White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  Hmph was all Darcus said or ever was to say after. Ask Darcus anything; query him on any subject at any hour of the day or night; interrogate him; chat with him; implore him; declare your love for him; accuse him or vindicate him and he will give you only one answer.

  “I say, isn’t dat right, Darcus?”


  “An’ it not,” exclaimed Hortense, returning to Clara, having received Darcus’s grunt of approval, “dat young man’s soul you boddrin’ yourself wid! How many times must I tell you—you got no time for bwoys!”

  For Time was running out in the Bowden household. This was 1974, and Hortense was preparing for the End of the World, which, in the house diary, she had marked carefully in blue Biro: January 1, 1975. This was not a solitary psychosis of the Bowdens. There were eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses waiting with her. Hortense was in large, albeit eccentric, company. A personal letter had come to Hortense (as secretary of the Lambeth branch of the Kingdom Halls), with a photocopied signature from William J. Rangeforth of the world headquarters of the Watchtower Society in Brooklyn, USA, confirming the date. The end of the world had been officially confirmed with a gold-plated letterhead, and Hortense had risen to the occasion by setting it in an attractive mahogany frame. She had given it pride of place on a doily on top of the television, between a glass figurine of Cinderella on her way to the ball and a tea cozy embroidered with the Ten Commandments. She had asked Darcus whether he thought it looked nice. He had hmphed his assent.

  The end of the world was nigh. And this was not—the Lambeth branch of the church of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was to be assured—like the mistakes of 1914 and 1925. They had been promised the entrails of sinners wrapped around the trunks of trees, and this time the entrails of sinners wrapped around the trunks of trees would appear. They had waited so long for the rivers of blood to overflow the gutters in the high street, and now their thirst would be satiated. The time had come. This was the right date, this was the only date, all other dates that might have been proffered in the past were the result of some bad calculations: someone forgot to add, someone forgot to minus, someone forgot to carry the one. But now was the time. The real thing. January 1, 1975.

  Hortense, for one, was glad to hear it. The first morning of 1925 she had wept like a baby when she awoke to find—instead of hail and brimstone and universal destruction—the continuance of daily life, the regular running of the buses and trains. It had been for nothing, then, all that tossing and turning the previous night; waiting for those neighbors, those who failed to listen to your warnings, shall sink under a hot and terrible fire that shall separate their skin from their bones, shall melt the eyes in their sockets, and burn the babies that suckle at their mothers’ breasts . . . so many of your neighbours shall die that day that their bodies, if lined up side by side, will stretch three hundred times round the earth and on their charred remains shall the true Witnesses of the Lord walk to his side.

  —The Clarion Bell, issue 245

  How bitterly she had been disappointed! But the wounds of 1925 had healed, and Hortense was once again ready to be convinced that apocalypse, just as the right holy Mr. Rangeforth had explained, was round the corner. The promise of the 1914 generation still stood: This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled (Matthew 24:34). Those who were alive in 1914 would live to see the Armageddon. It had been promised. Born in 1907, Hortense was getting old now, she was getting tired and her peers were dying off like flies. 1975 looked like the last chance.

  Had not two hundred of the church’s best intellectuals spent twenty years examining the Bible, and hadn’t this date been their unanimous conclusion? Had they not read between the lines in Daniel, scanned for the hidden meaning in Revelation, correctly identified the Asian wars (Korea and Vietnam) as the period spoken of by the angel, “a time, and times, and half a time”? Hortense was convinced these were the sign of signs. These were the final days. There were eight months to the end of the world. Hardly enough time! There were banners to be made, articles to be written (“Will the Lord Forgive the Onanist?”), doorsteps to be trod, bells to be rung. There was Darcus to think about—who could not walk to the fridge without assistance—how was he to make it to the kingdom of the Lord? And in all Clara must lend a hand; there was no time for boys, for Ryan Topps, for skulking around, for adolescent angst. For Clara was not like other teenagers. She was the Lord’s child, Hortense’s miracle baby. Hortense was all of forty-eight when she heard the Lord’s voice while gutting a fish one morning, Montego Bay, 1955. Straightaway she threw down the marlin, caught the trolley car home, and submitted to her least favorite activity in order to conceive the child He had asked for. Why had the Lord waited so long? Because the Lord wanted to show Hortense a miracle. For Hortense had been a miracle child herself, born in the middle of the legendary Kingston earthquake, 1907, when everybody else was busy dying—miracles ran in the family. Hortense saw it this way: if she could come into this world in the middle of a ground-shaker, as parts of Montego Bay slipped into the sea, and fires came down from the mountains, then nobody had no excuses about nothing no how. She liked to say: “Bein’ barn is de hardest part! Once ya done dat—no problems.” So now that Clara was here, old enough to help her with doorstepping, administration, writing speeches, and all the varied business of the church of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, she’d better get on with it. No time for boys. This child’s work was just beginning. Hortense—born while Jamaica crumbled—did not accept apocalypse before one’s twentieth birthday as any excuse for tardiness.

