I heard this story once of a young boy who came off his motorbike and smashed his face to crumbs. They took him to a local cottage hospital, where the nurse insisted she could fix his face on the spot, rather than sending him to a cosmetic surgeon. With needle and thread she sat over his shattered self, stitching it back into human form, hour after hour, while the boy whimpered softly in his chemical sleep. At 5pm, with half his face repaired, the other half a shattered, bloody mess, cheekbone exposed, mouth a butcher’s cut, she laid down her needle. And said: my shift’s over now. I’m going home. Left her replacement, a younger nurse, less confident, less cavalier, to pick up the threads and try to replicate the work in mirror image, a macabre jigsaw. What sort of person would do that?
I don’t judge her. Quite envy her commitment to her home life. The selfish are always alluring. Perhaps that’s why I recalled her story as I lay on my beautician’s couch, a corpse on a slab, hair scraped back, rigid with pain, listening to the whirr of a laser machine. Doubtless she’d wince at being described as a beautician. Her name badge read Alison – Aesthetician. Alison had been a midwife, but found the NHS made greater demands of her even than rich middle-aged women.
“Sorry, is it uncomfortable?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. She’s dealing with my wrinkles, acne scarring, age spots, sagging, thread veins, sun damage, all the problems you didn’t know you had, until you sank into her comfy leatherette couch and had them explained to you, complete with price list.
I murmured a polite, British denial, lips clenched against the light.
How long would it hurt to have your face smashed to crumbs? Did his mother recognise him? Did she weep as she stroked the war zone that was his face? Much loved, much imagined, our children’s faces, the faces we love, and how we mourn when their memory fades. Our own, less so, usually. Our deficiencies speak for us.
That photograph of us (us!) taken at Emma’s party. Him, delicious, young, handsome, dressed as if he’d just staggered dishevelled from a Vogue shoot, the blonde on his left plainly drooling. Me? A pock-marked sow with a staved in face, which narrates a story I no longer want told. Nothing so exciting as a car crash, unless you count one conducted over 40 years. That’s him, that’s me; in a bid to stay us, I’ve handed over enough cash to secure a month’s cruise, and surrendered my face to needles, light beams, chemicals, God knows what else, I couldn’t take it all in, signed the consent form more in despair than hope.
He’s older than me, actually. Only just, but no one would know it. Before me he lived a life of adventure and joy and delight, I assume; I fear to ask, but that’s the story his face tells. Mine speaks a different language. Those hours carefully ordered to ward off those hours. Book clubs, church committees, running the children to parties and music lessons, waiting outside while life happened despite me. Sour, haggard, disappointed. That cannot be the story he traces with his finger. I want it scrubbed clean, erased. To begin and end with this new narrative. The friend of the friend who said, you two should meet, and the gasp when I saw him, the sudden, scarce remembered ache; the stunned joy, the incredulity, when he seemed to want me back.
No, not incredulity. Love contains its own surety. It informs and glorifies the world with an energy which, like a drug, becomes a necessity. That hunger for another creates a sensation so overwhelming that you believe it must be perceptible, that you carry it on your skin like perfume. That yearning for a touch that isn’t just any touch but the touch, from one human, only one, the only one in the world that will do, the one who can meet your hunger and sate it with a single finger, drawn across your lips.
I gasp at the thought and Alison tuts. “Relax. Nearly there. Use your breathing.” Don’t think of him. Think of the mashed up teenage boy. How his girlfriend must have felt, for of course he would have a girlfriend; people partner off all the time, as if it were easy. Kissing the scars, running her fingers over the raised welts, murmuring of course I still love you, of course you’re still beautiful, you’ll always be beautiful, your beauty can’t ever be broken or change, not to me, not to me, it’s still you. I could weep imagining it, although Alison would crucify me. So much simpler to pity strangers.
Where once I wanted anyone, any damn body, now of all the bodies on the planet I only want one. And this is meant to be progress?
I can still taste him on my tongue. The kiss goodbye at the station, the jokey pleading that he should come home to me safe, in one piece, in any shape, actually; only come back. Hope hurts as despair never could. They say we struggle to remember pain: perhaps love works similarly. I brace, defiant, against the grinding blinding tools.”Am I hurting you?” Face stabbed with a million tiny needles, squeezed eyes tight shut against the dreadful possibility of a careless hand. Am I hurting you? No more than fear. No more.