Zadie Smith’s dazzling debut caught critics grasping for comparisons and deciding on everyone from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie to John Irving and Martin Amis. But the truth is that Zadie Smith’s voice is remarkably, fluently, and altogether wonderfully her own. AZadie Smith's dazzling debut caught critics grasping for comparisons and deciding on everyone from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie to John Irving and Martin Amis. But the truth is that Zadie Smith's voice is remarkably, fluently, and altogether wonderfully her own. Zadie Smith's dazzling debut caught critics grasping for comparisons and deciding on everyone from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie to.
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White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Read online, or download in secure EPUB format. Copies 20 - 75 of White Teeth by Zadie Smith"A rich, ambitious and often hilarious delight' Independent on Sunday "A rollicking, thunder. eBook . Home; White Teeth One of the most talked about debut novels of all time, White Teeth is a funny, generous, big-hearted novel, adored by critics .
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View all subjects. Similar Items. Guardian First Book Award, James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, Whitbread Award, Acknowledgments -- Archie , -- 1: If you're going to die round here, my friend, I'm afraid you've got to be thoroughly bled first. And in the moment between focusing on the sweaty bulk of a brown-skinned Elvis and realizing that life was still his, he had a kind of epiphany.
It occurred to him that, for the first time since his birth, Life had said Yes to Archie Jones. Not simply an "OK' or "You-might-aswellcarryonsinceyou've-started', but a resounding affirmative. Life wanted Archie. She had jealously grabbed him from the jaws of death, back to her bosom.
Although he was not one of her better specimens, Life wanted Archie and Archie, much to his own surprise, wanted Life. Frantically, he wound down both his windows and gasped for oxygen from the very depths of his lungs. In between gulps he thanked Mo profusely, tears streaming down his cheeks, his hands clinging on to Mo's apron. I've got meat coming. I'm in the business of bleeding.
Not counselling. You want Lonely Street. This Cricklewood Lane. Archie Jones attempted suicide because his wife Ophelia, a violet eyed Italian with a faint moustache, had recently divorced him. But he had not spent New Year's morning gagging on the tube of a vacuum cleaner because he loved her. It was rather because he had lived with her for so long and had not loved her. Archie's marriage felt like downloading a pair of shoes, taking them home and finding they don't fit.
For the sake of appearances, he put up with them. And then, all of a sudden and after thirty years, the shoes picked themselves up and walked out of the house. She left. Thirty years. As far as he remembered, just like everybody else they began well.
The first spring of , he had stumbled out of the darkness of war and into a Florentine coffee house, where he was served by a waitress truly like the sun: Ophelia Diagilo, dressed all in yellow, spreading warmth and the promise of sex as she passed him a frothy cappuccino. They walked into it blinkered as horses. She was not to know that women never stayed as daylight in Archie's life; that somewhere in him he didn't like them, he didn't trust them, and he was able to love them only if they wore haloes.
No one told Archie that lurking in the Diagilo family tree were two hysteric aunts, an uncle who talked to aubergines and a cousin who wore his clothes back to front. So they got married and returned to England, where she realized very quickly her mistake, he drove her very quickly mad, and the halo was packed off to the attic to collect dust with the rest of the bric-a-brac and broken kitchen appliances that Archie promised one day to repair. Amongst that bric-a-brac was a Hoover.
On Boxing Day morning, six days before he parked outside Mo's hal al butchers, Archie had returned to their semidetached in Hendon in search of that Hoover. It was his fourth trip to the attic in so many days, ferrying out the odds and ends of a marriage to his new flat, and the Hoover was amongst the very last items he reclaimed one of the most broken things, most ugly things, the things you demand out of sheer bloody-mindedness because you have lost the house.
This is what divorce is: Kitchen sink, si? Apart from the home-help, he had to contend with Ophelia's extended Italian family, her mental-health nurse, the woman from the council, and of course Ophelia herself, who was to be found in the kernel of this nuthouse, curled up in a foetal ball on the sofa, making lowing sounds into a bottle of Bailey's.
It took him an hour and a quarter just to get through enemy lines and for what? A perverse Hoover, discarded months earlier because it was determined to perform the opposite of every vacuum's objective: Be reasonable. What can you want with it? You don't need this. Archie took the plug out and silently wound the cord round the Hoover. If it was broken, it was coming with him. All broken things were coming with him. He was going to fix every damn broken thing in this house, if only to show that he was good for something.
He take-a her mind, he take-a the blender, he take-a the old stereo he take-a everything except the floorboards. It make-a you sick.. And it was my blender. But he wasn't one for confrontation, Archie. He listened to them all for another fifteen minutes, mute as he tested the Hoover's suction against pieces of newspaper, until he was overcome by the sensation that Life was an enormous rucksack so impossibly heavy that, even though it meant losing everything, it was infinitely easier to leave all baggage here on the roadside and walk on into the blackness.
