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last year’s english lang c/w piece

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Perhaps it’s just the result of neurotic, angst-ridden instinct, but this week, I’ve come to the conclusion that life is best lived as a lie. Or at least, behind a mask…

Last Saturday evening, and I’m standing outside a blue-lit church. A woman in a full white ball dress is walking towards me, and I can hear music coming from inside. All the people around me are wearing masks.

I stare in open mouthed admiration as the woman passes, and glance down at my own black dress. Damn. Outmanoeuvred. Looking around again, I see similar formal dresses, even more terrifying heels…but of course, everyone’s skirt is a little longer than mine, and everyone’s hair is a little better set. It feels glaringly obvious to me that I’ve walked for 20 minutes to get here- my nose is definitely glowing, my hair is wild behind my mask, and these ridiculous shoes have given me a limp.

Maybe I’ll just go home.

And yet this place has a kind of magnetic pull about it. Something about this many people so happily disregarding their usually coveted dignity is somehow…alluring; a break from the usual restraints of day to day life. Around me, Town councillors in flashing costumes stand with women in gold wired dresses and black masks, and they’re all wandering like spooky apparitions through the streets. A moment later, someone passes me who appears to be entirely wrapped in cling film, and I realize…this is where the Strange Things gather. All the repressed oddity usually gathered up beneath suits and school uniforms and Saturday afternoons spent selling your soul in Debenhams has collected itself here, in a minor explosion of middle aged rebellion, cheap wine and fancy dress. I almost expect to see a full moon staring benevolently down at us, laughing gently at the glory of his twisted creation…

It is the masks that do this, I realise. They have a strange kind of power; an influence over the times and places in which they’re used. They twist and change things, make the familiar unrecognisable in the strangest of ways. When faced with a masked friend, you are quite literally talking to a person you know with a face you don’t recognise- rather like seeing a new actor in a familiar role.

Psychological research concurs. As over 50% of human communication is made up of non-verbal signals, much can be gathered from the reading of facial expressions. Masks distort our faces and make us unfamiliar even to the people that know us best. With this crucial point of reference hidden or changed, we become a different version of ourselves and, depending on the size and style of the mask we wear, can be rendered sinister, beautiful, or otherworldly. Not only this- behind a mask, we find a kind of solace; an anonymity that gives us unusual freedom and confidence. With this comes the license to do pretty much whatever we please- presumably in the strange and wholly inaccurate presumption that no-one will know it was us. In masks, we attempt things we would usually refrain from doing, because we do not have to fit the usual conventions of ourselves.

In short, nothing is quite as it seems.

And yet, were it not for their masks, Romeo would never have met Juliet, and the whole of fictional history would be changed. Anonymity can be a gift- I’m fully aware of the voice in the back of my head very quietly hoping that I will see a handsome stranger tonight, and our eyes will lock across the room…likewise, Shakespeare’s less famous lovers Benedick and Beatrice also danced at a masque ball- Benedick mocked by the beautiful young temptress as she pretended that she did not recognise the man she was dancing with.
Of course, where there is magic and romance, there is inevitably menace too. The villain of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Masque Of The Red Death” hides his evil and terrifying nature behind a mask, before pulling it back to reveal (to the obvious delight of his fellow guests) that he is in fact the embodiment of all suffering and hell. Likewise, the doctors of Venice wore masks in the 1600s, when the City was ravaged by the Plague. The hook-nosed masks that used to protect them from the deadly disease are still sold on Venetian street corners- their grisly past now overlooked, but their legacy still apparent to anyone interested enough to read the leaflets.

Despite a few particularly gory connections, masks still inspire a wonderful sense of mystery- a romanticised appeal that has nonetheless now been eclipsed by the wonderful world of excessive alcohol and flashing lights. Masqued balls have fallen well and truly out of fashion, only thriving now in the most pretentious of circles. But sometimes, when every-day life becomes particularly repetitive and Debenhams has lost its appeal, I regret that we’ve lost so many of the magical things.

Tonight, then, I’m not going to miss my chance. With no small weight of expectation on my shoulders, I will forget who I am, become who I’m not, and glory in an evening of unadulterated pretentiousness. The blue lights are calling to me and the people beckoning me in. It’s too good an opportunity to waste.

I take a deep breath. Readjust my mask and shift my weight so my feet stop aching…and walk inside.


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