Face it

Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and shadows will fall behind you. – Walt Whitman

Just fourteen short years after the war, Spitfires were still in action. While I was filling my head with times tables an entire squadron was parked up under the yew tree by the school gate, invisible to anyone who wasn’t equipped with a vivid imagination. The perfect camouflage. At playtime it was another matter. Engines roared into life, and after a little taxiing into position, we were ready for take-off. Our wingspans were short (we were only five years old) but it made no difference to the levels of determination with which we carried out our missions. Once airborne, we circled the school, looking for enemies to shoot down. If that failed, we made do with ‘buzzing’ small groups of girls, who often retaliated by lobbing tangled skipping ropes at our short trousered rudders.

Just as we were oblivious to how unlike Spitfires our little selves appeared, so we were generally oblivious to the way we appeared to each other. For instance, the fact that I, at one time, sported a strip of bright pink elastoplast on each side of my ointment-smothered face, during a ringworm infection, prompted little response from my school friends. Although one did suggest we might like to play cowboys and indians, and I could be the leader of the latter, as I was already wearing warpaint.
A few years later, my face played the willing host to impetigo. I was more self-conscious by now, and I knew I looked a mess. As I stood on the front doorstep of my friend’s house, I imagined, with increasing anxiety, the reaction of his mum when she would open the door, to be greeted with a florid array of spots and sores, complemented by my holed jumper and oversized trousers that barely stayed up, even with the aid of a tightly pulled elasticated snake belt.
To my great relief, she merely smiled sweetly, stooped towards me and said, “Hello. Have you called for David?”
“Yes.”
“Well, come in, come in. David’s in his room. I’ll call him.”
And that was that. No fuss, no wincing, no wrinkled up nose, no excuses that David was otherwise engaged. He eventually appeared, half running, half tumbling, down the stairs. His plans for our time together, echoing across the enormous entrance hall, without a pause. My appearance was, seemingly, no big deal. No surgical masks required.
When I almost lost the sight in my right eye, due to a playground incident, the ambulance man who ushered me through the backdoors of my hospital ‘ride’, and into a nauseating haze of antiseptic and petrol fumes, simply asked in a cheery voice, “Blimey, what’s the other bloke look like?”
By the time I was about twelve, I learnt that it was entirely possible to obsess about the shape of your head. At fifteen, it was more about nose, emerging ‘bum fluff’ and teeth. Ah yes, teeth. Long before people in the dental profession launched themselves on a quest to crown everyone’s gnashers from ear to ear, a succession of orthodontists had endeavoured to straighten my rogue incisors by means of braces that, out of the mouth, resembled something more likely used to catch vermin, rather than a device to aid cosmetic perfection. In any event, the main culprit was eventually knocked out in a school punch up. The resulting gap drew few comments beyond the odd, casual observation that I had taken on the appearance of Alfred E. Neuman. Which was fine because everyone in my gangly group of friends was reading every available copy of MAD magazine, feverishly.
Funny thing, physiognomy. My gran used to tell me my face was an “open book”. Others have said my eyes are a dead giveaway. No one ever suggested my face was my fortune, and no one has said my features resemble that of an unmade bed, at least, not to my…uh, face.

10 thoughts on “Face it

  1. What a beautiful piece… a lovely read, thanks Martin.
    Indeed the face, such an interesting thing – I too endured the discomfort and embarrassment of impetigo as a child and a brace on both top and bottom jaw at the same time. Like you I've been told I have an open face, the type that invites strangers to talk to me which can be both a blessing and a curse. But it's my face and I can't imagine looking in the mirror at one I hadn't grown up with and seen change naturally – how on earth does anyone cope with looking at one cosmetically enhanced by choice?!

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  2. In my case,I have come to the conclusion that mirrors werent invented until 1959. Either that, or that the folk of Yorkshire thought a mirror the work of the devil….'appen they were right!
    Im glad to know it wasnt just me who became extremely aware of my appearance as puberty hit!
    ***
    Your writing brought back to me a memory lost for 50 years. Do you remember “ZORRO” on the tv?
    One year someone bought me a toy Zorro-Sword for Xmas.
    Basically.a long bit of black plastic with a chalk at it's tip.
    Given my Polish Surname , I took great delight in leaving my 'mark' (Z ) just about everywhere!

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  3. Like you, C, I'm comfortable with my face. And I can't hazard a guess at which point a person decides to alter their physical appearance for purely cosmetic reasons.

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  4. Angela, what you say is so true. A girl I dated, when I was not long out of school, surprised me by telling me what nice hands I had. All that pimple-watching and grooming was the leat of my worries, it seemed.

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