I was in the bathroom one morning at the beginning of March, examining my face in the mirror and wondering maybe did I need a haircut. It’s important to be well-groomed when on the road with a book tour, a theatre show, or just doing hit-and-run appearances on various television programmes.
I had a gig in Thurles later in the week and I always feel I need to spruce up a bit when I’m going anywhere south of Portlaoise. It’s a defence mechanism I learned as a child when the airwaves were clogged with comedians telling jokes about Cavan. My father used to say that if Cavan people were a distinct ethnicity there would be a lot of entertainers in serious trouble.
So I always scrub up well before venturing out on to the highways and byways of Munster for public engagements. It’s not just that I’m trying to present a positive image of Cavan. But the older I get the more my appearance on stage requires maintenance in order to avoid frightening anyone.
“Long hair makes you look haggard and distasteful,” the General declared the night before the tour.
“If your hair is long people will mistake you for an old hippy, and think that you must have been lured down from the Leitrim hills with promises of lentil soup.”
“I’ll get it cut,” I assured him.
“But not too short,” he cautioned. “Short hair is another danger. At your age you might end up resembling a constipated pit bull terrier should your barber overexert himself with the scissors.”
He confessed that he had been to the bathroom three times the previous night. “You need to get that checked,” I suggested
It’s a wonder I have any self-confidence at all after an evening with the General. Although to be honest there are times when I sit in dressingrooms up and down the country before a show and wonder what madness in me would want to be on such a lonesome road at almost 70 years of age. Except for the fact that I love talking to strangers.
“Not too short and not too long,” I explained to Jamshid, the Kurdish barber in Carrick-on-Shannon; a cheerful master of comb and scissors to whom I often go for help.
[ Michael Harding: The cat was wailing like a banshee. We’d been watching The Last of Us ]
He moved his little machines across the top of my skull with lively confidence, clipping the thick hair with meticulous precision. Then he trimmed the eyebrows and ear lobes and in 30 minutes I was transformed.
Jamshid used a mirror behind me to display his workmanship and I declared myself well pleased.
Although even in the mirror all I could see was my father’s head. I grow into his image, like a flower growing this year into the same shape as last year’s bloom. I am my fathers’ ghost, returned for a season to grow and bloom and wither all over again; a clone of previous generations. It’s amazing to think that someone looking like me might have been wandering around Dublin in the 18th century looking for a haircut.
So as I waited backstage in Thurles it occurred to me that there is not much originality in any life. And even after the show, when I went for a pint with an old friend, it seemed that our conversation too was merely a variant on a timeless template.
We spoke of prostates and things that preoccupy men in their 60s. He admired my suit with a kind of dejected generosity. I tried to say something complimentary about his attire, although nothing came to mind.
He paused and then said, “Isn’t it great to see the long evenings?” And I knew that he had put a non-negotiable halt to any further discussion about his health
He confessed that he had been to the bathroom three times the previous night.
“You need to get that checked,” I suggested.
[ Michael Harding: Blindboy is maybe one of the most gifted writers of his generation ]
“The GP told me I need to see a urologist,” he said. And he pronounced the word urologist as if it were the punchline of an obscure joke.
“You must listen to your doctor,” I insisted.
“I don’t have health insurance,” he confessed.
“Well if you could just find €150 and go privately,” I ventured, “it might just be worth your while.”
He paused and then said, “Isn’t it great to see the long evenings?”
And I knew that he had put a non-negotiable halt to any further discussion about his health. He finished his pint in that firm silence which men use when they want to lock the door against the world; when they don’t want the world to know how frightened they are inside.
After Thurles I played Longford, then Waterford, and on Saturday night I’ll play Letterkenny. A lonesome road at 70, but I suppose there is great serenity in knowing that I’m not the only one on the journey.