White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  In Sugar Cane Land, by Eden Phillpotts. London: McClure & Co., 1893.

  Dominica: Hints and Notes to Intending Settlers, by His Honour H. Hesketh Bell, CMG. London: A. & C. Black, 1906.

  The more she read, the more that picture of dashing Capt. Durham aroused her natural curiosity: handsome and melancholy, surveying the bricks of half a church, looking worldly-wise despite his youth, looking every inch the Englishman, looking like he could tell someone or another a thing or two about something. Maybe Irie herself. Just in case, she kept him under her pillow. And in the mornings it wasn’t Italianate vineyards out there anymore, it was sugar, sugar, sugar, and next door was nothing but tobacco and she presumptuously fancied that the smell of plantain sent her back to somewhere, somewhere quite fictional, for she’d never been there. Somewhere Columbus called St. Jago but the Arawaks stubbornly renamed Xaymaca, the name lasting longer than they did. Well-wooded and Watered. Not that Irie had heard of those little sweet-tempered pot-bellied victims of their own sweet tempers. Those were some other Jamaicans, fallen short of the attention span of history. She laid claim to the past—her version of the past—aggressively, as if retrieving misdirected mail. So this was where she came from. This all belonged to her, her birthright, like a pair of pearl earrings or a post office bond. X marks the spot, and Irie put an X on everything she found, collecting bits and pieces (birth certificates, maps, army reports, news articles) and storing them under the sofa, so that as if by osmosis the richness of them would pass through the fabric while she was sleeping and seep right into her.

  As the buds came in January, so like any anchoress she was visited. First, by voices. Coming crackling over Hortense’s neolithic radio, Joyce Chalfen on Gardeners’ Question Time:

  Foreman: Another question from the audience, I think. Mrs. Sally Whitaker from Bournemouth has a question for the panel, I believe. Mrs. Whitaker?

  Mrs. Whitaker: Thank you, Brian. Well, I’m a new gardener and this is my first frost and in two short months my garden’s gone from being a real color explosion to a very bare thing indeed . . . Friends have advised flowers with a compact habit but that leaves me with lots of tiny auricula and double daisies, which look silly because the garden’s really quite large. Now, I’d really like to plant something a little more striking, around the height of a delphinium, but then the wind gets it and people look over their fences thinking: Dear oh dear (sympathetic laughter from the studio audience). So, my question to the panel is, how do you keep up appearances in the bleak midwinter?

  Foreman: Thank you, Mrs. Whitaker. Well, it’s a common problem . . . and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier for the seasoned gardener. Personally, I never get it quite right. Well, let’s hand the question over to the panel, shall we? Joyce Chalfen, any answers or suggestions for the bleak midwinter?

  Joyce Chalfen: Well, first I must say your neighbors sound very nosy. I’d tell them to mind their own beeswax if I were you (laughter from audience). But to be serious, I think this whole trend for round-the-clock bloom is actually very unhealthy for the garden and the gardener and particularly the soil, I really do . . . I think the winter should be a time of rest, subdued colors, you know—and then when the late spring does finally arrive the neighbors get a hell of a shock! Boom! There it is, this wonderful explosion of growth. I think the deep winter is really a time for nurturing the soil, turning it over, allowing it a rest and plotting its future all the better to surprise the nosy people next door. I always think of a garden’s soil like a woman’s body—moving in cycles, you know, fertile at some times and not others, and that’s really quite natural. But if you really are determined, then Lenten roses—Helleborus corsicus—do remarkably well in cold, calcareous soil, even if they’re quite in the—

  Irie switched Joyce off. It was quite therapeutic, switching Joyce off. This was not entirely personal. It just seemed tiring and unnecessary all of a sudden, that struggle to force something out of the recalcitrant English soil. Why bother when there was now this other place? (For Jamaica appeared to Irie as if it were newly made. Like Columbus himself, just by discovering it she had brought it into existence.) This well-wooded and watered place. Where things sprang from the soil riotously and without supervision, and a young white captain could meet a young black girl with no complications, both of them fresh and untainted and without past or dictated future—a place where things simply were. No fictions, no myths, no lies, no tangled webs—this is how Irie imagined her homeland. Because homeland is one of the magical fantasy words like unicorn and soul and infinity that have now passed into the language. And the particular magic of homeland, its particular spell over Irie, was that it sounded like a beginning. The beginningest of beginnings. Like the first morning of Eden and the day after apocalypse. A blank page.