You don't need the blender, Archie boy, you don't need the Hoover. This stuff's all dead weight. Just lay down the rucksack, Arch, and join the happy campers in the sky. Was that wrong? To Archie ex-wife and ex-wife's relatives in one ear, spluttering vacuum in the other it just seemed that The End was unavoidably nigh. Nothing personal to God or whatever. It just felt like the end of the world. And he was going to need more than poor whisky, novelty crackers and a paltry box of Quality Street all the strawberry ones already scoffed to justify entering another annum.
Patiently he fixed the Hoover, and vacuumed the living room with a strange methodical finality, shoving the nozzle into the most difficult corners.
Solemnly he flipped a coin heads, life, tails, death and felt nothing in particular when he found himself staring at the dancing lion. Quietly he detached the Hoover tube, put it in a suitcase, and left the house for the last time. But dying's no easy trick. And suicide can't be put on a list of Things to Do in between cleaning the grill pan and levelling the sofa leg with a brick.
It is the decision not to do, to un-do; a kiss blown at oblivion. No matter what anyone says, suicide takes guts. It's for heroes and martyrs, truly vainglorious men. Archie was none of these. He was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios: So for a few days he ignored the decision of the coin and just drove around with the Hoover tube. At nights he looked out through the windscreen into the monstropolous sky and had the old realization of his universal proportions, feeling what it was to be tiny and rootless.
He thought about the dent he might make on the world if he disappeared, and it seemed negligible, too small to calculate. He squandered spare minutes wondering whether "Hoover' had become a generic term for vacuum cleaners or whether it was, as others have argued, just a brand name.
And all the time the Hoover tube lay like a great flaccid cock on his back seat, mocking his quiet fear, laughing at his pigeon-steps as he approached the executioner, sneering at his impotent indecision.
An unlikely compadre possibly, but still the oldest friend he had a Bengali Muslim he had fought alongside back when the fighting had to be done, who reminded him of that war; that war that reminded some people of fatty bacon and painted-on-stockings but recalled in Archie gunshots and card games and the taste of a sharp, foreign alcohol.
Try a new life. That is what you need. Now, enough of all this: I will match your five bob and raise you five. The place they sat in, where they met each evening for dinner, was half cafe, half gambling den, owned by an Iraqi family, the many members of which shared a bad skin condition.
Marrying Alsana has given me this new lease on living, you understand? She opens up for me the new possibilities. She's so young, so vital like a breath of fresh air. You come to me for advice? Here it is. Don't live this old life it's a sick life, Archibald. It does you no good. No good whatsoever Samad had looked at him with a great sympathy, for he felt very tenderly for Archie. Their wartime friendship had been severed by thirty years of separation across continents, but in the spring of Samad had come to England, a middle-aged man seeking a new life with his twenty-year-old new bride, the diminutive, moon-faced Alsana Begum with her shrewd eyes.
In a fit of nostalgia, and because he was the only man Samad knew on this little island, Samad had sought Archie out, moved into the same London borough. And slowly but surely a kind of friendship was being rekindled between the two men. He flicked them with the thumb of his left hand in one elegant move, making them fall to the table in a fan shape. Who'd have me now? It was hard enough convincing anybody the first time. You have not even met the right one yet.
This Ophelia, Archie, she is not the right one. From what you leave me to understand she is not even for this time ' He referred to Ophelia's madness, which led her to believe, half of the time, that she was the maid of the celebrated fifteenth century art lover Cosimo de' Medici.
This is just not her day! Maybe not her millennium. Modern life has caught that woman completely unawares and up the arse. Her mind is gone. And you?
You have picked up the wrong life in the cloakroom and you must return it. Besides, she has not blessed you with children.. But there are second chances; oh yes, there are second chances in life. Believe me, I know. You," he continued, raking in the lop's with the side of his bad hand, 'should never have married her. Finally, two days after this discussion, early on New Year's morning, the pain had reached such a piercing level that Archie was no longer able to cling to Samad's advice.
He had decided instead to mortify his own flesh, to take his own life, to free himself from a life path that had taken him down numerous wrong turnings, led him deep into the wilderness and finally petered out completely, its bread crumb course gobbled up by the birds. Once the car started to fill with gas, he had experienced the obligatory flashback of his life to date.
It turned out to be a short, unedifying viewing experience, low on entertainment value, the metaphysical equivalent of the Queen's Speech. A dull childhood, a bad marriage, a dead-end job that classic triumvirate they all flicked by quickly, silently, with little dialogue, feeling pretty much the same as they did the first time round. He was no great believer in destiny, Archie, but on reflection it did seem that a special effort of predestination had ensured his life had been picked out for him like a company Christmas present early, and the same as everyone else's.
There was the war, of course; he had been in the war, only for the last year of it, aged just seventeen, but it hardly counted. Not front line nothing like that.
He and Samad, old Sam, Sammy boy, they had a few tales to tell, mind, Archie even had a bit of shrapnel in the leg for anyone who cared to see it but nobody did. No one wanted to talk about that any more.
It was like a club-foot, or a disfiguring mole. It was like nose hair. People looked away. If someone said to Archie, What have you done in life, then, or What's your biggest memory, well, God help him if he mentioned the war; eyes glazed over, fingers tapped, everybody offered to download the next round.
