White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  December 28, 1992

  My dearest Archibald,

  ’Tis the season to be jolly . . . so it has been claimed, but from my window I see only turmoil. At present six felines, hungry for territory, are warring in my garden. Not content with their autumnal hobby of drenching their plots in urine, the winter has brought out a more fanatical urge in them . . . it is down to claws and flying fur . . . the screeching keeps me up all through the night! I cannot help but think that my own cat, Gabriel, has the right idea, sitting atop my shed, having given up his land claims in exchange for a quiet life.

  But in the end, Alsana laid down the law. Archie and the rest were going whether they liked it or not. And they didn’t. So now they were taking up half the bus in their attempts to sit alone: Clara behind Alsana who was behind Archie who was behind Samad who was sitting across from Neena. Irie was sitting next to Archie, but only because there wasn’t any more space.

  “I was just saying . . . you know,” said Archie, attempting the first conversation to broach the frosty silence since they left Willesden, “it’s quite interesting, the amount of information they put on bus tickets these days. Compared with, you know, the old days. I was just wondering why. It’s quite interesting.”

  “I have to be honest, Archibald,” said Samad with a grimace, “I find it singularly uninteresting. I find it terminally dull.”

  “Oh, right,” said Archie. “Right you are.”

  The bus did one of those arching corners where it feels the merest breath will topple it over.

  “Umm . . . so you wouldn’t know why—”

  “No, Jones, I have no intimate friends at the bus garage nor any inside knowledge of the progressive decisions that are no doubt made daily within London Transport. But if you are asking me for my uneducated guess, then I imagine it is part of some huge government monitoring process to track the every movement of one Archibald Jones, to ascertain where and what he is doing on all days and at every moment—”

  “Jesus,” Neena cut in irritably, “why do you have to be such a bully?”

  “Excuse me? I was not aware you and I, Neena, were having a conversation.”

  “He was just asking a question and you have to come over all arsey. I mean, you’ve been bullying him for half a century. Haven’t you had enough? Why don’t you just leave him alone?”

  “Neena Begum, I swear if you give me one more instruction today I will personally tear your tongue out at the root and wear it as a necktie.”

  “Steady on, Sam,” said Archie, perturbed at the fuss he had inadvertently caused, “I was just—”

  “Don’t you threaten my niece,” Alsana chimed in from further down the bus. “Don’t you take it out on her just because you’d rather be eating your beans and chips”—Ah! (thought Archie, wistfully) beans and chips!—“than going to see your own son actually achieving something and—”

  “I can’t remember you being all that keen,” said Clara, adding her twopence worth. “You know, you have a very convenient way, Alsi, of forgetting what happened two minutes ago.”

  “This from the woman who lives with Archibald Jones!” scoffed Samad. “I might remind you that people in glass houses—”

  “No, Samad,” Clara protested. “Don’t even begin to start on me. You’re the one who had all the real objections about coming . . . but you never stick to a decision, do you? Always Pandy-ing around. At least Archie’s, well, you know . . .” stumbled Clara, unused to defending her husband and unsure of the necessary adjective, “at least he makes a decision and sticks by it. At least Archie’s consistent.”

  “Oh surely, yes,” said Alsana acidly. “The same way that a stone is consistent, the same way my dear babba is consistent for very simple reason that she’s been buried underground for—”

  “Oh, shut up,” said Irie.

  Alsana was silenced for a moment, and then the shock subsided and she found her tongue. “Irie Jones, don’t you tell me—”

  “No, I will tell you,” said Irie, going very red in the face, “actually. Yeah, I will. Shut up. Shut up, Alsana. And shut up the lot of you. All right? Just shut up. In case you didn’t notice, there are, like, other people on this bus and, believe it or not, not everyone in the universe wants to listen to you lot. So shut it. Go on. Try it. Silence. Ah.” She reached into the air as if trying to touch the quiet she had created. “Isn’t that something? Did you know this is how other families are? They’re quiet. Ask one of these people sitting here. They’ll tell you. They’ve got families. This is how some families are all the time. And some people like to call these families repressed, or emotionally stunted or whatever, but do you know what I say?”

  The Iqbals and the Joneses, astonished into silence along with the rest of the bus (even the loud-mouthed Ragga girls on their way to a Brixton dance hall New Year ting), had no answer.

  “I say, lucky fuckers. Lucky, lucky fuckers.”

  “Irie Jones!” cried Clara. “Watch your mouth!” But Irie couldn’t be stopped.

  “What a peaceful existence. What a joy their lives must be. They open a door and all they’ve got behind it is a bathroom or a living room. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and the things said in them years ago and everybody’s old historical shit all over the place. They’re not constantly making the same old mistakes. They’re not always hearing the same old shit. They don’t do public performances of angst on public transport. Really, these people exist. I’m telling you. The biggest traumas of their lives are things like recarpeting. Bill-paying. Gate-fixing. They don’t mind what their kids do in life as long as they’re reasonably, you know, healthy. Happy. And every single fucking day is not this huge battle between who they are and who they should be, what they were and what they will be. Go on, ask them. And they’ll tell you. No mosque. Maybe a little church. Hardly any sin. Plenty of forgiveness. No attics. No shit in attics. No skeletons in cupboards. No great-grandfathers. I will put twenty quid down now that Samad is the only person in here who knows the inside bloody leg measurement of his great-grandfather. And you know why they don’t know? Because it doesn’t fucking matter. As far as they’re concerned, it’s the past. This is what it’s like in other families. They’re not self-indulgent. They don’t run around, relishing, relishing the fact that they are utterly dysfunctional. They don’t spend their time trying to find ways to make their lives more complex. They just get on with it. Lucky bastards. Lucky motherfuckers.”

  The enormous adrenaline rush that sprang from this peculiar outburst surged through Irie’s body, increased her heartbeat to a gallop and tickled the nerve ends of her unborn child, for Irie was eight weeks pregnant and she knew it. What she didn’t know, and what she realized she may never know (the very moment she saw the ghostly pastel blue lines materialize on the home test, like the face of the madonna in the zucchini of an Italian housewife), was the identity of the father. No test on earth would tell her. Same thick black hair. Same twinkling eyes. Same habit of chewing the tops of pens. Same shoe size. Same deoxyribonucleic acid. She could not know her body’s decision, what choice it had made, in the race to the gamete, between the saved and the unsaved. She could not know if the choice would make any difference. Because whichever brother it was, it was the other one too. She would never know.

  At first this fact seemed ineffably sad to Irie; instinctively she sentimentalized the biological facts, adding her own invalid syllogism: if it was not somebody’s child, could it be that it was nobody’s child? She thought of those elaborate fictional cartograms that folded out of Joshua’s old sci-fi books, his Fantasy Adventures. That is how her child seemed. A perfectly plotted thing with no real coordinates. A map to an imaginary fatherland. But then, after weeping and pacing and rolling it over and over in her mind, she thought: whatever, you know? Whatever. It was always going to turn out like this, not precisely like this, but involved like this. This was the Iqbals we were talking about, here. This was the Joneses. How could she eve
r have expected anything less?

  And so she calmed herself, putting her hand over her palpitating chest and breathing deeply as the bus approached the square and the pigeons circled. She would tell one of them and not the other; she would decide which; she would do it tonight.

  “You all right, love?” Archie asked her, after a long period of silence had set in, putting his big pink hand, which was dotted with liver-spots like tea stains, on her knee. “A lot on your chest, then.”

  “Fine, Dad. I’m fine.”

  Archie smiled at her, and tucked a stray hair behind her ear.

  “Dad.”

  “Yes?”

  “The thing about the bus tickets.”

  “Yes?”

  “One theory goes it’s because so many people pay less than they should for their journey. Over the past few years the bus companies have been suffering from larger and larger deficits. You see where it says Retain for Inspection? That’s so they can check later. It’s got all the details there, so you can’t get away with it.”

  And in the past, Archie wondered, was it just that fewer people cheated? Were they more honest, and did they leave their front doors open, did they leave their kids with the neighbors, pay social calls, run up tabs with the butcher? The funny thing about getting old in a country is people always want to hear that from you. They want to hear it really was once a green and pleasant land. They need it. Archie wondered if his daughter needed it. She was looking at him funny. Her mouth downturned, her eyes almost pleading. But what could he tell her? New Years come and go, but no amount of resolutions seem to change the fact that there are bad blokes. There were always plenty of bad blokes.

  “When I was a kid,” said Irie softly, ringing the bell for their stop, “I used to think they were little alibis. Bus tickets. I mean, look: they’ve got the time. The date. The place. And if I was up in court, and I had to defend myself, and prove I wasn’t where they said I was, doing what they said I did, when they said I did it, I’d pull out one of those.”

  Archie was silent and Irie, assuming the conversation was over, was surprised when several minutes later, after they had struggled through the happy New Year crowd and tourists standing round aimlessly, as they were walking up the steps of the Perret Institute, her father said, “Now, I never thought of that. I’ll remember that. Because you never know, do you? I mean, do you? Well. There’s a thought. You should pick them up off the street, I suppose. Put ’em all in a jar. An alibi for every occasion.”

