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FICTION
An Appointment with the Family
Tom Ward
Writer of the Month

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There was nothing for it. Nothing to be done. William’s hair would just not do what he wanted it to. He leaned closer to the mirror, running the comb this way and that. Either his hair stuck up in wild spikes, or it hung limply over his eyes. And why had he shaved? He leaned closer still, his breath misting against the glass. Tiny clusters of belligerent pimples marked his chin. It was a disaster.

This was before he even thought about his tooth.

William opened his mouth slowly, afraid of what he might find. He grimaced at himself in the mirror. The chipped front tooth. It had happened in a drunken brawl. A stupid fight. At first there had been a tiny crack, like that in the paint of an old skirting board. Now the enamel was flaking away like the shell of a hardboiled egg. It was not the look that you wanted when meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time. It was especially not what you wanted when you considered that her father was a well- respected dentist.

The thought of the meeting filled William with dread. Eva had told him how her father was a difficult man and William was sure that as soon as they were introduced Dr Poots would notice the ugly white splinter in William’s mouth and decide there and then that this was not a boy he wanted his daughter to spend time with. Poor personal hygiene was not what fathers looked for when considering whether or not they would let you continue sleeping with their daughter.

William glanced at his watch. It was the eleventh hour, no time for alterations now. He would have to go as he was. He hitched his tie up, grabbed the flowers and wine from the side and hurried out into the street.

The tube train was late, of course, and when it eventually came it was overcrowded with the usual cross section of fed-up commuters. As it approached Clapham the inhabitants of the compartment became whiter and whiter, until William began to suspect that he was unwillingly taking part in some middle class social experiment.

It wasn’t quite raining on the common, but all the signs of heavy foreboding were there: an overcast sky, men and women dashing about with their collars turned up, umbrellas struggling against the wind. William persevered through it all, subconsciously probing his chipped tooth with the tip of his tongue.

After a while, he found the street and began searching for the house number. He had hoped it was ‘230’ but life was not a comedy. He passed rows of identical white houses, all set back from the road and enclosed by white brick walls. Palm trees struggled under the October sun and the sports cars standing in the driveways itched for summer.

William found the house. A plaque outside read ‘Dr. Benjamin Poots’. William checked the knot of his tie, then smoothed down the paper wrapped around a bunch of flowers. They were white and pristine and William did not know what the proper name for them was.

He took a deep breath, reminding himself that despite his flaws, he was ultimately loveable, and rang the doorbell. A sharp buzz sounded somewhere inside the house. He was about to press the bell again when a hazy shape appeared through the dark green glass set into the door. William relaxed and stepped back, expecting Eva.

When the door opened it took William a moment to realise that he was not face to face with his girlfriend. The woman standing before him was a slightly older version of her, dressed in paint-flecked dungarees which hung loosely about a body that still boasted curves in the proper places. The face was as beautiful as Eva’s but with a weathered look of experience that was, if anything, more appealing.

William stepped forward and held out a hand. “Hello, I’m Wi—"

“William!” the woman cried. “Do come in. I’m Jennifer, Eva’s mother.”
Jennifer drew him towards her and hugged him to her paint-covered dungarees.
“So nice to meet you!” she said, taking him by the hand and dragging him into the house.

William held out the flowers. “I brought these, for you.”

“Oh lilies. I love lilies,” she said, holding them beneath her nose and inhaling.

“Thank you, William. What a gentleman you are. Eva was right. Where is the little minx? Eva. Eva darling, William is here! I’m sure she’ll be down in a minute, William. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and take a shower while dinner is finishing off. I’ve been doing a quick bit of painting,” she said, reaching up to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

William saw her arm was flecked with light blue paint, and that dried red splotches had somehow found their way into her hair.

“I’ll be right back, and Eva will be here in a moment. Don’t go anywhere!” Jennifer said, moving away along the corridor. ‘And thank you for the flowers!’ she called over her shoulder.

William glanced about the empty entrance hall. The wallpaper was a dark green, the colour of Christmas wrapping paper and two shelves of dark wood ran the length of the hallway, one on either side. Family pictures featuring a man grinning widely littered the shelves. So that was Benjamin Poots, William thought.

Next to the picture William was looking at stood a taxidermy ferret, baring its teeth fiercely. William imagined he heard a hiss. It was only then that he noticed the rest of the shelf space along the corridor was taken up by taxidermy. Owls, cats, rabbits all arranged in macabre postures, somehow threatening, despite the dust that had gathered amongst the fur.

“They don’t bite,” a voice said.

“I hope your dad doesn’t, either,” William said, turning around just in time to catch Eva as she jumped towards him. They kissed and William felt his worries drop away like old skin.

