White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “Well,” said Joyce, released by Marcus and planting herself down at the circular table, inviting them to do the same, “you look very exotic. Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?”

  “Willesden,” said Irie and Millat simultaneously.

  “Yes, yes, of course, but where originally?”

  “Oh,” said Millat, putting on what he called a bud-bud-ding-ding accent. “You are meaning where from am I originally.”

  Joyce looked confused. “Yes, originally.”

  “Whitechapel,” said Millat, pulling out a fag. “Via the Royal London Hospital and the 207 bus.”

  All the Chalfens milling through the kitchen, Marcus, Josh, Benjamin, Jack, exploded into laughter. Joyce obediently followed suit.

  “Chill out, man,” said Millat, suspicious. “It wasn’t that fucking funny.”

  But the Chalfens carried on. Chalfens rarely made jokes unless they were exceptionally lame or numerical in nature or both: What did the zero say to the eight? Nice belt.

  “Are you going to smoke that?” asked Joyce suddenly when the laughter died down, a note of panic in her voice. “In here? Only, we hate the smell. We only like the smell of German tobacco. And if we smoke it we smoke it in Marcus’s room, because it upsets Oscar otherwise, doesn’t it, Oscar?”

  “No,” said Oscar, the youngest and most cherubic of the boys, busy building a Lego empire, “I don’t care.”

  “It upsets Oscar,” repeated Joyce, in that stage whisper again. “He hates it.”

  “I’ll . . . take . . . it . . . to . . . the . . . garden,” said Millat slowly, in the kind of voice you use on the insane or foreign. “Back . . . in . . . a . . . minute.”

  As soon as Millat was out of earshot, and as Marcus brought over the teas, the years seemed to fall like dead skin from Joyce and she bent across the table like a schoolgirl. “God, he’s gorgeous, isn’t he? Like Omar Sharif thirty years ago. Funny Roman nose. Are you and he . . . ?”

  “Leave the girl alone, Joyce,” admonished Marcus. “She’s hardly going to tell you about it, is she?”

  “No,” said Irie, feeling she’d like to tell these people everything. “We’re not.”

  “Just as well. His parents probably have something arranged for him, no? The headmaster told me he was a Muslim boy. I suppose he should be thankful he’s not a girl, though, hmm? Unbelievable what they do to the girls. Remember that Time article, Marcus?”

  Marcus was foraging in the fridge for a cold plate of yesterday’s potatoes. “Mmm. Unbelievable.”

  “But you know, just from the little I’ve seen, he doesn’t seem at all like most Muslim children. I mean, I’m talking from personal experience, I go into a lot of schools with my gardening, working with kids of all ages. They’re usually so silent, you know, terribly meek—but he’s so full of . . . spunk! But boys like that want the tall blondes, don’t they? I mean, that’s the bottom line, when they’re that handsome. I know how you feel . . . I used to like the troublemakers when I was your age, but you learn later, you really do. Danger isn’t really sexy, take my word for it. You’d do a lot better with someone like Joshua.”

  “Mum!”

  “He’s been talking about you nonstop all week.”

  “Mum!”

  Joyce faced her reprimand with a little smile. “Well, maybe I’m being too frank for you young people. I don’t know . . . in my day, you just were a lot more direct, you had to be if you wanted to catch the right man. Two hundred girls in the university and two thousand men! They were fighting for a girl—but if you were smart, you were choosy.”

  “My, you were choosy,” said Marcus, shuffling up behind her and kissing her ear. “And with such good taste.”

  Joyce took the kisses like a girl indulging her best friend’s younger brother.

  “But your mother wasn’t sure, was she? She thought I was too intellectual, that I wouldn’t want children.”

  “But you convinced her. Those hips would convince anyone!”

  “Yes, in the end . . . but she underestimated me, didn’t she? She didn’t think I was Chalfen material.”

  “She just didn’t know you then.”

