White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “ ‘When Dr. Marcus Chalfen puts his FutureMouse on public display this evening he begins a new chapter in our genetic future.’ ”

  Crispin threw his head back for a loud “Ha!”

  “Yeah, right, exactly,” continued Kenny, trying unsuccessfully to scoff and read simultaneously, “like, thanks for the objective reporting. Umm, where was I . . . all right: ‘More significantly, he opens up this traditionally secretive, rarefied, and complex branch of science to an unprecedented audience. As the Perret Institute prepares to open its doors around the clock for seven years, Dr. Chalfen promises a national event that will be “crucially unlike the Festival of Britain in 1951 or the 1924 British Empire Exhibition because it has no political agenda.” ’ ”

  “Ha!” snorted Crispin once more, this time turning right around in his seat so the FATE minibus (which wasn’t officially the FATE minibus; it still had kensal rise family services unit in ten-inch yellow letters on either side; a loan from a social worker with furry animal sympathies) only narrowly missed a gaggle of pissed-up high-heeled girls who were tottering across the road. “No political agenda? Is he taking the fucking piss?”

  “Keep your eyes on the road, darling,” said Joely, blowing him a kiss. “We want to at least try to get there in one piece. Umm, left here . . . down the Edgware Road.”

  “Fucker,” said Crispin, glowering at Joshua and then turning back. “What a fucker he is.”

  “ ‘By 1999,’ ” read Kenny, following the arrow from the front to page five, “ ‘the year experts predict recombinant DNA procedure will come into its own—approximately fifteen million people will have seen the FutureMouse exhibition, and many more worldwide will have followed the progress of the FutureMouse in the international press. By then, Dr. Chalfen will have succeeded in his aim of educating a nation, and throwing the ethical ball into the people’s court.’ ”

  “Pass. Me. The. Fuck. Ing. Buck. Et,” said Crispin, as if the very words were vomit. “What do the other papers say?”

  Paddy held up Middle England’s Bible so Crispin could see it in the rear-view. Headline: mousemania.

  “It comes with a free FutureMouse sticker,” said Paddy, shrugging his shoulders and slapping the sticker on his beret. “Pretty cute, actually.”

  “The tabloids are a surprise winner, though,” said Minnie. Minnie was a brand-new convert: a seventeen-year-old Crusty, with matted blond dreads and pierced nipples, whom Joshua had briefly considered becoming obsessed with. He tried for a while, but found he just couldn’t do it; he just couldn’t leave his miserable little psychotic world-of-Joely and go out seeking life on a new planet. Minnie, to her credit, had spotted this straight off and gravitated toward Crispin. She wore as little as the winter weather would allow and took every opportunity to thrust her perky pierced nipples into Crispin’s personal space, as she did now, reaching over to the driver’s cab to show him the front page of the daily rag in question. At one and the same time Crispin tried unsuccessfully to take the Marble Arch traffic circle, avoid elbowing Minnie in the tits, and look at the paper.

  “I can’t see it properly. What is it?”

  “It’s Chalfen’s head with mouse ears, attached to a goat’s torso, which is attached to a pig’s arse. And he’s eating from a trough that says ‘Genetic Engineering’ at one end and ‘Public Money’ at the other. Headline: chalfen chows down.”

  “Nice. Every little helps.”

  Crispin went round the traffic circle again, and this time got the turning he required. Minnie reached over him and propped the paper on the dashboard.

  “God, he looks more fucking Chalfenist than ever!”

  Joshua bitterly regretted telling Crispin about this little idiosyncrasy of his family, their habit of referring to themselves as verbs, nouns, and adjectives. It had seemed a good idea at the time; give everybody a laugh; confirm, if there was any doubt, whose side he was on. But he never felt that he’d betrayed his father—the weight of what he was doing never really hit him—until he heard Chalfenism ridiculed out of Crispin’s mouth.

  “Look at him Chalfening around in that trough. Exploit everything and everybody, that’s the Chalfen way, eh Josh?”

