On the Face of It

by

Susan Hill

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On the Face of It: Scene One Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr. Lamb, an old man, is sitting in his garden on a beautiful September day. There he sees a boy, Derry, walking through the long grass. Mr. Lamb calls to him to be careful not to step on the fallen apples, and Derry is startled—he didn’t know anyone else was there. Derry is shy and wary, and says that he thought the garden and house were empty. Mr. Lamb says it’s his house and garden, but everyone is welcome inside, and he always leaves the gate open—even though Derry climbed over the garden wall to get in.
The play’s two main characters encounter each other in the idyllic, natural setting of the sunny September garden. Mr. Lamb immediately shows his trusting nature and tendency toward openness, as he always leaves his gate open, while the young Derry is more cynical—he doesn’t even check the gate and assumes that he must jump over the wall to get into the garden. Derry never considers that he might be willingly welcomed in. He also assumed that he would be alone in an abandoned garden, and so wasn’t anticipating meeting another person. He may have come there to avoid people altogether.
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Derry gets defensive that Mr. Lamb was watching him, and declares that he doesn’t want to steal anything. Lamb is unconcerned, and tells Derry that he’s “welcome.” Derry, who reveals himself to be fourteen years old, says he needs to go, but Lamb says there’s nothing to be afraid of. Derry says he’s not afraid—other people are afraid of him.
The dialogue here introduces clues about Derry’s disability—that there is something about his appearance that makes people avoid him. Mr. Lamb, however, seems to not notice or care, and reiterates that everyone is welcome on his property. This is clearly an idea Derry isn’t accustomed to.
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Mr. Lamb asks why other people might be afraid of Derry, and Derry says he knows they always are, even if they pretend otherwise—he says they think things about him like, “That’s a terrible thing. That’s the ugliest thing I ever saw,” and “Poor boy.” Derry says he’s even afraid of himself when he looks in a mirror. Lamb starts talking about how he’s going to pick his crab apples later to make jelly, and he offers that Derry could help him. Derry gets angry at him for changing the subject, and challenges Lamb to ask what happened to him.
Derry is almost aggressive in his bitterness towards others and in the way he assumes that Mr. Lamb fears him, even though the old man has given no sign that this is the case. Lamb finds solace in nature and in working in his garden, and his invitation for Derry to help him is both a generous offer of companionship and a sign of Lamb’s own potential loneliness.
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Mr. Lamb, unruffled, says he would guess that Derry was burned in a fire. Derry says no—he was burned by acid all down the side of his face. Lamb seems unconcerned by this. He tells Derry to look at a certain part of the garden and describe what he sees. Derry says “rubbish,” and then “weeds.” Lamb asks why some plants are considered weeds and some are considered flowers. He says “It’s all life…growing. Same as you and me.”
This passage reveals the nature of Derry’s disability: he has a badly scarred face, and is treated differently by most people because of it. Again Mr. Lamb seems to change the subject by turning back to his garden, but he is actually making an important point here. Whether a plant is considered a weed or a flower is just a matter of perspective, and perspectives can change—just like Derry can change the way he views the world and himself.
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Derry argues, saying that he and Mr. Lamb aren’t the same. Lamb says “You’ve got a burned face, I’ve got a tin leg. Not important.” Derry is interested in this, and Lamb says his leg was “blown off” years ago. Now the neighborhood children call him “Lamey-Lamb,” but he doesn’t mind. Derry says at least Lamb can cover up his leg, but Derry can’t cover up his burned face. Mr. Lamb says there’s plenty of other things for people to stare at instead, “like crab apples or the weeds or a spider climbing up a silken ladder, or my tall sun-flowers.”
Mr. Lamb reveals that he has his own disability, but in the same breath declares that his missing leg and Derry’s burned face are “not important”—that is, not important compared to the fact that they are human beings with their own value and dignity. Mr. Lamb also knows what it’s like to be mocked, but he clearly has a calmer and more positive attitude about this than Derry. Again, Lamb turns to nature and for comfort and peace.
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Mr. Lamb says, “It’s all relative. Beauty and the beast.” This angers Derry, who says he’s been told that “fairy story” before, but he knows that in real life the beast wouldn’t transform to become a handsome prince—he would just stay ugly, like Derry himself. Derry says no one will ever kiss him, anyway, except his mother, and she only kisses the unburned half of his face, and only “because she has to.”
