Women and masks

I fell in love with a woman wearing a mask.

Not once, buy twice.

The first time was with English actress Margaret Lockwood starring in the film The Wicked Lady.(1945) as an aristocrat by day and a highwaywoman by night. She was the most gorgeous creature I had ever seen in all my seven years. The film also had a hanging scene in which hawkers were selling model scaffolds and victims to kids in the crowd. How I longed for one of those scaffolds but none were to be found in my searches through the town’s toyshops. I must have been a horrid little boy.

Which reminds me of another precocious little brat aged about ten who had a hit in the charts in the 1970s. He was even prepared to mask up to win the heart of his woman: “I’ll be your long-haired lover from Liverpool, I’ll do anything you ask. I’ll be your clown, your puppet, your April fool, I’ll even wear a mask”. Maybe the songwriter could not find anything to rhyme with ”ask’.

Long before the present pandemic, women in masks had become commonplace in Western cities. It wasn’t always so. Writing in The Times in 1869, William Russell on a visit to Egypt with the Prince of Wales, typified the idea of exotic, feminine Eastern promise when he wrote: ” If eyes can be an index to the character of the rest of the face, many of the ladies must have been very beautiful”. Then he went and spoiled it by adding ” but some showed the ravages of ophthalmia, which the artifice of blackened eyebrows only made more evident”..

It is ironic to reflect that in many Western countries masks have made the fastest trajectory in history from being illegal (for concealing identity for whatever reason) to becoming compulsory (to protect us and others from infection).

Best mask joke seen so far: “Puppy: ‘Mum,. why are humans wearing muzzles?’ Mother dog: ‘ Because they won’t learn to sit and stay.'”

Who, you may ask, was the second masked woman I fell in love with? She of course is my wife, Helen, though she was not wearing a mask when we first met. That has come much later in response to the current pandemic. Which brings us to Bondi Beach where the ABC TV News made us poster material (without the usual bikini and board shorts) while recently taking a Sunday afternoon stroll along the promenade enjoying the opportunity for permitted outdoor exercise.

In our masks at Bondi on a lockdown Sunday


Sydney, June 2021


Only a week into my fellowship at the Cite Internationale des Arts and we’re in lockdown. Just my luck. Who would’ve thought this mean virus could attack Paris, of all places? The City of Love, where people entwined in the streets, or in the Metro, are common sights? Now the streets are almost empty, and hardly anyone dares board the Metro. From my tiny balcony I can just see the Place Pont Marie, usually swarming with commuters, is deserted.

It is said this new virus acts a little like Puck’s magic potion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: those infected will feel the pangs of love for whoever they lock eyes with. There are strict boundaries drawn on every promenade. Cafes and bars along the boulevards are closed, and cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge are memories.

I’ve been given the Nancy Keesing Studio to write in, as befitting a woman author from Australia. Across the courtyard is another writer’s studio. He’s the well-known Portuguese poet I’ve long admired. I was so looking forward to meeting him, discussing our work together. But it’s not to be. I must content myself with a glimpse through his window of his black curly head bent over his desk. He glances up and returns my gaze. I feel like a voyeur and quickly look away.

Next door to his studio is another with a tiny balcony just like mine. A woman steps on to it, dressed only in a negligee. Even from this distance I can see she’s wearing nothing underneath it. I recognise her with a jolt of excitement and some embarrassment: it’s our own great poet and essayist, the controversial Emily Von Grun. Wait! She’s leaning over her balcony towards the Portuguese poet’s window. She throws a small pebble, expertly aimed , so that it hits the edge of the pane. He looks up and smiles. A moment later his window is empty.

The virus, named Eros 20, impels the victim to make love to any man or woman, youth or elder, who they set eyes on, indiscriminate of race or creed. The inevitable outcome of this overwhelming passion is death.

Through the window opposite I can see Emily, apparently naked, lying limply over her desk. Her greying auburn hair flows over the keys of her computer. I reach for my phone, horror creeping up my spine. As I do so there’s a knock on my door.

It’s the Portuguese poet. His beautiful green eyes are alight with lust. I back away as he advances. He is too strong for me, and in spite of, or perhaps because of, my terror, my body responds. In the midst of overwhelming passion my only thought is: what a wonderful way to die.

Paris is still the City of Love, especially in the time of Eros20.


For more fiction by Dina Davis, see her recent novel: