Susannah’s heels clicked on the marble floor as she walked toward Rita’s office. She was trying very hard not to smirk, and was almost succeeding. She knew the man waiting at the reception desk would be watching her closely. Reaching the office, she knocked, entered, and closed the door behind her.
“He’s waiting out there now. You should see the size of his manuscript. Seriously, do you really want to waste your time with this guy?”
“Show him in.”
Susannah giggled, then straightened her face before reopening the door.
“Ms Li will see you now.”
Rita’s office felt warm and comfortable. As Henry entered, a brown leather lounge sat beneath a window on the right-hand side, with a table and reading lamp close by. To the left was an enormous bookshelf, filled with an orderly array of papers, books, and a few ornaments. A porcelain elephant sat between Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations”. “Molecular Biology of the Cell” rested unsettlingly close to “Applied Behavior Analysis”. Henry also noted with some alarm several titles such as “The Emerald Tablet of Hermes” and “The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology”.
Rita smiled as Henry entered, and laid her red and gold pen down on the desk in front of her. A computer screen and keyboard sat to her left, but from the number of papers on the desk Henry guessed they were used only occasionally.
“Thank you for seeing me, Ms Li” Henry said as he rather awkwardly shook Rita’s hand and sat in front of her desk, trying to balance his manuscript on his lap. “I understand you must be very busy.”
“I must say, Mr Frankel, that your project is intriguing. ‘A Complete Classification of Human Facial Expressions’. I presume, as you’re approaching me with this work, you intend it as a serious scientific exercise, and not as some kind of post-modernist social commentary.”
“Oh definitely, this is a serious piece of work.” In all the time Henry had worked on this project, the idea that it could be seen as anything other than a scientific treatise had never crossed his mind. “I’ve set out to classify human facial expressions in terms of four factors: emotion, mood, context and coloration. Initially I included a factor for racial and cultural differences, but it turns out these are quite unimportant compared with the others. I believe I can now take any facial expression made by any person and describe it using this system – place it in a box, if you like.”
“And what makes you believe this classification system will be of any interest to readers, Mr Frankel?” Rita’s tone was aloof and dismissive. If writers can’t stand up for their own work, no-one else is likely to.
“Well, to start with, people doing social research can use the system to report their findings. You know, instead of saying so-and-so showed signs of aggression they could say their expression was fear/dark/controlled/crimson, which is much clearer and more precise. And also, they could compare their results directly with other people’s work anywhere in the world.”
Rita looked dubious. “Only if everyone doing this research adopted your system, Mr Frankel.”
“Please, call me Henry. Yes, that’s true. Well, there is another point of usefulness.” Henry hesitated, but as Rita made no sign of responding, he continued. “There are some people who find it very hard to understand – ah, relate to – I suppose empathise with other people, because they don’t understand their facial expressions. They just don’t know whether the other person is expressing excitement, or disgust, or rage, or grief. Well, you see I thought if I could analyse facial expressions, study them down to the minutest detail, and then classify them so a trained person could recognize any expression, well then those people, who now live in a sort of – ah – social isolation, could relate to other people in a more – normal way.”
Henry had certainly studied faces in minute detail. Over fifteen years he had collected more than 20,000 photographs of faces, male and female, carefully selected to be representative of a range of cultures, ages and body types. Most of the photographs had been taken by Henry himself, during one of his many field trips. In each photograph, the subject watched one of 240 film clips that each elicited a subtly different emotional response, and the camera recorded their face. Henry had then meticulously measured and compared the physical aspects of the faces to determine what features distinguished the various expressions.
“I’ll show you an example if you like.” Henry put his manuscript on Rita’s desk, turned it toward her and opened it at a random page, disturbing a large pile of paper as he did so. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry.” He made an attempt to retrieve the pile, but Rita waved her hand to indicate that he should stop before he caused more havoc.
The open A3 page featured a photograph of a Cambodian boy with tousled hair and a broad smile, together with detailed notes and measurements.
“The emotion here is happiness – see the parted lips with upturned extremities. The mood is light – notice in particular the size of the pupils and the smoothness of the forehead.
“As for context, you can see the small lines coming from the corners of his eyes and notice how his teeth are quite close together, which marks the context as superficial, or controlled. This is an expression that overlies something deeper.
“Now see how his eyes look down, although the eyelids are held open, and how the lower lip pushes out slightly, and how the neck muscles seem tight, as if to prevent strangulation. The underlying coloration of this expression is deep grey.”
Almost as an afterthought, Henry added “This child’s grandparents were taken in the Cambodian genocide. His mother was ten at the time.”
October 1976. Li Baojing was staring at the strange-looking official who took her mother’s passport. Noticing, her mother squeezed her hand hard, and Baojing looked down to the floor as she knew she should when dealing with anyone in authority.
The trip had been long, and Baojing’s mother had been constantly on edge. The train from Changsha, the terrifying night-time crossing into Hong Kong in the back of a lorry, the aeroplane journey with her mother’s hands gripping the edge of the seat till her knuckles turned white.
Li Baojing’s father was a Party official from a large village in Hunan province. Everyone in the village knew him, and most showed him great respect, but this was not because of any nobility of character. Her father had strong connections with corrupt officials higher up in the Party organisation, as well as with underworld figures with a reputation for violence and extortion. It was rumored that he had himself perpetrated violence on certain political enemies. Nevertheless, the family lived well, and Baojing and her mother learned not to question too closely the sources of their wealth.
But the death of Chairman Mao had meant that the system of power and privilege within the Party was about to be overturned. Whoever eventually gained ultimate control, there would be re-appraisals and re-structuring, winners and losers. It would be a time of upheaval, and a time for the settling of old scores.
Baojing’s father was called to Beijing to take part in a process of “review and renormalisation”. No-one knew what that meant, but his wife was not waiting to find out. She had connections of her own. For the right price, false papers and passports, compliant lorry drivers and air tickets could be arranged within days. And there were relatives in Sydney, Australia who could help.
The customs officer grunted and motioned the new arrivals through – the woman in the black and gold dress and the girl with long black hair and downcast eyes. “We must be careful” whispered Baojing’s mother for the hundredth time. In the arrivals area, from out of the crowd of jostling Australians, Uncle Ho appeared suddenly. There were no welcoming hugs or expressions of happiness. A nod of the head signaled that they should follow him.
In the car, Baojing’s mother said that they were to start a new life here, that it would be very different, and that they must never speak of the old life. Baojing’s name would now be Jing Li, and she would use the western name Rita.
“I’ll show you another example.” Henry was about to turn to another page, but Rita quickly moved her hand out to prevent him. At this point, any rational assessment would have concluded that she should dismiss this strange, eccentric man while trying not to cause him too much distress. Instead, she said “I think if you’re to show me anything else, we should sit over there on the lounge where you won’t destroy my desk.”
Henry’s next photograph was of a Spanish woman. “Tears, together with enlargement of the upper neck, teeth extending over the bottom lip and several other features make this emotion unambiguously grief. But the mood is light – see there’s no lowering of the eyebrows or narrowing of the eyes.
“The facial muscles are loose, marking the context as free or uncontrolled – the emotion she shows is genuine. But finally, note the brightness of the pupils and way the eyes turn upward, and indeed the whole head is slightly angled up, as if in expectation. The coloration of this expression is a bright white.”
Once again there was a slight pause after which Henry added “I understand this woman was known for humanitarian work within her local church, and for her strong religious faith.”
July 2014. Rita couldn’t believe her ears.
“After three and a half years in medical school, after all the sacrifices I made to get you there – and your father too – after all the nights we spent sitting together, studying together, working on your maths, your science subjects – after all that you’re just going to walk away?”
“And do what? Join the army?”
“None of your business. I need a life, Rita. I need to get away from you.”
“Don’t you DARE call me Rita. I’m your mother and that’s not going to change. But listen, Ronnie, please, being a doctor doesn’t mean being controlled by me. You can go and practice in Perth. Join MSF, go to Somalia if you like. Just don’t throw away what you’ve been dreaming of since you were a boy.”