“Ready to meet everyone?” Eva asked, her eyelashes stroking his cheek.

“I’ve already met your mother and I can safely say I have no worries about our future,” William said, absentmindedly running his hand down Eva’s lower back.

“Stop it!” she said, playfully pushing him away. “There’ll be time for that later, if you make a good impression.”

The front door clattered open. A man and a teenage boy came into the hall, bringing the rain in with them.

“Well, the weather caught us,” the man said and William recognised the flash of white teeth.

“Dad, this is William,” Eva said, stepping forward to kiss her father’s cheek.

Dr Poots looked around as though searching for exactly who his daughter was referring to. His eyes settled on William who smiled weakly as he extended a hand.

“Pleased to meet you, sir.”

“No need for ‘sir’, call me Ben. Good to meet you too, Bill,” he said, either missing or ignoring the hand. He shrugged off his wet coat and turned to hang it up.

“It’s Will or William, Dad,” Eva said, flashing an apologetic smile at William.

He was about to respond with an ‘it’s-OK-he-seems- nice’ smile when Eva spoke again. “This is my brother, Ed. Remember I told you he’s a rugby superstar?”

“Yes, I remember,” William said. “Good to meet you, Ed,” he said, holding out a hand to the younger boy.

“All right, mate?” Ed said, briefly gripping the hand before pushing past and disappearing down the corridor, his wet shorts dripping on the tiled floor.

“Is dinner ready?” Dr Poots asked, his coat folded up and forgotten on a chair by the door.

“Almost. Mum’s having a shower,” Eva said.

“I brought this for you, sir... Ben. Thank you for having me,” William said, offering the bottle of wine.

“Don’t thank me yet, Will, you haven’t tried Jennifer’s cooking.” He took the bottle and studied the label.

“Ah, red wine. Stains the teeth,” he said, running his tongue over his pristine incisors.

William made shapes with his mouth for a moment, unsure what to say.

Eva rescued him. “Come on, let’s go set the table.”



* * *

 

They gathered around the table. Ed still in his soiled rugby gear, Dr Poots in his shirt sleeves, glancing at his watch. Each time he twisted his arm to check the time, he inadvertently elbowed William in the ribs. William glanced across to Eva, hoping she had seen, but she simply smiled back at him, presumably happy he was yet to insult her father or spill wine over the table.

After Dr Poots had dug him in the ribs for the fourth time, Mrs Poots entered, radiating cleanliness in a worn red jumper, a fleck of paint on her left cheek all that remained of the speckled woman who’d met William at the door.

“Sorry, everybody. Dinner is served!” she said, as she began pulling dishes from the oven.

They began the meal. Penne pasta in a tomato and basil sauce. Satisfied everyone had enough on their plates, Jennifer uncorked William’s bottle of wine and leant over the table to fill the glasses. When she came to her husband, he held his hand over the glass and took up the water jug instead. William tried not to notice and focused his attention on the dilemma of eating pasta without turning his shirt red.

“So, William, you’re a writer?” Jennifer asked.

He swallowed and nodded enthusiastically. “Yes. I’ve written a novel, and I’ve just started writing for a magazine.”

“Which magazine?” Dr Poots asked, breaking his silence for the first time since they had started eating.

William hesitated, thinking of the best way to explain the magazine. He was unable to think of a way to phrase it that would reassure Dr Poots that he had the best intentions towards his daughter. Then, a fraction of a second before he was about to speak, Eva told her father the name of the publication.

“A ‘lad’s mag’,” Dr Poots said. It was not a question. “Not exactly...” William began.

“Yes,” Eva answered, happy at the recognition.

“Do you know it, Ed?” Dr Poots asked.

“Mmhhm,” Ed answered, his eyes on his plate where he was pushing about a last bit of chicken with his fork.

William must have gone back to nervously probing his tooth because at that moment Dr Poots turned to him, fixed his eyes on William’s and asked, “What’s the matter?”

William sat back in his chair suddenly. “Nothing’s the matter,” he tried to say without opening his mouth.

“What, speak up?”

“Dad..." Eva began.

It’s nothing, sir. Ben,” William said, noticing the cloud slip across Dr Poot’s face.

“Aha, your tooth!” Dr Poots declared triumphantly.

“Let’s have a look,” he said, leaning across the table towards William.

“Dear, I don’t think William wants a dental examination during dinner,” Jennifer began.

“It doesn’t matter what William wants, his front right incisor is in need of some attention! Open up, Bill,” he said advancing his fork towards William’s mouth.

“Let’s have a look.”

