I have been aboard my narrow boat, Miss Amelia, for nearly a month. I am safely moored, quite remotely tucked away in fact, somewhere on the Midlands canal system. I have stowed many of my belongings into the limited storage space I now have available and am beginning to organise things to my satisfaction. I do have rather a lot more ‘stuff’ in storage near at my previous home, which I cannot deal with due to the very unusual, and hopefully unique, situation we find ourselves in at present. One item I do not have to hand, however, is my beard trimmer! My facial growth is becoming distinctly unruly. Indeed, it was this, and the fact that I am currently compelled to spend a lot of time by myself, that led to the following contemplation.

Actually I am now eagerly awaiting a parcel, sent from my previous address. It contains items which I am increasingly finding, if not essential, certainly frustrating to be without. They include the charger for my camera batteries, my bluetooth headphones – and my beard trimmer.

I have sported a beard for many years, in fact right from the time I could be described as a young man. My facial growth has proceeded through several phases over that time, from completely natural (unkempt) to stylishly managed (regularly clipped and trimmed). Fairly recently, I was almost persuaded to radically re-fashion my image by shaving my beard off and having my hair cut, but managed to resist.

As I mentioned, my beard has had free rein since stepping aboard. I have executed (now there’s an apt word) a couple of trims just above the upper lip, in front of a mirror using kitchen scissors; this is akin to trimming a child’s fringe, the result is invariably crude and completely unprofessional. With regard to the moustache, which continues to increase in bulk and density, only the invasion of curling hairs advancing across the upper lip and into the mouth can be repelled. The only achievable result is an abrupt, uneven and slightly slanting ledge that can reasonably be compared to the eaves of a thatched cottage. Along with my moustache, the rest of my beard grows unchecked. I have reached the stage now of hairiness advancing towards the neckline of my t-shirts and sideburns which are beginning to tickle my ears. I can visually detect the bushy growth below my nose whenever I happen to glance down.

Why do I not have my beard trimmer – a grooming implement as basic and necessary as a hairbrush – with me? I don’t know – well actually I couldn’t find it and I thought I might soon return to gather more of my belongings either to store or sort out. Despite the present regime of social distancing and restricted travel, I have considered driving all the way from Warwickshire to West Sussex just to retrieve it, but feared I would be turned back half way down the M1 by a police officer who might not consider my journey essential!

But soon the weight of my beard will be shed and I will be able to look at myself in the mirror again without images of the Ancient Mariner or Rip Van Winkle springing to mind. And with that prospect on the near horizon, I have found myself contemplating why men grow beards at all. I have been fascinated by the recent fashion, particularly amongst young men, of growing beards and of grooming and styling them in a manner reminicent of Edwardian gentlemen. A whole array of clippers, brushes and lotions now accompanies the wearing of an acceptable and well-presented beard. I have to say that I do admire this rather distinguished hipster look. My beard-bearing was never motivated by a desire to achieve a certain fashionable look and I certainly could not devote more time than it takes to run a beard trimmer through my facial covering to tame its appearance and maintain its condition. This is an approach which is also apply to gardening – I simply run a flymo over the lawn, I was never one for the stripes!

What do we men think the beard will do for us? Do we perhaps consider that a beard enhances our sexuality and makes us more attractive to women? And indeed, are some gay men drawn to other men who have beards? Is it more masculine to sport a beard – ruggedness, physical strength, identifying with nature and naturalness? After all, many powerful wild animals are very hairy. And men journeying across wild terrain, for reasons of exploration, the prowess of fame and recognition or simply daring adventure, not only display bravado and resilience, but after just a few days, beards.

Or perhaps it is all to do with status. Beards are often thought to indicate maturity and wisdom. Are not tribal elders often depicted with long grey beards of considerable bushiness – well, established beards at least? And to realise the importance of beards in human society, we only need to look back to images of prominent Victorian politicians, artists, philanthropists and royalty…

This is surely not just down to the fashions of the times. Could there be a deeper, sub-conscious, class-conscious – even genetic or evolutionary – motivation that compels men to grow beards?

