John stood in front of his mirror. His hair was receding, it was falling out at an alarming rate. He inspected his scalp and decided: yes, he’d have to get a hat. The cream wasn’t working. He’d been rubbing it in for three weeks but that was not good because there was hardly anything left on top now. And, with this bare scalp: well, it did something to his face. It swelled his cheeks, made his eyes look bulgy. Of course, he could blame the mirror with all those bumps and blotches, but in the end the truth was there: a receding landscape.
He took a deep breath: ‘You look awful. You’ll never find a woman now.’
It had been difficult enough with his hair on.
He peered in closer. ‘Genie cream my foot!’ he muttered. The pot said it gave wonder results in two weeks: well, the pot was wrong. If anything, it seemed to have made things worse. And it had given his scalp an alarming sheen.
He stepped back, screwed up his eyes to see himself full length and again didn’t like what he saw. A plain, bald, middle aged man. He’d never imagined he’d go like that, let alone when he was still so young. He was only forty. He turned to the window. Perhaps it was the light. The window was stained glass and although didn’t let in much light it cast the colours in a kind of rainbow effect on the walls. He normally liked the effect; he also liked the fact that they dated back to the 1920s, Art Nouveau, which permitted him to dream in his quiet moments. But they gave an odd effect sometimes. And they let in the cold and the damp.
He shivered. Brussels wasn’t that much different weather-wise from England. He’d been pleased to leave London and find a new life away from the closed-mindedness of his peers. But the weather had followed him.
Eighty per cent of the heat in your body is lost through your head. He’d read that in a magazine somewhere and now he believed it. In fact he was shivering much more this winter than last but then, of course, this time last year he still had his hair.
This time last year he still had his job. At first he’d considered returning home, but having spent ten years away he’d felt it was too late now to go back. On quick visits back he always felt like a stranger, yes a stranger in his own land, was made to feel one by everyone there.
When he first left jolly old Blightie, his mother said ‘Why do you want to go and live there?” “What’s wrong with England?” Then his sister added. “Think you’re a cut above, do you?”
No-one asked about his new life on his quick visits back. He was, for them, still the young John who’d lived and worked in England and never gone abroad, the quiet Englishman, the ‘quintessential Englishman’. But leaving the country had unlocked certain qualities in him which they knew nothing of, and weren’t ready to hear about. They weren’t even interested; indeed they deflected the conversation whenever he offered information on life abroad. So the only way for things to go smoothly when he was with them was to block it all off, live in the hiatus they imposed on him. Once you leave your country you don’t exist for them any more. If you throw up your new life and return home they think you’ve at last come to your senses, that you’re the same old John you were before you left. Until they realize there’s something ‘odd’.
So he’d stayed in Brussels. Losing his job as a librarian at the Commission had come as a surprise because he’d thought he was doing quite well. But one day he overheard Karl say to his colleagues: “John is quaint, isn’t he?”
Quaint? Now, words are sometimes used in a curious way by non-native English speakers. International English had become a hybrid language used to suit all and everyone from anywhere and the result was bizarre, if not original. Verbs were often dropped, words got misused, but they all seemed to understand each other in some mysterious fashion.
That day he was in the corridor taking some documents back to the library. When he heard Karl say ‘quaint’ it stopped him in his tracks. What did he really mean by that? Old? Then Jose-Maria said, “What do you mean, Karl?”
“Well, you know: odd. Odd fashioned.”
Karl always messed up his English. Some-one stifled a laugh. Why? Because of the expression, or were they laughing about him, John? Then some-one said “weirdo”. Who that was meant for John had no idea. Karl wasn’t exactly a weirdo although he wasn’t a normal man either: he was unpredictable, expansive, with dubious diplomatic skills.
They gave John three months’ notice and told him he could leave earlier if he wanted. They said it was one of several post cuts coming up, but John hadn’t heard about any of them. He of course sensed they didn’t want him. It was true that he didn’t fit in with the others. He’d never formed any friendships. He’d initially been hired because of his mastery of the English language, but they evidently no longer cared about that. Perhaps it was something to do with his image, he wondered, even before he lost his hair. He was more traditional in his clothes, it was true. And then women didn’t seem to like him very much, for some reason, however hard he tried to be kind to them.
And now, six months later, he still hadn’t found a new job and was still on his own. The money problems were starting. He’d had to move from his fourth floor apartment in the centre of Brussels. It was in a beautiful 18th century building with tall ceilings, spacious rooms and long, wide windows which meant each room was bathed in light. But the rent was high. Determined to stay in the same historical area he was lucky that the studio on the top floor of the same building came free. But it was under the eaves and he soon discovered that there was much less light. And then downsizing came as a shock. He couldn’t afford to mend the radiators all of which leaked, and the landlord – a grand name for an absent owner – never replied to his phone calls. But he was happy to still be in the same building and area with its quiet, narrow, medieval streets just a few minutes’ walk from the antique market where he could browse the old books, admire the paintings on sale and wander into the gothic church and stare up at the beautiful stained glass windows.
This was when his hair started to fall out. And now a hat was definitely in order: one with a rim – a fedora, he decided – to give him some class. It would go with his newly acquired Aquascutum coat which he’d bought for a bargain at the Midi station flea-market.
He locked up and walked down the dark winding staircase, pushed open the oak door and turned right onto the cobbled street and felt the fat man in the antique shop fish-eyeing him again from his chair behind the window. The man was always sitting there behind his motley display of porcelain cups, saucers, ivory tusks, ebony monkeys and crocodiles, carvings of African ladies grinding corn, all straight out of the old Belgian Congo. He always sat there strategically facing the window like an antique himself. And he never smiled, just stared, every morning,staring.
A light rain started to fall. He came to the last street, turned towards the flea-market and the drops came heavier; they were as if exploding on his scalp. People with hair don’t know what that feels like: when the drops get lighter it’s like peas turning into liquid form when they hit the surface, then when it’s even lighter it’s like silk sweeping over your skull. John still had a fine line of hair at the base of his skull all the way round which caught the drops as they trickled down, saving his ears, neck, and shirt collar. What will he do when those hairs have gone?
The flea-market was not its usual bustling self under the rain. Only a few people milled around the stalls of masks and colonial left-overs such as ivory spoon holders, brass bells, ornate trays and coffee grinders, old post cards, teapots and tajine dishes from northern Africa. Until at last he came to a hat stall. The vendor was smoking a cigarette which he threw to the ground when John came up and ground it the cobblestones with his heel.
“Monsieur?” he said.
There was only one Fedora and it was the wrong colour: a light beige which would look dirty in no time.
“Vous cherchez quoi?” the vendor sidled up to him, opening his arms proudly over his display of hats. “Un Homburg?” He picked one up to show him.
John shook his head; the rim was too curled up.
“Alors, un Porkpie?” the man picked out another.
He’d never heard of a Porkpie and he certainly didn’t want one: a hat with a name like that? And it was too flat, more like a saucer than a pork pie.
How about a Bowler, the man tried. He shook his head: a Bowler was too formal and reminded him of the quintessential Englishman John decided he no longer was. Buyt the man had a Trilby in his collection. It had the Fedora dip in the middle but a narrower brim. He liked the tweed pattern. Here was a model which was a good compromise between smart and relaxed. He tried it on, looked at himself in the small mirror and liked what he saw. It sat perfectly on his head – his scalp. It transformed him. He could feel the inside leather band soft against his skin, just above his ears. What was left of his hairline showed underneath the brim so no-one would guess he had no hair further up. And then the grey went well with his Aquascutum.
“HOw much? Combien?”
The rain was gathering pace, the stall holders were packing up and bringing down the tarpaulins, loading their vans. John now worried about the rain drenching his new hat – or practically new – and the Aquascutum which was turning dark gray on him and getting heavy in the downpour. So he walked over to the café on the corner. It was his ex-colleagues’ favorite place for lunch but since today was Sunday they wouldn’t be there. He lifted his hand to check the time on his watch and the drips poured down his wrist, trickled under the loose sleeve of his pullover because the cuffs didn’t hold any more.
The ornate handle of the café door was slippery and lumpy in his hand as he pushed it open. Inside it was steamy; there was the smell of damp clothing, beer and stale cigarettes and the black and white tiles on the floor were smeared with wet mud and smudged footprints. People stood drenched at the bar near the old fashioned cash till and beer taps, and they didn’t look happy. No-one was talking; only the rain had brought them together here. And no-one had a hat.
John walked over to a seat in the corner next to a stove which was nicely glowing with hot coals; it was the best place to dry off. But when he lifted his hand carefully to take off his hat his eyes caught a young lady sitting in the opposite corner. She was looking at him.
He dropped his arm. Keep the hat on.
He sat down slowly, drew his knees together and put his hands on the table, took them off again. She was still looking. She had big brown eyes and her cheeks were flushed. She was beautifully fleshy with thick, black velvety hair falling over her shoulders. He straightened his back; put his hands on his lap. Then the waiter came up, slim and slick in his long white apron.
“M’sieur?” He was standing in the line of vision.
He’d had a whole pot of tea only two hours ago, but he had to order something. “Earl Grey, s’il vous plait.”
Someone else was blocking his vision now, chatting to the waiter. Get out the way.
Ah, there she is.
She was sitting facing him, wearing a close-fitting brown jacket, and had an allure of freshness mixed with self-confidence. She was in her mid thirties, John decided. And she was alone. Was she looking at him? Yes. He couldn’t believe his luck.
Surely not? It must be the hat. He couldn’t remember any woman looking at him like that. Perhaps he should smile, just a hint of one.
She looked away. He shouldn’t have done it. In profile her nose tipped up at the end very slightly: an inviting detail.
He felt very hot now by the furnace, but he wouldn’t take his coat off. Underneath his pullover was too worn. He saw she was hugging a cup in her hands as if to warm them, so she was cold. He could invite her over. He must dare. He sat up straighter to cut a good figure and glanced out the window, nonchalantly. The rain was sliding down the windowpane in cataracts.
He hadn’t had a lady friend for a long, long time.
She was definitely looking at him. But was it an invitation, or not? The inside leather ring of his hat was now damp round his skull but he mustn’t take it off. Even if his scalp was itching. It itched just above his left ear.
She was undoing her jacket: very shapely underneath that blue jumper. She glanced over. He might be getting this all wrong. Perhaps she just liked Trilby hats. And now his scalp itched badly; it must be something on the inside band. But wasn’t the leather band supposed to protect the scalp? She was still looking.
He stood up. But suddenly she turned away to the bar where perhaps she’d seen someone. Was she interested, or not? Was she watching him now out of the corner of her eye? And now he’d stood up he couldn’t suddenly sit down again because that would look odd. He’d have to go somewhere; look busy. He could go to the ‘gents’; that would look natural.
So he smoothed his Aquascutum to brush out the creases, and walked carefully to the stairs, came to the turn and when once out of her sight he rushed to the bottom, snatched off his hat and scratched and scratched. It was a great relief to work his finger nails over the skin. His scalp was scarlet in the mirror, even redder where the itch was. He picked up the hat, looked inside and studied the band. What was it? The leather was soft enough. Perhaps it was the stitching?
Then he heard someone coming down the stairs. He thrust it back on, looked at the reflection in the mirror and saw a man. He recognized the face. It was Karl, his ex-colleague, the one who’d said ‘quaint’. Bloody hell. Did this mean they were all here? All of them?
He switched round, head down, slipped passed quickly and rushed up the stairs, looked over to the bar, round all the tables, over to the door. None of his other colleagues were there. He must go over to her now, before Karl came up. But she was leafing through a notebook and he hesitated. He couldn’t do it. He was back in his seat. Why hadn’t he done it? He coughed loudly, scraped his chair and yes, she looked up. She smiled, he smiled back. She stood up. She was coming over. Oh, he was rolling. Brown boots to match her jacket. She said to him, “Hi, I’ll bring my tea over,” and he said “Of course, yes, of course, please do.” So she went back to her table unrushed, calm, her buttocks tight in her trousers but firm and neat as she walked, and brought back her tea, jacket over her arm. He pulled out a chair for her.
“Enchanté. My name is John.”
Then Karl appeared.
“John! Hallo. Good, you are?” His English hadn’t improved. Then Karl turned to the young woman. “Enchanté, Mademoiselle. I am Karl.”
There was an awkward silence. The young woman cast her eyes down to the table. Uninvited, Karl drew up a chair and sat down with them, looking first at the woman then back to John. “So, how’s games, John… sorry: how is tricks?”
John kept his eyes on his young lady. Karl sat back and tried to get his attention. “Hey, that’s my hat!” pointing to John’s head.
John stiffened. Karl had a habit of trying to surprise people, trying to get them to laugh. It threw you off your guard.
“I, I beg your pardon, I bought it.”
“Only a joke.”
Silence again. Karl said “There’s an ink blop on it,” and pointed to the brim. “Thumbs screwed… no, what is it? fingers screwed, crossed… no-one will see it, though.” He leered at the woman as if to say, ‘why aren’t you looking at me,’ and got no response so turned back to John. “Did you get it at the flea-market?”
A cold draft flew up John’s spine. He sat up rigid. He was relieved to see the young lady wouldn’t be drawn. But then who would be, by a man in wet jeans and dirty old Nikes?
“I show you where the blop is,” Karl insisted, raising his hand to lift off John’s hat.
John leaned back violently. “Please, leave us now.”
But it was too late. Karl had lifted it off and John’s skull was bared for everyone to see.
“Ok, I understand,” Karl shrugged his shoulders and put it back on John’s head.
The young woman pushed back her chair and stood up. Karl looked perplexed. She was putting on her jacket, excusing herself and suddenly she was gone, black hair flouncing over her shoulders. Then John stood up and walked swiftly to the counter to settle with the waiter.
“John!” Karl called over.
John ignored him. He went outside. It was still pouring with rain. He didn’t look for her; she’d seen everything. He was doomed to never find a woman. He was going home. He turned down the street, took off his hat and threw it in the first bin he came across. The raindrops hit his scalp like bombs exploding on him and somehow it was a relief. The rain was coming down in sheets as he walked back past the snail factory, the kebab shop and the small stores stacked high with ebony carvings recently in from Africa, Asia, water dripping down his smooth scalp, soaking his collar, getting under his pullover. And he liked this feeling. He thought of the snails in the snail factory as he walked over the wet cobble stones: snails glisten in the rain and what do they care? Damned hat. Chuck it away.
He turned into the next street by which time his Aquascutum was feeling quite heavy. Then a lady crossed over the street towards him, half hidden under her umbrella. She was wearing brown boots and a jacket to match, thick dark hair over her shoulders. It was her. She stopped, looked up and smiled. He smiled back. But he didn’t stop.
“Hi there,” he thought he heard her say.