No one really wanted to know. Summer of Archie went to Fleet Street with his best winkle-pickers on, looking for work as a war correspondent. Poncey-looking bloke with a thin moustache and a thin voice had said, Any experience, Mr.
And Archie had explained. All about Samad. All about their Churchill tank. Then this poncey one had leant over the desk, all smug, all suited, and said, We would require something other than merely having fought in a war, Mr.
War experience isn't really relevant. And that was it, wasn't it. There was no relevance in the war not in '55, even less now in ' Nothing he did then mattered now. The skills you learnt were, in the modern parlance, not relevant, not transferable. Was there anything else, Mr. But of course there bloody wasn't anything else, the British education system having tripped him up with a snigger many years previously.
Still, he had a good eye for the look of a thing, for the shape of a thing, and that's how he had ended up in the job at Morgan Hero twenty years and counting in a printing firm in the Euston Road, designing the way all kinds of things should be folded envelopes, direct mail, brochures, leaflets not much of an achievement, maybe, but you'll find things need folds, they need to overlap, otherwise life would be like a broadsheet: Not that Archie had much time for the broad sheets If they couldn't be bothered to fold them properly, why should he bother to read them that's what he wanted to know?
What else? Well, Archie hadn't always folded paper. Once upon a time he had been a track cyclist. What Archie liked about track cycling was the way you went round and round. Round and round. Giving you chance after chance to get a bit better at it, to make a faster lap, to do it right. Except the thing about Archie was he never did get any better. Which is a pretty good time, world-class standard, even. But for three years he got precisely The other cyclists used to take breaks to watch him do it.
Lean their bikes against the incline and time him with the second hand of their wrist watches. That kind of inability to improve is really very rare. That kind of consistency is miraculous, in a way. Archie liked track cycling, he was consistently good at it and it provided him with the only truly great memory he had. In , Archie Jones had participated in the Olympics in London, sharing thirteenth place Unfortunately this fact had been omitted from the Olympic records by a sloppy secretary who returned one morning after a coffee break with something else on her mind and missed his name as she transcribed one list to another piece of paper.
Madam Posterity stuck Archie down the arm of the sofa and forgot about him. His only proof that the event had taken place at all were the periodic letters and notes he had received over the years from Ibelgaufts himself. Notes like: Though it may not look like Arcadia, it is here that I am building a crude velodrome nothing like the one you and I raced in, but sufficient for my needs.
It will be on afar smaller scale, but you see, it is for the children we are yet to have. I see them pedalling around it in my dreams and wake up with a glorious smile upon my face!
Once it is completed, we insist that you visit us. Who more worthy to christen the track of your earnest competitor, Horst Ibelgaufts? And the postcard that lay on the dashboard this very day, the day of his Almost Death: A New Year's resolution, if you like. Late in the day, I realize, but you're never too old to teach the old dog in you new tricks, don't you feel? I tell you, it's a heavy instrument to lay against your shoulder, but the sound of it is quite angelic and my wife thinks me quite sensitive because of it.
Which is more than she could say for my old cycling obsession! But then, cycling was only ever understood by old boys like you, Archie, and of course the author of this little note, your old contender, Horst Ibelgaufts He had not met Horst since the race, but he remembered him affectionately as an enormous man with strawberry-blond hair, orange freckles and misaligned nostrils, who dressed like an international playboy and seemed too large for his bike. After the race Horst had got Archie horribly drunk and procured two Soho whores who seemed to know Horst well "I make many business trips to your fair capital, Archibald," Horst had explained.
The last Archie had ever seen of Horst was an unwanted glimpse of his humongous pink arse bobbing up and down in the adjoining room of an Olympic chalet.
The next morning, waiting at the front desk, was the first letter of his large correspondence: Dear Archibald, In an oasis of work and competition, women are truly sweet and easy refreshment, don't you agree?
I'm afraid I had to leave early to catch the necessary plane, but I compel you, Archie: Don't be a stranger! I think of us now as two men as close as our finish! I tell you, whoever said thirteenth was unlucky was a bigger fool than your friend, Horst Ibelgaufts P.
Please make sure that Dana and Melanie get home fine and well Daria was his one. Terribly skinny, ribs like lobster cages and no chest to speak of, but she was a lovely sort: She turned, smiled. And though she was a professional, he got the feeling she liked him too.
Maybe he should have left with her right then, run to the hills. But at the time it seemed impossible, too involved, what with a young wife with one in the oven an hysterical, fictional pregnancy, as it turned out, a big bump full of hot air , what with his dodgy leg, what with the lack of hills. Strangely, Daria was the final pulse of thought that passed through Archie just before he blacked out. It was the thought of a whore he met once twenty years ago, it was Daria and her smile which made him cover Mo's apron with tears of joy as the butcher saved his life.
He had seen her in his mind: If there was any chance of ever seeing a look like that again, then he wanted the second chance, he wanted the extra time. Not just this second, but the next and the next all the time in the world. Later that morning, Archie did an ecstatic eight circuits of Swiss Cottage roundabout in his car, his head stuck out the window while a stream of air hit the teeth at the back of his mouth like a wind sock.
