Ian McMillan: Cometh the hair, cometh the tears

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When I creaked into adolescence, all those decades ago, two things happened. First, my voice broke like a dropped bowl and when I spoke I sounded alternatively like a corncrake and somebody scraping their sharp fingernails down a blackboard. Passing sheepdogs were alerted and passenger planes were in danger of being diverted to nearby airports because their radar was disrupted by my voice. At least all the other lads in the class were going through the same torture, so when we talked to each other in the schoolyard at dinnertime, it sounded like a convention of seagulls with sore throats was in town and the class choir’s rendition of innocent carols like O Come All Ye Faithful took on a gothic, nightmarish tinge.

The other thing that happened when “this new phase of life” (as my Sunday School teacher called it) struck seemed to be uniquely mine: a single hair sprouted from my chest, apparently overnight, and lay there like a hosepipe. When I first saw it in the mirror I recoiled, thinking an insect had crawled into my bed and died but then, once I realised what it was, I became proud of it. It was my own torso-based fascinator, a symbol of the man I was to become. I’d read about what was meant to happen to you as you grew up and I knew that hairs would sprout on your body; mind you, I was expecting more than one, to be honest. Still: it was long.

The next day at school I artfully arranged the hair so that it poked out of my school shirt and peeped round my tie. Nobody noticed to start with but then somebody said “tha’s got a rubber band stuck next to thi second button” I went scarlet, as I did every time somebody spoke to me in those days, although it didn’t matter because all the boys in the class went red every time they spoke to anybody or anybody spoke to them. It must have been like teaching a crop of beef tomatoes in blazers.

I proudly and gently pulled on the single hair to show him it wasn’t a rubber band, it was a symbol of growing maturity. Word spread like croaky wildfire and at break people queued up to look at the hair. I could be wrong, but it felt like their attention flattered it and it grew even longer. Over the next few days I became a bit like a three-headed man in a freak show. My single hair resembled a rare and valuable exhibit in a museum. I gave it a name. I called it, for no real reason, Norman. Norman the Chest Hair. I toyed with the idea of writing a novelty song about that would take what we still called “The Charts” by storm. Then, one dinnertime, a phalanx of big lads approached. They were from a school year way, way above mine. They’d gone further down the “bodily changes” tunnel than us little ’uns and indeed several of them sported vast bushy Noddy Holder sideburns that were, amazingly, considered to be cool in those days. Their leader, a bulky kid who looked about 36 years old, came straight to the point. “Show us thi chest hair, kid” he said in a voice that was so deep it rattled the windows. I went pillarbox red and pulled my tie aside. My hair seemed to shrink under his gaze. He leaned over and plucked it out and threw it on the floor. It only hurt a little bit. So why was I crying?