With regard to my life with a beard, I cannot say that I am remotely aware of anything more significant than a desire to not shave. Maybe that is the real male motivation for allowing facial hair to sprout – simple laziness. I know modern, electric shavers are the absolute epitome of speed and convenience, but they do not achieve the chinly perfection that fastidious clean-shaven men seem to demand. It can take as much endeavour and attention to detail maintaining a chiselled, clean cut image as it does to cultivate a elegant, well-manicured beard. But there we have two extremes, most men are content to cruise casually down the middle of the road. And that definitely goes for me!

Moving from considerations noble to those more ignoble, there is another side of the coin. Do beards enable men to hide, to cover up, to withdraw and avoid displaying their real identities? Or possibly beards are a cunning disguise and we should rightfully be accused of wilful deceit. Status – wisdom – masculinity – it is all pretence, mere bluff. In fact it may be a world wide conspiracy blatantly, but covertly, practised by all men everywhere. What is certain though, just as your clothes, hair style, hobbies and interests – and of course your car – indicate much about your character and personality, so does your choice of being clean shaven or allowing nature to takes its course. People do make assumptions about bearded men, as they do about those without. A beard is not something that you can keep private and to yourself, and whether you have one, or not, may be a requirement of the social or religious group you identify with, or it may be quite sub-conscious and not something you have ever taken the time to think about.

Last, but my no means least, and in the interests of equality and fairness, we should carefully consider the female perspective on beards. However, as a man, I am not qualified to comment in this area without risking justifiable criticism and backlash. Suffice it to say that any body hair is a most alien and undesirable personal physical attribute for most women, though many do find it attractive and beguiling upon men.

Of course, older members of the feminine fraternity may eventually have to come to terms with unwelcome facial hair growth. This still invites a degree of repulsion and carries a certain stigma, particularly amongst very young children who innocently and quite unabashfully study the facial features of their Grandmas in great detail. Thankfully repulsive to us, Victorian freak shows drew crowds of the curious, and often gullible, to peer and gawp at bearded ladies, along with giants, dwarfs, conjoined twins – and even mermaids!

But that could lead us on to any entirely different subject, and not having time to delve into further complexities of male and female psychologies, preferences and behaviours, and they are genuinely fascinating and worth exploring, I am going to check the post. Actually I am expecting a parcel…

PS – What is your take on this? Comments invited from the bearded and the beardless, beard fans and those who absolutely abhor them.

PPS – if you are interested in further contemplation, here are a couple of internet reference that I found very interesting and informative;

Why Women Prefer Men With Beards, According To Science
By Kristen Sollee – November 17, 2017

Your Beard Is Saying a Lot More Than You Think
blogger Luke O’Neils’ 2016 interview with Christopher Oldstone-Moore, author, Of Beards and Men

Sat Nav

“I know, Sarah, I’d love to come and visit… it’s just that it’s such a long drive… well it’s not that so much, I’m getting a bit forgetful, not sure I can remember the way! Sorry…? line’s a bit crackly. Well yes, it would be good to get away… I know, but driving on my own…. When Sheila… when we could travel together, well, your Mother would remind me where I was going… yes… map spread out across her knees. She knew the way pretty well of course, but she’d often take a different route, just for a change. Well I can hardly read a map and drive….. Yes I’m alright I suppose, coming to terms as they say. It was… yes…. sudden; feeling unwell, diagnosis, how can something like that be growing in a human body for so long – then it’s too late. Those three months…. complete blur – doctor’s visits; hospital appointments; friends coming round; thinking back over our years together… long, happy years. And these past three months, pretty quiet, empty… I know you can’t come… no, I appreciate that, it’s fine… David away with work, Robbie and Debs at school…..”

Three days later the package arrived. Sarah said she would fix it for me, the travelling, getting my directions right. She had sent a SatNav… Underneath the plastic wrapping, the box displayed a view from a car’s windscreen; the open road, mirrored exactly on a little screen which seemed to be suspended just above the dashboard to the right of the steering wheel.

I opened the box and retrieved the instructions before daring to inspect the contents. Reading glasses donned, I studied the tiny print thoroughly; then, when I felt I was adequately prepared, examined the device itself. It was about the size of a smart phone, just a screen with buttons along the two short edges; exactly as depicted on the box, but completely blank.

