Short Story Competition 2023 Schools Years 11 to 13 Winner Eva De Vincenzi ‘The Venetian Mask Shop’
Alessia stood leaning on over the edge of her balcony, head drooped, mindlessly staring into the canal below and wincing when the blinding sunlight managed to reflect perfectly off a ripple. She glanced upwards as a trail of cigarette smoke danced from the balcony above her. Fastus. Her brother. Puffing on cigarettes for breakfast, brazenly sordid as always. Alessia winced harder than even the sunlight could make her as she recollected the events from the evening before. Another evening of torment, another ring around her eye. It was purple. Luridly so. She refocused on the vista in front of her. Venice! How it gleamed! Rows of stacked apartments, elegant and purposeful, as if they had been placed, not built, and had existed even before the running water of the canals which spread like ripe veins across the beating heart of Italy. A throng of tourists drifted in the streets, seemingly in a state of interminable ignorance that people in Venice had been going missing for months now. Everyone had their suspected culprits, of course. Gossips' intricate theories would travel through summer air and prick the ears of even the most apathetic Venetians. Alessia had her own theories, but was never daring enough to start pointing fingers. People told her she was calculated, or in Fastus' opinion, 'sei patetico'.
Another missing person. Another funeral with an empty casket. Alessia sat behind her desk in the florist's with her feet on a tulip-strewn desk. She despised having to provide flowers for funerals, not because she found them upsetting, but because she hated having to pretend she shared their pity. She would make up stories about how these people really felt about their dead relatives or would wonder how rose thorns could possibly stitch up their grieving hearts.
Sei patetico, she would think.
What she did enjoy was seeing their faces as they noticed the shop directly opposite Alessia's. The mask shop. She watched as people laid eyes on its exterior and viscerally looked away, failing to handle its eye contact. Its very scent could creep through the cracks of your skin, a python, slick and hissing, wrapping itself around the incandescent core of your soul. Alessia enjoyed confecting stories about passing clients with generally affable thoughts and a predictable trajectory, but it was patent that the truth about the mask shop would be far more thirst quenching than anything she could come up with herself. As stoic as Alessia liked to claim she was, she soon became restless and her eyes wandered persistently to the shop opposite her own. At long last the herd of Venetians left her shop with enough daisies to give their deceased a petal-covered pathway to the underworld, and Alessia took her opportunity.
A dim jingle of bells broke the silence which had made itself so comfortable as she pushed open the mask shop door. A stench pervaded the entire room, fleshy and rotten. Behind the ornate yet chipped mahogany table, in a creaking cushioned chair, sat the shopkeeper. Speckled white hair shot upwards from the bulb of his head, and the upper half of his face was covered by a black plague doctor's mask. The only visible part of his visage were his eyes - bloodshot, glazed, penetrative, blue, and gaping as if his eyelids had shrunk back into the shadows of his skull. His fingers drummed on the table.
'Hello?' Alessia ventured.
The man who had seemingly grown a layer of dust on his whole body suddenly leaped up and swung himself over his desk.
'Hello! Hello! Welcome!' His voice was of such ardour that, if Alessia closed her eyes and only listened to him speak, she wouldn't be sure if he was in a state of panic or joy.
'Come! Please, let me show you my works! At last!' He grabbed her shoulder and brought her to the wall of bejewelled masks. The stench grew stronger with every step closer she took.
'Aren't they fascinating? Aren't they realistic?'
'Try one on! Please do!'
He reached for one. It was purple. Luridly so.
She shook her head gently.
Sei patetico, she thought.
'Why not?' he broke out, 'These are just reinventions of everyday people. Made prettier.
Made better. By me. When you put one on you become someone else! Most people are just reinventions of other people anyway. And I like it like that. If I am everyone else then I can't take all the blame for my past mistakes and failures. I can be her and him. I can be you. And you can't complain that I am you because you were never you anyway. You were her and him. And so was l'.
He held his hands out and nodded, as if encouraging Alessia to understand, and then brought his knuckles feverishly to his cracked lips.
'Is there anyone you envy? Anyone you repulse but yearn to resemble?'
'Fastus' she said, though the words were dry and hollow.
'A little louder', encouraged the shopkeeper as he made his way back over to his chair.
Alessia cleared her throat.
'Fastus', she repeated, 'my brother'.
The shopkeeper straightened his back, several bones clicking, and leaned forwards. He smiled, and then looked as though he wasn't entirely sure what his face was supposed to do next.
'I'm Timeo', he eventually announced, 'It's a pleasure doing business with you.'
As she walked home that evening, she dreaded the sight of dancing smoke. The light wisps, amorphous in the breeze, drifting gracefully through the air to compensate for their hideous place of origin. Alessia walked straight up to her room, the shouts of her brothers skidding around the frozen interior of her mind.
Then, at a time past midnight, her brother fell silent.
A part of Alessia's untethered mind wondered if Timeo would have crafted a new mask by tomorrow.
One to put on when you're feeling a bit pathetic,
or as someone might say,
Judge Charlie Durante’s Comments:
Winner: Eva De Vincenzi with The Venetian Mask Shop. Eva’s engrossing story is perfectly crafted. The Venetian setting is economically sketched: the light reflected from the canals; the palazzi (apartments) ‘elegant and purposeful;’ the hordes of tourists, ignorant of sinister happenings; the general air of putrefaction, decay and death.
Alessia, the florist, is given to daydreaming, confecting stories. She is fatefully drawn to the mask shop opposite. We have already learnt about Fastus, her brother, unconcernedly puffing at a cigarette on the balcony above, after an evening of sibling violence, which has inflicted a black eye on his poor sister. The abusive brother, ironically named Fastus (Faustus, the magician, is dragged to hell for his overweening pride and ‘fastuoso’ in Spanish implies goodness and splendour) will become the target of Alessia’s revenge plan and the mask shop will provide the means to execute it.
The introduction of the owner of the mask shop is masterly and full of Dickensian details: the pervasive putrid smell, the shopkeeper’s hair which ‘shot upward from the bulb of his head,’ the disturbing eyes ‘bloodshot and glazed,’ the fingers drumming on the table.
The conversation with the shopkeeper offers Alessia a possible escape from her entrapment. Timeo (his name is suggestive of fear and doubt) expounds his mask philosophy: masks offer you a chance to hide your personality and enable you to assume a different one. Alessia does not have to remain ‘patetica.’
The denouement is understated, but brilliantly so. Alessia’s brother meets a silent end. Her mask has invested her with a courage she previously lacked. Anyway, she now knows that wearing a mask she will cease being ‘patetica.’ What a wonderful story, a joy to read!