Who is that masked man?

(should be “vous”, Google)

I was in B&Q a few weeks ago, in Milton Keynes, and I think it was the first time I consciously wore a mask face covering to a shop. In my case, it was one of those Buff tubular bandanas. Mine’s made of recycled plastic bottles. In Covid-time, a few weeks ago feels like another lifetime, but I noted then that it seemed that fewer than half of the customers were wearing a mask. Welp, they’ve been compulsory in France since Monday, and, lagging behind as usual, in the UK from today, Friday.

Like literally everyone else who has to wear one, I hate it. Still, I don’t wear it for my benefit but for that one shop assistant who feels vulnerable and would rather I wore one. I’m finding that here in France, a warmer climate, my glasses aren’t steaming up quite so much as they did that day in B&Q, though I’m also carrying some surgical tape in case I have to take steps. There’s a supermarket we sometimes go to called Grand Frais, and the whole shop really is very frais indeed. I imagine that the lenses would fog quite quickly in there. Wearing a face covering starts to feel hot and claustrophobic after about half an hour, so you can’t wander the aisles quite as aimlessly as you once might have done.

I was in Cora today, one of the bigger hypermarkets, and I had to skip through a bit, not least because (as I have frequently observed) wearing a mask means that people do not respect physical distancing at all, which gives me the fucking rage, quite honestly. It’s both/and, not either/or, you dolts. Wear a mask and keep the fuck away from me. But you can’t get into rows with these people.

They were selling various kinds of face mask and hand sanitiser near the entrance. I picked up a couple so as to have extras, just in case. The disposable masks are eye-wateringly expensive, which is a good thing, I think. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, people are just throwing them on the floor. Polluter pays is a good principle. The reusable masks were €2 each, and every single one was protected with an anti-theft security tag. Which makes you wonder how much it costs to affix the tags. The checkout operator could not remove them, and had to explain to me that I had to go to the customer service desk on the way out of the shop. There, I was challenged by the security guard to show my receipt. Such a faff, made doubly hard by my inability to understand what anyone was saying. Not just because I’m shit at French, but because I’m shit at hearing when I can’t see the speaker’s lips. Ho hum.

Thence to Leroy Merlin, which because it is laid out almost identically to B&Q, gave me a flash back to that occasion a few weeks ago. I think you have to stop yourself occasionally and wonder how we got here. Most people were wearing masks, not risking the €135 fine. There was one old boy, wearing his round his neck while he talked to a couple of assistants. Possibly he too had hearing problems and is confused about which of his organs does the actual hearing. But if you had to guess: an older white guy, right? But it brought me up short, to think of how much has changed, and how much we seem to be living on a knife edge.

Anyway, shopping is no longer fun. You’re not going to want to try on clothes, or flick through the sale racks for bargains, or, I dunno, hang out in Fnac looking at the Moleskines.

Everything is confusing and the messaging from politicians has been unclear. For the ideologues in charge of the UK’s response, the confused messaging is deliberate, I think. Like their counterpart across the Atlantic, I think they want to promote chaos and sew division because it works to their advantage. There’s also been a sense throughout, I reckon, that they’re trying to communicate to one set of people through coded dog whistles. The use of phrases like “common sense” is always a clue to this.

Just as nobody was really policing the lockdown (unless you were the wrong class or colour), I don’t think anybody is really policing the masks. It definitely shouldn’t be up to shop assistants on minimum wage to confront angry white men and sharp-elbowed Karens.

Apart from the claustrophobia caused by my own hot breath, and the hearing difficulties, it just feels really lonely out there, I think. I noticed that I was holding my mouth differently: my lips felt more tightly pressed together, my smile muscles unused. It reminds me of a line in Terry Bisson’s classic short story “Bears Discover Fire”:

Though they were gathered together, their spirits still seemed solitary, as if each bear was sitting alone in front of its own fire. 

“Bears Discover Fire” Terry Bisson, 1990

And that seems to be us at the moment. We gather together, but each one of us is solitary behind the mask, alone with our own thoughts.


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