Louise the health visitor is coming today so I need to spruce myself up. She comes once a week on a Monday at midday, has done for a year. Today is her last visit, though she doesn’t know it yet.
In the shower I scrub my body with the loofah mitt until it burns, singing along to Dolly Parton. Music’s never more than a finger click away in my flat. I dry myself carefully and pat my face with care. Steam fogs the mirror and I can’t see my reflection. This is usually a good thing, but for her visits once a week I need to make an effort. I open the window and as the water droplets part and the steam clears, a face appears before me in the mirror. There is always a moment where I don’t recognise it.
It’s not so bad, not really. I wasn’t a beauty in the first place. I’m lucky to have a face at all. Still, I can’t shake the surprise of it, no matter how often I see someone else in my reflection. She was pretty, even after they razored off her face and stitched it to what was left of mine. Wide eyes and a small nose and perfect rosebud lips. Her skull was a little smaller so there’s a space to the left of my forehead where her soft skin is grafted on below my hairline. If you look closely you can see where I end and she begins, her face hanging badly on my frame. The tiny stretch marks no wider than the breadth of a needle. No one looks closely though. It’s not a pretty sight. My left eye droops as if her wide open eyes were too much for the remnants of me to take. But otherwise I’m fine. Perhaps I’m even better. I brush on face powder and rouge and paint mascara onto the dead person’s eyelashes. There now.
Downstairs Misty is barking as if he knows that Louise is coming soon. It’s a cry for help, poor mutt. It’s not his fault that my last dog Shuttle is gone. At night I imagine Shuttle is still here, nose twitch dreaming beside my pillow. I wish he was. He taught me what love is. He was loyal and never strayed, unlike my husband.
Sleep is splintered and tortuous and the pills don’t touch the sides of it. Most nights I get up and shuffle along the corridor in inky darkness to the kitchen, where I turn the radio on. Misty barks and I put the kettle on and watch him claw the inside of his cage until his nails bleed. Eventually he gives up and looks at me as if he won’t ever be enough. They felt it would help my recuperation to have a dog around. There’s no more logic to that than loaning a widow someone else’s husband, but when your private life becomes public you don’t get a say in much of it at all.
I’ve asked them to take Misty back and they won’t so I’m stuck with him. Despite my compelling argument against him staying. According to the experts I’m ‘surprisingly educated and lucid’. They weren’t expecting that when they got the call to the council estate where I live. Woman, mid-forties, off her head on pills. Unconscious and bleeding. Probably has an ASBO. Flat dishevelled and in a state of disarray, ashtrays over flowing and empty bottles by the sink. No ASBO for me. No way. They commented later on the literature on the bookshelves. I was the first of my family to go to university, (‘yer off yer f***ing head’ my dad said). I thought it could make something happen, something better. Dad was right. I was off my fucking head. Fifty thousand sterling pounds later and all I had to show was a piece of shitty paper. I didn’t get to give dad the satisfaction of being right though as by then he’d gone and topped it. The papers brought that up, wondering if suicide could be a genetic thing. My mum cried her eyes out when she read that, feeling that it was somehow her fault for passing on the cells of my father. I told her that it doesn’t work like that and that I never tried to kill myself anyway but she didn’t believe me. She’s done everything for me. Taught me how to speak well and look sharp and pick my friends carefully. The only thing she couldn’t teach me was to how to pick a good man. From the beginning she taught me to aim high, despite dad beating her for it. Her bruises couldn’t deflate my dreams. Life did that all by itself.
Louise is punctual as the robotic pharmacy in hospital that dispensed my meds when I was in isolation. Rejection of the face was the main concern but the pills convinced my body to accept it. I’m on them for life. They thought I was an alcoholic though drink was never a problem despite what my ex-husband claimed. The morning of the day of the accident, the letter arrived. He won custody of the children. The lies he’d told them! My only mistake was loving him in the first place. The letter informed me I would be allowed to see them once a fortnight. Though he didn’t want me to see them at all. So that evening, to dull the pain of it, I had a drink or two. I forgot about the medication I was taking and it didn’t mix well. The room swam and on my way to the bathroom to be sick I tripped and banged my head. Knocked myself out. I always was a clumsy lumpen thing, dad said. I won’t let the children see me now, like this.
