My Mother’s Hair

“Your hair is your aerials, man…”

– Danny, Withnail and I.

I’d always known I was adopted. My new parents told me even before I was old enough to understand. They’d refer rather euphemistically to “the lady who had you”, avoiding any more loaded words like “mother”, and then inevitably follow it up with a reassurance: “but we love you just as much as if you were our own.” In the pragmatic way of children I accepted this, understanding that there were things at play that I didn’t understand and didn’t really need to. Little was known of “the lady who had me”; we knew she was from Ireland, had been very young, and was said to have wanted what was best for me. It came as something of a shock to me at around the age of 12, talking to Dad one night, when he let slip that she had had blue eyes and long auburn hair. Had he met her? No, but it turned out he had all the reports of the social workers involved in the adoption, the psychologist’s assessment and the medical records. “You can see it all when you turn 18,” he said, and that, with an air of legal finality, a coming of age, was that.

But still I wondered. Because my hair was different. Mum had a kind of mousey brown bob which was gently greying – until one holiday, coming home from boarding school, I suddenly noticed that she’d gone silver with a startling abruptness. (She must have been in her early 30s.) Dad had dark brown hair, kept short-back-and-sides, and combed ruthlessly across his crown. In contrast I had a wild mane, the thickest hair anyone had ever seen, which formed giant curls of its own accord and shone with a glint of fire when the sun caught it. “It’s auburn”, they said. “Such lovely thick hair.” This being the late 70s the fashion was to have it long, and I clearly remember getting off a bus one day with Mum and my sister, and her bumping into some foreign lady she knew – one of the diplomatic wives. “What pretty little girls!” the lady pronounced. I scowled at the pavement. It’s a little ironic, looking back on it.

A local woman called Zetsa used to babysit us when Mum and Dad were out at some cocktail party. Cocktail parties were a theme of my childhood. I remember the diaphanous dresses Mum wore, how she’d kiss me goodnight carefully to avoid smearing her lipstick, and the lingering scent of some expensive perfume in the hall after they’d departed. Zetsa wore no perfume. She was a gypsy – an actual Roma, from a village high in the Rhodope Mountains – with a head of tight curls dyed a deep, unnatural black, face like a cracked walnut, a gold tooth, and hands like paddles. She was kindly, in a brusque sort of way, and lived somewhere out in one of the new socialist paradise housing projects on the outskirts of the town. She spoke only Bulgarian, I only English, but somehow we communicated, within the confines of the dynamic between six-year-old boy and forty-something gypsy woman. I remember one night in the bath she decided to wash my hair, and abruptly seized a bar of Imperial Leather soap and began scrubbing away with it. I remonstrated mildly. “Not with the soap! We have special soap in the bottle for hair. Shampoo.” I pointed to the bottle of Head and Shoulders on the side. She ignored my protests and muscularly worked up a fine crown of suds. My world disappeared spluttering in a cascade of water as she tipped a jug over my head.

The next morning at breakfast Dad began hooting with laughter. “What on earth have you done to your hair? Looks like you were dragged through a hedge backwards.” I inspected myself in the mirror. It was pretty wild. Great auburn tufts stuck out in all directions, and it felt as thick as wire wool. We slicked it down with water at the kitchen sink, and he tried to run his metal-toothed comb through it until I yowled in protest. My hair was uncontrollable. I told him Zetsa had used the soap instead of shampoo, and he said: “Of course. They don’t have shampoo.” Who they were I didn’t enquire. But he must have said something, because next time she washed it she reached for the Head and Shoulders with a wink. And I remember the softly plosive Bulgarian words that she murmured as she ran those huge hands over my head and worked in the shampoo with her fingers. “Stoi moyata, malka kotka, az sŭm izmivane na kosata.” Sit still, you little cat, and let me wash your hair.

On returning to England we found the fashion had changed. My headful of auburn curls was of a previous decade; this was the 80s now, in Thatcher’s Britain, and the hippyish licentiousness of the 70s was passé. This was the decade of the floppy-fringed, foppish tosser, and if you didn’t want to be seen as a Sloan, you kept it short. I remember a barber using clippers to give me a grade 3 buzz cut, and a slight sense of bereavement at the nest of chestnut locks that fell about my feet. For the next ten years or so I kept my hair short, and by the time of my teens it had become something of a ritual to visit the barber with my friends and demand a grade 3 flat-top, which was then coerced into a spiky mat with pots of gel. We’d smoke Marlboros on the top deck of the bus into town and if we had any change left over from the haircut would pool it and buy a can of lager from the newsagents next door, sharing it on a park bench as we self-consciously preened ourselves and eyed up the passing, unreachable girls.

But short hair didn’t suit me – my hair had other ideas, and would begin to sprout into a wild entanglement within a couple of weeks. You can try and coerce me, but I’ll always rebel. After leaving school, and a brief stint at an art college – that time-honoured tradition for the bright but unconventional – I decided to grow it. Then, one summer in Berlin, a festival that went on for days, and an old castle in the grounds, and dancing on the battlements in front of a sunset that looked like the desert; I could make out a camel train heading east, and those clouds were dunes lit umber and ochre, fading to a rolling purple in the distance. I felt the music through the soles of my feet and out through the top of my head in silvery brilliance, my hair as aerials, each follicle bristling in tune with the world.

I remember coming home from the festival on the U-bahn, wild-haired and wild-eyed, and two crew-cutted drunks smirking, then, on reaching their stop, when they were a safe distance away on the platform, one loudly saying to his friend: “Is that male or female?” I didn’t care any more. I have my mother’s hair.


Achaar – (A Short Story)

Where are you? What are you wearing? Why does the thought of you make my heart thump all of a sudden? What are you doing today? Who are you meeting? Who is lucky enough to see you? How do you smell today? Can I come close to you and just rest in that space between your ear and your neck and inhale you? Why do we love? Why does it hurt so much when we do?

Did I manufacture this by choice? Or did I have no choice at all? It wasn’t love at first sight – no, I thought you beautiful, but was shy, there were others present. It was after the conference, and we were all pretending to be grown-ups while wearing name tags like children on the first day of school. But second sight – yes, definitely. The second time we met, seeing you in that cafe in Sydney, I had already fallen. That’s how I recall it, anyway. I couldn’t take my eyes off you. You had come from work, and were dressed smartly. I remember your shapely legs, the colour of your blouse, those high heels. I loved the fact we were the same age, and that we showed the signs of it, our respective experiences written upon us, in the deeper laughter lines at the corners of the eyes, or in the frosting at the temples; we both lightly wore the past, but there are other signs that are hidden, which can be discerned in a gesture or a glance. The colour of your eyes… I have never seen such a beautiful colour.

It’s six minutes past nine in the morning, nearly forty degrees already, and I feel exhausted. If I sleep again I know I will dream of you. The fan is slowly stirring the air. It slows, stops, and then shudders back into life as the power returns. Is it cold where you are now, in that world of offices and suits and ten page risk assessments to do anything? Winter in July. How do you do it? – I know you hate it. You’d love it here though – the heat, the birdsong, the colours. No computers, no power half the time. You’d be like one of those hippie girls doing yoga on the beach, searching for meaning. I am searching for meaning too. I appreciate the sentiment that this is the first day of the rest of our lives – I know all that. But it feels like there’s nothing left to be said. I’m in love with you. That’s all. I don’t know why. I just am.

We play at indifference, maintain a cordial politeness, a certain professional reserve. We have to; what unbridled passions might rise to the surface otherwise? Do you distract yourself? I distract myself – I do other things, go out with friends, see other people, or try to. But it doesn’t work. How long in the silence of message and response is too long? Where does the absence of reply become drawn out so tight that the tension in it sings like a fever in my ears? I know, you were busy. You are popular, and rightly so. But how long before the very thought of you doesn’t stab me like a knife?

Why you? Out of all the women in the world, why should it have fallen to you to be the object of my desire? I apologise. Yes, I do. I didn’t want this to be a burden. But I desire you. I try not to, I catch myself if I begin to think about you in other ways, more passionate ways… but I do. The sultry nights are a torment. All I can think of is lying together and holding you. I hope you never see this. But I know you know.

You know, I love my wife. She is a steadiness, a strength in my life, which I cannot conceive of losing. I am there for her as she is for me. And it has taken will – some strength of will on both our parts, to stay together, although sadly children are not there. (It is me, not her.) But we decided it was worth it. You know our custom here; a marriage is more like a business agreement. Certain criteria are met: family, education, etc., and then the transaction is agreed. It’s different in your society I know, but there’s a misnomer – you call our way an arranged marriage (which is true), but as opposed to a love marriage. Be assured, I am in a love marriage. But not in an ‘in love’ marriage. I didn’t marry my wife because I was in love with her; that came later. We grew to love each other, and although we were both in our twenties, it felt like the kind of partnership you might see with old people sometimes – two of us supporting each other. The other day she was startled by a lizard when she opened the kitchen cupboard, and she jumped, and cried out: “Heeee!” But she was smiling. And my heart turned over because I saw that young girl I married, and I was filled with love for her: this woman who can be startled, joyously, by a lizard in the cupboard.

You do not have a husband, I know – nor even a wife (I know how different your world is to ours – men marry men, women marry women. It is admirable). You have lovers, certainly – boyfriends, one night stands, friends with benefits… lovers. You love them as I’m sure they love you. Who could fail to be drawn to your radiance? But do they feel as I feel? Are they completely smitten? There’s something rather pathetic about being so helplessly in thrall to another. I struggle against it at times, and enjoy the delicious heat of anger, rebellion, the luxury of resenting you for it. How dare you take my heart like this? But you didn’t. You didn’t. It was all my doing. I fear hurting you psychically somehow. How could I ever hurt you? What have you done to me?

My wife is making parathas in the kitchen as I write this, and calls out to me. Do I want achaar? Mango pickle. She doesn’t like achaar, but buys it because I do. I get up, go into the kitchen where she is deftly flipping the parathas over the open flame. A strand of her hair has fallen over her eye and she brushes it aside with the back of her wrist, causing her bangles to slide up her arm with a soft clacking. She looks at me enquiringly. I embrace her from behind, lower my head onto her shoulder, and to my surprise as much as hers, tears form in my eyes and I give a single, harsh sob. Unspeaking, she switches off the gas, turns to face me, and hugs me tightly.

What Hurts

Each day I sit down to do battle with monsters. Sometimes I win, but not always. If I am successful the end result is a page of text that is at least ‘not too bad’. If I lose, I fall into a pit of despair. Finding my way out of it again can take some time, feeling my way down dark corridors. Sometimes there are sporadic flashes of illumination, a feeble, distant glow, which allows me to feel my way. These are usually the writings of others, which allow me to see where I am, at least. Sometimes the corridor is flooded with light, and I cringe at it, dazzled. These are the visits of friends, the intrusion of others’ lives into my own. They depart, and my night vision is knocked out for a while, so I stand with eyes closed until I remember the direction that their presence temporarily illuminated, and begin to slowly feel my way down the corridor once more, trying to find a way out.

I live with depression. It’s been there forever. Sometimes it sets the agenda, sometimes I do. I refuse to give in to it, but the constant battles can sap the strength over time. It strikes unexpectedly, in the most inconvenient places: a holiday on a tropical beach with friends, where I muttered a half dozen phrases each day at most, was particularly bad – their obvious enjoyment of the surroundings only threw my own private despair into sharper relief. And yet I needed them there, drew heavily on their presence, their love. I have had an amazing life, and have done extraordinary things. Sometimes I just can’t see it, that’s all.

One of the things that is the most devastating about this is the sheer pettiness of it – the discovery of some of our most unloveable attributes: envy, jealousy, nastiness, pride, anger. One likes to think one is better than this, somehow more evolved, but no: it’s there alright, a skulking schadenfreude, the devil in all of us. Pull it up from the roots, dig deep into yourself and weed it out, or it’ll poison the rest of you. Why do I think the things that I do? What mental associations have I cultivated unconsciously that have led to this toxic thicket? It’s necessary to hack your way through it at times in order to clear the ground and plant afresh.

Physically, too, one becomes affected. In my case I develop an ache, an actual physical ache, in my heart. Right there in the ventricles. I’ve been checked out by the docs, wired up to machines, prodded and examined and listened to. But it’s sporadic – it comes and goes, the sick thump measuring out the beats of my lifespan, and on it goes, relentlessly. “Nothing wrong with it,” they say. “Strong as an ox.” But it feels broken. Trouble is, I can’t remember how it happened. Or who did it. Me, probably.

I take a certain grim pleasure in the externalisation of this. I look at the spatter of rain on the window, the geraniums in the windowboxes shivering in the wind, and I actually smile inwardly; the weather matches my mood. I love the rain, whether its a grey sky weeping smuts of drizzle or the hot tropical downpour of the monsoon and the scent of the slaked earth. Sunshine and heat throws it all into sharper relief, alienating you still further from your environment, like that beach holiday, where I sat and sweated miserably in the shade of a beach umbrella. An intemperate climate is in my nature; my mental weather.

Worst of all though is the inability to write, or to write well about it. You’d think that suffering might be a useful attribute for a writer, or that writing might actually be therapeutic. But no – what actually happens is that your emotional vision becomes foreshortened; you can’t see further than your own misery, and each sentence sets off into the unknown, hand on the wall, before plummeting off a cliff-edge after the full stop. You long for distant horizons to give a sense of perspective, but your gaze is fixed firmly on your feet before you, and try as you might to lift it, it remorselessly returns there. The self-indulgence and self-pity of it hurts as much as anything. No book, no film nor music can distract you from yourself. Sleep is elusive, a blissful refuge torn away by the mind’s dull ache, and the depression seeps into every part of consciousness; I have woken up at four in the morning to find tears silently running down my face without knowing why.

I was 18, and working in the kitchen of a Pizza Hut in a small town in Germany. The depression struck. My life was already over. I was 21, on mountain rescue missions amongst jagged African peaks, winching people off cliffs and out of crevasses. I was 25, sitting on a bench in the rain in a small town in England, clutching a can of strong cider, together with two other homeless guys. I was 30, on a train through Vietnam with a deadline to meet for a magazine article. 37, more deadlines to meet – assigments on a master’s degree. 40, my birthday, at a police checkpoint one night in Afghanistan, with a lump of hash in the car and a bigger lump in my throat when they walked off with my passport. 42, on a beach in India – the tropical beach I mentioned earlier – surrounded by friends and the people I love and who love me in return, unconditionally. 42, in a central London flat, looking out at the rain as I write this. I never thought I’d make it this far. If I had given in to the depression, I wouldn’t have. But my life’s not over yet. So I’ll keep on feeling my way down that corridor, because I know there’s light at the end of it. I’ve been there before.