White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  Of course, like the mother of a drug addict or the neighbor of a serial killer, Clara was the last to know. She had once known everything about Ryan—before Ryan himself knew it—she had been a Ryan expert. Now she was reduced to overhearing the Irish girls assert that Clara Bowden and Ryan Topps were not dealing with each other—definitively, definitely not dealing with each other—oh no, not anymore.

  If Clara realized what was happening, she wouldn’t allow herself to believe it. On the occasion she spotted Ryan at the kitchen table, surrounded by leaflets—and Hortense hurriedly gathering them up and shoving them into her apron pocket—Clara willed herself to forget it. Later that month, when Clara persuaded a doleful Ryan to go through the motions with her in the disabled toilet, she squinted so she couldn’t see what she didn’t want to see. But it was there, underneath his sweater, there as he leaned back on the sink was the glint of silver, its gleam hardly visible in the dismal light—it couldn’t be, but it was—the silver glint of a tiny silver cross.

  It couldn’t be, but it was. That is how people describe a miracle. Somehow the opposites of Hortense and Ryan had met at their logical extremes, their mutual predilection for the pain and death of others meeting like perspective points on some morbid horizon. Suddenly the saved and the unsaved had come a miraculous full circle. Hortense and Ryan were now trying to save her.

  “Get on the bike.”

  Clara had just stepped out of school into the dusk and it was Ryan, his scooter coming to a sharp halt at her feet.

  “Claz, get on the bike.”

  “Go ask my mudder if she wan’ get on de bike!”

  “Please,” said Ryan, proffering the spare scooter helmet. “’Simportant. Need to talk to you. Ain’t much time left.”

  “Why?” snapped Clara, rocking petulantly on her platform heels. “You goin’ someplace?”

  “You and me both,” murmured Ryan. “The right place, ’opefully.”

  “No.”

  “Please, Claz.”

  “No.”

  “Please. ’Simportant. Life or death.”

  “Man . . . all right. But me nah wearin’ dat ting”—she passed back the helmet and got astride the scooter—“not mussin’ up me hair.”

  Ryan drove her across London and up to Hampstead Heath, the very top of Parliament Hill, where, looking down from that peak onto the sickly orange fluorescence of the city, carefully, tortuously, and in language that was not his own, he put forward his case. The bottom line of which was this: there was only a month until the end of the world.

  “And the fing is, herself and myself, we’re just—”

  “We!”

  “Your mum—your mum and myself,” mumbled Ryan, “we’re worried. ’Bout you. There ain’t that many wot will survive the last days. You been wiv a bad crowd, Claz—”

  “Man,” said Clara, shaking her head and sucking her teeth, “I don’ believe dis biznezz. Dem were your friends.”

  “No, no, they ain’t. Not no more. The weed—the weed is evil. And all that lot—Wan-Si, Petronia.”

  “Dey my friends!”

  “They ain’t nice girls, Clara. They should be with their families, not dressing like they do and doing things with them men in that house. You yourself shouldn’t be doin’ that, neither. And dressing like, like, like—”

  “Like what?”

  “Like a whore!” said Ryan, the word exploding from him like it was a relief to be rid of it. “Like a loose woman!”

  “Oh bwoy, I heard everyting now . . . take me home, man.”

  “They’re going to get theirs,” said Ryan, nodding to himself, his arm stretched and gesturing over London from Chiswick to Archway. “There’s still time for you. Who do you want to be with, Claz? Who d’ya want to be with? With the 144,000, in heaven, ruling with Christ? Or do you want to be one of the Great Crowd, living in earthly paradise, which is all right but . . . Or are you going to be one of them who get it in the neck, torture and death. Eh? I’m just separating the sheep from the goats, Claz, the sheep from the goats. That’s Matthew. And I think you yourself are a sheep, innit?”

  “Lemme tell you someting,” said Clara, walking back over to the scooter and taking the back seat, “I’m a goat. I like bein’ a goat. I wanna be a goat. An’ I’d rather be sizzling in de rains of sulfur wid my friends than sittin’ in heaven, bored to tears, wid Darcus, my mudder, and you!”

  “Shouldn’ta said that, Claz,” said Ryan solemnly, putting his helmet on. “I really wish you ’adn’t said that. For your sake. He can hear us.”

