White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “Are we.”

  “Oh, dykes always are. And I’m sure certain gentlemen would have half a chance—though you’d probably take beauty over intellect, I suspect, so there go my chances.”

  “You seem awfully certain of your intellect, Mr. Chalfen.”

  “Shouldn’t I be? I am terribly clever, you know.”

  Joyce just kept looking at them, thinking: Who relies on whom? Who teaches whom? Who improves whom? Who pollinates and who nurtures?

  “Well, it’s great to have another Iqbal round the table, isn’t it, Josh?”

  “I’m a Begum, not an Iqbal,” said Neena.

  “I can’t help thinking,” said Marcus, unheeding, “that a Chalfen man and an Iqbal woman would be a hell of a mix. Like Fred and Ginger. You’d give us sex and we’d give you sensibility or something. Hey? You’d keep a Chalfen on his toes—you’re as fiery as an Iqbal. Indian passion. Funny thing about your family: first generation are all loony tunes, but the second generation have got heads just about straight on their shoulders.”

  “Umm, look: no one calls my family loony, OK? Even if they are. I’ll call them loony.”

  “Now, you see, try to use the language properly. You can say ‘no one calls my family loony,’ but that’s not a correct statement. Because people do and will. By all means say, ‘I don’t want people to, et cetera.’ It’s a small thing, but we can all understand each other better when we don’t abuse terms and phrases.”

  Then, just as Marcus was reaching into the oven to pull out the main course (chicken hotpot), Joyce’s mouth opened and for some inexplicable reason this came out: “Do you use each other’s breasts as pillows?”

  Neena’s fork, which was heading for her mouth, stopped just as it reached the tip of her nose. Millat choked on a piece of cucumber. Irie struggled to bring her lower jaw back into alliance with the upper. Maxine began to giggle.

  But Joyce wasn’t going to go purple. Joyce was descended from the kind of bloody-minded women who continued through the African swamps even after the bag-carrying natives had dropped their load and turned back, even when the white men were leaning on their guns and shaking their heads. She was cut of the same cloth as the frontier ladies who, armed with only a Bible, a shotgun, and a net curtain, coolly took out the brown men moving forward from the horizon toward the plains. Joyce didn’t know the meaning of backing down. She was going to stand her ground.

  “It’s just, in a lot of Indian poetry, they talk about using breasts for pillows, downy breasts, pillow breasts. I just—just—just wondered, if white sleeps on brown, or, as one might expect, brown sleeps on white? Extending the—the—the—pillow metaphor, you see, I was just wondering which . . . way . . .”

  The silence was long, broad and malingering. Neena shook her head in disgust and dropped her cutlery onto her plate with a clatter. Maxine tapped her fingers on the tablecloth, marking out a nervous “William Tell.” Josh looked like he might cry.

  Finally, Marcus threw his head back, clapped his hands, and let out an enormous Chalfen guffaw. “I’ve been wanting to ask that all night. Well done, Mother Chalfen!”

  And so for the first time in her life Neena had to admit that her auntie was absolutely right. “You wanted a report, so here’s a full report: crazy, nutso, raisins short of a fruitcake, rubber walls, screaming-mad basket-cases. Every bloody one of them.”

  Alsana nodded, open-mouthed, and asked Neena to repeat for the third time the bit during dessert when Joyce, serving up a trifle, had inquired whether it was difficult for Muslim women to bake while wearing those long black sheets—didn’t the arm bits get covered in cake mixture? Wasn’t there a danger of setting yourself alight on the gas burners?

  “Bouncing off the walls,” concluded Neena.

  But, as is the way with these things, once confirmation had arrived nobody knew quite what to do with the information. Irie and Millat were sixteen and never tired of telling their respective mothers that they were now of the legal age for various activities and could do whatever, whenever. Short of putting locks on the doors and bars on the windows, Clara and Alsana were powerless. If anything, things got worse. Irie spent more time than ever immersing herself in Chalfenism. Clara noticed her wincing at her own father’s conversation, and frowning at the middlebrow tabloid Clara curled up with in bed. Millat disappeared from home for weeks at a time, returning with money that was not his and an accent that modulated wildly between the rounded tones of the Chalfens and the street talk of the KEVIN clan. He infuriated Samad beyond all reason. No, that’s wrong. There was a reason. Millat was neither one thing nor the other, this or that, Muslim or Christian, Englishman or Bengali; he lived for the in between, he lived up to his middle name, Zulfikar, the clashing of two swords:

  “How many times,” Samad growled, after watching his son purchase The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “is it necessary to say thank you in a single transaction? Thank you when you hand the book over, thank you when she receives it, thank you when she tells you the price, thank you when you sign the check, thank you when she takes it! They call it English politeness when it is simply arrogance. The only being who deserves this kind of thanks is Allah himself!”

  And Alsana was once again caught between the two of them, trying desperately to find the middle ground. “If Magid was here, he’d sort you two out. A lawyer’s mind, he’d make things straight.” But Magid wasn’t here, he was there, and there was still not enough money to change the situation.

  Then the summer came and with it exams. Irie came in just behind Chalfen the Chubster, and Millat did far better than anyone, including he, had expected. It could only be the Chalfen influence, and Clara, for one, felt a little ashamed of herself. Alsana just said, “Iqbal brains. In the end, they triumph,” and decided to mark the occasion with a joint Iqbal/Jones celebration barbecue to be held on Samad’s lawn.

  Neena, Maxine, Ardashir, Shiva, Joshua, aunties, cousins, Irie’s friends, Millat’s friends, KEVIN friends, and the headmaster all came and made merry (except for KEVIN, who formed a circle in one corner) with paper cups filled with cheap Spanish bubbly.

  It was going well enough until Samad spotted the ring of folded arms and green bow ties.

  “What are they doing here? Who let in the infidels?”

  “Well, you’re here, aren’t you?” sniped Alsana, looking at the three empty cans of Guinness Samad had already got through, the hotdog juice dribbling down his chin. “Who’s casting the first stone at a barbecue?”

  Samad glared and lurched away with Archie to admire their shared handiwork on the reconstructed shed. Clara took the opportunity to pull Alsana aside and ask her a question.

  Alsana stamped a foot in her own coriander. “No! No way at all. What should I thank her for? If he did well, it was because of his own brains. Iqbal brains. Not once, not once has that long-toothed Chaffinch even condescended to telephone me. Wild horses will have to drag my dead body, lady.”

  “But . . . I just think it would be a nice idea to go and thank her for all the time she’s spent with the children . . . I think maybe we misjudged her—”

  “By all means, go, Lady Jones, go if you like,” said Alsana scornfully. “But as for me, wild horses, wild horses could not do it.”

  “And that’s Dr. Solomon Chalfen, Marcus’s grandfather. He was one of the few men who would listen to Freud when everybody in Vienna thought they had a sexual deviant on their hands. An incredible face he has, don’t you think? There’s so much wisdom in it. The first time Marcus showed me that picture, I knew I wanted to marry him. I thought: if my Marcus looks like that at eighty I’ll be a very lucky girl!”

  Clara smiled and admired the daguerreotype. She had so far admired eight along the mantelpiece, with Irie trailing sullenly behind her, and there were at least as many left to go.

  “It’s a grand old family, and if you don’t find it too presumptuous, Clara—is ‘Clara’ all right?”

  “Clara’s fine, Mrs. Chalfen.”

Irie waited for Joyce to ask Clara to call her Joyce.

  “Well, as I was saying, it’s a grand old family and if you don’t find it too presumptuous I like to think of Irie as a kind of addition to it, in a way. She’s just such a remarkable girl. We’ve so enjoyed having her around.”

  “She’s enjoyed being around, I think. And she really owes you a lot. We all do.”

  “Oh no, no, no. I believe in the Responsibility of Intellectuals . . . besides which, it’s been a joy. Really. I hope we’ll still see her, even though the exams are over. There’s still A-levels, if nothing else!”

  “Oh, I’m sure she’d come anyway. She talks about you all the time. The Chalfens this, the Chalfens that . . .”

  Joyce clasped Clara’s hands in her own. “Oh, Clara, I am pleased. And I’m pleased we’ve finally met as well. Oh now, I hadn’t finished. Where were we—oh yes, well here are Charles and Anna—great-uncles and aunts—long buried, sadly. He was a psychiatrist—yes, another one—and she was a plant biologist—woman after my own heart.”

  Joyce stood back for a minute, like an art critic in a gallery, and put her hands on her hips. “I mean, after a while, you’ve got to suspect it’s in the genes, haven’t you? All these brains. I mean, nurture just won’t explain it. I mean, will it?”

