By Rhuar Dean
Jim slowed his stride. There was an uncomfortable blur passing him in the opposite direction to his left and right. He felt as though he was fighting counter-current in a river of trepidation and he had almost shuffled to a complete stop before a drape of brown hair, crowned with a high-set pair of tortoise shell sunglasses, rescued him. The woman moved at a gentle pace, perfect for following. As he walked, he focussed on the balance of her mane. It washed down over the lip of her collar and curved slightly at the bottom, neatly kept and un-highlighted. The scalp and style complied with a certain convention that was common with women of this kind. It was enough to take him to the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. From there he followed a bald scalp, patchworked with darker brown skin like a choropleth map and skirted in a neat grey tutu of hair. The scalp was set so far below him, by virtue of its owner being a very short man, that Jim felt as though he was looking down from the peak of a mountain to another smaller mountain below.
The bald man took him to where he wanted to be, his usual Thursday afternoon browsing in his favourite bookstore on Charing Cross Road. Mid-week it was filled mainly with the old, the jobless and the insane. It was a haven of skin disorders, alopecia moved in abundance, wigs peaked over cancerous skulls. He browsed through the reference books selecting from the medical section: “A practical treatise on the diseases of the hair and scalp” by George Thomas Jackson. A fine name, he thought to himself: a scholar’s name. He then took his place in a leather armchair, far superior to anything he had at home, set the book open across his lap and watched.
Fiction was invariably the best section of the shop. There was more variety. He watched an overweight woman with tight-drawn, sensible hair and her supermarket lunch in a plastic bag. She skirted the shelves before eventually selecting the copy of EL James that she’d come for. He smiled to himself as he saw her camouflage it in a series of shadow buys.
An hour went by before he hit something that he knew he couldn’t beat: an elderly woman with dyed blue hair. It was thinly sprouted so that you could see through it to her scalp, which was blotched with patches of blue. There was something Martian about it, like looking at a scene from Star Trek. He imagined small blue aliens popping up out of her dry white skull and scurrying to hide behind a clump of hair. She spent an age fidgeting through the bookshelves, dropping things and looking around nervously each time she did. As he watched, she built up a pile of six or seven books, which she then set on the floor and stared at, shifting from one foot to the other and meticulously returning each book back to its spot on the shelves until she was left with only one, Isaac Asimov: The Complete Robot. He watched her pay and as she exited the store he stood up, placed his book on the seat and left.
At home he lay on his sofa and thought of the scalps he had surveyed that day. Each flicked through his mind like a photograph. He could pause and engage the detail, even the movement, the sways and turns. They were all there, from today, yesterday, last week – the best ones he could remember from way back, from his youth even, when all this had started.
His usual locations were set in stone. He could spend a whole day outside the London Dermatology Centre, sitting on the steps enjoying the variety on show. Camden was great for the punks and goths and all sorts of other freaks that got really messy with their hair.
He travelled everywhere by bus – double deckers only. He would sit at the back of the top deck, with row on row of heads in front of him, swaying in unison at each corner. Getting on may not have been so easy, with the row of faces he had to pass through. But it was worth it. Head down, he could be through in seconds without too much fear.
That evening Jim decided to head to McDonalds on the Walworth Road for dinner. He hovered in front of the door to his flat until a quick walking Sikh man came along the street, his turban wrapped neat and tight. He followed him to the corner, where the man turned in the wrong direction. It didn’t matter, it was easy for him to join the current behind a Nigerian woman with a head-dress like a pineapple.
He met Pat outside. It was exactly 7pm. Pat was never late and neither was he.
“Good evening Jimmy,” Pat said as he stepped in front of him. Pat had a wonderful scalp. His thin grey hair framed it like a water feature, the thickness of each strand like tiny jets of foam. But the real glory was in the stray patch of hair that maintained itself in the centre of Pat’s head like an island in a tea coloured sea. It was unique in Jim’s experience. The sprouting was thick, each follicle standing tall and strong.
“Ah, my saint. On time, as always,” he replied.
“Shall we eat Jimmy boy? I think it’s time.”
“Yes, it is time, so we shall.”
Pat enjoyed his meetings with Jim, he felt useful. There was no one else left in his life that he felt useful to. His daughter, his carers, even the council, to all of them he was a burden. The thought weighed on him whenever he saw them but Jim was different. These were the best moments in his week. He’d get the phone call. Jim was good on the phone, eloquent, sounded like a man with an education. He’d get the call and Jim would say: “Shall we fish and chips tonight?” Or: “I’m thinking about the pharmacy Pat. Really need to get there and don’t feel I can risk the street.” Pat would be round in a flash, provided he had enough of his wits about him to take the call.
