We used to call it the Murder House.
They’d pile us onto school buses, 20 or 30 children at a time and take us there a couple of times a year. I remember pulling into the lavish grounds of this place with the misleadingly festive name of “Holly Lea”. I used to get it mixed up with “the land called Honah Lee” in the song by Peter, Paul & Mary. Strange to think that such a gay song could be written about a place as dark as this.
We’d edge out of the bus and into what seemed to me at the time an expansive hall filled with row upon row of dental chairs, each paired with a drill and a spit basin. We’d walk in - we unfortunate few - to be confronted by a dental nurse dressed like some dark, vengeful nun beckoning us each into a chair. My memory may not be the clearest on this but they truly seemed to be dressed in stiff, starched wimples, a malevolent version of that worn by TV's "The Flying Nun". This makes me question whether it was these pseudo-nuns, or actual, real-life nuns themselves, that made me scared of nuns.
Little legs would have to clamber up into the seat and a tissue would be attached to a stainless steel chain by clasps that resembled the vicious mandibles of some tiny, bitey rodent. This was then placed around the neck of the patient to catch dribble and blood and tears. I remember being fascinated, in a tunnel-visioned, panicked kind of way, by the small tap that sent water whirlpooling around the stark white basin and down the plug hole.
This was the world of the autoclave.
If one was lucky the nurse might have a fetching pair of eyes to get innocently lost in, that would gaze kindly over the mask. But there was no denying that at some point very soon things would start to get painful. She would start poking around in your mouth with sharp instruments that seemed to get stuck in little gaps and holes, squirt water or air on to sensitive teeth, and scratch and scrape disapprovingly.
Once, my nurse affixed to my tooth a gate, an unwieldy instrument that consisted of a little steel belt that could be tightened as needed in order to isolate the tooth that required work. It was uncomfortable but only slightly, painfully so. The supervising matron came to check on this trainee's work. Evidently dissatisfied, she tightened the belt around my tooth another two or three full turns, until it dug painfully into my gum which – obligingly - started to bleed. I couldn't help but think that that last turn was simply because she could see the tears welling in my eyes.
And the drilling starts. Not the modern, high-speed drill, preceded by a pain-eliminating injection experienced in today’s modern dentistry. No, no. This is a foot-pedal, belt-driven drill, slow, vibrating through the skull as it glances off teeth, as it chips through enamel, making its way to the excruciating core of things. And there, sometimes, it would get stuck, grinding slowly to a halt. She would try and rev the thing, in an effort to pry it loose, which so often would only make things worse. Like some great tunneling borer, she would then throw the drill into reverse and wiggle it as it worked its way backwards and out. Shock, pain, terror are described vocally by the patient in a strangulated, choking noise as he almost drowns in the pooling water and saliva that she has not been able to clear.
Gargle, spit, wipe.
The appointment over, the innocent is told to climb down, legs shaking and barely able to hold him up. Palms soaked with sweat, a dull ache in the jaw, he thanks her in his tiny, breaking voice - a form of Stockholm Syndrome having overcome him, grateful to his jailer for finally releasing him.
And they would huddle together on the bus back to school, silent, pale, staring out the window, shocked – but knowing they were free for another six month stretch.