White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  The fact is, cross-pollination produces more varied offspring, which are better able to cope with a changed environment. It is said cross-pollinating plants also tend to produce more and better-quality seeds. If my one-year-old son is anything to go by (a cross-pollination between a lapsed-Catholic horticulturalist feminist and an intellectual Jew!), then I can certainly vouch for the truth of this. Sisters, the bottom line is this: if we are to continue wearing flowers in our hair into the next decade, they must be hardy and ever at hand, something only the truly mothering gardener can ensure. If we wish to provide happy playgrounds for our children, and corners of contemplation for our husbands, we need to create gardens of diversity and interest. Mother Earth is great and plentiful, but even she requires the occasional helping hand!

  —Joyce Chalfen, from The New Flower Power, pub. 1976, Caterpillar Press

  Joyce Chalfen wrote The New Flower Power in a poky attic room overlooking her own rambling garden during the blistering summer of ’76. It was an ingenuous beginning for a strange little book—more about relationships than flowers—that went on to sell well and steadily through the late seventies (not a coffee-table essential by any means, but a close look at any baby-boomer’s bookshelves will reveal it lying dusty and neglected near those other familiars, Dr. Spock, Shirley Conran, a battered Women’s Press copy of The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker). The popularity of The New Flower Power surprised no one more than Joyce. It had practically written itself, taking only three months, most of which she spent dressed in a tiny T-shirt and a pair of briefs in an attempt to beat the heat, breast-feeding Joshua intermittently, almost absentmindedly, and thinking to herself, between easy-flowing paragraphs, that this was exactly the life she had hoped for. This was the future she dared to envisage when she first saw Marcus’s intelligent little eyes giving her big white legs the once-over as she crossed the quad of his Oxbridge college, miniskirted, seven years earlier. She was one of those people who knew immediately, at first sight, even as her future spouse opened his mouth to say an initial, nervous hello.

  A very happy marriage. That summer of ’76, what with the heat and the flies and the endless melodies of ice-cream vans, things happened in a haze—sometimes Joyce had to pinch herself to make sure this was real. Marcus’s office was down the hall on the right; twice a day she’d pace down the corridor, Joshua on one substantial hip, nudging open the door with the other, just to check he was still there, that he really existed, and, leaning lustily over the desk, she’d grab a kiss from her favorite genius, hard at work on his peculiar helixes, his letters and numbers. She liked to pull him away from all that and show him the latest remarkable thing that Joshua had done or learned; sounds, letter recognition, coordinated movement, imitation: just like you, she’d say to Marcus, good genes, he’d say to her, patting her behind and luxurious thighs, weighing each breast in his hand, patting her small belly, generally admiring his English Pear, his earth goddess . . . and then she’d be satisfied, padding back to her office like a big cat with a cub in its jaws, covered in a light layer of happy sweat. In an aimless, happy way, she could hear herself murmuring, an oral version of the toilet-door doodles of adolescents: Joyce and Marcus, Marcus and Joyce.

  Marcus was also writing a book that summer of ’76. Not so much a book (in Joyce’s sense) as a study. It was called Chimeric Mice: An Evaluation and Practical Exploration of the Work of Brinster (1974) Concerning the Embryonic Fusion of Mouse Strains at the Eight-cell Stage of Development. Joyce had studied biology in college, but she didn’t attempt to touch the many-paged manuscript that was growing like a molehill at her husband’s feet. Joyce knew her limitations. She had no great desire to read Marcus’s books. It was enough just to know they were being written, somehow. It was enough to know the man she had married was writing them. Her husband didn’t just make money, he didn’t just make things, or sell things that other people had made, he created beings. He went to the edges of his God’s imagination and made mice Yahweh could not conceive of: mice with rabbit genes, mice with webbed feet (or so Joyce imagined, she didn’t ask), mice who year after year expressed more and more eloquently Marcus’s designs: from the hit-or-miss process of selective breeding, to the chimeric fusion of embryos, and then the rapid developments that lay beyond Joyce’s ken and in Marcus’s future—DNA microinjection, retrovirus-mediated transgenesis (for which he came within an inch of the Nobel, 1987), embryonic stem cell–mediated gene transfer—all processes by which Marcus manipulated ova, regulated the over- or under-expression of a gene, planting instruc-tions and imperatives in the germ line to be realized in physical characteristics. Creating mice whose very bodies did exactly what Marcus told them. And always with humanity in mind—a cure for cancer, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s—always with the firm belief in the perfectibility of all life, in the possibility of making it more efficient, more logical (for illness was, to Marcus, nothing more than bad logic on the part of the genome, just as capitalism was nothing more than bad logic on the part of the social animal), more effective, more Chalfenist in the way it proceeded. He expressed contempt equally toward the animal-rights maniacs—horrible people Joyce had to shoo from the door with a curtain pole when a few extremists caught wind of Marcus’s dealings in mice—or the hippies or the tree people or anyone who failed to grasp the simple fact that social and scientific progress were brothers-in-arms. It was the Chalfen way, handed down the family for generations; they had a congenital inability to suffer fools gladly or otherwise. If you were arguing with a Chalfen, trying to put a case for these strange French men who think truth is a function of language, or that history is interpretive and science metaphorical, the Chalfen in question would hear you out quietly, then wave his hand, dismissive, feeling no need to dignify such bunkum with a retort. Truth was truth to a Chalfen. And Genius was genius. Marcus created beings. And Joyce was his wife, industrious in creating smaller versions of Marcus.

