She says she will soon be a dentist. She likes teeth and is fascinated with their decay. At the Canada Bay Private benefit she attracts a crowd of followers who, one at a time, bend their heads back to the Darlinghurst terrace chandeliers and submit to her probing fingertips. In teeth she sees future meals and cocktails and heart break and the many lies it will take for their owner to reach death.
‘You eat a lot of curry.’
‘I wouldn’t say a lot,’ says a neurosurgeon from The Rocks. ‘I do like it. Mutton is awfully good for the jaw.’
‘Not so good for the molars. They look like Blitzkreig back there. And yours! You’ll need a crown within the year.’
‘On this front one?’ asks a PR agent from Balmaine. ‘I just had them checked. You sure?’
‘Oh, yes. I never miss a nerve rupture.’
They all laugh and she wipes an embroidered napkin around the announcement of her mouth. The hostess, always in black, is attracted by the attention.
‘You’re a regular magician over here,’ she says, one hand carefully placed on her mantelpiece, fingers curled underneath. ‘Making cavities appear, vanishing healthy gums.’
‘It’s a serious matter.’ The pre-dentist puts down her fat-bodied red and interlaces her fingers, palms to the floor. ‘This is the flesh that holds our mouths together. Teeth in gums, gums on bone, all that. When we damage our gums, some of these little wires pop loose.’ She nudges a cardiologist from Bondi. ‘Could you pull one of these fingers our for me, please?’ With her ring finger free and easy she continues, ‘and when we don’t properly attend to this damage,’ again she nudges and he obliges, ‘more are disconnected until eventually…’ she waggles her fingers in front of her throat and everyone laughs and someone refills her glass.
‘Quite amusing,’ says the hostess. ‘I could use you on the hospital board.’
‘Oh no,’ she replies. ‘I’m not yet qualified.’ Her left incisor is a shade darker than the teeth around it. She licks it, slowly, when she believes no one is watching.
‘Can you practise?’ asks the PR agent. ‘Without a license?’
‘Only during training.’ She leans forward until the bow on her dress slips through the skein of her wine. ‘Actually, I’m not technically suppose to consult outside the clinic.’
‘Does this count?’
‘Only if one of you say something.’
The hostess thins her lips and motions to a waiter carrying a tray of bruscetta. She takes two but the others, watching the pre-dentist turn them down, wave the tray away.
They ask about the challenges of reconstructive surgery within the current budget cuts but she brightly excuses herself and winds her way through the crowd, into the bathroom. Two women are hovering before the mirror, one applying blush to the other’s cheek. They have a look of midwifery about them. They part and smile and one puts a hand to her own lip.
‘You’re the dentist.’
‘Could you look at something for me?’
‘Only if you write me a cheque. I didn’t bring a donation.’
They leave, whispering, and she locks the door and sits on the rim of the bathtub. The taps are so highly polished she can see the warped image of herself bowing around their curves. Her red dress looks like the angry dome of a sunset. She wonders why she wore it again when she can so clearly see the outline of her bra through the fabric.
There is a knock, then a scrape of keys and the door opens to the hostess. She steps in sideways, closes and re-flips the lock. The pre-dentist looks at her through two cupped hands, unsurprised.
‘Just thought I’d see if you were all right.’ She puts her keys on the ceramic sink, wipes a smudge from the surface. ‘We had an unfortunate incident in here last year with a radiologist from Strathfield.’
‘I heard he was very depressed.’
‘Certainly depressed enough.’ She sits beside her and both women place a hand on each knee. ‘It happens like that. Sudden, in your host’s toilet.’ She turns and looks over into the bowl. ‘Hell of a place to choose. I wanted a larger one.’ She flushes it and tuts.
They are silent for a long while with nothing but the occasional hiss of the cistern. Eventually the hostess says, ‘you’re not really a dentist.’
‘I’m getting my qualifications.’
‘But you’re not. Are you.’
The pre-dentist closes her eyes and smiles so widely a flash of filling can be seen. ‘How could you have possibly figured it out?’
‘Your tooth. That pointy one.’
‘No dentist would have a discoloured incisor.’
The pre-dentist stands and puts both hands out in supplication. ‘I did study dentistry. I mean, not at university. From books.’
‘Dentist for a father?’
She stops to think, then stretches out a ‘no.’
The pre-dentist fiddles with the chain of keys. ‘If I leave now, can you not tell anyone? It so comforts people to be told by a professional that they have broken teeth.’
The hostess brushes a hand toward the door. ‘I won’t say a word.’ She watches her reach for the doorknob.
‘I was at the Baulkhan Hills children’s ward fundraiser last year,’ the pre-dentist says. ‘I thought you did a wonderful job.’
‘So did I. People fawn over these doctors and surgeons and chiefs of medicine but really it’s us, the wives behind, that make these things happen.’ She slips a hand through the air to brush a piece of lint from the pre-dentist’s upper arm. ‘We organise and chase up and worry about the money; how much money are we raising, how much do we need, how much will they let us get away with? Do you think doctors give a thought to all that?’ She slaps a hand to her thigh. ‘We do. Women outside the picture.’
‘It’s a very safe place to be.’
When the pre-dentist leaves she takes her umbrella from the deer antler rack, tells the elevator operator to grow his hair out and hails a taxi from the building’s entrance. She looks up at the seventh floor where the flashes of party reflect on the hats of street lamps. The silhouette of the hostess stands out against the lights. She has one hand raised in farewell and the pre-dentist does not return the gesture. She takes her dress off in the taxi with no intention of putting it back on.