I hate the dentist. I try to go as rarely as possible, without ever forgetting that prevention is better than cure. The only passage I have retained from Thomas Mann’s chunkster, Buddenbrooks, is the part where one of the patriarchs dies from tooth disease because, trust me, it sticks in the mind. And so, out to thwart mortality again, I agreed finally to have my teeth cleaned by the hygienist. I had a vague memory of this not being exactly fun, but time will insist on dimming unpleasant experiences. She seemed a nice enough woman as she greeted me and conducted a little convivial chit-chat. And then she started to don riot gear – a pair of large sized safety glasses, a mask, and over the top of it all, a clear plastic shield like the police use when they’re getting the tear gas out. My god. I felt like suggesting that if whatever happened next was going to prove that threatening to her, then maybe we should call it off right now. But she was busy employing that dulcet tone that’s supposed to distract you from abject horror and introducing me to a ferocious piece of kit called a sonic scraper or a sonic blaster, I’m not sure now. It was definitely a sonic something, because I realized very quickly that it was a near cousin to the sonic screwdriver Dr Who uses to blast the daleks. Obviously he electrocutes them through the jawbone, too. It was exquisitely awful. I felt parts of my body deciding to try and escape, my right leg in particular had left the couch and was groping about for the floor. And then, of course, it struck me that that is why you get raised up the moment you lie down. Nothing to do with being at the right height for the dentist, because after all, they could simply lower their chairs. No, this is about preventing you from having the necessary traction to make a proper run for it. ‘Was that a bit sensitive?’ cooed the hygienist. ‘You’re doing very well.’ When this lie starts to come out, you know the worst is still to come.
What was next to go in my mouth, along with both the dentist’s fists, some small workbench for her tools and a suction plant, looked suspiciously like an enormous fish hook. With this instrument of torture, she proceeded to scrape away at my tooth enamel producing the sound of about a thousand blackboards being scratched by ragged nails inside my head. By now, I was trying every anxiety-reducing trick in the book, wriggling my fingers and toes to try to relocate my consciousness to some more peaceful part of me. This went on forever, and I got the sense that the hygienist was lost to her mission, zealously hunting down every last scrap of tartar, having completely forgotten I was there. Occasionally she twirled her fish hook like a majorette and made it glint in the spotlight. I kept telling myself she must be a perfectly nice lady normally, and it was only being on the receiving end of her tender attentions that was convincing me she was a sadist. Finally, we moved onto the tooth buffing part, which wouldn’t have been so awful – just a rotating brush and some extra gritty toothpaste – if I hadn’t had ten million nerve ends on screaming red alert. My body was still trying to rescue me, so the second she switched the machine off, I was trying to sit up. Unbeknownst to me, the bib that got put so swiftly around my neck when I arrived, turned out to be attached by leads to the back of my chair and I nearly garroted myself. My, but those dentists are cunning. ‘I know you’re longing to escape’ said the hygienist, with admirable understatement, ‘but I just want to show you how to floss properly. People so rarely go deep enough into the gum.’
But if my morning yesterday was less than pleasant, the evening redeemed it somewhat. I’d been intending to do yoga this year, and then I heard about a new t’ai chi class starting in the next village. I did t’ai chi years ago and enjoyed it at the time, but when I came to move into the next class up, the time didn’t suit. There were loads of people when I arrived, although it turned out that most of them were experienced club members, come along to help the first class go with a swing. After a short while of doing the movements, I had the strangest sensation of body memory, and the classes of eight years ago came flooding back. I learned in a beautiful dance studio out in Ely, with a sprung floor and mirrored walls, and my instructor then was a Chinese man who was a stickler for detail. We were barely allowed to take a step without his correcting our posture and placement. But I was glad to have had that attention to detail, as this class moved much faster. I love t’ai chi because it is all about gentle, contained movements. So much exercise is high impact, pounding the streets running, stretching muscles to their furthest point, thwacking balls with bats and rackets, kicking, punching, leaping, and it just doesn’t interest me. At the midpoint of the session, while we were having a rest, the experienced members went through the movements of ‘half a set’, that’s to say about 50 movements, all joined in a single flow. They were all ages, all shapes and sizes, and yet the sight of them together was incredibly graceful, and powerful, too. One of the things that attracts me to t’ai chi is that it takes place in silence; mediation in movement, some people call it, and it was the first time in years that I had felt happy exercising. And for the first time that day, I could appreciate having extra clean teeth to smile with.