Although fatigued to the point of catatonia, and sitting there like a 19th-century Fang funeral mask, I am glad to contribute to the gaiety of a dinner party by being a good listener. But to be a good listener, even a catatonic requires acting skills. I am learning to lift my glass to my mouth and absentmindedly sip while politely maintaining eye contact. I am learning to leave a dignified or at least sane interval between each visit to the glass and to vary that interval. I am learning to appear interested long after interest has waned or petered out. These skills need polish and I am not yet the finished product. Fortunately inveterate talkers in full spate are readier than most to suspend disbelief, and some muleteers couldn’t care less whether you are listening attentively or not.
After an evening last week spent listening, I lay in bed at midnight with my hands behind my head getting reacquainted with myself. I remembered that during the evening I’d glanced up at the night sky and witnessed the fall of a meteorite. The incandescent white blob fell slowly and silently as though restrained by a parachute, then went out. At first I thought it must be a lone firework. Then I remembered it was the meteor season. Nobody saw it but me. I replayed the dropping brightness in my mind’s eye while gripping my hair with both hands — a habit when thinking.
Then I lifted my head slightly and found I was holding two clumps of hair in my hands. I reached out and opened my hands and watched the grey and white hair fall in the light of the bedside reading light. Then I fell asleep. When I woke the next morning, the first thing I thought of was my hair. I yanked out two more fistfuls and showed them indignantly to Catriona.
During the day my hair dropped out whether I tugged at it or not. Hairs fell down my neck and stuck to the front of my glasses and there was a trail on the bathroom tiles. Losing my hair didn’t bother me. The oncologist had nodded slowly and tragically behind his mask when I had asked him whether chemotherapy would make my hair fall out. It was expected. But I hadn’t expected it to happen either so soon or at once.
My concern was that I didn’t want to look moth-eaten. So in the afternoon I rang up the lovely Elody. She said she could fit me in right away and I walked down to the village like a one-man ticker tape parade, debating with myself whether to ask her for a number one crop to even it out or to have it all off and be done with it. As I went I tugged at various points of my barnet to see if any of it still clung on with a degree of tenacity.
At the top of the village square is a bar. Sitting outside it was a sunburnt, bright-eyed, red-faced, red wine-pissed crowd come in from the countryside for market day. Among them was Chris, a Geordie builder, distinctly white, and his rangy, stunningly beautiful boar-hunting dog. I love his dog; his dog loves me. But Chris and I are only on nodding terms. As I passed by this time, however, Chris stepped forward and with a sort of reticent jubilation extended a hand. Chris is bald and humorously self-conscious about it. I plucked out two fistfuls of hair and settled them gently in his hand. Without missing a beat he said, ‘Fantastic! Thanks very much. Ta! Just what I’ve been needing!’
Elody was sweeping her previous customer’s glossy black hair into a heap with a soft broom as I walked in. Sometimes you go in and Elody looks fat, grumpy and dejected. At other times she’s bubbling over with happiness, athlete-fit, stylishly dressed, perhaps the most beautiful woman on Earth. Today she was brimming with health and vitality and wearing a short tight tangerine number with side slits. ‘Alors, Cherie!’ she said looking up from her broom head.
I yanked out a couple of handfuls of my hair and made a present of them to her. She clasped her hands to her head, squealed, and did a deft little foxtrot on the spot. I asked her to decide for the best between a shave and the shortest possible haircut. She thought the haircut and untangled the clippers. When she’d finished she was about to put her powerful blow dryer over it but I stopped her in case she blew what was left of my hair right off.
But now, two days later, it’s nearly all gone and I look mangy again. So now I wish I’d shaved my own head right at the start and bought a hat from the market instead.