Lidocaine by Kit Habianic
Winner of Linen Press Spring Shorts 2014
Phone-call for you, Alexia. It’s Montague Prynne from BAE Systems.
I look up. Whatshername, the agency girl is framed in the doorway. Why the girl has to walk to my office, rather than phone through, I have no idea. I’ve no idea, either, why she thinks we’re on first-name terms. And – dear god – is she chewing gum?
The ache in my tooth has hit ten on the Richter scale. But I can’t turn down a call from BAE Systems. That’s one client I can’t afford to lose. I nod to Whatshername to put him through.
Monty, I purr.
Montague Prynne is not happy.
Yes, Monty, I say. You’re absolutely right to be cross.
Monty is not to be soft-soaped. Our just-in-sequence performance has fallen below target, creating bottlenecks at a critical point in the value chain.
Pain scythes my temples. A lobotomy would surely hurt less. I sigh.
Listen, Monty, I say. Yes, we’ve had to reschedule production to adjust to the downturn. But BAE is our number-one priority at Kylatronix. I’ll call Mexico tonight. We’ll sort this out.
His answer begins with B, ends with T and concludes with the line going dead.
The office is too warm, my bouclé winter suit and silk stockings clammy against sweat-damp skin. I bury my face in my hands. When I pull them away, my fingertips are wet. I walk to the wall of glass that overlooks the Thames. The river is black and oily under a thunderous sky. I long to wrench the window open, to let the air cool my face, but the frames are hermetically sealed.
The throbbing in my skull makes me shaky, almost high. I stagger across the room, shut the door and sit, head lowered between my knees, until the flow of blood returns.
This can’t go on.
I look at the bank of clocks on the wall: Seattle, New York, London, Dubai, Hong Kong. Just gone four, the middle clock says. When did I last leave the office before seven? I lay my silver and black enamel pens – fountain, ballpoint, matching pencil – parallel to the blotter, pack laptop into briefcase and shrug my shoulders into a too-warm coat.
Office door locked, I put my head around the corner to let Whatshername know I’ll be working from home for the rest of the day. I tell her who can and cannot be put through to my mobile. As I speak, I know she’ll connect the cold callers, tell account clients to call me back. As an afterthought, I lock the stationery cupboard.
Glass elevator, soundless, delivers me from 18 to LG in seconds.
Dentist’s waiting room: fluorescent strip lights and grey-faced people coughing into waiting-room copies of Reader’s Digest and What Car. Each time I come, I vow to switch to a dentist that’s exclusively private. But the surgery’s near the office, at least. In any case, I’m only here for a prescription. Give me painkillers, I’ll be on my way.
After nearly an hour, at last a summons. Lights brighter still, and a broad-shouldered figure in white at the back of the room, hunched over my dental notes.
Take a seat, he says, not looking up. What seems to be the trouble, Miss Baxter?
Toothache, I say. I need painkillers, double-quick.
We’ll be the judge of that, he says.
The dental nurse dispenses plastic bib, mouth rinse and tissues, and points to the chair. I sit, skirt riding up my thighs. I sigh and cover my legs, but the dentist reacts to none of it. Is it professional detachment? His indifference borders on rude.
Right, he says. Let’s have a look.
Chair tilts backwards. A glimpse of tanned cheekbones, before the light descends, blinding. Big forearms, studded with dark hair. Large hands, less clumsy than they look. Fingers in my mouth, thickly probing. A flash of steel.
OK, so let’s see. He taps the probe against my teeth one by one. Does this hurt? No? And this?
Hmm. And this?
Pain implodes my skull. I lurch forwards, a reflex snapping my jaws shut. He pulls his fingers clear just in time.
Ah, yes, he says. That’s it.
He stuffs a piece of plastic in my mouth and places the x-ray machine next to my jaw. Then he and the nurse leave the room.
A click. A whirr. Then silence. After a while, he strolls back in with the x-ray slides. The clock on his wall says five-fifteen. I’d planned to call the supply chain people in Tijuana at six to bang some heads.
He pushes the light away from my eyes; chair winches to upright. He’s hunched over my notes again. His hair is buzz-cut velvet at the nape of a well-shaped skull.
So it’s what, Mr –?
He looks like a Daniel, or a Joshua; perhaps a Seth. Something strong and Biblical.
It’s Mr Whalin, he says. Let me just double-check your details. Address?
