White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  Merlin took a cigarette from behind his ear, lit it, and frowned. “Look, man . . . I can’t just let anyone in off the street, you know? I mean, you could be the police, you could be a freak, you could—”

  But something about Archie’s face—huge, innocent, sweetly expectant—reminded Tim what his estranged father, the vicar of Snarebrook, had to say about Christian charity every Sunday from his pulpit. “Oh, what the hell. It’s New Year’s Day, for fuckssake. You best come in.”

  Archie sidestepped Merlin, and moved into a long hallway with four open-doored rooms branching off from it, a staircase leading to another story, and a garden at the end of it all. Detritus of every variety—animal, mineral, vegetable—lined the floor; a great mass of bedding, under which people lay sleeping, stretched from one end of the hallway to the other, a red sea that grudgingly separated each time Archie took a step forward. Inside the rooms, in certain corners, could be witnessed the passing of bodily fluids: kissing, breast-feeding, fucking, throwing up—all the things Archie’s Sunday Supplement had informed him could be found in a commune. He toyed for a moment with the idea of entering the fray, losing himself between the bodies (he had all this new time on his hands, masses and masses of it, dribbling through his fingers), but decided a stiff drink was preferable. He tackled the hallway until he reached the other end of the house and stepped out into the chilly garden, where some, having given up on finding a space in the warm house, had opted for the cold lawn. With a whiskey tonic in mind, he headed for the picnic table, where something the shape and color of Jack Daniel’s had sprung up like a mirage in a desert of empty wine bottles.

  “Mind if I . . . ?”

  Two black guys, a topless Chinese girl, and a white woman wearing a toga were sitting around on wooden kitchen chairs, playing rummy. Just as Archie reached for the Jack Daniel’s, the white woman shook her head and mimed stubbing out a cigarette.

  “Tobacco sea, I’m afraid, darling. Some evil bastard put his fag out in some perfectly acceptable whiskey. There’s Babycham and some other inexorable shit over here.”

  Archie smiled in gratitude for the warning and the kind offer. He took a seat and poured himself a big glass of liebfraumilch instead.

  Many drinks later, and Archie could not remember a time in his life when he had not known Clive and Leo, Wan-Si and Petronia, intimately. With his back turned and a piece of charcoal, he could have rendered every puckered goosepimple around Wan-Si’s nipples, every stray hair that fell in Petronia’s face as she spoke. By 11:00 A.M., he loved them all dearly, they were the children he had never had. In return, they told him he was in possession of a unique soul for a man of his age. Everybody agreed some intensely positive karmic energy was circulating in and around Archie, the kind of thing strong enough to prompt a butcher to roll down a car window at the critical moment. And it turned out Archie was the first man over forty ever invited to join the commune; it turned out there had been talk for some time of the need for an older sexual presence to satisfy some of the more adventurous women. “Great,” said Archie. “Fantastic. That’ll be me, then.” He felt so close to them that he was confused when around midday their relationship suddenly soured, and he found himself stabbed by a hangover and knee-deep in an argument about World War II, of all things.

  “I don’t even know how we got into this,” groaned Wan-Si, who had covered up finally just when they decided to move indoors, Archie’s corduroy jacket slung round her petite shoulders. “Let’s not get into this. I’d rather go to bed than get into this.”

  “We are into it, we are into it,” Clive was ranting. “This is the whole problem with his generation, they think they can hold up the war as some kind of—”

  Archie was grateful when Leo interrupted Clive and dragged the argument into some further subset of the original one, which Archie had started (some unwise remark three-quarters of an hour ago about military service building up a young man’s character) and then immediately regretted when it required him to defend himself at regular intervals. Freed finally of this obligation, he sat on the stairs, letting the row continue above while he placed his head in his hands.