  “An’ I’m tired of hearin’ you. Take me home.”

  “It’s the truth! He can hear us!” he shouted, turning backward, yelling above the exhaust-pipe noise as they revved up and scooted downhill. “He can see it all! He watches over us!”

  “Watch over where you goin’,” Clara yelled back, as they sent a cluster of Hasidic Jews running in all directions. “Watch de path!”

  “Only the few—that’s wot it says—only the few. They’ll all get it—that’s what it says in Dyoot-er-ronomee—they’ll all get what’s comin’ and only the few—”

  Somewhere in the middle of Ryan Topps’s enlightening biblical exegesis, his former false idol, the Vespa GS, cracked right into a four-hundred-year-old oak tree. Nature triumphed over the presumptions of engineering. The tree survived; the bike died; Ryan was hurled one way; Clara the other.

  The principles of Christianity and Sod’s Law (also known as Murphy’s Law) are the same: Everything happens to me, for me. So if a man drops a piece of toast and it lands butter-side down, this unlucky event is interpreted as being proof of an essential truth about bad luck: that the toast fell as it did just to prove to you, Mr. Unlucky, that there is a defining force in the universe and it is bad luck. It’s not random. It could never have fallen on the right side, so the argument goes, because that’s Sod’s Law. In short, Sod’s Law happens to you to prove to you that there is Sod’s Law. Yet, unlike gravity, it is a law that does not exist whatever happens: when the toast lands on the right side, Sod’s Law mysteriously disappears. Likewise, when Clara fell, knocking the teeth out of the top of her mouth, while Ryan stood up without a scratch, Ryan knew it was because God had chosen Ryan as one of the saved and Clara as one of the unsaved. Not because one was wearing a helmet and the other wasn’t. And had it happened the other way round, had gravity reclaimed Ryan’s teeth and sent them rolling down Primrose Hill like tiny enamel snowballs, well . . . you can bet your life that God, in Ryan’s mind, would have done a vanishing act.

  As it was, this was the final sign Ryan needed. When New Year’s Eve rolled around, he was there in the living room, sitting in the middle of a circle of candles with Hortense, ardently praying for Clara’s soul while Darcus pissed into his tube and watched The Generation Game on BBC One. Clara, meanwhile, had put on a pair of yellow flares and a red halterneck top and gone to a party. She suggested its theme, helped to paint the banner and hang it from the window; she danced and smoked with the rest of them and felt herself, without undue modesty, to be quite the belle of the squat. But as midnight inevitably came and went without the horsemen of the apocalypse making an appearance, Clara surprised herself by falling into a melancholy. For ridding oneself of faith is like boiling seawater to retrieve the salt—something is gained but something is lost. Though her friends—Merlin, Wan-Si, et al.—clapped her on the back and congratulated her for exorcising those fervid dreams of perdition and redemption, Clara quietly mourned the warmer touch she had waited for these nineteen years, the all-enveloping bear hug of the Savior, the One who was Alpha and Omega, both the beginning and the end; the man who was meant to take her away from all this, from the listless reality of life in a ground-floor flat in Lambeth. What now for Clara? Ryan would find another fad; Darcus need only turn to another channel; for Hortense another date would of course materialize, along with more leaflets, ever more faith. But Clara was not like Hortense.

  Yet a residue, left over from th
e evaporation of Clara’s faith, remained. She still wished for a savior. She still wished for a man to whisk her away, to choose her above others so that she might walk in white with Him: for [she] was worthy. Revelation 3:4.

  Perhaps it is not so inexplicable then, that when Clara Bowden met Archie Jones at the bottom of some stairs the next morning she saw more in him than simply a rather short, rather chubby, middle-aged white man in a badly tailored suit. Clara saw Archie through the gray-green eyes of loss; her world had just disappeared, the faith she lived by had receded like a low tide, and Archie, quite by accident, had become the bloke in the joke: the last man on earth.

  CHAPTER THREE

  Two Families

  It is better to marry than to burn, says Corinthians I, chapter seven, verse nine.

  Good advice. Of course, Corinthians also informs us that we should not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain—so, go figure.

