At eight years old, one of my jobs during the school holidays was to make a daily trip to the corner shop for my mum. I was a bit of a dreamer, was seldom in any hurry, and would chat to anyone I met.
On this particular day, there was a man waiting at the bus stop, whom I had never seen before. As I approached the bus stop he had his back to me. He was quite tall, and I could see that his hair grew in random tufts from a scalp which was a patchwork of pink and white skin. When he heard me approaching him, he sort of cocked his head, then turned around as I drew level with him.
He had no face.
I think I must have recoiled in horror, because I remember him saying, “It’s alright, young man, I won’t hurt you.”
I ran all the way home. I was dying to tell my mother of my experience, but when she asked me what the matter was, I couldn’t. I awoke in the small hours of the next morning, and the grotesquely damaged man filled my thoughts. After some hours, I realised that it wasn’t just his appearance that horrified me, but the fact that my reaction to him must have been very hurtful. I resolved to put matters right at my next opportunity.
I looked for him every time I went to the shop, and, sure enough, there he was on the same day the following week. Living where we did, I had seen other badly burned airmen, going to and from East Grinstead Hospital – but he was much the worst I had ever seen. Even so, it took as much courage as I could muster to walk up to him.
“Er….excuse me Sir,” I said nervously. “I’m sorry that I ran away.”
His face was every bit as mutilated as I had remembered it, but he recognised me.
“That’s alright young man, my face is a bit of a shock until you get used to it. You aren’t the first to react like that and I doubt you’ll be the last, so please don’t worry.”
He had something like an American accent, but softer. I found out much later that he was Canadian. Then his bus came along. From what he had said, I knew that he was commonly confronted by the sort of horrified look of which I had been guilty. I felt an overwhelming compassion for him.
So, the following week I was at the bus stop early, hoping for a longer conversation. Eventually, an ambulance dropped him off with Mr Avery, a gentleman who lived in my road. I said hello to Mr Avery, who was still receiving treatment for an injury sustained in the Great War. My new friend went to the bus stop as usual, and I could tell that he was pleased to see me again.
As I’d hoped, we had about fifteen minutes conversation before the Tonbridge bus came, and I learned a lot about him. He asked my name, and he told me that his was Bob Jeffries, and I was to call him Bob. I remember that I was surprised, because in those days it was unusual for an adult to allow a child to call them by their Christian name.
When I saw him, he was always on his way home from a weekly visit to the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. There, he was having his face rebuilt after surviving an air crash in the last year of the war. Like most boys of my age, I was fascinated by aircraft, and I wanted to know exactly what had happened. Bless him, I don’t suppose that it was a subject he really wanted to revisit, but he told me all, and I remember it to this day in every detail.
He had been a rear gunner in a Stirling bomber, and having returned from a night raid on the Ruhr, relatively unscathed, his aircraft had just lined up on the runway when it was jumped by a German night fighter.
Hit by cannon shells, two of the engines caught fire, and the pilot crash landed the plane. The fire trucks were harried by strafing attacks from Luftwaffe fighters, and amidst a maelstrom of flame and exploding ammunition, all the crew except Bob perished. He was dragged from his gun turret, aflame, but mercifully unconscious.
When eventually he came round, he was extensively burned, in terrible pain, and not expected to live. After twenty-four hours clinging to life by his fingernails, his condition miraculously stabilised. Much later, he started on an extended course of treatment under the legendary Archibald Mackindoe, to restore his face.
In the next few weeks, I learnt much about Bob. He had a wife in British Colombia, who, on seeing a photo of his disfigurement, decided she would take her chances elsewhere. Bob bore this news, it seemed to me, quite stoically, but I knew he was desperately concerned as to whether he would ever see his small daughter again.
He wore a green eye shield, and smoked a cigarette in a long cigarette holder. Everyone smoked in those days, but I remember thinking that the cigarette holder was, perhaps, a bit of an affectation. I have since realised, he used it because he had no lips to hold his cigarette. Nor did he have eyebrows, proper eye lids, or a nose. I also knew that he was in constant pain from his chest, although he never told me why.
One day, Bob was not at his bus stop. Twice, I watched Mr Avery walk home from the ambulance – but no Bob.
On the third week, I waylaid Mr Avery. He looked a bit sheepish as I approached him.
“You’re going to ask me about Mr Jeffries, aren’t you?” he said. I nodded.
He put a hand on my shoulder, a gesture that was sufficiently unusual for me to know that bad news was coming.
“Roland.” He paused and I could see that whatever he had to tell me was difficult for him. “I should have told you before, that Mr Jeffries has passed away.”
I was unfamiliar with this term, and for a moment thought that he meant Bob had returned home, perhaps to Canada.
Mr Avery, unaware of my confusion, carried on.
“Did he tell you about how his plane crashed?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s how he got those awful burns.”
By this time we had both reached my house.
“Is your mother home?” he asked me, and when I said that she was, “I think perhaps I should talk to her.”
As we reached our front door, Mother, who had seen us coming up the path, opened it.
“Hello Mr Avery,” she said, “Is everything alright?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, but may I come in for a moment, Mrs Gardner?”
Mother took us into the sitting room. I sat up very close to her on the settee.
Mr Avery asked my mother to confirm how much I had told her about Bob, then went on:-
“Did you know about his Irving Jacket?”
“No,” we replied almost simultaneously.
“Well,” said Mr Avery, slowly. “When he was trapped in the burning gun turret, all his clothes were burned off him. Except,” and here he paused and looked at me. “Except for the metal zip of his flying jacket. It became red hot and…and buried itself in his chest.”
My mother had hold of my hand so tightly, that it was hurting me.
“The surgeons decided that they would have to wait until he was strong enough to withstand the operation before they tried to remove it.” Mr Avery looked down at his hands clasped in his lap, then continued. “He had the operation three weeks ago, and never came round from the anaesthetic.”
I don’t remember Mr Avery taking his leave – the only thing I recall, is that I had a terrible pain in my chest.
Just like Bob.
Thinking back to when I was eight years old, I regret not having the chance to say goodbye to my anonymous hero. Anonymous, not because I didn’t know his name, but because I never knew what the real Bob looked like. And do you know what the worst thing was?
It’s that I never thought to ask his little girl’s name.