Several days after one of his operations, Banks was told he had a visitor. He looked up, expecting Colin or Emily, and was taken aback to see his little sister Sarah walk hesitantly into the ward in a smart suit and a chic hat over permed, blond hair cropped chin length. Despite her natty attire, she looked rather lost. Still there was no mistaking his sister, and Banks couldn’t believe his eyes. “Sarah?”
She stopped abruptly and stared at him blankly, clearly not recognizing him. Then she gasped. “Oh, my God! David? Is that you?” she stammered, “But what—? Oh, David!” She rushed across the room to fling herself onto his chest and cling to him, sobbing.
Banks held her, unsure of what he felt. He was happy to see her. After more than a year of feeling utterly rejected by his family, it was wonderful to discover that Sarah, at least, had not cut him off. Yet, he was resentful too. Had it truly been impossible for her to write? Was it so hard to send a word of encouragement or sympathy? If not from home, then from her job, a friend’s house or a public library?
She pulled back. “Oh, David! Your face! It’s horrible! We had no idea!”
“Actually, it’s much, much better than it was. Take a look around the hospital before you leave.”
“You’re bitter,” she concluded, her eyes watering.
“Am I?” Banks shot back, feeling in that moment that he had every right to be bitter. Then again, he reminded himself, he didn’t want to be, so he drew a deep breath and urged, “never mind. Where did you come from? How did you get here? Where and how long are you staying?”
She held out her left hand, displaying a large diamond ring and a slender gold wedding band beside it.
“Yes. To an Englishman. Clive was the British Consul General in Toronto when we met, but he’s now moved to a new assignment at the Foreign Office. We left Toronto January 20 and we only arrived in London a couple of weeks ago. Clive’s secretary contacted the RAF and tracked you down, so I came as soon as I could arrange a car and petrol.” She looked around the ward, clearly horrified by everything she saw: The patients dressed like mummies, their hands still in tannic acid, others with faces lacking eyelids, eyebrows, lips or noses, others with these features all to obviously sewn on. “David, we have so much to talk about – but in private. Is there a private room, or could you get released, even if only for a few hours?”
“Actually, I’m due to be released for a few days tomorrow.” Banks had been planning to go to Bosham, of course.
“Oh, that’s wonderful! Surely, they’ll let you come home with me? I’ve got a car and driver. I can take you straight to our flat in South Kensington. I’ll just give Clive a ring to warn him. We have two guest bedrooms. Yes, that’s the best thing. I’ll ring Clive and tell him I’m bringing you with me.” She was gone.
Banks found the bell that called the nurse and explained that his sister had arrived from Canada and he wanted to leave the hospital right away. The very-young nurse said she’d have to talk to the matron, but Banks got out of bed and started getting dressed anyway. His right hand was completely bandaged and unusable, but he had become adept at getting dressed with his left hand – and a little help from one of his roommates.
When he was almost ready to leave, Dr McIndoe stopped by. He did not beat about the bush. Nodding with his head at Banks’ bandaged hand, he said: “You know the risks.”
“I know the risks.”
“I’d hate to have another setback with that hand.”
Banks stared at him for a moment. Dr McIndoe cared deeply about his patients, yet he wasn’t the one to bear the pain or the consequences of failure. The problem was that Banks had reached the point where he had so little hope that he wasn’t willing to be careful anymore. He was tired of the whole thing, especially the pain that robbed him of sleep when he wasn’t drugged; he was equally tired of the drugs that left him emotionally drained and fragile.
Increasingly, he found himself thinking that maybe they should just amputate the useless thing. Maybe an artificial hand would serve him better? Didn’t the legendary Wing Command Douglas Bader fly with two artificial legs? Perhaps he could fly with an artificial hand? All he said was, “it’s been twenty months since I saw my sister. I didn’t know she was married much less in the country. I’ve never met my brother-in-law. I’m going to London with her. When do I need to report back for my next operation?”
“You are due to be operated on next Thursday morning.”
“I’ll be back Wednesday night.” Banks picked up his little suitcase with his left hand and walked out to reception, his right hand cradled at his waist.
In reception, he found his sister still trying to get a connection. “The phones are terrible here!” she complained, then sensing the collective disapproval of those around her, she concluded. “It doesn’t matter. I’m sure Clive will be overjoyed to have you with us.”
“I’ll only stay until next Wednesday. Then I’ll have to return here.”
“That’s lovely!” she assured him as she took his elbow and leaned her head against his upper arm. “I’m so glad to have you back, David. There’s so much to talk about. You’ll love Clive.”
The car and driver had been borrowed from a friend of Sarah’s husband, and Banks got the impression that the less he knew, the better it would be. He and Sarah settled into the back seat behind a partition intended to prevent the driver from hearing the conversation of his passengers. Sarah turned to face her brother, her eyes searching his face with a kind of appalled fascination. “David, you have to tell me what happened. All we were told was that you had been shot down and injured. They didn’t say how or in what way you were injured. I never dreamed you’d still be in hospital after all this time! I was so astonished that I assumed it must be because of a second injury, but the nurse at reception said you’d been here for more than a year.”
