The loss of the sun during the long city winters in the early 1900’s promised little by way of prosperity for me, never mind happiness. I lived at the time in a small room above a careworn pharmacy off Lady’s Bridge. The local industry bellowed muck and smog into the valley from the smelters and furnaces to add to the coal and wood fires sending smoke up their chimneys into the noxious miasma.
All the ailments in the city were of its own making, but the pharmacy couldn’t stock fresh air that would have cured the incessant bronchial coughing and emphysema wheezing of its inhabitants. Instead, it contained jars of obscure remedies, many of which were made from my landlords’ own recipes; “handed down the generations” he claimed as he concocted more potions that leaned towards the morbid and infamous like phosphorous which supposedly cured bellyaches but also destroyed skeletal bones and arsenic which he claimed cured malaria (in Sheffield?) but is a deadly poison. Less dangerous but no more likely to cure illness was powdered insects. He said they were specially imported Coleoptera Beetles, but could have been the cockroaches from the kitchen for all I knew.
As I arrived, John was about to close the shop. “Busy day?” I asked.
“Hard times, Mr G. Hard times.” He gestured towards the coins and notes on the counter. “I’m seeing the bank tomorrow. Just when you need them, you can least afford to pay them back.”
I looked more closely and noticed the pile was more pennies than notes. I offered to pay my rent early; “if it will help?”
He refused. He said he had an idea that would change his fortunes which is why he needed to speak to the bank. Again.
On my arrival the next evening, John looked overjoyed. Somehow, he’d persuaded the bank to give him a loan for his new idea. When I asked what it was, he just tapped the side of his nose. “You’ll see. Just wait.” This was typical. The man kept his ideas locked away much like his character. I knew little of him and relied on traits extrapolated merely on tones of voice, sighs, wistful looks. Slight signs. So, to see him so animated was incongruous.
Nothing occurred for a week or so and I could tell that little had happened by way of custom either, but John’s demeanour had altered. He had even set about cleaning the shop and painting the outside signs that were so familiar to me I didn’t initially notice that he had added more services to his list on the window; “Dentistry.”
When I stepped into the shop, I was met by a hideous wooden chair that took up most of the floor with its seat and accoutrements with gruesome looking instruments attached to various parts of a counter.
“Care for a check up of your molars?” he announced.
“With that contraption?” I was aghast. “What qualifies you to even offer this?”
“I’ve been training.”
“Yesterday. At the Sheffield school of dentistry at the Infirmary”
He said the last name as though it carried the prestige of being educated at Oxford.
“But this all looks….”
“Professional?” he suggested.
“Painful.” Was my thought.
“Ahh.” And there it was again. The tap of the nose. He reached down a jar from the shelf. Within it was dozens of red and white capsules. He gave me one, “Take one of these before you go to bed tonight. You’ll see.”
I retired to my room. I was particularly fatigued following another arduous day at Cribbs & Co Funeral parlour where my own particular profession was trading in paupers’ funerals which had increased of late due to the hazardous smoke and cold season but did little to increase our income. I held the capsule between finger and thumb and wondered about old John and his latest idea. I took a glass of water, popped the capsule in my mouth, swallowed with water and lay down on my bed intending a short nap before going out to eat.
I awoke in a daze, still dressed and then distressed to see a weak sunlight coming through my small window. I was confused. I checked my watch. It was already past the time I should have started work. I hurried down the stairs and straight out onto the street.
That evening, when I returned to the shop, John was attending to a customer in the hideous chair. I could see a pair of pliers protruding from his mouth and was expecting a dreadful scream when I noticed the man was completely unconscious. John was extracting several teeth, rotten or not, blood oozing down his chin whilst the man seemed oblivious to the violation.
“I have new customers.” John announced through a canvas mask he’d tied around his face. I could see from his brow a look of zealous intent as he levered another tooth out by way of a foot on the man’s chest.
“How is he even sleeping through this?” I asked. “Or is he already dead?”
John nodded towards the jar of capsules on the shelf. “I think I need to adjust the dosage slightly. There are three others sleeping it off through there.” His nonchalance was disarming as he looked towards the backroom where he stored and mixed his potions.
I wandered through to find three snoring men flat on their backs. Each had sunken faces like they were sucking on lemons and worse was the mess of blood and drool down their shirt fronts.
“John, you’re extracting all their teeth, rotten or not. This is assault. They will surely sue as and when they wake up. Have you lost your mind?
“Not at all.” The evidence on his face suggested otherwise.
“I have a further phase to my business plan.”
I dreaded to ask, “What?”
“Open one of the small boxes on the shelf.”
I did as he said. It contained sets of teeth, “What?”