John first noticed the crack in his face one Monday morning as he was getting ready for work. It was an everyday sort of day on an everyweek sort of week. John was a fastidiously boring man. A man of routine, regularity and mundanity.
He awoke each morning at roughly 6:15, fifteen minutes before his alarm which he diligently snoozed for another day, before rousing from his prone position and dragging himself dully toward the bathroom, swiping the sleep from his weathered eyes as he went. Once there he would de-robe and step into the shower where he would stand motionless and thoughtless for roughly ten minutes, before applying a small portion of aloe shower gel to his outstretched palm and rubbing it into an adequate lather which he proceeded to work roughly and thoroughly into his armpits, genitals and the thinning of his hair. Soap successfully applied he would then stand motionless and thoughtless for another ten minutes or so until the wrinkling of his otherwise baby smooth fingertips roused him from this inertia. A long shower each morning was one of John’s few guilty indulgences. The rest of the morning routine would then pass by in swift artful efficiency. Dry off, hair, chest, buttocks, balls, legs, bedroom drawers, black socks black boxers, wardrobe, choice of five identical crisp white shirts ironed weekly, to be complimented by a choice of five almost identical black ties. Half Windsor, not too flashy. Black trousers and black shoes, polished fortnightly. into the kitchen for two slices of white toast glazed sparingly with unsalted butter, washed down with smooth orange juice purchased every other day from the corner shop, before returning to the bathroom to brush teeth for exactly two minutes. Small circular motions, light pressure. Finally John would cap off this daily routine by extracting from his sparse medicine cabinet a sizeable tube of well used and rather too expensive moisturising cream, which he squirted with an unusual abandon into the crevice of his hand. John then took great care to ensure the entirety of his face was sufficiently coated, catering special attention to the areas behind his ears, around the eyes and under the chin. These are the areas people often neglect, where the cracks of deterioration are most evident. He would then leave this shiny overcoat to absorb naturally into his pores over the remainder of his morning, giving John the appearance, if there had been anybody to observe it, of a wax doll under a fluorescent light. This is another of John’s few indulgences and almost certainly the most peculiar amongst them. John has a fastidious obsession with the smoothness of his facial skin. This is John’s morning routine. This is John’s life. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.
So imagine John’s surprise when one nondescript and everyday morning John looks into the mirror to see a small, but undoubtedly discernible crack had opened up over his left eye. John was not immediately alarmed, though perhaps he should have been. The crack, small as it was in diameter, was deep. So deep in fact that it seemed to have no end, it pierced cleanly through the layers of skin, gristle, muscle and bone, revealing a bottomless void beneath. The truth was John had been expecting such a thing to happen. It had seemed almost inevitable. Something had been eating at the bone behind the skin for some time now, he had felt it like a migraine dull but constant, a fog hanging over the interior of John’s casing, threatening to burst forth. Still, what would others think? Surely they would be alarmed to see the silky smooth film usually pressed taught over John’s frame so clearly disfigured.
John returned to the bedroom and pulled from the bedside drawer a pair of darkly shaded aviator sunglasses. Positioning them firmly on the bridge of his nose John critiqued the result in the mirror and after congratulating himself for his quick thinking ingenuity, concluded that the crack above his eye should be sufficiently obscured from any prying eyes. John set about collecting the usual paraphernalia he would need for the day ahead: phone, wallet, keys, aspirin for the headaches, jacket, shoes, scarf for the cool midwinter nip and after giving his head a quick shake to check that his glasses were secured, set upon the brief trip to the bus stop on the corner.
On the bus John finds himself surrounded by the usual early morning commuters who often accompanied him during his brief stint through the congested veins of the groggily waking city. A rabble of schoolchildren jostle there way onto the bus at the next stop. They are dressed in scuffed green trousers and matching green blazers adorned with chequered brown ties, all of which are drawn too short and too wide in flagrant defiance of strict school policy. The bigger and older ones battle there way on first and jostle there way down the narrow aisle to the kings throne at the rear. They are aggressive and brutish beasts, reeking of testosterone and sweat. The air grows tense around them, you can feel the electrons buzzing from one boy to the next as they hustle one another, like a looming storm cloud threatening to tear open the heavens with a fork of destructive energy. The smaller and more timid amongst the children sulk into view next and only once a safe distance has opened up between them and potential threat. Now on board they resign themselves to the lesser seats toward the middle of the carriage, far enough away from the rear that they hope to avoid galvanising the electrical charge of the bigger boys, but not too close to the front that this intention may appear obvious, for that would inevitably incur deeper ridicule. It is striking to see the difference between these two groups of adolescents. The older and stronger boys appear obsessed with the space they occupy. Each one of them spreads out there cumbersome unruly limbs as far as they will stretch. Long sinuous legs sprout over the seats opposite them, while sparingly muscled arms curl and wrap around those in front. Like the tendrils of a relentlessly expanding poison ivy, they smother the life from the surrounding undergrowth. The smaller of the children by contrast deal with this challenge for space by trying to use up as little as possible. They curl inwards, extremities contracted, face shrunken. Like a collapsing star, there mass is sucked towards a condensed centre.
Next to board are the youngest. There high pitched squeals and giggles pierce the thick morning air. They sway like pendulums with the weight of their oversized bags, bumping gracelessly into one another and eliciting yet more screams of joy. These children huddle together in vast baying swarms and sit bunched up three to a seat near the front of the bus. They are young enough that they have not yet learned to diffuse and divide, they do not yet feel the urge to dissolve and dissipate. Their youth is magnetic, drawing all atoms of a similar size and mass together until they are inseparable and form only a singular whole. These creatures do not bleed charged energy into the outer atmosphere like the brutes at the rear, nor do they bury it deep inside like the shrunken mice dotted around the middle of the carriage. They share it amongst themselves, nourishing and codependent, belonging to a world of their own design. They are the most free this morning, but they will learn soon enough that such behaviour is only permitted for so long. Youthful innocence is not to be tolerated any longer than strictly necessary. They will learn in order to climb the length of the bus hierarchy the strongest must branch off, suffocate the weaker buds in their garden and spread their insidious roots.
Dispersed intermittently amongst the green horde can be observed the black suited specks of the business ladders lowest and most disenchanted rung. Like the children they too take this route twice daily dressed in their adult appropriate uniforms: black pants, black suits, darkly shaded ties drawn to the socially acceptable length and width. Some don earphones and stare placidly out of the window into the grey bricked fabric of the city, while others rest dog eared novels or crumpled newspapers on their laps and periodically glare at the more disruptive children. They sneer back in mocking defiance. These poor beings exist in a terrible state of limbo. They had in the not so distant past left behind this tin box never to look back. Their thoughts then had been a blur of hope and optimism, a mirage of expensive trinkets and shiny baubles. The world was finally open to them and they were going to be the ones to seize it firmly with both hands. Presently they return. Shoulders hung a little lower. Thoughts a little heavier. There aspirations have changed somewhat since there earlier forays on this very same bus. The aggressive horizontal climb to the back of the bus no longer captures their imagination, for they are adults now, travelling through an adult world. Spreadsheets, mortgages and utility bills, their journey is now vertical. Up up up the corporate ladder they must perpetually climb. Most will escape this space eventually, some will ascend higher than others, none will reach the top. Though they will spend their whole lives trying.
The last to board are the oldest. Grey haired, hobbled, glassy eyed. They do not venture far up the bus, choosing instead to conserve their energy and finding a place closest to the door they lower themselves into their seats. This is the group most detached from the throbbing ecosystem on board. Some stare ahead into empty space, others doze. They do not interact, at least not with others outside their own kind. They are ancient beings, seemingly belonging to another subspecies of Man. A lifetime spent swarming, jostling and climbing has left them deformed, tangled and broken. Their faces are ill fitting and washed out, their frames jagged and angular. Baggy clothes hang from exposed bone, like damp washing hung haphazardly on a drying rack. The children do their best to avoid the dim spotlight of their gaze. It makes them uncomfortable, though they do not understand it yet those filmy eyes betray the transience of their youth. The suits nod perfunctory greetings when it seems necessary to do so or on occasion will assist some of the more decrepit of their kind with their shopping, but they do not truly see them. They are spectres of the adult world, apparitions best ignored wherever possible. It isn’t healthy to be reminded of ones fleeting mortality. They are not of us, we are not them.
John does not read a book or stare out of the window like his suited brethren. Nor does he expand outward or cave inward. John is an observer. He feels himself a member of no group. He is an outsider, for John knows the truth. Life is not a race to the back of the bus or a climb up the corporate ladder, life is a wheel. The Ouroborus, a serpent perpetually consuming its own tail, onward and onward for eternity. John can look into the face of the youngest, bright eyed, blissful child and see beyond the mask to the greasy stubbled bully at the back of the bus, the downtrodden desperate corporate drone, the filmy eyed wrinkled elderly, its all there. The face doesn’t grow, it falls out to be replaced by the next one, like a baby’s tooth. So the cycle continues.
