In the brief interludes when I am not asleep I have become acutely aware of my hair

It’s there, all over my head. I can feel it around and above my ears, like seaweed. It is both alien to me and intimate. At times I almost even like it. 

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Off to the surgery to get my blood tested. The appointment is at 10.40 in the morning, so I have to set my alarm. My sleep patterns have been disturbed lately, and 10.40am is squarely in mid-morning nap territory. I do not have enough time for a bath but my hair is particularly unruly today so I smooth it down with a comb and water. I contemplate using the hairspray left here by the flat’s previous incumbent and decide against it, on the grounds that I do not want to be known in the surgery as “that old man who came in smelling of hairspray”, like some version of Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach. Death in Brighton, anyone?

This turns out to be unwise, as it is blustery out there and my hair goes from passable to mad after about five paces. Oh well. At least I still have some. The Polish nurse’s hair is a lovely, rich auburn, and in a style reminiscent of Little Orphan Annie’s. As with anyone wearing a mask these days, I concentrate now on the eyes and hair. I have been surprised how much a mask adds in terms of allure. I don’t recall the nurse being particularly attractive before but now I am not sure if I have ever seen a woman so beautiful. Certainly not in the past two weeks. Actually, it may be no more than that this is the closest anyone has been to me since I hugged the couple from the flat upstairs. (It was their idea, honest.)

As I take my mask off after leaving the surgery the elastic breaks. Oh, great, I think, for they are not easy to find round here. But when will I be needing one next? As I write, it is two days before the pubs open, but I don’t think I’ll be going just yet. Certainly not before the hairdressers open. I have become aware of my hair even when I am not looking at it in a mirror: it’s there, all over my head. I can feel it around and above my ears, like seaweed. It is both alien to me and intimate. At times I almost even like it. 

The last time my hair was this long was when my girlfriend the Lacanian asked me to grow it; she also dressed me in Converse and told me to wear a T-shirt beneath my jacket, and it took me a while to realise she was doing this in order to make me look more like a certain kind of woman, one of whom she eventually left me for. Basically, this hair reminds me of a somewhat painful episode of my life.

Anyway, my blood. I don’t get the results until tomorrow, or, to put it into your time-frame, last Friday. I’ve asked for a test because I have essentially spent a month asleep. As a friend asked me, “Are you ill, or just depressed?” I can easily forgive that “ill” but I am not so sure about that “just”. There’s no “just” about depression. Another friend who is disgustingly full of good cheer and energy advises me to take various vitamin supplements. By “various”, I mean “about a hundred”. The advice rains down on me like rain drumming on a tin roof. It is like being in a Graham Greene novel.

In the end I give in and go to the chemist. Who knows, there may be something in it. The only two supplements I remember from the monsoon of advice are zinc and vitamin B, and they’re out of zinc. I remember the zinc-topped bars of Paris and entertain a brief reverie in which I lick the bar in order to become healthy. Perhaps it doesn’t work like that.

Later that evening, after taking my Numark Vitamin B Complex pill (“helps in the release of energy from food”) I find myself feeling unusually perky. The effect is not unlike a very mild kind of speed, and I stay up far too late; when I finally go to bed I feel as if my body is pulsing, in a subtle but pleasing way. Where have you been all my life, Numark Vitamin B Complex?

The next day I mention this to my friend S–, who has lately taken to sniping at me, perhaps out of boredom. I can entirely understand.

“That’s just the placebo effect. It’s all in the mind. It takes months for these supplements to work.” I reply in words to the effect of: if it’s all in the mind, then good for my mind. 

A few days later, and whatever effect Numark’s Vitamin B Complex may have had on me, it no longer continues to do so in such a thrilling way. But my desire to sleep for between 12 and 15 hours a day seems to have diminished. This is an improvement. Maybe I was, indeed, ill, instead of “just” depressed – plausible though depression is as a reaction to our situation. Everything has been making us feel a little bit worse about ourselves, from day to day; after a few months, this adds up. Like hair growing. Suddenly it’s everywhere. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation

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