White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “But you’re different,” Millat Iqbal would say to the martyr Irie Jones, “you’re different. We go way back. We’ve got history. You’re a real friend. They don’t really mean anything to me.”

  Irie liked to believe that. That they had history, that she was different in a good way.

  “Thy black is fairest in my judgement’s place . . .”

  Mrs. Roody silenced Francis with a raised finger. “Now, what is he saying there? Annalese?”

  Annalese Hersh, who had spent the lesson so far braiding red and yellow thread into her hair, looked up in blank confusion.

  “Anything, Annalese, dear. Any little idea. No matter how small. No matter how paltry.”

  Annalese bit her lip. Looked at the book. Looked at Mrs. Roody. Looked at the book.

  “Black? . . . Is? . . . Good?”

  “Yes . . . well, I suppose we can add that to last week’s contribution: Hamlet? . . . Is? . . . Mad? Anybody else? What about this? For since each hand hath put on nature’s power, Fairing the foul with art’s false borrow’d face. What might that mean, I wonder?”

  Joshua Chalfen, the only kid in class who volunteered opinions, put his hand up.

  “Yes, Joshua?”

  “Makeup.”

  “Yes,” said Mrs. Roody, looking close to orgasm. “Yes, Joshua, that’s it. What about it?”

  “She’s got a dark complexion that she’s trying to lighten by means of makeup, artifice. The Elizabethans were very keen on a pale skin.”

  “They would’ve loved you, then,” sneered Millat, for Joshua was pasty, practically anemic, curly-haired, and chubby, “you would have been Tom bloody Cruise.”

  Laughter. Not because it was funny, but because it was Millat putting a nerd where a nerd should be. In his place.

  “One more word from you, Mr. Ick-Ball, and you are out!”

  “Shakespeare. Sweaty. Bollocks. That’s three. Don’t worry, I’ll let myself out.”

  This was the kind of thing Millat did so expertly. The door slammed. The nice girls looked at each other in that way. (He’s just so out of control, so crazy . . . he really needs some help, some close one-to-one personal help from a good friend . . . ) The boys belly-laughed. The teacher wondered if this was the beginning of a mutiny. Irie covered her stomach with her right hand.

  “Marvelous. Very adult. I suppose Millat Iqbal is some kind of hero.” Mrs. Roody, looking round the gormless faces of 5F, saw for the first time and with dismal clarity that this was exactly what he was.

  “Does anyone else have anything to say about these sonnets? Ms. Jones! Will you stop looking mournfully at the door! He’s gone, all right? Unless you’d like to join him?”

  “No, Mrs. Roody.”

  “All right, then. Have you anything to say about the sonnets?”

  “Yes.”

  “What?”

  “Is she black?”

  “Is who black?”

  “The dark lady.”

  “No, dear, she’s dark. She’s not black in the modern sense. There weren’t any . . . well, Afro-Carri-bee-yans in England at that time, dear. That’s more a modern phenomenon, as I’m sure you know. But this was the 1600s. I mean I can’t be sure, but it does seem terribly unlikely, unless she was a slave of some kind, and he’s unlikely to have written a series of sonnets to a lord and then a slave, is he?”

  Irie reddened. She had thought, just then, that she had seen something like a reflection, but it was receding; so she said, “Don’t know, miss.”

  “Besides, he says very clearly, In nothing art thou black, save in thy deeds . . . No, dear, she just has a dark complexion, you see, as dark as mine, probably.”

  Irie looked at Mrs. Roody. She was the color of strawberry mousse.

  “You see, Joshua is quite right: the preference was for women to be excessively pale in those days. The sonnet is about the debate between her natural coloring and the makeup that was the fashion of the time.”

  “I just thought . . . like when he says, here: Then will I swear, beauty herself is black . . . And the curly hair thing, black wires—”

  Irie gave up in the face of giggling and shrugged.

  “No, dear, you’re reading it with a modern ear. Never read what is old with a modern ear. In fact, that will serve as today’s principle—can you all write that down, please.”

