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Nervous Visit to the Dentist’s

My bi-annual check-up at the dentist’s had revealed that I need surgery to three teeth; two of which need re-crowning and one that needs refilling.  So I’m treading my way cautiously into his reception in the glum mood that all visits to the dentist occasion upon me.  The receptionist cannot be more upbeat.  Upon seeing this regular, her eyes light up and the whole room with them.   “Good morning, Dr. Pestana, so good to see you, what a beautiful morning it is, isn’t it?”  “Ah, umm yes umm good morning.”  “It’s for nine o’clock, not so? (big smile)”  “Hmmm.”  “Dr. Van Hanagen will be ready in a few minutes, please take a seat.”  “Hmmm.”

I sit down on a leather couch ready to fidget, but calm myself by reaching out for one of those magazines one finds nowhere but at the dentist’s, nestled on a bookshelf below toothpaste samples, dental hygiene posters and the distinct antiseptic smell of things medical.  I page apathetically through the magazines, casting an occasional glance at a fellow patient lined up for her ordeal, and train my eyes now and then on the corridor from whence the dentist’s assistant will lead me to mine.  She is bound to materialise out of nowhere and almost inaudibly whisper: “Dr. Pestana, you can now come through please.”  All is very formal in this practice.

Eyes back on the magazines.  I learn about the joys of unfussy sex in an article called “Go Vanilla” and while perusing the baobabs of Madagascar, imperceptibly hear “Dr. Pestana, you can now come through please.”  I set the baobabs of Madagascar aside and walk the plank to my dentist’s operatory.

The door opens obliquely onto Dr Van Hanagen, who is seated between an outsized computer screen and his dental chair.  There it is, the cuspidor, the swing arm of the overhead lights, the X-ray tube, the hand pieces, the high-volume evacuator (HVE) and his tray of amusements holding mouth mirrors, explorer probes, tweezers and other fiddlesticks.  Dr. Van Hanagen is imbued with a dry sense of humour which is yet not devoid of colouristic effects.  Whether this stems from inner temperament, from his upbringing in his arid native Namibia or has come about from the blows that dentistry has rained on him, I do not know.  But that’s fine; you don’t want an excitable dentist.  Dr Van Hanagen greets me with the subdued cordiality that suffuses his practice.  By way of introductory talk, I tell him that my niece has just qualified as a dentist and is ready to cast herself onto the teeth of the world.  Why shouldn’t I go to her instead?  “Well of course you could,” he answers in unmodulated tones, “although, there are a few things you should guard against before rushing to her,” he continues.  “First, a dentist learns more in his first two years in a practice than in his five years of training.  You don’t want to be trained upon, or do you?  Second, university and post-university training in this country are not up to the standard they used to be.  You might as a trainee dentist be posted to a backwater community where you simply extract fifty teeth a day, doing no advanced dental work.  Third, the equipment required for the work you, for example, need today is expensive”, he says, pointing out to over two million rand’s worth of equipment in the room.  “And so forth…”  I take this all in.  “Dr Van Hanagen, please don’t die on me”, I plead.  He assures me he won’t.

Of course, the conversation about my dentist niece is just dilatory bluster on my part.  The moment has come.  I remove my spectacles, my watch, empty my pockets into a tray and face myself in the mirror.  The last time I was here the anaesthetic hadn’t quite taken and the pain wave levitated me from scalp to toes like a rigid board.  Anti-gravity exists.  Physicists must search for it at my dentist’s.  So now I have to psyche myself into this.  I pump myself up in the mirror and say out loud to my reflection “You’re strong!  This is nothing!  You can do this!  You’re beautiful!  You’ve been through worse!”  Van Hanagen and assistant spectate the scene with a bemused indulgence, but my number is up.  A slight jerk of his head beckons me over and I resign myself to the electric chair.

But first, I order music.  I can’t face the music without having music.  While not entirely silencing it, it helps deflect the shrillness of the drill.  The assistant puts on a CD.  Louder I ask.  Dr. Van Hanagen and I share a passion for classical music, so classical it is.  There’s no time for warming-up overtures.  The soundtrack tumbles straight into the sturm-und-drang of the heavier German composers to completely numb one.  I fleetingly imagine Deutsche Grammophon bringing out ‘Classics for Dental Practices’ and break into a nervous cackle.

I then fortify myself for the routine.  You know the drill.  Should be boring, but isn’t.  “Open wide…”  While the anaesthetic takes grip I get explained on the computer screen exactly which teeth are involved.  My teeth come up in huge fist-sized blobs on the screen.  I feel like fleeing.  In a few minutes I open my mouth, close my mind and wait for the drilling.  I dare open my eyes.  Van Hanagen’s masked pate looms large and scrutinises my mouth with focused intensity.  No less intensive are the eyes of the assistant, which pierce out from above a mask.  She holds the all-important HVE that vacuums fluids and dental debris away.  There’s also a thin crack on the ceiling, long neon lights which need replacing, a temperature reading of 21oC on the air-conditioning unit and dolphin-shaped coat hangers on the wall.  I lie there really tensed up, expecting that shot of pain to come at any time, especially early in the drilling, but it mercifully doesn’t.

It’s an hour-long appointment with much reconstruction work so my mind meanders.  Must talk to the neighbour about using her bin to put out the excess garden foliage.  The gate intercom needs fixing hence must call Dwyer etc.  Intruding at an almost subliminal level to the music is a muffled unidirectional communication between dentist and assistant.  What I hear is not quite Afrikaans but a techno-Germanic pseudo-babble.  “scaalpsh.  brom.  asseblief.  uschul  inschp… …  dankie…”  The assistant says nothing, nothing at all, just passes and takes things as required, and deftly deflects the light beam from my eyes when the dentist is not using it to inspect.  At some stage dental floss is used to which the orchestra strikes up a chord.

After an eternity, the session is over.  A foot lever gets depressed and the chair folds me back up into a seating position.  I’m invited to rinse out my mouth with an antiseptic and spit into the cuspidor.  This is the favourite part of my visit.  I rinse and spit and flush away the whole dental session with it.  Dr. Van Hanagen leans back and once again explains the work done and what still needs to be done.  We also exchange some altogether more relaxed pleasantries now.  I greet him and head back to reception.

“Hello again, Dr. Pestana.  All Good?  Not that bad this time, was it?”  “Hmmm.”  “We’re seeing you next week again?”  “Hmmm.”

“Very well then,” she says, presenting the freshly printed invoice, all neatly flossed and brushed for same day settlement.