White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  The journalist laughed. “Jesus. What the fuck does that mean?”

  “I dunno,” said Irie. “Surprises, I guess.”

  She continued:

  The mouse will live the seven years it is on display, roughly double the normal life expectancy of a mouse. The mouse development is retarded, therefore, at a ratio of two years for every one. At the end of the first year the SV40 large-T oncogene, which the mouse carries in the insulin-producing pancreas cells, will express itself in pancreatic carcinomas that will continue to develop at a retarded pace throughout its life. At the end of the second year the H-ras oncogene in its skin cells will begin to express itself in multiple benign papillomas that an observer will be able to see clearly three months later with the naked eye. Four years into the experiment the mouse will begin to lose its ability to produce melanin by means of a slow, programmed eradication of the enzyme tyrosinase. At this point the mouse will lose all its pigmentation and become albino: a white mouse. If no external or unexpected interference occurs, the mouse will live until December 31, 1999, dying within the month after that date. The FutureMouse© experiment offers the public a unique opportunity to see a life and death in “close-up.” The opportunity to witness for themselves a technology that might yet slow the progress of disease, control the process of aging, and eliminate genetic defect. The FutureMouse© holds out the tantalizing promise of a new phase in human history, where we are not victims of the random but instead directors and arbitrators of our own fate.

  “Bloody hell,” said the journo. “Scary shit.”

  “Yeah, I guess,” said Irie vacantly (she had ten more calls to make this morning). “Do you want me to post on some of the photographic material?”

  “Yeah, go on. Save me going through the archive. Cheers.”

  Just as Irie put down the phone, Joyce flew into the room like a hippie comet, a great stream of black fringed velvet, caftan, and multiple silk scarves.

  “Don’t use the phone! I’ve told you before. We’ve got to keep the phone free. Millat might be trying to ring.”

  Four days earlier Millat had missed a psychiatrist’s appointment Joyce had arranged for him. He had not been seen since. Everyone knew he was with KEVIN, and everyone knew he had no intention of ringing Joyce. Everyone except Joyce.

  “It’s simply essential that I talk with him if he rings. We’re so close to a breakthrough. Marjorie’s almost certain it’s Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”

  “And how come you know all this? I thought Marjorie was a doctor. What the fuck happened to doctor-patient privilege?”

  “Oh, Irie, don’t be silly. She’s a friend too. She’s just trying to keep me informed.”

  “Middle-class mafia, more like.”

  “Oh really. Don’t be so hysterical. You’re getting more hysterical by the day. Look, I need you to keep off the phone.”

  “I know. You said.”

  “Because if Marjorie’s right, and it is ADHD, he really needs to get to a doctor and some methylphenidate. It’s a very debilitative condition.”

  “Joyce, he hasn’t got a disorder, he’s just a Muslim. There are one billion of them. They can’t all have ADHD.”

  Joyce took in a little gasp of air. “I think you’re being very cruel. That’s exactly the kind of comment that isn’t helpful.”

  She stalked over to the breadboard, tearfully cut off a huge lump of cheese, and said, “Look. The most important thing is that I get the two of them to face each other. It’s time.”

  Irie looked dubious. “Why is it time?”

  Joyce popped the lump of cheese into her mouth. “It’s time because they need each other.”

  “But if they don’t want to, they don’t want to.”

  “Sometimes people don’t know what they want. They don’t know what they need. Those boys need each other like . . .” Joyce thought for a moment. She was bad with metaphor. In a garden you never planted something where something else was meant to be. “They need each other like Laurel and Hardy, like Crick needed Watson—”

  “Like East Pakistan needed West Pakistan.”

  “Well, I don’t think that’s very funny, Irie.”

  “I’m not laughing, Joyce.”

  Joyce cut more cheese from the block, tore two hunks of bread from a loaf, and sandwiched the three together.

  “The fact is both these boys have serious emotional problems and it’s not helped by Millat refusing to see Magid. It upsets him so much. They’ve been split by their religions, by their cultures. Can you imagine the trauma?”

