HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


The dentist says, ‘Really, there’s no need to panic.’
I don’t accept that I have panicked. Maybe just gurgled a bit. Meek and lost behind spectacles, his eyes won’t lock onto mine. They slide in one direction while his words travel in another: it is unnerving.
‘Try to stay calm. It will only take five minutes.’
On the wall behind his head a daddy-long-legs dances, seventies style, across a digital clock. It is 2.16. By 2.21 this will be over. Sound pours from a radio in unbound notes. The dentist’s gloved hands are inside my mouth, insistent.

2.17. Lignocaine creeps through my jaw. Air begins to leak from the room, bit by bit. Something – probably airborne litter – bumps against the glazed window of the surgery. The wind has trailed me all summer. It followed me here, moaning down the canyons of concrete, whipping my legs. Although I no longer buy newspapers, I glimpse headlines in shops or over shoulders: high winds circle the earth; hurricanes trash far away countries; people are blown away.
At night, storms hunt across the moon.
Standing at the window of my low-rise flat I watched the bulldozers and diggers come, moving like aliens towards us. Everything has been cleared away, block after block taken down, our building the last. Three residents, old and batty, have refused to be re-housed; the council hope they will die before eviction notices are served. We stay too, not in defiance or solidarity, but through inertia. Piece by piece I have packed our possessions into cardboard boxes, taken down pictures and wrapped crockery in newspaper. We live frugally like saints, one cup and plate each, waiting for something to happen. I thought twenty years in one place would roar as I pick it apart, but it disintegrates in my fingers like damp paper. Only my son’s room is undisturbed. When I open his door and suggest he starts to pack, he stares at me with affronted blankness from a sweet haze of cannabis smoke. He knows he should have strong feelings about the move, but they elude him.

2:18. Stopping my mouth with metal instruments, the dentist murmurs something about a squirrel he feeds in his garden. Unable to reply, I reflect that I haven’t seen squirrel, cat, or any living thing for some time. I hang nuts from my balcony but no birds come. The last tree was cut down a month ago. The buzz of the drill inside my head reminds me of the electrical saws that took the tree apart – I felt vibrations on my skin even through closed windows. Severed limbs screeched as they fell. As they dug out the roots with mechanical diggers, the thump-thump jarred my aching tooth.
My eyes have yet to adjust to the gaps left by the tree and the demolished buildings. I still see them, ghost images, behind my eyelids. Losing my mother was like that.
Agnes, the most nimble of the remaining residents, was on the stairs this morning carrying a cardboard box full of rubbish. I watched her trail backwards and forwards, lug stuff to the tree stump hole and chuck it in. She must be clearing her flat after all – I had assumed her to be as trenchant as the other two. There are years left yet in the old girl’s body, if not her brain; her legs, although dubiously stained, are still muscular. She smells now – she never used to – and wears grey socks tangled around her ankles.
‘Shame about the tree,’ I remarked, trying to help with a box.
Agnes swatted me away. ‘No, it’s time it went. Bloody trees. Suck the goodness out of the air. Can’t breathe these days.’
She talks like a swimmer breathing. Cigarette smoke creeps up her face to lose itself in her hair. The bulldozers haven’t returned for weeks. All is quiet now while they wait for the old people to die.

2:20. The dentist rocks backwards and forwards inside my mouth. My head lurches as though with strange, powerful alcohol. One night there was an earthquake: a small one. Empty clothes hangers jangled inside the wardrobe. I thought the diggers were working again. Greg stirred beside me as the streetlight outside flickered and dropped blocks of yellow light on his creased monkey-like face. In the morning he remembered nothing but it was in the papers: ‘small earthquake shakes city, Richter scale 3.’ Nothing to get excited about. My nerves are peeled. Never have I felt so short-tempered, so full of aches and unease. I mentioned it to the doctor when I consulted him about my swollen face. Taking a chart from his desk drawer he read out questions, ticking boxes as I replied.
‘Your scores show you are mildly depressed and moderately anxious,’ he announced, pushing the sheet towards me as proof.
His impassivity prickled me. I imagined him perched on his bed in button-up pyjamas, ticking a questionnaire. ‘Your scores show you are moderately sexually repelled and seriously irritated with me,’ he tells his tautly smiling wife.
‘Actually I think I’ve got cancer, in the jaw or stomach or somewhere.’
The words are comfort. They make sense of the foreboding that has dogged me all summer.
‘Like my mother,’ I reminded him.
The last time I had seen him was at my mother’s bedside a year before. A lifelong hypochondriac, she had nonetheless omitted to tell either of us about the pains in her stomach. On her regular visits to surgery she carefully laid a disappearing trail of irrelevant symptoms; as flesh melted from her limbs she claimed to be dieting to take weight off elderly joints. And then she was in bed, a jaundiced skeleton, too frail to stand but refusing to go into hospital because there was nothing wrong with her. The doctor stood stiff and dismayed while I berated him and my mother vomited her life’s blood into a bucket. And all the time we argued and she deteriorated, she was receiving texts from a medium.
‘Mother, you don’t even believe that rubbish. And when did you learn to text?’
The medium said that the people my mother could see packing the room were my father and grandparents and childhood friends come to take her home; he would gladly send more details. My mother slid in and out of consciousness while the doctor fiddled with drips and oxygen and gave up at last because it was too late. Another text came, which I didn’t read.
How can someone so vibrantly, uniquely infuriating as my mother, be dead?

2.21 has come and gone. The dentist has lied: it isn’t finished yet. He adjusts his position. The nurse hoovers neatly inside my mouth, sucking up pink-red fountains of spittle and blood. All summer an abscess has been forming on the decayed root of my tooth. Maybe that’s all that was wrong with me, all along: the body’s shocked response to infection, rallying white cells and discharging chemicals into damaged tissue. Irritation seeps like toxin though my blood stream. No one escapes: not Simon, my slothful son, nor Gabrielle, my gormlessly holy daughter, and certainly not Greg, my plug-ugly husband, hiding his wobbly teeth behind his hand.
‘I’ve got a phobia about dentists,’ he says.
‘You’re not phobic, you’re just scared.’
I find his teeth sometimes. He hides them like an alcoholic’s bottles, behind the alarm clock or under toilet rolls. Once, in my slippers. As the house empties he has fewer hiding places. I wonder how long before all his teeth are gone; already, he is grotesque as a cartoon tramp. He sneezes and I see him secrete an expelled tooth in his handkerchief – later I find it in my underwear draw. What can it mean? He thinks if he doesn’t smile I won’t notice. I trick him by talking about Gabrielle, rocking in the arms of Jesus on a missionary ship off the coast of South America.
Whenever his daughter is mentioned his face forms dopey indulgent folds and he forgets to cover his mouth.
‘Don’t you pity those South Americans?’ I say, ‘I bet she’s getting on their nerves very badly. If it’s heathens she’s after, there’s more in this city than over there. Probably more in these flats.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he mumbles, ‘I think we’re quite a spiritual lot. Sort of in touch with the cosmos.’
‘What are you talking about?’ I snap, ‘Three mad old women, an idiotic boy and a brain-fried old hippy? And don’t ask what I’m in touch with. Don’t even think about it.’
‘You’re proud of her really,’ he says, ‘she’s so sincere. Her eyes burn with certainty.’
‘They bulge,’ I correct him. ‘She only does it to wind me up. She was always the same, hanging round my legs when I was trying to get rid of Jehovah's witnesses. Smirking at them, saying she wanted to go to Sunday school but her mother wouldn’t let her.’
‘I think she does a lot of good,’ he says.
‘But there are hurricanes in South America, landslides, mudslides. Those poor people have enough to put up with and anyway, it’s not safe. I hear it on the news, everything’s getting closer. Have you seen what’s happening outside,’ I say, ‘have you seen the estate? It’s disappearing. I had to jump over a crack like a chasm on the way to book my appointment at the dentist. Have you been into the city centre recently? All the trees have blown down, squashing the cars. There’s hardly any traffic left. Everyone is leaving but us.’

