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The Test
Author:Sylvain Neuvel

The Test by Sylvain Neuvel

To kind people


The Life in the United Kingdom Test

Question 1: Who is the patron saint of Wales and on which date is his feast day?

I know the answer! It’s Saint David, on March first. I met Tidir, my wife, on March first. It is our meeting anniversary. I remember that day. She came in for a root canal and I fell in love. Not with her—I didn’t know who she was and she didn’t exactly talk a lot with the mouth prop on. I fell in love with her teeth. She had striped canines. Horizontal discolouration of the enamel, right down the middle. Her teeth look like Neapolitan ice cream. Neapolitan cuspids. I knew right away.

We met again in a café weeks later. I asked if I could sit with her, and she said yes. A month later, we were married. If you ask her why she married me, she’ll say she was in pain before she met me and I made it go away. I did fix her tooth. The rest of it runs deeper than I can reach. She’s been through a lot. It’s for her that we had to leave.

We celebrate our meeting day more than we do our wedding anniversary. We both chose to get married, but that root canal, that was the will of Allah. I decorate the house, cover the kitchen floor with rose petals. Sometimes I use tulips, but I don’t tell her. I make my Fesenjān, if I can find nice pomegranates. Our first year in London, our neighbour asked if we were celebrating Saint David’s day. He’s from Wales. I think that was supposed to be a joke, but we have been best friends ever since. Now we celebrate together. Fesenjān and Welsh rarebit. This question is a sign. This is going to be a great day!

It didn’t start so well. They gave me a physical when we first arrived. I hate physicals. I have no problem with needles if I’m the one holding the syringe, but I get queasy staring at the receiving end. It was over quickly, though, and then they took us here. Wow. You say immigration office and I think grey building, bad lighting, yellowed walls. I imagined taking the test on an old school desk with chewed pieces of gum underneath. This place feels like a fancy hotel. Gorgeous lobby. Absolutely gorgeous. Old meets new, stainless steel and mahogany. They had the same paper slippers we used at my practice in Teheran. Tidir doesn’t like those, but I do. I like the feel of the floor on my toes. It was still early and we all got a fresh pair from the clean pile.

There was an Asian man screaming at the receptionist when we walked in. He called her a racist, kept saying she stole money from him, gave him less change than what he was owed. I told him he was being impolite and sent him on his way. He may have been right, about the change that is. When I paid the fifty pound fee for the test, the receptionist gave me back a twenty pound note instead of a ten. I had to explain her mistake to her twice before she took it back. I almost told her it was a tip. I didn’t. These people have no sense of humour whatsoever. It must be a requirement for working at Immigration. Hello! My name is Idir Jalil, this is my wife Tidir. . . . Nothing. Not even a smile. Idir and Tidir. That usually gets us a chuckle, at least. Not here. I did not give up. You can change the world with one smile. Do you know the difference between a customs officer and a dentist? There isn’t one. They both do cavity searches. No sense of humour, I tell you. There was a redheaded man in the waiting room who made a crude joke about the receptionist’s cleavage. His joke wasn’t funny, but I have a lot of good dentist jokes. What does the dentist of the year get? A little plaque. . . . They showed me to the test room.

What a room! Wooden desks with fancy data pads. The chair . . . this chair is more comfortable than any chair I have ever sat in. It is decided. After the test I will find out where they purchased it and I will get that chair for myself. The room is small—there are only four desks—but there are windows all around and it feels very open. I can see Tidir in the waiting room. I can see my son, Ramzi, and my daughter, Salma. It was nice of them to come. My wife said it was the least they could do since I am the only one taking the test. Only men. Only between the ages of sixteen and forty-five. She said it was unfair. I told her it was a blessing. I do not care what their motivations are; it is a simple matter of probabilities. I heard that one in three people fails the test. If that is true and I alone am required to pass, our family has a sixty-six percent chance at citizenship. If two of us are tested, then the odds go down to forty-three percent. She said I was naive. I do not see what is naive about mathematics. The world is what you make of it, I told her. She smiled.

Question 2: A lot of people carve lanterns out of ______ and put a candle inside of them during Halloween.

Ramzi would like this question. He loves Halloween. That is probably his favourite thing about England. He starts talking about his costume months in advance, as early as July. He’ll change his mind a dozen times and we always end up making it at the last minute. He was a space pirate last year. Ramzi was one year old when we left Teheran, so he doesn’t remember, but we did have Halloween in Iran. We’d walk by houses and hear music in the basement, see someone wearing a mask through the window. Teenagers, always. Too brazen to fear the Basij, too young to realize how much they should. People have been accused of witchcraft, satanism for merely attending such parties. We never saw any pumpkins, though. Ramzi asks us for one every year. We said yes and bought one, once, made pumpkin pie with the insides. We hated it, all of us. We make costumes for the children, but we do not buy pumpkins anymore. It feels wrong to waste a beautiful giant fruit. It is a fruit, is it not? It has seeds. . . . Things with seeds are—

—How long do we have?

What? My test neighbour is talking to me. I am fairly certain we are not allowed to talk, mister. I wore a baseball cap for my citizenship test. Then again, this is the same man who came through the door exactly as I was walking in and pushed me aside. I shouldn’t be too surprised. I will not answer him.

—For the test. How long do we have?

Please stop talking, mister. It says right at the top. You have forty-five minutes to complete the test.

—Do you know?

Fine! I will tell you.

—We have forty-five minutes.

There. I said it. Now stop talking before—

—Sir. There is no talking during the test.

That voice came through the speakers. But he— No, I will not get upset. He is just nervous. He is. His leg is shaking. If I were unsure about how long we have, I would also want to know. Now I have told him and he feels better. That is well worth being scolded by the attendant. Life is what you make of it. This is a good day.

Question 3: Taking public transportation is good for the environment. True or false?

A city question. People who talk a lot about the environment are always the ones living the farthest away from nature. True. Public transportation is indeed better than driving. . . . That is what they mean. It must be. That question is poorly worded. How could no one have noticed that? Walking is a lot better for the environment than public transportation, and so is riding a bicycle. Perhaps this is a new question. Deep breath. Stop overthinking, Idir. The answer is true.

Tidir and I do not own a car. Neither of us likes to drive. I wish I could say we walk everywhere to save the planet, but the truth is we are both horrible drivers. People keep telling me how bad the air is in London. Worse than Beijing, they say. I tell them they should be happy it still looks like air. In Teheran, we spent the better part of winter cutting through brown haze, thick dark clouds of sulphur dioxide—lots of things that end in -xide—asbestos, even rubber. Who wants to breathe in rubber? They say it is because the gasoline is so bad. I doubt there is asbestos in gasoline.