Read by Rich Keeble
The problem with people, Xavier Frutiger believed, is we’re all so horribly sensitive. Well, perhaps that was a little melodramatic, but there was no denying Frutiger had suffered at the hands of his own sensitive nature. And it had all started with three little words thrown at Frutiger with the carefree whim of someone who couldn’t possibly believe a few syllables could dissolve the foundations of a man’s life.
‘Clipped a bit.’
‘What’s that, Banks?’ Frutiger asked, turning to a colleague.
‘You clipped a bit.’
‘What do you mean? Where?’
‘Up the top. At the back.’
‘Where? I can’t feel it.’
‘Oh, get over it. It’ll grow back, Frutiger. In no time, you’ll see.’
What an idiot, Frutiger thought. He had been cutting his own hair for years and he knew he always did a good job.
By the time Frutiger was on the bus on the way home, he was a million miles from that idiot Banks and his stupid comment. It was a Friday evening and he was in an exquisite mood – it was the last Friday of the month, the one day when Frutiger and Edith made a point of staying home and drinking cocktails.
Soon enough the Friday drinks were in full swing, and Frutiger and Edith were both entangled in the other’s limbs on the sofa, enjoying each other’s company in that way only drunk lovers can. In a pause between laughter Edith said this: Oh, and I haven’t even asked you how your day was! Frutiger replied that it was OK etcetera, and it was then, as his mind précised the day’s events, that he recalled those three little words.
‘Have I clipped a bit?’ Frutiger drew his head right down in front of Edith, so close that his hair tickled her nose.
‘What? When you cut your hair?’
‘Yes. That clown Banks was giving me grief about it.’
‘Let me look… no, no. It’s just your crown.’
‘The crown, you know. Your hair is thin around that area. Like a tiny bald patch.’
‘A tiny what?’
‘You’re saying I have a bald patch?’
‘No. I’m saying you have a crown.’
‘You’re saying I have a crown that looks like a bald patch.’
‘A tiny one.’
‘All big bald patches were once tiny bald patches.’
‘Look, darling, everyone has a crown. Don’t be silly.’
‘Well, let’s see yours.’
Frutiger rummaged around in Edith’s impossibly thick hair.
‘You don’t have a tiny bald patch,’ Frutiger reported.
‘OK, but my hair is really thick, silly.’
‘Stop calling me silly. And don’t be so boastful… You shouldn’t have lied about everyone having a tiny bald patch.’
Conscious that he was being what could only be described as silly, Frutiger tried to be casual as he wandered upstairs to the bedroom. Holding Edith’s makeup mirror behind his head and craning towards the dresser mirror, Frutiger tried to catch a reflection of his tiny bald patch. At first the mirror reflected nothing but a dark mass of hair, but before long he had worked himself and the mirrors into a combination of angles that revealed different results. Frutiger dropped the makeup mirror and walked downstairs as if he was sleepwalking.
‘What is, darling?’
‘The tiny bald patch… It has begun.’
Before long Frutiger was back upstairs, checking and rechecking, using different mirrors and combing his hair in various partings. He evaluated the results by taking photos on his mobile phone and recording several short films. The findings were inconclusive.
Frutiger started taking the back seat on the bus ride to and from work, as this vantage point allowed him to examine all the crowns and bald patches, tiny and large, jiggling to the movement of the bus. For some, he noted the terror stretching out from the crown, attacking all borders, leaving nothing but a monk’s halo of coarse grey. For others, the damage was wrought from the corners of the forehead, slashing inroads and leaving a lonesome jetty of hair. But the most interesting of all were the borderline cases. Was that boy cursed with painfully thin hair, or were his follicles already shrivelling up and choking the life of his lank wisps? Was that man’s forehead large by way of genetics, or was his hairline slowly retreating from his eyebrows as if in disgust? And if so, how long before time pulled all the hairs from his head and pushed them back through his ears and nose?
For the next few weeks Frutiger’s mind was almost solely preoccupied with thoughts of his impending baldness. After Edith’s early dismissal of his condition, he kept his thoughts to himself. The harbouring of unspoken anxieties manifested itself in petty nastiness and Frutiger increasingly found himself in curt moods and pointless arguments. He knew that his relationship with Edith had been suffering, so after one particularly tense week he resolved to make it right with her and suggest an impromptu evening of cocktails. Standing outside his front door he paused before turning the key, preparing himself to soar to new levels of charisma and gentlemanly consideration Edith had never known before.
‘Ah, it’s good to be home!’
As Frutiger slid his coat from his back, he could hear a shuffling noise from the lounge but no answer came.
‘What a day! Looking forward to a strong drink. That’s for sure!’
Frutiger kicked his shoes off by the door and threw down his bag. He walked into the lounge and found Edith at the dinner table sitting opposite an unfamiliar man. The plasticine smile on Frutiger’s face began to droop. He looked like Banks but with the addition of a ponytail.
‘Oh, hi darling… This is Jason. From work.’
‘We’re just catching up on some work away from the stuffy office. You don’t mind do you?’
‘Why would I?’ And in Frutiger’s head: This is Jason. Jason? What kind of a name is Jason?
‘Sounds like you had a bad day?’
‘No. No, not really. Just… you know. Well… I think I may go to the pub for a bit. Leave you two at it.’
‘Oh, we’re not going to be at –’
‘No, don’t worry. It’s fine.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘I’m not being silly.’
‘Well, OK then.’
‘Bye, Jason,’ Frutiger knew he had pulled a face as he said Jason.
‘Bye,’ Jason said.
‘Bye,’ Edith said.
‘Bye,’ Frutiger repeated.
The silence from the lounge was choking Frutiger as he struggled to put his shoes and coat back on in the quickest time possible; all the time trying not to sound like he was putting his shoes and coat on in the quickest time possible. I shouldn’t have taken my shoes off at the door, Frutiger thought, like a damn child.
As soon as he was outside Frutiger wasted no time in judging Jason a sleaze and born womaniser, using Jason’s ponytail as the empirical evidence of his theory. It was clear, beyond all doubt, no rational human could deny it – Edith was sleeping with Jason.
For the days and weeks that followed, memories of the shoeless encounter with Jason harried Frutiger. When he wasn’t in front of a mirror examining his tiny bald patch, Frutiger was praying that Jason’s own tiny bald patch would soon devour its surroundings and his ponytail would drop from his head like the final leaf falling from a withered tree. These obsessions dominated Frutiger to the point where life outside of them seemed irrelevant and obtrusive. His working life was now suffering hopelessly as he could no longer resist trips to the toilet to examine the density of his hair follicles or the height of his hairline.
Colleagues commented on Frutiger’s disappearances to the toilet and a newly acquired passive aggressiveness. At first it was infrequent jest, but soon it became a constant source of irritated intrigue through the corridors and stairwells of the workplace.
Of course it had to be Banks who gave Frutiger the ominous news. Frutiger was coming out of the toilet when he bumped into Banks on his way in. It felt like Banks had been standing there, waiting for Frutiger to come out, practising that knowing little grin.
‘Ah, Frutiger. What a surprise.’
‘Right, well, then –’
‘Dawson wants to see you in his office first thing tomorrow.’
‘I can’t imagine.’
As he sat at the back of the bus on the way home, Frutiger felt the crushing pressure of the unfathomable depths his spirits had sunk to. It was then that he remembered it was the last Friday of the month and a tiny wave of happiness tingled through his body. The bus passed a supermarket and Frutiger rang the bell – tonight he would create the finest cocktails Edith had ever tasted.
Wandering through the spirits section of the supermarket, Frutiger turned a corner and came face-to-face with a woman: a woman going bald and there was no mistaking it for a prominent crown. Her brittle orange hair was parted down the middle of her head by a stretch of lifeless scalp where not even the frailest downy strand of fluff was allowed to flourish. The concept of a balding female had never occurred to Frutiger in all his musings on hair loss. This was against the rules, surely, Frutiger thought. The unfortunate woman bent to pick a bottle off the bottom shelf and the artificial supermarket lights ripped through what was left of her thin hair. Frutiger was overcome with empathy and the urge to fall to his knees and hug this woman and cry out, ‘Let us drink! Drown our pain! Life is merciless!’
And before he knew it he was on his knees, arms outstretched, ready to transfer every ounce of pity he could summon through one almighty physical embrace. The balding woman turned and nearly toppled backwards at the sight of this kneeling zombie’s approach. She quickly scrambled to her feet, fear stifling her voice, and scurried down the aisle.
By the time Frutiger was home the shame at his own behaviour had all but left, overwhelmed by his desire to tell Edith what he had just seen. Before Edith could say hello, Frutiger began to babble excitedly; a precursor to the delivery of his fantastical story of the balding female that would surely amaze Edith.
‘Well, anyway, that’s all by the by, the point is – this woman was going bald! I mean, seriously. Bald. It was like a lawnmower had gone down the middle of her head. Can you even –’
‘Stop. Just stop.’
‘What? Is it –’
‘You need help.’
Of course, she didn’t mean it like that, Edith explained. But it was over and Frutiger wasn’t to try and convince her otherwise.
Frutiger didn’t go into work the next day. Dawson called the day after and told him not to come back.
Naturally, there followed a period of intense neurosis and wallowing self-pity with no end in sight. But eventually Frutiger found a new job. The woman at the recruitment agency, Lizzy, had found his story about the balding female funny. She also found him a job within the month, and on his first payday she called Frutiger and told him: Now you can afford to take me out.
It wasn’t long before everything seemed to be looking up for Frutiger, and I guess you could say he was almost happy. Except, there was just this one thing troubling him. It was something Lizzy had said, an offhand comment was all it was, and it had got him thinking about his skin. Frutiger had suffered from a little acne when he was younger, but he didn’t think he necessarily had bad skin. And even Lizzy, who lots of people said had flawless skin, when you got up close enough you could see tiny little blackhead spots in her nose which made you think of the skin of a strawberry. I guess it depends, Frutiger thought, perusing the selection of magnifying glasses in Ryman’s, on how you look at it.
(c) Pascal O'Hara, 2017
Rich Keeble has appeared in a number of TV shows, voiced several commercials, video games, animations and audiobooks, performed stand up and improv at the Edinburgh fringe, and even toured as a musician. He’s probably most recognised as the bloke on the hippo in the Topcashback advert though. richkeeble.com