The bald men are gathering outside my gate. I can hear the hum of their voices, a furze of noise, as it drifts up through the thin night air into my garret. And now I am afraid. Really afraid.
All the fears I have harboured these two score years seem to me now as illusory. My fear of tranquilisers, the prospect of developing Alzheimer’s, killing something, mayonnaise, blood tests, IV drips, people with small eyes, flying, masks, my Uncle Barry, lumber punctures, being a disappointment to those I cherish, the Forest of Cheem, ornamental dolls, being in the spotlight, nylon, swimming in water which isn’t completely clear, my bearded dentist, tinned tuna, beetroot, ventriloquists, team building exercises, dead fish, the original Sontaran, obese children – seem now to me to be mere baubles than real fears. Irrational anxieties indicative of an over-sensitive personality with a propensity for paranoia. As the mob coalesce I see my genealogy as a chain of phobias passed from one generation to the next like a negatively charged lepton.
I peep through the blinds hanging from the sash window. The tallest amongst them wields a large crowfoot basin wrench, a curious armament but one perhaps reached for in haste. I hear his voice above the crowd, —I’m not waiting out here all night. He says.
The men sway and jostle like cattle at a milking shed. Some are armed with makeshift objects of harm – hammers, spanners, gardening tools.
There’s a pause before a man in his fifties in shorts and a paunch, which makes his CAMRA emblazoned T-Shirt rise up above his beltline to reveal a hirsute abdomen, offers a rejoinder, —What are you suggesting?
—Look, we either do nothing or we do something right? And I know what side of that I’m on.
That seems to be enough to galvanise the herd. Their voices are raised again. Shouting, bickering, somebody throws something which ricochets off the slate roofing tiles and comes perilously close to the sill of my window. Another raises his fist and knocks another man’s tartan cap off revealing his pink and smooth pate. Both back and front doors are locked and triple bolted. The attic door has an inside lock, but it’s generic and at best it will only stall them. I think about the burlier framed amongst them shouldering their way into my enclave.
My garret houses a number of packing cases, loaded with books and magazines, carefully categorised. I start to stack them up against the door. There’s sixteen in total and they appear to teeter as the pile gets higher. This will stall them but only for a few minutes at most. As I back away from the stacked up cases, the glass in the top pane of the sash window shatters and half a house brick pelts its trajectory across the room, narrowly missing my head and scarring the plaster on the back wall.
I sidle across to the window and peek out from the blinds once more. Things are getting uglier. There must be about thirty or so bald headed men gathered outside my gate. The tall one who had talked about doing something opens the latch and walks up my pathway and he disappears as he approaches my front door. Five of the bald men follow him. I can hear knocking on the door now, first hard, then insistent. Then banging. I hear the letterbox flap open and his voice travel up the stairs to my garret, —We know you’re in there. You might as well come out. He shouts.
There’s a long pause while he waits for a response, and then he adds, —if you don’t come to us, we’re going to come to you. Another long pause. I can hear the furze of noise build again and then I hear the door being shoved by what I assume is a bald man’s globed shoulder. It won’t take him long I think. The oak door must be over thirty years old, and despite the extra bolts top and bottom, I believe it will give. The battering has become persistent. I search around the room for something heavy. An old filing cabinet is hard to budge but slowly I nudge it towards the door. It’s plodding progress and as I work I can hear the banging build. I hear wood splinter and oak crack as the lock fixings are ripped from their home. They’re in.
I hear a succession of footsteps grow louder on the carpet-less stairs. I just manage to push the cabinet up against the packing cases as the banging starts again, this time, there is only an inch and a half of beech between me and the marauding mob of bald headed men. I panic. There’s nothing left I can use to block their passage. The cabinet quivers from their battering. And then voices.
—We know you’re in there, why don’t you just give yourself up? It’ll be easier for you in the long run.
—You can either open the door or we’ll break the door down.
—It’s your door.
—It’s your choice.
I say nothing.
The banging builds and the shouting rises, creating a cacophony of such violence I can feel it pound in my brain. I retreat into a corner. I curl up into a ball and put my hands over my ears, my eyes shut tight. The noise swarms around my head. Its vibrations swoon and gibber. I don’t know how long this goes on for, but suddenly I’m aware of silence. I relax my muscles, remove my hands from my ears, and slowly open my eyes. There in front of me, a mere six feet away, is the tall bald headed man. I flinch.
—Are you ok? He says.
