White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  Ardashir came to the end of what he felt was his perfectly worded speech, sat back satisfied, and laid the M for Mukhul he had molded next to the A for Ardashir that sat on his lap.

  “Thank you, sir,” said Samad. “Thank you so very much.”

  That evening there was an awful row. Alsana slung the sewing machine, with the black studded hotpants she was working on, to the floor.

  “Useless! Tell me, Samad Miah, what is the point of moving here—nice house, yes, very nice, very nice—but where is the food?”

  “It is a nice area, we have friends here.”

  “Who are they?” She slammed her little fist on to the kitchen table, sending the salt and pepper flying, to collide spectacularly with each other in the air. “I don’t know them! You fight in an old, forgotten war with some Englishman . . . married to a black! Whose friends are they? These are the people my child will grow up around? Their children—half blacky-white? But tell me,” she shouted, returning to her favored topic, “where is our food?” Theatrically, she threw open every cupboard in the kitchen. “Where is it? Can we eat china?” Two plates smashed to the floor. She patted her stomach to indicate her unborn child and pointed to the pieces. “Hungry?”

  Samad, who had an equally melodramatic nature when prompted, yanked open the freezer and pulled out a mountain of meat that he piled in the middle of the room. His mother worked through the night preparing meat for her family, he said. His mother did not, he said, spend the household money, as Alsana did, on prepared meals, yogurts, and canned spaghetti.

  Alsana punched him full square in the stomach.

  “Samad Iqbal the traditionalist! Why don’t I just squat in the street over a bucket and wash clothes? Eh? In fact, what about my clothes? Edible?”

  As Samad clutched his winded belly, there in the kitchen she ripped to shreds every stitch she had on and added them to the pile of frozen lamb, spare cuts from the restaurant. She stood naked before him for a moment, the yet small mound of her pregnancy in full view, then put on a long brown coat and left the house.

  But all the same, she reflected, slamming the door behind her, it was true: it was a nice area; she couldn’t deny it as she stormed toward the High Road, avoiding trees where previously, in Whitechapel, she avoided flung-out mattresses and the homeless. It would be good for the child, she couldn’t deny it. Alsana had a deep-seated belief that living near green spaces was morally beneficial to the young, and there to her right was Gladstone Park, a sweeping horizon of green named after the Liberal prime minister (Alsana was from a respected old Bengal family and had read her English history; but look at her now; if they could see what depths . . . !), and in the Liberal tradition it was a park without fences, unlike the more affluent Queens Park (Victoria’s), with its pointed metal railings. Willesden was not as pretty as Queens Park, but it was a nice area. No denying it. Not like Whitechapel, where that madman E-knock someoneoranother gave a speech that forced them into the basement while kids broke the windows with their steel-capped boots. Rivers of blood silly-billy nonsense. Now she was pregnant she needed a little bit of peace and quiet. Though it was the same here in a way: they all looked at her strangely, this tiny Indian woman stalking the High Road in a mackintosh, her plentiful hair flying every which way. MALI’S KEBABS, MR. CHEUNGS, RAJ’S, MALKOVICH BAKERIES—she read the new, unfamiliar signs as she passed. She was shrewd. She saw what this was. “Liberal? Hosh-kosh nonsense!” No one was more liberal than anyone else anywhere anyway. It was only that here, in Willesden, there was just not enough of any one thing to gang up against any other thing and send it running to the cellars while windows were smashed.

  “Survival is what it is about!” she concluded out loud (she spoke to her baby; she liked to give it one sensible thought a day), making the bell above Crazy Shoes tinkle as she opened the door. Her niece Neena worked there. It was an old-fashioned cobblers. Neena fixed heels back on to stilettos.

  “Alsana, you look like dog shit,” Neena called over in Bengali. “What is that horrible coat?”

  “It’s none of your business, is what it is,” replied Alsana in English. “I came to collect my husband’s shoes, not to chitchat with Niece-of-Shame.”

  Neena was used to this, and now that Alsana had moved to Willesden there would only be more of it. It used to come in longer sentences, e.g., You have brought nothing but shame . . . or My niece, the shameful . . . but now because Alsana no longer had the time or energy to summon up the necessary shock each time, it had become abridged to Niece-of-Shame, an all-purpose tag that summed up the general feeling.

