The lady who runs the little shop across the street where I go in the early morning for coffee and bread – a nice lady who always asks after our two cats, referring to them as ‘los niños’ – has refused to look at me for weeks. Everybody else is doing double takes: the bus driver, the French waiter in the bar where I write each day, even people in the street.
K was horrified at first. Then she let a couple of complimentary remarks slip out – pretty lips, apparently – and now she tells me she will not be offering further comment for fear that, as a consequence of my rather twisted psychology, any feedback at all from her, whether positive or negative, would only encourage me. She’s right – it would. The problem for her is that her silence does too.
So, I persevere. It’s day twenty-something now and I’ve stopped counting. More time than usual has been spent in front of mirrors as I watch my face, myself, become untidier. Even untidier, K would say. Overgrown, like a garden gone to seed. It isn’t happening quickly – I’m like one of those mid-table European economies at the moment in that there is growth, but it is slow. Development is patchy. Results inconclusive.
That’s if it is development. Maybe it’s deterioration. Entropy. I have, after all, reached an age where change may well be a positive thing, but then again maybe not. Whatever it is, it took a journey to get it started (journeys birth so many things – the other day I was sitting at home in a brown study, blocked and unproductive. Nothing could lift the fug, it seemed, until we got into the car. As soon as we’d hit the open road I found myself raiding the glove compartment for an old envelope and a pen, to note down that ideas that all of a sudden were coming. We were only going shopping).
It was during our final few days in Marrakech. We’d retreated to our room after the morning’s expedition and were preparing to leave again to find food.
“Are you going to shave?” asked K. Don’t let the question mark fool you.
My usual answer to this very frequently asked question is, obviously, “Yes”.
Not this time though. I don’t know why. And because she was distracted in that most distracting of places – snaking our way through the souks and navigating the hard-nosed vendors, the slipper makers and wool dyers, the carpenters and carpet shops, spice merchants, metalworkers, tanners and leather craftsmen – she let it go. We took our time making our mind up about Marrakech: browsing by day in the medina, getting good deals, getting bad deals and seeking out our little sanctuaries to rest or eat, circling the Jemaa el Fna by night, the Gnaoua dancers and Berber bands, and all the time I let it grow.
On the night train to Tangier it bristled on my pillow and the carriage attendant, who remembered my clean shaven self from the journey southwards, looked at me askance in the morning. Tangier was rainier than I’ve ever seen it and we rushed into a taxi and to the port, just making the eight-thirty ferry. On disembarking, for the first time ever, in the town where we live and where the customs guard might even have known my face, I was stopped and asked to open my bags.
We dropped in to see R, who sells us our wine, a few days later and, knowing that we’d been to Morocco, he simply assumed I had food poisoning. When I assured him I was fine he stared at me for a moment before handing me my change.
Basico…uno, dos, tres…
Since then we’ve had dinner with L and I, I’ve had a chat with J, M and D have been around and I’ve gone back to work at the academia where I’ve had to face L, Z, J, JJ, JA, JC, M, ML, MdM, R, P, D, E, N, S, F and C, amongst others. It’s been a long series of baffling, mute, eyes down encounters. Or up, or to the side. I’ve had the permanent sensation that I’ve just said or done something silly, looking at so many rolling eyes all the time. When I do get eye contact there’s an intensity to it, betraying the effort people are making not to look down.
…y lateral…cinco, seis, siete…
Up against all of this, a lesser mortal might have relented by now. But not I. I am defiant. I stroke my own jaw continuously. I realise that’s creepy but there you have it. I’m in this for the long haul. At least once in every man’s life, this journey of the face must be undertaken, and this is my time.
It just feels right, especially now in the lowest, darkest dip of the year. To develop fur and hide in some den seems like a perfectly appropriate course of action. Why are we human beings so wilfully thick? All this talk of a New Year, of fresh starts and resolutions. That’s what the Spring is for, surely. In January, all I want is a duvet and a pie. Preferably at the same time.
The very idea of trying anything new seems preposterous to me. Although, I suppose, the beard is something new, and growing one does seem to go beyond the simple physical fact of facial hair. People act strange, look different. I feel different. You could say it’s transformative, although the caterpillar/butterfly analogy doesn’t quite fit. If I do feel like a butterfly, it’s an ageing, slightly overweight and increasingly cranky butterfly that likes beer and sleeping in late, and it’s trying to crawl back into the cocoon.
…dile que no!..cinco, seis, siete…
I glance across across at K but she doesn’t return my look. She’s staring straight ahead and so is G. According to Wikipedia, beards are traditionally associated with increased social status, masculinity and wisdom. Sounds about right to me. So why won’t anybody look at me?
And what the hell am I doing in a salsa class?