THE GOOD SPIT PROJECT
Post-graduate study is putting off the evil day when you have to make a living. But eventually I allowed myself to be taken on as a research assistant to Dr Hall McCall, a forensics expert with more letters after his name than anyone else in the medical register. It was said he collected degrees like Embassy cars collected parking tickets. I was interviewed by McCall himself and bullet-like Jo Manders, the dentist, obsessed by detail and apparently humourless. Hall McCall was said to have ‘total recall of the future’, being two steps ahead of reality. What they had in common was a certain fierceness of intent.
He looked me in the eye and said he had a ‘mouthwatering idea that might interest me’: the Good Spit Project. Jo Manders swore by spittle. A film of it was what retained false teeth in the mouth. ‘Lick it on and the nature will do the rest’, she said. ‘The older the patient, the more superior the glue.’
Jo Manders told me she first met Dr McCall in a mortuary (an unclaimed corpse of a woman dragged from the river), and both of them being short sized, they had to stand on tippie-toes to reach the slab. They soon saw eye to eye, in more ways than one. Jo Manders told him, ‘The secret of life is in saliva’. The simplicity of the idea brought them together. But how it was to be tested was not so simple. Jo wanted to concentrate on longevity and false teeth retention. Measuring the salivary flow and viscosity in long livers. Dr McCall wanted to go deeper and devised a sneeze test. Sponsorship was obtained from the manufacturer of a dry-mouth spray. Though the company’s best interests would be the other way round.
I was to coordinate the study, and scanned local papers in the home counties for centenarians receiving congratulatory letters from the Queen. Jo approached them and offered them new dentures. Refusals were rare, the relatives made sure of that. Hardly a week passed without her photograph figuring with a subject in a local paper, fixing the smiles of the longest surviving people in the land (‘Long in the tooth? Not any more!’). Almost the only oldies that slipped through my net were those who died between the letter announcement and Jo’s phone-call to the next of kin. New subjects more than replaced the drop-outs (death or too gaga).
In no time the numbers were sufficient to apply statistics to represent the hundred-plus in the South of England. The snuff-induced Hall McCall sneeze test showed that their false teeth did not fall out below force nine, while in the control group, half their age, it was five.
Jo Manders own spit was decidedly viscous. When she got fed up with people, which was quite often, her spitfire rarely missed the eye. It was said she inherited her sharp tongue from her mother, who lived in the Lasts’ Resting Home near Hendon, and was due her Queen’s letter. Jo was in two minds about making Haddie new teeth.
‘Not because we hate one another, which we do, always have. But the grip of the old vulcanites she wears is incredible. It’s what horses’ bits used to be made of before the space age brought in high impact plastics. You’d need a tug-of-war to wrench them out. The old bitch has the hardest spit in town, and I don’t want to be at the end of it when Haddie says Haddie wants her old ones back. She’s not going to ruin my old age, as she did my childhood. People like that go on forever.’
Unlike Pavlov, Jo was not taken seriously. Just as well, as he ended up experimenting on people considered mad instead of dogs. She did not please her sponsors when her study disclosed salivary flow in her oldies was normal average, and so dry-mouth sprays wouldn’t be needed. I carried out a sub-study into their medication and psychiatric health. Dry mouth is usually a consequence of nerves. And I considered you’d need strong ones to survive a century in this difficult world.
Not one of the subjects admitted to a history of nervous breakdowns and psychiatric drugs. The control group wouldn’t answer the question straight. Jo and myself tried to publish our results, but our conclusions were too modest: accept your madness, stay off the drugs and the saliva will flow so you can keep your appetite up and dentures in. Even so, this was a beginning, though aborted. Future researchers should note it all boils down to the quality of your saliva. Genetics, no doubt, will find a way to engineer a long-life spit and we’ll live forever. So Jo and me were to keep the secret of life, at least a long one, to ourselves.
We didn’t trouble Dr McCall with our failure to get published. He had moved on to something else, as usual, an epidemic of breast-biting in Southend. The idea of tooth-prints was new, and McCall was to be its pioneer. When he was forced to retire, a Scottish university gave him an honorary degree, his last.
Meanwhile Jo Manders, who is now eighty, drives a Ferrari through the streets of