  And all these people are heading for the same room. The final space. A big room, one of many in the Perret Institute; a room separate from the exhibition yet called an Exhibition Room; a corporate place, a clean slate; white/chrome/pure/plain (this was the design brief), used for the meetings of people who want to meet somewhere neutral at the end of the twentieth century; a virtual place where their business (be that rebranding, lingerie, or rebranding lingerie) can be done in an emptiness, an uncontaminated cavity; the logical endpoint of a thousand years of spaces too crowded and bloody. This one is pared down, sterilized, made new every day by a Nigerian cleaning lady with an industrial Hoover and guarded through the night by Mr. De Winter, a Polish night watchman (that’s what he calls himself—his job title is Asset Security Coordinator); he can be seen protecting the space, walking the borders of the space with a Walkman playing Polish folk tunes; you can see him, you can see it through a huge glass front if you walk by—the acres of protected vacuity and a sign with the prices per square foot of these square feet of space of space of space longer than it is wide and tall enough to fit head-to-toe three Archies and at least half an Alsana and tonight there are (there will not be tomorrow) two huge, matching posters, slick across two sides of the room like wallpaper, and the text says MILLENNIAL SCIENCE COMMISSION in a wide variety of fonts ranging from the deliberate archaism of viking to the modernity of impact in order to get a feel of a thousand years in lettering (this was the brief), and all of it in the alternate colors gray, light blue, and dark green, because these are the colors research reveals people associate with “science and technology” (purples and reds denote the arts, royal blue signifies “quality and/or approved merchandise”), because fortunately after years of corporate synesthesia (salt & vinegarblue, cheese & oniongreen) people can finally give the answers required when a space is being designed, or when something is being rebranded, a room/furniture/Britain (that was the brief: a new British room, a space for Britain, Britishness, space of Britain, British industrial space cultural space space); they know what is meant when asked how matte chrome makes them feel; and they know what is meant by national identity? symbols? paintings? maps? music? air-conditioning? smiling black children or smiling Chinese children or [check the box]? world music? shag or pile? tile or floorboards? plants? running water?

  they know what they want, especially those who’ve lived this century, forced from one space to another like Mr. De Winter (né Wojciech), renamed, rebranded, the answer to every questionnaire nothing nothing space please just space nothing please nothing space

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  Of Mice and Memory

  It’s just like on TV! And that is the most superlative compliment Archie can think of for any real-life event. Except this is just like on TV but better. It’s very modern. It’s so well designed you wouldn’t want to breathe in it, no matter fart in it. There’s these chairs, plastic but without legs, curved like an s; they seem to work by means of their own fold; and they fit together, about two hundred of them in ten rows; and they snake around you when you sit in them—soft yet supportive! Comfy! Modern! And you’ve got to admire folding like that, Archie thinks, lowering himself into one, a far higher level of folding than he’d ever been involved with. Very nice.

  The other thing that makes it all better than TV is it’s full of people Archie knows. There’s Millboid at the very back (scoundrel), with Abdul-Jimmy and Abdul-Colin; Josh Chalfen nearer the middle, and Magid’s sitting up at the front with the Chalfen woman (Alsana won’t look at her, but Archie waves anyway because it’d be rude not to), and facing them all (near Archie—Archie’s got the best seat in the house) sits Marcus at a long long table, just like on TV, with microphones all over it, like a bloody swarm, the huge black abdomens of killer bees. Marcus is sitting next to four other blokes, three his age and one really old bloke, dry-looking—desiccated, if that’s the word. And they’ve all got glasses to a man, the way scientists do on the telly. No white coats, though. All very casual: V-necks, ties, loafers. Bit disappointing.

  Now he’s seen a lot of these press conference larks, Archie has (weeping parents, missing child, or, conversely, if it was a foreign-orphan scenario, weeping child, missing parents), but this is miles better because in the center of the table is something quite interesting (which you don’t usually get on TV, just the weeping people): a mouse. Quite a plain mouse, brown, and not with any other mice, but it’s very active, scurrying around in this glass box that’s about as big as a television with airholes. Archie was a bit worried when he first saw it (seven years in a glass box!), but it turns out it’s temporary, just for the photographs. Irie explained there’s this huge thing for it in the Institute, full of pipes and secret places, space upon space, so it won’t get too bored, and it’ll be transferred there later. So that’s all right. He’s a cunning-looking little blinder too, this mouse. He looks like he’s pulling faces a lot of the time. You forget how alert-looking mice are. Terrible trouble to look after, of course. That’s why he never got one for Irie when she was small. Goldfish are cleaner—with shorter memories. In Archie’s experience anything with a long memory holds a grievance and a pet with a grievance (that time you got the wrong food, that time you bathed me) just isn’t what you want.

  “Oh, you’re right there,” agrees Abdul-Mickey, plonking himself down in the seat next to Archie, betraying no reverence for the legless chair. “You don’t want some resentful fucking rodent on your hands.”

  Archie smiles. Mickey’s th
e kind of guy you want to watch the footie with, or the cricket, or if you see a fight in the street you want him to be there, because he’s kind of a commentator on life. Kind of a philosopher. He’s quite frustrated in his daily existence because he doesn’t get much opportunity to show that side of himself. But get him free of his apron and away from the oven, give him space to maneuver—he really comes into his own. Archie’s got a lot of time for Mickey. A lot of time.

  “When they gonna get on wiv it, then?” he says to Archie. “Taking their time, eh? Can’t look at a mouse all bloody night, can you? I mean, you get all these people here on New Year’s Eve, you want something resembling entertainment.”

  “Yeah, well,” says Archie, not disagreeing but not completely agreeing either, “I ’spect they’ve got to go through their notes and that . . . ’Snot like just getting up and telling a few howlers, is it? I mean, it’s not just about pleasing all the people all of the time, now, is it? It’s Science.” Archie says Science the same way he says Modern, as if someone has lent him the words and made him swear not to break them. “Science,” Archie repeats, handling it more firmly, “is a different kettle of fish.”

 
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