The Naked Face

1. THE SALARY MAN

When people asked Joe Prentice what he did for a living he would sometimes falter before replying. A disturbed look might come into his eyes, as though he were trying to remember something, and then he would carefully adjust his mask and find the words, ‘I’m a salesman’, and all would be well. At least three days a week he went out travelling, hoping to sell the company’s latest products around the northern territories. The rest of the time he spent in his cubicle on the fourth floor, recording his figures and working out his strategies for the coming season. It was a good enough job and Joe was good enough at it, but he never progressed beyond this basic level. His colleagues were puzzled by his lack of ambition. People knew that he was married, they felt sure he was devoted to his two children, whose photographs adorned his cubicle wall. Beyond that, Joe remained a mystery. He sat at his desk, he travelled the designated areas in his car, he sold the company’s range of facial coverings. And all the time he kept his own mask firmly in place. That was it, the life of Joe Prentice.

And then, one day there was an incident. It took place in one of the larger hotels on the outskirts of the city, where a convention of salesman was gathered. Joe had shouted at, and then attacked, or tried to attack, one of the customers in the bar. It was completely out of character. After this occurrence, his sales figures started to slide and he became even more reclusive. His overseer had words, all to no avail. And then, late one day whilst Joe was washing his hands in the restroom sink, the strangest feeling came over him. He had looked up at himself in the mirror, just to check that his mask was correctly aligned. The soft linen folded around his face snugly, the brow printed with the capital Z of the company’s logo. He had worn this same type of covering for the last six years. For some reason, he felt a sudden urge to rip the mask from his face, to walk through the office complex, screaming out loud with all of his pain and frustration. Oh, he could imagine his colleagues looking at him then, he could picture their masks shaking from side to side in disgust.

No, it would not do. That must never happen. Joe was in enough trouble as it was, with his monthly figures. It had to be his fault, because everybody agreed that the new lines were the company’s best in years: discreet enough for the office, colourful enough for the arcades and theatres, that’s what the lifestyle magazines were saying. So why weren’t Joe’s buyers in the department stores and boutiques interested? He was a perfectly good salesman, he knew that he was.

If only he hadn’t seen that man at the hotel.

It was the shock of seeing his father’s mask like that. There were so few of them left, and each one beautifully handcrafted. Joe’s father had been a real artist, not like the trendy young designers the company employed. What did they know about the art and craft of mask making, with their cheap mass-produced rubbish, the success of which had more or less put the smaller independent companies out of business? His father had never really recovered from the bankruptcy. He viewed it as a personal failure, as a slight on his skills. Joe had found him once, just sitting in his armchair, staring at his hands. He could not be moved, not for many hours.

All of these memories had come back to Joe when he spotted the hotel guest wearing the elaborately carved wooden mask. It certainly looked like an example of his father’s work. For one absurd, bewildering moment Joe had even thought it might actually be his father beneath the covering. A grey mist exploded behind his eyes and the next thing he knew, he was rolling around on the plush carpet, trying to rip the mask from the stranger’s face. It was a moment of darkness in his life, but what else could he do, really? It had been so long now, so long since…

Somebody else entered the restroom. It was Fleischmann, from the seventh floor. The older man’s mask was decorated with so many brass studs, it looked like a piece of executive armour. Joe had sometimes wondered if he could ever wear such a covering. He nodded to his superior, but the other man would not respond. The cold hard mask turned away. Joe hurried from the room, making his way to the meeting hall. Hundreds of greetings cards were pinned to the corridor wall, all of them wishing the head of the company a speedy recovery. The founder had been ill for so long now, it was impossible to think he would not die. There was much speculation regarding the possible outcome of this. It was unsettling. Perhaps this emergency meeting would bring some positive news. Joe arrived at the hall with time to spare, but the place was already full. People were either sitting in fold-out chairs or shuffling around at the back. A middle-aged woman in a beautiful silver mask took the stage at the front of the hall and began talking about the company’s prospects. Joe’s mind started to drift. He noted the cosmetics team in their surf shorts and sandals, the high-caste designers with their long white gloves and spiked heels. Everyone was wearing examples of this season’s masks. Whether made of black leather or imitation stained glass, whether modelled after this month’s pop star or an old movie idol, they all had the same painted grin; it was one of the many things that the founder had insisted upon, one of his visions that had since become company policy. Joe looked around anxiously. He couldn’t see anyone else wearing the plain, everyday linen veil. Was this yet another mistake on his part? Maybe he had missed the memo. He forced himself to concentrate on the stage, where a graphic display was showing the new lines and the female executive was talking in optimistic tones about the future, despite the recent fall in the share price. There was no mention of the founder. Perhaps there was hope of recovery, after all? Or else the company was simply turning a blind eye to possible disaster.

