The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Friday, 25 October 2013

Don’t let me bore you

At present there is just one man I allow near my teeth.  I won’t give his name.  He’s from South Africa.  A dentist of Boer extraction.  A likeable man.  Very patient-savvy.  He is also a skilled hyperbolist.  “You need a crown there.”  And, “You’ll need a crown there sooner or later,” adding, like auto-correct, “Sooner than later.” 

A visit to him usually involves pretence.  To protect my jaw, I have ready a gleaming row of white lies.  Like I now live abroad and am just here on holiday, a very short holiday, not long enough, unfortunately, for him to prepare, fit and provide after-care for a new crown.  

He has his own tray of professional tricks.  When I refuse the crown, he plays Marc Antony to my Caesar.  Then he offered it to him again, then he put it by again.  His repertoire includes an old favourite.  Before any complex treatment, he will talk down the chances of success.  A lot of dentists do that.  They’re a pessimistic crew.  

I’ve had a lot of dentists.  There was Dr Fang once.  Don’t laugh.  Long, white-haired Dr Fang.  I mean his hair was long.  He himself had no length to speak of.  I saw him in his Taipei shop, I mean surgery.  Next to the butcher’s. (Difficult paragraph, eh?)  It was just before Christmas.  When I think about that one visit, as I do quite often, I picture him sitting with his metal instruments, a row of nasty, sharp-nosed, little things, like toddlers queuing up for Santa.

In Adelaide, there was Dr Suave.  I’ve altered the surname slightly.  He made alterations to me.  I went to him several times in the 1980s.  He was the first of my tooth men to propose a crown. But I was leaving the country two days later – really – so he had to settle for a giant, leaden filling. How easily a life-long deception is born from one, convenient truth!  This filling, which he said could drop out at any moment, lasted thirty years, longer, in fact, than he did.  Don't laugh.

And Dr Thingy of Upminster, whose name I don’t remember.  (They’re all out of order, too.)  I sliced through a front tooth years ago, a corn chip bitten badly, and have been patching it up ever since.  Now there was an ugly gap again, not a good time to put off a crown.  Dr Thingy did one for me, half-price.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps he thought I was poor.  Perhaps I was.  I didn’t ask him for a discount.  You don’t haggle with a dentist over his fee.  I just found the meagre total on the bill. 

‘Twas not a crown neither, ‘twas one of these coronets.  It fell out a few weeks later.  It abdicated.  Now you can laugh.

Dr Thingy winced from time to time, doing the budget crown, as if he suffered from some inner pain.  I was fine.  I don’t know if he saw the irony.  He retired from his dental practice after finishing my treatment.  Again, I don’t know why.  It was probably just a coincidence.

Although there are several question marks over this man, I do know that I could make him angry.  I seem to annoy certain people without even trying.  Sometimes just by sitting in a chair.  The crown was a bit high.  At the follow-up appointment, I told him he had missed it.  The good Doctor winced and gave the old excuse.  The winces were like drawing pins, pressing down something inside.  His nurse looked aghast.  I hope he wasn’t too hard on her after I'd gone.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Letter for a friend

I didn't see Bryan's grave.  There isn’t one.  He was cremated.  His Greek relatives showed me a box with his ashes.  A cardboard box, in their living room, parked by a wall.  It’s not something you want to trip on.  I asked them not to unpack the urn.  

Cremation is legal now in Greece, but there’s still nowhere to do it.  So he went to Bulgaria instead, one last spin across the border.  His wife had gone there, too, a year before.  Bryan scattered her ashes in the Aegean.  Her family said they’d do the same for him.  Cremation’s fine, but packed off to Bulgaria in a mobile fridge, and sent back in a box with labels on?

I’d gone to see Bryan a few weeks earlier.  I hadn’t seen him for nineteen years.  I didn’t see him even then.  He died four hours before I got there. 

The in-laws over with, I had some ouzo and olives in a taverna near his home.  Then I went to the cemetery anyway.  The ‘protestant’ one, for foreigners.  Bryan took me, years ago, to show me where he'd be.  Or thought he’d be.  I can’t remember if he said as much.  The cemetery is tiny. Finding a grave would not be hard.  There is empty ground.  I suppose if you had a choice, Salonica is not a place you'd stay forever, if you weren’t born there.

