White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “It’s not a leaflet,” said Magid, collecting his knife and fork from the tray. “It is an invitation to a launch.”

  “You what?” said Mickey excitedly (in the grammar of his daily tabloid, launch meant lots of cameras, expensive-looking birds with huge tits, red carpets). “Really?”

  Millat passed him the invite. “Incredible things are to be seen and heard there.”

  “Oh,” said Mickey, disappointed, eyeing the expensive piece of card. “I’ve heard about this bloke and his mouse.” He had heard about this bloke and his mouse in this same tabloid; it was a kind of filler between the tits and the more tits and it was underneath the headline: one bloke and his mouse.

  “Seems a bit dodgy to me, messing wiv God an’ all that. ’Sides I ain’t that scientifically minded, you see. Go right over my head.”

  “Oh, I don’t think so. One just has to look at the thing from a perspective that interests you personally. Take your skin, for example.”

  “I wish somebody would fuckin’ take it,” joked Mickey amiably. “I’ve ’ad a-fucking-nuff of it.”

  Magid did not smile.

  “You suffer from a serious endocrine disorder. By which I mean, it is not simply adolescent acne caused by the overexcretion of sebum, but a condition that comes from a hormonal defect. I presume your family share it?”

  “Er . . . yeah, as it happens. All my brothers. And my son, Abdul-Jimmy. All spotty bastards.”

  “But you would not like it if your son were to pass on the condition to his sons.”

  “Obviously, no. I ’ad terrible trouble in school. I carry a knife to this day, Magid. But I can’t see how that can be avoided, to be honest with you. Been goin’ on for decades.”

  “But you see,” said Magid (and what an expert he was at the personal interest angle!), “it can certainly be avoided. It would be perfectly simple and much misery would be saved. That is the kind of thing we will be discussing at the launch.”

  “Oh, well, if that’s the case, you know, count me in. I thought it was just some bloody mutant-mouse or sommink, you see. But if that’s the case . . .”

  “Thirty-first of December,” said Magid, before walking down the aisle to his father. “It will be wonderful to see you there.”

  “You took your time,” said Archie, as Magid approached their table.

  “Did you come by way of the Ganges?” inquired Samad irritably, shifting up to make space for him.

  “Pardon me, please. I was just speaking with your friend, Michael. A very decent chap. Oh, before I forget, Archibald, he said that it would be perfectly acceptable to pay in Luncheon Vouchers this evening.”

  Archie almost choked on a little toothpick he was chewing. “He said what? Are you sure?”

  “Quite sure. Now, Abba, shall we begin?”

  “There’s nothing to begin,” growled Samad, refusing to look him in the eye. “I am afraid we are already far into whatever diabolic plot fate has in store for me. And I want you to know, that I am not here of my own volition but because your mother begged me to do this and because I have more respect for that poor woman than either you or your brother ever had.”

  Magid released a wry, gentle smile. “I thought you were here because Amma beat you in the wrestling.”

  Samad scowled. “Oh yes, ridicule me. My own son. Do you never read the Qurn? Do you not know the duties a son owes to his father? You sicken me, Magid Mubtasim.”

  “Oi, Sammy, old man,” said Archie, playing with the ketchup, trying to keep things light. “Steady on.”

  “No, I will not steady on! This boy is a thorn in my foot.”

  “Surely ‘side’?”

  “Archibald, stay out of this.”

  Archie returned his attention to the pepper and salt cellars, trying to pour the former into the latter.

  “Right you are, Sam.”

  “I have a message to deliver and I will deliver it and no more. Magid, your mother wants you to meet with Millat. The woman Chalfen will arrange it. It is their opinion that the two of you must talk.”

  “And what is your opinion, Abba?”

  “You don’t want to hear my opinion.”

  “On the contrary, Abba, I would very much like to hear it.”

  “Simply, I think it is a mistake. I think you two can do no possible good for each other. I think you should go to opposite corners of the earth. I think I have been cursed with two sons more dysfunctional than Mr. Cain and Mr. Abel.”

  “I am perfectly willing to meet with him, Abba. If he will meet with me.”

  “Apparently he is willing, this is what I am told. I don’t know. I don’t talk with him any more than I talk with you. I am too busy at the moment trying to make my peace with God.”

  “Er . . .” said Archibald, crunching on his toothpick out of hunger and nerves, and because Magid gave him the heebie-jeebies, “I’ll go and see if the food is ready, shall I? Yes. I’ll do that. What am I picking up for you, Madge?”

  “A bacon sandwich, please, Archibald.”

  “Bac—? Er . . . right. Right you are.”

  Samad’s face blew up like one of Mickey’s fried tomatoes. “So you mean to mock me, is that it? In front of my face you wish to show me the kaffir that you are. Go on, then! Munch on your pig in front of me! You are so bloody clever, aren’t you? Mr. Smarty-pants. Mr. White-trousered Englishman with his stiff-upper-lip and his big white teeth. You know everything, even enough to escape your own Judgment Day.”

  “I am not so clever, Abba.”

  “No, no, you are not. You are not half as clever as you think. I don’t know why I bother to warn you, but I do: you are on a direct collision course with your brother, Magid. I keep my ear to the ground, I hear Shiva talking in the restaurant. And there are others: Mo Hussein-Ishmael, Mickey’s brother, Abdul-Colin, and his son, Abdul-Jimmy—these are only a few, there are many more, and they are organizing against you. Millat is with them. Your Marcus Chalfen has stirred a great deal of anger and there are some, these green-ties, who are willing to act. Who are crazy enough to do what they believe is right. Crazy enough to start a war. There aren’t many people like that. Most of us just follow along once war has been announced. But some people wish to bring things to a head. Some people march onto the parade ground and fire the first shot. Your brother is one of them.”

  All through this, as Samad’s face contorted from anger to despair, to near-hysterical grins, Magid had remained blank, his face an unwritten page.

  “You have nothing to say? This news does not surprise you?”

  “Why don’t you reason with them, Abba,” said Magid after a pause. “Many of them respect you. You are respected in the community. Reason with them.”

  “Because I disapprove as strongly as they do, for all their lunacies. Marcus Chalfen has no right. No right to do as he does. It is not his business. It is God’s business. If you meddle with a creature, the very nature of a creature, even if it is a mouse, you walk into the arena that is God’s: creation. You infer that the wonder of God’s creation can be improved upon. It cannot. Marcus Chalfen presumes. He expects to be worshiped when the only thing in the universe that warrants worship is Allah. And you are wrong to help him. Even his own son has disowned him. And so,” said Samad, unable to suppress the drama queen deep within his soul, “I must disown you.”

  “Ah, now, one chips, beans, egg, and mushroom for you, Sammy-my-good-man,” said Archibald, approaching the table and passing the plate. “And one omelette and mushrooms for me . . .”

  “And one bacon sandwich,” said Mickey, who had insisted on breaking fifteen years of tradition in bringing this one dish over himself, “for the young professor.”

  “He will not eat that at my table.”

  “Oh, come on, Sam,” began Archie gingerly. “Give the lad a break.”

  “I say he will not eat that at my table!”

  Mickey scratched his forehead. “Stone me, we’re getting a bit fundamentalist in our old age, ain’t we?”
  “I said—”

  “As you wish, Abba,” said Magid, with that same infuriating smile of total forgiveness. He took his plate from Mickey, and sat down at the adjacent table with Clarence and Denzel.

  Denzel welcomed him with a grin, “Clarence, look see! It de young prince in white. ’Im come to play domino. I jus’ look in his eye and I and I knew ’im play domino. ’Im an hexpert.”

  “Can I ask you a question?” said Magid.

  “Def-net-lee. Gwan.”

  “Do you think I should meet with my brother?”

  “Hmm. I don’ tink me can say,” replied Denzel, after a spell of thought in which he laid down a five-domino set.

  “I would say you look like a young fellow oo can make up ’im own mind,” said Clarence cautiously.

  “Do I?”

  Magid turned back to his previous table, where his father was trying studiously to ignore him, and Archie was toying with his omelette.

  “Archibald! Shall I meet with my brother or not?”

  Archie looked guiltily at Samad and then back at his plate.

  “Archibald! This is a very significant question for me. Should I or not?”

  “Go on,” said Samad sourly. “Answer him. If he’d rather take advice from two old fools and a man he barely knows than from his own father, then let him have it. Well? Should he?”