Joe left the meeting early. All the talk of sales projections had depressed him. He felt a pain in his left temple, as though his skull had tightened. Perhaps he would take the rest of the day off; surely he deserved it, for all the unpaid overtime he had put in over the years. He went to his cubicle to pick up his mobile screen.

His desk had been cleared.

Joe touched the work surface. For a moment he thought he might have taken a wrong turning. The world seemed to tip and swirl around him, he had to grab the back of his chair for support. No, this was his cubicle, there were the photographs of his children. They were the only things left to him; everything else had been taken away. His skin felt clammy. He couldn’t have been fired, it wasn’t right. Now his colleagues were entering the office space. They motored past him, their masks averted.

2. HAVE YOU EVER FELT DISCONNECTED?

The salesman is driving home. The steering wheel turns slowly beneath his fingers, his mask feels warm and snug against his face. The city is covered over by dusk, allowing the billboards to cast their neon-lit spell. The car is shiny and red. It is a good car, a well travelled car. This vehicle has taken him around the whole of the northern territories. The radio is tuned into Smooth Rock Paradise. Ooh baby, reach out and touch me. Let me know your secret desires. The salesman wonders where the voices are coming from. Everything is a blur. He takes the next turning off the carriageway. This is not his usual route. He is travelling, he is simply moving along. After a while he finds himself in a strange part of town. All the young women are wearing Patti Smith and Debbie Harry masks. How peculiar. The radio plays a message from the sponsor: It is only human to feel a glow when others look with envy upon your suit or your car or your spouse. Don’t be left out. Send off now. The red saloon moves along. The salesman closes his eyes. A bus honks at him and he swings the wheel to stop himself from getting clipped. The pain in his head turns up a notch. A cold dirty rain falls. The streets are slick with reflected light, people are scurrying along with newspapers and umbrellas over their heads. The traffic signs and the billboards are talking. Can you hear the voices? Walk. Don’t Walk. Talk. Don’t Talk. Send off now to ensure prompt delivery. It is a warm, pleasant evening. It is raining. It is not raining. The salesman grips the wheel tighter.
He drives to the river. The car stops midway across the bridge and the salesman steps out. He opens the boot. His work samples are stored here, carefully arranged in cardboard boxes. He takes the masks and throws them over the side of the bridge. The heavier models fall cleanly, whilst those made from cloth flutter here and there, eventually making their way down into the water below. Whatever your mood, we have a new face to bring out the very best in you. Click here for instant satisfaction. The masks float away towards the distant sea. Perhaps the salesman will follow them, perhaps he will throw himself off the edge, into the river. He can feel the urge, the urge to leap, to escape. To be released.

A few hours later, the red saloon turns into Night Blossom Avenue. This is where the salesman lives. Number 27. He sits in the parked car for a while, before taking off his work mask. The salesman feels tired, he rubs his eyes. Maybe it isn’t too late for him to set up on his own as a vendor of specialist wares, the luxury trade. His fingers search in the glove compartment for his home mask. Which face shall he wear this evening, to best hide the pain? He has a selection to choose from. Oh boy, what a feeling! Have you ever felt more beautiful, more daring? Yes, he could travel all around the city, helping people better their lives by picking out just the right mask for them. He would be a consultant. Everybody needs a good disguise, especially in today’s world. The only people who didn’t wear masks were disturbed. Crazy people lying in doorways. Drugged up men and women found dead in their one room flats. The salesman has read the articles. His fingers touch the soft edges of his oldest and most familiar mask. He slips it on. Now he’s Clint Eastwood, the mythical gunslinger with the craggy face, the cold distant stare. Suitable for all income levels, portable, self-cleaning, fifteen different shades available. Who could ask for more? The salesman turns off the radio. He thinks of the news stories about the middle-aged executives who turn up for work cradling loaded assault weapons. They were bare-faced.

