Doris appears at the end of Blest Redeemer. I needed a detail that caught her deprived, working-class upbringing in Bradford.
As Doris pondered her lips moved tentatively over her teeth at the front. Judith realised Doris had once done without teeth. Causing the shape of her mouth to shrink inwards. Doris said, “There was a time. A bad time. When…” But that was as far as she was prepared to go. “Oh, you know. Teenage stuff. Summat and nowt.”
Re-reading this much reworked passage I abruptly recognised its origins. Beset by problems with my father my mother was told she must lose all her teeth. She still had pride in her looks and took it very badly. Understandably.
This was the late forties and total extractions were routine. For some they were a relief, an end to drilling. Not for my mother. Even I, a wretchedly self-centred twelve-year-old, noticed the way my mother subsequently slid out of her early thirties into despairing middle-age. I say I noticed this change but my viewpoint was entirely selfish. None of my teeth had ever been drilled and the idea terrified me. Would extraction be preferable? My mother, suffering physical and emotional agonies, didn’t care to discuss things with her callow son.
Sixty-odd years later, like Doris, I ponder. Some other defect could herald Doris’s uncared-for youth. Have I been too casual, turning my mother’s Calvary into something that only exists through implication? That only arrived via my sub-conscious. Should I save that sad event for an occasion when I have an abiding need for poignancy?
Novel writing can lead to involuntary disinterment: old bones, wisps of hair, part of a shoe. It’s chilly inside looking out. Is it better – clearer? – outside?