On Monday we were waiting for Emmanuel Macron to appear on the television and deliver a speech. There was another forty-five minutes to go but everyone in the house had gathered on the fringes of the living room, occasionally eyeing the television as if it would suddenly burst into life of it’s own accord.
My boyfriend, sitting on the carpet, was humming the national anthem to himself. I’m not sure if he even knew he was doing it. His friend sat upright on the sofa, one finger on the screen of his phone, scrolling through item after item of news. I was surprised to find that I could pick out the vibration of my own phone, left upstairs on a yoga mat, it’s messages carrying speculation of what was to come. I had left it there precisely because of the speculation: you can tolerate it only so long before you feel the need to be nourished by facts.
I was standing in the door, also keeping an eye trained on the television. I wasn’t too scared to sit down but not quite ready for it either: I suppose the feeling reminded me of strapping yourself in for a roller-coaster, but too soon, before the assistant has come around to say it’s necessary to do so and pull the metal bar down over your head or give your straps a customary tug. Premature. It felt premature to sit down that early.
My mother-in-law had the television going in her own room. The great thing about not being fluent in French is that I can easily decide to switch off from it. I found I could convince myself not to isolate words or phrases in order to process and understand them; in fact I could convince myself that I didn’t understand any of the words coming out of that room at all. But I would understand Macron because that felt necessary. Eight o’clock had become a fixed point on the horizon against which I would know how to manage and balance the emotions that had been threatening to overwhelm for the past number of days.
It was also the focus of a sort of pact that I had made with myself some minutes earlier. A pact that I had determined I would do at some point in my life but had, up until that point, been left out to drift in a sea of excuses.
I reiterated what I had said earlier in the day, to everyone present in the living room: if Macron puts us in lockdown, I’ll do it, I’ll shave my head.
Lockdown was what we expected and what happened. The fact that, minutes after he finished delivering his ‘nous sommes en guerre’ speech, I went to the bathroom and asked my boyfriend to take a clippers to my head, was not. Every time I look into my mother-in-law’s eyes I register the shock that I have done it and I can’t help but wonder what her impression of me was before, and whether I have shattered it or muddied it by taking this step.
I didn’t cry when it was all coming off: I have short hair anyway so it wasn’t the leap that many people take. I felt relatively calm once the initial sweep across my head had come away and revealed a thick wad of hair clumped together in the grips of the clippers. I did wonder momentarily if the clippers would be up to it. I never doubted that I would be.
It took fifteen minutes. My boyfriend stepped out to give me a moment but couldn’t resist sticking his head back through the door to say: you look beautiful. I hadn’t done it for that reaction that but it was nice to hear nevertheless. I appreciated that he had not only been supportive of the idea but also involved: in fact there have a great many times when he has looked disappointed when I’ve returned from the hairdressers, knowing that I’d let fear get the better of me.
I assumed that I had finally done it because of the security blanket that confinement offers. Nobody would see me and if I looked bad then I would be able to do something about that before having to return to school in person.
This morning however I have woken up wondering if it was not more about helplessness, about control than anything else. We are all in uncharted waters, separated from friends, family and colleagues, by something invisible. When I wake up to the sounds of children in a garden nearby, their voices usually masked by passing traffic or hidden inside school buildings; see trees coming into bloom at the bottom of the garden, trailing over the neighbour’s back wall; leave the porch door open because there is a little warmth to the wind now, and a little sun; all of it leaves me scrambling how to reconcile such signs of continuation and of the future with the virus that seems to be at odds with all of that.
Perhaps my shaved head represents a feeble attempt to control what is left to control, with most other aspects of my life taken away from me or temporarily changed. In doing this I have reclaimed the ability to overcome a fear and to face myself in the mirror knowing that I am stronger as a result. I can’t do that with a virus.
Maybe it is nothing more than perfect timing but even that makes me smile. This morning I happened upon a quote in this article: circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.
In this case, to herself, and yes it is quite, remarkably, revealing.