Little Jamie and his sister Angie are sprawled on the floor in their dressing gowns. They look up briefly when the salesman comes into the living room, their faces concealed behind their favourite Bip and Bop masks. The children return their attention to the television where the blue flicker of a woman’s face fills the screen. The salesman walks through into the kitchen, where Ellen is taking his dinner from the oven. They have not been getting on very well these last few weeks. He apologises to her, for being late. He tells her that he has to work extra hours these days, because of a sales promotion. The salesman is lying. All the young jetsetters swear by the latest styling. You too could look a million dollars. Ellen nods. She is wearing a new mask, a vivid turquoise in colour with a silver fin jutting out from the forehead and a panel of yellow lights set down the middle. The lights flash in random sequence. It really is very beautiful. The salesman sits in his armchair, nursing a gin and tonic.

The children have been sent to bed, but the same programme is still playing on the television. The Naked Face. It’s the most popular show these days. The salesman can understand the need for such a programme. A human face, without a mask, in permanent close-up. Every expression, every change in mood, sleeping or waking, is broadcast to the viewers, twenty-four hours a day. Yes, he can understand the need, but who would let themselves be used in this manner? All night long just for your pleasure. Now available at special rates. The Naked Face is staring directly at the salesman. He shivers. It is raining, it is not raining. He has only ever seen his wife’s face once, at the private unveiling in the little wedding chapel. How could he forget that? It was the most intimate form of sharing. The salesman takes another drink. Have you ever felt disconnected from yourself? Well then, suffer no more. His mask is wet against his face.

3. REACH OUT AND TOUCH ME

Prentice could not sleep. His wife lay beside him, breathing gently. He looked at her face, which was covered by a blue silk sleeping hood. His own was made from striped cotton. The lights of a passing car moved across the wall, across the two wooden masks that were hanging there. They were all he had left of his father’s work. Dead faces, their carved features etched with shadow. Prentice got up and stood by the window. The gardens of suburbia looked peaceful, bathed in moonlight. He touched his brow. The pain would not go away. He had a sudden feeling that something had gone wrong, just at this moment. What could it be? He went downstairs.

There it was, on the news channel. After months of illness the founder of the company had finally passed away. Prentice felt very little other than a certain coldness on his bones. He poured himself a drink and then tuned into the adults only station. The stars wore masks made of pink fur and shiny black rubber. The action was soft-core, tasteful even. Suddenly, the screen went dark. There was a low wailing sound. Prentice emptied his glass. He was thinking of his own father. No, it was too painful. He jabbed at the remote. The face passed by. He moved on a few more channels, and then flicked back. Can’t you hear me calling? The woman’s features filled the screen. Her eyes were closed in sleep. Prentice studied her. The naked face was framed by blonde hair. Her lips were full and red. Let me know your secret desires. She was very beautiful. Reach out and touch me. It wasn’t just physical, it was the way she had volunteered herself. To be a victim like this, willingly, baring her soul. The camera moved in. She was presenting herself. She was giving herself up to the viewers, surrendering. The lips were parted. All night long, just for your pleasure. Prentice could hear her breathing. It was strangely exciting. He caressed the glass. It was no good, he had to…

At the moment of climax the naked face opened her eyes. Prentice cried out with pleasure. He collapsed into his chair. Oh boy, what a feeling! Five minutes later he fetched a paper towel from the kitchen, using it to wipe down the television screen. The woman’s face lay there beneath the glass. Her eyes were closed once more. Have you ever felt more beautiful, more daring? Prentice pulled at his mask, his skin damp with sweat. He had never done anything like this before. His body trembled.

