My dentist is one of the nicest men I’ve ever met –when he’s not dentisting me. He is intelligent, has beautiful manners, and OWNS the Art of “Making The Patient Feel Comfortable”. He has the face and attitude of a Saint, and his voice is so pleasant and well-modulated that, if he were to announce to me that the best course of action would be to take out my entire jaw, my first instinct would lead me to agree enthusiastically, many moments before the news actually sunk in.
In such a voice did he beatifically announce to me, this week, that Stage I of the necessary work had been completed. At the time, I had just began to relax, because the ordeal was over, and because I had behaved so beautifully, that I suspect a smug, lopsided smile was involuntarily manifesting from the corner of the numbed half of my face. His devastator caught me completely off-guard. I had even half-brought my diary up from the well that is my bag, in order to cancel him out for another year.
As my smile slowly slipped and became a quaking mess, he turned a computer screen over to me, and launched into what I quickly realised was a Plan of War. Indeed, if this had been Stage I… it naturally followed that there must be a Stage II.
Before my horrified eyes, his gentle, precise fingers guided me over the pitiful minefield that was supposedly my mouth, explaining that Stage II must be completed within the week, and then in Stage III we would then move to attack… He lost me at this point, as a frightfully clear image emerged in my mind of him, dressed in saintly Reformatory gear (complete with sandals) launching himself bodily at one of my teeth with The Drill with the cry “FOR ENGLAND, AND FOR TOOTH!” By the time I dizzily swam back into consciousness, his hand was spread over the screen and circling it lightly, as he entered the final stages of what I can only describe as a Cleanup Operation. I have no idea what I said, and I must have behaved quite normally, since Security wasn’t called to escort me hyperventilating out to the car (or even to the hospital.)
I’ve spent almost all my waking moments since then hating him. And Saints. And practicing the art of Eating Carefully (which roughly translates as slurping quietly). My sleeping moments have been taken over by The Drill, which means that they are few and far between, and I’m attracting side-glances (anew.) Worse is that I barely care, because there is a warzone in my mouth, and a LITERAL Drill Sergeant ready and willing, and waiting to address it…
And yet the writer in me goes immediately to humour, because that writer is a PSYCHO:
The meeting of the Board of Directors was over. It had passed off smoothly. The report was good. There should have been no discordant note. Yet to the sensitive Mr. Samuel Rotherstein there had been something, some nuance in the chairman’s manner.
There had been, once or twice, a shortness, an acerbity in his tone – quite uncalled for by the proceedings.
Some secret worry, perhaps? But, somehow, Rotherstein could not connect a secret worry with Alistair Blunt. He was such an unemotional man. He was so very normal. So essentially British.
There was, of course, always liver… Mr. Rotherstein’s liver gave him a bit of trouble from time to time. But he’d never known Alistair complain of his liver. Alistair’s health was as sound as his brain and his grasp of finance. It was not annoying heartiness – just quiet well-being.
And yet – there was something – once or twice the chairman’s hand had wandered to his face. He had sat supporting his chin. Not his normal attitude. And once or twice he had seemed actually – yes, distrait.
They came out of the Board Room and passed down the stairs.
“Can’t give you a lift, I suppose?”
Alistair Blunt smiled and shook his head.
“My car’s waiting.” He glanced at his watch. “I’m not going back to the city.” He paused. “As a matter of fact, I’ve got an appointment with the dentist.”
The mystery was solved.
Hercule Poirot descended from his taxi, paid the man and rang the bell of 58 Queen Charlotte Street.
After a little delay it was opened by a lad in page boy‘s uniform, with a freckled face, red hair, and an earnest manner.
Hercule Poirot said:
There was in his heart a ridiculous hope that Mr. Morley might have been called away, might be indisposed, might not be seeing patients today… All in vain. The page boy drew back, Hercule Poirot stepped inside, and the door closed behind him with the quiet remorselessness of unalterable doom. The boy said:
Poirot gave it to him, a door on the right of the hall was thrown open and he stepped into the waiting room.
