I have a problem wherein I am unhinged — I mean quite literally, I am making no reference to mental instabilities here. There are no hinges in my jaw like you probably have and the bottom bit sort of glides around on a track more out of memory than actual mechanics. As he shoved tampons in my mouth to staunch the flow of blood post-wisdom teeth removal, the oral surgeon asked if maybe I’d like to get some wires or bolts or whatever drilled into my unformed hinges lest the whole thing dislocates like a snake’s when I’m tackling a particularly impressive kebab. As I already walk around with knees held together by screws I declined — I have enough trouble at airport security gates as it is.
I work with a guy who is properly funny — like, certifiably funny, or at least he would be if he got a certificate for being funny on stage at the annual Hackney Empire comedy thing. Maybe he did, but by the time I weaselled my way backstage Nat Metcalfe was holding a paper napkin in one hand and about five chicken legs in the other so if a certificate was proffered that evening its whereabouts are now unknown, the chicken legs less so. One lunchtime we both sat out back eating our various selections from the local Pret (he an All Day Breakfast sandwich, and me a houmous salad as per), when something went horribly wrong. He said something funny. I laughed so hard I shook my jaw out of place and the thing slipped forward and up like a cartoon skeleton singing Knees Up Mother Brown. The top half of my head snapped down hard on my bottom lip, and basically, reader: I bit my own face off.
Well, not off exactly. I bit it hard, but it wasn’t visible, it didn’t draw blood. I spent the rest of the day poking it absentmindedly with my finger wondering if it was getting bigger or if it was my imagination.
The next day it was definitely bigger, but not unattractively so. The day after that it was bigger still. At the point where I started looking less like Angelina Jolie and more like Bubba from Forrest Gump, I decided to take action. I went to a walk-in clinic in Wembley because that’s where I happened to be when the panic set in, sat for two hours beside people who looked like they were actually dying, and when I was finally called in the blunt nurse who walked like a Nazi with rickets told me to stop being ridiculous: it’s ONLY a soft-tissue bruise, STOP touching it, put DOWN the Bonjela and STOP KISSING BOYS. “Get out of my surgery.”
For a month I tried to convince myself that she was right: I was being ridiculous and I did use this as an excuse to eat Bonjela. But if it was only a bruise: why was it getting bigger still?
I went to another doctor. She pulled my lip out as if to wedge an African tribal plate in there. Still holding it yanked thusly towards her person she concluded that I had done some fundamental damage to my insides, namely: I had bitten my saliva gland clean in half and for the last six weeks it had been steadily pumping spit into my bottom lip as opposed to my mouth, where it should be. My reply was the voice of John Merrick.
Could she cut it out? I slobbered hopefully on her hand. She couldn’t. It was way out of her jurisdiction to be cutting out peoples’ insides. She said she would refer me to the dentist down the road on account of they deal with oral things such as mouths.
I heaved myself down the road to the dentist, dragging my unfeasibly large mouth through the door and into an emergency appointment. The lady pulled my lip out with a deft pincer-grip and once again I looked up in hope. Blinded by the spotlight and with latex gloves in my gob, and I asked her: Canyouthiickssshhhhnee?
She explained what I had done, gland-wise, and said it was out of her jurisdiction to be cutting out peoples’ insides. I was pinged off out of out of her office like a sadfaced pinball.
The dentist made an appointment for the following month with an oral surgeon in Peckham, a place I had been to only once (for disappointing Chinese) and whose reputation in my head was cemented by a housemate of yore who, being a doctor, explained the difference between Brixton gangs and Peckham gangs based solely on what he had seen in the emergency room at the hospital. “The Peckham boys stab people in the bottom!” he said. “In the bottom, Campbell!” This tidbit of remembered information did nothing to allay my fears as it bubbled helpfully to the surface of my brain.
Because I was so hideous to behold, the intervening month was spent in my own personal fortress of solitude, where I and my fat lip wasted entire days watching endless re-runs of America’s Next Top Model (I became familiar with and had favourites in at least four cycles, plus also one Canadian cycle, two English and half an Australian) whilst surviving on mostly instant porridge sachets and last year’s Christmas puddings, which my flatmate had bought and wrapped then neglected to post. I convinced myself that I was definitely being led into a backalley abortionist’s who amputates faces on the side, and the final unveiling (ie. the unwinding of several dramatic feet of dubiously stained bandages) would be not unlike Jack Nicholson’s Joker reveal in Batman.
On the morning of my surgery I sat frozen in the waiting room. There were no magazines in that clinical green cell in South London. Having filled out the forms, forgotten to bring a book, and exhausted all five variations of the Wash Your Hands! personal hygiene posters on the walls, I had nothing left to read, and nothing to see but the frosted window that looked into the tiny surgery. I could hear a man with a heavy speech impediment explaining to the surgeon why he was there. A clumsy dentist’s hand had slipped and cut the man’s tongue. The clumsy dentist decided she was not qualified to fix it (having barely been qualified to be near it in the first place) and arranged for the very appointment the man now sat in. In the months between then and now his tongue had fused to the bottom of his mouth and would now have to be carefully jimmied apart. Your narrator did not feel so brilliant, no.
When I went in I was introduced to two students who would be sitting in on the procedure. The surgeon was a big old Jamaican guy with a full-body laugh and eyes that said he was smiling even though his face was obscured by a white paper mask. He gave me some protective glasses, laid me down, patted my head and told me to stop looking so worried. I wanted to hug him until then he started with the teaching:
“We gon’ slice de lip opahn to reveal de swollahn gland,” he said, and did. The male student peered down and pulled a face. “Don’t be pullin’ faces at de girl! And then we go like so — ”
The student’s cheeks ballooned and he rushed from the room as if to vomit. “Heh heh, boys, eh. Dey ain’t so tough.”
The female student stood holding the suction tube pointed in the direction of my face as the surgeon went on to explain that he was now pulling back the inner lip skin to reveal the swollen saliva gland so as to remove it with the scalpel by cutting —
The female student dropped the suction machine and fled the room mumbling something about blood.
The secretary was called in and told to don some latex gloves and come give him a hand. With a bored roll of the eyes she did so, yanked my bottom lip out with one hand and suctioned the blood off with the other. The bottom half of her body was three feet from the bed to protect her work clothes from gore and splashback; she was assisting surgery in the position would assume to play the arse-end of a pantomime horse.
When the offending gland was removed he dangled it over my protective glasses, wrongfully assuming I wanted to see what looked like a bloodied worm who’d had a balloon for dinner. When he saw a tear roll down my face he tried to catch it with his glove, smearing me with blood in the process. As he sewed me up he said he knew he had to be extra careful, because “When you sewin’ a wo-marn’s lip you gotta be careful or she’ll curse you every time she looks in the mirror.” He tugged and snipped and told me to smile so he could see if he’d put my mouth on right.
I left the surgery with a numb face and a river of bloody drool dripping onto the front of my t-shirt creating a puddle I wouldn’t discover for hours. As I opened the door to go, the surgeon added that I “shouldn’t be eatin’ such sweet delicious tings” because if I wasn’t eatin’ such sweet delicious tings I wouldn’t forget myself and bite my face off.
I didn’t tell him it was Nat Metcalfe’s fault. I can’t even remember what was so funny in the first place.
Related aside: go see him do comedy. So funny you’ll bite your face off.