‘GOOD morning, Mr. P,’ said Mr. Pollfax, rinsing and drying his hands after the last patient. ‘How’s Mr. P?’
I was always ‘Mr. P’ until I sat in the chair and he had switched the lamp on and had my mouth open. Then I got a peerage.
‘That’s fine, my lord,’ said Mr. Pollfax, having a look inside. Everything was fine to him.
‘Dogged,’ with its slight suggestion of ‘doggish,’ was the word for Mr. Pollfax. He was a short man, waggish, hair going thin, with rather protruding buttocks and a sway to his walk. He had two lines, from habitual grinning, cut deep from the nostrils, and scores of lesser lines like the fine hair of a bird’s nest round his egg-blue eyes. There was something innocent, heroic, and determined about Mr. Pollfax, something of the English Tommy in tin hat and full pack going up the line. He suggested in a quiet way — war.
He was the best dentist I ever had. He got you into the chair, turned on the light, tapped around a bit with a thing like a spoon, and then, dropping his white-coated arm to his side, told you a story. Several more stories followed in his flat Somerset voice, when he had your mouth jacked up; and then, removing the towel and with a final ‘Rinse that lot out,’ he finished with the strangest story of all and let you go. A month or so later the bill came in. Mr. Pollfax presents his compliments and across the bottom of it, in his hand, ‘Be good.’ I have never known a dentist like Mr. Pollfax.
‘Open, my lord,’ said Mr. Pollfax. ‘Let’s see what sort of life his lordship’s been leading. I shall have to do some cleaning up, I see.’
He tapped around and then dropped his arm. A look of anxiety came on his face. ‘Did I tell you that one about the girl who went to the Punch and Judy show? No? Nor the one about the engine driver who was put on sentry duty in the war? You’re sure? When did I see you last? What was the last one I told you? Lord, that sounds like last April! Well,’ said Mr. Pollfax, tipping back my head and squirting something on to a tooth, ‘we’ll have a go at that root at the back. It’s not doing you any good. It was like this. There was a girl sitting on the beach at Barmouth with her young man watching a Punch and Judy show . .
He took an instrument and began chipping his way through the tooth and the tale.
‘Not bad, eh?’ he said.
‘Ah,’ I mouthed.
‘All right, my lord,’ said Mr. Pollfax, withdrawing the instrument and relapsing into his dead professional manner. ‘Spit that lot out.’
I spat and he began again.
There was just that root, Mr. Pollfax was saying. It was no good there. There was nothing else wrong; he’d have it out in a couple of shakes.
‘Though, my lord,’ he said, ‘you did grow it about as far back in your throat as you could, didn’t you, trying to make it as difficult as you could for Mr. Pollfax? What we’ll do first of all is to give it a dose of something.’
He swiveled the dish of instruments towards me and gave a tilt to the lamp. I remembered that lamp because once the bulb had exploded, sending glass all over the room. It was fortunate, Mr. Pollfax said at the time, that it had blown the other way and none of it had hit me, for someone might have brought a case for damages against someone — which reminded him of the story of the honeymoon couple who went to a small hotel in Aberdeen. . . .
‘Now,’ said Mr. Pollfax, dipping things in little pots and coming to me with an injection needle, ‘open wide, keep dead still. I was reading Freud the other day. There’s a man! Ever read Freud? Don’t move, don’t breathe; you’ll feel a prick, but for God’s sake don’t jump. I don’t want it to break in your gum. I’ve never had one break yet, — touch wood, — but they’re thin, and if it broke off you’d be in a nursing home three weeks and Mr. Pollfax would be down your throat looking for it. The trouble about these little bits of wire is they move a bit further into the system every time you swallow.
‘There now,’ said Mr. Pollfax. ‘Feel anything? Feel it prick? ‘ he said. ‘Fine.’
He went to a cupboard and picked out the instrument of extraction and then stood, working it up and down in his hand like a gardener’s secateur. He studied my face. He was a clean-shaven man and looked like a priest in his white coat.
‘Some of the stories you hear!’ exclaimed Mr. Pollfax. ‘And some of the songs. I mean where I come from. “The Lot That Lily Lost in the Lottery” — know that one? Is your skin beginning to tingle? Do you feel it on the tip of your tongue yet? That’s fine, my lord. I’ll sing it to you.’
Mr. Pollfax began to sing. He’d give it another minute, he said, when he’d done with Lily; he’d just give me the chorus of ‘The Night Uncle’s Waistcoat Caught Fire.’
‘Tra-la-la,’ sang Mr. Pollfax.
‘I bet,’ said Mr. Pollfax sadistically, ‘one side of Mr. P’s face has gone dead and Mr. P’s tongue feels like a pincushion.’
‘Bluh,’ I said.
‘I think,’ he said, ‘we’ll begin.’
So Mr. Pollfax moved round to the side of me, got a grip on my shoulders, and began to press on the instrument in my mouth. Pressing and drawing firmly, he worked upon the root. Then he paused and increased the pressure. He seemed to be hanging from a crowbar fixed to my jaw. Nothing happened. He withdrew.
‘The Great Flood begins,’ said Mr. Pollfax, putting a tube in my mouth and taking another weapon from the tray.
The operation began again. Mr. Pollfax now seemed to hang and swing on the crowbar. It was not successful.
‘Dug himself in, has he?’ muttered Mr. Pollfax. He had a look at his instruments. ‘You can spit, my lord,’ he said.
Mr. Pollfax now seized me with great determination, hung, swung, pressed, and tugged with increased energy.
‘It’s no good you thinking you’re going to stay in,’ said Mr. Pollfax in mid-air, speaking to the root. But the instrument slipped and a piece of tooth broke off as he said it.
‘So that’s the game, is it?’ said Mr. Pollfax, withdrawing. ‘A good rinse, my lord, while Mr. Pollfax considers the position.’
He was breathing hard.
Oh, well, he said, there were more ways than one of killing a cat. He’d get the drill on it. There were two men standing outside Buckingham Palace when a policeman came by, he said, coming down at me with the drill which made a whistling noise like a fishing line as he drew it through. The tube gurgled in my mouth. I was looking, as I always did at Mr. Pollfax’s, at the cowls busily twirling on the chimneys opposite. Wind or no wind, those cowls always seemed to be twirling round. Two metal cowls on two yellow chimneys, I always remember them.
‘Spit, my lord,’ said Mr. Pollfax, changing to a coarser drill. ‘Sorry, old man, if it slipped, but Mr. Pollfax is not to be beaten.’
The drill whirred again, skidding and whining; the cowls twirled on the chimneys, Mr. Pollfax’s knuckles were on my nose. What he was trying to do, he said, was to get a purchase.
Mr. Pollfax’s movements got quicker. He hung up the drill, he tapped impatiently on the tray, looking for something. He came at me with something like a buttonhook. He got it in. He levered like a signal man changing points.
‘I’m just digging,’ he said. Another piece of tooth broke off.
Mr. Pollfax started when he heard it go and drew back.
‘Mr. Pollfax in a dilemma,’ he said. Well, he’d try the other side. Down came the drill again. There were beads of sweat on his brow. His breath was shorter.
‘You see,’ exclaimed Mr. Pollfax suddenly and loudly, looking bitterly up at his clock, ‘I’m fighting against time. Keep that head this way, hold the mouth. That’s right. Sorry, my lord, I’ve got to bash you about, but time’s against me.
‘Why, damn this root,’ said Mr. Pollfax, hanging up again. ‘It’s wearing out my drill. We’ll have to saw. Mr. Pollfax up against it.’
His face was red now; he was gasping and his eyes were glittering. A troubled and emotional look came over Mr. Pollfax’s face.
‘I’ve been up against it in my time,’ exclaimed Mr. Pollfax forcefully between his teeth. ‘Heard of the (Edipus Complex?’
‘Blah,’ I managed.
‘I started well by ruining my father. I took every penny he had. That’s a good start, isn’t it?’ he said, speaking very rapidly. ‘Then I got married. Perfectly happy marriage, but I went and busted it up. I went off with a French girl, and her husband shot at us out in the car one day. I was with that girl eighteen months, and she broke her back in a railway accident and I sat with her two years watching her die. I’ve been through it. Then my mother died and my father was going to marry again, a girl young enough to be his daughter. I went up and took that girl off him, ran off to Hungary with her, married her, and we’ve got five children. Perfect happiness at last. I’ve been through the mill,’ said Mr. Pollfax, relaxing his chin and shining a torch down my mouth, ‘but I’ve come out in the end.
‘A good rinse, my noble lord,’ said Mr. Pollfax.
‘The oldest’s fourteen,’ he said, getting the saw. ‘Clever girl. Very clever with her hands.’
He seized me again. Did I feel anything? Well, thank God for that, said Mr. Pollfax. Here we’d been forty minutes at this damned root.
‘And I bet you’re thinking why didn’t Lord Pollfax let sleeping dogs lie, like the telephone operator said. Did I tell you that one about the telephone operator? That gum of yours is going to be sore.’
He was standing legs apart, chin trembling, eyes blinking, hacking with the buttonhook, like a wrestler putting on a headlock.
‘Mr. Pollfax with his back against the wall,’ he said.
‘Mr. Pollfax making a last-minute stand.
‘On the burning deck! ‘ he gasped.
‘Whence,’ he added, ‘all but he had fled.
‘Spit,’ he said. ‘And now let’s have another look.’ He wiped his brow. ‘Don’t say anything. Keep dead still. For God’s sake don’t let it hear you. My lords, ladies and gentlemen, pray silence for Mr. Pollfax. It’s coming, it isn’t. No, it isn’t. It is. It is! There!’ he cried, holding a fragment in his fingers.
He stood gravely at attention.
‘And his chief beside, smiling the boy fell dead,’ said Mr. Pollfax. ‘A good and final rinse, my lord and prince.’
V. S. PRITCHETT