Twin Topiary Tales (of male grooming)


He depressed the rocker switch. The purring susurration started up. The hair clippers weren’t in his hand though. It was too soon for that.

Apprehension of the incipient thrum always set his mind a throb. So he was customarily compelled to leave them on the floor, while he modulated his own quickening pulse.

Yet the welter of tension was perennially italicised for him.

The metal tines were palpating the slip-on plastic ones of the number 1 cut. Like a humming bird’s wings, the metal couldn’t be seen moving. Only the clumsy lurches of the thicker prongs cresting them.

The electric cable was twitching with pent up flux.

The body of the clippers, where the electric motor was housed, was percussing  the pile of the carpet like a bull pawing the ground before a charge. And in turn the carpet was revving up the undercarriage, bearing it atop the tips of its fibres, like worker ants.

The tipping point, when friction’s stranglehold is overcome, sees the cable snake and flare like a cracked bullwhip and wrenches the clippers on to their side. The timbre of the tines changes, more like an angry hive now. He picks up the trimmed shears.

His breathing hastens. No matter how much he composes and prepares, he cannot override the electrical trigger in his brain. Something to do with the resonance of physical memory. It remembers amplitudes of current. Any electrical device serves for jump leads to accelerate his heart.

He crouches there, holding the clippers in the palm of his hand, unbuttressed by any curled over fingers. He has to stay as even as possible, until he brings down the stroke of his respiration once again. The clippers oscillating against the skin of his hand. Bench pressing his flesh. He’s aligning for their periodicity, so he can fall in behind their metronomic beat. The problem being his touch centres are calibrating one frequency, while his ears are secondary reporting with a fractional lag.

Finally he takes the plunge and brings the snapping piranha teeth to the sheath of his head. He has no need for a mirror, since his free hand pats down for the braille glyphs beneath. The sunken foundations of Inca temples buried beneath hair vines and knotted canopy.

The clippers carry on the deforestation apace. Threshing a bristly stubble over the entirety of his furrowed brow. Harvesting secrets.

The hand runs over the contours of his cranium. Phrenology of the self. His fingers came away smeared with the follicle cull.

Phase one complete, he extinguishes the clippers and rips the plastic gradation accessory from its prow. He rubs the tips of his fingers over the bared steel serrations. He stares at the flesh as it puffs itself back up to reclaim the pressure indentations from the blades. He rubs his thumb against the callused pad of the index finger. The blistered vesicle there never once yielded before the press of the steel. He exhales.

Laying the clippers back on the floor, once again he summons their power by tripping the seesaw switch. The surge came anew. The coiled current crescendoing, plucking at the cable like a piano hammer.

His hand hovering above the vibrato as if conducting it, he was transported back to Summer memories on the streets. With thimbleriggers, professional beggars and suitcases full of somersaulting toy dogs. Those that yapped and yapped as they built up the momentum towards a forward roll. He had always imagined it was cats that were supposed to land on their feet. That damn yapping, reverberating in his ears. Building the pressure up, tightening his pulses like a garrote. A fluffy candyfloss white Son of Sam, but a devil dog all the same. Until he took a carving knife to it, silencing it for once and for all. Heartening to report dogs don’t possess nine lives. At his hearing – now there’s an apt word –  they conceded his argument that all human creativity stems from using objects in new ways, ways that they were not intended for originally. But where he came a cropper, where they snagged him, was when he couldn’t remember whether it was blood or hair stuffing that came out of the dog that he ran metal through. That was the bone of contention, how he couldn’t quite place the interiority of another of God’s creatures. So much so, apparently it made him a potential danger to all bodies.

He scooped up the clippers and began once again to range over his cropped head. With so little pappus to intercede between steel and flesh, the snarling blades bit time and again. He didn’t flinch.

The livid veins were welted to the skin from their buffeting. Red and blue like a road map. But the terrain of his skull had been a scorched earth once before. Threaded with desiccated worm casts and that was the point.

The clippers had harrowed their acreage and he swiftly shut the current off to end phase two. His hand was still vibrating a full seventeen seconds after the power had died.

When his hands stopped shaking, he grabbed hold of the legs of the full-length mirror and dragged it through the pile of the carpet so as to face himself. He pressed his face right into the meniscus of the glass, and his bloodshot eyes started surveying the cuts and nicks. The scabs and the scars.

Some were freshly minted, most were older vestiges. The exterior of his skull resembled a brain scan signalling hot areas of neural activity. He was turned all inside out. Which was exactly the point.

He brought his fingers up to each of the clotted mounds. Distending the curdled skin at the foothills, trying to determine the precise aspect. The newer ones leached viscous blood onto his fingers. The older magma chambers threatened recrudescence under the seismic tremors of his manipulations.

