I AM shopping in my local village when I first notice it. It's subtle at first. So subtle, that I hardly pay any attention. I dismiss it as a figment of my imagination, born out of boredom, the tedious monotomy of every day during my lockdown life. Then it happens again and I can no longer ignore it.
It's the attention given to The Reveal. Passers-by have started to take notice of other people as they take off their mask in the street, to reveal their full face. Really, it's a thing. The first time I realise it's happening, I am coming out of Tesco. I'm carrying two bags, and I transfer both to the one hand to remove my mask. At first, I think, maybe that man (it happens to be a man) is marvelling at my strength as I support two very heavy bags in the one hand.
And lookit, they are heavy. I always go in to Tesco to buy one carton of milk and a soda bread, and maybe some fish for dinner. Obviously, this isn't literally what I buy every time, but you get the gist. But I always end up buying five litres of milk, and a dozen eggs (we should actually keep chickens), and bread and tea and coffee beans and some mince so I can make a nice bolognaise sauce, and omigod, they have creme eggs. Already? Creme eggs? We're barely out of January. But they're really bad for me, so I settle on some dark chocolate and try to feel smug, instead of just a bit disappointed for not giving into temptation.
But where was I? Yes, the man. Who gives me a very definite look as I remove my mask. In fairness, I should add that he's a very nice, harmless old man, whom I sort of recognise. And I think I know his wife. Anyway. That is the first time.
But then the idea lodges in my mind. And because I'm a bit bored, I decide to test the theory. So in I go to our local health food shop to buy some hair colour for my roots. What can I say? Lockdown hair. And just before I go in, I put on the mask. Obviously. I smile at the two young women in the shop, whom I'll have a very difficult time actually recognising when all this is over and we don't have to wear masks anymore. I buy the hair colour and as an afterthought, some fish oils. We exchange small talk. And I leave the shop.
As I step back on the pavement, my hand goes to the loop around my left ear and I tug my mask away. This time, at least three people look. I resist the urge to giggle. This must be how women felt back at the turn of the 20th century, when they flashed an ankle. But this time, it's not just women. It's men, too. I'm sure of it. But the reason now, is a bit different. It's nothing to do with ankles or the reasons why men (or women) looked at ankles. Ahem.
No, it's much more simple than that: old-fashioned curiousity. Hide something from someone, and they crave a glimpse. They demand to see it. Pre-Covid, our faces were uncovered. Outside shops, in queues for our morning coffees, inside shops, restaurants, hair salons, cinemas and theatres, schools and colleges. We saw each other's full faces: our big noses and cute chins, our carefully applied makeup, our proud beards.
But Covid and coverings have caused a cultural shift. Now, we only see each other's eyes. I find myself trying to read people's eyes. Are they twinkly? Flat? Bored? Angry? Just plain sad? And then....and then....I realise what is happening. Why people are watching and waiting and looking as I remove my mask. They are doing the same thing I am. They want to see if the rest of the face fits the eyes. It has become a game and we are all playing it.
And with this realisation comes an idea: we need to make our masks an awful lot more interesting. Far more dramatic. I'm not talking about floral designs or clever slogans, or cotton masks that look like screams. Amateur stuff, all of it.
No. If we have to continue to wear masks for the forseeable future, we need to make them fabulous. Like carnival masks (see above), but with soft coverings for the mouth part. Imagine wearing one of those Venetian ones with feathers and sequins, as you dash in to buy your cornflakes? Or wondering what that person in front of you looks like, behind their gilded creation, as they delve into the freezer for their frozen peas?
Not only that, but imagine how beautiful our eyes would be, framed by a mask worthy of wearing to a ball? Given that I haven't worn makeup since I had to start wearing face masks (because you know, what's the point?), I might be sorely tempted not to remove the mask at all when I'm outdoors. That way I could look infinitely mysterious.
Which, right now, would be something.
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