White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “Clara’s darter,” repeated Hortense in a tearful whisper. “She might have been yours.”

  Nothing surprised Irie about this final, whispered aside; she just added it to the list: Ambrosia Bowden gave birth in an earthquake . . . Captain Charlie Durham was a no-good djam fool bwoy . . . false teeth in a glass . . . she might have been yours . . .

  Halfheartedly, with no expectation of an answer, Irie asked, “What?”

  “Oh, nuttin’, Irie, dear. Nuttin’, nuttin’. Let me start fryin’. I can hear bellies rumblin’. You remember Clara, don’t you Mr. Topps? You and she were quite good . . . friends. Mr. Topps?”

  For two minutes now Ryan had been fixing Irie with an unwavering stare, his body held absolutely straight, his mouth slightly open. At the question, he seemed to compose himself, closed his mouth, and took his seat at the unlaid table.

  “Clara’s daughter, is it? Erhummmm . . .” He removed what looked like a small policeman’s pad from his breast pocket and poised a pen upon it as if this would kickstart his memory.

  “You see, many of the episodes, people, and events from my earlier life have been, as it were, severed from myself by the almighty sword that cut me from my past when the Lord Jehovah saw fit to enlighten me with the Truth, and as he has chosen me for a new role I must, as Paul so wisely recommended in his epistle to the Corinfians, put away childish things, allowing earlier incarnations of myself to be enveloped into a great smog in which,” said Ryan Topps, taking only the smallest breath and his cutlery from Hortense, “it appears that your mother, and any memory I might ’ave of her, ’ave disappeared. Erhummmm.”

  “She never mentioned you either,” said Irie.

  “Well, it was all a long time ago now,” said Hortense with forced joviality. “But you did try your best wid ’er, Mr. Topps. She was my miracle child, Clara. I was forty-eight! I taut she was God’s child. But Clara was bound for evil . . . she never was a godly girl an’ in de end dere was nuttin’ to be done.”

  “He will send down His vengeance, Mrs. B.,” said Ryan, with more cheerful animation than Irie had yet seen him display. “He will send terrible torture to those who ’ave earned it. Three plantain for me, if you please.”

  Hortense set all three plates down and Irie, realizing she hadn’t eaten since the previous morning, scraped a mountain of plantain onto her plate.

  “Ah! It’s hot!”

  “Better hot dan lukewarm,” said Hortense grimly, with a meaningful shudder. “Ever so, hamen.”

  “Amen,” echoed Ryan, braving the red-hot plantain. “Amen. So. What exactly is it that you are studyin’?” he asked, looking so intently past Irie that it took a moment before she realized he was addressing her.

  “Chemistry, biology, and religious studies.” Irie blew on a hot piece of plantain. “I want to be a dentist.”

  Ryan perked up. “Religious studies? And do they acquaint you with the only true church?”

  Irie shifted in her seat. “Er . . . I guess it’s more the big three. Jews, Christians, Muslims. We did a month on Catholicism.”

  Ryan grimaced. “And do you have any uvver in-ter-rests?”

  Irie considered. “Music. I like music. Concerts, clubs, that kind of thing.”

  “Yes, erhummmm. I used to go in for all that myself at one time. Until the Good News was delivered unto me. Large gatherings of yoof, of the kind that frequent popular concerts, are commonly breeding grounds for devil worship. A girl of your physical . . . assets might find herself lured into the lascivious arms of a sexualist,” said Ryan, standing up from the table and looking at his watch. “Now that I fink about it, in a certain light you look a lot like your mother. Similar . . . cheekbones.”

  Ryan wiped a pearly line of sweat from his forehead. There was a silence in which Hortense stood motionless, clinging nervously to a dishcloth, and Irie had to physically cross the room for a glass of water to remove herself from Mr. Topps’s stare.

  “Well. That’s twenty minutes and counting, Mrs. B. I’ll get the gear, shall I?”

  “Oh yes, Mr. Topps,” said Hortense beaming. But the moment Ryan left the room the beam turned to a scowl.

  “Why must you go an’ say tings like dat, hmm? You wan’ ’im to tink you some devilish heathen gal? Why kyan you say stamp-collecting or some ting? Come on, I gat to clean deez plates—finish up.”

