White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “And made four.”

  “And made four, exactly, Archie. You would have made four. Do you understand what I’m saying to you, Archie?” said Mr. Hero.

  “No, Mr. Hero,” said Archie.

  Kelvin prepared to cut to the chase. “That company dinner last month—it was awkward, Archie, it was unpleasant. And now there’s this annual do coming up with our sister company from Sunderland, about thirty of us, nothing fancy, you know, a curry, a lager, and a bit of a boogie . . . as I say, it’s not that I’m a racialist, Archie . . .”

  “A racialist . . .”

  “I’d spit on that Enoch Powell . . . but then again he does have a point, doesn’t he? There comes a point, a saturation point, and people begin to feel a bit uncomfortable . . . You see, all he was saying—”

  “Who?”

  “Powell, Archie, Powell—try and keep up—all he was saying is enough is enough after a certain point, isn’t it? I mean, it’s like Delhi in Euston every Monday morning. And there’s some people around here, Arch—and I don’t include myself here—who just feel your attitude is a little strange.”

  “Strange?”

  “You see the wives don’t like it because, let’s face it, she’s a sort, a real beauty—incredible legs, Archie, I’d like to congratulate you on them legs—and the men, well, the men don’t like it ’cos they don’t like to think they’re wanting a bit of the other when they’re sitting down to a company dinner with their lady wives, especially when she’s . . . you know . . . they don’t know what to make of that at all.”

  “Who?”

  “What?”

  “Who are we talking about, Mr. Hero?”

  “Look, Archie,” said Kelvin, the sweat now flowing freely, distasteful for a man with his amount of chest hair, “take these.” Kelvin pushed a large wad of Luncheon Vouchers across the table. “They’re left over from that raffle—you remember, for the Biafrans.”

  “Oh no—I already won an oven mitt in that, Mr. Hero, there’s no need—”

  “Take them, Archie. There’s fifty pounds’ worth of vouchers in there, redeemable in over five thousand food outlets nationwide. Take them. Have a few meals on me.”

  Archie fingered the vouchers like they were so many fifty-pound notes. Kelvin thought for a moment he saw tears of happiness in his eyes.

  “Well, I don’t know what to say. There’s a place I go to, pretty regular like. If they take these I’m made for life. Ta very much.”

  Kelvin took a handkerchief to his forehead. “Think nothing of it, Arch. Please.”

  “Mr. Hero, could I . . .” Archie gestured toward the door. “It’s just that I’d like to phone some people, you know, give them the news about the baby . . . if we’ve finished here.”

  Kelvin nodded, relieved. Archie lifted himself out of his seat. He had just reached for the handle of the door when Kelvin snatched up his Parker pen once more and said, “Oh, Archie, one more thing . . . that dinner with the Sunderland team . . . I talked to Maureen and I think we need to cut down on the numbers . . . we put the names in a hat and yours came out. Still, I don’t suppose you’ll be missing much, eh? These things are always a bit of a bore.”

  “Right you are, Mr. Hero,” said Archie, mind elsewhere; praying to God that O’Connell’s was a “food outlet”; smiling to himself, imagining Samad’s reaction when he copped fifty quid’s worth of bloody Luncheon Vouchers.

  Partly because Mrs. Jones becomes pregnant so soon after Mrs. Iqbal and partly because of a daily proximity (by this point Clara is working part-time as a supervisor for a Kilburn youth group that looks like the fifteen-man lineup of a ska and roots band—six-inch Afros, Adidas tracksuits, brown ties, Velcro, sun-tinted shades—and Alsana attends an Asian Women’s Prenatal Class in Kilburn High Road round the corner), the two women begin to see more of each other. Hesitant in the beginning—a few lunch dates here and there, the occasional coffee—what begins as a rearguard action against their husbands’ friendship soon develops. They have resigned themselves to their husbands’ mutual appreciation society and the free time this leaves is not altogether unpleasant; there is time for picnics and outings, for discussion and personal study; for old French movies where Alsana screams and covers her eyes at the suggestion of nudity (“Put it away! We are not wanting to see the dangly bits!”) and Clara gets a glimpse of how the other half live: the half who live on romance, passion, and joie de vivre. The other half who have sex. The life that might have been hers had she not been at the top of some stairs one fine day as Archibald Jones waited at the bottom.

  Then, when their bumps become too large and cinema seats no longer accommodate them, the women begin to meet for lunch in Kilburn Park, often with the Niece-of-Shame, the three of them squeezed on a generous bench where Alsana presses a Thermos of rather awful tea into Clara’s hand, without milk, with lemon. Opens several layers of plastic wrap to reveal today’s peculiar delight: savory doughlike balls, crumbly Indian sweets shot through with the colors of the kaleidoscope, thin pastry with spiced beef inside, salad with onion; saying to Clara, “Eat up! Stuff yourself silly! It’s in there, wallowing around in your belly, waiting for the menu. Woman, don’t torture it! You want to starve the bump?” For, despite appearances, there are six people on that bench (three living, three coming); one girl for Clara, two boys for Alsana.

  Alsana says, “Nobody’s complaining, let’s get that straight. Children are a blessing, the more the merrier. But I tell you, when I turned my head and saw that fancy ultra-business thingummybob . . .”

  “Ultrasound,” corrects Clara, through a mouthful of rice.

  “Yes, I almost had the heart attack to finish me off! Two! Feeding one is enough!”

  Clara laughs and says she can imagine Samad’s face when he saw it.

  “No, dearie.” Alsana is reproving, tucking her large feet underneath the folds of her sari. “He didn’t see anything. He wasn’t there. I am not letting him see things like that. A woman has to have the private things—a husband needn’t be involved in body-business, in a lady’s . . . parts.”

  Niece-of-Shame, who is sitting between them, sucks her teeth.

  “Bloody hell, Alsi, he must’ve been involved in your parts sometime, or is this the immaculate bloody conception?”

  “So rude,” says Alsana to Clara in a snooty, English way. “Too old to be so rude and too young to know any better.”

  And then Clara and Alsana, with the accidental mirroring that happens when two people are sharing the same experience, both lay their hands on their bulges.

  Neena, to redeem herself: “Yeah . . . well . . . How are you doing on names? Any ideas?”

  Alsana is decisive. “Meena and Mala¯na¯, if they are girls. If boys: Magid and Millat. Ems are good. Ems are strong. Mahatma, Muhammad, that funny Mr. Morecambe, from Morecambe and Wise—letter you can trust.”

  But Clara is more cautious, because naming seems to her a fearful responsibility, a godlike task for a mere mortal. “If it’s a girl, I tink I like Irie. It patois. Means everything OK, cool, peaceful, you know?”

  Alsana is horrified before the sentence is finished: “ ‘OK?’ This is a name for a child? You might as well call her ‘Wouldsirlikeanypoppadumswiththat?’ or ‘Niceweatherwearehaving.’ ”

  “—And Archie likes Sarah. Well, dere not much you can argue wid in Sarah, but dere’s not much to get happy ’bout either. I suppose if it was good enough for the wife of Abraham—”

  “Ibra¯him,” Alsana corrects, out of instinct more than Qurnic pedantry, “popping out babies when she was a hundred years old, by the grace of Allah.”

  And then Neena, groaning at the turn the conversation is taking: “Well, I like Irie. It’s funky. It’s different.”

  Alsana loves this. “For pity’s sake, what does Archibald know about funky. Or different. If I were you, dearie,” she says, patting Clara’s knee, “I’d choose Sarah and let that be an end to it. Sometimes you have to let these men have it their way. Anything for
a little—how do you say it in the English? For a little”—she puts her finger over tightly pursed lips, like a guard at the gate—“shush.”

  But in response Niece-of-Shame puts on the thick accent, bats her voluminous eyelashes, wraps her college scarf round her head like purdah. “Oh yes, Auntie, yes, the little submissive Indian woman. You don’t talk to him, he talks at you. You scream and shout at each other, but there’s no communication. And in the end he wins anyway because he does whatever he likes, when he likes. You don’t even know where he is, what he does, what he feels, half the time. It’s 1975, Alsi. You can’t conduct relationships like that anymore. It’s not like back home. There’s got to be communication between men and women in the West, they’ve got to listen to each other, otherwise . . .” Neena mimes a small mushroom cloud going off in her hand.

