Saras face, p.6
Sara’s Face, p.6Melvin Burgess
Then he asked me what sort I preferred. I mean, who does he think he is? As if it’s any of his business. As if I actually knew so many I could make a choice. And everyone looked at me as if they expected me to answer. Like he was being normal or something.
So there was a long pause while they waited for me to answer, which I didn’t fill in for them.
(She nods firmly at the camera, reaches out and turns it off.)
Bernadette lives in Bristol these days in a large house in Clifton, paid for out of the money she saved during the ten years she worked for Jonathon Heat. The house, as she says, is far larger than anything she could have afforded if she hadn’t had that job.
I met her in her garden, of which she was enormously proud. We sat under an arch of clematis and honeysuckle while she poured tea and served slabs of dense black fruit cake to me and a handful of other guests who had come along to say hello and hear Bernadette tell her story – not for the first time, I think. The clematis was out, there were daisies on the lawn. Bernadette smiled and spread her hands.
‘Look at me!’ she said, and she chuckled and shook her head. She obviously couldn’t believe her good fortune, owning such a nice house in such a nice area, and never having to work again at the age of only fifty-five. Prior to working with Heat, she had spent her days in a little terrace in Moss Side that she’d never really expected to leave.
‘But this is coming down in the world for you, isn’t it, Bernie?’ teased one of her friends, a smartly dressed Jamaican man perhaps a few years younger than Bernadette who turned out to be a minister at her church.
‘Oh, I could live like a princess at Home Manor with Mr Heat,’ said Bernadette. ‘But this is me own house.’ She smiled and wriggled in her chair. She looked across and beamed at me. ‘It somehow makes the chairs that much softer,’ she said, and leaned back in her chair and laughed silently at her own joke.
Bernadette was first employed at Home Manor Farm as a nurse to care for Heat after his various surgical procedures. They met at the Barbara Standford Clinic in Manchester, where Bernadette was employed as a ward sister – her first stint for the private sector after twenty years-plus for the National Health, something I got the impression she rather disapproved of herself for. Her husband had recently died, a number of frighteningly large debts had surfaced and earning more money became a priority. She met Heat only briefly when he attended to have an MRI scan – if he wasn’t worrying about his looks, it was his health, according to Bernadette – and a few days later, a letter fell through her letter box offering her an interview at Home Manor Farm. When she got there, she was the only applicant.
‘He really took a liking to me, I don’t know why,’ she said, and pulled a sad face. The fact was, she confessed, she felt she’d let Heat down. He had called her to his house, but his problems had not changed and the damage he was doing to himself had gone on unabated. She had changed nothing.
‘I can’t believe that you did anything but good in your time there,’ said Patrick, the minister. ‘It may be that saving him wasn’t your purpose.’
Bernadette looked comforted by that thought and went on with her story.
She and Heat had a strong bond that got stronger over the years. Patrick actually suggested to me that Heat saw Bernadette as a mother figure and Dr Kaye as a father figure, and that the rift that developed between them echoed the rift that had occurred between his own mother and father when he was young. That I don’t know, but it is true that Bernie has strong maternal qualities, and it would be typical of Heat to employ someone in that role.
Over the years she had a great deal of training at Heat’s house – she attended courses in counselling and learned to help in theatre, too, to help with surgical procedures after Heat built an operating theatre in his own house. For a while she was closely involved with all the work done on him, but, as the work became increasingly experimental, Bernadette began to see Heat’s obsession with surgery as an illness in itself. She did her best to get him to share her viewpoint, refusing to take part in the operations, although she still nursed him afterwards, but nothing she could do or say would turn Heat from his course. Even after his face collapsed, he still turned to Dr Kaye for help. To Bernadette, it was like a form of addiction, with Heat dependent on the very thing that was destroying him and Kaye as the supplier. But Heat also refused to get rid of her, despite pressure from Dr Kaye, although, increasingly, he found work for her away from the house.
