ALTHOUGH I was lucky to enjoy a mainly blissful childhood, there were incidents which left their scars. They happened at regular four-month intervals in the dental surgery on the end of our street.
Every check-up produced a long list of ‘necessary’ fillings and extractions. These were invariably painful and long-lasting operations because the dentist, one William Hacking, was totally ham-fisted with fingers like Cumberland sausages, if you’ll forgive the porcine mixed metaphor.
I would discover in later life that something in my saliva caused the conventional amalgam to dissolve, meaning that Butcher Bill would fill the same teeth three times a year. He either didn’t realise or didn’t care since he was on piecework from the NHS – ‘open wide, little man, while I count the cash’.
The worst thing was that I could see the dentist’s from my bedroom window in Nelson, Lancashire; an ever-present reminder of the horrors to come, as was the faint whiff of gas as you passed his door on the way to the chip shop or newsagent.
Bill used to park in a side street directly opposite our house and I would often see him arrive for an emergency appointment at the weekend, walking unsteadily between car and surgery.
I would learn in later life that he was often the worse for drink. Many of his patients must have suspected it but in those days no one would think of complaining about such a pillar of the community as a dentist. Heaven knows how many patients paid the price, as did I and my extended family, of his cack-handedness.
After my father died, at roughly the same time as the Butcher lost his wife, he and my mother became an item despite the grievous oral harm he had inflicted on our clan over the years.
By then he had retired and was able to devote himself full-time to the bottle. His garage was stuffed to the gills with cases of Gordon’s gin and Noilly Prat vermouth, replenished with weekly deliveries from the drinks merchant.
My first wife and I were invited several times to his home near Nelson and found him completely bladdered on every occasion. His party piece was to topple over into a glass display cabinet which miraculously never broke – it must have been bulletproof.
A frequent occurrence would be a seemingly life-threatening nosebleed with pints of the stuff pouring out of his bulbous, veiny proboscis. More than once he had to be taken to hospital to have it cauterised.
One Christmas we were invited for a meal only for the phone to go ten minutes after our arrival. It turned out that Bill had been asked to dinner by friends but had completely forgotten about it. ‘Never mind’, he said, as he ushered my mortified mother out of the door, ‘you can make yourselves a turkey sandwich and you know where the drinks are. We’ll see you later.’ Needless to say, we didn’t stick around.
In one of his few lucid moments, Hacking confessed that he had been a heavy boozer since his youth. He said that on one occasion he and a friend were stuck in a remote farmhouse where there was nothing to drink but gin and milk – so they mixed the two.
I still shudder at the memory of our final encounter. The local branch of the British Dental Association were having their annual shindig at a hotel called the Spread Eagle in Sawley and Bill was to be guest of honour while we were invited too. He was nervous about having to deliver a speech and had started on the sauce as soon as he got up that morning.
By 6pm, when we arrived at his house, he was plastered. He insisted on driving to the Spread Eagle and when I began to protest my mother pleaded with me to humour him on his ‘big night’. The journey was of course a nightmare, his powerful car juddering along the cat’s eyes in the middle of the three-lane A59 at 70mph, swerving to the left when traffic approached, horns blazing. How we got there alive was a miracle.
If Bill was near paralytic when we got there, he was drunker still as the champagne flowed. The other guests were mainly dentists and doctors, and I’ve never seen a thirstier crew. Sweating and slurring, they arrived at our table to clap him on the back.
When it was time for the speeches, the chairman paid tribute to the Butcher’s lifelong service to dentistry (if not the distilling industry) as the crowd brayed approval. ‘And now’, he said, ‘for a few words from Bill.’
Pushing his chair back, the old sot tottered to his feet and looked glassy-eyed around the room at the faces anticipating a witty address. ‘You can all f*ck off!’ he boomed before attempting to regain his seat and missing. There was a stunned silence, followed by guffaws and cries of ‘Good old Bill’.
Thankfully a taxi was summoned but the worst was yet to come. Hacking sat in the front and proceeded to regale the driver with explicit details of his sex life, referring to my mother as his ‘bint’. I was shaking with rage but she again begged me to let things lie – ‘otherwise you’ll only make him worse. And I’ve got to live with him.’
Following this humiliation I refused any further invitations and became briefly estranged from my mum, but the old man died of a heart attack not long afterwards and family peace was restored.
I might add that I have been fortunate in my experiences with dentists ever since, but still shudder at the memory of Butcher Bill, the drunk with the drill.
Old jokes’ home
Irishman knocks on the door of an imposing mansion and asks: ‘Any odd jobs need doing?’ ‘Yes,’ says the owner, ‘you can paint my porch out the back. You’ll find some white paint in the shed.’ Two hours later he’s back. ‘Finished,’ he says. ‘But I have to tell you. It’s not a porch, it’s a Mercedes.’
A PS from PG
I don’t know if you have ever seen a tiger of the jungle drawing a deep breath preparatory to doing a swan dive and landing with both the feet on the backbone of one of the minor fauna. Probably not, nor, as a matter of fact, have I.
PG Wodehouse: Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit