It happened in the car. At a set of traffic lights in the middle of Lyon. Cute guy, half past six, rear-view mirror. Bearded, a big-boned kind of plump, brown eyes. Javier Bardem on a diet of McMuffins. It must have been the sun that caught them, because as he vaped with his elbow out the window, those brown eyes shone. I felt like getting out of the car there and then and congratulating him on his face. Tell him I'd put his name forward for a Légion d'Honneur. And I probably might have, had I not looked back at the rear-view mirror and stumbled upon my own face. Good God. The same sun that had done justice to Monsieur Brown Eyes had gone and shat on mine. Hanging down by the side of my cheek, it was. A wiry helter-skelter of a thing, visibly trespassing on my scalp.
"No way..." I said.
Before this moment, I'd spent most of my life believing I was immortal. Convinced that ageing and dying and all that crap happened to other people, preferably in retirement homes or National Trust boutiques. Those lot were further along the conveyor belt than I was, lacking melanin and a long future. I'd wave at them every so often, get the occasional waft of lavender and urine, I'd befriend a few, but we'd be separate entities because they were the ones with the sell-by-date, they were the ones living the careful, tepid kind of life, on the slow dip downwards to death. Which meant I could carry on being careless and carefree in my own little world. Walk across the road without looking both ways. Over-eat chocolate. Provoke people just for the hell of it. Nonsense-giggle, partly-bake dreams, cultivate promise.
So far there had been no real secondary effects of time's passage upon me. Physical effects, I mean. Fine, I had wrinkles, crow's feet from too much laughing. Ok, stretch marks too and the odd sagging. But grey fucking hair? Me?
In the car, the lights went green but I didn't see it. There were beeps, but I didn't hear them. Too busy trying to pluck the damn thing out of my scalp and lay it upon my thigh. It was grey alright. Grey hair on dark blue jeans made for a tragic contrast. And so it went. The remains of my life. Zapped before my bleeding eyes. No more onwards and upwards. From now on it would ache and break and get ugly and dry and shrivelled and die.
I didn't see Javier Bardem knocking at the car window at first because I was too busy thinking about the flipside of mortality. I saw him now though. The man looked stressed. And not in a sexy-stressed way that can be softened with a smile or a hand-job. His brown eyes were mean and they hated me. Other cars were beeping behind, and one had just overtaken in the bus lane shouting "tart" out the window, but in French.
"Vous faites quoi là, Madame?" he asked, looking at my right thigh which I was staring at too. He motioned me to wind the window down. I didn't. I simply looked at him. Not a fleck of grey on his head, arsehole. He had no idea what it felt like to be dying, to be mortal, to be further along the conveyor belt. To hell with the Légion d'Honneur. And damn him for calling me Madame. You only call people Madame when you don't want to sleep with them because they're too damn decrepid. I crunched the gear into first and drove off. Fuck it.
I saw grey everywhere after that. Grey walls, greyhounds, grey ladies with PVC trenchcoats, grey sky, and one question drawing grey squiggles around my sorry greying head. When you see death through a peep-hole, what do you do next?
Three options came to mind. Close my eyes, stare, or squint.
Close your eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Vic. Get an appointment with the hairdresser tomorrow, no now. Make it disappear. Come Monday, go back to work and love those colleagues of yours, even Penelope. Cherish the humdrum, put things off, things you'd like to do if only you had time. You're not lonely, of course you're not. You're surrounded by love, come on, look at all the Greetings cards you got this year. And fuck, you can paint when you're retired.
Stare at the grey and make funeral arrangements. You never know what's around the corner. Could be a bus, could be a nutter carrying a Kalashnikov. Get private health insurance too while you're at it, respect the law in every intricate detail, crochet a national flag and give it to the poor, wear fur, go on package holidays and grey-friendly places, huff at the youth, laugh in the right places at dinner parties, buy right-wing press, adopt an African child on-line, move up in the world of comfort, into a car with heated seats, sofas that squeak, a style of living which reflects the experienced, dignified you.
Embrace the grey or dye. It's up to you. But go do something you love. Be someone you love. Move furniture around, set fire to things, chuck out the unwanted, find music in silence. Find truth. No one's truly happy being a mortal, sensing the final stop. So a grey hair, a crappy diagnosis, a simple wake-up call, remind you your days are numbered, and that it's what you do or don't do that defines you.
Three options. Just three.