4. A STRANGE PART OF TOWN

Maria Salvador peered through the one-way glass. It was useful to view the customers unseen like this, to gauge their desires. This one was dressed in a plain blue suit with a matching cloth wraparound covering his face. A businessman. He was gazing at the sexual fetish masks, his hands twitching as he did so. Maria knew the type; he was nervous, hardly daring to believe the violent imagery on display, and yet drawn to the masks for reasons hardly acknowledged. She pulled a curtain aside and greeted him. The customer jumped in shock.

The Mask Of Spikes is made from black leather, guitar strings and rusty iron nails. The nails are on the inside. The face of Kurt Cobain is lovingly embroidered on the front panel. The wearer’s blood seeps through the stitching. A most pleasing effect.

Joe had left home that morning at the normal time, as though leaving for work. He had no work. Instead, he’d spent the day travelling around, moving away from his usual routes, seeking out the more dangerous areas of the city. He wasn’t even sure what he was looking for until he spotted the little shop in the back street: Salvador’s Mask Emporium. It looked like a porn parlour.
The lightweight plasma display of the Mask of Electric Glamour wraps directly around the head. Your face becomes a television, flickering with murder scene footage, surgery videos, amateur porn, shots of Christ being nailed to the cross. The mask plugs directly into the mains. Comes with remote control and a five metre flex.

Joe’s eyes stared out through the tiny openings in his face cloth as Maria said, ‘I’ll just take some measurements.’ A pair of callipers extended from her work mask, looking for all the world like the claws of a giant scorpion. Joe backed away but there was no escape. The claws reached out.

The Veil of Fountains is supplied complete with its own rubber codpiece. This device collects the wearer’s urine. Hidden tubing pumps the golden liquid to the head, where it gathers in the clear plastic channels of the mask itself. The face is tantalisingly glimpsed through the bubbling façade.

A mask was chosen. Maria turned away discreetly as the customer removed his everyday covering. Now the leather support harness closed around his skull. The new mask firmly in place, Maria directed Joe to the full-length mirror. He could hardly comprehend how disgusting he looked, how vile; his body was shaking, he felt a powerful urge to tear the world apart with his bare hands. ‘There now,’ said Maria. ‘Isn’t that you!’ The mask shivered with delight.

The Mask of Parasites is made from green baize stretched tightly around the head. Metal bands support tiny cutting blades. These work incessantly, and very slowly, slicing through the baize. Over a period of weeks the blades approach the face. This is the mask that kills itself.

These and many other faces are now on offer.

The customer climbed into his car. For a good five minutes all he could do was sit behind the wheel, clutching his purchase tightly to his lap. He couldn’t believe what he’d just done, how much money he’d spent on the mask, the Mask of Renegade Desire. He could ill afford it, especially with no job to go to, no regular income coming in. Of course he would have to keep it a secret. His family, his friends, they must never find out just how wretched he was.

5. FALLING DARKNESS

Prentice waved cheerfully as his wife and kids drove away. They were visiting relatives for the weekend. He poured himself a drink and waited for half an hour, just to be sure his family had not forgotten anything. It would be dreadful if he were caught out. He went upstairs, retrieving the new mask from its hiding place, carrying the box through into the main bedroom. He removed the various parts, laying them out carefully on the bed, untangling the tubes and setting aside the canisters. He slipped the batteries into the power unit. All that done, he took off his shoes and socks, his shirt and trousers, his underwear, folding each item neatly, until only his casual weekend mask remained. He finished what was left of his drink and then pulled the printed cotton free from his head. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so naked.

After doing a few limbering up exercises, Prentice smeared his skin with the special lotion. He started to attach the new mask to his body. First of all he tied the belt around his waist. Next he pulled the two leather bands between his legs, clipping them to the back of the belt. He fitted the main support strap around his chest. Two further straps were fixed over each shoulder. The two canisters slotted into loops on the belt. During this procedure he kept the operator’s manual propped open on the bed, following each instruction in turn. The whole thing buckled together in such a way that he felt was tying himself into a weird bondage outfit, a portable cage even. He was scared. If he pulled the straps any tighter, he might not be able to escape from himself.
Shaking off this idea, he lifted up the head unit itself. The main frontispiece was two feet square, constructed from lightweight plastic, a thrillingly urban design. The manual explained how to fit the long, thin extensible arms into the sockets on each side of the headpiece. Each arm was fully jointed, and tipped with a sharp nib-like point. Taking a breath, Prentice lifted the finished unit over his head and attached it to the shoulder and neck brace. The leather bands clutched at his temples, easing the pain slightly. Next he checked to see if the visor moved properly on its hinges, raising the frontispiece away from his face, and then lowering it once more. Finally, he clipped together the various plastic tubes. Now he was ready.

Prentice turned to face the wardrobe’s full-length mirror. He had worn only the headgear in the shop, not the full body rig. It was different. He had expected it to bring a more powerful feeling. Something was wrong. The mask looked flimsy and the two metal arms waved around like grotesque antennae. His soft flesh bulged out around the leather straps, his penis hung limp between his legs. He looked pathetic. Maybe switching on the mask would improve matters. His hand moved towards the control panel on the belt, and then stopped. Prentice had the feeling that he was being watched. He looked round. His father’s old masks were staring down at him from the wall and suddenly he felt ashamed of himself. He swung the frontispiece away from his face and sat down on the bed. Who was he kidding? Hadn’t his father mentioned that only the truly beautiful or the truly hideous could wear a mask correctly? It was a question of knowing what to hide and what to reveal.

He thought again of his childhood, how his father would often work all the hours of the day, perfecting his latest creations. The young Joey would like to sit nearby, watching as glaring monsters, evil demons, or bizarre hybrids of man and animal emerged from the wood. His father had a rule, that all masks be made from only the finest woods, carved and painted by hand. He also said that each mask had to be unique in design. Another time he told Joey the story of the False Face medicine ritual of the Iroquois people, where the shaman of the tribe would receive a design for a mask in a dream, and this mask would be carved directly into the trunk of a living tree; only when the mask was complete would it be sliced free from the tree. You had to summon up the spirit of the mask, that was the secret. Joe Prentice couldn’t manage it, not as a child, not as a man.

Once again, he looked at the two wooden masks on the wall. He thought of the Mask of Falling Darkness, the last work his father completed before he died. It was supposed to be his masterpiece, the mask that would save his career. Prentice stood up. He ran his hand along the plastic straps that tightly bound his chest. They were slick with sweat. He had never lived up to his father’s dreams, that was the problem. It was shameful. He reached up to take first one mask and then the other off the wall, placing the two faces on the bed, covering them both with a white sheet. Now Prentice turned to face the mirror once more. He pulled the frontispiece back into position, lowering the shiny black visor. Searching along the belt, his fingers found and pressed at the raised buttons. Immediately, he felt a surge of energy. The fluids were being pumped from the canisters, up the tubes to the mask, to reach the end of the two flexible arms. The tips glistened, one red, the other white. All was in place. His hands grabbed the tiny control levers fixed to the belt.

He looked at himself in the glass. Now the mask gave his body a brutal, perverse appeal. His penis was rubbing against the leg bands. He couldn’t help himself, he was becoming aroused. He moved the controls and the two extended arms moved in sympathy; they swung apart and then clashed together above his head. It looked like he was applauding his own image. Then the left-hand arm twitched madly before swinging round to spray red paint on the frontispiece. Prentice had hardly touched the controls; the mask worked its own magic. He looked in the mirror. It took him a few moments to reverse the message that he saw written on the mask’s faceplate.

It said WILLING VICTIM.

Prentice had never felt so excited.

6. THE SPELLBOUND FACE

It used to be that mask-wearing was an affectation of the very rich, a small group of people who paid well for handmade goods. Gradually the fashion extended to all sectors of society, and mass-produced items started to replace the made-to-order variety. Eventually, even the upper classes preferred to wear cheap celebrity masks. Alexander Prentice, an expert facemaker by trade, was declared bankrupt at the age of thirty-four.

Little Joey would always remember that day, and the troubled times that followed. His father fell into a black depression. He would hide himself away in his workroom for hours on end, very often refusing to eat, and only emerging now and again to shout and scream at his family. At first his wife Barbara would get upset at this; later on she would simply turn away. The marriage was falling apart. Joey was only seven years old at the time. He was still in awe of his father. He would knock on the workroom door every so often, only to receive an angry dismissal. His father became a figure glimpsed in a mirror, a shadow cast on a wall, nothing more. And then one day the door to the workroom was opened, and the father called for his son to enter.

Alexander Prentice was working on a new mask. At first sight it resembled the face of a primitive demon, made from hundreds of different pieces of wood, the surface all knotted and covered in spikes. It was terrifying. And then Joey watched as his father moved each piece of wood into a new position, piece after piece, until an entirely new face was revealed, that of a prince or a warrior. It was called the Mask of Falling Darkness. The young boy had never seen anything like it, so beautiful, so malevolent. And yet a few pieces of wood were not yet slotted into their new positions. Joey asked why this was and his father would only say that the mask was not yet finished, there was still a lot of work to be done. Then he told his son to leave the room.

Joey felt certain that this new creation meant a change of heart for his father, that he would soon recover his will to live. Instead, the door to the workroom was now locked for days on end. Any summons from Joey or his mother would elicit only the briefest of replies; and then even those faded to silence. Eventually, the caretaker had to be called in. The door was broken open. In the confusion, and before his mother could stop him, Joey rushed into the room. He saw his father slumped over his work desk, his face and head covered by the strange new mask. Everything was very still and quiet. There was an unpleasant smell in the air.

The coroner returned a verdict of death by misadventure. He described the mask as a puzzle, or a trap; once closed it could only be opened by a secret method. Joey imagined his father in those final moments, as the mask suffocated him. Of course, the people of the neighbourhood thought it was suicide, but Joey sensed a deeper truth, one he could barely understand. Darkness had closed around his father’s face.

7. IT WAS A PERFECTLY NORMAL DAY

Beneath the blue serge of his business suit, beneath the cool pressed cotton of his shirt, Prentice could feel the plastic straps of the harness bite into his skin. He could not wait to get started, stopping the car just a few streets from home. The remaining components of the mask were taken out one by one from a carrier bag. He could hardly assemble the headpiece properly, his hands were shaking so much. There, now he had it. As soon as the Mask of Renegade Desire covered his face, he felt the blood rise in his veins.

A little later, his vehicle pulled up outside the local junior school. Children were entering through the gates, each one wearing a cute animal face. They turned to wave at their parents. Prentice got out of his car and walked up to a group of young girls. The two arms of his mask were twitching, bending round to squirt paint on the face plate. A word was being written. Seeing this, the children started to scream and run away. A woman shouted from a passing car. A group of mothers were getting angry. One of them hit Prentice with a rolled-up magazine. They spat at him. He climbed in his car and drove away. The rear-view mirror showed only a portion of the word written in red on the mask’s face: PAEDOPHILE. The right-hand arm swung round and squirted white paint over the letters, erasing them from sight.

Midday, the financial district. Prentice stood outside the smoked glass doors of a merchant bank. He jabbed his finger at the security camera mounted on the wall. His mask said CAPITALISM SUCKS. A gang of young business executives moved in. They were dressed in Armani blazers with matching Tom Cruise masks. Two of them held Prentice against the wall, whilst another donned a pair of designer knuckledusters. People walked by paying no mind to the spectacle.

It was late afternoon by the time Prentice found himself at the converted warehouses by the river. He stopped when he came to the television studio. The long metal arms of the mask twitched excitedly, as though they wanted to write entire poems made out of dirt and shit and blood. There was a line of contenders waiting outside the studio, each of them hoping to become to the new Naked Face: young men in leotards with the masks of grinning devils, ageing glamour queens in false eye-lashes and fixed grins, obese children in shining face paint. Prentice laughed bitterly as his own mask moved into action, the two arms swinging round to spray the words FUCK FACE across the frontispiece. FUCK FACE! FUCK FACE! FUCK FACE! The camera addicts shouted at him and pushed him away. He ran at them and they tipped back into each other. Soon they were fighting amongst themselves. Prentice could feel himself being pulled down beneath their feet. He kicked out viciously, managing to escape.

