White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  Mickey nods at this, seriously considering the proposition, trying to decide how much weight he should allow this counterargument Science, with all its connotations of expertise and higher planes, of places in thought that neither Mickey nor Archie has ever visited (answer: none), how much respect he should give it in the light of these connotations (answer: fuck all. University of Life, innit?), and how many seconds he should leave before tearing it apart (answer: three).

  “On the contrary, Archibald, on the bloody contrary. Speeshuss argument, that is. Common fucking mistake, that is. Science ain’t no different from nuffink else, is it? I mean, when you get down to it. At the end of the day, it’s got to please the people, you know what I mean?”

  Archie nods. He knows what Mickey means. (Some people—Samad for example—will tell you not to trust people who overuse the phrase at the end of the day—football managers, estate agents, salesmen of all kinds—but Archie’s never felt that way about it. Prudent use of said phrase never failed to convince him that his interlocutor was getting to the bottom of things, to the fundamentals.)

  “And if you think there’s any difference between a place like this and my caff,” Mickey continues, somehow full-throated and yet never increasing above a whisper in terms of decibel, “you’re having a laugh. ’Sall the same in the end. ’Sall about the customer in the end. Exempli fuckin’ gratia: it’s no good me putting duck à l’orange on the menu if nobody wants it. Vis-à-vis, there’s no point this lot spending a lot of money on some clever ideas if they’re not going to do some fucking good for someone. Think about it,” says Mickey, tapping his temple, and Archie follows the instruction as best he can.

  “But that don’t mean you don’t give it a bloody chance,” continues Mickey, warming to his theme. “You’ve got to give these new ideas a chance. Otherwise you’re just a philistine, Arch. Now, at the end of the day, you know I’ve always been your cutting-edge type of geezer. That’s why I introduced Bubble and Squeak two years ago.”

  Archie nods sagely. The Bubble and Squeak had been a revelation of sorts.

  “Same goes here. You’ve got to give these things a chance. That’s what I said to Abdul-Colin and my Jimmy. I said: before you jump the gun, come along and give it a chance. And here they are.” Abdul-Mickey flicked his head back, a vicious sign of recognition in the direction of his brother and son, who responded in kind. “They might not like what they hear, of course, but you can’t account for that, can you? But at least they’ve come along with an open mind. Now, me personally, I’m here on good authority from that Magid Ick-Ball—and I trust him, I trust his judgment. But, as I say, we shall wait and see. We live and fucking learn, Archibald,” says Mickey, not to be offensive, but because the F-word acts like padding to him; he can’t help it; it’s just a filler like beans or peas, “we live and fucking learn. And I can tell you, if anything said here tonight convinces me that my Jimmy might not have kids wiv skin like the surface of the fucking moon, then I’m converted, Arch. I’ll say it now. I’ve not the fucking foggiest what some mouse’s got to do with the old Yusuf skin, but I tell you, I’d put my life in that Ick-Ball boy’s hands. I just get a good feeling off that lad. Worth a dozen of his brother,” adds Mickey slyly, lowering his voice because Sam’s behind them. “A dozen easy. I mean, what the fuck was he thinking, eh? I know which one I’d’ve sent away. No fear.”

  Archie shrugs. “It was a tough decision.”

  Mickey crosses his arms and scoffs, “No such thing, mate. You’re either right or you ain’t. And as soon as you realize that, Arch, suddenly your life becomes a lot fucking easier. Take my word for it.”

  Archie takes Mickey’s words gratefully, adding them to the other pieces of sagacity the century has afforded him: You’re either right or you ain’t. The golden age of Luncheon Vouchers is over. Can’t say fairer than that. Heads or tails?

  “Oi-oi, what this?” says Mickey with a grin. “Here we go. Movement. Microphone in action. One-two, one-two. Looks like the manneth beginneth.”

  “. . . and this work is pioneering, it is something that deserves public money and public attention, and it is work the significance of which overrides, in any rational person’s mind, the objections that have been levied against it. What we need . . .”

  What we need, thinks Joshua, are seats closer to the front. Typical cuntish planning on the part of Crispin. Crispin asked for seats in the thick of it, so FATE could kind of merge with the crowd and slip the balaclavas on at the last minute, but it was clearly a rubbishy idea which relied upon some kind of middle aisle in the seating, which just isn’t here. Now they are going to have to make an ungainly journey to the side aisles, like terrorists looking for their seats in the cinema, slowing down the whole operation, when speed and shock tactics are the whole fucking point. What a performance. The whole plan pisses Josh off. So elaborate and absurd, all designed for the greater glory of Crispin. Crispin gets to do a bit of shouting, Crispin gets to do some waving-of-gun, Crispin does some pseudo–Jack Nicholson–psycho twitches just for the drama of it. FANTASTIC. All Josh gets to say is Dad, please. Give them what they want, though privately he figures he’ll have some room for improvisation: Dad, please. I’m so fucking young. I want to live. Give them what they want, for Chrissake. It’s just a mouse . . . I’m your son, and then possibly a phony faint in response to a phony pistol-whip if his father proves to be hesitant. The whole plan’s so high on the cheese factor it’s practically Stilton. But it will work (Crispin had said), that stuff always works. But having spent so much time in the animal kingdom, Crispin is like Mowgli: he doesn’t know about the motivations of people. And he knows more about the psychology of a badger than he will ever know about the inner workings of a Chalfen. So looking at Marcus up there with his magnificent mouse, celebrating the great achievement of his life and maybe of this generation, Joshua can’t stop his own perverse brain from wondering whether it is just possible that he and Crispin and FATE have misjudged completely. That they have all royally messed up. That they have underestimated the power of Chalfenism and its remarkable commitment to the Rational. For it is quite possible that his father will not simply and unreflectingly save the thing he loves like the rest of the plebs. It is quite possible that love doesn’t even come into it. And just thinking about that makes Joshua smile.

  “. . . and I’d like to thank you all, particularly family and friends who have sacrificed their New Year’s Eve . . . I’d like to thank you all for being here at the outset of what I’m sure everybody agrees is a very exciting project, not just for myself and the other researchers but for a far wider . . .”

  Marcus begins and Millat watches the Brothers of KEVIN exchange glances. They’re figuring about ten minutes in. Maybe fifteen. They’ll take their cue from Abdul-Colin. They’re following instructions. Millat, on the other hand, is not following instructions, at least not the kind that are passed from mouth to mouth or written on pieces of paper. His is an imperative secreted in the genes, and the cold steel in his inside pocket is the answer to a claim made on him long ago. He’s a Pandy deep down. And there’s mutiny in his blood.

  As for the practicalities, it had been no biggie: two phone calls to some guys from the old crew, a tacit agreement, some KEVIN money, a trip to Brixton, and, hey presto! it was in his hand, heavier than he had imagined, but, aside from that, not such a headfuck of an object. He almost recognized it. The effect of it reminded him of a small car bomb he saw explode, many years ago, in the Irish section of Kilburn. He was only nine, walking along with Samad. But where Samad was shaken, genuinely shaken, Millat hardly blinked. To Millat, it was so familiar. He was so unfazed by it. Because there aren’t any alien objects or events anymore, just as there aren’t any sacred ones. It’s all so familiar. It’s all on TV. So handling the cold metal, feeling it next to his skin that first time: it was easy. And when things come to you easily, when things click effortlessly into place, it is so tempting to use the four-letter F-word. Fate. Which to Millat is a qu
antity very much like TV: an unstoppable narrative, written, produced, and directed by somebody else.

  Of course, now that he’s here, now that he’s stoned and scared, and it doesn’t feel so easy, and the right-hand side of his jacket feels like someone put a fucking cartoon anvil in there—now he sees the great difference between TV and life, and it kicks him right in the groin. Consequences. But even to think this is to look to the movies for reference (because he’s not like Samad or Mangal Pande; he didn’t get a war, he never saw action, he hasn’t got any analogies or anecdotes), is to remember Pacino in the first Godfather, huddled in the restaurant toilet (as Pande was huddled in the barracks room), considering for a moment what it means to burst out of the men’s room and blast the hell out of the two guys at the checkered table. And Millat remembers. He remembers rewinding and freeze-framing and slow-playing that scene countless times over the years. He remembers that no matter how long you hold the split-second of Pacino reflecting, no matter how often you replay the doubt that seems to cross his face, he never does anything else but what he was always going to do.

  “. . . and when we consider that the human significance of this technology . . . which will prove, I believe, the equal of this century’s discoveries in the field of physics: relativity, quantum mechanics . . . when we consider the choices it affords us . . . not between a blue eye and a brown eye, but between eyes that would be blind and those that might see . . .”

  But Irie now believes there are things the human eye cannot detect, not with any magnifying glass, binoculars, or microscope. She should know, she’s tried. She’s looked at one and then the other, one and then the other—so many times they don’t seem like faces anymore, just brown canvases with strange protrusions, like saying a word so often it ceases to make sense. Magid and Millat. Millat and Magid. Majlat. Milljid.

  She’s asked her unborn child to offer some kind of a sign, but nothing. She’s had a lyric from Hortense’s house going through her head—Psalm 63—early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee . . . But it asks too much of her. It requires her to go back, back, back to the root, to the fundamental moment when sperm met egg, when egg met sperm—so early in this history it cannot be traced. Irie’s child can never be mapped exactly nor spoken of with any certainty. Some secrets are permanent. In a vision, Irie has seen a time, a time not far from now, when roots won’t matter anymore because they can’t because they mustn’t because they’re too long and they’re too tortuous and they’re just buried too damn deep. She looks forward to it.

  “He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster . . .”

  For a few minutes now, beneath Marcus’s talk and the shutters of cameras, another sound (Millat in particular has been attuned to it), a faint singing sound, has been audible. Marcus is doing his best to ignore it and continue, but it has just got considerably louder. He has begun to pause between his words to look around, though the song is clearly not in the room.

  “Let him with constancy follow the Master . . .”

  “Oh God,” murmurs Clara, leaning forward to speak in her husband’s ear. “It’s Hortense. It’s Hortense. Archie, you’ve got to go and sort it out. Please. It’s easiest for you to get out of your seat.”

  But Archie is thoroughly enjoying himself. Between Marcus’s talk and Mickey’s commentary, it’s like watching two TVs at once. Very informative.

  “Ask Irie.”

  “I can’t. She’s too far in to get out. Archie,” she growls, lapsing into a threatening patois, “you kyan jus leddem sing trew de whole ting!”

  “Sam,” says Archie, trying to make his whisper travel, “Sam, you go. You don’t even want to be in here. Go on. You know Hortense. Just tell her to keep it down. ’Sjust I’d quite like to listen to the rest of this, you know. Very informative.”

  “With pleasure,” hisses Samad, getting out of his seat abruptly, and not troubling to excuse himself as he steps firmly on Neena’s toes. “No need, I think, to save my place.”

  Marcus, who is now a quarter of the way through a detailed description of the mouse’s seven years, looks up from his paper at the disturbance, and stops to watch the disappearing figure with the rest of the audience.

  “I think somebody realized this story doesn’t have a happy ending.”

  As the audience laughs lightly and settles back into silence, Mickey nudges Archibald in his ribs. “Now you see, that’s a bit more like it,” he says. “A bit of a comic touch—liven things up a bit. Layman’s terms, innit? Not everybody went to the bloody Oxbridge. Some of us went to the—”

  “University of Life,” agrees Archie, nodding, because they were both there, though at different times. “Can’t beat it.”

  Outside: Samad feels his resolve, strong when the door slammed behind him, weaken as he approaches the formidable Witness ladies, ten of them, all ferociously bewigged, standing on the front steps, banging away at their percussion as if they wish to beat out something more substantial than rhythm. They are in full voice. Five security guards have already admitted defeat, and even Ryan Topps seems slightly in awe of his choral Frankenstein, preferring to stand at a distance on the pavement, handing out copies of the Watchtower to the great crowd heading for Soho.

  “Do I get a concession?” inquires one drunken girl, inspecting the kitschy painting of heaven on the cover, adding it to her handful of New Year club flyers. “Has it got a dress code?”