  Fifteen years later and Joyce would still challenge anyone to show her a happier marriage than hers. Three more children had followed Joshua: Benjamin (fourteen), Jack (twelve), and Oscar (six), bouncy, curly-haired boys, all articulate and amusing. The Inner Life of Houseplants (1984) and a college chair for Marcus had seen them through the eighties’ boom and bust, financing an extra bathroom, a conservatory, and life’s pleasures: old cheese, good wine, winters in Florence. Now there were two new works-in-progress: The Secret Passions of the Climbing Rose and Transgenic Mice: A Study of the Inherent Limitations of DNA Microinjection (Gordon and Ruddle, 1981) in Comparison with Embryonic Stem (ES) Cell–mediated Gene Transfer (Gossler et al., 1986). Marcus was also working on a “pop science” book, against his better judgment, a collaboration with a novelist that he hoped would finance at least the first two children well into their university years. Joshua was a star math pupil, Benjamin wanted to be a geneticist just like his father, Jack’s passion was psychiatry, and Oscar could checkmate his father’s king in fifteen moves. And all this despite the fact that the Chalfens had sent their kids to Glenard Oak, daring to take the ideological gamble their peers guiltily avoided, those nervous liberals who shrugged their shoulders and coughed up the cash for a private education. And not only were they bright children, they were happy, not hot-housed in any way. Their only after-school activity (they despised sports) was the individual therapy five times a week at the hands of an old-fashioned Freudian called Marjorie who did Joyce and Marcus (separately) on weekends. It might appear extreme to non-Chalfens, but Marcus had been brought up with a strong respect for therapy (in his family therapy had long supplanted Judaism) and there was no arguing with the result. Every Chalfen proclaimed themselves mentally healthy and emotionally stable. The children had their oedipal complexes early and in the right order, they were all fiercely heterosexual, they adored their mother and admired their father, and, unusually, this feeling only increased as they reached adolescence. Rows were rare, playful, and only ever over political or intellectual topics (the importance of a
narchy, the need for higher taxes, the problem of South Africa, the soul/body dichotomy), upon which they all agreed anyway.

  The Chalfens had no friends. They interacted mainly with the Chalfen extended family (the good genes that were so often referred to: two scientists, one mathematician, three psychiatrists, and a young cousin working for the Labour Party). Under sufferance and on public holidays, they visited Joyce’s long-rejected lineage, the Connor clan, Daily Mail letter-writers who even now could not disguise their distaste for Joyce’s Israelite love-match. Bottom line: the Chalfens didn’t need other people. They referred to themselves as nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives: It’s the Chalfen way, And then he came out with a real Chalfenism, He’s Chalfening again, We need to be a bit more Chalfenist about this. Joyce challenged anyone to show her a happier family, a more Chalfenist family than theirs.