Same as before, I say. Same address; same home and work numbers.
Mobile, he says.
Planning to call me after hours, Mr Whalin?
Mr Whalin jerks round in his swivel chair. Above the surgical mask – why still the surgical mask? – he has blue Clint Eastwood eyes. They look at me, those eyes, and narrow further.
It’s for our records, he says. He raises a hand to his face to unhook the mask, then stops, as though thinking better of it. I think I have his attention now. I tell him my number.
So, you’ll be giving me painkillers and penicillin, Mr Whalin?
His eyes crinkle. I wonder if he’s attractive.
Unfortunately, Miss Baxter, it’s more complicated than that.
The clock on his wall edges towards five-thirty.
Complicated how, I say.
You have an abscess, he says. We’ll have to go in, clean it out, treat the root. Otherwise, you’ll lose the tooth.
But I don’t have time, I say.
Neither do we, he says. Not tonight. Come back tomorrow, we’ll sort you out then.
But the pain, I say.
Ibuprofen, he says. That should take the edge off it.
Ibuprofen, I say.
He can’t be serious.
Until tomorrow, then, he says. Magda will book you in good and early.
The nurse unhooks the bib and ushers me out. In the doorway, I turn back to look at Mr Whalin. He’s taking off his mask. Before I see his face, the girl has closed the door.
I stagger out into the dark and the cold. Rain falls gentle. I stumble to the chemist on the corner for painkillers and water. Pills swallowed to no effect. Streetlights strobe on wet tarmac. Taxis are nowhere to be seen. But there’s no one to go home to, in any case. Not any more. And perhaps the walk will ease the pain.
By the time I reach St Katherine’s Dock, I’m nicely numb. At home, heels swapped for the ease of slippers, I ping a ready-meal in the microwave, pour a single-malt scotch. Stretch in front of the television on the sofa. Calfskin leather lulls me to sleep. Wake up later, television on, river lights filtered thin through the blinds.
Outside, the Thames ribbons silver in the half-light. I swallow more painkillers, climb into my empty queen-sized bed and realise I forgot to call Mexico.
Mr Whalin is snapping his hands into latex gloves when the nurse shows me in. His face mask is already in place. What is it with the face mask? Is he hideously disfigured underneath it? Maybe he has a hare lip, or an overbite or – yuk – botched dental work? Bad for business, that.
He gestures to me to sit; chair tilts back until my head is in his lap. As he angles the light to hit my face, I see dark eyebrows, long eyelashes. He wears a light aftershave, lemon-and-rosemary fresh.
Right, Magda, he says, mirror and sickle probe.
He hasn’t wished me good morning.
I don’t waste time on small talk either, as a rule, but his indifference feels studied. I stretch my spine, sinking into the overstuffed plastic, and shift my head. Grips dislodge; fresh-washed hair escapes from chignon, cascading into Mr Whalin’s lap. A waft of the gardenia shampoo that works with, not against, my Chanel No 5.
My hair is a weapon of mass distraction, my ex-boyfriend used to say. It has the colour and sheen of ravens’ wings. Sometimes, when pitching to important new clients, I leave it loose for effect.
Mr Whalin’s hands hover above my mouth. His fingers shake a little.
Oops, I say.
He used to marvel at my hair, my ex-boyfriend. We don’t see each other now. Men sap your energy and make demands on your time. And yes, I have needs. But there’s a solution for that in a box in my bedside drawer. It doesn’t under-perform, then demand reassurance; will never run off with my PA. Unlike my ex. When clients ask about my personal life, I feel uncomfortable. My private life has nothing to do with work.
Never mind, Mr Whalin says. Let’s take a look, shall we.
You’re the boss, Mr Whalin.
We won’t sort out the root canal today, he says.
What does that mean?
Mr Whalin leans forward, my lip gripped between his thumb and forefinger, and prods the tooth. I’m in no position to argue, as he explores my mouth with confident fingers.
Yes, he says. We’ll clean out the infection, let things settle a week. Then we’ll have you back for the root canal.
Any excuse to see me, Mr Whalin?
But my mouth is full of his fingers, and he doesn’t hear.
You’ll be fine, he says. Lidocaine and syringe, Magda.
He eases the needle between my jaws, placing the tip against my gum.
This won’t hurt too much. A quick shot, and you’ll go numb.