                Protestant cemetery, Salonica

           I brought back to England some pies baked that morning, in flaky pastry, and some old-fashioned sweets, and a bigger, stronger and cheaper bottle of ouzo than you can find over here.  I also brought back some of Bryan's old maps, which I knew he’d want me to have.  The old camera I was looking for, the Leica, was not in its case.  I chose another – there were several – and placed it on the sofa next to me, along with my other pickings.  

Brother-in-law said it belonged to his father.  I was making mistakes like that.  The first time I saw him, I called him Bryan when Bryan was dead.  Dead just a few hours, but dead all the same.  I came into the room.  He was sitting in front of an open window, with the sky behind him, and in the whiteness I couldn’t see his face.

After the cemetery, I walked down the hill to the waterfront.  Bryan's apartment lay around the harbour.  It was sunset.  I looked over to the white, Venetian tower which dominates that corner of the bay, when a dark figure slipped across the parapet onto the roof, and disappeared.  Seconds later, the flag was whisking down, and through the castellation I could make out two men performing their little ceremony.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

When Scotland’s independent

There’s a play by Shakespeare, his shortest tragedy, just a brief yarn for those who lack patience, all about quick promotion.  He had to make a living like everyone else.  We have to hold down a job.  Nowadays, to help employees bond, a paintballing session might be arranged.  The boss won’t normally hand out tickets to a play, not this one, anyway. 

In the theatre business, nobody ever refers to it by name.  It’s the Scottish Play.  You must know this already.  There’s a curse.  The witches, I suppose.  You’re dead if you type the word Macbeth.  

Are you still there?

Superstition, like nothing else, makes us careful.  You don’t want to spoil your own chances.  A wily ship’s cook won’t take a sieve on board.  But superstition can kill you, too.  You step off the footpath to avoid a ladder, and get hit by a bus.

However careful we are, the forest eventually catches up with us.  Michael Moore has just been sacked from his post as Scottish Secretary, I mean the Scottish Job.  Alistair Carmichael has got the poison haggis.

What will happen when the Scots are free

·         Glasgow will be officially foreign
·         The land border will make invasion simpler
·         Some unemployed foreign builders will be able to go home on foot
·         Fried Mars bars will become a European delicacy
·         Carol Ann Duffy will lose her job as Poet Laureate
·         Simon Armitage will replace her, so you won't see any difference
·        Andy Murray will still be the closest thing the English have to a tennis champion

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Lucky nappies

I was working in a primary school when England lost a World Cup football match.  The children were miserable.  A teacher told them that they shouldn’t feel sad for themselves, but happy for all the children in Brazil.  They stared at her.   Maybe it was just me, but they didn’t seem to feel much better.  I suppose it’s not easy to imagine people on the other side of the world, or the other side of your own city, if you’ve hardly travelled three miles from home.  As to understanding how others feel, can you do it with the person next to you? 

The teacher meant well.  It was an ad hoc lesson in empathy.  It might have worked if she’d empathised with the children in front of her.  Teachers tend to come up with this line: the most important thing is not to win, but to participate.  Children don’t take this seriously.  All around them they see the emphasis which is placed on winning.  They know it’s the most important thing.  They can feel it.

The best way to deal with failure is to try to avoid it in the first place.  At school or university, if you’re not very clever or don’t want to waste time studying, there are still things you can do.  We heard this year that one in three students wears lucky exam underwear.  Think about that for a moment.  Lucky exam underwear.  One in three.  Surely, of all the articles of clothing worn by a human being, underwear is the most unlucky, at least from the clothing’s point of view.  Even socks, even my own socks, can’t feel so bad. 

For most of us, exam day is the worst day of the year.  We need to prepare for our biggest test.  Exam tips have always been popular, and we got them again this year – take a spare pen, for example.  Although this advice came from a pen manufacturer, it was still good.  We were told about the “stomach-churning angst” of exam day, and heard how over half of all candidates change their diet just before exams, gorging themselves on oily fish and fruit.  It’s not surprising, then, about the stomach.  Do take an extra pen, but nervous students might also need a change of lucky underwear. 

Of course, stress begins long before the first exam.  Nursery teachers in the UK are complaining that more and more children have to be toilet trained when they start school.  That’s right, four-year-olds.  While most parents are relieved to get the little beasties off their hands, so to speak, mothers still proudly pack their children off to school.  They still say things like: “Not too tight, is it, darling?”  Once they meant Jonny’s belt or Jenny’s shoe.  Now they’re pinning on a nappy.