White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  And then there was his wife, Alsana, who was tiny and tight-lipped and seemed to disapprove of Clara somehow (though she could only be a few years older); said only “Oh yes, Mrs. Jones” or “Oh no, Mrs. Jones,” making Clara so nervous, so sheepish, she felt compelled to put her shoes back on.

  Archie felt bad for Clara that it wasn’t a bigger reception. But there was no one else to invite. All other relatives and friends had declined the wedding invitation; some tersely, some horrified; others, thinking silence the best option, had spent the past week studiously stepping over the mail and avoiding the phone. The only well-wisher was Ibelgaufts, who had neither been invited nor informed of the event, but from whom, curiously, a note arrived in the morning mail:

  February 14, 1975

  Dear Archibald,

  Usually, there is something about weddings that brings out the misanthrope in me, but today, as I attempted to save a bed of petunias from extinction, I felt a not inconsiderable warmth at the thought of the union of one man and one woman in lifelong cohabitation. It is truly remarkable that we humans undertake such an impossible feat, don’t you think? But to be serious for a moment: as you know, I am a man whose profession it is to look deep inside of “Woman,” and, like a psychiatrist, mark her with a full bill of health or otherwise. And I feel sure, my friend (to extend a metaphor), that you have explored your lady-wife-to-be in such a manner, both spiritually and mentally, and found her not lacking in any particular, and so what else can I offer but the hearty congratulations of your earnest competitor,

  Horst Ibelgaufts

  What other memories of that day could make it unique and lift it out of the other 364 that made up 1975? Clara remembered a young black man stood atop an apple crate, sweating in a black suit, who began pleading to his brothers and sisters; an old bag lady retrieving a carnation from the bin to put in her hair. But then it was all over: the plastic-wrapped sandwiches Clara had made had been forgotten and sat suffering at the bottom of a bag, the sky had clouded over, and when they walked up the hill to the King Ludd Pub, past the jeering Fleet Street lads with their Saturday pints, it was discovered that Archie had been given a parking ticket.

  So it was that Clara spent the first three hours of married life in Cheapside Police Station, her shoes in her hands, watching her savior argue relentlessly with a traffic inspector who failed to understand Archie’s subtle interpretation of the Sunday parking laws.

  “Clara, Clara, love—”

  It was Archie, struggling past her to the front door, partly obscured by a coffee table.

  “We’ve got the Ick-Balls coming round tonight, and I want to get this house in some kind of order—so mind out the way.”

  “You wan’ help?” asked Clara patiently, though still half in daydream. “I can lift someting if—”

  “No, no, no, no—I’ll manage.”

  Clara reached out to take one side of the table. “Let me jus’—”

  Archie battled to push through the narrow frame, trying to hold both the legs and the table’s large removable glass top.

  “It’s man’s work, love.”

  “But—” Clara lifted a large armchair with enviable ease and brought it over to where Archie had collapsed, gasping for breath on the hall steps. “’Sno prob-lem. If you wan’ help: jus’ arks farrit.” She brushed her hand softly across his forehead.

  “Yes, yes, yes.” He shook her off in irritation, as if batting a fly. “I’m quite capable, you know—”

  “I know dat—”

  “It’s man’s work.”

  “Yes, yes, I see—I didn’t mean—”

  “Look, Clara, love, just get out of my way and I’ll get on with it, OK?”

  Clara watched him roll up his sleeves with some determination, and tackle the coffee table once more.

  “If you really want to be of some help, love, you can start bringing in some of your clothes. God knows there’s enough of ’em to sink a bloody battleship. How we’re going to fit them in what little space we have I’m sure I don’t know.”

  “I say before—we can trow some dem out, if you tink it best.”

  “Not up to me now, not up to me, is it? I mean, is it? And what about the coatrack?”

  This was the man: never able to make a decision, never able to state a position.

  “I alreddy say: if ya nah like it, den send da damn ting back. I bought it ’cos I taut you like it.”

  “Well, love,” said Archie, cautious now that she had raised her voice, “it was my money—it would have been nice at least to ask my opinion.”

  “Man! It a coatrack. It jus’ red. An’ red is red is red. What’s wrong wid red all of a sudden?”

