“And?” said Dave looking up at Lisa with slight exasperation.
“Where have you been?” her voice was cracking with swallowed fear and fury.
“What?” Dave leaned back, lit a cigarette, and stared at the ceiling. It was his favourite pose for when she was hysterical.
“Where have you been?”
“What are you talking about? I haven’t been anywhere.”
“What? You’ve been missing three days. I’ve been fretting, I’ve been crying and I’ve smoked a zillion cigarettes. For Christ’s sake, where have you been?” she shrieked.
“Look, you mad bint, I’ve been right here, on this sofa for the last hour. Before that I was at work, wasn’t I?”
She stopped pacing and breathed, then said as calmly as her constricted throat would allow,
“So what happened to your hair?”
“If you haven’t been away, and nothing weird has happened, where has your hair gone?”
He snorted through his teeth and stared at her. She stared back, until he finally put a hand up to feel the top of his head. Smooth skin from ear to ear, no hair. He started to whine in panic and ran to the mirror in the hall.
The mirror had his reflection in it, but without hair. He ran upstairs to the bathroom. The face in the mirror was his, although with an expression of terror he had never seen before. The face was his, but with no eyelashes or eyebrows. No hair.
When she went upstairs, he was sitting in front of the toilet throwing up on the floor. Yellow bubbles frothed around his mouth. Red diamonds gathered around his vision, so that when he looked up at her face was framed by a red halo.
“I don’t understand,” he whispered, “where’s it all gone?”
The first night after he came back, she noticed the smell. It was subtle at first. It seeped out from his skin, and it took her two hours to realise that it was the smell of burning plastic.
He slept motionless, holding her hand, but not making a sound. She watched his new smooth head and puffy eyelids and tried to decide if she believed him or not, if this was one of his games. He was always lying to her, but she’d never seen him cry before.
Two years later…
Dave couldn’t stay in shock forever. After two weeks his work had wanted a doctor’s note. After three weeks his friends had wanted to talk about something else, and it had only been a few days before she had wanted him to do his own share of the washing up.
So he had busied himself to the routine, carefully tucking his personality in at the edges, settling into a life of habit. Some days he’d say hello to the security guards, some days they’d just buzz him through. Some days he’d wear brown socks and some days he’d switch to black. These were the little uncertainties that made life fun, varied.
It was Thursday, and Dave had been at work for hours with no sign of anything suddenly changing, which he appreciated. He was sitting on the train, flicking his eyes from one passenger to another. A low slung cloud pressed against the train windows seething with rain and foreboding, just like it did everyday. Inside the train, a woman in a tightly buttoned suit was struggling to turn the pages of a magazine because her diamante encrusted nails were loose.
Dave struggled to contain himself on his train seat. Bag straps, jacket corner, elbow, half used tissue. These days he seemed to spill out all over the place, irritating everyone with his loose bits and pieces. Taking up too much space, he whispered, and the woman next to him sniffed and shifted very slightly away.
He skim read the headlines of the paper read the man opposite. A large man with a round bald head, like a Malteser. He wanted to know what was going on in the world, but didn’t like to read more than a sentence at a time. Whenever he read he felt as if he was slowly falling into the story in front of him, all time flitting away, awareness of where he was would slide away. He didn’t like that sensation anymore.
Fear was something he had experienced up until the age of 13. Since then he had found that swagger was more effective than fear. But now, the swagger had vanished with his hair, and a selection of fearful expressions had found his face and he didn’t know what to do with them. Befuddlement, unease, perplexion and panic jumped on and off his features. Looking out at the encroaching storm caused a look of sad confusion to pull his features in all directions.
She was at the shops buying dinner, fish fingers and chips. That was what they always ate on Thursday. Sometimes she would try and break the routine, but while he wouldn’t actually complain, he would whine, make small moaning noises while picking at his food, not really eating it.
He made her feel queasy. Not just the smell of burnt plastic but the sense of loss that hovered above him, the sadness. She couldn’t sleep with him anymore, his vulnerability was terrifying. Any attempt at changing him resulted only in scaring him more. Sometimes she shouted, sometimes he cried, in a twisted parody of their old life together. Once she even hit him, just to see if it would wake up his anger, knock the sneer back onto his face, but he curled into a ball and sobbed. It was easier to cook fish fingers on Thursday.
She didn’t love him anymore. Sometimes she faced herself square on in the mirror and accepted that she loved him only when he didn’t need her. Back in the old days, when he would disappear off on his motorbike for hours on end. When he said “Oh for God’s sake woman stop wailing.” She loved him when he was spontaneous, scared of almost nothing and needed the use of her house more than he needed her. When he had had hair.
And then, whatever had happened, had happened. The hair had gone, the wild reckless air had gone, the need to be free had gone. Now he cried in his sleep and he didn’t like it when she moved the peanut butter. Now he asked her what day it was every few hours and he liked to stare at the sky.
Dave’s office was a flurry of noise and movement. Coffee was made, spilt, sipped and spat; filing cabinet drawers trundled and clanged, photocopiers buzzed, jammed and beeped. People mimed fury and jokes at one another. The mood was of camaraderie and polite hatred.
Dave was in the toilet rubbing a small piece of leather between his fingers. He passed several hours each day in the toilet. Everybody knew, but had stopped gossiping about it a year ago. Dave no longer actually did any work, so it wasn’t overly important how he spent his day.
At two o’clock, he edged back behind his desk, smiling awkwardly at a room full of people who weren’t looking at him. He patted his bald head, gave his small piece of leather one last rub, and then took to shuffling some papers on his desk.
When six o clock came the streets were already thronged with angry people, all of them personally irritated with Dave. At the station they tutted furiously at him whenever he tried to see the train notice board. They nudged and grumbled at him when he dithered at the entrance platform eight. They prodded him with their umbrellas when he tried to walk up to where the train was. He though he was going to cry, so he just sat down at the end of the platform where the train wasn’t and watched while everyone frowned and huffed at each other.
He sat with his hands around his ankles and his chin resting on his knees.
Three hours later the platform was nearly empty, so he took the next train. He travelled for an hour watching as the clouds pressed tighter and darker against the window. Since he had lost his swagger, the sky churned and bellowed, rolled and spun images before him like a roaring fire. He got off at a station where the only sign was broken. There was a car park, a tree. And the clouds were tugging at his feet, tornadoes the size of sea horses, gathered around him. He could see small hands reaching out from the tornadoes, pulling at his trouser legs and fingernails. There was nobody to see, nobody to tsk and suddenly he felt fine. He closed his eyes and fell into the storm, spinning in circles, his shiny bald head plunging up into the sky.