Since all the burn patients were allowed to go out in the evenings or on short passes as they made progress, the residents of East Grinstead had become used to them. In contrast, people in the small, provincial towns that Banks and Colin passed through on their drive west were still surprised when confronted with a visage like Banks’. Children cried or ran away. Women caught their breath or crumpled up their faces into expressions of horror or pity. Men tended to gape in blunt curiosity. Very few people could simply treat Banks as if he were normal.
By midday, when they stopped for lunch and the waitress exclaimed, “Oh! You poor dear! How you must have suffered!” Banks found it difficult to reply in a civil tone.
“A little, yes,” he choked out resentfully, and Colin smoothly took over, chatting with the waitress about what she recommended and how many food stamps they needed.
As she disappeared to place their order, Colin put a hand on Banks’ sleeve and urged gently, “Try not to blame them. Humans have been conditioned to respond to one another based on facial expressions. We know how to read young faces, old faces, happy faces, angry faces, but – for the moment – your face is unreadable. That disorients and discomforts them. It makes them do – and say – insensitive things.”
“You think that’s all it is? Surely, it is more than that? Humans like beauty. I’m the opposite.”
“Of course, people appreciate beauty, but most of us aren’t particularly good-looking and we all age poorly. Look at me!” Colin joked. He had thick glasses and a long, narrow face. When Banks gazed back unconvinced, he tried again. “When was the last time an attractive woman went up to an ugly man and exclaimed: ‘Oh, you poor dear! How you must have suffered!’”
Banks laughed and conceded, “I suppose you’re right.”
“Nor do they say things like, ‘We’ll get the bastards that did that to you!’ either.” Colin reminded him of the petrol station attendant they’d encountered earlier.
Banks sighed again. After a moment, he admitted, “You’re right. I shouldn’t blame them. When I look in a mirror, I feel like turning away, weeping with pity or threatening revenge too. I certainly don’t recognise myself. A stranger looks back at me.” He paused, thought about that and then added, “My state would seem to give credence to you men of religion, who argue there is an immortal soul unconnected to our bodies. If I can remain me, when I look nothing like myself, then the soul’s relationship to the body – or at least the face – is ephemeral.”
“Certainly,” Colin agreed with a smile. “Yet, while you say your face is alien, it is hardly unrelated to your soul. Rather, it is reshaping your soul.”
“Are you trying to tell me I’ve become a hideous patchwork monster inside as well as out?”
Colin laughed but then turned serious and firmly told Banks, “Nonsense! Our souls are no more a reflection of our exterior than vice versa. But you will not be the same internally after this experience, any more than you will be the same externally.”
“Neither will you, Colin – although your face is unchanged.”
“True,” Colin admitted ruefully, “very true.” They let it go at that.
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