  Irie wished at that moment she had allowed Magid to tell her to tell her to tell her. She would at least have had information. She would have had something to use against Joyce. Because if you listen to prophets, they give you ammunition. The nature of twins. The millionth position of pi (do infinite numbers have beginnings?). And most of all, the double meaning of the word cleave. Did he know which was worse, which more traumatic: pulling together or tearing apart?

  “Joyce, why don’t you worry about your own family for once? Just for a change. What about Josh? When’s the last time you saw Josh?”

  Joyce’s upper lip stiffened. “Josh is in Glastonbury.”

  “Right. Glastonbury’s been over two months, Joyce.”

  “He’s doing a little traveling. He said he might.”

  “And who’s he with? You don’t know anything about those people. Why don’t you worry about that for a while, and keep the fuck out of everybody else’s business.”

  Joyce didn’t even flinch at this. It is hard to explain just how familiar teenage abuse was to Joyce; she got it so regularly these days from her own children and other people’s that a swearword or a cruel comment just couldn’t affect her. She simply weeded them out.

  “The reason I don’t worry about Josh, as you well know,” said Joyce, smiling broadly and speaking in her Chalfen-guide-to-parenting voice, “is because he’s just trying to get a little bit of attention. Rather like you are at this moment. It’s perfectly natural for well-educated middle-class children to act up at his age.” (Unlike many others around this time, Joyce felt no shame about using the term “middle class.” In the Chalfen lexicon the middle classes were the inheritors of the enlightenment, the creators of the welfare state, the intellectual elite, and the source of all culture. Where they got this idea, it’s hard to say.) “But they soon come back into the fold. I’m perfectly confident about Joshua. He’s just acting up against his father and it will pass. But Magid has some real problems. I’ve been doing my research, Irie. And there are just so many signs. I can read them.”

  “Well, you must be misreading them,” Irie shot back, because a battle was about to begin, she could sense it. “Magid’s fine. I was just talking to him. He’s a Zen master. He’s the most fucking serene individual I ever met in my life. He’s working with Marcus, which is what he wants to do, and he’s happy. How about we all try a policy of noninvolvement for once? A little laissez-faire? Magid’s fine.”

  “Irie, darling,” said Joyce, moving Irie along one chair and positioning herself next to the phone. “What you never understand is that people are extreme. It would be wonderful if everyone was like your father, carrying on as normal even if the ceiling’s coming down around his ears. But a lot of people can’t do that. Magid and Millat display extreme behavior. It’s all very well saying laissez-faire and being terribly clever about it, but the bottom line is Millat’s going to get himself into terrible trouble with these fundamentalist people. Terrible trouble. I hardly sleep for worrying about him. You read about these groups in the news . . . And it’s putting a terrible mental strain on Magid. Now, am I meant to just sit back and watch them tear themselves apart, just because their parents—no, I will say it, because it’s true—just because their parents don’t seem concerned? I’ve only ever had those boys’ welfare at heart, you of all people should know that. They need help. I just walked past the bathroom and Magid is sitting in the bath with his jeans on.
Yes. All right? Now,” said Joyce, serene as a bovine, “I should think I know a traumatized child when I see one.”

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  Crisis Talks and Eleventh-Hour Tactics

  “Mrs. Iqbal? It’s Joyce Chalfen. Mrs. Iqbal? I can see you quite clearly. It’s Joyce. I really think we should talk. Could you . . . umm . . . open the door?”

  Yes, she could. Theoretically, she could. But in this atmosphere of extremity, with warring sons and disparate factions, Alsana needed a tactic of her own. She’d done silence, and word strikes, and food consumption (the opposite of a hunger strike; one gets bigger in order to intimidate the enemy), and now she was attempting a sit-down protest.

  “Mrs. Iqbal . . . just five minutes of your time. Magid’s really very upset about all of this. He’s worried about Millat and so am I. Just five minutes, Mrs. Iqbal, please.”

  Alsana didn’t rise from her seat. She simply continued along the hem, keeping her eye on the black thread as it shuttled from one cog to the next and down into the PVC, pressing the pedal of the Singer furiously, as if kicking the flank of a horse she wished to ride into the sunset.

