Wednesday, 21 November 2012


While she wasn’t the smallest person I had ever met, she was almost certainly the smallest dentist. Or professional in a white coat of any stripe. That would be good, if dentists, doctors, pharmacists, had to earn their rank and then wear stripes. And pips. The men who work in the hardware shops and builders merchants as well, with the brown coats. I know that’s not really the case these days, that the blokes – did you ever see a woman working in one? – generally wear mufti now, I’m thinking more of the era of the two Ronnies and their celebrated fork handles sketch. You know what I mean.

But getting back to my point, this dentist, the smallest dentist I had ever seen, probably a Lance Corporal to look at her steely blue eyes, couldn’t have been more than 4’10”. If that. I had booked a long overdue appointment to have my remaining two wisdom teeth out. I was wary of the procedure and I thought about bottling it and staying in bed on a Saturday morning, but there was a deposit paid because they have to have someone come in from the outside to do that kind of work. Hence the irregular dentist. The small irregular dentist.

The anaesthetist was the usual one though, I recognised her from the year before and the double crown replacement. A messy business. The gas didn’t quite take and I was spitting blood and yellowed ivory and charging around the room like a rogue elephant, my shirt off and blindfolded with a bandana for reasons I cannot quite recall. Screaming and blubbering through relaxed lips and hanging mandible about my mother, Frank Worthington and Baba Yaga. The gas had relaxed my face but not my brain. A large security man from Tenby had come in and slapped me around a bit to calm me down, then they had knocked me out with ketamine and charged me half price.

The small irregular dentist couldn’t quite reach into my mouth, even with the operating couch right down and me completely horizontal. She had to stand on an orange box. As she prodded around in my mouth with speculum and mirror, trying to get a look at the offending tusks, I tried to tell her the joke about the dentist who goes into Stringfellows and orders a lime soda but she’d already heard it. I followed up with the how-many-dentists-does-it-take-to-change-a-lightbulb one and she groaned audibly. I was starting to like her. There was no pain yet and this was far more response than you usually get for dentist jokes. So I started telling her the true story about the uncle I had never met, the uncle who had died in the battle of Britain, Andrew Howes, shot down and killed by the Luftwaffe over Pewsey on April fools day 1944. They interred what they could find of his remains in Haycombe cemetery.

When Bristol zoo had been closed for the duration of hostilities in 1942, there had been an appeal, and he had adopted a penguin. He built a refrigerated shed for it, powered by the mulch gas from his allotment in Whiteway. It consisted of a tin bath and a lot of ice and frozen fish. Two shelves of books, all the penguin classics. Every afternoon he would take it for a walk through Englishcombe village. When he didn’t come home the penguin was returned to the zoological authority by my grandmother. But every day on his birthday, July 9th, the penguin broke out of the zoo and went to stand next to his grave from dawn until sunset. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. And its descendants still do this today. They bring flowers from the 24 hour garage on the Bristol road.

When I came around from the anaesthetic my tusks had gone and the small irregular dentist was dabbing at the corners of her eyes with a small paper tissue. Was it true she asked me, was it true about your uncle Andy in the war? Was it true she sniffled, was it true about your uncle Andy’s penguin and all of its descendants?

And that’s how I made a small dentist cry.

©Ted Curtis 2012.

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