Jacqueline Mohr

The Temporary Mask

‘You can’t come in. We’ll bring you both a mask. Wait over there,’ the nurse said to Rose, pointing at the hospital’s driveway. ‘Someone will come and show you a different entrance into the hospital soon.’ Eadie coughed into her elbow, the way she’d been taught in preschool. The elderly lady behind them in the queue looked worried and edged away, pressing against the side rail. The words it’s just a cold, were on Rose’s lips. But she couldn’t speak. She was frightened of scaring the old lady. Rose took her daughter’s hand and walked to where the nurse had pointed. A different nurse, came out of hospital a minute later, marching purposefully towards them with masks.

‘Sorry about the wait.’ ‘No worries,’ said Rose, taking the masks. She adjusted one over her daughter’s nose. She was confident it wasn’t on correctly. She’d never put a mask on anyone before. ‘I don’t want to wear it,’ protested Eadie, trying to wiggle away. ‘You have to, it’s only temporary, just until we get your eye seen to.’ ‘What does temporary mean?’ asked Eadie. She was almost five and devoured new words.

‘Temporary means only for a little bit,’ said Rose. The little girl nodded. One eye squinted slightly as she looked up at her mother. The one that had been accidentally sprayed with wood polish and the reason they were here. A place everyone was trying to avoid at the moment. ‘Why aren’t we allowed inside?’ Eadie asked, as a couple eyed them warily, taking in the masks and their faces. ‘Because we have coughs,’ Rose said gently. ‘We have to wait outside. Someone will come get us.’ It was sod’s law that they’d develop colds the moment lockdown started a week ago. And worse still, that Eadie would need to go to the hospital for something unrelated to the persistent cough.

‘My eye hurts Mama.’ ‘I know sweetie. Try not to think about it. Look at that bird,’ said Rose, cupped her daughter’s masked chin and directed it at a nearby tree. ‘Do you know that one’s name?’ The birds really were phenomenal in the country. Rose had never realised there were so many. This one had a red face and a vivid blue body. Her daughter studied it while Rose realised the couple in the queue were still staring at them. Rose stared back. Their eyes darted away. They’d been outside the hospital for less than five minutes but she felt vulnerable. Two Asians standing in masks. Everyone else was unmasked and looked white. Old white, tanned white, olive white but white.

Rosie had been prepared for lock down. She was always prepared. Her capacity to think ahead astonished her husband. She bulk bought the largest bags of rice, brown and white, which she decanted into smaller glass jars, bought whole sides of pigs and lambs from the butchers, chopped into endless little zipper lock bags, neatly labelled and nestled in the freezer. Nothing was wasted. But no matter how organised a person could be, unexpected things happened. Covid, lockdown and this morning. Rose had been distracted cleaning. She didn’t hear Eadie creep towards her.

‘Mama?’ The word had startled her, caused the wood polish she was spraying to hit the rag too fast and ricochet into her daughter’s eye. You had to clean the table, Rose thought. You couldn’t just rest so your cold would get better. They waited. Rose looked at her phone, at the news, scrolling through the depressing amounts of deaths in places she’d never been to and reports of racism towards Asian Australians. She quickly put her mobile away. Eadie, who had been howling in pain as they left the house, managed in the kerfuffle, to bring a pencil case, and was now sitting, using her textas. Rose had done a terrible job with the mask. Eadie had managed to untie it and was colouring the mask. ‘Eadie!’ she chastised. ‘The mask has got to stay on!’ Eadie looked up. The mask was covered in a rainbow.

‘I don’t have any paper. People aren’t coming near us Mama,’ she said, looking around. And she was right. Any people going to the hospital were giving them a wide berth. Eadie coughed and a pregnant lady, with her tattooed partner, looked at them in alarm. The man muttered something under his breath. They are frightened of us. All of them. Rose wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. How could anyone be scared of her angelic looking girl, with her high piggy tails and princess dress which was currently covered in a fine film of dust from the ground? Eadie coughed again.

