In the dentist’s office I focused on the light behind the man’s face, my feet in the air as the blood drained into my head, mouth pulled wide open with his horrible gloved fingers poking my gums.
“You don’t floss. Why don’t you floss?” He asked.
“Iaagh yusheghhh doooogh,” I replied into his fingers.
“Did nobody ever teach you? Come on, up you get.” He flicked the switch that made the chair upright itself with me in it. I had assumed that just booking the appointment was enough to constitute doing the adult thing. I had typed “dentist near oxford circus” into Yelp and found one that seemed accommodating. I had been so proud, phoning up to make the appointment, writing the time into my blue day planner, smiling dreamily as I tongued the teeth inside my mouth. Rotten teeth in a rotten mouth, apparently, according to this horrible clean man with his gloved fingers.
“To the mirror.” In front the mirror the dentist stood behind me and looped the dental floss between my teeth, pulling harshly to demonstrate technique. “This is how you floss, Ellie. You need to do this twice a day to save your gums from further disease.”
“It hurrghts!” I told him. There is no indignity more crass than having your words fumbled by a clean man’s gloved fingers, pulling fine thread between your teeth. I could taste blood and in the mirror, saw my diseased gums dyed red. I caught the dentist’s eye with sheer panic in my face.
“A little blood is to be expected, Ellie. It’s a sign of the disease in the gums.”
How was he so clean while I was full of sickness? The blood was on my lips now and the pain was getting worse.
“Can you stop?” I asked, somehow, through his gloves. My eyes were welling with tears and I was too confused to even pretend I wasn’t about to cry.
“There. That’s how you floss. You now have no excuse for such bad gums and teeth. Will you promise me that you’ll floss twice a day from now on, Ellie?”
His fingers were no longer in my mouth, but there was a lot of blood pooling around my tongue now, so I wasn’t so confident in my ability to reply yet. I nodded. Does a nod count as a lie? I nodded anyway, my bloody tongue complicit in my head’s dishonesty.
My mouth was still full of blood when I got back to the office. I had spat it out in the bathroom of the dentist, and I cautiously reapplied my makeup once I had managed to stop the automatic tears from spilling out. The bleeding had calmed a little by the time my bus stopped on Marylebone Road, but nevertheless when Olivia poked her head around her door at me, sitting quietly at my tiny assistant’s-desk, to ask how the dentist had been, I was too afraid of my blood and tears giving me away to do more than just nod and smile, mouth closed tight.
Olivia’s door is generally closed or ajar depending on her mood, which depends in turn on what she has eaten for breakfast. Once, Olivia tore up an email from a long-standing, difficult contributor in front of him, simply because she had opted for a boiled egg instead of porridge. She printed it out first, in order to tear it up, which seemed to me like a waste of her already-limited energies. But that is the thing about being an assistant: it’s obvious that nobody cares how anything seems to me, really.
That morning Olivia’s door was ajar. And we matched – her mouth was blood red too, Ruby Woo, her ‘signature lip’, in her own words. I could hear her rustling papers and opening and closing drawers – busy noises, I had to assume. The Digest gets many submissions, almost all of them paper, and I know this because the place that gets them, technically, is my desk. And I don’t know how they get there because they are all there when I arrive in the morning. I am usually the first here and nevertheless they crowd my desk, jostling for my attention. The Digest gets a lot of submissions because, I supposed, it’s the Digest, and it is esteemed, and writers seem to believe that its tacit approval will make them into Writers. “It’s about the company you keep,” Olivia put it to me on my first day.
Olivia has not written a book, which means that she is not a Writer, but that’s okay to her because she really considers herself more of an Editor. This seems to mean a friend to all talent, someone raven-haired and glamourous, with a double first from Oxbridge, ready to extend a glass of expensive scotch and talk you through your talented troubles on the knackered leather Chesterfield couch in her office.
Olivia’s remit is reviews, whereby she collates and criticises the month’s reviews before electing which ones are worthy of publication. Of course I do the collating; I am the assistant, this is what we do all across Marylebone and Fitzrovia, between lunch orders and paying invoices. Olivia is good at criticising. For Front of Book I once wrote a short memo on what I perceived to be a connection between the newest Will Self novel and a teenage backlash against druggy hedonism, and within an hour she had left it back on my desk slashed to ribbons with red pen. At the bottom, in the studied scrawl of a hormonal woman who criticises for a living: Your point is true, but is it interesting? “You need to read more Susan Sontag,” she tapped the piece of paper walking past my desk on the way out to Côte Brasserie. It wasn’t printed. I took an early lunch, which I spent crying over my coleslaw in the toilet. If her remit is reviews, mine is feeling constantly like I am not educated or well-read enough to even be in this building. Maybe even in this city. I furrowed my brow.
The Digest’s writers are, by and large, older and by and large on the sleazier side of charming. Malcolm was always kind to me when he called to schedule a meeting with Olivia. “After two,” he’d roar. “After two and before five, please Ellie.” He kept these hours, I’d learn, because he was a drunk and those hours, when he’d had two drinks but not three or four, were when he’d be most functional. For a drunk, Malcolm was a handsome one, and his picture was often in the Diary pages of the Evening Standard, which I would leaf through idly on the commute home. Here he was with Zadie Smith. Here he was with Claudia Winkleman. Ah, here he was with Olivia, her dark red lips pursed in what I think she thought was a sexy, kittenish pout. I wondered when a woman gets too old to be kittenish.
Here he was now in the office, all six foot five of him, filling the doorframe in his stained overcoat, his flop of dark hair jutting over his face.
“Hello, Ellie!” He boomed over my desk. “Tell me how it is being 23 in the year 2013. Did you read the Nadine Gordimer I lent you?”
I did, I told him, and smiled bashfully, lying of course. I liked it. He lent down and rested his elbows on my desk. His breath was sweet and heavy with red wine, not like the sour smell of piss and whisky like the tramps down Baker Street. But still I recoiled just a hair. “Let me take you for a drink, Ellie. I have another book I think you’d love,” he said, patting his overcoat pocket.
Olivia cleared her throat over his shoulder, standing at the threshold of her office. I blushed. “Ellie,” she cooed. “You’re blushing like a schoolgirl.” My face had betrayed my insides, again, for the thirteenth time today. But I pretty much am a schoolgirl! I wanted to shout. Malcolm looked over his shoulder as he followed Olivia, in her black leather boots and her grey striped dress, which I knew was from Marni because I was here, at my desk, when the package from Net-A-Porter had arrived. Her gussying up for the handsome writers, her flirtatious manner – it all seemed one big posture, a going-through-the-motions of chemistry that made her seem more appealing to the writers, increased her capital somehow, I thought. I thought about the picture of her and Malcolm in the Standard, the calculation she put into her pose and how she dipped her chin at an angle to capture her best side. It was all put on. She closed the door behind her with one black leather heel.
Throughout college I worked in a department store’s beauty hall, and to get me through afternoons selling glass pots of snake oil to obnoxious women who insisted on writing cheques despite their near-total obsolescence, I would pretend I was onstage. I am not a natural actress, but there was a sign by the clock-in machine that told me to “Be HELPFUL, Be ATTRACTIVE, Be a MODEL of GOOD SERVICE”, and that was all I needed. Once I walked on to that shop floor, I was on and I was not able to fuck up. No toilet breaks, no idle chatter, no distractions. I was not a source of great amusement for my colleagues, maybe, but I got through each shift. My first day at the Digest I slid back into this habit. I pretended the cameras were trained on my desk. When contributors came in to meet with Olivia, meetings that were inevitably more about literary gossip and small tumblers of freebie scotch than about editorial matters, I detached from the situation so much that my performance elicited a kind of elated adrenaline. I focused in on this now, rather than on the blood that remained in my mouth, or on the muffled chatter – in which I heard my name, and some conspiratorial giggles – in the room behind me. I concentrated on maintaining the actor’s veneer so that I wouldn’t be swallowed whole by my hatred of her, my embarrassment around this situation, of the flush on my cheeks that I couldn’t control. I filed away the submissions on my desk and I tongued my sore, raw gums inside my mouth, pursed tight.
40 minutes later, the door swung open again. I hopped up to fetch Malcolm’s coat. It smelled of damp, the tartan lining torn in places. There was a flush smudge of red near the lapel and my heartbeat doubled, had the blood in my mouth gotten there somehow? I put my thumb on the spot in horror, frozen in panic. Malcolm stepped in front of me and took the coat from my hands genially. I looked up at Olivia behind him, the lipstick on her mouth, and blushed again, feeling my face heat up out of my control. “Thank you Ellie dear. I hope to see you again soon,” he said. Be a MODEL of GOOD SERVICE, Ellie, I told myself. Get it together. Olivia made it seem so easy, with her yahs and her glottal stops, her weekends in the Cotswolds and her easy, boarding-school manner with men. Maybe it wasn’t all put on, after all. She fixed her gaze on me as Malcolm made for the door.
“Are you feeling OK, Ellie? You look a little peaky.”
I swallowed hard. The taste of blood still lingered.
“I’m fine, Olivia. Just – you know, the dentist.”