  5F wrote that down. And the reflection that Irie had glimpsed slunk back into the familiar darkness. On the way out of class, Irie was passed a note by Annalese Hersh, who shrugged to signify that she was not the author but merely one of many handlers. It said: “By William Shakespeare: ODE TO LETITIA AND ALL MY KINKY-HAIRED BIG-ASS BITCHEZ.”

  The cryptically named P. K.’s Afro Hair: Design and Management sat between Fairweather Funeral Parlor and Raakshan Dentists, the convenient proximity meaning it was not at all uncommon for a cadaver of African origin to pass through all three establishments on his or her final journey to an open casket. So when you phoned for a hair appointment, and Andrea or Denise or Jackie told you three-thirty Jamaican time, naturally it meant come late, but there was also a chance it meant that some stone-cold churchgoing lady was determined to go to her grave with long fake nails and a weave-on. Strange as it sounds, there are plenty of people who refuse to meet the Lord with an Afro.

  Irie, ignorant of all this, turned up for her appointment three-thirty on the dot, intent upon transformation, intent upon fighting her genes, a headscarf disguising the bird’s nest of her hair, her right hand carefully placed upon her stomach.

  “You wan’ some ting, pickney?”

  Straight hair. Straight straight long black sleek flickable tossable shakable touchable finger-through-able wind-blowable hair. With bangs.

  “Three-thirty,” was all Irie managed to convey of this, “with Andrea.”

  “Andrea’s next door,” replied the woman, pulling at a piece of elongated gum and nodding in the direction of Fairweather’s, “having fun with the dearly departed. You better come sit down and wait and don’ bodder me. Don’ know how long she’ll be.”

  Irie looked lost, standing in the middle of the shop, clutching her chub. The woman took pity, swallowed her gum, and looked Irie up and down; she felt more sympathetic as she noted Irie’s cocoa complexion, the light eyes.

  “Jackie.”

  “Irie.”

  “Pale, sir! Freckles an’ every ting. You Mexican?”

  “No.”

  “Arab?”

  “Half Jamaican. Half English.”

  “Half-caste,” Jackie explained patiently. “Your mum white?”

  “Dad.”

  Jackie wrinkled her nose. “Usually de udder way roun’. How curly is it? Lemme see what’s under dere—” She made a grab for Irie’s headscarf. Irie, horrified at the possibility of being laid bare in a room full of people, got there before her and held on tight.

  Jackie sucked her teeth. “What d’you ’spec us to do wid it if we kyant see it?”

  Irie shrugged. Jackie shook her head, amused.

  “You ain’t been in before?”

  “No, never.”

  “What is it you want?”

  “Straight,” said Irie firmly, thinking of Nikki Tyler. “Straight and dark red.”

  “Is dat a fact! You wash your hair recent?”

  “Yesterday,” said Irie, offended. Jackie slapped her upside her head.

  “Don’ wash it! If you wan’ it straight, don’ wash it! You ever have ammonia on your head? It’s like the devil’s having a party on your scalp. You crazy? Don’ wash it for two weeks an’ den come back.”

  But Irie didn’t have two weeks. She had it all planned; she was going to go round to Millat’s this very evening with her new mane, all tied up in a bun, and she was going to take off her glasses and shake down her hair and he was going to say why Miss Jones, I never would have supposed . . . why Miss Jones, you’re—

  “I have to do it today. My sister’s getting married.”

  “Well, when Andrea get
back she going to burn seven shades of shit out of your hair an’ you’ll be lucky if you don’ walk out of here with a ball ’ed. But den it your funeral. Ear,” she said thrusting a pile of magazines into Irie’s hands. “Dere,” she said, pointing to a chair.

  P. K.’s was split into two halves, male and female. In the male section, as relentless Ragga came unevenly over a battered stereo, young boys had logos cut into the backs of their heads at the hands of slightly older boys, skillful wielders of the electric trimmers. ADIDAS. BADMUTHA. MARTIN. The male section was all laughter, all talk, all play; there was an easiness that sprang from no male haircut ever costing over six pounds or taking more than fifteen minutes. It was a simple-enough exchange and there was joy in it: the buzz of the revolving blade by your ear, a rough brush-down with a warm hand, mirrors front and back to admire the transformation. You came in with a picky head, uneven and coarse, disguised underneath a baseball cap, and you left swiftly afterward a new man, smelling sweetly of coconut oil and with a cut as sharp and clean as a swearword.

