White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  It was a beautiful, crumbling Victorian building, with a small balcony, a roof garden, and a large hole in the floor. He advised them to lie low for a month and then move in. They did, and Joshua saw more and more of them. A month later he experienced a “conversion” after hours of talk with Joely (hours of examining her breasts underneath those threadbare T-shirts), which felt, at the time, as if somebody had taken his little closed Chalfenist head, stuck two cartoon sticks of dynamite through each ear, and just blown a big mutherfucking hole in his consciousness. It became clear to him in a blinding flash that he loved Joely, that his parents were assholes, that he himself was an asshole, and that the largest community of earth, the animal kingdom, was oppressed, imprisoned, and murdered on a daily basis with the full knowledge and support of every government in the world. How much of the last realization was predicated and reliant upon the first was difficult to say, but he had given up Chalfenism and had no interest in taking things apart to see how they fitted together. Instead he gave up all meat, ran off to Glastonbury, got a tattoo, became the kind of guy who could measure an eighth with his eyes closed (so fuck you, Millat), and generally had a ball . . . until finally his conscience pricked him. He revealed himself to be the son of Marcus Chalfen. This horrified Joely (and, Joshua liked to think, slightly aroused her—sleeping with the enemy and all that). Joshua was sent away, while FATE had a two-day summit meeting along the lines of: but he’s the very thing we’re . . . Ah, but we could use . . .

  It was a protracted process, with votes and subclauses and objections and provisos, but in the end it couldn’t really come down to anything more sophisticated than: whose side are you on? Joshua said yours, and Joely welcomed him with open arms, pressing his head to her exquisite bosom. He was paraded at meetings, given the role of secretary, and was generally the jewel in their crown: the convert from the other side.

  Since then, and for six months, Joshua had indulged his growing contempt for his father, seen plenty of his great love, and set about a long-term plan of insinuating himself between the famous couple (he needed somewhere to stay anyway; the Joneses’ hospitality was growing thin). He ingratiated himself with Crispin, deliberately ignoring Crispin’s suspicion of him. Joshua acted like his best mate, did all the shit jobs for him (photocopying, postering, leafleting), kipped on his floor, celebrated Crispin’s seventh wedding anniversary, and presented him with a handmade guitar plectrum for his birthday; while all the time hating him intensely, coveting his wife as no man’s wife has ever been coveted before, and dreaming up plots for his downfall with a green-eyed jealousy that would make Iago blush.

  All this had distracted Joshua from the fact that FATE were busy plotting his own father’s downfall. He had approved it in principle when Magid returned, when his rage was hottest and the idea itself seemed hazy—just some big talk to impress new members. Now the thirty-first was three weeks away, and Joshua had so far failed to question himself in any coherent way, in any Chalfenist fashion, regarding the consequences of what was about to happen. He wasn’t even clear precisely what was going to happen—there had been no final decision; and now as they argued it, the core members of FATE cross-legged and spaced out around the great hole in the floor, now as he should have been listening to these fundamental decisions, he had lost the thread of his attention down Joely’s T-shirt, down along the athletic dip and curve of her torso, down further to her tie-dyed pants, down—

  “Josh, mate, could you just read me the minutes for a couple of minutes ago, if you get my drift?”

  “Huh?”

  Crispin sighed and tutted. Joely reached down from her tabletop and kissed Crispin on the ear. Cunt.

  “The minutes, Josh. After the stuff Joely was saying about protest strategy. We’d moved on to the hard part. I want to hear what Paddy was saying a few minutes ago about Punishment versus Release.”

  Joshua looked at his blank clipboard and placed it over his detumescent erection.

  “Umm . . . I guess I missed that.”

  “Er, well that was actually really fucking important, Josh. You’ve got to keep up. I mean, what’s the point of doing all this talking—”

  Cunt, cunt, cunt.

  “He’s doing his best,” Joely interceded, reaching down from her tabletop once more, this time to ruffle Joshua’s Jewfro. “This is probably quite hard for Joshi, you know? I mean this is quite personal to him.” She always called him Joshi like that. Joshi and Joely. Joely and Joshi.