I surprised myself with the ease I fitted it into my car. Suckered securely to the windscreen, the lead inserted into the cigarette lighter socket, my SatNav came to life.

Sarah phoned that evening to offer guidance. She was impressed – surprised! I had already entered my location as ‘Home’ and her postcode as ‘Destination’. I felt I was ready to set off, so it was agreed that I should start the very next morning.

“In a quarter of a mile, at the next junction, turn right onto High Street, A435.” I really didn’t need directions for getting out of town and onto the dual carriageway heading north! She – it – had a pleasant voice, quite natural sounding really, slight American twang perhaps, very clear diction, although I wasn’t sure about the pronunciation of Bill An Ham Road (Bilenham Road).

About ten miles into my journey, something quite unexpected happened. I thought the SatNav would direct me onto the A48, but about half a mile before that junction, “In 500 yards turn left onto Leavesdon Lane, B4416,” followed shortly by, “Just here, look, turn left.” That seemed rather out of character – for a SatNav! And the voice – altogether more familiar-sounding. “It’s only a narrow lane, but it looks rather interesting and might be slightly quicker – don’t you think George?”

Leavesdon Lane gently meandered between tall leafy hedges. I glanced up at the narrow strip of grey sky above. The voice was commenting again, “Looks like rain to me, but at least on this road we won’t get spray from all those beastly lorries. There are so many of them nowadays, and they go so fast.”

I could not bring myself to glance to my left, I needed to concentrate on the narrow road ahead, that’s what I told myself, well anything could be driving towards us and there weren’t too many places wide enough for vehicles to pass. “In a little while we need to turn right, towards Emstead. Probably just round this corner.”

The road forked, I followed the Emstead sign, “Sheila, have we been this way before?” I turned my head. The passenger seat, of course, was vacant, what did I expect?

We journeyed on, crossing main roads, pottering through picturesque villages, climbing steep hills and admiring dramatic views as we descended. The directions were clear, given in good time, as they always were, accompanied by observations about the warmth of the weather for the time of year, the suitability of Sarah’s new husband and wasn’t it a shame she had moved so far away, the jobs that needed attending to in the garden, shouldn’t we think about changing the car now we were having to do longer journeys?

Soothing, comforting words flowed gently over me. The recent months of torment melted away, I slipped back into bygone years. Our conversation was familiar, predictable – simply wonderful. I fancied I saw a postman cycling on his afternoon delivery; a red, open-top tractor raking hay in a field; empty milk bottles on a cottage doorstep; a bowler-hatted gentleman in a pin-stripe suit walking briskly from the railway station. We drove on, contentedly.

“In half a mile, at the junction, turn right onto Bramdean Road, A63. You are on the fastest route and should reach your destination in forty minutes.”

And so I did, ringing the doorbell at the exact moment it was flung open by two excited, chattering youngsters. I stumbled through to the kitchen to receive a loving hug and a welcome cup of tea. Car still going alright then? Good journey? Much traffic? How was the SatNav?

Comfortably installed on the sofa, Robbie and Debs cuddled up on either side, I gave a brief, though perhaps not entirely accurate, account of my journey, concluding, “Now, don’t take this the wrong way, it’s so lovely to be here and I’m not in any hurry to leave… but I am looking forward to the drive home. That Sat Nav you bought for me is very useful. Well, it’s more than that, it’s reassuring, keeps me company so to speak…. It is amazing what technology can do these days!”

Winner of MADhurst short story competition a couple of years ago

© Steve Redshaw ~ February 2020

Alice’s Dream

Alice shuffled painfully across to the window and drew back the grubby lace curtain. Her 2nd floor flat, her perch as she liked to call it, overlooked the residents’ car park, and a little further on, the playground. The sun was trying to penetrate the thin grey cloud, but could only manage a pale, watery version of its true self. All things fade, she thought. That’s what I’m doing up here, slowly fading away. She wondered which would deteriorate and crumble away first, her body, or the wheel-less, once-white estate car dumped in the corner of the car park; long abandoned, continuously vandalised, rusting away, slowly, surely, steadily. All things fade…

At least her eyesight remained keen and sharp, and the one pleasure she could still partake of was watching the children in the playground, rushing from swings to roundabout, clambering up the witch’s hat, dangling from the monkey bars. She heard them squealing with delight, loudly demanding mums, dads, grannies, child-minders to look their way and acknowledge their bravado. She liked to watch the children, so carefree, so active, so alive. She also kept an eye on the adults, calling encouragements or warnings to their offspring, and then chatting and passing the time of day with one another.

