It is possible to exist in a place that you’ve never been to.
You’ve never been here, to my flat, in this building. And yet you are so very present.
I’m not talking about how you’re always here in my heart and my mind, in photographs and in books. I’m not talking about how I have your old pots and pans or your hot water bottle. I’m not even talking about the sugar bowl of your ashes that sits by my bedroom window with the view of the city.
It’s your hair. Every few weeks I notice one of your hairs on my sleeve or on my computer screen, or I’ll pick one off my scarf or find one caught to an earring. It’s unnerving but also a great comfort. I always wonder, “How? How on earth is this here, now?” I think it’s you winding me up, saying, “I’m still here.” It’s strange though. It’s always a surprise. It rattles me, in a way. Sometimes I say aloud to my empty flat, “Dad?”
I know it’s your hair, it couldn’t be anyone else’s. Your white-silver hair, freshly cut to shoulder-length or grown out almost to your waist. In perfect condition, like silk. Brushed back into a smart low ponytail secured with a black band when you were out of the house. Hanging loose when you were partying or super-stoned or relaxing at home or dressing up as Gandalf for a fancy dress party. Tied up on top of your head in a loop when you were being sick, making man-buns cool before their time).
Or that time you had your hair put into cornrows for charity, complete with coloured beads at the ends. You looked insane but you raised loads of money and we all had a laugh. You said, “I always donate to Children In Need every year anyway because I don’t know how many of them are mine.” You looked like a malnourished Bo Derek. It was brilliant. (That was before cultural-appropriation became a “thing.” I would not recommend that any white, male pensioner in London do that now).
I found a photo of an old girlfriend of yours attempting to dye your hair with henna in the 70s. You’ve got clingfilm on your head and a towel around your shoulders. You told me that it went badly wrong and you were walking around with strawberry-blonde hair for weeks.
For the last couple of years of your life you could no longer wash your hair by yourself so I had to do it for you. You hated having greasy hair, or “cruddy hair” as you’d say. You were always so happy to have clean hair, like you were ready to face the world, because even though your insides were failing you, at least you looked and presentable on the outside. Your crowning glory. I liked cutting your hair and brushing your hair and neatening up the flyaways and holding up the mirror for you at the back so you could check it was perfect.
As a young woman it was sort of tragic that my father had better hair than me. My hair is unruly curls and split ends and years of damage done by bleaching and dyeing and chopping with blunt kitchen scissors. You’d tell me at least once a month that I looked like I’d been dragged through a hedge backwards.
Your hair was the envy of so many people. I remember the one and only time you came to my school parent’s evening. All the female teachers fell in love with you. A couple of the male ones did too. And my friends, judgmental, bitchy, insecure teenage girls, ADORED YOU. They all said they wished they had a dad like you. They followed you around. They held the doors open for you and got you a polystyrene cup of tea and a stale custard cream. They laughed at all your jokes, even the ones that mortified me. I was proud that I had the best dad but also very conscious of the fact that if my dad says or does one wrong thing I will be the laughing stock of the school come tomorrow morning.
And they were all crazy about your hair. I remember one girl saying, “Oh my God, can I touch it?” then yelling “IT’S SO SILKY!!!” The girls asked you for hair-care tips. You told them to always let their hair dry naturally, never use a hairdyer. They asked how often you cut it. They asked when you started going grey and said that when they’re older they’re going to embrace their grey hair rather than dye over it because silver looked so good. They asked what shampoo and conditioner you use. I was losing patience. “Girls, don’t encourage him please,” “Oh my god, this is all so embarrassing!” “Dad, stop flirting with my teachers, for fuck’s sake!!! Right, come on, we’re going now, let’s get you home.”
They’re still your fangirls. In the supermarket this week I bumped into one of the girls who swooned over you on that parent’s evening over 10 years ago. She asked after you and I told her that you’re no longer with us. She was visibly distraught to hear it. She gave me a big hug and said to me, “You know, I refuse to use any shampoo and conditioner other than Tresemme because of your dad’s recommendation that one time. I’ll never forget that. We all wished we had a dad like yours. What a legend.” I told her that her hair looked great, which it did, and then abandoned my basket of shopping in the middle of the aisle and ran out of the store with tears in my eyes.
My hair is greying at an alarming rate. Which is desperately unfair because Brother should be greying by now according to your timeline and he hasn’t even got a single one whereas I notice new greys every day. And I finally quit dyeing my hair last year, hoping to restore it to its natural glory, but now I’ve got to dye it because of the greys. So bloody unfair.
But life isn’t fair. If life was fair, there’d be no greys on my head and you wouldn’t be dead. I’ll just have to carry on using Tresemme and looking out for a stray grey hair on a jumper or in the pages of a book, reminding myself that even though this is somewhere that you’ve never been, you are here.