By Anthony Deyal
Detective Hercule Poirot was by far the most popular Agatha Christie creation. While his fans regard him as the best detective of his time, Christie considered him a real “dick” and described him as “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”
I felt that way sometimes, but last Thursday night, in great pain, I sought diversion in “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” which was published in 1940. Even though I wear slip-ons, I buckled down to the massive effort of ignoring the suffering for a while and very quickly found that Poirot was not as bad as his author thought he was and that we were, in at least one aspect of life and ageing, kindred spirits and fellow sufferers. Very early in the book, I came upon a paragraph that cheered me up enough to make me persist despite the throbbing, “There was in his heart a ridiculous hope that Morley might have been called away, might be indisposed, might not be seeing patients today … All in vain.
Few men are heroes to themselves at the moment of visiting their dentist. His morale was down to zero. He was just that ordinary, craven figure, a man afraid of the dentist’s chair. Hercule Poirot grasped the arms of the chair, shut his eyes and opened his mouth…”
Despite Poirot’s Belgian roots, we were kindreds, brothers in alarms rooted in the belief that while solving crimes is very hard work, like pulling teeth, it is a piece of cake compared to having your teeth pulled out most likely from the consumption of too many pieces of cake and other sweets. Even though defeated as the Heavyweight Champion of the World by Muhammad Ali, former champion, George Foreman, claimed that there was only one person he was afraid of and it was not Ali. He admitted, “I fear no man, but the dentist.” On hearing this, one comedian quipped, “I go to a woman dentist. It is a relief to be told to open my mouth instead of shut it.”
There is no question that any dentist who insists, “This won’t hurt a bit” is lying through your teeth. I know that very well from long experience. In my days of growing up, a dental visit was not for cleaning teeth. You either got a “filling”, which was dreadful, or you felt the agony and total terror of an extraction that gave the term “pulling teeth” its fearsome reputation. In the early fifties, shortly after the end of the Second World War, while there were a few professional dentists in the Caribbean, their approach was almost the same as when your only resort was a fellow village with a set of pliers or doing it yourself.
I remember when I had a shaky tooth, my father recommended that I tie one end of a piece of string to the tooth and the other to the knob of an open door and then slam the door shut. “If that don’t work,” he advised, “We could tie it to the back bumper in the car and I will drive off.” In the Caribbean, rationing continued into the fifties and so it was difficult to import anaesthetics. In fact, even in Britain, the dentists at that time considered pain a normal part of treatment and so did the patients. In Trinidad, a shot or two of puncheon or over-proof rum was generally prescribed.
I lost the first of my “permanent” teeth skating down the extremely mossy drain that led from the top of the hill on which our house was situated to the “standpipe” where it levelled off. My mother had warned me about the danger of doing so especially as pieces of broken bottle or glass could be hidden in the moss. Since my friends, wearing their old khaki pants, were sliding fearlessly and laughing all the way down the drain. I became a pro, starting at a point just below our house where my mother couldn’t see me and ending up, feet out, before we hit the huge, deep and steep concrete ravine into which the drain emptied.
One of the neighbours ratted on me and as I was heading rapidly down the hill on my back, I heard my mother shout my name and I lifted my head in fear. Unfortunately, my timing was bad, and my mouth hit a metal connection between the standpipe and the larger conduit for water to the area. A tooth came out in my hand and my mother declared, “It good for you” I still have the gap.
Of course, with the poor hygiene at the time, the lack of supervision and my own carelessness, there were more where that came and went from. Once in Barbados, I had to pay for my sins of omission and neglect by having a tooth extracted by a buxom young lady who, it turned out, was a recent graduate and who did not have the pull of her more senior colleagues. I found out later that I have very strong jaws, possibly from talking and eating too much sweet stuff. She fed me with anaesthetic and then tried extracting the tooth. It refused to budge. More anaesthetic.
It was clear that she didn’t know the drill since we ended up with her holding what seemed to be a huge pair of pliers, hanging and balancing on the dental chair, her rear end threatening to topple the two of us and the chair. She appeared very worried, looking down in the mouth so to speak. Then, with a pop that threw the young lady on her back, the tooth came out. Later I had a root canal done on another tooth and that, too, was deeply un-nerving.
So now, with 75 approaching in less than a month, there is so much space between my remaining teeth that a dentist would not suffice. I need Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise to seek out what is left. However, since their retirement, I have to trek to a dentist’s office, boldly going where I should never have gone before or want to go again. I have found, though, that a cavity is an empty space stuffed with dentist’s bills and that the term a “pound and a crown” is a painful and costly combination. Even so, I would not like to be a dentist and have to face the same old grind, day after day.
*Tony Deyal was last seen recalling that he started chatting up this beautiful girl and did not find out that she had false teeth until it came out in the conversation.