White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “Lord a Jesus,” mumbled Hortense, iron curlers unmoved, bleary-eyed on the doorstep. “Irie Ambrosia Jones, is that you ?”


  Chalfenism Versus Bowdenism

  It was Irie Jones all right. Six years older than the last time they met. Taller, wider, with breasts and no hair, and slippers just visible underneath a long duffle coat. And it was Hortense Bowden. Six years older, shorter, wider, with breasts on her belly and no hair (though she took the peculiar step of putting her wig in curlers) and slippers just visible underneath a long, quilted baby-pink housecoat. But the real difference was Hortense was eighty-four. Not a littleoldwoman by any means; she was a round robust one, her fat so taut against her skin the epidermis was having a hard time wrinkling. Still, eighty-four is not seventy-seven or sixty-three; at eighty-four there is nothing but death ahead, tedious in its insistence. It was there in her face as Irie had never seen it before. The waiting and the fear and the blessed relief.

  Yet though there were differences, as Irie walked down the steps and into Hortense’s basement flat, she was struck by the shock of sameness. Way-back-when, she had been a fairly regular visitor at her grandmother’s: sneaky visits with Archie while her mother was at college, and always leaving with something unusual, a pickled fish head, chili dumplings, the lyrics of a stray but persistent psalm. Then at Darcus’s funeral in 1985, ten-year-old Irie had let slip about these social calls and Clara had put a stop to them altogether. They still called each other on the phone, on occasion. And to this day Irie received short letters on notebook paper with a copy of the Watchtower slipped inside. Sometimes Irie looked at her mother’s face and saw her grandmother: those majestic cheekbones, those feline eyes. But they had not been face-to-face for six years.

  As far as the house was concerned, six seconds seemed to have passed. Still dark, still dank, still underground. Still decorated with hundreds of secular figurines (“Cinderella on Her Way to the Ball,” “Mrs. Tiddlytum Shows the Little Squirrels the Way to the Picnic”), all balanced on their separate doilies and laughing gaily among themselves, amused that anyone would pay a hundred and fifty pounds in fifteen installments for such inferior pieces of china and glass as they. A huge tripartite tapestry, which Irie remembered the sewing of, now hung on the wall above the fireplace, depicting, in its first strip, the Anointed sitting in judgment with Jesus in heaven. The Anointed were all blond and blue-eyed and appeared as serene as Hortense’s cheap wool would allow, and were looking down at the Great Crowd—who were happy-looking, but not as happy as the Anointed—frolicking in eternal paradise on earth. The Great Crowd were in turn looking piteously at the heathens (by far the largest group), dead in their graves and packed on top of each other like sardines.

  The only thing missing was Darcus (whom Irie only faintly remembered as a mixture of smell and texture; naphthalene and damp wool); there was his huge empty chair, still fetid, and there was his television, still on.

  “Irie, look at you! Pickney nah even got a gansey on—child must be freezin’! Shiverin’ like a Mexico bean. Let me feel you. Fever! You bringin’ fever into my house?”

  It was important, in Hortense’s presence, never to admit to illness. The cure, as in most Jamaican households, was always more painful than the symptoms.

  “I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong with—”

  “Oh, really?” Hortense put Irie’s hand on her own forehead. “That’s fever as sure as fever is fever. Feel it?”

  Irie felt it. She was hot as hell.

  “Come ’ere.” Hortense grabbed a rug from Darcus’s chair and wrapped it around Irie’s shoulders. “Now come into the kitchen an’ cease an’ sekkle. Runnin’ roun’ on a night like dis, wearin’ flimsy nonsense! You’re having a hot drink of cerace and den gone a bed quicker den you ever did in your life.”

  Irie accepted the smelly wrap and followed Hortense into the tiny kitchen, where they both sat down.

  “Let me look at you.”

  Hortense leaned against the oven with hands on hips. “You look like Mr. Death, your new lover. How you get here?”

  Once again, one had to be careful in answering. Hortense’s contempt for London Transport was a great comfort to her in her old age. She could take one word like train and draw a melody out of it (Northern Line), which expanded into an aria (The Underground) and blossomed into a theme (The Overground) and then grew exponentially into an operetta (The Evils and Inequities of British Rail).