Needle pierces skin, sinks through flesh; connects and releases. White-hot pain, colours flash behind my eyes, then – stillness.
See, that wasn’t so bad, he says.
He pulls the syringe away. The liquid flooding bitter in my mouth has the holiday taste of mosquito repellent and ayurvedic herbs; citronella, maybe, or eucalyptus.
But the glare that dazzles me is not the sunlight of Kerala, and Mr Whalin is not my muscled private masseur.
He grips my lip again, prodding teeth and gums, forearms resting on my shoulders. I tilt my head. His eyes are lapis-blue under the glare of the lamp. He leans in, a knee brushing my arm, and I’m shaking, suddenly, light-headed.
Can you feel it, he says, tapping my jaw.
Should I tell him yes, or no?
Friction-grip bur, Magda, he says.
A high-pitched whine fills the room. I brace myself, body rigid, hands clasped across my chest, for the pain. The sound reverberates inside my head. I close my eyes and force my breathing to slow. At last the drilling stops. The room is silent, but for the ticking clock and the scrape of metal against tooth enamel.
Hmmm, nasty. We need to drain that, and fast.
He leans in close again, until our faces are almost touching. My cheek is hot beneath his fingertips. He’s so close, I find it hard to breathe.
Calcium hydroxide, Magda, he says.
More tapping, scraping, tamping down.
We’ll see you in a week, then, Miss Baxter.
No, I’ll be fine now, thanks, I say, shaken.
Chair tilts back to vertical. I leap up and grab my coat. The dental assistant bounds across the room to retrieve the bib.
But you must have the root canal, Mr Whalin says. The pulpectomy only clears the infection: we need to excavate and seal the tooth.
I fix my hair and try to smile. Which isn’t easy when your face is numb and you fear you may be dribbling.
It’s really not necessary, I say. I’m sure you’ve done a great job.
Mr Whalin stands and blocks the door. He’s taller than I expected, with a dancer’s spring-loaded strength. Off come the latex gloves, but not the paper mask.
You must finish the treatment, he says.
Look, Mr Whalin, I say – exasperated now – I have a components supply firm to manage. It doesn’t run itself.
There’s a serious risk you’ll lose the tooth, he says.
Why don’t I get back to you, I say.
Trust my professional opinion, Miss Baxter.
My head barely reaches his shoulder, despite my four-inch heels. I’m guessing we’re similar in age, although his seriousness makes him seem older. But I don’t let men outmanoeuvre me. To be intimidated by a man in white polyester would be ridiculous.
I’ll call you, Mr Whalin, I say.
It’s the path of least resistance.
You better had, Miss Baxter.
He’s back at his desk, hunched over his notes, not looking at me.
I pay the bill at reception and say I need to check with my office to schedule my next visit. I’m lying, of course. With luck, the tooth will hold.
Back in my office, the middle clock approaches eleven thirty. Montague Prynne has called five times, but Whatshername refused to put him through. The Lidocaine is wearing off, gums screaming raw, headache imminent.
I pop four Ibuprofen and let the numbness return before calling back.
Monty Prynne wants blood. He emailed the man in Tijuana, and knows I broke my promise. I try and fail to pacify him. As penance, I work through lunch, calling new suppliers, and come up with a shortlist of seven. Monty, ungracious, refuses to commit. It’s all I can do not to slam down the phone.
By afternoon, the Lidocaine glow is gone. Painkillers make me drowsy but fail to dull the pain that drags at my lower jaw. At five-fifteen, with no decision from BAE, I give up and go home.
If I can’t eat, I can drink, at least. Tonight’s scotch is a large one. Television blares recession. As though the downturn is breaking news. The war is winding down in Iraq. There’ll be no new tenders for Kylatronix. Not for months. The first scotch hasn’t hit the spot. Although it’s a week night, I pour another. Tonight, I deserve it.
Some weekends, when work has been especially grim, I hole up in my flat and drink myself comatose. But never on a week night.
I watch a DVD and push Monty Prynne, and shareholder dividends, and blue-eyed dentists from my thoughts. Of course I do. My teeth are the least of my worries.
The phone rings.
Oh god. It’s my ex-boyfriend.
Who is this?
Forgotten me already, sweetheart?
I’m busy, I say.
Someone with you?
I let my silence deceive him.
Well, that’s great, Alexia, he says. I’m happy for you. Bring him to the wedding.