At dusk he wandered down to the football stadium, where the sky shone with unnatural light, and amplified commentary fought against the tribal chanting that filled the air. The smell of human sweat mingled with the stench of undercooked beef from the numerous burger bars. Prentice loitered among the parked cars. His suit was torn and stained. There was blood on his shirt front. A gang of young men in nylon jackets approached him, each of them wearing the striped blue and white masks of the home team. Prentice barely needed to touch the controls for the words GAY COCKSUCKER to appear on his faceplate. The gang shouted their own obscenities back at the mask. One of the men flicked a lighted cigarette at the plastic surface. Another punched the wearer in the stomach, winding him. Prentice fell to the ground. As he lay there, helpless, he remembered that he had promised his wife he would bring home a present for little Jamie’s birthday. The gang closed in and urinated on his curled-up form.

When night came he was stumbling along the edge of a roadway, beneath giant billboards advertising Dream Creatures and Panoptic Entertainment Units. Passing cars sounded their horns at his ragged figure, the beams of their headlamps picking out the constantly changing messages on his mask: SUICIDE BOMBER, CHILD KILLER, GEEK, MASTURBATOR. The painting arm waited a few seconds as the erasing arm did its work, and then new words appeared, one after the other: JUNKIE, RENT BOY, PORN ADDICT, RICH MAN, ALCOHOLIC, STALKER, WHISTLEBLOWER, SCUMBAG, CRACK DEALER, BANKER. The wearer of the mask walked on, from one pool of sodium light to the next. MURDERER, CONMAN, ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT, SPASTIC, DISEASE CARRIER, LUNATIC, SLUT, LIMP DICK, PIMP, NIGGER, HONKY, JEWBOY, TOWELHEAD, SLANTEYE, NAZI, FREAK, LOSER, HUMAN, NOBODY, ANYBODY. Neon light spilled from the roadside hoardings. The mask glimmered in the fallout.

8. THE MASK SPEAKS

The miscreant was arrested for disturbing the peace. It took four officers to hold him down; it’s all there on the security tape. Fast-forward. Now he’s in the drunk tank alongside another couple of lowlifes. These two are fast asleep already but subject of our film is just sitting there in his torn suit, that wretched mask still in place. None of the officers could work out how to remove the thing; it seems to have clamped itself around his head, as though it’s become an actual part of his body. But you can see that he’s tense, that his hands are stark white as they open and close repeatedly. And then he steps up close to the wall camera, and we see the mask clearly for the first time. One of the jointed arms is twitching, the nib at the end scratching on the white surface of the faceplate. It’s no use. His canister of red paint has run out. How can we understand this man’s feelings, except through what the mask tells us? Can a mask look sad? Now he’s taking off his jacket and tearing off his shirt. He slides the leather belt from around his waist. This is the nasty bit. If you’re squeamish, turn away.

Okay. Using the belt, he ties up his arm like a heroin addict. Then he detaches the plastic tube from the empty canister and jabs it into a skin. He’s trying to find a vein, not very well to start with but then he manages it. He staggers back. You see his body taking the pain, holding it, being fuelled by it. This man is seriously out there. He walks back to the camera. He’s still shaking a little as his own precious blood spurts out of the nib over the plastic faceplate, before being wiped away by the arm on the other side of the mask, still filled with enough white paint for the job. The prisoner has to get used to it, the balance between writing out his script in blood, wiping it clean, writing anew, scribbling, erasing, writing, wiping, scrawling, scratching. He’s there for ten minutes or so, concentrating furiously. It’s difficult to tell just who it is writing the message, the man or the mask. One of his fellow occupants wakes up during this; he can be seen in the background, staring into space. The other man sleeps peacefully through the whole episode. Also, we now know that the officer on security duty that night simply watched in utter fascination. Finally, the mask stops. The two arms come to a standstill. A drop of blood falls from the nib.

Now comes the truly surprising moment. The prisoner takes off his mask. He undoes the buckles round his waist and shoulders, unwraps the neck brace and steps out of the assemblage. It’s easy. There’s no secret to it. The mask slips free like a pile of old junk. The wall camera zooms in close. We see his face. The prisoner is weeping. Then he falls to the floor, exhausted. That’s it. Later, he’s led out from the cell in a daze. People can’t get enough of that final image: the bare face, the lost look in his eyes, the smile tugging at the edge of his lips. The police can’t wait to get the standard-issue fluorescent polythene mask secured over his features. It’s a matter of urgency. They don’t want to know.

Now rewind. Study once more the few simple words written on the mask, over and over, many times, one hundred times, more: HELP ME, HELP ME, HELP ME, HELP ME, HELP ME, HELP ME, HELP ME, HELP ME…

9. A LIFE IN PIECES

The survivor makes the slow turn from Shadow Street into Night Blossom Avenue. The ghosts of the suburban evening are fluttering above the conservatories and the perfect lawns. The bells of a clock tower sound out from the local shopping centre. Somewhere, a radio is playing: Kiss the darkness, baby, cover my face with ashes. A curtain parts and a neighbour is seen, peering out. She watches him from her window. Her mask is decorated with a large question mark. The survivor lowers his head in shame.

Now he stands outside his own house. He’s feeling weak, having lost a lot of blood. Maybe he should’ve stayed in hospital a little longer? But at least he is home now, and soon he’ll be back with his family. The survivor thinks of his two children sleeping behind the darkened bedroom window above. He can see a flickering light from the living room. His dear sweet wife must still be awake. She has been waiting for him. She’s even left the front door open for him. The survivor goes inside. He can hear the noise of the television, but when he walks through, the room is empty. His wife is not there. She must be with the children. He walks upstairs with a heavy tread. He’s thinking back on all the masks he has worn in his life, the clean neat office attire, the travelling salesman’s veil with its corporate design, the home masks, the good father’s mask, the masks of love and lust and sleep and tenderness. The elegant black hood he wore at his father’s funeral. So many memories, so many ways of hiding yourself. The survivor reaches the top of the stairs.

The children’s room has been cleared of their toys and other belongings. The bedclothes lie unruffled. There is talcum powder on the pillows. The survivor stands for a long time in the doorway, aware of the fading light, the emptiness, the drone of the soap opera from downstairs. Now he enters the master bedroom. He bends down to pull a large cardboard box from beneath the bed, tipping the contents onto the sheets. These are his father’s final effects. The survivor looks down at the various tools, the measuring instruments, the eye-piece and the miniature lamp. There are sheaves of invoices and catalogues, a few sketches, ideas for new masks. One item alone draws the attention, a plastic bag filled with many small pieces of wood. The survivor clears a space on the bed and empties out the bag. The pieces of wood are irregularly shaped, some with sharp edges, others with rounded surfaces. All of them are perfectly formed. The survivor wonders how his father ever did it, conjuring the hidden face of the mask into being. Some of the larger pieces bear the deep gouging marks left by the coroner’s blade. The mask had to be cut loose from the flesh at the autopsy. No one had the skill to find the secret release mechanism, the catch, the key to this last and most intricate puzzle. And then, once released, the Mask of Falling Darkness had simply collapsed into pieces, these pieces, many hundreds of them. All that remains of his father’s face.

The survivor holds two of the pieces in his hands. He tries to slot them into each other, without success. He replaces one piece with a new one, and tries again. Slowly, he tries each piece against the one in his hand. After forty-five minutes he has found the perfect match for it; the two pieces of wood slot together with a deeply satisfying feel. Another thirty minutes pass before he finds a third piece to add to the mask. By now, his hands are trembling. The tiny fragile object drops from his fingers, falling to the bed where it splits apart. The pieces are lost amongst the others that lie on the sheet. Lost.

He would have to start again, to keep trying, to be more careful this time.

(c) Steve Beard & Jeff Noon, 2011