WRIT LARGE: Ch 3, Part 1
The Studded Mask
I have never been able to read on flights. I think it is the subliminal sounds of the engine humming, the sky allowing us passage, the world thriving below us, that buzzes around my brain and turns the words inside out.
Even with the comfort of the cream leather armchair, the Tiffany lamp on the mahogany table at my side, the crystal decanter of sparkling water, the words are still dancing. I give up. I think it is precisely because of this comfort that I cannot read. It isn’t every day you get to travel by private jet from Paris to Singapore and I should revel in the pleasure, like a child sitting beneath the fairy-lit tree on Christmas morning.
My companion, however, seems to have no such qualms.
She is immaculate, despite the late hour, and despite having spent the day visiting designer boutiques for which, I might add, she wore an entirely different immaculate outfit. I am still wearing the same jeans (Levi), T-shirt (Tommy Hilfiger), and jacket (unbranded from a Parisian market). I feel how I look: crumpled. The fact that I am even contemplating brands tells me I feel unworthy of a long flight on a private jet.
I ask her if she is reading the book which is open on her lap or whether she is turning the pages for my benefit.
She flashes me a smile: perfect white teeth, nude lipstick.
“It will help me sleep,” she says.
When I suggest this is a strange criterion by which to choose reading material especially when there is a luxurious king-size bed waiting for her in the bedroom, she laughs out loud.
“The book itself is not at fault here,” she says. And then closing the pages, she adds, “I must allow myself the time to switch off, to stop thinking.”
I raise my glass to her. I have no such difficulties these days. It is becoming easier to sleep and allow my subconscious to decipher my thoughts for me. Everything looks different on the other side of a deep dream-filled sleep.
She sips her champagne and closes her eyes briefly as if savouring the bubbles in her mouth.
“Of course, this helps,” she smiles as if reading my mind. She is comfortable, her legs tucked under her, her back upright. If you saw Leann and tried to place her in a setting without knowing anything about her, I think it would be this: this understated opulence, this space which is more like a private library than an aircraft, the low lights, the champagne.
The flight attendant glides in, refills Leann’s glass, and glides out again. She looks at Leann in such a way that I almost expect her to curtsey as she approaches.
“Thank you, Sara,” says Leann. She bestows a smile on the younger woman and returns her attention to me.
The conversation has not been stilted. In fact, far from it, we have settled into a comfortable air of two friends facing a long tedious journey together. I am beginning to realise that Leann is conservative with her words, that she is almost constantly tightening her thoughts the way a writer tightens their prose. I ask her if that is the case.
Her smile is thoughtful.
“You are a clever man. You see, when I was a child, I spent a lot of time around adults. With my grandfather’s exalted position, I was accustomed to being introduced to politicians and businessmen, to presidents and first ladies, to actors and artists and ballet dancers. I had to be as confident speaking with a prime minister as I was speaking with a teacher or my school friends.”
I suggest that this sounds like the way of life was forced upon her, although it would have been difficult to be anything otherwise as her grandfather was the great Lee Kuan Yew. She takes another careful sip of champagne. “Confidence did not come easy to me. My neck would swell with heat bumps before a party or banquet, and I would run a cold bath to take them down. I learned to wear a mask, to present a persona that I didn’t feel on the inside.”
In that respect, we are more similar than she realises, I tell her, only I cover up my nervousness with comedy. I tell jokes. If I can see smiling faces, it gives the impression that I am among friends and only then can I begin to relax.
“My father did not teach me how to tell jokes,” she says. “I allowed the mask to become a way of life, so much so, that when I went to Cambridge, I did not speak for several months.”
I almost spill my water on my lap.
“I had to learn to be me all over again,” Leann explains. “It was like walking into a boutique and rediscovering the clothes that best suited me. When I was ready to present the real me to the world again, I took a part-time role in a salon, washing customers’ hair and making them cups of tea.”
My mother always says that I am an open book, and the expression of surprise must be apparent on my face. I raise my hands and admit that I am guilty of finding this difficult to imagine.
“It is far easier to speak to a reflection,” says Leann. “The image facing you is always fractionally distorted and therefore you can pretend that you are speaking to a fictional character, someone you have imagined into existence. You should try it some time. And of course, people in hair salons are willing to divulge their life stories. They cannot wait to tell you about their most exotic experiences.”
I tell her that I will try it, and that I understand why she writes because she is one of those people who prefer fictional characters to real people.
She nods. Her hair fans around her face with the movement and then settles back into place.
“Of course, I still don the mask whenever I am around people, even my friends.”
I think this is a shame because I am enjoying the ‘real’ Leann’s company, but I do not say so, instead I ask if I will get the opportunity to see the mask.
She grins at me and I wonder if anyone has ever told her how beautiful she is when she smiles.
“You will,” she says, “and you can tell me which Leann you prefer.”
It is around 2am when I finally make my excuses and go to bed. In the privacy of the room allocated to me, I swallow my tablets with sparkling water, and am asleep almost the instant my head touches the pillow.
In the morning, I shower and return to the spacious area where Leann and I had chatted the evening before. Leann is still in her leather armchair, her laptop open. She looks as fresh as she did when we boarded the jet, her makeup is pristine, her face glowing.
I ask if she has been writing all night.
She closes the laptop and tilts her head from side to side as if contemplating telling me the truth or telling me what she thinks I want to hear.
“Yes,” she says finally. “I may have dozed for an hour or so.”
She presses a button at the side of her chair and the flight attendant appears with a breakfast menu. I choose a selection of Danish pastries, while Leann requests steamed noodles which she eats effortlessly with chopsticks. “They are not so difficult to master once you abandon trying to stab your food to death,” she says.