White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “I need a fag,” said Millat.

  The headmaster rearranged himself. He uncrossed his right leg and slung his skinny left leg over instead, he brought his two forefingers up to his lips in the shape of a church spire, he retracted his head like a turtle.

  “Millat, please.”

  “Have you got a fag-tray?”

  “No, now, Millat, come on . . .”

  “I’ll just go an’ have one at the gates, then.”

  In this manner, the whole school held the headmaster to ransom. He couldn’t have a thousand kids lining the Cricklewood streets, smoking fags, bringing down the tone of the school. This was the age of the league table. Of picky parents nosing their way through The Times Educational Supplement, summing up schools in letters and numbers and inspectors’ reports. The headmaster was forced to switch off the fire alarms for terms at a time, hiding his thousand smokers within the school’s confines.

  “Oh . . . look, just move your chair closer to the window. Come on, come on, don’t make a song and dance about it. That’s it. All right?”

  A Lambert & Butler hung from Millat’s lips. “Light?”

  The headmaster rifled about in his own shirt pocket, where a packet of German rolling tobacco and a lighter were buried amid a lot of tissue paper and Biros.

  “There you go.” Millat lit up, blowing smoke in the headmaster’s direction. The headmaster coughed like an old woman. “OK, Millat, you first. Because I expect this of you, at least. Spill the legumes.”

  Millat said, “I was round there, the back of the science block, on a matter of spiritual growth.”

  The headmaster leaned forward and tapped the church spire against his lips a few times. “You’re going to have to give me a little more to work on, Millat. If there’s some religious connection here, it can only work in your favor, but I need to know about it.”

  Millat elaborated, “I was talking to my mate. Hifan.”

  The headmaster shook his head. “I’m not following you, Millat.”

  “He’s a spiritual leader. I was getting some advice.”

  “Spiritual leader? Hifan? Is he in the school? Are we talking cult here, Millat? I need to know if we’re talking cult.”

  “No, it’s not a bloody cult,” barked Irie, exasperated. “Can we get on with it? I’ve got viola in ten minutes.”

  “Millat’s speaking, Irie. We’re listening to Millat. And hopefully when we get to you, Millat will give you a bit more respect than you’ve just shown him. OK? We’ve got to have communication. OK, Millat. Go on. What kind of spiritual leader?”

  “Muslim. He was helping me with my faith, yeah? He’s the head of the Kilburn branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation.”

  The headmaster frowned. “KEVIN?”

  “They are aware they have an acronym problem,” explained Irie.

  “So,” continued the headmaster eagerly, “this guy from KEVIN. Was he the one who was supplying the gear?”

  “No,” said Millat, stubbing his fag out on the windowsill. “It was my gear. He was talking to me, and I was smoking it.”

  “Look,” said Irie, after a few more minutes of circular conversation. “It’s very simple. It was Millat’s gear. I smoked it without really thinking, then I gave it to Joshua to hold for a second while I tied my shoelace, but he really had nothing to do with it. OK? Can we go now?”

  “Yes, I did!”

  Irie turned to Joshua. “What?”

  “She’s trying to cover for me. Some of it was my marijuana. I was dealing marijuana. Then the pigs jumped me.”

  “Oh, Jesus Christ. Chalfen, you’re nuts.”

  Maybe. But in the past two days, Joshua had gained more respect, been patted on the back by more people, and generally lorded it around more than he ever had in his life. Some of the glamour of Millat seemed to have rubbed off on him by association, and as for Irie—well, he’d allowed a “vague interest” to develop, in the past two days, into a full-blown crush. Wipe that. He had a full-blown crush on both of them. There was something compelling about them. More so than Elgin the dwarf or Moloch the sorcerer. He liked being connected with them, however tenuously. He had been plucked by the two of them out of nerddom, accidentally whisked from obscurity into the school spotlight. He wasn’t going back without a struggle.

  “Is this true, Joshua?”

  “Yes . . . umm, it started small, but now I believe I have a real problem. I don’t want to deal drugs, obviously I don’t, but it’s like a compulsion—”

  “Oh, for God’s sake . . .”

  “Now, Irie, you have to let Joshua have his say. His say is as valid as your say.”

  Millat reached over to the headmaster’s pocket and pulled out his heavy packet of tobacco. He poured the contents out onto the small coffee table.

  “Oi. Chalfen. Ghetto-boy. Measure out an eighth.”

  Joshua looked at the stinking mountain of brown. “A European eighth or an English eighth?”

  “Could you just do as Millat suggests,” said the headmaster irritably, leaning forward in his chair to inspect the tobacco. “So we can settle this.”

  Fingers shaking, Joshua drew a section of tobacco onto his palm and held it up. The headmaster brought Joshua’s hand up under Millat’s nose for inspection.

  “Barely a five-pound draw,” said Millat scornfully. “I wouldn’t buy shit from you.”

  “OK, Joshua,” said the headmaster, putting the tobacco back in its pouch. “I think we can safely say the game’s up. Even I knew that wasn’t anywhere near an eighth. But it does concern me that you felt the need to lie and we’re going to have to schedule a time to talk about that.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “In the meantime, I’ve talked to your parents, and in line with the school policy move away from behavior chastisement and toward constructive conduct management, they’ve very generously suggested a two-month program.”

  “Program?”

  “Every Tuesday and Thursday, you, Millat, and you, Irie, will go to Joshua’s house and join him in a two-hour after-school study group split between math and biology, your weaker subjects and his stronger.”

  Irie snorted. “You’re not serious?”

  “You know, I am serious. I think it’s a really interesting idea. This way Joshua’s strengths can be shared equally among you, and the two of you can go to a stable environment, and one with the added advantage of keeping you both off the streets. I’ve talked to your parents and they are happy with the, you know, arrangement. And what’s really exciting is that Joshua’s father is something of an eminent scientist and his mother is a horticulturalist, I believe, so, you know, you’ll really get a lot out of it. You two have a lot of potential, but I feel you’re getting caught up with things that really are damaging to that potential—whether that’s family environment or personal hassles, I don’t know—but this is a really good opportunity to escape those. I hope you’ll see that it’s more than punishment. It’s constructive. It’s people helping people. And I really hope you’ll do this wholeheartedly, you know? This kind of thing is very much in the history, the spirit, the whole ethos of Glenard Oak, ever since Sir Glenard himself.”

  The history, spirit, and ethos of Glenard Oak, as any Glenardian worth their salt knew, could be traced back to Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard (1842–1907), whom the school had decided to remember as its kindly Victorian benefactor. The official party line stated that Glenard had donated the money for the original building out of a devoted interest in the social improvement of the disadvantaged. Rather than workhouse, the official PTA booklet described it as a “shelter, workplace, and educational institute” used in its time by a mixture of English and Caribbean people. According to the PTA booklet, the founder of Glenard Oak was an educational philanthropist. But then, according to the PTA booklet, “post-class aberration consideration period” was a suitable replacement for the word detention.

  A more thorough investigation in the archives of the local Grange
Library would reveal Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard as a successful colonial who had made a pretty sum in Jamaica, farming tobacco, or rather overseeing great tracts of land where tobacco was being farmed. At the end of twenty years of this, having acquired far more money than was necessary, Sir Edmund sat back in his impressive leather armchair and asked himself if there were not something he could do. Something to send him into his dotage cushioned by a feeling of goodwill and worthiness. Something for the people. The ones he could see from his window. Out there in the field.