  “I’m just trying,” said Archie, lowering his voice to a hoarse, forced whisper (a favorite voice-weapon in the marital arsenal: not in front of the neighbors/children), “to lift the tone in the house a bit. This is a nice neighborhood, new life, you know. Look, let’s not argue. Let’s flip a coin; heads it stays, tails . . .”

  True lovers row, then fall the next second back into each other’s arms; more seasoned lovers will walk up the stairs or into the next room before they relent and retrace their steps. A relationship on the brink of collapse will find one partner two blocks down the road or two countries to the east before something tugs, some responsibility, some memory, a pull of a child’s hand or a heartstring, which induces them to make the long journey back to their other half. On this Richter scale, then, Clara made only the tiniest of rumbles. She turned toward the gate, walked two steps only, and stopped.

  “Heads!” said Archie, seemingly without resentment. “It stays. See? That wasn’t too hard.”

  “I don’ wanna argue.” She turned round to face him, having made a silent renewed resolution to remember her debt to him. “You said the Iqbals are comin’ to dinner. I was just thinkin’ . . . if they’re going to want me to cook dem some curry—I mean, I can cook curry—but it’s my type of curry.”

  “For God’s sake, they’re not those kind of Indians,” said Archie irritably, offended at the suggestion. “Sam’ll have a Sunday roast like the next man. He serves Indian food all the time, he doesn’t want to eat it too.”

  “I was just wondering—”

  “Well, don’t, Clara. Please.”

  He gave her an affectionate kiss on the forehead, for which she bent downward a little.

  “I’ve known Sam for years, and his wife seems a quiet sort. They’re not the royal family, you know. They’re not those kind of Indians,” he repeated, and shook his head, troubled by some problem, some knotty feeling he could not entirely unravel.

  Samad and Alsana Iqbal, who were not those kind of Indians (as, in Archie’s mind, Clara was not that kind of black), who were, in fact, not Indian at all but Bangladeshi, lived four blocks down on the wrong side of Willesden High Road. It had taken them a year to get there, a year of mercilessly hard graft to make the momentous move from the wrong side of Whitechapel to the wrong side of Willesden. A year’s worth of Alsana banging away at the old Singer that sat in the kitchen, sewing together pieces of black plastic for a shop called Domination in Soho (many were the nights Alsana would hold up a piece of clothing she had just made, following the pattern she was given, and wonder what on earth it was). A year’s worth of Samad softly inclining his head at exactly the correct deferential angle, pencil in his left hand, listening to the appalling pronunciation of the British, Spanish, American, French, Australian:

  Go Bye Ello Sag, please.

  Chicken Jail Fret See wiv Chips, fanks.

  From six in the evening until three in the morning; and then every day was spent asleep, until daylight was as rare as a decent tip. For what is the point, Samad would think, pushing aside two mints and a receipt to find fifteen pence, what is the point of tipping a man the same amount you would throw in a fountain to chase a wish? But before the illegal thought of folding the fifteen pence discreetly in his napkin hand even had a chance to give itself form, Mukhul—Ardashir M
ukhul, who ran the Palace and whose wiry frame paced the restaurant, one benevolent eye on the customers, one ever-watchful eye on the staff—Mukhul was upon him.

  “Saaamaad”—he had a cloying, oleaginous way of speaking—“did you kiss the necessary backside this evening, cousin?”

  Samad and Ardashir were distant cousins, Samad the elder by six years. With what joy (pure bliss!) had Ardashir opened the letter last January, to find his older, cleverer, handsomer cousin was finding it hard to get work in England and could he possibly . . .

  “Fifteen pence, cousin,” said Samad, lifting his palm.

  “Well, every little helps, every little helps,” said Ardashir, his dead-fish lips stretching into a stringy smile. “Into the Piss-Pot with it.”

