Natasha thinks I’m going to end up zipped into a gym bag and thrown into a canal.
I’m telling you mate, she says. He comes in to the salon to get his hair cut every two weeks. That’s weird.
Three weeks, I say.
Fine, every three weeks. Just to see you? As my Nigerian grandmother says – there’s some kinky serial killer shit going on with him. She pauses to take a sip of her wine. Or are you into that sort of thing?
I glare at her. I made the mistake of telling her once about an ex-boyfriend who liked to do it in small spaces – airing cupboards, wardrobes, lofts, inside a zipped up sleeping bag – and she brought it up as often as possible.
No, I say, I am not into that sort of thing.
She laughs. Ian, you are such a prude. When was the last time you had your hands on anything other than a pair of scissors? I mean, if I was you, and single…my God. I mean, look at you.
I begin to blush, can feel the heat spreading up my neck and across my face.
Except you’re not single, I say. You’re practically married. At twenty-five.
Yeah, I know. That’s him now, she says glancing at her phone. She pretends to be annoyed, but a small smile plays across her lips as she reads the message. And I look away, embarrassed to be spying on something so private.
We sit on the crowded roof terrace of a pub, the last of the early summer sun strikes the brick walls of the buildings around us. The sky is a miraculous blue. The air is still. The chatter and low rumble talk of after work drinks surrounds us – in the corner the remnants of the city’s smokers shamefully pull on their cigarettes. I hold a pint glass and swirl the last inch of beer in the bottom.
I should go home, I say.
Me too, she says, finishing off the last of her wine in a practiced gulp. I have a full day of clients tomorrow. Damn you and your day off.
We part ways at the corner opposite the pub, and she heads for the tube station. Normally I would take a bus home, but the sky overhead and the lightness of the air makes me want to keep walking.
Around me London settles as the day cools. People stand outside pubs and talk, restaurants have swung their doors wide open and the chatter of diners joins the noise of the street. Men pass me as I walk. Men in suits with their jackets slung over an arm, men in shorts with their legs shaped by city walking. Men have shed their winter layers of clothing, exposing arms and legs and bodies barely hidden under thin t-shirt material. An hour later, as I turn into my road, the sky is still bright. The world seems lit from another room.
It is then that I see a fox standing in the middle of the street, head up, sniffing the air. It notices me, turns its head to look at me. And I stand still and watch as it turns away and drifts off, up the street.
As I stand behind the woman and carefully arrange her fringe, I glance up at the mirror and see him in the small waiting area behind me. He sits up straight, his suit jacket buttoned, his hands clasped in front of him resting on his knees. He catches me looking at him before I can pull my eyes back down to the brush in my right hand.
Ian love, Natasha says as she walks past me, he’s waiting for you already. On time, as usual.
I just nod, trying to keep my attention focussed on what I’m doing. I wait as the woman checks the bounce of her new hair in the mirror. Finally, when she is satisfied, and I leave her at the counter to pay, I turn to him and hold out my hand.
Andrew, I say, nice to see you again. Sorry to keep you waiting.
He smiles, taking my hand just for a few seconds as he stands up.
I glance at his hair, reminding myself of how little has changed since he was last here. It is neatly parted, with short back and sides and a fringe that rests halfway down his forehead. It is conservative, but just fashionable enough.
The first time I met him he’d not had a haircut in three months, not since his last hairdresser upped and moved back to Australia. He was a mess – his hair curling in all the wrong places, growing over his ears and his eyes. He’d struggled to make himself find a new salon until a work colleague took pity and did it for him.
And now here he is again, at the same time – like clockwork.
I help him into the thin, white cowl, tying it at the front, snapping the buttons together at his neck, and walk him to the washbasins.
I take my time massaging shampoo into his hair. I can feel every bump on his skull, my fingers pressing into his scalp in small circles, running over his head, and digging into his wet hair. I run my thumbs up the centre of his head, and then my fingers back down the sides, brushing his ears with my fingertips.
There is something meditative about it, about the water hissing out of the tap and the rhythm of the shampoo and rinse. I try to talk as little as possible. This is a quiet moment. Being talked to while having your hair washed, while your head lies prone on a basin as someone pours water over it, is like having a chatty dentist who insists on asking how you are while your mouth is wide open and full of instruments.