  Archie squirmed. “Well . . . I can’t . . . I mean, it’s not for me to say . . . I suppose, if he wants . . . but then again, if you don’t think . . .”

  Samad thrust his fist into Archie’s mushrooms so hard the omelette slithered off the plate altogether and slipped to the floor.

  “Make a decision, Archibald. For once in your pathetic little life, make a decision.”

  “Um . . . heads, yes,” gasped Archie, reaching into his pocket for a twenty-pence piece. “Tails, no. Ready?”

  The coin rose and flipped as a coin would rise and flip every time in a perfect world, flashing its light and then revealing its dark enough times to mesmerize a man. Then, at some point in its triumphant ascension, it began to arc, and the arc went wrong, and Archibald realized that it was not coming back to him at all but going behind him, a fair way behind him, and he turned with the others to watch it complete an elegant swoop toward the pinball machine and somersault straight into the slot. Immediately the huge old beast lit up; the ball shot off and began its chaotic, noisy course around a labyrinth of swinging doors, automatic bats, tubes, and ringing bells, until, with no one to assist it, no one to direct it, it gave up the ghost and dropped back into the swallowing hole.

  “Bloody hell,” said Archibald, visibly chuffed. “What are the chances of that, eh?”

  A neutral place. The chances of finding one these days are slim, maybe even slimmer than Archie’s pinball trick. The sheer quantity of shit that must be wiped off the slate if we are to start again as new. Race. Land. Ownership. Faith. Theft. Blood. And more blood. And more. And not only must the place be neutral, but the messenger who takes you to the place, and the messenger who sends the messenger. There are no people or places like that left in North London. But Joyce did her best with what she had. First she went to Clara. In Clara’s present seat of learning, a red-brick university, south-west by the Thames, there was a room she used for study on Friday afternoons. A thoughtful teacher had loaned her the key. Always empty between three and six. Contents: one blackboard, several tables, some chairs, two Anglepoise lamps, an overhead projector, a filing cabinet, a computer. Nothing older than twelve years, Clara could guarantee that. The university itself was only twelve years old. Built on empty wasteland—no Indian burial grounds, no Roman viaducts, no interred alien spacecraft, no foundations of a long-gone church. Just earth. As neutral a place as anywhere. Clara gave Joyce the key and Joyce gave it to Irie.

  “But why me? I’m not involved.”

  “Exactly, dear. And I’m too involved. But you are perfect. Because you know him but you don’t know him,” said Joyce cryptically. She passed Irie her long winter coat, some gloves, and a hat of Marcus’s with a ludicrous bobble on the top. “And because you love him, though he doesn’t love you.”

  “Yeah, thanks, Joyce. Thanks for reminding me.”

  “Love is the reason, Irie.”

  “No, Joyce, love’s not the fucking reason.” Irie was standing on the Chalfen doorstep, watching her own substantial breath in the freezing night air. “It’s a four-letter word that sells life insurance and hair conditioner. It’s fucking cold out here. You owe me one.”

  “Everybody owes everybody,” agreed Joyce and closed the door.

  Irie stepped out into streets she’d known her whole life, along a route she’d walked a million times over. If someone asked her just then what memory was, what the purest definition of memory was, she would say this: the street you were on when you first jumped in a pile of dead leaves. She was walking it right now. With every fresh crunch came the memory of previous crunches. She was permeated by familiar smells: wet woodchip and gravel around the base of the tree, newly laid turd underneath the cover of soggy leaves. She was moved by these sensations. Despite opting for a life of dentistry, she had not yet lost all of the poetry in her soul, that is, she could still have the odd Proustian moment, note layers upon layers, though she often experienced them in periodontal terms. She got a twinge—as happens with a sensitive tooth, or in a “phantom tooth,” when the nerve is exposed—she felt a twinge walking past the garage where she and Millat, aged thirteen, had passed one hundred and fifty pennies over the counter, stolen from an Iqbal jam jar, in a desperate attempt to buy a packet of fags. She felt an ache (like a severe malocclusion, the pressure of one tooth upon another) when she passed the park where they had cycled as children, where they smoked their first joint, where he had kissed her once in the middle of a storm. Irie wished she could give herself over to these past-present fictions: wallow in them, make them sweeter, longer, particularly the kiss. But she had in her hand a cold key, and surrounding her lives that were stranger than fiction, funnier than fiction, crueler than fiction, and with consequences fiction can never have. She didn’t want to be involved in the long story of those lives, but she was, and she found herself dragged forward by the hair to their denouement, through the High Road—Mali’s Kebabs, Mr. Cheungs, Raj’s, Malkovich Bakeries—she could reel them off blindfold; and then down under pigeon-shit bridge and that long wide road that drops into Gladstone Park as if it’s falling into a green ocean. You could drown in memories like these, but she tried to swim free of them. She jumped over the small wall that fringed the Iqbal house, as she had a million times before, and rang the doorbell. Past tense, future imperfect.

