I’ll confess that I’ve never really – until recently – looked after my teeth, so I have been remarkably lucky that they have given me little trouble in adult life.
Apart from one occasion.
An occasion that I had, for reasons you might just understand when you have read my story, erased from my conscious memory until a separate incident in our San Francisco apartment one morning last year brought it back.
Sourdough bread and I had always been on the best of terms, but we fell out when I crunched into a slice of peanut butter on toast with, in hindsight, unwise vigour and cracked an upper molar. Mild and temporary discomfort followed, along with anxiety that I might be compelled to part with many hundreds of dollars at either the Noe Valley Family and Cosmetic Dentistry or Aesthetic Dentistry of Noe Valley premises. For somebody already unnerved by the sight of a drill, those names did not appear especially welcoming. Travel insurance seemed little consolation in such circumstances.
But, in a day or two, I had virtually forgotten about the incident, apart from constantly prodding and licking the gap that had been created, much to my wife’s annoyance.
But it did bring back to me a previous visit to the dentist more than thirty years previously.
So, in a craven endeavour to solicit your sympathy rather than contempt for my inattention to aural health over many years, I will briefly relive that experience with you.
It was a baking Friday afternoon in the summer of 1981 in Tulse Hill, south-east London, less than two miles away from the riots that raged on the streets of Brixton. On learning that all four of my wisdom teeth were forcing themselves through at crooked angles, I was persuaded that they should be extracted before they caused too much trouble. In an uncharacteristic outbreak of physical courage I had also opted to have them removed at the surgery under local anaesthetic, rather than a general one in hospital.
My dentist, Mr Hall, was a tall, kindly, grey whiskered Trinidadian. He was due to retire in a few weeks, and this would be one of his last wisdom teeth extractions. He exuded all the calm and confidence that a timid patient about to entrust his entire mouth to could wish for.
“You have nothing to worry about, Mr Quarrington. I have done hundreds of these procedures”, he said as he flashed his own immaculate collection of teeth at me from above.
And after ten minutes of gentle coaxing two teeth had dutifully popped out.
He was right. There really was nothing to worry about. This was so much easier even than having a filling.
Why had all those so-called friends warned me about the procedure and recounted horror stories of losing the same teeth?
But wait a minute.
As one of my favourite rock lyricists wrote: “when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.”
Three hours later I lay sprawling across the chair, my clothes disheveled and spattered with blood as Mr Hall beamed at me from the other end of the room and exclaimed:
“That was the most difficult wisdom teeth extraction I have ever done. But we made it, Mr Quarrington, we got those little blighters out in the end. You should feel very pleased with yourself”.
I felt many things at this time but pleased was not one of them. Exhausted, sore, tearful, relieved and perhaps even a little angry – but not pleased. I had lost count of the number of additional injections I had been subject to in that long, dark afternoon of the soul.
But Mr Hall could not conceal his own sense of triumph at having accomplished a task that had called for the use of every instrument in his bag of tricks, as well as some that would have belonged more in a factory housing heavy engineering than in the cool, antiseptic environment of a dentist’s surgery with Nat King Cole crooning lightly in the background.
Even the fact that he had been obliged to cancel a whole afternoon’s appointments, and sent his receptionist home half an hour earlier, failed to dampen his good humour. He was not, however, unmindful of my visible distress and insisted that I did not leave until I felt able to. I only lived a few hundred yards away and, although groggy, was able to get home without difficulty.
I don’t recall making a further appointment on my way out that day.
Nor one for some time afterwards.
What had begun as a natural anxiety about a straightfoward procedure had, in one traumatic afternoon, turned into a violent fear.
But I’m now back on the straight and narrow, though some of my teeth might not be able to claim the same.
And by the way, sourdough bread and I have long since reconciled in case you wondered.