I was in a pleasant conversation a few days ago with three friends. While sitting on a sofa next to one of them, I looked out of the first floor bay window down on a typical calm suburban back garden with a lawn, shrubs and mature trees. I lowered my head to rummage in my handbag for a notebook, leaned back and there, on my right knee, was a small shining object. I picked it up. A tooth.
The conversation continued around me as I anxiously stared at it, my tongue trying to check where it had come from. Nothing had changed. Not many months ago I had cracked a front tooth while biting into a foccaccia sandwich bought at Rome airport, and subsequently had to smile without moving the upper lip. The new false front tooth hadn’t fallen out again. This tooth on my lap looked like a molar. Surreptitiously I tore a sheet out of my notebook, placed the tooth on it and asked my startled friends if anyone had lost it! No, of course not. I wrapped it in the paper and placed it in a zip pocket inside my handbag.
I was lucky to get a quick appointment with my dentist. ‘A crown,’ he said, ‘not from your mouth,’ he reassured me and tossed it into the waste bin. ‘Where could it have come from?’ I asked him. ‘No idea’ and that was that for him. I was left with an uncanny feeling. How could it have appeared unnoticed, on my knee? My neighbour on the sofa hadn’t lost a tooth. Anyway, he was sitting at least a foot away and took it to be a joke. By whom? No one present had any idea. Long past are the joys of losing the first milk tooth and putting it under the pillow for the tooth fairy to take it and leave a coin in its place.
After the tooth-fairy, my later encounters with teeth were of the large, brown-streaked sort, prised open to assess a horse’s age. Always, we are told, look a gift horse in the mouth. I became quite good at this after being sold a ‘young’ Irish gelding who proved to be elderly and set in his ways. Silver was hopelessly uncoordinated in his movements, cantering with his head poked too far forward and given to bolt, tail raised, towards grazing cows. My father bought this badly gelded and short-sighted horse as a gift for passing the Eleven Plus examination. He hadn’t looked in the animal’s mouth. However, this horse fulfilled my dream, even though his teeth betrayed he was older than my father was told. He was grey, called Silver, and I loved his silly soul.
We went hunting with the Chiddingfold Farmers, not the Chiddingfold and Leconfield which was much more up-market. On mornings with a frosty sheen over the grass and drops of rain caught in the spiders’ webs in the hedges, we galloped freely over their fallow fields or, where crops had been sown, trotted along the hedgerows and fences. Though the farmers had a problem with foxes raiding their poultry yards, the hounds never caught any. Every time, fox outwitted hounds. On occasions when we paused, the huntsmen and hounds gathered (‘the unspeakable chasing the inedible’ – am I misquoting Oscar Wilde?), we often caught sight of a fox ambling away from us down a wide path in the woods. Wily he was, aware that the hounds couldn’t scent him if he was in the teeth of the wind, or even see the slim, sly russet animal slinking into the undergrowth.
Before Silver, I used to borrow a barrel-bellied Dartmoor pony called Brownie from the wife of the composer Vaughan Williams. They lived further up the ssame country road. Brownie was so plump I couldn’t find a saddle to fit her, so I went hunting bareback. Her mouth was so hard that if you pulled her head left or right she would continue charging straight on. Small ponies were banished to the back of the cavalcade of riders.
I never see any hunts nowadays. Foxes are shot and often die of gangrene from wounds. Others slink thorough city gardens and feed off refuse bins – I have seen one doing this in London. It was a fine specimen, sleek, well fed and fearless. It just sauntered away into a small park. New urban legends are springing up of foxes entering houses to jump into cots and savage sleeping babes. Is this, I wonder, the latest variation of the Little Red Riding Hood stories?
We talk of a sweet tooth and someone being ‘toothsome’; the original meaning was ‘pleasant to taste’. I still don’t know how that tooth came to rest on my knee!