Books: Falling Towards England — Solvitur Acris James |
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Falling Towards England — Solvitur Acris James


Out in the countryside, the corpses of sheep and the hulks of abandoned trains emerged from the melting snow. Spring came to Tufnell Park. It was too late for Mrs Bennett, whose cough had already stopped by itself. Not going to her funeral was a sin of omission easily committed — all I had to do was not ask the precise time it would take place. Also I was busy looking for work. But my conscience was uneasy at the time, and although it never became exactly inflamed on the subject I can still say that my dereliction lived with me as a matter for regret. Perhaps I had been put off death at an early age. Certainly I had a revolutionary socialist’s contempt for ceremony, which I construed as empty posturing, and never more so than when the chief participant was, as in this case, dormant. Nowadays I set much less store by my independence of mind, and indeed doubt whether it really exists. Yeats’s question about custom and ceremony has at last sunk home. In those days I was either a different man or — something even harder to understand and absolve — a glib version of the same one. The old lady had not only been kind and gracious, she had taken positive delight in the idea that the feckless young writer under her roof had been so thoroughly compromising such a well brought-up girl. One of those rare people who, having missed out on a blessing, are glad instead of bitter to see it conferred on others, Mrs Bennett in death deserved something better from me than the cold shoulder. But she was dealing with someone impatient of mere formalities.

So was Lilith, who wanted to be married. If she had wanted to marry me I would probably have panicked, because a sound instinct told me that I was far from ready. But she wanted to marry Emu, which gave mean opportunity to be peeved. She made the announcement after we had seen Les Enfants du paradis. ‘If all the people who live together were in love,’ said Baptiste, ‘the Earth would shine like the Sun.’ Lilith had been my Garance. ‘When I want to say yes, I can’t say no.’ How lucky I had been to meet my woman of the world and find it all so easy. Lilith, no less lovely than Arletty, sat beside me, looking as happy in the reflected light as a woman could who had just paid two bus-fares, bought two cinema tickets, and was about to pay for two bus-fares more. All the way home on the slow bus past the now shrinking roadside ranges of dribbling black mousse I explained the significance of what we had just seen, how it was all an idyll. In my little room she took me to her with special tenderness, which should have told me that this had been an idyll too, and must now end. Typically, though, I had to be told what I might have guessed.

Hypocritical jealousy is more enjoyable than the genuine article but I still managed to work myself up into a state. Lilith, however, remained calm. Her mind was already on its way home, and soon her body followed it. The time had come for her to be married, so she went where it would happen. It was as if her mission in my life had been completed. She had got me through the winter without my succumbing to vitamin deficiency: my gums were purple only when I smiled, and I couldn’t do much of that even in spring, lest the air get at my teeth. She had also got me through that dangerous second stage of virginity, the stage in which we are only technically no longer chaste, and callow anxiety is compounded by a little learning. I still had a lot more to find out about women, but I was on the right track. It was only much later that I could be sure of this, however, because there is a wrong track which runs beside the right track for a long way.

Released from stability, which youth finds hard to bear even when beneficial, I was suddenly mobile, like the unfrozen landscape. The whole country woke up to an ecstasy of self-consciousness. There were political scandals, quasi-satirical television programmes, hit singles to make the dead dance, and the rise of the miniskirt to ever less prudent lengths of shortness. Cabinet Ministers were disgraced for love, thugs robbed a mail-train and were hailed as heroes, unmasked traitors were admired for their complex personalities, the harlot’s cry from mews to mews had the exultant confidence of Callas singing ‘Casta diva’, and the Beatles mouthed and mimed to fame in screaming theatres whose seats had to be heat-dried afterwards because they were soaked with the love-juices of pubescent girls. Urgent messages of change came from everywhere, the most insistent of all from my teeth. With my bad conscience blacked out by stabbing pains from molars and incisors, I went on National Assistance to tide me over. When the assessor came to look at me in my room I sat opposite him in the brown darkness with my mouth closed, making signs of need with eloquent hands. Touched, or afraid of infection, he signed the papers and skedaddled.