It was a room furnished in quiet good taste and, to Hercule Poirot, indescribably gloomy. On the polished (reproduction) Sheraton table were carefully arranged papers and periodicals. The (reproduction) Hepplewhite sideboard held two Sheffield plated candlesticks and an epergnй. The mantelpiece held a bronze clock and two bronze vases. The windows were shrouded by curtains of blue velvet. The chairs were upholstered in a Jacobean design of red birds and flowers.
In one of them sat a military looking gentleman with a fierce moustache and a yellow complexion. He looked at Poirot with an air of one considering some noxious insect. It was not so much his gun he looked as though he wished he had with him, as his Flit spray. Poirot, eyeing him with distaste, said to himself, “In verity, there are some Englishmen who are altogether so unpleasing and ridiculous that they should have been put out of their misery at birth.”
The military gentleman, after a prolonged glare, snatched up the Times, turned his chair so as to avoid seeing Poirot, and settled down to read it.
Poirot picked up Punch.
He went through it meticulously, but failed to find any of the jokes funny.
The page boy came in and said, “Colonel Arrow-bumby?” – and the military gentleman was led away.
Poirot was speculating on the probabilities of there really being such a name, when the door opened to admit a young man of about thirty.
As the young man stood by the table, restlessly flicking over the covers of magazines, Poirot looked at him sideways. An unpleasant and dangerous looking young man, he thought, and not impossibly a murderer. At any rate he looked far more like a murderer than many of the murderers Hercule Poirot had arrested in the course of his career.
The page boy opened the door and said to mid-air:
Rightly construing this as a summons to himself, Poirot rose. The boy led him to the back of the hall and round the corner to a small elevator in which he took him up to the second floor. Here he led him along a passage, opened a door which led into a little ante-room, tapped at a second door and without waiting for a reply, opened it and stood back for Poirot to enter.
Poirot entered to a sound of running water and came round the back of the door to discover Mr. Morley washing his hands with professional gusto at a basin on the wall.
There are certain humiliating moments in the lives of the greatest of men. It has been said that no man is a hero to his valet. To that may be added that few men are heroes to themselves at the moment of visiting their dentist.
Hercule Poirot was morbidly conscious of this fact.
He was a man who was accustomed to have a good opinion of himself. He was Hercule Poirot, superior in most ways to other men. But in this moment he was unable to feel superior in any way whatever. His morale was down to zero. He was just that ordinary, that craven figure, a man afraid of the dentist’s chair.
Mr. Morley had finished his professional ablutions. He was speaking now in his encouraging professional manner.
Hardly as warm as it should be, was it, for the time of year?
Gently he led the way to the appointed spot – to The Chair! Deftly he played with its headrest, running it up and down.
Hercule Poirot took a deep breath, stepped up, sat down, and relaxed his head to Mr. Morley’s professional fiddlings.
“There,” said Mr. Morley with hideous cheerfulness. “That quite comfortable? Sure?”
In sepulchral tones Poirot said that it was quite comfortable.
Mr. Morley swung his little table nearer, picked up his little mirror, seized an instrument and prepared to get on with the job.
Hercule Poirot grasped the arms of the chair, shut his eyes and opened his mouth.
“Any special trouble?” Mr. Morley inquired.
Slightly indistinctly, owing to the difficulty of forming consonants while keeping the mouth open, Hercule Poirot was understood to say that there was no special trouble. This was indeed the twice yearly overhaul that his sense of order and neatness demanded.
It was, of course, possible that there might be nothing to do… Mr. Morley might, perhaps, overlook that second tooth from the back from which those twinges had come He might – but it was unlikely – for Mr. Morley was a very good dentist.
Mr. Morley passed slowly from tooth to tooth, tapping and probing, murmuring little comments as he did so.
“That filling is wearing down a little – nothing serious, though. Gums are in pretty good condition, I’m glad to see.”