He thought: So this is what it feels like when some bugger saves your life. Like you've just been handed a great big wad of Time. At the traffic lights he flipped ten pence and smiled when the result seemed to agree that Fate was pulling him towards another life.
Like a dog on a lead round a corner. Generally, women can't do this, but men retain the ancient ability to leave a family and a past. They just unhook themselves, like removing a fake beard, and skulk discreetly back into society, changed men. In this manner, a new Archie is about to emerge.
We have caught him on the hop. For he is in a past-tense, future-perfect kind of mood. He is in a maybe this, maybe that kind of mood. Approaching a forked road, he slows down, checks his undistinguished face in the wing-mirror, and quite indiscriminately chooses a route he's never taken before, a residential street leading to a place called Queens Park.
Go straight past Go! Tim Westleigh more commonly known as Merlin finally registered the persistent ringing of a doorbell. He picked himself off the kitchen floor, waded through an ocean of supine bodies, and opened the door to arrive face-to-face with a middle-aged man dressed head-to-toe in grey corduroy, holding a ten pence coin in his open palm.
As Merlin was later to reflect when describing the incident, at any time of the day corduroy is a highly stressful fabric. Rent men wear it. Tax men too. History teachers add leather elbow patches.
To be confronted with a mass of it, at nine in the a. Then, when the circle was completed, he would nod several times. We're in a mellow place, here. Know what I mean? Archie shook his head, smiled and remained where he was. Are you high on something?
Merlin pulled on a joint and looked amused. The white bedsheet hanging down from an upper window. Across it, in large rainbow coloured lettering, was painted: Merlin shrugged. Bit of a disappointment, that. Or a blessing," he added amiably, 'depending on your point of view. It was kind of a joke, you see, more than anything. I flipped a coin and thought: Besides, I think you're a little advanced in years.. Kind of a commune scene. I can't just let anyone in off the street, you know?
I mean, you could be the police, you could be a freak, you could ' But something about Archie's face huge, innocent, sweetly expectant reminded Tim what his estranged father, the Vicar of Snarebrook, had to say about Christian charity every Sunday from his pulpit.
It's New Year's Day, for fucks sake You best come in. Detritus of every variety animal, mineral, vegetable lined the floor; a great mass of bedding, under which people lay sleeping, stretched from one end of the hallway to the other, a red sea which grudgingly separated each time Archie took a step forward.
Inside the rooms, in certain corners, could be witnessed the passing of bodily fluids: He toyed for a moment with the idea of entering the fray, losing himself between the bodies he had all this new time on his hands, masses and masses of it, dribbling through his fingers , but decided a stiff drink was preferable.
He tackled the hallway until he reached the other end of the house and stepped out into the chilly garden, where some, having given up on finding a space in the warm house, had opted for the cold lawn. With a whisky tonic in mind, he headed for the picnic table, where something the shape and colour of Jack Daniels had sprung up like a mirage in a desert of empty wine bottles.
Just as Archie reached for the Jack Daniels, the white woman shook her head and made the signal of a stubbed out cigarette. Some evil bastard put his fag out in some perfectly acceptable whisky.
There's Babycham and some other inexorable shit over here Archie smiled in gratitude for the warning and the kind offer. He took a seat and poured himself a big glass of Liebfraumilch instead. Many drinks later, and Archie could not remember a time in his life when he had not known Clive and Leo, Wan-Si and Petronia, intimately. With his back turned and a piece of charcoal, he could have rendered every puckered goose pimple around Wan-Si's nipples, every stray hair that fell in Petronia's face as she spoke.
By ii a. In return, they told him he was in possession of a unique soul for a man of his age. Everybody agreed some intensely positive karmic energy was circulating in and around Archie, the kind of thing strong enough to prompt a butcher to pull down a car window at the critical moment.
And it turned out Archie was the first man over forty ever invited to join the commune; it turned out there had been talk for some time of the need for an older sexual presence to satisfy some of the more adventurous women. That'll be me, then. I'd rather go to bed than get into this. Freed finally of this obligation, he sat on the stairs, letting the row continue above while he placed his head in his hands.
He would have liked to have been part of a commune. If he'd played his cards right instead of starting a ding-dong, he might have had free love and bare breasts all over the gaff; maybe even a portion of allotment for growing fresh food. For a while around 2, a. Nobody's fault, thought Archie, mulling over the balls-up, nobody's fault but my own, but he wondered whether there wasn't some higher pattern to it.
Maybe there will always be men who say the right thing at the right time, who step forward like Thespis at just the right moment of history, and then there will be men like Archie Jones who are just there to make up the numbers. Or, worse still, who are given their big break only to come in on cue and die a death right there, centre stage, for all to see. A dark line would now be drawn underneath the whole incident, underneath the whole sorry day, had not something happened that led to the transformation of Archie Jones in every particular that a man can be transformed; and not due to any particular effort on his part, but by means of the entirely random, adventitious collision of one person with another.
Something happened by accident. That accident was Clara Bowden. But first a description: Clara Bowden was beautiful in all senses except maybe, by virtue of being black, the classical. Clara Bowden was magnificently tall, black as ebony and crushed sable, with hair plaited in a horseshoe which pointed up when she felt lucky, down when she didn't.
At this moment it was up. It is hard to know whether that was significant. She needed no bra she was independent, even of gravity she wore a red halter neck which stopped below her bust, underneath which she wore her belly button beautifully and underneath that some very tight yellow jeans. At the end of it all were some strappy heels of a light brown suede, and she came striding down the stairs on them like some kind of vision or, as it seemed to Archie as he turned to observe her, like a reared-up thoroughbred.
Now, as Archie understood it, in movies and the like it is common for someone to be so striking that when they walk down the stairs the crowd goes silent. In life he had never seen it. But it happened with Clara Bowden. She walked down the stairs in slow motion, surrounded by afterglow and fuzzy lighting. And not only was she the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, she was also the most comforting woman he had ever met.
Her beauty was not a sharp, cold commodity. She smelt musty, womanly, like a bundle of your favourite clothes. Though she was disorganized physically legs and arms speaking a slightly different dialect from her central nervous system even her gangly demeanour seemed to Archie exceptionally elegant. She wore her sexuality with an older woman's ease, and not as with most of the girls Archie had run with in the past like an awkward purse, never knowing how to hold it, where to hang it or when to just put it down.
She gave him a wide grin that revealed possibly her one imperfection. A complete lack of teeth in the top of her mouth. Have Clive and dem people been talking foolishness at you?
Clive, you bin playing wid dis poor man? Clive and I have different views about a few things. Generation gap, I suppose.
You're That dat of'. I seen older. Well, come and join de club. Dere are a lot of us about dis marnin'. What a strange party dis is. You know," she said brushing a long hand across his bald spot, 'you look pretty djam good for someone come so close to St. Peter's Gate. You wan' some advice? He always wanted advice, he was a huge fan of second opinions.
That's why he never went anywhere without a ten pence coin. Marnin' de the world new, every time. He had unhooked the old life, he was walking into unknown territory. Clara was nineteen. Archibald was forty-seven. Six weeks later they were married.
And it's about time people told the truth about beautiful women. They do not shimmer down staircases. They do not descend, as was once supposed, from on high, attached to nothing other than wings. She had roots.
More specifically, she was from Lambeth via Jamaica and she was connected, through tacit adolescent agreement, to one Ryan Topps. Because before Clara was beautiful she was ugly. And before there was Clara and Archie there was Clara and Ryan. And there is no getting away from Ryan Topps. Just as a good historian need recognize Hitler's Napoleonic ambitions in the east in order to comprehend his reluctance to invade the British in the west, so Ryan Topps is essential to any understanding of why Clara did what she did.
Ryan is indispensable. There was Clara and Ryan for eight months before Clara and Archie were drawn together from opposite ends of a staircase. And Clara might never have run into the arms of Archie Jones if she hadn't been running, quite as fast as she could, away from Ryan Topps.
Poor Ryan Topps. He was a mass of unfortunate physical characteristics. He was very thin and very tall, red-headed, flatfooted and freckled to such an extent that his skin was rarer than his freckles.
Ryan fancied himself as a bit of a Mod. He wore ill-fitting grey suits with black polo-necks. He wore Chelsea boots after everyone else had stopped wearing them. While the rest of the world discovered the joys of the electronic synthesizer, Ryan swore allegiance to the little men with big guitars: Ryan Topps rode a green Vespa GS scooter which he polished twice a day with a baby's nappy and kept encased in a custom-built corrugated-iron shield.
To Ryan's way of thinking, a Vespa was not merely a mode of transport but an ideology, family, friend and lover all rolled into one paragon of late forties engineering. Ryan Topps, as one might expect, had few friends. Clara Bowden was gangly, buck-toothed, a Jehovah's Witness, and saw in Ryan a kindred spirit. A typical teenage female panoptic on she knew everything there was to know about Ryan Topps long before they ever spoke.
She knew the basics: Jude's Community School, Lambeth , same height six foot one ; she knew he was, like her, neither Irish nor Roman Catholic, which made them two islands floating surrounded by the popish ocean of St. Jude's, enrolled in the school by the accident of their post codes reviled by teachers and pupils alike. She knew the name of his bike, she read the tops of his records as they popped up over the brim of his bag. She even knew things about him he didn't know: Every school has one, and in St.
Jude's, as in other seats of learning, it was the girls who chose this moniker and dished it out. There were, of course, variations: Not for a Million Pounds. Not to Save My Mother's Life. Not for World Peace.
But, generally, the schoolgirls of St. Jude's kept to the tried and tested formula. Though Ryan would never be privy to the conversations of the school's female changing rooms, Clara knew. She knew how the object of her affections was discussed, she kept an ear out, she knew what he amounted to when you got down to it, down amongst the sweat and the training bras and the sharp flick of a wet towel. I'm saying, if he was the last man on earth! An' all the good-lookin' men, all the rides like your man Nicky Laird, they're all dead.
