I
t was over before I could say anything. The dentist had given me an injection for a relatively simple filling. "Oh no", I said, "I don't have freezing for simple fillings. I'd rather take the pain and have it over with". His look said: "Excuse me? You can't be serious!?"

It comes on gradually. A sort of numbing at first. I put it down to being tired. I'd delivered a series of workshops on customer service skills in London, Ontario. I'm definitely tired. My eyes smart from the lights of oncoming traffic and they won't focus properly. I need to keep alert; Highway 401 is a dangerous place for tired people.

The next day is worse. A sort of stiffening in my face. That damn dentist's injection! Off to the walk in clinic - my doctor can't see me for weeks. The serious look, the 'oh dear' written on her face. "I think you have Bell's Palsy" she says. "Bell's Palsy? What in the hell is that?" "A virus of the facial nerves which results in paralysis" she explains clinically. Nothing she can do. "People normally recover - eventually." "Eventually, what does that mean?" "Anything from a few weeks to a year or more." My face paralysed for A YEAR OR MORE…Palsy? - isn't that something poor people got in the Middle Ages??

Much worse today, the left side of my face simply won't work. My husband and two sons are totally supportive - "ha, ha, ha, mum, you look like Quasi Modo." "Are we feeling a little bent out of shape today dear? - hee, hee, hee." I'm supposed to be shooting a training video for Bell Canada - terrific - a deformed trainer - well they'd whisper, this is the era for inclusivity, this must be Bell's quota for including the disabled, the infirm and visible minorities in one stroke.

The eye doctor pronounces if things don't improve quickly, he'll have to sew my left eye shut because it's getting too dry and doesn't close properly when I'm asleep. The left side of my face is - to all intents and purposes - dead. I've seen pictures on the television of dead people - their eyes are always open and someone carefully and gently draws their hand down over their face to close them. Why couldn't this man do the same thing? I supposed it was because I wasn't totally dead yet. I could wear a patch he said. I tried to visualize this. It wasn't pretty.

My speech is slurred. I burn my mouth. I slobber a little. No control you see. I couldn't even cry properly. Here I am, at the pinnacle of my career. A successful entrepreneur well groomed, well spoken, well respected even. This can't be happening. People treat me differently, as if I'm a few bricks short of a load. They speak slowly, articulating every syllable. Not too many syllables though. They look pityingly, look away, look down. Kids giggle and point. Parents look uncomfortable and coral their children away from me. Heavens above I might contaminate them somehow. I wondered if I should adopt a limp and a hunched back to go along with all this. My son said: "Mum, don't go out at Halloween, you might get arrested …or if you do, at least you won't need a mask!!"

The mind babble continues. "Why me? What have I done? Am I being punished? Don't be ridiculous! What is this all about? Is someone trying to tell me something? Fay, now you're stretching it, get a grip on yourself!" And yet…


On this one autumn afternoon I don't need a mask. I'm walking home from school as usual but decide to take a detour to the park. The air is thick with the musty smell of newly mown grass and soggy leaves. The fine sea mist leaves tiny, salty beads on my hair that twinkle like diamonds. The metal green and white 'don't walk on the grass' signs are lopsided. Seagulls screech their greeting as they dart and swoop in the grey sky like tireless winged guards. The gravel paths all lead to the round, wooden bandstand near the pond. No one about. The steps to the bandstand are wide and grow narrower towards the top. Inviting. Only 3 or 4 steps. The wood is well worn and has bowed like steps do when many, many people have stepped in the same place. I slip my knapsack off my shoulder. There's a dull thud as it lands on the damp ground. Little comforting creaks as I tiptoe up the steps. I trail my fingers along the wooden banister that encompasses the whole structure. I leave curvy, wet tracks in the dust like permanent waves on a wooden sea. Parts feel smooth and slippery, other bits are rough and I feel a splinter push up into my palm. But it doesn't stay there. The timber roof struts deaden the sounds of the outside world. I feel as if I'm in a cocoon. This is a beautiful and safe place. This is my place.

I walk round in a circle with my arms stretched out from my sides. A little faster now and I'm swaying, dipping, arching, curling. Faster still, I'm spinning, twirling, pirouetting, soaring - ballet music floods my mind, a full orchestra fills my ears - body and soul in perfect union at that moment. And now I'm not alone. There are beings everywhere - glowing, glistening, trailing silvery filaments, weaving featherlike nets which caress my face, my eyes, my hands, my feet, lifting, lifting, Freedom, abandonment, the sheer joy of movement and dance radiates out and up and up and up… I think my heart is going to burst! Dusk creeps in, but the air seems brighter, twinkling, exploding with colour: purples, reds, yellows, blues, greens - and all the while my whole body is being tenderly laced with fine gossamer threads.