“What do you mean, you didn’t know what happened? The telegram said I’d been badly burned on the face and hands, and my letter was explicit, too. I said quite clearly that you would not recognise me, and that I had fifteen operations ahead of me. As it turns out, it will be more.”
“The one where I told Father I was no longer his son.”
“What? How could you? And why?” She was appalled.
“After what he wrote to me when I was shot down, why should I want to have anything more to do with him?” All Banks’ anger and hurt exploded with those words. “My face had melted to the bone and my hands were naked of skin! But all Herr Dr Goldman had to say was that after less than two months in the RAF, I’d ‘managed to remove myself from the fray’ – as if I had intentionally been shot down and was trying to avoid combat!”
“David! We – Mother and I – never saw that letter! We had no idea what he wrote to you. You have to believe me.”
Suddenly it became clear to Banks that she was right. Of course, his father hadn’t shared what he wrote to his son with his wife or daughter. Which meant, Banks registered, that his father would also have hidden his son’s reply. But he must have said something. “Surely he told you I had written?”
“He said you were in hospital and were not able to write, that some stranger had written a short message without details. He said you’d be in touch when you were ready to correspond with us. I thought you had broken your wrist or some such thing.” She waved her hand in a gesture of helplessness. Then frowning, she stopped and thought back on it. After a moment, she admitted, “maybe Mother knew or suspected more. She became very quiet and subdued. I caught her looking at photos of you once. I asked her if she were worried about you, and she said, ‘of course,’ and hastily put the photos away. She loves you very much, David, and so do I. If we’d known …”
“Why didn’t you just write? If you didn’t know what had happened to me, you could have asked? You could have shown some interest, some sympathy. Or, if not that, you could have told me about your plans.”
“I didn’t have an address,” Sarah defended herself. “Father said you were no longer on your squadron, and although I asked him for your new address, he answered vaguely, saying you hadn’t yet been reassigned. He told me to wait. But then I met Clive and we started planning our wedding. Once I knew I would be coming to England, writing didn’t seem so important. I knew I’d be seeing you once I got here, and besides it would have been impossible to say all I wanted to say in a letter. But Mother sent a letter. As soon as I told her Clive and I would be coming to England, she made me promise to bring you a letter. I have it with me!”
Sarah turned to her handbag, opened it, and removed a thick, sealed packet. It was cream-coloured with an elegant, printed return address; his mother’s personal stationery. David took it with his left hand and put the letter in the breast pocket of his tunic to read later. He turned to his sister and suggested she share the news from home with him, thinking she would start with her husband and wedding.
Instead, Sarah eagerly talked about their siblings, cousins and friends. She did so nervously and with a brittle cheerfulness that suggested she was desperate to talk about anyone but herself. When she had nearly exhausted the news of even their more distant relatives, David couldn’t stop himself from asking, “What happened to all your plans for joining the war effort?”
“I was terribly naïve, wasn’t I?” She answered with an embarrassed laugh. “I’ve grown up a lot since then. For one thing, I realised I’m not the type to put on a uniform and take orders from ignorant people. I also hate being in groups. In the women’s services, everyone sleeps in barracks with six or ten beds to a room and they share big institutional showers, too—”
“You sound like you’re quoting Dr Goldman,” David pointed out more sharply than he intended.
“You mean Father?”
“I no longer consider Dr Goldman my father.”
They stared at one another. Then Sarah softened and reached out a hand to touch his sleeve gently. “Let’s not fight, David. We’ve only just found one another again. This should be a happy reunion.”
“I don’t want to fight with you either – just accept that I have cut myself off from our father.”
“But he hasn’t cut himself off from you,” she answered, meeting his eyes almost for the first time since she’d discovered his artificial and strange face.
“How do you know?”
“He told me to bring you his greetings.”
“Just that? His greetings? Not his love? Not his regrets? Not his apology? Just ‘‘Gruß aus Kanada’ – like on the back of a postcard.” Banks spat it out.
“Oh, David!” Tears welled up in her eyes again. “He’s not really as terrible as you make him out to be. I’m sure he loves you in his way.”
“Well, not in a way I find sufficient. I don’t want to talk about him. Tell me more about yourself. You were just explaining how your personal life choices were more important than stopping the Nazis.”
“David! That’s cruel!” The tears in her eyes quivered on the brink of overflowing.
“Sorry.” He didn’t sound it. “I just happen to have lost my face and future fighting the Nazis, and I know a lot of very fine women who have endured more than communal showers to do their part.” He thought of the WAAFs on the station, some of whom had given their lives.
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