The Wrong Face
Flora is very small. She only reaches the elbow of her grandmother as they stand in the old, dusty shop. A string bag dangles from her grandmother’s elbow. That’s what she carries her loose change around in when she’s out shopping, notes and coins tinkling and fluttering on the pavement behind her like Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail through the forest.
Across the chilly promenade the wrinkled sea is grey and lack-lustre, slapping moodily against the pebbles.
The pigeon holes behind the counter are occupied by teddies and dollies of all shapes and sizes with tags tied to their feet. When Flora is grown up she’ll learn that’s how they store corpses. The old, dusty shopkeeper is running his hands along the shelves, muttering.
‘Any minute now Annabella will be out of hospital.’ Grangran bends down, and the tweedy front of her coat scratches Flora’s cheek. Grangran smells of apple and blackberry crumble. ‘She’ll be good as new, you’ll see.’
* * *
‘What does your husband think about the op, then? Excited, is he?’
Flora’s hands curl into fists. This Flora is grown up and on the wrong side of forty. The nurse fiddles with the long syringe. She lays it carefully on a tray like a waitress bearing a cocktail.
‘Coming later to visit?’
Flora raises the mirror. Every time she sees her reflection a plain, knackered stranger stares back. Crows’ feet have webbed round her green eyes, shrinking them. Deep creases yank down her mouth in a perpetual grouch. Smiling’s not much better, despite the new teeth. No wonder the work has dried up.
Ade isn’t excited because he thinks she’s spending his six grand on a girlie break with Jasmine in Marrakech, and a new car. He thinks she needs cheering up. He thinks she’s still beautiful, or so he says. He doesn’t know she’s in a private hospital only two miles away having herself fixed good and proper. He’s nonchalantly frying eggs and bacon for the kids while she’s nil by mouth.
He doesn’t know she’s about to have her old face sliced open to find a new one.
So no, not excited. Ade would be horrified.
* * *
The dusty shopkeeper turns round and flourishes white tissue paper onto the counter. Small Flora stands on tiptoe to unwrap the bundle. Annabella is her imaginary twin. Her only friend, because she hates her sister Delilah. Her dolly is always with her, watching her when she sleeps, copying her when she eats, sunbathing on the grass beside her when it’s summer, tied on with string and shivering on a toboggan when it’s winter.
Annabella is all she has. Flora has missed her terribly while she’s been in the doll’s hospital having her head screwed back on. Daddy reversed his Alvis over her in the drive. He didn’t notice what he’d done. Sparks of gravel shot out from under his tyres as he drove away very fast to see his new girlfriend. Actually, he still hasn’t come back.
* * *
This is all for Ade. For loving the adult her. Neglected girls often leave home too young to get away from those empty rooms and those absent parents and all that silence. They often fall into the wrong hands. But she fell into the right hands the day she walked into Ade’s studio looking for modelling work.
He’ll be thrilled when he sees her. Good as new.
* * *
On the cold sea front, the miniature train whistles as it tips all its passengers to one side and hurls them into the narrow black tunnel.
Small Flora pulls the parcel open, whimpering with excitement. The shopkeeper and Grangran exchange pleased looks. But Flora is struck dumb. Because what stares up at her is an imposter. Flora scrabbles frantically at the tissue paper. The doll lying there has the wrong face. It’s not Annabella. The eyes are a different blue, slanting permanently sideways with a sly look. The hair is wrong, too, flat instead of bouncy curls and witchy dark, not Annabella’s soft caramel which Flora likes to comb with her miniature brush set. Even the clothes are wrong, a pink satin nightie instead of Annabella’s blue sprigged frock.
‘Where’s Annabella?’ Flora asks as politely as she can through the violent thumping in her chest. She hands back the monster. The old man smiles tightly, pushing the doll back across the counter.
* * *
‘What’s your job, then?’
The nurse has scrubs on now and is bending over, wiping something cold on the back of Flora’s hand. There’s no prettifying an operating theatre, not even when you go private. The industrial shelves of drugs and dressings, the trolleys of instruments and these drab walls are the same as any hospital. Masked figures bustle under the brutal lighting and everything spins sickeningly.