  Irie looked at the pile of food left on her plate and guiltily tapped her stomach.

  “Cho! Just as I suspeck. Your eyes see more dan your belly can hol’! Give it ’ere.”

  Hortense leaned against the sink and began popping bits of plantain into her mouth. “Now, you don’ backchat Mr. Topps while you here. You gat study to do an’ he gat study too,” said Hortense, lowering her voice. “He’s in consultation with the Brooklyn gentlemen at de moment . . . fixing de final date; no mistakes dis time. You jus’ ’ave to look at de trouble goin’ on in de world to know we nat far from de appointed day.”

  “I won’t be any trouble,” said Irie, approaching the washing-up as a gesture of goodwill. “He just seems a little . . . weird.”

  “De ones who are chosen by the Lord always seem peculiar to de heathen. Mr. Topps is jus’ misunderstood. ’Im mean a lot to me. Me never have nobody before. Your mudder don’ like to tell you since she got all hitey-titey, but de Bowden family have had it hard long time. I was barn during an eart-quake. Almost kill fore I was barn. An’ den when me a fully grown woman, my own darter run from me. Me never see my only grandpickney. I only have de Lord, all dem years. Mr. Topps de first human man who look pon me and take pity an’ care. Your mudder was a fool to let ’im go, true sir!”

  Irie gave it one last try. “What? What does that mean?”

  “Oh, nuttin, nuttin, dear Lord . . . I and I talking all over de place dis marnin . . . Oh Mr. Topps, dere you are. We not going to be late now, are we?”

  Mr. Topps, who had just reentered the room, was fully adorned in leather from head to toe, a huge motorcycle helmet on his head, a small red light attached to his left ankle and a small white light strapped to his right. He flipped up the visor.

  “No, we’re all right, by the grace of God. Where’s your helmet, Mrs. B.?”

  “Oh, I’ve started keepin’ it in the oven. Keeps it warm and toasty on de col’ marnins. Irie Ambrosia, fetch it for me please.”

  Sure enough, on the middle shelf of the oven, preheated to low, sat Hortense’s helmet. Irie scooped it out and carefully fitted it over her grandmother’s plasticated carnations.

  “You ride a motorbike,” said Irie, by way of conversation.

  But Mr. Topps seemed defensive. “A GS Vespa. Nuffink fancy. I did fink about givin’ it away at one point. It represented a life I’d raaver forget, if you get my meaning. A motorbike is a sexual magnet, an’ God forgive me, but I misused it in that fashion. I was all set on gettin’ rid of it. But then Mrs. B. convinced me that what wiv all my public speaking, I need somefing quick to get around on. An’ Mrs. B. don’t want to be messin’ about with buses and trains at her age, do you, Mrs. B.?”

  “No, indeed. He got me dis little buggy—”

  “Sidecar,” corrected Ryan tetchily. “It’s called a sidecar. Minetto Motorcycle combination, 1973 model.”

  “Yes, of course, a sidecar, an’ it is comfortable as a bed. We go everywhere in it, Mr. Topps an’ I.”

  Hortense took down her overcoat from a hook on the door, and reached in the pockets for two Velcro reflector bands, which she strapped round each arm.

  “Now, Irie, I’ve got a great deal of bizness to be gettin’ on with today, so you’re going to have to cook for yourself, because I kyan tell what time we’ll be home. But don’ worry. Me soon come.”

  “No problem.”

  Hortense sucked her teeth. “No problem. Dat’s what her name mean in patois: Irie, no problem. Now, what kind of a name is dat to . . . ?”

  Mr. Topps didn’t answer. He was already out on the pavement, revving up the Vespa.

  “Fi
rst I have to keep her from those Chalfens,” growls Clara over the phone, her voice a resonant tremolando of anger and fear. “And now you people again.”

  On the other end, her mother takes the washing out of the machine and listens silently through the cordless that is tucked between ear and weary shoulder, biding her time.

  “Hortense, I don’t want you filling her head with a whole load of nonsense. You hear me? Your mother was fool to it, and then you were fool to it, but the buck stopped with me and it ain’t going no further. If Irie comes home spouting any of that claptrap, you can forget about the Second Comin’ ’cos you’ll be dead by the time it arrives.”