  In comparison, the female section of P. K.’s was a deathly thing. Here, the impossible desire for straightness and “movement” fought daily with the stubborn determination of the curved African follicle; here ammonia, hot combs, clips, pins, and simple fire had all been enlisted in the war and were doing their damnedest to beat each curly hair into submission.

  “Is it straight?” was the only question you heard as the towels came off and the heads emerged from the dryer pulsating with pain. “Is it straight, Denise? Tell me is it straight, Jackie?”

  To which Jackie or Denise, having none of the obligations of white hairdressers, no need to make tea or kiss arse, flatter or make conversation (for these were not customers they were dealing with but desperate wretched patients), would give a skeptical snort and whip off the puke-green gown. “It as straight as it ever going to be!”

  Four women sat in front of Irie now, biting their lips, staring intently into a long, dirty mirror, waiting for their straighter selves to materialize. While Irie flicked nervously through American black hair magazines, the four women sat grimacing in pain. Occasionally one said to another, “How long?” To which the proud reply came, “Fifteen minutes. How long for you?” “Twenty-two. This shit’s been on my head twenty-two minutes. It better be straight.”

  It was a competition in agony. Like rich women in posh restaurants ordering ever-smaller salads.

  Finally there would come a scream, or a “That’s it! Shit, I can’t take it!” and the head in question was rushed to the sink, where the washing could never be quick enough (you cannot get ammonia out of your hair quick enough) and the quiet weeping began. It was at this point that animosity arose; some people’s hair was “kinkier” than others’, some Afros fought harder, some survived. And the animosity spread from fellow customer to hairdresser, to inflicter of this pain, for it was natural enough to suspect Jackie or Denise of something like sadism: their fingers were too slow as they worked the stuff out, the water seemed to trickle instead of gush, and meanwhile the devil had a high old time burning the crap out of your hairline.

  “Is it straight? Jackie, is it straight?”

  The boys arched their heads round the partition wall, Irie looked up from her magazine. There was little to say. They all came out straight or straight enough. But they also came out dead. Dry. Splintered. Stiff. All the spring gone. Like the hair of a cadaver as the moisture seeps away.

  Jackie or Denise, knowing full well that the curved African follicle will, in the end, follow its genetic instructions, put a philosophic slant on the bad news. “It as straight as it ever going to be. Tree weeks if you lucky.”

  Despite the obvious failure of the project, each woman along the line felt that it would be different for her, that when their own unveiling came, straight straight flickable, wind-blowable locks would be theirs. Irie, as full of confidence as the rest, returned to her magazine.

  Malika, vibrant young star of the smash hit sitcom Malika’s Life, explains how she achieves her loose and flowing look: “I hot wrap it each evening, ensuring that the ends are lightly waxed in African Queen Afro Sheen‰, then, in the morning, I put a comb on the stove for approximately—”

  The return of Andrea. The magazine was snatched from her hands, her headscarf unceremoniously removed before she could stop it, and five long and eloquent fingernails began to work their way over her scalp.

  “Ooooh,” murmured Andrea.

  This sign of approval was a rare-enough occurrence for the rest of the shop to come round the partition to have a look.

  “Oooooh,” said Denise, adding her fingers to Andrea’s. “So loose.”

  An older lady, wincing with pain underneath a dryer, nodded admiringly.

  “Such a loose curl,” cooed Jackie, ignoring her own scalded patient to reach into Irie’s wool.

  “That’s half-caste hair for you. I wish mine were like that. That’ll relax beautiful.”

  Irie screwed up her face. “I hate it.”

  “She hates it!” said Denise to the crowd. “It’s light brown in places!”

  “I been dealing with a corpse all morning. Be nice to get my hands into somefing sof’,” said Andrea, emerging from her reverie. “You gonna relax it, darlin’?”

  “Yes. Straight. Straight and red.”