  By February 1975, Clara had deserted the church and all its biblical literalism for Archibald Jones, but she was not yet the kind of carefree atheist who could laugh near altars or entirely dismiss the teachings of St. Paul. The second dictum wasn’t a problem—having no ox, she was excluded by proxy. But the first was giving her sleepless nights. Was it better to marry? Even if the man was a heathen? There was no way of knowing: she was living without props now, sans safety net. More worrying than God was her mother. Hortense was fiercely opposed to the affair, on grounds of color rather than of age, and on hearing of it had promptly ostracized her daughter one morning on the doorstep.

  Clara still felt that deep down her mother would prefer her to marry an unsuitable man rather than live with him in sin, so she did it on impulse and begged Archie to take her as far away from Lambeth as a man of his means could manage—Morocco, Belgium, Italy. Archie had clasped her hand and nodded and whispered sweet nothings in the full knowledge that the furthest a man of his means was going was a newly acquired, heavily mortgaged, two-story house in Willesden Green. But no need to mention that now, he felt, not right now in the heat of the moment. Let her down gently, like.

  Three months later Clara had been gently let down and here they were, moving in. Archie scrabbling up the stairs, as usual cursing and blinding, wilting under the weight of boxes that Clara could carry two, three at a time without effort; Clara taking a break, squinting in the warm May sunshine, trying to get her bearings. She peeled down to a little purple vest and leaned against her front gate. What kind of a place was this? That was the thing, you see, you couldn’t be sure. Traveling in the front passenger seat of the removal van, she’d seen the high road and it had been ugly and poor and familiar (though there were no Kingdom Halls or Episcopalian churches), but then at the turn of a corner suddenly roads had exploded in greenery, beautiful oaks, the houses got taller, wider and more detached, she could see parks, she could see libraries. And then abruptly the trees would be gone, reverting back into bus stops as if by the strike of some midnight bell; a signal that the houses too obeyed, transforming themselves into smaller, stairless dwellings that sat splayed opposite derelict shopping arcades, those peculiar lines of establishments that include, without exception, one defunct sandwich bar still advertising breakfast one locksmith uninterested in marketing frills (KEYS CUT HERE) and one permanently shut unisex hair salon, the proud bearer of some unspeakable pun (Upper Cuts or Fringe Benefits or Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow).

  It was a lottery driving along like that, looking out, not knowing whether one was about to settle down for life among the trees or amid the shit. Then finally the van had slowed down in front of a house, a nice house somewhere midway between the trees and the shit, and Clara had felt a tide of gratitude roll over her. It was nice, not as nice as she had hoped but not as bad as she had feared; it had two small gardens front and back, a doormat, a doorbell, a toilet inside . . . And she had not paid a high price. Only love. Just love. And whatever Corinthians might say, love is not such a hard thing to forfeit, not if you’ve never really felt it. She did not love Archie, but had made up her mind, from that first moment on the steps, to devote herself to him if he would take her away. And now he had; and, though it wasn’t Morocco or Belgium or Italy, it was nice—not the promised land—but nice, nicer than anywhere she had ever been.

  Clara understood that Archibald Jones was no romantic hero. Three months spent in one stinking room in Cricklewood had been sufficient revelation. Oh, he could be affectionate and sometimes even charming, he could whistle a clear, crystal note first thing in the morning, he drove calmly and responsibly and he was a surprisingly competent cook, but romance was beyond him, passion, unthinkable. And if you are saddled with a man as average as this, Clara felt, he should at least be utterly devoted to you—to your beauty, to your youth—that’s the least he could do to make up for things. But not Archie. One month into their marriage and he already had that funny glazed look men have when they are looking through you. He had already reverted back into his bachelorhood: pints with Samad Iqbal, dinner with Samad Iqbal, Sunday breakfasts with Samad Iqbal, every spare moment with the man in that bloody place, O’Connell’s, in that bloody dive. She tried to be reasonable. She asked him: Why are you never here? Why do you spend so much time with the Indian? But a pat on the back, a kiss on the cheek, he’s grabbing his coat, his foot’s out the door and always the same old answer: Me and Sam? We go way back. She couldn’t argue with that. They went back to before she was born.

