By Martin Westlake
Alan Forth studied himself in the mirror and marvelled, as he did every morning. There was no doubt about it; the gods had blessed him. It was immodest to think it, but he was what the French would call a bel homme. For a start, he was tall and naturally slim; not skinny, mind, but slim. And it didn’t matter how much he ate or drank; his stomach remained muscular and flat. Of course, he was careful about his diet and got to the gym every other day, but still. And although he was now in his forties, nobody would give him a day beyond thirty. Yes, the gods had blessed him. He looked closer. His symmetrical features were set in a square face, with a strong jaw. His deep-set eyes were sky blue beneath well-pronounced brows offsetting a Roman nose and thin, wide lips. His cheekbones, though less pronounced, added to the generally pleasing layout of his face. God, he was a handsome bugger. Normally, he’d have a two-day designer stubble on his jaw, but today he was shaving it off because today, at long last, near perfection was about to become total perfection.
He often wondered whether other people noticed the moles the way he did. There was one just by the left eye and another on the top lip. What did people think? Whenever Alan looked at a reflection of himself his gaze was immediately drawn to them, and then he felt a faint pang of regret. He couldn’t complain. And yet, those two small imperfections ruined the overall effect. They were like two small stains on a beautiful white suit; they just shouldn’t be there. And because they shouldn’t people immediately looked at them -- at least, that’s what Alan suspected. Blemishes; that’s what they were. They weren’t in any way unhealthy. He’d asked his doctor several times. ‘If they change aspect then we might have to do something about them,’ the doctor had said. ‘But otherwise, best leave well alone.’ So, he’d had to experience that faint pang of regret every time he admired himself in the mirror -- which was, quite naturally, often.
And then a tennis partner, Roger, had turned up at a match one day with a plaster across his forehead and Alan had inquired and it transpired that he’d had some plastic surgery. ‘Nothing serious,’ said Roger. ‘It wasn’t cancerous, or anything like that, but I just wanted to get rid of it in case.’ It, Alan remembered, was a small growth -- not quite a mole. Alan waited a few weeks to see what Roger looked like without the plaster and was impressed; the wound had healed and the scar was now invisible. If you’d set eyes on Roger for the first time you’d never have guessed that he’d had that growth on his forehead.
The plastic surgeon, it turned out, was a small lady in her fifties -- ironically, not particularly attractive, Alan noted, which was probably for the best. Roger had provided her contact details and he’d gone to see her in her consulting rooms on the ground floor of a block of expensive flats. She seemed to know what she was doing. They’d found a mutually convenient date and he’d booked himself in over the phone at the clinic where she carried out her operations. Day surgery with a sedative and a local anaesthetic, she’d told him. Don’t drive. It will only take an hour. True, she was expensive, but not so much that he couldn’t afford it. Alan wondered why he had waited so long.
When the taxi arrived, Alan was ready and waiting. It was a warm spring day so he didn’t need a coat. He took one of his fashion magazines in case he had to wait and greeted the taxi driver cheerfully as he got into the car.
‘Puts a spring in your step, doesn’t it, sir?’ the driver said.
‘Yes,’ said Alan, ‘Yes, it does. Sap rising, and all that.’
He gave directions to the clinic.
‘Nothing serious, I hope, sir,’ said the driver.
‘Nothing serious,’ Alan told him. ‘Just a minor operation.’
The driver seemed to know the clinic well.
‘Sort of,’ said Alan.
‘Good for you, sir,’ said the driver.
Alan made it plain that their conversation was at an end and the rest of the drive was made in silence. He found himself putting his hand up to his face several times, feeling the moles. They’d be incinerated, he imagined. And good riddance. He’d had to put up with them all this time, free-riding on his otherwise handsome features. Be gone, foul blemishes!
The clinic was a modern affair; all plate glass, chrome and white walls. He paid off the driver and walked through the automatic doors to reception. A not-unattractive young lady gave him directions and pointed to a bank of elevators. He didn’t really have time to dawdle now, but he hoped she’d still be on duty after his operation. A couple of discreet sticking plasters would give him a war-wounded aspect and elicit sympathy. He kept his back straight as he walked to the elevators, certain that she was watching his tall frame from behind. Women just couldn’t help it, really.
There was a pretty young lady in the elevator. She was wearing a hijab, a modest affair, and had attractively dark skin and the blackest of eyes. She looked away demurely when he stepped in and kept her gaze to the ground. The elevator walls were all mirrored. He tried to catch her gaze, but she kept looking downwards, which was a shame because he had already fallen in love with those eyes. He studied her lithe body and judged that she was probably in her mid-twenties. The hijab was obviously just for show -- probably to please her parents. She was wearing smart shoes and he could see fine, stockinged legs below a pleated skirt with a hemline well above the knee. A white blouse showed off a narrow waist and a froth of lace at the neck did a good job of suggesting a shapely bosom whilst hiding it from view. Not bad, thought Alan. Not bad at all. He looked around then rolled up his magazine and stuffed it in his jacket pocket.