  The Piss-Pot was a black Balti pot that sat on a plinth outside the staff toilets and into which all tips were pooled and then split at the end of the night. For the younger, flashy, good-looking waiters like Shiva, this was a great injustice. Shiva was the only Hindu on the staff—this stood as tribute to his waitering skills, which had triumphed over religious differences. Shiva could make a four-quid tip in an evening if the blubberous white divorcée in the corner was lonely enough and he batted his long lashes at her effectively. He could also make his money out of the turtlenecked directors and producers (the Palace sat in the center of London’s theaterland, and these were still the days of the Royal Court, of pretty boys and kitchen-sink drama) who flattered the boy, watched his ass wiggle provocatively to the bar and back, and swore that if anyone ever adapted A Passage to India for the stage he could have whichever role tickled his fancy. For Shiva, then, the Piss-Pot system was simply daylight robbery and an insult to his unchallenged waitering abilities. But for men like Samad, in his late forties, and for the even older, like the white-haired Muhammed (Ardashir’s great-uncle), who was eighty if he was a day, who had deep pathways dug into the sides of his mouth where he had smiled when he was young, for men like this the Piss-Pot could not be complained about. It made more sense to join the collective than pocket fifteen pence and risk being caught (and docked a week’s tips).

  “You’re all on my back!” Shiva would snarl, when he had to relinquish five pounds at the end of the night and drop it into the pot. “You all live off my back! Somebody get these losers off my back! That was my fiver and now it’s going to be split sixty-five-fucking-million ways as a handout to these losers! What is this: communism?”

  And the rest would avoid his glare and busy themselves quietly with other things, until one evening, one fifteen-pence evening, Samad said, “Shut up, boy,” quietly, almost under his breath.

  “You!” Shiva swung round to where Samad stood, crushing a great tub of lentils for tomorrow’s dal. “You’re the worst of them! You’re the worst fucking waiter I’ve ever seen! You couldn’t get a tip if you mugged the bastards! I hear you trying to talk to the customer about biology this, politics that—just serve the food, you idiot—you’re a waiter, for fuck’s sake, you’re not Michael Parkinson. ‘Did I hear you say Delhi’ ”—Shiva put his apron over his arm and began posturing around the kitchen (he was a pitiful mimic)—“ ‘I was there myself, you know, Delhi University, it was most fascinating, yes—and I fought in the war, for England, yes—yes, yes, charming, charming.’ ” Round and round the kitchen he went, bending his head and rubbing his hands over and over like Uriah Heep, bowing and genuflecting to the head cook, to the old man arranging great hunks of meat in the walk-in freezer, to the young boy scrubbing the underside of the oven. “Samad, Samad . . .” he said with what seemed infinite pity, then stopped abruptly, pulled the apron off and wrapped it round his waist. “You are such a sad little man.”

  Muhammed looked up from his pot-scrubbing and shook his head again and again. To no one in particular he said, “These young people—what kind of talk? What kind of talk? What happened to respect? What kind of talk is this?”

  “And you can fuck off too,” said Shiva, brandishing a ladle in his direction, “you old fool. You’re not my father.”

  “Second cousin of your mother’s uncle,” a voice muttered from the back.

  “Bollocks,” said Shiva. “Bollocks to that.”

  He grabbed the mop and was heading off for the toilets, when he stopped by Samad and placed the handle inches from Samad’s mouth.

  “Kiss it,” he sneered; and then, impersonating Ardashir’s sluggish drawl, “Who knows, cousin, you might get a raise!”

  And that’s what it was like most nights: abuse from Shiva and others; condescension from Ardashir; never seeing Alsana; never seeing the sun; clutching fifteen pence and then releasing it; wanting desperately to be wearing a sign, a large white placard that said:

  I AM NOT A WAITER. I HAVE BEEN A STUDENT, A SCIENTIST, A SOLDIER, MY WIFE IS CALLED ALSANA, WE LIVE IN EAST LONDON BUT WE WOULD LIKE TO MOVE NORTH. I AM A MUSLIM BUT ALLAH HAS FORSAKEN ME OR I HAVE FORSAKEN ALLAH, I’M NOT SURE. I HAVE A FRIEND—ARCHIE—AND OTHERS. I AM FORTY-NINE BUT WOMEN STILL TURN IN THE STREET. SOMETIMES.

  But, no such placard existing, he had instead the urge, the need, to speak to every man, and, like the Ancient Mariner, explain constantly, constantly wanting to reassert something, anything. Wasn’t that important? But then the heartbreaking disappointment—to find out that the inclining of one’s head, poising of one’s pen, these were important, so important—it was important to be a good waiter, to listen when someone said—

  Lamb Dawn Sock and rice. With chips. Thank you.

  And fifteen pence clinked on china. Thank you, sir. Thank you so very much.