  “Well, you may as well let her in,” said Samad wearily, emerging from the living room, where Joyce’s persistence had disturbed his appreciation of The Antiques Roadshow. (Aside from The Equalizer, starring that great moral arbiter Edward Woodward, it was Samad’s favorite program. He had spent fifteen long televisual years waiting for some Cockney housewife to pull a trinket of Mangal Pande’s out of her handbag. Oh, Mrs. Winterbottom, now this is very exciting. What we have here is the barrel of the musket belonging to . . . He sat with the phone under his right hand so that in the event of such a scenario he could phone the BBC and demand the said Winterbottom’s address and asking price. So far only Mutiny medals and a pocket watch belonging to Havelock, but still he watched.)

  He peered down the hallway at the shadowy form of Joyce through the glass and scratched his testicles, sadly. Samad was in his television mode: garish V-neck, stomach swelling like a tight hot-water bottle beneath it, long moth-eaten dressing gown, and a pair of paisley boxer shorts from which two stick legs, the legacy of his youth, protruded. In his television mode, action escaped him. The box in the corner of the room (which he liked to think of as an antique of its kind, encased in wood and on four legs like some Victorian robot) sucked him in and sapped all energy.

  “Well, why don’t you do something, Mr. Iqbal? Make her go away. Instead of standing there with your flabby gut and your tiny willy on display.”

  Samad grunted and tucked the cause of all his troubles, two huge hairy balls and a defeated-looking limp prick, back into the inner lining of his shorts.

  “She won’t go away,” he murmured. “And if she does, she will only return with reinforcements.”

  “But why? Hasn’t she caused enough trouble?” said Alsana loudly, loud enough for Joyce. “She has her own family, no? Why does she not go and for a change mess them up? She has boys, four boys? How many boys does she want? How bloody many?”

  Samad shrugged, went into the kitchen drawer, and fished out the earphones that could be plugged into the television and thus short-circuit the outside world. He, like Marcus, had disengaged. Leave them, was his feeling. Leave them to their battles.

  “Oh thank you,” said Alsana caustically, as her husband retreated to his pots and guns. “Thank you, Samad Miah, for your oh so valuable contribution. This is what the men do. They make the mess, the century ends, and they leave the women to clear up the shit. Thank you, husband!”

  She increased the speed of her sewing, dashing out the seam, progressing down the inner leg, while the Sphinx of the mailbox continued to ask unanswerable questions.

  “Mrs. Iqbal . . . please, can we talk? Is there any reason why we shouldn’t talk? Do we have to behave like children?”

  Alsana began to sing.

  “Mrs. Iqbal? Please. What can this possibly achieve?”

  Alsana sang louder.

  “I must tell you,” said Joyce, strident as ever, even through three panels of wood and glass, “I’m not here for my health. Whether you want me to be involved or not, I am, you see? I am.”

  Involved. At least that was the right word, Alsana reflected, as she lifted her foot off the pedal, and let the wheel spin a few times alone before coming to a squeaky halt. Sometimes, here in England, especially at bus stops and on the daytime soaps, you heard people say “We’re involved with each other,” as if this were a most wonderful state to be in, as if one chose it and enjoyed it. Alsana never thought of it that way. Involved happened over a long period of time, pulling you in like quicksand. Involved is what befell the moon-faced Alsana Begum and the handsome Samad Miah one week after they’d been pushed into a Delhi breakfast room together and informed they were to marry. Involved was the result when Clara Bowden met Archie Jones at the bottom of some stairs. Involved swallowed up a girl called Ambrosia and a boy called Charlie (yes, Clara had told her that sorry tale) the second they kissed in the pantry of a guest house. Involved is neither good nor bad. It is just a consequence of living, a consequence of occupation and immigration, of empires and expansion, of living in each other’s pockets . . . one becomes involved and it is a long trek back to being uninvolved. And the woman was right, one didn’t do it for one’s health. Nothing this late in the century was done with health in mind. Alsana was no dummy when it came to the Modern Condition. She watched the talk shows, all day long she watched the talk shows—My wife slept with my brother. My mother won’t stay out of my boyfriend’s life—and the microphone holder, whether it be Tanned Man with White Teeth or Scary Married Couple, always asked the same damn silly question: But why do you feel the need . . . ? Wrong! Alsana had to explain it to them through the screen. You blockhead; they are not wanting this, they are not willing it—they are just involved, see? They walk IN and they get trapped between the revolving doors of those two v’s. Involved. The years pass, and the mess accumulates and here we are. Your brother’s sleeping with my ex-wife’s niece’s second cousin. Involved. Just a tired, inevitable fact. Something in the way Joyce said it, involved—wearied, slightly acid—suggested to Alsana that the word meant the same thing to her. An enormous web you spin to catch yourself.

