Unmasked was the prompt for the December WEP+IWSG short story writing challenge. In an on-off sort of reversal, it finally continues on its due date, from my perspective, as it’s an optional one for the month. Everyone is under pressure and feeling the strain, not least our gallant organising team. I’d like to thank them all for the work they put into this bimonthly event. I hope everyone has a very happy Christmas, or celebration of their choice, whatever their individual situation.
My story took a while to come to hand, and eventually turned out longer than I expected, so after a short prune, it’s still 1350 words, and I hope you’ll forgive them all.
“I’d rather just stay here.”
Carol knew that. How to get a husband out of his chair when all he wants to do is sit and look at whatever is on the box. Or even what’s not on the box, since he would sit and stare even if it was off.
“Hun, it’s Christmas. We’re in our own bubble, they’re in their bubble, we’re both in Tier 2, we can meet up and have dinner together.”
“Just one day. I could invite them here, of course…”
He shifted in his seat. She nodded to herself. She didn’t want that either, but it was a solution, if he didn’t want to go out. Of course, they hadn’t been going out, at all. Even her walks to keep fit had dwindled. She should have kept that up, gone after breakfast perhaps. She still could.
“They do understand,” she tried again. “They don’t expect jollity and laughter, just, well, company. I’d like company, you know. Christmas. Friends. We’ll be stuck watching reruns of Bruce Forsyth and Morecambe & Wise…”
“Best thing on TV.”
“I thought you said Game of Thrones was the best thing on TV.” She tried a joke, but it could have been a dust mote settling on the Christmas tree, the only concession to decorations in their living room. Except for the red and green on cards mingling with the blackbordered one.
It wasn’t just the death of his mother that had sent him to this place. It was the guilt. Unnecessary guilt, but still. The care home had done their best, driven frantic by the continuous change in guidance from inept authority. Telephone calls to Mum had been a nightmare. She just cried or yelled at them for abandoning her. ‘In this place’ had hit to Carol’s heart. It had been so hard to find her somewhere as pleasant, with such good staff as Three Trees.
Just the one chance, when the first lockdown was over, to see her. All masked up, everyone, although Mum kept trying to tear hers off. Mum behind the barrier at her door, them standing in the corridor, socially distanced from the other visitor, on a strict schedule. Four visitors per corridor at any time. Just like the vet, they waited in their car to be called, then had fifteen minutes with her. Next week, they’d had the call: no more visits, the home was in lockdown, three residents rushed to hospital with Covid-19. Then four more. Then ten being treated in their rooms unless full ventilation required. Isolation. Mum rushed to hospital. And they couldn’t even visit her.
Carol stopped herself. Every time, she blamed herself, but for what? Being prevented from giving a beloved old woman comfort in her final hours? It was hardly her choice. But Martin blamed himself and the rest of the world. And sank further into his own private hell.
The second lockdown had come and gone, and made not the slightest difference to their lives. She masked up and went shopping, and came home, washed her hands and her mask, and wiped the goods she’d bought before putting them all away.
Martin sat in front of the television. But at least he was up, and dressed. Some of her friends admitted they didn’t get dressed unless they were going out.
But now they could go out, and go to visit people in their bubble. Tier 2 meant they could see people, gather out of doors in the rule of six, although she would always wear her mask, even outdoors.
Jenny and Phill had invited them for Christmas dinner. They’d had a similar experience with Jenny’s dad. Nobody wanted to celebrate, except maybe getting this far. How could she persuade him?
Christmas Eve came, and Carol was still prevaricating. When Jenny phoned at 6 pm, she confessed she couldn’t persuade Martin to come.
“Don’t worry, there’s enough for four, but we’ll make it last for two if not. Phill’s been a bit anti-Christmas too. I suppose I’m just clinging on to some sort of normality.”
They agreed to see what happened. If Martin wanted to have cheese and biscuits for lunch, he could stay home. If Carol wanted to come on her own, she could.
Carol thought about that all night, or so it seemed. How could she leave him on his own on Christmas Day? Even just for lunch? Lunch wouldn’t be worth eating.
Christmas morning. Carol went downstairs in her dressing gown and slippers to see if Father Christmas had been. To her great surprise, he had. Next to the large red box for Martin, there was a small box: “To Carol with love, always.”
She unwrapped it, and found a battered glasses case. Inside was a rolled up paper.
“My dearest one. Thank you for being here. Sometimes I think you’ll just leave and I’ll have to get on with it on my own, but you stay, and I don’t deserve it. I did buy a present for you, but I got a text on Tuesday saying it was out of stock. Maybe it’ll come in the new year. So I have nothing to give you but my thanks for sticking with me. It’s like there’s a mask over me, protecting me from anyone who might be taken like Mum was. I’m scared it will happen to you. love, Martin.”
Why were the last few words all blurry? Oh, tears were dripping down her nose. She sorted herself out, read the letter again, then rolled it carefully and stowed it in the case. Time for a shower.
Martin was downstairs: carols sounded from the TV. She decided to wear her going-out dress to emphasise the possibility of lunch. It might only be ten-thirty, but Jenny had said ‘any time after eleven and before one’ so they might just have a quick breakfast…
Martin had set the table and put the coffee on. He stood in his smart shirt, trousers and Christmas sweater, towel over one arm like a waiter.
“Breakfast, love? Scrambled eggs on toast, perhaps?”
She gave him a Christmas kiss and settled herself in her place. The old Sunday breakfast routine, reimagined for Christmas.
“I thought we’d go round to Jenny and Phill about 12. Is that alright?” he asked.
She nodded. Don’t scare him off with too much joy. This elation would have to stay under control. “Lovely, dear.”
“Oh, I’ve got a couple of new masks for us to wear over there, what do you think?”
He whipped his on. Everyone’s one-handed masking-up technique was so slick now. The laughter erupted from her as Rudolph and his friends galloped across his face.
“Jenny will have hysterics!” Carol said, laughing anew as he passed hers, a lovely snowmaiden-style effect.
“I hope so, I got her and Phill some too.”
At Jenny and Phill’s door they heard the chimes echo down the hallway of their Victorian townhouse, and a scuffle of feet with a young voice saying “they’re here!”
Jenny opened the door, and stared, then laughed. “Wonderful! Keep them on a moment, won’t you, so the others can see them. Rob, Suzy, come and look at Uncle Martin!”
“Hello Uncle…” the rest was lost in a collapse of giggles.
The grandchildren were there as their key worker parents had both been called into the hospital for an emergency. Martin took it in his stride. Carol’s relief at the return of her loving, kind husband, made her weak at the knees. She gratefully took the sherry Phill offered, and sank into an armchair.
“Before you take off those masks, we need a photo,” Phill said.
The kids chorused “a photo” a few times, then settled at Carol and Martin’s feet, before rushing to their grandad to check how it looked.
Jenny smiled at them. “I’m so glad you came. I think you can unmask now, though.”
Carol took hers off, carefully folding it for the trip home. Phil’s smile told her everything she needed to know. Unmasked, permanently. Or at least for now.
© J M Pett 2020