White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “You know who my mentor is?” says Mickey. “Muhammad Ali. No question. Integrity of mind, integrity of spirit, integrity of body. Top bloke. Wicked fighter. And when he said he was the greatest, he didn’t just say ‘the greatest.’ ”

  Archie says, “No?”

  “Nah, mate,” says Mickey, solemn. “He said he was the greatest of all times. Past, present, future. He was a cocky bastard, Ali. Definitely my mentor.”

  Mentor . . . thinks Archie. For him, it’s always been Samad. You can’t tell Mickey that, obviously. Sounds daft. Sounds queer. But it’s the truth. Always Sammy. Through thick and thin. Even if the world were ending. Never made a decision without him in forty years. Good old Sam. Sam the man.

  “. . . and so if any one person deserves the lion’s share of recognition for the marvel you see before you, it is Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret. A remarkable man and a very great . . .”

  Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories. Archie does recognize the name, faintly, somewhere inside, but he is already twisting in his seat by then, trying to see if Samad is returning. He can’t see Samad. Instead he spots Millat, who looks funny. Who looks decidedly funny. Peculiar rather than ha-ha. He’s swaying ever so slightly in his seat, and Archie can’t catch his eye for a you-all-right-mate look because his eyes are locked on to something and when Archie follows the path of this stare, he finds himself looking at the same peculiar thing: an old man weeping tiny tears of pride. Red tears. Tears Archie recognizes.

  But not before Samad recognizes them; Captain Samad Miah, who has just stepped soundlessly through the modern door with its silent mechanism; Captain Samad Miah, who pauses for a moment on the threshold, peers through his reading glasses, and realizes that he has been lied to by his only friend in the world for fifty years. That the cornerstone of their friendship was made of nothing more firm than marshmallow and soap bubbles. That there is far, far more to Archibald Jones than he had ever imagined. He realizes everything at once like the climax of a bad Hindi musical. And then, with a certain horrid glee, he gets to the fundamental truth of it, the anagnorisis: This incident alone will keep us two old boys going for the next forty years. It is the story to end all stories. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

  “Archibald!” He turns from the doctor toward his lieutenant and releases a short, loud, hysterical laugh; he feels like a new bride looking at her groom with perfect recognition just at the moment when everything between the two of them has changed. “You two-faced buggering bastard trickster misa¯ ma¯ta¯, bhainchute, shora-baicha, syut-mora¯ni, haraam jadda¯ . . .”

  Samad tumbles into the Bengali vernacular, so colorfully populated by liars, sister-fuckers, sons and daughters of pigs, people who give their own mothers oral pleasure . . .

  But even before this, or at least simultaneous with this, while the audience looks on, bemused by this old brown man shouting at this old white man in a foreign tongue, Archie senses something else going on, some movement in this space, potential movement all over the room (the Indian guys at the back, the kids sitting near Josh, Irie looking from Millat to Magid, Magid to Millat, like an umpire) and sees that Millat will get there first; and Millat is reaching like Pande; and Archie has seen TV and he has seen real life and he knows what such a reach means, so he stands. So he moves.

  So as the gun sees the light, he is there, he is there with no coin to help him, he is there before Samad can stop him, he is there with no alibi, he is there between Millat Iqbal’s decision and his target, like the moment between thought and speech, like the split-second intervention of memory or regret.

  At some point in the darkness, they stopped walking through the flatlands and Archie pushed the doctor forward, made him stand just in front, where he could see him.

  “Stay there,” he said, as the doctor stepped inadvertently into a moonbeam. “Stay right bloody there.”

  Because he wanted to see evil, pure evil; the moment of the great recognition, he needed to see it—and then he could proceed as previously arranged. But the doctor was stooping badly and he looked weak. His face was covered in pale red blood as if the deed had already been done. Archie’d never seen a man so crumpled, so completely vanquished. It kind of took the wind out of his sails. He was tempted to say You look like I feel, for if there was an embodiment of his own pounding headache, of the alcoholic nausea rising from his belly, it was standing opposite him now. But neither man spoke; they just stood there for a while, looking at each other across the loaded gun. Archie had the funny sensation that he could fold this man instead of killing him. Fold him up and put him in his pocket.

  “Look, I’m sorry about it,” said Archie desperately, after thirty long seconds of silence. “War’s over. I’ve nothing against you personal . . . but my friend, Sam . . . well, I’m in a bit of a situation. So there it is.”

  The doctor blinked several times and seemed to be struggling to control his breathing. Through lips red with his own blood he said, “When we were walking . . . you said that I might plead . . . ?”

  Keeping his hands behind his head, the doctor made a move to get on his knees, but Archie shook his head and groaned. “I know what I said . . . but there’s no . . . it’s just better if I—” said Archie sadly, miming the pull of the trigger and the kick-back of the gun. “Don’t you think? I mean, easier . . . all round?”

  The doctor opened his mouth as if to say something, but Archie shook his head again. “I’ve never done this before and I’m a bit . . . well, pissed, frankly . . . I drank quite a bit . . . and it wouldn’t help . . . you’d be there talking and I probably wouldn’t make head nor tail of it, you know, so . . .”

  Archie lifted his arms until they were in line with the doctor’s forehead, closed his eyes, and cocked the gun.

  The doctor’s voice jumped an octave. “A cigarette?”

  And it was at that moment that it started to go wrong. Like it went wrong for Pande. He should have shot the bloke then and there. Probably. But instead he opened his eyes to see his victim struggling to pull out a battered cigarette package and a box of matches from his top pocket like a human being.

  “Could I—please? Before . . .”

  Archie let all the breath he had summoned up to kill a man come out through his nose. “Can’t say no to a last request,” said Archie, because he’d seen the movies. “I’ve got a light, if you like.”

  The doctor nodded, Archie struck a match, and the doctor leaned forward to light up.

  “Well, get on with it,” said Archie, after a moment; he never could resist a pointless debate, “if you’ve got something to say, say it. I haven’t got all night.”

  “I can speak? We are to have a conversation?”

  “I didn’t say we were going to have a conversation,” said Archie sharply. Because this was a tactic of Movie Nazis (and Archie should have known; he spent the first four years of the war watching flickering Movie Nazis at the Brighton Odeon), they try to talk their way out of stuff. “I said you were going to talk and then I was going to kill you.”

  “Oh yes, of course.”

  The doctor used his sleeve to wipe his face, and looked at the boy curiously, double-checking to see if he were serious. The boy looked serious.

  “Well, then . . . If I may say so . . .” The doctor’s mouth hung open, waiting for Archie to insert a name but none came. “Lieutenant . . . if I may say so, Lieutenant, it appears to me you are in something of a . . . a . . . moral quandary.”

  Archie didn’t know what quandary meant. It reminded him of coal, metal, and Wales, somewhere between quarry and foundry. At a loss, he said what he always said in these situations. “I should cocoa!”

  “Er . . . Yes, yes,” said Dr. Sick, gaining some confidence; he had not yet been shot and a whole minute had so far passed. “It seems to me you have a dilemma. On the one hand . . . I do not believe you wish to kill me—”

  Archie squared his shoulders. “Now look, sunshine—”

“And on the other, you have promised your overzealous friend that you will. But it is more than that.”

  The doctor’s shaking hands tapped his own cigarette inadvertently, and Archie watched the ash fall like gray snow onto his boots.

  “On the one hand, you have an obligation to—to—your country and to what you believe is right. On the other hand, I am a man. I am speaking to you. I breathe and I bleed as you do. And you do not know, for certain, what type of a man I am. You have only hearsay. So, I understand your difficulty.”

  “I don’t have a difficulty. You’re the one with the difficulty, sunshine.”

  “And yet, though I am not your friend, you have a duty to me, because I am a man. I think you are caught between duties. I think you find yourself in a very interesting situation.”

  Archie stepped forward, and put the muzzle two inches from the doctor’s forehead. “You finished?”

  The doctor tried to say yes but nothing came except a stutter.


  “Wait! Please. Do you know Sartre?”

  Archie sighed, exasperated. “No, no, no—we haven’t any friends in common—I know that, because I’ve only got one friend and he’s called Ick-Ball. Look, I’m going to kill you. I’m sorry about it but—”

  “Not a friend. Philosopher. Sartre. Monsieur J.-P.”

  “Who?” said Archie, agitated, suspicious. “Sounds French.”

  “He is French. A great Frenchman. I met him briefly in ’41, when he was imprisoned. But when I met him he posed a problem, which is similar, I think, to yours.”

  “Go on,” said Archie slowly. The fact was he could do with some help.

  “The problem,” continued Dr. Sick, trying to control his hyperventilation, sweating so much there were two little pools in the hollows at the base of his neck, “is that of a young French student who ought to care for his sick mother in Paris but at the same time ought to go to England to help the Free French fight the National Socialists. Now, remembering that there are many kinds of ought—one ought to give to charity, for example, but one doesn’t always do so; it is ideal, but it is not required—remembering this, what should he do?”

  Archie scoffed, “That’s a bloody stupid question. Think about it.” He gesticulated with the gun, moving it from the doctor’s face and tapping his own temple with it. “At the end of the day, he’ll do the one he cares about more. Either he loves his country or his old mum.”

  “But what if he cares about both options, equally? I mean, country and ‘old mum.’ What if he is obligated to do both?”

  Archie was unimpressed. “Well, he better just do one and get on with it.”

  “The Frenchman agrees with you,” said the doctor, attempting a smile. “If neither imperative can be overridden, then choose one, and as you say, get on with it. Man makes himself, after all. And he is responsible for what he makes.”

  “There you are, then. End of conversation.”

  Archie placed his legs apart, spread his weight, ready to take the kickback—and cocked the gun once more.

  “But—but—think—please, my friend—try to think—” The doctor fell to his knees, sending up a cloud of dust that rose and fell like a sigh.

  “Get up,” gulped Archie, horrified by the streams of eye-blood, the hand on his leg, and then the mouth on his shoe. “Please—there’s no need for—”

  But the doctor grabbed the back of Archie’s knees. “Think—please—anything may happen . . . I may yet redeem myself in your eyes . . . or you may be mistaken—your decision may come back to you as Oedipus’s returned to him, horrible and mutilated! You cannot say for sure!”

  Archie grabbed the doctor by his skinny arm, hauled him upright, and began yelling, “Look, mate. You’ve upset me now. I’m not a bloody fortune-teller. The world might end tomorrow for all I know. But I’ve got to do this now. Sam’s waiting for me. Please,” said Archie, because his hand was shaking and his resolve was escaping him, “please stop talking. I’m not a fortune-teller.”

  But the doctor collapsed once more, like a jack-in-the-box. “No . . . no . . . we are not fortune-tellers. I could never have predicted my life would end up in the hands of a child . . . Corinthians I, chapter thirteen, verses eight to ten: Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. But when will it come? For myself, I became tired of waiting. It is such a terrible thing, to know only in part. A terrible thing not to have perfection, human perfection, when it is so readily available.” The doctor lifted himself up, and tried to reach out to Archie just as Archie backed away. “If only we were brave enough to make the decisions that must be made . . . between those worth saving and the rest . . . Is it a crime to want—”

  “Please, please,” said Archie, ashamed to find himself crying, not red tears like the doctor’s, but thick and translucent and salty. “Stay there. Please stop talking. Please.”

  “And then I think of the perverse German, Friedrich. Imagine the world with no beginning or end, boy.” He spat this last word, boy, and it was a thief that changed the balance of power between them, stealing whatever strength was left in Archie and dispersing it on the wind. “Imagine, if you can, events in the world happening repeatedly, endlessly, in the way they always have . . .”

  “Stay where you fucking are!”

  “Imagine this war over and over a million times . . .”

  “No thanks,” said Archie, choking on snot. “’Sbad enough the first time.”