  Big words. But how fragile is Clara’s atheism! Like one of those tiny glass doves Hortense keeps in the living-room cabinet—a breath would knock it over. Talking of which, Clara still holds hers when passing churches the same way adolescent vegetarians scurry by butchers; she avoids Kilburn on a Saturday for fear of streetside preachers on their upturned apple crates. Hortense senses Clara’s terror. Coolly cramming in another load of whites and measuring out the liquid with a thrifty woman’s eye, she is short and decided: “Don’ you worry about Irie Ambrosia. She in a good place now. She’ll tell you herself.” As if she had ascended with the heavenly host rather than entombed herself below ground in the borough of Lambeth with Ryan Topps.

  Clara hears her daughter getting on the extension; an initial crackle and then a voice as clear as a carillon. “Look, I’m not coming home, all right, so don’t bother. I’ll be back when I’m back, just don’t worry about me.” And there should be nothing to worry about and there is nothing to worry about, except maybe that outside in the streets it is cold packed on cold, even the dogshit has crystallized, there is the first suggestion of ice on the windscreens and Clara has been in that house through the winters. She knows what it means. Oh, wonderfully bright at 6:00 a.m., yes, wonderfully clear for an hour. But the shorter the days, the longer the nights, the darker the house, the easier it is, the easier it is, the easier it is, to mistake a shadow for the writing on the wall, the sound of overland footsteps for the distant crack of thunder, and the midnight chime of a New Year clock for the bell that tolls the end of the world.

  But Clara needn’t have feared. Irie’s atheism was robust. It was Chalfenist in its confidence, and she approached her stay with Hortense with detached amusement. She was intrigued by the Bowden household. It was a place of endgames and aftertimes, fullstops and finales; where to count on the arrival of tomorrow was an indulgence, and every service in the house, from the milkman to the electricity, was paid for on a strictly daily basis so as not to spend money on utilities or goods that would be wasted should God turn up in all his holy vengeance the very next day. Bowdenism gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “hand-to-mouth.” This was living in the eternal instant, ceaselessly teetering on the precipice of total annihilation; there are people who take a great deal of drugs simply to experience something comparable to eighty-four-year-old Hortense Bowden’s day-to-day existence. So you’ve seen dwarfs rip open their bellies and show you their insides, you’ve been a television switched off without warning, you’ve experienced the whole world as one Krishna consciousness, free of individual ego, floating through the infinite cosmos of the soul? Big fucking deal. That’s all bullshit next to St. John’s trip when Christ laid the twenty-two chapters of Revelation on him. It must have been a hell of a shock for the apostle (after that thorough spin-job, the New Testament, all those sweet words and sublime sentiments) to discover Old Testament vengeance lurking round the corner after all. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. That must have been some eye-opener.

  Revelation is where all crazy people end up. It’s the last stop on the nutso express. And Bowdenism, which was the Witnesses plus Revelation and then some, was as left field as they come. Par exemple: Hortense Bowden interpreted Revelation 3:15–16—I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth—as a literal mandate. She understood “lukewarm” to be an evil property in and of itself. She kept a microwave on hand at all times (her sole concession to modern technology—for a long time it was a toss-up between pleasing the Lord and laying oneself open to the United States mind-ray control program as operated through high-frequency radio waves) in order to heat every meal to an impossible temperature; she kept whole buckets of ice to chill every glass of water “colder than cold.” She wore two pairs of panties at all times like a wary potential traffic victim; when Irie asked why, she sheepishly revealed that upon hearing the first signs of the Lord (approaching thunder, bellowing voice, Wagner’s Ring cycle), she intended to whip off the one closest to her and replace it with the outer pair, so that Jesus would find her fresh and odorless and ready for heaven. She kept a tub of black paint in the hallway so when the time came she might daub the neighbors’ doors with the sign of the Beast, saving the Lord all that trouble of weeding out the baddies, separating sheep from goats. And you couldn’t form any sentence in that house which included the words “end,” “finished,” “done,” etc., for these were like so many triggers setting off both Hortense and Ryan with the usual ghoulish relish:

  Irie: I finished the washing-up.

