Daylight. A uniformed guard stands on duty outside the door of a bank in a suburban shopping centre. A car enters the car park and comes to a stop in front of the bank. Sits there. There’s a lone figure behind the wheel. A man. The guard eyeballs the car and the man. Scans the vicinity. Eyeballs the car again. Moves her hand to her hip, where she may be carrying a concealed weapon.
Inside the car, the driver turns off the ignition and engages the handbrake. He nervously studies the bank. Looks at the guard. The guard stares back sternly.
The man in the car sighs heavily. He picks up a protective mask from the seat beside him and puts it on; it’s made of blue linen and bears a colourful, geometric, surrealistic design that’s reminiscent of the work of Salvador Dali. The man sighs again and his glasses fog up from the condensation inside the mask. He swears. He takes off his glasses and wipes them, adjusts the mask and puts the spectacles back on. He steps out of the car, closes the door, takes a deep breath and approaches the bank.
The guard looks him up and down and smiles in a friendly, interested manner, indicating the face-covering. “I dig the mask,” she says. She opens the door of the bank and ushers the man inside.
Is this, you may well ask, the opening scene of a movie I’m writing? A crime caper set in a dystopian Covid-19 world? The Great Pandemic Bank Heist? The Rise and Fall of the Coronavirus Kid? Are the guard and the driver in cahoots? Colluding to rob the bank?
Nope. None of the above. It’s just an imagined post-lockdown description of yours truly arriving at my bank to lodge a few cheques, which is far from being the casual event that it used to be back in the days before the plague. I’m still a bit nervous about contact with strangers but I’m kind of getting used to wearing the mask. The bank guard is delighted that I’m doing my bit to keep the virus at bay and she gets a kick out of the Dali-esque design.
Who’d have ever thought that we would reach the stage in society wherein a man with a mask on his face, á la Jesse James, Butch Cassidy or some other notorious desperado, would be welcomed so whole-heartedly into a bank?
We are where we are, as the saying goes. And what a strange place it is.
We live in the era of the face-cover as a fashion accessory.
Enterprising entrepreneurs have spotted an emergent trend and are swarming out of the woodwork to promote and flog their wares. A quick online trawl throws up a multifarious mix of masks to be got at a price. There are masks with national flags on them. There are kiddie masks festooned with furry animals and/or cartoon characters. There are masks with big, juicy, sexy lips on them which are advertised as being “reusable for school”, a promotional tag that asks more questions than it answers. There are masks for heavy metal fans featuring skulls and crossbones, tombstones and zombies. There are luminous masks that glow in the dark. There are John Wayne masks with logo choices like HANG IN THERE PARTNER or the more menacing BACK OFF PILGRIM.
There is now such a thing as the trikini, which is basically a bikini with a matching mask. They’re ever so delightful and I reckon they’ll be all the rage in Cannes if a film festival is ever again hosted in that part of the Riviera.
There are masks that cater to every taste, peccadillo or whimsy, and trendy folks are stamping their character on their facial fig leaves. To be ornately masked is to be a dedicated follower of fashion and those who refuse to cover their faces, while already perceived to be uncouth, uncaring and uncool, will, under the new fashion dispensation, be regarded as positively gauche.
My wife made me the Dali-esque mask and I daresay I cut a dashing figure in it, even if I say so myself. The only problem is that it covers my Corona-whiskers. Like thousands of other men since lockdown began, I’ve been experimenting with my facial hairs and I’ve grown a dainty little goatee. Alas, now that I’ve taken to wearing a mask when I venture outdoors, I can’t show off my new whiskers.
Such are the trials and tribulations of a trend-setter in today’s world.
Anyway, with little to do and all day to do it, I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at myself in the mirror. Thanks to Covid-19 and the social restrictions it has elicited, I have rediscovered my vanity, which was heretofore relatively defunct; when I reached the ripe old age of 66 and became a “senior citizen” and a gentleman of leisure, I decided to opt in my attire for comfort over conceit. The virus has changed all that. I’m back in the game.
So, there I was this morning, admiring my new mask in the mirror when, out of the blue, something sinister shifted in my breast and I was all of a sudden overwhelmed with a form of existential angst. I felt hollow, fragile, eminently breakable. Vulnerable. Full of despair. I was having what I have come to describe as a Quarantine Moment. These episodes are a recent phenomenon and I suspect that they are brought on by isolation fatigue. They are, I’m told, not uncommon amongst the populace at large. As we sub-consciously process the realization that this pandemic is not a temporary little adventure and the virus is in the midst of us for the long run, it’s gradually dawning on us that this isolation, this distancing from others and this new kind of loneliness may all be part of what we’re coming to call the “new normal”.
It’s not a pretty thought.
My episode only lasts a minute or so but in that short time it speaks volumes for where we find ourselves in the world.
Then I go back to appreciating my face-cover and my thoughts return to that notional bank guard who so admired it. I fantasize that, after I have lodged my cheques and exited the bank, she gazes after me admiringly and whispers to herself:
Who was that masked man?