|Work-in-progress research (before - above; after - below)|
for An Oral Problem
An Oral Problem
Short story 1532 words
Hagar was leaving the Centre by the side door when a dim figure stepped forward out of the dark. Feebly he raised his shoulder bag to defend himself; it was either that or the Financial Times, not even rolled up.
“Sorry, I’ve startled you,” said a reasonable voice. “The last thing I wanted. May I come in?”
“I’ve just set the alarm.” Hagar’s piping tone became more confident. “If I don’t close this door behind me all hell’s going to break loose.”
“Sweet Jesus, what a start! Here, let me step back while you close the door. I swear I’m just a non-harming person in need of dental help.”
“The surgery’s closed.”
“I realise that. But I have an emergency proposition.”
It was the reasonable voice that did it. Eventually he was able to re-open the side door and they sat in the patients’ waiting room lit inadequately by one bank of lights; Hagar had allowed him five minutes.
“I’ve broken a tooth,” he said, spreading his hands.
“Hardly an emergency, for God’s sake. Let me see. A lateral incisor, not even a real front tooth.”
“I’m short of time.”
Hagar shrugged. “It needs capping which means the lab’s involved. It’s a two-day job.”
He nodded. “Suppose I... made it worth your while?”
“I’m not exactly on my uppers, old sport.”
“How about a thousand? In cash.”
Hagar sat up straight. “A thousand! What’s your problem, then?”
The man waved his hand vaguely. “A woman, what else?”
“Sheesh. I hope she’s worth it. But it will still take two days.”
“Hmmm. That would be tight. Very tight.”
They sat in silence and Hagar thought about a thousand – tax-free – and what it could do for him. More particularly for Lottie, his problem woman. He spoke speculatively, “There is a temporary way round this. I could prepare that tooth for the crown, do the moulds, get them to the lab. For the forty-eight hours in between I could build up the tooth with composite; it would look OK but you’d need to be careful: stay away from apples, nuts, crunchy stuff. Would that help?”
“Would it look like a real tooth?”
Over an hour’s work but it passed pretty quickly. He said his name was Jiggs which Hagar disbelieved, but then who cared? Whenever Jiggs’ mouth wasn’t full of dental equipment he liked to ask questions about what was happening. Wanted to see the mandrel, commented on how quickly the mould paste set, asked about the diameter of the reinforcing pins (Which Hagar didn’t know.) Said that rinsing out his mouth didn’t really get rid of rogue fragments of dried-up paste. Noted that the plastic cover protecting the bulb in the overhead light was scratched. Seemed genuinely disappointed when all was done.
Hagar took half-payment and agreed to be available early evening on Thursday to finish the job. Re-set the alarm, re-locked the side door and felt the reassuringly firm wodge of five-hundred pounds in twenties in his pocket.
The house was dark when he parked in the driveway. Lottie had warned him, said she’d be late. He did scrambled eggs, burning the first four slices of toast. Watched hyenas tear the tripes out of a wildebeest on telly but fell asleep in the chair before a repeat performance involving orcas and a fur seal. Fell asleep equally quickly in bed, unaware of her joining him at three in the morning.
The police called at the Centre in the morning and he saw Detective-Sergeant Swede in the cramped little office set aside for admin matters. Swede wore a remarkably well-cut grey suit and what looked like a regimental tie; for once Hagar felt slightly vulnerable in his polyester surgical blues.
“Aren’t you cold wearing those flimsy things?” Swede asked.
“Dentistry is hard work,” said Hagar. “We keep warm.”
Very quickly it became clear that Swede knew a lot about Hagar’s impromptu patient and it became necessary to lie a little. “He told me his name was Jiggs which sounded odd. But I confess I didn’t take any more details; that would have meant activating the computer system and I wanted to concentrate on his tooth. I’ll add in the personal info when he returns on Thursday.” Hagar paused. “I haven’t even paid in the five hundred pounds yet,” he said, as casually as he could manage.
Swede, nodded, half smiling. Tax fraud wasn’t his first priority it seemed. “Let me see if I’ve got this right in lay terms, forgetting the techno-talk about lateral incisors. You’ve made him look presentable, normal if you like. No one would know one of his teeth – those that are easily seen by others – had been broken.”
“A temporary job, of course, but that’s essentially correct.”
“And he was keen – very keen – to have this done?”
“Very. Hence the one kay.”
“Would you say the tooth was broken recently?”
“Very recently. The edges of the break were still quite sharp.”
Swede nodded more decisively this time. “That fits what we suspect. Look, here’s what we have. We don’t know him but the car he used matches some other evidence which I can’t tell you about. We have CCTV footage of him parking in a street about half a mile away and walking in this direction. I’m told that your cameras have him arriving at your side door. But he’s savvy; keeps his face down. And, we think, he wanted the tooth repaired because it’s an easy identifier. What we need from you is a full description of his face. Obviously, you’d be willing to pick him out of a line-up when we get that far.”
A silence developed in the small room. A silence compounded by confusion, embarrassment and guilt. Definitely guilt. Hagar sat, his mouth half open, seemingly incapable of speech.
“What’s wrong, Mr Hagar?” Swede asked finally.
Hagar stammered, “I... I’m... not sure I’ll be able to help you, Detective-Sergeant.”
“Why the hell not, man?”
“I... I didn’t turn on all the lights in the waiting room. Didn’t seem necessary.”
Swede was exasperated. “All right, all right. Never mind about that. But for an hour you had him in your dentist’s chair, sometimes only inches away. You must know what he looks like. Better than he does himself.”
Again Hagar said nothing.
Angry now, “Mr Hagar, this is an effing murder enquiry.”
Hagar spread his hands, tears in his eyes. “To me they’re all just mouths.”
They tried, how they tried. Batteries of policeman badgered him, through the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. A pleasing voice, an interest in technology, those Hagar could confirm. The teeth yes, especially the slightly twisted molar. But as to the face...
Detective-Sergeant Swede returned as it was getting dark. Contempt had replaced anger. In two or three spitting, cutting sentences he contrived to suggest Hagar was an inadequate member of society.
“But he’ll be coming back tomorrow,” said Hagar piteously. “To have the crown fitted.”
“I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
On Thursday they waited, Hagar and half a dozen policemen, none of whom said a word to him. Until midnight when, abruptly, they stood up as a group and departed the Centre in silence, leaving Hagar to set the alarm and lock the side door.
“Just mouths,” he whispered as the last broad back passed into the dark.
At home Hagar had the novel experience of getting into a bed where Lottie already slept. Looking gorgeous and wanton, her long auburn hair spread out over the pillow. But there was no way he was able to fall asleep beside her. After ten minutes he got up, hearing her sigh, irritated, and went downstairs.
He’d undressed downstairs in order not to disturb her. He picked up his trousers and felt the roll of twenties, stiff and substantial, through the fabric. In his mind he’d already spent the money at a boutique newly opened in town. Women’s designer shoes, a ludicrous gesture. Useless too. He’d pay the cash into the practice’s account.
On the coffee table was her handbag, carelessly open. He knew that if he chose to he’d find something in it that would makes things final between them. Needless to say he would do no such thing, preferring to let matters slide for a few weeks more. Perhaps until Christmas when there’d be some artificial form of celebration.
From the start it had always been an unlikely match: he stocky and hairy-chested, she as glamorous as a fifties filmstar: Rita Hayworth say. The true explanation had quickly emerged as, post-honeymoon, he’d doggedly set to and discharged her huge mountain of debt.
He hadn’t been entirely naive, his astonishment when she had accepted him had been very real and she’d seen he needed reassurance. Though nothing that would tax her imagination. “Love at first sight,” she had said airily. “Probably the same with you,” she added even more airily. Foolishly he hadn’t taken it any further.
Very foolish indeed, he suddenly realised, remembering their first meeting. She’d been worried about the discolouration of one of her teeth, a lateral incisor to be exact.
A mouth in fact, a mouth well remembered. And then it seemed they were married.