  “Well, we surprised her, didn’t we!”

  “A lot of hard copulation went into pleasing that woman!”

  “Four grandchildren later!”

  During this exchange, Irie tried to concentrate on Oscar, now creating an ouroboros from a big pink elephant by stuffing the trunk into its own rear end. She’d never been so close to this strange and beautiful thing, the middle class, and experienced the kind of embarrassment that is actually intrigue, fascination. It was both strange and wondrous. She felt like the prude who walks through a nudist beach, examining the sand. She felt like Columbus meeting the exposed Arawaks, not knowing where to look.

  “Excuse my parents,” said Joshua. “They can’t keep their hands off each other.”

  But even this was said with pride, because the Chalfen children knew their parents were rare creatures, a happily married couple, numbering no more than a dozen in the whole of Glenard Oak. Irie thought of her own parents, whose touches were now virtual, existing only in the absences where both sets of fingers had previously been: the remote control, the biscuit-tin lid, the light switches.

  She said, “It must be great to feel that way after twenty years or whatever.”

  Joyce swiveled round as if someone had released a catch. “It’s marvelous! It’s incredible! You just wake up one morning and realize monogamy isn’t a bind—it sets you free! And children need to grow up around that. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced it—you read a lot about how Afro-Caribbeans seem to find it hard to establish long-term relationships. That’s terribly sad, isn’t it? I wrote about one Dominican woman in The Inner Life of Houseplants who had moved her potted azalea through six different men’s houses; once by the windowsill, then in a dark corner, then in the south-facing bedroom, et cetera. You just can’t do that to a plant.”

  This was a classic Joyce tangent, and Marcus and Joshua rolled their eyes, affectionately.

  Millat, fag finished, sloped back in.

  “Are we going to get some studying done, yeah? This is all very nice but I want to go out this evening. At some point.”

  While Irie had been lost in her reveries assessing the Chalfens like a romantic anthropologist, Millat had been out in the garden, looking through the windows, casing the joint. Where Irie saw culture, refinement, class, intellect, Millat saw money, lazy money, money that was just hanging around this family not doing anything in particular, money in need of a good cause that might as well be him.

  “So,” said Joyce, clapping her hands, trying to keep them all in the room a little longer, trying to hold off, for as long as possible, the reassertion of Chalfen silence, “you’re all going to be studying together! Well, you and Irie are really welcome. I was saying to your headmaster, wasn’t I, Marcus, that this really shouldn’t feel like punishment. It’s not exactly a heinous crime. Between us, I used to be a pretty good marijuana gardener myself at one time . . .”

  “Way out,” said Millat.

  Nurture, thought Joyce. Be patient, water regularly, and don’t lose your temper when pruning.

  “. . . and your headmaster explained to us how your own home environments aren’t exactly . . . well . . . I’m sure you’ll find it easier to work here. Such an important year, the GCSEs. And it’s so obvious that you’re both bright—anyone can tell that just by looking at your eyes. Can’t they, Marcus?”

  “Josh, your mother’s asking me whether IQ expresses itself in the secondary physical characteristics of eye color, eye shape, et cetera. Is there a sensible answer to this inquiry?”

  Joyce pressed on. Mice and men, genes and germs, that was Marcus’s corner. Seedlings, light sources, growth, nurture, the buried heart of things—that was hers. As on any missionary vessel, tasks were delegated. Marcus on the prow, looking for the storm. Joyce below decks, checking the linen for bedbugs
.

  “Your headmaster knows how much I hate to see potential wasted—that’s why he sent you to us.”

  “And because he knows most of the Chalfens are four hundred times smarter than him!” said Jack, doing a marine-style star-jump. He was still young and hadn’t yet learned to demonstrate his pride in his family in a more socially acceptable manner. “Even Oscar is.”

  “No, I’m not,” said Oscar, kicking in a Lego garage he had recently made. “I’m the stupidest in the world.”

