An entry for the Wordmongers' masque
The Mysterious Mr McKee’s Masks and Masques
Down a grey London side-street stood the most peculiar shop on earth. The shop's sign was blacked-out, as were its windows. A hand written note informed museum curators that they could 'enter on pain of samurai sword attack'. Despite all evidence to the contrary the other sign on the door read 'open'.
The whole building was so entirely unappealing that people would only enter the shop under duress, in this instance to ask for directions.
'Excuse me my good fellow could you direct me to 52 Festive Roa-' The man looked up from his map, 'Err, the err, well, erm, I am certain it's just, around the corner ahm; good-day.' The anonymous caller made his hasty retreat.
Being a peculiar chap the shopkeeper had arranged the entire store so that from the dusty doorway every single piece of merchandise was visible. Three hundred and thirty two masks hung in the air eyelessly interrogating any unfortunate visitors.
Walking into 'Mr McKee's Masks and Masques' was a mixture of the humiliating and the horrifying; like falling on-stage, only to discover that the entire audience had died.
Mr McKee's attire did not match the day's ostentatious standards of fashion. His black suit jacket was tailored so it fell long over his hands, and hung down to his knees. When it was fastened it closed high around his cravat and the stiff collar cut into his chin. All parts of Mr McKee’s body were wrapped in the smooth dark patternless cloth. Like his shop he too was dressed for the utmost invisibility.
Mr McKee had a face so deceptively inexpressive, it seemed a smile could break it. It was the face of somone who had grown used to quiet paranoia.
Mr McKee sat immediately in front of the shop's entrance. His chair was positioned so that when he sat upright his face filled the space in-between, two beautiful examples from his collection.
To his right hung the steel war-mask or 'mempo' of Miyamoto Musashi the legendary Japanese swordsman. To his left was a Venetian masque fashioned from Murano glass.
Every mask in Mr McKee’s collection had a story, and as he marvelled at how the shifting afternoon light made the mask change facial expressions, he remembered hers.
The mask of Floretta de Bon had a proven lineage to a wager that the legendary Casanova made with Count de Montagnu. The wager was that whoever could make, upon public opinion, the most beautiful pair of masks for the Venetian Ball, would win the opponents masks.
Montagnu, being a magnificently unimaginative brute, threw a fortune into undoing 'that plebeian upstart Casanova'. He ordered Venice’s finest goldsmiths to create two masks to rival the crowns upon all the heads of the European monarchs. The solid gold masks were encrusted with diamonds; and padded with feathers from extinct birds.
When it came to the Ball the masks were so heavy, the Count and Countess de Montagnu, were unable to dance.
Floretta de Bon and Casanova appeared late, just in time for the public judgment. Montagnu appeared to be triumphant; Casanova arrived barefaced, and so had shamefully backed out of the wager. When it came to the vote however Casanova eloquently argued that 'being the most beautiful man and escorting the most beautiful woman in Venice he had no need for gilding and gems' like the Count had put into his priceless mask. Casanova then apologised for his poor diction, explaining that something wasn't allowing him to enunciate properly. To the astonishment of the crowd Casanova and his female companion removed their transparent disguise.
Upon loosing the wager, Montagnu flew into such a rage that he beat his opponent, shattering Casanova’s mask in the process.
This disgraceful behaviour lost him the title of Count.
To further rub salt into the wound Casanova offered the golden trophies back to Montagnu so he 'could live comfortably without the profit his title usually afforded him'. Such chivalry elevated the injured Casanova into the stratosphere of the European gentry.
As we are about to find out stories like this were not the thing that made such masks valuable to Mr McKee.
'Good gracious the weather is terrible!'
The man’s drenched overcoat stuck in the door so that as he stepped forward the resulting force caused him to spin around. The man bowed, twisted and pulled until the arms of his coat turned inside out and fell frustratingly from his wrists, revealing a smart pinstriped suit. How his oversized bowler hat stayed on his head was a mystery.
Throughout all this Mr McKee sat upright, his motionless face blending into the wall of other faces.
'I was wondering if you could give me directions to ...'
He looked up.
'Oh my, what a serendipitous event!' The man realised that this was the place he had been searching for.'Mr McKee I presume?'
Mr McKee stared blankly at the extended hand.
'I do apologise, terribly bad manners to have the advantage of someone, I am Dr David Linklater. You are the proprietor; a, Mr McKee? I heard that you needed an assistant.'
Mr McKee stood up, straightened his waistcoat, and grabbed Dr Linklater by the face.
Dr Linklater assumed the posture of someone being forcibly drowned. He leant forward, his arms thrashing helplessly in the air. Soon his shock gave way to anger.
'What in the bloody hell are you doing sir? Unhand me!' He shouted through Mr McKee’s hands.
'I needed to make sure that you are not a "Wearer,"' said Mr McKee unapologetically as he stepped past his new acquaintance. Mr McKee locked the door and cast some furtive glances up and down the road; 'the purpose of this "shop" has come to an end. Please follow me.'
'Give me one good reason why I should!' spat Dr Linklater.
Mr McKee rounded slowly on Dr Linklater and looked him in the eyes for the first time.
