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The Hair Shirt

by Trevor Price

Many years ago I noticed a morning shadow had grown on the back of my favourite shirt. I stroked it. The stubble was soft, but stubble just the same.

I was late for work and none of my other shirts was clean, and anyway it was winter and I would be wearing a pullover. There was no other option. I put the shirt on.

It felt as good as ever and I was immediately reconciled to the idea of its sporting a little stubble. My life was busy back then in London: if I wasn’t commuting across the city to work in the bank, I was in one of the bars in Soho. I rarely got home before eight in the evening, and usually a lot, lot later.

The days passed and all at once the stubble was a short, glossy red beard. But yet again, after the initial surprise, I decided it wasn’t so bad. I didn’t get round to doing anything about the shirt till its beard grew long enough to show below the back of my jacket and someone in a bus queue made a snide remark.

I was galvanised into action. That very night I put what continued to be my favourite shirt in the wash with extra soap, then, having paused the cycle halfway through, I took it out and hung it on the drying line on the balcony of my apartment, and there I shaved its beard off.

The operation went smoothly, very smoothly indeed.

Soon I was shaving the shirt once a week. In no time at all, I thought of it as a perfectly routine chore. I might always have shaved the shirt.

My home life was stable at that period, but not immune to the vicissitudes of the wider world. I lost my job at the bank and, needing to cut back on razors, I hung the shirt up in the spare room and allowed it to grow a full-length beard. Never mind, by then the shirt was well out of fashion. Still, I’m loyal to my clothes, and when I got a job on the other side of the city, I took my old shirt over to the house I’d rented. The rent was relatively cheap, because the area was rough.

I had the whole place to myself. It was just me and a faint odour of damp plaster in the kitchen. There were four bedrooms and in each one there was a big wardrobe. I let my old shirt have a wardrobe entirely to itself. The beard made the shirt look like a venerable philosopher, and I was proud to be able to give it the quiet and privacy to meditate and perhaps develop a new theory of causality. Or even of existence itself.

As a matter of fact, the shirt had the best wardrobe in the house. This was the last place where I lived alone, having lived alone in a great many different apartments and houses, like lots of people in this restless age.

I was there four years before I met my future wife, Celeste. Even after we were married, I continued to live in the house alone for another two and a half wonderful months while Celeste looked for a place we could share. We were going to settle down in her home city, beside the glittering sea in Plymouth. At last she found a two-bedroom terrace house that was a mere ten-minute stroll from a boat bound for Spain.

Now I had to pack and leave London town forever. Over the years I had collected very few items that weren’t unutterable rubbish. I was determined not to cling to anything of my former existence, so I worked through the rooms, one after the other, filling refuse sacks with the evidence. Eventually I reached the room with the best wardrobe and when I opened it I saw the shirt.

I had forgotten all about it long before, and I was shocked to see my old friend’s beard had turned quite grey.

Tears started to my eyes, but then I shook my head and had to smile at how quaint life had been.

Copyright © 2011 by Trevor Price

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