  Joshua grunted and turned his back on Crispin, in favor of the window and a view of the frost over Hyde Park.

  “That’s a classic photo, there, see? The one they’ve used for the head. I remember it; that was the day he gave evidence in the California trial. That look of total fucking superiority. Very Chalfenesque!”

  Joshua bit his tongue. don’t rise to it. if you don’t rise to it, you gain her sympathy.

  “Don’t, Crisp,” said Joely firmly, touching Joshua’s hair. “Just try to remember what we’re about to do. He doesn’t need that tonight.”


  “Yeah, well . . .”

  Crispin put his foot down on the accelerator. “Minnie, have you and Paddy checked that everyone’s got everything they need? Balaclavas and that?”

  “Yeah, all done. It’s cool.”

  “Good.” Crispin pulled out a small silver box filled with all the necessaries to roll a fat joint and threw it in Joely’s direction, catching Joshua painfully on the shin.

  “Make us one, love.”


  Joely retrieved the box from the floor. She worked crouching, the rolling papers resting on Joshua’s knee, her long neck exposed, her breasts falling forward until they were practically in his hands.

  “Are you nervous?” she asked him, flicking her head back once the joint was rolled.

  “How d’you mean, nervous?”

  “About tonight. I mean, talk about conflict of loyalties.”

  “Conflict?” murmured Josh hazily, wishing he were out there with the happy people, the conflict-free people, the New Year people.

  “God, I really admire you. I mean, FATE are dedicated to extreme action . . . And you know, even now, I find some of the stuff we do . . . difficult. And we’re talking about the most firmly held principle in my life, you know? I mean, Crispin and FATE . . . that’s my whole life.”

  OH GREAT, thought Joshua, OH FANTASTIC.

  “And I’m still shit scared about tonight.”

  Joely sparked the joint and inhaled. She passed it straight to Joshua, as the minibus took a right past Parliament. “It’s like that quote: ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ The choice between a duty or a principle, you know? You see, I don’t feel torn like that. I don’t know if I could do what I do if I did. I mean, if it was my father. My first commitment is to animals and that’s Crispin’s first commitment too, so there’s no conflict. It’s kind of easy for us. But you, Joshi, you’ve made the most extreme decision out of us all . . . and you just seem so calm. I mean, it’s admirable . . . and I think you’ve really impressed Crispin, because you know, he was a little unsure about whether . . .”

  Joely kept on talking, and Josh kept on nodding in the necessary places, but the hardcore Thai weed he was smoking had lassoed one word of hers—calm—and reined it in as a question. Why so calm, Joshi? You’re about to get into some pretty serious shit—why so calm?

  Because he imagined he seemed calm from the outside, preternaturally calm, his adrenaline enjoying an inverse relationship with the rising New Year sap, with the jittery nerves of the FATE posse; and the effect of the skunk on top of it all . . . it was like walking under water, deep under water, while children played above. But it wasn’t calm so much as inertia. And he couldn’t work out, as the van progressed down Whitehall, whether this was the right reaction—to let the world wash over him, to let events take their course—or whether he should be more like those people, those people out there, whooping, dancing, fighting, fucking . . . whether he should be more—what was that horrible late-twentieth-century tautology? Proactive. More proactive in the face of the future.

  But he took another deep hit on the joint and it sent him back to twelv
e, being twelve; a precocious kid, waking up each morning fully expecting a twelve hours until nuclear apocalypse announcement, that old, cheesy, end-of-the-world scenario. Round that time he had thought a lot about extreme decisions, about the future and its deadlines. Even then it had struck him that he was unlikely to spend those last twelve hours fucking Alice the fifteen-year-old baby-sitter next door, telling people that he loved them, converting to orthodox Judaism, or doing all the things he wanted and all the things he never dared. It always seemed more likely to him, much more likely, that he would just return to his room and calmly finish constructing Lego Medieval Castle. What else could you do? What other choice could you be certain about? Because choices need time, the fullness of time, time being the horizontal axis of morality—you make a decision and then you wait and see, wait and see. And it’s a lovely fantasy, this fantasy of no time (TWELVE HOURS LEFT TWELVE HOURS LEFT), the point at which consequences disappear and any action is allowable (“I’m mad—I’m fucking mad for it!” came the cry from the street). But twelve-year-old Josh was too neurotic, too anal, too Chalfenist to enjoy it, even the thought of it. Instead he was there thinking: but what if the world doesn’t end and what if I fucked Alice Rodwell and she became pregnant and what if—

  It was the same now. Always the fear of consequences. Always this terrible inertia. What he was about to do to his father was so huge, so colossal, that the consequences were inconceivable—he couldn’t imagine a moment occurring after that act. Only blankness. Nothingness. Something like the end of the world. And facing the end of the world, or even just the end of the year, had always given Josh a strangely detached feeling.

  Every New Year’s Eve is impending apocalypse in miniature. You fuck where you want, you puke when you want, you punch who you want to punch—the huge gatherings in the street; the television roundups of the goodies and baddies of time past; the frantic final kisses; the 10! 9! 8!

  Joshua glared up and down Whitehall, at the happy people going about their dress rehearsal. They were all confident that it wouldn’t happen or certain they could deal with it if it did. But the world happens to you, thought Joshua, you don’t happen to the world. There’s nothing you can do. For the first time in his life, he truly believed that. And Marcus Chalfen believed the direct opposite. And there in a nutshell, he realized, is how I got here, turning out of Westminster, watching Big Ben approach the hour when I shall topple my father’s house. That is how we all got here. Between rocks and hard places. The frying pan and the fire.

  Thursday, December 31st, 1992, New Year’s Eve

  Signaling problems at Baker Street

  No Southbound Jubilee Line Trains from Baker Street

  Customers are advised to change on to the Metropolitan Line at Finchley Road

  Or change at Baker Street on to the Bakerloo

  There is no alternative bus service

  Last train 0200 hours

  All London Underground staff wish you a safe and happy New Year!

  Willesden Green Station Manager, Richard Daley

  Brothers Millat, Hifan, Tyrone, Mo Hussein-Ishmael, Shiva, Abdul-Colin, and Abdul-Jimmy stood stock-still like maypoles in the middle of the station while the dance of the New Year went on around them.

  “Great,” said Millat. “What do we do now?”

  “Can’t you read?” inquired Abdul-Jimmy.

  “We do what the board suggests, Brothers,” said Abdul-Colin, short-circuiting any argument with his deep, calming baritone. “We change at Finchley Road. Allah provides.”

  The reason Millat couldn’t read the writing on the wall was simple. He was stoned. It was the second day of Ramadan and he was stoned. Every synapse in his body had clocked out for the evening and gone home. But there was still some conscientious worker going round the treadmill of his brain, ensuring one thought circulated in his skull: Why? Why get stoned, Millat? Why? Good question.

  At midday he’d found an aging eighth of an ounce of hash in a drawer, a little bundle of cellophane he hadn’t had the heart to throw away six months ago. And he smoked it all. He smoked some of it out of his bedroom window. Then he walked to Gladstone Park and smoked some more. He smoked the great majority of it in the parking lot of Willesden Library. He finished it off in the student kitchen of one Warren Chapman, a South African skateboarder he used to hang with back in the day. And as a result, he was so stoned now, standing on the platform with the rest, so stoned that he could not only hear sounds within sounds but sounds within sounds within sounds. He could hear the mouse scurrying along the tracks, creating a higher level of harmonious rhythm with the crackle of the PA system and the offbeat sniff of an elderly woman twenty feet away. Even when the train pulled in, he could still hear these things beneath the surface. Now, there is a level of stoned that you can be, Millat knew, that is just so very very stoned that you reach a level of Zen-like sobriety and come out the other side feeling absolutely tip-top as if you’d never sparked up in the first place. Oh, Millat longed for that. He only wished he’d got that far. But there just wasn’t quite enough.