  Crispin frowned. “Well, you know, I’ve said many times if Joshua doesn’t want to be personally involved in this job, because of personal sympathies, if he wants out, then—”

  “I’m in,” snapped Josh, barely restraining the aggression. “I’ve no intention of wimping out.”

  “That’s why Joshi’s our hero,” said Joely, with an enormous, supportive smile. “Mark my words, he’ll be the last man standing.”

  Ah, Joely!

  “All right, well, let’s get on. Try to keep minutes from now on, all right? OK. Paddy, can you just repeat what you were saying, so everyone can take it in, because I think what you said perfectly sums up the key decision we have to make now.”

  Paddy’s head shot up and he fumbled through his notes. “Umm, well basically . . . basically, it’s a question of . . . of what our real aims are. If it’s to punish the perpetrators and educate the public . . . then, well, that involves one sort of approach—an attack directly on, umm, the person in question,” said Paddy, flashing a nervous glance at Joshua. “But if our interest is the animal itself, as I think it should be, then it’s a question of an anticampaign, and if that doesn’t succeed, then the forceful release of the animal.”

  “Right,” said Crispin hesitantly, unsure where the Crispin-role-of-glory would fit into freeing one mouse. “But surely the mouse in this case is a symbol, i.e., this guy’s got a lot more of them in his lab—so we have to deal with the bigger picture. We need someone to bust in there—”

  “Well, basically . . . basically, I think that’s the mistake that OHNO make for example. Because they take the animal itself as simply a symbol . . . and to me that’s absolutely the opposite of what FATE is about. If this were a man trapped in a little glass box for six years, he wouldn’t be a symbol, you know? And I don’t know about you, but there’s no difference between mice and men, you know, in my opinion.”

  The gathered members of FATE murmured their assent, because this was the kind of sentiment to which they routinely murmured assent.

  Crispin was miffed. “Right, well, obviously I didn’t mean that, Paddy. I just meant there is a bigger picture here, just like choosing between one man’s life and many men’s lives, right?”

  “Point of order!” said Josh, putting his hand in the air for a chance to make Crispin look stupid. Crispin glared.

  “Yes, Joshi,” said Joely sweetly. “Go on.”

  “It’s just there aren’t any more mice. I mean, yeah, there are lots of mice, but he hasn’t got any exactly like this one. It’s an incredibly expensive process. He couldn’t afford loads. Plus, the press goaded him that if the FutureMouse died while on display he could just secretly replace it with another—so he got cocky. He wants to prove that his calculations are correct in front of the world. He’s only going to do one and barcode it. There are no others.”

  Joely beamed and reached down to massage Josh’s shoulders.

  “Right, yes, well, I guess that makes sense. So Paddy, I see what you’re saying—it is a question of whether we’re going to devote our attentions to Marcus Chalfen or to releasing the actual mouse from its captivity in front of the world’s press.”

  “Point of order!”

  “Yes, Josh, what?”

  “Well, Crispin, this isn’t like the other animals you bust out. It won’t make any difference. The damage is done. The mouse carries around its own torture in its genes. Like a time bomb. If you release it, it’ll just die in terrible pain somewhere else.”

  “Point of order!”
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  “Yes, Paddy, go on.”

  “Well, basically . . . would you not help a political prisoner to escape from jail just because he had a terminal disease?”

  The multiple heads of FATE nodded vigorously.

  “Yes, Paddy, yes, that’s right. I think Joshua’s wrong there and I think Paddy has presented to us the choice we have to make. It’s one we’ve come up against many times before and we’ve made different choices in different circumstances. We have, in the past, as you know, gone for the perpetrators. Lists have been made and punishments dealt out. Now, I know in recent years we have been moving away from some of our previous tactics, but I think even Joely would agree this is really our biggest, most fundamental test of that. We are dealing with seriously disturbed individuals. Now, on the other side of things, we have also staged large-scale peaceful protests and supervised the release of thousands of animals held captive by this state. In this case, we just won’t have the time or opportunity to employ both strategies. It’s a very public place and—well, we’ve been over that. As Paddy said, I think the choice we have on the thirty-first is quite simple. It’s between the mouse and the man. Has anyone got any problem with taking a vote on that? Joshua?”

  Joshua sat on his hands to lift himself up and give Joely better purchase on his upper-back massage. “No problem at all,” he said.

  On the twentieth of December at precisely 0000 hours, the phone rang in the Jones house. Irie shuffled downstairs in her nightdress and picked up the receiver.

  “Erhummmm. I would like you yourself to make a mental note of both the date and the time when I have chosen to ring you.”

  “What? Er . . . what? Is that Ryan? Look, Ryan, I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s midnight, yeah? Is there something you wanted or—”

  “Irie? Pickney? You dere?”

  “You granmuvver is on the telephone extension. She wished to talk to you also.”

  “Irie,” said Hortense excitably. “You gwan have to speak up, me kyan hear nuttin’—”

  “Irie, I repeat: have you noted the date and the time of our call?”

  “What? Look, I can’t . . . I’m really tired . . . could this wait until . . .”

  “The twentieth, Irie. At O hundred hours. Twos and zeros . . .”

  “You lissnin’, pickney? Mr. Topps tryin’ to explain someting very impar-tent.”

  “Gran, you’re going to have to talk one at a time . . . you just hauled me out of bed . . . I’m, like, totally knackered.”

  “Twos and zeros, Miss Jones. Signifying the year 2000. And do you know the month of my call?”

  “Ryan, it’s December. Is this really—”

  “The twelfth month, Irie. Corresponding to the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. Of which each woz sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Judah woz sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Reuben woz sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Gad—”

  “Ryan, Ryan . . . I get the picture.”

  “There are certain days when the Lord wishes us to act—certain prewarning days, designated days—”

  “Where we mus’ be savin’ de souls of de lost. Warnin’ dem ahead of time.”

  “We are warning you, Irie.”

  Hortense began softly weeping. “We only tryin’ to warn you, darlin’.”

  “OK. Great. I stand warned. Good night, all.”

  “That is not the end of our warning,” said Ryan solemnly. “That is simply the first warning. There are more.”

  “Don’t tell me—eleven more.”

  “Oh!” cried Hortense, dropping the phone but still distantly audible. “She have been visited by de Lord! She know before she be tol’!”

  “Look. Ryan. Could you somehow condense the other eleven warnings into one—or at least, tell me the most important one? Otherwise, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go back to bed.”

  There was a silence for a minute. Then: “Erhuuummm. Very well. Do not get involved with this man.”

  “Oh, Irie! Please lissen to Mr. Topps! Please lissen to ’im!”

  “With what man?”

  “Oh, Miss Jones. Please do not pretend you ’ave no knowledge of your great sin. Open your soul. Let the Lord let myself reach out for yourself, and wash you free of—”

  “Look, I’m really fucking tired. What man?”

  “The scientist, Chalfen. The man you call ‘friend’ when in truth he is an enemy of all humanity.”

  “Marcus? I’m not involved with him. I just answer his phone and do his paperwork.”

  “And thus are you made the secretary of the devil,” said Ryan, prompting Hortense into more and louder tears, “thus is you yourself laid low.”

  “Ryan, listen to me. I haven’t got time for this. Marcus Chalfen is simply trying to come up with some answers to shit like—shit like—cancer. OK? I don’t know where you’ve been getting your information, but I can assure you he ain’t the devil incarnate.”

  “Only one of ’im minions!” protested Hortense. “Only one of ’im frontline troops!”

  “Calm yourself, Mrs. B. I am afraid your granddaughter is too far gone for us. As I expected, since leaving us, she ’as joined the dark side.”

  “Fuck you, Ryan, I’m not Darth Vader. Gran . . .”

  “Don’t tark to me, pickney, don’t tark to me. I and I is bitterly disappointed.”

  “It appears we will be seein’ you on the thirty-first, then, Miss Jones.”

  “Stop calling me Miss Jones, Ryan. The . . . what?”

