The Angel of Art
‘So firstly, we’ll remove the facial hair. Hair ages the face tremendously. We are born with little and the more we are exposed to time, the faster and thicker it grows.’
The man behind the mask applies a sheet of hot wax over my face. I blink as the heat seeps around my eyes, blurring the masked man so he is just a white figure. An angel of art.
He tears the mask away and the soft flesh around my lips throbs erratically. ‘I’ll seal the follicles once the treatment is completed.’
I reach up and find that the skin is hot but smooth.
‘Hands down.’ The figure grabs my wrists and places them by my sides.
His fingers poke at my face, dipping into the grooves in my forehead, stretching the skin on my jaw. ‘Hm. You have a little too much excess down by the chin. We’ll remove that. Keep still.’
I close my eyes, and a thick needle pierces a hole through the skin beneath my ear. A tube runnels down my jawline, snaking its way around muscles and veins I wish I couldn’t feel. The figure flicks a switch somewhere and a searing hot sucking sensation pulls the weight from inside of my face. I think I’m going to be sick.
The sucking sensation stops, and the tube is pulled away again.
‘Yes. Much better. Hold still.’
I open my eyes again and watch as the figure slides film from a flat, black, square device. He attaches it to a wire and the thrum of electricity powers up. He turns to me and sees me watching. ‘Head back,’ he demands and pushes my head against the base of my chair. My eyes water again.
He places the device against my jawline and my skin constricts. He puts pressure against it and the ice-cold surface sucks my face tight.
The device powers down again and the masked man smears a jelly-like substance on me. ‘Christ, that’s so much better. How you have got away with shit for this long astounds me. It’s written all over you.’
He leaves the room for a moment, and I dare to look in the mirror on the stand. A man that looks a little like me scowls. He tries to smile but the newly reconstructed V-line of his jaw forces his lips to reveal the stained yellows of his teeth. I lean back again in the chair.
The man comes back in. ‘Sadinski, the next thing is the bleaching. This will cause a significant amount of pain, but it is necessary. The paler you look, the younger you look. I’m going to restrain you for this but you’re not having any sedatives. You’re paying for a job done, not comfort.’
The Angel of Art places a band over my forehead and straps across my torso. ‘Normally, people can do this over a series of months with creams, but the melanin won’t be taken away fast enough. I’m going to be injecting the bleach much like a tattooist colours their clients.’
He pours a liquid into a cartridge and connects a needled attachment. It begins to buzz, and the man leans forward and scratches my forehead. At first, it feels like a cat scratch but as the treatment enters the layers of skin, it begins to burn. I feel my head spin and take a deep breath.
‘If you throw up, I’m charging you extra. A little pain doesn’t go amiss for the likes of you.’
‘I can stop if you like, but I’ll still be taking the money.’
The liquid fire bubbles where he scratches the needle. ‘Fuuuuck!’ My body involuntarily convulses, jerking back and forth. The straps on my torso dig into my chest. The needle sears down the right side of my face, burning away my skin. Burning like fire. ‘Fuck! Give me something! Give me something!’
The Angel of Art leans closer, and I see the outline of a grin through his mask. ‘Not a chance. We both know you deserve the pain. I get my job done. You fucking endure it!’
I could spit at the bastard. Right now, I really could. Instead, I bite down on my tongue and the taste of iron fills my mouth. The Angel of Art tuts as blood dribbles down my chin.
He places something spongey in my mouth and the rest of the bleaching treatment is scythed into my face for what feels like an eternity. When he eventually finishes, he takes the sponge away and runs it under the tap, swirling blood tainted water in the sink. My body continues convulsing. Hot salty sweat drops over my eyes and down my face, trailing tears of fire. My breathing is ragged, my throat sore. I am involuntarily moaning like a wounded animal, and he just stands there.
‘Good. I’m glad it hurts.’ The masked man leaves the room, switching the light off on the way. I fall unconscious.
Bright light wakes me up and the Angel of Art waits on a chair in front of me. When he realises, he releases the straps holding me to the chair.
