The Mask, by Dr Linet Amelie Hilsberg

Image shows four people in squares. Two males and two females. They are wearing facemasks. The squares are different colours, blue, orange, red and green.

I ruminate on the week’s events, trying to enjoy that Friday feeling as I attempt to shake off the office filth that has covered my skin in an invisible layer.  Politics abound in a small setting with individuals involved in hot gossip, changing circumstances, parties vying for support in order to impress the boss.  A clear case of brown nosing.

I’m fortunate this doesn’t affect me; I am the lucky one. No one involves me, my opinion is not sought. I’m not invited to comment, I am defunct, overlooked, considered part of the furniture, so much so, that all private conversations are spoken around me without concern of being repeated because I am trustworthy, hardworking, diligent,. They know I need to keep my job which I fought so hard to get through the specialist employment service.

To begin with, everyone was so polite, engaging, trying to involve me in the team.  Slowly, things deteriorated as my desk was pushed into the corner, my back to everyone, the team would meet without my knowledge. To get my attention they would throw stuffed toys at me, when I turned around, I found them laughing with each other thinking this was funny.  Of course, they apologized. They were just so, so sorry.  It wasn’t until I turned up this morning to find myself alone in the office, the boss walked through, looked me in the eyes and in surprise said. “Oh, you’re here!” Little did she know that I was aware what was going on.

During the week, I could see people signalling to each other and when I looked at them, they stopped.  Huddling around the meeting table, hands over their mouths apparently in conversation.  I managed to peek into one of their diaries to notice that everyone (minus me of course) was headed to Tasmania for a ‘team building workshop weekend. This would account for the boss’s surprise to find me in the office.  So I thought, stuff it! I’ll have an early lunch with some quality me time that the company always talks about.

So here I am in the park having a breather, reflecting, rather than ruminating. I am distracted by a dad happily chasing his two laughing children around an old large spotted gum, the kids are maybe four and six, mouths open, cheeks puffed out drawing in breath, sucking it in like there’s no tomorrow.  I can see dad’s mouth moving, talking to them. I watch for their responses, they both vie for his attention,.  Laughing, innocent, blissfully unaware of anything else in the world, happy spending time with their dad.

My thoughts turn to the office team, laughing at the expense of others then saying sorry to those they tease. Naively believing the person will accept their apologies at face value. I’m just part of the furniture, overlooked. I silently observe this behaviour recognising the incongruence.  Don’t they realise that most people are not stupid?  That non-verbal communication, especially body language and facial expressions are keys to reading between the lines!  Even small movements on the face can prove when someone is lying, the nervous twitching smile, the flick of the hair, the touch of the nose, the licking of lips, the rapid blinking and eye movement, ever so quickly away and back again.  If you know the signs you can read someone like a book, character judgment is not about what is said, it’s about the unsaid.

Checking the time again, from habit, I remember no one is expecting me back in a hurry.  I left a note on my desk explaining where I was. If anyone came looking, they would know where to find me, and as someone who’s described as being as steadfast as the Flinders Street clocks, I could take my time. My thoughts go back to the team whooping it up on their weekend of wine, cheese and chocolate tasting in Tassie.  I’m sure they’re totally oblivious to anything that impacts on others.

As I head back to the office I stop in at the Supermarket. Dawdling around the aisles, picking up colourful and unusual packets, looking at ingredients, smelling different yet familiar flavours with my innate sense of smell. The check-out chick knows me as I’m a regular. She pulls down her mask, smiles and says hello.  I pull out my credit card, the usual routine, place it on the terminal and wait for the ‘all clear’ nod from the lady. 

Multitasking, she’s busy on the phone and looks at me, I tell her I don’t need the receipt, still occupied, she smiles back and nods in acknowledgement, I pick up the groceries turn with my bags and head for the door thinking how lucky I am to escape as the queue has suddenly lengthened, I presume she was calling for backup while I was paying.

I’m almost at the exit when I feel two large hands on my shoulders pulling me back.  I’m stopped by a masked man who was behind me in the line.  I see his face move, apparently talking to me, I nod politely but have absolutely no idea what he’s saying.  I take out my phone to offer the message I show everyone when I first meet them.

HELLO, I  AM DEAF, I CAN TALK BUT CAN’T HEAR YOU.  IF YOU PULL YOUR MASK DOWN, I CAN LIP READ.

I never get tired of seeing the response to this information, it doesn’t change. I wait to see the penny drop.  That look on his face.  I see the cogs turn, his recognition of my Deafness.  The embarrassment because he’s just accosted a Deaf person.  Not knowing how to proceed or what to say to me.   An entire gamut of emotions running over his face like a lightning strike which heads down his body also changing his physical demeanour into someone who is about to address a child.

I see his mouth move under the mask to talk as he finally realises, I can’t hear him!  His next move is to point back at the checkout chick who is smiling and waving at me holding up the eftpos machine, I presume my card didn’t work and need to go back to pay.  He indicates more slowly this time for me to follow him back to the registers, thinking I didn’t understand him, treating me like I’m a halfwit.  The Deaf community identify this behaviour as Audism (a form of discrimination). 

I follow him only to find the queue even longer than before with everyone staring at me.  I now see the backup lady walking towards the tills, while she’s putting on her mask, I lipread her, she’s telling everyone in the queue who will listen with an exaggerated hamburger mouth movement, IT’S OK, SHE’S DEAF YOU KNOW!

Like water off a ducks back, I smile, laugh, pull out my card, say loudly “Sorry, how silly,” pay for the items and look into the queue ready to apologise again for the hold-up then spot one person purposely mouthing, saying, “She’s not Deaf. She’s Faking it. She can talk!”

Now I have lived all my life being different, I have patience and resilience, but tolerance to ignorance and stupidity is something I lack.  I stand my ground, turn, look squarely at the person so they know I am going to address them; in response, they stand up tall, clench their face and body in anticipation, waiting expectantly for the verbal onslaught.  The people in the queue discreetly separate, shuffling carefully away on each side leaving the spotlighted person isolated, not wanting to experience the wrath that is about to spew forth.

I take a deep breath, with a darting look I stare at this person straight on, scoring a bullseye, I hold their eye contact for a good five-seconds searing deep into their thoughts, they go pale, beads of sweat form, I see the physical effect happen, they respond with a slight tremor, pensively awaiting.  I slowly exhale, shake my head at them in disgust and taking my dignity, walk away, they’re just not worth it.  In that five-seconds, I manage to convey for all to see, my feelings of contempt, pity, shame, disappointment, regret and sadness all without saying a word.

Feeling deflated I head back to work appreciating the silence of the office knowing that this experience is a daily occurrence for a lot of people like me, my mood then lifts as I find a message on my desk. Smiling, I read a note from my boss telling me that the transfer to another department has finally been approved and I start on Monday.  My weekend just got a whole lot better!

One thought on “The Mask, by Dr Linet Amelie Hilsberg

  1. Oh too familiar.. it’s exhausting, degrading and a typical “groundhog moment”. Nothing changes! People’s assumptions of “oh you speak so well for a deaf person”, thinking your speech = hearing ability! Even going to the extent of testing your hearing and confirm their own Audiology assessment. “If you heard this then you’ll hear that!” 👂 😅🤣😏😒🙄😪

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