If, unlike me, you’re not hiding behind the sofa when the news comes on, you might be aware lockdown is being “eased” — or, as a normal person might phrase it, being “thrown out of the window”. Politicians are using the lovely, gentle word “eased” to reassure us this new phase is part of a coherent strategy and not just because: “We’re all really bored of it now. Plus — we’ve run out of money.”
This means I can’t put it off any longer. I’m going to have to try wearing a mask. My cleaner, Eszter — how I missed her! I’d forgotten how much I hate vacuuming — has made us cloth masks out of some bright stripy cotton tea-towels I no longer use.
So far, my forays from home have mostly been for walks, so a mask hasn’t been necessary, with only occasional trips to one shop and standing by a friend’s front gate when I took her some sourdough starter. (I think my superhero name might be Sourdough Girl — delivering emergency sourdough starter to innocent victims whose starter has failed, bringing hope to those weeping over the prospect of queueing for a sourdough loaf and then shelling out over a fiver.)
For the avoidance of doubt, I should declare: I really hate masks. I don’t like kiddies’ “fun” Hallowe’en masks. I don’t like fancy-schmancy Venetian carnival masks. I don’t like surgical masks (though I accept they are necessary). I don’t like weird “sexy” leather masks. And I’m guessing I wouldn’t be fantastically keen on a burglar in a mask either. I find them disconcerting at best, but sinister is closer to it. I wonder if my lurking unease about the face veil worn by some Muslim women isn’t rooted only in my ardent feminism, but also in this more visceral antipathy towards masks in general.
But now, here we are in the era of the mask. Masks are all around us. An elderly lady from round the corner gives me a cheery wave wearing one. A nice couple I know walk by in matching blue disposable masks. I tell myself I’m being silly. Masks are just a practical, temporary prop many people are using now. It’s fine.
I have to go to the chemist to pick up my prescription. I put on the mask as I leave the house, but by the time I’ve reached the front gate, it’s already making me hot and sweaty (and it’s not as if the route from door to gate is a mile-long avenue flanked by ancient beech trees — it’s about 10 steps along a cracked concrete path. Yes, yes — we are getting it fixed. Later.) I tug the mask back down on to my chin. I’m sure I don’t need to wear it on the street.
You may mock but a postiche — an Egyptian false beard — was really just the thing if you were a royal in 2000 BCE and was worn by some female pharaohs too (though that’s also how we know they weren’t Jewish, because then who’d need the fake one? I come from a long line of furry females on both sides). I’m just reinterpreting the look. Originally, they were attached by a gold chin strap, whereas mine has white elastic around my ears, but you know — adapt.
As I get to Boots, I position the mask properly over my face, and — as there’s no queue — go straight in. They now have screens at the till and at the prescriptions counter at the back, but neither cashier nor pharmacist is wearing gloves or a mask. By the time I reach the back, my breath has funnelled up out the top of the mask, clouding my glasses, and I can hardly see. The pharmacist, who also wears glasses, tells me if I put a piece of folded kitchen paper inside the mask, that will help (she’s right, I do it later and it does).
I then have to go to the post office. In general, I avoid it because there’s always a queue and inevitably the person in front of me is applying for a passport but is missing some key document. Well, at least that won’t happen now. Who needs a passport when no-one can go anywhere? I need to send a copy of my new novel as a thank you to the legendary artist and print-maker David Gentleman, who patiently showed me his studio and answered my daft questions about wood-engraving for a character in the book. The book is heavy, so I can’t just bung a couple of stamps on it and hope for the best.
At the post office, there is only one person ahead of me. He is wearing a proper, well-fitting mask with one of those little round filters in the side. It looks effective but is clearly hampering communication because the post office clerk, behind his screen, keeps saying, “I’m sorry?” The customer is indeed applying for a new passport (Why? Where on earth is he going?) and it’s complicated. Of course it is. I wait (semi) patiently.
Eventually I approach the counter, mask in position.
“I’d like to send this first-class please. Inland.” I say.
It comes out as: “Mmph mm hh phen hhs phur hlars hlee. Hi-han.”
I put the parcel on the scales.
“First,” I say. “Inland.” (“Phurmph. Hi-han.”) Just as well MPs don’t have to wear a mask when they’re communicating to the public about changes to the guidelines. If that happened, we might become confused about what the message is. Imagine that.
Claire Calman’s new novel, Growing Up for Beginners, is available from hive.co.uk, Amazon and other outlets