As I sit here beside my customary candle, I am not in my lounge but in my kitchen at the table, looking out of the window onto a balmy summer’s evening. Now that we are hopefully approaching an end to lockdown, it is a time for looking out, as our vista is gradually widening. Soon we will once again be able to make some firm plans for the future instead of gingerly taking tentative steps for fear of disappointment.
As I look out into my little garden, twilight is approaching. It is my favourite time of day, especially in the summer months. It is the time when the garden is cool and still, the flowers quivering in the sultry breeze, their fragrance heightened in the evening air. I like to stand in my kitchen doorway and breathe in the subtle sweetness of the lavender at the edge of my little patio, which lays almost at my feet. It reminds me of twilights on Vancouver Island: there the lavender combines with the breeze from the Pacific Ocean creating a heady perfume.
I have once again begun to read Marcel Proust’s six volume novel, ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ first published a hundred years ago. Reading the great French novelist’s masterpiece is one of my retirement projects. I am reading it in translation I hasten to add! I do not think, my O Level French would cope with Marcel’s long lyrical sentences! Proust is a writer to be read slowly, a writer to savour. You have to enjoy good prose, like a good wine, to appreciate him. And good prose, like good wine, should be enjoyed slowly. I am hoping that reading him will slow my reading down and that I will overcome my habit of endless skim reading, as a result of becoming addicted to my iPhone.
The first volume begins with the narrator thinking back to when he was an adolescent, living in Paris but vacationing at his grandparents’ home in the fictional town of Combray. While staying there, he is invited to the house of a cultured widowed neighbour, M. Legrandin, and they dine on the terrace by moonlight. M. Legrandin comments, ‘My boy, there comes in all our lives a time, towards which you still have far to go, when the weary eyes can endure but one kind of light, the light which a fine evening like this prepares for us in the still room of darkness, when the ears can listen to no music save what the moonlight breathes through the flute of silence.’
I do not think I have reached that time of life yet. I am not yet in the late evening of my life, but have arrived at the twilight. Fortunately, I do enjoy twilight’s muted sounds and stillness. As twilight is my favourite time of day, I should be very happy and comfortable in my twilight years. I hope I will. At the very least, I am beginning to relax into retirement, now that the lockdown seems to be easing and there may be an end in sight.
I shall definitely feel more comfortable when I no longer have to wear a mask. I am sure we all will. Though I have got used to wearing one, I still find them obtrusive especially when wearing one for a length of time. My spectacles still get fogged up even after using a mask for over a year now. My brain gets fogged up too as, after a while, the mask leaves me light headed, because I am not breathing in fresh air. I have noticed this when I am in the supermarket. After a while I get all fuddled and end up putting the wrong items in my trolley, generally the more expensive ones. Perhaps this is a ploy of the supermarket. I have yet to sit in a cinema or theatre and wear a mask. I wonder how that will feel. But then I am used to sometimes being left bewildered or confused by a play or a movie, so I guess it won’t be a new experience.
There are so many different colours and designs of masks. I was amazed at how quickly companies produced them for sale last year. There are a plethora of different colours and shades and patterns available: everything from camouflage to polka dots. Then there is the ubiquitous, dependable dear old pale blue surgical disposable one, which I mostly use. We are all walking around as if we are auditioning for some medical drama like the BBC’s ‘Casualty’. I find the ones with an air filter rather sinister as they appear to cover a wider area of the face than the others. They would not be out of place in a science fiction movie and they magnify the wearer’s breathing so that he or she sounds like a Cyberman from ‘Doctor Who.’
Because a mask covers the lower half of a person’s face, it highlights the person’s eyes and potentially the emotions behind them. When I was teaching Drama, I was constantly underlining the importance of eye contact between actors and of the emotions behind the eyes, especially when the actor is reacting and not speaking. Of course this is virtually impossible to achieve if you are constantly looking at a script (as I constantly reminded my student thespians). I used to tell them not to just look at the other actor but to really look.
