My Dead Tooth

The process of decay and loss began on a bright autumn day in 1981. I was standing in the queue at the bus stop outside Whitworth Park opposite the Manchester Royal Infirmary. I could see Danny walking on the road, coming in my direction. Arms flailing, he was shouting incoherently, as usual, alternating between threats and cackling laughter. Manchester was different then, smaller somehow, less anonymous. There weren’t as many homeless people in the eighties, and you got to know their faces. I’m not sure how I knew Danny’s name, though. His face had the map of Ireland on it, as they used to say, and I was of that tribe. Maybe he was an old school friend of my dad’s. We were probably related.

Danny always wore a black overcoat of a kind never seen nowadays. We used to call it a gaberdine. It was office, or school uniform wear offering little protection from Manchester weather. His skinny arms protruded beyond the cuffs, revealing glimpses of a ragged grey shirt beneath. His trousers were also far too short, and his bony ankles ended in a broken pair of black shoes. It occurs to me now that Danny looked like he was wearing his old school uniform, although he’d lost his tie somewhere along the line. Maybe he just walked out of school one day, years before, and started his life on the road.

Anyway, on that day, Danny had me in his sights. As he passed, he suddenly punched me in the face knocking me flat on my back on the pavement. Much shouting followed from bystanders, and Danny ran off. ‘Are you alright, love?’. Kind hands picked me up and dusted me down. The bus arrived. I got on and tried not to cry.

The punch was much discussed by the people who had witnessed it and was related to the other passengers in dramatic detail. They eyed me with discreet curiosity, but I didn’t get involved. I didn’t want to be the centre of attention, and they understood that.

 When I tell this story to my children, this is the point at which their eyes widen, and they become incredulous. But didn’t someone take you to the hospital? Why didn’t you call the police on your mobile? Well, the last is easy to answer, of course – no such thing then. Anyway, why would I want Danny to be arrested? It was just one of those things that happened on the streets sometimes.

My jaw was bruised but no one at home noticed and I didn’t mention the incident. I tried not to think about it, and eventually, the pain subsided. However, a few weeks later, I was chomping my way through a sticky sweet when a tooth in my lower jaw cracked in half. An x-ray showed extensive damage to the root below the gum. Danny’s fist had killed my tooth. My dentist performed a grisly procedure and gave me a gold tooth to cover up the damage. ‘That should last you about ten years,’ he said. In fact, it lasted nearer thirty.

My gold tooth was always a curio. A strange sight in the mouth of a young woman. It was often commented upon, and the story of its origin elicited gasps. The truth is that I never gave much thought to its aesthetic effect. However, as the years passed, the significance of teeth changed. In my youth, your gnashers just needed to be clean. In the early years of the new century, that all changed. New techniques and increased affluence meant that white, even teeth were a requirement – American teeth.

At about the same time, the half of my tooth visible beneath the gold had turned a greenish-grey. Infections began to set in. I had to take antibiotics a couple of times a year and pop painkillers to keep things bearable.  Eventually, the end came, and the tooth was removed.

Now I have an unsightly gap. Not a curio but a sign of age and poor dental health. An implant was suggested but I baulked at the idea. At the cost, of course, but at something else too.

No one now asks me how I came by the gap. They accept that it’s because I’m turning into a toothless old crone and leave it at that. But for me, the absence of my tooth has significance. It connects me to that distant September day, that shy girl and her encounter with Danny. It is part of the narrative of my life, like my stretch marks. I wonder what happened to Danny and I think of that bruised young woman who didn’t like to make a fuss. Don’t worry – she’s learned how to raise her voice since then. 

So, things may change but, for now, the gap stays.

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