When Bernadette first met Jonathon Heat, she thought of him as a kind of wounded saint, a man with the power to transform the lives of others, but, tragically, never his own. Yet, by the end, she’d come to believe that he’d led Sara into his own doom, deep into a mental illness in the disguise of treatment, and finally to an extreme form of self-harm, in which she was willing to sacrifice herself to feed his vanity.
‘When I looked at Sara, I saw a beautiful young woman, everything a girl could ever want to be. But she saw nothing like that. She saw only ugliness. It was the same with Mr Heat, who was such a good-looking man when he was young. What Mr Heat did, he turned himself into what he saw in the mirror. And you know what? He was right. He’d become a monster, only he was so skilled with his lies, no one could ever have known. I thought I knew him so well, he was like a son to me. I never even guessed what was going on inside.’
Bernadette was at Home Manor Farm for only a week or so after Sara moved in, before she was due to fly out to Jamaica. She hated being answerable to Dr Kaye and had been seriously considering quitting her job. She felt that she was no longer earning her generous wages.
‘The only way I was able to justify it,’ she said, putting her chin up proudly, ‘was by helping out the church.’
‘Oh, Bernadette has always been able to spend money,’ said the minister. He paused for her to look alarmed. ‘With a little help from her friends.’ And everyone leaned back and laughed.
As a matter of fact, Bernadette had already tried to resign several times, but so far Heat had always managed to talk her round. She was touched by his loyalty. But he always seemed to find something for her to do away from the house at the times when she felt that she might be useful. On this occasion, she felt as though her counselling skills might be helpful to Sara but, once again, she was being sent away. To her disgust, any counselling was to be done by Dr Kaye, which she felt was inappropriate. Heat was launching some initiatives back in her native Jamaica and Bernadette was going along for a holiday and to visit some friends and family for a few months. She didn’t help with administration and organisation – those weren’t her skills – but her signature was needed to release the money at various points along the way. No Bernadette, no money for good causes. In this way, her hands were tied. Sara’s operation would take place while she was away in Jamaica. The idea was that she’d fly back afterwards to help nurse her while she was recovering.
Bernadette was suspicious of Sara at first, assuming that she was out of the same mould as so many of those who surrounded Heat – out for what she could get. But she soon decided that wasn’t the case at all. Sara was a charming girl, full of life and high hopes, and without a speck of deception in her. That might seem an odd claim to make about someone who made so much up, but to Bernadette there was a big difference between fantasy and deception. She was well aware that Sara did not always tell the truth, sometimes on purpose – but never to self-serve or use others.
Bernadette rapidly fell under her spell. She felt that Sara was in many ways like Heat had been when she first met him – innocent, full of talent, but fighting the same demons. She was very anxious for a young girl moving into a house that she saw as inhabited by flatterers and deceivers, serving up disease under the guise of beauty. All her instincts warned her that Sara should not be living with Heat; all her professional training told her that she was not in a good mental state to have so much surgery done. The child was only seventeen years old! What did a beautiful young person want with bein
And the mask-wearing scared her. After she moved to Home Manor Farm, Sara, who had almost stopped using masks until her accident with the iron, was rarely seen without it.
‘You don’t cover up your face unless you have something to hide,’ said Bernadette. But what Sara was hiding, or hiding from, she never made up her mind.
During the few days she had before leaving, Bernadette made it her business to spend as much time with Sara as she could. She was frustrated that she was being sent away, and suspected this had been arranged by Heat and Kaye in order to pre-empt any trouble she might cause. If so, they were right. Even in the time she had, Bernadette did her best to convince Sara not to go ahead. A girl of her age and looks! She should at least wait for a while before rushing in …
Sara listened and smiled and promised to think about it, but Bernie was not convinced.
‘I want you to think seriously about this, Sara. It’s important.’
‘Oh, but I’ve been thinking about it, Bernie – all my life,’ said Sara.