When my feet are set down again I find myself on a narrow leaf-strewn lane. It's much darker now. The exquisite, sparkling beams have vanished and are replaced with harsh shafts of light that stream from the side windows of the house. I can hear the dull, constant roar of the sea pounding onto the sand and rocks. The sounds around me are like other old friends: the creaking and groaning of the trees, the rustle of the last birds as they settle for the night and the scratching and scurrying of the waking mice. A distant owl hoots - a warning? Surely not! I make my way up the steps towards the back of the house. I feel weightless and my heart is singing. The light from the windows cast shadowy creatures everywhere, but I feel no fear, they hold no menace. It's as if I've been given an invisible magic cloak to protect me. I unlatch the gate. The click echoes. The stone path feels cold under my skipping feet.

It's very bright inside, glaring, stark. I blink rapidly as my eyes adjust. There's someone in the kitchen. A face with so many masks I can't see who she really is, yet I know I've come from her. She's holding a dress. It's not finished. The hem falls unevenly. It's pale green with small, vivid red flowers beautifully embroidered into the smocking on the bodice. Strands of narrow, white satin ribbon have been stitched neatly from the neckline, and then tied in tiny bows at the waist - a row of white bows like little people marching in perfect harmony with their arms outstretched.

A scowl. Anger? No. Fury! She points a shaking finger at me. "Where have you been?" she screams bitterly, "What on earth have you being doing? Do you know what time it is? Where's your knapsack?" The voice now reaches a cruel crescendo: " I've been waiting here for hours. It's you who wants this dress finished for the party!" I hear but I don't understand. The torrent of words crash over me, slash and whip at my face. My head snaps from left to right. It hurts. Flesh tears, hot sharp pain, as if a sword is being driven to my very core. Silent, salty tears blur my eyes and then I taste them trickling down my throat. My fragile magic cloak is stripped from me. Ice begins to form, at first a thin, clear sheet. It completely encases me as it builds up layer upon layer. The pain eases. I feel nothing. It's like a total anaesthetic but I'm not asleep. It's as if I've become an ice person, frozen in that moment.

I'm lifted roughly onto the table. A waft of familiar perfume. Silence. Yet her mask speaks volumes: cold blue eyes, thin, pursed lips pushing up the fleshy cheeks, impatient sighs. The dress is pulled over my head. Silence, save the crackle of the fabric as it tries to find a way to hang naturally over my small frame. The pins score my skin and leave a crosshatch of pink scratches on my scalp, my sides and back and belly. I feel nothing. I peep down to see thinning patches of dyed blonde hair on the crown of her bent head as she tugs at errant folds. The red hem marker, set on a wooden ruler stand, puffs its' white chalk line around the bottom of my dress as I'm spun round. "Stand up straight" I hear. "Pull your shoulders back! Keep still!" she hisses through clenched teeth. I obey.

When I leave the house the shadowy creatures lick at my feet like flames and try to clutch my legs. The bushes catch at my clothes so I have to wrench myself free. Nothing seems the same. Nothing here looks or sounds familiar. And it's dark, very, dark…no, it's black, pitch black…and I'm cold, so cold. . .



. . . The video is postponed, much to my relief! The irony of landing a great contract with Bell Canada, then contracting Bell's palsy is not lost on me. Before all of this I had managed so well. It was not obvious to anyone. I had become a master of disguise. I could smile, talk, and make believe all was well. I could conceal that which needed to be concealed. No one need know. Then came Bell's Palsy. And what was concealed was now revealed. What was inside was now outside. There's no doubt about it. Short of wearing a physical mask, it was there for all to see and for me to bear. Take my word for it, it's impossible to pretend to be suave, sophisticated, cultured, and intelligent looking when half your face is frozen! It took my ethereal beings from all those years ago just six months to take their mending thread and their love to thaw, patch and restore that which was lost on that autumn night. And although it's all pretty much back to normal I still have a bit of a lopsided face as a reminder. My new cloak is strengthened and will be less easily stripped from me. And my helpers? Well, they're still helping…

 
Fay Wilkinson. March 2002 
   
 
 
My sincere thanks to Canadian Storyteller, Helen Porter, for her
guidance and encouragement. and Margherita for her persistence!
 

 
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