They've all been burnt to a crisp. An' all that's left is Ryan Topps and a bunch of cockroaches. Jude's was equalled only by Clara's. On her first day at the school her mother had explained to her she was about to enter the devil's lair, filled her satchel with two hundred copies of the Watchtower and instructed her to go and do the Lord's work.
Week after week she shuffled through the school, head hung to the ground, handing out magazines, murmuring, Only Jehovah saves'; in a school where an overexcitable pustule could send you to Coventry, a six-foot black missionary in knee socks attempting to convert six hundred Catholics to the church of the Jehovah's Witnesses equalled social leprosy.
So Ryan was red as a beetroot. And Clara was black as yer boot. Ryan's freckles were a join-the-dots enthusiast's wet dream. Clara could circumnavigate an apple with her front teeth before her tongue got anywhere near it. Not even the Catholics would forgive them for it and Catholics give out forgiveness at about the same rate politicians give out promises and whores give out ; not even St. Jude, who got saddled way back in theist century with the patronage of hopeless causes due to the tonal similarity between Jude and Judas , was prepared to get involved.
At five o'clock each day, as Clara sat in her house attending to the message of the gospels or composing a leaflet condemning the heathen practice of blood transfusion, Ryan Topps would scoot by her open window on his way home. The Bowden living room sat just below street level, and had bars on its window, so all views were partial. Generally, she would see feet, wheels, car exhausts, swinging umbrellas.
Such slight glimpses were often 2. But nothing affected her more deeply than gazing after the disappearing tailpipe of Ryan's scooter. Lacking any name for the furtive rumblings that appeared in her lower abdomen on these occasions, Clara called it the spirit of the Lord. She felt that somehow she was going to save the heathen Ryan Topps.
Clara meant to gather this boy close to her breast, keep him safe from the temptation that besets us all around, prepare him for the day of his redemption. And wasn't there somewhere, lower than her abdomen somewhere down in the nether region of the unmentionables was there not the half-conceived hope that Ryan Topps might save her? If Hortense Bowden caught her daughter sitting wistfully by the barred window, listening to the retreating splutter of an engine while the pages of the New Bible flicked over in the breeze, she koofed her up-side her head and thanked her to remember that only , of the Witnesses of Jehovah would sit in the court of the Lord on Judgement Day.
Amongst which number of the Anointed there was no space for nasty-looking so-and-sos on motorcycles. It take effort to be close to Jehovah. It take devotion and dedication. Blessed are the pure in heart for they alone shall see God. Matthew 5: Isn't dat right, Darcus?
Darcus had come over to England fourteen years earlier and spent the whole of that period in the far corner of the living room, watching tele30 vision. The original intention had been that he should come to England and earn enough money to enable Clara and Hortense to come over, join him and settle down.
However, on arrival, a mysterious illness had debilitated Darcus Bowden. An illness that no doctor could find any physical symptoms of, but which manifested itself in the most incredible lethargy, creating in Darcus admittedly, never the most vibrant of men a lifelong affection for the dole, the armchair and British television.
In , enraged by a fourteen-year wait, Hortense decided finally to make the journey on her own steam. Steam was something Hortense had in abundance. She arrived on the doorstep with the seventeen-year-old Clara, broke down the door in a fury and so the legend went back in St. Elizabeth gave Darcus Bowden the tongue-whipping of his life.
Some say this onslaught lasted four hours, some say she quoted every book of the bible by memory and it took a whole day and a whole night. What is certain is, at the end of it all, Darcus slumped deeper into the recesses of his chair, looked mournfully at the television with whom he had had such an understanding, compassionate relationship so uncomplicated, so much innocent affection and a tear squeezed its way out of its duct and settled in a crag underneath his eye.
Then he said just one word: Hmph was all Darcus said or ever was to say after. Ask Darcus anything; query him on any subject at any hour of the day and night; interrogate him; chat with him; implore him; declare your love for him; accuse him or vindicate him and he will give you only one answer.
How many times must I tell you you got no time for bwoys! This 3i was , and Hortense was preparing for the End of the World, which, in the house diary, she had marked carefully in blue biro: This was not a solitary psychosis of the Bowdens.
There were eight million Jehovah's Witnesses waiting with her. Hortense was in large, albeit eccentric, company. A personal letter had come to Hortense as secretary of the Lambeth branch of the Kingdom Halls , with a photocopied signature from William J. The end of the world had been officially confirmed with a gold-plated letterhead, and Hortense had risen to the occasion by setting it in an attractive mahogany frame.
She had given it pride of place on a doily on top of the television between a glass figurine of Cinderella on her way to the Ball and a tea-cosy embroidered with the Ten Commandments. She had asked Darcus whether he thought it looked nice. He had hmphed his assent.
The end of the world was nigh. And this was not the Lambeth branch of the church of the Jehovah's Witnesses was to be assured like the mistakes of and They had been promised the entrails of sinners wrapped around the trunks of trees, and this time the entrails of sinners wrapped around the trunks of trees would appear.
They had waited so long for the rivers of blood to overflow the gutters in the high street, and now their thirst would be satiated. The time had come. This was the right date, this was the only date, all other dates that might have been proffered in the past were the result of some bad calculations: But now was the time.
