At the age of thirteen I was obsessed with my late flourishing puberty. For most boys, the “hairing up” process can be private, inspected and willed on in the safety of his bedroom or the family bathroom – for me, it was in the glare of 50 or more other boys, in the communal showers and dormitory “ends” of a British public school (ah, it that why they are so-called?). At one end of the scale a 12 year old in another house, who could already convert a rugby penalty from the half-way line, was in possession of an extraordinary five o’clock shadow, his pink phyisog carpeted from shirt collar to cheek bones in thick, no doubt coarse stubble. At the other, a boy in the year below was rumoured to have been put back several years in his physical development due to an operation on his testicles. Some boys refused to shower without swimming trunks on (creepily teased for this by a school master, as I recall) whilst others stood proud in the shower, thickets of pubes sprouting. I have a clear memory of finding my first armpit hair under intense examination in the mirror – the joy! I was on my way.
The beard is the last to arrive, of course, and so desperate was I to feel roughness as I stroked my chin, that I resorted to shaving bum fluff. I was not the first child to do so, I won’t be the last. Now, as back in the puberty days, I am pretty average – I’ve got an average covering of face fuzz, not the permabeard of my college friend Bob, nor the sparse smoothness of school friend Steve. It is Steve I envy now; Bob I wonder how he manages. I don’t enjoy shaving and didn’t once take a razor to my face in 2010, preferring to wear a closely clipped beard. But I don’t mind being shaved, in fact surrendering my neck to a stranger with a cut-throat is one of my great pleasures.
My first experience of this was in 1996; I can even recall the address, Lebu Chuliya, Georgetown, Pulau Penang in Malaysia. The street was dotted with backpacker cafes in which myself and my companions, Bella and Andy, started each morning with banana pancakes and tea. Whilst they perused the travellers’ tips books that littered hostels and cafes in the pre-internet world, I wandered off one morning. I watched a rat, of which there are many in the town, scurry under a cabin just off the street. Looking up I saw two Indian gents lathering faces and wielding their blades. The sheaths into which the blades are folded when unused were at right angles, sticking up like the pinky of lady taking afternoon tea. I’d like to decorate the description with sun glinting from the metal, but it probably didn’t, it was quite gloomy in there.
Without hesitation, I took my place in the queue, reading my book until I was called up. The brush was dipped and vigorously circled my face, which was fresh from a few minutes under a hot, damp towel. My barber scraped through my short beard in a few minutes, before rubbing a camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oil all over my head, massing my scalp and shoulders. Then, quite unexpectedly, he placed one hand on my left temple, the other on the right hand side of my neck, briskly turning my head to face the open door of his shack. The crunch was incredible, if a little surprising – I’d hardly digested it, before he repeated the process in the opposite direction. My neck felt free, and not broken and useless as I worried it might be, the result of too many action films in my youth.
On my return to breakfast, I was asked where I’d been. I explained, and said that in all likelihood I’d be returning in a couple of days. Andy jumped aboard the idea, and a quite different idea formed in my mind. I happily explained the process to him, forgoing one or two minor details. When we arrived Andy was shown directly to his seat, whilst I sat outside. Andy was rather sweetly excited, and when the chance arose he turned to me outside with a huge grin and gave me the thumbs up. Head repositioned by his barber, I smoked and watched. The barbers were quick, and it was easy to imagine cartoon swirls of the Tazmanian Devil variety accenting their flourishes. The mix of oils was splashed into the barber’s hand, from a greasy cafe sauce bottle. He clapped his palms together and then massaged it into Andy’s grinning chops from behind him. I could see my friend’s eyes closed in the sheer luxury of it all, even in these incongruous surroundings. Slowly the face massage rose to the scalp and Andy tilted his head back – half bliss, half sleep, still all smiles. I watched with a tight, nasty little smirk on my face and the hands took the position and I whispered to myself, “Please, please…”
Andy’s head was twisted with measured violence from left to right, and his wide eyes stared directly into my laughing ones, his mouth open in silent shock. I collapsed on my haunches, wiping tears away with the heel of my palm.