The pregnant lady, clutched at her belly anxiously. Did covid affect foetuses? Rose had no idea. She wanted to reassure them they’d never been to China, that they didn’t have Covid. But she didn’t want to alert Eadie to their fear. They’d moved here two months ago from the city. Her mother in law had been in a car accident and needed help. Rose had taken a sabbatical from work. Jeff was able to work remotely. They’d hoped it would be temporary, six months maybe, until she was back to full health. Their house was leased and they were living in the house Jeff grew up in. ‘Can I keep colouring in the mask?’ Eadie asked.‘Yes.’ At least it would distract her. Eadie coughed again, rubbed at her eye.

Rose wished Eadie hadn’t stopped crying about her eye. At least it would be obvious why they were there then. But her tears had dried up and she was almost perfectly quiet. Except for the cough that seemed to echo every few minutes. After fifteen minutes Rose went back to the queue. ‘Excuse me, how long will we have to wait outside? It’s quite hot,’ she said, hoping she didn’t sound demanding, wanting to be as invisible as possible. Aware of how foreign she looked, despite her Australian accent. ‘Someone will let you in when we can,’ the nurse assured. The nurse looked at the Eadie. Rose and the nurse both saw the look of distain on pregnant lady’s partner as he walked by to smoke a cigarette. The nurse smiled kindly, handing Rose another mask.

‘She can colour in another one.’ ‘Thank you,’ said Rose, feeling a soft prickle behind her eyes. Rose wasn’t prone to crying. Her mother always said she was an ugly crier. But the nurse’s kindness was unexpected, as unexpected as the people’s glares. Rose went back, reached into her bag and applied sunscreen to her protesting daughter’s face.

‘You’ll get it in my sore eye,’ said Eadie, wriggling free. ‘That rainbow is looking beautiful,’ Rose said. ‘The nurse gave me another mask to colour in.’ ‘Ooh goodie! I’ll make one for you Mama,’ she paused to cough. Eventually a nurse appeared. ‘I’ll show you inside.’ ‘Eadie, you need your mask on,’ said Rose, quickly putting one on. ‘Put yours on too Mama.’ They went through a different entrance, which was clearly labelled No Entry, into a waiting room full of empty seats. ‘A doctor will see you soon,’ said the nurse, not flitching as Eadie coughed. ‘Did you colour that beautiful mask yourself?’ Eadie nodded.

‘Much better than a boring old white mask,’ said the nurse walking away. ‘She was nice, wasn’t she?’ asked Eadie. ‘She liked my rainbow, didn’t she?’ Rose nodded, realising Eadie was enjoying this experience. She was completely unware of the frightened looks on the other patient’s faces and enjoying the nurses’ attention. ‘Eadie Johnson?’ asked a man, opening a door. ‘What a beautiful mask you’re wearing!’ ‘It’s only temporary,’ said Eadie. ‘Mama said so.’ ‘Of course, it is,’ said the Doctor, his eyes twinkling behind thick lenses, stubble, looked like sprinkled sugar on his dark skin. He ushered them into the room. ‘Please, come in.’

About the Work

The story I wrote is based on my own experience of being an Australian Chinese person, in rural NSW, at the beginning of the covid lockdown. My daughter got wood polish in her eyes and was in so much pain we had to go to the hospital.

We both happened to have a cold, my daughter still had a temperature and cough, so we had to stand outside the hospital and wait for masks to be provided. Then we were told we couldn’t enter the hospital through the normal entrance. We stood outside the hospital, in the driveway, waiting for someone to show us a different way into the hospital.

I felt incredibly vulnerable as people walked past us. No one said anything directly, but everyone stared, and the fear of us was almost tangible.

My story isn’t a negative one. I want to express the kindness of the nurses and the doctor who triaged and treated my daughter. That healing has no boundaries and skin colour doesn’t matter. My daughter walked away from the visit to the hospital happy, she was delighted to have a mask, and only remembered the smiles of the nurses, not the scowls of strangers.

About the Creative

Jacqueline Mohr was born in the jungles of Papua New Guinea and is of Chinese and German descent. She has lived, worked and travelled to many countries, always writing along the way. She was a winner of the 2020 Bryon Residential Mentorship, an Affirm Press Varuna Mentorship Award and the MiNDFOOD magazine short story competition in 2019. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines. Jacqueline is a Communications Officer, and occasionally a Library Assistant, in a small town in NSW with her family and cats in a beautiful California Bungalow that is in constant need of repair.