They’d met at a local GP surgery. Jim had been sat in the waiting room, sweating at the thought of approaching the counter and the questions that the bespectacled receptionist would fire at him. Pat thudded down next to him with a light trickle of laughter and a faint tang of piss smell rising up from his trousers.
“Whatcha in for?” he’d asked Jim, without looking at him.
“I don’t like people looking at me. Don’t look. Don’t look at me. I don’t want you to look at me.”
“Ha! OK, I get it. Shit, you’re a crazy fucker. What’s your name? Can you even remember it?” Pat continued to face forwards.
Jim noticed the perfect baldness with the neat island of hair at its centre. The bald cannot lie he reminded himself.
“My name’s Jim. Of course I can remember it.”
“You havin’ me on Jimmy boy? ‘Cause if y’are I’ll damn right stare straight atcha and if y’re takin’ me for a fool I might just knock ya flat over.”
“No, no. Don’t look. Really, I’m not joking, please.” Jim pushed himself back against the wall, the legs of the chair squeaking against the polished floor.
“How ya gonna get in there to see the doctor then? Ya gotta go up to the reception lady and if there was ever a woman that stared, well, she’s that woman. She gives me the heeby jeebies and I ain’t got what you got. She has one of those faces Jimmy boy that says come a little closer and I’ll bend y’over my knee and stick a suppository up your arse.” Pat laughed harder into his wheeze. “D’ya get me, Jimmy boy? She’s like an old school matron. The kinda woman that makes your balls shrivel into tiny peanuts.”
Jim laughed. It was the warmest feeling he’d felt in years. To Pat he was an easy audience. He was used to people disregarding what he said, whether or not it was intended to be funny.
“Ya want me to go up there and explain for ya Jim? Is that what ya want me to do? Because god damn it I will. I’ll go up there and face that mean eyed bitch for the both of us if ya want me to.”
Jim cleared his throat. He leant forwards and whispered to avoid being heard by the receptionist. “That would be marvellous.” He knew already that he had found himself a very special friend.
McDonalds was busy but their seats were free. Jim sat at a table for two, set between the wall and a pillar with one other table to his right, where Pat had set his coat. In front of him, over a lime green block, the line of tills glowed. The cashiers were perfect. For the most part they kept their heads bowed or looking towards the next customer, but seldom beyond. Their uniform black caps dipped down and shielded him from their eyes. The queues of people formed and thinned and then formed again, always with their backs to him. Even when they turned away with their food they headed off to the right.
Jim watched as Pat shuffled, small and agitated between a group of huge women with high-set headdresses and proud shoulders, jumping when one of them hollered at her children. He ordered the food with an uncomfortable swagger, pointing his fingers to each option on the board above as though afraid the waitress might misunderstand him. He returned with a Big Mac for Jim, with fries and a Coke and nuggets for himself. Jim sat and ate whilst Pat did the talking.
“Look at them all,” Pat huffed into his nuggets, his mouth full. “All the colours of the rainbow in this city Jimmy. I mean you let the whole world in you lot do – even me.”
“Hey, Jim, look at her.” Pat pointed to a Muslim woman wearing a niqab covering her face. “You could marry that one, couldn’t ya son? I mean, look at ‘er, not an eyeball in sight.” He struck Jim in the arm but his punch was weak. Pat laughed so hard that he began to cough into his food.
“Jim,” Pat leant over as if to impart a secret. “It’s United-City this evening. Think I might just pop down the bookies and put a few quid on. You OK to watch my things for a minute?”
“Sure,” Jim replied.
“Who d’ya think I should go for?”
Jim watched as another family ordered their food, two young boys pulling themselves up on the counter before being wrenched down by their father. He wore a suit and the back of his head was sculpted into a rising fountain of afro hair. The grading was cut by two zigzag patterns running up from the left and right side of his neck, which flexed as he stooped down to lift up one of his children.
At that moment Jim heard an unusually heavy thud of the doors behind him. He worried that it might be Pat misbehaving. A hooded figure whisked into view in front of him and he felt a uniform row of eyes rise at the counter as the green hood marched up to the man with the boys, pulled a handgun from his pocket and in a fluid motion fired a single shot into his body. The sound echoed from the windows. Jim froze as the restaurant erupted in a frenzy of screaming people and stamping feet. The man who had been shot fell back against the counter. He steadied himself before launching forwards in a lunge. His arms came up around the hoodie’s shoulders, forcing him to fall backwards. As they fell another shot thudded into the man’s body, which went limp. The shooter pulled himself free but his hood had now fallen down his back and Jim gazed at his head, the muscles of the man’s neck tensing and releasing as he fired three more shots into the body before fleeing.
