The Cocaine Salesman


Part I


4
The travelling cocaine salesman


The Nederlandsch Cocaïne Fabriek N.V., conveniently situated on an industrial estate on the south side of the Weespervaart, was in Lucien Hirschland’s opinion the picture of modernity. The sleek, contemporary design of the complex, a row of six pointed roofs topping the factory building like a proud cockscomb, exuded efficiency and functionality. Although the plant had recently been fitted with thermo- and electrical motors, the column of smoke from the towering chimney proved that the steam engine was still fully operational. For Lucien, it was this vigorous discharge of gases and vapours that symbolized the firm’s essential qualities: diligence and success. Characteristics he himself stood squarely behind.
    He released the accelerator pedal and coasted slowly over the bridge, so as to get a good look at the recently completed extension. He had always felt that management should be commended on their foresight: nine years ago, they had decided to move the plant from the Schinkelsekade to this newly-developed industrial zone along the Amstel river just outside the city limits. Their former location in town had become just too cramped for the rapidly growing company, and they had grown tired of all the fuss about the storage of combustible materials. But even before construction was started on the new plant there was a spot of local commotion – or so he had heard from Thomas Olyrook, head of the laboratory, for that was before Lucien’s time. A modern chemical plant was bound to elicit all sorts of irrational fears, just like when the first railway trains were introduced: they were steam-belching monsters, dreamt up by the devil himself. This time it was a band of illiterate farmers behind the kerfuffle, afraid that chemical waste water would be dumped into the irrigation channels in the fields where their livestock watered. Mr. Cremers, the company’s technical director, had assured the farmers during a hearing at city hall that at most, laboratory vials would be rinsed in the Weespervaart. Whereupon a few nursery owners remarked that if hazardous materials ended up in the canal where they rinsed their vegetables, it would be catastrophic for the health of the people of Amsterdam. Mr. Cremers delicately suggested that they could better take it up with the livestock farmers, whose manure was a far more aggressive pollutant. The owner of a nearby mill, Olyrook recalled, was more difficult to muzzle. During the hearing the miller drew attention, with an extravagant sense of drama, to the peril of explosions. ‘I’ve worked here for years in complete safety. Is it not lamentable that my very existence is threatened by a factory filled to the brim with volatile materials!’ He went on to paint an apocalyptic picture of buildings exploding left and right. ‘We’ll be blown to kingdom come!’ he screamed. ‘Lives are being put at risk!’ But Cremers informed the mayor, who chaired the hearing, that the factory would be constructed entirely of stone and that inflammable materials would be stored in a separate facility with an underground floor. Having assured those present that safety precautions included a heap of sand in the event of fire, and the guarantee that harmful waste water would only be discharged at a reasonable distance from the crop-rinsing areas, the mayor issued a building and operating license.
    The situation had been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction when, shortly thereafter, the Ouder-Amstel industrial estate was expanded by a large number of new businesses, so that the crop and livestock farmers themselves chose to move their orchards and herds further out, away from the dreaded chemicals. This was a golden opportunity for the company: even though the plant was equipped with the most up-to-date apparatus – processing kettles, boiling cauldrons, stirring and cooling vats, steam and air pumps – since the outbreak of the war, production had grown to the point that by 1915 another expansion was necessary. The factory nearly doubled in size. Another storey was added to the original building, which for the sake of efficiency was connected to the storage facility – itself expanded appreciably – by a footbridge. By now the personnel had grown to the point that in addition to a canteen, washrooms and changing rooms, they even needed to install a bicycle shed. But even this expansion was not sufficient. Just a few months ago builders had finished construction of new, spacious areas where the coca leaves would be inspected and weighed, as well as two new laboratories, in order to be able to step up the already impressive rate of production.
    Lucien was entirely justified in referring to the factory as a shining example of a modern pharmaceutical company, where science was in the service of industrialization. It was no exaggerated vaunting when he reminded his clientele that his product was admired worldwide for its superior quality. Who else delivered such pure cocaine? What other product contained such a high concentration of alkaloids? Who still exclusively used the high-quality coca leaves grown on Java? It was, indeed, no surprise that the company was the world’s leading cocaine producer.
