Tuesday, 10 April 2012

My Year of Extreme Dentistry

VG Lee’s teeth seemed fine – until she opened her mouth and discovered a war zone

Written by VG Lee
This time last year, I still had my lovely, old dentist, but he's now retired. He looked like Tony Blair (apart from his curly grey hair and contemplative manner). I miss his 10-minute clean and polish, his comforting words, 'Nothing much to worry about.'

I really should find a dentist near where I live (on the South Coast) but I like popping up to London for the day.

Six months later and I have a new dentist. Mrs Ronchetti, who has an assistant called Magda, a computer, Radio 2 blasting from a small transistor radio and a green leather reclining chair. 'I usually just have a clean.' I'm lying on her recliner, hands linked comfortably over my stomach. 'My old dentist, well he wasn't that old...'

She sticks a wad of something that tastes like stale marshmallow between my top teeth and upper lip.

'Write this down.'

'Ag gand,' I protest.

'Not you; Magda.'

She begins to poke my gums with something pointed and painful, 'Upper right posterior – nine. Upper right incisor – 10...'

I'm getting top marks and give Mrs Ronchetti a thumbs-up sign.

'Good is between nought and three,' she says severely.

Against background music of The Wurzels singing, 'I got a brand new combine harvester...' Mrs Ronchetti continues her examination.

Two months on, due to much brushing and flossing, I am a dental success. My gum ratings have dropped below five. I even have a nought.

'The bad news is,' Mrs Ronchetti says with relish, 'we have to take out your four front upper teeth.'

I turn white, presumably, because Magda passes me a beaker of pink antiseptic mouthwash and tells me to spit in the sink.

'It won't hurt. You'll have



'Several pin pricks...'

I imagine myself dying from a gum disease-related trauma. I'd hoped for a decorative death with friends weeping at my bedside and saying how, even in old age, I'd retained a lovely serenity.

'...we take a mould of your teeth for a permanent bridge and insert a temporary dental plate. You won't go home in your gums.'

She and Magda chortle.

'If I've just had my teeth removed, won't that be incredibly painful?'

'Not as painful as you'd imagine.'

How does she know how much pain I'm imagining?

I clear my diary for the next six weeks and hold several farewell dinners. I've written my will. My neighbour Les has agreed to take my cat, Tommy Thomson, providing I leave £100 under the clock for cat food.

They are waiting for me; one in white scrubs, the other in navy. It is like a scene from a James Bond film. Magda approaches, brandishing a clipboard and a gigantic hypodermic syringe. We want your bank details, sort code...

'Sign here,' syringe is a large biro, 'to say you agree to the extractions.'

'Relax, you won't feel a thing,' says Mrs Ronchetti. 'Open wide. Oh good, Shirley Bassey.' Goldfinger is drowned out by what sounds like the creaking and splintering of great trees of the forest being felled as she extracts my teeth.

I try yoga breathing. I am going to die. 'And they're out.'

A ripple of applause from Magda.

Twenty minutes later, the dentures in place, I look in the mirror. Staring back at me is an extra from the film Planet Of The Apes.

That autumn, I sit at Mrs Ronchetti's computer and peruse the before-andafter photos of other patients. To reveal their teeth and gums, their lips are held back by a bright blue plastic device that a serial killer might adopt to frighten potential victims.

'This one's a fashion model,' Mrs Ronchetti nods at the screen. 'She chose Hollywood White. We don't recommend HW for older clients. We steer them towards Magnolia.'

Two weeks later, as I eat a smoked salmon and cream-cheese bagel, my dental plate snaps. It is a long way between my kitchen and Mrs Ronchetti's surgery.

'Go locally for a makeshift repair,' she advises.

I wail into the receiver, 'But you're the only person I trust!'

I don't believe I've said this to a living soul before.

Les drops me at the station. The day is warm. I am the only traveller with a scarf triplewrapped around my face.

'You look like a member of the Mujahideen,' he says.

Catch train, then two tubes. If anyone glances at me I cough violently behind my scarf and pat my forehead to denote that I have something bronchial and possibly contagious.

Mrs R sends me home with the dentures glued together and tells me to be careful what I eat.

By winter, I have begun to lose weight due to being careful about what I eat. Teeth, or lack of them, preoccupy my waking thoughts. Nobody invites me to dinner because I have become a teeth bore, which ruins their ability to just tuck in and enjoy themselves.

Later, on either side of the new bridge, two teeth are capped to form supporting pillars. It's fixed in place with glue that will last at least 15 years – maybe till death! The process takes over two hours.

'Don't cry,' says Magda, wiping my cheek.

I hadn't realised I was crying.

I touch my nose. It is numb.

'See what you think...'

Mrs Ronchetti's tone is gentle.

I walk over to the mirror. The lower half of my face is frozen into an anguished snarl – but my new teeth are perfect. 'The swelling will go down in an hour or two,' Magda says.

'I'm really pleased,' I tell her.

Mrs Ronchetti takes the blue torture instrument and camera from her desk drawer: 'So you can have before-and-after photos. Show them to all your friends. Put them on Facebook.'

That's not going to happen. As I leave, Elaine Paige makes a start on I Know Him So Well.

Always You, Edina by VG Lee (Ward Wood, £9.99), is out now.

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