Let us begin: or why I can’t speak German

When we’re young, we’re proud of reaching milestones that mark the progress towards what proves to be the mixed blessings of adulthood. Our first long trousers, our first double-figure birthday, our first kiss, our first solo visit to a cinema: all these things, not always in that order, celebrate another restrictive shackle of childhood being shaken off.

It’s only later, of course, that one hankers for these carefree days. Many’s the time since when, in the throes of some financial, emotional or existential crisis, I have yearned to be returned to the imagined simple pleasures of childhood. Were this wish to have been granted, I would be at once counting the days until my tenth birthday or sulking at the unfairness of being told to eat pork chops. We’re never happy. Perhaps that’s what makes us human: or perhaps it just shows how rubbish life is. I don’t know.

My first train set, for example, was something I had looked forward to for months before my eighth birthday. When the morning arrived I was so excited I could barely speak. Of all the pleasures that I’ve been lucky enough to receive I think this would still be number one, certainly in terms of expectation being matched by experience. To say that my day was spoiled when I was told that I was going riding in the afternoon would be a huge understatement. My aunt ran a livery stable in Wimbledon and fondly believed that an outing on a pony would be the birthday treat I most craved. She was wrong. Somewhere I still have a photo of me sitting on this animal with an expression on my face that would have curdled milk. I have never been on a horse since.

I mention this episode because it shows what a strong effect an unwelcome incident can have ones later life. For example, I can’t speak German. There may be other reasons for this omission but this is my version.

Two of the things I was particularly proud of aged about 11 were my new front teeth. I knew these were permanent (or so I thought) and that the painful but also wonderful sensation of having a milk tooth loosen until it demanded to be pulled out was now finished with. Unlike my other teeth they were of perfect size and regularity. This, I thought proudly, baring my fangs in a mirror, were the real thing. Teeth – what grown-ups have.

I had about three weeks to enjoy them. One Saturday afternoon, rising slightly higher than my opponent to head a football, the left one snapped off flush with the gum. The only immediate satisfaction I had was that it embedded itself in the other boy’s cheek. I’ve forgotten his name but I’d probably recognise the scar.

My parents were summoned. This was a boarding school called Caldicott in Burnham Beeches and the staff didn’t like parents wandering about except on advertised days as this would have interfered with the sadism and pedophilia that were the main reasons most of them worked there. An exception was made, however.

My mother was underwhelmed by my calm and – until I opened my mouth – unaffected appearance. “I thought you’d be all bruised and covered in bandages,” she said. This was probably an attempt to cheer me up but it made me feel a bit of a fraud.

After an unpleasant month while the nerve died the question of what was to be done reared its head. “We can’t do anything permanent until his mouth has stopped growing,” the dentist told my parents. “You’ll have to wait until he’s grown up.” This was absurd. I was grown up. I had my adult teeth through. Now I would have to wait. It was so unfair.

He put in a temporary crown. Two days later it came out. He replaced it. That lasted a week. This went on for a bit until, for a year or so, the falsie was abandoned. I learned to speak without lisping by twisting my tongue to the right.

Before I went to my next school two years later I insisted that we try again. This prosthetic was slightly better in that it fitted over the stump rather than just being glued onto it. When I felt it loosening I would do a strange thing with my tongue and lips for which there is no word that I’m aware of. This had the effect of sucking the air out of the tiny gap and causing the crown to contract slightly so sealing it in place. This was fine until I ate a piece of toast or coughed or did one of fifty other things that would work it loose again. From time to time it would break which would result in a few weeks of toothlessness, then a trip to London, then a few months of respite: then the loosening would start again.

During one of these toothless episodes I acquired the nickname of ‘fang’. Pretty obvious really and not too bad compared with some of the other sobriquets then in use. It probably wouldn’t have bothered my if there had been no language lab at this school.

This room had rows of booths, each one with a mic and a pair of headphones and was used for teaching us French and German. I am under no illusion that I have no natural talent for foreign languages. That I can speak French reasonably well is only because my parents invested all their savings in building a house there in which we spent many holidays.

German, on the other hand,  I had no connection with. The language may have been one the lab could have helped me master, were it not for the fact that the first words in the course – uttered at a time when everyone in the class was still giggly and settling down – were ‘let us begin’. The German for this phrase, which I will remember long after dementia has obliterated eins, zwei and drei, is Fangen Sie an.

At this point, everyone would turn round, laugh, point and shout “fang!” A stronger boy might have used this as the spur to become fluent. Unfortunately I was not  a stronger boy. I entered each session in the language lab with a closed mind and it never reopened until just before the end. I wished then I could go back to being eleven again and not break my tooth, or forward to 18 when I’d have a proper replacement. As I couldn’t do either of these things,  I switched off. That’s my story, anyway.

My proper coming of age happened when I was about 18 and a permanent front tooth was fitted. I was now fully grown up, in this respect if none other. All went well until about eight years ago when the tooth suddenly fell out in, of all places, the deep end of the Hungerford swimming pool.