  “Er, no,” agreed Clara. “I guess not.”

  “Now, out of interest—I mean, I really am curious—which side do you think Irie gets it from, the Jamaican or the English?”

  Clara looked up and down the line of dead white men in starched collars, some monocled, some uniformed, some sitting in the bosom of their family, each member manacled into position so the camera could do its slow business. They all reminded her a little of someone. Of her own grandfather, the dashing Captain Charlie Durham, in his one extant photograph: pinched and pale, looking defiantly at the camera, not so much having his picture taken as forcing his image upon the plate. What they used to call a Muscular Christian. The Bowden family called him Whitey. Djam fool bwoy taut he owned everyting he touched.

  “My side,” said Clara tentatively. “I guess the English in my side. My grandfather was an Englishman, quite la-di-da, I’ve been told. His child, my mother, was born during the Kingston earthquake, 1907. I used to think maybe the rumble knocked the Bowden brain cells into place ’cos we been doing pretty well since then!”

  Joyce saw that Clara was expecting a laugh and quickly supplied one.

  “But seriously, it was probably Captain Charlie Durham. He taught my grandmother all she knew. A good English education. Lord knows, I can’t think who else it could be.”

  “Well, how fascinating! It’s what I say to Marcus—it is the genes, whatever he says. He says I’m a simplifier, but he’s just too theoretical. I’m proven right all the time!”

  As the front door closed behind her, Clara bit her own lip once more, this time in frustration and anger. Why had she said Captain Charlie Durham? That was a downright lie. False as her own white teeth. Clara was smarter than Captain Charlie Durham. Hortense was smarter than Captain Charlie Durham. Probably even Grandma Ambrosia was smarter than Captain Charlie Durham. Captain Charlie Durham wasn’t smart. He had thought he was, but he wasn’t. He sacrificed a thousand people because he wanted to save one woman he never really knew. Captain Charlie Durham was a no-good djam fool bwoy.


  The Root Canals of Hortense Bowden

  A little English education can be a dangerous thing. Alsana’s favorite example of this was the old tale of Lord Ellenborough, who, upon taking the Sind province from India, sent a telegram of only one word to Delhi: peccavi, a conjugated Latin verb, meaning I have sinned. “The English are the only people,” she would say with distaste, “who want to teach you and steal from you at the same time.” Alsana’s mistrust of the Chalfens was no more or less than that.

  Clara agreed, but for reasons that were closer to home: a family memory; an unforgotten trace of bad blood in the Bowdens. Her own mother, when inside her mother (for if this story is to be told, we will have to put them all back inside each other like Russian dolls, Irie back in Clara, Clara back in Hortense, Hortense back in Ambrosia), was silent witness to what happens when all of a sudden an Englishman decides you need an education. For it had not been enough for Captain Charlie Durham—recently posted to Jamaica—to impregnate his landlady’s adolescent daughter one drunken evening in the Bowden larder, May 1906. He was not satisfied with simply taking her maidenhood. He had to teach her something as well.

  “Me? He wan’ teach me?” Ambrosia Bowden had placed her hand over the tiny bump that was Hortense and tried to look as innocent as possible. “Why he wan’ teach me?”

  “Tree times a week,” replied her mother. “An’ don’ arks me why. But Lord knows, you could do wid some improvin’. Be tankful for gen’russ-ity. Dere is not required whys and wherefores when a hansum, upright English gentleman like Mr. Durham wan’ be gen’russ.”

  Even Ambrosia Bowden, a capricious, long-legged, maga village-child who had not seen a schoolroom in all of her fourteen years, knew this advice was mistaken. When an Englishman wants to be generous, the first thing you ask is why, because there is always a reason.

  “You still here, pickney? ’Im wan’ see you. Don’ let me spit pon de floor and make you get up dere before it dry!”

  So Ambrosia Bowden, with Hortense inside her, had dashed up to the captain’s room and returned there three times a week thereafter for instruction. Letters, numbers, the Bible, English history, trigonometry—and when that was finished, when Ambrosia’s mother was safely out of the house, anatomy, which was a longer lesson, given on top of the student as she lay on her back, giggling. Captain Durham told her not to worry about the baby, he would do no damage to it. Captain Durham told her that their secret child would be the cleverest Negro boy in Jamaica.

