It is a wonderful thing to see Grandmother’s teeth still gleaming in the sun. A sparkling day has them looking at their best and whether we are on a promenade through Kelvingrove or trotting past on the way to Lansdowne Church, people always stop to stare and whisper excitedly. Only yesterday Great Uncle Hugh waxed lyrical at how impressive they are. His visit to the house came unexpectedly early and there was not the chance to brush them in time, but even so he did not notice. As soon as he stepped into the drawing room his eyes alighted upon them with a devilish twinkle and from then on his praise was lavished unreservedly.
‘Oh fabulous! Oh yes! Magnifique!’
There had always been a fraternal rivalry between Grandfather and himself and it was no secret that for decades he had held a great passion for Grandmother. She, of course, was flattered by this and while she referred to it mildly as an enthusiasm, there could be no mistaking a lust bordering on the insane. In fact, as he launched himself across the parquet floor, I suddenly recalled how it was this same ‘enthusiasm’ that years before had led indirectly to Grandfather’s death. It was during a Christmas lunch and Grandmother had just stepped into the dining room carrying the piece de resistance, a large flaming pudding. The servants had been dismissed for the afternoon and her pride in the pudding was so great that she insisted on serving it herself. To place it on the centre of the table she had to pass Great Uncle Hugh and as soon as she was before him, he sank his large hands into the folds of her billowing dress and gripped her buttocks.
‘Oh, Granny!’ he cried lustily.
Grandfather, who was perched in his bath chair in front of her, could only look on in horror as Grandmother squealed and dropped the pudding straight into his lap and on to his long white beard. The flames shot up the beard and in seconds his whole head was aflame. He waved his arms in torment and papery wails filled the room, but before long his spindly frame was reduced to nought but ashes. Alas, he had died . . . . Poor, dear, Grandfather. Our one consolation was that the pudding was found undamaged and we were able to eat it before the undertaker arrived.
It was these distressing memories that flashed through my mind as the heel of Uncle’s false leg hammered across the floor. He was rubbing those same greedy hands, but my wits were about me and I realised his intent. I flicked open my fan and managed to cover the teeth before he had a chance to grasp them.
He halted in dismay. ‘But why can I not inspect them?’
I could tell he was affronted, but summoning my hauteur I explained, ‘It is early Great Uncle Hugh. And you should know better than to burst into the drawing room unannounced. Such behaviour is unwarranted from a gentleman.’
‘Oh, don’t be a bloody spoilsport. Can’t I just touch them? Just for a moment?’
This last he said with a wheeze and I feared his heart might give out, so coquettishly I replied, ‘Well, perhaps later . . . . During elevenses?’
He flared his nostrils and withdrew, twiddling the waxed ends of his moustache with much agitation.
One may guffaw at Uncle’s fervour, but truth be told I completely empathise. The teeth are ‘magnifique’. Once he had left the room I inspected them closely with the aid of my vanity mirror and I must own that I myself was hypnotised by those pristine studs of enamel. It is true that Grandmother’s fancy for Soor Plooms has taken a certain toll: one tooth is missing while a further three have been filled. But in retrospect those cavities could not have been created with more pleasing symmetry than if she had chosen their positions herself. A gold filling shines in a molar at each end of the row, while a third – the inadvertent centrepiece – is set precisely in the central incisor!
As I inspected this particular filling, which covers the face of the tooth entirely, I remembered how, in the aftermath of Grandfather’s departure, Grandmother took to supping gin. She became especially fond of attending church while inebriated and, despite her intoxication, devised an ingenious technique of catching the light with the tooth so as to dazzle the vicar while he delivered one of his interminable sermons. Often he was forced to throw up his arms to avert the sudden glare and in doing so would drop the heavy church Bible on his toes. His howls would echo through the nave, but Grandmother was triumphant and the memory of her delighted cackles brought a tear to mine eye.
She is gone now, dear Grandmother, but how honoured I feel that she bequeathed me her teeth. I admired them once more in the mirror – so becoming they are against the paleness of my neck – then unclasped the silver chain from which they dangle and placed them gently back in their box. Great Uncle Hugh was waiting, but on concluding my reflections I decided that it would be unwise to display them until after tea.
Copyright © David Pettigrew, 2014.
Originally published in Clockworks Vol. 1, Clockworks.
Please do not reproduce this story elsewhere or print out without David’s permission.