Masks. Flash fiction by Pen Kease

‘They say we’ll be talking about this for a long time – that the stories we hear will reverberate around hundreds of years after we’ve gone. Like the one about the nurse who had a car accident and then found that the other driver was ill with Covid 19, held his hand until he died, even though she might have become infected herself. The local community were so touched by her kindness that they all clubbed together and bought her a new car.’
She could tell that he was smiling but tried not to look at anything other than his eyes. It would be unseemly.
‘I’m not sure that the current situation will yield as many of those stories as the last pandemic did though,’ she said. ‘Anyway, I’d better go. I have work to do.’

After observing all the usual niceties of goodbyes, she switched off and went to the Back Room.
Here, it was all very different; the cold stew in the pan on the camping stove, the pile of old duvets and sleeping bags on the makeshift bed. You never showed anyone your Back Room. Only the Front one. And online, nobody would guess the smell of unwashed bodies, the distant tang of sewage.

Appearances were all these days. Nobody worried much about the actualité. As long as your Front Room was in order.
When she was in the Front Room, Suree could pretend that everything was this wonderful life, in full retro colour. Everything was as it should be; there were proper toilets and water on tap, everything was in tiptop order. She was not hungry. There was no ailing elderly mother constantly harping on about how things should be, and how they were not, and how her generation were spineless to let all this happen, even though Suree had been a child at the time. She always applied her eye make-up before entering the Front Room, and her clothes were always smart and colourful from the waist up.

She had made herself several colourful masks to show her bubbly personality. Nobody could see the matted and sticky carpet beneath her feet.
Suree worked in the Back Room like everybody else. She made things on her sewing machine – whatever was needed. Face masks one week, maybe soft toys the next, depending on what people in the Big Country wanted. The materials arrived on her doorstep, and everything she produced was taken away the following day. Sometimes she would work all night to make up for the time she’d spent cooking or feeding her mother.

Maybe Kingston did this as well. She liked Kingston, even though she’d only ever seen his eyes and forehead, the wisps of black hair, the lighter beard that escaped near his ears. They had some good chats, ‘over the water-cooler’, he’d say, although she wasn’t quite sure what a ‘water-cooler’ was, or why one would chat over it. Sometimes Suree regretted falling asleep in her lessons. Kingston had been like her, once, he’d said. He seemed to understand. Parents, he said, were the pits. He seemed to know so much more – was so knowledgeable and reassuring. Sometimes she imagined a life where the whole house was just like the Front Room, and there was Kingston, too, being knowledgeable and showing her what life was about. He’d said something about showing her Life once, and that it was a pity about her mother stopping her from Living. Her ways were the Old Ways, he’d assured her, but now, people were defying the Old Ways. They were starting to Go Out agai n.

Now, her mother was asleep, her mouth open, snoring contentedly, one hand dropping almost to the floor. It was time. She pulled on a cardigan, straightened her mask, and crept to the front door…

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