I love the shiny, pristine teeth that most Americans keep behind their lips, pearly immaculate rows of ivory, often capped in precious metals, brilliant they seem and impervious to decay, and their children’s teeth, wrapped in steel for years so they too, will grow in straight and flawless. In England, when I was growing up, people didn’t think much of the dentist, he tended not to be high on their list of priorities, certainly not as high as butter for example. (I speak here of the lower orders, the famous English working-class of which I was and am a steadfast member.) In fact since all medicine was free on the National Health, most people over the age of 30 had all their teeth removed in one great sundering and replaced with a set of hyperrealistic plastic choppers. Why bother with a toothache when you could have false teeth? But I had an irrational horror of losing my teeth and being compelled to wear ill-fitting dentures. Because you could lose your teeth. I had seen it happen. Phil Jackson lost his while being chased by brutal fifth-formers pelting his bare and skinny legs with iceballs. He slipped and fell rounding the corner of the old tin tabernacle where we studied the intricacies of mathematics, fell on his face and came up with both front teeth sheared off at the gumline. He was in college before he got dentures that looked right. For years he worried about his teeth falling into a girl’s mouth, should he happen to get lucky with a little tongue action. False teeth were not sexy. I had seen the teeth of both my parents reposing in waterglasses on the bedstand. They did not look sexy. Nor, sans teeth, did mum and dad. The possibilities of violent removal lurked everywhere, in the random cricket ball, that weighty missile of leather-covered wood, a boot in the face on the soccer pitch, or even a fratricidal punch. When Jimmy Britton knocked out his brother’s front teeth I was doubly horrified. Even your own brother could do it. How could he live with that? The two teeth lay there in the quadrangle on a summer morning, great gleaming chunks of displaced bone, and all I could think of was how his ability to nibble and bite, to kiss and to be kissed, had been completely destroyed, by his own brother. So when Barry Clark chipped my front tooth with a flung stone that bounced up at me as I was pursuing him with intent to hammer along Northfield Way, I thought my life was ruined. When I ran my tongue over it it felt like half my tooth was gone. I ran home hysterical to me mam. My brother Jake went round to the Clark abode and thrashed Barry soundly for defacing me. Then he thrashed Barry’s dad too, just to keep the family in line. I had calmed down once I realized I wouldn’t have to be fitted for plastic, but the next day my mother insisted on taking me to our local butcher and parttime dentist, Old Doc Howarth. I can still recall his name emblazoned on a polished brass plaque outside the imposing Victorian house. He had been practising on the peasantry since Edwardian times and though he saw no need for cosmetic work his examination did reveal certain cavities in the back of my head. I was required to return for fillings. One week later, I rang the butcher’s bell and was admitted by his assistant, a lissome beauty named Patsy, an English rose already coming into luminous bloom, clad I say in angelic white and those white rubberized nursey stockings. Oh god let me be strong and neither blubber nor moan I was thinking as I slipped into the grip of the gas, the trees outside the window making a vivid green halo around the doctor’s looming face. But it must have been coal gas he was using because I did not slip very far, decent anaesthesia still as remote a concept as central heating. The first thing I saw as I opened my eyes was Patsy’s cherubic face. “Did I cry out?” I blurted, and I knew by her haughty expression that indeed I had cried out, that my screams had probably been heard in the market square and I realized at precisely that moment I didn’t have a chance with her, that she would probably end up marrying someone named Reginald who dressed in tweeds and drove a Wolseley or a Rover. For years after that I would blush each time I passed her in the street and it wasn’t until I came back from college one Christmas and heard that Stuart Watson had buttered her in a mobile stable at a horse show that she began to seem human to me, and I was finally able to come to terms with the disaster of our relationship. But I didn’t step inside a dentist’s office for another ten years as my teeth ground down and masticated all manner of food, decaying the while and gradually assuming the carious and crooked form typical of the English gob. Teeth in my shoulder heart on my sleeve. I love white teeth glinting in the dark, tiny knives and the marks they leave, mementos amore on the skin.
While some boys sat at the railroad station counting the names and numbers of trains, I was off accross the tracks into Babworth woods, vagabonding up slim trees, sniffing out the wild birds’ homes. The thrill of finding a full clutch of eggs would trigger a sensual fluttering of the innards, that first glimpse of such perfect objects clustered within the o of the nest o doctor is there a connection between the feelings I had then over a partially concealed cavity containing objects of beauty and desire and the glimpses I was to receive later of partially concealed or indeed fully exposed cavities? Indeed the erotic charge of a full nest would not infrequently trigger a boyish erection among the topmost branches, a development I attributed at the time to the altitude. It was only years later, reading “Story of the Eye” that the shock of recognition struck me like a cheap analysis, that eye rolling across the floor of the sacristy delicate as an egg, or did she roll it and rub it egg-like, subject to shattering, along her back and down between the cheeks of her gorgeous arse?