But each blood red cameo was carved in relief. None offered the worm hole of intaglio, that which he was chasing after. Those nodes where they had affixed the electrodes. The inlets for the cabling, the electrical conduits, through which they had convulsed electric charge into his resistant brain. To drive away the stormy black clouds they claimed resided there, forecasting his gloomy outlook.

They had wanted to let the sunshine back in, even if it was an artificial source of illumination. A wan light which just leaves him numb and huddled around himself.

Of course, now they deny having ever done anything to him at all. No invasive treatment perpetrated. But he will keep sweeping the brush clear and he will pinpoint the evidence. Of the turned-in wound. Tell-tale concavity. The needle in the coagulated haystacks pockmarking his barren head.

He will bring them to account. He knows – and they must come to know – every time he flicks a switch, his whole nervous system resonates to the flow it engenders.

He moves to pick up the can of shaving foam and the triple bladed razor. At least they didn’t have a pulse other than that imparted by his hand. Commencing phase three.


i loathe mirrors. For mirrors mirror only solitude. Be it a compact, or floor length, it makes no odds.. Gaze into somebody else’s eyes and see the homunculus you reflected in them staring back into yours, staring back… Peer into a mirror and such endless reflectivity is shattered by the imperfections of the glass. You stand there in three dimensions, but your imago is betrayed by its sightless eyes. Only you can determine to break off the connection. So i do all in my power to avoid mirrors.

How about when shaving? Well it’s true my face abuts a looking glass then. But we never consort with the i’s, for the pair of us accord no mutual acknowledgement. i cant my gaze downwards, navigating only by the razor’s plough trails through the white lather. The alluvial contour lines of my face gradually disinterred from beneath a deep drift of snow. My forehead and mane mere foggy peaks in the distance. Occasionally the snow stains red. Unsure footholds where i can’t trace blackheaded gradients and pitted crevasses changing the hidden lie of my unscaled face.

But eventually i clamber back down from the summit. Another descent to smoother climbs negotiated. Snowblind. A woman friend of mine says she can’t imagine what it is to shave for the rest of one’s life. “Neither can i” i tell her.

Marc Nash

~ by yearzerowriters on October 31, 2009.

24 Responses to “Twin Topiary Tales (of male grooming)”

  1. blimmin’ Nora, Marc, that’s visceral stuff. Particularly interesting the way you play “tipping point” and immediately change tense – then bring it back to past.


  2. Re tenses and the like – I used lots of similes, but in a dead, unenlightening way, to mirror his mental/emotional state. He ‘knows’ he should be describing the sensations, but can’t inhabit and inflect them because of the burned out synapses… He is a ‘deadhead’ trying to resow his once lush landscape.

  3. Brilliant. Phew.


  4. Entirely mindblowing. This has to be one of my SU’s (StumbleUpon) submissions today.

    Anne L-G

  5. Penny and Anne L-G thank you both kindly.

  6. Gorgeous.

  7. Dan – I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about writing wringing the writer out emotionally in relation to “Skin Book”.

    The above didn’t wring me out, because I try and get in the preemptive strike by wringing words/language out, probably throttling them to one inch of their life in some cases. If I find exactly the right words and make them stand in line (we’ll deal with non-linearity at a later date) and make them surrender the meanings we damn well want them to, then perhaps they take the emotional burden off our shoulders and pass the torch to the reader instead. Job done, quiet contentment.

    This is not to say that the subject matter of ECT therapy has no effect on me – it happened to a close member of my family and I saw the after effects – it has to have had an effect since this is now the second time I have written about it, although in wildly different ways from one another. But – and this ties in with one of your Twitter posts – by abstracting it and more specifically metaphorcalising it, then in some way I can cincture the concept and in some ways get a grasp on it and come to terms with it.

    Does any of that make sense? I’ve done the wrung out bits in life, (hopefully for good) now I just want to make sense of them with hindsight and artistic abstraction.

    And to Daisy – many thanks for your response.


    • Marc, I think the metaphor of throttling the words into submission is perfect for what you do – it’s intersting to think of writing as a battle. We think of authors wrestling demons, or wrestling recalcitrant plots, but we very rarely think of this more primordial battle you mention – of wrestling each word for its meaning. These postmodern days we take it for granted the battle has benlost – that discourse is independent and has its own, totally separate life. There’s something very rich to be explored inauthors trying to win back control at the level of the basic syllable. It’s ambitious, hugely ambitious, and almost certainly doomed to failure. Both of which make it evry worthwhile.

    • Wordsworth’s prescription – emotion recollected in tranquillity?

    • Wordsworth’s prescription – emotion recollected in tranquility?

      (This post keeps vanishing. The Facebook disease is spreading.)

      • I wondered lonely as an estranged being in an atomised world. Even the toxified acid clouds had more molecular relationship to draw on…

        That kind of Words Worth you mean Larry?

