I’m reporting to the desk at the Mouth and Jaw Clinic of VU Medical Center, Amsterdam. I’m reporting to the desk in English, because I’m nervous, and my brain doesn’t enjoy outside distractions when I’m nervous. Instead, it likes to focus intently on the source of my anxiety, exploring all outcomes on the disastrous end of the spectrum. Dutch and positive conclusions are two things that my amygdala deems superfluous in moments of crises. I mean, it knows what it’s doing, right?
“I’m here for a wisdom tooth extraction,” I say to the lady behind the desk. It’s always a lady behind the desk.
She taps at a computer. “Go to the waiting room at the end of this corridor,” she says. She has a speech impediment, which strikes me as less than auspicious given the nature of my visit. But then I think, in terms of occupational suitability, a speech impeded receptionist at the Mouth and Jaw Clinic is small-fry compared to Donald Trump as President of the United States. If intellect, compassion and accountability are no longer requirements for the Leader of the Free World, then this lady needs a clean S like a fish needs a bicycle. I mean, we are all going to die.
I walk into the waiting room and take a seat, which is still warm – a ghastly shock. I move immediately and take stock of my fellow waitées. An elderly couple, and a mum and her grown-up daughter. There are many spare seats. A sign on the wall instructs us to report to the desk if we’ve been waiting longer than 30 minutes.
Another couple walk in and they say good morning to the mother and daughter, and then to the elderly couple. What a coincidence, I think, that they all know each other! But then they say good morning to me, and I remember that I am no longer in London. I say good morning back, trying to address the whole room to compensate for my own lack of greeting on arrival. No one really gives a shit; let’s not forget that we are all here for surgery inside our mouths. This is small-talk with a significant shelf-life.
My Lawyer arrives, having dropped the kids at school. I’m not allowed to cycle after the surgery, so My Lawyer is going to cycle me home in Steve the Bakfiets. It just goes from bad to worse for Steve. I’m called in 25 minutes before I need to report to the desk for over-waiting.
“English?” says the anesthetist, shaking my hand.
“Yeah,” I nod.
“She can speak Dutch,” says My Lawyer, “But today she is speaking English, because she is nervous.”
My Lawyer frequently tells people that I can speak Dutch, which is why I can’t visit him at work until I can actually speak Dutch. Maybe that’s why he does it.
Both of my lower wisdom teeth must be removed, but one at a time, so I can still eat on one side as the other side heals. This is the Dutch way. The British way is to whip them all out together, grin and bear it, but actually don’t grin. This approach can be extended to many other British things beyond dentistry.
I lie down in the chair, which is pleasantly cool on my skin. I’ve worn a dark t-shirt, in case there’s a lot of blood; I don’t know what to expect. A blue sheet covers me completely, with a hole for my mouth. I think of Inuits fishing through a hole in the ice; they have to keep breathing into the hole, to stop it freezing over, so they can still see the fish.
I open wide.
It’s done in a couple of minutes; a cut, a tug, a stitch. We’re given after-care instructions, extra compresses and, on my request, the tooth; I like to maintain ownership of my body parts, as far as it is possible.
Six weeks later, I’m back at the hospital to have my final wisdom tooth removed. Last time it was a doddle; two days in bed, but the second was self-indulgent. So today, my amygdala’s taking the morning off, and I speak Dutch to the receptionist. I walk down the corridor to the waiting room, prepared to say good morning to everyone, but disappointingly there is only one woman in there, who leaves after five minutes when her friend emerges from a room with braces on her teeth. Today My Lawyer won’t be joining me at the hospital, because last time was such a breeze. I could have caught the tram home. People overstate the severity of wisdom tooth removal, or maybe I have a very high pain threshold. Maybe I am very brave.
I sit facing the poster that tells me to report to the desk if I’m not called after thirty minutes, and I’m called in fifteen minutes early.
I speak English in the treatment room, because whatever My Lawyer tells you, I cannot actually speak Dutch.
“How was last time?” asks the dentist. Or is she a doctor? It’s confusing, having dental work in a hospital.
“Fine,” I say. “It came straight out, I was up and about in a couple of days.”
“Great!” she says. “This one is harder, I will have to cut some bone to get it out.”
“Cut some bone?”
“Yes. It is deeper. We will put a blanket over you. Are you ready?”
I know about the blue sheet from last time. I lie back as it washes over me. The anesthetist gets to work, and I realise too late that I should have taken off my sweater. It is hot down here. The dentist-doctor talks Dutch with her assistant over my head whilst they wait for the anesthetic to kick in. I manage to glean that they are discussing some new members of staff. They call them boys. One of these boys has glasses. I cannot wait until I can understand everything. No one expects you to, when you are English. What will I hear? I will be like a fly on the wall, a fish beneath the ice, as I am now: when people can’t see you, they forget that you are there.
Flashes of metal appear beneath my nose.
“Do you feel that?”
“We will begin.”
My head is held, things happen in my mouth. My skin prickles with heat, and I hold my own hand beneath the blue sheet. The dentist-doctor speaks Dutch, none of which I understand. My jaw is clamped, sucked, tugged. I anchor my head to the bed, so I’m not dragged up by my firmly-lodged tooth. My nose glistens with sweat.
“I have to drill now,” says the dentist-doctor, slightly out of breath. “Some people do not like this sensation, so I’m sorry.”
Warm blood washes over my tongue, and the assistant chases it around my mouth with the sucker. The smell of hot metal stagnates beneath the blue sheet. The drilling stops.
“Now is more pressure,” says the dentist-doctor. I squeeze my hand and I hear cracks, or maybe I feel them; it’s always difficult to decipher sensations in your own head.
“Jammer,” I hear, which isn’t good. It means: oh no. Shit. I hear her ask for somebody to get help, and I find myself wondering what I’ll do if I have to go under general anesthetic. It is clear to me now, rather late in the day, that it is not a good idea to go for surgery on your own. You never know quite how it will turn out. As the drill starts up again, I think about people going in and out of hospital alone. I think of my father, ten years ago, going in alone for a hernia consultation, and coming out with a terminal cancer diagnosis. After an unimaginable drive home on his own, my mother answered the door. “It’s worse than we thought,” he said.
More cracks knock me back into the room. How long has it been now? I’m no longer alone beneath the sheet; my amygdala has returned from her morning off that she should have known better than to take. My nails are digging into my hand. I hear more Dutch, more cracks, then: “It’s loose.”
The tooth is finally levered out by the wheezing dentist-doctor, and it occurs to me that maybe the blue sheet is intended to hide her face, not mine, as she fiercely battles to remove a piece of me. My exposed bone is polished – this is the word she uses – and then I’m sewn up, good as new. The blue sheet is removed, and I sit up. I’m given after-care information, not enough compresses and the tooth. I glance down and see my own cheek looking back up at me. That can’t be good.
“When the anaesthetic has worn off, you can eat or drink whatever you like!” says the dentist-doctor. This seems, at best, extraordinarily optimistic.
I give her a big thumbs up, wave goodbye flamboyantly, and head out in search of the tram, bearing down on a compress. Not grinning.