Derry gives more reasons for his angry and withdrawn nature. He has indeed been treated unfairly by the world and feels lonely and isolated because of it, and he has been offered only unrealistic fairy tales as comfort. Derry’s mother is introduced as someone who loves her son but also pities him.
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Derry asks Mr. Lamb if his leg ever hurts him, and he says, “it doesn’t signify” (it doesn’t matter). Derry gets angry at this, too, ranting about other things that people say, like how brave people who are disabled or in pain are, and how he should just think of all the people who are worse off than he is.
Derry is also angered by the useless platitudes that people offer him as comfort or inspiration. He doesn’t want to have to be brave, or to find happiness only in comparing himself to others even worse off—he wants to just be treated like a normal boy.
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Derry says that once he heard two women whispering about him, and one said, “That’s a face only a mother could love.” Mr. Lamb challenges him, saying that this was only one thing one person said, and he doesn’t have to believe it. He says that Derry probably keeps his ears “shut” now to keep from hearing more cruel things.
This small incident encapsulates the way society treats Derry in general. He is pitied, avoided, and whispered about. He is made lonely almost by default, as people avoid him but also assume that no one will want a close relationship with him. Mr. Lamb, who values listening and observing very much, worries that Derry has totally closed himself—shut his ears—because of the cruel things he’s heard.
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Derry is confused but intrigued, and he tells Mr. Lamb that he says “peculiar things.” Lamb says he likes to talk and have company, but that Derry is welcome to leave whenever he wants. Lamb says he has a hive of bees in his garden, and he likes to listen to them humming, or “singing.” Derry says that he likes it here, but admits he wouldn’t have come in if he’d known Mr. Lamb was there. He doesn’t like being near people, because they stare and he can tell they’re afraid of him.
Derry starts to feel more comfortable as Mr. Lamb continues to treat him with dignity and understanding. Mr. Lamb elaborates on his philosophy of listening to and contemplating nature, something that clearly gives him great pleasure and that he worries Derry has shut himself off from. Derry is now actually considering coming back to visit Lamb.
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Mr. Lamb tells a story about a man who locked himself in his room because he was afraid of everything—of dying in an accident, of being rejected, of being laughed at. He stayed in bed all day to avoid all these possibilities, but he died when one day a picture fell off his wall and hit him on the head. Derry laughs at this story.
Lamb’s story is more like a parable, meant to teach a lesson—that Derry can never entirely avoid the possibility of pain, no matter how much he isolates himself. Lamb is worried that Derry will totally withdraw from other people in fear of getting hurt.
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Derry asks Mr. Lamb what he does all day. Lamb says he likes to “sit in the sun” and “read books.” He says his house isn’t empty because it’s full of books. Derry comments that there aren’t any curtains on the windows of Mr. Lamb’s house, and Lamb says he doesn’t like “shutting things out” or in. He likes to see the light and the dark, and open the windows to hear the weather. Derry says he likes this too, and Lamb comments that Derry does “listen” to some things after all.
Mr. Lamb elaborates on his life philosophy of openness—he doesn’t like shutting anything out, whether pleasant or unpleasant. He also finds a sense of connection and companionship in reading books, as shown by the fact that he considers a house full of books to not actually be uninhabited. Derry is attracted to Mr. Lamb’s worldview, as he comes further out of his shell.
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Derry says he hears his family talk about him, wondering “what’s going to happen to him” when they’re gone, “with that on his face.” Mr. Lamb reminds him that he still has his brain and all his body parts, and he can “get on” however he wants, if he sets his mind to it—just like Lamb himself does.
Derry withdraws a bit once more, returning to things he has heard people saying about him, but at least trying to show Mr. Lamb that he really does keep his ears open. Lamb doesn’t pity Derry, and pushes him to not pity himself.
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Derry asks Mr. Lamb if he has any friends, and Lamb says he has “hundreds.” He claims that people come into his house to sit by the fire or to have fruit or toffee, and “everybody knows” him. He says Derry too is now a friend. Derry protests, but Lamb says that they are friends as far as he’s concerned. Derry says not everyone can be a friend, especially if you only meet them once—and there are some people he even hates. Mr. Lamb says that hating people is worse “than any bottle of acid,” or the bomb that blew up his leg.
There’s no reason to disbelieve Lamb’s claim about his friends at this point in the play, but later on it’s made unclear if he’s being totally honest here—he might actually be lonely and isolated, “visited” only by people who steal his apples or taunt him. Yet he clearly values human connection greatly, as he already considers Derry a friend. Lamb also compares a negative emotion like hatred to a physical wound, making Derry see his disability in a new light.
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Derry explains that one person said that he’d have been better off staying at the hospital with other people like himself. He says if all the people with various disabilities were kept together, “at least there’d be nobody to stare at you because you weren’t like them.”
Though Mr. Lamb’s openness and understanding have broken through some of Derry’s reservations, the boy still keeps bringing up things that make him bitter, perhaps hoping that Lamb will help explain them or change his view of them.
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Derry says that he’d like to have a place like Mr. Lamb’s: “A garden…a house with no curtains.” Lamb says that Derry can come whenever he wants to, though other people might be there as well. Derry thinks that if others were there, they’d probably run away once they saw him, and then Mr. Lamb would lose all his other friends. Lamb says he might as well risk it. Even though the neighborhood kids call him “Lamey-Lamb,” he says, they still come into his garden—because he’s not afraid of them.
Derry has grown more comfortable with Mr. Lamb now, but he is still immediately wary of other people, and still assumes that they would be afraid of him. Mr. Lamb admits that he too is mocked for his disability, but he has developed a healthier attitude about it (presumably with decades of practice that Derry doesn’t have), and he doesn’t let other people’s cruelty bother him much. He finds comfort in remaining open to everything.
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Derry asks Mr. Lamb if he lost his leg in “the war,” and Lamb says, “Certainly.” Derry then asks how Mr. Lamb can climb the ladder to get crab apples. Lamb says he takes his time, and has learned how to do many things. Derry muses that if he were on his own, Mr. Lamb could fall off his ladder and no one would find him. Derry then considers Lamb’s earlier offer of helping him pick the apples.
Derry’s comment about Mr. Lamb potentially falling off his ladder and having no one to find him is in fact foreshadowing of the play’s dramatic climax. The tragic situation of having no one around in a time of desperate need also emphasizes the importance of human connection. Derry now seriously thinks about coming back to talk more with Mr. Lamb, as he has found a real sense of companionship with the old man.
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Derry says that if he’s going to help Mr. Lamb with the apples, he’ll need to let his mother know where he is, and he lives three miles away. Mr. Lamb says he could run home and then come back later, but Derry insists that his mother would never let him come back. Mr. Lamb thinks that this just an excuse—Derry is the one who wouldn’t want to come back.
Mr. Lamb now shows his own sense of wariness, as he assumes that Derry won’t really come back to see him again and is just using his mother as an excuse. The two characters now start to switch roles to a certain degree, as Derry becomes more excited about spending time with Lamb, while Lamb pulls away slightly in anticipation of Derry rejecting his offer of friendship.
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Derry asks about the other people who Mr. Lamb said come to visit him. Derry then declares that he doesn’t believe Mr. Lamb has any friends at all—he thinks “you’re here all by yourself and miserable and no one would know if you were alive or dead and nobody cares.” Lamb says only, “you think what you please.” Then he gets up and says he needs to go tend to his bees.
As their conversation comes to an end, the two withdraw back into themselves slightly, both of them insecure about the sense of connection they have found with each other. Derry’s statement about Lamb’s loneliness, while cruel, is also potentially true—there’s no evidence that Lamb actually has lots of friends, or that anyone comes to visit him. Lamb again turns to nature and his methodical, contemplative work after a potentially upsetting exchange.
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Derry says he thinks Mr. Lamb is “daft” and “crazy,” but Lamb rebukes him, saying that this is only an “excuse,” like Derry’s burned face is “other people’s excuse.” Derry tries to accuse Mr. Lamb of thinking he’s “ugly as a devil,” and declares that he is a devil, but as Mr. Lamb walks off to his bees Derry admits to himself that Lamb doesn’t really believe this. Derry says, “I like it here,” and promises to himself that he’ll run home and then come back. He runs off.
Mr. Lamb supports a worldview that people are meant to be kind and connected to each other, but instead they find “excuses” to be cruel and isolate themselves. Derry recognizes that Lamb is different from other people he has interacted with, but he isn’t yet ready to say this to Lamb himself. Derry has grown over the course of this brief encounter, and is now potentially willing to open himself up to a new friendship.
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Mr. Lamb, tending to his bees, talks to himself. He says, “I’ll come back. They never do, though. Not them. Never do come back.”
Here Mr. Lamb shows his own insecurities—he is not as unflappable as he initially seemed, and has apparently had other experiences like this, in which he opened himself up to someone else who left and never returned. This is a brief glimpse of Lamb’s own loneliness, as it may be the case that he doesn’t have any lasting friendships at all.
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