The dentist’s drill – not the high-pitched one that screams like a banshee, but the low growler with a head like a Phillips screwdriver – was boring deep into the bone of my skull when my mobile phone rang. 

“Do you want to answer that,” the dentist asked. His name is Maxence but I’ve never seen his face, which is always hidden behind a surgical mask. 

“Urrrgh,” I replied. 

Maxence nodded. “Then let it ring,” he said. “But are you in pain? You seem to be gripping the arms of the chair rather tightly.” 


I shifted my gaze to the nurse busy suctioning my already dry mouth. Her name is Clothilde and I’ve never seen her face either, though I rather think she’s pretty. She told me to relax. I tried not to swallow. The phone in my pocket fell silent. 

The truth is, I had been fearful of this particular rendezvous for more than two weeks, ever since Maxence first explained his plan of attack. He was going to drill – excavate is probably the more accurate term – ten millimetres into the bone of my upper-right jaw and then insert a cylindrical post that three months later, once the bone had united with the post, would form the base for a metal butée onto which my new tooth would finally be screwed.

Before he began, with me silently gibbering, Clothilde wheeled a trolley over my prostrate form all the way up to my chest. On the table were laid out the various instruments that were about to be deployed. They all looked sharp. I was reminded of that scene in one of the Bond movies in which the villainous Doctor Kaufman, bent on torture, shows 007 the tools of his trade. 

But I shouldn’t have worried. In fact, though the growler drill made my head spin, especially when Maxence yanked it around to achieve the exact diameter required for the butée, I felt no pain. He is a master craftsman and, I would say, keen that his patients should live to see another day. 

Clothilde agreed that I had been very brave. 

Now came the worst part: the reckoning. As in the UK, dental treatment in France is largely ignored by the state health system. You get a tiny bit back to help with the cost of fillings, but after that you are on your own. My top-up insurance, which costs my wife and me a combined €2,500 a year, is equally useless. It covers maybe five percent of the bill. Everything else – which can run into thousands of euros – is left to the individual.  

Why this should be the case, I can’t say. Probably to save money. Seventy per cent of everything else in the health field is paid for by the carte vitale, including medicines and time spent in hospital, with the rest remunerated out of top-up insurance. But not dentistry, the perennial orphan of modern medicine 

Hang on, though, I hear you ask. “What were you doing in Rennes? Don’t you live deep in the Breton countryside? And where was your wife in all this?” First things first. Louisa had not left me to face my ordeal alone. She was in the waiting room reading an old copy of the New Yorker. As a matter of fact, she was next up, to have a crown fitted – a procedure that didn’t even require anaesthetic. Ha! 

The issue here is that our local dentists, both Romanian, upped sticks without notice, and no other dentist for 20 miles around would take us. The old Hungarian in Carhaix whose equipment included a drill operated by a foot treadle had finally retired, and the only other contender, a statuesque woman resembling Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones, had barred Louisa for demanding novocaine for a routine filling. There is an acute shortage of dentists in rural France. They all want to live in the cities, where there are people with money hoping to model their teeth on those of the late Jean-Paul Belmondo. Rennes – 120 miles up the N12 – turned out to be our nearest option. 

It was worth it, though. Maxence offers the kind of treatment that my father – who had all his teeth extracted at the age of 25 on the advice of a neanderthal practitioner – could only dream. Louisa, unlike the Queen consort, can now boast a new crown, and in three months’ time my implant will be completed and I can stop drooling. 

The mystery caller, by the way, turned out to have been my son, checking in from London. He wanted to know my thoughts on Liz Truss and poor old Kwasi Kwarteng. 

Again … urrrgh!