You can’t handle the tooth

To the dentist. First with my eldest son, who has been complaining of pains that are like toothache, but are not exactly toothache. When he complains about something hurting him, we take notice, for he is quite an astonishingly stoic boy. When picking up even the more extravagant grazes and knocks of active childhood, he says quietly, through gritted teeth, little more than "ow". I, on the other hand, have only to hear about these injuries to go into a sick faint.

It turns out that the boy just has a gum infection, so on the walk back to Baker Street Station, I text his mother, who has asked for news: "M -- is having his front two teeth taken out and frankly he's being a bit of a wimp about it." (M -- and I giggle together as I compose it.)

His mother, though, fails to spot that this is a joke and texts back in a bit of a flap, so I have to call to reassure her. "Oh," she says. "I've just shown your text to my friends here so they can see how insensitive you can be." I ask her to put them right, but whether she does or not is something I suppose I will never know. I think she will, though, and besides, it is nice to be able to laugh together for once.

But back to the dentist. The alert reader will have gathered that he practises somewhere near Baker Street. And that alert reader would be right.
My dentist is on Wimpole Street, and - get this - he's NHS. I flung myself at him in about 1986, before the iron door clanged down for ever on people who wished to avail themselves of state-subsidised dental treatment.

He is, as all good dentists should be, Jewish. That is, I think he's Jewish - he's got a Jewish name, he's got a Jewish inflection to his speech, and he is, after all, a dentist. I don't think he's ever affirmed his heritage to me. But if he's not Jewish, I'll eat my hat. And another good thing about him: he's a socialist. Over the years, as I have sat twitching and flinching as he scrapes away the accumulated plaque, I have heard him denounce a succession of health ministers: Kenneth Clarke, William Waldegrave, Virginia Bottomley, Frank Dobson and Alan Milburn have all withered beneath his informed and passionate scorn. (I never heard what he had to say about Stephen Dorrell, because during his two-year stint as under-secretary of state for health, I simply forgot to go to the dentist.)

Anyway, while I am there with my boy, he reminds me that I failed to turn up for my six-monthly check-up and scrape. There is a cancellation at 11.15 on Thursday. I am reluctant to go, for I have been hiding from him. Grief and despair can take physical form, and in my case, I took it in the mouth: gums became infected; a back molar split in two under the horrendous pressure of a McDonald's cheeseburger (which was disgusting, but only 99p).

He fixed the back molar by screwing something tooth-like into the gap; that came out after a fortnight. He said there was hardly enough of the tooth left to fix anything on it. The replacement gave up in an unequal struggle with a Milky Way after a week, and since then I have learned to live with the shard of tooth, which even after nearly a year still feels weird to the probing tongue. Besides, although I love my dentist more than many would consider possible or even seemly, I felt we had been seeing rather too much of each other lately, and people might start talking.

Officially FUBAR

So, as I sit back in the familiar chair, I say I have a confession to make. (I have already made one on the form handed to me in the waiting room. They are updating their records, and among other things want to know how much I drink. I write: "Lots.") He is going to find out in about five seconds, so I tell him about the shard.

I expect mild rebuke - he is not a fan of my drinking and smoking - but he delivers none. Indeed, even if he has anything to say about Andy Burnham, the current Secretary of State for Health, he is keeping it to himself. No, he says, resigned to entropy's victory, there's really no point in trying to fix it. And it comes as a kind of relief to discover that there is something about me that is, officially, beyond repair.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London