The Toothbrush Maker’s Apprentice
“Just scratch your name there.”
I pause, staring at my new boss, Doctor Taylor.
“It’s just formalities,” he continues. “You’ll be famous for the work you do.”
“Apologies, I mean respected. Making a difference for humankind. Do you know how many people die from gum disease every year?”
I sign on the dotted line.
“Ah, here they are.”
Three people, all wearing lab coats like us, enter through the automatic doors. Each person is carrying a glass box with something inside it. They place the items on the long chrome table.
“These are our signature toothbrushes from the last three years and the magnificent designers that created them,” announces Doctor Taylor.
With perfect posture, the three individuals stand behind their masterpieces and beam Hollywood-white smiles.
“The year 2017 demanded colour,” continues Doctor Taylor.
A standard-looking toothbrush painted in fluorescent colours is in the first box.
“Ooh,” I finally manage.
“Look closer,” demands Doctor Taylor.
I lean in.
My nose touches the glass.
“Every single bristle on that brush is not only a different colour but a different length. Sales go up when people are told they can do less.” Doctor Taylor must know that me nodding means I don’t understand because he continues, “This brush cleans through ‘variegated-fibre linearity technology.’ Basically, this means that you can clean your teeth in half the time it previously took you.”
“And it looks cool,” adds the guy who designed it.
I smile with a closed mouth, keeping my yellow nuggets hidden.
“Moving on,” begins Doctor Taylor, “is the 2018 model.”
I scrunch up my face and knot my brow.
“Where is the… brush?” I ask.
Doctor Taylor bends his head forward, like a toothbrush’s concertinaed neck, and points to the flat area where the bristles should be.
“Right there is a small camera. The customer inserts the titanium rod into their mouth and moves it around for twenty seconds. The camera takes over one hundred photos, and we use the information to create a unique brush. After all, every person is different.”
“Cool,” I answer, actually impressed by this.
“And finally, this year’s model. Maybe it’s best to demonstrate,” says Doctor Taylor.
The bespectacled designer lifts the glass and removes the slim, rose-gold brush, puts it in a matt-black stand, and places it on the table. The designer then takes a bottle, which looks like mouthwash, measures a capful, and puts it into her mouth. She sloshes it around then swallows.
“Are you supposed—”
“Ah, wait,” says Doctor Taylor.
“Clean,” instructs the designer and opens her mouth.
On the stand, a small red LED light turns on, and from the bristles, red lasers shoot into the designer’s mouth.
“This is our hands-free model,” begins Doctor Taylor, trying to suppress a smile. We use mouth-recognition technology to detect the mouth and shoot high-frequency soundwaves that clean the teeth through vibration.”
“She swallowed the mouthwash?” I question.
“We want people to feel comfortable cleaning their teeth anywhere, be this on the train, in the car, on the bus, wherever. Usually, you need water when using traditional toothpaste, but this cleaner was designed to clean without the need to rinse and spit.”
I look at the woman who designed it, her perpetual smile still stuck on her face as if she’s a puppet.
“Your design will be next year’s model,” continues Doctor Taylor, rubbing his hands together.
“You have one month to design the toothbrush.”
I gulp again.
Clicking the “Yes” asking, “Are you sure you want to delete this project?” is not as satisfying as throwing a load of paper in a bin. I lean back in the chair, hands behind my head, and roll back across the smooth white floor.
“Design it from your heart,” mum had told me. “You’re working an honourable job, sweetie, we need better brushes. Half my teeth are fake, and I brush twice a day like they say to do. Don’t believe what the government tells you about climate change, fear mongers, we don’t have polar bears here, we need good oral hygiene.”
“All going to plan, Donald?”
I spin around to see Doctor Taylor looking down at me.
“Yep, all good here, thanks,” I stutter, feeling myself grow warm.
“You told me in your interview that you are passionate about tooth decay. You wanted this job to help people.”
I grow hotter. He knows I have no idea for a design.
