The Dentist

Up until the early part of this very year I had never seen the inside of any dental surgery other than that of Mr Truman. When I finally did so the new fangled gadgetry had me really impressed, I hadn’t realised how far Mr Truman had fallen behind modern dental technology.
Of course it had not always been the case, no not by any means, in fact the first time I attended Truman’s surgery as a small child at my mother’s hand, too young to be even treated at the school dental clinic, the surgery had overawed me with its palatial splendour. The practice was operated by Mr Truman senior, and Mr Edward – Mr Ted as he was known and Ted’s brother Mr George, which always struck me as confliction of terms – respect on the part of the ‘Mr’ but familiarity on the part of the ‘Ted and George’. However it seemed to work efficiently and overcame any potential confusion with the names.
Surely it is not without trepidation that even the bravest of us enter the clutches of the dentist. How I would envy those folk waiting at the nearby bus stop and think whatever their destination it was sure to be less intimidating than mine in the dentist’s chair. Pushing aside the wooden gate in Barley Row one passed through its twin stone portals into a world of semi-silence. The everyday sounds of bustle were left behind to be replaced with new sounds stark and clinical. The doorbell set in the centre of the frosted glass door, drrrring!!! a pause, footsteps thumping along the carpeted corridor, the light through the glass obliterated by a shadowy form, then ‘click’ the door would be opened by the starch white receptionist.
‘Err…I have an appointment with Mr Ted.’
‘Oh yes, what name is it please… Mr Wood, right would you go right through into the waiting room, please.’
On those early visits the waiting room was beautifully carpeted and liberally equipped with a mixture of elegant sofas and rosewood backed chairs. A bay window gave views of everyday people going about their everyday business. Everyday events never appeared as attractive as when viewed from that dentist’s waiting room. A Welsh dresser piled with high class magazines reared against the west wall and across from this the eastern wall centred on a marble fireplace complete with a high mantelpiece that featured a magnificent chiming clock; to this day I believe that to be the most beautiful clock I have ever seen; its case was of finely sculptured mottle blue marble, with delicate pinnacles and spires that climbed high above its face. When I was very young I used to think of it as being Westminster Abbey. Perhaps it reminded me of a picture I had seen of the abbey or perhaps it was something to do with ‘Westminster chimes’.
One by one patients who had arrived for earlier appointments would be whisked away to one surgery or other by the immaculate receptionist. Old Mr Truman had his surgery on the ground floor as did Mr George; Mr Ted had his up the stairs on the first floor. New faces would arrive and fill the chairs of those whisked off to the surgeries but one became increasingly aware that your ordeal would come before theirs.
‘Mr Woooddd…. Next upstairs please.’ I never consider my name sounds pleasant when heard through the mouth of another but especially so when the other happened to be Truman’s receptionist; she spat it out staccato fashion with a long ‘d’ bitten off at the end with obvious please jerking me from my seat like a fire bell.
Then it was upstairs, into the chair and if it was to be an extraction blowing into the gas balloon, the sycamore outside the window waving me goodbye with its mighty branches would gradually retreat into oblivion and the next thing you are conscious of is a voice saying ‘There now, it’s all over, you didn’t feel a thing did you? Just rinse you mouth out into this bowl.’
Then it’s. ‘Thank you Mr Ted’ up onto wobbly legs down the stairs, a triumphant glance at the unhappy folk still in the waiting treatment room – then it’s out through the gateway and into everyday life again and deciding I wouldn’t swop places with the folk waiting at the bus stop afterall.
It does me no honour to admit that in those early days I visited the dentist only when toothache raised its ugly head; in fact my visits were often spaced by several years. In the mid nineteen fifties old man Truman passed away and Mr Ted and his brother continued the practice alone. The surgery seemed to continue as a thriving concern; rarely was a seat free when one entered the waiting room although it saddened me to see that on one of my visits the open fire had been replaced by a gas fire and the clock – that beautiful marble chimer – had been replaced by a modern wooden affair. The overall feeling was that the air of superiority surrounding the establishment had become slightly tarnished.
During the late nineteen fifties and early sixties an even longer period than normal elapsed between my already infrequent visits to Truman’s whilst I busily avoided the army dentists. It was upon release from Her Majesty’s Forces that I returned cap in hand to Truman’s with teeth in a sorry state. The sight of the establishment gave me quite a shock. The whole area seemed run down; the once fashionable suburb had obviously deteriorated seriously; the wooden gate swung slovenly on its hinges and the path had a sprinkling of weeds. Within the waiting room itself the same furniture survived but unmaintained, hollows had appeared in the chairs and horse hair protruded from the odd settee, the Welsh dresser had taken on a dowdy look and its previously upmarket magazines downgraded to the cheap and tatty.
Mr Ted had obviously aged but he set about my teeth with a will – an extraction here, a filling there, sometimes a word of warning, ‘I think we will leave that one well alone, if I touch that it will likely have to come out’. I believed him and though he gave me a modicum of pain and never an injection I considered, ‘better the devil I know than the devil I don’t know’ and bearing in mind he knew which of my teeth to leave well alone I decided to, ‘go all the way with Mr Ted.’
However, that first course of treatment after the army had been a lengthy one and I couldn’t really afford to lose any more teeth so I resolved it would be common sense that in future I should make regular appointments. Every six months I trotted faithfully to the surgery in Barley Row and on each occasion I observed a continuing deterioration.
Mr George passed away leaving Mr Ted to run the practice with the aid of the receptionist who herself seemed to have fallen rather short of the starchy receptionist of my youth. The carpets had given way to oilcloth and rather curt hand written notices had started to appear leaning up against things, the wooden clock for instance which was now permanently stopped or attached to the walls with drawing pins: ‘No smoking, have your national insurance number ready, payment must be paid at the time of treatment, do not adjust the gas fire’ etc.