  Andrea tied a green gown round Irie’s neck and lowered her into a swiveling chair. “Don’t know about red, baby. Can’t dye and relax on the same day. Kill the hair dead. But I can do the relax for you, no problem. Should come out beautiful, darlin’.”

  The communication between hairdressers in P. K.’s being poor, no one told Andrea that Irie had washed her hair. Two minutes after having the thick white ammonia gloop spread on to her head, she felt the initial cold sensation change to a terrific fire. There was no dirt there to protect the scalp, and Irie started screaming.

  “I jus’ put it on! You want it straight, don’t you? Stop making that noise!”

  “But it hurts!”

  “Life hurts,” said Andrea scornfully, “beauty hurts.”

  Irie bit her tongue for another thirty seconds until blood appeared above her right ear. Then the poor girl blacked out.

  She came to with her head over the sink, watching her hair, which was coming out in clumps, shimmy down the plughole.

  “You should have told me,” Andrea was grumbling. “You should have told me that you washed it. It’s got to be dirty first. Now look.”

  Now look. Hair that had once come down to her mid-vertebrae was only a few inches from her head.

  “See what you’ve done,” continued Andrea, as Irie wept openly. “I’d like to know what Mr. Paul King is going to say about this. I better phone him and see if we can fix this up for you for free.”

  Mr. Paul King, the P. K. in question, owned the place. He was a big white guy, in his mid-fifties, who had been an entrepreneur in the building trade until Black Wednesday and his wife’s credit card excesses took away everything but some bricks and mortar. Looking for a new idea, he read in the lifestyle section of his breakfast paper that black women spend five times as much as white women on beauty products and nine times as much on their hair. Taking his wife, Sheila, as an archetypal white woman, Paul King began to salivate. A little more research in his local library uncovered a multimillion-pound industry. Paul King then bought a disused butcher’s on Willesden High Road, head-hunted Andrea from a Harlesden salon, and gave black hairdressing a shot. It was an instant success. He was amazed to discover that women on low income were indeed prepared to spend hundreds of pounds per month on their hair and yet more on nails and accessories. He was vaguely amused when Andrea first explained to him that physical pain was also part of the process. And the best part of it was there was no question of suing—they expected the burns. Perfect business.

  “Go on, Andrea, love, give her a freebie,” said Paul King, shouting on a brick-shaped mobile over the construction noise of his new salon, opening in Wembley. ??
?But don’t make a habit of it.”

  Andrea returned to Irie with the good tidings. “’Sall right, darlin’. This one’s on us.”

  “But what—” Irie stared at her Hiroshima reflection. “What can you—”

  “Put your scarf back on, turn left out of here, and go down the High Road until you get to a shop called Roshi’s Haircare. Take this card and tell them P. K.’s sent you. Get eight packets of number-five-type black hair with a red glow and come back here quick style.”

  “Hair?” repeated Irie through snot and tears. “Fake hair?”

  “Stupid girl. It’s not fake. It’s real. And when it’s on your head it’ll be your real hair. Go!”

  Blubbing like a baby, Irie shuffled out of P. K.’s and down the High Road, trying to avoid her reflection in the shop windows. Reaching Roshi’s, she did her best to pull herself together, put her right hand over her stomach and pushed through the doors.

  It was dark in Roshi’s and smelled strongly of the same scent as P. K.’s: ammonia and coconut oil, pain mixed with pleasure. From the dim glow given off by a flickering strip light, Irie could see there were no shelves to speak of but instead hair products piled like mountains from the floor up, while accessories (combs, bands, nail varnish) were stapled to the walls with the price written in felt-tip alongside. The only display of any recognizable kind was placed just below the ceiling in a loop around the room, taking pride of place like a collection of sacrificial scalps or hunting trophies. Hair. Long tresses stapled a few inches apart. Underneath each a large cardboard sign explaining its pedigree:

  2 Meters. Natural Thai. Straight. Chestnut.

  1 Meter. Natural Pakistani. Straight with a wave. Black.

  5 Meters. Natural Chinese. Straight. Black.

  3 Meters. Synthetic hair. Corkscrew curl. Pink.

 
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