Irritations of Modern Life: 12 - The Dental Hygienist

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SHE IS not the first. But she doesn't seem to know this. "So did you have a nice break this summer?" she asks as she positions the lights. I tell her it was wonderful. "Oh, good." She flashes me an ultra-white smile. "I'll take that as meaning you found plenty of time to floss."

What game is she playing? Is she for real? This is what I hate about dental hygienists - they always are. Cravenly, I explain that I did take my floss on holiday with me, but even though I had it right next to my toothbrush, I kept forgetting.

"Are you sure it was right next to your toothbrush?" she asks, as she puts on her gloves. As I shrink to half my normal size, I manage to nod. "And you're sure it was your toothbrush." I tell her in the smallest voice I've had in years that I know how strange that sounds. "All I can do is keep trying."

As she takes out her tools, she says, "Well, the best thing is to put the floss right next to your toothbrush so that it's impossible to forget it." She plunges her hands in my mouth. She does not like what she sees. "Oh dear, oh dear. Such a lot of plaque."

"Do you understand what this means?" she asks. I do, but I don't want to hear it again. I can understand that, if you'd spent all those years at dental hygiene school, you'd end up having to take teeth very seriously. But why is it that they can't understand why the rest of us might forget to floss, because something more important might have come up at the crucial moment?

As she scrapes away, I imagine her unlocking herself from a passionate embrace and saying, "I can't go on with this. Not until I've flossed." I imagine her strapping an extra floss dispenser to her toothbrush whenever she goes on a trip, and then checking it the way other people check their passports and money. I imagine her telling her best friend about a break- in, and saying, "But the worst thing is that they took all of my floss."

I imagine her having a soft spot for Kenneth Starr, because at least he flosses. I can see her shaking her head as the TV cameras show the latest famine, war, or flood victims, and murmuring, "Just look at what all this has done to their gums."

I imagine her as a missionary, celebrating International Flossing Day with a classroom of shoeless children, pointing out the major trouble spots on a map labelled "Plaque Reserves of the World" - but despite all these cruel and extravagant thoughts, I am still surprised to look up and see her standing over me holding an electric toothbrush.

"Do you brush your teeth?" she asks now. "Have you ever considered charm school?" I feel like saying. "Do you know who you're talking to? May I remind you that I happen to be an adult?"

I've accepted the electric toothbrush, and I'm demonstrating my inferior brushing method, and letting her tell me how I can improve it. I don't hear a word of it. I am too busy hating her, and counting the seconds before I can leave this antiseptic room for ever.

It's only when I get back in my car that I notice how much better my teeth feel. I decide maybe it was worth it, and maybe I just hated this woman because she was right and I was wrong.

I actually remember to floss that night. The second night I forget, but actually make a special trip back downstairs to correct the oversight. By the third night, I'm so into it that I throw an extra dispenser into my handbag, because you never know when you might need it.

I start recommending it to friends. When they smile at me in disbelief, I find myself checking the state of their gums. And thinking how pleased my own personal trainer will be the next time I go in for a check-up. This is what I hate most about plaque imperialists - the way they colonise you.