“Err, yeah, that’s right, I—”
“Sustainability!” he announces, putting a skinny finger in the air. “That’s the fad right now.”
“We look after each other,” continues Doctor Taylor, turning to leave through the automatic doors.
I’ve never enjoyed public speaking; I didn’t even stick my hand up in class to answer questions I knew. “Imagine them naked,” Mum had giggled to me through the phone.
“When you’re ready,” says Doctor Taylor from the front row, turning around to smile at the roomful of toothbrush nerds.
I glance over at my creation in its glass box.
“Recycling is the hot word right now; everybody is conscious of their carbon footprint. I have researched the best sustainable wood. This pine handle is recyclable; however, the bristles are made from a fibre that begins to organically decompose after thirty days, so the customer only replaces the head…”
I shake and zip up. Obligatorily, I place my hands under the running water and quickly bounce out the room, keen to get back to the party and another drink.
The company must’ve believed in me as they’d already booked the pub for the celebration.
“Hey, Donald, no drink in your hand! We can’t have that,” says a guy I haven’t met before. I lean against the bar, waiting as he chats up the big-bosomed barmaid.
I turn and see Doctor Taylor. “Do you indulge?”
His hand holds a joint and a small square of paper with a picture of a toothbrush on it.
“I’ve been known to.”
“Open up,” he instructs and puts the paper on my tongue. “Come with us back to the lab; we’ll enjoy it there.”
I’m not sure who “us” are, but everyone wants a part of Donald tonight.
“Your chair is so comfy,” I say.
“So you keep telling me,” laughs Doctor Taylor.
The three others echo the laugh, and I follow suit.
“What happens next then?” I ask, all eight eyes on me as if they’re a big scary spider. “I mean, with the toothbrush?”
“We sell it!” announces Doctor Taylor, lifting his spindly arms into the air.
“Then what?” I ask.
“Nothing, it doesn’t matter!”
The three others laugh.
“What do you mean?”
“None of this matters, it’s all pretend.”
I stare at Doctor Taylor’s perfect teeth.
“I don’t get it,” I finally muster.
“I’ll tell you the secret.”
“I think so—”
“We don’t need to brush our teeth.”
Doctor Taylor is dancing around the room, and the others follow him in a conga line. They circle me, dancing and laughing. I feel sick.
“You have fake teeth?”
They don’t answer, instead continue to go around my chair.
“I don’t get it,” I repeat.
Doctor Taylor grabs my face and proceeds to squeeze my cheeks. It’s probably playful, but it hurts. His pink eyes look into mine.
“People don’t need to clean their teeth. It’s a myth. Teeth have cleaned themselves since time began. It’s the toothpaste and the brushes that ruin them.”
I take in big gulps of air and burp. I would feel so much better if I was sick a little bit, but it’s not coming. They all face me like a big centipede spider thing.
“What?” I finally say.
“We are selling people stuff that—makes them worse, so they are buying more stuff—that makes them even worse,” hiccups the guy with the trendy, orange-framed glasses.
I stare at the creases in the leather chair; my brow knots.
“That’s not right!” I say, standing.
They look at one another, silent. I’m not sure what I should do next, so I repeat myself, “that’s not right!” and add, “I’ll tell.”
“Not the right reaction, Donald,” says Doctor Taylor, shaking his head. “You signed a confidentiality agreement when you started.”
I begin pacing the floor.
“Get the fluoride,” Doctor Taylor demands.
Somebody nods and runs off, and in a blink, they’re on me.
“What the fuc—”
“Donald,” begins Doctor Taylor. “Others have felt the same way, but we have altered their way of thinking. Just under the lethal dose won’t kill you, but we will be able to control you. You won’t remember a thing.”
“You’ll still be known as the designer who helped fight tooth decay, that’s all you wanted, to make a difference,” somebody whispers into my ear.
I see a syringe. I fight to escape the chair.
“Just a small scratch,” I hear someone say.