  “Er . . . Bus. Number seventeen. It was cold on the top deck. Maybe I caught a chill.”

  “I don’ tink dere’s any maybes about it, young lady. An’ I’m sure I don’ know why you come ’pon de bus, when it take tree hours to arrive an’ leave you waitin’ in de col’ an’ den’ when you get pon it de windows are open anyway an’ you freeze half to death.”

  Hortense poured a colorless liquid from a small plastic container into her hand. “Come ’ere.”

  “Why?” demanded Irie, immediately suspicious. “What’s that?”

  “Nuttin’, come ’ere. Take off your spectacles.”

  Hortense approached with a cupped hand.

  “Not in my eye! There’s nothing wrong with my eye!”

  “Stop fussin’. I’m not puttin’ nuttin’ in your eye.”

  “Just tell me what it is,” pleaded Irie, trying to work out for which orifice it was intended and screaming as the cupped hand reached her face, spreading the liquid from forehead to chin.

  “Aaagh! It burns!”

  “Bay rum,” said Hortense matter-of-factly. “Burns de fever away. No, don’ wash it off. Jus’ leave it to do its biznezz.”

  Irie gritted her teeth as the torture of a thousand pinpricks faded to five hundred, then twenty-five, until finally it was just a warm flush of the kind delivered by a slap.

  “So!” said Hortense, entirely awake now and somewhat triumphant. “You finally dash from that godless woman, I see. An’ caught a flu while you doin’ it! Well . . . there are those who wouldn’t blame you, no, not at all . . . No one knows better dan me what dat woman be like. Never at home, learnin’ all her isms and schisms in the university, leavin’ husband and pickney at home, hungry and maga. Lord, naturally you flee! Well . . .” She sighed and put a copper kettle on the stove. “It is written, And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains; for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal; yea, ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzzial, king of Judah: and the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with thee. Zachariah 14:5. In the end the good ones will flee from the evil. Oh, Irie Ambrosia . . . I knew you come in de end. All God’s children return in de end.”

  “Gran, I haven’t come to find God. I just want to do some quiet study here and get my head together. I need to stay a few months—at least till the New Year. Oh . . . ugh . . . I feel a bit woozy. Can I have an orange?”

  “Yes, dey all return to de Lord Jesus in de end,” continued Hortense to herself, placing the bitter root of cerace into a kettle. “Dat’s not a real orange, dear. All de fruit is plasticated. De flowers are plasticated also. I don’t believe de Lord meant me to spend de little housekeeping money I possess on perishable goods. Have some dates.”

  Irie grimaced at the shriveled fruit plonked in front of her.

  “So you lef Archibald wid dat woman . . . poor ting. Me always like Archibald,” said Hortense sadly, scrubbing the brown scum from a teacup with two soapy fingers. “Him was never my objection as such. He always been a level-headed sort a fellow. Blessed are de peacekeepers. He always strike me as a peacekeeper. But it more de principle of de ting, you know? Black and white never come to no good. De Lord Jesus never meant us to mix it up. Dat’s why he made a hol’ heap a fuss about de children of men building de tower of Babel. ’Im want everybody to keep tings separate. The Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. Genesis 11:9. When you mix it up, nutti
n’ good can come. It wasn’t intended. Except you,” she added as an afterthought. “You’re about de only good ting to come out of dat . . . Bwoy, sometime it like lookin’ in a mirror-glass,” she said, lifting Irie’s chin with her wrinkled digits. “You built like me, big, you know! Hip and tie and rhas, and titties. My mudder was de same way. You even named after my mudder.”

  “Irie?” asked Irie, trying hard to listen, but feeling the damp smog of her fever pulling her under.

  “No, dear, Ambrosia. De stuff dat make you live forever. Now,” she said, clapping her hands together, catching Irie’s next question between them, “you sleepin’ in de living room. I’ll get a blanket and pillows and den we talk in de marnin’. I’m up at six, ’cos I got Witness biznezz, so don’ tink you sleeping none after eight. Pickney, you hear me?”

  “Mmm. But what about Mum’s old room? Can’t I just sleep in there?”

  Hortense took Irie’s weight half on her shoulder and led her into the living room. “No, dat’s not possible. Dere is a certain situation,” said Hortense mysteriously. “Dat can wait till de sun is up to be hexplained. Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed,” she intoned quietly, turning to go. “And nothing hid, that shall not be known. Dat is Mat-chew, 10:26.”

