White Teeth by Zadie Smith

How was that? they asked him the following week. Was it a good read, Brother Millat? Truth was, Brother Millat hadn’t got round to reading it (and to be honest, he preferred leaflets called things like The Big American Devil: How the United States Mafia Rules the World or Science Versus the Creator: No Contest ), but he could see it seemed to matter to Brother Tyrone and Brother Hifan, so he said he had. They looked pleased and gave him another one. This one was called: Lycra Liberation? Rape and the Western World.

  “Is light broaching your darkness, Brother Millat?” asked Brother Tyrone eagerly, at the following Wednesday’s meeting. “Are things becoming clearer?”

  “Clearer” didn’t seem to Millat to be exactly the right adjective. Earlier in the week he had set aside some time, read both leaflets, and felt peculiar ever since. In three short days Karina Cain, a darling of a girl, a truly good sort who never really irritated him (on the contrary, who made him feel happy! Chuffed!), had irritated him more than she had managed in the whole year they’d been shagging. And no ordinary irritation. A deep unsettleable unsolvable irritation, like an itch on a phantom limb. And it was not clear to him why.

  “Yeah, man, Tyrone,” said Millat with a nod and a wide grin. “Crystal, mate, crystal.”

  Brother Tyrone nodded back. Millat was pleased to see he looked pleased. It was like being in the real-life Mafia or a Bond movie or something. Them both in their black and white suits, nodding at each other. I understand we understand each other.

  “This is Sister Aeyisha,” said Brother Tyrone, straightening Millat’s green bow tie and pushing him toward a tiny, beautiful black girl, with almond eyes and high cheekbones. “She’s an African goddess.”

  “Really?” said Millat, impressed. “Whereabouts you from?”

  “Clapham North,” said Sister Aeyisha, with a shy smile.

  Millat clapped his hands together and stamped his foot. “Oh, man, you must know the Redback Café?”

  Sister Aeyisha the African goddess lit up. “ Yeah, man, that was my place from way back when! You go there?”

  “All the time! Wicked place. Well, maybe I’ll see you round them gates sometime. It was nice to meet you, Sister. Brother Tyrone, I’ve got to chip, man, my gal’s waiting for me.”

  Brother Tyrone looked disappointed. Just before Millat left, he pressed another leaflet into his hand and continued holding his hand until the paper got damp between their two palms.

  “You could be a great leader of men, Millat,” said Brother Tyrone (why did everybody keep telling him that?), looking first at him, then at Karina Cain, the curve of her breasts peeping over the car door, beeping her car horn in the street. “But at the moment you are half the man. We need the whole man.”

  “Yeah, wicked, thanks, you too, Brother,” said Millat, looking briefly at the leaflet, and pushing open the doors. “Later.”

  “What’s that?” asked Karina Cain, reaching over to open the passenger door and spotting the slightly soggy paper in his hand.

  Instinctively, Millat put the leaflet straight in his pocket. Which was weird. He usually showed Karina everything. Now just her asking him grated somehow. And what was she wearing? Same top she always wore. Except wasn’t it shorter? Weren’t the nipples clearer, more deliberate?

  He said, “Nothing.” Grumpily. But it wasn’t nothing. It was the final leaflet in the KEVIN series on Western women. The Right to Bare: The Naked Truth About Western Sexuality.

  Now, while we’re on the subject of nakedness, Karina Cain had a nice little body. All creamy chub and slender extremities. And come the weekend she liked to wear something to show it off. First time Millat noticed her was at some local party when he saw a flash of silver pants, a silver boob-tube, and a bare mound of slightly protruding belly rising up between the two with another bit of silver in the navel. There was something welcoming about Karina Cain’s little belly. She hated it, but Millat loved it. He loved it when she wore things that revealed it. But now the leaflets were making things clearer. He started noticing what she wore and the way other men looked at her. And when he mentioned it she said, “Oh, I hate that. All those leery old men.” But it seemed to Millat that she was encouraging it; that she positively wanted men to look at her, that she was—as The Right to Bare suggested—“prostituting herself to the male gaze.” Particularly white males. Because that’s how it worked between Western men and Western women, wasn’t it? They liked to do it all in public. The more he thought about it, the more it pissed him off. Why couldn’t she cover up? Who was she trying to impress? African goddesses from Clapham North respected themselves, why couldn’t Karina Cain? “I can’t respect you,” explained Millat carefully, making sure he repeated the words just as he had read them, “until you respect yourself.” Karina Cain said she did respect herself, but Millat couldn’t believe her. Which was odd, because he’d never known Karina Cain to lie, she wasn’t the type.

