Even though I have been thinking about doing it all day, I wait until the clock is close to midnight and my wife is yawning on the sofa. This is my way; if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing far too late, a habit that has stayed with me for years, retained long after the need for last minute revision, deadlines and essay crises has passed. My wife slopes down the hall to the bedroom and I gather everything I need and make my way to the bathroom. By the time she sees me again, I will be somebody else.
The bathroom in my flat is a curious room – big but sterile, cold, uncomfortable and rarely used. It has a bath I must have been in a handful of times in the six years we’ve lived here, plain magnolia walls, a heated towel rail which is nearly never on and a shelf containing all the ornamental Christmas presents which are not attractive enough to put on display. It’s mainly used by guests (which makes it even sadder, given how inhospitable it is) or by me when the en suite is occupied. Once a year, I use it to do what I am about to do.
I look in the mirror, properly look instead of catching a glimpse of myself in the window of a train, or a shopfront as I walk by. When you have a beard, your face looks different – a different shape, a different silhouette, a different character altogether. Your mannerisms change; you scratch and stroke, actions which seem so much more purposeful than mere fidgeting. It’s a year since I did this last, but back then Kelly was standing over my shoulder and I’m not sure I even gave it much thought. This time, I’m alone with my reflection and I feel a year older, maybe even more than that. 2012. The future. I’m nearly forty. My moustache seems to have more grey hairs in it this time than before.
Nothing I see changes my mind, but it still feels like saying goodbye.
The beard trimmer hums and buzzes as it comes to life in my hand. The first stage is to attack my neck, the space under my chin. I never cease to be surprised by how easy it is to take off what takes so long to grow, even though I shouldn’t be; meals cooked in hours are demolished in minutes, buildings which took months to build drop to the ground in a single blast, relationships that lasted for years can be destroyed by a single word, a gesture or mistake. This is much the same - the things we do with care are undermined by carelessness or abandoned because we get bored. I have always been fickle; I grew a beard because I wanted to look different, I got used to it and now I am getting rid of it because I want to look different again. It’s just another kind of furniture to rearrange.
Underneath, I see my skin for the first time in some time, small stubbly hairs clinging to it, doomed like all the others.
The sink fills with clippings as I tackle one side of my face, then the other. It didn’t seem like anywhere near so much hair when it was attached to me as it does looking down on it, and there is still a lot more to come. I stop, attack the clippers with a brush to stop them clogging up, and continue. Both cheeks too now are covered in the ragged remnants of the beard, more gone than there, and somehow my face looks naked and vulnerable. I notice, too, that I seemed to have a stronger chin before I grew this beard than I do now that it’s on its way out – Christmas, no doubt, is responsible for that – and I understand why men grow beards that hug their jawline, lending definition where the years have conspired to take it away.
I stop at the top lip. I have been joking for the past few days about shaving it into a Hitler moustache for a day and wandering round town, just to see how people react. The feedback from my friends has varied. Some said they thought it would be in extremely poor taste. Some said that they would find it funny, but they suspected most others wouldn’t. One expressed concern for my personal safety. The thing is, I know that I’m a man who enjoys giving offence – my collection of t-shirts alone or my idea of acceptable behaviour on the internet are testimony to that – but also, I am curious. Would people stare? Would they verbally abuse me? Attack me? Is it right that one man has changed the way we look at this single superficial thing forever? I sort of wanted to find out the answers to that.
Using the clippers I remove the margins of my moustache, leaving the thick stripe down the middle, and I look at myself again. My face is stubbly, many scrapes of the razor from smooth, but the moustache looks enough like a calculated, cultivated choice that I can see what it would look like. I don’t look evil, at least I don’t think I do. I pull some comedy faces into the mirror, waggle my eyebrows, wonder if he ever did those things. No, I decide I look clownish rather than evil, though that might be because that is what I want to be. And yes, I know there’s Chaplin too, but somehow whatever people tell you his is not the name that springs to mind when you look at someone with a moustache like this.
How did it happen that nobody can ever have this facial hair because of one man? How many children get named Adolf now? Did all the Hitlers in the world change their surnames from shame, or did they just die out? Are these the right things to be thinking about well past midnight, my wife reading her Kindle in the other room, when I thought I’d only done this for a laugh? I look at myself again; I look uncomfortable but I don’t look evil, although I know that I am more than capable of cruelty. For a moment, I think about shaving the rest of my face with a razor, applying the cream, using the hot flannel and making the choice to look like this for a little while longer. When I started the process of shaving off my beard, I honestly thought I might do that, but here, confronted with the reality, it just isn’t possible. And yet I want someone to see this.
I walk down the hall. The bedroom light is on.
“Kelly, would you like to see me with a Hitler moustache?”
There is a pause.
“I don’t know! Hold on… no, come on. Come in.”
Originally, I had said that she would fall asleep and when she woke up I would be clean-shaven, the man she met again, but the curiosity proves too great. It’s not every day that someone offers to model a Hitler moustache for you. I go in. She is tucked up in the duvet, her favourite place in the world, warmly lit by a solitary bedside lamp. I know that she is minutes from sleep, if that, and that if I had taken slightly longer to get this far or begun a few minutes later she would never have seen this bizarre moment that almost never was. I move close enough so she can see me, and she laughs.
“What do you think?”
“It’s funny! Not threatening at all. Go on, say I’ll get you Butler.”
I oblige, shaking my fist and doing my best to impersonate a character from a sitcom I’ve never really watched. Odd, it was made in the early Seventies and was probably one of the last toothbrush moustaches anyone has ever seen – that and Mugabe, who is a role model for no one. I wonder if comedy is the only way we can reclaim that moustache. It sprung from comedy – Oliver Hardy, Chaplin of course – lurched into horror and tragedy and then lapsed into infamy and obscurity. And I know, even from wearing it for five short minutes, that the world isn’t ready for it again.
“Do you want me to take a photo of you?”
“No. It just wouldn’t feel right.”
Some things, I reflect as I stand back in the bathroom again, just aren’t funny and probably never will be. Trying to make jokes about them is a mistake. Perhaps I am growing up after all, perhaps that realisation is even more of a sign of age than the grey hairs in the sink, because I know perfectly well that a couple of years ago I would have kept that moustache for a day and enjoyed people’s glares, just as I enjoyed the looks I got from the American servicemen, proud in their regalia, at the Henley Regatta. I can remember that day, hot and busy on the riverbank, and I remember my t-shirt, a deeply offensive one about 9/11, and I remember their looks, because they looked as if they wanted to kill me. Yes, I must be changing – not too fast, not too drastically, but changing none the less - because I think back on that boiling afternoon and cringe. Just for a moment, I feel weary of shocking, criticising and conflict, although I know that the world (and I) will seem different tomorrow.
I have work left to do, so I run the tap and fill the sink with hot water. The time has come to finish what I started; rub in the shaving cream, wet the razor and complete the transformation from straggly to sleek. In the morning I will wake up; a new person, the old me and an older me all in one complicated combination. My wife will kiss me for the first time, oblivious to that, reckless where for months she has been tentative, and say “You’re back!” and everything will be as it was. And maybe I will be the only one who understands that ever so briefly, just for five minutes, I looked like the most evil man in the world.