The Tooth / by Alex Williamson

His wife was away seeing friends in Scotland, and he had been left to fend for himself, and his two boys. She had left him without instruction, apart from Take care. On the Saturday morning, he decided to chance a storytelling session at the local bookshop. It was something he had wanted to do for some time but had never managed to as something always seemed to prevent him going, usually him being too hungover, but with no other plans for the weekend and being sober of mind and able of body, he resolved that today was the day. That morning he rose, breakfasted, and fed and dressed his children without incident. When it came time to leave, he manoeuvred the unwieldy and barely-roadworthy Bugaboo containing his six-month-old through the front door. Once outside his three-year-old perched on the buggy board, and he pushed them, like a labourer wheeling a laden barrow, in the direction of the high street.

It was not-quite-spring, with a heavy frost on the ground, so he considered taking a short cut through the park at the end of their road, to allow his eldest to crunch through the ice furred grass and crisply crumpled leaves. They had set off early, so he was confident they would make it on time. As they approached the playground, deserted at that early hour, his son chirruped that he wanted to go in. Reluctantly he relented, after first checking the time on his phone, and cautioning his son, But only for a little while.

With his youngest already fast asleep in the pushchair, they entered the playground. Frost as thick as snow lay on the ground, and as he had neglected to bring a towel with him to wipe down the equipment, his son’s choices were relatively limited. He told his son to Take care as he trotted towards the infant’s climbing frame, which with its rope bridge and small slide was his favoured apparatus in the playground, him being too small for the imposing timber-framed fort.

Labouring in his winter coat and thick trousers and disposable nappy, his son carefully negotiated the short flight of metal steps up to the raised walkway. Then, holding the green safety bar, he turned to look at his father and started laughing and bouncing up and down vigorously on the walkway, until he suddenly slipped and dashed his teeth against the metal bar. They looked at one another for a second to establish what had happened, his son open-mouthed and frowning in shock and pain, and him no doubt mirroring his son’s look, when he realised that there was now a gap instead of his neatly arranged front teeth. At which point his son started crying, and he moved quickly to comfort him.

One of son’s teeth was partly missing. He hadn’t knocked the entire tooth out, but cracked it diagonally from left to right, leaving him with a short, sharp fang in place of an incisor’s bevelled square. He now had a supplementary canine, and in entirely the wrong place.

He hadn’t noticed the patch of ice, formed when a small puddle had frozen, in between the metal bars of the walkway. His son had been jumping in that precise spot when he slipped. There was what appeared to be a triangular piece of tooth on the rubberised matting below. He picked it up and pocketed it.

He managed to calm his son and stop the bleeding. He considered calling his wife, but decided to resolve the issue himself, and phoned the local dental surgery. The receptionist found him an appointment. The dental surgery was on the upper floor above a book-makers in his old postcode. It took them half an hour on foot to get there, during which time his son’s discomfort had subsided. When they arrived, he left his youngest son, still asleep, in his buggy in the cramped vestibule inside the entrance and carried his eldest son up the steep flight of stairs to the reception. After a short wait, the dentist’s assistant called his son’s name, and they went in.

As the dentist looked at his son’s mouth, he showed him the shard of broken tooth. Sitting in the palm in his hand, it resembled a small fragment of grit. The more he looked at it, the less certain he became that it was in fact his son’s tooth.

Can we reattach it? he asked. The dentist shook his head. I’m afraid not. The assistant took the fragment from him.

As he was checking his son’s mouth, the dentist noticed something else. He’s actually got a hole in one of his other teeth.

He peered into his son’s mouth. There was a brown stain on one of his molars.

Christ, he muttered. Well, he does like apples.

Does he brush his teeth?

Of course.

When? How often?

Twice a day. After breakfast and before bed.

Does he do it, or do you do it for him?

Bit of both.

Do you want me to fill it?

Probably ought to. Will he have to have an injection?

I’ll do it without an injection. If I’m quick, he won’t even notice.

The dentist donned the dreaded mask while his assistant prepared the filling cement. Taking his drill, he applied it to his son’s molar for a nanosecond and quickly plugged the tiny hole. Next, the dentist carefully fashioned a minuscule crown for the incisor, as if putting the final touches to a waxwork of a princeling.

His son sat remarkably still throughout and made barely a sound. When he was finished, the dentist turned to him and lowered his mask.

We’re all done. Don’t let him eat anything for a couple of hours until the cement goes off. I’m not sure if the crown will last if I’m honest. He might need to have the whole thing taken out.

The crown lasted less than forty-eight hours. When his wife collected their son from nursery on the Monday, she noticed that it was missing. She asked their son what happened to it, he said he felt it come loose when he was eating his lunch. He thought it was a crumb of food, So I swallowed it.

He returned to the dental surgery a few days later. Inspecting his son’s mouth again, the dentist ran his finger over the area where the broken tooth gum, and his son jerked in the chair and began to cry.

Sorry, young man, said the dentist, patting his son’s leg. Then to him: As I suspected. It looks like the root has been exposed. This is a problem. The dentist was concerned that the exposed root would die, and affect the adult tooth growing above it.

As I see it, we have two options, said the dentist. Remove the entire tooth, which he’d need to go to hospital for. Or drill out the nerve and fill it.

Can we do that?

Yes. But it will be painful, so I’ll need to numb his mouth.

Let’s give it a try. Fingers crossed it won’t be too painful.

