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The Bad Old Days

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I’m due for a dental appointment soon. It’s a visit that doesn’t have to fill you with trepidation these days – it’s not even a painful experience, just painfully expensive. At our dentist’s office, the reception area – it’s not called a waiting room anymore – is superbly and tastefully decorated in leather and linen club chairs and sofas with up-to-date and interesting magazines handily spread across antique coffee tables. No more the aged copies of Readers’ Digest, sticky and dog-eared from hundreds of germy maulings. Road and Track, Garden and Gun and Southern Living, all crisp and new, beckon amid the ormolu trimmings of the furniture. There’s even a bookcase with important-looking tomes if you think you’re going to tarry a while. An inviting walkway beckons you to sleek, modern open rooms – no doors here – decorated in relaxing, dark hues and windows overlooking the treetops. The dental hygienist, a relative newcomer to the trade, is as well schooled in up-selling the services of the firm as any car dealership employee in the “rust and dust” department. All this as you lay defenselessly recumbent in a machine that they still refer to as a chair. It’s no such thing. It will bend and stretch you to be able to watch the ceiling-mounted television while she tries to find as many ways to relieve you of your earnings.  All this, with a mouth full of probing accouterments while they engage you in conversation. Then the dental assistant comes in for backup before the dentist does whatever is necessary to fill the coffers of the growing practice. The exit, through ‘Billing’ allows no protest from a numbed mouth that will send coffee cascading over your shirtfront for the next hour. The old days were very different. In the ‘50s, our dentist’s waiting room and office were once her front parlor and a bedroom at the top of the stairs. The trip from one to the other was as gloomy as a trip to the gallows, pain being as sure a part of the looming procedures. Her house was a double-fronted Victorian edifice, as suited to any horror movie as Stephen King could conjure. The wide and heavy front door creaked like voices from the basement. The house smelled faintly of bayberry but did nothing to alleviate the sense of impending doom. My twin brother and I were bribed into visits with the promise of a Swiss bun from the ABC Bakery around the corner. She had an assistant, a woman with whom she had lived for many years and akin to Nora Clegg, the Russian KGB lady from the James Bond novels. She assisted by running the aging machinery that whizzed and made grinding noises from a belt-driven drill, operated by an accelerator advanced or slowed by her foot. In amongst the cream colored devices was a small round, white sink, a spout with running water for the disposal of the rinse which sat in a cut glass with pink water that effervesced with the addition of a little tablet. It tasted of the dentist’s perfume that came as close as her sparsely black-haired chin when she probed with one of those little mirrors and that sharp proboscis that stuck in your gums or found that dreaded exposed nerve that triggers your fingernails into your thighs. Extractions were done there and then. Syringes the size of baby bottles had needles like drainpipes. The only thing worse was the crunching as the tooth made its exit with pliers that looked like they came from my garage. All that pain and suffering came for “free” on the National Health Service, but on reflection, perhaps today’s visits are worth every penny.  
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Tony Moorby

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