  Shame. He would have liked to have been part of a commune. If he’d played his cards right instead of starting a ding-dong, he might have had free love and bare breasts all over the place; maybe even a portion of allotment for growing fresh food. For a while (around 2:00 P.M., when he was telling Wan-Si about his childhood) it had looked like his new life was going to be fabulous, and from now on he was always going to say the right thing at the right time, and everywhere he went people would love him. Nobody’s fault, thought Archie, mulling over the balls-up, nobody’s fault but my own, but he wondered whether there wasn’t some higher pattern to it. Maybe there will always be men who say the right thing at the right time, who step forward like Thespis at just the right moment of history, and then there will be men like Archie Jones, who are just there to make up the numbers. Or, worse still, who are given their big break only to come in on cue and die a death right there, center stage, for all to see.

  A dark line would now be drawn underneath the whole incident, underneath the whole sorry day, had something not happened that led to the transformation of Archie Jones in every particular that a man can be transformed; and not due to any particular effort on his part, but by means of the entirely random, adventitious collision of one person with another. Something happened by accident. That accident was Clara Bowden.

  But first a description: Clara Bowden was beautiful in all senses except, maybe, by virtue of being black. The classical. Clara Bowden was magnificently tall, black as ebony and crushed sable, with hair braided in a horseshoe that pointed up when she felt lucky, down when she didn’t. At this moment it was up. It is hard to know whether that was significant.

  She needed no bra—she was independent, even of gravity—she wore a red halter that stopped below her bust, underneath which she wore her belly button (beautifully) and underneath that some very tight yellow jeans. At the end of it all were some strappy heels of light-brown suede, and she came striding down the stairs on them like some kind of vision, or, as it seemed to Archie when he turned to observe her, like a reared-up thoroughbred.

  Now, as Archie understood it, in movies and the like it is common for someone to be so striking that when they walk down the stairs the crowd goes silent. In life he had never seen this. But it happened with Clara Bowden. She walked down the stairs in slow motion, surrounded by afterglow and fuzzy lighting. And not only was she the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, she was also the most comforting woman he had ever met. Her beauty was not a sharp, cold commodity. She smelled musty, womanly, like a bundle of your favorite clothes. Though she was disorganized physically—legs and arms speaking a slightly different dialect from her central nervous system—even her gangly demeanor seemed to Archie exceptionally elegant. She wore her sexuality with an older woman’s ease, and not (as with most of the girls Archie had run with in the past) like an awkward purse, never knowing how to hold it, where to hang it, or when to just put it down.

  “Cheer up, bwoy,” she said in a lilting Caribbean accent that reminded Archie of That Jamaican Cricketer, “it might never happen.”

  “I think it already has.”

  Archie, who had just dropped a fag from his mouth that had been burning itself to death anyway, saw Clara quickly tread it underfoot. She gave him a wide grin that revealed possibly her one imperfection. A complete lack of teeth in the top of her mouth.

  “Man . . . dey get knock out,” she lisped, seeing his surprise. “But I tink to myself: come de end of de world, d’Lord won’t mind if I have no toofs.” She laughed softly.

  “Archie Jones,” said Archie, offering her a Marlboro.

  “Clara.” She whistled inadvertently as she smiled and breathed in the smoke. “Archie Jones, you look justabout exackly how I feel. Have Clive and dem people been talking foolishness at you? Clive, you bin playing wid dis poor man?”

grunted—the memory of Archie had all but disappeared with the effects of the wine—and continued where he left off, accusing Leo of misunderstanding the difference between political and physical sacrifice.

  “Oh, no . . . nothing serious,” Archie burbled, useless in the face of her exquisite face. “Bit of a disagreement, that’s all. Clive and I have different views about a few things. Generation gap, I suppose.”

  Clara slapped him on the hand. “Hush yo mout! You’re nat dat ol’. I seen older.”

  “I’m old enough,” said Archie, and then, just because he felt like telling her, “You won’t believe me, but I almost died today.”

  Clara raised an eyebrow. “You don’t say. Well, come and join de club. Dere are a lot of us about dis marnin’. What a strange party dis is. You know,” she said, brushing a long hand across his bald spot, “you look pretty djam good for someone come so close to St. Peter’s Gate. You wan’ some advice?”

  Archie nodded vigorously. He always wanted advice, he was a huge fan of second opinions. That’s why he never went anywhere without a ten-pence coin.

  “Go home, get some rest. Marnin’ de the world new, every time. Man . . . dis life no easy!”

