White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “Early will I seek thee . . . My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is . . .”

  So sang Ambrosia as her pregnancy reached full term, and she bounced with her huge bulge down King Street, praying for the return of Christ or the return of Charlie Durham—the two men who could save her—so alike in her mind she had the habit of mixing them up. She was halfway through the third verse, or so Hortense told it, when that rambunctious old rumpot Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard, flushed from one snifter too many at the Jamaica Club, stepped into their path. Captain Durham’s maid! Hortense recalled him saying, by way of a greeting, and receiving nothing from Ambrosia but a glare, Fine day for it, eh? Ambrosia had tried to sidestep him, but he moved his bulk in front of her once more.

  So are you a good girl these days, my dear? Gossip informs me Mrs. Brenton has introduced you to her church. Very interesting, these Witness people. But are they prepared, I wonder, for this new mulatto member of their flock?

  Hortense remembered well the feel of that fat hand landing hot against her mother; she remembered kicking out at it with all her might.

  Oh, it’s all right, child. The captain told me your little secret. But naturally secrets have a price, Ambrosia. Just as yams and pimento and my tobacco cost something. Now, have you seen the old Spanish church, Santa Antonia? Have you been inside? It’s just here. It’s quite a marvel inside, from the aesthetic rather than religious point of view. It will only take a moment, my dear. One should never pass up the opportunity of a little education, after all.

  Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories. Outside of Ambrosia there was much white stone, no people, an altar peeling gold, little light, smoking candles, Spanish names engraved in the floor, and a large marble madonna, her head bowed, standing high upon a plinth. All was preternaturally calm as Glenard began to touch her. But inside, there was a galloping heartbeat, the crush of a million muscles that wanted desperately to repel Glenard’s attempts at an education, the clammy fingers that even now were at her breast, slipping between thin cotton and squeezing nipples already heavy with milk, milk never intended for such a rough mouth. Inside she was already running down King Street. But outside Ambrosia was frozen. Rooted to the spot, as feminine a stone as any madonna.

  And then the world began to shake. Inside Ambrosia, waters broke. Outside Ambrosia, the floor cracked. The far wall crumbled, the stained-glass exploded, and the madonna fell from a great height like a swooning angel. Ambrosia stumbled from the scene, making it only as far as the confessionals before the ground split once more—a mighty crack!—and she fell down, in sight of Glenard himself, who lay crushed underneath his angel, his teeth scattered on the floor, trousers round his ankles. And the ground continued to vibrate. A second crack came. And a third. The pillars fell, half the roof disappeared. Any other afternoon in Jamaica, the screams of Ambrosia, the screams that followed each contraction of her womb as Hortense pushed out, would have caught somebody’s attention, brought somebody to her aid. But the world was ending that afternoon in Kingston. Everybody was screaming.

  If this were a fairy tale, it would now be time for Captain Durham to play hero. He does not seem to lack the necessary credentials. It is not that he isn’t handsome, or tall, or strong, or that he doesn’t want to help her, or that he doesn’t love her (oh, he loves her; just as the English loved India and Africa and Ireland; it is the love that is the problem, people treat their lovers badly)—all those things are true. But maybe it is just the scenery that is wrong. Maybe nothing that happens upon stolen ground can expect a happy ending.

  For when Durham returns, the day after the initial tremors, he finds an island destroyed, two thousand already dead, fire in the hills, parts of Kingston fallen into the sea, starvation, terror, whole streets swallowed up by the earth—and none of this horrifies him as much as the realization that he might never see her again. Now he understands what love means. He stands in the parade ground, lonely and distraught, surrounded by a thousand black faces he does not recognize; the only other white figure is the statue of Victoria, five aftershocks having turned her round by degrees until she appears to have her back to the people. This is not far from the truth. It is the Americans, not the British, who have the resources to pledge serious aid, three warships full of provisions presently snaking down the coast from Cuba. It is an American publicity coup that the British government does not relish, and like his fellow Englishmen Durham cannot help but feel a certain wounded pride. He still thinks of the land as his, his to help or his to hurt, even now when it has proved itself to have a mind all of its own. He still retains enough of his English education to feel slighted when he spots two American soldiers who have docked without permission (all landings must go through Durham or his superiors) standing outside their consulate building, insolently chewing their tobacco. It is a strange feeling, this powerlessness; to discover there is another country more equipped to save this little island than the English. It is a strange feeling, looking out on to an ocean of ebony skins, unable to find the one he loves, the one he thinks he owns. For Durham has orders to stand here and call out the names of the handful of servants, butlers and maids, the chosen few the English will be taking with them to Cuba until the fires die down. If he knew her last name, God knows he would call it out. But in all that teaching, he never learned it. He never asked.

  Yet it was not for this oversight that Captain Durham, the great educator, was remembered as a fool bwoy in the annals of the Bowden clan. He found out soon enough where she was; he found little cousin Marlene among the throng, and sent her off with a note to the church hall where she had seen Ambrosia last, singing with the Witnesses, offering thanks for the Judgment Day. While Marlene ran as fast as her ashen legs would carry her, Durham walked calmly, thinking the last act was done, to King’s House, the residence of Sir James Swettenham, governor of Jamaica. There he asked him to make an exception for Ambrosia ———, an “educated Negress” he wished to marry. She was not like the others. She must have a place with him on the next outgoing ship.