        Tranqulity in the modern world?

  8. dude, you make love to words like no one i’ve ever read before.

  9. Fuck you too.

    • Poetry can do the sublime and Nature supremely well and find the stillness at the heart of it. I’m not sure that novels, with all their ranging movement and momentum and arcs and all that palaver can attain the same stillness, except for possibly at their denouement.

      Are there any novels of tranquility and even if the answer historically were yes (such as a Jane Austen), would anyone in the modern world sit down to try and write one?

      (sorry should have said- ) marc

      • yes, there are. Alessandro Baricco’s Silk comes close. Marie Darrieussecq’s Mal de Mer, Elina Hirvonen’s When I Forgot, and most of what Banana Yoshiimoto writes.

        I think/hope that list makes something else clear – the English-speaking world has kind of given up on them. I’d like to write one one day. A novel about the stillness and contentedness of a soul or souls at peace. A story with no conflict, no pain, no progress. It would have no readers as well, but I’d like to write it. But it’d have to wait till I’m a lot more practised than I am now.

  10. Yes, I agree about the novel and stillness Dan. But I think the question is whether we are creating at our best when directly experiencing passion, or when we are looking back on the experience in a more detached way – ‘tranquility’ in this context meaning not quietude so much as the opposite of strong emotion, which is our subject matter. In another words, are we ‘wrung out’ by writing, because we become immersed in the feelings – and many of us do – or do we cultivate detachment and non-involvement? My guess is we all do both at different times – but perhaps I’m wrong – maybe it’s two different styles? Invoking the deeply unfashionable Wordsworth was a distraction.

  11. That wasn’t me, Larry 🙂 I think you’re onto something with the idea that tranquility has to be an active subject, and not just lack – @kashicat and I have talked about this on #litchat a few times – how lovely it would be to write positive story about peace

  12. Sorry Marc, I took you to be Dan (and Dan to be Anne)!

    We’ve got 2 different themes here. One is: can you write about contentedness or absence of conflict in a novel (when all the primers tell you that the novel is all about conflict)? And the other is: are we “wrung out” by the process of writing intensely, or, as Marc says, do we “make sense of [painful events] with hindsight and artistic abstraction” and remain detached?

    Both are topics that I haven’t thought about much. Write about tranquility in the modern world? Write with cool detachment and not feel drained? To do the first would be a real challenge, and I haven’t managed the second for very long.

    Re-reading your piece, Marc: I once spoke to a young man about to have ECT and he repeated to me all the stuff he’d heard about the benefits of ECT and how routine the procedure was. Then he was wheeled into the ward where they operated, and I never saw him again. He died within seconds of the switch being thrown. His emotional discomfort had been related to a massive tumour, “the size of your fist”, that hadn’t been diagnosed. “You win some, you lose some.”

  13. A novel writing about a balanced tranquility would be a sort of aesthetic tone poem – I dunno something like Ginsberg’s “Howl” but all positive rather than negative images. I think the language would inevitably have to be poetic. Vikram Seth’s “Golden Gate” was written in verse and quite upbeat, but not monolithically so. Hard to pull off over the length of a novel, but not impossible. I’m not sure how much human perspective would intrude, since that would tend to introduce negative thoughts, but I’m thinking if the scenario were say someone at death’s door who didn’t fear it, maybe they could have a flashback cum beatification of all the wonderful things about the world… Dunno?

    I hope I am not detached from heavy subject matter that I write about – merely I have observed them at close hand rather than actually having them happen to me directly. For example, passing through every stage of the build up, through the sessions and then seeing the family member emerge from having ECT did not leave me neutral and unaffected. But it must be different from a viewpoint having experienced it directly. To me, ECT almost does imaging Depression to be a localised black cloud inside the head that can be shifted and towed by passing volts through the brain – nothing more sophisticated than that. It reminds me of whichever Hollywood Blockbuster it was where they send a rocket to blow up or at least divert a meteor on collision course with the earth. It made me very angry indeed to be witness to this ‘science’ and hence I really hope I am not detached in my treatment of the subject.


  14. Yes – I can imagine that seeing ECT performed on someone close to you would make you very angry, especially when you realised the scientific rationale was so poor. I feel the same about lobotomy, which is why I had a pop at it in Glimpses. About 10K operations were performed in the UK by 2 visiting American psychiatrists – not neurosurgeons, they used a modified ice pick to break through the eye-socket into the brain, and, in the early 1950s, used ECT in place of anaesthesia. The results were tragic – men reduced to zombies. You don’t have to be a Scientologist to see this as barbaric.

  15. […] gig is FREE, for which you get:   5 writers Penny Goring reading Bone Dust Disco Marc Nash readnig Twin Topiary Tales Larry Harrison reading from Glimpses of a Floating World me reading SKIN BOOK Daisy Anne Gree […]

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