At a Melbury Road party I met an Australian dentist who impressed me by being able to tell I had toothache by the way I was dancing. He was dancing himself at the time, opposite a wonderfully proportioned girl from Curl Curl. She had a freckled face and a jersey miniskirt whipping softly around her hand-span waist to the sensual pulse of John Lennon’s rhythm guitar. She was a red rag to a bull. ‘Flash me the fangs for a sec,’ said the dentist, matching her step for step as she trod successively on imaginary cigarette butts. ‘Shit a brick, you’d better get down to see me pronto.’ Next morning — still drunk from the night before or I never would have made it — I arrived at his surgery in Shoreditch to be greeted by the girl from Curl Curl, who turned out to be not only the receptionist but the nurse. She performed this double function in a white uniform of mini length, with white patterned tights below. Her employer, whose name was Barry, conformed in every respect to the paradigm Australian dentist I had been warned against, down to and including the 3.8 Jaguar parked outside. For the English chattering classes, stories about Australians had begun to serve as a mild form of licensed anti-Semitism, a function they retain. One of the stories then current was about the typical Australian dentist who spent a year in London pulling every tooth in sight, thereby defrauding the National Health and making possible the purchase of a 3.8 Jaguar, in which he and his beautiful nurse then decamped to the south of France and retired. Barry had the car and the beautiful nurse but in other ways he didn’t fit the stereotype at all. For one thing, he showed no urge to extract any teeth that were not already an obvious lost cause. Instead he fought to save them, despite my generous offer to surrender them without a struggle. ‘Nar,’ said Barry, ‘you don’t want to lose that eye tooth. I’ll just kill the nerve and go down the hole into the root. Give her a good cleaning out. Nothing a cavity likes more than a good probe, right, Noelene?’ If you wonder how I can recall the way Barry talked, it’s because trauma etches the memory. Freud’s theory of repression is doubtless right — how could we tell if it was wrong? — but in my case it ceases to apply when the subject turns to teeth. Back almost to the beginning of my life, I can remember everything that happened at the dentist’s. Mostly what happened was my imagination running out of control, but that made the experience no less frightening. While writing the first volume of this work I was not yet ready to face the full degrading facts of my dental history. I think that by now I can handle it, but if you get the impression in the next few paragraphs that their author is looking into the pit of his own nature, you will probably be right.

It started in Kogarah when I was about seven years old. That dentist, whose own teeth weren’t much of an advertisement, should never have told me that the extraction of my abscessed molar wouldn’t hurt. It did, distinctly. I felt betrayed, and received no comfort from the dentist, who had received a squirt of pus in the eye. Outrage at his perfidy motivated me to a brilliant career of truancy which ensured that I did not visit any dentist again until all my remaining first teeth were extracted in one go, under gas. When I woke up I was given limitless lemonade and ice-cream as a reward for bravery. In fact my bravery, after a week’s delaying tactics including a furniture-fracturing tantrum, had consisted of agreeing to accompany my mother to the surgery on a bus instead of in the police car which she had indicated would otherwise have to be called in. But the Shelley’s lemonade was balm to the plundered gums and the Street’s ice-cream was a portent of all the sweet things I would now be able to eat when my mother wasn’t watching. The Jaffas, Fantails, and Minties which had extracted so many of my first teeth with such precision now riddled my second teeth with cavities. Since I would rather have suffered tooth-ache than go for a check-up, the sweet things got an uninterrupted opportunity to make a cave-system out of the choppers of whose straightness my mother was so proud. She couldn’t understand how it was happening. (She probably couldn’t understand how so much small change dematerialised from her purse, either.) When a tooth was giving me hell I would try to plug it temporarily by taking a good deep bite into a chocolate bar. Finally there was too much pain to live with and I was introduced, after only token escape attempts, into the surgery of a special dentist for young people, Mr Jolly. He had his chair rigged up as a cowboy saddle with stirrups and you were encouraged to wear toy guns. These latter were supplied by the receptionist if you didn’t own any.

