The Smile This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

July 6, 2013
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Mr Stolberg blinked and stirred in his single bed. It was the in-between of the night; the time when one is not sure whether the day is near at hand or hours beyond. The moon, a small butter smear on the silvery blue fabric of the sky, bathed the room in a dull, phantom light. Gingerly, he rose onto his bony, calloused elbows. Straining and puffing, he flung his limp legs out from under the flimsy sheets and planted both feet squatly on the matted carpet. He lunged forward for his walking stick, arms aching with the enormity of the task. His fleshy, wrinkled palm gripped the handle tightly. With clenched teeth, he hauled himself off the mattress and across the musty room to his mirror.

There he stood; an emaciated shadow of himself. The catalogue of frailty which faced him – the limp limbs, prominent joints and the starched flannel pyjamas which seemed to engulf his frame – overwhelmed him even now, six months after the stroke. His eyes travelled the span of his body, surveying the extent of the decay and wincing at the sight. Gradually pulling his line of vision upward, he paused, horrified, at the spectacle before him. The entire network of muscles on the left side of his face had ceased to work, causing his entire visage to resemble a melted mask. He was a waxwork, a horrible monster, an inhuman shell. Weakly but determinedly, he reached up and prodded the dead tissue with bony fingers, first lightly tapping, then clawing, harder, more viciously, desperate to feel some faint sensation. Tears leaked from their ducts and trickled down along the bridge of his bulbous nose. Flowing among the crevices of his cheek bones, they voyaged swiftly through the damp slipstream of the air, and dropped silently to the rumpled shagpile beneath him.

When he next awoke it was morning, and he was relieved of the night’s brutal honesty. He covered the mirror on the oak armoire in a holey old bed sheet. The handful of mirrors, mounted on the walls of his grotty bedsit located on the ground floor of Sentry Towers – an apartment block populated largely by widowed pensioners like him – had all been papered over long ago. He knew better than to torture himself with reminders of his decrepitude, and so he shaved in the shined-up cover of his pocket watch, and knotted his tie by the reflection of the bedroom window. His appointment with the speech therapist wasn’t until 12 o’clock. He pottered about the flat, wrinkling his nose at the mushroomy odour which pervaded every room. Sparing his dignity by means of a straw, he nursed a cup of milky tea at the linoleum table. A faded photo in an incongruent, gilded frame caught his eye as it did daily. Grief - also a daily occurrence - enveloped him in a familiar, all-consuming wave. His wife was standing over his young son on a crowded beach. Dressed in swimming togs, hair plastered to their damp foreheads, they flashed euphoric grins at him from the frozen paradise of some bygone summer holiday. Both captured in a single moment, his own smiling face absent from the shot. Now both were together, for eternity, and still he was left out of the frame. His son’s smile had been particularly endearing – it had an impish charm about it, an ethereal glow which everyone who received it complimented. The picture had faded but the memory, like all of the memories stowed away with it, was sharp in Mr Stolberg’s jaded mind. He felt the tears brim at the ducts once more but blinked them back angrily. Rising to his feet, clad in well-worn orthopaedic sandals, he clamped his woollen hat over his balding scalp. He then wrapped a balling tartan scarf over his neck and mouth. People never smiled at him anymore, only stared dispassionately – the best defence he had was concealment.

Cautiously stepping off the bus, Mr Stolberg shuffled slowly towards the clinic. He gave his name at the reception desk, repeating himself twice, and lowered himself gently into the nearest plastic chair. The waiting area was a cramped, overheated room, furnished lightly with uniform lines of chairs. Painted in a mundane shade of purple, it was currently deserted, save for a young woman dozing in a chair opposite him. Closing his own eyes, Mr Stolberg felt the fuzzy heat of a fluorescent light focused on his face, and the nausea-inducing odour of alcoholic hand wash. A television mounted high in an alcove emitted whiny, off-pitch strains of a daytime chat show. He was transported back to the hospital ward six months ago, when he had first woken from the coma. His doctor was a thin, lanky, moustachioed man in his late 50s. His eyes were warm, but his expression grave, as he delivered the bleak news – “Mr Stolberg, I’m afraid you’ve suffered from a very serious stroke. You’ve been in a coma for the past 3 weeks, and while it’s likely you’ll regain most if not all control of your body, the left half of your face has been permanently paralysed. We’ll schedule speech therapy for you once you have been discharged, but this will only serve to strengthen those muscles which are still working. Don’t exert yourself - get some rest and hopefully you’ll be discharged within the next week or two”. He had tried in vain to answer, to question, but the words were drowned in the whirlpool of his fat, slippery tongue and lopsided mouth.

Mr Stolberg could hear footsteps squeaking on the lino outside the door, and his eyes involuntarily flickered open.

A tall, broad-shouldered man in his early 30s walked into the waiting area - or rather, was pulled into it by the toddler tugging on his wrist. In her free hand she clutched a small bouquet of crumpled buttercups, which matched those printed on her flouncy pink sundress. Her treacle-coloured hair was tied back in two gold ribbons, and her eyes sparkled like freshly-cut crystals. A scar marred the space between her plump upper lip and her left nostril – she was probably born with a cleft palate, Mr Stolberg concluded. He watched the man hand the girl a small black writing board and a stub of chalk, and was ready to doze off once more when the little girl charged bow-legged toward him. Alarmed, but also vaguely amused, he raised his eyebrows, ducking underneath his fuzzy scarf. The girl said nothing, only beamed up at him with broad, transparent curiosity. She scribbled something on the chalkboard and handed it to Mr Stolberg. She had drawn a large, wobbly circle, with two smaller inner circles and a jagged line beneath them. A smile. The tears flooded to his eyes once more; this time, however, he made no effort to supress them. He motioned to the little girl for the chalk, and gripping the stub between his rheumatic fingers, he delicately sketched a portrait of her, clutching her bouquet. Carefully lowering his scarf, he handed the board back to the girl and flashed her a half-smile. The little girl’s father noticed the tears in his eyes and rushed over, apologetic. “I am so sorry, has she upset you?”, he asked with obvious concern. “Oh, no, not at all”, Mr Stolberg mumbled. The man signed something to his daughter, and she held out her simple bouquet to Mr Stolberg. He wrote “Thank You” on the little girl’s board as he picked a delicate, thin-stemmed buttercup from the bunch. He was certain she could not read, but she beamed buoyantly at him regardless. Then it hit him like a soaring flare. The smile, so stupefying in its purity – it was the smile of his son. The girl flounced off, her father offering the kindly old man with the sagging face a sympathetic glance before chasing after her.

Mr Stolberg left the clinic with his scarf in his pocket, a buttercup in his breast pocket and a smile in his soul.

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