Saras face, p.19
Sara’s Face, p.19Melvin Burgess
Caring for animals seems like a nice way to make some money – not that there was much of a shortage of that around here. Birds sang, there was the distant sound of a tractor at work. I found it difficult to imagine that this was where the story I had been writing over the past months had ended up.
A rider came down the track, a chalky, flinty little road with a hawthorn hedge on either side. She sat very upright, wore a neat black hard hat and jodhpurs – all the correct gear. It looked out of place. After all, she was out riding for pleasure, she didn’t need to dress up for it.
I gave her a little wave just to show who I was – as if she didn’t know – but she rode right in without casting me so much as a glance. One of the stable boys came to take the horse by the bridle as she dismounted, although she seemed an excellent rider; she hardly seemed to need help. She stroked the horse, patted his neck. Then she threw her arms suddenly round his face and loved him. The stable boy waited patiently until she was done, took the bridle off her and led the horse away to be brushed and groomed. Lucy watched them leave, disappointed, I think, that she wasn’t going to do it herself. Or perhaps disappointed that she now had an unpleasant job to do instead. She put her hands on her hips in a defiant gesture and, as the horse bent to drink outside the stable door, at last half turned her head and gave me a sideways look.
I waved again. She paused, sighing perhaps. She twisted her head slightly in acknowledgement and walked across to meet me.
We shook hands. There was the scent of almonds and musk and on her cheek, pale and new and covered with a layer of make-up, I could make out the triangular burn the iron had left there over a year before.
‘I guess you don’t want to be doing this,’ I said.
Her eyes went to one side, thinking about it. But she didn’t answer.
‘We can talk over here,’ she said, nodding to a set of tables and benches set out under a group of beech trees behind the stable. As we went past one of her employees, she asked for drinks to be brought over to us.
‘It’s a lovely place here, just gorgeous,’ I told her as we sat down. Lucy frowned at the table and, disconcertingly, answered the previous thing I’d said.
‘I must want to do it, or I wouldn’t be doing it, I suppose,’ she said.
‘But why should you do it? You don’t seem all that happy about it,’ I said, and I laughed although I’d said nothing funny, to soften the statement.
Lucy shrugged. ‘I think I must want my story to be told. We all do, don’t we? Want people to know what it was like, what happened.’
‘Right. So tell me!’
She tipped back her head; under her jawline I could see the operation scar. Of course, I was watching her face all the time for signs of damage. You’d never guess that it had made a journey away from her and back again. But it was somewhat immobile. She had lost some movement. Her lower lip hung rather limp. Bizarrely, it really was now a kind of living mask.
Or perhaps she was just keeping her feelings to herself.
‘The trouble is, I’ve no idea,’ she admitted. ‘There’s whole chunks I can’t remember. It’s like it happened to someone else – in fact, it did happen to someone else. But I know what it felt like.’ She pulled her stiff face into something of a smile. ‘You’ll have to make do with that.’
I smiled back. The drinks arrived. I sipped my tea and watched her watching me over the top of her glass.
‘OK, then. In your own words? Do you know what you want to say?’
‘Here and there. No, you start. Ask me a question. It’s your job, isn’t it?’
‘I write novels normally. This is new to me. OK, for starters, why did you ask me to do this? You could have had anyone.’
Lucy smiled. ‘I like your books. I read them back then, you know. I was reading Lady in that last week in Jonathon’s house. You make things up, but they’re still true. That seemed sort of appropriate somehow.’
I felt flattered, but I wasn’t at all sure of how to do this. I’d never done this sort of thing before. Probing people – that’s the job of an interviewer, isn’t it? This whole story was full of dodgy people doing dodgy things; Lucy was one of them.
I did another easy one: why was she all dressed up to go riding? Was it a special event?
Lucy laughed. ‘There’s always been a way to look, a way to dress. That hasn’t changed. I like the clobber,’ she said, and she stretched her arm and tugged at the neat black sleeves of her jacket. ‘I luuuurrve the clobber.’ She relaxed and took off her hat and jacket, propped her chin on her elbows. ‘Go on, then. Is that the best you can do?’
‘Well, yes. I’m nervous,’ I admitted. ‘So, OK. What about the name, then? You changed your name. What was wrong with Sara?’
She tipped her head back and laughed. ‘What wasn’t wrong with Sara? She was all over the place. New life. New name. New me.’ She spread her hands and smiled, like she was a magician.
‘But is it all new? Isn’t it still you?’
She rested her chin on her hands, looked at me and gently shook her head.
‘One thing you should understand, something I should say before we go any further,’ she said. ‘I’m not Sara. Sara’s dead. She never came out of the anaesthetic.’ She looked at me to see how I was going to take this piece of news. ‘We share the same …’ She gestured down at her body. ‘I mean, it’s me, but not like that. Not like her. When I woke up after the op I wasn’t the same. For a long time I thought I’d turn back into myself but I never did. Sara’s gone. She really did die.’
And was she sorry about that?