For a moment I couldn’t work out what had happened. I felt something odd in my mouth and saw this silvery object spiral down and land near the grille at the deepest part of the pool. Then a disturbance, probably caused by me, made it move – and suddenly, it was gone.

I got out. The gap where the tooth had been felt about six inches wide. I got dressed and went to the reception desk.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I think my front tooth has been sucked into the filtration system.” At least that’s what I thought I was saying. With no front tooth, all those sibilants must have sounded like wind coming under a door. Alex and Rose, who see me there quite often, looked at me as if I’d lost my reason. I tried again with much the same result.

Then I hit upon the plan of putting my finger where my tooth had been. They must have thought I was trying to make myself vomit. This was better, though  muffled by my hand and so almost as obscure. The fourth time I made myself understood. There was a pause while they considered this sentence, which must have been unlike anything else they’d ever heard. Then they told me there was no way this could be retrieved. I went on my way, lisping and cursing.

The next step, I was advised, was an implant. If I’d known just how expensive this would be I might have gone back to the lisping fang days. The final shreds of physical vanity still clung about me, however, so I went for it. This involved a number of trips to an implant expert in Reading.

Of all the truths which I have absorbed in my life, none is more useful or universally applicable than that which states that if you go to a dentist which has a fish tank in its reception area you are going to get ripped off. This one had two, and complimentary tea and coffee – another warning sign. I’ve blotted out how much it all cost: but at least I know that, live and on the hoof, I’m now worth a bit more than I was due to the titanium post which extends some way up into my skull. In these days of metal thefts I perhaps shouldn’t boast about it.

The day of the implanting arrived and Penny drove me there and settled down to enjoy the fish tanks and free coffee. I was told I was going to be given something which would keep me conscious but only just. As the anesthetist was preparing the jab the dentist asked me if I was all set. I thought for a second. It was now or never. “Could you turn that music off, please?” I said.

There are quite a lot of genres I don’t like. Opera, bagpipes and anything by U2 are close to the top; but in the gold-medal position is that ambient nonsense that wafts around the stave lines like a drunk man on an ice rink, never modulating, never inflecting and never resolving. I knew it would drive me mad.

“Oh,” he said and put down his drill. “I find it rather calming.”

I knew that picking an argument with someone who was about to knock me half unconscious and then start drilling in my mouth was a bad idea but I’d gone too far.

“I don’t,” I said.

He switched it off.

The needle dug into my arm: and I was plunged into a dark half-world which I have only visited in delirious dreams and have no desire to visit again.

I happen to have a low pulse rate. One of the effects of this drug was to drop it still further. About an hour – or it might have been three minutes, I don’t know – I was roused from this pale nightmare by the dentist shaking my shoulder. His urgency of tone communicated itself to me at once but the meaning was harder to follow.

“Brian, Brian, are you an athlete?”

Anyone who knows me will be well aware that I am not an athlete. It seemed an absurd question in the circumstances. Was it some test to see if I was still alive?

“No,” I said. I thought about this. “I do swim, though.” I considered telling him about the filtration system but couldn’t face it.

He appeared satisfied with this reply. The fog descended again. I was dimly aware of a massive noise in my head but it seemed to be happening to someone else.

“Sorry about waking you up, earlier” he said after I had sort of come round, “but your pulse had gone down to about 25.”  I couldn’t think of anything to  say. Should I apologise? Most of my brain seemed to have turned to cotton wool and my legs didn’t work properly. 25 bpm seemed about right.

The final stroke of genius was getting me to pay the last installment of the money while I was still in this condition. I’m sure it was what we’d agreed but it was probably as well I couldn’t take in the sum. Maybe that was the real purpose of the drug.

“All done?” Penny asked me. “Have you paid?” I giggled.

“Get in the car,” she said.

So, now I have two front teeth, one of which probably cost more than the car in which Penny drove me back. I can say “I think my front tooth has been sucked into the filtration system,” with perfect clarity but see no reason why I should ever again need to. I cannot, however, say this, or anything else, in German. If ever I have to, and if using English or French won’t do, it’ll be back to the language lab, but this time paying more attention to fangen Sie an – and so we beat on, boats against the current, wishing to be at any point in our lives apart from the one in which we happen to find ourselves.

Brian Quinn

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2 Responses

  1. Bravo Brian. You made me laugh a lot – and for more than one reason. As well as the way you effortlessly ‘draw’ cartoon after cartoon using nothing but words, in some odd ways this story touches into parts of my own. Like the ‘curing’ of a childhood lisp by means of a newly invented tongue movement. Or breathing in those swirls of drug-filled fog while enduring a somewhat similar implant procedure – mine with a dentist who had one whole wall devoted to fish tanks. And yes, when a driver-less semi trailer packed with loose logs began to speed and rattle down through the hole in my head I too felt the gravitational detachment of a parallel universe.

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