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?”
“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.