‘It’s how they recognise the dead people.’
The receptionist announced it when you checked in today. The swaggery one who’d gloated how new grilles in the patient toilet would stop the skint from sneaking out and the junkies from breaking in. But today she’s no interest in entertaining her queue. Hand covering the receiver, chair swivelled away from the counter, and you notice how she’s sporting her first strands of silver.
‘No mum,’ she hisses, ‘not the police. It was CID. We had CID in here. Our dental records – they were wanted.’
You think about what she said as maggots crawl round your insides for the twenty-seven minutes it takes until your name is tannoyed into the waiting room, and you’re summoned to Clinic Room Two.
You’re thinking about what she said when you’re floored by a wall of disinfectant, and you wonder how cold a morgue must feel. You shiver as gloved-fingers lay out a chilling array of pliers and scalpels, but it’s sweat that melds your back to the wipe-clean black plastic.
You think about what she said as the dentist squinches up his eyes to scrutinise your X-ray, and you ponder how crow’s feet are one of the first signs of aging, but not everyone will get the privilege to become old. You’re thinking about life chances as he turns, looks at you pityingly and says, ‘I’m sorry, but there’s nothing left to save.’
You mull on those words as he draws up a syringe. You’re transported back to that morning, when hoarse from shouting how you’re a mother not a skivvy, you first found a hypodermic in a mound of dirty washing. You try not to gag as he prods slowly round your gums, having instructed you to, ‘Raise one hand if you can feel anything.’
You think about that question as he yanks, hard, on everything that’s rotten. And your head explodes with the creaking and cracking. But now you’re wondering about the accuracy of dental records for someone who last attended when they wore a school uniform. And whose hand you held tight when they had their first filling. But whose teeth still turned into those foul yellow stumps, behind a smile you seldom saw – just heard their pain, spat in threats. Because your own mouth is a wound, and you wonder if it’s true that blood is really thicker than water.
So when you’re handed the minty-wash to rinse out shards and streaks of red, all you can think now is that green is the colour of Methadone. But the numbness persists when you’re freed from that chair. You check your phone. No voicemail. No news of how there’s been a ‘development’. Because you’ve been telling yourself for years, your daughter had to disappear – to make a fresh start away from this town. And you try not to think of the words you last shouted after she’d stolen your purse for the umpteenth time, and you told her to never come back.
Biography: Kate Axeford (she/ hers) lives in Brighton, loves the sea. She’s made appearances in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Janus Lit, Bending Genres and Splonk, and has been S/L for Bridport and L/L for Bath FFA and Reflex Fiction. Find her @KateAxeford / @kateaxeford.bsky.social