  When they got ready to go out somewhere, he said, “You’re not dressing for me, you’re dressing for everybody!” Karina said she didn’t dress for him or anybody, she dressed for herself. When she sang “Sexual Healing” at the pub karaoke, he said, “Sex is a private thing, between you and me, it’s not for everybody!” Karina said she was singing, not having sex in front of the Rat and Carrot regulars. When they made love, he said, “Don’t do that . . . don’t offer it to me like a whore. Haven’t you heard of unnatural acts? Besides, I’ll take it if I want it—and why can’t you be a lady, don’t make all that noise!” Karina Cain slapped him and cried a lot. She said she didn’t know what was happening to him. Problem is, thought Millat, as he slammed the door off its hinges, neither do I. And after that row they didn’t talk for a while.

  About two weeks later, he was doing a shift in the Palace for a little extra money, and he brought the matter up with Shiva, a newish convert to KEVIN and a rising star within the organization. “Don’t talk to me about white women,” groaned Shiva, wondering how many generations of Iqbals he’d have to give the same advice to. “It’s got to the point in the West where the women are men! I mean, they’ve got the same desires and urges as men —they want it all the fucking time. And they dress like they want everyone to know they want it. Now is that right? Is it?”

  But before the debate could progress, Samad came through the double doors looking for some mango chutney and Millat returned to his chopping.

  That evening after work, Millat saw a moon-faced, demure-looking Indian woman through the window of a Piccadilly café who looked, in profile, not unlike youthful pictures of his mother. She was dressed in a black turtleneck and long black trousers and her eyes were partly veiled by long black hair, her only decoration the red patterns of mhendi on the palms of her hands. She was sitting alone.

  With the same thoughtless balls he used when chatting up dolly birds and disco brains, with the guts of a man who had no qualms about talking to strangers, Millat went in and started giving her the back page of The Right to Bare pretty much verbatim, in the hope that she’d understand. All about soulmates, about self-respect, about women who seek to bring “visual pleasure” only to the men who love them. He explained: “It’s the liberation of the veil, innit? Look, like here: Free from the shackles of male scrutiny and the standards of attractiveness, the woman is free to be who she is inside, immune from being portrayed as sex symbol and lusted after as if she were meat on the shelf to be picked at and looked over. That’s what we think,” he said, uncertain if that was what he thought. “That’s our opinion,” he said, uncertain whether it was his opinion. “You see, I’m from this group—”

  The lady screwed up her face and put her forefinger delicately across his lip. “Oh, darling,” she murmured sadly, admiring his beauty. “If I give you money, will you go away?”

  And then her boyfriend turned up, a surprisingly tall Chinese guy in a leather jacket.

  Deep in a blue funk, Millat resolved to walk the eight miles home, beginning in Soho, glaring at the leggy whores and the crotchless pants and the feather
boas. By the time he reached Marble Arch he had worked himself into such a rage he called Karina Cain from a phone booth plastered with tits and ass (whores, whores, whores) and dumped her unceremoniously. He didn’t mind about the other girls he was shagging (Alexandra Andrusier, Polly Houghton, Rosie Dew) because they were straight up, posh-totty slags. But he minded about Karina Cain, because she was his love, and his love should be his love and nobody else’s. Protected like Liotta’s wife in GoodFellas or Pacino’s sister in Scarface. Treated like a princess. Behaving like a princess. In a tower. Covered up.

