Eating with one side of the mouth is like flying a twin-jet airliner on only one engine

Something is very wrong with my tooth, and beneath it there are strange and painful things happening. It’s not toothache, but very painful indeed.

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No place for false modesty here; I used to be a good cook. No, dammit – I still am a good cook. I just don’t do it any more. What’s the point, when you’re on your own? After a while you say to yourself: “why make a fuss about what you eat?”

And a short while after that, you ask yourself: “why eat?” The common answer is “to stay alive”, but after a certain point of getting fed up with things, the phrase “ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer” crosses your mind.

However, something happened the other day. There was a knock at the door, one of those nice, tentative, friendly knocks. It was one of my neighbours – not the ones I wrote about who recognised me, but the ones in the flat next to mine. Or, specifically, the female half of the couple in the flat next to mine. She was holding a plate with what looked very much like a home-made pizza on it. It turned out that her husband, who is actually a cook, had made too many pizzas, and would I like one?

It happened to be one of those evenings when I was beginning to get hungry but had not yet formulated any plan as to what I was going to eat, or even if I was going to.

But if there is one thing I know, it is that 99 times out of a hundred, a homemade pizza will beat a shop-bought pizza, and the one time it doesn’t is when something has gone terribly wrong with the cooking process. (It will also be better than most restaurant pizzas – all right, pizze – unless you are going to quite a high-end pizza restaurant. Pizza Express restaurants are exempt from the usual criteria because there is something wonderfully democratic about them, and I wish them luck during their current troubles, both financial and in terms of unwelcome and implausible customers.)

The pizza was, as it looked as though it would be, delicious. There were no anchovies on it but my tears of gratitude were salty enough to do the job. 

And then a few days later she brought round a daal he’d made.

“We don’t want you wasting away,” she said.

How do people get to be so kind? It’s wonderful. And the thing is, it worked the other way round. Not that I’ve been kind to them, or not yet, but I have started cooking and eating again properly, or like I once did. Couscous! Curry! Proper sausages and mash!

I have been getting up earlier, drinking less, smoking less, working harder. Well, I was until a few days ago, when once again there was a dental emergency underneath the right-hand lower molar. Something is very wrong with the tooth, and beneath it there are strange and painful things happening. It’s not toothache, but very painful indeed; I suspect there will be pus involved. (Why is “pus” such a wonderfully horrible word, though? We used to say “flux”, which is also horrible, but that’s because of the reality it describes, not the word. There is something about that single “s” at the end. But I digress.)

So now I can only eat on one side of my mouth again, and I have just discovered I have been struck off my dentist’s NHS list because I have not been for a year and a half. Fair enough, I suppose, even with the mitigating factor that I have been homeless for much of that time, or in Scotland. Eating with only one side of the mouth is a bit like flying a twin-jet airliner on only one engine; you can do it, but if the other one goes, then you’re in deep trouble.

And it’s not even as if eating on one side of the mouth is itself pain-free. If anything gets close to the right-hand side of my mouth, I howl.

It is down to the Co-Op for soup; so much for my new-found joy of cooking. And it is off to the nearest dentist, who is very close, which is good, but who is not taking on any NHS patients, which is bad, so in an hour’s time I am going to have to pay £65 to be told (I presume) that I have an infection, and if I want the tooth pulled on the NHS I will have to go to a hospital.

Everything once again is falling apart. About five weeks ago, in Faversham, in front of my daughter, which for some reason made it worse, the right arm of my glasses fell off. I did a temporary repair job with superglue which amazingly is still holding up, but ever since then my glasses have been canted at a 20 degree angle to the horizontal, and they’re just going to have to stay like that as I don’t have the money for a new pair – or not if I want to get the kids anything for Christmas.

I wonder if they can fix teeth with superglue. 

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 appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want