    But, Lucien reminded himself as he drove toward the entrance gate, no matter how modern the factory and how superior the goods, the most important thing was that the product be sold. And who was the one who brought it so successfully to market? Precisely: Lucien Hirschland, the company’s travelling cocaine salesman! Without patting himself on the back, he dared wager that the company had never had such an outstanding sales representative. Though he was not yet thirty, his youthfulness was more than compensated by certain strong qualities he was fortunate enough to possess: he was reliable, well-mannered and articulate, and, last but not least, he knew his languages. Since the company thanked its prosperity for a large part on exports – and thus on foreign clients – Lucien’s command of English, French and German was invaluable. And although he didn’t need it these days, he even spoke a bit of Javanese, not enough for an in-depth conversation, at most well enough to order a whiskey or to complain of too much Lombok rawit in his food.
    He turned onto the factory grounds. A flatboat was moored at the dock across from the main building, and four heavers carried bales of coca leaves, brought over from Het Nederlandsche Veem, the warehouses on the other side of Amsterdam, to the storage facility. He was relieved to see that the bales were packed in moisture-resistant bags, so as to prevent a decrease in alkaloid content. In the past they had had problems in this regard, and with such large orders on the horizon they couldn’t afford any setbacks. He parked in the courtyard and as he got out of the car he was overcome by the heavy, bitter odour coming from the nearby cocoa factory. He detested that smell, and lately he was even put off by Swanny’s chocolate milk. The same went for the stench of soap that wafted over from the aromatics factory further along. But soap was something he wasn’t about to give up.
    Mr. Cremers’ Peugeot was not parked behind the office. Strange that the director was absent, now such a large order had to be filled. He usually kept a close eye on business dealings. Pity, Lucien had wanted to speak to him personally about Kirkpatrick’s request to take the entire shipment back to England with him this evening. Lucien anticipated, even expected, a kind word from Cremers – although he was the standoffish type and never very forthcoming with compliments – for having closed this impressive deal. Well, W.H.J. Cremers, B.Sc., might be a cold fish who underestimated the value of an encouraging word to his personnel, most of all his sales rep, but the company undeniably owed much to its energetic director.
    ‘You can rely on Cremers,’ Thomas Olyrook had told Lucien once he joined the staff. ‘He’ll go out on a limb for the company.’ As a case in point he cited Cremers’ decisive actions just after the war broke out, when the Dutch Cocaine Factory, along with numerous other companies, received a panicked directive from the government banning the import and export of a long list of goods, including medicine and therefore also cocaine. ‘Those government cowards handed the business bigwigs The Hague on a silver platter,’ Olyrook said conspiratorially. ‘Prominent bankers, commissioners, businessmen, brokers – they basically took over. After all, why should our economy suffer on account of a war that wasn’t ours? Cremer is a clever businessman, he knows who his friends are and went straight to them with his request for an exemption.’ Only after that did he go to the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Trade. Assured of twofold support, he presented his case to the War Ministry, pointing out existing sales contracts and the large stocks of perishable coca leaves. Domestic use was negligible, so the argument that the domestic market had priority over export was irrelevant. Now more than ever, the export market was wide open. The minister was receptive to Cremers’ reasoning: cocainea hydrochloras could be exported forthwith and the firm was free to continue production. ‘In fact, the war offered us the perfect opportunity to strangle the competition in neighbouring countries, because with the export ban on coca leaves from Java in place, pharmaceutical companies in Germany and elsewhere were cut off from their raw materials. So as result,’ Olyrook concluded with a laugh, ‘we cornered the cocaine market.’
    ‘The Netherlands’ neutrality is a godsend. Our geographical position in relation to the fronts, where the medical demand is highest, means we can deliver large quantities in a short time. Business is booming, Hirschland, the sky’s the limit! There’s no sign this war is going to end anytime soon – it could go on for months.’ Those were Olyrook’s words back in September 1914, a few weeks after Lucien was taken on as sales representative, and now – almost three years later – his words rang truer than ever. There was still no sign the war would be over anytime soon.


Part II
 
15
The mask

Snippets of patriotic songs came rolling up the drive. Boisterous shouts and hollers fanned out across the lawn, echoed through the corridors and reached their apotheosis when the doors to the ward were flung open and Corporal Jonas roared: ‘The goddam war is over!’ The other celebrants, fellows from the ward who were fit enough to travel to London, tripped over him as they spilled into the ward, shouting: ‘We’ve won! The carnage is over! The abattoir’s been shut down! An end to that bloody mess!’ Their hospital uniforms were soaked, their wet hair clung to their misshapen heads and raindrops beaded up on their scars.