‘Sorry, yes, I suppose I am really. She was a piece of work, wasn’t she, Sara? But, you know, she wasn’t a particularly good person or a nice person, even though she was so special. She was marvellous …’ She smiled proudly, rather in the way Janet smiled when she was talking about her. ‘If she’d lived, maybe she’d have grown up and turned into someone good. Someone real. But I’m happier like this.’ She nodded; she was very clear about that. ‘I know who I am like this.’
‘You say you were expecting to wake up and be yourself again. That seems to say that you knew who you were all along.’ I paused. I wasn’t sure how to ask my question. ‘The thing is, I spoke to all those people, and you were telling so many different stories. You were telling Heat and Kaye one thing, Mark another, Janet still another thing. I sometimes got the feeling you were making everything up, and sometimes I got the feeling it was all real to you, in different ways. So what was real? Did you … I mean, did Sara know what was real and what wasn’t?’
‘Right.’ She laughed. ‘The thing about Sara is … back then … I don’t think she really believed in real. It was just stories to her. I don’t think it even occurred to her whether they were real or not real. How well they fitted in, how well they worked – she liked all that. She loved all that. But that was about it. I don’t think any one thing was more real than the other.’
‘Even right up to having your face off?’
‘Even right up to that.’
‘What about the ghost, the apparition? Was that real?’
‘Well, it was real, wasn’t it? Mark heard it, too, didn’t he?’
‘Well, sort of. Do you know what he said? He said, “Sometimes, I think the screaming in Sara’s head was so loud, I could hear it, too.”’
She laughed, delighted. ‘He said that? He used to say wonderful things – you have no idea. Maybe he was right. What about the blood on my sleeve that time? Did you ask him about that?’
‘He saw it. But he was never sure you didn’t put it there yourself.’
‘Maybe I did. I can’t ever really remember …’ She smiled. I got the feeling she liked not remembering everything.
‘Really?’ I said.
‘Why should you believe me? But yes, really.’
‘So the ghost was real …’
‘It was real. The question is, who was it?’
‘That was going to be my next question,’ I said.
We smiled. Now she was conducting her own interview.
‘So. You or Katie? Who was it?’
Sara paused. ‘I have an opinion on that,’ she said. ‘But it is just an opinion.’
‘Go on, then.’
‘Heat was cleared of any charges except the ones against you.’
‘But they never found her, did they? She disappeared. No charges doesn’t mean nothing ever happened. Listen, I’ll tell you something.’ She leaned forward. ‘On that last day at Home Manor Farm, I had a final meeting with Dr Kaye, remember that?’
‘Yes, and you came back in tears.’
‘That’s right. I’ve never told anyone the real reason for that. While I was waiting in his office, he had to leave for some message or other. While he was gone I looked through a folder on his desk. And guess what I found?’
I shrugged. I had no idea.
‘Photos of girls, four or five of them. I was one. Katie was another.’
‘I see.’ I didn’t know what to say. I was shocked. The implications of that were appalling. ‘That never came out in court, did it?’
She gestured impatiently. ‘The lawyers didn’t let me testify, you know that. My evidence was discounted because my memory was so shot. But that’s what happened. I reckon Heat and Kaye had stolen the faces of more than one other person. I reckon that was the secret of Dr Kaye’s success. He just kept giving Heat a new face until, in the end, the nerves and the blood vessels gave up. And I’ll tell you something else. That mask he used to wear. I reckon it was made of Katie’s skin.’
She leaned back. She looked exhausted. I was horrified. ‘Do you really believe that?’ I asked her.
Lucy’s expression had been hard and determined a moment before, but now her face fell. ‘I don’t really know, is the truth,’ she said softly, and she looked so sad as she said it.
‘OK, then.’ I looked through my notes for another question. Lucy watched me, smiling ruefully. ‘That Sara!’ she exclaimed. ‘You couldn’t trust a word she said.’
‘Tell me about Mark,’ I asked her.
‘God, I loved that boy.’ She looked away; she was upset. ‘I loved him so much. When I woke up and everything had changed … I’d changed … I was heartbroken, really. I suppose love is a story, too, isn’t it? And I knew it had ended.’ Again, the little shrug as if to say – what can you do?
‘Why did you never see him again? He was heartbroken, too, you know.’
‘I know.’ She shook her head as if she couldn’t believe her own life. ‘But if I went back to him … what if it all started again? Sara was getting so scared as the operation came closer and closer. Poor Mark, he did everything he could to rescue her.’
‘They all did.’
‘They all did. I know, I know.’ She shook her head. ‘I can’t go back. I can’t see any of them ever again. I’m myself now. Maybe she isn’t dead, maybe she’s just asleep. What about that? She was such a terrifying person to be. If I see him again, maybe she’ll wake up. I admired Sara, she was so wonderful, her head was so full of a million things. She was talented and marvellous and I’m just ordinary. But she was terrifying. I think to myself, Let her lie. I’m sorry about it. I think of them all a lot – Janet, Bernie – she was great, wasn’t she? Even my mum. But I don’t even like talking about them, not really. Most of the time I try not to even think about them, to be honest.’
I touched my chest. In my pocket I had a letter for her from Mark. Part of the conditions I’d had to sign to speak to her was that I wouldn’t let anyone know where she was. But when I’d talked to him, he’d handed me a letter.
