White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “Hello, Irie! Come in, come in, Joshua’s in the kitchen with Joyce, you’re looking well. Millat not with you?”

  “Coming later. He’s got a date.”

  “Ah, yes. Well, if there are any questions in your exams on oral communication, he’ll fly through them. Joyce! Irie’s here! So how’s the study going? It’s been—what? Four months now? The Chalfen genius rubbing off?”

  “Yeah, not bad, not bad. I never thought I had a scientific bone in my body but . . . it seems to be working. I don’t know, though. Sometimes my brain hurts.”

  “That’s just the right side of your brain waking up after a long sleep, getting back into the swing of things. I’m really impressed; I told you it was possible to turn a wishy-washy arts student into a science student in no time at all—oh, and I’ve got the FutureMouse pictures. Remind me later, you wanted to see them, no? Joyce, the big brown goddess has arrived!”

  “Marcus, chill out, man . . . Hi, Joyce. Hi, Josh. Hey, Jack. Oooh, hell-low, Oscar, you cutie.”

  “Hello, Irie! Come here and give me a kiss. Oscar, look, it’s Irie come to see us again! Oh, look at his face . . . he’s wondering where Millat is, aren’t you, Oscar?”

  “No, I’m not.”

  “Oh dear, yes he is . . . look at his little face . . . he gets very upset when Millat doesn’t turn up. Tell Irie the name of the new monkey, Oscar, the one Daddy gave you.”


  “No, not George—you called it Millat the Monkey, remember? Because monkeys are mischievous and Millat’s just as bad, isn’t he, Oscar?”

  “Don’t know. Don’t care.”

  “Oscar gets terribly upset when Millat doesn’t come.”

  “He’ll be along in a while. He’s on a date.”

  “When isn’t he on a date! All those busty girls! We might get jealous, mightn’t we, Oscar? He spends more time with them than us. But we shouldn’t joke. I suppose it’s a bit difficult for you.”

  “No, I don’t mind, Joyce, really. I’m used to it.”

  “But everybody loves Millat, don’t they, Oscar! It’s so hard not to, isn’t it, Oscar? We love him, don’t we, Oscar?”

  “I hate him.”

  “Oh, Oscar, don’t say silly things.”

  “Can we all stop talking about Millat, please.”

  “Yes, Joshua, all right. Do you hear how he gets jealous? I try to explain to him that Millat needs a little extra care, you know. He’s from a very difficult background. It’s just like when I give more time to my peonies than my Michaelmas daisies, daisies will grow anywhere . . . you know you can be very selfish sometimes, Joshi.”

  “OK, Mum, OK. What’s happening with dinner—before study or after?”

  “Before, I think, Joyce, no? I’ve got to work on FutureMouse all night.”


  “Shh, Oscar, I’m trying to listen to Daddy.”

  “Because I’m delivering a paper tomorrow so best have dinner early. If that’s all right with you, Irie, I know how you like your food.”

  “That’s fine.”

  “Don’t say things like that, Marcus, dear, she’s very touchy about her weight.”

  “No, I’m really not—”

  “Touchy? About her weight? But everybody likes a big girl, don’t they? I know I do.”

  “Evening all. Door was ajar. Let myself in. One day somebody’s going to wander in here and murder the fucking lot of you.”

  “Millat! Oscar, look it’s Millat! Oscar, you’re very happy to see Millat, aren’t you, darling?”

  Oscar screwed up his nose, pretended to barf, and threw a wooden hammer at Millat’s shins.

  “Oscar gets so excited when he sees you. Well. You’re just in time for dinner. Chicken with cauliflower cheese. Sit down. Josh, put Millat’s coat somewhere. So. How are things?”

  Millat sat down at the table with violence and eyes that looked like they had recently seen tears. He pulled out his pouch of tobacco and little bag of weed.

  “Fuckin’ awful.”

  “Awful how?” inquired Marcus with little attention, otherwise engaged in cutting himself a chunk from an enormous block of Stilton. “Couldn’t get in girl’s pants? Girl wouldn’t get in your pants? Girl not wearing pants? Out of interest, what kind of pants was she—”

  “Dad! Give it a rest,” moaned Joshua.

  “Well, if you ever actually got in anybody’s pants, Josh,” said Marcus, looking pointedly at Irie, “I’d be able to get my kicks through you, but so far—”

  “Shhh, the two of you,” snapped Joyce. “I’m trying to listen to Millat.”

  Four months ago, having a cool mate like Millat had seemed to Josh one hell of a lucky break. Having him round his house every Tuesday had upped Josh’s ante at Glenard Oak by more than he could have imagined. And now that Millat, encouraged by Irie, had begun to come of his own accord, to come socially, Joshua Chalfen, né Chalfen the Chubster, should have felt his star rising. But he didn’t. He felt pissed off. For Joshua had not bargained on the power of Millat’s attractiveness. His magnetlike qualities. He saw that Irie was still, deep down, stuck on him like a paperclip and even his own mother seemed sometimes to take Millat as her only focus; all her energy for her gardening, her children, her husband, streamlined and drawn to this one object like so many iron filings. It pissed him off.

  “I can’t talk now? I can’t talk in my own house?”

  “Joshi, don’t be silly. Millat’s obviously upset . . . I’m just trying to deal with that at the moment.”

  “Poor little Joshi,” said Millat in slow, malicious, purring tones. “Not getting enough attention from his mummy? Want Mummy to wipe his bottom for him?”

  “Fuck you, Millat,” said Joshua.

  “OooooooOOO . . .”

  “Joyce, Marcus,” appealed Joshua, looking for an external judgment. “Tell him.”

  Marcus popped a great wedge of cheese in his mouth and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m afwaid Miyat’s oar mu’rer’s jurishdicshun.”

  “Let me just deal with this first, Joshi,” began Joyce. “And then later . . .” Joyce allowed the rest of her sentence to get jammed in the kitchen door just as her eldest son slammed it.

  “Shall I go after . . . ?” asked Benjamin.

  Joyce shook her head and kissed Benjamin on the cheek. “No, Benji. Best leave him to it.”

  She turned back to Millat, touching his face, tracing the salt path of an old tear with her finger.

  “Now. What’s been going on?”

  Millat began slowly rolling his spliff. He liked to make them wait. You could get more out of a Chalfen if you made them wait.

  “Oh, Millat, don’t smoke that stuff. Every time we see you these days you’re smoking. It upsets Oscar so much. He’s not that young and he understands more than you think. He understands about marijuana.”

  “What’s mary wana?” asked Oscar.

  “You know what it is, Oscar. It’s what makes Millat all horrible, like we were talking about today, and it’s what kills the little brain cells he has.”

  “Get off my fucking back, Joyce.”

  “I’m just trying to . . .” Joyce sighed with melodrama, and drew her fingers through her hair. “Millat, what’s the matter? Do you need some money?”

  “Yeah, I do, as it happens.”

  “Why? What happened? Millat. Talk to me. Family again?”

  Millat tucked the orange cardboard roach in and stuck the joint between his lips. “Dad chucked me out, didn’t he?”

  “Oh God,” said Joyce, tears springing immediately, pulling her chair closer and taking his hand, “if I was your mother, I’d—well, anyway I’m not, am I . . . but she’s just so incompetent . . . it makes me so . . . I mean, imagine letting your husband take away one of your children and do God knows what with the other one, I just—”

  “Don’t talk about my mother. You’ve never met her. I wasn’t even talking about her.”

  “Well, she refuses to mee
t me, doesn’t she? As if it were some kind of competition.”

  “Shut the fuck up, Joyce.”

  “Well, there’s no point, is there? Going into . . . it upsets you to . . . I can see that, clearly, it’s all too close to the . . . Marcus, get some tea, he needs tea.”

  “For fuckssake! I don’t want any fucking tea. All you ever do is drink tea! You lot must piss pure bloody tea.”

  “Millat, I’m just try—”

  “Well, don’t.”

  A little hash seed fell out of Millat’s joint and stuck on his lips. He picked it off and popped it in his mouth. “I could do with some brandy, though, if there is any.”

  Joyce motioned to Irie with a what can you do look and mimed a tiny measure of her thirty-year-old Napoleon brandy between forefinger and thumb. Irie stood on an overturned bucket to get it off the top shelf.

  “OK, let’s all calm down. OK? OK. So. What happened this time?”

  “I called him a cunt. He is a cunt.” Millat walloped Oscar’s creeping fingers that were looking for a plaything and reaching speculatively for his matches. “I’ll need somewhere to stay for a bit.”