  Walking slower now, dragging his heels, there being nobody to go home to, he got waylaid in the Edgware Road, the old fat guys calling him over (“Look, it’s Millat, little Millat the Ladies’ Man! Millat the Prince of Pussy-pokers! Too big to have a smoke is he, now?”), and gave in with a rueful smile. Hookah pipes, halal fried chicken, and illegally imported absinthe consumed around wobbling outdoor tables; watching the women hurry by in full purdah, like busy black ghosts haunting the streets, late-night shopping, looking for their errant husbands. Millat liked to watch them go: the animated talk, the exquisite colors of the communicative eyes, the bursts of laughter from invisible lips. He remembered something his father once told him back when they used to speak to each other. You do not know the meaning of the erotic, Millat, you do not know the meaning of desire, my second son, until you have sat on the Edgware Road with a bubbling pipe, using all the powers of your imagination to visualize what is beyond the four inches of skin hajib reveals, what is under those great sable sheets.

  About six hours later Millat turned up at the Chalfen kitchen table, very, very drunk, weepy and violent. He destroyed Oscar’s Lego fire station and threw the coffee machine across the room. Then he did what Joyce had been waiting for these twelve months. He asked her advice.

  It seemed like months had been spent across that kitchen table since then, Joyce shooing people out of the room, going through her reading material, wringing her hands; the smell of dope mingling with the steam that rose off endless cups of strawberry tea. For Joyce truly loved him and wanted to help him, but her advice was long and complex. She had read up on the subject. And it appeared Millat was filled with self-revulsion and hatred of his own kind; that he had possibly a slave mentality, or maybe a color-complex centered around his mother (he was far darker than she), or a wish for his own annihilation by means of dilution in a white gene pool, or an inability to reconcile two opposing cultures . . . and it emerged that 60 percent of Asian men did this . . . and 90 percent of Muslims felt that . . . it was a known fact that Asian families were often . . . and hormonally boys were more likely to . . . and the therapist she’d found him was really very nice, three days a week and don’t worry about the money . . . and don’t worry about Joshua, he’s just sulking . . . and, and, and.

  Way-back-when in the fuddle of the hash and the talk Millat remembered a girl called Karina Somethingoranother whom he had liked. And she liked him. And she had a great sense of humor that 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. She seemed distant now, like conker fights and childhood. And that was that.

  There was trouble at the Joneses. Irie was about to become the first Bowden or Jones (possibly, maybe, all things willing, by the grace of God, fingers crossed) to enter a university. Her A-levels were chemistry, biology, and religious studies. She wanted to study dentistry (white collar! £20k+ !), which everyone was very pleased about, but she also wanted to take a “year off” in the subcontinent and Africa (Malaria! Poverty! Tapeworm!), which led to three months of open warfare between her and Clara. One side wanted finance and permission, the other side was resolved to concede neither. The conflict was protracted and bitter, and all mediators were sent home empty-handed ( She has made up her mind, there are no arguments to be had with the woman— Samad) or else embroiled in the war of words ( Why can’t she go to Bangladesh if she wants to? Are you saying my country is not good enough for your daughter?— Alsana).

  The stalemate was so pronounced that land had been divided and allocated; Irie claimed her bedroom and the attic, Archie, a conscientious objector, asked only for the spare room, a television, and a satellite (state) dish, and Clara took everything else, with the bathroom acting as shared territory. Doors were slammed. The time for talking was over.

  On October 25, 1991, 0100 hours, Irie embarked upon a late-night attack. She knew from experience that her mother was most vulnerable when in bed; late at night she spoke softly like a child, her fatigue gave her a pronounced lisp; it was at this point that you were most likely to get whatever it was you’d been pining for: pocket money, a new bike, a later curfew. It was such a well-worn tactic that until now Irie had not considered it worthy of this, her fiercest and longest dispute with her mother. But she hadn’t any better ideas.

  “Irie? Wha—? Iss sa middle of sa nice . . . Go back koo bed . . .”

  Irie opened the door further, letting yet more hall light flood the bedroom.

  Archie submerged his head in a pillow. “Bloody hell, love, it’s one in the morning! Some of us have got work tomorrow.”

  “I want to talk to Mum,” said Irie firmly, walking to the end of the bed. “She won’t talk to me during the day, so I’m reduced to this.”

  “Irie, pleaze . . . I’m exhaushed . . . I’m shrying koo gesh shome shleep.”

  “I don’t just want to have a year off, I need one. It’s essential—I’m young, I want some experiences. I’ve lived in this bloody suburb all my life. Everyone’s the same here. I want to go and see the people of the world . . . that’s what Joshua’s doing and his parents support him!”