  “OK, OK, lady, five minutes, only. I have three jumpsuits to do this morning come hell or high water.”

  Alsana opened the door and Joyce walked into the hallway, and for a moment they surveyed their opposite number, guessing each other’s weight like nervous prizefighters prior to mounting the scales. They were definitely a match for each other. What Joyce lacked in chest, she made up in bottom. Where Alsana revealed a weakness in delicate features—a thin and pretty nose, light eyebrows—she compensated with the huge pudge of her arms, the dimples of maternal power. For, after all, she was the mother here. The mother of the boys in question. She held the trump card, should she be forced to play it.

  “Okey-dokey, then,” said Alsana, squeezing through the narrow kitchen door, beckoning Joyce to follow. “Is it tea or is it coffee?”

  “Tea,” said Joyce firmly. “Fruit if possible.”

  “Fruit not possible. Not even Earl Grey is possible. I come from the land of tea to this godawful country and then I can’t afford a proper cup of it. P.G. Tips is possible and nothing else.”

  Joyce winced. “P.G. Tips, please, then.”

  “As you wish.”

  The mug of tea plonked in front of Joyce a few minutes later was gray with a rim of scum and thousands of little microbes flitting through it, less micro than one would have hoped. Alsana gave Joyce a moment to consider it.

  “Just leave it for a while,” she explained gaily. “My husband hit a water pipe when digging a trench for some onions. Our water is a little funny ever since. It may give you the running shits or it may not. But give it a minute and it clears. See?” Alsana gave it an unconvincing stir, sending yet larger chunks of unidentified matter bubbling up to the surface. “You see? Fit for Sh
ah Jaha¯n himself!”

  Joyce took a tentative sip and then pushed it to one side.

  “Mrs. Iqbal, I know we haven’t been on the best of terms in the past, but—”

  “Mrs. Chalfen,” said Alsana, putting up her long forefinger to stop Joyce speaking. “There are two rules that everybody knows, from PM to jinricksha-wallah. The first is, never let your country become a trading post. Very important. If my ancestors had followed this advice, my situation presently would be very different, but such is life. The second is, don’t interfere in other people’s family business. Milk?”

  “No, no, thank you. A little sugar . . .”

  Alsana dumped a huge heaped tablespoon into Joyce’s cup.

  “You think I am interfering?”

  “I think you have interfered.”

  “But I just want the twins to see each other.”

  “You are the reason they are apart.”

  “But Magid is only living with us because Millat won’t live with him here. And Magid tells me your husband can hardly stand the sight of him.”

  Alsana, little pressure cooker that she was, blew. “And why can’t he? Because you, you and your husband, have involved Magid in something so contrary to our culture, to our beliefs, that we barely recognize him! You have done that! He is at odds with his brother now. Impossible conflict! Those green bow-tied bastards: Millat is high up with them now. Very involved. He doesn’t tell me, but I hear. They call themselves followers of Islam, but they are nothing but thugs in a gang roaming Kilburn like all the other lunatics. And now they are sending out the—what are they called—folded-paper trouble.”

  “Leaflets?”

  “Leaflets. Leaflets about your husband and his ungodly mouse. Trouble brewing, yes sir. I found them, hundreds of them, under his bed.” Alsana stood up, drew a key out of her apron pocket, and opened a kitchen cupboard stacked full of green leaflets, which cascaded onto the floor. “He’s disappeared again, three days. I have to put them back before he finds out they are gone. Take some, go on, lady, take them, go and read them to Magid. Show him what you have done. Two boys driven to different ends of the world. You have made a war between my sons. You are splitting them apart!”

 
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