  “See these soles?” said Neena, moving one of her dyed blond bangs from her eye, taking Samad’s shoes off a shelf, and handing Alsana the little blue ticket. “They were so worn through, Auntie Alsi, I had to reconstruct them from the very base. From the base! What does he do in them? Run marathons?”

  “He works,” replied Alsana tersely. “And prays,” she added, for she liked to show people her respectability, and besides she was really very traditional, very religious, lacking nothing except the faith. “And don’t call me Auntie. I am two years older than you.” Alsana swept the shoes into a plastic shopping bag and turned to leave.

  “I thought that praying was done on people’s knees,” said Neena, laughing lightly.

  “Both, both, asleep, waking, walking,” snapped Alsana, as she passed under the tinkly bell once more. “We are never out of sight of the Creator.”

  “How’s the new house, then?” Neena called after her.

  But she had gone; Neena shook her head and sighed as she watched her young aunt disappear down the road like a little brown bullet. Alsana. She was young and old at the same time, Neena reflected. She acted so sensible, so straight-down-the-line in her long sensible coat, but you got the feeling . . .

  “Oi! Miss! There’s shoes back here that need your attention,” came a voice from the storeroom.

  “Keep your tits on,” said Neena.

  At the corner of the road Alsana popped behind the post office and removed her pinchy sandals in favor of Samad’s shoes. (It was an oddity about Alsana. She was small but her feet were enormous. You felt instinctively when looking at her that she had yet more growing to do.) In seconds she whipped her hair into an efficient bun, and wrapped her coat tighter around her to keep out the wind. Then she set off up past the library and up a long green road she had never walked along before. “Survival is all, little Iqbal,” she said to her bump once more. “Survival.”

  Halfway up the road, she crossed the street, intending to turn left and circle round back to the High Road. But then, as she approached a large white van open at the back and looked enviously at the furniture that was piled up in it, she recognized the black lady who was leaning over a garden fence, looking dreamily into the air toward the library (half dressed, though! A lurid purple vest, underwear almost), as if her future lay in that direction. Before she could cross over once more to avoid her, Alsana found herself spotted.

  “Mrs. Iqbal!” said Clara, waving her over.

  “Mrs. Jones.”

  Both women were momentarily embarrassed at what they were wearing, but, looking at the other, gained confidence.

  “Now, isn’t that strange, Archie?” said Clara, filling in all her consonants. She was already some way to losing her accent and she liked to work on it at every opportunity.

  “What? What?” said Archie, who was in the hallway, becoming exasperated with a bookcase.

  “It’s just that we were just talking about you—you’re coming to dinner tonight, yes?”

  Black people are often friendly, thought Alsana, smiling at Clara, and adding this fact subconsciously to the short “pro” side of the pro and con list she had on the black girl. From every minority she disliked, Alsana liked to single out one specimen for spiritual forgiveness. From Whitechapel, there had been many such redeemed characters. Mr. Van, the Chinese chiropodist, Mr. Segal, a Jewish carpenter, Rosie, a Dominican woman who continuously popped
round, much to Alsana’s grievance and delight, in an attempt to convert her into a Seventh-Day Adventist—all these lucky individuals were given Alsana’s golden reprieve and magically extrapolated from their skins like Beijing tigers.

  “Yes, Samad mentioned it,” said Alsana, though Samad had not.

  Clara beamed. “Good . . . good!”

  There was a pause. Neither could think of what to say. They both looked downward.

  “Those shoes look truly comfortable,” said Clara.

  “Yes. Yes. I do a lot of walking, you see. And with this—” She patted her stomach.

  “You’re pregnant?” said Clara, surprised. “Pickney, you so small me kyant even see it.”

  Clara blushed the moment after she had spoken; she always dropped into the vernacular when she was excited or pleased about something. Alsana just smiled pleasantly, unsure what she had said.

  “I wouldn’t have known,” said Clara, more subdued.

  “Dear me,” said Alsana with a forced hilarity. “Don’t our husbands tell each other anything?”

