it’s the end of the world as we know it
Suddenly there’s a strange light beyond the office windows, like someone climbed up two storeys when I was on the phone and stuck sheets of yellow plastic across the glass.
‘Storm coming,’ says Helen, standing over there, peering out. And she’s right – but not any storm I’ve seen before, something quieter and more abstract.
‘Apocalyptic,’ she says.
‘I’ve still got a visit to make.’
Down in the car park, I see one of the groundsmen walking towards me. Even though I’ve worked in the old hospital two years now, I still don’t know his name. He always seems so grumpy, plodding along carrying or pushing something, always with an expression as burdensome as his load.
‘Looking pretty stormy!’ I say, as I unlock my car.
‘You’re the third person to tell me that,’ he says.
I find his rooted cynicism helps, though. Here we have this strange and unsettling weather feature, but to the groundsman it’s all just one more thing to piss him off. I bet if we met at the edge of the world, everything and everyone in flames, a terrifying vortex swirling open and dragging the very universe into its maw, he’d be there, plodding along the rim of it all, waving his hand at the Apocalypse: ‘Tossers’.
By the time I reach the patient’s address, the sky has taken on a brooding, ochreous tinge, the sun burning through it all with a liquid fire. Birds are prematurely hurrying back to their roosts. The street lamps are coming on. The whole thing feels more like an eclipse, like we’re moving towards Totality.
On the sea front, people are stopping in threes and fours, drawn out of their cars to take pictures.
When I go up the steps to the front door of the block where my patient lives, there’s a smart middle-aged couple with shopping bags and suitcases waiting there. The woman is on the phone to someone; the guy looks up and down the street. I’m guessing they’re Airbnb people, suddenly confronted with the difference between the web description and the thing itself – a discrepancy made worse by the brooding and generally unwholesome atmosphere of the storm.
‘Do you know Dean?’ the woman says to me, hanging up. ‘We’ve been trying to get into the penthouse flat.’
‘No. I’m a nursing assistant come to see a patient. In the basement.’
‘Oh,’ she says, and shares a look with her partner. Patient? Basement? That wasn’t in the overview. They couldn’t look more alarmed if I’d taken out a tin of paint and began swiping a big red cross on the door.
The partner of my patient appears after a few buzzes on the intercom. A slouching, middle-aged man with a prickly chin and a a squint-eyed leer, he looks like Popeye ten years into retirement and suffering the effects of all those lost ‘spinach’ years. He’s still in his pyjamas even though it’s late afternoon, and he stands on the threshold, scratching the side of his belly distractedly, and frowning.
‘What d’yee want?’ he says, distributing a furious eye amongs the three of us, then glancing up at the sky.
‘Jaysus feckin’ chris will yee look at tha,’’ he says.
And, of course, we all do.
the dentally damned
I suppose I’ve reached an age when I can’t expect a trip to the dentist without needing some kind of remedial work, largely because of all the crappy fillings I had when I was younger. In the seventies, things were different. Dentists were a rowdy, lawless bunch, The Cavity in the Wall gang, hanging out of their windows, touting for trade, drilling you full of amalgam if you dared to walk past, whistling.
We had a terrible dentist then, Mr Parkin, a slick-haired, sleepy-eyed psychopath who treated cavities as playrooms. Put your hand up if it hurts and I’ll stop he used to say. But of course, when you put your hand up, he wouldn’t. Almost done… he’d trill above the grinding and crunching of the bit. Which is why I kicked him in the nuts once. It didn’t seem to bother him, though. Probably because he’d had those filled, too. He had a picture stuck to the ceiling above the chair. To distract you from your agony. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Heironymous Bosch.
So it’s taken me a few years to be able to go into a dentist’s without feeling faint.
I have to say it helps that our local practice is housed in a converted church, with a certain residual prayerfulness about the rafters. The receptionists act a bit like nuns, too, speaking in confessional whispers, moving slowly and precisely. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them chanting when they review what treatment sessions I need to get booked. It’s all pretty spiritual.
But who needs God when you have lidocaine?
The dentists at this practice have always been good, stabbing up my gums so effectively that when they eventually set to work, up to their arms and elbows in my mouth like scrubbed mechanics in the bonnet of a car, it’s like it’s happening to someone else, and I can either look over their shoulder and offer advice, or sit in the corner and flip through Hello! magazine instead. (Which I did in the waiting room before I went in, by the way. I read an article about the wife of an international shoe plutocrat. The photoshoot was on their luxury yacht, and I must admit felt a bit sorry for her. The shoetocrat wasn’t there, probably away having his conscience laundered, so she was on her own in that gigantic, sterile, curiously empty ship, holding two fluffy white bichon frises in her arms, either on the deck, in the games room, by the hot tub or in the gym, and no-one else was there to take the dogs off her or give her a drink or a massage or anything, not even the Captain.)
My current dentist is the best yet. She’s a tall Egyptian woman with sad eyes and a laconic manner. There’s a weariness about her that I find curiously reasurring, as if she’s spent many years dealing in teeth, and still isn’t any nearer to extracting anything like a resilient, workable philosophy.
For example, at one point she took some x-rays of my mouth. When they were ready she tugged down her face mask and turned to me.
‘Are you interested to see this?’ she said, pointing to a dark smudge beneath the hard white of a crown, upper left second molar.
‘Interested and horrified in equal measure.’
‘This is decay,’ she said, tapping the screen. ‘I will need to re-crown the tooth. I will do this by chopping the old crown in half, clearing out the decay, filling it, then making a new crown to go on top. What do you say to that?’
‘Is there an alternative?’
‘No. There is no alternative. You do nothing, one day the tooth shatter into pieces.’
‘Will it be difficult?’
‘For me – no. For you…’ She trails off, and shrugs.
‘Okay. So my next question is – how much?’
‘On NHS, approximately two hundred and forty pounds.’
‘Does that include VAT?’
She laughs again – which is great. You should always try to make the dentist laugh. If they like you, they might give you more lidocaine.
‘No VAT,’ she says. ‘We don’t charge VAT on teeth.’
‘I suppose that’s some good news, then.’
‘It is something.’
‘Okay, then. Let’s do it.’
Whilst she finished writing the ticket out, I ask her if I’m the worst mouth she’s seen today.
‘You? No,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘One man, he came in here, and he sat down, and he said I haven’t been to the dentist ever. Ever. In my whole life. And now I have pain here, here, here and here.’
She stares at me with those sad eyes.
‘Where to start with this?’ she says. ‘Where to start? I am dentist, not miracle worker.’