The surgeons have drawn lines around her eyes and mouth as if she’s a sewing pattern. She’s shown them the photographs. Not the obvious ones. Her student days, bubble permed in a mortar board. Her wedding, hair coiled stiffly like a sixties Bond girl but a smile wide as the world. When the children were babies, she was an earth mother, all chaotic pre-Raphaelite dreaminess. Her first appearance on telly, sharp and sprayed and ready.
No. To hell with all that She’s chosen her new self from a catalogue. She’s going to look -
‘Ten Years Younger! It’s that makeover programme, isn’t it?’ The nurse’s eyes crinkle above her blue mask, and she nudges one of the other medics. The other medic doesn’t budge. ‘I knew I’d seen you somewhere -’
Nurses obviously chatter more in private hospitals. Flora thinks she’s going to vomit. Dots like pinpricks spark on the ceiling. The room is bleaching from the edges inwards. ‘Holding Back The Years,’ she mumbles drunkenly. ‘Satellite channel. Copy cat.’
‘A little prick, and then you’ll go to sleep.’ It hurts like hell. ‘It’s your turn for a makeover! Count backwards from ten.’
Ice is rushing up Flora’s legs.
‘Pity we haven’t got the cameras here today, eh?’ The nurse pats her shoulder. That a private perk, too? Extra touching? ‘Always fancied being on TV.’
* * *
‘Why, there she is. Good as new. That’s your doll. Miss Flora Carr, it says on this tag.’
The vicious jab of understanding. That grown ups can trick you. They think she’s so stupid she won’t recognise her own doll. They have lost Annabella and plotted to hand this evil plastic thing over instead, sure that she’ll take it without a murmur. The tears spurt out of Flora’s eyes.
‘Give my dolly back to me!’ she screams, trying to climb the counter. ‘I want her back. I don’t care if she hasn’t got a head. I want Annabella!’
There’s a shuttered look in the shopkeeper’s eyes that tells Flora she’s never going to see her doll again. She didn’t want to let Annabella out of her sight even though she was broken. But everyone trusted this shopkeeper to fix her, and he couldn’t, so he chucked her away and handed over this horrible new one.
* * *
Oh, yes. Total transformation. Just what the doctor ordered. And to add to Flora’s good fortune, she’s lost weight and has had to buy some new clothes. With the spray tan they really will believe that she’s been on holiday.
Flora turns off the High Street and walks down the pavement leading to her house. She was too nervous to sit out the traffic jam in the taxi and when she ditched it right by her hairdresser she decided to go in then and there. It was so funny when Lorraine the colourist didn’t recognise her.
In the window of the off licence she catches sight of someone bouncing past and gets another kick of excitement. She’s blonde now, with all the fun and glamour that entails. It took a while to get rid of the grey-streaked chestnut brown and put in the extensions. Lorraine wasn’t her usual chatty self. Why not? Flora’s the same person for heaven’s sake, even if she’s been transformed into a Catherine Deneuve lookalike, age appropriate role model of course, but with Scarlett Johansson’s lips. Well, you’ve got to have the va va voom, haven’t you? She’s the same under the skin, even if it’s not the same skin. She’s had hours in the hairdresser’s chair, admiring her new self. But she caught the way Lorraine was staring at her over the roar of the dryer, and it wasn’t the absorbed, pleased look of a job well done. It wasn’t even particularly polite.
She stops and peers at the sexy woman superimposed over the wine bottles inside the shop. She’s still short-sighted. So it’ll be laser surgery next for sure.
She lifts both arms to mess up her too-neat hair. Christ, the idea wasn’t to look like Mrs Thatcher, was it? As she turns, her eldest son approaches. He looks even taller. As usual he’s plugged into his iPod, dawdling dreamily, his thick brown hair swinging over his handsome unshaven face. He glances up and she starts to smile, her fingers still raking through her fringe. Her cheeks are stiff, as if they’re out of practice, and when she tries to speak her lips feel swollen and heavy, as if she’s been punched.