He has closed his eyes, folded his hands across his middle. Looking down on him at this angle, his long, dark eyelashes stand out against his pale skin. His hair is plastered down, turned black by the water.
I try not to look at him, try to concentrate on washing his hair. With the conditioner I massage his scalp again, pressing with my thumbs, feeling the bone just beneath the skin. He hums softly. As I dry his hair roughly with a towel, he laughs, his eyes fly open, and he cranes his head back to look at me upside-down and says, Not so hard, you’re not drying a dog.
Sorry, I say, and I resist the urge to scrub even harder.
I lead him to his regular chair, the small towel still draped over his shoulders. He sits and I stand behind him, looking down at his damp head, at a single bead of water that has broken from his hairline and is making its way down the nape of his neck.
He is sitting too low down, so I push the pedal at the base of the chair with my foot and jolt him up a few levels. He stares straight ahead at himself in the mirror as he bounces once, twice. And then, when he is at the right level and I am ready to start, when I’ve gathered my thoughts, I look up at the mirror and catch his eye and he grins at me – suddenly a little kid, wrapped in a sheet.
I place my hands on his shoulders and say, as I say every time, So, what can I do for you today?
Just a trim, he says, his right hand lifting and self-consciously brushing his short, damp fringe from his face.
I nod and take my comb and run it through his hair. As I do, I pass my other hand up the back of his head, moving against the grain, feeling the short individual hairs against my palm. It is a small liberty I take, a level of intimacy I could never exercise with him anywhere else. There are exactly ten grey hairs scattered over each temple. When he first came here almost a year ago he didn’t have any, and each month, as I cut his hair, I count them, watching as they slowly multiply.
I part his hair and make a show of studying him in the mirror. I run my hand over his head, stopping to grip a lock of hair between middle and index finger, looking for irregularities, looking for places to cut into.
In the beginning I teased him about coming here so often. I said he was like a Hollywood star, or a politician, whose hair never changes, constantly maintained in a permanent style. But then I began too see it as a challenge – to find something that has changed, a part of his hairstyle that needs to be pulled back into line. I feel like I am turning back the clock each time, resetting him, trimming off the past few weeks, cutting off time itself.
I take my scissors and carefully snip at the ends of hair held between my fingers, and soon I am lost in the work. I almost forget about him – forget that I can hear his breathing, forget that he is warm, and that his eyes never leave me. I take my time. I work my way across his head methodically, cutting a little more off the sides.
I ask him, How is work?
Fine, he says, taking a deep breath. Busy. I keep getting paid, so that’s something. He grins at me, his teeth bared for a second.
That is something, I say.
I don’t understand his job – something to do with money and risk, something near, but not quite, accountancy. He tried to explain it once, but lost me.
I know he has to reach to find the things to say, in a way that I don’t. Sometimes I listen to the continuous patter that just flows from me when I am with other clients – talking about holidays, parents, siblings, their boyfriends. I listen as I speak without effort, and I feel ashamed at how easy it is to pretend I am engaged while my mind is elsewhere. But I like to ask him something, just to hear him speak.
I comb his fringe down and cut along the line it forms on his forehead and he closes his eyes automatically as the scissors steadily move across. It is an opportunity to look directly at his face rather than at its reflection in the mirror. His breathing is steady, and his eyelashes flutter as the scissors pass. I brush the cut hair out of his fringe with my fingers.
Using a small, buzzing razor I trim the hairline on his neck as he bends his head forward. He shivers when its little vibrating teeth touch him, and, bent close to him, I can almost feel the vibrations of it pass through him. I use it to trim his sideburns in a single sure movement.
That’s that, I say, patting his shoulder. You’re good for another couple of weeks.
He stands and almost invisible snips of hair fall when he brushes his hands down the thin material wrapped around him. I walk him to the front of the salon, past Natasha who glances at us and very gently shakes her head at me.
As I grip his hand to say goodbye he thanks me again and I want to ask him what he’s doing tonight, if he wants to go for a drink because I’m finishing my shift. But I don’t.
And then he is gone.
