‘Have you ever thought of having some colour put in, love?’ said Julian as he shaved my neck with a razor and performed other small finishing touches with his scissor tips. I was sitting on a kitchen chair in his half-finished kitchen extension and while he worked I bowled underarm tennis balls to the schnauzer puppy. Julian was referring to the sides of my head, which, freshly shorn, were bright silver. Over my dead body, Julian, old son, I said. Old men with dyed hair look ridiculous. One can always tell at a glance whether a man has dyed his hair. My friend Trevor dyes his hair himself, I said, and on occasion I’ve seen it black, brown, ginger and grey all at the same time. It’s so sad.
Ah, but hair products have moved on, said Julian. For example, there is now a stain on the market that disguises silver hair and the colour looks completely natural. It’s a stain, not a dye, that’s the difference, he said. It’s simple to put on and needs redoing about every six weeks. Julian’s own head was closely shaved all over leaving a dark stubble. I said that the most extreme measure I might take would be to have my hair completely shaved off, like his, only my head is knobbly potato-shaped and it doesn’t suit me. But to have it coloured — no way.
‘Shows how much you know,’ said Julian.
His ‘hair’ was in fact a head tattoo, he said. I did a double take in the mirror. It was unbelievably elaborate and I complimented him on the verisimilitude. Yes, it’s amazing what we old geezers can do nowadays to stay young, he said, whipping the cape away with a flourish.
I’d sat down on the chair looking like an old rescue collie. Now I stood up with a sort of gay Hitler Youth cut, and a very sharp one. ‘I might have some of that stain somewhere,’ he said. ‘If I find it, I’ll let you know, shall I?’ ‘I’d rather stick pins in my eyes, Julian,’ I said.
Two days later I went back to have my silver ‘stained’ with this new miracle product. It was a stain, not a dye, I kept telling myself. And only the silver bits would be affected. I could look younger and cling on to my self-respect at the same time. Once again I sat in his partially renovated kitchen and sipped coffee and threw the tennis ball for the dog while he applied the stuff briskly with a paintbrush. Then I sat for ten minutes while the stain took, then he bent me over his kitchen sink and rinsed the stain down the plughole. Back on the kitchen chair, he towelled my hair and combed it. I opened my eyes and looked at myself in the mirror.
My hair was a uniform soot black. I looked like a villainous chimney sweep. The colour and texture, moreover, looked laughably artificial, as if my hair was actually sooty. All that was left for me now was to travel to Venice (if my passport was still valid), fall hopelessly in love with a pretty youth, and die in a deckchair of a broken heart with hair dye dripping down my face.
I went home and had one long appalled look at my reflection in the mirror. I looked ridiculous. After that I avoided my reflection at all costs, hoping I’d dreamed it all.
Half an hour later my friend André arrived. We share the driving to the gym and today it was my turn. I do have a sense of humour and I swear that I’m not particularly vain. But I am vain about not wanting to be thought vain. Overweening physical vanity in a 60-year-old man is one of the most horrible things I can imagine. And while André wears the most outré hippy clothing, he is not the sort of man who would ever think of dyeing his hair, which is long and steel-grey. I feared that coloured hair would lower my character in his estimation, and by association that of all Englishmen.
‘What do you think?’ I said, chuckling, as he climbed laboriously out of his driving seat. ‘About what?’ he said. ‘My hair,’ I said. He screwed up his eyes and looked it over. ‘Oh la la. You’ve had it cut, haven’t you? Very nice. I must get mine cut one of these days.’ ‘André,’ I said. ‘It’s a different colour.’ ‘Alors. Let me see,’ he said, and screwed up his eyes again and looked more closely. ‘Is it?’ he said, baffled. But André is French. His nature is to be polite. They are an extraordinarily polite people, the French. That’s the main thing about them.