  For a few months Sir Edmund was stumped. Then, one Sunday, while taking a leisurely late afternoon stroll through Kingston, he heard a familiar sound that struck him differently. Godly singing. Hand-clapping. Weeping and wailing. Noise and heat and ecstatic movement coming from church after church and moving through the thick air of Jamaica like a choir invisible. Now, there was something, thought Sir Edmund. For, unlike many of his expatriate peers, who branded the singing caterwauling and accused it of being heathen, Sir Edmund had always been touched by the devotion of Jamaican Christians. He liked the idea of a jolly church, where one could sniff or cough or make a sudden movement without the vicar looking at one queerly. Sir Edmund felt certain that God, in all his wisdom, had never meant church to be a stiff-collared, miserable affair as it was in Tunbridge Wells, but rather a joyous thing, a singing and dancing thing, a foot-stamping hand-clapping thing. The Jamaicans understood this. Sometimes it seemed to be the only thing they did understand. Stopping for a moment outside one particularly vibrant church, Sir Edmund took the opportunity to muse upon this conundrum: the remarkable difference between a Jamaican’s devotion to his God in comparison to his devotion toward his employer. It was a subject he’d had cause to consider many times in the past. Only this month, as he sat in his study trying to concentrate on the problem he had set himself, his wardens came to him with news of three strikes, various men found asleep or drugged while at work, and a whole collective of mothers (Bowden women among them) complaining about low pay, refusing to work. Now you see, that was the rub of it, right there. You could get a Jamaican to pray any hour of the day or night, they would roll into church for any date of religious note, even the most obscure—but if you took your eye off ’em for one minute in the tobacco fields, then work ground to a halt. When they worshiped they were full of energy, moving like jumping beans, bawling in the aisles . . . yet when they worked they were sullen and uncooperative. The question so puzzled him he had written a letter on the subject to the Gleaner earlier in the year inviting correspondence, but received no satisfactory replies. The more Sir Edmund thought about it, the more it became clear to him that the situation was quite the opposite in England. One was impressed by the Jamaican’s faith but despairing of his work ethic and education. Vice versa, one admired the Englishman’s work ethic and education but despaired of his poorly kept faith. And now, as Sir Edmund turned to go back to his estate, he realized that he was in a position to influence the situation—nay, more than that—transform it! Sir Edmund, who was a fairly corpulent man, a man who looked as if he might be hiding another man within him, practically skipped all the way home.

  The very next day he wrote an electrifying letter to The Times and donated forty thousand pounds to a missionary group on the condition that it went toward a large property in London. Here Jamaicans could work side by side with Englishmen, packaging Sir Edmund’s cigarettes and taking general instruction from the Englishmen in the evening. A small chapel was to be built as an annex to the main factory. And on Sundays, continued Sir Edmund, the Jamaicans were to take the Englishmen to church and show them what worship should look like.

  The thing was built, and, after hastily promising them streets of gold, Sir Edmund shipped three hundred Jamaicans to North London. Two weeks later, from the other side of the world, the Jamaicans sent Glenard a telegraph confirming their safe arrival and Glenard sent one back suggesting a Latin motto be put underneath the plaque already bearing his name. Laborare est Orare. For a while, things went reasonably well. The Jamaicans were optimistic about England. They put the freezing climate to the back of their minds and were inwardly warmed by Sir Edmund’s sudden enthusiasm and interest in their welfare. But Sir Edmund had always had difficulties retaining enthusiasm and interest. His mind was a small thing with big holes through which passions regularly seeped out, and The Faith of Jamaicans was soon replaced in the inverse sieve of his consciousness by other interests: The Excitability of the Military Hindoo; The Impracticalities of the English Virgin; The Effect of Extreme Heat on the Sexual Proclivities of the Trinidadian. For the next fifteen years, apart from fairly regular checks sent by Sir Edmund’s clerk, the Glenard Oak factory heard nothing from him. Then, in the 1907 Kingston earthquake, Glenard was crushed to death by a toppled marble madonna while Irie’s grandmother looked on. (These are old secrets. They will come out like wisdom teeth when the time is right.) The date was unfortunate. That very month he had planned to return to British shores to see how his long-neglected experiment was doing. A letter he had written, giving the details of his traveling plans, arrived at Glenard Oak around the same time a worm, having made the two-day passage through his brain, emerged from the poor man’s left ear. But though a vermiculous meal was made of him, Glenard was saved a nasty ordeal, for his experiment was doing badly. The overheads involved in shipping damp, heavy tobacco to England were impractical from the start; when Sir Edmund’s subsidies dried up six months previous, the business went under, the missionary group discreetly disappeared, and the Englishmen left to go to jobs elsewhere. The Jamaicans, unable to get work elsewhere, stayed, counting down the days until the food supplies ran out. They were, by now, entirely sensible of the subjunctive mood, the nine times table, the life and times of William the Conqueror, and the nature of an equilateral triangle, but they were hungry. Some died of that hunger, some were jailed for the petty crimes hunger prompts, many crept awkwardly into the East End and the English working class. A few found themselves seventeen years later at the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, dressed up as Jamaicans in the Jamaican exhibit, acting out a horrible simulacrum of their previous existence—tin drums, coral necklaces—for they were English now, more English than the English by virtue of their disappointments. All in all, then, the headmaster was wrong: Glenard could not be said to have passed on any great edifying beacon to future generations. A legacy is not something you can give or take by choice, and there are no certainties in the sticky business of inheritance. Much though it may have dismayed him, Glenard’s influence turned out to be personal, not professional or educational: it ran through people’s blood and the blood of their families; it ran through three generations of immigrants who could feel both abandoned and hungry even when in the bosom of their families in front of a mighty feast; and it even ran through Irie Jones of Jamaica’s Bowden clan, though she didn’t know it (but then somebody should have told her to keep a backward eye on Glenard; Jamaica is a small place, you can walk around it in a day, and everybody who lived there rubbed up against everybody else at one time or another).