  On the Tuesday after Archie’s wedding, Samad had waited till everyone left, folded his white, flared trousers (made from the same fabric as the tablecloths) into a perfect square, and then climbed the stairs to Ardashir’s office, for he had something to ask him.

  “Cousin!” said Ardashir, with a friendly grimace at the sight of Samad’s body curling cautiously round the door. He knew that Samad had come to inquire about a pay increase, and he wanted his cousin to feel that he had at least considered the case in all his friendly judiciousness before he declined.

  “Cousin, come in!”

  “Good evening, Ardashir Mukhul,” said Samad, stepping fully into the room.

  “Sit down, sit down,” said Ardashir warmly. “No point standing on ceremony now, is there?”

  Samad was glad this was so. He said as much. He took a moment to look with the necessary admiration around the room, with its relentless gold, with its triple-piled carpet, with its furnishings in various shades of yellow and green. One had to admire Ardashir’s business sense. He had taken the simple idea of an Indian restaurant (small room, pink tablecloths, loud music, atrocious wallpaper, meals that do not exist in India, sauce carousels) and just made it bigger. He hadn’t improved anything; everything was the same old crap, but it was all bigger in a bigger building in the biggest tourist trap in London, Leicester Square. You had to admire it and admire the man, who sat now like a benign locust, his slender insectile body swamped in a black leather chair, leaning over the desk, all smiles, a parasite disguised as a philanthropist.

  “Cousin, what can I do for you?”

  Samad took a breath. The matter was this . . .

  Ardashir’s eyes glazed over a little as Samad explained his situation. His skinny legs twitched underneath the desk, and in his fingers he manipulated a paper clip until it looked reasonably like an A. A for Ardashir. The matter was . . . what was the matter? The house was the matter. Samad was moving out of East London (where one couldn’t bring up children, indeed one couldn’t, not if one didn’t wish them to come to bodily harm, he agreed), from East London with its NF gangs, to North London, northwest, where things were more . . . more . . . liberal.

  Was it his turn to speak?

  “Cousin . . .” said Ardashir, arranging his face, “you must understand . . . I cannot make it my business to buy houses for all my employees, cousin or not cousin . . . I pay a wage, cousin . . . That is business i
n this country.”

  Ardashir shrugged as he spoke as if to suggest he deeply disapproved of “Business in this country,” but there it was. He was forced, his look said, forced by the English to make an awful lot of money.

  “You misunderstand me, Ardashir. I have the deposit for the house, it is our house now, we have moved in—”

  How on earth has he afforded it, he must work his wife like a bloody slave, thought Ardashir, pulling out another paper clip from the bottom drawer.

  “I need only a small wage increase to help me finance the move. To make things a little easier as we settle in. And Alsana, well, she is pregnant.”

  Pregnant. Difficult. The case called for extreme diplomacy.

  “Don’t mistake me, Samad, we are both intelligent, frank men and I think I can speak frankly . . . I know you’re not a fucking waiter”—he whispered the expletive and smiled indulgently after it, as if it were a naughty, private thing that brought them closer together—“I see your position . . . of course I do . . . but you must understand mine. . . . If I made allowances for every relative I employ I’d be walking around like bloody Mr. Gandhi. Without a pot to piss in. Spinning my thread by the light of the moon. An example: at this very moment that wastrel Fat Elvis brother-in-law of mine, Hussein-Ishmael—”

  “The butcher?”

  “The butcher, demands that I should raise the price I pay for his stinking meat! ‘But Ardashir, we are brothers-in-law!’ he is saying to me. And I am saying to him, but Mohammed, this is retail . . .”

  It was Samad’s turn to glaze over. He thought of his wife, Alsana, who was not as meek as he had assumed when they married, to whom he must deliver the bad news; Alsana, who was prone to moments, even fits—yes, fits was not too strong a word—of rage. Cousins, aunts, brothers thought it a bad sign, they worried if there wasn’t some “funny mental history” in Alsana’s family, they sympathized with him the way you sympathize with a man who has bought a stolen car with more mileage on it than first thought. In his naivete Samad had simply assumed a woman so young would be . . . easy. But Alsana was not . . . no, she was not easy. It was, he supposed, the way with these young women these days. Archie’s bride . . . last Tuesday he had seen something in her eyes that wasn’t easy either. It was the new way with these women.

 
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