  “Are you all right, Brother Millat?” asked Abdul-Colin with concern as the tube doors slid open. “You have gone a nasty color.”

  “Fine, fine,” said Millat, and did a credible impression of being fine because hash just isn’t like drink; no matter how bad it is, you can always, at some level, pull your shit together. To prove this theory to himself, he walked in a slow but confident fashion down the carriage and took a seat at the very end of the line of Brothers, between Shiva and some excitable Australians heading for the Hippodrome.

  Shiva, unlike Abdul-Jimmy, had had his share of wild times and could spot the tell-tale red-eye from a distance of fifty yards.

  “Millat, man,” he said under his breath, confident he couldn’t be heard by the rest of the Brothers above the noise of the train. “What have you been doing to yourself?”

  Millat looked straight ahead and spoke to his reflection in the train window. “I’m preparing myself.”

  “By getting messed up?” hissed Shiva. He peered at the photocopy of Sura 52 he hadn’t quite memorized. “Are you crazy? It’s hard enough to remember this stuff without being on the planet Mars while you’re doing it.”

  Millat swayed slightly, and turned to Shiva with a mistimed lunge. “I’m not preparing myself for that. I’m preparing myself for action. Because no one else will do it. We lose one man and you all betray the cause. You desert. But I stand firm.”

  Shiva fell silent. Millat was referring to the recent “arrest” of Brother Ibrhm ad-Din Shukrallah on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and civil disobedience. No one took the charges seriously, but everybody knew it was a not-so-gentle warning from the Metropolitan Police that they had their eye trained on KEVIN’s activities. In the light of this, Shiva had been the first one to beat a retreat from the agreed Plan A, quickly followed by Abdul-Jimmy and Hussein-Ishmael, who, despite his desire to wreak violence upon somebody, anybody, had his shop to think about. For a week the argument raged (with Millat firmly defending Plan A), but on the twenty-sixth Abdul-Colin, Tyrone, and finally Hifan conceded that Plan A might not be in KEVIN’s long-term interest. They could not, after all, put themselves in an imprisonment situation unless they were secure in the knowledge that KEVIN had leaders to replace them. So Plan A was off. Plan B was hastily improvised. Plan B involved the seven KEVIN representatives standing up halfway through Marcus Chalfen’s press conference and quoting Sura 52, “The Mountain,” first in Arabic (Abdul-Colin alone would do this) and then in English. Plan B made Millat sick.

  “And that’s it? You’re just going to read to him? That’s his punishment?”

  What happened to revenge? What happened to just deserts, retribution, jihad?

  “Do you suggest,” Abdul-Colin solemnly inquired, “that the word of Allah as given to the Prophet Muhammad—Salla Allahu ’Alaihi Wa Sallam—is not sufficient?”

  Well, no. And so even though it sickened him, Millat had to ste
p aside. In place of the questions of honor, sacrifice, duty, the life-and-death questions that came with the careful plotting of clan warfare, the very reasons Millat joined KEVIN—in place of these, came the question of translation. Everybody agreed that no translation of the Qurn could claim to be the word of God, but at the same time everybody conceded that Plan B would lose something in the delivery if no one could understand what was being said. So the question was which translation and why. Would it be one of the untrusty but clear Orientalists: Palmer (1880), Bell (1937–39), Arberry (1955), Dawood (1956)? The eccentric but poetic J. M. Rodwell (1861)? The old favorite, passionate, dedicated Anglican convert par excellence Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1930)? Or one of the Arab brothers, the prosaic Shakir or the flamboyant Yusuf Ali? Five days they argued it. When Millat walked into the Kilburn Hall of an evening he had only to squint to mistake this talkative circle of chairs, these supposed fanatic fundamentalists, for an editorial meeting at the London Review of Books.

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