  “Do we really have a choice?” asked Irie.

  “You’ve been honest with me,” said the headmaster, biting his colorless lip, “and I want to be honest with you.”

  “We don’t have a choice.”

  “Honestly, no. It’s really that or two months of post-class aberration consideration periods. I’m afraid we have to please the people, Irie. And if we can’t please all of the people all of the time, we can at least please some of—”

  “Yeah, great.”

  “Joshua’s parents are really fascinating people, Irie. I think this whole experience is going to be really educational for you. Don’t you think so, Joshua?”

  Joshua beamed. “Oh yes, sir. I really think so.”

  “And you know, the exciting thing is, this could be a kind of guinea-pig project for a whole range of programs,” said the headmaster, thinking aloud. “Bringing children of disadvantaged or minority ba
ckgrounds into contact with kids who might have something to offer them. And there could be an exchange, vice versa. Kids teaching kids basketball, football, et cetera. We could get funding.” At the magic word funding, the headmaster’s sunken eyes began to disappear beneath agitated lids.

  “Shit, man,” said Millat, shaking his head in disbelief. “I need a fag.”

  “Halves,” said Irie, following him out.

  “See you guys on Tuesday!” said Joshua.

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  Canines: The Ripping Teeth

  If it is not too far-fetched a comparison, the sexual and cultural revolution we have experienced these past two decades is not a million miles away from the horticultural revolution that has taken place in our herbaceous borders and sunken beds. Where once we were satisfied with our biennials, poorly colored flowers thrusting weakly out of the earth and blooming a few times a year (if we were lucky), now we are demanding both variety and continuity in our flowers, the passionate colors of exotic blooms 365 days a year. Where once gardeners swore by the reliability of the self-pollinating plant, in which pollen is transferred from the stamen to the stigma of the same flower (autogamy), now we are more adventurous, positively singing the praises of cross-pollination, where pollen is transferred from one flower to another on the same plant (geitonogamy), or to a flower of another plant of the same species (xenogamy). The birds and the bees, the thick haze of pollen—these are all to be encouraged! Yes, self-pollination is the simpler and more certain of the two fertilization processes, especially for many species that colonize by copiously repeating the same parental strain. But a species cloning such uniform offspring runs the risk of having its entire population wiped out by a single evolutionary event. In the garden, as in the social and political arena, change should be the only constant. Our parents and our parents’ petunias have learned this lesson the hard way. The March of History is unsentimental, tramping over a generation and its annuals with ruthless determination.

 
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