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When the world has your teeth on edge

Essay | 14 minute read
Businesses are closing, food shortages are expected and body bags are being ordered. Brexit, for one writer, is a real pain in the mouth

I am cracking up. I am literally cracking up. First, there was a hairline crack, and then there was a jagged line and then there was a crumbling and then there was collapse. And now, where once there was something solid that could grip and crunch and slice and chew, there’s just air.

I know my Yeats. I know things fall apart, but I didn’t know that would happen in my mouth. I haven’t had a tooth out since I was a child. Then, there was a tooth fairy. I’m pretty sure there was a tooth fairy. You put your tooth under your pillow and the tooth fairy changed it into money. Boy, what I would give for a tooth fairy now.

Until last year, I barely knew I had teeth. Sure, I went to the dentist and did the brushing, and the flossing, and the swilling, and the gargling, and things, as far as I could tell, were fine. There were no signs of unrest. There was no brewing insurrection, no glimpse of the coming war. About a year ago, I started to get pain. It was up. It was down. It was on the left. It was on the right. I went to the dentist and I tried to explain, but it was, as the poet Alan Jenkins once said of poetry, like trying to catch a black cat in a dark room. The dentist huffed and puffed and tapped and peered. “Where exactly did you say the pain was?” I shrugged. When you’ve got someone else’s hand in your mouth, and you want to communicate, you can only really shrug. My dentist sighed. How could he find the source of the pain when I couldn’t tell him where it was?

It was a Saturday when the pain in my mouth mounted to a crescendo I thought I couldn’t bear. Dentists don’t work on Saturdays, or at least my dentist doesn’t work on Saturdays. The message on the answerphone told me to go to a dentist in the Olympic Park. There was traffic. There were barriers. I ended up running through barriers and then, when I found the place that matched the dot on my phone, a young woman told me, with a flash of what seemed to be pleasure, that I was ten minutes late, and had missed my slot.

In the end, after more trips and more sighing, I had a tooth out. I wasn’t sure it was the right tooth. The dentist wasn’t sure it was the right tooth. The whole thing felt a bit like pin the tail on the donkey. Lucky dip. Musical chairs. When the music stops, you feel a needle in a gum and wait a few minutes, and then you feel something gripping your tooth, and then you feel it wiggling around and then oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.

It was a wisdom tooth and I had heard people say it was quite a big deal to have a wisdom tooth out, but not for my dentist, oh no; for my dentist it was just part of his busy day. Take some Paracetamol, he said. Take these antibiotics, in case of infection. What he didn’t say was: forget everything you had planned to do for the next few days, because you will feel as if someone has sliced your jaw in half and run off with half your mouth.

Photo by Umanoide/Unsplash

It helped, for a while. There was calm, for a while. Or at least, there was relative calm. There were what you might call low-grade grumbles. But I had eaten from the apple. Things had changed. I couldn’t not know what I now knew. I had lost my innocence. I now knew that in my mouth, there were these lethal weapons called teeth.

The pain flared, and then calmed, and then flared again. When people asked me how I was, my answers were full of teeth. There were cracks, my dentist told me. There hadn’t been cracks, but now there were visible cracks. I must, he said, be grinding my teeth. Did I know why I was grinding my teeth?

I have never ground my teeth. Of course I can’t provide true scientific evidence. There haven’t been observational studies. There haven’t been randomised control trials. The man who shares my bed has said he doesn’t think I grind my teeth. But the evidence speaks for itself. My teeth are cracked. No one else is grinding them. I think a scientist would have to conclude that in the past year or two, I have started grinding my teeth.

So what has changed? I’ll tell you what has changed. I’ll tell my dentist what has changed. I’ll tell anyone who asks, and anyone who doesn’t, what has changed in the past couple of years. What has changed is that my country has gone mad and I, too, have started to crack up.

Two days after the EU referendum, I met my mother for lunch. My mother grew up in Sweden, but left her country to marry my father in 1956. When she first came to London, it was cold and grey. There wasn’t much central heating. There wasn’t much colour. The mood of the nation was ‘mustn’t grumble’, but that wasn’t how she felt when she tasted the food. Over the next sixty years, she learnt to love her adopted country. In the house my parents bought in 1964, she even began to swap clean Scandinavian lines for lacquered pine and chintz.

She still thought Sweden was cleaner, and fairer, and better run, but she also saw that in the gentle British muddle there was a general sense that all kinds of people – with different beliefs and backgrounds and religions and races – could just about rub along. The Brits, she concluded, were a sensible nation. They were much more open than you might think. They didn’t shout. They didn’t ram their beliefs down other people’s throats. They believed in moderation. They believed in common sense.

On 24 June 2016, all of that changed. She woke up, as we all did, in a different world. Sunderland had voted to leave the EU. Sunderland! Where so many people’s jobs and lives depend on a car industry which depends on a smooth trading relationship with the EU. My mother did not watch the results from Sunderland. She was asleep, believing that a sane nation would still be sane when she woke up. But I watched the results. Like millions of my fellow countrymen and women, I watched the results from Sunderland. And that was when I knew my country was lost.

My mother’s face said what I felt. She suddenly looked older. My mother had buried a daughter and a husband. She had watched another daughter go through breast cancer twice. She had been through these things in a country she loved. Now I saw new hurt in her eyes.

Usually, when you go through a bereavement, the pain starts to fade. For weeks, you wake up and it hits you. Gradually, you start to adjust to the changed landscape of your life. But usually, when you go through a bereavement, it isn’t in the news for every minute of every day. Someone has died. It’s over. You start, in the language of therapists, to ‘move on’. In four months, it will be three years since the referendum that changed everything and we haven’t moved a single inch.

After the referendum, there was a circus. A pantomime. A freak show. There were people jostling and peacocking and boasting about how ‘hard’ they were, even though most of them hadn’t shown much sign of being all that ‘hard’ before. It was a relief when a clergyman’s daughter who didn’t talk about being ‘hard’, who hadn’t even wanted Britain to leave the EU, fell into the top job. She seemed quite sensible. She seemed quite boring. I honestly cannot remember what it felt like to have a sensible Prime Minister now.

As I write this, the Government of my country is planning to put troops on the streets. The Defence Secretary has put 3,500 soldiers ‘on standby’, in case things turn ugly. There are plans for martial law. The Health Secretary has been buying fridges, to store medicines, which he is trying to stockpile. He has said that medicines might have to be rationed. He has ordered thousands of body bags. He has said that people are likely to die.

The top politicians in my country don’t think we will starve. They are trying to charter ships and planes, and find ways to get food through ports that might be blocked. They think there will be enough food, but they say it won’t be the food we are used to eating, and they can’t be absolutely sure. One of the companies that was commissioned to provide ships didn’t have any ships. Its terms and conditions were lifted from the website of a pizza takeaway. But our Government says we shouldn’t panic. Our Government says it knows what it’s doing. It is making these plans in case we leave the EU without a deal because our Prime Minister has always said that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal,’ and it doesn’t look as though there is any deal that can get through Parliament now.

Businesses aren’t panicking, but they are cutting jobs. They are taking a realistic look at the situation, and so of course they are cutting jobs. This week, Ford has said that it is planning to move out of the UK, which could lead to the loss of 13,000 jobs. Last week, Nissan announced that it won’t now build the model of car it was planning to make in this country because it will make more sense to build them in Japan, which has just negotiated a trade deal with the EU. Businesses know that, if we do leave the EU without a deal, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost. The credit agency Standard & Poor’s says it will probably be a million. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that a million workers will have their jobs or wages cut. The Bank of England says that unemployment could rise to 7.5%.

The Government’s own assessments make it clear that ‘no deal’ would have terrible consequences for many people’s lives and jobs. The Government’s own assessments make it clear, in fact, that any form of leaving the EU will make our country poorer, and mean we have less business and fewer jobs. We will have less money for schools and hospitals and cancer treatment. Our Government knows, in other words, that any form of leaving the EU will cause serious harm. But it’s going to do it anyway.

The leader of the opposition takes the same view. He has always been in favour of leaving the EU, even though nearly all the members of his party aren’t. He wants us to leave the EU, but without being seen to have helped the Government leave the EU. His party manifesto promised that his party would keep the option of a second referendum ‘on the table’, but it seems to have smashed the table. Instead, it is getting a trade union leader to encourage the Prime Minister to effectively bribe some Labour MPs to support her deal. It is doing this because it will do literally anything to avoid a second referendum.

And so, here we are. Our Prime Minister is pretending to have talks with people in Brussels, but the people in Brussels have said that there aren’t actually any talks because the Prime Minister hasn’t yet made a single suggestion about what she wants the EU to do. We are told that she is actually planning to ask MPs to vote on a ‘deal’ a few days before we legally have to leave the EU. She has said she is not going to extend that date. If she doesn’t, we leave with ‘no deal’. Start stockpiling food. Start stockpiling medicines. Pray that one of those body bags isn’t for you.

If our Prime Minister does manage to force through her ‘deal’, then the negotiations about our trading relationship with the EU will start. Yes, you read that right. They will start. And they will go on for many, many years. This horror story, in other words, is quite likely to continue for the rest of our lives.

This is why I am cracking up. I lie awake at night and worry about my country. I worry about people’s health. I worry about people’s jobs. I’m not even worrying for myself. I no longer have a job. I lost mine, on a newspaper, six years ago, and it was one of the worse things that has ever happened to me. And I’ve lost half my family and had cancer twice.

I worry about jobs, I worry about who’s going to look after old people. I worry about how we are going to get the money to pay for people’s illnesses and education and employment support when there’s less investment in the country and less money from tax. Most of all, I worry about the soul of my country. I worry that hate has been unleashed – hate towards immigrants and towards people who believe in facts. I worry that Government ministers can read reports, and listen to facts, and smile as they call them ‘fake news’. I worry that a clergyman’s daughter now seems to lie as casually as a former Foreign Secretary who has always been known for his lies. I worry that millions of people in this country now say they want ‘a clean break’. They ‘just want to get on with it’. They don’t give a flying fuck if anyone loses a job.

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I sleep with a mouth guard now. It makes me feel I have a muzzle in my mouth. But it should mean that I can’t crack any more teeth. In the past fortnight, I’ve had two more out. My dentist gave me one of them, to take away. It’s yellow. It has long roots. It makes me think of a mammoth’s tusks. I don’t think the tooth fairy will be rushing to add it to her treasure trove, or to swap it for a nice wodge of cash. I wish she would, because it will cost me more than two grand for an implant, apparently. Probably five grand for the lot. I can already feel the gaps, in my body and in my bank balance. And this was a ‘managed’ process of extraction, with an agreement to have an anaesthetic.

Ten days ago, I had a third tooth out. When the anaesthetic wore off, and the painkillers didn’t work, I actually found myself sobbing for my mother. I suppose that’s what we do when we feel a pain that doesn’t go away. But my mother can’t comfort me now. Five months after the vote that made her face look different, she slipped and broke her hip. Five weeks later, she died.

I miss my mother, of course. I loved my mother more than any human being on the face of this planet, but she was eighty-two and always going to die. I miss my mother, and I miss my teeth, but I miss my country more.

Christina Patterson’s book, The Art of Not Falling Apart (Atlantic) is out in paperback.