Growing up on a council estate and going to the local grammar wasn’t easy. Not just because of the way I talked. It was simple enough to practice saying ‘Mum’ instead of ‘Mam’ on the top deck of the bus. And to become a regular at the library when there wasn’t a single book at home.
But what I could never hide was my mouth. As soon as anyone saw my teeth, they knew exactly where I came from.
At the age of four I had all my baby molars extracted to the sound of my mum sobbing down the dentist’s hall. I remember a kindly dental nurse holding my hand and the tinkle of enamel on steel as one by one my tiny teeth died in a dish. I don’t think the Tooth Fairy came that night but I did have some raspberry ripple ice cream for tea, a huge treat.
My parents were dental phobic. Dad survived the Second World War and Hiroshima but the thought of a dentist’s drill turned him to jelly. He would recount stories of the navy dentist doing their worst. To him, every dentist had the sadistic tendencies of Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. My mum was so afraid to have a few fillings she had all her teeth taken out. Aged thirty. After going “under gas in the chair” she went straight back to work, woozily sewing away on the factory’s industrial machine, her own health and safety nightmare.
Mum and Dad grew up before the days of the NHS when you only visited a dentist if you were in agony and dentures were seen as a neat cure all.
One April Fool’s day I hid Mum’s false teeth under the dusters in the sideboard and she went a whole week before finding them. I never gave a thought to the embarrassment she must have felt, just anger at those plastic gnashers and a determination to never see my teeth in a jar at night.
While friends’ parents shared a gin and tonic, my mum and dad bonded over a glass of Steradent. I ate a lots of apples because I heard they were as good as toothpaste and took to cleaning my teeth with my fingers whenever my toothbrush wore out. I wanted that Colgate ‘ring of confidence’ and to believe what my dad said about being as good as everyone else and reaching for the stars.
After the baby teeth extractions, I didn’t see a dentist again until I was twelve. I went alone, sitting in the waiting room reading Jackie magazine buoyed by an overwhelming sense of liberation. My mouth was about to get some rights.
It took weeks for my teeth to be drilled and filled. I prayed for braces and in those days they weren’t even fashionable. But it never happened. My dentist moved away, the practice closed and I ended up going to another surgery that supposedly didn’t do orthodontics.
It meant whenever I smiled, I’d cover my overcrowded mouth with my hand. All I wanted for Christmas was to be born in America like Donny Osmond (who had me at that first perfect grin).
When I had my own child, my legacy wasn’t simply a good education and nice manners. I made sure he had the mouth I never did. From Mickey Mouse to Ninja Turtles, it was toothbrush nirvana. And today a proper grown up man, there’s not a filling in his head. As I write that sentence it actually makes my heart leap.
Me? Well, I’ve sat for many hours, trying to correct my childhood years. But it will take a lottery win and the best cosmetic dentist there is to get teeth like Holly Willoughby. Nowadays I’m proud of my working class roots – all except those attached to my teeth.