With a Ned Kelly cap-pistol bolstered low on each hip I felt a bit self-conscious sitting there, not just because I was sixteen years old but because of a dim awareness that my mouth might present an offensive sight to a man whose whole ambience was so radiantly clean. Upon looking into my open maw Mr Jolly reacted only by catching his breath and turning pale. In the first session that was all he did — look around, poke about a bit, and get his nurse to mark up the cavities on a mouth-map — but after it was over I rewarded myself, at the nearest newsagent’s, with a Hoadley’s Violet Crumble Bar. At the next session a week later he did a bit of drilling, but not much. Such was his method: to proceed slowly and build confidence. He was also very generous with the local anaesthetic. This accorded well with one half of my ambivalent feelings about the hypodermic syringe: on the one hand I demanded to be as desensitised as possible, on the other I hated needles. He overcame my negative tropism by giving a small preliminary injection to dull the impact of the second, larger one. Further injections followed if there was any suspicion of a reawakening tingle from my fat lip. The cumulative effect rendered me numb to the waist. He could have sawn my head off and I wouldn’t have felt a thing.

Since my accursed imagination was still alive, and even more terrified of the drill now that I had only its sound from which to deduce what it was doing, he could never step on the accelerator. Any time the noise of the rotating bit rose above a low buzz, I would be arching up out of the chair like a strychnine victim while making, from the back of my throat, the strangled gargles of a turkey choking. These noises had a galvanising effect in the reception area outside, where the waiting children and their anxious mothers erroneously inferred that the current patient had got the drill tangled in his vocal cords.

At that rate there was no hope of filling even one cavity per session. On average it took four trips to plug each hole, with the gap stopped by a temporary filling until the big day came when the cavity could receive its permanent filling of amalgam. Before the amalgam went in, the cavity had first to be lined. The lining included some alcohol-based component which, if it fell on your tongue, burned like Mexican food, but with the mouth jacked open there was nothing to be done except hope the inserted rubber pipe would suck it away along with the spit. Then the amalgam was smeared in, a few flakes at a time, on metal spatulas, like paint from the palette of a slap-happy but somnambulistic Post-Impressionist gradually going mad with the impasto. At the subsequent session the hardened filling was polished and the next cavity made its first, tentative encounter with the shy tip of the lethargically turning drill. Since I had something like thirty-four cavities to fill — I can remember for certain that there were more holes than I had teeth — it will be appreciated that the course of treatment stretched over what is called, in Australia, a considerable period of time. Finally all my teeth had been shot full of lead. I had a mouth like two sets of knuckle-dusters. The pièce de résistance was fashioned from a nobler metal. It was a heart-shaped gold filling in one of my front teeth. Mr Jolly worked on that one like Benvenuto Cellini on the statue of Perseus. By the time it was in position I had finished high school and was ready to begin university. Mr Jolly told me that of all my unsatisfactory aspects as a patient, the most depressing was the way he couldn’t start work on my mouth each week without first cleaning out the debris of chocolate, toffee, liquorice and mashed peanuts from around the very fillings he had spent a good part of his career painstakingly inserting. I got the impression that he wouldn’t have minded seeing me take a bit of the pain myself, yet he never succumbed to the temptation. He must have been a saint.

Barry wasn’t that but perhaps his straightforwardness was a virtue. Where Mr Jolly would do everything to put fear at rest, Barry would tell you the worst and challenge you to run. ‘This next bit’s going to hurt like buggery.’ He was right every time. Within minutes of each session starting I was making inner vows not to come back next week, but he had a way around that. ‘I’m going to leave that molar wide open so the muck inside can dry out, but if you don’t come back soon the bludger’ll go septic and you’ll die in agony.’ He did about a year’s work in three weeks. Most of my back teeth were beyond hope but the front ones looked like the full allocation unless I laughed, which I didn’t feel like doing for some time. The last and hardest job was to clean up my gums. After every few scrapes I flew around the surgery like an open-mouth balloon. The girl from Curl Curl pinned me with a body-slam and the job was done. ‘You’d feel a lot less scared,’ said Barry, saying goodbye for ever, ‘if you understood your real problem.’ Wet-eyed with relief, gratitude and remembered pain, I asked him what that was. ‘You’re a coward.’