At the Dentist's

"Quite comfortable?" asked Mr. Hinchley when he had played his usual little overture upon the various pedals and handles of his adjustable chair.

"Quite, thank you," said Mrs. Miniver. Horribly, she felt inclined to add. For really it was the refinement of civilized cruelty, this spick, span, and ingenious affair of shining leather and gleaming steel, which hoisted you and tilted you and fitted reassuringly into the small of your back and cupped your head tenderly between padded cushions. It ensured for you a more complete muscular relaxation than any armchair that you could buy for your own home: but it left your tormented nerves without even the solace of a counter-irritant. In the old days the victim's attention had at least been distracted by an ache in the back, a crick in the neck, pins and needles in the legs, and the uneasy tickling of plush under the palm. But now, too efficiently suspended between heaven and earth, you were at liberty to concentrate on hell.

"A lit-tle wi-der," said Mr. Hinchley indulgently, dividing the words into separate syllables as though he were teaching a very small child to read. He was a kind, brisk, blond young man who smelt (thank heaven) of nothing except rather good shaving-soap. Mrs. Miniver obeyed meekly and resigned herself to the exquisite discomfort of the electric drill. It was a pity, she felt, that this instrument had been invented during a period when scientific images in poetry were out of favour. To the modems. who had been brought up with it, it was presumably vieux jeu. They took it for granted; it did not fire their imagination like the pylons and the power-houses which were now the fashionable emotive symbols. But oh, what Donne could have made of it, if it had been invented in his time! With what delight he would have seized upon it, with what harsh jostling and grinding of consonants he would have worked out metaphor after metaphor, comparing its action to that of all the worst tormentors of the heart: to jealousy, to remorse, to the sharp gnawing of a bad conscience and the squalid nagging of debt.

"Are you quite all right?" Mr. Hinchley inquired solicitously.

"Eye aw eye," said Mrs. Miniver. Oh, quite all right. Grand. I love it. This is just my idea of the way to spend a fine afternoon in early spring. For early spring it undoubtedly was, even though there might be a chunk of late winter still to come. Although they were not yet in bud. the bare trees outside Mr. Hinchley's window had a quickened, bloomy look like the expression on the face of somebody who has just had a good idea but has not yet put it into words ; and the sky behind them was as clearly, flatly blue as the sky in an aunt's water-colour. Mrs. Miniver kept her eyes focused as long as possible upon the far distance, hoping that they would take her other senses with them. But they didn't. The drill was too insistent. So presently she brought them back and cast a reproachful spaniel-glance upwards at Mr. Hinchley, which he was too much absorbed to see. She devoted the next few minutes to making a slow, dispassionate study of his left eyebrow, which was a good enough shape as eyebrows go; and then decided that nothing but a deep romantic love could make the human face tolerable at such close quarters.

The far and the near having both failed her, she explored the middle distance: the embossed plaster patterns on the ceiling; the round, white lamp -- an albino moon -- which hung between her and the window; the X-ray machine; the sterilizer; the glass bowl on her left with the tumbler of pink mouth-wash beside it; and on her right the large composite fitment, so absurdly like a porcelain snowman, out of which burgeoned, among other things, this insufferable, this inescapable, this altogether abominable drill.

"Don't forget," said Mr. Hinchley brightly, "you can always switch it off yourself if it gets unpleasant."

"Ank," said Mrs. Miniver. Gets unpleasant. . . . Understatement could be carried too far. She felt with her forefinger for the small cold knob on the right arm of the chair, which would, if she pressed it, silence the monster at once. This, at any rate, was a humane provision which did not exist in the case of jealousy and the other tormentors. But so far as Mrs. Miniver was concerned it might just as well not have been there, for she had never yet been able to bring herself to use it. Something always held her back -- some vague blend of noble and ignoble motives, of pride and masochism and noblesse oblige and the Spartan Boy and Kate Barlass and a quite unreasonable feeling of hostility towards the white-veiled, white-coated young woman who hovered all the time behind Mr. Hinchley waiting for him to say "Double-ended spatula" or "Pink wax." There was nothing whatever wrong with Miss Bligh, who was civil, decorative, and efficient: but somehow her presence made the use of the merciful switch a psychological impossibility.

And now, at last, Mr. Hinchley turned off the drill of his own accord.

"Finished?" asked Mrs. Miniver with a hopeful, lopsided smile.

"Afraid not. But I thought you'd had about as much as you could do with. I'd better give you a local."

Miss Bligh, as though by prestidigitation, suddenly held a syringe between her scarlet finger-tips. She could just as easily, Mrs. Miniver felt, have produced a billiard ball, a white rabbit, or an ace-high straight flush. The prick of the injection was sharp, but its effect was magical. In an instant the left-hand side of her face ceased to belong to her. She put up one finger and stroked her cheek curiously. It was like stroking somebody else's; and therefore it was, tactually, like seeing herself clearly for the first time. Not in a mirror, where the eyes must always bear the double burden of looking and being looked into; but from outside, through a window, catching herself in profile and unawares.

Oh! page John Donne, she thought again impatiently. Run, buttoned cherubim, through the palm lounges and gilt corridors of heaven, turning his name (as is your habit) into a falling, drawling dissyllable. "Meess-tah Dah-ahnne . . . Meess-tah Dah-ahnne . . ." And tell him that there are at least two poems waiting to be written in Mr. Hinchley's surgery. Miss Bligh will hand him a pen.


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