I try not to look in the mirror too much these days. I have come to the conclusion that unlike, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets or the finer details of TTIP, my face is not something that repays close inspection.
There are times when I can’t avoid it. Like when I’m shaving. Luckily, for much of this process, my visage is covered in shaving foam, but a full frontal can’t be avoided altogether.
It was while shaving the other day that I noticed a small patch under my chin, about the size of a fingerprint, where there were no bristles growing. A little coin-shaped oasis of smoothness.
I am not that attached to my hair, either facial or tonsorial, and gradually it is becoming less attached to me. I used to have hair like my mother: thick and strong, while my brother had fine, fair hair like my father.
But dad’s genes have won out, and just as the Sahara is encroaching into the fertile lands of the Nile Delta so my bald patch has grown, imperceptibly but surely over the years.
Hair, the cutting and coiffing of it, the growing of it and the loss of it, the washing, drying, curling and perming of it, has played a large part in my life.
My mother, you see, was a hairdresser. And my father was bald. We had the full spectrum at the breakfast table every day, and where one stood on the parabolic curve between plenty and loss seemed important.
My mother used to wash our hair at the kitchen sink twice a week. She liked to use scalding hot water and a shampoo-application technique that would today have brought her to the attention of social services.
If I turned my head to the side to complain that I’d like to keep my scalp intact, I’d get a mouthful of soapy water. “You don’t want to get dandruff now, do you?” she would say.
I wouldn’t mind dandruff, I thought. It couldn’t be worse than this.
My mother used to have her own salon, on Wicklow St in Dublin. Antoinette’s it was called, a name we thought was quite glamorous, combining a whiff of royalty and a doomed decadence.
She gave up the business when marriage and family came along, but she talked fondly of her days at the salon, of her customers and the friends she made there.
The barber said: “You must have been going through something oh, about six months ago. That’s how long it takes to manifest itself in your hair.”
One of her favourite stories concerned a rather grand lady who complained that my mother was working in the shampoo too roughly. (I knew where she was coming from.) “You’re not at a scrubbing board now,” said the Foxrock matron.
My mother felt this was a class-based insult, a remark made de haut en bas. “She was a right meadow lady,” my mother concluded. It took us a while to work out that she meant cow.
As I say, I wasn’t much attached to my hair. It didn’t bother me when I started to lose it. But one day, I noticed a small bald patch over one ear, away and separate from the Saharan bald patch on top.
“Alopoecia,” said the barber. “It’ll grow back. Sometimes it grows back white, but it’ll come back eventually. It’s usually related to stress. You must have been going through something oh, about six months ago. That’s how long it takes to manifest itself in your hair.”
The barber was right. It did grow back, and the same colour it was before, and I began to notice all sorts of men with small patches of white among the darker hair on their heads. What, I wondered, had caused these little marks of trauma? What stories could their hair tell?
And he was right, too, about the stress. About six months before my bald spot appeared, I had been nursing my sick mother while waiting for my wife to give birth to our little girl.
In the end, my mother died a few days before my daughter arrived. I mentioned this circumstance to the barber. “That’ll do it,” he said.
Perhaps this little smooth patch in my beard is the last little part of that traumatic time working itself out.
Sometimes, I pass my hand through the sparse hair on my head and think of my dad, or finger the smooth spot on my chin and think of my mother and my daughter.
I told you hair was important in our family.