As John is looking around at his fellow commuters he happens to catch a glimpse of his reflection in the bus window and is horrified by what he sees. From beneath his aviators a spiders web of hairline fractures has spread from the initial break. Each one traces a jagged line across the top left hand side of his forehead before splintering into several finer fissures, like the surface of a cracked glass. He traces the outline of one of the more prominent strands which now stretches from the base of his temple to the edge of his eyebrow. It’s slight, barely breaking the surface, but he can feel the stress it has placed on the surrounding area. The skin feels soft, malleable, damp tissue paper ready to be torn apart. He dares not prod at it further for fear of exasperating the damage. Instead he tentatively removes his shades to inspect the initial break further. The situation has quite clearly worsened. What had initially been a narrow crack is now a sizeable hole, big enough he estimates, to fit both his forefinger and middle finger inside. A sudden urge rushed over John to do just that. Like a boil you can’t stop poking at, or a thread you can’t stop pulling. John felt his hand instinctively moving toward the hole in his forehead to start picking at it, to chip away at the flaking bits of surrounding dead paint. How satisfying would it be to work on that cavity, to dig into that hole and pick away the surrounding flesh and bone until there was nothing left. He feels a brief tingle flutter down the hairs on his spine at the thought. But such a thought was impractical, his was the next stop and work awaited him. So replacing his glasses, John takes a single pill of aspirin from his jacket pocket, swallows it dry and makes his way to the front of the bus ready to disembark.
John finds himself sitting in the conference room and tinged with guilt over the strange impulse that almost overcame him earlier. He has work that needs to be done and appearances to upkeep for the sake of the company. This is no time for him to be picking away chunks off his crumbling face, what would others think? Black suits and black skirts start filing in and taking their seats at the long oak table which runs the length of the room. John removes his shades and holds his hand over the compromised area of his visage, he would feign another migraine if anyone asked why he was cradling his head so firmly. They didn’t. Around the room he was surrounded by men and women John had spent most of his waking life with. Each morning they greet each other with the usual perfunctory pleasantries, fill empty space with anecdotes about family members and loved ones, share cute videos of pets and laugh at stifled jokes. They exist shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, occupy the same space in this fluorescent lit office space, send the same emails and warm the same seats, but in this moment John realises he doesn’t actually know any of them. Faceless names of children and partners float around him, tales devoid of context warp and bleed into the next, its all just static. White noise buzzing away in empty space. He doesn’t know them, they don’t know him. Is there even anything to know he wonders.
Sitting directly opposite John is the new girl Jane. She has made quite the impression since first arriving on the scene a few weeks earlier, particularly with the men in the office, both unattached and otherwise. Objectively its not too difficult to see why. The foundations of her face are perfectly formed, high cutting cheekbones, smooth unblemished skin, eye sockets wide and shallow allowing bright blue eyes to pierce through the skull. A high, lightly sloping cranium complimented by a healthy growth of deep brown locks, which curl beneath a perfectly rounded feminine chin and frame a soft and plump pair of lips. Upon this fresh canvas Jane paints each day a modern day masterpiece. Every brush stroke is imbued with divine purpose, premeditated at every possible angle to accentuate the god given blessings of the underlying structure. Colours blend effortlessly into one beautiful pallet, the delicate rouge of her lips, the soft cream of her skin, faint shading of her cheeks and over the eyes, every line inspires, every contour intrigues, every highlight invites. It is a truly breathtaking representation of a feminine face. This is what makes John feel uneasy. There is something too calculated about Jane’s appearance, her makeup is too perfect, but often betrayed by her smile. She smiles wide and often, a default automation whenever she feels eyes upon her. Others may see a cute wrinkling at the corners of her mouth and interpret it as proof of real happiness, a genuine smile meant just for them. John sees something else. Each time she smiles John imagines he can see the creases forming in her paper mask as her spreading lips place stress on the skin around her mouth and pulls the rest of the face taught. Presently, possibly feeling the eyes of the strange and reclusive man opposite bearing into her, Jane reaches for a strand of auburn hair hanging loosely over her right eye and momentarily feeds it carelessly through her fingers before placing it back behind her ear. For a moment John thinks he sees a flap of loose skin hidden at the base of the ear. He imagines digging his nails into that secret flap and carefully peeling away to reveal the true face beneath.
John looks up and realises every eye in the room is on him. They scan the periphery of his face with an expectant gaze.