At exactly midday there’s a knock at the door. Before I open it I let Misty out of his cage. He barks like a wild thing as Louise peers into the letter box and I know that she’s looking for the sole of a shoe turned upwards. The tip of a body on the floor. Today she’s won the lottery because I am undead. For the fifty second week running I am upright and alive. I usher her in and she gives Misty all the petting that he’s been missing. He loves her visits. She should take him I told her once, and regretted it. She visited every day that week. I force myself to stroke Misty in front of Louise to show her that we are bonding, even though his fur sets my teeth on edge. Shuttle was soft as silk. Misty looks at me disdainfully as if he can see right through me.
Louise is the only visitor I have. It’s hard to imagine her in any life but mine, though I noticed her engagement ring last time she came. I waited for her to tell me her news but she didn’t. She doesn’t talk about herself much. Perhaps she thinks that if she shares a bit of herself with me she’ll leave a crack in her psyche where my darkness could seep in. She sits down with her clipboard on her lap and her biro tucked behind her ear and she goes through the questions. Do you ever feel lonely? No. Do you sleep. Yes. Do you cry? I need to be careful here. If I over-egg it I activate a high-risk alert. They might take me in for monitoring. They did that once before I knew better, before I figured out how I am supposed to answer. If I don’t cry enough I am flagged as disengaged. I can’t go back to that chlorinated room where only my pulse on the screen reminds me that I’m still alive. So I am careful. How often do you cry? Once a week, twice? I tell her that this week I’ve cried once. That’s safe. Enough to be believable but not to cause concern. Louise relaxes and her biro squeaks across the paper. I offer her a cup of tea.
In the middle of reaching for the tea bags I realise that the delivery box from this morning is on the side in the kitchen. It’s unopened but when she does her check of my apartment she might notice it. I tuck a tea towel around it and jam it behind the bin.
Tea in hand she runs through the physical questionnaire. Am I in pain? No. Do I still have feeling in my face? Yes. It feels like pins and needles but it’s something. It took thirteen surgeries to make me look human. I am one of the first success stories of its kind. Is there anything I am concerned about? she asks. I pause. I’d like to ask her about the voices. I shake my head. After that it’s small chat before she does a quick inspection of my place. She leans back in the arm chair and smiles, relieved. Asks me what I’ve got lined up for the week ahead. It’s hard for her to tell if I am lying. With 63% of my muscles damaged my smile often slips into a frown. I tell her that tomorrow I am taking Misty to the park to train him to catch a ball and that Thursday afternoon will be spent in the library at a creative writing workshop for trauma victims. She nods and I know that she’ll leave a little lighter at the thought of how well I am coming along. I want her to be happy. She’s done the best she can.
After she’s gone I go into the kitchen and turn the radio on. I retrieve the box from behind the bin and using my key I slice the thin tape where the join is. Inside is a smaller box and I open this the same way. A box within a box. I lift the steel blade from its velvet cocoon and it spins my reflection back in the light from the window. A face within a knife. It’s sharp and would slice off the end of my finger like a dumpling. I’m putting the knife back into its protective pouch when Misty comes wandering in searching for his breakfast which I’ve forgotten to give him. He can wait. Restraint is good. I lure him back into his cage with a dog treat and shut him in, throwing the treat into the bin on my way out. He’s not as clever as Shuttle. Shuttle would never fall for a trick like that.
Mondays are good as by the time Louise leaves the day is almost done. I tick each day off on the calendar the day after it passes. To do it before the day is finished would be cheating. It doesn’t count as being survived until the strike of midnight. I fetch the bread and butter for my tea and Misty throws himself against the door of his cage, restless. I let him out in the garden where he paces in circles before doing his business. Then he huddles in the back corner of the garden by the shed and watches me. I turn the radio up louder.
I’ve been becoming her gradually, my face donor. First thing I noticed was my taste buds changing. Coriander tasted wrong, too flowery and sweet. I blamed it on the Thai takeaway and got a refund but the next time it was the same. Then the smell of coffee made me feel sick. It was like being pregnant but this would be off the scale immaculate fucking conception because not even a monster would touch me now. One by one my favourite things turned on me. Now all I eat is plain buttered toast. The doctors have blamed my weight loss on the medication. I can’t tell them any of this. They’d think I’m losing it. Outside Misty barks.