I have noticed when I have been on buses, trains, in shops or in the street that people are really looking at each other more and engaging in more eye contact because they are wearing masks. This leads them to be more aware of the feelings of the other person than would be usual, I suspect. I have also noticed that this has led to little acts of kindness.
I remember going into Kingston for essential shopping in April or May last year and noticing so many anxious faces. The masks seemed to accentuate the wearers’ fears. I remember standing outside Boots in the queue to enter. I was collecting my repeat prescription. The lady in front of me turned and looked at me with frightened eyes. ‘I am so scared,’ she said. I encouraged her by saying she would be OK if she stayed safe and followed the rules and that the pandemic would soon be over. Little did we know! Now, a year on, happily there are fewer fearful expressions on the streets and public transport. I do hope she is well. It has been heartening too to see strangers talking to each other during the pandemic ,especially in those early months of lockdown.
I have been trying to work out the difference between the face masks we are currently wearing and the masks worn in Venice at the famous carnival. The traditional Venetian face mask covers the upper face except that there are openings for the eyes of course. The lower part of the face and the mouth are visible. And yet both masks allow the eyes to be seen. But of course it is more difficult to discern the expression of the eyes in a Venetian masks as the forehead is completely covered. You have to look very closely at the face to see the eyes of the wearer clearly. Therefore there is an air of mystery about the Venetian mask; it is provocative and alluring, inviting a romantic assignation and has done so down the centuries I am sure. That is not to say that our ubiquitous pale blue disposable ones could not be equally as provocative, if our mask makes us look more closely at the other person. It could provide an opportunity for flirtation, a romance of the eyes. I wonder how many lockdown romances have begun because of masks.
However, it is also possible for the expression in the eyes to be misread. I was recently in Waterstones bookstore in Kingston. I had not been there for some time, not since before the long lockdown I think. I had gone in to browse as I had a voucher to spend from Christmas. But the deeper reason was because for me a bookstore is a place of normality. I imagine we have all been looking for places of normality recently, places that comfort us. Normality is comforting. Well one of my places is a bookstore. I feel comforted by being surrounded by books. I do not think a kindle or an Amazon website can provide the same comfort. In any case a website like Amazon agitates rather than soothes. A bookstore is like a blanket, a blanket of culture.
It is also a place of quiet, of hushed conversations. Even though Waterstones in Kingston is situated on the top floor of a shopping mall, above the Apple Store crèche of young people faffing around with the latest expensive gadgets, yet the second you enter, the quietness calms you. At least it calms me. I actually find it refreshing to walk into a bookstore. It revives me.
It is not a place of stillness, though, as obviously there are customers milling quietly about and this branch of Waterstones is quite busy. Neither was I still myself, on that afternoon. I was perusing the shelves to see what I might buy (as if I need any more books on my shelves at home). For a moment I stood in the centre of one of the rooms in the store. I don’t remember what I was looking for, if anything in particular. But I stood there in my mask and looked vacantly at an assistant who was passing by. Behind my mask, I was in need of some fresh air. My discomfort must have put a frown on my brow, because the assistant came up to me and asked me if I was ok and needed any help. He must have thought I looked lost, or was becoming ill. I smiled (behind my mask) and said, ‘No thank you. Very kind of you’ or something like that.
A little later, I went into another room and browsed in there. Then I stood still, struggling to find air behind my mask again and must have frowned again because this time another assistant, a studious looking girl, came up to me and asked the same thing. Well at least the assistants in Waterstones are kind and attentive, even if they sometimes misread the expression in a customer’s eyes. I was forgetting of course that I am an actor and have an expressive face. When I was teaching my students, I would always ‘overplay’ expressions to demonstrate to them. Perhaps I haven’t got out of the habit. I guess I need to make sure I ‘play neutral’ in future in public places. Heaven knows what trouble I could get into otherwise!
I have a feeling that, even after the lockdown ends, masks will be with us for a while. When we are able to finally get rid of our masks, I hope we will not get rid of being aware of others.
Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!
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