  But every time Irie felt herself closer to it, to the perfect blankness of the past, something of the present would ring the Bowden doorbell and intrude. Mothering Sunday brought a surprise visit from Joshua, angry on the doorstep, at least twenty-one pounds lighter, and much scruffier than usual. Before Irie had a chance to express either concern or shock, he had flounced into the room and slammed the door. “I’m sick of it! Sick to the back fucking teeth with it!”

  The vibration of the door knocked Capt. Durham from his perch on Irie’s windowsill, and she carefully reerected him.

  “Yeah, nice to see you too, man. Why don’t you sit down and slow down. Sick of what?”

  “Them. They sicken me. They go on about rights and freedoms, and then they eat fifty chickens every fucking week! Hypocrites!”

  Irie couldn’t immediately see the connection. She took out a fag in preparation for a long story. To her surprise Joshua took one too, and they went to kneel on the window seat, blowing smoke through the grate up into the street.

  “Do you know how battery chickens live?”

  Irie didn’t. Joshua explained. Cooped up for most of their poor chicken lives in total chicken darkness, packed together like chicken sardines in their chicken shit and fed the worst type of chicken grain.

  And this, according to Joshua, was apparently nothing on how pigs and cows and sheep spent their time. “It’s a fucking crime. But try telling Marcus that. Try getting him to give up his Sunday hog-fest. He’s so fucking ill-informed. Have you ever noticed that? He knows this enormous amount about one thing, but there’s this whole other world that . . . Oh, before I forget—you should take a leaflet.”

  Irie never thought she would see the day when Joshua Chalfen handed her a leaflet. But here it was in her palm. It was called: Meat Is Murder: The Facts and the Fiction, a publication from the FATE organization.

  “It stands for Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation. They’re like the hardcore end of Greenpeace or whatever. Read it—they’re not just hippie freaks, they’re coming from a solid scientific and academic background and they’re working from an anarchist perspective. I feel like I’ve really found my niche, you know? It’s a really incredible group. Dedicated to direct action. The deputy’s an ex-Oxford fellow.”

  “Mmmm. How’s Millat?”

  Joshua shook off the question. “Oh, I don’t know. Barmy. Going barmy. And Joyce is still pandering to his every whim. Just don’t ask me. They all sicken me. Everything’s changed.” Josh ran his fingers anxiously through his hair, which just reached his shoulders now in what Willesdeners affectionately call a Jewfro Mullet. “I just can’t tell you how everything’s changed. I’m having these real . . . moments of clarity.”

  Irie nodded. She was sympathetic to moments of clarity. Her seventeenth year was proving chock-a-block with them. And she wasn’t surprised by Joshua’s metamorphosis. Four months in the life of a seventeen-year-old is the stuff of swings and roundabouts; Stones fans into Beatles fans, Tories into Liberal Democrats and back again, vinyl junkies to CD freaks. Never again in your life do you possess the capacity for such total personality overhaul.

  “I knew you’d understand. I wish I’d talked to you before, but
I just can’t bear to be in the house these days and when I do see you Millat always seems to be in the way. It’s really good to see you.”

  “You too. You look different.”

  Josh gestured dismissively at his clothes, which were distinctly less nerdy than they had been.

  “I guess you can’t wear your father’s old corduroys forever.”

  “I guess not.”

  Joshua clapped his hands together. “Well, I’ve booked my ticket for Glastonbury and I might not come back. I met these people from FATE and I’m going with them.”

  “It’s March. Not till the summer, surely.”

  “Joely and Crispin—that’s these people I met—say we might go up there early. You know, camp out for a bit.”

  “And school?”

