The Tooth

An extraction of a damaged tooth breaks apart a life.

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Public Domain

Tell me how this happened, says the dentist.

Her voice is kindness, mixed in a pudding bowl with her Eastern European accent. She often talks of Bratislava and the Tatra Mountains. The Slovakia of her childhood is a favourite topic of distraction in the wait. The one while the anaesthetic takes hold. But not today.

I fell from a sledge.

She tells me this is not consistent with the break of my tooth.

Hmm, I say.

We will x-ray it, says the dentist. It might be tricky to remove. But there is bleeding, yes.

She places a piece of film in my mouth. I bite down as instructed. The dentist stands outside the room with her assistant. When the film is processed, they count off the teeth together.

I see that we must make two incisions, says the dentist. It is necessary to reach inside the gum to have traction on the tooth.

Tell me about your wife, she says. Would she would be good at pulling teeth?

I don’t think so, she wouldn’t have the stomach for it.

The assistant passes a dish containing a metal syringe, and smiles.

This tooth is more like you’ve been hit than taken a tumble, says the dentist.

We pause for my gum to lose feeling before she begins work trying to extract the tooth. There is more blood than expected and it’s quite difficult to stem. A stack of bloody swabs is forming in her tray. Sweat is beading on her forehead and a look of mild panic is growing in her eyes. She looks to her assistant, who calls reception.

The dentist is using words like surgery, abscess, and haemostatic.

You would like your wife to take the children? asks the assistant.

The question confuses me. I try to stand but don’t have the strength. They will stretcher me out of here. But the snow has made driving difficult. There are phone calls back and forth to reception. The dentist continues to swab and has decided it best to glue my gum to seal the wound. Or something like that, I’m not really sure what she said, everything is hazy.

Your blood, she says, it does not clot so easily.

I’m aware of little after being stretchered into the ambulance. There were things to be signed, I willingly did so. There were bumps in the side roads down which we were diverted. A sack of blood and a sack of medication swung above me.

I wake after surgery, feeling little of anything. There is the sensation of my face being bloated. The pain only comes once the morphine starts to fade. It has been necessary to break my jaw and perform various contortions to remove my tooth. A surreal set of acrobatics for something so small.

Time has become measured in the rise and fall of morphine. Once it starts to wear off, I beg time to accelerate so that I am allowed the next dose. The nurses are forgetful, they don’t feel the urgency of my need.

Is it time yet? I ask.

Monica walks to the nursing station to find out. She is told no, and that they will come to see me when it is. I am running a temperature and there is a flow of antibiotics into me. It will take months to heal fully but I can return to work within two weeks. And I will need to with the company’s year-end approaching.

After a week in hospital receiving daily visits from Monica and the children, it is time to be moved home. My lower face is sensitive to any touch. And I have become plagued by migraines. It’s been a lot of fuss to lose a tooth. Work was sympathetic at first but now they are feeling the pressure of my absence, they are keen for my return.

The February snow has melted, and I take a taxi to the station for my first day. I stand two coach stops back from my usual place on the platform. I feel conscious of my swollen face now that I am out in public alone and yearn for an old-fashioned broadsheet newspaper to conceal myself behind. But must be content burying myself in the collar of my coat.

I do not want to risk being seen by Rosa, and when the train arrives at the brutally stark platform of the international station at Stratford, I follow two carriages behind her. She knocks on the glass of the compartment in front of her and waves with a smile as she walks along the train. It’s clear I have been replaced as her travelling companion.

* * * * *

Our office buildings are on opposite sides of the Olympic Park. An easy-going place in summer but slightly sinister in the winter dark. When it comes time to catch the train home, I make sure to be on the platform in the moment between the train arriving and the doors activating; slipping through the net, avoiding detection.

This becomes the pattern of life as my face slowly deflates and the colours in it start to lose their dark hues; the fight with the surgeon fading away.

One day when I step out the train there is no familiar ponytail bobbing in front of me. The feelings of disappointment and relief mix together. Behind me on the escalator a hand takes hold of my elbow.