  No white knight, then, this Archibald Jones. No aims, no hopes, no ambitions. A man whose greatest pleasures were English breakfasts and DIY. A dull man. An old man. And yet . . . good. He was a good man. And good might not amount to much, good might not light up a life, but it is something. She spotted it in him that first time on the stairs, simply, directly, the same way she could point out a good mango on a Brixton stall without so much as touching the skin.

  These were the thoughts Clara clung to as she leaned on her garden gate, three months after her wedding, silently watching the way her husband’s brow furrowed and shortened like an accordion, the way his stomach hung pregnant over his belt, the whiteness of his skin, the blueness of his veins, the way his “elevens” were up—those two ropes of flesh that appear on a man’s gullet (so they said in Jamaica) when his time is drawing to a close.

  Clara frowned. She hadn’t noticed these afflictions at the wedding. Why not? He had been smiling and he wore a white turtleneck, but no, that wasn’t it—she hadn’t been looking for them then, that was it. Clara had spent most of her wedding day looking at her feet. It had been a hot day, February 14, unusually warm, and there had been a wait because the world had wanted to marry that day in a little registry office on Ludgate Hill. Clara remembered slipping off the petite brown heels she was wearing and placing her bare feet on the chilly floor, making sure to keep them firmly planted either side of a dark crack in the tile, a balancing act upon which she had randomly staked her future happiness.

  Archie meanwhile had wiped some moisture from his upper lip and cursed a persistent sunbeam that was sending a trickle of salty water down his inside leg. For his second marriage he had chosen a mohair suit with a white turtleneck and both were proving problematic. The heat prompted rivulets of sweat to spring out all over his body, seeping through the turtleneck to the mohair and giving off an unmistakable odor of damp dog. Clara, of course, was all cat. She wore a long brown woollen Jeff Banks dress and a perfect set of false teeth; the dress was backless, the teeth were white, and the overall effect was feline; a panther in evening dress; where the wool stopped and Clara’s skin started was not clear to the naked eye. And like a cat she responded to the dusty sunbeam that was coursing through a high window onto the waiting couples. She warmed her bare back in it, she almost seemed to unfurl. Even the registrar, who had seen it all—horsy women marrying weaselly men, elephantine men marrying owlish women—raised an eyebrow at this most unnatural of unions as they approached his desk. Cat and dog.

  “Hullo, Father,” said Archie.


  “He’s a registrar, Archibald, you old flake,” said his friend Samad Miah Iqbal, who, along with his diminutive wife, Alsana, had been called in from the exile of the Wedding Guest Room to witness the contract. “Not a Catholic priest.”

  “Right. Of course. Sorry. Nervous.”

  The stuffy registrar said, “Shall we get on? We’ve got a lot of you to get through today.”

  This and little more had constituted the ceremony. Archie was passed a pen and put down his name (Alfred Archibald Jones), nationality (English), and age (47). Hovering for a moment over the box entitled “Occupation,” he decided upon “Advertising: (Printed Leaflets),” then signed himself away. Clara wrote down her name (Clara Iphigenia Bowden), nationality (Jamaican), and age (19). Finding no box interested in her occupation, she went straight for the decisive dotted line, swept her pen across it, and straightened up again, a Jones. A Jones like no other who had come before her.

  Then they had gone outside, onto the steps, where a breeze lifted secondhand confetti and swept it over new couples, where Clara met her only wedding guests formally for the first time: two Indians, both dressed in purple silk. Samad Iqbal, a tall, handsome man with the whitest teeth and a dead hand, kept patting her on the back with the one that worked.

  “My idea this, you know,” he repeated again and again. “My idea, all this marriage business. I have known the old boy since—when?”

  “1945, Sam.”

  “That’s what I am trying to tell your lovely wife, 1945—when you know a man that long, and you’ve fought alongside him, then it’s your mission to make him happy if he is not. And he wasn’t! Quite the opposite until you made an appearance! Wallowing in the shit-heap, if you will pardon the French. Thankfully, she’s all packed off now. There’s only one place for the mad, and that’s with others like them,” said Samad, losing steam halfway through the sentence, for Clara clearly had no idea what he was talking about. “Anyway, no need to dwell on . . . My idea, though, you know, all this.”

 
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