  But if you are to rule a land that is not yours, you get used to ignoring exceptions; Swettenham told him frankly there were no spaces on his boats for black whores or livestock. Durham, hurt and vengeful, inferred that Swettenham had no power of his own, that the arrival of American ships was proof of that, and then, as a parting shot, mentioned the two American soldiers he had seen on British soil without permission, presumptuous upstarts on land they didn’t own. Does the baby go out with the bathwater, demanded Durham, face red as a pillar-box, resorting back to the religion of possession that was his birthright, is this not still our country? Is our authority so easily toppled by a few rumbles in the ground?

  The rest is that terrible thing: history. As Swettenham ordered the American boats to return to Cuba, Marlene came running back with Ambrosia’s reply. One sentence torn from Job: I will fetch my knowledge from afar. (Hortense kept the Bible it was ripped from and liked to say that from that day forth no Bowden woman took lessons from anyone but the Lord.) Marlene handed the sentence to Durham, and ran off into the parade ground happy as a clam, in search of her mother and father who were injured and weak, on their last legs and waiting for the boats like thousands of others. She wanted to tell them the good news, what Ambrosia had told her: It soon come, it soon come. The boats? Marlene had asked, and Ambrosia had nodded, though she was too busy with prayer, too ecstatic to hear the question. It soon come, it soon come, she said, repeating what she had learned from Revelation; what Durham and then Glenard and then Mrs. Brenton had taught her in their different ways; what the fire and earth-cracks and thunder attested to. It soon come, she told Marlene, who took her word for gospel. A little English education can be a dangerous thing.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  More English Than the English

  In the great tradition of English education, Marcus and Magid became pen pals. How they became pen
pals was a matter of fierce debate (Alsana blamed Millat, Millat claimed Irie had slipped Marcus the address, Irie said Joyce had sneaked a peek in her address book—the Joyce explanation was correct), but either way they were, and from March ’91 onward letters passed between them with a frequency belied only by the chronic inadequacies of the Bengali postal system. Their combined output was incredible. Within two months they had filled a volume at least as thick as Keats’s and by four were fast approaching the length and quantity of the true epistophiles, St. Paul, Clarissa, Disgruntled from Tunbridge Wells. Because Marcus made copies of all his own letters, Irie had to rearrange her filing system to provide a drawer solely devoted to their correspondence. She split the filing system in two, choosing to file by author primarily, then chronologically, rather than let simple dates rule the roost. Because this was all about people. People making a connection across continents, across seas. She made two stickers to separate the wads of material. The first said: From Marcus to Magid. The second said: From Magid to Marcus.

  An unpleasant mixture of jealousy and animosity led Irie to abuse her secretarial role. She pinched small collections of letters that wouldn’t be missed, took them home, slipped them from their sheaths, and then, after close readings that would have shamed F. R. Leavis, carefully returned them to their file. What she found in those brightly stamped airmail envelopes brought her no joy. Her mentor had a new protégé. Marcus and Magid. Magid and Marcus. It even sounded better. The way Watson and Crick sounded better than Watson, Crick, and Wilkins.

  John Donne said more than kisses, letters mingle souls and so they do; Irie was alarmed to find such a commingling as this, such a successful merging of two people from ink and paper despite the distance between them. No love letters could have been more ardent. No passion more fully returned, right from the very start. The first few letters were filled with the boundless joy of mutual recognition: tedious for the sneaky mailroom boys of Dhaka, bewildering to Irie, fascinating to the writers themselves:

  It is as if I had always known you; if I were a Hindu I would suspect we met in some former life. —Magid.

  You think like me. You’re precise. I like that. —Marcus.

  You put it so well and speak my thoughts better than I ever could. In my desire to study the law, in my longing to improve the lot of my poor country—which is victim to every passing whim of God, every hurricane and flood—in these aims, what instinct is fundamental? What is the root, the dream that ties these ambitions together? To make sense of the world. To eliminate the random. —Magid.

  And then there was the mutual admiration. That lasted a good few months:

  What you are working on, Marcus—these remarkable mice—it is nothing less than revolutionary. When you delve into the mysteries of inherited characteristics, surely you go straight to the soul of the human condition as dramatically and fundamentally as any poet, except you are armed with something essential the poet does not have: the truth. I am in awe of visionary ideas and visionaries. I am in awe of such a man as Marcus Chalfen. I call it an honor to be able to call him friend. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking such an inexplicable and glorious interest in my family’s welfare. —Magid.

  It is incredible to me, the bloody fuss people make about an idea like cloning. Cloning, when it happens (and I can tell you it will be sooner rather than later) is simply delayed twinning, and never in my life have I come across a couple of twins who prove more decidedly the argument against genetic determinism than Millat and yourself. In every area in which he lacks, you excel—I wish I could turn that sentence around for a vice-versa effect, but the hard truth is he excels in nothing apart from charming the elastic waistband off my wife’s panties. —Marcus.

