Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo was seven months old when this was first published.
I can still hear it – the slow-motion swish of the cricket bat as it cuts through the air with a practiced arcing sweep; the snick of the ball as it catches the top edge; a small clinking broken-china sound as it ricochets on and into my mouth.
I can see it – me in my pads and cricket whites, still on one knee, the bat dropped, instantly discarded; and one and a half broken teeth, lying where they’ve fallen. On the close-cropped grass, just short of the crease.
I can still feel it – a moment’s mystification, then shock and the first sucking breath through newly exposed nerve-ends. A dizzying pain to send me reeling.
Now, I confess that time and frequent re-telling may have embellished the memory – it was, after all, nearly half a century ago. I was thirteen years old and playing in my final match for the small boarding school in the south of England where somehow I’d ended up for a few halcyon years.
But if the detail is exaggerated – the swish, snick, clink – the essence of it is true. I caught a cricket ball in my mouth and lost my front teeth when I was a boy. And it hurt – like nothing had ever hurt.
That’s the trouble with teeth. They let you down, cause you pain.
And that was only the beginning. Because of the ball, I had to wear a hideous plastic plate in my mouth for the next ten years – which broke and had to be replaced, and then broke again. Because of the plate, I ended up having root extractions on the teeth where the metal grips had been anchored for so long. Finally able to discard the plastic abomination, I had a bridge built; and some years later another; and another.
So, years of suffering and pitiless expense – all because of a moment when a ball caught the edge, and not the middle, of a young boy’s bat.
Or rather, all because teeth are so ridiculous, fragile and bothersome: it’s no wonder that the London poor were tempted by the drastic solution of having them all pulled and replaced by wooden dentures. It was cheaper and less trouble in the long run.
But my teenage tooth torment didn’t end there. Because teeth are not only the cause of endless pain and expense, they can also be the source of acute embarrassment.
Having described myself on that cricket square taking a first suck of excruciating air, let me now share what was worse: the mortification of the following week.
After a rapid succession of emergency visits to the dentist, I was left with a gap and a gold-covered stub where once were my two proud pearly-whites. I was to remain like this for some weeks while an impression for the plate was taken – a pink gagging slime in the mouth, catching the throat – and then made, fitted and adjusted.
The result in the intervening weeks was a comical, piratical disfigurement and a hissing lisp that meant that whenever possible I kept my mouth firmly shut, remained silent.
Only I wasn’t allowed to.
On the final day at the school, there was a leavers’ service for the boys, staff and parents. And because I was head boy, by tradition it fell to me to read a lesson.
I begged and pleaded to be excused. No one listened.
So, picture this. Come the day, the small school chapel is packed to overflowing; so much so that microphones and speakers have to be rigged to carry the sound to a neighbouring hall.
All begins well. In full choristers uniform – blue cassock, white surplice and ruff – I process angelically in with the rest of the choir, mouth firmly closed. I stay mute, tight-lipped through all the hymns.
But then the time comes.
A sudden silence and I step away from the choir stalls and move self-consciously, slightly unsteadily, towards the lectern. I can hear stifled sniggers from a hundred boys behind. Nothing gives a small boy pleasure like someone else’s suffering.
They are waiting. And they are not disappointed.
At the lectern, I tilt the microphone towards me and begin. Susurrating sibilantly. Whistling through the leavers’ service standard text; the lisper’s worst nightmare.
‘Today’s lesson is taken from the First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.’
And worse. As I speak, as I battle and stumble gamely onwards, I can hear the extended hiss of every word amplified, exaggerated through the sound system.
I can hear it still.
Pain. Expense. Embarrassment. You’d think I’d suffered enough with teeth? You’d be wrong.
Flash forwards thirty years or more. During a routine check-up, my new dentist notices I have a broken wisdom tooth. It’s causing me no pain, no real problem. I’ve lived with it for years.
‘You really should have that out,’ he says.
‘No,’ I reply, with some difficulty – he’s still exploring my mouth with a spiked metal probe.
‘If you don’t, it’ll only get worse,’ he says.
We discuss it – and in a moment of stupefying weakness, I agree.
The following week, I arrive for the appointment. The dentist numbs my mouth, examines the offending tooth.
‘Have that out in no time,’ he says cheerfully.
I look at him suspiciously.
‘Honestly,’ he says. ‘I’ve done hundreds of these. It’ll take minutes.’
An hour of frenzied gripping, desperate tugging, demented pulling later, he admits defeat. He’s dislodged it just enough for the pain to be very nearly unbearable despite the anaesthetic.
‘I’ve never known anything like it,’ he says, shaking his head apologetically, helping me weakly to the door.
The following morning, after a night of little sleep, I am at the dental hospital. It begins again – with two of them this time. Another hour of medieval torture later, they have succeeded only in snapping the tooth at the gum.
They send for a consultant – I’m lucky, one of the top men in the country happens to be in the hospital. Working quickly he removes both the tooth and part of the jaw bone.
Eventually, I stagger out.
And twenty years later I still have the legacy of numbness to my tongue caused by the nerve damage the consultant warned me was a possibility before he went to work.
So there you have it, Theo.
And I know it might seem excessive, mentioning this now; I appreciate that life has been hard enough these past weeks, with those first small perfect buds of white of your own starting to emerge. But someone has to tell you what trouble lies ahead, someone has to warn you.
Pain, expense, humiliation, nightmare days, sleepless nights, years of discomfort: that’s what.
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