Dentistry is in crisis – and I have an alarmingly wobbly tooth

When you learn a new word in a dental surgery, that’s never because the news is good. This time the environment was so high-pressure that I can’t even correctly remember the vocabulary, because I thought she said “fractional”, and that it meant “you use it to chew food”, but the internet doesn’t agree.

On paper, I should enjoy seeing my dentist because I love her. We first met in the middle of the Greek financial crisis, and she, being Greek, had a lot of insights in this area, and a large number of hardcore leftwing opinions you don’t normally encounter in a dentist. (The primacy of hygiene in the profession seems to attract Conservatives to it; don’t ask me why – I don’t make the rules.) I could never signal how much I agreed with her because I always had a mouthful of equipment, so I would just make affirming noises, and this, it turns out, is the basis for a great one-sided friendship. I ended up extremely affectionate towards her, while she remains broadly neutral about, and occasionally disappointed by, me.

Look, I realise it’s a first world problem to have a dentist at all, and when I say “first world”, naturally I mean “some country other than Britain”. Most people, as in really most people (70%, since Covid laid waste dentistry) find it hard to access an NHS dentist or to afford a private one. Were you really to drill in, many of them couldn’t afford the NHS fees even if they could get on to the books. So I should be grateful, but were I to put “access to a cool, slightly anarchic Greek dentist, whose disappointment I probably deserve” in a gratitude journal, I would be lying.

So, here’s the situation, stripped of misremembered jargon: there is this one tooth whose prognosis is poor. But that upper right molar has form: it first became mobile, which is to say, trying to fall out, when I was pregnant, and my son is now 15.

I unveil this piece of evidence with a flourish, as if it’s the final word on the matter: you experts can know what you know, but there is pluck in my upper right quadrant that your simple instruments cannot measure. The dentist just shakes her head sadly and says: “And nobody raised the alarm then?” Of course the alarm was raised; I just failed to take action. I had a lot on my plate: I was trying to grow a whole human who – did I mention? – is now 15. Yay, me.

“OK, fine, let’s take it out then,” I finally concede, but it’s not that simple. The tooth is both supporting and compromising the two teeth on either side, so it can neither be left in nor taken out. It’s like a metaphor for a thruple gone bad, or for a Conservative government and the beleaguered nation around it. It is like a universal metaphor for anything that has ever gone wrong, but it is also still very much a real, unmetaphorical thing. It is now an impossible tooth. It needs to not exist, to have never existed.

I have actually had a tooth removed before – again the root cause was my own negligence – and I say with a totally straight face that it is worse than having a C-section. Who knows, memory is a tricky thing, but I have distinct recall of it taking so much brute strength to prise it out that the dentist (a different one) had his knee on my chest. Then there’s the gap, of course, which in theory is only the width of the missing tooth, so why does it feel like you could park an ice-cream van in it? I can’t lose another, and much more importantly, I cannot lose three.

My preference is for a wait-and-see approach, but that won’t do because it’s … well, I use it to chew food, whatever that mysterious new word is. “It’s fine,” I say. “I’ll just eat soup.” There’s only so long you can spend on an impossible question before it becomes philosophical. You can’t philosophise at the dentist’s. It’s pretentious.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist