You could say it’s all my mother’s fault. It was Mum who made me go to the dentist. It was Mum who made me wash. Like many mothers Mum had a religious belief in soap and water.
When I was a small child Mum took me to the dentist, Mister Mc Auliffe. In those days dentists were Mister and doctors were Doctor. Mum tried to make it sound like a treat: ‘Afterwards we’ll go across the street to Mr Iano’s shop and I’ll buy you the biggest apple he’s got.’ I had better reasons, anti-dental reasons, for going to Iano’s. As well as being the fruit shop it was the milk bar: you could buy lollies there. Mum said, ‘Afterwards we’ll get the biggest and brightest and greenest apple in the whole shop.’ Afterwards! I heard a rat. What would happen in-betweenwards?
In between the honeyed talk and the greenest apple was the climb up to Mr Mc Auliffe’s second-floor surgery. From there I had an excellent view of Iano’s lolly shop. Inside that narrow chamber I smelt smells, I heard sounds, I felt vibrations, all novel, all taking place within my mouth. The drill moved with all the speed and softness of a peak-hour cable tram. My teeth were the rails. I felt smoke but could not cry ‘Fire!’
Afterwards, as promised, there was the apple.
Five years later, attending my expensive new school in Melbourne, I stood on the top step of the slide. A pushing-in kid, hostile to this newcomer, tried to push in. I stood my ground. Push came to shove in the back, I fell face-first onto the steel side rail of the slide, arresting my fall with my right front upper incisor. I left part of that upper front tooth in the Mount Scopus playground in St Kilda Road. My parents decided I looked odd and sent me to a dentist. A Melbourne dentist, I discovered, had modern methods of preventing pain by causing pain. The dentist – still mister – squirted local anaesthetic into the nerve nearest the front upper tooth. He said, ‘This will stop you feeling pain.’ Perhaps it did do that, but the injection hurt in a way that was new to me. Mister dentist asked me, ‘Do you want a gold filling?’ I didn’t want anything more this man might do to me. But I didn’t say no so I left those premises unaware of the new vertical glint of gold in my smile. It was a long time before I smiled, longer still before I saw myself in a mirror.
Many decades later grandchildren arrived. They learned to speak. They looked at me, they looked at other humans, and they asked, ‘Saba, how come you got a gold tooth?’
I told them the truth of course. I told them how I fought a gold toothed dragon that no-one else would fight, how I’d killed it and kept one tooth as a trophy.
Every time they saw me, the grandboys would ask, ‘Tell us how you got that golden tooth, Saba.’ I told them how I’d swum into the deepest ocean and fought barehanded the Giant Shark, fought tooth to tooth, how I’d bitten out his black heart, how his blood-red tooth had bitten my gum, had lodged there and rusted and turned gold.’
And again, ‘Saba how did you get that gold tooth?’ I told them about the dinosaurs that caused so much wreckage in my childhood days. ‘You know how Tyrannosaurus wrecks, don’t you, kids?’ I was forced to tell them of my desperate struggle in the dark jungles of Paris, how I saved the Parisees, how Tyrannosaurus died, his black blood turning the dirt streets of Paris black, his last tooth taken as a souvenir – a French word I borrowed from the Parisees – how I had that tooth implanted in my own brave gums. ‘And, kids, today you never see any dinosaurs any more, not even in the dark jungles of Paris. And the streets of Paris are all black.’
All went well for some time. The gold tooth stories nourished hungry young minds, filling them with useful knowledge of geography, of history and of pre-history. The gold tooth gleamed modestly from behind my bulbous lip, a stamp of my enormous, self-effacing courage.
Then my Mum stepped in. Not physically, but in habit ingrained and indoctrinated, Mum’s habit of soap and water, a habit I am embarrassed to admit survives her, years after her death: I showered. And while showering I ran my idle tongue along the inside of my upper teeth, where that slippery pink rasp felt something that was not there: my tooth, my gold tooth, had gone!
That’s life, I said to myself. Sixty years a gold-toothed person, now ungolden. I grinned at myself in the mirror. I looked like a failed terrorist. Something gleamed from the floor of the shower recess. I picked it up and placed it in a urine jar.
I asked the nurses, ‘Is there a dentist in this small town?’ There was, there is. And the dentist’s receptionist had more bad news, ‘You can see him today.’
So I went. The dentist is Doctor now. But he was not the real, dinkum, authentic dentist of my childhood. He covered my eyes to protect me from my own germs. He showed me a horror show on the screen above me: the images were those of my own teeth, my receding gums, my doomed dentition. He did things inside my mouth, asking me questions I never heard in childhood: ‘Does that hurt? Please tell me if I hurt you.’ He used a drill and he didn’t hurt. I think he doesn’t know how. He glued back my bit of gold. I lost my terrorist’s grin.
Nowadays a dentist has lost those old skills, those old black arts; now that a dentist is a Doctor it’s only your wallet that hurts. So a dentist who is a Doctor employs a failed dentist and calls her a hygienist. And she knows how to hurt.