Wedding? But he can’t be marrying my… Not that I care.
What a shame, I say. I’ll be in Dubai.
But I haven’t told you the date, he says.
I pretend not to hear him.
It’s really too bad, I say. You know how it is.
Oh, yeah, he says. I know how it is.
After that, I need another stiff one. Though it’s not my style to dwell on the past. Mixed with painkillers, the booze leaves me buzzed. Maybe I will have that root canal. Why become a toothless hag before my time? And suddenly the surgery card is in my hands – how’d that happen? – and I’m dialling the out-of-hours emergency line. It’s an answer phone, of course. But I slur a garbled message into it anyhow.
Mr Whalin looks concerned when I walk in. At least, I think he looks concerned. It’s hard to tell, what with the surgical mask. But he stands when I walk in, and that’s a first.
Good to hear back from you, Miss Baxter; how’ve you been?
Oh. God. He must have heard my message.
I flick my hair and look at him from beneath my eyelashes. I’ve been in pain – so much pain, I say.
You’re in safe hands, he says.
I climb into the chair and let the dental assistant fuss around with bib, mouth rinse and tissues.
Broach files from the store cupboard, Magda, he says.
He lowers the chair to horizontal. The scent of lemon and rosemary seems heavier today. I like it. My face is hot under the lights as he reaches around, slips a gloved finger between my open lips.
You’re nervous, he says, pulling back.
I’m tense, that’s for sure. Is it fear, or something else?
Well, you know – dentists, I say.
He chuckles softly.
It’s OK. We don’t bite. Much.
He brushes past me, flicks a switch. Soft music fills the room. Something classical, soothing.
Does that help?
It’s nice, I say.
The girl comes back with a tray.
Right, Mr Whalin says. Let’s make you good and numb. Lidocaine, Magda.
The prick of the syringe hurts more this time. I writhe in the chair as the needle goes in, and squeeze my thighs together, stocking tops rough against my skin. He rests his hand on my collarbone and removes the syringe.
Relax – you’re doing fine.
The music soars, as the drugs take hold. The scent of lemon aftershave fills my head, and I’m floating on a swell of cellos. His fingers are in my mouth. I want to close my lips around them. But he’s quick and efficient, unfurling dental dam and clamps.
Now bite, he says.
Would you like that, I say, woozy.
But my mouth is full of padded springs that hold my jaws apart, and the drill drowns out my words.
More drilling, then picking and scraping sounds.
I clench my hands, nails dug into palms, legs tense and pressed together.
His fingers brush my cheek.
Easy now, and breathe. Broach files, Magda.
His hand is near my chin, holding what looks like an acupuncture needle. For a while, after my boyfriend left, I tried alternative therapies for anxiety and stress.
The acupuncturist talked yin and yang, and liver qi, and stuck needles in my feet. But I just didn’t buy it. Not acupuncture, or auyrvedic massage in Kerala, or herbal pills – not any of it. That’s probably why none of it helped.
I look up at Mr Whalin. His eyes are narrowed against the light, blue gaze focused.
His hands are in my mouth again, needle-like file between his fingers as he jabs and prods the tooth. The music swells and gathers pace. His fingers connect with the rhythm, jabbing harder now and faster. I squeeze my eyes shut. His face is at my ear, knuckles graze my cheek. Heat radiates from his skin to mine, as the music builds towards a peak. My breath synchronises with his breath, and…
The intercom crackles.
Your twelve o’clock’s here, Mr Whalin.
And he pulls away.
Right, he says. That’s done. We’ll just fix the crown.
His touch is gentle now. My breathing slows to normal.
X-ray, Magda, he says.
He removes dental dam and clamps, slips card and metal between my teeth and lowers the camera. Then he and the nurse leave the room. A click, a whirr.
A low whisper of bassoons.
I open my eyes.
Mr Whalin is in the doorway, paper mask in his hand. There’s no hare lip or botched dentistry. Just a wide, well-shaped mouth, upturned creases at the corners.
He’s looking down at me, expression thoughtful.
I feel vulnerable, suddenly. Exposed.
All done, then, he says. You take care.
I stand shakily, and straighten my skirt. He hands me the cardboard envelope containing my dental notes, then turns to his tray of instruments.
Are we done? I think we both know what happened just now.