So Bernadette was powerless. During the short time she had with Sara, her anxiety about what was going on got worse. A number of events, including the one related below, convinced her that no responsible doctor would let her go ahead with the surgery they were planning for her.
At this stage, she had not yet come to suspect Heat of any other motive than an overzealous desire to help.
Sara’s mother, Jessica, was staying at Home Manor Farm during that first week of Sara’s stay. Bernadette did not warm to Jessica – she thought her a cold woman and didn’t think Sara liked her much either. Nevertheless, every morning, Sara got up at about ten and went down the corridor to visit her mother’s room for breakfast. Sometimes Heat himself would join them. He seemed to expect this show of happy families.
Sara and her mother had invented a silly game, an exchange they played out every morning just for fun. On the very first morning of her stay, Heat had taken Jessica her breakfast in bed, a boiled egg and toast which he had prepared himself. Such gestures were typical of Heat. He had so many servants he could have ordered Jessica a banquet if he felt like it – but he went to the kitchen himself and boiled her an egg with his own hands, just to make her feel welcome at his house. To many of the staff at Home Manor, it was the sort of thing that made them love him so dearly.
Sara walked in the door on the first day and found Heat sitting there on the edge of her mother’s bed.
‘Jonathon’s made me breakfast in bed,’ exclaimed Jessica, anxious that her daughter didn’t think anything else had happened there.
‘A boiled egg,’ said Sara.
‘Eaten with a silver spoon,’ replied Jessica, waving her spoon, which was genuinely made of solid silver, in the air.
Jessica and her daughter had not been born with silver spoons in their mouths, as the saying goes, and Heat was delighted with the remark. Every day after that, he sent up a silver spoon with Jessica’s breakfast, engraved with her initials for her to keep, to show that from now on, she would have a silver spoon in her mouth every day if she wanted it. Jessica later claimed she found the gifts a bit tiresome, and it’s likely that Heat thought he was being far more generous than he was. He’d been so fabulously rich for so long, he no longer had any idea of the cost of things in the real world.
On this particular morning, Bernadette happened to be in the corridor when Sara opened her door. She stood still to watch as Sara’s head popped out. But instead of turning towards Bernadette and her mother’s room, as might be expected, Sara was looking the other way down the corridor. Whatever it was she was looking at must have been very interesting, even a little alarming, because she let out a slight but audible gasp and raised her hand to her throat. Even though Bernadette was standing slapbang in the middle of the corridor, Sara was so intent she didn’t even notice her. That was odd, but what made the whole incident truly strange was that when Bernadette, who had a clear view over her shoulder, followed her eyes to see what she was looking at, the corridor was empty. For what felt like ages the two of them stood stock still, staring at nothing, Bernadette moving her head this way and that to try and work it out, but getting nothing. It was only when Tom Woods, the security chief, turned the corner and came walking along with that slightly splayed stride he’d acquired from too much time at the gym that Sara looked up and saw Bernadette watching her.
Their eyes met and held each other for a second or so; Bernadette raised her eyebrows in query.
Sara spread her hands like a magician, but she had nothing to show.
‘Boo,’ she hooted softly, behind her mask.
‘Oh, boo, is that all?’ said Bernadette, unimpressed.
Sara cocked her head to one side as if to say, ‘Is that so?’ Then she turned and carried on her way with no further comment.
‘Boo to you, too,’ growled Bernadette under her breath, cross at being fobbed off.
She watched Sara disappear into her mother’s room, then made a call on her mobile to inform Heat that Sara was up. There was a treat in store for her that morning.
Bernadette had noticed the coolness between mother and daughter and wondered if Sara was jealous. In fact, she had reason to be. Unknown to her, Heat had already spent more than one night with Jessica. Despite his ruined looks, he still had his appeal. Heat behaved beautiful, and women responded as if he still was. Bernadette was used to juggling the intense sexual emotions that always surrounded Heat and had warned him that he might alienate Sara, who, even if she didn’t know what was going on, would be aware of the tension one way or the other.
Heat decided to remedy the situation by serving Sara her breakfast in bed and by doing it in Jessica’s room, in case the mother thought he was after the same with her daughter as he’d already had with her. Bernadette could see this going badly wrong, but Heat had ignored her warnings and gone ahead. Once he’d made up his mind on doing someone a favour, nothing on earth could stop him.
Ten minutes later, Heat arrived with the inevitable troop of staff who followed him around the house, one of them bearing a large breakfast tray. Bernadette joined the train. At the door, one person knocked while another handed Heat the tray. When Jessica called to come in, they all entered, one after the other, in a row, like soldiers.
Bernadette gives an hilarious account of that breakfast. With Heat and his entourage there were now no less than seven people in the room, four of them with nothing to do but watch Heat. They stood around awkwardly, not knowing where to put themselves. Jessica was furious. For one thing, the last time she had seen Jonathon was late the previous night, when he had been making love to her. He had somehow neglected to tell her about this little treat for her daughter the following morning. She was ruffled after a night’s sleep, and her face was puffy and old-looking at the best of times in the morning, before she’d had time to attend to it. Not only that, but she was bursting for a pee but was unable to get herself out of bed since she was stark naked. Bernadette, who has a surprisingly wicked sense of humour, found this hilarious.
‘And putting her clothes on under the sheets would have been too undignified for her,’ she chortled.
Sara – somewhat cruelly, since she knew that Heat, too, had anorexic tendencies – insisted that he eat with her, despite his claim that he’d already had breakfast. The two sat down opposite one another at a little table in the window. Neither of them liked to eat in public and, at the end of the meal, Bernadette found buttered toast torn into pieces and cast onto the floor, where both of them had emptied their plates. The fact that they’d both used the same trick amused and appalled her.
In fact, as predicted, the supposed treat was embarrassing and bad-tempered, and Heat left as soon as he could, his entourage winding out behind him like a many-headed snake. Jessica sighed elaborately.
‘That man has no sense sometimes!’ she exclaimed. Sara glared at her, and Jessica decided not to pursue that thread, pulled on her gown and went to th
Heat had left Sara a brown paper bag on the table before he left, which she now tipped out to see what was in it. The bag was full of fruit and freshly peeled vegetables – healthy options, to encourage her to eat.
‘Good grief,’ growled Sara, who had been expecting something more exciting. Right at the bottom of the bag she found a big slice of carrot cake with butter icing on top. Heat thought that Sara loved carrot cake but he knew she would never ask for it openly, and so he had hidden it away in the hope that she might eat well when she was on her own.
Sara stared, fascinated, at it.
‘Cake,’ she said. ‘Why does he think I want cake?’
‘Because you told him you did,’ pointed out Bernie.
Sara turned her masked face up to her. ‘Oh! So I did,’ she laughed. ‘Poor Jonathon,’ she said. ‘He believes everything I tell him, and I never have the heart to tell him things he doesn’t want to hear.’
‘You and everyone else,’ complained Bernadette. ‘Maybe that’s why he’s such a mess.’
‘He likes carrot cake. He smiled when I said I loved it, too. I made him happy.’
Bernadette snorted. ‘It’ll take more than cake to make him happy.’
Suddenly, to Bernadette’s surprise, Sara stood up, pushed her mask back and kissed her on the cheek.
‘Real lips for you, Bernie,’ she whispered, and gave her a dazzling smile.
Bernadette herself smiled at the memory as she told this tale. ‘She was full of love,’ she declared. Full of love, and she never had a chance to let it out!’ Discreetly, one of her friends handed her a box of tissues.
Sara wandered over to her mother’s dressing table and began to idly pick up items of make-up. She tried a dab of eye pencil on her finger.
‘Jonathon’s so kind, isn’t he?’ she said.
‘Well. He is, yes. But perhaps he’s not very good at it,’ suggested Bernie, and both she and Sara looked at each other and smiled.
Sara’s Face by Melvin Burgess / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes