'Power Rangers,' said the tallest of the five sixth form boys strolling along the corridor, the lunchtime before Half Term began. 'Why do you keep on saying we'll go as Power Rangers. That's just lame. And before you start...' he turned to one of the other boys... 'we're not going as a pack of crayons either. Now guys. Think. What are we going as, and don't say bloody Power Rangers!'
It's Halloween again. Whether it's fancy dress parties or trick-or-treating at neighbourhood front doors, it's a bit like the simple escapism of the nostalgic world of 1970s children's TV character, Mr Benn: step into the fitting room, try on a costume, and walk away, through the curtains on the other side, into a whole new world where adventures happen. For one night only: real.
Sitting at home, you hear the laughter first: high-pitched, and just this side of hysteria. Then you hear a gloved hand on the door. They can't reach the bell. They bang again - maybe two at a time. You hear the voices building and when you open it... you see four small, costumed figures, complete with scary faces. 'Trick or treat!' they chorus, triumphant, trying to play the part of monsters but unable to conceal the jubilant anticipation of sweets any longer...
But maybe there's more to it than that. Maybe the masks of Halloween aren't so very different to the masks we all wear, every day, at every time of year. The adjacency pairs of everyday conversation script emotional evasion for us.
'How are you today?' asks the GP.
'Fine thanks... you?' I reply, and then suddenly, embarrassingly, have to backtrack and explain the sore throat which has been my ticket to the surgery. With someone close, it's sometimes all in the tone of voice.
'Fine...' said with just that frisson of undertone revealing 'fine' to be no terribly accurate account of how things stand. You say this, like this, when you want someone to ask you whether you really are all right; the opposite happens when you overact your fine-ness to extremes because you know that, as soon as someone shows concern, you'll fall apart.
Maybe dressing up like trick-or-treating children, or going out at Halloween in fancy dress, is just like the daily pretence that things are fine. In the middle of a gloriously dysfunctional life of being too busy, too stressed, too poor, too much in demand and too tired, becoming someone else for a night is a nostalgic step back into simpler times, when an unexpected sweet or piece of chocolate was the kind of incitement making the fiction of dressing up and pretending to scare the neighbours at once believable and worthwhile. Nowadays, when we make preparations for the giggling, exuberant Halloween visitors, we have to consider things like nut allergies, being friendly, not cross, but not so friendly as to arouse suspicion, and making sure that the family dog or cat is well out of the way just in case its lurking presence might cause alarm or sneezing. When we do the J Alfred Prufrock thing, 'prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet', it's just the same. When I notice that I'm looking especially pale and drawn, I put on my broadest smile to greet colleagues... and then resent it just a bit when I'm overwhelmed with demands, requests, complaints. I blame them just a bit for not noticing the tired person hiding in the fancy dress of competence.
As autumn edges into winter, it's Greenwich Mean Time again. I'm shocked all over again by just how dark the evenings are, and how early they begin, and it seems to me that the truth about masks gleams with the small, fragile yet somehow utterly steady light of the pumpkin lantern which resists being extinguished in the chilly wind. Are our masks and costumes just about taking the projected attendant circumstances into consideration when preparing to face a day? A coat - a scarf - an umbrella. An iPod for a visit to the gym. A book to beat insomnia. Did you hear the one about the boy who took some hay to bed? It was to feed the night-mares... Does it go beyond the evasive action of a strong ethic of organisation, or the easy conversational routine of the utterances which we expect to go together? The masks and the costumes are there to reassure us that we fit where we're supposed to be... that we can feel emotionally secure about not making ourselves conspicuous by seeming out of place. Does this equate to dishonesty? Maybe. Good manners? Undoubtedly. It's a little like a dress code: if it stipulates 'smart casual', it would seem churlish to turn up in scruffy jeans and top, as though for an evening at home. If the emotional code says 'functioning, coping, confident' - would we be in breach of some unwritten rule of etiquette to present a slightly less confident, slightly more broken version of ourselves?
'I'm not from here. I'm from space!' cried one of the little trick-or-treaters on my doorstep, although he later broke the spell he'd cast as, just as he turned to leave with his friends, he lifted his ancient wizard mask so I'd see who he was when he waved goodbye and said thanks (again) for the sweets. He was the precise opposite of the models of beauty on TV, all botox and tooth veneers and hair extensions, advocating beauty products from pedestals of perfection, 'because they're worth it,' swathed in an impossible aura to which the humbly imperfect can only aspire. In a world where a well-known anti-ageing cream is called Idealist, we can buy the mascara advertised by models styled with false lash inserts; buy the shampoo, but only aspire to the state-of-the-art extensions; smile to put a brave face on all our inadequacies, but probably not with the whitened perfection of a set of porcelain veneers.
As the darkness falls for winter, children hide their appealing innocence behind masks and costumes and tangled wigs, which turn them into wizened, supernatural creatures or majestic Power Rangers. As their straggled grey locks dance in the cold Halloween wind, the excited laughter of who they really are sneaks out now and then from behind their distorted faces or imagined super-powers to give the game away.
And as for the rest of us? We contort our faces into a rictus grin of 'being fine' as the icy winds of growing older in a hostile world make the innocent laughter of our own memories seem as wispy and illusory as a half-imagined ghost.Suggest a correction