  And yet, and yet . . . Joyce pined for the golden age when she was the linchpin of the Chalfen family. When people couldn’t eat without her. When people couldn’t dress without her assistance. Now even Oscar could make himself a snack. Sometimes there seemed nothing to improve, nothing to cultivate; recently she found herself pruning the dead sections from her rambling rose, wishing she could find some fault of Joshua’s worthy of attention, some secret trauma of Jack’s or Benjamin’s, a perversion in Oscar. But they were all perfect. Sometimes, when the Chalfens sat round their Sunday dinner, tearing apart a chicken until there was nothing left but a tattered ribcage, gobbling silently, speaking only to retrieve the salt or the pepper—the boredom was palpable. The century was drawing to a close and the Chalfens were bored. Like clones of each other, their dinner table was an exercise in mirrored perfection, Chalfenism and all its principles reflecting itself infinitely, bouncing from Oscar to Joyce, Joyce to Joshua, Joshua to Marcus, Marcus to Benjamin, Benjamin to Jack ad nauseam across the meat and veg. They were still the same remarkable family they always had been. But having cut all ties with their Oxbridge peers—judges, TV execs, advertisers, lawyers, actors, and other frivolous professions Chalfenism sneered at—there was no one left to admire Chalfenism itself. Its gorgeous logic, its compassion, its intellect. They were like wild-eyed passengers of the Mayflower with no rock in sight. Pilgrims and prophets with no strange land. They were bored, and none more than Joyce.

  To fill long days left alone in the house (Marcus commuted to his college), Joyce’s boredom often drove her to flick through the Chalfens’ enormous supply of delivered magazines (New Marxism, Living Marxism, New Scientist, Oxfam Report, Third World Action, Anarchist’s Journal) and feel a yearning for the bald Romanians or beautiful pot-bellied Ethiopians—yes, she knew it was awful, but there it was—children crying out from glossy paper, needing her. She needed to be needed. She’d be the first to admit it. She hated it, for example, when one after the other her children, pop-eyed addicts of breast milk, finally kicked the habit. She usually stretched it to two or three years, and, in the case of Joshua, four, but though the supply never ended, the demand did. She lived in dread of the inevitable moment when they moved from soft drugs to hard, the switch from calcium to the sugared delights of Ribena. It was when she finished breast-feeding Oscar that she threw herself back into gardening, back into the warm mulch where tiny things relied on her.

  Then one fine day Millat Iqbal and Irie Jones walked reluctantly into her life. She was in the back garden at the time, tearfully examining her “Garter Knight” delphiniums (heliotrope and cobalt-blue with a jet-black center, like a bullet hole in the sky) for signs of thrip—a nasty pest that had already butchered her bocconia. The doorbell rang. Tilting her head back, Joyce waited till she could hear the slippered feet of Marcus running down the stairs from his study and then, satisfied that he would answer it, delved back into the thick. With raised eyebrow she inspected the mouthy double blooms which stood to attention along the delphinium’s eight-foot spine. Thrip, she said to herself out loud, acknowledging the dog-eared mutation on every other flower; thrip, she repeated, not without pleasure, for it would need seeing to now, and might even give rise to a book or at least a chapter; thrip. Joyce knew a thing or two about thrip:

  Thrips, common name for minute insects that feed on a wide range of plants, enjoying in particular the warm atmosphere required for an indoor or exotic plant. Most species are no more than 1.5mm (0.06 inch) long as adults; some are wingless, but others have two pairs of short wings fringed with hairs. Both adults and nymphs have sucking, piercing mouth parts. Although thrips pollinate some plants and also eat some insect pests, they are both boon and bane for the modern gardener and are generally considered pests to be controlled with insecticides, such as Lindex. Scientific classification: thrips make up the order Thysanoptera.

  —Joyce Chalfen, The Inner Life of Houseplants, from the index on pests and parasites

  Yes. Thrips have good instincts: essentially they are charitable, productive organisms which help the plant in its development. Thrips mean well, but thrips go too far, thrips go beyond pollinating and eating pests; thrips begin to eat the plant itself, to eat it from within. Thrip will infect generation after generation of delphiniums if you let it. What can one do about thrip if, as in this case, the Lindex hadn’t worked? What can you do but prune hard, prune ruthlessly, and begin from the beginning? Joyce took a deep breath. She was doing this for the delphinium. She was doing this because without her the delphinium had no chance. Joyce slipped the huge garden scissors out of her apron pocket, grabbed the screaming orange handles firmly, and placed the exposed throat of a blue delphinium bloom between two slices of silver. Tough love.