  But as soon as she had said it, the weight of the other possibility rested on the brains of the two girl-wives. That their husbands told each other everything. That it was they themselves who were kept in the dark.


  Three Coming

  Archie was at work when he heard the news. Clara was two and a half months up the spout.

  “You’re not, love!”

  “I am!”

  “You’re not!”

  “I am! And I arks de doctor what it will look like, half black an’ half white an’ all dat bizness. And ’im say anyting could happen. Dere’s even a chance it may be blue-eyed! Kyan you imagine dat?”

  Archie couldn’t imagine that. He couldn’t imagine any piece of him slugging it out in the gene pool with a piece of Clara and winning. But what a possibility! What a thing that would be! He dashed out of the office on to the Euston Road for a box of cigars. Twenty minutes later he swaggered back into MorganHero with a huge box of Indian sweets and started making his way round the room.

  “Noel, have a sticky thing. That one’s good.”

  Noel, the office junior, looked inside the oily box with suspicion. “What’s all this in aid . . . ?”

  Archie pounded him on the back. “Going to have a kid, ain’t I? Blue eyes, would you credit it? I’m celebrating! Thing is, you can get fourteen types of dal, but you can’t get a bloody cigar in the Euston Road for love nor money. Go on, Noel. How about this one?”

  Archie held up a half-white, half-pink one with an unwelcoming odor.

  “Erm, Mr. Jones, that’s very . . . But it’s not really my cup of . . .” Noel made as if to return to his filing. “I’d better get on with . . .”

  “Oh, go on, Noel. I’m going to have a kid. Forty-seven and I’m going to have a little baby. That calls for a bit of a party, don’t it? Go on . . . you won’t know till you try. Just give it a nibble.”

  “Just them Pakistani foods aren’t always . . . I’ve got a bit of a funny . . .”

  Noel patted his stomach and looked desperate. Despite being in the direct-mail business, Noel hated to be spoken to directly. He liked being the intermediary at MorganHero. He liked putting calls through, telling one person what another person said, forwarding letters.

  “Bloody hell, Noel . . . it’s just a sweet. I’m just trying to celebrate, mate. Don’t you hippies eat sweets or something?”

  Noel’s hair was ever so slightly longer than everyone else’s, and he had once bought an incense stick to burn in the coffee room. It was a small office, there was little to talk about, so these two things made Noel second only to Janis Joplin, just as Archie was the white Jesse Owens because he came thirteenth in the Olympics twenty-seven years ago, Gary from Accounts had a French grandmother and blew cigarette smoke out of his nose so he was Maurice Chevalier, and Elmott, Archie’s fellow paper-folder, was Einstein because he could manage two thirds of The Times crossword.

  Noel looked pained. “Archie . . . Did you get my note from Mr. Hero about the folds on the . . . ?”

  Archie sighed. “On the Mothercare account. Yes, Noel, I’ve told Elmott to move the perforation.”

  Noel looked thankful. “Well, congratulations about the . . . I’ll be getting on with . . .” Noel returned to his desk.

  Archie left to try Maureen the receptionist. Maureen had good legs for a woman her age—legs like sausages tightly packed in their skins—and she’d always fancied him a bit.

  “Maureen, love. I’m going to be a father!”

  “Are you, love? Oh, I am pleased. Girl or—”

  “Too early to tell as yet. Blue eyes, though!” said Archie, for whom these eyes had passed from rare genetic possibility to solid fact. “Would you credit it!”

  “Did you say blue eyes, Archie, love?” said Maureen, speaking slowly so she might find a way to phrase it. “I’m not bein’ funny . . . but in’t your wife, well, colored?”

  Archie shook his head wonderingly. “I know! Her and me have a child, the genes mix up, and blue eyes! Miracle of nature!”

  “Oh yes, miracle,” said Maureen tersely, thinking that was a polite word for what it was.

  “Have a sweet?”

  Maureen looked dubious. She patted her pitted pink thighs encased in their white tights. “Oh, Archie, love, I shouldn’t. Goes straight on the legs and hips, don’t it? An’ neither of us is getting any younger, are we, eh? Are we, eh? None of us can turn back the clock, can we, eh? That Joan Rivers, I wish I knew how she does it!”

