Iron masks, sunglasses and other evidence of torture
She looked as fragile as a woman on a cliff, as if she were about to fall into the wind. Then she put on sunglasses to make herself invisible. It didn’t work
I was in an English castle one day during August, and a big wobbly jelly of a woman in the museum was examining instruments of torture. She had two young children with her, and she was horrified by the iron tools for gouging eyes, taking off fingers and cracking skulls, which were displayed in glass cases. When the little girl asked what all those things were for the woman said she thought they were farm implements. “Or perhaps they were used in the forge long ago, for the horses,” she added.
Apparently the little girl’s older brother could read.
“Mummy, those things are for torturing bad people,” he explained, in a crisp English accent.
“Oh yes, of course,” she said, as if she had just realised their true nature, and then she fled from the room through the narrow door and down the spiral staircase.
I kept wondering why she seemed so fragile. I imagine she might be one of those genteel ladies whose lives are restrained by manners, living behind
lace curtains for too long in some
English suburb, as life passes them
by and they glance out with horror at
the unruly neighbours or the bare
torsos of bin men on summer
She was at a table in the open-air restaurant a while later. They were surrounded by rose beds, but the boy was bored.
“I’m going to put an iron mask on you,” the boy declared to his sister, “if you don’t stop annoying me.”
“What iron mask?” his mother inquired.
“The one in the museum,” said the boy. “It’s a scold, and it’s big and heavy and it was used to punish nagging wives.”
Clearly he knew a lot about English history, but his mother just laughed it off.
“Oh well,” she said, “those were different times, I imagine.”
“Yeah, right,” he said, “like as if you never heard of Guantánamo Bay.”
Her confused expression suggested that she probably thought Guantánamo Bay was somewhere one might fly to, if no apartments were available in Alicante.
The little girl furrowed her brow and concentrated on playing with her bracelet, but her frown suggested she was vaguely aware that underneath all this history was a gender issue and that she wasn’t coming out on the winning side.
The boy taunted her. He asked did she know how painful it might be to have her face stuck in an iron mask and everyone laughing at her. Suddenly his mother smacked his bare arm with her open hand, and then she looked around as if she was worried that someone might have seen her.
But it was the cigarette that surprised me. She didn’t seem like the smoking type. But she certainly sucked and puffed with enthusiasm.
She looked as fragile as a woman on a cliff, as if she were about to fall into the wind. As if a gale force was in her face. And her eyes bulged like a terrified bird’s. She gawked around like a turkey that has been sectioned off for the kill but doesn’t quite know why. Then she put on sunglasses to make herself invisible.
It didn’t work. They made her all the more obvious in her distress.
I worried she might hit the boy again, but she didn’t. I just couldn’t make out what was bothering her behind the sunglasses.
It’s funny the way people think they’re invisible when they put on sunglasses. The IRA was fond of doing it at funerals in the old days. The boys hoisting the coffin used to wear black berets like French farmers, and sunglasses from the local chemist, so that their neighbours wouldn’t recognise them.
Which was odd, because one certain way to draw attention to yourself in rural Ireland on a cloudy day is to go around carrying a coffin and wearing sunglasses. Although I notice film stars are at it nowadays in Leitrim. They go about the highways even on rainy days with designer shades over their bleary eyes, so that people will know that they are trying not to be noticed.
But I couldn’t understand the English woman. I imagined a dozen possible scenarios for her fragility, until the boy began picking the roses and she really lost it. “Peter,” she screamed, and she flung a bucket of swear words at him. But he stood his ground.
“I want them for daddy’s grave tomorrow,” he said, defiantly. And she was left exposed, and as good as naked despite the glasses that masked her eyes.