    ‘It was bloody terrific!’ Jonas walked amongst the beds, his arms spread wide like a preacher’s. ‘The city was chockablock! Everyone was outside, no hat, no jacket... The crowds thronging, shouting and singing, it was completely mad!’ he exclaimed, his voice hoarse. Robin eyed him over the top of his book. Jonas came up to his bed, bringing a wave of outdoor dampness with him.
    ‘Oh man, you really missed something, we were nearly buried in streamers! And everybody tooting on little bugles and waving flags, thousands of flags... and of course the Union Jack, Jesus Christ man, the Union Jack flying everywhere. I almost cried myself.’ His voice quivered with emotion. Willie, a heavyset mineworker from Wales whose half a tongue made him almost impossible to understand, took over. ‘And all those uniforms! It was a rainbow of khaki and pilots in light blue and officers with gold collars and colonels and majors all riding in Red Tab motorcars!’
    Robin retreated deeper into his book, but Corporal Jonas yanked it out of his hands and looked at him with tears in his eyes. ‘Entire families hanging out of the window, Pa, Ma, the kiddies, granny, all of ‘em shouting: “Thanks, boys! Thanks! You won the war!” Waving, hats in the air, thumbs up, kisses – all for us!’ He stank of cigarettes, drink and fresh air. His hair was a tangle of confetti and leaves. Behind him, a boy from Glasgow tugged nervously at his cap; he stared intensely at Jonas’s lips. He had no ears. ‘You know,’ Jonas continued, a tear dribbling down his disfigured cheek, ‘even veterans of the Crimean War were there, wheeled out of Chelsea Hospital in their red uniforms!’ He covered his face with his hands. The others went from bed to bed, giving their own noisy account of the mafficking to the patients, who listened intently despite the discomfort of having tubes of human tissue growing out of their arm or chest.
    ‘Bloody hell, the entire battalions of birds from the ambulance service sashayed through the streets, arm in arm with farm volunteers!’ Jonas ran his tongue back and forth over his lips. ‘Just like that, take your pick!’ The others joined in, crowding around Robin’s bed. ‘You should’ve seen ‘im!’ exclaimed Willie, motioning at Jonas. ‘A firecracker went off and ‘e jumped ten feet in the air and burst out cryin’!’
    ‘Oh shut up, you pillock!’ screamed Jonas, swinging wildly at Willie. ‘I just happen to have got myself a Red Cross nurse, if you please, her tits heaving with medals, and me asking ‘er: “Mind if I take a closer look?”‘ They roared with laughter.
    ‘That’s right, today this bleeding hospital uniform was the ticket! Today, for once, you were somebody, not just a pathetic crip!’ Willie straightened his red tie, the war wounded’s special insignia.
    ‘Long live the crips! Long live the war wounded! Long live us, the heroes!’ shouted Jonas.
    Nurse Jenkins came in, a strand of streamers dangling off her cap. ‘Calm down, gentlemen, I think that’s enough for now, let’s take the party back into the corridor! Think of the boys in bed.’ Laughing, she fended off Willie, who was determined to hug her. The group shuffled submissively out into the passage. Jonas turned and shouted back to Robin: ‘Come on, wally, you can come sit with us, can’t ya?’
    ‘Maybe later,’ he replied. He said his book on the nightstand and turned his back to the door, pulling the sheet up over his head. Armistice. Big party, lots of booze. He could see it already: waving flags, the streets littered with confetti, and everywhere widows and orphans, heroes and martyrs, black-market traders and war profiteers, all dancing and singing, arm in arm: the country’s been saved, the war’s been won, the Hun humiliated. Would the streets of Great Yarmouth also be full of revellers? Of course, why not? Dad and Mum would keep to their own doorway; it wouldn’t do to join the raucous partiers on the street while their injured son was lying in hospital. They could, though, raise a toast to peace with the neighbours. ‘Pity your Robin isn’t home yet,’ the man next door would say. Mum just dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and sighed. Dad went on and on about how lucky they were he was alive. ‘Surely he’s been given a medal for heroism,’ the neighbour’s wife wanted to know. ‘On a day like today,’ answered Dad, ‘our thoughts are with those parents who have lost a child.’ It was all he could say, of course… there’d been no word of any medals.
    Out in the corridor, the boisterous exchange of stories of willing girls continued. Jonas, apparently, was not the only one with a Red Cross conquest. Nurse Jenkins’s voice began to take on an impatient tone.