  “What a load of the codswallop,” says Alsana sonorously, closing her eyes, shaking her head, “it is you who do not listen. By Allah, I will always give as good as I get. But you presume I care what he does. You presume I want to know. The truth is, for a marriage to survive you don’t need all this talk, talk, talk; all this ‘I am this’ and ‘I am really like this’ like in the papers, all this revelation—especially when your husband is old, when he is wrinkly and falling apart—you do not want to know what is slimy underneath the bed and rattling in the wardrobe.”

  Neena frowns, Clara cannot raise serious objection, and the rice is handed around once more.

  “Moreover,” says Alsana after a pause, folding her dimpled arms underneath her breasts, pleased to be holding forth on a subject close to this formidable bosom, “when you are from families such as ours you should have learned that silence, what is not said, is the very best recipe for family life.”

  For all three have been brought up in strict, religious families, houses where God appeared at every meal, infiltrated every childhood game, and sat in the lotus position under the bedclothes with a torch to check nothing untoward was occurring.

  “So let me get this straight,” says Neena derisively. “You’re saying that a good dose of repression keeps a marriage healthy.”

  And as if someone had pressed a button, Alsana is outraged. “Repression! Nonsense silly-billy word! I’m just talking about common sense. What is my husband? What is yours?” she says, pointing to Clara. “Twenty-five years they live before we are even born. What are they? What are they capable of? What blood do they have on their hands? What is sticky and smelly in their private areas? Who knows?” She throws her hands up, releasing the questions into the unhealthy Kilburn air, sending a troupe of sparrows up with them.

  “What you don’t understand, my Niece-of-Shame, what none of your generation understands . . .”

  At which point Neena cannot stop a piece of onion escaping from her mouth due to the sheer strength of her objection. “My generation? For fuckssake, you’re two years older than me, Alsi.”

  But Alsana continues regardless, miming a knife slicing through the Niece-of-Shame tongue-of-obscenity, “. . . is that not everybody wants to see into everybody else’s sweaty, secret parts.”

  “But Auntie,” begs Neena, raising her voice, because this is what she really wants to argue about, the largest sticking point between the two of them, Alsana’s arranged marriage. “How can you bear to live with somebody you don’t know from Adam?”

  In response, an infuriating wink: Alsana always likes to appear jovial at the very moment that her interlocutor becomes hot under the collar. “Because, Miss Smarty-pants, it is by far the easier option. It was exactly because Eve did not know Adam from Adam that they got on so A-OK. Let me explain. Yes, I was married to Samad Iqbal the same evening of the very day I met him. Yes, I didn’t know him from Adam. But I liked him well enough. We met in the breakfast room on a steaming Delhi day and he fanned me with The Times. I thought he had a good face, a sweet voice, and his backside was high and well formed for a man of his age. Very good. Now, every time I learn something more about him, I like him less. So you see, we were better off the way we were.”

  Neena stamps her foot in exasperation at the skewed logic.

  “Besides, I will never know him well. Getting anything out of my husband is like trying to squeeze water out when you’re stoned.”

  Neena laughs despite herself. “Water out of a stone.”

  “Yes, yes. You think I’m so stupid. But I am wise about things like men. I tell you”—Alsana prepares to deliver her summation as she has seen it done many years previously by the young Delhi lawyers with their slick side partings—“men are the last mystery. God is easy compared with men. Now, enough of the philosophy: samosa?” She peels the lid off the plastic tub and sits fat, pretty, and satisfied on her conclusion.

  “Shame that you’re having them,” says Neena to her aunt, lighting a fag. “Boys, I mean. Shame that you’re going to have boys.”

  “What do you mean?”

  This is Clara, who is the recipient of a secret (kept secret from Alsana and Archie) lending library of Neena’s through which she reads, in a few short months, Greer’s Female Eunuch, Jong’s Fear of Flying, and The Second Sex, all in a clandestine attempt, on Neena’s part, to rid Clara of her “false consciousness.”

  “I mean, I just think men have caused enough chaos this century. There’s enough fucking men in the world. If I knew I was going to have a boy”—she pauses to prepare her two falsely conscious friends for this new concept—“I’d have to seriously consider abortion.”