The shooter’s head was shaved close, grade zero and the edges had been neatly razored – a wet shave, Jim thought. A small scar ran down from his hairline along the left side of his neck and rising up from under his hoodie was the tip of a tattoo, perhaps the lick of a flame or the peak of a crest. At his crown there was a high bump of some childhood mishap or congenital deformity. It distorted the spiral of his hairline outward, accentuating it like the run of a sowed field over uneven ground.
Jim’s body floated on a wave of inertia as his eyes held to the fear in the man’s neck. A few minutes later he heard his name, loud in his ear.
“Jim? You alright Jim? You’re not hurt Jim?” The restaurant was a rush of activity.
“Get me out of here.”
At home Jim dismissed Pat, insisting he was fine and that he just needed to lie down. He was afraid of the police with their questions and their eyes. All he could think of was making the world disappear for a little while. He went to his bedroom where he removed his shoes and lay in the centre of his neatly turned down bed. He felt the cool of the pillow against his neck and it soothed him. All about the room he imagined the ricochet of the shots that had thudded about the restaurant. For a while he fell into a light, restless sleep.
Jim woke with an urge to be helpful. He got up and walked into his living room, sitting down next to his phone. He picked up the receiver but his hands were still shaking so badly that he kept hitting the wrong button and having to hang up and start again. Each failure set him stronger in his resolve.
Eventually the line rang and Pat answered. “You OK Jim?”
“Pat, I want to do something. I want to help.”
“I can recognise the man. His hood fell down.”
“But he had a mask on.”
“Yes, but the back of his head. I saw it. His hood fell down. It was clear. Very clear.”
“What d’ya want me to do?”
“Can you tell them, the police? Can you explain, make it easy?”
“But I still don’t see how ya can help?”
“I can ID the shooter. Perhaps I could do one of those sketches – you know where you describe the person to an artist and they draw up a likeness.”
“Draw up a likeness of the back of his head, you nuts Jimmy or what? They’ll laugh at you.”
Pat was right. The police did come and take a statement and Pat did his best to help make things easy. He’d won fifty quid on the football game and spent a load on beer and whisky so by the time he did speak to the police he was aggressively defensive of Jim’s field of vision, despite struggling to work out his own. Standing at the door with his hand on his hip like an old maid he had issued orders to the police with a wagging finger, which they couldn’t help but laugh at. When Jim suggested an artist’s likeness be done of the back of the man’s head the officer in charge made no attempt to hide his amusement. Pat had jumped out of his seat to fling a volley of indignation in the officer’s direction, only to be met with more laughter as the officer stood up to leave. Two drunken crazies was what he was really thinking, and Jim knew it.
The thing that Jim found most difficult to handle was the silence. He had expected activity: reports in the news, updates from the police as they drew closer to the killer, an arrest, possibly an ID line-up in reverse during which he would identify the man and help in the case for his conviction. For the first week he couldn’t go outside. Pat came round to do his shopping, collecting a couple of beers on the side as his tariff and threatening to call the doctor if Jim didn’t get any better. Jim knew that he wouldn’t.
Jim’s fear was born less out of what he had seen and more from a desperate desire to be helpful, to be there when the call came from the police asking for his assistance. He imagined the headline in the local paper: “Killer ID’d by Back of Head”.
But nothing happened. The officer who had taken his statement had left his card and after two weeks he decided to phone. He didn’t tell Pat, fearing he might make things worse. The officer was dismissive and uninterested, telling Jim that the case was ongoing and he couldn’t discuss the details with him, but that no breakthroughs were expected in the short term. Jim wondered how long that was.
He allowed a month to pass before calling again. It took a morning of trying to eventually build up the courage to pick up the phone and call the officer. He was still desperate to be helpful. Desperate also not to get in the way. The response was similar, though less friendly and delivered in a tone used for an annoying child who keeps asking the same question. Jim felt offended and hurt, still convinced that he was the key in an unquestionable chain of events that would lead to the identification of the shooter.