  As the months flicked by, Ambrosia learned a lot of wonderful things from the handsome captain. He taught her how to read the trials of Job and study the warnings of Revelation, to swing a cricket bat, to sing “Jerusalem.” How to add up a column of numbers. How to decline a Latin noun. How to kiss a man’s ear until he wept like a child. But mostly he taught her that she was no longer a maidservant, that her education had elevated her, that in her heart she was a lady, though her daily chores remained unchanged. In here, in here, he liked to say, pointing to somewhere beneath her breastbone, the exact spot, in fact, where she routinely rested her broom. A maid no more, Ambrosia, a maid no more, he liked to say, enjoying the pun.

  And then one afternoon, when Hortense was five months unborn, Ambrosia sprinted up the stairs in a very loose, disingenuous gingham dress, rapped on the door with one hand, and hid a bunch of English marigolds behind her back with the other. She wanted to surprise her lover with flowers she knew would remind him of home. She banged and banged and called and called. But he was gone.

  “Don’ arks me why,” said Ambrosia’s mother, eyeing her daughter’s stomach with suspicion. “’Im jus’ get up and go, on de sudden. But ’im leave a message dat he wan’ you to be looked after still. He wan’ you to go over to de estate quick time and present yourself to Mr. Glenard, a good Christian gentleman. Lord knows, you could do wid some improvin’. You still here, pickney? Don’ let me spit pon de floor and . . .”

  But Ambrosia was out the door before the words hit the ground.

  It seemed Durham had gone to control the situation in a printing company in Kingston, where a young man called Garvey was staging a printers’ strike for higher wages. And then he intended to be away for three further months to train His Majesty’s Trinidadian Soldiers, show them what’s what. The English are experts at relinquishing one responsibility and taking up another. But they also like to think of themselves as men of good conscience, so in the interim Durham entrusted the continued education of Ambrosia Bowden to his good friend Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard, who was, like Durham, of the opinion that the natives required instruction, Christian faith, and moral gu
idance. Glenard was charmed to have her—who wouldn’t be?—a pretty, obedient girl, willing and able round the house. But two weeks into her stay, and the pregnancy became obvious. People began to talk. It simply wouldn’t do.

  “Don’ arks me why,” said Ambrosia’s mother, grabbing Glenard’s letter of regret from her weeping daughter, “maybe you kyan be improved! Maybe ’im don’ wan’ sin around de house. You back here now! Dere’s nuttin’ to be done now!” But in the letter, so it turned out, there was a consolatory suggestion. “It say here ’im wan’ you to go and see a Christian lady call Mrs. Brenton. ’Im say you kyan stay wid her.”

  Now, Durham had left instructions that Ambrosia be introduced to the English Anglican Church, and Glenard had suggested the Jamaican Methodist Church, but Mrs. Brenton, a fiery Scottish spinster who specialized in lost souls, had her own ideas. “We are going to the Truth,” she said decisively when Sunday came, because she did not care for the word “church.” “You and I and the wee innocent,” she said, tapping Ambrosia’s belly just inches from Hortense’s head, “are going to hear the words of Jehovah.”

  (For it was Mrs. Brenton who introduced the Bowdens to the Witnesses, the Russellites, the Watchtower, the Bible Tract Society—in those days they went under many names. Mrs. Brenton had met Charles Taze Russell himself in Pittsburgh as the last century turned, and was struck by the knowledge of the man, his dedication, his mighty beard. It was his influence that made her a convert from Protestantism, and, like any convert, Mrs. Brenton took great pleasure in the conversion of others. She found two easy, willing subjects in Ambrosia and the child in her belly, for they had nothing to convert from.)

  The Truth entered the Bowdens that winter of 1906 and flowed through the bloodstream directly from Ambrosia to Hortense. It was Hortense’s belief that at the moment her mother recognized Jehovah, Hortense herself became conscious, though still inside the womb. In later years she would swear on any Bible you put in front of her that even in her mother’s stomach each word of Mr. Russell’s Millennial Dawn, as it was read to Ambrosia night after night, passed as if by osmosis into Hortense’s soul. Only this would explain why it felt like a “remembrance” to read the six volumes years later in adult life; why she could cover pages with her hand and quote them from memory, though she had never read them before. It is for this reason that any root canal of Hortense must go right to the very beginning, because she was there; she remembers; the events of January 14, 1907, the day of the terrible Jamaican earthquake, are not hidden from her, but bright and clear as a bell.

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