I stare with some incomprehension. He is no longer holding the crow foot wrench. He looks puzzled, but not angry.
—I thought you were having some fit or something. I was gonna call my doctor. I’ve got her on speed dial on my phone, he says, before backing off and perching on some of the boxes, which are now spread in disarray across the room, where the entrance to my garret has been forced. —My wife, she’s epileptic see. He adds, by way of explanation.
I’m still trying to take all this in. I stare at the disarray, at the magazines and books which only moments ago were carefully arranged using the Dewey Decimal System. Where are the other bald men? I wonder.
—What are you going to do with me? I eventually pluck up the courage to ask.
He laughs. —Do with you? I just want to talk with you mate. Listen, I’m here to help. He shrugs, as though his motive were never in doubt.
—Then talk, I say, and then leave me in peace. You’ve done enough damage.
He gives me that puzzled look again, then he looks over to the door, hanging from its hinges, the screws now attached loosely to rough splinters.
—Oh, the doors, don’t worry about that mate. Kenny’s a carpenter, he’ll sort them out for you.
There’s another long pause. I watch him rub his chin. —Listen, I used to be like you mate.
I shake my head in disbelief.
—No, seriously mate. I did. I had long, shiny chestnut hair, almost reached my shoulders, used to use special conditioner in it and everything.
—So what happened? I’m not sure whether to believe him but I want to. I want to believe there can be some good in these bald headed men.
—It’s not worth it mate, honestly. I’ve been there. You think you’re being yourself, you think you’re expressing your individuality, but what it is see, is it’s selfish behaviour. To other people see, it’s like you’re taking the piss.
I try and reason with him.—But it’s my hair, I can do what I want with it. Why can’t I be free to choose?
He shakes his head wearily. —Listen fella, there’s no such thing as freedom. Your freedom is at the expense of someone else’s freedom, int it? I mean, how do you think it makes that lot feel out there? How do you think it makes me feel? You’ve got to think of the majority. You can’t just think of yourself see, it’s hurtful.
—But, what about my feelings? I argue. —What about what hurts me?
He rubs his chin again and shakes his head. —There you go again, see. It’s all, me, me, me. You’ve got to realise there’s something bigger than yourself. You’re not the centre of the world mate. If you disappeared tomorrow in a puff of smoke, what do you think would happen?
I shrug. —I don’t know, I say.
—I’ll tell you what will happen fella, fuck all is what will happen. You don’t count. You don’t register. You don’t matter. Do you get it? He pauses, while he searches for another way of expressing it. —Look, I don’t mean to be cruel, it’s not personal right, but you’re not important, none of us are. I’m not, that lot out there aren’t, no one is, see. He rubs his chin again.
—What’s important is all of us. It’s not the bloke who fixes your doors, or the bloke who pipes your water supply or the people who power your electricity. It’s not the woman who brought you skriking into the world, it’s not the woman who drives the bus taking you to work in the morning. It’s not any one of us – it’s all of us. If one ant dies right, the whole colony doesn’t fall apart does it? It’s stronger than that. Don’t you get it? That one ant has no meaning without the rest of the ants, do you see my point?
I feel so tired all of a sudden. All my body is aching from my extended vigil. The sleepless nights, the constant running and ducking, watching my back. Walking in shadow, avoiding the multitude, my senses constantly heightened, my body awash with adrenalin. How easy it would be now to just give in, let go and submit my will to these people, to offer myself to them. I look over to the tall bald headed man. He looks tired too. Tired of people like me, tired of these talks, how many of them has he had? I wonder. How many more like me has he had to convince? A strange feeling comes over me, it is one of empathy. I feel empathy for my persecutor, and it’s as though he can sense it, for without another word spoken, he gently reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and produces a bar of soap and a Bic razor.
It’s a brisk, spring morning, and I’m standing at the bus stop waiting for the number 27. There’s a mild chill to the breeze as it travels over my smooth pate and it makes my senses tingle, my skin prickle and then recoil ever so slightly. I feel alive, more alive than I have felt for a long time. Almost you could say, reborn, for didn’t I come into this world with my body naked and my head clothed? Now this time my head is naked, and my body clothed, for I am bald, just like the other men who stand at the bus stop, who offer me a kindly nod of acknowledgement, and I feel free in this world. Free to roam without torment, free to walk the earth without taunts and threats, free as every other bald headed man walking on the skin of this spinning ball of sin and dust.
First published in Tears in the Fence issue 49 (as ‘The Bald Men’).