“Are you sure, James?”
“Christ, Francis, if you ask me one more time.”
James twitches the towel draped over his shoulders, fidgets with the hair clip keeping it closed. Well. He won’t be needing that after today. Nor the brushes lining the sink, the dish of elastics on the windowsill, the offensively expensive hair mask in the shower.
“Because we can stop,” Francis is saying. “I can take these out and we can forget about it. Alice will be none the wiser.”
James meets Francis’ gaze in the mirror, studiously ignoring his own reflection. He knows he looks ridiculous; there’s no need to double check. “I’ve a feeling that if Alice saw me like this she’d insist it became a regular event.”
Francis tugs gently at one of James’ pigtails. There are four altogether, sticking out from his scalp like absurd antennae, each tied with a small, brightly-coloured rubber band. Alice left a sparkly pouch of them behind last time she came to stay.
“She loves your hair,” says Francis fondly. He presses a kiss to the crown of James’ head. “I love your hair.”
“If you’re going to be sentimental about it,” says James tersely, “I’ll do it myself.”
James has been threatening to cut his hair for months: ever since he noticed it was thinning at his parting, creeping backwards from the corners of his forehead. The lengths are still full and shining, falling in waves to his jaw, occasionally thrown back in an deliberately untidy bun. But his hairline is receding; he can’t deny it any longer. And he hates the sight of the sparser hair against his skin, the ugliness, the shame of it. Better to cut it off, buzz it short and be bald-faced about it. So to speak.
“I look like an aging footballer,” he said mournfully to Francis one morning, pouring his heart out as the sun streamed across their pillows.
Francis pushed a lock of hair out of James’ eyes. “I’d have said more… washed-up rock star.”
James kicked him under the duvet. “I detest you entirely.”
Francis caught him behind the knee and pulled him closer. “I love you whatever you look like,” he said, nosing against James’ collarbone.
“Even when I turn into…” James hunted for a comparison and grasped at the first that came to mind: “Rob Brydon?”
Francis snorted into James’ neck.
“Or Prince William?”
“You wish,” huffed Francis. “Angus Deayton, maybe.”
“Angus Deayton? Christ, Francis, no one has said that name aloud since about 2003.”
“Wayne Rooney, then.”
“Oh, God.” James buried his face in the pillow, overtaken by the horror of it all. “He’s had a hair transplant, anyway.”
“You don’t fancy it?”
“Can’t afford it.” James turned his head to squint at Francis. “And it’s in rather poor taste. There’s something to be said for ageing gracefully.” He ran his fingers through Francis’ gold-grey hair.
Francis lifted his hand to James’ face, put a thumb into one of the creases that framed his mouth, as he always did. “If you’re sure,” he said. “Let me help you.”
But in their well-lit, plant-filled bathroom, Francis is dithering. He holds the hair clippers as though they might explode. “I don’t want you to regret it,” he says, looking pained.
“I won’t,” says James patiently. “Start with the scissors.”
“Are you s—”
“Alright, alright,” says Francis, taking the scissors from the windowsill.
Cutting the pigtails is the hardest part. James feels like a sheep being sheared as Francis works at his hair, severing it by degrees. He tries to look away, stare at the taps, but the noise and the feel of it are bad enough.
It’s been years since James had short hair. Not since school, or his first term at university. That was it: an accident at first, too caught up in the mania of Michaelmas term to think of getting a haircut. And it was a thing in the early nineties: hair like curtains, parted in the middle. He hoped he looked as though he was in a band. Other things had come and gone — the cigarettes, an earring, a misguided foray into spoken word poetry — but his long hair had stayed: no longer an accident but a definite statement.
As time wore on, he went from achingly cool to a bit of an anomaly. But being an anomaly had its advantages. It drew the eye. How many men had curled their fingers in his hair, both in the convulsions of passion and out of them, how many tucked loose strands behind his ears, smoothed it flat against his skull?
Francis loves his hair. Though he’s never said as much, not until this afternoon; not in so many words. But he kisses James’ head as often as he can, when he squeezes close behind his chair to pour wine or coffee or steal a piece of toast. He diligently gathers the hair bands that James leaves scattered around the house and in the car and in the drum of the washing machine so that, without fail, they end up back in the dish on the bathroom windowsill. He’s combed sand and salt-tangles from James’ hair with his fingers, clutched it rictus-tight with James’ head fast between his thighs, stroked it absent-mindedly while he reads.
And Alice. Alice grasped James’ hair with her tiny monkey’s fist the first time he ever held her, tugged it as she squirmed during her christening, as he and Francis promised to walk with her in the way of Christ, to reject the devil, to renounce corruption. As if it needed saying. As if James wouldn’t fight a mountain lion to keep her safe.
James blinks and finds his eyes wet. Francis has the scissor blades to James’ one remaining pigtail. His lips are parted in concern.
“Don’t stop now, for heaven’s sake,” says James, managing a deprecating laugh. “I can’t go around looking like this, can I?”
Francis ducks his head, half-hiding a smile, and saws the final hank of hair away.
The result is… unsettling. James looks as though he’s survived some hideous disease, or a Russian gulag. He puts a hand to his scalp. It feels extremely odd, like touching a person other than himself; like stroking a particularly unkempt spaniel.
Francis is shaking out a ziplock bag. “Wait,” says James, turning on the kitchen stool. He touches the disembodied lengths of hair; takes up a burnished skein, runs it through his fingers. “Is this how it felt to you?” he asks.
“It was warmer,” says Francis. “More alive.”
James shudders and the hair slips, like a fish loosed from a hook, into the waiting bag. At least they’ll be able to tell Alice it wasn’t all for nothing, that someone else might be wearing James’ hair in a month or so. He wouldn’t put it past her to shave her own head, hoping to be the lucky recipient.
James stands up to look properly in the mirror, turns his head from side to side, pulls at his face. He’s got such a lot of it — this face of unknown provenance. Other men can look to their fathers and uncles, their grandfathers, for a glimpse at their future selves; at the lines that will deepen, the features that will swell or sink with age. James has no photographs to study, no profiles to examine at family dinners, no family at all save the one he’s made himself.
But Francis has his mother’s face: the same pale moon, the same softness around the eyes. Perhaps there’s a woman somewhere in São Paulo or Brasília who looks like James, in her sixties, still straight-backed and tall; a retired dance teacher, or a writer, or a widow.
Francis is toying with the clipper guards, watching James from the corner of his eye. “Sit down, then.”
James sits. He can’t stop staring at himself, marvelling at the lightness when he moves his head. He can see his ears.
“How short is ‘short’?” says Francis, frowning. He runs his hand over James’ tufted head. “Number four? Three?”
James hasn’t set foot in a traditional barber’s for decades. They fill him with foreboding: the combs pickling like medical specimens, the greasy chequered lino, the unregulated masculinity. “I’ve no idea,” he says. “I’m at your mercy.”
Francis raises an eloquent eyebrow. He seems more relaxed now that James is beyond the point of changing his mind. The clippers buzz to life and Francis pushes James’ head down, beginning at the nape of his neck. James waits for it to hurt but it doesn’t, so he breathes deeply, his chin on his chest.
“My mam used to cut our hair like this,” says Francis thoughtfully. He works the clippers over James’ ear, pressing the cartilage out of the way. “The boys, anyway. Newspaper on the kitchen floor, oldest to youngest. Every second Sunday.”
“What about your sisters?” asks James, as Francis tilts his head to the side and down again.
“They got off easier. My Auntie Pat was a hairdresser — she’d come round and do them all together, Mam last. The smell of perm lotion with the windows closed.” He grimaces at James in the mirror. “You’ve no idea.”
“I wish I did,” says James. “All that noise — the good kind. All those girls.”
“They’re terrors,” says Francis. “As you well know.” He moves to stand in front of James, blocking his view. James contemplates the placket of his chambray shirt, the freckles peeking from beneath a rolled-up sleeve, and then shifts sideways, wanting to look in the mirror, desperate to see what’s going on.
“Are you fond of your eyebrows, James?”
“Stop bloody moving.”
James resigns himself to stillness. Francis runs the clippers backwards from his hairline, over the sparseness that started this. James shuts his eyes as specks of hair fall onto his face.
What use is vanity, when the thing he wants to hide is so plain and prominent in view? James is forty-five, and looks better for it than most men. He has Francis. He has Will and Edward, and Annie and Alice. They have this house, and the mushroom-coloured cat that haunts it like a shadow. He has his work, his health. He has Francis.
The clippers go silent. Two warm hands frame James’ face, holding it still, and a cool, steady breath passes over his forehead, his closed eyelids: Francis blowing away the hair.
James opens his eyes and looks up. “Hello.”
“Hello,” says Francis.
James wrinkles his face between Francis’ hands. “How does it look?”
“See for yourself.” Francis steps aside, and James approaches the mirror.
He’s surprised. He looks good. He looks younger. His damned pride, again. He brushes a palm across his scalp. His curls are negligible at this length, but their whorls and contours are still there. Less like an unkempt spaniel this time; more like a cat. His eyes, never one fixed colour, seem wider, greener.
“Happy?” asks Francis.
“Happy,” says James.
The bathroom floor is a disaster. James elects to ignore it, and slides the towel from his shoulders onto the tiles. The neck of his t-shirt prickles and he tugs it over his head, balls it up to scrub away the remnants of hair, catches his reflection and doesn’t recognise himself.
“Your neck,” says Francis behind him.
James scowls into the mirror. “You’ve seen my neck before.”
“Mm. This is different.” Francis touches James’ nape, stroking the short hair, presses his thumb into the muscle. A spark dances down James’ spine, blooming to a blaze as Francis tilts forward and noses a kiss against his skin.
There’s a bird-like chirrup, and their recalcitrant cat crosses the threshold, picking her way between the scattered hair. Francis scoops her up, sets her high on his shoulder like a little queen. James turns and lowers his head to hers. She sniffs him, twitches her whiskers, rubs her face against his shorn temple.
“Do you approve?” James asks her. The cat narrows her amber eyes, then wriggles from Francis’ grip and onto the floor.
“I think that’s a ‘maybe’,” says Francis.
“And you?” James suddenly needs to hear him say it, one way or another.
Francis takes James’ head in his hands again, closer to his skin than they’ve ever been, hot against his skull. His eyes are bright and earnest, and in his cornflower gaze James feels like a child again. He could laugh, or cry, or slide onto the hair-strewn floor.
But Francis kisses him, and James feels only like himself.