Unmasked on a Tram


 

I should be home by now. Work at the clinic has kept me late. I tear off my mask, race down the stairs, tear across the road, chase the tram and leap aboard. It’s peak period and the tram’s pretty full. I find an aisle seat, sit down and breathe. I reach into my bag – no mask. All around me everyone wears the mask of the good citizen.

My breathing feels like an offense. I turn my back on the person at whose side I’m seated. Facing the aisle now, face turned down toward my shoes, breathing surreptitiously, I’m disturbed by a voice: 

Excuse Me. 

I turn to the voice, which comes from behind a mask. The voice sounds again: Why aren’t you wearing a mask? 

 

 

When I tore off my mask, I ripped the hearing aids from my ears as usual. This happens: masks and aids are both secured behind my ears so the removal of the one often occasions the other. The speaking voice isn’t hard to hear however. My interlocutor is her own megaphone. Humbled, I reply, I’m afraid it’s not with me. I must have…

 

My reply is cut off. You have to wear a mask. It’s the law. I’ll give you a mask.

My antagonist-turned benefactor gropes in a handbag, gropes some more, shuffles contents without result. A second woman, seated facing her, opens the bag on her lap and produces a ziplock full of pristine masks. 

I always carry spares. WE’RE BOTH WORKERS IN HEALTH! Take a mask.

I take a mask and fit it. Thank you, I say. Her fellow-worker-in-health resumes operations: You never answered me, WHY don’t you have your own mask?

 

The questioner and her mate look about 55-60 years old. Wide faces, good complexions, fair skin, hair well-groomed. All is handsome but smiles are lacking.

 

 

A tramful of now very interested passengers gazes in our direction as I lean towards the workers-in-health and speak slowly and softly, enunciating clearly but confidentially: Have you never made a mistake? Apparently not, for my sweet reason evokes not compassion but derisive snorts. 

 

 

Conversation takes an abrupt turn as the women address a second malefactor. WHERE’S YOUR MASK?

The question is not directed to me, but beyond me, to one not yet seen. I crane and glimpse the smaller form of an adult male of Chinese appearance. This person declares: I DON’T HAVE TO WEAR A MASK.

YES YOU DO. IT’S THE LAW.

I DON’T HAVE TO.

 

 

The workers in health decide greater volume is required to help their quarry’s understanding: 

IN THIS COUNTRY WE KEEP THE LAWS. MAYBE BACK IN INDIA YOU DON’T HAVE TO. HERE EVERYONE HAS TO WEAR A  MASK!

 

 

It’s time for me to rejoin the conversation: In this country we don’t accept racism, not even among Workers in Health.

 

 

A young man strides down the aisle and joins us. He looks like he’s in his early twenties, slim, elegant in his black suit. His voice is another that needs needs no megaphone: YOU TWO ARE MISTAKEN. THE LAW DOES NOT REQUIRE EVERYONE TO WEAR A MASK. SOME PERSONS ARE EXEMPT.

 

 

Health’s blood is up. Health is not ready to yield: What’s his exemption?

Blacksuit offers further legal advice: YOU HAVE NO LEGAL RIGHT TO DEMAND THAT INFORMATION. THIS IS NOT HEALTH CARE YOU’RE PRACTISING HERE: YOU’RE JUST PRACTISING BIGOTRY.

 

Health falls silent. The Gang of Two turn to each other and shrug. Two stops later the mask refuser leaves us. Health loses one pitbull a few minutes later. Now alone, the remaining worker in health suddenly finds her kindle demands her attention. For the next twenty minutes she does not look up or across the aisle. When I descend she’s still silently absorbed.

 

 

Once home I open my backpack. There, with my hearing aids, is my mask.

 

 

 

Dear Victoria

Dear Victoria,


They were normal people who stopped us about thirty kilometers along the Hume Highway. The soldier wore a mask. The police officers wore masks and guns and bullet-proof jackets. All was customary. The soldier said it was a lovely day.

It was. The sun shone, spring sprang. The soldier asked, where are you going?

Wodonga.

Why?

We’re going to Sydney.

Why?

We told him about the sickness and the surgeries and the complications and the pains and the parents and their children that needed our help. The soldier said he was sorry.

There was a pause.

My eyes stung a bit with his kindness. He said you wouldn’t have a Permit, would you?

We did. We showed him. The soldier said, go carefully. Go well.

In Wodonga the motel people were just the same, all masked. The familiar unfamiliarity was almost comforting.

Up early, still under curfew, we waited until 5.00 am before driving to the checkpoint at the border. More masks and guns and body armour, a roadblock, a fast car at the ready in case we made a break for it. All normal, familiar from the black and white war movie that is our life. We showed our papers. The officers – mine a female, Annette’s a male – photographed the barcode that isn’t a barcode but a blob, and told us to drive carefully.

So, Dear Victoria, we’ve been in New South Wales for twenty-four hours now. We had wondered how the people would be. We wondered how they’d react to our Victorian registration plates. Apart from the angry mob we encountered in Bathurst, people didn’t seem to mind. It turned out the Bathurst bunch were protesting about koalas. Some ratbag had suggested koalas be protected! We felt unsafe: they come for the koala today, tomorrow it can be the Victorian.We got out of there in a hurry. 

At petrol stations we saw humans closer up. We could tell there was something different about them. What was it?  Eventually it came to us: Noses! People here have noses. We remembered other people’s noses. We remembered the days when it was not only the persons in your household and persons in Renaissance paintings who had them. We remembered; four-year old Sadie probably would, but Marnie, aged only half a year would not. The old people who drop off food at her front door and wave at her, the old couple supposed to be her grandparents, are normal beings, noseless and masked.

While in quarantine here in the mountains, Annette and I will occupy ourselves with an online self-help book. We need to refresh old skills in preparation for grandparenting. The book is Cuddles, Hugs, Kisses: a Manual for Grandparents.