Open wide for torture

Medieval_dentistryLast week a Romanian dentist by the name of Anca was told she would no longer be allowed to practise in the UK.

Anca was reportedly shocked by this ruling. As she trudged home from the hearing she must have asked the gods of dentistry where she’d gone wrong.

Had she acted criminally? No! Had she hurt anyone? No! Her only crime had been to offer to install a patient’s dental bridge in a more informal setting – inside a London McDonald’s outlet. Yes, some traditionalists might balk at having surgery on a table smeared with ketchup, but you had to admit it made sense in other ways: free napkins to mop up all the drool, highly absorbent fries to stuff into bleeding sockets .

I’ve been thinking about Anca a lot this week, using her as a kind of worst-case scenario to make myself feel better. I’ve been telling myself that South African dentists are infinitely more professional than Anca, or at least more sophisticated. No, the worst I can imagine is that my dentist might want to operate on me on a table at Tashas.

The trouble is that I’ve run out of time. For years I’ve dodged and delayed. I’ve pleaded poverty and stress. But they always get you in the end. So here I stand, defeated and ready to be led to the Chair. After avoiding it for years, I’m finally going to the dentist.

In case you think I’m being melodramatic, you’re right. But it’s not only cowardice: my history with dentists isn’t good. In fact some of my most vivid childhood memories feature a dentist with the forearms of a blacksmith wrestling a pair of pliers back and forth in my mouth, grunting with effort as he dislodged parts of my skull. Having molars pulled is not very painful, but I don’t miss the sensation – or the sound – of roots snapping deep in my jaw and then breaking free.

Then there were the braces. Not yet into my teens, I thought an orthodontist was a kind of dinosaur, battling chiropodists in the Jurassic muck. Instead I was led into a spa from the 22nd century. White tiles gleamed, understated art hung expensively on the walls, and huge windows revealed a view of ferns. Everyone spoke in low tones. There were smiles. And then they welded brake pads onto my teeth, strung a ship’s anchor chain through them, and tightened the whole apparatus by hitching it to a mill wheel turned by a donkey. The Space Age and the Dark Ages sat side by side in my bleeding, metal-filled mouth.

The results were mixed. My top teeth fell into line faster than the queue outside Conformists Anonymous. The braces, however, merely angered my bottom teeth, and today the revolution rumbles on. I expect the dentist will have to use tear-gas and a water cannon.

As if he didn’t have enough problems already. Among professionals most likely to kill themselves, dentists reportedly come in second behind doctors. Maybe that’s because they’re doctors who keep getting called “dentists” by doctors. Maybe it’s just sadness. Imagine if it was your job to make children burst into tears every time they saw you.

There will be small consolations, though. I’ll feel tremendously righteous once it’s over and I walk out into the sunshine, my face gently melted off my skull, my cheeks stuffed with cotton like a drooling Don Vito Corleone.

I’m also looking forward to the building that houses the surgery. Built to reflect how the 1980s imagined the 1990s would look, it fails to represent either decade. Instead, it’s one of those parts of Cape Town that feel like a soft echo of Anca’s Eastern Europe, a whisper from the 1970s, wandering like an unquiet ghost between the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Soviet Union.

The shabbiness is comforting, providing an escape from the tyranny of the new hipster paradigm in which everything has to look like the contents of an Amish barn. There’s no raw wood here, no black iron, no hessian sacks full of smugness. Instead there are plastic plants, faded green walls, flickering fluorescents. Pretension has been stripped away by the unavoidable purpose of this place. The vast marketing campaign we call modern life tries to convince us that we are beautiful, clean, cocooned dewdrops. In this place, drills and bottles of anaesthetic remind us that we are exposed nerve endings, chips of bone, drops of bloody saliva.

I’m not looking forward to the scraping hooks. I’m dreading the lecture about flossing, where the dentist talks to you as if you’re a puppy quivering over a wet spot on a carpet (“What did you do? What’s that? What is that?”). It won’t be fun trying to pay the receptionist. (“Cheque or savings?” “Schlek.” “What?” “My schlek accow, pleasch.” “Ag shame, the anaesthetics will wear off soon.”) But once it’s over, it’s over for another six months. Maybe a year. Okay, maybe four. And at very least it won’t happen on a table in McDonald’s.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

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