Grey (Twenty-five Years Later, or Prime Numbers)

‘A-ha!’ he said—‘I’ve found one!’ Behind his mask and visor, it was difficult to hear much of anything he said, but this was exclaimed with such volume that it could not have been missed. My hair was very dark when it was wet, and his comb had lifted, exposing a line of white scalp, between his middle and index fingers, the scissors raised, catching light from the street. He looked at me in the mirror and I met him, raised my eyebrows. ‘A grey hair!’ he said, peering at it, putting the closed steel blades to its curl. He squinted and the scar down his cheek flexed and then trickled under a medicinal-blue face mask. Using the mirror in front of me, I could see much of the road outside, and an Asian food shop opposite, with an LED sign barely visible in the middle of the day; it twirled and blinked, while inside it looked very dark indeed. ‘I do have them,’ I said. He told me he had never seen them on me before. Fourteen years is a long time as a client. Really, it would not be so terrible for me to have grey hair, except that the grey hairs tend to bend and jag outwards, poking through all of the other hair, which is straight and unremarkable, so that they beg for one’s attention. I would have liked for all my hair to be a bit curly, but it is only the greys, so I stand before bathroom mirrors when the hair is darker wet, when it is wetter dark, and I pluck the grey hair from my sideburns and just above the ear. Satisfied that, after fourteen years, he had made enough of a fanfare for my first grey hair, he resumed his task. The scissors sounded like a two-stroke engine right next to my ear, where the grey hair came out like a lightning bolt or an elderly pointing finger.

It was the end of the Christmas party, which, because of the pandemic, was being thrown in the office, a sad affair. It was a soft and gloomy night. All of the other windows around were dim, sheeted behind cold glass and only the faintest of heavenly glows illuminated the edges of furniture inside, but our office alone was lit as though all still laboured away. The room smelled of cheap whisky and a cigarette I had rolled for the CTO, who was just drunk enough to light up at a desk before being admonished by one of the directors; he then leapt up and said—‘Watch this!’ and began dancing a jig, swinging his legs in and out wearing huge flapping trousers, before collapsing back in his chair and sighing, asking if there was any more whisky. A bottle of warm sake was delivered to him, but he brushed it away. I had not left my desk in the corner all evening. To my terror, everyone else started gathering around me. The managing director approached, put his hands in his pocket, pushed out of his cock, told me we did not speak anymore. ‘I know,’ I said. He asked me how I was, and I told him okay—‘You know.’ I did not ask him how he was, but he told me anyway; something about a hip and a load of bad luck; pushed out his cock, leaned back, grunted, the floor underneath him shifting, creaked. Another of the directors rushed me—‘Hey, how comes you don’t have any grey hair?’ Over the course of the evening, and without my being aware, I had rolled my chair back against the wall. There was nowhere left to manoeuvre. The eyes had all landed on me, as though at thirty-five, whatever greys I may or may not have were a symptom of a lifestyle I may or may not have been living. Tapping the neck of my beer bottle against the edge of the desk, I smiled—‘Clear conscience, I guess.’ He told me to fuck-off.

My friend has many grey hairs. Her hair as long now as it was back when I first saw her, except then, as was the fashion, she straightened it. These days it has all the waves of her follicles’ desire, unburned, parted thickly down each side of her white cheekbones. The first night we were together, it was cut short, accentuating a fine jawline of curvature like a samurai sword, and from then on out she grew it longer. There were nights when the bathtub and the sink, chipped and fractured under the weight of tenancy contracts, were darkened by her hair dye, and then moments when, without scissor, in moments of tender scent, my fingers seized the scalp exposed, tiny shoots of grey to be seen, and then all of it like a discovery or secret enough to be written down seven years later. Her hair was marvellous. Our children would have had good hair.
I asked how her parents were. One’s eldest son dating another’s youngest daughter. When she broke up with me, her mother sent such lovely words while I was lying on the sofa with consoling cats, and it meant so much to me that I burst into tears and wept for some time; that I should ask after her these years later was most sincere. ‘My parents are fine, ta. Just getting on a bit. Looking older, getting slower.’ Our parents do not grow old, I supposed, but remain a particular age from our childhood. At that point, they freeze and remain, as you age towards them, closer. And yet we are still their tiny babes, their sweet children, their little bastards, who grow grey hair, too, who are unable to crawl out the crib or walk the route to primary school alone. A piece of truth conjured on the patch of garden, certainly, where my mobile signal disappears and the herbs perfume the air, where the violet flowers wilt on grey slabs. Her mother played with her grandchildren though, and that sort of thing, the joy and what-have-you, chased around the park, describing the colour of matchbox cars, playing pirates, imbues a youthfulness upon the grandparent. Slowly, it dawns, but one shakes it away.

My mother is thirty-seven, and she has been thirty-seven for the past twenty-five years. It is not a traditional joke delivered every birthday, but a measure of my mind. The number thirty-seven is surprisingly common, occurring all over the place. It has a beautiful cadence. The percussion of thirty, the strings of seven. It is produced by the human tongue like a passage of music. It is the twelfth prime number. Twelve, too, is a wonderful number – zodiac signs, disciples, months, days of Christmas – but it is no thirty-seven, and my mother has been thirty-seven for the past twenty-five years.

At age eleven I began attending secondary school. I did not like it, as I had left all my friends behind and was being bullied severely. My grandfather, who had a bald head of grey hair, died. At night I would lie in my bed and think of Neverland. It was in my bed alone at night that I became acutely aware of age and of aging. It was then that I realised my mother was thirty-seven, and that she too, like my grandfather, would die. And so, she stopped aging, and, in the last twenty-five years, has not aged beyond thirty-seven, which is such a beautiful number and is produced by the human tongue like a passage of music. Every six weeks she goes to the hairdresser, and he covers up her grey hairs. In the hallway there is a photograph of me with my grandmother, sat upon a picnic blanket at Southend beach, where the sand is brown, scattered flotsam, and the blurred shapes of bathers in the background. My one-year-old blonde hair, sat upright, staring into the lens, my grandmother looking down smiling has a head of deep black Indian hair, thick, curled, and she is two years younger than my mother is now (citation needed). My grandmother’s hair went grey and she never dyed it, and when it grew, my aunt would sit her in the kitchen and cut her hair as they listened to Jim Reeves and the darkened curls fell like commas onto the floor. Her hair on the hospital pillow was grey and the veins on the back of her hand as she patted me good-bye were grey, too.

Now it is spring, and the suns sets later. When I get home from work, I shower and, at that hour, sunlight pours into the bathroom, bouncing off the white tiles and wet cubicle. After my shower I am inclined to stand before the mirror and put a comb through my hair, turning my skull this way and that. Is it a grey, or is it catching the light? I am so glad to be clean. Soon I will go upstairs and dry myself in the setting sun that colours my bedroom from the west in orange and pink. At that moment, nothing in my room is grey, but all vivid and a sight to behold. My favourite moments are when I towel myself between the legs, when I poke a cottonbud into my ear, and when I dry my hair, the sound of it somewhat like driving a convertible through a tunnel.