later that morning, Archie did an ecstatic eight circuits of Swiss Cottage traffic circle in his car, his head stuck out the window, a stream of air hitting the teeth at the back of his mouth like a windsock. He thought: Blimey. So this is what it feels like when some bugger saves your life. Like you’ve just been handed a great big wad of Time. He drove straight past his flat, straight past the street signs (Hendon 33⁄4 miles), laughing like a loon. At the traffic lights he flipped a ten-pence coin and smiled when the result seemed to agree that Fate was pulling him toward another life. Like a dog on a leash round a corner. Generally, women can’t do this, but men retain the ancient ability to leave a family and a past. They just unhook themselves, like removing a fake beard, and skulk discreetly back into society, changed men. Unrecognizable. In this manner, a new Archie is about to emerge. We have caught him on the hop. For he is in a past-tense, future-perfect kind of mood. He is in a maybe this, maybe that kind of mood. When he approaches a forked road, he slows down, checks his undistinguished face in the rearview mirror, and quite indiscriminately chooses a route he’s never taken before, a residential street leading to a place called Queen’s Park. Go straight past Go!, Archie-boy, he tells himself; collect two hundred, and don’t for Gawd’s sake look back.

  Tim Westleigh (more commonly known as Merlin) finally registered the persistent ringing of a doorbell. He picked himself off the kitchen floor, waded through an ocean of supine bodies, and opened the door to arrive face-to-face with a middle-aged man dressed head-to-toe in gray corduroy, holding a ten-pence coin in his open palm. As Merlin was later to reflect when describing the incident, at any time of the day corduroy is a highly stressful fabric. Rent collectors wear it. Tax collectors, too. History teachers add leather elbow patches. To be confronted with a mass of it, at nine in the A.M., on the first day of a New Year, is an apparition lethal in its sheer quantity of negative vibes.

  “What’s the deal, man?” Merlin blinked in the doorway at the man in corduroy who stood on his doorstep illuminated by winter sunshine. “Encyclopedias or God?”

  Archie noted the kid had an unnerving way of emphasizing certain words by turning his head in a wide circular movement from the right shoulder to the left. Then, when the circle was completed, he would nod several times.

  “ ’Cos if it’s encyclopedias we’ve got enough, like, information . . . and if it’s God, you’ve got the wrong house. We’re in a mellow place, here. Know what I mean?” Merlin concluded, doing the nodding thing and moving to shut the door.

  Archie shook his head, smiled, and remained where he was.

  “Erm . . . are you all right?” asked Merlin, hand on the doorknob. “Is there something I can do for you? Are you high on something?”

  “I saw your sign,” said Archie.

  Merlin pulled on a joint and looked amused. “That sign?” He bent his head to follow Archie’s gaze. The white bedsheet hanging down from an upper window. Across it, in large rainbow-colored lettering, was painted: WELCOME TO THE “END OF THE WORLD” PARTY, 1975.

p; Merlin shrugged. “Yeah, sorry, man, looks like it wasn’t. Bit of a disappointment, that. Or a blessing,” he added amiably, “depending on your point of view.”

  “Blessing,” said Archie, with passion. “Hundred percent, bona fide blessing.”

  “Did you, er, dig the sign, then?” asked Merlin, taking a step back behind the doorstep in case the man was violent as well as schiz. “You into that kind of scene? It was kind of a joke, you see, more than anything.”

  “Caught my eye, you might say,” said Archie, still beaming like a madman. “I was just driving along looking for somewhere, you know, somewhere to have another drink, New Year’s Day, hair of the dog and all that—and I’ve had a bit of a rough morning all in all—and it just sort of struck me. I flipped a coin and thought: why not?”

  Merlin looked perplexed at the turn the conversation was taking. “Er . . . party’s pretty much over, man. Besides, I think you’re a little advanced in years . . . if you know what I mean . . .” Here Merlin turned gauche; underneath the dashiki he was at heart a good, middle-class boy, instilled with respect for his elders. “I mean,” he said after a difficult pause, “it’s a bit of a younger crowd than you might be used to. Kind of a commune scene.”

  “But I was so much older then,” sang Archie mischievously, quoting a ten-year-old Dylan track, arching his head round the door, “I’m younger than that now.”

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