“Dad!” Eva cried.

“Eva, I merely want to help the boy! He clearly has issues with his dental hygiene.”

“Benjamin!” Jennifer said sternly, her knife clattering against her plate.

Dr Poots seemed to wake suddenly at the noise and lowered his fork to the table.

“I’m... I’m sorry, William. I can’t help it, you see.

Dentistry. I see a tooth in need of attention and it’s my first instinct to try and fix it.”

William did his best to laugh it off. “Not to worry, Ben. Not at all. I... fell out of a tree and chipped it. It was wet... raining... I’ve been meaning to get this tooth looked at for a long time, actually.”

“Not that I was expecting you to look at it,” he added quickly.

“Well that’s settled then! I’ll take a look after tea.”

Before William could answer, Jennifer leaned towards him. “Pass me your plate, William darling.”

Later, after the table had been cleared, Jennifer began rummaging through the fridge. “Who’s for dessert?” she asked, emerging with a black forest gateau.

“Mmh,” Ed mumbled.

“Yes please,” Eva said.

“None for me, dear,” Dr Poots said.

William was about to answer when Dr Poots turned to him. “You’d better not have anything sweet until I’ve taken a look at that tooth, William.”

William opened and closed his mouth, then nodded weakly.

After watching everyone except Dr Poots eat their dessert, William thanked Mrs Poots for a lovely meal and helped her clear the table. Ed slinked off to his room and William was obliged to sit at the table while Jennifer and Eva enjoyed the largest coffees ever recorded. Dr Poots had long since made his excuses and gone off to some other section of the house that held more immediate interest.

It was just as William was hoping the last dregs of the coffee might be in sight when Dr Poots returned. He had rolled up the sleeves of a new shirt and was grinning in what William feared was macabre anticipation.

“Right, William. Everything’s set up, come on. Let’s get to know each other a bit.” He gestured at William to get up and join him.

“Dad, please, we’re having a conversation,” Eva said and William became retrospectively aware that he had been engaged in a vague discussion about where he came from, who his family were, what he hoped to achieve from life.

“Darling, let William relax. He doesn’t need to be subjected to your torture chair this evening.”

All colour drained from William’s face and ran down his back in the form of cold drops of sweat. “Torture chair?” he asked, injecting the words with his best attempt at humour.

“His dentist’s chair,” Eva said, rolling her eyes. “Dad, leave him alone.”

“Eva, William here has the chance to get his tooth seen to by one of the best dentists in the country. He’s not going to pass that up. Now, come on, William.”

William smiled and glanced about the table. His grin slipped away as mother and daughter shrugged and William realised a dental probing was becoming a very real possibility.

“Right, that’s settled that,” Dr Poots said, placing a hand on William’s shoulder.

William followed Dr Poots downstairs into a dark room that smelled strongly of disinfectant, like an operating theatre or a caretaker’s closet. An electric light stuttered into life overhead then hummed along steadily. William glanced about as the room emerged around him. A dentist’s chair of dry green leather was the centrepiece, surrounded by shelves and glass-fronted cupboards stuffed with jars, dusty manila files and yet more taxidermy. A wooden globe stood in a corner and William suddenly wished he was anywhere but there.

“Make yourself comfortable,” Dr Poots said, nodding towards the chair. William laughed nervously, but the sound slowly dropped away inside his chest and he was left with no choice but to do as he was told. The chair was comfortable but as soon as he had positioned himself, Dr Poots advanced and flicked on a bright white light, which he angled carefully over William’s face.

“Eva, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Out of the corner of his eye, William spotted Eva, the girl who was possibly the love of his life, moving about amongst the shelves and cupboards, bringing forth glass jars of blue liquid. A goat’s skull shone white in the dazzling glow. Eva placed a jar on the metal tray at her father’s elbow and began removing metallic instruments. William noticed she was now clad in a pair of plastic gloves and a disposable plastic smock.

Jennifer was standing beside her, dressed in the same get-up and handing the metal instruments to her husband, one by one.

Before William had a chance to call out to Eva, to tell her that enough was enough and that he would make an appointment with his own dentist as soon as was humanly possible, Dr Poots’ face appeared above him like that of a deity looking down from amongst the clouds.

“Open wide.”

William opened his mouth and closed his eyes. He felt suddenly removed from what was going on. It was as if the entire situation was so surreal that it couldn’t possibly be happening. If he could just close his eyes, it would all be over with and they could all go back to being a normal family, and him a normal boyfriend, all of them engaged in polite, normal conversation, him desperately trying not to inadvertently allude to the fact that he knew sex existed.

