Streaks of winter sunshine streamed through the windows, the rays illuminating the room's drab wood panelling so every knot and blemish shimmered.
Charlie Hobbs brushed past the young nurse in the doorway, her face wearing the smile she'd perfected for every patient; friendly, sympathetic. Her eyes betrayed nothing of the horrors she saw.
'Take a seat, Mr Hobbs, you'll be called when he's ready.' Hobbs nodded, dreading the thought of eye contact, shuffling uneasily to a row of chairs where two men sat staring at the floor, one of them reaching into his trouser pocket, withdrawing a cigarette case.
'I'm sorry, Mr Barnes, you can't smoke in here,' the nurse said. Her smile was still there but Hobbs sensed it masked something else; irritation, probably. Barnes pocketed the case, his face reddened from the mild rebuke that saw him slump into his chair, head bowed.
'It shouldn't be too long now,' she added, leaving the room. The three men waited; an awkward, stilted silence, louder and more intrusive than anything Hobbs could remember. Beads of sweat ran between his neck and the starched collar of the shirt once belonging to someone else.
Barnes fidgeted in his seat, the man next to him coughed, but no one said a word. Hobbs saw particles of dust floating wistfully in the sunlight and imagined if Heaven had a waiting room, would it look like this?
The only sound was the faint ticking of a clock perched above a door and as the minutes ticked by, Hobbs was forced to move to avoid the sun's glare. Shuffling in his seat, he searched for distractions, anything to fill the void.
Above the fireplace in the centre of the wall facing the clock, a portrait of the King hung over the mantelpiece, dominating the room. Holding a black cane in his left hand, King George V stood rigid, magnificently turned out in full ceremonial uniform, his collar, cuffs and waist adorned with elaborate gold braiding. Draped over his shoulders was a white and blue ermine cloak, while an array of medals was visible on a sky blue sash running across his broad chest.
The Monarch's piercing blue eyes gazed out beyond the picture and in the sunlight, Hobbs saw his King as an ethereal figure. He wondered how long he had been made to stand there in his regalia while the artist skilfully painted.
And then Hobbs remembered having to sit perfectly still, while an artist of a different kind went to work on him. 'Private Whittaker, please.'
Hobbs didn't hear the name; all he heard was the sound of another man's voice as a door opened. It was enough to break the suffocating silence and his body responded, the muscles relaxing as the relief came.
Whittaker was the third man in the room and Hobbs stole a glance as he rose from his seat, wondering why he was here. His question was answered when Whittaker turned to grab his coat, revealing what was left of the right side of his face. The eyelid was closed but the skin had been sewn shut. Beneath were a series of ugly scars, pulling the flesh downwards, where it congealed in a messy scrunch of skin that wobbled in the space where his jawbone used to be.
Whittaker disappeared into the room, the door closed and Hobbs was grateful for the audible distraction of muffled voices coming from the other side.
Barnes, clearly desperate for the cigarette he was denied, sat cross-legged staring into space peering through his one remaining eye. Half his nose was missing, replaced by distorted, uneven tissue that stretched over his left cheek. His right leg shook vigorously and Hobbs watched as he idly clawed and scratched at the skin around his disfigurement. He used to do that too; the constant impulse to reach up and touch.
But that had long passed. Now, whenever he touched his own face, Hobbs' skin crawled. Running his fingers down from the forehead, there was a profound inward curve of soft, squashed, uneven flesh where his nose used to be. Brushing his fingertips over his left eye, he could never quite bring himself to touch the empty socket, the eyelid merely a flap of skin unable to open. The sensation inevitably triggered a memory, the moment he instinctively raised his hands, his vision blurring, senses obliterated, but still able to feel half his face come away in his hands.
But soon he would have a new face, though not one made from flesh and bone. It would be a face that could never smile, never move, never feel; but it wouldn't age and Hobbs would feel normal once more.
He was alone when his name was finally called, stepping into the room with a sense of dread, knowing how crucial the next few minutes were to the rest of his life. This room was smaller, its windowless walls giving it a suffocating feel and Hobbs was unnerved by the sight of dozens of faces hanging on the wall, peering lifelessly like the death masks of ancient Rome. Only these faces were incomplete; a nose and mouth, eyes and a cheek. All had the same ghostly white finish and for a moment Hobbs was convinced he could hear them calling.
'Right, Mr Hobbs, let's get started, shall we?' Flinching as cold metal touched his skin, Hobbs felt the warmth of his breath as he exhaled. And then his breathing quickened, responding to the unnerving sensation of his face being covered. The sensory cells in his nasal cavity had been destroyed along with his nose so he would never know of the metallic odour now pressed up against him.
'How does that feel, not too tight?' the man asked, his fingers probing around Hobbs' head, hooking spectacles over his ears. The impulse to speak prompted a wet, low grunt from what remained of Hobbs' mouth. Even that sounded different, resonating against the artificial barrier now in front of him.
'Now, can you see out of the eye clearly? You may notice a little difference but that's because I've used spectacles, they are perfect for helping concealment. The glass is tinted too, you'll resemble a blind man, but that can't be helped.'
Before Hobbs could answer he was issued with instructions. 'Turn your head for me, slowly; look around the room. That's it, excellent. Now, look up to the ceiling ... and down to the floor. Good, good. Now, stand up and have a walk around.' As he moved the metal rubbed, making a noise only Hobbs could hear, the warmth from his breath still noticeable.
'You'll soon get used to the sound and, at this time of year, you'll be grateful for the heat around your face,' and Hobbs wondered if his instructor could sense his thoughts.
'I think you'll be happy with the likeness, you've got good skin tone which has made it easier to get the shading right. It blends in very well and, from this distance, it's extremely difficult to tell.'
Hobbs was struck by the man's optimism, which jarred against the desolate, despair of his own life. And yet it acted as a spark, coaxing the embers of hope from deep within.
He recalled how little this extraordinary man had reacted when they'd first met, Hobbs having become so used to the gawps of those morbidly fascinated and appalled by his grotesque appearance. Introducing himself as Francis Derwent Wood, his hooked nose and greased coal black hair reminded Hobbs of a Dickens character.
Reading from a folder, Derwent Wood had said: 'So, Mr Hobbs, I see all the surgical work has now been completed and your wounds have healed as much as they can. That's very important because I can't do anything until we get to that stage. Have you brought a photograph with you as I requested?'
Fumbling inside the inner pocket of his ill-fitting, grey, tweed suit, Hobbs had retrieved a small black and white photograph. In it, his former self stared out from the image, shoulders back, proud to be wearing the uniform he'd been so desperate to wear. Reaching across, Derwent Wood had examined it closely before looking up to compare the picture with the real thing.
'Ah yes, that shouldn't be too much of a problem, nothing too tricky here. And you're happy with this? It's just that we had one fellow who brought me a picture of Rupert Brooke! I told him, I'm a sculptor not a miracle worker,' and he'd laughed at his own joke.
Back then Hobbs never imagined how long or painful the process would be; the awful sensation of being covered in the suffocating plaster of Paris, the insufferable hours sitting still while this master craftsman created him a new face. But it would be worth it. Because he knew how utterly repulsive he was, his shattered face leaving him a monstrous deformity of the man he'd once been. Hobbs didn't look or feel human anymore, how could he? To be human meant having two eyes, a nose, a mouth.
'So? Are you ready to have a look?' Derwent Wood asked smiling. He dreaded having to speak, detesting the pathetic sounds that came from no longer having an upper jaw. His speech defect sickened him and he was repulsed at what emerged from his mouth. But incredibly, Derwent Wood, hands buried deep into the pockets of his white laboratory coat, was able to understand.
'Good man, now take your time and let me know when you're ready.' Taking a deep breath, Hobbs nodded as Derwent Wood reached for a round, brass vanity mirror and held it aloft.
'Well? What do you think? Is it like looking at your old self again?' Staring at his reflection, Hobbs could only gasp, confronted by the sight of the man he used to be. 'Can I ... can I feel?'
'Yes, yes, of course. Just be mindful that some of the paintwork and finishing touches may still be a little delicate. I'd hate for you to inadvertently pull off one of your eyebrows,' he chuckled.
Tentatively touching his new face, Hobbs watched his fingers in the mirror as they ran over the nose, stroking the mouth, feeling the cheeks. It was the strangest thing to watch himself stroke his face and yet only feel cold, hard metal.
'It takes time, but you'll get used to the feel of it. Now remember, try and avoid getting it wet, a little rain won't harm occasionally but you don't want to get it soaked. And if it's dropped, or it gets banged or chipped, it will damage; just like a real face would, though I'm afraid it's not going to heal itself,' Derwent Wood added, oblivious to the insensitivity of his remark.
He turned his back, reaching for a blue cloth bag. 'Now, when you're not wearing it keep it inside this; it helps prevent scratches and other damage. To clean it, simply use a damp cloth but don't use soap as it can bring off the paintwork. 'Remember to use the wadding underneath or it will chafe. Any problems, you know where I am.'
Derwent Wood had already opened the door and for a moment Hobbs was hesitant, unable to believe this was it. He wasn't ready yet, he needed more time … there were questions, he couldn't simply walk out, not like this …
'It's been a pleasure meeting you, Rifleman Hobbs. I only hope I've been able to help in some small way and that you're now able to live a full and happy life. I wish you the very best of luck,' and Derwent Wood offered Hobbs his hand, unable to see the panic on his patient's face thanks to his own cosmetic creation. Hobbs avoided the handshake by picking up the cloth bag in his right hand, sweating profusely now, his heart racing. He had no thought of how odd it must be for Derwent Wood to hear him speak but not see his mouth or face moving.
'Thank ... you ... for everything,' he mumbled, feeling the spit and saliva run down his chin.
His footsteps echoed as he strode along the corridors of the former asylum that was now the Third London General Hospital. Passing two nurses, they barely noticed the man in the dark glasses with the impassive face. Coming to another door of the imposing Gothic building, Hobbs opened it and stepped outside, ignoring the sign on the wall which read: The Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department.