  “If you can bunk, I can bunk . . . it’s not as if I’m going to fall behind. I’ve still got a Chalfen head on my shoulders, I’ll just come back for the exams and then fuck off again. Irie, you’ve just got to meet these people. They’re just . . . incredible. He’s a Dadaist. And she’s an anarchist. A real one. Not like Marcus. I told her about Marcus and his bloody FutureMouse. She thinks he’s a dangerous individual. Quite possibly psychopathic.”

  Irie thought about this. “Mmm. I’d be surprised.”

  Without stubbing out his fag, he threw it up onto the pavement. “And I’m giving up all meat. I’m a pescatarian at the moment, but that’s just half measures. I’m becoming a fucking vegetarian.”

  Irie shrugged, not certain what the right response should be.

  “There’s a lot to be said for the old motto, you know?”

  “Old motto?”

  “Fight fire with fire. It’s only by really fucking extreme behavior that you can get through to somebody like Marcus. He doesn’t even know how out there he is. There’s no point being reasonable with him because he thinks he owns reasonableness. How do you deal with people like that? Oh, and I’m giving up leather—wearing it—and all other animal by-products. Gelatin and stuff.”

  After a while of watching the feet go by—leathers, sneakers, heels—Irie said, “That’ll show ’em.”

  On April Fool’s Day, Samad turned up. He was all in white, on his way to the restaurant, crumpled and creased like a disappointed saint. He looked to be on the brink of tears. Irie let him in.

  “Hello, Miss Jones,” said Samad, bowing ever so slightly. “And how is your father?”

  Irie smiled with recognition. “You see him more than we do. How’s God?”

  “Perfectly fine, thank you. Have you seen my good-for-nothing son recently?”

  Before Irie had a chance to give her next line, Samad broke down in front of her and had to be led into the living room, sat in Darcus’s chair, and brought a cup of tea before he could speak.

  “Mr. Iqbal, what’s wrong?”

  “What is right?”

  “Has something happened to Dad?”

  “Oh no, no . . . Archibald is fine. He is like the washing-machine advert. He carries on and on as ever.”

  “Then what?”

  “Millat. He has been missing these three weeks.”

  “God. Well, have you tried the Chalfens?”

  “He is not with them. I know where he is. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. He is on some retreat with these lunatic green-tie people. In a sports center in Chester.”

  “Bloody hell.”

  Irie sat down cross-legged and took out a fag. “I hadn’t seen him in school, but I didn’t realize how long it had been. But if you know where he is . . .”

  “I didn’t come here to find him, I came to ask your advice, Irie. What can I do? You know him—how does one get through?”

  Irie bit her lip, her mother’s old habit. “I mean, I don’t know . . . we’re not as close as we were . . . but I’ve always thought that maybe it’s the Magid thing . . . missing him . . . I mean he’d never admit it . . . but Magid’s his twin and maybe if he saw him—”

  “No, no. No, no, no. I wish that were the solution. Allah knows how I pinned all my hopes on Magid. And now he says he is coming back to study the English law—paid for by these Chalfen people. He wants to enforce the laws of man rather than the laws of God. He has learned none of the lessons of Muhammad—peace be upon Him! Of course, his mother is delighted. But he is nothing but a disappointment to me. More English than the English. Believe me, Magid will do Millat no good and Millat will do Magid no good. They have both lost their way. Strayed so far from the life I had intended for them. No doubt they will both marry white women called Sheila and put me in an early grave. All I wanted was two good Muslim boys. Oh, Irie . . .” Samad took her free hand and patted it with sad affection. “I just don’t understand where I have gone wrong. You teach them but they do not listen because they have the Public Enemy music on at full blast. You show them the road and they take the bloody path to the Inns of Court. You guide them and they run from your grasp to a Chester sports center. You try to plan everything and nothing happens in the way that you expected . . .”

  But if you could begin again, thought Irie, if you could take them back to the source of the river, to the start of the story, to the homeland . . . But she didn’t say that, because he felt it as she felt it and both knew it was as useless as chasing your own shadow. Instead she took her hand from underneath his and placed it on top, returning the stroke. “Oh, Mr. Iqbal. I don’t know what to say . . .”

  “There are no words. The one I send home comes out a pukka Englishman, white-suited, silly wig lawyer. The one I keep here is fully paid-up green-bow-tie-wearing fundamentalist terrorist. I sometimes wonder why I bother,” said Samad bitterly, betraying the English inflections of twenty years in the country, “I really do. These days, it feels to me like you make a devil’s pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started . . . but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers—who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally housebroken. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil’s pact . . . it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere.”

  “Oh, that’s not true, surely.”

  “And then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie . . . and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter?”

  As Samad described this dystopia with a look of horror, Irie was ashamed to find that the land of accidents sounded like paradise to her. Sounded like freedom.

  “Do you understand, child? I know you understand.”

  And what he really meant was: do we speak the same language? Are we from the same place? Are we the same?

  Irie squeezed his hand and nodded vigorously, trying to ward off his tears. What else could she tell him but what he wanted to hear?

  “Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes, yes.”

  When Hortense and Ryan came home that evening after a late-night prayer meeting, both were in a state of high excitement. Tonight was the night. After giving Hortense a flurry of instructions as to the typesetting and layout of his latest Watchtower article, Ryan went into the hallway to make his telephone call to Brooklyn to get the news.

  “But I thought he was in consultation with them.”

  “Yes, yes, he is . . . but de final confirmation, you understand, mus’ come from Mr. Charles Wintry himself in Brooklyn,” said Hortense breathlessly. “What a day dis is! What a day! Help me wid liftin’ dis typewriter now . . . I need it on de table.”

  Irie did as she was told, carrying the enormous old Remington to the kitchen and putting it down in front of Hortense. Hortense passed Irie a bundle of white paper covered in Ryan’s tiny script.
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  “Now you read dat to me, Irie Ambrosia, slowly now . . . an’ I’ll get it down in type.”

  Irie read for half an hour or so, wincing at Ryan’s horrible corkscrew prose, passing the whitening fluid when it was required, and gritting her teeth at the author’s interruptions, as every ten minutes he popped back into the room to adjust his syntax or rephrase a paragraph.

  “Mr. Topps, did you get trew yet?”

  “Not yet, Mrs. B., not yet. Very busy, Mr. Charles Wintry. I’m going to try again now.”

  A sentence, Samad’s sentence, was passing through Irie’s tired brain. Sometimes I wonder why I bother. And now that Ryan was out of the way, Irie saw her opportunity to ask it, though she phrased it carefully.

  Hortense leaned back in her chair and placed her hands in her lap. “I bin doin’ dis a very long time, Irie Ambrosia. I bin’ waitin’ ever since I was a pickney in long socks.”

  “But that’s no reason—”

  “What d’you know fe reasons? Nuttin’ at all. The Witness church is where my roots are. It bin good to me when nobody else has. It was de good ting my mudder gave me, an’ I nat going to let it go now we so close to de end.”

  “But Gran, it’s not . . . you won’t ever . . .”

  “Lemme tell you someting. I’m not like dem Witnesses jus’ scared of dyin’. Jus’ scared. Dem wan’ everybody to die excep’ dem. Dat’s not a reason to dedicate your life to Jesus Christ. I gat very different aims. I still hope to be one of de Anointed evan if I am a woman. I want it all my life. I want to be dere wid de Lord making de laws and de decisions.” Hortense sucked her teeth long and loud. “I gat so tired wid de church always tellin’ me I’m a woman or I’m nat heducated enough. Everybody always tryin’ to heducate you; heducate you about dis, heducate you about dat . . . Dat’s always bin de problem wid de women in dis family. Somebody always tryin’ to heducate them about someting, pretendin’ it all about learnin’ when it all about a battle of de wills. But if I were one of de hundred an’ forty-four, no one gwan try to heducate me. Dat would be my job! I’d make my own laws an’ I wouldn’t be wanting anybody else’s opinions. My mudder was strong-willed deep down, and I’m de same. Lord knows, your mudder was de same. And you de same.”

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