Low life

Mahler’s Fifth is the perfect soundtrack to a tooth extraction

From start to finish, it mirrored the dentist’s battle to get my molar out

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

Frantic chewing of sugar-coated nicotine gum had caused my left lower molar to go irretrievably rotten, and the dentist finally extracted it after a prolonged and heroic struggle. Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor was playing in the background and the extraordinary thing was that from start to finish the music exactly mirrored the vicissitudes of his battle to pull the tooth out. While we waited for the anaesthetic to take effect the music was gently soporific. As he applied his pliers to the tooth and carefully loosened it, the mood darkened and built to a turbulent climax until I gestured with an unhappy hand signal that I could feel the roots twisting in a place that the anaesthetic had yet to reach. He downed tools and placed two more injections of anaesthetic deep in the gum. As he did so the musical tsunami crested and broke and then flowed calmly again.

The roots were unfortunately bifurcated and it took him ten minutes of hard, sweaty physical labour with several rests in between — during which he flexed and massaged the strained muscles in his forearm — to loosen the tooth without snapping it off the roots. Again, the increasing intensity of his exertions and his periods of rest were exactly matched by the sweeping emotional ebb and flow of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It was as if the man were being subliminally directed by it. The match was so perfect that during one of his resting periods I asked him if the music he was playing was carefully chosen. The suggestion was peremptorily dismissed, however. ‘Music? I put music on because it’s better than silence, that’s all. I’m not even hearing it,’ he said, making a fist and flexing his strained forearm. I was feeling marvellous. While he got his strength back in his arm, I asked him a supplementary question. ‘You know all this local anaesthetic you’ve given me. Would it be affecting my consciousness?’ I said, hoping he was pumping in some derivative of the coca leaf. If my first question shook his confidence in my intelligence, the second made him lose it altogether. ‘No,’ he said, shortly and dismissively, delving into my gob and returning to work.


It was amazing. His final, prolonged assault was mirrored exactly by the intensity of the symphony’s final musical climax, and the tooth surrendered itself whole exactly on cue. I’ve danced to music, driven like a maniac down country lanes to music, made love to music, and now I’ve had a tooth out to music. Highly recommended. Mahler is perfect. For my next one I might try ‘Zorba the Greek’. ‘You’ve got a huge hole,’ he said, wiping his hands. ‘Huge. And now it’s your job to try and keep it clean.’ He sent me on my way with a detailed instruction sheet, an injunction to take it easy for 24 hours, and two emergency cotton-wool dressing pads in a plastic bag.

Almost everyone I met that day regaled me with horror stories of post-extraction infections. It is always a mistake to look at medical websites, I know, but the first one I looked at said there was a one-in-four chance of it if you aren’t as young and sprightly as you once were. So I tried to be careful. No alcohol for a start, said the instruction sheet; tepid salt-water baths only. I got off to a bad start not half an hour later when my grandson kneed me in the side of the mouth, hard, during our after-school playfight, resulting in a colourful haemorrhage that pleased him no end. And about an hour after that I excruciatingly stabbed the tender hole with the jagged edge of a Twiglet.

Later on I went to the pub, where I found to my great relief that I could drink as many pints of lager as I liked through a pair of straws with the drinking ends resting against the back of my throat. It was a rowdy evening and a thump on the back while I was sucking resulted in a small laceration to the gullet. A meaningful slap round the face for what I thought was a perfectly reasonable suggestion made my hole bleed again. Towards the end of the night, the smelly old pub dog jumped up on to my lap and, as is his wont, licked my face then shot his tongue between my lips and into my mouth as a sign of his enduring love. And at the after-pub party the woman who had slapped my face had a sudden and unexpected change of heart and snogged my face off to ‘Better Man’ by Paolo Nutini. But writing this two days later, the pain centred on my hole hasn’t got any worse, I don’t think, so I’m hoping for the best, touch wood.

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Show comments
  • Terence Hale

    Hi,
    “Mahler’s Fifth is the perfect soundtrack to a tooth extraction” Where as Mahler: Symphony No. 2 for Mr Cameron’s government.

  • Innit Bruv

    Poor old Gustav. I am sure he had somewhat higher expectations for the piece.

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