Every morning Cat would wake in a panic and rush to the bathroom where her make up was gathered around her sink like a jury. She’d work through the routine, as layer by layer she would remake her face into something acceptable. Concealer, liquid foundation, foundation powder, blush, neutral eyeliner, defining eyeshadow, eyeliner. She saw her face as a collection of flaws to be patched up or buried. Each year the slap had grown thicker and thicker as new wrinkles and blemishes popped to the surface and each day her true face was lost once again.
Some days she’d try to imagine how it would be to be loved for all her flaws, to show herself to the world, could she really be so disgusting to look at? Sometimes she’d make a deal with herself that tomorrow she would walk down the street with her face naked, just to see what would happen. Would people shout? Laugh? Would strangers video this hideous creature to stick up on Youtube? Sometimes she’d dare herself to just step outside her flat and take the lift to the ground floor, say hello to Mrs Robey who liked to stand in the hall smoking a fag, maybe pop her head out the door to where Salman would be playing with his kids on the grass. The dares and the deals would quickly evaporate as she imagined the horrified reactions, and she knew that she’d never do it.
And then the fire happened. At three in the morning, the fire alarm rattled through the block with such a raucous demand for attention that she was out standing on the grass in a daze before she remembered her face was empty of disguise. She was about to run back inside, plans of which tubes and palletes she could grab spinning around her head, but there were too many people spilling out of the front door. As the street filled up with scared occupants in dressing gowns and duvets, she tried to keep under trees in the shadows. She saw Mrs Robey, already lighting up a fag to calm her nerves, even in the panic she had thought to bring them with her, and Cat cursed herself for not showing the same quick thinking. She saw Salman huddling his children to him, trying to keep them warm. As people from neighbouring blocks joined them, it became increasingly difficult to keep out of sight, all spaces were filled with people, both dazed and bustling, slowly edging her out into the light. Until finally, she found herself in the middle of the noise and fuss, being offered cups of tea and being wrapped up in blankets.
“Look at you, you’re half-frozen!” exclaimed Mrs Robey, rubbing Cat’s arms to warm them. Cat tried to hold the cup up in front of her face, tried to shrink herself small enough so that no one would notice; but it was strange, because no one was recoiling from her ugliness, nobody even flinched. They acted as if they didn’t care, as if she looked normal; and she started to relax. Mrs Robey added a snifter of whisky to her tea to warm her up, and Cat began to forget her face and all its flaws. Instead she slurped her tea and chuckled with her neighbours about how scared they’d all been; or about what they’d been dreaming when the sirens started, and for once she didn’t need to think about her make up slipping or lipstick on her teeth. She didn’t need to think about her face at all. And it was quite nice.