Teeth

The new thing is interdental brushes, brushes for getting in between the teeth.

‘But I already floss,’ I told my dentist, causing him to snort derisively.

‘Floss? Tell me friend, would you clean your car with waxed string?’

‘I don’t own…’

‘Your oven then, would you clean your oven with waxed string?’

I shook my head.

‘Of course you wouldn’t. That would be crazy. You’d use a brush.’

I considered this. ‘Or a sponge.’

He leaned all the way forward, forcing me back in the reclining chair.

‘You wouldn’t clean your teeth with a sponge.’ He pressed two packets of the tiny brushes into my hand and smiled. ‘Pay at the desk. See you in six months.’

A google search of ‘Most Common Nightmares’ shows that teeth crumbling, popping or otherwise cascading from the mouth is a fear that haunts the sleep of many people globally. This must be a spectacular boon to the dental industry, and in the waiting room I kept a lookout for advertising that might be employing some kind of subliminal effect. I suppose I was hoping for posters with slogans like “dream of white teeth” or the kind of optical illusions that look innocuous enough at first glance but turn into hideous death masks in your peripheral vision. But, nothing doing. Mainly the advertising showed women, twenty-somethings smiling coquettishly, thirty-somethings minding children, older women drinking coffee without difficulty. One, two, three, the stages of woman; young, mother, elderly. It’s hard not to infer the supposed trajectory of the average woman’s life from these images, and I’m left wondering at what age the painless consumption of high temperature drinks will become one of my chief concerns.  

I paid for the appointment and my new interdental brushes at the desk. The receptionist tried to add some impulse purchases to my basket, but her pitch was less effective than the dentist’s. Partly it’s her lack of formal training that lets her down; she can’t replicate the impression the dentist gives, of having been burdened with terrible knowledge, but also it’s her teeth. They’re too white, too straight. They’re so artificial that they look inexpert, like the kind of spray-tan that leaves the skin melonoma-orange. Maybe in California, where citizens are blinded by overbright sunshine, maybe there she could get away with teeth like these, but here, in Britain, her teeth are whiter than anything else we have around. Teeth like these make Britons realise that what we’ve been calling white all this time was actually a pale grey, and it’s this woman’s fault; she’s showing us up. But what really gets me worked up is that she’s obscurely proud, acting like she’s achieved something. She has the bearing of those lost souls who get addicted to body building and parade their hideous disfigurements as if they were something you should want, as if they were sex-symbols. I see them at the gym sometimes, watching me doing mild cardio and laughing at my skinny arms, while they sweat and hydrate, looking like a foreskin full of marbles.

On my way out of the clinic I hold the door open for an older man who’s clearly in for the works. His head is in a wrap-around brace, lips held in a stiff snarl by foam padding and hooks. Each one of his teeth to the molars is visible, streaked with rust looking stains, but worse than the colour is the texture; they’re porous, clearly porous and seemingly unrooted, sitting on the surface of the gums as precipitately as a lilo floating on the surface of a swimming pool. I can’t imagine what combination of smoking, red wine and sugar is required to do this to a set of teeth, but I note that he’s reasonably well dressed. He doesn’t look unclean. No strong odours. Can a lax brushing habit really get that bad, I wonder? Or maybe he’s an alcoholic? I’m suddenly gripped by an urge to accompany this guy to the dentist’s office. I want to point at the suppurating hole, with its tooth stumps and what I imagine will be a rigid and flaking tongue and ask, how? Exactly how? Could this be me? Was this preventable, or did this guy just fall foul of the Gods? I brush before bed, and I quit smoking; I have my mouthwash, I have my interdentals, I’ve got, god help me, the toothbrush that could double as a sex toy- tell me that this couldn’t be me.

But obviously I don’t do any of those things. This guy has it bad enough, without strangers using him as a yardstick for decay, and if I go back up there the dentist will use his condition to sell me more chemicals and even tinier brushes. I content myself to believe that the man was a plant; he’s the subliminal message telling me to keep shining my pearly whites, and he’s the nightmare creature who coughs handfuls of chipped and bloody enamel into all our outstretched palms at night.

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Prahahaha

The city, oh the city lights are shining. The people-noise of life is through-the-looking-glass inverted here compared to home; in Britain we’re composed, moderate throughout the day, librarian hushed, people are trying to work. Then at night we uncork the bottles, release the spitting, spewing pressure valves and whistle shrilly like hobtop kettles boiling. We spill over the sides. But here they live during the day, morning’s unsticking of both their eyelids and their eyes, not buttoning anything down, touching cawing chewing their way through the sunlight hours. They flee before the moon, modest in the dark. In Prague all blackness is funeral solemn.

I followed the tram tracks for hours, hours, the routes spiralling, retracing sometimes, but moving away from the starting point. Which was a hostel, fourteen to a room, choices being cereal or toast in the morning, fruit tea or coffee in the afternoon, window open ice box or window closed skin breath sweat at night. Fourteen to a room.

You can’t follow tram routes, as it turns out. The lines diverge, converge, duck and weave. Anachronistic in the ankle-breaker cobbled roadways of the old city, a place of horse shoes and hay carts. More like tram roots, breaking through the ground, feeding an ancient iron tree somewhere in the middle, keep following and you’ll get there, you’ll get there eventually. But someone dropped breadcrumbs on your breadcrumbs.

prague foot

Should have ridden a tram, that’s the system, the system works. Get on at a, get off at b, people do it every day but now it’s too late; missed the opportunity, they’re all turned in for the night, all back in storage, turned into pumpkins to save space. Could have hopped on hours ago, hours, but the language, oh the language. Coming through Europe, Spain Italy France Germany Netherlands, a smooth transition, gradient speech, only ever slightly changed, the same friend in a lot of different pictures, always possible to pick up just enough, to recognise just enough words on a sign. Then, Welcome to the Czech Republic, or Vítejte v České republice and what is that? Not the Europe I know, practically a foreign country.

Will I ever get out? Is the maze fair or are the walls moving behind me? I crossed three bridges that all looked the same, same tarry river beneath, the slick fat slug that runs the city. Same beggar on either side, lying fully prostrate, face down, hands cupped before him. All you see are hands and coins, the rest is rags and fiction. He looked to be praying and now I’m praying too, a stranger in the house of god, a fairweather friend, let me out.

I’m looking everywhere for a word, letiste, meaning ‘freedom’, or ‘escape’ or ‘home’ or ‘airport’. It’s my way out but there are no people around to speak it, no light by which to see it written. I think I’ll die here, or no, I’ll rest, sit, stretch out, knees tucked in beneath me, face to the earth, hands out palms cupped skyward, and I’ll feel the tarmac grip me, clench, as I’m consumed, dissolved, claimed, until I’m just hands, a pair of hands overflowing with coins, a bundle of ragged clothes and an unused airline ticket.

hands

Extremely Dramatic Events

There’s a little frost on the highway this morning so they case along slowly, the older man setting the cruise control around thirty-five and leaning back into the seat. First light just about creeps over the ridge of the distant mountains. A gritting truck looms far ahead.

‘Late this morning.’

‘What’s that?’

Flannery juts his chin towards the truck. ‘Gritting truck. Late start don’t you think?’

The driver looks over his glasses. ‘Fairly.’

They put some more road hissing beneath them.

‘So, Chief. You er, you do anything at the weekend?’

A fox noses out from the edge of the fields, darts back when it sights them. The chief watches in the rearview as it crosses the highway behind them.

‘Saw my son Friday night. Had lasagne. Mostly worked other than that.’

‘Work eh? Downside to being Chief I guess.’

‘I guess.’ They can just about make out a dark figure in the cab of the gritting truck now. Looks to be the older Twain boy, back for the holidays.

‘We went to that new department store at Hoxton, me and Bren. It’s a big place, you been?’

‘Haven’t been yet. No.’

They draw level with the truck, driver waving from the cab. It’s the younger Twain, grown up some little bit though. The chief returns the greeting.

‘Oh you should go. They got just about everything I’ll say. Got myself a worlds sharpest knife.’

The chief glances over. ‘How’s that?’

‘How’s what Chief?’

‘You got yourself a knife?’

‘Oh right, yeah.’ Flannery nods. ‘Worlds sharpest knife, so they say. For the kitchen. TV set right there next to the display, showing what it’ll do. Had a woman cut up a pineapple no problem. Then a tin can.’

‘A tin can?’

‘Oh yeah. An empty one. Can’t say I’ll need to do that, but it underlines their point don’t you think?’

‘Well, I suppose it does.’

They pull off the Highway and enter the suburbs. Early risers scrape car windows or run their engines for a while before setting off. Here and there the streetlights blink and flicker out.

‘You got that address?’

‘Oh yeah.’ Flannery flips open his notebook. ‘It’s 225 Maple. Old couple, name of Harris.’

The chief nods. ‘I know the one.’

They drift past the building, pulling up further along where there’s a space and killing the engine.

‘It’ll go blunt though?’

‘What’s that Chief?’

‘I’m just saying, world’s sharpest or not, you cut up a tin can, your knife will go blunt.’

‘Well I suppose so Chief. I don’t intend to do any such thing though.’

‘No.’

‘No sir. Plain foolish that would be.’

‘Right. Shall we.’

The son answers the door, shows them through.

‘Mother went over to my aunt’s place after calling you folks,’ he explains. ‘Then she called me. In a bit of a state, you can imagine. He’s through here.’ They go through to the kitchen, where the old man lies stiff on the lino. Flannery kneels down, checks for a pulse just in case.

‘Got up for a glass of milk most likely,’ the son continues. ‘Mother said the fridge door was open when she found him.’

‘Was anything else moved?’

‘How do you mean?’

Flannery stands. ‘You say she closed the fridge door- was anything else on the scene disturbed?’

He shrugs. ‘Well I don’t suppose she stopped to make a casserole. But no point letting the fridge motor burn out right?’

The chief nods. ‘Fair enough. Flannery, impressions?’

‘It’s looking like natural causes Chief. Heart maybe, or a stroke.’ He looks to the son. ‘Real quick I would have thought.’

‘Oh yeah? Well, that’s something.’ They can hear the cooing of pigeons roosting in the chimney. ‘Well then, what’s next?’

‘The coroner will come by and take the body. Probably you’ll be his first stop when he gets in this morning.’ Flannery checks his watch. ‘That won’t be for another couple of hours though. Have you got somewhere else you can wait?’

‘Oh yeah. I’ll head on over to my aunt’s, let them know what’s going on.’

‘Well alright then.’

‘Ok.’

‘Well, we’re sorry for you loss. Be seeing you.’

They get back in the car, wait for an SUV to reverse slowly out of a driveway.

‘Not a good start to their week huh chief?’

‘Say again?’

‘I said, not a good start to the week, for Mrs Harris, or Mr Harris junior.’

‘Surely is not. Worse for the Harris senior though.’

‘Yep.’

‘Depending on your beliefs.’

‘Yep.’

They follow the SUV back to the highway. The sun’s full over the mountains now and starting to give a shape to the day. They cruise a little faster back over the fresh-gritted road making long-morning shadows in the tarmac.

Save the Date!

Save the Date!

Announcing the Wedding of John Aspell Jr to Mary Therese Lansley-Hamptonburg

Dear Friend,

You are cordially invited to attend the joyous union of my beautiful daughter Mary Therese Lansley-Hamptonburg and John Aspell Jr on April the 19th 2015 at 2.15 pm. Black tie only (of course!)

As you all know this day has been a long time coming, to say the least! John and Mary were first an item at University, for three wonderful weeks, and although fate led them in different directions then, it was only to bring them back together years later, in the luxurious retreat that John owns and where Mary has occasionally stayed. (and where celebrity residents have included such stars as Pete Doherty, Lindsey Lohn, and Amy Winehouse!)