Choosing the most finely marked specimen, I was careful not to touch the other eggs as I removed it from the nest, since the parents would abandon eggs contaminated by human touch. Then slip the egg into my mouth to leave both hands free for the descent, transferring it to a pocket filled with scraps of straw and paper for the journey home. At home the somber ritual of blowing the egg took place at the kitchen sink. The fragile object would be pierced at both ends by a needle, taking pains to create the smallest possible hole for aesthetic reasons, and then the viscous orange yolk displaced by force of boyish breath, until what remained was the empty shell, an object of singular lightness and beauty. A much more satisfying hobby than collecting the serial numbers of trains, a passive sport still widely practiced in the British Isles at that time. The names of trains however was a different thing, more emotional, less of an accountant’s job. We used to watch them pass those great express trains on the London to Edinburgh run. If you put your ear to the tracks you could hear them coming before the signal went up, a distant humming thunder that gave you time to secrete yourself in the space inside the steel bridge a foot from the tracks, screaming with fear and joy as the whole structure vibrated and shook and the train gunned past your nose at 70 miles an hour. We put pennies on the line when we had them, and one year when the canal was poisoned and all the fish died, we put their great silver bodies on the rail to see the carnage: great carp and pike that had lived for years in the soundless depths, poisoned by a chloride leak from the dry cleaning plant, exploding now before our eyes as the steel wheels smashed them flat.
Mother’s blues: Don’t go down by those railroad tracks, oh Don’t go near the railroad tracks, Mrs. Statham’s boy went and he never came back … a neighbourhood boy who got his foot somehow stuck in the tracks as he was crossing and was eventually struck down by a train that never even saw him (pray that the conductor never saw him, too busy shovelling coal to fuel the steam). What was the name of the train that hit the Statham boy? The Mallard perhaps, the Duke of York, Hereward The Wake, Gordon of Khartoum, The Commonwealth Of India, The Evening Star, The Battle of Jutland, Hyperion, Eldorado massive steel creatures with their shameless colonial names roaring towards cities undreamed of by youths collecting birds’ eggs in the woods across the tracks where hawks and weasels hung on the boundary fences, shot by gamekeepers protecting the gentry’s pheasants so that milords and ladies could gun them down every weekend.
We would be hired at ten shillings for a ten hour day to beat for them, hacking our way through three miles of woods and dew-soaked kale, driving the birds and any other game into the guns lined up along the perimeter of the woods. Such marvelous sport they had, 12 gauges echoing through the treetops, grouse and pheasant plummeting to earth and how that hare screamed like a human infant, shot in the eye but not killed outright, running round in circles until someone dispatched it with a club. Still it was the early morning when I used to get a sense of something like rapture, mist rising off the fields, the stillness of the woods, buds pushing furiously toward the sun. A jostling bunch of lads would assemble at the edge of the woods and then move forward in a line, beating the bushes with our sticks as the birds rose into the air and flew toward the guns.
It was in connection with eggs that I had a marvelous adventure, in my 13th year, before the complications of adolescence, of lust and pubic hair. When I wasn’t plundering birds’ nests I would spend long hours within the quiet precincts of the public library. The silent and orderly rows of books induced a calmness in me, the possibilities of future knowledge they contained generated a sense of contentment and promise. The immediate treasure the library yielded however, was something at the time far more valuable to me than books. There was a boy, a very special boy whom I allowed to polish and caress certain eggs from my collection, my protege I might say, in the naming of birds and the identification of their eggs. He arrived at our semidetached one day with astounding news. A collection of eggs had been discovered in the library by some inquisitive youths, an amazing collection, all the major families represented and all the eggs in pristine condition. I was skeptical at first … .
“All the families represented, you say? Corvidae are present?
“Ooh aye Maxie, there’s jackdaws, rooks, even a raven!”
“Any evidence of laridae?”
“Of gulls and terns many and fine examples m’lud”
“And strigidae, what say ye of strigidae?”
“The barn owl sire, and still more precious, a sample of the great horned owl nestles e’en now on softest cotton!”
I pressed further; “And accipitidrae my lad, be there hawks?”
“O hawks and harriers in profusion sir and scolopacidae a most excellent selection, the woodcock and the snipe, and alaudidae the lark well represented, it’s a fully rounded collection only one previous owner a man of the cloth, a curate most devoted to his eggs!” This was how we spoke back then, our plain country talk smattered with little gobs of learning. Minutes later I was striding through the glacial calmness of the library. In a silence broken only by the wheezes and farts of dying pensioners, I knelt by a great Victorian cabinet, slowly pulling out each drawer to observe the spherical glory of the eggs arrayed within. It was indeed the treasure trove my assistant had predicted, and I made the decision immediately to transfer certain items to my own collection, knowing that word would get out soon enough and the unlocked cabinet would be quickly stripped of its marvelous contents. The eggs were arranged by family with their evocative Latin names scrolled on cards in fading ink. I had to gather up at least a few of these fragile globes and rush them home for further study and contemplation, even though there might be questions of provenance since some of the species represented here had rarely if ever been sighted in the Retford area. The glossy ibis for example, whose habitat and nesting grounds were the lower reaches of the River Nile, the marshes and sedges of the sub-Sahara. This egg would evoke for me the deserts of Arabia with its burnished olive color, the slight camelly odor, the delicate implication of a fluttering burnoose, a horseman passing by. This red kite’s egg upon which was pencilled the inscription, West Drayton, Norfolk 1907 conjured images of Victorian naturalists snouting around the fens in their thornproof tweeds. The guillemot’s speckled egg I was palming now evoked the wild sea cliffs of Patagonia. History was palpable, and I had to take some home. My lunchbox, a recycled Oxo tin, served as a passable container for my illicit cargo. The next day I went back for seconds and there were already great gaps in the drawers, whole families missing, and within a week the entire collection had been pillaged. Eggs and teeth, teeth and eggs.