  “It is not a serious proposition. It is a test. Only those who are sufficiently strong and well disposed to life to affirm it—even if it will just keep on repeating—have what it takes to endure the worst blackness. I could see the things I have done repeated infinitely. I am one of the confident ones. But you are not one of them . . .”

  “Please, just stop talking, please, so I can—”

  “The decision you make, Archie,” said Dr. Sick, betraying a knowledge that he had possessed from the start, the boy’s name, which he had been waiting to employ when it would have the most power, “could you see it repeated again and again, through eternity? Could you?”

  “I’ve got a coin!” yelled Archie, screamed it with joy, because he had just remembered it. “I’ve got a coin!”

  Dr. Sick looked confused, and stopped his stumbling steps forward.

  “Ha! I have a coin, you bastard. Ha! So balls to you!”

  Then another step. His hands reaching out, palms up, innocent.

  “Stay back. Stay where you are. Right. This is what we’re going to do. Enough talking. I’m going to put my gun down here . . . slowly . . . here.”

  Archie crouched and placed it on the ground, roughly between the two of them. “That’s so you can trust me. I’ll stand by my word. And now I’m going to throw this coin. And if it’s heads, I’m going to kill you.”

  “But—” said Dr. Sick. And for the first time Archie saw something like real fear in his eyes, the same fear that Archie felt so thoroughly he could hardly speak.

  “And if it’s tails, I won’t. No, I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not much of a thinker, when you get down to it. That’s the best I can offer. All right, here goes.”

  The coin rose and flipped as a coin would rise and flip every time in a perfect world, flashing its light and then revealing its dark enough times to mesmerize a man. Then, at some point in its triumphant ascension, it began to arc, and the arc went wrong, and Archibald realized that it was not coming back to him at all but going behind him, a fair way behind him, and he turned round to watch it fall in the dirt. He was bending to pick it up when a shot rang out, and he felt a blistering pain in his right thigh. He looked down. Blood. The bullet had passed straight through, just missing the bone, but leaving a shard of the cap embedded deep in the flesh. The pain was excruciating and strangely d
istant at the same time. Archie turned back round to see Dr. Sick, half bent over, the gun hanging weakly in his right hand.

  “For fuckssake, why did you do that?” said Archie, furious, grabbing the gun off the doctor, easily and forcefully. “It’s tails. See? It’s tails. Look. Tails. It was tails.”

  So Archie is there, there in the trajectory of the bullet, about to do something unusual, even for TV: save the same man twice and with no more reason or rhyme than the first time. And it’s a messy business, this saving people lark. Everybody in the room watches in horror as he takes it in the thigh, right in the femur, spins round with some melodrama and falls right through the mouse’s glass box. Shards of glass all over the gaff. What a performance. If it were TV you would hear the saxophone around now; the credits would be rolling.

  But first the endgames. Because it seems no matter what you think of them, they must be played, even if, like the independence of India or Jamaica, like the signing of peace treaties or the docking of passenger boats, the end is simply the beginning of an even longer story. The same focus group who picked out the color of this room, the carpet, the font for the posters, the height of the table, would no doubt check the box that asks to see all these things played to their finish . . . and there is surely a demographic pattern to all those who wish to see the eyewitness statements that identified Magid as many times as Millat, the confusing transcripts, the videotape of uncooperating victim and families, a court case so impossible the judge gave in and issued four hundred hours community service to both twins, which they served, naturally, as gardeners in Joyce’s new project, a huge millennial park by the banks of the Thames . . .

  And is it young professional women aged eighteen to thirty-two who would like a snapshot seven years hence of Irie, Joshua, and Hortense sitting by a Caribbean sea (for Irie and Joshua become lovers in the end; you can only avoid your fate for so long), while Irie’s fatherless little girl writes affectionate postcards to Bad Uncle Millat and Good Uncle Magid and feels free as Pinocchio, a puppet clipped of paternal strings? And could it be that it is largely the criminal class and the elderly who find themselves wanting to make bets on the winner of a blackjack game, the one played by Alsana and Samad, Archie and Clara, in O’Connell’s, December 31, 1999, that historic night when Abdul-Mickey finally opened his doors to women?

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