  “Well, that’s not even a question, you can stay with us, naturally.”

  Irie reached between the two of them, Joyce and Millat, to place the big-bottomed brandy glass on the table.

  “OK, Irie, give him a little space right now, I think.”

  “I was just—”

  “Yes, OK, Irie—he just doesn’t need crowding right at this moment—”

  “He’s a bloody hypocrite, man,” Millat cut in with a growl, looking into the middle distance and speaking to the conservatory as much as to anyone, “he prays five times a day but he still drinks and he doesn’t have any Muslim friends, then he has a go at me for fucking a white girl. And then he’s pissed off about Magid. He takes all his shit out on me. And he wants me to stop hanging around with KEVIN. I’m more of a fucking Muslim than he is. Fuck him!”

  “Do you want to talk about it with all this lot about,” said Joyce, looking meaningfully round the room. “Or just us?”

  “Joyce,” said Millat, downing his brandy in one, “I don’t give a fuck.”

  Joyce took that to mean just us and ushered the rest of them out of the room with her eyes.

  Irie was glad to leave. In the four months that she and Millat had been turning up to the Chalfens, plowing through Double Science, band I, and eating their selection of boiled food, a strange pattern had developed. The more progress Irie made—whether in her studies, her attempts to make polite conversation, or her studied imitation of Chalfenism—the less interest Joyce showed in her. Yet the more Millat veered off the rails—turning up uninvited on a Sunday night, off his face, bringing round girls, smoking weed all over the house, drinking their 1964 Dom Pérignon on the sly, pissing on the rose garden, holding a KEVIN meeting in the front room, running up a £300 phone bill calling Bangladesh, telling Marcus he was queer, threatening to castrate Joshua, calling Oscar a spoiled little shit, accusing Joyce herself of being a maniac—the more Joyce adored him. In four months he already owed her over three hundred pounds, a new duvet, and a bike wheel.

  “Are you coming upstairs?” asked Marcus, as he closed the kitchen door on the two of them and bent this way and that like a reed while his children blew past him. “I’ve got those pictures you wanted to see.”

  Irie gave Marcus a thankful smile. It was Marcus who seemed to keep an eye out for her. It was Marcus who had helped her these four months as her brain changed from something mushy to something hard and defined, as she slowly gained a familiarity with the Chalfen way of thinking. She had thought of this as a great sacrifice on the part of a busy man, but more recently she wondered if there was not some enjoyment in it. Like watching a blind man feeling out the contours of a new object, maybe. Or a laboratory rat making sense of a maze. Either way, in exchange for his attention, Irie had begun to take an interest, first strategic and now genuine, in his FutureMouse. Consequently invitations to Marcus’s study at the very top of the house, by far her favorite room, had become more frequent.

  “Well, don’t stand there grinning like the village idiot. Come on up.”

  Marcus’s room was like no place Irie had ever seen. It had no communal utility, no other purpose in the house apart from being Marcus’s room; it stored no toys, bric-a-brac, broken things, spare ironing boards; no one ate in it, slept in it, or made love in it. It wasn’t like Clara’s attic space, a Kubla Khan of crap, all carefully stored in boxes and labeled just in case she should ever need to flee this land for another one. (It wasn’t like the spare rooms of immigrants—packed to the rafters with all that they have ever possessed, no matter how defective or damaged, mountains of odds and ends—that stand testament to the fact that they have things now, where before they had nothing.) Marcus’s room was purely devoted to Marcus and Marcus’s work. A study. Like in Austen or Upstairs, Downstairs or Sherlock Holmes. Except this was the first study Irie had ever seen in real life.