  What home? thought Archie. He had unhooked the old life, he was walking into unknown territory.

  “Man . . .” Clara repeated, patting him on the back, “dis life no easy!”

  She let off another long whistle and a rueful laugh, and, unless he was really going nuts, Archie saw that come-hither look, identical to Daria’s; tinged with a kind of sadness, disappointment; like she didn’t have a great deal of other options. Clara was nineteen. Archibald was forty-seven.

  Six weeks later they were married.


  Teething Trouble

  But Archie did not pluck Clara Bowden from a vacuum. And it’s about time people told the truth about beautiful women. They do not shimmer down staircases. They do not descend, as was once supposed, from on high, attached to nothing other than wings. Clara was from somewhere. She had roots. More specifically, she was from Lambeth (via Jamaica) and she was connected, through tacit adolescent agreement, to one Ryan Topps. Because before Clara was beautiful she was ugly. And before there was Clara and Archie there was Clara and Ryan. And there is no getting away from Ryan Topps. Just as a good historian need recognize Hitler’s Napoleonic ambitions in the east in order to comprehend his reluctance to invade the British in the west, so Ryan Topps is essential to any understanding of why Clara did what she did. Ryan is indispensable. There was Clara and Ryan for eight months before Clara and Archie were drawn together from opposite ends of a staircase. And Clara might never have run into the arms of Archie Jones if she hadn’t been running, quite as fast as she could, away from Ryan Topps.

  Poor Ryan Topps. He was a mass of unfortunate physical characteristics. He was very thin and very tall, redheaded, flat-footed, and freckled to such an extent that his skin was rarer than his freckles. Ryan fancied himself as a bit of a mod. He wore ill-fitting gray suits with black turtlenecks. While the rest of the world discovered the joys of the electronic synthesizer, Ryan swore allegiance to the little men with big guitars: to the Kinks, the Small Faces, the Who. Ryan Topps rode a green Vespa GS scooter that he polished twice a day with a baby’s diaper and kept encased in a custom-built corrugated-iron shield. To Ryan’s way of thinking, a Vespa was not merely a mode of transport but an ideology, family, friend, and lover all rolled into one paragon of late-forties engineering.

  Ryan Topps, as one might expect, had few friends.

  Clara Bowden, aged seventeen, was gangly, bucktoothed, a Jehovah’s Witness, and saw in Ryan a kindred spirit. A typical teenage female panopticon, she knew everything there was to know about Ryan Topps long before they ever spoke. She knew the basics: same school (St. Jude’s Community School, Lambeth), same height (six foot one); she knew he was, like her, neither Irish nor Roman Catholic, which made them two islands floating around the popish ocean of St. Jude’s, enrolled in the school by the accident of their zipcodes, reviled by teachers and pupils alike. She knew the name of his bike, she read the tops of his records as they popped up over the brim of his bag. She even knew things about him he didn’t know: for example, she knew he was the Last Man on Earth. Every school has one, and in St. Jude’s, as in other seats of learning, it was the girls who chose this moniker and dished it out. There were, of course, variations:

  Mr. Not for a Million Pounds.

  Mr. Not to Save My Mother’s Life.

  Mr. Not for World Peace.

  But, generally, the schoolgirls of St. Jude’s kept to the tried and tested formula. Though Ryan would never be privy to the conversations of the school’s female changing rooms, Clara knew. She knew how the object of her affections was discussed, she kept an ear out, she knew what he amounted to when you got down to it, down among the sweat and the training bras and the sharp flick of a wet towel.

  “Ah, Jaysus, you’re not listening. I’m saying, if he was the last man on earth!”

  “I still wouldn’t.”

  “Ah, bollocks you would!”

  “But listen: the whole bleedin’ world has been hit by the bomb, like in Japan, roight? An’ all the good-lookin’ men, all the rides like your man Nicky Laird, they’re all dead. They’ve all been burned to a crisp. An’ all that’s left is Ryan Topps and a bunch of cockroaches.”

  “On me life, I’d rather sleep with the cockroaches.”

