I wake with a stinking hangover to find that all my teeth have fallen out. My gums are bald as a parrot’s beak. I’m lying squint in bed, covers wrung into knots, debris scattered around the mattress. Something’s rolled underneath, digging into the flank of my belly. An empty bottle. I sit up. Run my tongue along the ridges, clear of little daggers, smooth and tender. My fingers are red, as though I’ve been picking berries. I start to sweat.
But the funny thing is I’m not that surprised because –
‘I need to shee the doctor,’ I whisper into the telephone. This strange voice makes my guts curdle. ‘It’sh an emergenchy.’
‘I’m afraid the diary’s full,’ says the receptionist, nasal, chirpy. ‘Would you like to make an emergency appointment?’
‘That’sh what I jusht shaid.’ I stare into the mirror.
‘Well in that case you can come down and wait for a cancellation. Can I take your name, please?’
‘Shimon Ham.’ My mouth’s sunken, sagging.
‘Oh.’ The receptionist hadn’t recognised my new voice but the name gives me away. ‘And what’s the matter this time, Ham? Eyes dried out? Need your nose syringed? Unless you have a genuine emergency – ’
‘Lishten Shandra, it’sh not like that. My teef have fallen out.’ There’s a moment’s silence, the steady fuzz of an open line, the slop of my saliva pooling.
‘Mister Ham,’ she says, and takes a deep breath. I know what’s coming. I imagine her blazing cheeks and outraged nostrils flaring. ‘Are you under the impression we’re running some charitable drop-in centre? You were in five times last month. You’ve been tested for every illness, ailment and seasonal virus on record. If your teeth have fallen out why don’t you go to the bloody dentist? Give him and his staff this hassle. Because I could really do without you and your…your…hallucinations. What’s more, I’m sure you’re aware Doctor Carlyle has filed a conditional restraining order upon your person, stating that – ’
I hang up. Sandra can go on and on and on. I’ve seen her do so. Well, I’m not running up my phone bill for that cynical shrew. What kind of person would pretend their teeth had fallen out?
But she’s given me an idea. I phone the dentist.
‘Hello? I need to shee the dentisht. Urgently. All my teef have fallen out.’
‘So there’s not a single tooth left in your mouth?’
‘That’sh what I shaid ishn’t it?’ She sounds like a good egg. You can tell what kind of receptionist you’ve got by her tone of voice.
‘In that case, I’m afraid the dentist can’t help. You need at least one tooth for an appointment. That’s policy. Perhaps you could phone the doctor?’
I lower the telephone. Dentists, doctors, they’re all the bloody same. Overpaid, overqualified charlatans. Couldn’t cure a sausage. They don’t want me coming in because they know I’ll expose them as incompetent, lazy liars. Sandra was right enough. I’ve had enough appointments for a dozen diagnoses and they’ve never fixed me yet.
I retch bent over. I wish I hadn’t drunk so much last night. But I had to because –
I stomp to the bathroom and study my paleness in the mirror. Eat paracetamol, anti-histamines, garlic tablets, aspirin, vitamins B, C, D and G. Gulp spring water, splash my face, squeeze toothpaste onto the brush, open my mouth and then freeze dead still.
The kettle boils while I parade linoleum. Butter bread. Scramble an egg. Three scoops of coffee, black, hot as can be. One hand fingering the contours of my neck. The other down beneath my trousers. Expecting to find –
The coffee poaches my new pink gums. The bread sogs and congeals into greasy lumps my tongue can’t reach and by the time I’ve used my fingers and a teaspoon there’s butter and blood dribbling down my chin and I’m clammy.
The silence of the cottage walls is unbearable so I wrap a scarf round my chin and scuttle out to the village. I’ll have to steer away from all conversation. Perhaps pretend to have lost my voice. But that won’t explain why I’m not opening my mouth.
Luckily, it’s easy here for a well-known face to get away with winks, handshakes and casual gesturing. I nod good morning to Old Jim Weir with the gammy leg, walking his dog. The sun-freckled twins skipping rope in the road are fended off with a wave. Mrs Shields and her cataracts threaten to discourse about the summer fundraising gala but I fake a coughing fit and lurch clear, into the calm of the pharmacy.
‘Hullo, Mr Ham,’ says Gloria. ‘And how are you? I’ve got your weekly order bagged up and ready.’
I place money on the counter and turn away, ostensibly perusing the merchandise while she pings and ruffles at the till.
‘Have you seen the new blood pressure machines? You can monitor yourself from the comfort of your own armchair. No need to ever panic again. A great comfort. You can buy the batteries from here as well.’
I burrow into the woollen scarf until my mouth’s all hidden. ‘How mucsh?’
‘Twenty six pounds. A bit pricey. But how much for true peace of mind?’
Outside, I cross the street to avoid Mr Carson. I can see even from a distance that his nose is red and wet, his eyes are pinched. You can smell infection percolating in him. I will not have that man anywhere near me. You know how these things spread. It’s been in all the newspapers; a tropical strain’s been killing pensioners, there’s no vaccine, we’re two stages away from an epidemic. Keep well clear of me, thanks very much.
I get all the way to the greengrocers without further aggravation. My basket’s heavy with tins of soup and baked beans, bananas and peaches, potatoes for mashing and oranges for juicing. Screeds of baby food. Mr Singh eyes me curiously.
‘Are you having a diet, Mister Ham?’ he asks.
I look over and shake my head, as though the matter’s much too complicated yet humdrum to discuss.
‘Or are you having a partee? Some kind of…strange partee?’
I give him the basket and pat my pockets. Compose myself. Go over the words in my head, terrified of what might come out. But I have to ask. I lick my lips. ‘Can I alsho have ten shigarettesh?’
I’ve tried to hide it, to conceal it, but there can be no doubt. I sound like an old man doing an impression of a baby. Maybe the other way round. Mr Singh’s eyebrows twitch a fraction but he keeps on packing the bag and punching the buttons on his till.
‘What kind would you like?’
I could punch him. He knows fine what kind I like. The same damn kind I buy from him every Monday morning at twenty past eight.
I could’ve chosen another brand. One without any sibilants. But that would seem strange and Mr Singh would probe more and besides I want the same bloody ones I always smoke. I can’t possibly change now. Not today.
He restrains a giggle. Glances out the shop window, eyes moist, lips tight. But he says nothing else so I let him keep the change and escape grateful that I’ve enough groceries for a few days. And then? I’m rather hoping my teeth will grow back. I might’ve heard of that happening to someone. Elephants grow more when theirs fall out, don’t they? I swallow some codeine in the street and when I get home I double lock the front door.
I unload the groceries and stare at the fridge. I’d forgotten entirely. Too busy being hungover and toothless. The date. It’s marked on the calendar in red ink. Today, I’m the exact same age as my father was. Although he fought it for a long time. Which is a comfort. But still I have no teeth.
I remain optimistic for three days. Contact the doctor so many times they change their number. Diarrhoea scours my bowels. But I’m doing pretty well. There’s enough medication in the cabinet to fend off tiredness, sadness, hyperactivity, lack of sleep, headaches and heartburn. I follow a low-texture menu which is easy to eat and full of vitamins and protein. The dusty food processor at the back of the cupboard comes in useful. I unplug the telephone and burrow myself away.
They will all know. If Gloria hasn’t said anything, Mr Singh will certainly have. He is a filthy gossip. As are all his type. One should never place too much trust in a greengrocer.
Illnesses and grief have always been shared in our village. News of any distress brings out the detective in people. I expect Veronica the red-haired lady to turn up with crystal stones and incense sticks, Mrs Piper to appear with Mr Piper’s home-baked fruitloaf wrapped in a tea-towel, Miss Farrell to conscientiously leave bouquets of lilies on the doorstep, the vicar to come chapping. Our small population’s collective lifeflow whispered in shops and tearooms and bandied on barstools in The Snooty Fox.
I didn’t tell them, when they asked me, that the lump in dad’s neck was getting bigger every day. It looked like he was growing a new head. You could hold it; squeeze it. It wasn’t hard and it wasn’t soft. It lived in there with him getting heavy, brazenly on show. Cancer, it said. I sometimes think I wanted it to go away more than he did.
My medicine cabinet about empties two days after the larder. It’s not long before I’ll have to resurface. But what can I do? The doctor won’t see me, and I’d be waylaid by gossipmongers on the way to the surgery. There’s nobody to call on. None of the shops in the village will deliver.
I’ve grown rather used to the sensation. The gums don’t feel so odd anymore. They’re less sensitive too, and I’ve discovered a tolerance for ice cream and whisky. These come in useful when the medication dwindles. I begin to take pleasure in slurping slow at the whisky with my floppy lips, sloshing the gold around my tongue.
I’m disinfecting cutlery when a window clatters and I drop to my knees behind the sideboard. It sounds as though someone’s trying to scratch their way through the glass. I peer round the armrest and see Jerry there, blurry behind the bubbles, scrubbing away.
He moves from window to window around the cottage. I manage to hide, comfortably tucked beneath the sink. Jerry whistles while he cleans the windows. I try to mimic him but sputter spit onto my trousers.
Jerry knocks the front door, looking for his money. Thump, thump, thump. Thump thump thump. Thumpthumpthump.
When he gives up I draw the curtains and crawl into bed, even though it’s still daylight. The last of the pills clink together in my closed palm, like little marbles. My skin’s itchy, you start to think there are little bugs nibbling inside. I drag my fingernails across my thighs but there’s no relief. My feet are cold and damp. You know these pills won’t help. They can’t. They’ve never.
I throw the medicine at the wall. They burst into chalky bits on the carpet and I drop into a deep, troubled sleep.
I wake once. It’s dark. My limbs are lifeless. They won’t move. They lie at strange angles. They don’t feel like mine.
I’m dizzy, horribly dizzy, and hungry and nauseous and shivering and boiling. I’d phone an ambulance if I could. But I can’t stand or speak or think so I stay where I am and think I might die.
But I run my tongue around my dried out mouth and smile in the dark.
I wake to the deafening cackle of birdsong outside the window, shrieks and whoops, piercing into my head, my pounding, aching head. My skin starts to tingle, goosepimply.
My joints are stiff. The soles of my feet drag on the floor. In the bathroom mirror my silhouette hunches. You know there’s no medication but I look anyway. For all the good it’s done I don’t know why I even bother. Sunlight curls through the window. My mouth stretches to yawn and there are tiny little stumps growing up from my gums, blunt and clean and brand new.