  “Oscar’s got an IQ of 178,” whispered Joyce. “It’s a bit daunting, even when you’re his mum.”

  “Wow,” said Irie, turning, with the rest of the room, to appreciate Oscar trying to ingest the head of a plastic giraffe. “That’s remarkable.”

  “Yes, but he’s had everything, and so much of it is nurture, isn’t it? I really believe that. We’ve just been lucky enough to give him so much and with a daddy like Marcus—it’s like having a strong sunbeam shining on him twenty-four hours a day, isn’t it, darling? He’s so fortunate to have that. Well, they all are. Now, you may think this sounds strange, but it was always my aim to marry a man cleverer than me.” Joyce put her hands on her hips and waited for Irie to think that sounded strange. “No, I really did. And I’m a staunch feminist, Marcus will tell you.”

  “She’s a staunch feminist,” said Marcus from the inner sanctum of the fridge.

  “I don’t suppose you can understand that—your generation have different ideas—but I knew it would be liberating. And I knew what kind of father I wanted for my children. Now, that’s surprised you, hasn’t it? I’m sorry, but we really don’t do small talk around here. If you’re going to be here every week, I thought it best you got a proper dose of the Chalfens now.”

  All the Chalfens who were in earshot for this last comment smiled and nodded.

  Joyce paused and looked at Irie and Millat the way she had looked at her “Garter Knight” delphinium. She was a quick and experienced detector of illness, and there was damage here. There was a quiet pain in the first one (Irieanthus negressium marcusilia), a lack of a father figure perhaps, an intellect untapped, a low self-esteem; and in the second (Millaturea brandolidia joyculatus) there was a deeper sadness, a terrible loss, a gaping wound. A hole that needed more than education or money. That needed love. Joyce longed to touch the site with the tip of her Chalfen greenfinger, close the gap, knit the skin.

  “Can I ask? Your father? What does he—?”

  (Joyce wondered what the parents did, what they had done. When she found a mutated first bloom, she wanted to know where the cutting had come from. Wrong question. It wasn’t the parents, it wasn’t just one generation, it was the whole century. Not the bud but the bush.)

  “Curry-shifter,” said Millat. “Busboy. Waiter.”

  “Paper,” began Irie. “Kind of folding it . . . and working on things like perforations . . . kind of direct mail advertising but not really advertising, at least not the ideas end . . . kind of folding—” She gave up. “It’s hard to explain.”

  “Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes. When there’s a lack of a male role model, you see . . . that’s when things really go awry, in my experience. I wrote an article for Women’s Earth recently. I described a school I worked in where I gave all the children a potted spider plant and told them to look after it for a week like a daddy or mummy looks after a baby. Each child chose which parent they were going to emulate. This lovely little Jamaican boy, Winston, chose his daddy. The next week his mother phoned and asked why I’d asked Winston to feed his plant Pepsi and put it in front of the television. I mean, it’s just terrible, isn’t it. But I think a lot of these parents just don’t appreciate their children sufficiently. Partly, it’s the culture, you know? It just makes me so angry. The only thing I allow Oscar to watch is Newsround for half an hour a day. That’s more than enough.”

  “Lucky Oscar,” said Millat.

  “Anyway, I’m just really excited about you being here because, because, the Chalfens, I mean—it may sound peculiar, but I really wanted to persuade your headmaster this was the best idea, and now I’ve met you both I’m even more certain—because the Chalfens—”

  “Know how to bring the right things out in people,” finished Joshua, “they did with me.”

  “Yes,” said Joyce, relieved her search for the words was over, radiating pride. “Yes.”

  Joshua pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. “Well, we’d better get down to some study. Marcus, could you come up and help us a bit later on the biology? I’m really bad at reducing the reproductive stuff to bite-size chunks.”

  “Sure. I’m working on my FutureMouse, though.” This was the family joke name for Marcus’s project, and the younger Chalfens sang FutureMouse! after him, imagining an anthropomorphic rodent in red shorts. “And I’ve got to play a bit of piano with Jack first. Scott Joplin. Jack’s the left hand, I’m the right. Not quite Art Tatum,” he said, ruffling Jack’s hair. “But we get by.”

  Irie tried her hardest to imagine Mr. Iqbal playing the right hand of Scott Joplin with his dead gray digits. Or Mr. Jones turning anything into bite-size chunks. She felt her cheeks flush with the warm heat of Chalfenist revelation. So there existed fathers who dealt in the present, who didn’t drag ancient history around like a ball and chain. So there were men who were not neck-deep and sinking in the quagmire of the past.

  “You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?” pleaded Joyce. “Oscar really wants you to stay. Oscar loves having strangers in the house, he finds it really stimulating. Especially brown strangers! Don’t you, Oscar?”

  “No, I don’t,” confided Oscar, spitting in Irie’s ear. “I hate brown strangers.”

  “He finds brown strangers really stimulating,” whispered Joyce.

  This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checkups. It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best—less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.

  But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance. Even the unflappable Alsana Iqbal would regularly wake up in a puddle of her own sweat after a night visited by visions of Millat (genetically BB; where B stands for Bengaliness) marrying someone called Sarah (aa, where a stands for Aryan), resulting in a child called Michael (Ba), who in turn marries somebody called Lucy (aa), leaving Alsana with a legacy of unrecognizable great-grandchildren (Aaaaaaa!), their Bengaliness thoroughly diluted, genotype hidden by phenotype. It is both the most irrational and natural feeling in the world. In Jamaica it is even in the grammar: there is no choice of personal pronoun, no splits between me or you or they, there is only the pure, homogenous I. When Hortense Bowden, half white herself, got to hearing about Clara’s marriage, she came round to the house, stood on the doorstep, said, “Understand: I and I don’t speak from this moment forth,” turned on her heel, and was true to her word. Hortense hadn’t put all that
effort into marrying black, into dragging her genes back from the brink, just so her daughter could bring yet more high-colored children into the world.

  Likewise, in the Iqbal house the lines of battle were clearly drawn. When Millat brought an Emily or a Lucy back home, Alsana quietly wept in the kitchen, Samad went into the garden to attack the coriander. The next morning was a waiting game, a furious biting of tongues until the Emily or Lucy left the house and the war of words could begin. But with Irie and Clara the issue was mostly unspoken, for Clara knew she was not in a position to preach. Still, she made no attempt to disguise her disappointment or the aching sadness. From Irie’s bedroom shrine of green-eyed Hollywood idols to the gaggle of white friends who regularly trooped in and out of her bedroom, Clara saw an ocean of pink skins surrounding her daughter and she feared the tide that would take her away.

  It was partly for this reason that Irie didn’t mention the Chalfens to her parents. It wasn’t that she intended to mate with the Chalfens . . . but the instinct was the same. She had a nebulous fifteen-year-old’s passion for them, overwhelming, yet with no real direction or object. She just wanted to, well, kind of, merge with them. She wanted their Englishness. Their Chalfenishness. The purity of it. It didn’t occur to her that the Chalfens were, after a fashion, immigrants too (third generation, by way of Germany and Poland, né Chalfenovsky), or that they might be as needy of her as she was of them. To Irie, the Chalfens were more English than the English. When Irie stepped over the threshold of the Chalfen house, she felt an illicit thrill, like a Jew munching a sausage or a Hindu grabbing a Big Mac. She was crossing borders, sneaking into England; it felt like some terribly mutinous act, wearing somebody else’s uniform or somebody else’s skin.

  She just said she had netball on Tuesday evenings and left it at that.

  Conversation flowed at the Chalfen house. It seemed to Irie that here nobody prayed or hid their feelings in a toolbox or silently stroked fading photographs wondering what might have been. Conversation was the stuff of life.

 
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