When he stepped out of the elevator she was still staring fiercely at him from the corner. Silly thing. It was she who’d given him the old come-on, after all. All those demure looks at the ground; they didn’t fool him. He knew what she’d been thinking -- what she’d really been thinking. He’d had a quick look-around before. There was no camera in the elevator and she’d moved politely to the opposite side from the controls when he’d got in, so she was far from the alarm. Anyway, what could she do now? Nobody would believe her. Why would he, a lawyer, behave in such a way? No, no; he was safe. And anyway, really.
The woman behind the glass wall at the reception for plastic surgery was an ugly old hag with a peremptory manner and that ruined his recollection of the young woman. If only he’d had a little longer! If only his appointment had been a little higher up in the building! He followed the woman’s instructions and got undressed in a small cubicle before donning a gown that he had to do up awkwardly behind. It was an ugly thing and he wondered why the clinic didn’t pay more attention to that sort of aesthetic detail. People had taste. They had their self-respect. She’d given him a sedative pill and a glass of water. He swallowed the pill with the water then sat patiently and read his magazine until somebody knocked on the door at the back of the cubicle. It was the plastic surgeon. He almost didn’t recognise her. She was dressed in a white surgical gown and a white hat with a fine gauze stretched over the back of her head. She was wearing a strange pair of glasses, that had been switched up above her head. They must be like a microscope, he realised, to enable her to act with great precision.
She greeted him politely and showed him through to the theatre. She trod on a pedal and the table lowered so that he didn’t have to climb up onto it. Once he had got on and was lying down she raised the table back up to beyond the normal level of a table, up to about shoulder height. She asked if he’d taken the sedative and he said he had. She put on a pair of surgical gloves and sprayed some sort of disinfecting spirit onto her hands.
‘You’ll remember my description of the operation, Mr Forth?’ she asked, rubbing her hands together.
‘Yes, yes, I remember.’
‘It’s important that you shouldn’t move at all. So, now I am going to place your head in a sort of vice. You’ll tell me if it’s too tight, won’t you?’
He waited whilst she adjusted the vice. There were holes either side for his ears, so he could still hear her.
‘Now I am going to give you two injections,’ she said. ‘I warn you, they will hurt at first. Like a wasp sting. But that won’t last long.’
‘Fire away,’ said Alan, bracing himself.
‘Don’t do that, please,’ she said. ‘I want you to be relaxed. Please relax.’
He did as she told him. She swabbed his skin with a piece of cotton wool and then he felt the needle slide into the skin near his eye. He flinched and his heart raced. Then came the stinging sensation.
‘Yes, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing I can do about that. It will soon pass. If it’s any consolation, the other won’t hurt as much.’
He tried not to flinch as the needle punctured his lip and it was at then he realised there must be somebody else in the theatre. The doctor had handed the first syringe to someone just out of view; the operating table was high up and he couldn’t move his head. A nurse, no doubt. Be brave, Alan thought to himself. She might be pretty and you want to make a good impression, don’t you?
‘We’re going to wait for the injections to work,’ said the doctor. ‘In the meantime, I am going to disinfect your skin properly.’
Alan wasn’t afraid, but he was apprehensive. The gods had smiled on him in another sense; he had never been hospitalised, not even for minor ailments. Everything that was happening to him now was new. The operating theatre, for example, was much bigger than he had imagined it would be, like a vast garage, with bright overhead lights and benches and lots of equipment along the walls. Several machines were making rhythmic noises. The doctor reappeared in his field of vision with a swab and a strong-smelling disinfectant. He felt somebody clip a sensor onto his finger. There was another person in the theatre, then, though whoever it was was being very discreet.
‘We have to wait a few minutes more,’ the doctor told him, and then he heard her chatting about the traffic with the person he could not see. The reply came in a nice, female voice - the sort that conjured up images of prettiness. Alan amused himself in imagining that prettiness until the stinging sensation had gone altogether. The doctor reappeared.
‘How are you feeling, Mr Forth?’
‘I’m fine, thank you.’
‘That means the anaesthetic is working. Can you feel this?’ she said.
‘No,’ said Alan. ‘What did you do?’
‘Excellent. Basically, Mr Forth, I have put the whole of your face to sleep. The anaesthetic will take about an hour after the operation to wear off. But don’t worry; your face will look perfectly normal. You just won’t be able to feel anything. Shall we start?’
Alan suddenly felt an itch. Involuntarily, he raised his hand to his cheek and scratched it.
‘Why did you do that?’ the doctor asked.
‘Sorry. I got an itch.’
‘I’ll have to disinfect everything again. Please try and resist touching your face.’
‘I’m sorry. But should I be feeling an itch? I mean, if my face has been put to sleep?’
‘Yes, don’t worry. It can happen. It’s in the muscle mass under the skin, not in the skin itself.’
She smiled reassuringly and swabbed his face again.
‘I would nod if I could.’
She laughed and then, almost without him realising it, his cheek started to itch again.
‘Again?’ she asked.
‘Mmmm,’ she said. ‘This sometimes happens. It’s a tic of sorts.’
‘What can we do? The itch is unbearable.’
‘If you don’t mind, Mr Forth, we could strap your arms down.’
‘I don’t mind anything that helps get the operation over and done with.’
Alan sensed the nurse coming to the table and then heard Velcro straps being unstuck, wrapped around his arms and stuck again. The nurse’s face came into view and Alan’s heart jolted. Could it be? There was a mask over her nose and mouth, but those black eyes. Surely it was she!
‘Doctor,’ he said. ‘I suddenly have a doubt.’
‘Don’t you worry. It will soon be over now.’
‘Come now, Mr Forth! We’ll have you out of here in no time at all.’
She flipped the glasses down over her eyes and held up her gloved hand. The nurse reappeared and handed her a scalpel.
‘Now then, Mr Forth, please stay very, very still.’
Alan could see her hand and the scalpel approaching his eye, then he felt a tugging sensation as she cut into his flesh. Once she had cut out the first mole she stitched up the wound. It felt as though she must have cut a massive hole in his face, but she reassured him that she had managed to cut it out intact and without leaving much of a scar.
‘Sometimes they have a sort of root,’ she explained. ‘But this one is only on the surface. With a bit of luck there’ll be no scar at all. Masumah?’
The nurse reappeared. She passed the needle and fussed about with bits and pieces of equipment, keeping her eyes averted. Alan sensed that she had recognised him.
The doctor started work on the second mole, above his lip.
‘Don’t talk, Mr Forth!’ she ordered. ‘And please try not to move at all.’
He could definitely feel a tugging sensation as she sawed through his flesh – at least, it felt as though she was sawing through his flesh. He tried to rationalise. The scalpel he’d seen had had a tiny serrated blade. Presumably it was those micro-serrations that were creating the sawing sensation.
The nurse reappeared with the needle and took away whatever it was the doctor had cut out.
‘That went even better,’ said the doctor.
He had been stupid, Alan thought. As if the nurse would do anything. The doctor was clearly doing a professional job and very soon he would be released and led back to his cubicle and could get away. He wondered whether the woman at the reception desk back downstairs would still be there.
‘There!’ said the doctor with a satisfied tone. ‘All done.’
Phew! Thought Alan. That’s it.
It was the nurse, the woman the doctor called Masumah.
‘May I talk to you, please?’
This didn’t sound good.
‘One moment, please, Mr Forth,’ said the doctor.
She disappeared from his view, and then he heard the two women muttering in low tones. The nurse, this Masumah woman, was speaking in a low, passionate, angry voice -- or so it seemed to Alan. The doctor seemed to be questioning her. He was convinced he heard her say ‘Are you sure?’ Bloody hell. But what could they do? Report him? The doctor hadn’t seen anything. It would be his word against theirs, but already it would look like a conspiracy if she supported the nurse’s version of events. How could she know? It was time to break them up, he decided.
‘One moment, Mr Forth,’ she said. Was there a difference in her tone?
‘Could you please unstrap my arms?’
‘In due course, Mr Forth.’
In due course? What the hell did that mean?
‘Doctor, Is there any reason why I should still be strapped down like this?’
Suddenly, the doctor’s face jerked back into view.
‘We’re almost done, Mr Forth,’ she said. ‘There’s just the little matter of the business in the lift.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Come now, Mr Forth. I think you know what I mean.’
‘No, I don’t. Please let me go!’
‘All in good time, Mr Forth. Masumah!’
The nurse’s face hove back into view.
The scalpel appeared and the doctor took it. She flipped down her glasses and leaned down over him. The nurse, meanwhile, backed out of his view.
‘Mr Forth, you should know that Masumah is one of my most trusted colleagues. Without exaggeration, I would trust her with my life. It’s a long story – that you surely don’t want to hear – but Masumah and her parents were refugees and I helped them. I have known Masumah since she was a little girl. I trust her completely. You understand, Mr Forth?’
‘No, I don’t understand!’
‘No, I don’t!’
The doctor smirked again.
‘The thing is, Mr Forth, Masumah would never lie to me. She would never invent something. It just isn’t in her. I know her too well.’
‘I’m very happy to learn that, doctor, but I really don’t see what that has got to do with me.’
The doctor smirked once more.