2.35. Soon ten minutes will have elapsed. I can smell the dentist’s deodorant and beneath that, his armpit, which pumps up and down not far from my face. He continues to blather about squirrels. I wonder where he lives. Maybe somewhere in this city is a better place with trees still standing. How does he get to work, his surgery now a lone building in a sea of rubble? How does he cross the cracks?
Perhaps it is just my age, as my mother always said. Exasperation at the memory hurls itself on nothing. Sometimes I spot it in the mirror: old age, waving cockroach feelers from a keyhole, gone before you believe what you’ve seen. And with the passage of time my mother’s face hardens like a skin across mine. But I don’t accept it. I feel the same – jumpy as an electrified hamster inside my baggy skin. The old people in our flats think I am young, a baby. When we first moved in I was pregnant and they were already old; now they are ancient, dusty things. For some years I have received a few pounds a month from social services for looking after them. At first I shopped and tidied but as years passed my duties became more personal. These days I empty commodes and scrub false teeth. When the bulldozers came, two of the old women took to their beds. Communicating with each other by text, they plot against the council. What’s with all this texting? How have people so decrepit learnt such a skill?
‘They can’t carry us out in our beds,’ they say, ‘it would look terrible in the papers.’
‘When did you last see a paper?’ I say, ‘They’ve changed. Something is happening and we haven’t been told. The council won’t come: they’ve forgotten us. I haven’t seen a child for months – I think they’ve all been evacuated.’
One more wrench, something crunches, and the tooth is out. 2.38: twelve minutes, start to finish. The dentist shyly waves the tooth, an antique peg – surely not mine. I stare in disbelief. How did it get so old? Spitting blood into the sink I feel lighter, purged, with a gap in my head where a tooth should be.
The dentist says, ‘That’s the last one I’ll be doing.’
He doesn’t charge me anything.
On wobbly legs I walk home. The wind has dropped. Plastic bags and strangely, sheep’s wool, are stuck all over the barbed wire around the demolition sites. I can see our block; everything else for miles has been razed to the ground. Most of the windows are boarded up. Only ours shows a sliver of light.
We don’t bother lock the door anymore and it swings open at my touch. The flat throbs with music. An old hippy anthem, ‘Free bird,’ is playing and my son and husband are dancing in each other arms. Outside Simon’s room boxes are, at last, piled up. The furniture has been pushed against the walls. I sink to the floor and watch my family critically.
I say, ‘I think it’s the end of the world.’
In the din my voice goes out like a match.
The music changes pace. The men twitch around the room, strumming hard on imaginary guitars. Greg leaps, Mick Jagger-style, into the air and as his feet hit the ground a tooth patters onto the carpet. He stares at it forlornly.
‘All that hippy stuff,’ I shout, incensed, ‘is just a con. A cover-up for drink and dope and something wrong inside your head.’
He grabs my hand and pulls me to him, fitting his roomy mouth around my ear. ‘You never thought you’d end up with a troll, doll.’
‘No, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. And where’s Gabrielle, why is she so far away? Has she never heard of texting?’
‘She’s fine,’ he says, ‘everything’s fine. You’ve had a tooth out; you’re shocked. You’ll feel better in the morning. And we’ll be leaving here soon, it won’t be long now, we’re ready.’
Letting myself go loose in his arms I cry for my tooth and my lost mother, and a world I don’t understand any more.
Later in bed Greg takes my hand, holds it to his mouth and goes to sleep, just like that. For the first time in months I have no pain in my jaw; perhaps I will be able to sleep now. Outside there is no wind and a blackbird is calling. I think of the dentist, feeding the last squirrel in the city, and my three old ladies, scheming. I picture Gabrielle on her missionary ship, rolling unperturbed in the eye of a storm. She holds in her arms, no doubt, some toothy God-botherer she has seduced with her pop-eyed piety and goofily rendered gospel songs, the hussy.
And I wish for my daughter someone who will love her until the last tooth drops from his head. I wish her a world that never ends.