William’s eyes might have been shut but his ears were not and it was hard to ignore the sound of Dr Poot’s voice calling out numbers, declaring there was a fissure here, or a stain there. “Write that down, Eva,” he was saying.

The sensation of the cold metal probe poking his teeth was amplified by William’s temporary blindness and each jab and scrape felt like a personal attack. Worse was to come when Dr Poots turned his attention to William’s chipped front tooth. To William, it felt as though his future father-in-law had hooked something blunt yet keen behind his tooth and was attempting to pull it apart with this device. William’s hands slipped off the chair’s arm rests.

“Stop squirming there, William. Open up a bit more. A bit more. That’s it. That’s it. Nearly got it.”

The pain was almost unbearable now and William’s eyes snapped open. Dr Poots loomed above him, his eyes wide and fixated, his nostril hairs shaking in a strong down draft. William closed his eyes again but the light that shone above him now seemed brighter than ever. Then, as quickly as the pain had begun, it ended. Dr Poots removed the instrument from his mouth and William’s body went limp as a cold film of relief crept over him.

“Good news, William. It’s nothing serious. You’ll need a veneer. Usually quite expensive, but don’t worry about that.”

William opened his eyes tentatively. Dr Poots was standing some distance away, smiling down at him. Eva sat at a desk of brushed steel, writing something in a brown notebook.

“Yes, I’ll fix you up tomorrow. Anyone who is all right with Eva is all right with me. Don’t you worry about it, no money need exchange hands between family.”

William felt the cold sweat evaporate. “Thank you...” he began but his tongue was dry. He swallowed and tried again. “Thank you very much, that’s very kind of you... Ben.”

“Not to worry, Bill. Not to worry.”

William started laughing to himself. He couldn’t help it. There had never been anything to be afraid of. He pushed himself up on his elbows and began to swing his legs out of the chair.

“Wait a moment, William!” Dr Poots cried, advancing towards him again. “We’ve still got work to do. We haven’t had a look at those molars, yet.”

William’s eyes darted helplessly towards Eva. As if sensing him, she glanced up from her notebook and smiled. Afraid he was being childish again, William sat back down in the chair.

“Now open wide again, please,” Dr Poots said, leaning over him.

Of course it was all right, William thought. Dr Poots was a fantastic man, offering to fix his tooth for free. He came on a little bit strong, but then there was nothing wrong with that, really.

“A bit wider, William.”

William began to feel the instruments prodding his teeth. He kept his eyes open this time, staring up Dr Poots’ nose; the absurdity of this view giving him something else to focus on. His tongue was upsetting the probe. A frown creased Dr Poot’s brow. William closed his eyes and decided not to worry. He was a real character – an eccentric, you might say, but a good man nonetheless. Everything was all right. He had found a good family.

A sharp nudge interrupted his train of thought and a jolt of pain travelled down into his gum. “Oww,” he said around the cold metal probe.

He was expecting a laugh or an apology and when none came he opened his eyes. Dr Poots was leaning closer than ever and William could feel his warm breath against his cheek and eyes.

“This won’t do at all. Not at all. There’s only one thing to be done. Eva, fetch the gas.”

“What?” William cried.

“One of your molars is in a terrible state, William. It’s all but rotted away. It’s on the verge of disintegration. I’m afraid if we don’t act now you’ll be at a terrible risk of gum disease.”

Eva came over, wheeling a thin, grey cylinder towards them, the wheels squeaking with each revolution.

“What’s that in aid of?” William gasped, pushing himself up from the chair.

“Now, don’t worry, son. It’ll all be over soon. We’ll get you sorted out.” Dr Poots smiled, his hand resting firmly on William’s shoulder.

Jennifer appeared above him and pressed his shoulders down into the chair, a flick of blue paint on the underside of her chin. “Just relax,” she whispered.

“It’s OK. It doesn’t matter. Honestly,” William spluttered from around Dr Poots’ gloved fingers.”

A rubber mask came into view, a dark triangle against the light, and then it descended and filled his vision. The light shining down on him became dim, making William feel as though he were drunk. Time passed in slow motion as William became numb to the feel of Dr Poots’ elbows in his ribs. The last thing he saw before the darkness came over him was Eva smiling down at him, with love in her eyes.


Tom Ward is a London-based author and journalist. He is the winner of the GQ Norman Mailer Award 2012 and the PPA New Consumer Magazine Journalist Of The Year award 2017. His books include 'A Departure' (shortlisted for the People's Book Prize 2014) and Fires (2017). His short story collection Dead Dogs & Splintered Hearts is out now. Follow him on Twitter at @TomWardWrites