Steven wanted to be a dentist. It was pretty much the first thing he told us when, as first years, we were all bunched together in the unfamiliar dusty classroom. When, a couple of weeks later we were invited over to his house we saw that this was not an idle remark.
Where our bedroom walls were decorated with posters of pop stars and footballers, Steven had diagrams setting out tooth implementations, anatomical drawings of the jaw with brightly coloured nerves, muscle, blood vessels, bones, and, of course, teeth. Where we had shelves of plastic dinosaurs and superhero figurines from cornflake boxes, Steven had plaster casts of jawbones, gums and teeth grinning down at us. The instruments were locked away in glass cabinets and only his parents had the key.
“They don’t exactly encourage my interest,” he shrugged. “They sort of tolerate it. But Dad says they’re a sort of collection, and too expensive for me to play with.”
Of course, we tried to pick the locks, but the spikes and saws and drillheads remained — tantalisingly — out of reach.
We didn’t see Steven’s interest as strange, well, not that much. We all had our own interests — drawing, electronics, collecting beer caps — that each appeared obscure to anyone else. DIY Dentistry was just something that had never crossed our horizon before. And if Steven didn’t see it as weird, or no weirder than Andy showing us his Eastern-Block beer caps all laid out neatly on cork boards with little hand-written labels, why should it bother us?
I suppose that, in our own way, we were all collectively strange. The bunch that no one picked for their side at football or hockey, and that was the glue that held us together. Besides, Steven had some really good stuff: sweets that stained your teeth bright red — well, technically, not your teeth, just the plaque, but the result was often the same. It took a few days good brushing to get it off. Well, most of it anyway. He had effervescent tablets that turned the canteen drinking water into that exact same pink mixture that the dentist gave you to rinse your mouth out after scraping around inside, and guaranteed to make the other kids splutter and spit it out when the taste slowly percolated through and met the memory of their last checkup.
Then there was the event that became the rite of passage into our group of misfits and outcasts: making a mould of your teeth.
It was inevitable that one of us, seeing the plaster casts on the shelf by Steven’s bed would ask how they were done. It was just as inevitable that a few minutes later, Steven would be mixing up various powders and liquids, and pouring them into a horse-shoe shaped contraption.
It wasn’t dangerous. At least, I suppose so. It was vaguely uncomfortable, and appeared sufficiently disturbing that we all volunteered each other in turn until, at last, Andy said he was game. And we were off.
The hardest part was probably to overcome the gagging reflex that set in when you bit down into the acrid resin jelly and it flowed out and up and around, over teeth, gums and tongue. Your nose filled with what you imagined were fumes from the warm paste. And you seemed to be suddenly drowning in your own saliva.
Things generally got better when Steven reminded you that you could actually breathe, and swallow, normally.
He watched the second hand trotting round the dial of his watch mouthing the quarters, before poking the setting goo to check its consistency. Then, when he gave you the nod, you tried to prise your jaws apart.
As the seal around your gums and teeth was pretty solid, you thought it would never come off, as the others giggled at your expressions and grimaces. Steven jiggled the handle that stuck out beyond your front teeth like some metallic duck’s bill, turning and twisting it most professionally and murmuring encouragements. And, then, with an awful sucking slurp, it came free.
The initiated then revelled in retelling the gross sensation of having this evil-smelling plastic slug invade your mouth, while the others waited their turn with mixed trepidation and excitement. Raucous laughter greeted the suggestions of the other body parts that could receive the same treatment.
The next part of the proceedings was less thrilling. Steven measured and mixed the plaster of Paris and prepared for the cast by using a bright blue putty to build up the form of the jaw, and shoring up gaps and holes. It get even less exciting when he said we’d have to wait an hour while the plaster set real solid. But the next time we visited his room we got to marvel at our toothy grins labelled and lined up on the shelf. We were all perfectly happy with the result, even wanting one as a trophy until Steven passed an expert eye over them, pointing out here a gap, here a filling, and there a completely misaligned incisor. We were, he told us, mediocre specimens for his collection.
It didn’t matter. We were all friends, a group bonded by the common experience of being able to see our teeth on Steven’s shelf.
So when John joined the school one day in the middle of term, and then came to sit down on the bench overlooking the hockey pitch, we all inspected his teeth. In a sort of enlightened-amateur way.
Unlike us — too gawky, ill-coordinated and just different to be chosen for the various teams — John had a medical note excusing him from Sports and thus the indignity of changing into shorts and a tee, to do nothing but sit and chat on the sidelines for 45 minutes.
We looked over, said ‘Hi’ and then turned to Steven for his professional opinion.
“They look perfect,” he declared. “Dunno what he’s got, but it certainly hasn’t affected his teeth.”
This was the remark that set everything in motion. But how were we to know?
So for the moment, we shuffled along, making space and asking him all the usual questions you ask someone who arrives after the start of term: Where are you from? You don’t happen to have any beer caps from there, do you? What team do you support? What’s your favourite group? Have you ever built a crystal set?
Apart from his teeth, John was pretty ordinary. As ordinary as his name in fact. He’d arrived because his parents had to move often for their jobs. As to what they did, they were researchers or something. That was nonetheless a pretty curious job, and sounded different to accountant, assistant manager, lorry driver, dentist and — I suppose — teacher which were about all the other jobs we knew offhand, anyway. John didn’t really know what the work entailed. Except moving. They seemed to be doing that all the time, he said. Overall he was vague about everything. Quiet, slow. A bit not there. His last school? All right. This one? OK. Not doing Sport? Doesn’t really bother me. He was made of Teflon. Nothing stuck. Everything just slipped off and around him. Like to come over to Steven’s after school? Sure. Why not?
After a generous tea of buns and biscuits and sticky cakes, served by Steven’s mum along the counter in the kitchen — “You had Sport this afternoon, didn’t you? Must be ravenous, poor things?” If only she knew… — we set off for Steven’s room.
Once there, seated on and around his bed, we shared his collection as if it was our own, pointing out favourite pieces and particularly gruesome details, and invited John to make his contribution to the grinning teeth on the shelf. We giggled and tapped each other in the shoulders and made vomiting gestures as Steven prepared the bright blue paste — easier to see if a bit sticks to your gums, he had explained — and troweled it into the stainless steel horse-shoe device.
“Now clamp down tight until I say it’s OK,” he said, manoeuvring it into John’s gaping mouth. “And don’t forget to breathe. Off we go — Bite!”
John showed none of the signs of discomfort or even panic that we had manifested each in turn. He didn’t sweat, or turn bright red. His eyes didn’t bulge. He didn’t forget to breathe or swallow. He just sat with his hands on his lap, the metal prong sticking out of his mouth. And waited.
Steven was busy looking at his watch and so didn’t notice our disappointment. His interest was already professional.
“Time’s up,” he proclaimed. “I’ll just jiggle this—” He took hold of the prong. “—And you try to open your mouth. It won’t come at first and I’l have to wiggle it again. Don’t worry, it always works like that…”
He gave a gentle tug. The blue plastic came away immediately. So did half of John’s jaw, looking just like the diagrams on the wall.
Our screams brought Steven’s mother running up the stairs.
* * *
John woke. The packed car drove through the drizzling night. In the front seat the two people he was used to thinking of as his parents were arguing in hoarse, hushed voices. There were bandages wrapped tightly around his jaw and lower face so he couldn’t say anything anyway. He just listened. His jaw didn’t hurt. That was part of the problem when you were already dead. It was so easy to damage your body doing Sport and other things.
He looked out of the rain-speckled window and waited. He had all the time in the world.
I did have a classmate who wanted to be dentist, and decorated his room with lots of strange — well for us — things like in this story. As far as I know he did grow up to become one which is a fine thing. It is much better having a dentist who actually wanted to be one rather than wanting to be a ballet dancer or an architect, and then taking it out on your teeth.
Apart from that, nothing else in the story is true. Promise.
See you for the next story.
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Last edited: Wednesday, August 26th, 2009blog comments powered by Disqus