“What I’ve been dreaming of, or what you’ve been dreaming of? And anyway, things change. You should know that. Ask your fancy new boyfriend.”
“You know what happened between me and your father and it’s got nothing to do with this. And for your information the fancy new boyfriend is gone. That was a big mistake.”
“You make a few of them, don’t you Rita? Well I’m not going to be another one. Don’t try to ring me back because I won’t answer.”
There were three beeps on Rita’s mobile phone, then silence.
Rita was simply fascinated by Henry’s photographs. She sat through two more descriptions – a teenage girl from Miami and a farmer from Argentina – before finally pulling herself together.
“So, how many photographs do you have in your manuscript, Mr … err … Henry?”
“I’ve culled the twenty thousand photographs down to three hundred and forty.”
“Three hundred and forty A3 pages?”
“Plus twenty-three pages describing the system. It needs to be A3 of course, to render the photographs in enough detail, and to allow for comprehensive notes next to each.”
“Henry, I’m sorry, but there’s no way that we or anyone else could possibly publish a manuscript like this. Production costs would be enormous, and possible sales are … well, you must see that your target audience is very small, and probably somewhat disinclined to buy something like this anyway.”
Henry slowly closed the manuscript, which had been lying across both their laps as they sat together on the lounge.
“Well, thank you once again for taking the time to speak to me, Ms Li” he said, in a voice that sounded hollow and fragile.
“Not at all, and please call me Rita. Of course, you realise there would be other ways to make money from this work. I know there are people in the financial services sector, for example, who’d be very interested in being able to understand someone’s deeper motivations just by analysing their facial expression. You could run seminars, training courses …”
“I’m not interested in manipulating people. I just want to understand them.”
“Yes, of course.”
There was a short, uncomfortable silence. Then just as Henry began to stand, Rita said “Henry, would you do something for me? Would you analyse my expression, right now, and put it into your categories?”
Without a word Henry settled back on the lounge and looked intently into Rita’s face. It was a strange, almost erotic sensation. She wondered whether she needed to keep still, but decided it was better to allow herself whatever movements felt natural.
And she wondered how much Henry would see in her face. How many of the disappointments, how much of the anxiety and the contradictions? Could he perhaps perceive how it was that someone with such an intellectual commitment to scientific publishing could be so obsessively attracted to Jungian psychotherapy and the occult?
After about three minutes, Henry spoke.
“Emotion – sadness. Although you’re trying to hold your lips straight, they’re quivering slightly, and when they do, they turn down much more often than up. And your eyes are squeezed slightly at the outer edges, as if you’re trying to hold back tears.
“Mood – dark. There are faint lines across your forehead indicating tightening of the muscles, as well as a pulsing at your temples. I imagine you probably suffer from tension headaches.”
Rita nodded involuntarily.
“Context – this is difficult. There are some signs that convey a sense of external control, but most importantly, your jaw is loose and your teeth are apart, and the muscles around your chin are not trying to hold it up. The context of your expression is fundamentally free and uncontrolled.
“And coloration – well, this is easy. The strong blood flow to your cheeks and neck, the intensity of your eye movements, the slight pouting of your lips, and numerous other signs all point to underlying warmth. Your coloration is red – a very deep, warm red in fact.”
There was a further silence while Rita took in Henry’s analysis, following which she smiled politely and stood up.
“Well, thank you Henry, and I’m very sorry that we can’t help you with your project, but …”
“I understand, Ms Li. This meeting has been very instructive, and now I need to work out where to go from here.”
They shook hands and Rita showed him to the door. She felt a chill when she realized what he was about to read in Susannah’s face.
When Henry was gone, Rita suddenly found tears welling behind her eyes. She took a tissue, took off her glasses and allowed them to come – all the tears that lay there behind her facial expression. Tears from the hurts and the humiliations, more tears from trying to hold the others back, and still more from the fear that by holding back tears she had turned herself to stone.
“Coloration: deep, warm red.” It was possibly the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her.
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