'Let me tell you a little about yourself; you are mathematically minded with a strong memory for methods but a dreadful memory for facts. You have never been in a play nor have you created a single work of art or poetry in your life. You are a social misfit who never goes to a restaurant or public house. You are exceptionally good at telling when other people are lying; you know that I am telling the truth now. But most importantly you have never, ever; worn a mask. Knowing that I was once like you in all these respects, how could you not work for me?'
'So that was the job interview?'
'Yes and you begin immediately. Hand me those mahogany boxes from off the floor' Urgency had crept into Mr McKee.
Mr McKee took the Japanese and Venetian masks from their hooks and placed them carefully into the boxes Dr Linklater had handed him. 'Ignore the rest they are replicas.' Mr McKee gave the boxes to Dr Linklater. 'Under no circumstances drop these; they are more valuable than anything you can imagine.'
The threat was underlined when Mr McKee picked up two swords from under his chair. 'Stay no more than one step behind me and don’t look back.'
At this moment a burning object flew through the window and exploded against a side wall. 'The "Wearers" are already onto us; come on!' shouted Mr McKee, who was already halfway inside a trapdoor, descending a spiral staircase.
Dr Linklater closed the trapdoor behind him as smoke filled the room. The floor flowed like mercury over their exit and set solid.
'Do you wear a mask or does the mask wear you?' asked Mr McKee as he skipped down the ever darkening spiral staircase.
'Is this a trick question?' asked Dr Linklater as he wiped the smoke out of his eyes.
'From now on it might be best if you assume that all my questions are trick questions: Does a mask wear you? Yes or no?'
'Ha! You have answered too correctly; you answered like a "philosopher"!' An honest answer would have been 'No' and a correct answer would have been 'Yes'. By trying to avoid the trick question you fell into it!' Mr McKee smiled over his shoulder at Dr Linklater.
'I am not in the mood, for an interrogation Mr McKee, I was very nearly set alight!'
'You brought up the subject of trick questions.' A few moments passed, punctuated by footsteps on the stone steps. 'Do you believe in destiny, Doctor?'
'Ah good! Now you are being honest! If it will stop you from leaving I don’t believe in destiny either. We are no more destined to have this job than an accountant is to have his. It is my belief that we are happiest when we do what we are best suited for'
'Actually, the newspaper didn’t tell me what my job would be, could you tell me what my duties are?'
'Remind me what did the advertisement say exactly?'
Dr Linklater recited from memory;
'Help wanted for thankless and arduous task.
Chances of mental retardation high.
Boredom certain upon success, infamy guaranteed otherwise.
'Only a "Masker" would ever reply to that! We are the persecuted elite
of people with a rare skill. I could talk about what makes us special but the fact is that there is nothing that makes us special. We are the most boring
people on earth.'
Dr Linklater took offence at this, 'I beg your pardon...'
'Oh you’re not a dullard; I have already said that you have exceptional intelligence. Let me put it this way,' Mr McKee turned around sharply so Doctor Linklater had to halt his decent. 'Which do you prefer; strawberry cheese cake or apple pie?'
'Well, I don’t know; is this another trick question?'
'No but it is a question that you cannot answer. No matter how hard you try you could never give me a satisfactory answer to that question. Your ego is so weak that you effectively have no personality.' Mr McKee continued back down the stairs.
'You and I are the original blank slates. We call ourselves "Maskers"; we might be the only two people in the world who are capable of truly being "worn". When we put on a mask we bring nothing of our own personality to the experience, the masks use us to express their true personality.'
'So we're actors?'
Mr McKee breathed in sharply through his teeth, 'I'll forget I heard that;' He took a moment to shake the comment from his head and began his soliloquy again, 'if a mask is owned by a strong personality it is imbued with the entirety of that person’s soul. A mask is a mould of the skills, thoughts, beliefs, opinions, language and mannerisms, of the original owner. There are about one thousand people who can experience this "soul-image", but we are the only ones who can do so without destroying it.'
By this time they had reached the bottom of the staircase and Mr McKee stood outside an arched door. The room behind it was a circular vaulted gothic hall. Around the walls there were curving wooden shelves three stories high with masks filling every inch of them.
In the centre of the room was an iron chair, it was bolted to the ground and had leather straps over the arms and legs that were clearly designed to restrain the sitter.
Radiating from the chair was an ingenious inventory system. The contents of the library had been painted onto the floor so that the masks nearest the roof were written closest to the chair.
Mr McKee took Dr Linklater’s awestruck silence as an opportunity to make some flamboyant introductions.
'Welcome to the "Animus Tabularium" the "Soul Record". To my left, are the female masks and to my right are the male ones. As you enter the door you walk past the masks that are most artistic, joyful and enlightened. If you keep walking past this chair you will come face to face with the most violent and warlike masks. The bottom row of masks are the easiest to wear and the more advanced masks are at the top*'.
Mr McKee theatrically spun around, fell comfortably into his chair and addressed the room. 'And this is the kind and honourable Doctor David Linklater, who I think will be spending some time with us.'
* The room was arranged in this way so that if an earthquake should strike (or if the Underground began digging again) the most powerful masks would fall onto the weaker ones. If this happened the weaker mask’s soul would be destroyed, but in comparison to the destruction of the stronger personalities it would be an acceptable loss.