  Ryan Topps (shaking his head solemnly at the truth of it): As one day we all shall be finished, Irie, my dear; be zealous therefore, and repent.

  Or

  Irie: It was a such a good film. The end was great!

  Hortense Bowden (tearfully): And dem dat expeck such an end to dis world will be sorely disappointed, for He will come trailin’ terror and Lo de generation dat witness de events of 1914 shall now witness de turd part of de trees burn, and the turd part of de sea become as blood, and de turd part of de . . .

  And then there was Hortense’s horror of weather reports. Whoever it was, however benign, honey-voiced and inoffensively dressed, she cursed them bitterly for the five minutes they stood there, and then, out of what appeared to be sheer perversity, proceeded to take the opposite of whatever advice had been proffered (light jacket and no umbrella for rain, long raincoat and rain hat for sun). It was several weeks before Irie understood that weathermen were the secular antithesis of Hortense’s life work, which was, essentially, a kind of supercosmic attempt to second-guess the Lord with one almighty biblical exegesis of a weather report. Next to that weathermen were nothing but upstarts . . . And tomorrow, coming in from the east, we can expect a great furnace to rise up and envelop the area with flames that give no light, but rather darkness visible . . . while I’m afraid the northern regions are advised to wrap up warm against thick-ribbed ice, and there’s a fair likelihood that the coast will be beaten with perpetual storms of whirlwind and dire hail, which on firm land thaws not . . . Michael Fish and his ilk were stabbers-in-the-dark, trusting to the tomfoolery of the Met Office, making a mockery of that precise science, eschatology, that Hortense had spent over fifty years in the study of.

  “Any news, Mr. Topps?” (This question almost invariably asked over breakfast; and girlishly, breathlessly, like a child asking after Santa.)

  “No, Mrs. B. We are still completing our studies. You must let my colleagues and myself deliberate thoroughly. In this life there are them that are teachers and then there are them that are pupils. There are eight million Witnesses of Jehovah waiting for our decision, waiting for the Judgment Day. But you must learn to leave such fings to them that ’ave the direct line, Mrs. B., the direct line.”

  After skipping class for a few weeks, in late January Irie returned to school. But it seemed so distant; even the journey from south to north each morning felt like an almighty polar trek, and worse, one that stopped short of its goal and ended up instead in the tepid regions, a nonevent compared with the boiling maelstrom of the Bowden home. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. You become so used to extremity, suddenly nothing else will do.

&n
bsp; She saw Millat regularly, but their conversations were brief. He was green-tied now and otherwise engaged. She still did Marcus’s filing twice a week, but avoided the rest of the family. She saw Josh fleetingly. He seemed to be avoiding the Chalfens as assiduously as she. Her parents she saw on weekends, icy occasions when everybody called everybody by their first names (Irie, can you pass the salt to Archie? Clara, Archie wants to know where the scissors are), and all parties felt deserted. She sensed that she was being whispered about in nw2, the way North Londoners will when they suspect someone of coming down with religion, that nasty disease. So she hurried back to No. 28 Lindaker Road, Lambeth, relieved to be back in the darkness, for it was like hibernating or being cocooned, and she was as curious as everyone else to see what kind of Irie would emerge. It wasn’t any kind of prison. That house was an adventure. In cupboards and neglected drawers and in grimy frames were the secrets that had been hoarded for so long, as if secrets were going out of fashion. She found pictures of her great-grandmother Ambrosia, a bony, beautiful thing, with huge almond eyes, and one of Charlie “Whitey” Durham standing in a pile of rubble with a sepia-print sea behind him. She found a Bible with one line torn from it. She found photo-booth snaps of Clara in school uniform, grinning maniacally, the true horror of the teeth revealed. She read alternately from Dental Anatomy by Gerald M. Cathey and The Good News Bible, and raced voraciously through Hortense’s small and eclectic library, blowing the red dust of a Jamaican schoolhouse off the covers and often using a penknife to cut never-before-read pages. February’s list was as follows:

  An Account of a West Indian Sanatorium, by Geo. J. H. Sutton Moxly. London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co., 1886. (There was an inverse correlation between the length of the author’s name and the poor quality of his book.)

  Tom Cringle’s Log, by Michael Scott. Edinburgh: 1875.

 
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