  Ryan’s unpopularity at St. Jude’s was equaled only by Clara’s. On her first day at the school her mother had explained to her she was about to enter the devil’s lair, filled her satchel with two hundred copies of the Watchtower, and instructed her to go and do the Lord’s work. Week after week she shuffled through the school, head hung to the ground, handing out magazines, murmuring, “Only Jehovah saves”; in a school where an overexcitable pustule could send you to Coventry, a six-foot black missionary in knee socks attempting to convert six hundred Catholics to the church of the Jehovah’s Witnesses equaled social leprosy.

  So Ryan was red as a beetroot. And Clara was black as yer boot. Ryan’s freckles were a join-the-dots enthusiast’s wet dream. Clara could circumnavigate an apple with her front teeth before her tongue got anywhere near it. Not even the Catholics would forgive them for it (and Catholics give out forgiveness at about the same rate politicians give out promises and whores give out); not even St. Jude, who got saddled way back in the first century with the patronage of hopeless causes (due to the tonal similarity between Jude and Judas), was prepared to get involved.

  At five o’clock each day, as Clara sat in her house attending to the message of the Gospels or composing a leaflet condemning the heathen practice of blood transfusion, Ryan Topps would scoot by her open window on his way home. The Bowden living room sat just below street level, and had bars on its window, so all views were partial. Generally, she would see feet, wheels, car exhausts, swinging umbrellas. Such slight glimpses were often telling; a lively imagination could squeeze much pathos out of a frayed lace, a darned sock, a low-swinging bag that had seen better days. But nothing affected her more deeply than gazing after the disappearing tailpipe of Ryan’s scooter. Lacking any name for the furtive rumblings that appeared in her lower abdomen on these occasions, Clara called it the spirit of the Lord. She felt that somehow she was going to save the heathen Ryan Topps. Clara meant to gather this boy close to her breast, keep him safe from the temptation that besets us all around, prepare him for the day of his redemption. (And wasn’t there somewhere, lower than her abdomen—somewhere down in the nether region of the unmentionables—the half-conceived hope that Ryan Topps might save her?)

  If Hortense Bowden caught her daughter sitting wistfully by the barred window, listening to the retreating splutter of an engine while the pages of the New Bible flicked over in the breeze, she koofed her upside her head and thanked her to remember that only 144,000 of the Witnesses of Jehovah would sit in the court of the Lord on Judgment Day. Among which
number of the Anointed there was no space for nasty-looking so-and-sos on motorcycles.

  “But what if we saved—”

  “Some people,” Hortense asserted with a snort, “have done such a hol’ heap of sinning, it late for dem to be making eyes at Jehovah. It take effort to be close to Jehovah. It take devotion and dedication. Blessed are the pure in heart for they alone shall see God. Matthew 5:8. Isn’t dat right, Darcus?”

  Darcus Bowden, Clara’s father, was an odoriferous, moribund, salivating old man entombed in a bug-infested armchair from which he had never been seen to remove himself, not even, thanks to a catheter, to visit the outdoor toilet. Darcus had come over to England fourteen years earlier and spent the whole of that period in the far corner of the living room, watching television. The original intention had been that he should come to England and earn enough money to enable Clara and Hortense to come over, join him, and settle down. However, on arrival, a mysterious illness had debilitated Darcus Bowden. An illness that no doctor could find any physical symptoms of, but which manifested itself in the most incredible lethargy, creating in Darcus—admittedly, never the most vibrant of men—a lifelong affection for the dole, the armchair, and British television. In 1972, enraged by a fourteen-year wait, Hortense decided finally to make the journey under her own steam. Steam was something Hortense had in abundance. She arrived on the doorstep with the sixteen-year-old Clara, broke down the door in a fury and—so the legend went back in St. Elizabeth—gave Darcus Bowden the tongue-lashing of his life. Some say this onslaught lasted four hours, some say she quoted every book of the Bible from memory and it took a whole day and a whole night. What is certain is, at the end of it all, Darcus slumped deeper into the recesses of his chair, looked mournfully at the television with which he had had such an understanding, compassionate relationship—so uncomplicated, so much innocent affection—and a tear squeezed its way out of its duct and settled in a crag underneath his eye. Then he said just one word: Hmph.

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