  A winter morning was the only time worth spending in that basement flat. Between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., when the sun was still low, light shot through the front window, bathed the living room in yellow, dappled the long thin allotment (7 ft × 30 ft), and gave a healthy veneer to the tomatoes. You could almost convince yourself, at 6:00 a.m., that you were downstairs in some Continental cabana, or at least street level in Torquay, rather than below ground in Lambeth. The glare was such that you couldn’t make out the railway sidings where the strip of green ended, or the busy everyday feet that passed by the window, kicking dust through the grating at the glass. It was all white light and clever shade at six in the morning. Hugging a cup of tea at the kitchen table, squinting at the grass, Irie saw vineyards out there; she saw Florentine scenes instead of the uneven higgledy-piggledy of Lambeth rooftops; she saw a muscular shadowy Italian plucking full berries and crushing them underfoot. Then the mirage, sun-reliant as it was, disappeared, the whole scene swallowed by a devouring cloud. Leaving only some crumbling Edwardian housing. Railway sidings named after a careless child. A long, narrow strip of allotment where next to nothing would grow. And a bleached-out bandy-legged redheaded man with terrible posture and Wellington boots, stamping away in the frosty mulch, trying to shake the remnants of a squashed tomato from his heel.

  “Dat is Mr. Topps,” said Hortense, hurrying across the kitchen in a dark maroon dress, the eyes and hooks undone, and a hat in her hand with plastic flowers askew. “He has been such a help to me since Darcus died. He soothes away my vexation and calms my mind.”

  She waved to him and he straightened up and waved back. Irie watched him pick up two plastic bags filled with tomatoes and walk in his strange pigeon-footed manner up the garden toward the back kitchen door.

  “An’ he de only man who made a solitary ting grow out dere. Such a crop of tomatoes as you never did see! Irie Ambrosia, stop starin’ and come an’ do up dis dress. Quick before your goggle-eye fall out.”

  “Does he live here?” whispered Irie in amazement, struggling to join the two sides of Hortense’s dress over her substantial flank. “I mean, with you?”

  “Not in de sense you meaning,” sniffed Hortense. “He is jus’ a great help to me in my ol’ age. He bin wid me deez six years, God bless ’im and keep ’is soul. Now, pass me dat pin.”

  Irie passed her the long hat pin that was sitting on top of a butter dish. Hortense set the plastic carnations straight on her hat and stabbed them fiercely, then brought the pin back up through the felt, leaving two inches of exposed silver sticking up from the hat like a German pickelhaube.

  “Well, don’ look so shock. It a very satisfactory arrangement. Women need a man ’bout de house, udderwise ting an’ ting get messy. Mr. Topps and I, we ol’ soldiers fightin’ the battle of de Lord. Some time ago he converted to the Witness church, an’ his rise has been quick an’ sure. I’ve waited fifty years to do someting else in de Kingdom Hall except clean,” said Hortense sadly, “but dey don’ wan’ women interfering with real church bizness. Bot Mr. Topps do a great deal, and ’im let me help on occasion. He’s a very good man. But ’im family are nasty-nasty,” she murmured confidentially. “The farder is a terrible man, gambler an’ whoremonger . . . so after a while, I arks him to come and live with me, seein’ how de room empty and Darcus gone. ’Im a very civilized bwoy. Never married, though. Married to de church, yes, suh! An’ ’im call me Mrs. Bowden deez six years, never any ting else.” Hortense sighed ever so slightly. “Don’ know de meaning of bein’ improper. De only ting he wan’ in life is to become one of de Anointed. I have de greatest hadmiration for him. He himproved so much. He talk so posh now, you know! And ’im very good wid de pipin’ an’ plummin’ also. How’s your fever?”

  “Not great. Last hook . . . there, that’s done.”

  Hortense fairly bounced away from her and walked into the hall to open the back door to Ryan.

  “But Gran, why does he live—”

  “Well, you’re going to have to eat up dis marnin’—feed a fever, starve a col’. Deez tomatoes fried wid plantain and some of las’ night’s fish. I’ll fry it up and den pop it in de microwave.”

  “I thought it was starve a fe—”

  “Good marnin’, Mr. Topps.”

  “Good mornin’, Missus Bowden,” said Mr. Topps, closing the door behind him and peeling off a protective anorak to reveal a cheap blue suit, with a tiny gold cross pendant on the collar. “I trust you is almost of a readiness? We’ve got to be at the hall on the dot of seven.”

  As yet, Ryan had not spotted Irie. He was bent over shaking the mud from his boots. And he did it formidably slowly, just as he spoke, and with his translucent eyelids fluttering like a man in a coma. Irie could only see half of him from where she stood: red bangs, a bent knee, and the shirt cuff of one hand.

  But the voice was a visual in itself: Cockney yet refined, a voice that had had much work done upon it—missing key consonants and adding others where they were never meant to be, and all delivered through the nose with only the slightest help from the mouth.

  “Fine mornin’, Mrs. B., fine mornin’. Somefing to fank the Lord for.”

  Hortense seemed terribly nervous about the imminent likelihood that he should raise his head and spot the girl standing by the stove. She kept beckoning Irie forward and then shooing her back, uncertain whether they should meet at all.

  “Oh yes, Mr. Topps, it is, an’ I am ready as ready can be. My hat give me a little trouble, you know, but I just got a pin an—”

  “But the Lord ain’t interested in the vanities of the flesh, now, is he, Mrs. B.?” said Ryan, slowly and painfully enunciating each word while crouching awkwardly and removing his left boot. “Jehovah is in need of your soul.”

  “Oh yes, surely dat is de holy troot,” said Hortense anxiously, fingering her plasticated carnations. “But at de same time, surely a Witness lady don’ wan’ look like a, well, a buguyaga in de house of de Lord.”

  Ryan frowned. “My point is, you must avoid interpretin’ scripture by yourself, Mrs. Bowden. In future, discuss it wiv myself and my colleagues. Ask us: is pleasant clothing a concern of the Lord’s? And myself and my colleagues among the Anointed, will look up the necessary chapter and verse . . .”

  Ryan’s sentence faded into a general Erhummmm, a sound he was prone to making. It began in his arched nostrils and reverberated through his slight, elongated, misshapen limbs like the final shiver of a hanged man.

  “I don’ know why I do it, Mr. Topps,” said Hortense shaking her head. “Sometime I tink I could be one of dem dat teach, you know? Even though I am a woman . . . I feel like the Lord talk to me in a special way . . . It jus’ a bad habit . . . but so
much in de church change recently, sometimes me kyan keep up wid all de rules and regulations.”

  Ryan looked out through the storm windows. His face was pained. “Nuffin’ changes about the word of God, Mrs. B. Only people are mistaken. The best thing you can do for the Truth, is just pray that the Brooklyn Hall will soon deliver us with the final date. Erhummmm.”

  “Oh yes. Mr. Topps. I do it day and night.”

  Ryan clapped his hands together in a pale imitation of enthusiasm. “Now, did I ’ear you say plantain for breakfast, Mrs. B.?”

  “Oh yes, Mr. Topps, and dem tomatoes if you will be kind enough to han’ dem over to de chef.”

  As Hortense had hoped, the passing of the tomatoes coincided with the spotting of Irie.

  “Now, dis is my granddarter, Irie Ambrosia Jones. And dis is Mr. Ryan Topps. Say hello, Irie, dear.”

  Irie did so, stepping forward nervously and reaching out her hand to shake his. But there was no response from Ryan Topps, and the inequality was only increased when on the sudden he seemed to recognize her; there was a pulse of familiarity as his eyes moved over her, whereas Irie saw nothing, not even a type, not even a genre of face in his; the monstrosity of him was quite unique, redder than any redhead, more freckled than the freckled, more blue-veined than a lobster.

  “She’s—she’s—Clara’s darter,” said Hortense tentatively. “Mr. Topps knew your mudder, long time. But it all right, Mr. Topps, she come to live wid us now.”

  “Only for a little time,” Irie corrected hurriedly, noting the look of vague horror on Mr. Topps’s face. “Just for a few months, maybe, through the winter while I study. I’ve got exams in June.”

  Mr. Topps did not move. Moreover nothing on him moved. Like one of China’s terra-cotta army, he seemed poised for battle yet unable to move.

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