A pause at a suspect, a twist of the probe – no, on again; false alarm. He passed to the lower side. One, two, on to three? No – “The dog,” Hercule Poirot thought in confused idiom, “has seen the rabbit!”
“A little trouble here. Not been giving you any pain? H’m, I’m surprised.” The probe went on.
Finally Mr. Morley drew back, satisfied.
“Nothing very serious. Just a couple of fillings – and a trace of decay on that upper molar. We can get it all done, I think, this morning.”
He turned on a switch and there was a hum. Mr. Morley unhooked the drill and fitted a needle to it with loving care.
“Guide me,” he said briefly, and started the dread work.
It was not necessary for Poirot to avail himself of this permission, to raise a hand, to wince, or even to yell. At exactly the right moment, Mr. Morley stopped the drill, gave the brief command “Rinse,” applied a little dressing, selected a new needle and continued. The ordeal of the drill was terror rather than pain.
Presently, while Mr. Morley was preparing the filling, conversation was resumed.
“Have to do this myself this morning,” he explained. “Miss Neville has been called away. You remember Miss Neville?”
Poirot untruthfully assented.
“Called away to the country by the illness of a relative. Sort of thing that does happen on a busy day. I’m behind-hand already this morning. The patient before you was late. Very vexing when that happens. It throws the whole morning out. Then I have to fit in an extra patient because she is in pain. I always allow a quarter of an hour in a morning in case that happens. Still, it adds to the rush.”
Mr. Morley peered into his little mortar as he ground. Then he resumed his discourse.
“I’ll tell you something that I’ve always noticed, M. Poirot. The big people – the important people – they’re always on time – never keep you waiting. Royalty, for instance. Most punctilious. And these big City men are the same. Now this morning I’ve got a most important man coming – Alistair Blunt!”
Mr. Morley spoke the name in a voice of triumph.
Poirot, prohibited from speech by several rolls of cotton wool and a glass tube that gurgled under his tongue, made an indeterminate noise.
Alistair Blunt! Those were the names that thrilled nowadays. Not Dukes, not Earls, not Prime Ministers. No, plain Mr. Alistair Blunt. A man whose face was almost unknown to the general public – a man who only figured in an occasional quiet paragraph.
Not a spectacular person.
Just a quiet nondescript Englishman who was the head of the greatest banking firm in England. A man of vast wealth. A man who said Yes and No to Governments. A man who lived a quiet, unobtrusive life and never appeared on a public platform or made speeches. Yet a man in whose hands lay supreme power.
Mr. Morley’s voice still held a reverent tone as he stood over Poirot ramming the filling home.
“Always comes to his appointments absolutely on time. Often sends his car away and walks back to his office. Nice, quiet, unassuming fellow. Fond of golf and keen on his garden. You’d never dream he could buy up half Europe! Just like you and me.”
A momentary resentment rose in Poirot at this off-hand coupling of names. Mr. Morley was a good dentist, yes, but there were other good dentists in London. There was only one Hercule Poirot.
“Rinse, please,” said Mr. Morley.
“It’s the answer, you know, to their Hitlers and Musollinis and all the rest of them,” went on Mr. Morley, as he proceeded to tooth number two. “We don’t make a fuss over here. Look how democratic our King and Queen are. Of course a Frenchman like you, accustomed to the Republican idea -”
“I ah hah a Frahah – I ah – ha a Benyon.”
“Tchut – tchut – ” said Mr. Morley sadly. “We must have the cavity completely dry.” He puffed hot air relentlessly on it.
Then he went on:
“I didn’t realize you were a Belgian. Very interesting. Very fine man, King Leopold, so I’ve always heard. I’m a great believer in the tradition of Royalty myself. The training is good, you know. Look at the remarkable way they remember names and faces. All the result of training – though of course some people have a natural aptitude for that sort of thing. I, myself, for instance. I don’t remember names, but it’s remarkable the way I never forget a face. One of my patients the other day, for instance – I’ve seen that patient before. The name meant nothing to but I said to myself at once, ‘Now where have I met you before?’ I’ve not remembered yet – but it will come back to me – I’m sure of it. Just another rinse, please.”
