Lathom was a fraud. He knew he was a fraud, his wife Maureen knew he was a fraud and his receptionist certainly knew he was a fraud. But thank God, the receptionist was a RADA graduate, between jobs, who was plausible as a smiling, competent professional in front of the patients, even while she wrote Remember: Nose Goes On Front on the medical clipboard.
That receptionist. Annie. Beautiful. Well, he could hardly hire a minger for front-of-house. Annie seemed like proof, like his curriculum vitae, posed behind her glass desk with a bunch of lilies and a reassuring expression.
Annie could have spent her time between roles modelling. Not hand modelling, although her hands were as pale and perfect as wedding cake, but face modelling, leg modelling, belly modelling.
Instead she worked here, at Lathom’s cosmetic enhancement clinic off Harley Street. It was a chance to be on the other side of the money-flesh divide, she’d said in the job interview, and Lathom laughed, admiring the delicious swoop of her neck. She was as sumptuous as custard, as young as whipped cream. He wondered what sort of trifle she would be, with so many layers of loveliness: strawberry jelly, or perhaps the sharper tang of mandarin . . . He got distracted, mentally adding the sponge cake, and lost the rest of Annie’s justification for wanting a job here. Something about avoiding the family business if her acting career came a cropper.
“Maybe you can bring in some new clients,” Lathom said. “Actors . . . they live by their faces.”
She shrugged. “My friends were mostly born in 1998. Do you even know what that means?”
“My point exactly,” said Annie with a saccharine smirk, and Lathom felt a familiar exhaustion, but she was already hired.
She did help the business. Between her good looks and the six-by-eight-foot spotlit prints of supposed former patients, the clinic’s foyer glowed with success. Lathom, popping in to retrieve a mid-morning biscuit, admired the effect very much.
And the patients liked Annie. To a woman, they worshipped beauty and abhorred its opposite. They slapped at the pages of Vogue and Elle in the waiting room, skimming the radiant faces, impatient to turn to the next promise of perfection.
Lathom delivered that promise. His recovery times from nose jobs were phenomenal. His eye work was second to none. He didn’t touch legs, breasts, or stomachs, referring these swiftly to the liposuction experts next door. He was purely a face man, with the occasional chin thrown in.
There was only one drawback. He didn’t actually do any of it.
It was the TV adverts that started the deception. The adverts looked so fresh and fun. A clear- skinned young woman with perfect everything turned her profile to the camera while dots marched across her face, indicating where the scalpel would slice. There were shots of her in a white bathrobe enjoying a yellow bedroom. And then her delighted friends and family embraced her and the screen softened and swirled, Scooby-style, to a web address and premium phone number.
But the adverts were a lie.
Lathom did have a medical degree. He had the crushing debt and sleep deprivation which accompanies doctorhood. He had survived his junior residence and married his girlfriend and leapt, as soon as he could, from the National Health Service into the private sector. He disliked the insides of people, and hoped it was mainly their chequebooks he’d be opening. It was, even by this stage, obvious that specialising in surgery was a mistake.
After eight miserable years as a junior sawbones in a foot clinic, he swore he would get out. He hardly slept. His waist had swollen from tamping down pre-op nerves with iced buns or a custard slice. His mortgage was ridiculous and all he did was sand down toenails. And he was alone.
He was ready to quit when he got a call from an old college acquaintance, an anaesthetist called Radley. Radley had an inheritance and a vague idea of entrepreneurship, and he was starting a private clinic. Only small, but Lathom would be chief surgeon.
“Don’t do it,” said Maureen, who was not a stereotypical surgeon’s wife.
She handed Lathom a maple pecan plait. “You’ll be stressed out to the eyeballs.”
Lulled by cake, Lathom took Radley’s offer. It was another mistake. In the first week of practice, about to commence a simple under-eye tuck, Lathom froze. The black dotted lines sent their Morse across the patient’s face, No No No, and Lathom could not bear to do it. He forced himself to make the cut, and then, agonising as Radley read an airport thriller on the other side of the glass, Lathom sewed the patient back up again and declared it done.
“That was quick,” Radley said. “Fancy a pint?”
“Better get home,” Lathom said. Guilt nibbled at him, first around the edges, like tentative teeth on a Jammy Dodger, but by the time he got home the guilt was roaring wild and ripping him open to get at the filling. He went straight to bed and pretended to sleep and got up and put on different clothes and went to the clinic and . . .
. . . Nothing. The patient was pleased. She told her friends how straightforward it was, how quickly you recovered, how you couldn’t even make out a scar, and that was it.
Radley was impressed. “The quicker the better in my book, ” he said.
Lathom couldn’t bear to tell him the truth. And so it began. The emperor’s new face — no more than a runway of dotted lines, but everybody swore they could see the improvements.
Then one day Annie called Lathom into Reception and said, “This is my aunt, can you give her your Special Treatment?” and winked.
Lathom cast his eye over the aunt. Typical leathery hag, heavy on the fur coat, heavy on the jowls.
“Just a little nip and tuck,” said the patient in a slight Mediterranean accent, and Annie batted her eyelashes and Lathom couldn’t say no.
“This is going to be a tough one,” he said privately to Annie. “Can any of your acting mates give really good spontaneous compliments about an old woman’s chin?”
“I might be able to find some people,” said Annie. “By the way . . . I need the afternoon off. I’ve got an audition.”
The aunt’s treatment was a hit. Despite her long shelf life, she recovered in the blink of a surgically-enhanced eye, and told all her friends about the clinic.
“Some of these women are ninety,” said Lathom, goggling at the clipboards. “Do you speak Italian? Tell them they can’t expect to be tearing off the bandages five minutes after waking up.”
— If they woke up. For Radley had become a little erratic of late, complaining, when Lathom tapped the glass, that Lathom had made him lose his page. But it didn’t matter because soon they would have made enough money to stop.
Lathom was in Reception with Annie, enjoying a cream puff and the sensation of getting away with it, when a man stalked in, draped in designer leisurewear and bright gold jewellery. The stranger leaned over the counter, jabbed Lathom in the clavicle and said “You, yes, you, we need to have words. We’ll go in your office.”
Annie went the colour of week-old marzipan. Lathom, scared by her fear, did as the man asked.
“You don’t know me, I’m Marco. Annie’s my little girl.”
“Right . . .” Oh God. Someone, one of the ageing aunties, had spotted Lathom sharing a sponge finger with Annie —
But no, that was not it at all.
Marco explained that he had an associate who would soon be travelling abroad, but who preferred not to be recognised by certain people, say, the border police, or his own family. Could Lathom, who everyone said was such a genius with the wetwork, do this one favour, be very discreet?
“Don’t worry about the money, the equipment.” Marco waved a hand. “You do this thing for me, whatever you want, I get it for you. But if anyone finds out —” He narrowed his eyes and tapped his multiply-broken nose.
It was like being smacked in the face with a book of underworld subtext. “OK,” Lathom said. “I can.”
Later, he said to Annie, “I can’t.”
She took a long hard look at his face and then, without turning her head, yelled “Radley!”
Radley appeared, yawning and holding a Jackie Collins.
“Lathom won’t remodel a Mafia boss’s face so that he can escape police clutches,” said Annie.
You had to hand it to her. She was concise.
“The Mafia,” Radley said. He looked at his paperback as if that might contain better news.
“It’s Annie’s fault,” Lathom said. “She’s related to them.”
“Hey,” said Annie. “I can’t help that.”
“I can’t do this thing for Marco,” Lathom said. “This — the cosmetic work. I can’t do it, I haven’t been doing it. For a while. I’ve just been — pretending.” He hung his head and waited for the outrage.
But Radley clapped him on the back, the book’s pages fluttering against Lathom’s shoulder. “I know,” he said. “I often wish I could do the same. Sometimes my job seems . . . immoral.”
“That’s different,” said Lathom. “I — You really can’t not do your bit.” He sighed, and he and Radley gazed at each other and agreed that it was not the same thing.
“We have to do this,” Annie said. Her gaze was stern. “Lathom, you actually are a surgeon even though —” She raised her eyebrows. “So do a nose job, give the man eyes that look twenty years younger and cheekbones all the other girls will be envious of. Just do it.”
“Then what?” said Radley.
“We can’t become the Mafia’s go-to cosmetic surgery providers,” said Lathom.
“Then we run,” said Annie.
“But —” For a moment Lathom imagined it, the three of them in sunglasses, lounging on steamer chairs on a terrace overlooking the French Riviera. It was difficult to understand why criminals didn’t just skip the hard part and move directly to a life of white linen suits and all-day cocktails.
Lathom shook himself. “We can’t run. I’ve seen the films. There’s nowhere to hide from these people.”
Annie rolled her eyes. “Rubbish. Move to Wales. You really think they’re going to chase you up the A5?”
Lathom straightened. “I am not going to do it,” he said. The cream puffs, crisp and blooming in their box, strengthened him. “I — hate the sight of blood.” The words fell from him like gallstones into an aluminium dish. Yes. That was it. He detested blood, mess, the horrible intimacy of incision. People should be viewed from the outside, preferably including a good few layers of clothing. There was simply no call for anything more personal.
Silence descended over Reception. Radley riffled his book with his thumb, over and over. Lathom stared at the carpet. The perfect faces on the walls smiled down relentlessly.
“All right,” Radley said then. “I’m not doing it either.” He snapped shut the book and nodded. “Mates need to stick together, right Lathom?”
“Right,” said Lathom. “Though we’re more business partners really —”
“Oh my God,” said Annie, “I will just do it myself.”
Annie picked up one of Lathom’s cream puffs and took a large, confident bite. “I’ve been watching you both. How hard can it be?”
The scowling man in the raincoat twitched at Radley across the reception desk “Where’s the reception girl? The looker? Marco’s girl?”
Radley smiled and smoothed down his bright white coat. “I’m the receptionist,” he said. “My colleague, our top surgeon, was just standing in for me when your . . . associate called in to arrange this.”
Lathom came through in convincing green scrubs and a mask dangling around his neck. “Ah, Mr . . . Come in. I’ll be putting you to sleep. Time for, um, beddy-byes and all that.” It was a passing imitation of nonchalance.
“I don’t understand,” said the patient. “Where’s Marco’s girl?”
Annie stepped into Reception. She seemed taller, older in her pale blue scrubs and latex covered fingers. Her high heels marked off the breadth of the room with brisk efficiency. She peeled off one almond-coloured glove and held out her hand with the grace of a monarch.
Empires ranged in her gaze: she was a god, a surgeon. “Good morning, Uncle Tony,” she said in cut-glass tones. “I’ll be performing your procedure today. Come through. Oh, Radley — fetch me a coffee, would you?”
This was real, Lathom thought. This was how you were meant to do it.
He and Radley were just amateurs.
“After this,” he whispered to Radley as Annie led the bewildered patient away, “let’s open a cake shop.” He reached for his bag of plump, reassuring eclairs. They reminded him of Maureen. He loved eclairs.
“Books too,” said Radley. “Can there be books?”
Lathom nodded, and then froze, for from the pre-op room there came the sound of raised voices.
The patient barged into Reception, muttering and pulling on his raincoat. He paused to point a furious finger at them, then reached into his coat. Lathom dropped his eclair and waited for the gun to appear, for the shot to ring out and signal the end of the game they’d all been playing. Oh God. All this fakery, and for what? Maureen was going to be so cross —
Annie appeared, glared, and the man stamped away.
“Well,” said Annie, flinging aside her surgeon’s gloves. “That’s all sorted.” She stretched and shook out her wonderful hair. “I am forbidden, absolutely forbidden, to continue as a surgeon. It is no job for the Boss’s little girl. Your no-good clinic is going to close right away and I am to continue in any career I choose, such as acting, and the family will pay for it.” She grinned.
Lathom goggled. “It’s over.” Also, she had totally planned it all . . . but he did not add that. It was over, at last.
He could hardly speak. “I could hug you.”
“Better not,” said Annie, glancing at his ring finger.
“I could,” said Radley hopefully.
“No thanks.” She picked up her handbag. “I’ll be off. Sorry about your business and everything.”
“It’s fine,” Lathom said. He felt as light as meringue. He glanced at Radley, standing grinning at the prospect of a life immersed in imaginary worlds. “We’ve got a few ideas.” Maureen would be delighted. She’d been going on for years about isolation, and comfort eating. “But, Annie, that performance was amazing. How did you do it?”
Annie shrugged, and helped herself to one of Lathom’s eclairs. “Piece of cake,” she said.