  Upstairs, in his bedroom, Millat had spent the past fifteen minutes trying to get his head around Brother Hifan’s written instructions concerning the act of prostration (leaflet: Correct Worship):

  SAJDA: prostration. In the sajda, fingers must be closed, pointing toward the qibla in line with the ears, and the head must be between hands. It is fard to put the forehead on something clean, such as a stone, some earth, wood, cloth, and it is said (by savants) that it is wajib to put the nose down, too. It is not permissible to put only the nose on the ground without a good excuse. It is makruh to put only the forehead on the ground. In the sajda you must say Subhana rabbiyal-ala at least thrice. The Shiis say that it is better to make the sajda on a brick made from the clay of Karbala. It is either fard or wajib to put two feet or at least one toe of each foot on the ground. There are also some savants who say that it is sunnat. That is, if two feet are not put on the ground, namaz will either not be accepted or it will become makruh. If, during the sajda, the forehead, nose, or feet are raised from the ground for a short while, it will cause no harm. In the sajda, it is sunnat to bend the toes and turn them toward the qibla. It is written in Radd-ul-mukhtar that those who say

  That’s as far as he got, and there were three more pages. He was in a cold sweat from trying to recall all that was halal or haraam, fard
or sunnat, makruh-tahrima (prohibited with much stress) or makruh-tanzihi (prohibited, but to a lesser degree). At a loss, he had ripped off his T-shirt, tied a series of belts at angles over his spectacular upper body, stood in front of the mirror, and practiced a different, easier routine, one he knew in intimate detail:

  You lookin’ at me? You lookin’ at me?

  Well, who the fuck else are you looking at, huh?

  I can’t see anybody else in here.

  You lookin’ at me?

  He was in the swing of it, revealing his invisible sliding guns and knives to the wardrobe door, when Irie walked in.

  “Yes,” said Irie, as he stood there sheepish. “I’m looking at you.”

  Quickly and quietly she explained to him about the neutral place, about the room, about the date, about the time. She made her own personal plea for compromise, peace, and caution (everybody was doing it) and then she came up close and put the cold key in his warm hand. Almost without meaning to, she touched his chest. Just at the point between two belts where his heart, constricted by the leather, beat so hard she felt it in her ear. Lacking experience in this field, it was natural that Irie should mistake the palpitations that come with blood restriction for smoldering passion. As for Millat, it had been a very long time since anybody had touched him or he had touched anybody. Add to that the touch of memory, the touch of ten years of love unreturned, the touch of a long, long history—the result was inevitable.

  Before long their arms were involved, their legs were involved, their lips were involved, and they were tumbling onto the floor, involved at the groin (hard to get more involved than that), making love on a prayer mat. But then as suddenly and feverishly as it had begun it was over; they released each other in horror for different reasons, Irie springing back into a naked huddle by the door, embarrassed and ashamed because she could see how much he regretted it; and Millat grabbing his prayer mat and pointing it toward the Kaba, ensuring the mat was no higher than floor level, resting on no books or shoes, his fingers closed and pointing to the quibla in line with his ears, ensuring both forehead and nose touched the floor, with two feet firmly on the ground but ensuring the toes were not bent, prostrating himself in the direction of the Kaba, but not for the Kaba, but for Allahu ta’ala alone. He made sure he did all these things perfectly, while Irie wept and dressed and left. He made sure he did all these things perfectly because he believed he was being watched by the great camera in the sky. He made sure he did all these things perfectly because they were fard and “he who wants to change worships becomes a disbeliever” (leaflet: The Straight Path).

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