  “The thirty-first. The event will provide a platform for the Witness message. The world’s press will be there. And so will we. We intend—”

  “We gwan warn all a dem!” broke in Hortense. “And we gat it all plan out nice, see? We gwan sing hymns with Mrs. Dobson on de accordion, ’cos you kyan shif a piano all de way dere. An’ we gwan hunger strike until dat hevil man stop messin’ wid de Lord’s beauteous creation an’—”

  “Hunger strike? Gran, when you go without elevenses you get nauseous. You’ve never gone without food for more than three hours in your life. You’re eighty-five.”

  “You forget,” said Hortense with chilling curtness, “I was born in strife. Me a survivor. A little no-food don’ frighten me.”

  “And you’re going to let her do that, are you, Ryan? She’s eighty-five, Ryan. Eighty-five. She can’t go on a hunger strike.”

  “I’m tellin’ you, Irie,” said Hortense, speaking loudly and clearly into the mouthpiece, “I want to do dis. I’m nat boddered by a little lack of food. De Lord giveth wid ’im right hand and taketh away wid ’im left.”

  Irie listened to Ryan drop the phone, walk to Hortense’s room, and slowly ease the receiver from her, persuading her to go to bed. Irie could hear her grandmother singing as she was led down the hallway, repeating the phrase to no one in particular and setting it to no recognizable tune: De Lord giveth wid ’im right hand and taketh away wid ’im left!

  But most of the time, thought Irie, he’s simply a thief in the night. He just taketh away. He just taketh the fuck away.

  Magid was proud to say he witnessed every stage. He witnessed the custom design of the genes. He witnessed the germ injection. He witnessed the artificial insemination. And he witnessed the birth, so different from his own. One mouse only. No battle down the birth canal, no first and second, no saved and unsaved. No potluck. No random factors. No you have your father’s snout and your mother’s love of cheese. No mysteries lying in wait. No doubt as to when death will arrive. No hiding from illness, no running from pain. No question about who was pulling the strings. No doubtful omnipotence. No shaky fate. No question of a journey, no question of greener grass, for wherever this mouse went, its life would be precisely the same. It would not travel through time (and Time’s a bitch, Magid knew that much now. Time is the bitch), because its future was equal to its present, which was equal to its past. A Chinese box of a mouse. No other roads, no missed opportunities, no parallel possibilities. No second-guessing, no what-i
fs, no might-have-beens. Just certainty. Just certainty in its purest form. And what more, thought Magid—once the witnessing was over, once the mask and gloves were removed, once the white coat was returned to its hook—what more is God than that?

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  The Final Space

  Thursday, December 31, 1992

  So said the banner on the top of the newspaper. So proclaimed the revelers who danced through early evening streets with their shrill silver whistles and Union Jacks, trying to whip up the feeling that goes with the date; trying to bring on the darkness (it was only five o’clock) so that England might have its once-a-year party; get fucked up, throw up, snog, grope, and impale; stand in the doorways of trains holding them open for friends; argue with the sudden inflationary tactics of Somalian minicab drivers, jump in water or play with fire, and all by the dim, disguising light of the streetlamps. It was the night when England stops saying pleasethankyoupleasesorrypleasedidI? And starts saying pleasefuckmefuckyoumotherfucker (and we never say that; the accent is wrong; we sound silly). The night England gets down to the fundamentals. It was New Year’s Eve. But Joshua was having a hard time believing it. Where had the time gone? It had seeped between the crack in Joely’s legs, run into the secret pockets of her ears, hidden itself in the warm, matted hair of her armpits. And the consequences of what he was about to do, on this the biggest day of his life, a critical situation that three months ago he would have dissected, compartmentalized, weighed up, and analyzed with Chalfenist vigor—that too had escaped him into her crevices. He had made no real decisions this New Year’s Eve, no resolutions. He felt as thoughtless as the young men tumbling out of pubs, looking for trouble; he felt as light as the child sitting astride his father’s shoulders heading for a family party. Yet he was not with them, out there in the streets, having fun—he was here, in here, careening into the center of town, making a direct line for the Perret Institute like a heat-seeking missile. He was here, cramped in a bright red minibus with ten jumpy members of FATE, hurtling out of Willesden toward Trafalgar Square, half listening to Kenny read his father’s name out loud for the benefit of Crispin, who was up front, driving.

 
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