You have been avoiding me, says Rosa.

When I deny this, she tells me that she saw me every morning waiting two coach stops back as her carriage passed me on the platform.

You will meet me on the train home this evening to tell me all that has happened, she says.

She asks me in the evening about my absence and the swelling of my face. I explain about the sledging.

It’s a bizarre injury to incur from sledging, she says.

I was unlucky, I say.

Rosa starts waiting for me in the mornings in the carriage that arrives two stops back from our old meeting place. I look forward to our time but there is an air of concern in her voice that didn’t used to be there. I feel at times like an elderly relative and at others like a feeble child. I work to erase this, to reassure her of my strength.

She takes up a gym membership in the same place as Monica. They are rarely there at the same times. But she asks me to describe her.

She has been asking after her at reception.

It would great to know her, she says.

There would be easier ways. But the boundaries are inflexible. Our friendship is built around a routine, imprisoned within a timeframe. There are no demands on us, no children or spouses. It is escape without escaping. Suggestions that we drink or dine together with our significant others feels mundane. To transplant this into the other world of time risks breaking the vacuum.

My mind has been travelling, I forget what we’ve been talking about and I realise too late that we’re on the platform and I’ve left my bag on the train.

I curse myself. There are so many times the pain in my jaw catches me or the lights that are cast before my eyes feel like needles. The ailments drag me into a tired and half-present state. It will make me late to retrieve the bag, but I’ve no alternative, work will simply need to understand.

I seek out a guard at the top of the escalator. They call ahead for the bag to be taken off. I say farewell to Rosa, wishing her a good day at work, and catch the following train. Disembarking at the terminus, I walk to the barrier, people swarming around me, impatient to exit. I catch the attention of a staff member, as elbows knock and nudge me. I explain about my bag. The woman has only just started her shift. She tells me to go to left luggage and lost property on the lower concourse.

At left luggage they have no idea what I’m talking about. They suggest I go back to the upper level and ask if one of the train guards handed it to the barrier staff. This happens a couple of times, and I walk back and forth, up and down the escalator, frustrated.

These things can take time, they say at Left Luggage, have a coffee. It’ll turn up.

The mundanity of this is killing me, and I walk towards the sound of a piano playing. One man of advanced years is improvising jazz with many trills, behind him is a younger man looking on in awe. I want to be impressed; the desire is making an ever-larger hole within my stomach. Feeling less than nothing. How is this possible? I am a human being like the others gathered here, I have the same nerve endings. What has broken inside me?

There is a hand on my shoulder.

Your bag, sir, says the man from lost luggage.

Thank you. It’s very kind.

Have a pleasant day, he says, raising a friendly wave, as I step onto the escalator.

Travelling eastwards, my face reflects in glass of the high-speed train. In my eyes is a temptation. Where would be the harm if I were to simply let the train slip into the tunnel and travel southwards under the Thames? I sprint from my seat at the last moment, grabbing my bag from the overhead rack. Off the train and into the brutalism of the stripped bare station. How would a station master feel if he were to be transported from an oak-panelled ticket office of yore into this? Sad, depressed, lonely.

There’s a Samaritans poster. It catches my eye: Sad, depressed, lonely?

Yes, thank you.

A woman is offering her friend a mint. It is their voices:

Would you like a mint?

Yes, thank you.

I stand at the edge of the platform and hover one of my legs over the space in front of me. It feels strange, my heart races, it feels exciting. One step, one shift in centre of gravity, I could topple onto the rails. Leave behind everything.

The final moment is a mystery.


I am flung to the ground. The man on top of me is radioing for assistance.

Mr Woolly, I repeat Mr Woolly.

More station staff come and bundle on top of me until we are like some star-shaped creature. A few people are gathered with mobile phones held out recording the bizarre scene, but then they slowly peel away. The people have offices to be at, they are already late. Their interest is dwindling, they’ll read about it later on Twitter. Hashtag, Stratford Jumper.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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