Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Mask

Personal 6 min read

It’s you again. It is you, isn’t it?

Sure it is. I never forget a face.

It’s been a while since we last spoke. The seasons have changed. But here we are again, just like before.

Where are we, by the way?

Are we on a bus, or the subway? Maybe in your office, or your kitchen? Are we out and about somewhere in your neighbourhood, or further afield? Early or late; day or night?

It’s tough for me to see from here, but I don’t really need to know. You’re here again, passing by like before, and that’s all that matters.

I suppose we should have a little chat, you and I.

I enjoy our chats. When we talk, it’s about real stuff. I don’t ask how your day was, and you don’t say how nice the weather has been. That’s for other people. When you and I meet up, as we very infrequently do, we have more important things to discuss.

For the moment, though, just have a listen. Keep nice and quiet. Hold your breath. You’ll hear it if you pay attention. Just right there:

Tick, tock

It’s still marching forward. Hour by hour, and minute by minute. Moment by moment. It keeps going, no matter what. Keeps heading on down the road.

We can double back, of course. You and I, we know that secret pretty well. We can find the edges - the razor-thin creases you can barely see - and we can slip through, to the place behind. We can walk the back-roads, upstream against the current, and we can return to hours that have long since passed.

But we can only watch, and we always end up right back here afterwards. Sometimes, I wonder if it would be better not knowing the secret at all.

I suppose that’s something we could talk about today, if you’re willing - and if you have a few minutes. We can talk about this road we’re all on. Or rather, we can talk about where it ends up.

Tick, tock

There’s that damned sound again. Is it just me, or does it get a little louder each time?

I wouldn’t mind it so much, except that it pretends to be something it isn’t. Hands moving around the clock face, one to two to three to four, increasing all the while. That’d be nice. And that regular, rational, metronome behind it. It’s reassuring, until you remember that it’s an illusion. The tick and the tock are just to distract you.

The truth lies in the whisper of sand, draining through the hourglass. Rustling, sliding, falling - then lying there below, inert. Spent.

The truth is that it’s counting down.

We’re all on our own roads, but they converge, don’t they? Further along. Further down. They meet up. We’re all en route to the same place. We just get there at different times.

Have you been there?

You don’t seem sure. That’s my fault; I do like to tap-dance around the subject. Let’s be plain, then: it’s the most mundane topic in the world.

I’m talking about death.

You know; the place we’re all going. We don’t talk about it very much, but you and I, we focus on the real stuff. There’s nothing more real than this.

So, again, have you been there?

Hah. Well, obviously not yourself. We’re here, on the bus, or in your kitchen, or out and about. You and I, together, wherever you are. You’re still here. You’re still–

Tick, tock

–ticking along. You’ll be here for a while yet, I hope. I’d like to think we’ll happen upon each other again, from time to time. I do so enjoy our chats.

What I mean is, have you been there when someone else arrives?

Maybe. Maybe not. Or maybe you just think you have, because we see death all the time. In movies, or TV shows. In books. People make those things, and they show us, and we understand. Except that we don’t.

Here’s the thing: they lied to you.

If you haven’t been there, you don’t realise - but it’s true.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. Those lies are necessary. We need them. They let people sleep, and then get up the next morning and carry on. Some lies are just about as essential as air.

But we don’t deal in lies, you and I. We set them aside whenever we meet. We stick to what’s real.

Here’s something that’s real: my own hand. Take hold of it, if you like. Don’t be shy. There you go.

If you squeeze hard enough, you’ll even feel my pulse. Thump-thump, thump-thump. Regular, for the most part. Reassuring. It always reminds me of something, but I can never quite put my finger on it.

My hand is warm, just like yours. It’s fairly soft, too, because I’ve never done an honest day’s work in my life. It’s solid enough, but pliant. It’s a part of me. It lives.

Have you ever held the hand of the dead?


Perhaps not. And what’s that? Have I?

Well… yes. Yes, I have. It’s not something you soon forget.

Everyone knows the basic truth of it. You do, and so do I. It’s no surprise: we’re just machines. Biological machines that, one day, will stop working. Then they’ll be swept away, taken from sight, so that we can keep on hiding from the truth. So that we can believe it’s just like we see in movies, or on TV.

But it’s not.

For one thing, there’s the change.

You can watch it happen, if you’re there at the time. The moment of… what do you prefer to call it? Passing? That sounds very peaceful, and often enough, it probably is. There are other words too, though.

Deactivation.

Cessation.

Death.

It’s the most mundane thing in the world, and yet it holds secrets that so many of us spend our lives unaware of. It troubles me, how we hide it away. It only makes it worse when you do finally get to understand.

The change is a grim revelation; no question about it. It’s the unmaking of a person. The departure, I suppose you’d say. The vacating of this shell.

We also all know that it’s no such thing. Nothing leaves, because there’s nothing to leave. Just a machine, no longer functioning.

It’s a revelation to see a thing you once knew as a living being, now dead.

Not a living actor pretending to be dead, or a prosthetic that was never alive in the first place. No. Instead, the third thing; the valley between. The once-living. And the most damned part of it all is that it’s familiar. It’s familiar the first time.

We know instinctively. It makes sense that we would. We know that this is the death-form of something that used to be alive. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean. The looseness of it; the slack. The sense of emptiness.

The way that the resemblance is so close, but not quite perfect. The thought that goes through everyone’s mind when they’re confronted with it.

It’s a mask.

The change is when a face - long known, and long loved - becomes a mask. Let me tell you: that’s a powerful experience. Eerie and unsettling. There’s such finality to it. It’s a terrible thing.

But it also brings closure. The irrevocable nature of it is immediately clear, right down to your core. There are no questions - because even the first time, some part of you has seen it before.

I can’t remember if I already asked you this, but: have you ever held the hand of the dead?

It’s another revelation, just as natural as the first. One final goodbye, you think, only to realise that the time for it has already come and gone.

The hands of the dead are cold. It’s a deep cold, and it goes down so far that you know there’s nothing else but cold.

Their bones are steel; needles and bars, joints frozen in place. They move strangely, and hardly at all.

Sometimes, we even dress them for the living - for that final goodbye. It’s macabre, but it’s not uncommon. The scent of perfume, with something else behind. A fine dress, and a bow neatly tied.

It’s a well-meant trick, but it doesn’t work. There’s no life left, no matter how much we might try to pretend otherwise. We know it already. The eyes are closed, because the mask is so very visible there, and as one last desperate flourish, we add a powder-dusting of makeup.

It’s too bright against the skin, and it fools no-one. The truth lies just beneath, and we see it whether we want to or not.

The dead are grey, and they’re no longer like us.


Well, I’ve taken enough of your time. I appreciate you stopping. We don’t see each other very often, but I know you have things to do.

Oh, I can find my own way back; don’t give it another thought. I’ll be gone in just a moment. You won’t even notice me leave.

I’ll see you again, I hope - but I suppose I can’t be sure.

It might be a while; a short one, or long. You might even start to wonder. But all you can do is wait.

I think we’ll have another chat, you and I, somewhere down the road.

Maybe the seasons will have changed. Maybe the sand in the hourglass will be much more below than above. Maybe you’ll hardly even recognise me, at first. It’s only natural.

But I’ll know you, my friend. You can be sure of it. As sure as night follows day, and - for the most part - day follows night. I’ll know you right away.

I never forget a face.