He watched as the dentist took a large needle from his instrument table and applied it to his son’s gum. A large bubble of anaesthetic formed above his son’s broken tooth. His son began crying again, huge tears that rolled off his cheeks and splashed onto his jumper.

Now we just need to wait for the anaesthetic to take affect, said the dentist, stating the obvious.

When they returned to the waiting room, he placed his son in the chair and stood to one side to keep out of the dentist’s way. He folded his arms, then realised that looked too stern, too unsympathetic, so he put his hands in his pockets instead. As soon as he was back in the chair his son became very upset and started to cry hysterically. After tentatively insinuating his drill against his son’s tooth, the dentist stopped and switched the drill off.

I don’t think it’s going to work, he said, shaking his head. The root is too small and I don’t want to damage the gum. Or cause your boy unnecessary distress. I think the best thing to do is refer your son for a tooth extraction.

A fortnight later he took his son to his appointment at St Thomas’ hospital. They watched CBeebies in the waiting room until his name was called. He was incredibly nervous, but his son was calm, distracted by the familiar antics of the Twirlywoos, unconsciously rotating his feet as he studied the screen.

They were led through to the operating theatre by a nurse, and he was introduced to the dental surgeon and anaesthetist. The anaesthetist had an accent that he couldn’t place. Middle eastern. He seemed very interested in his son’s gait.

Could you walk your son to the corridor for me? The anaesthetist asked. Your son has problems with his feet?

He has hypermobility. In his hips and ankles. Since he was a baby. Used to be able to get his ankles behind his ears.

This is his feet I’m talking about. He shouldn’t be walking like that. My son was exactly the same. Have you taken him to see a doctor about it?

He’s been seen by the paediatrician. In Lewisham.

Make sure they do something about it. Don’t let them fob you off. Its important.

Yes of course.

They lay his son on a bed in the operating room. The anaesthetist spoke to his son in a soft voice, gently explaining what was going to happen, and showed him the mask for administering the anaesthetic. Then he placed it over his son’s face, passing the elasticated band over his head. The anaesthetist handed him the oval pump and said, You’ll need to do this. Pump gently until I say stop.

He perched next to his son on the bed and held his hand. He slowly pumped the anaesthetic into his son’s central nervous system, watched his eyes grow drowsy and began to close, his head slump against his shoulder and, as if in a last-ditch attempt at fight-or-flight, his legs softly thrash against the bed. Then he went completely still.

You can go now, said the anaesthetist. We’ll call you when he comes round.

He returned to the waiting area. ZingZillas was on the TV, the episode with special guests Dan and Justin Hawkins of the The Darkness. He marvelled for a moment at the incongruity, before reasoning that their cartoonish personas and glam-rock riffs were a near-perfect addition to the hyperactive musical show. It must have been an old episode, he thought, because the elder Hawkins hadn’t fixed his teeth yet. Or had a hair transplant. Or morphed into the heavily-inked younger sibling of Johnny Depp.

He googled Justin Hawkins Darkness on his phone and scrolled through the photographs for a while. Hawkins had submitted to the contemporary vogue for whitening teeth beyond their natural colour, to the point of being unnaturally blemish-free. Even his son’s teeth newly-cut hadn’t been that white. The cosmetic alterations were not without precedent: teeth had long been treated as markers of wealth and societal status. It was only very recently in human history that teeth might be expected to remain for the duration of an individual’s lifetime. Indented teeth sometimes outlasted bone, such was their strength.

He thought of the little envelope of his own milk teeth in his desk drawer at his parent’s. Mostly molars, including one almost entirely decayed. By this time the true identity of the tooth fairy had long been revealed. The handful of teeth pulled out when he was eight, to make room in his crowded mouth. The only time he was given a general anaesthetic. Dazed and disconcerted, he wept when he woke. His mother was ready with a tissue. Back home, he tried to look at the ragged holes in the back of his mouth in the mirror, running his tongue over the raw and bloody gaps where his teeth once were. The next morning there was blood on his bed sheet. His gums had bled as he slept, like a Freudian dream made real.

Other teeth yanked out with local anaesthetic and brute force. A few teeth, mercifully few, drilled and filled. He had his father’s teeth, large and strong. His mother was snaggle-toothed, her mouth seventy per cent mercury. While living in London he had an impacted wisdom tooth removed at King’s hospital. They gave him a barbiturate and wrenched it from his gums, then set him loose on the streets of Denmark Hill. Wired and slurring in the recovery room like a somnolent ketamine casualty. His wife, then-girlfriend, helped him home. He returned to work the next day, gargling with salt water to stave off infection, but his mouth mourned the lost molar. There was a hole in his gum for almost a month.

The nurse appeared, smiling. Your son is awake now. Would you like to follow me?

The nurse led him to the recovery room. His son was sitting up, blinking. As he drew nearer, he could see that the tooth was completely gone. It was like a ragged hole had been punched into his face. Something he had done. He stroked his son’s fair hair. The nurse handed him a small square envelope containing the broken tooth, which he slipped into his pocket like a till receipt.

He carried his son through to the waiting area and sat down with the boy on his knee. On CBeebies, the programme had now switched to Chuggington. Absurd, interminable Chuggington, with its moronic theme tune, idiotic characters and barely-credible animation. His son asked if he could sit in his own chair and slid off his knee. They sat that way, side-by-side in silence, for a little while longer, his son watching the TV, him trying not to. When he could no longer stand being there, he collected up their things and took the boy home to his mother.