Colour Amongst Grey

Sam Heslop-George

I had my haircut today. I went straight there following two hour-long back-to-back Chemistry seminars. I don’t know what it is about seminars, but I hated them: relaxed conversing did not exist; in their place stretches of silence, punctuated only by tense, spluttered reproductions of textbooks. I resented what I became in them. As the conversation dried up, so did my mouth as I, Reuben Jacob Timms, made a cowardly impersonation of a mute. I would sit there, right answers resounding in my head but left unspoken, as about me idiots battled about trivialities. After two uptight, resentful hours, my self-loathing was at an all-time high.

It was a decent cut, but the woman on duty seemed to think she was being paid according to how much discomfort she managed to cause me. Honestly, the way she went about with her razor conjured images of school, studying the American West. She was trying to scalp me. Another thing I wasn’t particularly appreciative of: the way in which beside each mirror, they have a television set that shoved a shite show like Jeremy Kyle down your throat. There’s already enough hate in this world; we don’t need to consume more each time we go to get our hair cut.

I always feel better once I’ve cut my hair. New hair, new me. I went outside and the world seemed brighter and better. As I walked, I glanced at my reflection in shop windows, checking out my gleaming reflection. Oh, how my mood swings! It being just an hour until my last lecture, I really should have stayed out and gone to the library or something. But my stomach growled, my scalp itched and I wanted to show off my new cut to whoever was back at the flat, so I skipped back.

Although it does give me a lift sometimes, when I see myself looking sharp, it is stupid – not to mention tiresome – the amount of time I spend on my appearance: washing face, gelling hair, staying toned by following a ridiculous room routine of sit ups and press ups. We live in a world of hyper scrutiny; scrutiny of presentation, the aesthetics. The sound of a voice, the curve of an eyebrow, the whiteness of teeth. Honestly, sometimes I just wish I could be judged by what I said, how I acted. I know that this is just not feasible. It has been said that a person’s judgement on another takes seven seconds; I would argue far less. Persona is Latin for mask; others judge literally by the quality of the mask being worn. It is impossible to rule yourself out of such an inherent, universal process. You have to take part. You have to put yourself out there, make the effort, however tedious. So, on goes the hair gel.

People judge on appearance. In addition, people judge on experience from years previous. That was the problem with my home town. People would keep regaling me with stories about that time a few years ago where I drank half a bottle of tequila and threw up in a tent, or some other such incident. There was never anyone new to meet. The town was too small.  Everyone of your age that you met held you to preconceptions, judged you by hearsay. Finding new people who saw as you now were, rather than what your distant relative of past-self had been. That was one of the major draws of university; of upping sticks and leaving all behind.

Originally I was going to take English Lit. Novels interest me. Essays don’t faze me. It was seemingly a match made in heaven. However, after months of deliberation, the perversity of the subject had slowly occurred to me: multiple generations of English Literature students licking the shoes of Shakespeare, kissing the arse of Eliot. Why this love-in with tradition? Would someone studying medicine read up on medieval trepanning?

Instead I opted for Chemistry. I felt it to be an exciting subject, one of progress, expansion. Judging by the lectures so far, it had proved to be a sound call. In fact, I thought as I towelled my hair dry, I would have enjoyed doing some reading up on the notes I had garnered so far; alas, I had to attend an Entrepreneurship (my minor subject) lecture. In fact, how long until it started? I checked my phone as I put away my towel – less than ten minutes.

I ran. Past throngs of chattering Chinese students, all bright eyed and bushy tailed. Past staggering zombies, still somehow inebriated from the previous night’s endeavours. Up steps and past market stalls I ran, focusing upon foot strike, maintaining the pleasant sensation of the balls of my feet tap-tapping briskly over concrete.

There it is, at the end of the cobbled courtyard: the location of my Entrepreneurship lecture. Whilst I had been back at the flat, the day had darkened. Clouds covered the sky and most people walked or waited with their heads to the ground. It was a dreary weekday. Yet somehow the gathered crowd of entrepreneurs managed to appear that bit more listless than everybody else.

I scanned across faces, and caught the one I sought; that of Jenny. A girl able to brighten up many a dim Tuesday. That feeling I get following a haircut, when I go outside and appreciate the world for what it is, look up to the bright blue sky and elevate myself from the rat race: I supposed that was how she felt all the time.

She was beautiful.

On my bedroom wall back home lie three orange marks, bearing uncanny resemblance to a fish. I don’t know how they got there, these three smudges, somehow falling into pattern – they are a majestic coincidence. Like her. She was colour amongst grey. She makes me think that even after everything – after mistakes are made and things seem lost – unnatural, serendipitous beauty can overcome strife. She makes me think that everything may just be alright.

I look at her now. Bright eyes blazing. The soft furrows of her brow pulled together in consternation, hard in thought. Her small hands gripped around immaculately written notes. I had rushed here so that I could see her before the lecture, say hi and take a seat beside her. Now that I was here, looking at her, my resolve had vanished. Would she even remember me? We had talked only twice. There’s something both frustrating and promising about liking a girl and not acting upon it. By not going for it and putting your neck on the line, a Schrödinger-like nature is maintained.

Shit. The hands were moving. She was waving me over.

I waded through mellowness to reach her. A sizeable crowd: they had been waiting a while. Our lecturer, a man so apathetic I actually questioned his existence, was once again late. I needn’t have run.

“So boys and girls,” our lecturer had boomed at expectant faces on the first of these Tuesday mornings. “You want to learn entrepreneurship do you? Well, I’ve got news for you – you can’t. It’s a state of mind. You either have it, or you don’t.”