After about three years of these six monthly visits, Mr Ted surprised me by opening the door himself – the receptionist had gone. Even so Mr Ted continued to operate from his surgery at the top of the stairs; one would have thought he would have taken over one of the ground floor surgeries as all the running up and down stairs seemed to be taking its toll on Mr Ted who himself was now getting on in years: not to mention the inconvenience to the patient who may be at some critical stage in his treatment when the door ball rang. Anyway Mr Ted must have come to this opinion himself for on my next visit the front door was wide open and the bell disconnected it was a matter of wandering to the bottom of the stairs and announcing your arrival and then waiting your turn for Mr Ted to shout ‘NEXT!’ down the stairs. Having the door permanently open caused the waiting room to be bitter cold in winter, especially as the gas fire now seemed dysfunctional and dampness was causing the wallpaper to peel away at the bottom. On one occasion a small rat ran across the waiting room floor. It was either on this or perhaps my next visit that I started to notice the antiquated state of Mr Ted’s dental equipment. As previously expounded my knowledge of dental equipment was scant but even I could see that Ted’s equipment had a Victorian look about it. For instance his main consul was made out of polished wood rather than of a stainless steel construction and his instruments had intricately worked ivory handles reminiscent of a bygone age.
Mr Ted had seemingly decided to stop keeping any dental records but often he wouldn’t bother to touch my teeth at all, these were the times I longed for; I had done my duty in coming for a check up and evidently everything was fine, ‘I’d go along with Mr Ted.’
The magazines dwindled until there was a single copy of ‘Queen’ it was about five years old but if no one had already grabbed it you could pick up on the article you had been reading and had to leave unfinished on your last visit six months previous. The oil cloth had gone altogether as had the curtains, one of the waiting room windows had been broken and boarded, The wallpaper was now peeling in the surgery itself and Mr Ted’s own white coat looked less than hygienic and had a great square tear in the back. It was really getting a bit much when his ancient belt driven grinding tool packed up every time he applied it hard to a tooth. Mr Ted didn’t even seem keen to give me a card for my next appointment; that had never happened before. He said the property may have to come down and showed a general apathy. However, I was not to be lightly pushed onto some butcher who didn’t know which of my teeth to leave well alone. After a period of about nine months I phoned and made an appointment. The district had deteriorated even further several houses were now empty in Barley Row. No one else was waiting in the waiting room when I entered; it was the first time I had ever known this to happen. I shouted up the stairs to announce my arrival and Mr Ted’s now feeble voice bade me to come up… God…He was still in the same coat, the tear now accounted for half of the back and the remainder, speckled with blood from some messy extraction looked far from hygienic, the rinsing bowl was now broken half across and a whole section of the wallpaper had fallen to the floor. It was to my great relief when I was given a clean bill of health.
My mind was made up: I must find another dentist. Yet four or five months later I began to suffer acute toothache, it was the first time in years and I didn’t want it to be tackled by a stranger. I’d go along with Mr Ted for one last time.
The telephone call I made to Truman’s surgery went unanswered, the receiver was ringing out but no one was answering it. Perhaps he only worked on certain days now? I decided to visit the surgery, in person, for one final time. Almost all the houses in the row were now vacated though a liberal sprinkling of people still stood at the bus stop. One of the great black gateposts had tumbled to the ground and was laid askew across the pathway; the paving stones were cracked and littered with fallen bricks. I had to leap across a yawning hole exposing the cellar beneath, where the coal grate had disappeared, in order to reach closed door; miraculously the frosted glass was still intact. The door opened at my touch, inside the small of mould indicated that the dampness had finally gained the upper hand and it was with great care that I tried each rotting floorboard in the passageway – not wishing to be plunged into the newly perceive cellar below.
‘Mr Ted,’I called up the stairs; no answer. With mounting trepidation I began to climb the stairs now entirely bereft of covering. With heightening anxiety and echoing footsteps I turned the corner into the passageway to Mr Ted’s surgery and pushed through the cobwebs protecting his door. Mr Ted was still there leaning across his old console grinning sardonically his blood spattered white coat now completely in tatters. He’d been dead for several weeks so much was apparent from his state of decay and yet I was not repulsed, I had always ‘gone along with Mr Ted’ but he’d had his turn, it was my turn now. His ivory handled tools were still sprawled out in front of him.
I – DREW – HIS – TEETH – ONE – BY – ONE and dropped them into the bowl, ‘Rinse out now please – there now, it’s all over, didn’t feel a thing did you?’ Something didn’t feel quite right in my head but I was enjoying myself now, pausing only to collect a priceless talisman I tore off the rest of the fusty wallpaper than down into the waiting room to pull down all those annoying, curt notices: ‘no smoking – have your National Insurance Number ready – do not adjust the gas fire.’ I felt a childlike exuberance as I skipped out of the gate for positively the last time.
My head is really hurting now but I don’t care but why do the folk at the bus stop look at my so strangely as I stumble up to them in Ted’s beautiful blood splattered coat? Why are they backing off when I show them the half rinsing bowl and my lovely ivory handled instruments, don’t they know: I’m the dentist now? Why are they running away when I tell them I am doing extractions today?
It’s all true apart from the last few lines when my imagination ran away with me.


One Response to “The Dentist”

  1. Doug Farnill Says:

    Thanks for a good laugh, Peter. But, more profoundly, commenting on the story before the quirky ending, this is a magnificent piece of writing, and deserves wide publication. Your beautiful account of personal travail and the evolution and decline of the dental practice, is absolutely top notch. It is also a parable of the ineluctable changes, usually decline, that accompanies our ageing. There is a sadness to it, but also reality, and it touched me quite deeply. Hope you got your tooth fixed :-).

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