  Yet strangely, and possibly because of Jehovah’s well-documented penchant for moving in a mysterious manner, it was in performing the business of the Lord that Clara eventually met Ryan Topps face-to-face. The youth group of the Lambeth Kingdom Hall had been sent doorstepping on a Sunday morning, Separating the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31–46), and Clara, detesting the young Witness men with their bad ties and softly spoken voices, had set off alone with her own suitcase to ring bells along Creighton Road. The first few doors she received the usual pained faces: nice women shooing her away as politely as possible, making sure they didn’t get too close, scared they might catch religion like an infection. As she got into the poorer end of the street, the reaction became more aggressive; shouts came from windows or behind closed doors.

  “If that’s the bloody Jehovah’s Witnesses, tell ’em to piss off!”

  Or, more imaginatively, “Sorry, love, don’t you know what day it is? It’s Sunday, innit? I’m knackered. I’ve spent all week creating the land and oceans. It’s me day of rest.”

  At No. 75 she spent an hour with a fourteen-year-old physics whizz called Colin who wanted to intellectually disprove the existence of God while looking up her skirt. Then she rang No. 87. And Ryan Topps answered.


  He stood there in all his red-headed, black turtlenecked glory, his lip curled in a snarl.

  “I . . . I . . .”

  She tried desperately to forget what she was wearing: a white shirt complete with throat-ruffle, plaid knee-length skirt, and sash that proudly stated NEARER MY GOD TO THEE.

  “You want sommink?” said Ryan, taking a fierce drag of a dying cigarette. “Or sommink?”

  Clara tried her widest, bucktoothed smile and went on to autopilot. “Marnin’ to you, sir. I am from de Lambet’ Kingdom Hall, where we, de Witnesses of Jehovah, are waitin’ for de Lord to come and grace us wid His holy presence once more; as He did briefly—bot sadly, invisibly—in de year of our Farder, 1914. We believe dat when He makes Himself known He will be bringing wid ’Im de treefold fires of hell in Armageddon, dat day when precious few will be saved. Are you int’rested in—”


  Clara, close to tears at the shame of it, tried again. “Are you int’rested in de teachins of Jehovah?”

  “You wot?”

  “In Jehovah—in de teachins of d’Lord. You see, it like a staircase.” Clara’s last resor
t was always her mother’s metaphor of the holy steps. “I see dat you walkin’ down and der’s a missin’ step comin’. I’m just tellin’ you: watch your step! Me jus wan’ share heaven wid you. Me nah wan’ fe see you bruk-up your legs.”

  Ryan Topps leaned against the door frame and looked at her for a long time through his red bangs. Clara felt she was closing in on herself, like a telescope. It was only moments, surely, before she disappeared entirely.

  “I ’ave some materials of readin’ for your perusal—” She fumbled with the lock of the suitcase, flipped the catch with her thumb, but neglected to hold the other side of the case. Fifty copies of the Watchtower spilled over the doorstep.

  “Bwoy, me kyant do nuttin’ right today—”

  She fell to the ground in a rush to pick them up and scraped the skin off her left knee. “Ow!”

  “Your name’s Clara,” said Ryan slowly. “You’re from my school, ain’t ya?”

  “Yes, man,” said Clara, so jubilant he remembered her name that she forgot the pain. “St. Jude’s.”

  “I know wot it’s called.”

