Day 12

30 Days Of Art With NAC: Masked by Verena Tay

To inspire and uplift readers as the country emerges from the Covid-19 circuit breaker, The Straits Times, supported by the National Arts Council as part of the #SGCultureAnywhere campaign, has commissioned 30 works by local writers and artists on the pandemic and what it will be like when all this is over

ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

To release her building migraine, Melissa instinctively massaged her head. When her fingers met the mask loops behind her ears, she groaned, remembering the rules of hygiene. There was no time to wash her hands properly yet again. She squirted cold alcohol from the sanitiser bottle on her desk and rubbed her hands "clean".

The children were now having their tea-break. Twenty clear minutes for her to focus on the most pressing paperwork. They were one person down today at the childcare centre. Sophie had called in earlier to say she had a doctor's appointment. That meant that Melissa had to help the teachers out, instead of doing admin. Melissa prayed earnestly it was Sophie's pregnancy that needed medical attention, and nothing else. God forbid she had come down with Covid-19. There would be more headaches if the centre were to be closed down and cleaned, and both staff and children had to enter quarantine.

As she scanned her e-mail, Melissa hoped for no latest government directives in her inbox that would make running a childcare centre even tougher. Her throat itched. She coughed and grabbed her mug for a sip of coffee to ease the strain. She was out of practice. When she was a mere teacher, she could last a day with the children and her voice would not hurt. Just after two hours, her throat was already scratchy. Was she too tense nowadays? Or was it because of the mask across her face? Breathing and speaking together through layers of cloth was so difficult.

Outside her office, one child bawled, then another. Melissa rose to investigate. Entering the dining area, she called out, "What happened?"

At one table, there was spilt milk, overturned plates, a tattered mask and two sobbing boys, each being consoled by a teacher. The rest of the children were motionless and silent, their eyes shocked above face masks or behind face shields, not heeding the other teachers' efforts to usher them away.

Melissa sat down, took the crying, mask-less child into her lap, and comforted him. "There, there, Sunil, everything's okay. We can sort this all out. Don't need to cry..."

Slowly, it transpired that everyone was jealous of Sunil's new face mask, handmade from an Avengers-print cloth. When the children had unmasked to eat and drink, Jason had somehow got hold of Sunil's mask and would not let go. A fight had ensued and the mask had been torn.

Melissa did not know whether to laugh or cry herself. She had entered the field of early childhood education because she loved to see the happy faces of children every day. Post-circuit breaker, she was heartbroken, having to coax her charges to cover their noses and mouths for long periods. Ah, the absurdity! Previously, the girls attending the centre would squabble over who had the nicest Frozen school bag. Now, must she and the teachers deal with mask envy as well?

Melissa sighed. There would be time to reflect later. First, tempers must be soothed. Then Jason must be reasoned with, Sunil supplied with a new disposable mask and a consolation balloon, parents notified and a hundred other tasks to be completed.

By the end of the day, Melissa's migraine was massive. Until all the children left for home and the centre was cleaned, she could not focus on the pain. As parents dribbled in to collect their children, she smiled behind her mask while waving and saying goodbye to her charges.

Before he left with his mother, Sunil tottered up to Melissa, his purple balloon bobbing up and down beside him on its string. He gave her a huge hug around her hips and whispered through his mask, "Tank you!" Then off he ran to join his mother, waiting by the centre's main door.

Melissa's heart leapt. And she kept it high, refusing to heed her teacher's instinct to correct his pronunciation. After all, with a face mask on, how easy would it be to show a child the difference between saying "t" and "th"?

• Verena Tay, 54, is a theatre practitioner who has published four collections of plays and two story collections. She has also edited anthologies such as the Balik Kampung series (2012 to 2016). The circuit breaker was difficult for her as she lives alone, but she has used it to focus on her first novel.

• To read the other works in this series online, go to str.sg/30Days. To listen to them in a podcast, go to str.sg/JW2f

• For more local digital arts offerings, visit a-list.sg to appreciate #SGCultureAnywhere

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2020, with the headline 'Masked by Verena Tay'. Print Edition | Subscribe