  “Joyce! Ja-oyce! Joshua and his marijuana-smoking friends are here!”

  Pulchritude. From the Latin, pulcher, beautiful. That was the word that first struck Joyce when Millat Iqbal stepped forward onto the steps of her conservatory, sneering at Marcus’s bad jokes, shading his violet eyes from a fading winter sun. Pulchritude: not just the concept but the whole physical word appeared before her as if someone had typed it onto her retina—Pulchritude—beauty where you would least suspect it, hidden in a word that looked like it should signify a belch or a skin infection. Beauty in a tall brown young man who should have been indistinguishable to Joyce from those she regularly bought milk and bread from, gave her accounts to for inspection, or passed her checkbook to behind the thick glass of a bank till.

  “Mill-yat Ick-Ball,” said Marcus, making a performance of the foreign syllables. “And Irie Jones, apparently. Friends of Josh’s. I was just saying to Josh, these are the best-looking friends of his we’ve ever seen! They’re usually small and weedy, so longsighted they’re shortsighted, and with clubfeet. And they’re never female. Well!” continued Marcus jovially, dismissing Joshua’s look of horror. “It’s a damn good thing you turned up. We’ve been looking for a woman to marry old Joshua . . .”

  Marcus was standing on the garden steps, quite openly admiring Irie’s breasts (though, to be fair, Irie was a good head and shoulders taller than him). “He’s a good sort, smart, a bit weak on fractals but we love him anyway. Well . . .”

  Marcus paused for Joyce to come out of the garden, take off her gloves, shake hands with Millat, and follow them all into the kitchen. “You are a big girl.”

  “Er . . . thanks.”

  “We like that around here—a healthy eater. All Chalfens are healthy eaters. I don’t put on a pound, but Joyce does. In all the right places, naturally. You’re staying for dinner?”

  Irie stood dumb in the middle of the kitchen, too nervous to speak. These were not any species of parent she recognized.

  “Oh, don’t worry about Marcus,” said Joshua with a jolly wink. “He’s a bit of an old letch. It’s a Chalfen joke. They like to bombard you the minute you get in the door. Find out how sharp you are. Chalfens don’t think there’s any point in pleasantries. Joyce, this is Irie and Millat. They’re the two from behind the science block.”

  Joyce, partially recovered from the vision of Millat Iqbal, gathered herself t
ogether sufficiently to play her designated role as Mother Chalfen.

  “So you’re the two who’ve been corrupting my eldest son. I’m Joyce. Do you want some tea? So you’re Josh’s bad crowd. I was just pruning the delphiniums. This is Benjamin, Jack—and that’s Oscar in the hallway. Strawberry and mango or normal?”

  “Normal for me, thanks, Joyce,” said Joshua.

  “Same, thanks,” said Irie.

  “Yeah,” said Millat.

  “Three normal and one mango, please, Marcus, darling, please.”

  Marcus, who was just heading out the door with a newly packed tobacco pipe, backtracked with a weary smile. “I’m a slave to this woman,” he said, grabbing her around the waist, like a gambler collecting his chips in circled arms. “But if I wasn’t, she might run off with any pretty young man who rolled into the house. I don’t fancy falling victim to Darwinism this week.”

  This hug, explicit as a hug can be, was directed front-ways-on, seemingly for the appreciation of Millat. Joyce’s big milky-blue eyes were on him all the time.

  “That’s what you want, Irie,” said Joyce in a familial stage whisper, as if they’d known each other for five years rather than five minutes, “a man like Marcus for the long term. These fly-by-nights are all right for fun, but what kind of fathers do they make?”

  Joshua colored. “Joyce, she just stepped into the house! Let her have some tea!”

  Joyce feigned surprise. “I haven’t embarrassed you, have I? You have to forgive Mother Chalfen, my foot and mouth are on intimate terms.”

  But Irie wasn’t embarrassed; she was fascinated, enamored after five minutes. No one in the Jones household made jokes about Darwin, or said “my foot and mouth are on intimate terms,” or offered choices of tea, or let speech flow freely from adult to child, child to adult, as if the channel of communication between these two tribes was untrammeled, unblocked by history, free.

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