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The Genie of the Lamp by stopfordianstationer

‘Shave all your hair off?!! What for?’
‘I want to do something a bit out there when I finish my exams. It’ll be my last day in school, so I want to do something that I haven’t been allowed to do all the time I’ve been there.’
I shouldn’t have been surprised – Ben had always had an impetuous streak, completely the opposite from me. Whereas his hair had changed frequently with whatever passing fashions had come and gone, mine remained resolutely the same. Number three at the back and sides and longish on top. Sometimes it flopped forwards, sometimes it might flop slightly to either side, but mainly it just flopped. All I ever wanted to do was to be average, nondescript and blend into the background without being noticed. Ben was much more outgoing and willing to experiment and over the years I’d known him, his hair had been long, short, dyed, parted, combed backwards, forwards, you name it. I’m pretty sure it had had curlers in it at one point as well, but I never got him to admit to that. In keeping with the current trend, it was currently shaved tight at the back and sides with a large bulk of hair on top piled into an improbably high quiff. The sudden announcement made me think for more than one reason, and took me back to something that happened when I was just a kid, but that was before the two of us had even met.

Ben and I were best friends, more like brothers really. I was about 18 months older, but due to the times in the year when our birthdays fell, there was only a year between us at school. His family had moved in next door to mine when I was coming towards the end of junior school and the two of us had hit it off straight away. I was an only child and he had an older sister, so neither of us was used to having another boy so nearby and we ended up building a close relationship. It helped that our parents got on really well too and once a couple of years had gone by, Ben and I were in and out of each other’s houses interchangeably as if we lived in both. That had carried on to this day to the extent that we all went on holiday together as well. We’d started off with a couple of trips in Europe, to Spain and Greece and then got more adventurous and moved on to Florida. This year’s trip was another step still and we were off to Thailand a couple of days after I finished school for the summer. Because he was doing his exams and they finished before the end of the school term, it would be another three weeks or so before I finished.

The day arrived for Ben’s big haircut and he’d been making great play of the fact and telling all our mates about it. He wanted me to take some pictures on his phone so he could put them on his Facebook page and so I’d agreed to go to the barbers with him after I finished school. There was nothing unusual in that as we normally went together to get our hair cut. Since his last exam had been in the morning, he finished earlier than I did and he was going to come back into town to meet me and then we’d go to the barbers together. When we met, I looked at the big quiff and couldn’t resist ruffling it before he shoved me away and we set off on the short walk.
‘Have you said anything to your mum and dad?’, I asked.
‘Yep. Dad laughed and mum just rolled her eyes, she didn’t say anything.’
‘Don’t know if mine would be as chilled as that,’ I said. ‘I think mum would go mad if I ever did anything like that. Not that I would!’, I added hastily.

When we arrived at the barbers, both barbers were busy and there were a couple of people waiting. We always waited for the same barber, Gary, who’d been cutting our hair for years, ever since we’d first gone with our dads when we were kids and continuing when we’d been old enough to go by ourselves. Gary knew what Ben was planning and when we walked in, he greeted us cheerfully.
‘Alright, lads.’ He looked at me and asked ‘He still going through with it then?’
‘Far as I know,’ I replied. ‘Says he is anyway.’
‘Yes I am,’ chimed in Ben. ‘Can’t wait!’
‘Fair enough. I’ll be with you in a few minutes,’ said Gary, before turning back to work on his customer.

Once he’d finished with the person in the chair, Gary had another customer to deal with, so we were probably there for about 20 minutes before it was time for Ben to get in the chair. Given the number of different haircuts he’s had over the years, I’d seen some long to short transformations, but I had to admit I was a bit intrigued by this one, and looking forward to it. Ben sat down and Gary put a paper strip around his neck as usual before covering him with the bright red cape. I remembered my role and stood in front to take a couple of ‘before’ pictures.
Gary was asking Ben exactly what he wanted. ‘Now when some people say they’re shaving all their hair off, they mean a crewcut, like a three or four on top, something like that,’ he said. ‘Is that what you’re after or a proper skinhead?’
Ben didn’t even have to think about it. ‘Proper skinhead,’ he replied. ‘As short as you can get it.’
Gary smiled. ‘I thought so, knowing you,’ he replied. ‘I didn’t think there’d be any half measures. As long as we understand each other, that’s fine.’ He turned towards the counter, opened a drawer and rummaged in it briefly before bringing out a large red set of clippers. He unwound the cord and plugged them in before turning back to Ben. ‘These are called balding clippers,’ he said. ‘Does exactly what it says on the tin. This is the closest I can take you, but they’re very sharp and I’ll have to go slowly, so no sudden movements, OK?’
If that made Ben nervous, he didn’t show it. ‘Sure, go for it,’ he said.

Gary turned on the clippers with a loud click and ran them experimentally across his hand and then moved them towards the hairline at Ben’s forehead in the middle of the quiff. ‘Absolutely definitely sure?’ he asked.
‘Absolutely definitely.’
‘Any last words?’
‘Only get on with it!’
‘OK, OK, keep your hair on,’ Gary said. He laughed at his own joke. ‘Sorry, barber’s humour.’ He placed the buzzing clippers at the middle of Ben’s forehead and slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, moved them backwards through the luxuriant hair. A thin stripe of baldness appeared – not like I’d seen before when people got buzz cuts, but genuine actual baldness. Gary repeated the process and the stripe got a bit wider.
‘Oh wow!’ Ben’s eyes were wide and he was smiling, almost laughing at the sight of himself. I was transfixed and had forgotten momentarily why I was there until Ben reminded me. ‘Come on, James, take more photos!’, he urged me. I snapped out of it and moved in front and took a couple more photos so he’d be able to show off the beginning of the cut.
Once I’d taken the photos, Gary carried on moving the clippers from front to back and what had been the stripe was becoming a bigger and bigger bald patch. Every time the clippers made a pass, a thick strip of dark blond hair was detached from Ben’s head and a huge pile of it was gathering on the floor around the chair. Eventually there was no hair left on the top of his head at all and he looked like a monk or an old man with MPB. I laughed and took another couple of photos. ‘You can keep these, mate,’ I said. ‘They’ll remind you what you’re gonna look like in 40 years!’
Ben was momentarily embarrassed and that was the only time during the whole cut when he seemed a bit self-conscious. ‘Piss off,’ he shot back. ‘I’m not putting them on Facebook! Come on, Gary, get rid of the rest of it before anybody sees me like this.’
Gary was happy to oblige and moved round to Ben’s right hand side to start clearing the hair away from there. Slowly but surely, starting at the temple, he moved the clippers up the side of the head until he reached the top and then moved back and continued. This sent more hair raining down onto the cape and the floor, although it was not as spectacular this time as the hair on the back and sides was much shorter than the hair on the top had been. Once he’d finished the right side, Gary moved to the back and put the palm of his hand on the top of Ben’s head. ‘You need to stick your head right down for me, mate, so I can get at the back properly,’ he said. Ben put his head forward and Gary held it firmly in place as he pushed the clippers firmly up the back, repeating the process several more times until all the hair had been cleared from the back. The pile of hair on the floor was more like a carpet now and I took a couple of photos of that to add to the others. Ben was looking up again now as Gary moved to his left side to finish the job and repeated what he’d done on the other side. When that was all done, he spent several more minutes carefully running the clippers all over Ben’s head to make sure nothing at all had been left behind until he was finally satisfied. Not a hair remained anywhere and Ben was totally bald, his head pale white in contrast to the darker skin on his face and deck which had been used to being exposed to the light.
‘Time to take the ‘after’ photos,’ I said. ‘Smile!’ Ben gave a big smile and a thumbs up and I took photos of his head from all angles so he could pick which ones he wanted to use. Gary brushed any stray hairs away and took the cape and paper off so Ben was released to face the world with his new look.
Before Ben stood up, Gary showed him the back of his head with a hand mirror. ‘Short enough for you?’, he asked.
‘I don’t like it,’ said Ben. ‘You’ll have to put it all back! Nah, it’s perfect, thanks for that. I wanted something different and I’ve got it.’
I could only admire his confidence. If I’d been in his position, I think I’d have wanted to walk round with a bag on my head before hiding in my room for weeks.
‘You having yours done, James?’, Gary asked me.
‘No I’ll leave it ‘til just before we go away, thanks,’ I replied. ‘It’ll be pretty long by then, but I’ll live with it.’
‘No worries, see you soon, boys,’ he replied. Ben paid for his shearing and we left.

Later that night, Ben and I were sitting in his garden talking. We were in the middle of a spell of hot weather and both of our families were spending a lot of time outside. Inevitably our conversation turned to his shaved head and the reactions to it. His dad had laughed again and his mum and sister had both told him it was OK. ‘They actually said it didn’t look as bad as they were expecting,’ he told me. ‘So I’m taking that as a compliment.’ The pictures had duly been put on Facebook and gone down a storm, mainly in the form of general hilarity and mickey taking.
‘And what about you?’, I asked him. ‘What do you reckon? Is it a keeper or strictly a one-off?’
‘Well I can’t keep it when I’m back at school,’ he replied. I knew he was right, he’d be carrying into sixth form at our school and ‘extreme’ hairstyles were banned under the rules. It wasn’t entirely clear how ‘extreme’ was to be interpreted, but a couple of lads had turned up previously with roughly what Ben had now (in fact probably slightly longer if anything) and had been suspended, so that was fairly obvious. ‘I haven’t got used to it yet,’ he continued. ‘I don’t mind it though and it’ll look better when it’s got a bit of colour instead of being white. I think I’ll get it done again before we go on holiday and then I can start again and stick with whatever I like best when it grows out. Best bit is how it feels though. Rub it.’
‘You what?!’
‘Just rub your hand across the top of it, go on,’ he persisted.
Gingerly, I put my hand at his forehead and ran it backwards and forwards a couple of times. I was electrified by the rough, sandpapery feel. ‘That’s awesome!’, I blurted out with a little too much enthusiasm before snatching my hand away.
Ben laughed. ‘You should give it a go yourself,’ he said. ‘Tempted?’, he asked jokingly. Or was it a joke? I let out a brief sigh and my thoughts went back once again to what had happened when I was just a little kid.

I looked at Ben. ‘It’s funny you should say that,’ I said. I am kind of tempted, there’s a part of me that would really like to actually, but I’d never have the balls to do it in a million years.’
‘Why not? It’ll grow back soon enough.’
‘It’s just not me. I haven’t got the sort of self-confidence that you have so you genuinely don’t give a toss what anyone thinks. Let me tell you a story from when I was a boy, before I even met you.’
‘Is it in black and white?’, asked Ben.
‘Get stuffed, I’m not that old! Anyway, I had my long floppy hair like always. It was even longer, covering my ears then, before I’d even plucked up the courage to get the back and sides cut short. When I’d just started juniors, a few of the lads in my class got buzz cuts and I quite liked them. I told mum and dad I’d had enough of my long hair and I wanted a buzz cut myself. I really did want one as well. They said OK and I was all ready for it. Me and dad used to get our hair cut at home in those days and we were due a cut in a couple of weeks. I counted the days off until it was the night he was coming and I was all psyched up ready to get a buzz cut. Only when the guy came and dad told him what I wanted, he said he couldn’t do it. His clippers had packed up at the last place he’d been. He thought he’d be OK with us as he never normally had to use clippers. I was so disappointed and I assumed I’d just have to get my usual haircut.’
‘What happened then?’, Ben asked.
‘Well as well as doing mobile in the evenings, the guy worked in a shop during the day. He said to dad that he’d give me a buzz cut no problem if dad could take me to the shop instead. So dad says to me "Is that what you want, James?" and I’m all enthusiastic, nodding my head and saying please, please, please and all that. He said OK then and he got his hair cut as normal. Then he went to a load of trouble to arrange to finish work early a couple of days later so he could take me to the shop. We got to the shop and . . .’ I paused.
‘Well, what was the problem?’
‘I don’t know what it was, if it was the unfamiliar shop or the big chairs or being around people I didn’t know instead of the usual home haircut, but I completely bottled it. Chickened out. I burst into tears and told dad I’d changed my mind and I was scared and please don’t make me get a buzz cut. And my dad, being such a lovely bloke as he is, even after all the trouble he’d gone to, just put his arm around my shoulders and said not to cry, it was fine and I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to. When it was my turn and the barber asked about a buzz, dad just said no, he’s decided not to after all and I just got a trim as usual. That was it, no more thinking about short hair. I did manage to get the back and sides cut a bit shorter eventually, but that was about it.’
‘And the moral of the story is?’ said Ben.
‘Well looking back now, I regret it. It’s funny what daft little things from your life you remember, isn’t it? I wonder if I’d gone through with it then I’d have been more confident in myself instead of being as shy as I was and carrying on hiding under my hair. When I said I’d changed my mind I really, really wish now that my dad had said no and that it was what I said I wanted and after all the trouble he’d gone to I was getting a buzz cut and that was it. And then I’d have got in the chair when the time came and got buzzed, no messing. But he’d never have done that that to me.’
‘So I’m guessing you won’t be copying me anytime soon then?’
I sighed again, a longer one this time. ‘Nah, sadly not. Like I say, I think I’d like to give it a go, even if it was only once, but there’s no chance I’d go through with it.’
‘Shame,’ replied Ben. ‘It’d be fun to do something like that together. You only live once, mate, do something crazy for once!’
‘Sorry, crazy’s not really me,’ I replied. ‘Dull and safe’s more my bag.’

Normal life resumed and it got to the last week of school. I was finishing on the Friday and we were all off to Thailand for two weeks on the Sunday. I thought it would be easier to get my hair cut one day that week after school, so I mentioned it to Ben. ‘No, you can’t,’ he said, slightly hurriedly, before continuing, ‘Sorry, I mean I can’t, I’m tied up this week, we’ll have to go on Saturday.’
‘Well I can still go after school,’ I said, ‘we don’t have to go together,’ although I admit I’d have been slightly disappointed to miss Ben getting skinned again if that was still what he intended.
‘I don’t want to go on my own, it’ll be dead boring,’ he replied.
I couldn’t understand why he was bothered, but I didn’t particularly mind so I didn’t put up a fight. ‘OK, Saturday it is then,’ I said. ‘You still getting balded again?’, I asked.
‘Sure am. Be perfect for tropical weather.’ Ben’s head had coloured up to match his face and neck so it didn’t stand out now. He also had about three weeks’ worth of stubble and it looked good. I felt a momentary pang of regret that I couldn’t bring myself to do the same as him.

School finished and I got the usual sense of euphoria at having a few weeks of freedom. I also had the holiday to look forward to, so it was all good and I was in high spirits. I had a bit of a lie-in on Saturday morning before having a quick breakfast and getting ready to go to the barbers with Ben. I realised when I was on my way out that my dad wasn’t around, so I asked my mum where he was. ‘He had to go into town for a few things,’ she said. ‘He said he’ll see you later.’
Ben and I made our way into town and chatted as we walked to the shop. ‘You getting anything different for the holiday?’, he asked me.
I’d been giving it a bit of thought and Ben had inspired me slightly so I replied ‘Maybe a bit shorter. I was thinking about going for a two instead of a three on the back and sides, but I haven’t decided yet, I’ll see.’
‘Daring,’ said Ben. ‘Go for it, push the boat out.’

Gary once again greeted us when we arrived, even though the shop was relatively busy, as it often was on Saturdays. ‘Hiya, lads, I’ll get the balders fired up for you in a bit,’ he said.
Ben seemed a bit disconcerted at that, which surprised me as I assumed he’d take the whole thing in his stride second time round. ‘What’s up?’, I asked him.
‘Nothing,’ he quickly replied. ‘Didn’t know I’d told him I was getting it done again, that’s all.’
We chatted for a bit, but after a while Ben seemed to get more and more preoccupied with his phone, which annoyed me a bit since it was him who’d wanted me to come along with him. I could have come myself during the week, as I’d wanted to do, and not had to wait so long. By the time we’d worked our way to the front of the queue for Gary and he was going to be next, he was completely engrossed and barely acknowledging anything I said to him, which made me even more cheesed off. I took my own phone out of my pocket and looked at the messages. As I was doing that a new message popped in and under sender, it just said ‘Dad’. I thought that was strange as he had no reason to text me and very rarely did as a rule and I was actually a bit worried, so I opened the message and read it:

Just because you can’t see somebody, it doesn’t mean they can’t hear you. Remember, walls (and even fences) have ears.

I was completely baffled. I had no idea what he was going on about. I was about to show the message to Ben when another arrived, again under ‘Dad’. I opened it and read:

I am the Genie of the Lamp and your wish is my command.

If I was baffled by the first one, I nearly fell off my chair when I read the second. ‘What the . . .’ I blurted out.
Ben was suddenly taking notice again and asked, ‘What’s wrong?’
‘I think my dad’s losing his marbles. Look at this!’
I was about to show him my phone when Gary called out, ‘Right, Ben, you’re up.’ Ben said nothing to me, didn’t even ask what I meant. He just smiled at me and walked over to sit in the chair. A few seconds later, the shop door opened and as I turned to look, I saw my dad walking in, holding his phone. I still hadn’t made the connection between my messages from dad and Ben’s keen interest in his phone and dad arriving at that exact time, but I was starting to get an uneasy feeling about something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on yet.
Gary had caped Ben up and was plugging the balding clippers in, but instead of facing the mirror, Ben was facing dad and me in the waiting area. In my confusion, all I could think to say was ‘What are you doing here, dad?’
‘I’ve come to do what I should have done years ago.’
‘I don’t understand . . .’
‘Well when you were talking to Ben after he had his hair shaved off, your mum and I were in our garden, so we heard every word you said about wishing you could bring yourself to get your hair cut like his and telling him about the buzz cut incident when you were a boy. So I had a word with Ben and we agreed I should come and make sure you do get the haircut you want this time, so that’s what’s happening. Watch carefully while Gary cuts Ben’s hair because when he’s finished, you’re going in that chair and getting exactly the same treatment, and no amount of begging and pleading is going to make me change my mind.’
My stomach jumped up in the air and it seemed like all the air had gone out of my lungs. I felt sick. I felt faint. ‘But . . .’, I stammered. The words would not come. ‘No, please don’t make me!’ I was almost gasping for breath. Finally, I managed to grasp an argument that I vaguely thought might get me somewhere. ‘Mum will go insane if I shave my head!’
‘No she won’t,’ replied dad calmly. ‘That’s not getting you out of anything, we both completely agree. Look, James, you’ve been on this earth for 17 years and you’ve barely given us a moment’s bother. You’re considerate, conscientious, everything we could ask for. If this is the wildest thing you ever want to do, we’ll settle for that. You said yourself you’d really like to do it, even if it was only a one-off, so for once in your life you’re going to do something a bit mad and to hell with it. You’re not leaving here today until you’ve had your head shaved, even if we have to hold you down. Although I hope that won’t be necessary.’
I looked at Ben. ‘So you’re in on this as well then?’, I said accusingly.
‘I’m only helping you get what you want, mate. That was why I couldn’t let you go after school last week. You couldn’t go back in with a shaved head could you?’
I looked at Gary and it suddenly struck me what he’d said when we arrived and how Ben had reacted. Looking back now, I could see Ben was worried he’d given the game away. ‘You too?’, I asked him.
‘Fraid so,’ he replied.
It dawned on me that I’d been completely had and my only course of action was to go with the flow. ‘Resistance is futile then,’ I said, before looking at Gary again. ‘You’d best crack on with my ex-best friend there. The sooner he’s done, the sooner I can get this over with. I slumped back in my chair, my head spinning with thoughts of what was to come. I was simultaneously excited and terrified, but mainly the latter.

I’d paid close attention to Ben’s last haircut, but I was in a daze now and hardly noticed that Gary had turned the chair around so Ben faced the mirror and started stripping the hair from the top of his head. When I snapped out of it briefly, I could see that about three quarters of Ben’s head was bald again as the few weeks’ growth fluttered down to the cape and the floor. I ran my hand through the hair on the top of my head. I’d left it a bit longer than usual between cuts, so it was long and thick and almost starting to tickle the top of my ears. I couldn’t imagine it all suddenly being gone. Gary was by now on to the process of carefully running the clippers over and over Ben’s head to make sure nothing had been left behind, so I knew it was nearly time. A couple of minutes later, the clippers went silent and he was brushing down Ben’s face and bald head and the cape was unfastened at the back. Gary removed the paper strip from round Ben’s neck and showed him the back of his head in the mirror and Ben nodded his approval. They may have been speaking as well, but I’d tuned out. Ben stood up and the chair was empty. It was waiting for me. Dad and Ben and Gary were all looking at me and perhaps wondering what I was going to do and it was Gary who broke the silence. ‘Come on then, James, let’s get you fixed up,’ he said with a little smile and a kindly tone in his voice. Dad put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a little squeeze of encouragement. I looked at him and he nodded his head. I stood up.

I felt so faint that my legs almost went from underneath me but I managed to get to the chair OK and sit down. Gary fastened the paper strip around my neck and then covered me with the red cape, fastening it at the back. I looked at myself in the mirror – my hair was dark brown, much darker than Ben’s, with the usual floppy top and fringe brushing my eyebrows. I became aware of Ben in front of me taking a photo on his phone and felt more panic rising inside me. I couldn’t stand being plastered all over Facebook like he’d done with himself. ‘No, Ben, please, I don’t want photos of this everywhere!’, I almost begged him.
‘No, I’m just taking one before and one after and I won’t put them anywhere, they’re just for you, I promise. You’re gonna have an awesome experience and you’ll want some pictures to remind you. Trust me, I know.’
He moved away and sat down and Gary was in front of me holding the big red clippers. ‘You remember what I said to Ben last time about no sudden movements?’, he asked.
I couldn’t speak. I nodded.
‘OK, so just go with the flow and you’ll be done in no time.’ He turned the clippers on and came towards me with them in one hand and a comb in the other. I took a deep breath. This was actually happening.

I don’t know if Gary was expecting any last second resistance or that I was going to try to jump up, but he didn’t mess about. He picked my fringe up in the middle with the comb, put the buzzing clippers at the hairline and started to move them slowly backwards. My hair was pretty long and thick and there was some resistance, but I could feel it being chewed away as a path was carved from front to back on the top of my head. Gary returned to the front and repeated the process and I was aware of how sharp the clipper blade felt as it slid across my scalp. There was now nothing at all in the middle of my head, just a strip of what looked like white skin between the thick dark hair on either side of it. The strip widened as Gary came again with the clippers and so it carried on for another few passes. Front to back. Front to back. The blade mowing a path through my hair. Eventually everything on the top had been removed and I was left with the comical looking bald head and long sides look that I’d found so funny when Ben had first had his cut. I wasn’t laughing this time though. Gary moved to my right and then the clippers were moving up the side of my head and over the top again to meet the shaved patch up there and after a few more passes as he moved towards the back, there was nothing left on the side and Gary was behind me. He didn’t say anything about putting my head down like he did to Ben, he just stuck his hand on the top of my head and moved it forwards and started to move the clippers up the back of my head. Gary’s hand was the first skin on skin contact I’d experienced on my head and it was almost chilling, it felt so strange. The blade was digging in as the clippers moved up and up the back of my head and over the crown and there was dark brown hair everywhere. The cape was thick with it so that there was now more brown than red on show and the floor was strewn with it. When Gary had done at the back, he moved my head up again and went round the other the other side to finish me off. Again he started at the front and worked backwards until all of the brown hair was gone and I got the first look at myself with no hair at all. I could hardly take it all in. Gary continued going over my head for a few more minutes until he was satisfied that he hadn’t left anything behind and there was nothing more to come off and then finally the clippers were silent. I was done and I was bald, shaved bare, clean. I felt so exposed after years of using my hair as a sort of defence mechanism and was very aware that I had nowhere to hide now. My head was brushed to get rid of the loose hairs (another amazing first-time sensory experience) and then Ben was back in front of me, taking another photo. I could feel my heart pounding, but I was calming down and as I looked at my new self, something else was creeping in. Happiness and almost a bit of pride. I’d righted the wrong from all those years ago and I’d done it. Not as I might have imagined, but I had done it.
Ben smiled at me tentatively. ‘Am I forgiven then?’, he ventured. ‘It does suit you as well, mate. Honest.’
‘Don’t know about that,’ I replied. ‘But I’ll admit I am pleased now that you made me do it. So yes, you are forgiven.’ I looked in the mirror and caught my dad’s eye. ‘You too, dad.’
‘Thank God for that,’ my dad replied. ‘The next two weeks would have been hard work if you’d been in a foul mood with me and Ben for the duration!’ Gary had taken the cape off now and as I stood up I ran my hand over my head for the first time. Just like Ben’s, I absolutely loved the feel of it. I turned round to face dad and Ben and dad went on. ‘I’d have said this anyway, however it looked, but Ben’s right, it suits you. In fact, I think you look great.’
I still wasn’t as convinced as the pair of them were, I hadn’t recovered from the shock and the intensity of what had gone on in the last hour or so and I almost felt physically drained, but I was glad to get some reassurance and was grateful to them for that even if they were lying. I went to my pocket to get my wallet to pay, but my dad stopped me. ‘Don’t worry about that, son, this one’s on me.’

I got away without seeing any of my friends before we left for Thailand the day after. My head coloured up to match the rest of me after a few days and a bit of stubble started growing. I also let the stubble go on my face – I was getting to the stage of having to shave two or three times a week to meet school’s clean shaven rule (another of their very particular appearance requirements), but since I was on holiday, I didn’t bother. As I became a bit more tanned, it occurred to me that I liked how I looked. My eyes stood out more, which wasn’t a bad thing and I began to think that maybe I wasn’t completely beyond hope in the looks department after all. I had this confirmed a couple of days before we came home, albeit from an unlikely source and in a way that made me want to curl up and die at the time. I was chatting to Sophie, Ben’s sister, who’d also come with us, when everyone else was off doing something or another. Sophie was lovely, but took Ben’s impetuous streak a step further and could be very direct at times and you never quite knew what she was going to come out with at any given moment. We’d been talking for a bit when she suddenly said to me ‘What about girlfriends then, would you not like to get yourself one?’
I was taken aback, but answered as honestly as I could. ‘Dunno, that would be nice, I suppose. Don’t think many girls would look twice at me though.’ I gave a little chuckle.
Sophie stared me straight in the face. ‘Oh, James, James, you are so sweet!’ She paused for a moment and looked like she was thinking before she carried on. ‘OK, I’m sure this is absolutely going to embarrass the hell out of you, but you need to hear it.’
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Where was this going?
‘I know a few girls who have looked at you a lot more than twice and like to keep looking if you know what I mean. And that was when you had that little boy haircut you saddled yourself with for all those years. You play rugby don’t you?’
‘For the school team, yes. Why, what’s that got to . . .’ She cut me off.
‘So you train?’
‘And go to the gym and stuff?’
‘A bit, but . . .’
‘All of which means that you’ve got a nice bod without going too far and being a meathead,’ she ploughed on. ‘I’ve been posting photos of us all since we’ve been here and I’ve had two or three messages all along the lines of "Is that James?! He’s so hot with that haircut!!"’ She actually made the quotation marks in the air for emphasis.
I think I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I blushed.
‘And on top of all that, you’re a really, genuinely, lovely guy. It’s sickening really. Get yourself out there into the wide world! I bet you could pretty much have your pick – they’ll be almost panting!’
Blushing did not begin to do justice to what I was doing now. I don’t think anyone in the world can ever have been as red as I was. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I tried to recover some composure and managed to say ‘Thanks. I think.’ After a few more seconds I was able to continue. ‘I appreciate you saying all that, but . . .’
‘Can we pretend this conversation never happened from now on? And not tell anybody about it? Ever?’
‘Don’t worry, James, your secret’s safe with me. But think about it. Life’s for living. Live it’

On our last night, Ben and I were enjoying a final beer together. Although we were both under age, Sophie was very helpful in helping us get hold of a bottle when possible and nobody minded as long as we didn’t get carried away and do anything stupid to draw attention to ourselves. ‘You know,’ I said to him, ‘I said you were forgiven for plotting to make me get my head shaved?’
‘Yeah, why?’
‘Well you’re not just forgiven. I need to say thank you. It sounds stupid, but I feel like a different person. I wish I’d done it years ago.’
‘Told you didn’t I? I’m really relieved you like it though’
‘I’m sorry I’ll have to grow it back for school really. At least I’ve got years of catching up with loads of different styles to try. But whatever style I end up with . . .’
‘When we both finish school next year . . .’ I paused to rub the couple of weeks’ growth on my head before I went on. ‘Whatever we’re doing, wherever we’re going, we’re both doing this again. And there’s no way you’re getting out of it this time. No arguments. Deal?’
‘Deal.’ Ben offered his beer bottle and I chinked mine against it. ‘Looking forward to it already, mate,’ he said.

As I lay in bed that night, I reflected on how much my feelings had changed in the last couple of weeks. I actually felt comfortable in my own skin for I think the first time in my life. It was amazing the effect one simple haircut had had. Sophie’s pep talk opening my eyes to the fact that I may actually be considered attractive by the opposite sex had only added to my growing confidence, once I’d got over the hideous embarrassment, obviously. When we got back to England and were queuing at passport control, I glanced down at my passport. The photo was just over a year old and showed a shy and slightly awkward looking lad with a mop of dark hair. The name on the passport indicated that the lad was James Edward Atkinson. My name. It had my date of birth on it was well, so I guess he must have been me. I knew inside though that the person coming back now was a different James, a new and improved model, one with the confidence to do other things, try new experiences. The possibilities were endless.

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