  Alsana screams, claps her hands over one of her own ears and one of Clara’s, and then almost chokes on a piece of eggplant. For some reason the remark simultaneously strikes Clara as funny; hysterically, desperately funny; miserably funny; and the Niece-of-Shame sits between the two, nonplussed, while the two egg-shaped women bend over themselves, one in laughter, the other in horror and asphyxiation.

  “Are you all right, ladies?”

  It is Sol Jozefowicz, the old guy who back then took it upon himself to police the park (though his job as park keeper had long since been swept away in council cuts), Sol Jozefowicz stands in front of them, ready as always to be of aid.

  “We are all going to burn in hell, Mr. Jozefowicz, if you call that being all right,” explains Alsana, pulling herself together.

  Niece-of-Shame rolls her eyes. “Speak for yourself.”

  But Alsana is faster than any sniper when it comes to firing back. “I do, I do—thankfully Allah has arranged it that way.”

  “Good afternoon, Neena, good afternoon, Mrs. Jones,” says Sol, offering a neat bow to each. “Are you sure you are all right? Mrs. Jones?”

  Clara cannot stop the tears from squeezing out of the corners of her eyes. She cannot work out, at this moment, whether it is crying or laughing.

  “I’m fine . . . fine, sorry to have worried you, Mr. Jozefowicz . . . really, I’m fine.”

  “I do not see what’s so very funny-funny,” mutters Alsana. “The murder of innocents—is this funny?”

  “Not in my experience, Mrs. Iqbal, no,” says Sol Jozefowicz, in the collected manner in which he said everything, passing his handkerchief to Clara. It strikes all three women—the way history will, embarrassingly, without warning, like a blush—what the ex–park keeper’s experience might have been. They fall silent.

  “Well, as long as you ladies are fine, I’ll be getting on,” says Sol, motioning that Clara can keep the handkerchief and replacing the hat he had removed in the old fashion. He bows his neat little bow once more, and sets off slowly, anticlockwise round the park.

  Once Sol is out of earshot: “OK, Auntie Alsi, I apologize, I apologize . . . For fuck’s sake, what more do you want?”

  “Oh, every-bloody-thing,” says Alsana, her voice losing the fight, becoming vulnerable. “The whole bloody universe made clear—in a little nutshell. I cannot understand a thing anymore, and I am just beginning. You understand?”

  She sighs, not waiting for an answer, not looking at Neena, but across the way at the hunch
ed, disappearing figure of Sol winding in and out of the yew trees. “You may be right about Samad . . . about many things. Maybe there are no good men, not even the two I might have in this belly . . . and maybe I do not talk enough with mine, maybe I have married a stranger. You might see the truth better than I. What do I know . . . barefoot country girl . . . never went to the universities.”

  “Oh, Alsi,” Neena is saying, weaving in and out of Alsana’s words like tapestry; feeling bad. “You know I didn’t mean it like that.”

  “But I cannot be worrying-worrying all the time about the truth. I have to worry about the truth that can be lived with. And that is the difference between losing your marbles drinking the salty sea, or swallowing the stuff from the streams. My Niece-of-Shame believes in the talking cure, eh?” says Alsana, with something of a grin. “Talk, talk, talk and it will be better. Be honest, slice open your heart and spread the red stuff around. But the past is made of more than words, dearie. We married old men, you see? These bumps”—Alsana pats them both—“they will always have daddy-long-legs for fathers. One leg in the present, one in the past. No talking will change this. Their roots will always be tangled. And roots get dug up. Just look in my garden—birds at the coriander every bloody day . . .”

  Just as he reaches the far gate, Sol Jozefowicz turns round to wave, and three women wave back. Clara feels a little theatrical, flying his cream handkerchief above her head. Like she is seeing someone off on a train journey crossing the border of two countries.

  “How did they meet?” asks Neena, trying to lift the cloud that has somehow descended on their picnic. “I mean Mr. Jones and Samad Miah.”

  Alsana throws her head back, a dismissive gesture. “Oh, in the war. Off killing some poor bastards who didn’t deserve it, no doubt. And what did they get for their trouble? A broken hand for Samad Miah and for the other one a funny leg. Some use, some use, all this.”

 
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