The eyes of the mask are empty now, holes into emptiness, the mask itself the shed skin of a snake. Brady shuddered. As with a snake, it meant that the thing lived on, no knowing where it might be now. Perhaps, like the pupa and
the moth, the new form would be completely different — unrecognisable. But after all, wasn’t that the point of a mask — disguise? Or was it, instead, an affirmation, a proud assertion of the wearers true self. Either duplicitous deception, or a flagrant flaunting of the truth. Whichever it was, Brady was sure that its basis was evil.
It; had started so simply; an impulse, a whim even. Brady had been drinking with Corcoran, and even that had been purely fortuitous. Brady had been surprised, and not entirely pleased, when Corcoran had spoken to him in the bar, disturbing his thoughts of the girl who hadn’t turned up. She was now an hour and a half late, and Brady had given up expecting her. During his ninety-minute wait, Brady had been drinking beer, but in answer to Corcoran’s invitation, he switched to Irish whisky. Maybe it was this that gave him the feeling of unreality that pervaded the evening from then on —joining Corcoran in the search for a new club that everyone was talking about, The Masque.
There are two main forms of advertising: the ‘In your Face’ flamboyance of PR handouts, gimmicky invitations and neon lights, and the other, more subtle campaign of Word of Mouth. In the case of The Masque, it was more Whisper of Mouth. According to rumour, Corcoran confided, admittance was by invitation only. His porky eyes sparkled as he disclosed how he had weaseled information from a business associate, concerning the location of the club. Brady found himself now party to the plot to gatecrash the exclusive venue of, (in Corcoran’s words), “Anybody who is Anybody.” Unsettled by the collapse of his romantic aspirations, he was restless enough to go along with Corcoran’s plan. “After all”, said Corcoran. “We will all be wearing masks, and we are both dressed for the evening.”
Rub it in, thought Brady, who had taken great care in dressing to impress.
Gaining entry had proved absurdly simple. “Leave it to me. Old Son.” Corcoran was full of confidence. The pair had negotiated back alleys, descended dimly lit stairways and were finally confronted by a black door bearing the traditional theatre masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Corcoran pressed the unobtrusive bellpush at their base and muttered something into the laughing mouth of Comedy. The door swung open, and they found themselves in a small annexe. A charming hostess rose to greet them. Stepping from behind her reception desk. Corcoran repeated the phrase he had used at the door and she smiled her acceptance, notes changed hands. Brady reached into his pocket. “It’s on Me.” disclaimed Corcoran, “Your turn will come.”
“Choose yourself a mask,” said the hostess, indicating a door marked Men’s Robing. Entering, they found a rack of masks, ranging from the simple black domino, to the most elaborate masks in the form of animal’s heads, grotesque gargoyles and some worthy of a Halloween party. Edvard Munch’s Scream was prominent among them.
Brady picked a simple black domino, and was surprised, on glancing in the full-length mirror, to see how well it went with his black tuxedo and black tie.
Corcoran was far more flamboyant and chose an elaborate cock’s head with an erect comb and fluorescent feathers. With his build, thought Brady, perhaps a duck’s head would have been better. Maybe he is a Bantam Rooster.
They emerged from the robing room and the hostess smiled her approval at Brady.
She indicated another portal. “Welcome to the Masquerade.” An unsmiling giant, dressed entirely in black, opened the door.
After the tiny annexe, the hall they entered was enormous,, and coruscating with colour. The music was quiet and unobtrusive, almost dreamy and the colourful people who drifted and eddied to it made a kaleidoscope of patterns and hues.
“Let’s find ourselves a drink.” Said Corcoran. “Good idea.” Brady looked around for the bar.
They found it in an alcove, a cavern almost. The soft lighting slowly changed colours, ranging through the rainbow from red to violet. As it reached the UV end of the spectrum, the white of their dress shirts shone blue and concealed patterns leapt into life all around them — on the walls and ceiling and on the bar itself. The bottles on the shelves glowed like jewels in the coloured lights and the range on offer astonished Brady. Besides the well known brands of Irish whisky such as Jameson, Tullamore Dew and Bushmill’s, the plebeian Paddy’s and Powers rubbed shoulders with more exotic choices. He ordered himself a double Connemara, looking forward to the taste of the peaty flavoured single malt. He turned to Corcoran to ask what he was drinking.
Corky’s mind was on other things. His fine feathers had attracted the attention of a pair of truly exotic birds whose plumage put his to shame. Exotic or Erotic wondered Brady as his eyes took in the rest of the costumes worn by the girls, the tail feathers were especially cute. But Brady had always preferred the Wishbone to the Parson’s Nose, and in that respect they were by no means deficient either. First things first, thought Brady and took a good pull at his whisky.
After that, things grew a bit hazy for Brady. Dancing with the girls, a move through another door into a gaming room; a further migration through dimly lit caverns where half seen figures writhed on divans. It all seemed unreal to Brady. Hands grasped at his clothes, but he brushed them aside. He had lost Corcoran along the way somewhere, maybe he had succumbed to the grasping hands. He felt that he was seeking a way out, but found himself even deeper in the maze.
A door opened in front of him. He stumbled in, and swayed as the floor dropped from under him. It was a lift and a fast one at that. He felt the pressure beneath his feet as the lift slowed to a halt. A door opened, and he almost fell into the dimly lit grotto. “Good Evening, Mr Brady” said a voice. “I am delighted to see you. Not many get this far. They usually succumb to the temptations. Congratulations”.