I’ll have to be honest with you and say that, within the family, we weren’t entirely sure at first that John’s responsible asset management and Mary’s bohemian artist lifestyle would gel, but boy are we happy they did! John is truly the tether to my daughter’s balloon, keeping her firmly on the ground, no matter how hard she might try to float away!

Those of you who know this charming couple best will of course remember how supportive John was during a tough time in Mary’s life; over Christmas she was the victim of a terrible crime, her penthouse looted of every item of value and all her accounts plundered. Poor Mary was reduced to sleeping on a mattress, hardly eating, and all the while too proud to tell her mama and papa what had happened to her! I shudder to think what might have become of her if not for the sensible presence of John, who gladly put her up in his convalescence resort while he refurbished her home. It warms my heart to think of her so well cared for, especially as she has such terrible luck with this sort of thing. My husband sometimes reminds me of the number of times we’ve needed to replace our little girls television or laptop, although I do have to remind him of the number of valuable items that have gone missing from our humble abode over the years! What a world!

But now our Mary has a shining knight to guard over her, and she cries with anticipation for the Big Day! Almost around the clock! I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been a little emotional myself over the last week, the suddenness of it all being quite, quite overwhelming. But, ask John and Mary, and you’ll sense the urgency of the desire to marry; that’s their word urgent and I think it’s beautiful in these days of long engagements.

So, we’ll see you on April 19th, please RSVP. The couple have asked that instead of gifts, donations be made to the charity Action on Addiction.

Sincerely,

Mother of the Bride

Mazes

Uncle Petrovic came home from the foundry today waving a scrap of paper that the District Administrator had handed him with a grave look on half his face. A childhood accident involving strong glue had left the Administrator’s face with nerve damage in the left side; he couldn’t move the muscles there at all, and every expression seemed to betray an underlying apathy. His mother blamed herself for the accident, and each day she spent over the kitchen sink, making beet soup and rethreading used twine, was a day of atonement for an accident she could never have hoped to prevent. Her husband, the old cobblesmith, used to joke that by her ceaseless domestic labour she was mortifying her flesh in the style of Dominican monks. He himself lived a life of relative comfort having retired early with painful insteps, the inevitable lot of the cobblesmith, and was pursuing an interest in chess. He played regular games against the postman who was generally recognised to be the finest chess player in the village- apart from the village chess-smith, who cared little for the game since the death of his only son. The son, though a fine man and an outstanding tooth-grinder, had been a poor chess player, and had died in battle during the most recent war, struck down by a relatively minor soldier. His secret sweetheart was consequently engaged in a frantic search for a husband before her bump became too obvious and her unborn child was branded by the other villagers. Her front-runner was a pragmatic bank manager who understood the situation and who was still weighing the problematic ignominy of raising another man’s child against the acquisition of the beautiful young pregnant woman. Having known affection only once before, and briefly, in the arms of the dowager of the house upon the hill, he craved a woman as surely as the dowager herself craved the young gardener’s apprentice who worked her lesser shrubs with such fumbling care. The apprentice had not reached such an age to have had many thoughts on the subject, and the head gardener, with a cultivator’s instinct for husbandry, was keeping the boy as far away from the old spinster as seemed necessary. It was among his principal concerns, the foremost being the health of his ailing wife, a woman who, for forty-five years had formed the better half of his nature, and who was now visibly diminishing. Every evening he returned to her bedside, the dirt of the day crusted deep down in the lines of his hands, and fed her thin broths and milk. She was lucid a great deal of the time, and when she was not, he would hold her hand and quietly repeat her name until she returned. She shivered in any heat and told him, her voice cracked, that he led her back to the light. It took a little longer each time.

Organised

Whenever I book an overseas trip these days there are more services thrown in with the flight. This time they included the plane, the hotel and the taxi, as well as some restaurant and activity discounts that basically mean I’m allowing an airline to plan my entire vacation. Then they sold me a phrasebook, through their partnership with Amazon, and once Amazon saw I was buying a foreign language phrasebook it started to offer me ‘poolside novels’, which I bought, and inflatable lilo’s, which I didn’t. I once met a woman on vacation with whom I had a brief holiday romance. We didn’t stay in touch but I saw her again the following year in a different hotel. We laughed when we eventually realised that we’re subscribed to the same frequent flyer scheme, but it made me realise that, on top of everything else, the airline has some say in who I sleep with.

I scanned the arrival gate for a driver standing about with my name on a card but there was nobody there, and I eventually found him waiting outside, parked illegally and smoking a thin cigar.  He watched blankly as I lumbered my case in the boot of his car.

He already knew my destination so I didn’t need to get out my phrase book, and we drove in silence, him tapping his hands against the wheel in time to the radio, me looking out of the window at the flat, heat-pressed haze beyond. There was a prevailing earthy quality to the colour palette of the scenery which I recognised from television, but fewer crooked old men leading goats than I would have liked.

We pulled up after a half hour of repetitive scenery and I glanced about. There was a grey, low-slung building to our left and nothing else around in any direction.

‘Why are we stopping?’ I asked.

He frowned, shaking his head and pointing to his ear.

‘Right.’ I dug out the hard rectangle from my back pocket and opened at the first page, sweat prickling my scalp. I opened my mouth to bluster through whatever useful phrase I might come across, and stopped. There were no useful phrases in the book. Instead I was looking down at a page that said  Personal Notes: name. address. private phone. carphone. fax number. driving licence. passport. In case of accident please inform_________.

I blinked and, as is often the case, understood my mistake instantly, though I refused to accept it. The front cover of the book said ‘Pocket Diary, 1994’, and I could clearly picture, as though it were a still from a famous movie, the image of my phrase book on the corner of the dresser hundreds of miles away.

The driver watched me dispassionately and relit his cigar as I ransacked my travel case, laying out every item in my lap, refusing the sure knowledge that it wasn’t in there. When I started to turn out my pockets he began clucking his tongue irritably.

‘Carangua,’ he said, pointing out the window.

I pressed my face against the glass and squinted to see if there was something beyond the ugly little building beside us.

‘Hotel Carangua?’

He nodded. ‘Hotel Carangua.’ He pointed again and I realised that there was no other building.

I looked at the pocket diary.

‘When was the last time I used a fax machine?’ I thought idly. ‘Did I ever use a carphone? I think they passed me by.’

He opened the boot for me to get my case and then puttered steadily away into the distance, my belongings scattered in the dirt, me clutching the diary. Beneath Personal Notes it said Donor Form: I_________request that after my death my kidneys, corneas, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas be used for transplantation. I have informed my next of kin of my wishes. Signed_________.

I put the diary back in my pocket, wondering where I had got it. Presumably it hadn’t been in my trousers since 1994. It occurred to me that, just like the obsolete fax and carphone information, the next generation’s science might give us lab-grown organs that would make the process of transplantation redundant.

‘You used to keep the organs?’ My future-grandkids will say, wide-eyed with horror at future-Christmas. ‘To put them in other people?’

‘Oh sure,’ I’ll say, leaning further back in my future-chair, ‘sometimes a good item would be handed down through the family. Why, your kneecaps are seventh generation.’

At the desk I exchanged a combative series of gestures with the clerk who took my passport and examined it closely while I glanced slyly around the foyer. There was an overhead fan barely stirring the air and a dehydrated ficus withering in its pot. A coin operated drinks fridge with a shocked motor rocked gently back and forwards. Two young, hollow eyed boys sat on the ground, their backs against the wall, jaws slack. I opened the pocket diary, flicking past the directory, the London tube map, and the list of international holidays. The desk clerk was holding a clipboard and shaking her head slowly as she turned page after page. I found the organ donor form again, and signed it.