    Did the parents of the children in his class allow them to stay up late and join the festivities? Would someone have told them their teacher had been wounded? Of course. The headmaster had gone to his class and called master Ryder a war hero, a courageous soldier who had risked his life for God, King, and country – and most of all, don’t forget, for freedom, their freedom. They must never forget that. But of course they had already forgotten it – children at that age forget quickly, and they were already used to their new teacher. Perhaps they had gone to Mary’s class. Mary. Would the sight of a wounded soldier in a wheelchair today remind her of him, or was she blissfully promenading on the arm of some handsome pilot in one of those splendid light blue uniforms? She had gone round to ask after him a few times, he’d heard from Dad and Mum. Dad had told that charming lass from school the hard truth. ‘What else could we do, son?’ he said, when they visited him last week. ‘She’d find out sooner or later.’ Dr. Gillies had finally convinced him to let them come visit; in his experience, parents were the first to accept their son’s injuries. It might help him.
    He’d had six operations in the past year. Gillies had reconstructed the bridge of his nose with reasonable success, although he felt permanently congested. Once, he really did imagine he smelled something when Nurse Jenkins came close: a whiff of lavender... He didn’t ask her, to spare himself the disappointment of having imagined it. But his cheek was a problem, and Gillies was far from satisfied. The transplant from his chest went well; there was enough tissue to close the gaping hole, but there was unsightly swelling around the sutures, especially on his jaw. Gillies wanted to operate again.
    Robin had been dreading Mum and Dad’s visit. Three times he nearly asked Nurse Jenkins to cancel, but Dr. Gillies would get wind of it and he didn’t feel like another lecture. And anyway, there was no escaping it, he couldn’t hide here forever. He had to just try to endure it, in an hour it would be over. But the day before their visit, his ambivalence turned into a claustrophobic anxiety, and then outright panic. He simply couldn’t face seeing his parents again. He knew exactly how it would go: Mum would burst into tears and chide him for having enlisted in the first place, she was against it then and now see what had happened! And then Dad... white as a sheet, the colour drained from his lips, speechless because it was so much worse than he had imagined, even in his worst nightmares. And who could blame them: what sane person would guess that valiantly defending your country could lead to this? Who could have ever imagined that sacrificing your gob was the price of freedom?
    There was a way out. They still had to pull one more tooth, and the dental technician wanted to fit his new prosthesis one last time. He managed to manoeuvre the appointment to the morning of their visit, two hours before he had to confront his parents.
    Robin had long shed his fear of the dentist – he even look forward to sinking into the chair and enjoying a couple of hours in that blissful state. The dentist was an older, good-natured fellow with compassion for his patients. He believed that the boys in this hospital had suffered enough, and wanted to minimize his own contribution to their pain. So when Robin complained nervously that the anaesthesia wasn’t working, and that he still had feeling in his jaw, he smeared another dose – a generous one this time – of that delectable stuff over his gums, which Robin quickly scooped up with his tongue. The ethereal aroma burned the back of his throat. Charlie was back. He could have shouted for joy... Half an hour later, the hole in his jaw oozing blood, he returned to the ward, all the while hatching fabulous plans with Charlie for the future. He felt invincible and totally primed for the reunion with his parents.
    Indifferent, but with heightened senses, he watched as they walked through the door an hour later. He suspected that Gillies had prepared them in advance, for they approached his bed with determined gait and forced smiles. No trace of surprise or dismay. Bloody hell, they looked at him as though there was nothing at all the matter, as though it was the same son they had waved off at Great Yarmouth station. His mother stood next to his bed, a slight twitch in her eye and an apple pie in a box in her hand.
    ‘I’m so pleased to see you again, son,’ she said stiffly. ‘Can I give you a kiss, or is the wound not healed enough?’
    Oh-oh, she’d forgotten to ask that. Tell me, doctor, will he break apart if I give him a kiss? He pulled his arm defensively over his face; he was not up to any intimacy with his mother. She sank mechanically into a chair. Her thumbs pressed tiny dents into the box. Dad shook his hand and said that it wasn’t so bad after all. Typical Dad, toss the instructions overboard: Don’t mention his face right off the bat, Mr. Ryder. Jesus, what a blunder... Just look at him biting his lip. And well he should! Not so bad after all, what rubbish! Just look at your son, your courageous son, who’s got a train wreck for a noggin, more sloppily patched together than a five-year-old would do with her beat-up doll.
    ‘We’ve brought some clothes for you. They were hanging in your cupboard anyway and we didn’t dare buy new ones; we weren’t sure if your size... you know what I…’ Dad said nervously as he slid a valise with Robin’s old duds against the foot of the bed. Painful silence. He had no intention of helping them. Let them sweat and suffer.
    ‘We’re awfully proud of you,’ Dad attempted anew. ‘The whole family is awfully proud of you, especially your aunt and uncle...’ he paused in thought, ‘... and the neighbours, even Waters, the greengrocer on the corner and Brian Temple, you remember him, from the draper’s next door to the shoemaker, ehm, they all want me to tell you how awfully proud they are... in fact, that goes for the whole street...’
    Proud of what? That he’d got himself whacked out of commission? That this ‘war hero’ hadn’t fired a single shot? Morons! The whole street should be buried under half-decomposed bodies so they couldn’t even get out their front doors!
    ‘We took an early train this morning. It was an awfully long trip, you know.’ Here we go, Mum and her inevitable whingeing. ‘But at least it’s a glorious day, an autumn like we haven’t had in years, and you’ve got that fine park outside. What a splendid view! We saw some boys walking in the park; that’s one advantage over a city hospital. I’m sure you go outdoors often.’
    Outdoors? Outdoors!? As if he had any intention of going outdoors. One little sliver of metal, Mum, one sliver of red-hot metal was enough to make me never want to go outdoors again.
    ‘Dr. Gillies says you’re healing well,’ Dad said. Robin’s silence apparently gave them the impression they had carte blanche to talk openly about his condition. ‘The doctor expects you to be completely mended after one or two more operations... You’ll be the old Robin again, sweetheart, just you wait,’ Mum droned, ‘I’ve heard they perform miracles here. You just have to be patient, terribly patient, they say that’s very important.’ Suddenly she stuck out her neck like a tortoise, her head sliding forward out of her collar. ‘Just look at where your left eye used to be, why it’s healed marvellously! And fortunately you still have your other eye.’
    Wow! Lucky devil, one eye left! Say, Mum, have you ever seen what happens to a fellow’s eyes when you stick a bayonet into his gut? Poof! The lights go out, just like that, you stupid woman. Yes, yes, your fine son, your hero murdered a boy, he was probably British too, one of us you could say, with a father and mother and a whole street that’s awfully proud of him because he’s gone West!
    ‘I’m sure you’ll be decorated.’ Dad again. ‘Particularly those soldiers who were wounded and therefore contributed above and beyond, get a distinction. That’s what I’ve heard, at least.’
    Ha, ha, long live the war wounded! Bring out the medals! You hear them, all those fellows with a belly full of shrapnel? What d’you think they’re groaning and screaming about? They want their medals!
    Mum got up from her chair. She had apparently made a decision. Her hat balanced clumsily on her head. She set the box with that vile apple pie on his nightstand and leaned toward him. ‘I do want to give you a kiss, dear...’ she whined. What a nerve! He saw her hanging over him, eyes wide open and a satanic expression on her face, like a vulture about to devour its own young. A wave of rage came over him, and with full force he spat a great wad of blood in her face.
    Mum’s wails brought Nurse Jenkins running. Robin closed his eye and wondered where Charlie had got to… but there he was again, a little ways off, a bit hazy in a misty landscape. Come on, Charlie! Come on! You know I need you at times like this... His parents were led away, thank God, he couldn’t bear their presence for another moment.
    He heard Dr. Gillies’ voice next to his bed. Jenkins, of course, had called for him. ‘Good heavens, I should have stayed around,’ he was saying. ‘He’s just not ready. Don’t forget how much he’s been through...’ Well, you could say that again – but whose fault was that? Who had put him through all those operations? Who had put him under with that horrible ether, that made him so sick every time? Who was to blame for all this pain? That damned Harold Gillies, that’s who! Oh yes, Robin Ryder was a wonderful guinea pig for the famous doctor who, thanks to the war, had masses of human material to carry out his mad experiments on, and make a name for himself in the world of medicine!
    ‘Robin! Robin, please talk to me,’ he was asking. But Robin refused to exchange even a word with that quack.
    Only some hours later, when he was back to his miserable, depressed and guilt-ridden self, was Robin ready to be talked to. Gillies took plenty of time; he appeared concerned, but said nothing of the incident with his parents. Robin wasn’t even certain if it really happened, or was just a figment of his overwrought imagination. ‘What you think,’ asked Gillies, ‘are you up to another operation?’ Robin hardly dared to look him in the eye, not until he was sure he hadn’t delivered his diatribe against the doctor out loud.
