'The world that I'm a part of and that I helped shape, will end tonight. And tomorrow, a different world will begin that different people will shape.'
He had put it eloquently and dramatically, as if quoting a classic. Perhaps he had been – V’s conversations were always one great intertextual cobweb, which of course served to add to his mysterious persona. He never simply represented himself; great men such as Goethe and Shakespeare spoke through him and lent weight to his words. And thus he convinced everybody, he convinced me on that last night. Convinced me that there would be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ I pulled the lever, and that the two would be clearly separated like the acts of a play.
Obviously, reality is a lot messier than that. There’s no such thing as a clean break; not even the fall of a government or the death of a person fall into that category. The past spills over into the present, as evident by the many boxes surrounding Finch and me. We’re in his office documenting history – V’s as well as ours – and the amount of paper involved is overwhelming. Reports from the Larkhill facility, newspaper articles on the St. Mary virus outbreak, personal letters, diaries. I promised V to help shape a new world, and we will, but to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past we need to fully understand it.
The detective pulls me out of my reveries. He holds out a notepad, tapping it lightly.
“Did you read this? Delia Surridge’s diary,” he adds.
“The doctor?” I ask rhetorically before I shake my head, watching him expectantly. I sense there is more to come. In spite of Finch’s downplayed and serious demeanour, he, like V, has a dramatic side to him. He is prone to pregnant pauses, never merely lies out the facts, but uses them to build up a story with proper suspense.
“Did he ever tell you how he became… what he was?”
“A man, you mean?” The words fall out of my mouth a bit too quickly. V did once present me with the outlines of his theory on the monstrous creating a monster. It fit perfectly into his dramatic perspective on life, but was of course a load of bollocks. V was no monster, nor a bulletproof idea. He was human, and consequently, when his bulletproof vest gave in to the lead, he died in my arms.
Either Finch hasn’t noticed the irritated edge to my voice or he chooses to ignore it. “It’s all in here. Not his name, though – she merely refers to him as the patient from room five. But the medical experiments he was subjected to and the accident that changed everything. There was a fire.”
Another pregnant pause while he opens the notepad and finds the right page. It doesn’t take him long; he must have marked it.
“November the 5th,” he begins, “It started last night, around midnight. The first explosions tore open the entire medical section. All my work, gone.”
Finch is slowly pacing the narrow pathways between boxes on the floor as he reads. I sit lightly on the edge of the desk, careful not to crumble any papers, trying to concentrate on Delia’s words from Finch’s lips. For a long time I wanted to know everything about V’s past, as if he were a riddle needing to be solved, but I’m no longer so sure. It won’t bring him back, and I don’t want my memories of him to be meddled with.
“I was trying to understand how it could've happened when I saw him…” Finch looks up, discreetly making sure that I am all ears, then continues: “The man from room five. He looked at me. Not with eyes – there were no eyes… but I know he was looking at me because I felt it. Oh, God! What have I done?”
This time the pregnant pause drags on, and I realise I am supposed to react to the information he has just relayed. Shock or horror would probably seem fitting, but I feel neither, because I know better. In the end I merely state: “They were blue, you know.”
“Sorry?” Finch scrutinizes the page, trying to figure out what I am referring to, but failing.
So I clarify: “His eyes. He did have eyes, and they were blue.”
Finch narrows his brows, adding more wrinkles to his already furrowed forehead. “So Delia lied?”
I shrug. “Maybe. Maybe she wanted to make her story more interesting. Or maybe her eyes deceived her. You’re the one always saying that witnesses can be unreliable.”
“But I thought he never took his mask off. Didn’t you tell me you once tried and he wouldn’t let you?” Finch piles two stacks of paper on top of each other to clear a little desk space and sits next to me.
I smile inwardly. “Yes, I did. And no, he wouldn’t. Not at first.”
This time I am the one pausing, but for a different reason. I am not trying to build up suspense in my story; I am considering whether to tell it at all. Many people have been let in on my adventures with V, but even with Finch, whom I’ve grown close to over the past few months, I always omit certain details concerning the last days V and I spent together. I always let people believe that I returned to him only hours before his death, but in fact the calendar still read October when I snuck into his underground kingdom.
* * * * *
“I’ve missed this song.”
Julie London’s rich voice purred from loudspeakers placed in all four corners of the room, but didn’t mask my friend’s surprised gasp. It was a happy gasp, no doubt about it, and I myself was smiling from ear to ear when I turned to face him.
So was he, obviously. His smile was permanently painted on plastic, but for once it matched the tone of his voice perfectly.
“I… I didn’t think you’d come.” The hint of a stutter gave away an insecurity that I never noticed in him before. It made the plastic smile seem almost a little boyish, in spite of the fact that he had to be at least ten years older than me.
“Well, I said I would,” I quickly assured him. And after a bit of catching up and a cup of tea and the better part of a bottle of wine the fact that I was back and not planning on leaving seemed to sink in. As the evening passed he visibly relaxed and returned to his playful and wordy self.
“A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having,” he stated with his usual sense of drama, and I burst into laughter and let him lead me to the improvised dance floor in the centre of his living room.
We ballroom danced, because no other kind of dancing seemed to go with the precious art and historical artefacts surrounding us. His agility showed in every step, every graceful movement, and with every twirl I became more and more aware of how much I’d missed V. This man who had showed up in my life out of nowhere and forever changed it. Changed me. I wasn’t afraid anymore – not of the government, not of the future, not of anything. I was, as he had put it, completely free.
Perhaps that explained why I didn’t think twice when I reached out to remove his mask. “I don't even know what you really look like,” I said quietly.
He grabbed my wrists, held them gently, but firmly at a safe distance. “Evey, please. There is a face beneath this mask, but it’s not me. I’m no more that face than I am the muscles beneath it or the bones beneath them.”
I nodded slowly. “I understand.”
And I did. I understood that what he had given me, he did not have himself. My fear was gone, but his was not. Not all of it. Murderous politicians with deadly weapons didn’t seem to make an impression on V, but the thought of me peeling away his plastic smile absolutely terrified him.
It wasn’t difficult to figure out why. His precious mirror with the Faust inscription had vanished since my last stay. And I vividly remembered that one morning in the kitchen, when I’d walked in on him while he was cooking breakfast. His gloves had been off, and I had noticed and asked him about his burned hands. He had covered them up quickly, mumbling something about him not hoping he had ruined my appetite, clearly mistaking my surprise for repulsion.
And now he was afraid that I would react the same way if he let the mask drop. So he was forced to keep it on. Gordon’s words echoed in my mind: The truth is after so many years you begin to lose more than just your appetite. You wear a mask for so long you forget who you were beneath it. Living in constant fear of expressing your emotions for another person physically, of being metaphorically or literally unmasked, is like living in a prison. But I had the means to free V.
So that night, instead of unceremoniously pulling on my usual cotton pyjamas outfit I slipped on a night gown I’d found in one of V’s many chests full of treasures from the past. It was made of transparently thin embroidered silk the colour of pearls, and so feather-light it made me want to do pirouettes just to make the cloth stand out like a halo around me. It seemed to stem from a lost era, a more civilised era that possible only existed in black and white movies, and I felt certain V would like it.
We’d always slept in separate rooms, and I suspected he locked his door at night, so I made sure to be in his room before he was. I stood quietly in a dark corner, watching him come in, close the door behind him and sit heavily on a chair in front of a mirror on a dressing table; the kind used in theatres with light bulbs along the edges. He sat motionless for several minutes, and it was impossible to tell what was going through his head, but I suspected the fear I’d noticed in him played a key part. He looked small, almost frail, hunching in front of his own reflection and I wanted to jump out and hug him, but I was afraid I might startle him. So I watched and waited from my hiding place. He took of his gloves and for the second time I saw his bare hands. They were raw and red, but not at all repulsive. How could I be repulsed by hands that gently held mine through a waltz only hours earlier? He took off his cloak and looked more delicate than ever. Then he reached for his mask, and in that moment I stepped out into the light behind him.
He immediately froze, and our gazes locked in the mirror for a long minute, until I broke the tense, trancelike moment by closing the distance between us and placing my own naked hands over his, so we both held his hidden face. They were warm, his hands, and the simple touch seemed to send a jolt through him that was transferred to me through my hands. We’d never touched each other before, and he probably hadn’t touched anyone for years.
“Evey,” he said with resignation and sorrow in his voice, “I thought you understood…”
“I do. I understand that you’ve dedicated your life to the enunciation of truth, to an existence free from fear. Yet you fear me – and for no reason at all.”
“Pardon me, my dear but you cannot possibly envisage the features behind this mask, much less predict how the sight might affect you.” His said it in a flat tone, like the matter-of-fact statement made by a bureaucrat, but he did not fool me.
I let go of his right hand only to grasp his left one with both of mine, as I moved to his side and kneeled down next to him without taking my eyes off his painted ones. “There’s no certainty, only opportunity,” I whispered, quoting his own words back to him, as I lifted his hand to my lips and placed a lingering kiss on a knuckle.
A small gasp escaped him, and his attempt at remaining composed was undermined by his trembling fingers. The reaction encouraged me to continue.
“Come,” I therefore said, pulling him to his feet and a few steps closer to the large bed in the centre of the room. He obeyed, though not without hesitation, and made sure to keep a breath of distance between us.
But I stepped directly into his personal space without asking for permission and put my cheek against his chest. His heart beat as fast as mine – 'you could mistake them for one', I thought, as I caressed his stomach and side with my palm through his black shirt. Then I let my mouth replace my hand and planted a line of kisses across his chest, along his collar until I finally lingered, on tip toes, less than an inch from his plastic lips.
“I want to kiss you,” I said, repeating the last word for emphasis: “You.”
“Once you get the chance you’re likely to take that wish back,” he said in a surprisingly husky voice, probably in spite of himself.
I shook my head slowly and decided to borrow the authoritative voice of a classic master: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”
He blinked in surprise. I know he did, even though I couldn’t see his face. Knew I had felt my way to a chink in his armour and gotten through to him. “You love me?”
“Of course I do. You’ve changed my life, helped me reclaim it. You’re the most gentlemanly, most inspiring and incredible person I’ve ever met. Nothing can ever change that.” The sentences fell easily from my mouth and almost took me by surprise. I’m not usually that eloquent or bold, but I suppose that night I simply shared a truth that became clearer and clearer to myself as I put it into words. “I cannot just love a part of you, V. I want it all,” I concluded and the full implications of the last statement brought a faint blush to my cheeks. I was suddenly very aware of the cold draft climbing up under my dress, brushing against the back of my knees and tickling the very warm skin of my thighs. I had never actively seduced anyone before.
“Alright.” His voice was almost failing him. “But, if I may, I ask you to turn around.”
I nodded and turned to face the window, leaving him behind me and out of sight. With my eyes closed I tried to identify the sounds of him unbuttoning his shirt, kicking off his shoes and sliding down his pants. With every movement he exposed himself more to me, and the boundless trust I knew it entailed felt more intimate than anything I’d experienced up to that point. It took my breath away, and I lost myself in the moment and the music of falling buckles, clothes and mask. When I finally felt his warm breath against my neck for the first time ever – no plastic skin blocking the way – it sent goosebumps down my back and melted me at the same time.
“Come what sorrow can; it cannot countervail the exchange of joy, that one short minute gives me in her sight.” The unmistakable wonder in his voice made me smile, because I realised that he, too, was melting. And that I was the cause of it.
I opened my eyes and found my own reflection in the window glass, faint and almost ghostlike in the dimly lit room. Right behind me, for the first time, I saw his face. His scalp was as hairless as mine, his features almost non-existing, but his eyes were a bright blue. The brightest thing in the whole room, I thought, as our gazes locked and he held his breath. Waiting, probably secretly expecting me to bail out of this any second.
In the window I could see his hands hovering over my skin, hesitantly asking for permission. I granted it in the most direct way I could think of; by grabbing and leading them to places that made both of us gasp.
* * * * *
“So he did take off his mask?”
Finch’s voice yanks me back to the present. I have no idea for how long I’ve been lost in thoughts, but I can tell by the look on his face that he has grown impatient. He wants me to give him a proper eye-witness statement, a complete and accurate story.
I smile and make up my mind. “Yes, he did,” I simply reply, as I get up from the desk and find a new box from the past to concentrate on. Finch remains seated for a while. I can feel his curious eyes on my back, but eventually he sighs and returns to his own pile of papers sensing he won’t get any more details out of me.
Language is imperfect, and even the most accurate story can be misinterpreted by someone who didn’t live it. That’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to keep certain details about V and me to myself.
I’m sure most people will appreciate the nice symmetry of our story: V set me free, and I returned the gift to him in his dimly lit room. But even my detective friend might fail to completely comprehend my motives, fail to realise that what I did that night in late October and the nights to follow had nothing to do with symmetry. I didn’t do it because I owed it to V. I did it because, in spite of what he’d said, I did love a man in flesh and bones and I wanted neither plastic nor fear of rejection to come between us. I knew he was scarred, but I didn’t care. Facing a revolution, we weren’t likely to survive, frankly it mattered very little to me. What mattered to me was the man.
And that’s the other reason this story will never reach any history books: The fact that whereas the memory of V as legend and idea belongs to everyone – the memory of the man only belongs to me.