After my taste buds it was the noises. Sounds that didn’t belong. The creak of a stair case; a sash window banging shut. An owl calling. I live in an urban flat. My eyesight was still recovering and I thought maybe my other senses were playing up. I’d hear crashing noises from below though I live on the ground floor. Then I started seeing things. My eyes were functioning just fine by then. As first it was shapes and colours but in time they morphed into forms. Shadowy silhouettes on the edges of my vision, always just to the right or left. It’s unbearable.
I let Misty back in and pour his dog biscuits into his bowl along with some chicken as a treat. The last time I’ll feed him, why not? I boil the kettle and make a cup of tea. I snap the pills from their cases and swallow them with water. On the window-sill there is a framed photograph of Shuttle. His ears tilt towards the camera and he looks straight into my eyes. As soon as I could talk again I told them. How he would have found me on the floor and tried to wake me up. How when his licking didn’t work he’d have nibbled my ear, gently at first. He would have been terrified. He’d never have intended to hurt me. By the time I came round in hospital he was already dead. They had to put him down, they said. He’d ravaged my face so badly it was a miracle I’d survived. Barely any flesh left, the papers said. Just a strip of flesh the width of a piece of bacon. Don’t blame yourself they told me, as if that would make it any better. He probably saved my life. Stopped me slipping towards the light. Though of course that wasn’t his intention, they added quickly.
Misty hasn’t touched his food, as if he doesn’t trust me to do something good. Maybe he’s not as stupid as I thought.
The shadowy forms became people. There’s a voice that stands out above the rest. Perhaps it’s hers. The music drowns her out though she persists, as if she’s trying to tell me something. They wouldn’t give away any information about the donor because of privacy laws. All I know is that she’s dead. A paper got wind that she was a suicide victim and printed it but I don’t know if that’s true. You can’t trust everything you read. They said I was a suicide attempt too.
I pull the knife from its velveteen pocket and press the tip to my finger. It punctures the skin and a red drop leaks out. With the knife in one hand I scoop up Misty with the other. He wriggles but he’s small and I am strong. I take him into the bathroom and shut the door. I can feel the pills working. They numb the sensation in my face and the pins and needles recede. I put the radio on. Misty scrambles at the door, frightened. He pees on the floor but he can’t get out. Let’s see.
In the mirror I position the tip of the knife at the bottom of my jaw below my left ear and press gently. It slices the skin smoothly. Blood runs down my neck and shoulder, staining my t-shirt. I press harder and drag the knife along the edge of the scar tissue under my chin. Round to the other side. There is a distant aching and I feel myself fading. Working faster I complete the full circle, up around my temple and below the hairline until the edges of her face curl in. I am giving it back, as she wants me to.
Putting the knife in the sink I lie down on the cold tiled floor and turn my head sideways so that I am facing the door. I watch Misty who huddles against it, quiet now. He doesn’t move a muscle.
Hannah Persaud writes poetry, short stories and novels. Her debut novel “The Codes of Love” is being published in print and digital edition by Muswell Press and in audio by Bolinda, in February 2020. “The Codes of Love” originated from her short story “Cyfannedd Fach” that won both the short story category of The Fresher Publishing Prize and InkTears Short Story Contest. Hannah recently won the Flash500 Flash Fiction competition, and has shortlisted, been highly commended in, and won various short story competitions. Her stories, flash fictions and poems are published both online and in numerous paperback anthologies. Hannah is working on her second novel and is represented by Laura Macdougall of United Agents.
Ring Pull, which recently won the Flash500 Flash Fiction competition, can be read online here – http://www.flash500.com/index_files/fpfq19.htm.
Cyfannedd Fach, which won InkTears Short Story Contest can be read online here – http://www.fresherpublishing.co.uk/inspiration/cyfannedd-fach-by-hannah-persaud/.
If you enjoyed ‘The New Dog Is Not The Same As The Old Dog’ leave a comment and let Hannah know.
You can find more information about Hannah’s work, publications and competition placements on her website www.hannahpersaud.com, or follow Hannah at:
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