Monday 21 February 2011

Curls: a short story

For J. M.

There was once a man whose scalp was blighted by an appalling shock of red curls. He had suffered from this condition ever since the first nurses had poked their heads over the edge of his crib beneath the glaring lights, tickling his tummy and saying, “My oh my, would you just look at that hair!” His mother dressed him in an array of hideous orange costumes while he blew bubbles of spittle and flailed his arms about in protest (he tried to undo the buttons and remove the clothes, but could never quite keep his infant hands steady: trying to control them was like chasing a pair of rabbits), and all the neighbours came by to say, “Well halloo dair liddle bubbyboy, oooh aren’t your wittle curls so adoowable, awww and lookit your bootiful wittle itty-bitty owange outfit, ooh wittle schmooky-poochie-poo, aren’t you jes so pwetty, yes, coochie-coochie-coochie-coo.”

He was disgusted by the attentions of these women, the slobbery humiliations of their lipsticked advances, their plump bejewelled fingers jabbing his ribcage, their wobbling jowls looming over him like a German airship, and above all their rambling rhapsodic homilies about his hair. He tried to ward them off, waving his arms furiously, but that only seemed to draw them like flies to a honey pot. He tried to frighten them away, howling and screaming and kicking like a mule, but then they only redoubled their efforts, stroking and cajoling him, or even scooping him up and flinging him over the vertiginous heights of their shoulders, or squashing him against their intolerable dry breasts while they sighed and crooned, wobbling about in the throes of a frightening and ludicrous dance.

But he was a kind-hearted fellow, even at that age, and he never once blamed all this on the incorrigible women, or on his unfaithful mother who had let them into the house. No, he laid the blame right where it belonged: on that abomination of curls that perched upon his head, turning his pale face into a gleaming beacon, a round white road sign circled in red.

When he was five years old, the pretty little French girl and her ugly French parents moved in next door. He was madly, fiercely in love with her for exactly three minutes, from the moment she stepped out of the car into the sunlight, licking a strawberry paddle pop like a cat, until she walked over to him, brushed back the black fringe from her startling green eyes, and said, “Bonjour, how do you do, you must be my new neighbour, my name’s Juliette, I’m from Paris, that’s in France, do you like my new dress, I like your hair, what’s your name, are you a boy or a girl?” By the time the first few words had escaped her lips, he knew he was happier than he had ever been in his life; by the time she pronounced the lovely syllables of her name, he was preparing his marriage proposal and wondering how many children they should have; by the end of her speech, he hated her more than anyone he’d ever known, and instead of answering her impertinent question he screwed his face up like a ghoul, stuck out an angry pink tongue, gave her a good hard shove in the shoulder, and wiped his hand on the side of his shorts, exclaiming, “Eeeeew girls’ germs,” before scampering back inside like a frightened possum.

No, he never was a great ladies’ man, a fact that is hard to account for unless we put it down to that slithering snakepit upon his brow.

As far as hairdressing goes, his mother lacked the tools, the training, the experience, the eye for detail, and the even temper to ever really distinguish herself in that field. But she had a wooden stool, a pair of scissors, and a comb, and so, two or three times a year, she would take him out to the backyard and sit him down to cut his hair. To say he had mixed feelings about these episodes would be euphemistic. It is true that he had longed for nothing more than this, every day craving it, ever since those first malignant red squiggles had reasserted themselves above his ears. It is also true that there was nothing he dreaded more. For his own lifelong inability to sit still in one place for more than eight consecutive seconds produced catastrophic results when you combined it with his mother’s lifelong inability to tolerate anything that moans, mumbles, whines, whinges, and generally wriggles about as restless as a worm on a hook.

At the start of the Haircut – before everything escalated into a wild hurricane of snot and tears and murderous threats – he would plead with her, demanding that she cut off all the curls. “But I love your curls,” she would say. “Cut them off!” he would say. Oh how he longed for the soothing oblivion of baldness, the blithe anonymity of the short-back-and-sides! When it was all over, he would stand in the bathroom with the tap running, pretending to be brushing his teeth while he patiently scrutinised the shape of his head in the mirror, turning from side to side in a painstaking inspection, examining it from every angle to ensure that every last obnoxious question-mark had been eradicated.

He never learned much at school, since he was always preoccupied with more important things. During maths he drew cockatoos and clowns and dingos inside the cover of his book. During history he sketched designs for fighter planes and steam trains and spacecraft. During science (his favourite subject) he drew a tree, a fence, a rainwater tank, a windmill, the ruins of a farmhouse, and a pair of roos standing on a dirt road. During English he held his pocket knife in his lap and whittled his pencils into little sculpted figurines, or etched trains and cars on the brittle timber underbelly of the desk. At lunch time he could often be seen eating his Vegemite sandwich or kicking a soccer ball or playing marbles or glancing up at his reflection in an empty window and smoothing down the hair above his ears with furtive moistened fingers.

When he was twelve years old, there was one of those hot school sports days when all the swaggering boys scramble and sweat to outdo each other in the winner-takes-all race towards manhood, grunting, cursing, spitting, kicking dust, picking scabs, assembling in solemn huddles to compare the hairs on their legs and the shoes on their feet, hotly debating the secrets of semen and cigarettes, exchanging heroic autobiographical tales of sex and violence, determining which of the girls are wearing bras, which of the girls are wearing g-string panties, which of the girls are shaving their legs, which of the girls are shaving their armpits, which of the girls have the best tits. Then all of a sudden Mrs Nickles, the tuckshop lady, lurched over to where he stood amid a scrum of murmuring boys, ruffled his hair with her greasy tuckshop fingers, grimacing gleefully with her ghastly gold-toothed smile, and said (while all the boys sniggered behind their hands): “Gee whiz, such pretty curls, such a pity you’re not a girl.”

The next morning he stole five dollars from his mother’s purse, wagged school, and walked in drizzling rain to the barber shop, where he had his hair clipped short, as straight as knives.

Time passed, and somehow or other he pieced together a life for himself. He married a girl who worked at the bakery but dreamed all her life of working at the library; she wore blue-rimmed glasses, read the same six novels over and over, and knew the whole three hours of The Sound of Music by heart. The first time they made love, her skin smelt of bread and cinnamon; she draped her strapless floral dress over the chair and pulled him down on to the floor, and afterwards she ran her fingers through his hair, though he never knew it because by then he was asleep. Over time they acquired a house, a car, a black and white television with rabbit-ear antennas, a bed that her parents had given them, a garden that was always dying but never quite dead, a dog that dug up the garden and chewed up the bed, two cats that were hardly ever seen, and a son who scampered around the house beneath a tangled mop of luxuriant red curls.

On weekdays he wore a wide-brimmed cotton hat to work, and did not take it off again until he came through the front door at six o’clock. When he was not working, he assembled jigsaw puzzles and made leather bags and built his own transistor radio and subscribed to magazines about model trains. He replaced the back screen door, fixed up the bathroom, made wardrobes and bathroom cupboards, replaced the kitchen bench and the wiring on the oven, and built a little shelf beneath the bedroom window for his wife’s six novels. For his son, he built three wooden trains, six wooden puzzles (one of them so large and elaborate that it was never fully assembled), a castle with an opening portcullis and drawbridge, a jack-in-the-box with the painted face of a clown, two clown string puppets, a bed in the shape of a racing car with a movable door and leather pouches underneath for clothes and toys, a toolbox with sliding drawers and many small compartments, an abacus, a spinning top, a drum, a fire truck painted red with an electric flashing light, a tiny balsa wood yacht with a plastic sail and cotton rigging, and, out in the backyard beside the shed, a two-room cubbyhouse with miniature furniture, a miniature transistor radio, a little bookcase, a secret trapdoor in the kitchen floor, and a front veranda with little wooden deck chairs.

That is how he spent his weekends in the big garden shed, hammering and painting and sewing and stitching, while the boy looked on in silence or asked questions or scuttled around the floor scooping up bent nails and woodshavings and sticky globs of dried glue that sometimes got caught in his hair.

Then one hot December afternoon he grew tired of the wooden pirate finger puppets that he was making. He grew tired of The Sound of Music. He shouted at the boy and slammed a door. He took up smoking. He began to work late. The wooden pirate finger puppets languished unfinished on the workbench in the shed. And that was when he began to forget things.

Here are the things he forgot: he forgot to fix the bathroom tap, which dripped for four months; he forgot to fix the kitchen screen, and the flies and mosquitoes moved into the house; he went to the shop for bread and milk but came back with tinned peaches, or paper cups, or Swiss cheese, or insect spray, or tubes of toothpaste, or mosquito coils, or pickled onions, or plum jam, but no bread and no milk; he forgot to treat the dog for fleas, and they could hear its melancholy scratching in the night; he forgot why he had ever loved his wife, and she grew restless and dejected; he forgot to renew his magazine subscriptions, and finally forgot that he had ever loved the model trains with their tiny clockwork engines and their lovingly weathered landscapes.

There was also the time, one Saturday afternoon, when he tied his shoelaces and put on his hat and climbed on to the roof to clean the leaves from the gutters, and forgot to come down again for his three o’clock appointment at the barber. He forgot all the next day as well, and all the next week, and all the week after that.

Then one morning as he was rubbing his eyes and yawning and walking to the kitchen he caught a sudden sideways glance of himself in the hallway mirror. He stopped. He leaned forwards. He narrowed his eyes. He stared intently at the clusters of shy red ringlets springing out above his ears. He turned his head to one side, then the other, then back again. He walked into the kitchen, hands on hips, and stooped down to the place where his son sat playing with a painted wooden train. He frowned silently, his brow creased in concentration as he scrutinised the boy with the freckled round white face, the pink ears, and the frightful mess of curls. Then he went back to the mirror and looked again, frowning deeply.

And then, all at once, he remembered all the things he had forgotten.

Daylight fell slanting through the blinds across the floor as he marched back into the kitchen. He had never noticed it before, how much like his son he looked. There was no denying it: he was the spitting image of the boy.

He went out through the backdoor barefoot across the grass towards the garden shed. He stopped to wait for the boy to catch up, sunlit red mop bouncing as he ran. In the darkness of the shed, the half-made pirate finger puppets lay waiting. He hitched up his pants a little, rocked back on his heels a little, and raised his hand and ran five fingers slowly through his hair. Somewhere in the trees a bird had started singing. The grass was cool and wet beneath his feet. He looked down at his son. He felt, for the first time in his life, rather dashing.


Harold said...

I just love your stories!

besideourselves said...

For me it's the other way 'round; looking at my Dad makes me feel dashing...

Anonymous said...

So beautiful. Thank you!

Pamela said...

The ties that bind. So powerful, and, at times, so life-affirming.
Keep them stories coming Ben!

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