As the months passed Jim’s indignation slowly faded and he began to settle back into his old routines. He had taken to reliving the moment of the attack in his mind in an attempt to preserve the clarity of his recollection – should he be called upon. It was just over a year later that he found himself sat at the back of the top deck of the 171 to Holborn. He had spent twenty minutes admiring the long, thin dreads belonging to a young woman. They were wrapped around with coloured ribbons in black, green and gold and she had a series of tiny tattooed kittens climbing up behind her ears. The detail was exemplary.
A man got on the bus and sat four rows in front of the woman. Jim didn’t notice him at first, being contented with the kittens, but an uncertainty crept into his stomach and he found himself drawn to the man’s head. His hair was long and wiry. A large pair of headphones cut a through it. He wore a blue polo shirt with the collar turned up and nodded absently to his music, which filtered out into the bus. Jim pondered the head for a while. He tried to dismiss it but each time he looked away his eyes were drawn back like a vane obeying the prevailing wind.
Despite the sick feeling in his stomach, he managed to lift himself from his seat, shuffle forwards and set himself down behind the man. Initially he had to grip the seat below him in an attempt to hold in his nerves. His heart beat loudly in his ears and he felt beads of sweat forming at his temples. Behind him the woman’s eyes burned holes in his scalp. For a long while he stared forwards into the distance, following the line of the bus as it swayed through London. Nothing changed. Nobody spoke or moved. The man’s music continued to issue its beat. Eventually Jim allowed his eyes to creep left and down to focus on the man’s head.
An equal pang of relief and horror met in his stomach as he followed the man’s neckline past the scar he knew so well and down to the licks of flame that clawed up from behind his collar. A strong kick of cologne emphasised just how close he was. Jim held his breath and looked forwards, following the route of the bus again. He heard the sound of the gunshots in his head and realised that he had to breathe. He let the air out of his lungs with a gasp, certain that it would draw the man’s attention, but it didn’t.
The woman behind him got up from her seat, moved past him and swung down the steps as the bus pulled up to its stop. He looked down to the floor as she glanced across at him from the stairwell. He was alone now. Him and the shooter. Him and the maniac. The sweat began to run freely down his neck and along the sides of his face but he was too afraid to lift his arms or make any movement that might draw the man’s eyes. He pictured the man’s face, grotesque and scarred with tattoos of dead kittens. He pictured it like the battle face of a Maori warrior, with eyes that could crumple your soul.
“Don’t hurt me,” he suddenly blurted out and then grabbed his mouth with both hands to hold it shut. The man’s head continued to bob to the music. Jim felt himself shrinking. He moved slowly so as not to draw attention to himself and he felt relief as he lay down and the chair lifted up in front of him. His head curled into his chest and the world went dark. His thoughts were rows of eyes as he lay there. They searched for him but they could not see through the shell that he had formed.
He was brought back to the world by the bus driver. A bright pair of eyes staring down on him like searchlights.
“You OK mate?”
“Yes, I fell asleep.” Jim jumped up and pushed past him, rushing out into the street.
Once home he showered and then sat naked beside the phone. After a short while he picked it up and dialled the officer’s number with trembling fingers. It took him some time to explain just who he was and what he was referring to and he worried that he wasn’t making much sense. Eventually the officer managed to grasp what he was talking about.
“Yes, I remember now, the McDonald’s shooting. And just what were you calling for sir?”
“I saw him.”
“Saw who sir?”
“Where did you see him sir?”
“Today. On the 171 bus heading northbound at about four in the afternoon.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible sir, you must be mistaken.”
“No. I’m not mistaken. Why is it impossible?”
“Because the man is in jail sir. We arrested him, let me see, it must have been six months ago now. It turns out he was involved in a series of gang related shootings in and around the Walworth area over the past year or so.”
“But that is impossible. I just saw him today. I’m certain. One hundred percent certain that I saw him. What about my evidence: the scar, the tattoo? What about that?”
“I’m afraid we determined that your evidence was unreliable sir, given your medical history. It was, therefore, not used in our case.”
“Oh.” Jim replaced the phone on its receiver and sat back in his chair, feeling suddenly cold in his nakedness but unable to move. Life gives you certain opportunities to be useful, he thought to himself. To make a difference somewhere that nobody else can. He had been given his opportunity, he was sure of it. He had been given it and he had failed.
* * *
Rhuar Dean is a poet, writer and occasional journalist, based in London, England. He grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and has found himself living in some of the world’s finest cities including Fez, Kathmandu, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Beirut.
He tweets from @RhuarDean
Rhuar Dean is a contributing author to The Open Pen Anthology, available here.