I stand and roll my shoulders. Then I bring my hands to my face. It still burns but feels pleasantly cool beneath my fingers. ‘Can I see?’ I ask.
‘Sure. Take a shower and get changed. You reek of piss.’
For the first time since waking up, I take a deep breath. My body odour mingles with the smell of something hot and chemically. I don’t smell urine, but when I look down, I see a dark patch has stained the front of my trousers. ‘Oh, er, sorry I gue—’
He turns to his computer and holds his hand up. ‘—Just – I don’t care. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.’
The Angel walks out, and the door swings gently shut. He does not lock it. But then again, I can’t leave. I’ve already paid him. He’s got to finish the job.
In the bathroom, I strip away my clothes. I look down. No matter what my face looks like, I will still be stuck with this wreckage of a body. The bastard would only work on the face. The thin spindly legs, the greying wiry hair that grows in patches over my torso. The stretch marks, the scars, the fresher cuts from the restraints. Brown liver spots pepper my arms, my legs, my stomach.
It’s all so disgusting. Disgusting, criminally disgusting. It’s no wonder that nobody would have me. From now on, I will only undress in the dark. That way I can stay hidden even after they’ve seen my face. Maybe they’d be more receptive that way.
I shower and return to the room. The Angel of Art waits, mask readjusted, a hypocrite hiding his own identity.
He is not proud of what he does.
‘You’ve seen the face?’ he asks.
‘No. I decided to wait until you’ve finished completely.’
‘If you don’t like the work, then it’ll be too late—’
‘—I trust you.’
The man flinches, turning his face away. ‘Don’t say that. I am not your confidant. I do this for money. You disgust me.’
I dig my nails into my palms and sit back in the chair. The Angel of Art once again prods at my face. He pokes aggressively, tilting my face this way and that. ‘Yep. We’re gonna have to smoothen out the forehead. Maybe take a little from the nose and ears. Cheekbones are naturally high and boyish, so we’ll leave them alone.’
He takes my face between both of his gloved hands. ‘Good God. Your eyes look like bougets. Eyelid surgery is a definite. Stop drinking and smoking if I were you, Sadinski.’
He then runs his fingers through my scalp. ‘You still have a fair amount of hair. We’ll dye what you have and do some pigmentation with whatever else will grow. I’d suggest that you keep it short with a fade. That is the most common cut at the moment.’
He lets go of me and takes out a work tablet. He mumbles to himself as he types.
‘Hey, what about my teeth?’
‘So, brush them.’
‘But I want the look complete as soon as possible.’
The Angel of Art stops his typing. ‘Soon as possible, huh? You’re that eager.’
‘Can’t you just whiten them?’
The Angel drops his tablet into his lap. ‘You’re a pervert. Not an invalid. Just brush your teeth. There’s no long-term staining. You don’t need dentistry.’
‘I think you’re forgetting that I’m paying you to do this.’
The angel stares at me through his mask. ‘Fuck it, why not,’ he mutters.
It takes less than a day to finish the rest of the surgery. The Angel of Art is silent as he works, and his only discernible emotion is a sort of repulsive delight he gets whenever he sees that I’m in pain. I see the shadow of a smile through the fabric of the mask.
When he is finally finished. He leads me out of the surgery and into a small office with a bed in it. ‘You can stay in here tonight. I’d like to keep observation of the reconstruction for another 24 hours at least. Once I know that it has successfully moulded the way I want it, you’re free to go. Do you want the mirror now?’
‘No. I’ll wait.’
He leaves me. The room is small, cold. The walls are bare, the floor uncarpeted. A naked bulb hangs loosely from the ceiling. It reminds me of a prison cell. I wonder if the lack of design or proper furnishing is deliberate.
I lay back on the bed. My head hurts and the bridge of my nose throbs. The Angel of Art has wrapped the surgery in bandages that feel like gelatine pouches. They’re cool on the skin and relieve the itching of whatever is laced in the stitching.
The next morning, I am woken up to a knocking on the door. I open it and the Angel of Art motions back towards the chair. I sit down and he pushes a button that positions me laying back. He flicks a light on, and I close my eyes as he carefully snips away the bandaging on my face.
‘Oh, perfect. Wonderful.’ The Angel’s fingers glide over his masterpiece, my face. ‘Oh, it is just so beautiful. So so beautiful.’
He sticks a finger into my nose and hooks it. ‘Sealant has worked faster than I thought it would have. You have such supple elastic skin.’ Next, he tugs at my ears. ‘A little scarring on the underside of the lobes. Easily hidden with a couple of studs, Mr Sadinski.’
He runs his hands through my hair. ‘The hair dye is matched to the artificial pigmentation. If you begin balding, Mr Sadinski, many high street specialists can offer a regrowth treatment.’
He sits back again. I open my eyes, but he turns the brightness on the light up.
‘—Bleaching has worked brilliantly. Fresh, clean. Avoid tanning and swimming to keep the colouring intact.’
‘Never mind the teeth! They’re white as white. As you asked, Sadinski. Why are you so obsessed with them? Look at the rest of you! A masterpiece!’
‘My teeth are my trademark.’
The Angel of Art flinches, turns away. ‘Your teeth are white as pearls. Here’s your fucking mirror.’
He hands me a circular vanity mirror and leaves the room, slamming the door behind him. Before I look, I button my shirt up to the neck. Don’t want to spoil a picture with a mottled canvas.
The reflection shows me a portrait of my younger self. A Sadinski in his early twenties. But cleaner, brighter. The face is smooth, rounded – as if it had been moulded like plasticine. The wrinkles in my forehead have been ironed away.
The eyes have been widened to show the baby blue that had been hidden beneath the folds of the eyelids. The bump in my nose has been shaved away to reveal a narrower shape. It has also lost the bulbous tip that used to expose the drinking habit I have accumulated over the years.
I finger my ear lobes which have been reduced in size to match the new length of my nose. They do feel delicate, but the Angel of Art has cleverly trimmed away the ragged tissue that I used to have to hide with my hair.
The hair itself is the chestnut brown I had been born with. The eyelashes and eyebrows tinted to match. It is a little scraggly, but I can work with it. Maybe I’ll tie it back.
I tilt the light above the chair. My skin is a soft coffee cream colour. No acne scars, no pockmarks, no freckles, or sunburn. No blotches or liver spots. Just a vast smooth desert of untrodden landscape. I smile, and despite the restriction caused by the elasti-therapy, my lips have retained their cupid’s bow. I bare my teeth and they shine brighter than they have in years. My teeth are my trademark, you see. Mother used to tell me that a man’s smile is the key to a woman’s heart, and I had smiled for her up until the moment she had died.
I hope the new smile is as captivating as the older one. Women weep for Smiling Sadinski.
I raise my hand to tap my teeth. But it is not a hand suited to the right face. It is dry, cracked at the knuckles, too large. The nails are yellow and thick. Sprigs of wiry grey hair sprout above the joints in the fingers. Even under the light, they are too dark compared to the freshness of the skin on my face.
The hand places itself on my cheek, and I feel nauseous, uncomfortable. The roughness feels wrong against my skin. It’s wrong.
It doesn’t match. It doesn’t match the face, the hair, the skin. Nothing. It is somebody else’s hand. Somebody else’s old dry hand. And it is touching me. Touching this face. A face I recognise as my own because it mimics the fear and repulse at having this old man touch me!
I drop my hand. It trembles on my lap.
The Angel of Art is back in the room. His eyes crinkle behind the mask.
‘You think this is fucking funny?’ I drop the mirror and it smashes against the tiled floor.
He leans back against the wall. ‘It’s common to feel a little disassociation after the procedure—’
‘—Fix the rest of it. Fix me!’
‘That is not what we agreed to. That is not in the contract.’ The tips of his ears rise, and I sense him smirking behind the mask.
‘No. No, you can’t leave me like this!’
The Angel of Art shrugs. ‘Find someone else to do the rest of the work.’
I rush across the room at him. I pin him between myself and the wall. ‘You have to! I am not leaving until you do it! I’ll pay you extra!’
The Angel of Art tries to push me back, but I’m running on panic and adrenaline. Behind the mask, he chuckles forcefully. ‘No.’
I tear his mask away from his face.
The Angel of Art has oval eyes. The irises swell and recede as he adjusts to the light in the room. The rest of his face is a massacre of burn scars. I loosen my grip on him a little. ‘What the fuck?’
He smiles. His lips are inflamed, and purple veins rise from the skin like roots. I’m taken by surprise as he pushes me back and I fall to the floor. ‘Not what you were expecting, huh?’
I go to stand up but the Angel of Art kicks my legs from beneath me. ‘Ungrateful bastard. I did for you what no one could do for me!’
I stand up as fast as my old body will let me, clenching a shard of the mirror behind my back. He steps back. ‘You don’t understand the gift I have given you. Not only have a given you youth, but freedom, a new identity.’
My fist clenches around the shard. It nicks at my index finger. ‘I’m a freak show. I look like a monster. What am I meant to do with just a face while the rest of me is still old and hideous?’
The Angel of Art reaches behind, taking something out of his pocket. I take a step closer to him. ‘Whatever you do, don’t bother,’ I tell him. I show him the shard of mirror in my hand.
He laughs. ‘You think that’s really gonna do me any damage? Look at me!’ He lunges forward and smacks the mirror out of my hand with a can. He holds it up towards my face. ‘Don’t move or I’ll use this!’
I look at the can. Clorox. The man is defenceless. I take a step forward.
‘I mean it! One spray of this and your precious face will be a mess in minutes.’
He reaches out and presses the can against my cheek like a gun.
‘You leave here and don’t ever threaten me again. If you try anything, know that I have pictures of your new profile. I am more than happy to tip the police off.’
‘Funny sort of moral code you’ve got.’ I shrug away from him and walk towards the door. He follows with the can still pointing at me.
‘You say that I’m a pervert, offload your virtuous drivel on me. Yet, you don’t hold back on releasing me into the world under a new guise.’
‘You know, Sadinski. I know you. I know all of you lot that come here. I do my research.’
‘You don’t harm the women until they reject you.’
‘Your body is old, Sadinski. You’re going to feel arthritis tearing in your joints and the arteries thicken around your heart yet when you look in the mirror, a young man will be looking back at you, mocking you. You’re going to tell yourself that you can pull the women with your winning smile, but as soon as you’re at your most naked and vulnerable state, they’ll see you for what you really are and run.’
‘Ha!’ I laugh. ‘I’ll have them where I want them by then!’
We walk through a labyrinth of corridors. Up some concrete stairs. ‘But Sadinski, you’re getting old. No matter what you look like, you’re getting weak. If one of those women don’t do you in, you’ll do yourself in.’
I feel a blackout of rage surge through my mind. ‘You basta—’
I’m shoved through a thick heavy door, and I fall on my knees. It closes shut behind me. I get to my feet, feeling a shot of pain shoot from my leg to my hip. ‘Fuck!’
The Angel of Art’s premises is a false reproduction of a bunker in the middle of the woods. The door is reinforced steel with no handles, no locks, and is overlooked by a CCTV camera that I cannot reach.
‘Let me back in! Let me in! You bastard!’ I yell at it. The lens stares back at me motionless.
I begin beating the door, and a bleary silver reflection beats back. I stop and he stops and as I peer closer at the young man opposite me, he looks back at me, scrutinizing and scornful. ‘Stop it!’ I yell, and his eyes crinkle in agitation as he tries to shout back at me. He is voiceless.
A burst of laughter escapes me, and the young man mocks me. His teeth shine as he leans back and silently guffaws.
‘Fuck you!’ I shout and lunge at him. My hand bounces off the metal and the reflection grimaces in pain. I turn away before he can begin laughing at me again and inspect my hand. It has split at the index knuckle and a trickle of blood zip-wires through the greyish hairs on my hand. I wipe it against my trousers and wrap it in my shirt.
I walk the opposite way to the door, knowing that if I see that young man again, I’m going to kill him.