The voice came from a golden mask hanging on the back wall. It was the centrepiece of a small shrine-like structure. The mouth smiled and the eyes crinkled with good humour. “I’m afraid your friend Corcoran has fallen by the wayside. No matter, he has served his purpose. You are here.”
Brady swayed as lie tried to clear his head. He blinked a few times, but the mask was a head, with no body. Must be one of those special effects they have in Disneyland, he thought. He waited patiently for the head to speak again.
“That is very good Mr Brady. You do not seem unduly alarmed. We have chosen well.” The voice of the mask was warm and friendly. “I have a proposition for you,” it continued. “I wish to ask a small favour. In return, I promise you the experience of a lifetime. You will find that many of your dreams and aspirations will come true. Those of the fair sex you look upon favourably will equally favour you. Tasks you have found difficult you will accomplish with ease. Your luck, Mr Brady, will change — for the better.
“You are wondering what is the favour? It is simplicity itself. It is very boring to spend one’s life hanging on a wall deep beneath the earth. All I ask, is that you don me (There’s a nice old-fashioned word.) Do not worry, I will be completely undetectable and quite comfortable. Very comfortable indeed” it grinned.
“Together, we will venture out into the wide world.”
Brady drew closer and peered at the mask, his engineer’s mind pondering on how the effect was achieved. Close up, the mask was totally inanimate, just a golden shell hanging on a hook. He reached out his hand.
As he touched it, it totally collapsed and he found himself holding a wisp of silky material that reminded him of thistledown.. He examined it closely. The features were suggested, in the same way that a sock is roughly foot shaped, there were two holes for the eyes. The gold had changed to an iridescent shimmer. Unnoticed till now, a mirror hung on the wall near the shrine. Brady crossed to it. He removed the black domino and pocketed it. With both hands, he spread the mask to look through the eye holes. To say that he put the mask on would be to get things wrong way round. As he held the mask near his face, it slithered and twisted in his hands. It would be better to say that the mask donned him.
“Ah, That is better,” an eerie voice whispered in his ear, “now we are one.”
Brady peered at the mirror. The mask seemed to have vanished. He touched his face. It felt newly shaved. He was pleased, usually by this time of night there would be a stubble, always a problem with late dates. He dismissed the whisper as imagination. Suddenly, it seemed imperative that he should leave
Brady awoke in his own bed. He cautiously opened one eye. His memory of the previous evening was very hazy, but he expected the mother of all hangovers as he considered how much whisky he must have drunk. To his surprise, he felt fine; better than fine — good. He leapt out of bed, revelling in a feeling of youthful well being. It was as if he found himself in his twenties again, instead of his mid thirties.
The day continued to get better. Traffic favoured him, and he found a parking spot without any difficulty. The receptionist greeted him with a dazzling smile. The lift was waiting for him, rather than being stuck on the top floor. All was right with the world.
As he entered the office, Molly Chambers, his boss’s secretary accosted him. She had obviously been crying. “Mr Baer wishes to see you in his office right away.
“Mr Baer?’ The CEO, his boss’s boss rarely had dealings with Brady’s lowly rank.
‘Mr Brown died of a heart attack this morning. Mr Baer wants you to take over the office immediately”
“Poor old Brown”, thought Brady. Instant promotion came as a shock. “It’s an ill wind.” He came to his senses to find Molly smiling at him through her tears. “You’re my new boss now,” she said.
During the following weeks, Brady felt he was living in a dream. The girl who stood him up in the bar was leaving messages on his machine and in his voice mailbox. Molly was making eyes at him work. Somehow’ his sudden popularity made him uneasy, he was unused to the attention. In the singles bars he became the hunted rather than the hunter. Even as a hunter his catches became remarkably easy and he was surprised at the variety and intensity of his encounters. His habitual shyness seemed to be a thing of the past. “If I had known it was this easy …” he thought.
He became insatiable. Success did not sate his desires, it intensified them, and wherever Ire went, disaster followed.
It was not immediately obvious, but after a torrid affair with a married woman, he was shocked to hear of her murder by the jealous husband, who then turned his gun on himself. There was a suicide too, and while Brady could not be certain, he felt that the preceding depression might be laid at his door.
He was a modern Midas, and everything he touched turned to gold. It did not occur to him, that for every winner here must be several losers. A win was a win, and it never led him to suspect that his win represented a hungry child, or a foreclosed mortgage; a broken marriage, or a ruined reputation. He had never had it so good.
But then there was Corcoran. He had never been a particularly close friend, but Corky was a Mate, a Mucker, a Cobber a Buddy, call it what you will. And the maimer of his death was particularly horrible. And happened before Brady’s eyes..
Brady was just leaving the building after a brilliantly successful day at the office. As he stepped onto the pavement, he saw horrified faces looking up. Startled he followed their gaze in time to see a body hurtling toward him from the top of the building.
It impaled itself on the spikes of the ornamental railing. It was Corcoran.
The shock washed through him like an icy torrent, washing away the euphoria of recent successes, and Brady remembered the last occasion they had met. Since that time he had completely forgotten about the club and his strange experience. It all came flooding back. He remembered the Mask. He remembered its insidious promises. In utter revulsion he tore at his face with his linger nails. There was a flash of indescribable agony and in his cupped hands he found the wispy scrap of material that was the mask. It was empty now. He flung it in the gutter where a stream of Corky’s blood found it. Or was it vice versa?
© H.St V.Beechey 2004