Her first baby walks right past her.
* * *
‘Darling, how can you tell it’s not Annabella? This doll looks lovely to me,’ Grangran murmurs, rustling in her pocket for the fruit pastels that usually soothe.
The bolt of horror strikes a second time. Her grandmother doesn’t understand, either. She doesn’t see how Flora’s world has imploded, if she but knew the word. In a few seconds she has lost her most precious possession, her only friend in her lonely world, and not only will Grangran not find Flora’s dolly, she doesn’t even see how tragic this is. There’s a great big hole between the little girl and these two great grinning adults, separating her from all the other adults in the world.
* * *
She has a key, but she rings the doorbell for the grand reveal. The exclamations of delight, the whoops of greeting. Oh, she can’t wait. Her life is going to be so much better now. The nurse’s words are still bugging her. Pity we haven’t got your cameras here. Why the hell didn’t she think of that? She sucks her stomach in. No worries. She’ll get a proposal together for the next time.
Voices somewhere inside. Ade’s slow sock shuffle, Lou Lou’s tapping cowboy boots in the kitchen. Bobby thundering down the stairs, making the glass in the front door rattle.
She prepares to smile. But she can’t. Normal, said the nurse, frowning and glancing at her colleague, who didn’t budge. Her face was horribly bruised when she checked in to the hotel to recover and it still aches terribly.
They haven’t heard a damn thing. She gets her key out and opens the door. They are not in the hall after all. But there are bright spots of blood splashed across the polished floorboards. They start at the front door – or is that where they end? Her ears start to fizz and she lurches forwards to clutch the banisters. Not up the stairs. The blood isn’t up there, but drips along the hall into the kitchen. There is silence, apart from a bubbling sound.
Her pulse hammers as she stumbles towards the half closed kitchen door. The bubbling grows louder. Liquid, boiling on the stove. She kicks open the door, and there is Ade. He is standing by the stove, and the blood is dripping down his arms and off the ladle he is holding.
‘My God! What’s have you done? Blood all over the floor!’
Her husband wheels round with shock, the ladle also circling. The blood sprays off it on to the tiled walls, and the spots congregate in front of her eyes. She opens her mouth in a silent scream.
A tableau, Ade’s face still shocked, and questioning. Lou half turned from the table to show she’s not that interested. Little Bobby running in from the garden.
‘Beetroot soup, silly, not blood. Dad’s cooking beetroot soup while Mummy’s away.’
‘C’est moi!’ She spreads her arms, giggling with relief. Wiggles her hips in a starlet shimmy. ‘Waddya think?’
Their faces are as frozen as hers.
‘Ade? It’s me!’
He rubs his unshaven chin, gawping at Flora’s left ear. She tugs at one blonde curl to hide the livid, bumpy scar. In technicolour she can read his thoughts. She looks like Frankenstein’s sister. All cut up and sewn back together any old how.
Lou has both hands clamped over her mouth. ‘That surgeon should be shot.’
Flora’s heart thumps violently. The vicious jab of understanding. They don’t get it. None of them. She tries her son. ‘Bobs? It’s Mummy! Give me a -’
‘Dad? She sounds like Mummy but -’ Bobby crumples with fear. His skinny body slumps against the banisters as he starts to wail. ‘That lady’s got the wrong face!’
Ade touches Flora’s arm, finally pulls her towards him, but it’s not the kiss she’s longing for.
‘Oh, Flo. You were perfect, just the way you were.’
* * *
Flora snatches up the effigy in its tissue paper and stamps on it until its arms break off and its eyes roll backwards and tufts of witchy black hair are all over the floor. The two grown ups just watch. Then the child rips through the shop, searching for Annabella, howling for her lost doll. She doesn’t care about the trouble she’s causing, because she’s powerless to fight the monstrous betrayal of being told to love a doll with the wrong face.
First published in Stabbing the Rain, a collection of short stories by Anastasia Parkes, 2013.