It grabbed me the first time I saw it, in a way I can’t explain. As I stand in front of the painting again, for the third week in a row, I try to pinpoint what it is that holds my attention, what pulls at something deep inside me.
An interior fills the frame: a brown, dirty room. There is one small window in the background. A man is sprawled on a wooden chair, facing us, his shirt unbuttoned and pulled open, falling from his shoulders, loose around his waist. His pale torso is exposed, pink and flushed. His head is thrown back, his arms hang limp, his legs are pushed towards us and spread wide – a brace of dead rabbits at his feet. A woman stands by his side, bending over him and cleaning a bleeding wound on his chest.
The gallery is crowded. All around me tourists and secondary school art students move from painting to painting, some sketching, some barely looking up from their phones. The air-conditioning hums.
I stand still, looking, trying to absorb every detail of the painting – the stretch of muscle across the poacher’s body, the two or three brush strokes that mark the nipples on his chest. I stare for as long as I can before I begin to feel a subtle pressure from the people around me to move on.
Finally, I turn away and walk out of the room, not bothering to pretend I am here to see anything else.
I walk through rooms of men on horses, past walls filled with weeping Madonnas, angels gathered about Jesus, rooms of steam trains rushing through the fog, of wagons crossing fords, of lilies on a pond. I rush down the stairs and out the front doors, out into the sunny afternoon, out into Trafalgar Square thronged with people.
It’s Friday. I can’t face going home on my own, and so I go to the pub with Natasha and two other girls from work.
I nurse a pint of lager in my hands and struggle to concentrate on the conversation, my attention drifting as I look around the room. I realise that I’ve missed something one of the new girls, Liz, is saying.
What? I say.
I said, what are you doing tonight Ian? You going out on the pull? It must be so easy for you. I mean guys are on the pull all the time, so if there are two of you it must be like, you know… She giggles. Liz is new. In so many ways.
I was thinking about going into town later.
I am lying, but Natasha pounces.
Brilliant, she says. I’m meeting Brian and his friend. Do you remember his friend Jeremy?
She has been trying to set me up for months now, but I’ve pretended to not understand, pretended I had somewhere else to be. After the last boyfriend, I’m not sure I have it in me to try again. A total disaster – as in I had to move out in a flurry of bags being packed and shouting and screaming. I ended up at Natasha’s place with a black eye, sleeping on the sofa.
I agree to one more pint and, in that way it does, the alcohol makes time pass faster, greasing the wheels, lubricating the joints and mechanisms of time until it moves so smoothly and quietly, that you don’t even notice it, don’t even hear it – a silent, hybrid automobile passing you by as you walk down the street.
Before I know what has happened, I’ve drunk another two pints and I am on a tube into town with Natasha. I feel old, standing there as she tells me about her relationship drama.
When we get to the bar in Soho it is loud and full. Natasha rushes up to Brian, interrupting his conversation, throws her arms around him and snogs him while I stand waiting to be introduced to Jeremy. He’s taller than me, and dressed in a tight black t-shirt and black jeans. His glasses have clear plastic rims. His blonde hair is slicked back and shining. He has a face in which the major features seem to be crowding forward towards a central point. But he is handsome.
We get drinks, jostling to the bar, forced to stand close together by the crowd – bumping shoulders, elbows, and hips. He pays for my drink and we find a spot to stand, trying to talk over the music and the crowds of people. It is so loud I can barely hear him and have to lean in so he can shout into my ear.
You’re a hairdresser, he says.
Yes. I work with Natasha. I nod in her direction, to where she is slow dancing with Brian in the middle of the bar.
Why? he says.
Why are you a hairdresser? I mean, it feels like a fall back career. You know, when something better doesn’t work out.
There is a moment when I don’t understand, and then I do and I blink, beginning to blush, absorbing what he means.
No, I say. I’ve always wanted to do it. Like, since I was a kid. I used to cut all my friends’ hair and everything.
And then he says something more but I have turned away to look around the bar. It is heaving. A stray hen party has stumbled in off the street. All of them are dressed as identical Marilyn Monroes – white dress, blonde wigs, a mole marking each face. Two of them dance with each other, flapping their skirts as they twirl.
I’ll get us some beers, I say.
I push my way through to the bar, squeezing between two tall brutes whose muscles burst from short sleeves as they fondle each other. Not for the first time I wish, as I try to catch the eye of the barman, that I were taller, bigger.
Through the alcohol I feel a small kernel of anxiety build. Stretching out before me I see an evening of pretending, of barely suppressed panic – a sweaty, swirling horror kept under a tight lid by chatter and booze. I know, from years of practice, that with effort the lid can be screwed down tighter, that I can hold the panic at bay if I try. I take a deep breath and order two more beers.
Soon I am running out of things to say to Jeremy, but it doesn’t matter anymore – I am drunk enough not to care.
I have lost track of who is hunting whom. He keeps touching my arm while we talk over the noise. He laughs at everything I say. I can’t help thinking about taking him home, stripping him naked, fucking him, even as my eyes drift across the room, brazenly watching other boys while this one is seducing me.
You’re so hot, Jeremy says. I mean…Natasha said you were hot, but you’re so hot. He runs his hand through my hair clumsily. I’ve always wanted to have a ginger.
I am about to say something, make a quick joke about my hair to cover the fact that I want to punch him, when I notice someone else across the room, standing with his back against a wall, holding a ridiculous blue alcopop close to his chest – Andrew.
I see him standing in his suit, his tie loosened, his shirt undone. So out of place. It is a visitation surely, I think, something dragged from my own drunk mind. He can’t be here. Not here, in this loud, chaotic gay bar.
And then he sees me, surprise washing over his face. He is definitely real. His eyes lock with mine. The shock of it smacks through me like a gong.
I blush, my face flushing instantly, my whole body suddenly on fire. He is staring at me. He is staring at Jeremy who is nuzzling at my earlobe.
I have to go.
I turn, leaving Jeremy staggering away from me. I push my way through the moving male bodies that crowd together forming impromptu dance floors in my way. Gasping for air, I run out into the street.
On any other night I would have ignored them, but not tonight. I turn and shout, What did you say?
I said, where are you running to gay boy?
He is tall, bald, wearing a striped shirt unbuttoned to his nipples, a beer stain all down the front. His two friends stand grinning just behind him. One is just zipping up his fly after taking a piss in the street.
I feel anger welling up in me. Anger fuelled by beer and humiliation rises up in me and comes spitting out of my mouth.
Fuck you, I say. It’s none of your fucking business. Fuck you and your giggling boyfriends.
I am thrumming with anger. And still the image of Andrew standing in the bar looking at me like that hovers in my mind.
And the guy with the open shirt takes a step forward and I stand my ground. Two people walking past glance our way, but keep moving. The noise and light of Soho dissolve away as I feel my heartbeat thumping louder and louder.
Say that again you little fag, he says taking another step forward, pointing at me.
I take a deep breath and spit it out: Fuck. You.
And his fist slams into my jaw and music comes crashing into my brain, the music of loud noises and shouting voices, of explosions behind the eyes and a ringing. And I turn and run – sudden panic gripping me, a poacher escaping through the woods, a fox in flight fleeing the hunt. I run up Greek Street and turn into an alley and it is there that they find me.
One grabs me by the shoulder and slams me into the brick wall, another pins me there and the ringleader punches me hard in the stomach. I bend over and vomit. Two pints of beer come out of my mouth in two violent spams.
Fucking disgusting, one says.
Fucking queers can’t handle their booze.
My legs are kicked out from underneath me and there, lying on the floor in my own vomit they kick me with their pointed shoes. They grunt with the exertion. Once. Twice. They kick me three times.
I brace for more, but then, over the ringing in my ears, I hear shouting and the sound of heavy men running away.
Sam came to my house once a week to have his hair trimmed. He’d walk home from school with me, his bag slung over his shoulder, his tie hanging low and loose around his neck, his shirt untucked, dropping halfway down to his knees.
We walked the fifteen minutes up from the high street, over the canal, and then down my road with our shoulders almost touching, occasionally bumping. I talked most of the way – about school, about teachers, about what was on telly that evening – and he laughed at the good jokes and teased me about the bad ones.
Mum was out most afternoons, and so once we were in we had the house to ourselves.
I lay an old towel down on the kitchen lino and placed a chair in the middle of it while Sam stood leaning against the counter, unbuttoning his shirt. I was allowed to watch him as he did it, as each shining white plastic button popped out.
With his shirt off he sat on the chair and with the electric clippers I buzzed up the back of his neck and over the sides above his ears. Tiny specks of hair fell like dust from him, down onto his bare shoulders, down onto the towel on the floor.
With scissors I trimmed the hair on top of his head and his short fringe. He sat still and quiet, his eyes closed, breathing in and out steadily. As I worked I watched his chest expand and contract, watched his eyelids flutter, saw the small crinkle of his mouth as he smiled to himself.
You know, I said as I trimmed his fringe, barbers used to also be surgeons.
Really? he said, keeping his eyes closed.
Yeah. People used to come to them to get sewn up, and have things amputated and all that.
That sounds weird.
I know. But, you know, they were at the centre of the community. They cared for the men of the town by shaving them and cutting their hair, and healing them if they needed it.
Like you care for me? he said, opening his eyes and smirking at me.
Sam came to my house every week for me to cut his hair. It was important for him to look good, he said, and I was the only one he trusted to do it. Some of the other lads started asking me to do theirs too, and I did, but Sam was the only one who came home with me.
We had the house to ourselves all afternoon, and after I cut his hair and rinsed his head in the kitchen sink, we went out into the garden where Sam blew me behind my dad’s shed.
I can still see Sam there, kneeling down in front of me, laughing at me when I made an involuntary noise. And I knew, every time we did this, that I loved this boy more than I could admit to myself, more than I could put into words. At other times it seemed an impossible idea – but in moments like this it felt all too real and solid, something that I could grab on to as I grabbed onto his newly buzz cut head.
Moving hurts. The only way to sleep is on my right side, curled into a ball, protecting my bruised ribs and stomach. I hide under the duvet. The curtains are drawn closed, the window shut, the light switched off. Darkness muffles the sounds of the world outside – I am shielded by thick cotton, painkillers, and double-glazing.
I haven’t thought of Sam like that in years. Facebook tells me he has had his second kid with his wife, that he is slowly going bald.
Two days I have slept like this, all day. Buried in darkness and sleep I have the most vivid dreams, of Sam, of others, of other things entirely – in one I am hunting, riding a horse, chasing a fox that races across an endless, freshly ploughed field. In another I walk in on a small room, a hut in the woods. A poacher sits on a chair, facing me, legs outstretched, his shirt unbuttoned, his boots still muddy. Three dead rabbits lie bloodied at his feet – another hangs limp from his hand. I cross the floor, I go to him, and slip his shirt from his shoulder. I wash the blood from his chest where he has been cut while running through the woods. His head is thrown back, his prone body heaves with breath. I wake sweating – sweat streaming from my brow and temples.
Natasha calls again at lunchtime. She was the one who found me after following me out of the club and seeing me sprint up the street pursued by goons. She called an ambulance and went with me to A&E. She sat in the chair next to me in the hospital, vibrating with anger, her eyes brimming with vengeful tears.
She clutched my hand as I answered the policeman’s questions, and, when he was done she fixed him with a look and said, You had better not let these fuckers get away with this. And she held his gaze until he looked away.
I kept trying to tell her I was fine, even though I felt far from it. I was lucky they’d cracked nothing more than a rib, the nurse said as she discharged me a few hours later.
Natasha and Brian brought me home in a cab, he helped me up the stairs while she went ahead opening doors and turning on lights.
I didn’t even shower. I just went to bed, stripping down to my pants and climbing in under the duvet where I have now been for days. I am desperate for the world to go away. Like a wounded animal I want to crawl into the undergrowth alone and let the life drain out of me.
But Natasha keeps calling. She’s going to pop round this evening to check up on me, she says. Do I need anything?
No, I’m fine, I say, You don’t have to come round.
You don’t have any food in the house, mate. I know, I checked when we dropped you off.
Nat, I’m fine, I say, lying, through the paracetamol and Nurofen Plus.
I wait in silence, hoping she’ll concede, but after the silence drags on I give in. Fine, I say, come round. Bring milk. I haven’t had a cup of tea in days.
I slide the phone facedown onto the bedside table and roll onto my back, staring at the ceiling. I will have to get up. There is no escape.
I get out of bed, careful of my aching ribs and bruises. I stand in front of the full-length bedroom mirror and for the first time examine myself, investigate what has been done to my body.
Across my left side a bruise the size of my hand has bloomed, still purple at the centre, fading to brown and yellow at the edges. On my face, just below my right eye, the lips of an inch long cut are held together with steri-strips. Along my jawline a violent indigo marks me.
I put on a dressing gown and go to the kitchen.
After eating I shower, sloughing the layer of sweat and grime from my skin, scrubbing away at myself with a rough sponge and weeping. I tidy the flat, pulling the sheet and duvet cover from the bed and putting them in the washing machine along with the pants I have lived in for days. I open the bedroom curtains and the windows in an attempt to clear the musty air that has gathered there. I get dressed.
I am pulling on jeans when the doorbell buzzes. I pick up the entry phone and press the button to unlock the front door of the building and I’ve just enough time to put a t-shirt on when there is a knock on the door.
It isn’t Natasha standing in the hallway. I’m too surprised to say anything, too shocked to move. For the first time I realise I missed his appointment.
Andrew stands in his suit, jacket slung over his arm, come straight from work. He has a small shopping bag in his hand. I look down at it and his gaze follows mine.
Natasha asked me to bring this with me, he says, holding the bag up. Milk and such. Supplies, since you haven’t left the house. There’s some nice soup too. She was going to come herself, but I…
He looks up at me properly for the first time and his eyes stop at the bruise on my jaw and the cut across my cheek.
Jesus, Ian, he says. Your face. I can’t believe it.
Let’s not talk about it right now. You’d better come in.
I’m sorry, he says, as I turn after shutting the door, I should have warned you I was coming. I mean I shouldn’t have just turned up on your doorstep like some stalker person. Especially after what happened.
I do want to ask him why he is here. It crosses my mind that I don’t really know him at all.
The kitchen is this way, I say, and he follows me, dropping his suit jacket on the sofa in the living room.
As I take the shopping bag from him, and put the milk in the fridge he says, I wondered where you were. On Tuesday when I turned up, I was worried after…you know…in the bar. You ran away. And then Natasha told me what happened. I’m sorry.
I am increasingly aware of the smallness of the kitchen, of the space his body is taking up, of how close we are standing. He loosens his tie.
Tea? I ask, pointing stupidly at the kettle.
Yes, please, he says.
The kettle is still half full with water. I flick the switch and then busy myself getting the mugs from the cupboard and taking the milk back out of the fridge. He dodges out of my way, brushing past me when I open a drawer looking for a teaspoon. For a second my chest pulls tight at the thought that this is what it would be like to have someone again, to have someone to stand and talk to while I make tea, to touch while pretending to avoid touching.
As we wait for the kettle to boil I ask him, So, who cut your hair this week then?
He looks at the floor and then up at me, grinning, and says, No one. I tried. I really did, but I got as far as the washbasins before I had to turn and run away.
I laugh at him. You are a pickle, I say.
He grins again and we stand staring at each other and I can hear my heartbeat in my ears. And then, like a gunshot in the silence, the kettle clicks off behind me. I turn away from him, taking refuge in the making of tea.
And then. And then his hand touches my shoulder, rests there for a second, trails lightly down to the small of my back. And stays there while I dip the tea bags in and out of each mug with fierce concentration, my hand shaking.
Were you surprised to see me in that bar? he asks. I mean, were you surprised I was in that kind of bar?
I don’t know, I say. Yes. I mean, I hadn’t thought about it. I turn and hold the mug out to him. His hand falls from my hip and he takes the mug.
So you haven’t had your hair cut this week? I ask.
He shakes his head. And then he raises the mug to his lips and blows on the tea.
I’ve an idea, I say. Take your shirt off. He smirks at me and I roll my eyes. Just do it. I’ll be back in a second.
I fetch a chair and my spare scissors from the living room and return to the kitchen to find him standing half-naked, holding his white shirt and tie in his right hand like some animal he’s caught.
Sit, I tell him. I might as well fix you up now that you’re here.