  Maureen laughed for a long time, her trademark laugh at MorganHero: shrill and loud, but with her mouth only slightly open, for Maureen had a morbid dread of laughter lines.

  She poked one of the sweets with a skeptical, blood-red fingernail. “Indian, are they?”

  “Yes, Maureen,” said Archie with a blokeish grin, “spicy and sweet at the same time. Bit like you.”

  “Oh, Archie, you are funny,” said Maureen sadly, for she had always fancied Archie a bit but never more than a bit because of this strange way he had about him, always talking to Pakistanis and Caribbeans like he didn’t even notice and now he’d gone and married one and hadn’t even thought it worth mentioning what color she was until the office dinner when she turned up black as anything and Maureen almost choked on her prawn cocktail.

  Maureen stretched over her desk to attend to a ringing telephone. “I don’t think I will, Archie, love . . .”

  “Please yourself. Don’t know what you’re missing, though.”

  Maureen smiled weakly and picked up the receiver. “Yes, Mr. Hero, he’s right here, he’s just found out he’s going to be a daddy . . . yes, it’ll have blue eyes, apparently . . . yes, that’s what I said, something to do with genes, I suppose . . . oh yes, all right . . . I’ll tell him, I’ll send him in . . . Oh, thank you, Mr. Hero, you’re very kind.” Maureen stretched her talons across the receiver and spoke in a stage-whisper to Archie, “Archibald, love, Mr. Hero wants to see you. Urgent, he says. You been a naughty boy or sommink?”

  “I should cocoa!” said Archie, heading for the elevator.

  The door said:

  Kelvin Hero

  Company Director


  Direct Mail Specialists

  It was meant to intimidate and Archie responded in kind, rapping the door too lightly and then too hard and then kind of falling through it when Kelvin Hero, dressed in moleskin, turned the handle to let him in.

  “Archie,” said Kelvin Hero, revealing a double row of pearly whites that owed more to expensive dentistry than to regular brushing. “Archie, Archie, Archie, Archie.”

  “Mr. Hero,” said Archie.

  “You puzzle me, Archie,” said Mr. Hero.

  “Mr. Hero,” said Archie.

  “Sit down there, Archie,” said Mr. Hero.

  “Right you are, Mr. Hero,” said Archie.

  Kelvin wiped a streak of grimy sweat from around his s
hirt collar, turned his silver Parker pen over a few times in his hand, and took a series of deep breaths. “Now, this is quite delicate . . . and I have never considered myself a racialist, Archie . . .”

  “Mr. Hero?”

  Blimey, thought Kelvin, what an eye-to-face ratio. When you want to say something delicate, you don’t want that eye-to-face ratio staring up at you. Big eyes, like a child’s or a baby seal’s; the physiognomy of innocence—looking at Archie Jones is like looking at something that expects to be clubbed round the head any second.

  Kelvin tried a softer tack. “Let me put it another way. Usually, when confronted with this type of delicate situation, I would, as you know, confer with you. Because I’ve always had a lot of time for you, Arch. I respect you. You’re not flashy, Archie, you’ve never been flashy, but you’re—”

  “Sturdy,” finished Archie, because he knew this speech.

  Kelvin smiled: a big gash across his face that came and went with the sudden violence of a fat man marching through swing doors. “Right, yeah, sturdy. People trust you, Archie. I know you’re getting on a bit, and the old leg gives you a spot of trouble—but when this business changed hands, I kept you on, Arch, because I could see straight off: people trust you. That’s why you’ve stayed in the direct-mail business so long. And I’m trusting you, Arch, to take what I’ve got to say in the right way.”

  “Mr. Hero?”

  Kelvin shrugged. “I could have lied to you, Archie, I could have told you that we’d made a mistake with the bookings, and there just wasn’t room for you; I could have fished around in my arse and pulled out a juicy one—but you’re a big boy, Archie. You’d phone the restaurant, you’re not a baboon, Archie, you’ve got something upstairs, you’d have put two and two together—”

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