What followed was a long period of uncomfortable silence, as our lecturer rolled his beady eyes about the auditorium, and those assembled stared back, blank or quizzical. Who would break the silence? It was a game of chicken (our lecturer certainly looked like one as he stood beside his desk with hands behind back and head jutting forwards).

“So anyway,” he resumed, his manner suggesting he was unaware that, just moments before, he’d been engaged in a two minute stare-off with over a hundred people.  “I’m Dan Hoggmascall. I’ll be your lecturer for the next year.” He paused as if to let us take in the vital information he had just imparted. Then he violently scrawled his name across the board, before, inexplicably, pausing again to watch us take non-existent notes.

“Can anyone tell me what entrepreneurship means?” he enquired finally, thunderously, froth forming at the mouth.

Naïve hands went up, eager to sate this madman.

“You there! Go!” he pointed vigorously at a bespectacled boy four rows from the front.

“The process of starting and developing a business model,” the boy intoned primly.

“Wrong!” Mr Hoggmascall (or the “Hog” as he was later to be known as) screamed, hurling a board rubber, missing the boy by several metres and sending a cup of coffee cascading across several girls’ notebooks. He pretended not to notice.

“Unfortunately for all you bloody bookworms in the audience, entrepreneurship is indefinable,” he sneered at us, smug, as if just having unveiled a solution to the Middle-East conflict. He spent the rest of the lecture reading passages out of Alan Sugar’s autobiography.

Strangely, I thought as I came towards her, thoughts of Alan Sugar had occupied my mind the first time I had seen Jenny. Okay, I’ll admit that sounds rather odd. I’ll explain.

It was the Monday of the first week of lectures. Lectures over, I had attended a socialist society meeting, where we extolled the advantages of a planned economy as opposed to our current haphazard, Darwinian one. Following this, I had joined in with my housemates in watching two hours’ worth of The Apprentice: essentially a show that ridicules weakness and celebrates brute force in the market place. English literature students kiss the arse of Eliot, but this is nothing in comparison to some of these candidates brownnosing behaviour around Lord Alan Michael Sugar. His Highness.

Socialism followed by Alan Sugar style capitalism. Having this eclectic mix of perspectives and ideologies rattling about my head, I stepped out of the flat to pick up some milk. As I walked the gentle few yards to the corner shop, I saw a girl walking by herself. She had not any headphones in her ears and was not studying a phone; rather, she was looking about her as she came to the crest of the hill, seemingly intrigued and impressed by her surroundings. She had on a bright blue jumper and walked with a gait that catwalk models could only ever dream of impersonating.

This unknown girl fascinated me. I thought about going out of character and striking up a conversation out of the blue, but she was gone, past me, before I could gather my thoughts. Ah well, I thought. Perhaps I was simply overstating her impact. Perhaps I was still giddy from the heady mix of socialism and Sugar.

The subsequent day was the day of the first entrepreneurship lecture and, astoundingly, there she was. I spotted her as I entered the courtyard. She was perched upon a bench. The wind was up that day and sweeping up everyone’s hair; yet she remained intact, unflustered. I managed to engineer a seat next to her in the hall, and as the lecture came to its unsatisfactory end, I had introduced myself. We had laughed afterwards about the Hog and all his glory, and it had turned out that one of the girls who had received the hot dosing of coffee was a flatmate of Jenny’s. She had giggled about how much her friend would be ranting tonight.

I thought back to that first lecture. Although he is a dick, the Hog did raise (probably inadvertently) some interesting points. One being, can anything be taught? Sure, we can be given the facts, instructions and guidance to remember, so that we know how to ice a cake, ride a bike. But to learn how to master a craft, to become a baker, a writer; does this not come from the person themselves?

Perhaps you don’t want to become what you are taught. You take history, attain sparse knowledge of the Russian Revolution, and make some friends in the meantime. In the barbers, I had overheard a guy express just this sentiment about his university life.

Is this really justifiable? Is this a good state for us to be in, I found myself asking, our “honourable institutions” turning into factories of mediocrity, churning out thousands upon thousands of a prototype, a vessel that contains some knowledge but little understanding of their area of expertise?

But what else was there for young people to do? Where else was there to go? This was 2014 Britain. There were no jobs. No living left in the world. Our only option left was to chase amongst drabness: our subfusc universities with their newly-trebled tuitions remained enticing in this black world of Conservative creation. The grey years of the coalition government were in full swing. Chavs were baited, immigrants hated. Benefits? Downright slated. Questioning this discourse was as much use as trying to reason with the Hog.

Our Prime Minister made a proclamation a few weeks ago that we live in a “big society”; but from what I can tell we no longer live in a society at all. Fear, of foreigners, of benefit claimants, of being mugged, of debt, of redundancy, of terrorists; fear has desiccated our communities, our sense of spirit. We are now but scared, individual orbs. I often look about my flat, the small space eight of us inhabit, and think that we, the cobbled, shackled together, are the last bastions of a community now long lost in our world.

But we’re not. Not really. We look out only for ourselves. The notion of the selfless, of washing someone else’s dishes, is objectionable, absurd. Where’s the reward, we think. How will they even know it was us who washed them? They have to know it was us, we must be credited. Instead we wash our own dishes, study in our own rooms, live in ourselves.

Maybe instead of scouring the details of Lenin’s diary, we could learn to live, to love.

“Reuben, are you coming?”

I blinked. It was Jenny. I had, again, zoned out, I slowly grasped as I looked about me at the empty cobbled courtyard.

“Come on you,” she laughed, brushing my shoulder lightly, coy smile upon face. “Why so gloomy? You get to sit next to me for a whole hour!”

Then she turned. Broke into a light trot as the last of the crowd filtered into the hall. Lush brown hair streaked behind her, as she ran further, further from me.

I gave the grim courtyard one final glance before following this beautiful girl into the confines of the lecture hall.

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