The real thing, i January Hortense, for one, was glad to hear it. The first morning of she had wept like a baby when she awoke to find instead of hail and brimstone and universal destruction the continuance of daily life, the regular running of the buses and trains. It had been for nothing, then, all that tossing and turning the previous night; waiting for those neighbours, those who failed to listen to your warnings, to sink under a hot and terrible fire that shall separate their skin from their bones, shall melt the eyes in their sockets, and burn the babies that suckle at their mothers' breasts The Clarion Bell, issue How bitterly she had been disappointed!
But the wounds of had healed, and Hortense was once again ready to be convinced that apocalypse, just as the right holy Mr. Rangeforth had explained, was round the corner. The promise of the generation still stood: This generation shall not pass, till all these things bejulfilkd Matthew Those who were alive in would live to see the Armageddon.
It had been promised. Born in , Hortense was getting old now, she was getting tired and her peers were dying off like flies. Had not two hundred of the church's best intellectuals spent twenty years examining the bible, and hadn't this date been their unanimous conclusion?
Had they not read between the lines in Daniel, scanned for the hidden meaning in Revelation, correctly identified the Asian wars Korea and Vietnam as the period spoken of by the angel, 'a time, and times, and half a time'? Hortense was convinced these were the sign of signs. These were the final days. There were eight months to the end of the world. Hardly enough time! There were banners to be made, articles to be written "Will the Lord Forgive the Onanist? There was Darcus to think about who could not walk to the fridge without assistance how was he to make it to the kingdom of the Lord?
And in all Clara must lend a hand; there was no time for boys, for Ryan Topps, for skulking around, for adolescent angst. For Clara was not like other teenagers. She was the Lord's child, Hortense's miracle baby. Hortense was all of forty-eight when she heard the Lord's voice while gutting a fish one morning, Montego Bay, Straight away she threw down the marlin, caught the trolley car home and submitted to her least favourite activity in order to conceive the child He had asked for.
Why had the Lord waited so long? Because the Lord wanted to show Hortense a miracle. For Hortense had been a miracle child herself, born in the middle of the legendary Kingston earthquake, , when everybody else was busy dying miracles ran in the family.
Hortense saw it this way: She liked to say: Once ya done dat no problems. No time for boys.
This child's work was just beginning. Hortense born while Jamaica crumbled did not accept apocalypse before one's nineteenth birthday as any excuse for tardiness. Yet strangely, and possibly because of Jehovah's well documented penchant for moving in a mysterious manner, it was in performing the business of the Lord that Clara eventually met Ryan Topps face to face.
The youth group of the Lambeth Kingdom Hall had been sent door stepping on a Sunday morning, Separating the sheep from the goats Matthew The first few doors she received the usual pained faces: As she got into the poorer end of the street, the reaction became more aggressive; shouts came from windows or behind closed doors.
It's Sunday, in nit I'm knackered. I've spent all week creating the land and oceans. It's me day of rest. Then she rang No.
And Ryan Topps answered. I am from de Lambet Kingdom Hall, where we, de Witnesses of Jehovah, are waitin' for de Lord to come and grace us wid his holy presence once more; as he did briefly hot sadly, invisibly in de year of our farder, We believe dat when he makes himself known he will be bringing wid 'im de tree-fold fires of hell in Armageddon, dat day when precious few will be saved.
Are you int' rested in' "Wot? You see, it like a staircase. I'm just tellin' you: Me jus wan' share heaven wid you.
Me nah wan' fe see you bruk-up your legs. Clara felt she was closing in on herself, like a telescope. It was only moments, surely, before she disappeared entirely. Fifty copies of the Watchtawer spilled over the doorstep. Saint of," said Ryan, picking something surreptitiously from his nose and nicking it into a flowerpot. The lot of'em. Things were tweaked, and pushed and pulled; and by the time the bell rang for end of school Monday Ryan Topps and Clara Bowden much to their school's collective disgust were more or less an item; as the St.
Jude's phraseology went, they were 'dealing' with each other. Was it everything that Clara, in all her sweaty adolescent invention, had imagined? Well, 'dealing' with Ryan turned out to consist of three major pastimes in order of importance: But though other girls might have balked at dates that took place in Ryan's garage and consisted entirely of watching him pore over the engine of a scooter, eulogizing its intricacies and complexities, to Clara there was nothing more thrilling.
She learnt quickly that Ryan was a man of painfully few words and that the rare conversations they had would only ever concern Ryan: For some reason, Ryan was convinced of the ageing fifties motto "Live fast, die young', and, though his scooter didn't do more than 22 mph.
She imagined herself holding the bleeding Ryan in her arms, hearing him finally declare his undying love; she saw herself as Mod Widow, wearing black polo-necks for a year and demanding "Waterloo Sunset' be played at his funeral. Clara's inexplicable dedication to Ryan Topps knew no bounds. It transcended his bad looks, tedious personality and unsightly personal habits. Essentially, it transcended Ryan, for whatever Hortense claimed, Clara was a teenage girl like any other; the object of her passion was only an accessory to the passion itself, a passion that through its long suppression was now asserting itself with volcanic necessity.
Over the ensuing months Clara's mind changed, Clara's clothes changed, Clara's walk changed, Clara's soul changed. Clara chose to call it Ryan Topps. There were no dates, in the normal sense. No flowers or restaurants, movies or parties. Occasionally, when more weed was required, Ryan would take her to visit a large squat in North London where an eighth came cheap and people too stoned to make out the features on your face acted like your best friends. Here, Ryan would ensconce himself in a hammock, and, after a few joints, progress from his usual monosyllabic to the entirely catatonic.
Clara, who didn't smoke, sat at his feet, admired him, and tried to keep up with the general conversation around her.
But Clara made friends. A resourceful girl, she used what she had to amuse and terrify an assorted company of Hippies, Flakes, Freaks and Funky Folk: Naturally, the thing called Ryan Topps began to push the End of the World further and further into the back-rooms of Clara's consciousness.
So many other things were presenting themselves to her, so much new in life!
If it were possible, she felt like one of the Anointed right now, right here in Lambeth. The more blessed she felt on earth, the more rarely she turned her thoughts towards heaven. In the end, it was the epic feat of long division that Clara simply couldn't figure. So many unsaved. Out of eight million Jehovah's Witnesses, only , men could join Christ in heaven. The good women and good-enough men would gain paradise on earth not a bad booby prize all things considered but that still left a few million who failed to make the grade.
Add that to the heathens; to the Jews, Catholics, Muslims; to the poor jungle men in the site whom Clara had wept for as a child; so many unsaved.
The Witnesses prided themselves on the absence of hell in their theology the punishment was torture, unimaginable torture on the final day, and then the grave was the grave.
But to Clara, this seemed worse the thought of the Great Crowd, enjoying themselves in earthly paradise, while the tortured, mutilated skeletons of the lost lay just under the topsoil.
On the one side stood all the mammoth quantities of people on the globe, unacquainted with the teachings of the Watchtower some with no access to a postbox , unable to contact the Lambeth Kingdom Hall and receive helpful reading material about the road to redemption. On the other side, Hortense, her hair all wrapped up in iron rollers, tossing and turning in her sheets, gleefully awaiting the rains of sulphur to pour down upon the sinners, particularly the woman at No.
Hortense tried to explain: Unbalanceable books. Faith is hard to achieve, easy to lose. She became more and more reluctant to leave the impress of her knees in the red cushions in the Kingdom Hall. She would not wear sashes, carry banners or give out leaflets. She would not tell anyone about missing steps. She discovered dope, forgot the staircase and began taking the lift.
A detention. Held back forty-five minutes after school for claiming, in a music lesson, that Roger Daltrey was a greater musician than Joharm Sebastian Bach and as a result, Clara missed her four o'clock meeting with Ryan on the corner of Leenan Street. It was freezing cold and getting dark by the time she got out; she ran through piles of putrefying autumn leaves, searched the length and breadth of Leenan, but there was no sign.
It was with dread that she approached her own front door, offering up to God a multitude of silent contracts I'll never have sex, III never smoke another joint, I'll never wear another skin above the knee if only he could assure her that Ryan Topps had not rung her mother's doorbell looking for shelter from the wind.
Come out of de cold. Clara closed the front door behind her, and walked in a kind of terror through the living room, past the framed hologram of Jesus who wept and then didn't , and into the kitchen.
Clara stuttered, her buck teeth cutting shapes into her bottom lip. De bwoy was cold, I letim in, we been havin' a nice chat, haven't we young man?
You'd tink I was gwan eatim up or so meting eh Ryan? And together, Ryan Topps and Clara's mother began to laugh.
Is there anything more likely to take the shine off an affair than when the lover strikes up a convivial relationship with the lo vee mother? As the nights got darker and shorter and it became harder to pick Ryan out of the crowd who milled outside the school gates each day at three thirty, a dejected Clara would make the long walk home only to find her lover once more in the kitchen, chatting happily with Hortense, devouring the Bowden household's cornucopia of goodies: These conversations, lively as they sounded when Clara turned the key in the door, always fell silent as she approached the kitchen.
Like children caught out, they would become sullen, then awkward, then Ryan would make his excuses and leave. There was also a look, she noticed, that they had begun to give her, a look of sympathy, of condescension; and not only that they began to comment on her clothing, which had become steadily more youthful, more colourful; and Ryan what was happening to Ryan? Of course, like the mother of a drug addict or the neighbour of a serial killer, Clara was the last to know.
She had once known everything about Ryan before Ryan himself knew it she had been a Ryan expert. Now she was reduced to overhearing the Irish girls assert that Clara Bowden and Ryan Topps were not dealing with each other definitively, definitely not dealing with each other oh no, not any more.
If Clara realized what was happening, she wouldn't allow herself to believe it. On the occasion she spotted Ryan at the kitchen table, surrounded by leaflets and Hortense hurriedly gathering them up and shoving them into her apron pocket Clara willed herself to forget it.