And always, within in a short while, Alice drifted back to her time as a young mother, proudly walking out with her twin boys, not that there were such adventurous places as playgrounds to visit when her boys were youngsters. But she would stride out with the double pushchair, to the shops, along the canal towpath, past the field with the horses… and now, many years hence, in far off corners of the world, her boys had boys of their own now. Sometimes she tried to imagine them out and about, laughing, playing – perhaps in a playground like the one she watched over from her window.

And when her mind wandered, as it invariably did, she would let the lace curtain drop, turn and shuffle back to her armchair and retreat into her memories of those long, lost years, where treasured recollections and bittersweet thoughts were her only refuge. Before too long she would sink into a fitful, self-pitying sleep; alone, isolated, supported and sustained within the confines of her threadbare chair.

Today though, all she could see was a huge advertising billboard, fastened to the playground’s sturdy, green railings. It was not there when she last peered out from her perch; yesterday, or was it the day before that? Well that wasn’t going to fade away any time soon. She could see nothing of the playground – swings, slides, climbing frame, see-saw, all completely hidden from view. The obtrusive billboard loudly declared NEVER BE AFRAID TO REINVENT YOURSELF. Below this was a rough outline sketch of a human figure which looked as though it had been left half finished. To the right, a dinosaur, wearing a brightly coloured crash helmet, was leaping out of the advertisement. It could have been a dragon though, thought Alice, it had wings and a forked tail. Anyway, the whole thing looked ridiculous! What on earth was it all about? And what was it doing there? Who gave permission for it to be put up? Reinvent yourself – what do they think we are, robots, machines, computers? What is the world coming to? Alice remembered her recent hospital appointment. The young doctor wanted to put artificial bits into her, replace one of her hips. The doctor said that would get her mobile again, free her from pain. No thank you. Nobody’s meddling with my body. I’ll make do with what the Good Lord gave me.

Alice was surprised by how angry and frustrated she felt. Her one glimpse of the outside world, her one pleasure in life, hidden from view, denied to her. She let the curtain fall, turned away and shuffled back to her armchair. As she slumped down, she sighed deeply. She wondered how many children were scrabbling, sliding, swinging and squealing in the playground today – behind the billboard. And how many adults were watching over their sons, daughters, grandchildren? And what could she do about the blocked view? Nothing. One lonely old lady, painfully fading away in her 2nd floor flat. Deflated and demoralised, Alice drifted into sleep.

And as she slept, Alice dreamed. She was gazing out of her window, it was night-time and the billboard was glowing. The dragon’s head was swaying from side to side and it was wildly thrashing its tail. The human figure outline had been coloured in and resembled an elderly, but sprightly lady. This figure jumped right off the billboard and walked to the entrance of the playground. It pushed open the gate and stood on the path inside, gazing towards the play equipment, which of course was still hidden from Alice’s view. The figure then disappeared behind the billboard. That’s where the benches were, for the adults to sit, while they watched their children play and chatted together. And now the words were lighting up, pulsating one by one – NEVER (a fiery red), BE (grass green), AFRAID (vivid orange), TO (turquoise), REINVENT (sky blue), YOURSELF (as golden as the summer sun). As the final word faded, the first was illuminated again. Over and over the message played. Alice could not recall how many times she saw it repeated by the time she awoke.

It was morning, Alice had dozed off in the afternoon and slept right through the night in her armchair, and very surprisingly, felt completely refreshed. The sun was shining upon the car park from a cloudless sky. She stood up, slowly, carefully, crossed the room to her tiny kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. She rummaged through one of the drawers and fetched out her address book. As soon as she had finished her cuppa, she was going to phone up that nice doctor at the hospital.

Steve Redshaw ~ 31st December 2019