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Masks

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So. Autumn. Again.

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...

Dressing up for Halloween is big business again this year. Like in the nostalgic world of 1970s children's TV character, Mr Benn, dressing up is simple escapism... 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, it's real.

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. I do this all the time. We all do, I think. 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.

Maybe dressing up like trick-or-treating children, to go to a Halloween party, is just another way of pretending that everything's fine. In the middle of a recession, in the middle of a gloriously dysfunctional life of being too busy, becoming someone else for a night is just plain fun. It's a way of stepping back into a simpler time in your life...a time when an unexpected sweet or piece of chocolate was the kind of incitement which made 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 take so many things into consideration: nut allergies, being friendly and not cross, but not so friendly that the inevitable parent hovering almost out of sight down the road won't be suspicious, 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 one day, 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 real person behind the mask...hiding in the fancy dress of competence.

As autumn edges to winter and I'm shocked all over again by just how dark the evenings are, and how early they begin, 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. 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 no different to a dress code, in some ways...if the dress code states '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.

As the darkness falls for winter, children hide their appealing innocence behind masks and costumes and tangled wigs, which turn them into wizened, unnatural creatures of supernatural aspect. 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 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.