    ‘We could take a break, so that you only undergo the next operation in six months’ or a year’s time. You need time to regain your footing, re-find yourself.’ Robin was relieved to conclude that Gillies hadn’t heard his hateful rant, otherwise he wouldn’t be so understanding now. ‘I’ve spoken to your parents about it. If you choose to postpone the operations, they feel it would be better if you stayed with your uncle for a while instead of going directly home. You get along well with him, apparently. Give it some thought.’
    Oh God, this was his punishment for what he had done to his parents. Gillies wanted to get rid of him... He had to ‘regain his footing’ and that wasn’t something he could do here. He was being kicked out.

He made his decision the morning after the armistice. When Gillies made his rounds, Robin admitted he wasn’t ready for another operation yet. ‘I just can’t face it,’ he said. ‘I’ll go to my uncle and come back in six months.’ The doctor nodded thoughtfully. ‘That seems a wise choice. But do promise me that you’ll really return once you’ve got the courage. I’m convinced we can go quite far in restoring your face.’ Robin offered his hand. Gillies took it, satisfied, and laid his other hand on top. ‘In the meantime we’ll make you a mask, which will make things easier for you in public.’ Robin was relieved that he didn’t have to bring that up himself. Of course, he knew all about what the fellows in the ward called the ‘tin noses shop’. There they made small masks that covered the worst areas of the face, and that’s exactly what he was after. Gillies was wasting no time. Maybe he needed Robin’s bed; he’d heard the nurses discussing the impending arrival of a group of new patients from France. That very afternoon he could go see Francis Derwent Wood, a sculptor whom Gillies had brought in specially to make the masks.

The long table in his studio was full of strange materials; the only thing Robin could identify was a sprinkling of leftover plaster. The shelves were full of plaster casts, three-dimensional replicas of the photographic portraits that hung behind them. Derwent Wood walked him along this impressive display, explaining everything with the same zeal that seemed to possess all of Gillies’ colleagues. But Robin’s curiosity was drawn in particular to a shelf full of fragile metal segments of the human face. There was a row of noses, a nicely shaped ear, a single eyebrow and entire jaws, some fitted with a moustache or even a beard. ‘They’re not made of tin, as is commonly thought,’ explained Derwent Wood. ‘The material we use is thinner and more lightweight, and therefore easier to wear.’ Robin studied the photos of patients with their masks on. It could have been the light, or the distance from the camera, but it was nearly impossible to see exactly where the mask ended and the face began.
    He offered Robin a chair. An assistant tilted him back as though to give him a shave, and smeared his face with oil and his eyebrows with Vaseline. ‘This way we don’t have to chisel the plaster cast off,’ said Derwent Wood while mixing a batch of plaster. Robin closed his eye and felt the warm plaster being brushed onto his face, layer by layer. It dried quickly, which made his skin tighten. While waiting for the cast to set, he imagined himself walking down the street with his mask. He greeted acquaintances, old friends, new friends. No one was at all the wiser. Maybe only a select confidant would know this wasn’t his real face... or maybe no one at all.
    When the cast was removed, he saw the negative image of his face, swelling and all. Derwent Wood explained that a positive would be made from clay, and then from it another negative. ‘We’ll use these to mould a plasticine replica, which will be the basis for a mask that will cover your left cheek and eye socket. This way as much of your own face as possible remains visible. That’s important, otherwise no one will recognize you.’
    During subsequent visits he watched it progress from plasticine death mask to thin metal plate with an open eye drawn on it. Day after day the plate was fitted and adjusted. Once Derwent Wood was satisfied that it fit perfectly, the mask was covered in a thin layer of silver, the undercoat for the oil paint. This last stage was an exacting process, for the colours had to match his skin tone precisely. Derwent Wood spent a great deal of time on the eye, so that the colours of the pupil and white would not clash with his real eye. Finally, eyelashes were attached, and to hold the mask in place he attached a pair of spectacles fitted with plain glass, for his good eye was still as sharp as ever.
    Dr. Gillies went with him to pick up the mask. He could hardly contain his excitement: ‘I’m always curious to see what Francis has concocted.’
    The mask was fitted one last time, and Derwent Wood showed him how to attach it to his skin with gum Arabic; the spectacles were mainly to keep it from sliding off. Robin turned toward Gillies, who stood at a slight distance, walked towards him, squinted a bit and clapped his hands together. ‘Now that’s craftsmanship! This will give you the confidence to face the world.’ Robin shook his head back and forth to make sure the mask didn’t shift or fall off, and walked over to the window while checking himself from various angles in a hand mirror. Gillies and Derwent Wood watched him, smiling. ‘Watch out you don’t fall in love with yourself!’ joked Gillies.
    Standing at the window, Robin abruptly lowered the mirror. The daylight was unforgiving: no matter how skilfully it was painted, it was no more than a dead, gawping eye, and the edges of the mask revealed themselves as soon as he changed expression. Even a smile would be out of the question. This was no more than a failed attempt at cosmetic sleight-of-hand.
    ‘Have you arranged things with your uncle?’ asked Gillies as he inspected a new pair of ears.
    ‘Yes, yes...’ Robin answered.
    ‘Nurse Jenkins will take you to Sidcup train station tomorrow afternoon. After that you’re on your own. Do you think you can handle it, or shall I send someone with you to London?’
    ‘No, that won’t be necessary. I’ll be fine.’
    Gillies placed his hands on Robin’s shoulders. ‘I can see your disappointment, Robin. Just remember, it’ll take some getting used to, and in your case it’s only a temporary measure. A year from now we’ll do everything it takes so that you can walk down the street without a mask. Have a little faith, promise me that?’
    Robin nodded.
    ‘Excellent. Come see me tomorrow morning for one last check-up before you leave.’

Robin lay on his bed with his mask on. Nurse Jenkins stopped by, despite the imminent influx of new patients. She was delighted with the result. Jonas and Willie too had sworn they’d never seen such a good one, even close up you could hardly tell. Bunch of filthy liars, he thought, from close up you could see perfectly well that one eye was lifeless and half his cheek was a piece of painted metal. How was he supposed to go outside like this? He could already see passersby elbowing one another, pointing, smirking: there goes some bloke wearing a mask… the children in his class gawking at him and then bursting out laughing. They were no longer afraid of him; now he was afraid of them. Mary, of course, would swear up and down that he looked exactly the same, just as nurse Jenkins had done. But he would never dare let her get close. He was determined to keep her at a distance of at least three yards.
    He needed some time to figure out how to proceed. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was certainly possible... He decided not to sleep that night, not even for an hour. Too risky. He kept his eye on the clock. It took long enough, but finally, at ten past two, he heard the rumble of trucks and ambulances coming up the drive. Hasty footsteps in the corridors. Nurse Jenkins appeared in the doorway and motioned to a nurse keeping watch over a fellow who was restless after his operation. Robin heard her whisper that new patients were arriving and needed to be brought in quickly. It was all hands on deck. There were more than a hundred of them... Wounded just before the armistice, Robin reckoned. For a few minutes he listened to the snoring in the next bed, then slipped out of his own bed and pulled out the valise. Crouched alongside his bed, he changed out of his pyjamas and into the clothes Dad and Mum had brought. He crept out of the ward, and as expected, the corridor was deserted. He heard voices in the distance, orders being shouted and stretchers brought in. The squeak of the gurney wheels rasped through the silent corridors.
    He made his way to the dentist’s office unnoticed. He forced the lock using a chisel he had nicked from Derwent Wood’s studio the day before. He groped his way to the medicine cabinet, smashed the glass with the handle of the chisel and removed the bottle of cocaine. Even though he was trembling from nerves and haste, the temptation was too great. He opened the bottle, tipped a bit of powder into his hand and licked it up. Just a bit more... he’d be needing an extra boost for the journey. He shut his eye for a few seconds…ahh... His heartbeat jumped to a higher gear, his muscles tensed with activity and a wave of invincibility washed over him. He quickly wrapped the bottle in a shirt and thrust it into the suitcase. He wondered if there was time to look for more – surely the dentist would have a supply somewhere. No, no, no time!, shouted Charlie, hurry up, you idiot! Get the hell out of here before they nab you!
    Followed by a rush of footsteps that seemed to pursue him from all sides, he found the rear exit and raced across the lawn. There was a bite in the night air that excited him, spurred him on, elicited a certain exhilaration. Once amongst the trees he stopped to catch his breath and in his euphoria he saw himself, the new Robin... He laughed out loud. Here he was, back from the dead! Look, look! Watch him go! The courageous soldier Robin Ryder! He ran, full of energy, toward a brilliant future.