A word of advice: creme caramel puddings and Müller Rices are the best things to buy a sore-mouthed pensioner who’s pulled out her own wisdom tooth with tweezers. My mam’s pivot to amateur dentistry has been a curveball. Even if she had warned me for weeks that, if dentists continued to stay closed, she’d take matters into her own hands, using a sharp implement. “Wonderful,” I said passively. “What next? Your appendix?”
British pensioners have grown fractious during lockdown. If QVC goes on the blink, the rioting will begin proper. “I rang the surgery 10 times,” she sighed, “but they say I’m too vulnerable to deal with.” This is true. While we were busy saving the NHS, which we did with great gusto, we simply accepted that teeth weren’t that important. “What else was I supposed to do?” Mam mumbled.
“Not pull out your tooth like a 16th-century pirate,” I replied.
By day 80 of the current unpleasantness, I’m no longer using the term “lockdown”. As a country, we’re not under lock or key any more; we’re just not particularly free, either. Neither open nor closed, nor waiting for a roadmap, we’re out on our own and rudderless. Home schooling, home haircuts, home build-your-own burger kits and now, for my mother at least, home tooth-pulling.
Small privileges are being restored, but they are mostly incredibly bewildering ones. What a week for those pining to see the wallabies at London Zoo! Wait no longer to visit the drive-thru safari at Longleat! But it’s not the big things we want. It’s the little ones. As my younger brother said quite succinctly this week: “I don’t want to complain about life – I’ve painted every inch of my house, put up shelves, walked the dog, spent time with my wife – but all I want now is to sit in the pub, drink beer and put bets on the football.”
Britain’s stalled restaurant and pub situation is one of the things I find most aggravating; each shut shop is a community lifeline. Without places to go out, to meet, to eat, to see and be seen, the country feels like a sad, increasingly angry backwater. I think often about all the elderly pub regulars – the ones in every pub in this land – who pop in for a half every day just for the company: a bit of a chat at the bar, a ruffle of the pub dog’s ears and a go on the bandit. They go for a short burst of feeling together. Where are all those people now? And, more to the point, have any of them taken their own teeth out?
Even more saddening, as a restaurant critic, I learn of proprietors surrendering to their fate and announcing that they will never be returning. Their final savings will go on landlord demands and unpaid VAT. If the rules – when we’re actually told the rules, that is – demand that 50% of the tables be removed, the sums will never add up.
For those stoic, stubborn publicans and restaurant owners who are determined to re-open come what may, last Tuesday was a glorious day as titbits of Whitehall gossip hinted that Britain could be eating out again within a fortnight. Shutters up, stoves on! The streets of Soho – and, perhaps, those of Manchester and Edinburgh, too – would be pedestrianised. We’d be eating alfresco, being louche, sexy and continental all summer long. Rejoice! I would take my new Mallen streak and hairy legs to town and eat someone else’s mash and gravy. I’d again wow my readers with my wry looks and backwards glances at the world of food.
By Wednesday, however, the dream was dashed. There will be no comeback in June, or maybe, as it looks for now, July, too. I’m not even feeling so good about August. For lovers of sipping and slurping, of tasting delicious things and playing footsie under tables, the future looks rotten. It feels easier sometimes to stay numb and aloof, and acquiesce that this bland world is permanent. “It’s not the despair, Laura,” said John Cleese, as Brian in Clockwise. “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” My hope for happiness in 2020 is dwindling. I’d give my back teeth to be proved different.