  The room itself was small and irregular with a sloping floor, wooden eaves that meant it was possible to stand in certain places but not others, and a skylight rather than a window which let light through in slices, spotlights for dancing dust. There were four filing cabinets, open-mouthed beasts spitting paper; paper in piles on the floor, on the shelves, in circles around the chairs. The smell of a rich, sweet Germanic tobacco sat in a cloud just above head level, staining the leaves of the highest books yellow, and there was an elaborate smoking set on a side table—spare mouthpieces, pipes ranging from the standard U-bend to ever more curious shapes, snuff boxes, a selection of gauzes—all laid out in a velvet-lined leather case like a doctor’s instruments. Scattered about the walls and lining the fireplace were photos of the Chalfen clan, including comely portraits of Joyce in her pert-breasted hippie youth, a retroussé nose sneaking out between two great sheaths of hair. And then a few larger framed centerpieces. A map of the Chalfen family tree. A headshot of Mendel looking pleased with himself. A big poster of Einstein in his American icon stage—Nutty Professor hair, “surprised” look, and huge pipe—subtitled with the quote God does not play dice with the world. Finally, Marcus’s large oaken armchair backed on to a portrait of Crick and Watson looking tired but elated in front of their model of deoxyribonucleic acid, a spiral staircase of metal clamps, reaching from the floor of their Cambridge lab to beyond the scope of the photographer’s lens.

  “But where’s Wilkins?” inquired Marcus, bending where the ceiling got low and tapping the photo with a pencil. “1962, Wilkins won the Nobel in medicine with Crick and Watson. But no sign of Wilkins in the photos. Just Crick and Watson. Watson and Crick. History likes lone geniuses or double acts. But it’s got no time for threesomes.” Marcus thought again. “Unless they’re comedians or jazz musicians.”

  “’Spose you’ll have to be a lone genius, then,” said Irie cheerfully, turning from the picture and sitting down on a Swedish backless chair.

  “Ah, but I have a mentor, you see.” He pointed to a poster-sized black and white photograph on the other wall. “And mentors are a whole other kettle of fish.”

  It was an extreme close-up of an extremely old man, the contours of his face clearly defined by line and shade, hachures on a topographic map.

  “Grand old Frenchman, a gentleman and a scholar. Taught me practically everything I know. Seventy-odd and sharp as a whip. But you see, with a mentor you needn’t credit them directly. That’s the great thing about them. Now where’s this bloody photo . . .”

  While Marcus scrabbled about in a filing cabinet, Irie studied a small slice of the Chalfen family tree, an elaborate illustrated oak that stretched back into the 1600s and forward into the present day. The differences between the Chalfens and the Jones/Bowdens were immediately plain. For starters, in the Chalfen family everybody seemed to have a normal number of children. More to the point, everybody knew whose children were whose. The men lived longer than the women. The marriages
were singular and long-lasting. Dates of birth and death were concrete. And the Chalfens actually knew who they were in 1675. Archie Jones could give no longer record of his family than his father’s own haphazard appearance on the planet in the back room of a Bromley public house circa 1895 or 1896 or quite possibly 1897, depending on which nonagenarian ex-barmaid you spoke to. Clara Bowden knew a little about her grandmother, and half believed the story that her famed and prolific Uncle P. had thirty-four children, but could only state definitively that her own mother was born at 2:45 P.M. on January 14, 1907, in a Catholic church in the middle of the Kingston earthquake. The rest was rumor, folktale, and myth:

  “You guys go so far back,” said Irie, as Marcus came up behind her to see what was of interest. “It’s incredible. I can’t imagine what that must feel like.”

  “Nonsensical statement. We all go back as far as each other. It’s just that the Chalfens have always written things down,” said Marcus thoughtfully, stuffing his pipe with fresh tobacco. “It helps if you want to be remembered.”

  “I guess my family’s more of an oral tradition,” said Irie with a shrug. “But, man, you should ask Millat about his. He’s the descendant of—”

  “A great revolutionary. So I’ve heard. I wouldn’t take any of that seriously, if I were you. One part truth to three parts fiction in that family, I fancy. Any historical figure of note in your lot?” asked Marcus, and then, immediately uninterested in his own question, returned to his search of filing cabinet number two.

  “No . . . no one . . . significant. But my grandmother was born in January 1907, during the Kingston—”

  “Here we are!”

  Marcus emerged triumphant from a steel drawer, brandishing a thin plastic folder with a few pieces of paper in it.

  “Photographs. Especially for you. If the animal-rights lot saw these, I’d have a contract out on my life. One by one now. Don’t grab.”

  Marcus passed Irie the first photo. It was of a mouse on its back. Its stomach was littered with little mushroomlike growths, brown and puffy. Its mouth was unnaturally extended, by the prostrate position, into a cry of agony. But not genuine agony, Irie thought, more like theatrical agony. More like a mouse who was making a big show of something. A ham-mouse. A luvvie-mouse. There was something sarcastic about it.

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