  With misgivings, Samad taps the triangle player on her rugby-forward shoulders. He tries the full range of vocabulary available to an Indian man addressing potentially dangerous elderly Jamaican women (ifIcouldpleasesorrypossiblypleasesorry—you learn it at bus stops), but the drums proceed, the kazoo buzzes, the cymbals crash. The ladies continue to crunch their sensible shoes in the frost. And Hortense Bowden, too old for marching, continues to sit on a folding chair, resolutely eyeballing the mass of dancing people in Trafalgar Square. She has a banner between her knees that states, simply,


  “Mrs. Bowden?” says Samad, stepping forward in a pause between verses. “I am Samad Iqbal. A friend of Archibald Jones.”

  Because Hortense does not look at him or betray any twinge of recognition, Samad feels bound to delve deeper into the intricate web of their relations. “My wife is a very good friend of your daughter; my step-niece also. My sons are friends with your—”

  Hortense kisses her teeth. “I know fe who you are, man. You know me, I know you. But at dis point, dere are only two kind of people in de world.”

  “It is just that we were wondering,” Samad interrupts, spotting a sermon and wanting to sever it at the root, “if you could possibly reduce the noise somewhat . . . if only—”

  But Hortense is already overlapping him, eyes closed, arm raised, testifying to the truth in the old Jamaican fashion: “Two kind of people: dem who sing for de Lord and dem who rejeck ’im at de peril of dem souls.”

  She turns back. She stands. She shakes her banner furiously in the direction of the drunken hordes moving up and down as one in the Trafalgar fountains, and then she is asked to do it again for a cynical photo-journalist with a waiting space to fill on page six.

  “Bit higher with the banner, love,” he says, camera held up, one knee in the snow. “Come on, get angry, that’s it. Lovely Jubbly.”

  The Witness women raise their voices, sending song up into the firmament. “Early will I seek thee,” sings Hortense. “My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is . . .”

  Samad watches it all and finds himself, to his surprise, unwilling to silence her. Partly because he is tired. Partly because he is old. But mostly because he would do the same, though in a different name. He knows what it is to seek. He knows the dryness. He has felt the thirst you get in a strange land—horrible, persistent—the thirst that lasts your whole life.

  Can’t say fairer than that, he thinks, can’t say fairer than that.
  Inside: “But I’m still waiting for him to get to the bit about my skin. Ain’t heard nothing yet, have you, Arch?”

  “No, nothing yet. I ’spect he’s got a lot to get through. Revolutionary, all this.”

  “Yeah, naturally . . . But you pays your money, you gets your choice.”

  “You didn’t pay for your ticket, did you?”

  “No. No, I didn’t. But I’ve still got expectations. The principle’s the same, innit? Oi-oi, shut it a minute . . . I thought I heard skin just then . . .”

  Mickey did hear skin. Papillomas on the skin, apparently. A good five minutes’ worth. Archie doesn’t understand a word of it. But at the end of it, Mickey looks satisfied, as if he’s got all the information he’s been looking for.

  “Mmm, now that’s why I came, Arch. Very interesting. Great medical breakthrough. Fucking miracle workers, these doctors.”

  “. . . and in this,” Marcus is saying, “he was elemental and indispensable. Not only is he a personal inspiration, but he laid the foundations for so much of this work, particularly in his seminal paper, which I first heard in . . .”

  Oh, that’s nice. Giving the old bloke some credit. And you can tell, he’s chuffed to hear it. Looks a bit tearful. Didn’t catch his name. Still, nice not to take all the glory for yourself. But then again, you don’t want to overdo it. The way Marcus is going on, sounds like the old bloke did everything.

  “Blimey,” says Mickey, thinking the same thing, “fulsome praise, eh? I thought you said it was this Chalfen who was the Mr. Big.”

  “Maybe they’re partners in crime,” suggests Archie.

  “. . . pushing the envelope, when work in this area was seriously underfunded and looked to remain in the realms of science fiction. For that reason alone he has been the guiding spirit, if you like, behind the research group, and is, as ever, my mentor, a position he has filled for twenty years now . . .”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]