‘Just in case,’ he said. It was important to him. But something, made me hang back. Not yet, I thought, not yet …
‘You say she loved him, and you say Sara’s dead. But you have feelings for him, still.’
Lucy – Sara, I was certain she was still Sara – stared at me. ‘That’s not how I think about it,’ she said in an unsteady voice. ‘You know, it’s all stories, everything we do, everything we remember – Sara was right about that. But you have to think it’s real. Yes, I have feelings for him but I want to let her lie, do you see?’ She glanced from side to side at the table and chairs, at her own hands, as if the whole thing would suddenly dissolve and turn to paste if she stopped thinking about it right.
‘She’s the past,’ she said. ‘That’s how I have to think about her.’
I nodded. Time to change the subject.
‘OK. So … all right. What about this? Janet told me how Sara could make people up out of thin air – you sounded like a magician when she talked about it. Is Lucy someone Sara made up?’
She stared at me. ‘I don’t remember being there at the same time as her. Maybe she did make me up. But then she forgot herself …’
Curious! And yet, as the interview went on, her habit of talking about Sara as ‘she’ slipped, and she became ‘me’ more and more.
‘Can we talk about Jonathon Heat?’
‘You can always say no if you don’t like the question.’
‘Go on, then.’
‘Well – what do you think of him? Was he a monster? Or was he a victim? No one seems to know.’
Sara stared at the horses, their heads sticking out of the stables. A couple of them looked back at her. She spent a bit of time thinking about that one. She sighed. ‘Both, I suppose. Same as me. All those things he had done to himself.’
‘Do you feel sorry for him?’
She shook her head. ‘Nope.’
‘In the trial, he said he had no idea what Kaye was doing. Is he telling the truth, do you think?’
‘Nope. He knew, he knew all along.’ She paused as if she was going to say more, but then shrugged slightly again.
‘Do you hate him?’ I asked.
‘Hate? No. I don’t hate him or Kaye. This is a good life.’
‘But you lost your face.’
‘I got it back,’ she said, looking at me.
‘Did you? Not everything.’
I felt I was being a bit brutal, but she didn’t flinch.
‘Yes, I lost a lot of movement. But I could have lost a lot more than that. And in a sense, you know, I did it to myself.’ She stopped and looked at me.
‘Go on,’ I said. ‘What do you mean?’
I waited. She seemed to be considering. The thing was, maybe this was to do with the real question – the big question, the one I hadn’t asked yet. The question, Why? Why did she go back into the operating theatre when everything was set up for her to escape – when Heat and Kaye offered her the chance of walking away? Why do that?
She gave me her stiff little smile and told me this story …
In the late afternoon before that last night Heat came to her room to let her know what was going on and, for the first and last time, Sara let him sleep with her. She allowed him at last into her big four-poster bed, drew the curtains and made love with him.
‘It was the last time I was going to see him,’ she told me. ‘And, you know, it wasn’t like my feelings for Mark, but I did love him.’
Afterwards they curled up among the rumpled sheets and had the following conversation. He was lying with his back to her and she was stroking his shoulder. She had the words on her lips for a long while, and hesitated to utter them because she felt that, if she did, they might become real.
‘Jonathon,’ she said. ‘Will you make me a promise?’
‘Anything,’ said Jonathon, lifting his hand to place it on hers.
‘Promise me that whatever happens, no one will be allowed to let me die.’
There was a pause; then he turned over to look at her. He didn’t answer her, just looked into her eyes.
‘What a question,’ he said.
‘Do you promise?’
‘Of course I promise,’ said Heat. ‘I don’t need to, though …’ And he paused, unsure about where this was going.
‘Am I pretty?’ said
‘Oh, come on!’
And then she said – and this is in her own words – ‘Would you like my face?’
Heat gave a sharp intake of breath; she was speaking the unspoken. Then there was a long pause, in which, as Sara understood it, ‘He knew that I knew and I knew that he knew …’
Heat looked away for a moment. Then he said, ‘I would give anything to have your face, Sara, you know that.’
‘Anything? How much is anything?’
‘Half my kingdom?’ he suggested, and she believed that there was the hint of a smile under his mask.
‘All of it, then.’
Sara looked away and sighed. ‘You know, if I gave you my face it wouldn’t be for money. It’d be for love.’
‘You love me?’ he asked. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Not you! I love your name. I love your fame. I love what you’ve done.’
‘Then you do love me,’ said Heat. Another pause. ‘If you gave me your face, you’d need money.’
He reached out and stroked her cheek.
‘And what would happen to me?’ asked Sara.
‘You’d be like this,’ said Heat, and he lifted up his mask. Underneath was flesh and bone and blood and little else. He waited while she had a good look at the ruin, then he pulled it back down.
‘At least until we found you a donor. It could be a long time. You and I match, our tissues match. It doesn’t happen often. But we’d find someone, in the end.’
‘And then?’ I asked.
Lucy smiled. ‘I said I’d think about it.’
I was incredulous. ‘You wanted to give him your face. That’s unbelievable!’
‘I think I was trying to trap him when I started out. That’s why I slept with him.’
Sara’s Face by Melvin Burgess / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes