“When I was young I brushed my teeth with a straight piece of bone, the bristles were thick and hard like a wheat field, until my mother would rub her finger over them and complain ‘Damien, that’s disgusting, you know you’re supposed to say when your brush is worn out!’ and throw the thing in the drawer of the painted sideboard. Later, in the years when I was still wearing long, striped bathing suits, we had slightly curved implements, the handles I mean. The bristles were in clusters separated by a little gap, like a flowerbed, and on the back there were little holes in the furrows and thin colored lines, like on the bathing suits… They lost their bristles very fast, and then my mother blamed me for getting rid of them too often. I don’t know why we didn’t throw away toothbrushes at our house. There was a drawer full of them, out of commission—a toothbrush graveyard. The sideboard Aunt Cécile had painted was a Campo Santo of objects: we put everything broken, or no longer used, in there… Then came the era of metal brushes. It was after I came back from the regiment. They were pitiful things. The others, the bone ones, turned yellow, but it didn’t help to call the steel in the new ones stainless, it aged very badly.”
“Oh, it’s possible to age well?” Caroline said carelessly, and bit her lip as she gave her uncle an innocent look. He smiled at her naïve expression; he hadn’t heard her, occupied as he was with his toothbrushes.
“I once knew a … certain someone,” he went on, “who had a Louis XV brush. Made of silver, it seemed… But it was actually ruolz, it turned yellow eventually…”
Caroline didn’t know what ruolz was. He explained. She was truly exquisite, her back arched like a boy’s, with her tiny breasts and a long, Empire-waisted bathrobe. As for him, he saw before his eyes the yellow spots that appear along the handle of the brush, even if it isn’t ruolz, and around the brush proper: that raised, elongated circle you push to one side to insert the replacement…
“Because, you know, the great crisis in life comes when you think you can replace something… It’s the end of the cemeteries. You understand… Those little brush heads, when they’ve lost their bristles… it’s an unpleasant moment, you can feel it on your gums, day after day, as though you were eating fish… well, naturally you throw it away, and then it was like having a new brush but always with the same handle, year after year! From one point of view it was a little sad, always the same, you know… it had lost its charm. It would have been better to buy another one, but why do that? The handle was meant to be reused. It’s not the cost but the idea… the waste. Until they made the brushes round and short, instead of the long, rectangular ones. It was just before the war. I bought one—you have to stay up to date after all. It coincided with the use of boar’s-hair bristles. In that era, the dentists thought you should make the gums bleed to strengthen them. Brush hard…. I lost that brush at Dunkirk… The one I bought when I landed in England… What are you laughing at?”
Caroline threw her arms around him and kissed him. “Oh uncle, my dear little uncle! I love you so. Go on, tell me about your toothbrushes!” He looked at her, a little confused. Was she making fun of him? He straightened his tie, looked at the tobacco stain on his left index finger, and thought a great many things all at once, as if falling from the sixth floor. Before he hit the ground, he grasped at his postwar toothbrush. It was an oxidized electric blue. It marked the return to boar’s-hair bristles, which they hadn’t been able to get during the Occupation. Maybe because of the destruction in the Ardennes, or maybe it was that the Germans were sending them all home to their wives… “Well, to make a long story short, I remember that my first extra-hard boar’s-bristle brush was right before the deportees came back. And then it all started again, almost like before 1914: longer brushes, only not made of bone this time. Plastic was being introduced, of course! Once that type of manufacture started, everyday objects had to fall into line… It’s cute, though, mine is a clear purple, well, more like mauve, plum, zinzolin… transparent, and with a dimple in the middle of the handle that you put your finger in while you’re brushing your teeth, it curves in a bit… Nowadays no one replaces the head anymore, it’s all about the handle, and people have started throwing their brushes out again, of course they’re cheaper than the metal ones… When are you going to stop giggling like that? People got into the habit of throwing in the toothbrush with the towel, if you see what I mean. It’s the nature of business today, you know… nothing made to last… Low prices are just an incentive to buy replacements. You automatically look like an old man if you wear creased trousers, but, well, clothes, that’s a much bigger business. Now toothbrushes…”
“Nothing you’re saying,” Caroline said, “explains why you never got married?…”
He turned his head, pushed down a little on the arms of his chair, which creaked slightly, and looked vaguely around what his sister-in-law stupidly liked to call her “sitting room.” He could not help thinking that the steel-tube furniture looked as dated as a toothbrush from 1950. His glance passed from one of the Hi-Fi’s speakers to the other, then he looked at the window, one you couldn’t open like a real window but only lift by turning a handle, before becoming absorbed in the winter’s day outside. Already the reflection of a shirt maker’s neon sign was rising up from below. “And what, my dear Caro, do you think they’re going to do next? Because they’re definitely going to invent something else… first, to keep the companies in business, and then, to keep people entertained… Listen to me when I’m talking to you, Mademoiselle, don’t keep that transistor radio glued to your ear!”
My God, this girl’s pretty! She raised herself up on the cushions she had thrown onto the floor and it was in a tone of indignation that she cried: “You are a monster, if you want to know the truth. A monster!” He saw once again how she had the most adorable little gap between her upper front teeth. Just like the slot on the refill brushes, inside the raised circle… He thought about the boys she went out with. And at just that moment, she said, “Uncle, when you were young… did people really wear suspenders, the way everyone does now?”
So, they were talking about suspenders. Damien wrinkled up his nose as he said that the youth of today were reactionary: he felt that abandoning that ridiculous implement was progress—he put particular emphasis on the word—but no, Caro said, not at all, for one thing there are suspenders and there are suspenders, and when it’s done right it makes a man look like a man: and she put an emphasis of her own on that word. “And you like that? You like someone to be a man, as you put it?” He thought he might make her blush. “What are you talking about!” she replied. Still, she wasn’t in favor of sock garters, was she? No, but she shot a glance at her uncle’s feet—his Derby socks always sagged limply down onto his shoes—and commented: “We have elastic now! Even though, you know, there are no garters for male strippers…” Pure provocation on her part, her uncle reassured himself, she must know about such things only by hearsay. He adopted a sarcastic, faintly protective tone: “Exactly, my dear. If you pass the time at the Pigalle clubs, you know that these turn-of-the-century fetish items are popular again…” “Oh!” Caro exclaimed. “Don’t try to make me believe that’s where you end your nights, Damien! I’ve never seen you there…” The little minx! Then she reassured him: “Oh, you know, I only go en famille, I mean with friends, with boys… Anyway, men’s clothes are meant to deceive, it’s not only us girls trying to make our breasts seem bigger… so what they do there does let you make a more informed choice…”
There was nothing to be gained from this conversation. On the one hand, he didn’t believe a word, and on the other, he did not want to act scandalized. Youth wounds one so easily. At his age, why bother taking too great an interest of any sort in young women? Also, he clung to his relationship with his niece, without, for all that, being able to be as casual with her as with a girl he had not known when she was a baby. Well, it’s only natural to be curious about the past. But the taste of the past, its freshness: that is something one keeps inside oneself and cannot share. Anyway, one mustn’t look at oneself in the mirror too much. I feel more comfortable sticking to my toothbrushes… He returned to the topic.
“You know… those toothbrushes… maybe I’m wrong to explain everything by changes in manufacturing, competition between businesses… There are also competing theories behind it… advances in dentistry….”
“Naturally,” said Caro in a more serious tone. “It’s better not to bring Marxism into everything…”
Original story © Gallimard. Translation © Damion Searls