Shaving Part 1

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.

Brief Encounter

A stream of consciousness I needed to get out. It burped onto the page in just 40 minutes.

I’d touched down at Gatwick at around 6.30pm on the first day of August this year. I’d had a terrible flight, compounded by the lack of my usual medicine of a glass or six of something “fortifying”. Whether it was the start of Ramadan that meant there was nothing alcoholic on the plane, or just because it was an observant airline, I don’t know. But I was shattered, nerves frayed and body beaten by the journey that had got me there via Malmo, Sweden. All I wanted was to get on the train and share a meal with good friends in Bayswater, a not unreasonable target to end the day.

As I got to the platform, it was clear that not everything was as it should have been. The hordes, oh the hordes and hordes of pissed off travellers, unable to make good their escape. I forced calm to settle over me, as I saw a wait stretch before me. A conversation with a platform guard furnished me with the unwanted intelligence that a landslip further up the track had meddled the timetables and it was going to take some time. So I sat. 

And soon I saw fit to ask again, for any further information. Alongside me was an impossibly beautiful, willowy dark girl. She didn’t take my breath, but as someone who has never tried to chat up a stranger, she took words that were perhaps never there in the first place. She said something, and my mind whirred, “Luke, you’ve got good cards here. Think about it…’ve got stuff going on that might break the ice…”

“Well, ” I started falteringly, “I’d have thought my delays would’ve been at the other end.” Of course, she asked where I’d started the day’s journey. “Iraq.” I just left it there, feeling more as if I was playing poker than trying not to faint in her presence. “Oh, are you in the army?” I left the merest of beats before replying, “No, I’m a teacher….” And then a longer beat – I’m rebuilding a nation I laughed to myself. We got on, we got on well. She told me she’d been in Turkey for two weeks starting her third book (oh, you get better) and I mumbled something about trying to be a writer myself. I felt 12 years old. Sarah, for that is her name, decided to jump on a train, whilst I elected to await an Express. I took my phone from my pocket, but realised I didn’t have a number to give, no sim yet purchased. I couldn’t ask for hers, too forward. “Do you use Facebook?” she asked, and gave me her name. I added her as a friend just as soon as I could get access, a few hours later.

I woke up at my friends’ house and was pleased to see she’d written to me. A long, pleasant message, complimenting me on my clothes, and certainly giving me some signals. I wrote back. She wrote back. We swapped numbers. We started to text and email regularly.

A couple of days later, I was with friends. I showed them Facebook pictures of Sarah. Jane spotted that the dust jacket of her debut memoir was in amongst the pictures. “An honest memoir of a coke-addicted call girl in London” was about the long and short of it.

I wasn’t appalled. I didn’t think anything. There was no judgement, merely a “hmmm, she’s lived” and an unchanged desire to meet, which we soon agreed to do. On my birthday, 12th August. We met around the corner from the London Palladium and kissed long and passionately. We sat for food which we didn’t eat, kissing and looking at each other instead. She gave me a card which read “From This Day Forward” on the front. I gave her a book I thought she might enjoy, that I’d read a year ago. And I tried to take it back. I had only then remembered that the main character, as well as being a werewolf, was a prostitute. I was mortified. She laughed, she was easy with it. She gave me two books; Delta Of Venus by Anais Nin, as an erotic work as is possibly acceptable on a first date, if at all; and a Paul Smith notebook, “I have one too. When you are in Iraq and you see something you want to share with me, write it down. I will do the same here, and when we see each other next we will swap.” As we left, she said she was going to do something she hadn’t done for ages tonight.

“A massive line of coke?” I suggested with a straight face. “No, I’m going to suck off a sweaty businessman for £300,” she deadpanned back. Funny, intelligent, beautiful…undeniably a bit fucked up, but aren’t we all? She was, in fact, attending NA.

After a weekend in Brighton, we agreed to meet the following Sunday. She picked me up at the station and we went back to her flat. We spent 10 glorious hours discovering a near-perfect erotic match. And with that, we awoke on Monday morning and she went to work. I left a little later and returned to Stroud….I missed her almost immediately.

On the Tuesday morning, I woke up and checked Facebook. Sarah had written on her wall (it’s a fan page really, as I discovered, where people talk about recovery and prostitution) “Why can’t I just be normal, why isn’t this going to work?” Of course, I texted her. Of course, she told me that this wasn’t going to work. 

My mother picked me up from the friend’s pub where I was staying. I was distraught but keeping it below the surface, but mothers know. When she asked me what was wrong, I dissolved into floods of tears. I felt I’d had a chance, no matter how weak the foundations, pulled from me. A feeling had been aroused in me, connected undoubtedly with sex and with the fuck-it-all hyper-speed that we’d developed, that I hadn’t had for years. I wanted to give it a go with Sarah, and I told mum about her history. To my surprise (but on reflection I should have expected nothing less from a wonderfully caring woman such as her), she said, “Everyone has history, and it’s who she is now that is important.” A platitude, almost certainly, but thoughtful. Mind you, I was driving and I’m pretty sure mum was a bit fucking nervous about my fitness to do so.

Over the next few days, I tried to not think of Sarah. But a supernova, that burns so bright and so fast, is hot as well, and the burn wouldn’t be salved. I relented and sent her a text. Her reply was breezy and we agreed to keep in touch. 

My last weekend in England, I spent with the friends that I’d stayed with the night after I met Sarah. On the Monday, before I left on the Tuesday, Sarah suggested meeting for coffee. Like a fly to a purple fluorescent strip, I went and we clicked again. She had a royalty cheque on the way, and was going to use some of it to visit me in Kurdistan in September. The distance might be good for a couple of romantic dreamers like ourselves. She apologised for upsetting me in the past week, I was so delirious I told her it was nothing. Promises were made on both sides, and we parted with tearing eyes and happy hearts.

We kept in close contact until my flight, texts, phone calls and further promises. I texted when I landed, as promised. I received no reply, but messages often don’t reach here from the UK. 

I didn’t hear from her for a day, so I sent her an email, telling her I missed her already, being a soppy sod. She sent one back suggesting I find someone in Iraq to fill her place. Yep, that’s what it said. I read it a few times, and then replied, “Does this mean you’re not coming out to visit, then?” “No.” “But, what about what we said? Why did you say those things and make those promises on Monday?”

I got this in reply:

because i actually GENUINELY LIKE you. that’s why. its simple.
but you know something – some people say things at specific times, that they mean intensely at the time, and then maybe that alters. So what??

i like you Luke, but i don’t want daily contact – i don’t want to feel that you are my ‘betrothed’, i don’t want to feel that I must reply to every single email i get from you.
I don’t want to think that you are thinking about me lots, or missing me.
i don’t want to feel trapped.
i don’t want to feel any sense of re4sponsibility for how you feel.
I don’t want to feel any of this stuff.
I just don’t.
and i won’t.

don’t hold me to ransom for any of what ive said or done.
we owe each other nothing.

and now I’m getting angry

There has been some contact since, but after a promise to write me a good catch up email a few weeks ago, I’ve heard nothing. We all know that logically, I’m a fool to think any more about it. We’re also all aware that the heart doesn’t work like that.