The rinse accomplished, Mr. Morley peered critically into his patient’s mouth.
“Well, I think that seems all right. Just close – very gently… Quite comfortable? You don’t feel the filling at all? Open again, please. No, that seems quite all right.”
The table swung back, the chair swung round.
Hercule Poirot descended, a free man.
“Well, good-bye, M. Poirot. Not detected any criminals in my house, I hope?”
Poirot said with a smile:
“Before I came up, everyone looked to me like a criminal! Now, perhaps, it will be different!”
“Ah, yes, a great deal of difference between before and after! All the same, we dentists aren’t such devils now as we used to be! Shall I ring for the elevator for you?”
“No, no, I will walk down.”
“As you like – the elevator is just by the stairs.”
Poirot went out. He heard the faucets start to run as he closed the door behind him.
He walked down the two flights of stairs. As he came to the last bend, he saw the Anglo-Indian Colonel being shown out. Not at all a bad looking man, Poirot reflected mellowly. Probably a fine shot who had killed many a tiger. A useful man – a regular outpost of Empire.
He went into the waiting room to fetch his hat and stick which he had left there. The restless young man was still there somewhat to Poirot’s surprise. Another patient, a man, was reading the Field.
Poirot studied the young man in his newborn spirit of kindliness. He still looked very fierce – and as though he wanted to do a murder – but not really a murderer – thought Poirot kindly. Doubtless, presently, this young man would come tripping down the stairs, his ordeal over, happy and smiling and wishing no ill to anyone.
The page boy entered and said firmly and distinctly:
The man at the table laid down the Field and got up. A man of middle height, of middle age, neither fat nor thin. Well dressed, quiet.
He went out after the boy.
One of the richest and most powerful men in England – but he still had to go to the dentist just like anybody else, and no doubt felt just the same as anybody else about it!
These reflections passing through his mind, Hercule Poirot picked up his hat and stick and went to the door. He glanced back as he did so, and the startled thought went through his mind that that young man must have a very bad toothache indeed.
In the hall Poirot paused before the mirror there to adjust his moustaches, slightly disarranged as the result of Mr. Morley’s ministrations.
He had just completed their arrangement to his satisfaction when the elevator came down again and the page boy emerged from the back of the hall whistling discordantly. He broke off abruptly at the sight of Poirot and came to open the front door for him.
A taxi had just drawn up before the house and a foot was protruding from it. Poirot surveyed the foot with gallant interest.
A neat ankle, quite a good quality stocking. Not a bad foot. But he didn’t like the shoe. A brand new patent leather shoe with a large gleaming buckle. He shook his head.
Not chic – very provincial!
The lady got out of the taxi, but in doing so she caught her other foot in the door and the buckle was wrenched off. It fell tinkling to the pavement. Gallantly Poirot sprang forward and picked it up, restoring it with a bow.
Alas! Nearer fifty than forty. Pince-nez. Untidy yellow-grey hair – unbecoming clothes – those depressing art greens! She thanked him, again dropping her pince-nez, then her handbag.
Poirot, polite if no longer gallant, picked them up for her.
She went up the steps of 58 Queen Charlotte Street, and Poirot interrupted the taxi driver’s disgusted contemplation of a meager tip.
“You are free, hein?”
The taxi driver said gloomily:
“Oh, I’m free.”
“So am I,” said Hercule Poirot. “Free of care!”
He saw the taxi man’s air of deep suspicion.
“No, my friend, I am not drunk. It is that I have been to the dentist and I need not go again for six months. It is a beautiful thought.”
(An extract from Agatha Christies’s Hercule Poirot mystery “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.”)
Happiness??!! WHAT HAPPINESS!!!