By Ian O'Brien
It was parents’ evening that did it. He’d heard the sniggers on the way in and when they’d sat at Miss Flint’s desk, he’d seen that look pass over her face, just briefly, that flash of something between embarrassment and surprise. When he was younger it didn’t seem to be an issue, he thought his Dad looked like everybody else’s. The long hair was like the men he saw on the sleeves of Mum and Dad’s records, the cowboy boots and the waistcoat like the men in the films his Dad had let him stay up to watch; he’d felt grown up then, like it was their club, perched on Dad’s knee, the spaghetti westerns a kind of ritual, a glue that bound them. He would laugh wide-eyed at the saloon fights, the men crashing over tables, taking whiskey bottles with them and his Dad would swig at his own lager and the smell would mix with tobacco and for a minute he would be in the saloon itself. He’d pretend to understand the jokes that his Dad laughed at and didn’t feel embarrassed when the dusky barmaid toyed with the string on her blouse. But here, in the bright sports hall of his new school, with its neat tables and plastic chairs, everything about his Dad stung him—the shoestring necktie with the buffalo skull, the denim shirt with the dog-eared collar, the tassels on the jacket and of course the hair, the greying curtains that he’d twist when he was nervous and bite the ends of, like he did when Miss Flint welcomed us over. His dad looks like Jesus, Finn had whispered, just loud enough to hear, sat with his friends at the next table while the teacher tried to get his mother to look at the red squares on a handout, and the words fluttered in his stomach. He didn’t hear a word Miss Flint said. The room swam with sound, filled until it felt like the room itself was laughing. The chair beneath him felt hot and he hoped Miss Flint couldn’t smell the whiskey on his Dad’s breath, surely she must, and when he reached forward to shake her hand and the shoal of tassels shimmered, he felt his stomach grip and he watched his Dad’s hands, coarse and frayed, the fingers nicotine-yellow, her hand in his, gentle, like a trapped bird.
Before, his Mum had come to parents’ evenings, before the chemotherapy. She was so easy, would glide in conversation, knew all the teachers, most of the parents, and she wouldn’t embarrass him, even when she ruffled his own long hair, he never felt this, what he felt now, this swaying, writhing, flapping thing inside. He found himself chewing his own hair.
And later that night he stood in front of the bathroom mirror, the TV downstairs a dull bleating. He recognised the theme tune, it was something he had watched time and again but this time it sounded so thin. He didn’t know if his Dad had called up to him, if he had he hadn’t heard. Everything seemed far away, at sea. He took off his shirt and looked at himself, saw the boy he thought his father must have been once, imagined the grey flooding his own long hair one strand at a time. He took the scissors from his pocket. He had sneaked them from the kitchen, the ones his Mum had used to cut her own hair that time. She hadn’t cried, her eyes dark and hollowed, dried wishing-wells. The same scissors she had used to snip the sellotape when wrapping presents, cut the tags from new clothes, school uniforms. They were heavy and adult in his hands. The first snip felt cold, like a funeral kiss, just an inch, the hair sudden in the sink, making his chest pulse. The scissors fluttered again and more hair fell, the sink fuzzing. Again and again, a rain of hair, landing in uneven clumps. He looked in the mirror and a new face was emerging, blooming in front of him. Again and again the hair fell. Not too close, a voice somewhere in the saloon of his mind filtered through, just enough to make them stop, enough to look like the others, enough to be invisible. But again the scissors fluttered and again the hair fell, closer and closer to the scalp he cut, snipped, quicker, deft, his heart opening like a dawn chorus, the mad landscape of his new head emerging, cratered, pocked, like the surface of the moon. He stopped, his breath both timorous and hard, both ragged and steady. The face looked back at him. His cheeks were ablaze, the eyes revealed, no longer framed by the long hair, his father’s hair, the eyes shone with something like defiance and something like panic at the same time, both trapped and free. The hair was close and uneven. He thought of his mother, when the chemo had taken most of her hair, did he think it would be like that? It wasn’t. It was something else. Less chemo warrior, more Nazi collaborator, he thought, and wondered if Miss Flint would appreciate the allusion. That’s when he remembered the clippers. The ones his Mum had used when the first hair had shed, like down. They were on top of the bathroom cupboard. He climbed up, feeling older, stretching. He looked once more at the new face regarding him in the mirror, blank, ready. The clippers came alive in his hand, a heavy whirring and he was steady when he brought them to his head. And when he was done the face was his again, both new and known. And then he felt it, her hand land on his shoulder, light as the sun. He looked in the sink, the hair like feathers. And a smile spread across his face like a wing.