by Zadie Smith
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She laid claim to the past—her version of the past—aggressively, as if retrieving misdirected mail. So this was where she came from. This all belonged to her, her birthright, like a pair of pearl earrings or a post office bond. X marks the spot, and Irie put an X on everything she found, collecting bits and pieces (birth certificates, maps, army reports, news articles) and storing them under the sofa, so that as if by osmosis the richness of them would pass through the fabric while she was sleeping and seep right into her.
•As the front door closed behind her, Clara bit her own lip once more, this time in frustration and anger. Why had she said Captain Charlie Durham [was where she got her brains]? That was a downright lie. False as her own white teeth. Clara was smarter than Captain Charlie Curham. Hortense was smarter than Captain Charlie Durham. Probably even Grandma Ambrosia was smarter than Captain Charlie Durham. Captain Charlie Durham wasn’t smart. He had thought he was, but he wasn’t. He sacrificed a thousand people because he wanted to save one woman he never really knew. Captain Charlie Durham was a no-good djam fool bwoy.
•Irie studied a small slice of the Chalfen family tree, an elaborate illustrated oak that stretched back to the 1600s and forward into the present day. The differences between the Chalfens and the Jones/Bowdens were immediately plain. For starters, in the Chalfen family everybody seemed to have a normal number of children. More to the point, everybody knew whose children were whose. The men lived longer than the women. The marriages were singular and log-lasting. Dates of birth and death were concrete. And the Chalfens actually knew who they were in 1675. Archie Jones could give no longer record of his family than his father’s own haphazard appearance on the planet in the back room of a Bromley public house circa 1895 or 1896 or quite possibly 1897, depending on which nonagenarian ex-barmaid you spoke to. Clara Bowden knew a little about her grandmother, and half-believed the story that her famed and prolific Uncle P. had thirty-four children, but could only state definitively that her own mother was born at 2:45 P.M. on January 14, 1907, in a Catholic church in the middle of the Kingston earthquake. The rest was rumor, folktale and myth.
•This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course.
•The school had learned to its cost that you cannot unite a thousand children under one Latin tag (school code: Laborare est Orare, To Labor is to Pray); kids are like pissing cats or burrowing moles, marking off land within land, each section with its own rules, beliefs, laws of engagement. Despite every attempt to suppress it, the school contained and sustained patches, hangouts, disputed territories, satellite states, states of emergency, ghettos, enclaves, islands. There were no maps, but common sense told you, for example, not to fuck with the area between the garbage cans and the craft department. There had been casualties there.
•Often you see old men in the corner of dark pubs, discussing and gesticulating, using beer mugs and salt cellars to represent long-dead people and far-off places. At that moment they display a vitality missing in every other area of their lives. They light up. Unpacking a full story onto the table—here is a Churchill-fork, over there is a Czechoslovakia-napkin, here we find the accumulation of German troops represented by a collection of cold peas—they are reborn.
•Something to rationalize, to explain, why one would keep returning, like Freud’s grandson with his fort-da game, to the same miserable scenario. But time is what it comes down to. After you’ve spent a certain amount, invested so much of it in one place, your credit rating booms and you feel like breaking the chronological bank. You feel like staying in the place until it pays you back all the time you gave it—even if it never will.
•Irie, looking strangely like the crowd on top of the wall in her everyday garb of CND badges, graffiti-covered trousers, and beaded hair, shook her head in saddened disbelief. She was that age. Whatever she said burst like genius into centuries of silence. Whatever she touched was the first stroke of its kind. Whatever she believed was not formed by faith but carved from certainty. Whatever she thought was the first time such a thought had ever been thunk.
•For six days and six nights Alsana did not know, was not sure. During this period she read extensively from the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and tried hard to believe his assurances (Night’s darkness is a bag that bursts with the gold of the dawn), but she was, at heart, a practical woman and found poetry no comfort.
•“Where I come from,” said Archie, “a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.”
“Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,” said Samad tersely, “that it is a good idea.”
•They knocked around ideas that Archie did not entirely understand, and Samad offered secrets into the cool night that he had never spoken out loud. Long, comfortable silences passed between them like those between women who have known each other for years. They looked out onto stars that lit up unknown country, but neither man clung particularly to home. In short, it was precisely the kind of friendship an Englishman makes on holiday, that he can only make on holiday. A friendship that crosses class and color, a friendship that takes as its basis physical proximity and survives because the Englishman assumes the physical proximity will not continue.
•“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 her interlocutor becomes hot under the collar. “Because, Miss Smarty-pants, it is by far the easiest 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.
•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.
•“Cousin!” said Ardashir, with a friendly grimace at the sight of Samad’s body curling cautiously around 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.
•At the traffic lights he flipped a ten-pence coin and smiled when the result seemed to agree that Fate was pulling him toward another life. Like a dog on a leash 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. Unrecognizable. 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. When he approaches a forked road, he slows down, checks his undistinguished face in the rearview mirror, and quite indiscriminately chooses a route he’s never taken before, a residential street leading to a place called Queen’s Park. Go straight past Go!, Archie-boy, he tells himself; collect two hundred, and don’t for Gawd’s sake look back.
•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 that made him cover Mo’s apron with tears of joy as the butcher saved his life. He had seen her in his mind: a beautiful woman in a doorway with a come-hither look; and he realized he regretted not coming hither. If there was any chance of ever seeing a look like that again, then he wanted the second chance, he wanted the extra time.