  “Well, we can’t bloody afford it,” grumbled Archie, emerging from the eiderdown. “We haven’t all got posh jobs in science, now have we?”

  “I don’t care about the money—I’ll get a job, somehow or something, but I do want your permission! Both of you. I don’t want to spend six months away and spend every day thinking you’re angry.”

  “Well, it’s not up to me, love, is it? It’s your mother, really, I . . .”

  “Yes, Dad. Thanks for stating the bloody obvious.”

  “Oh, right,” said Archie huffily, turning to the wall. “I’ll keep my comments to meself, then . . .”

  “Oh, Dad, I didn’t mean . . . Mum? Can you please sit up and speak properly? I’m trying to talk to you? It seems like I’m talking to myself here?” said Irie with absurd intonations, for this was the year Antipodean soap operas were teaching a generation of English kids to phrase everything as a question. “Look, I want your permission, yeah?”

  Even in the darkness, Irie could see Clara scowl. “Permishon for what ? Koo go and share and ogle at poor black folk? Dr. Livingshone, I prejume? Iz dat what you leant from da Shalfenz? Because if thash what you want, you can do dat here. Jush sit and look at me for shix munfs!”

  “It’s nothing to do with that! I just want to see how other people live!”

  “An’ gek youshelf killed in da proshess! Why don’ you go necksh door, dere are uvver people dere. Go shee how dey live!”

  Infuriated, Irie grabbed the bed knob and marched round Clara’s side of the bed. “Why can’t you just sit up properly and talk to me properly and drop the ridiculous little-girl voi—”

  In the darkness Irie kicked over a glass and sucked in a sharp breath as the cold water seeped between her toes and into the carpet. Then, as the last of the water ran away, Irie had the strange and horrid sensation that she was being bitten.


  “Oh, for God’s sake,” said Archie, reaching over to the side lamp and switching it on. “What now?”

  Irie looked down to where the pain was. In any war, this was too low a blow. The front set of some false teeth, with no mouth attached to it, was bearing down upon her right foot.

  “Fucking hell! What the fuck are they?”

  But the question was unnecessary; even
as the words formed in her mouth, Irie had already put two and two together. The midnight voice. The perfect daytime straightness and whiteness.

  Clara hurriedly stretched to the floor and pried her teeth from Irie’s foot and, as it was too late for disguise now, placed them directly on the bedside table.

  “Shatishfied?” asked Clara wearily. (It wasn’t that she had deliberately not told her. There just never seemed a good time.)

  But Irie was sixteen and everything feels deliberate at that age. To her, this was yet another item in a long list of parental hypocrisies and untruths, this was another example of the Jones/Bowden gift for secret histories, stories you never got told, history you never entirely uncovered, rumor you never unraveled, which would be fine if every day was not littered with clues, and suggestions; shrapnel in Archie’s leg . . . photo of strange white Grandpa Durham . . . the name “Ophelia” and the word “madhouse” . . . a cycling helmet and an ancient mudguard . . . smell of fried food from O’Connell’s . . . faint memory of a late-night car journey, waving to a boy on a plane . . . letters with Swedish stamps, Horst Ibelgaufts, if not delivered return to sender . . .

  O what a tangled web we weave. Millat was right: these parents were damaged people, missing hands, missing teeth. These parents were full of information you wanted to know but were too scared to hear. But she didn’t want it anymore, she was tired of it. She was sick of never getting the whole truth. She was returning to sender.

  “Well, don’t look so shocked, love,” said Archie amicably. “It’s just some bloody teeth. So now you know. It’s not the end of the world.”

  But it was, in a way. She’d had enough. She walked back into her room, packed her schoolwork and essential clothes into a big rucksack, and put a heavy coat over her nightie. She thought about the Chalfens for half a second, but she knew already there were no answers there, only more places to escape. Besides, there was only one spare room and Millat had it. Irie knew where she had to go, deep into the heart of it, where only the No. 17 would take her at this time of night, sitting on the top deck, seats decorated with puke, rumbling through forty-seven bus stops before it reached its destination. But she got there in the end.

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