But the girl takes me by the elbow and steers me towards the door. I stand outside, uncertain, suddenly. But Mr Whalin is preparing for his twelve o’clock and doesn’t look at me. Even so, I flick my hair behind my shoulder one last time as I turn into the corridor, high heels unsteady on slippery tiles.
At reception, the bill comes to several hundred pounds – he’s no cheap fix, Mr Whalin.
I hand over my card, punch in the security code with a smile.
We interviewed Kit about her writing.
Do you enter short story competitions regularly?
When I started writing creatively, yes. I had pieces longlisted for the Bridport and shortlisted for the Willesden Herald short-story prizes. But in the last few years I’ve been tied up writing, rewriting and trying to get my novel out there. So I haven’t entered anything for a couple of years.
What urged you to specifically submit to Linen Press Shorts?
Linen Press nearly took a punt on my novel, Until Our Blood is Dry. The novel is set against the miners’ strike in South Wales, exploring how the year-long dispute ripped apart the lives of two families and changed the lives of people living in the UK’s one-time industrial heartlands forever.
Although the novel is about what the dispute did to the miners’ women, two of the point-of-view characters are male and Lynn felt the book was too masculine to fit a women’s press list.
I came away with a good feeling about Linen Press and one night visited the website to look for the manuscript submission guidelines to pass on to a writer friend. It was late and the first thing I saw was the Linen Press Shorts submissions call-out, with a deadline set for midnight, and I entered Lidocaine on impulse.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Once upon a time, I was a spiky, experimental writer. A couple of years ago, I was feeling depressed about my novel, which was struggling to find a home, wondering whether, in all the years of workshopping and re-editing, my writing had lost its grit and spirit and bite.
I missed the days when my writing was all about spiky short stories and wrote Lidocaine mostly to see whether I still could.
What phrase are you most proud of in your submitted work? Why?
One thing I’ve learned from editing and re-editing and workshopping my novel is that the sections where you feel particularly smug about your writing are often the sections where your prose teeters into Writing, capital W. Lose that florid phrase. Axe that clumpy metaphor.
“Kill all your darlings,” Faulkner said.
Faulkner knew about prose.
What are your thoughts on the contemporary short story? Are there trends you’ve noticed? Is this a dying genre?
Recently, the brilliant short-story writer George Saunders has attracted mainstream acclaim for his collection Tenth of December, leading some commentators to hail a renaissance in short fiction.
One argument is that a technology-led revival is under way, because short stories are ideal for reading on phones and tablets. But if a technology-led revolution really is under way, shouldn’t the major newspapers be making space for short stories and flash fiction and poetry on their websites? There’s little evidence that this is happening.
The new spaces for short stories are almost all independent ones, which is cause for cheer if it allows greater diversity. But it would also be great to see the mainstream media incorporate more fiction into their content mix.
My novel is being serialised in Welsh daily newspaper the Western Mail in 350-word chunks and novelists from Charles Dickens to Armistead Maupin wrote fiction to appear in serial form. But today the mainstream makes little space for fiction in any form, whereas in the Sixties, when my mother came to this country, talented writers wrote short stories for everyday women’s weeklies.
It’s very hard for new writers to find publishers for one-off pieces, let alone for short-story collections. When my short stories started to appear in print, my tutor Jacob Ross – the Grenada-born novelist who made his name writing short stories – was the first to urge me to get cracking on a novel.
Do you have a favorite short story you would advise us to read?
The Knife Thrower by Steven Millhauser is sharp and subversive and breaks a heap of rules by using the first-person-plural point of view. Another favourite is Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield, which mines the void between how others see us and how we see ourselves. Then there’s Tell Me Yes or No by Alice Munro, which explores deeply felt pain through an unreliable narrative. And for protagonist as nasty piece of work, there’s John Cheever’s The Five Forty-Eight.
That’s just for starters. I could go on and on and on…
Kit Habianic is the author of debut novel Until Our Blood is Dry (Parthian Books, April 2014), the coming-of-age story of an overman’s daughter from the Welsh Valleys set during the year-long miners’ strike.
With everything to win and everything to lose, the dispute forces Helen Pritchard, her father Gwyn and her lover Scrapper Jones to make decisions that threaten to destroy their lives, their families and their community.
Until Our Blood is Dry is running as the Morning Serial in the Western Mail to mark the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike and was named book of the month for May by the Welsh Books Council and independent booksellers in Wales.