‘What it means, Mr Forth, is that if Masumah says there was a business in the lift, then there was a business in the lift.’
‘But I don’t understand what you mean. Maybe there was a business in the lift, but it surely didn’t involve me. I have no idea what you are talking about.’
The beautiful black eyes flashed back into view.
‘Was it him?’
‘Are you absolutely certain?’
‘He was in the lift?’
‘I’m sure of it.’
‘Thank you, Masumah.’
The doctor waved the scalpel under Alan’s nose.
‘Well, Mr Forth; it seems we haven’t quite finished.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I realise that you have a few more blemishes on your face that need to be cut away.’
‘No!’ Alan screamed. ‘You can’t do this. I’m innocent. I didn’t do anything!’
He watched in desperation as the scalpel slowly descended towards his face.
‘Now then, Mr Forth. Please don’t struggle. It really doesn’t help. What do you think, Masumah? The mouth could be a little wider, no?’
Alan felt the scalpel tugging at the skin at the corner of his mouth.
‘No!’ he screamed.
‘Stay still, please, Mr Forth. You’ll only make things worse if you try to move. Now, I’ll just widen the other side.’
He felt the scalpel tugging at the skin at the other side of his mouth.
‘Could you mop up, please, Masumah?’
He felt the nurse dabbing at the corners of his mouth. The doctor drew her head back and studied his face.
‘Excellent,’ she said. ‘You really have a lovely wide mouth now. I’ve cut the lines twice, so that you’ll have wonderful scars. I’ll just stitch the cuts up and then we’ll see what else we can do.’
Alan whimpered. This couldn’t be happening. This could not be happening. He watched as the nurse held up the needle and thread.
‘You sound unhappy, Mr Forth. But you really shouldn’t be. With a mouth that big you’ll be a stupendous kisser in the future. Now, what about that nose of yours?’
He watched as the scalpel descended again.
‘No! Please God, no!’
He felt the tug of the scalpel at the skin at the bottom of his nose.
‘What do you think, Masumah? If I give him some diagonal scars like so.’
He felt the scalpel slice down diagonally away from his nose.
‘Mop, please, Masumah. Thank you.’
‘I’ll soon be done, Mr Forth. Just a few more minutes.’
He felt the scalpel slice down diagonally on the other side of his nose.
‘You’d want the scars to be symmetrical, wouldn’t you, Mr Forth? Such a handsome face. Such a handsome man.’
Alan wept. He was finished. This mad woman had destroyed his face. And all because of two small moles and a silly moment in the elevator. He’d call the police. He’d get her locked up.
‘There,’ said the doctor. ‘Finished. What do you think, Masumah?’
The beautiful black eyes flashed back into view.
‘It’s a great improvement, doctor.’
‘Would you fetch a mirror, please?’
The nurse disappeared and re-appeared. The doctor, meanwhile, mopped at Alan’s eyes with some wadding.
‘Don’t cry, Mr Forth. There, there. Now…’ she took the mirror… ‘before I show you your face I’d like to make a few matters clear to you. Masumah is going to leave us now and she will ask two of the porters to come to the door, just in case you don’t behave as you should. When I release your arms, you are going to go back quietly to your cubicle and get dressed. Normally, I’d fix an appointment with you to take out the stitches, but I don’t ever want to see you again, Mr Forth. Wait for two weeks. Any doctor worth her or his salt can take the stitches out. If you think the cuts have got infected somehow, go straight to your doctor and ask to be put on general spectrum antibiotics, but that really shouldn’t be necessary. All right?’
‘Stop being such a cry baby, Mr Forth. Did you hear what I said?’
‘And you promise to go to the cubicle straightaway?’
‘Yes, I promise.’
The woman was mad, Alan thought. Stark staring mad.
With that she raised the mirror in front of his face. The moles were gone, and there were two tiny scars with transparent thread poking out where she’d stitched them up. And that was all. There were no cuts along his mouth. And no cuts down from his nose. It had all been a pretence. She had faked it, the witch.
‘I know what you’re thinking, Mr Forth. You think I’m mad. Well, I’m not. But I am mad at you and the vain men like you who think that they are entitled to behave in the way that they do. I hope this slightly unpleasant experience will have been a lesson to you. Jim! Bill!’
He heard the two porters reply from the doorway, then she released the vice that had been holding his head in place, and he heard the Velcro straps being detached and realised that he could move his arms again. She lowered the operating table.
‘Off you go, then, Mr Forth.’
He got up and shuffled to the cubicle. Once he had got dressed he took the elevator back down and walked straight out of the clinic without even looking to see if the pretty girl was still on duty at reception. Outside, the beautiful spring day proclaimed itself in all its glory, but Alan Forth’s sap was no longer rising.
Author Notes: Martin Westlake is a budding creative writer with a number of published short stories, in various genres, to his name.