  Clara went as red as black people get and looked at the floor.

  “Hopeless causes. Saint of,” said Ryan, picking something surreptitiously from his nose and flicking it into a flowerpot. “IRA. The lot of ’em.”

  Ryan surveyed the long figure of Clara once more, spending an inordinate amount of time on two sizable breasts, the outline of their raised nipples just discernible through white polyester.

  “You best come in,” he said finally, lowering his gaze to inspect the bleeding knee. “Put somefin’ on that.”

  That very afternoon there were furtive fumblings on Ryan’s couch (which went a good deal further than one might expect of a Christian girl) and the devil won another easy hand in God’s poker game. Things were tweaked, and pushed, and pulled; and by the time the bell rang for end of school Monday, Ryan Topps and Clara Bowden (much to their school’s collective disgust) were more or less an item; as the St. Jude’s phraseology went, they were “dealing” with each other. Was it everything that Clara, in all her sweaty adolescent invention, had imagined?

  Well, “dealing” with Ryan turned out to consist of three major pastimes (in order of importance): admiring Ryan’s scooter, admiring Ryan’s records, admiring Ryan. But though other girls might have balked at dates that took place in Ryan’s garage and consisted entirely of watching him pore over the engine of a scooter, eulogizing its intricacies and complexities, to Clara there was nothing more thrilling. She learned quickly that Ryan was a man of painfully few words and that the rare conversations they had would only ever concern Ryan: his hopes, his fears (all scooter-related), and his peculiar belief that he and his scooter would not live long. For some reason, Ryan was convinced of the aging fifties motto “Live fast, die young,” and, though his scooter didn’t do more than 22 mph downhill, he liked to warn Clara in grim tones not to get “too involved,” for he wouldn’t be here long; he was “going out” early and with a “bang.” She imagined herself holding the bleeding Ryan in her arms, hearing him finally declare his undying love; she saw herself as Mod Widow, wearing black turtlenecks for a year and demanding “Waterloo Sunset” be played at his funeral. Clara’s inexplicable dedication to Ryan Topps knew no bounds. It transcended his bad looks, tedious personality, and unsightly personal habits. Essentially, it transcended Ryan, for whatever Hortense claimed, Clara was a teenage girl like any other; the object of her passion was only an accessory to the passion itself, a passion that through its long suppression was now asserting itself with volcanic necessity. Over the ensuing months, Clara’s mind changed, Clara’s clothes changed, Clara’s walk changed, Clara’s soul changed. All over the world girls were calling this change Donny Osmond or Michael Jackson or the Bay City Rollers. Clara chose to call it Ryan Topps.

  There were no dates, in the normal sense. No flowers or restaurants, movies or parties. Occasionally, when more weed was required, Ryan would take her to visit a large squat in North London where an eighth came cheap and people too stoned to make out the features on your face acted like your best friends. Here, Ryan would ensconce himself in a hammock, and, after a few joints, progress from his usual monosyllabic state to the entirely catatonic. Clara, who didn’t smoke, sat at his feet, admired him, and tried to keep up with the general conversation around her. She had no tales to tell like the others, not like Merlin, like Clive, like Leo, Petronia, Wan-Si, and the rest. No anecdotes of LSD trips, of police brutality, or marching on Trafalgar Square. But Clara made friends. A resourceful girl, she used what she had to amuse and terrify an assorted company of Hippies, Flakes, Freaks, and Funky Folk: a different kind of extremity; tales of hellfire and damnation, of the devil’s love of feces, his passion for stripping skin, for red-hot-pokering eyeballs and the flaying of genitals—all the elaborate plans of Lucifer, that most exquisite of fallen angels, that were set for January 1, 1975.

  Naturally, the thing called Ryan Topps began to push the End of the World further and further into the back rooms of Clara’s consciousness. So many other things were presenting themselves to her, so much new in life! If it were possible, she felt like one of the Anointed right now, right here in Lambeth. The more blessed she felt on earth, the more rarely she turned her thoughts toward heaven. In the end, it was the epic feat of long division that Clara simply couldn’t figure. So many unsaved. Out of eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses, only 144,000 men could join Christ in heaven. The good women and good-enough men would gain paradise on earth—not a bad booby prize, all things considered—but that still left a good two million who failed to make the grade. Add that to the heathens; to the Jews, Catholics, Muslims; to the poor jungle men in the Amazon for whom Clara had wept as a child; so many unsaved. The Witnesses prided themselves on the absence of hell in their theology—the punishment was torture, unimaginable torture on the final day, and then the grave was the grave. But to Clara, this seemed worse—the thought of the Great Crowd, enjoying themselves in earthly paradise, while the tortured, mutilated skeletons of the lost lay just under the topsoil.

  On the one side stood all the mammoth quantities of people on the globe, unacquainted with the teachings of the Watchtower (some with no access to a mailbox), unable to contact the Lambeth Kingdom Hall and receive helpful reading material about the road to redemption. On the other side, Hortense, her hair all wrapped up in iron rollers, tossing and turning in her sheets, gleefully awaiting the rains of sulfur to pour down upon the sinners, particularly the woman at No. 53. Hortense tried to explain: “Dem dat died widout knowing de Lord, will be resurrected and dem will have anudder chance.” But to Clara, it was still an inequitable equation. Unbalanceable books. Faith is hard to achieve, easy to lose. She became more and more reluctant to leave the impress of her knees in the red cushions in the Kingdom Hall. She would not wear sashes, carry banners, or give out leaflets. She would not tell anyone about missing steps. She discovered dope, forgot the staircase, and began taking the elevator.

  October 1, 1974. A detention. Held back forty-five minutes after school (for claiming, in a music lesson, that Roger Daltrey was a greater musician than Johann Sebastian Bach) and as a result, Clara missed her four o’clock meeting with Ryan on the corner of Leenan Street. It was freezing cold and getting dark by the time she got out; she ran through piles of putrefying autumn leaves, searched the length and breadth of Leenan, but there was no sign. It was with dread that she approached her own front door, offering up to God a multitude of silent contracts (I’ll never have sex, I’ll never smoke another joint, I’ll never wear another skirt above the knee) if only He could assure her that Ryan Topps had not rung her mother’s doorbell looking for shelter from the wind.

  “Clara! Come out of de cold.”

  It was the voice Hortense put on when she had company—an overcompensation of all the consonants—the voice she used for pastors and white women.

  Clara closed the front door behind her, and walked in a kind of
terror through the living room, past Jesus who wept (and then didn’t), and into the kitchen.

  “Dear Lord, she look like someting de cat dragged in, hmm?”

  “Mmm,” said Ryan, who was happily shoveling a plate of ackee and saltfish into his mouth on the other side of the tiny kitchen table.

  Clara stuttered, her buckteeth cutting shapes into her bottom lip. “What are you doing here?”

  “Ha!” cried Hortense, almost triumphant. “You tink you can hide your friends from me forever? De bwoy was cold, I let ’im in, we been havin’ a nice chat, haven’t we, young man?”

  “Mmm, yes, Mrs. Bowden.”

  “Well, don’ look so shock. You’d tink I was gwan eat ’im up or someting, eh Ryan?” said Hortense, glowing in a manner Clara had never seen before.

  “Yeah, right,” smirked Ryan. And together, Ryan Topps and Clara’s mother began to laugh.

  Is there anything more likely to take the shine off an affair than when the lover strikes up a convivial relationship with the lovee’s mother? As the nights got darker and shorter and it became harder to pick Ryan out of the crowd who milled outside the school gates each day at three-thirty, a dejected Clara would make the long walk home only to find her lover once more in the kitchen, chatting happily with Hortense, devouring the Bowden household’s cornucopia of goodies: ackee and saltfish, beef jerky, chicken-rice-and-peas, ginger cake, and coconut ices.

  These conversations, lively as they sounded when Clara turned the key in the door, always fell silent as she approached the kitchen. Like children caught out, they would become sullen, then awkward, then Ryan would make his excuses and leave. There was also a look, she noticed, that they had begun to give her, a look of sympathy, of condescension; and not only that—they began to comment on her clothing, which had become steadily more youthful, more colorful; and Ryan—what was happening to Ryan?—shed his turtleneck, avoided her in school, bought a tie.

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