  And finally, there were the plans for the future, plans made blindly and with amorous speed, like the English nerd who married a 266-pound Mormon from Minnesota because she sounded sexy on the chat line:

  You must get to England as soon as possible, early ’93 at the very latest. I’ll stump up some of the cash myself if I have to. Then we can enroll you in the local school, get the exams over and done with and send you off posthaste to whichever of the dreaming spires tickles your fancy (though obviously there’s only one real choice) and while you’re at it you can hurry up and get older, get to the bar and provide me with the kind of lawyer I need to fight in my corner. My FutureMouse © needs a staunch defender. Hurry up, old chap. I haven’t got all millennium. —Marcus.

  The last letter, not the last letter they wrote but the last one Irie could stomach, included this final paragraph from Marcus:

  Well, things are the same round here except that my files are in excellent order, thanks to Irie. You’ll like her: she’s a bright girl and she has the most tremendous breasts . . . Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope for her aspirations in the field of “hard science,” more specifically in my own biotechnology, which she appears to have her heart set on . . . she’s sharp in a way, but it’s the menial work, the hard grafting, that she’s good at—she’d make a lab assistant maybe, but she hasn’t any head for the concepts, no head at all. She could try medicine, I suppose, but even there you need a little bit more chutzpah than she’s got . . . so it might have to be dentistry for our Irie (she could fix her own teeth at least), an honest profession no doubt, but one I hope you’ll be avoiding . . .

  In the end, Irie wasn’t offended. She had the sniffles for a while, but they soon passed. She was like her mother, like her father—a great reinventor of herself, a great make-doer. Can’t be a war correspondent? Be a cyclist. Can’t be a cyclist? Fold paper. Can’t sit next to Jesus with the 144,000? Join the Great Crowd. Can’t stand the Great Crowd? Marry Archie. Irie wasn’t so upset. She just thought, right: dentistry. I’ll be a dentist. Dentistry. Right.

  And meanwhile Joyce was below deck trying to sort out Millat’s problems with white women. Which were numerous. All women, of every shade, from midnight-black to albino, were Millat’s. They slipped him phone numbers, they gave him blow jobs in public places, they crossed crowded bars to buy him a drink, they pulled him into taxis, they followed him home. Whatever it was—the Roman nose, the eyes like a dark sea, the skin like chocolate, the hair like curtains of black silk, or maybe just his pure, simple stink—it sure as hell worked. Now, don’t be jealous. There’s no point. There have always been and always will be people who simply exude sex (who breathe it, who sweat it). A few examples from thin air: the young Brando, Madonna, Cleopatra, Pam Grier, Valentino, a girl called Tamara who lives opposite the London Hippodrome, right slap in the middle of town; Imran Khan, Michelangelo’s David. You can’t fight that kind of marvelous indiscriminate power, for it is not always symmetry or beauty per se that does it (Tamara’s nose is ever so slightly bent), and there are no means by which you can gain it. Surely the oldest American sentence is relevant here, pertinent to matters economic, politic, and romantic: you either got it or you don’t. And Millat had it. In spades. He had the choice of the known world, of every luscious female from a size 8 to a 28, Thai or Tongan, from Zanzibar to Zurich, his vistas of available and willing pussy extending in every direction as far as the eye could see. One might reasonably expect a man with such a natural gift to dip into the tun-dishes of a great variety of women, to experiment far and wide. And yet Millat Iqbal’s main squeezes were almost all exclusively size 10 white Protestant women aged fifteen to twenty-eight, living in and around the immediate vicinity of West Hampstead.

  Initially this neither bothered Millat nor felt unusual to him. His school was full of girls who fitted the general description. By the law of averages—as he was the only guy worth shagging in Glenard Oak—he was going to end up shagging a large proportion of them. And with Karina Cain, the present amour, things were really quite pleasant. He was only cheating on her with three other women (Alexandra Andrusier, Polly Houghton, Rosie Dew), and this was a personal record. Besides which, Karina Cain was different. It wasn’t just sex with Karina Cain. He liked her and she liked him
, and she had a great sense of humor, which felt like a miracle, and she looked after him when he was down and he looked after her too, in his own way, bringing her flowers and stuff. It was both the law of averages, and a lucky, random thing that had made him happier than he usually was. So that was that.

  Except KEVIN didn’t see it that way. One evening, after Karina had dropped him off at a KEVIN meeting in her mother’s Renault, Brother Hifan and Brother Tyrone crossed Kilburn Town Hall like two man-mountains, determined to deliver themselves at the feet of Muhammed. They loomed large.

  “Hey, Hifan, my speed, Tyrone, my man, why the long faces?”

  But Brothers Hifan and Tyrone wouldn’t tell him why the long faces. Instead they gave him a leaflet. It was called: Who Is Truly Free? The Sisters of KEVIN or the Sisters of Soho? Millat thanked them cordially for it. Then he stuffed it in the bottom of his bag.

 
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