It wasn’t until he was out of work, until it had finally dwindled away and he could no longer deny that he was unemployed, only then did Tyler start to read the local newspapers. It was because he must, or at least because he felt he should, that he scoured the job section in the Comet and the Gazette and whatever else he could lay his hands on.
On a Thursday, along with his Guardian, Tyler purchased a copy of the Chronicle, a newspaper he remembered from his childhood. He had been surprised to find it still existed and recalled his father leafing through it and how, when his mother asked, ‘Anything in the Chronicle?’, he would always reply, ‘No, not really, nothing much.’
Now it was Tyler’s turn to leaf through it and, as he did so, he felt listless, aimless. He suspected that in the intervening years the newspaper had changed very little and this thought caused him to shudder.
The adverts and classifieds dominated and Tyler struggled to push beyond these. He found the small print revealing; what readers were offering for sale that particular week was far more intriguing than the latest on disgraced councillors and wacky fund-raisers. He revelled in the announcements; the weddings and anniversaries, even the death notices and of course the birthdays. There were photographs of babies and toddlers, now celebrating an eighteenth or a twenty-first. ‘Congratulations, you’re (thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy) today!! Love and best wishes from friends, family, from wives, girlfriends, from doting parents.
There were telephone numbers for massage parlours and escort agencies. Tyler enjoyed trying to read between the lines, was pleased when he didn’t need to, when it was obvious, crude.
There was little in these papers that was cryptic and so, of course, this particular announcement jumped from the page. It wasn’t, in fact, an announcement but a proposition and succinctly put. It wasn’t really cryptic, nor vague:
POSSIBLE CASH PRIZE FOR SOMETHING AS SIMPLE AS
GROWING A MOUSTACHE – PLEASE CONTACT TERRY ON…
Of course he wouldn’t but nevertheless Tyler turned the corner of the page, the telephone number safely at the centre of the triangle he had created. He worked the crease between his thumb and forefinger and then ripped it.
Tyler carried the advert with him – advert/proposition? He was unsure of how to refer to it and, unfolding it, he stained his fingers with the ink. Foolishly, he pressed his fingers against his upper lip and remembered reading somewhere that Groucho Marx’s moustache had at first been a fake. Just makeup, black greasepaint, ink. It was only later that he had grown and cultivated the real thing. Tyler liked this idea; that Groucho Marx the character, this creation, had gained in substance, had become more and more real.
He stepped in front of the mirror but the ink on his lip was just a smudge and with the back of his hand he wiped it away.
Tyler stopped shaving and although he still didn’t intend to ring the number and talk to Terry, he didn’t throw it away. He had forgotten when he had torn it from the Chronicle and he didn’t now so much read it as scan it, desperately searching for the advert and, when it didn’t reappear, he started to wonder if it wasn’t now too late to do what he hadn’t anyway ever intended to do.
As his beard progressed he would stand in front of the mirror. Holding his hand over his chin, he studied the moustache he could now so easily sculpt and begin to nurture. When at last he did ring the number it was simply because he needed to move on.
It was a female voice. Tyler was taken aback and faltered.
‘Hello,’ he managed at last.
‘Hello,’ she repeated, ‘You’re calling about the advertisement, yes?’
‘The proposition, yes.’
‘The proposition?’ she laughed.
‘I’m sorry,’ Tyler blushed violently, ‘the advertisement, yes, I mean the advertisement. I was intrigued. Is that Terry?’ he asked.
‘Yes, and you are…?’
‘Tyler, Jim Tyler.’
‘Jim Tyler. I like it. James. It is James, isn’t it?’
‘James Tyler – a good honest name, uncomplicated, Jim Tyler. Yes, I really like it!’ she exclaimed. ‘Well Jim, it really is simple. All I need from you is a couple of photographs. But first I have to ask, do you have a moustache or a full beard?’
‘No, well, yes, I have a beard but I’ve only grown it recently, especially.’
‘Ah, well, I’m going to need you to shave. First, I’ll take a photo of you clean shaven and later, when you’ve grown the moustache and are satisfied with it, we’ll meet again and I’ll pay you fifty pounds.’
‘And this is for some sort of art project?’
‘Yes, it’s a project I’ve been working on intermittently for a few years now.’ She sounded matter of fact, almost flippant and Tyler was surprised by this. But why? What exactly had he been expecting?
‘Wouldn’t it be easier if you photographed me first with the moustache? Wouldn’t that be quicker?’
At the other end of the line there was a lengthy pause, then:
‘No, I prefer to do it my way.’
‘Good, then we’ll meet, name the place and the time and I’ll be there.’
‘How will we recognise each other?’ he asked.
‘I have blonde hair and I’ll be carrying a camera and you, well, you won’t have a moustache.’ She laughed and, as they made the arrangements, she continued to chuckle jovially.
On the morning he had arranged to meet with Terry, Tyler, standing before the mirror, couldn’t decide whether or not to fashion a moustache. Should he make the most of this opportunity? He applied the shaving foam and lifted the razor, beginning far too quickly. Recklessly he pulled the blade across his face, cutting swathes in the foam. Barely pausing after each swipe to wash the razor, he dragged it, forcing it through his beard again and again.
And so he discovered that no, he wasn’t really interested in a sneak preview, that he wanted rid of it, wanted it gone.
When he had finished his face was red and raw and, with a handful of toilet tissue, he mopped at the blood. Tyler leant in close and studied himself. There he was, a bit the worse for wear but otherwise unchanged. The cuts, all those terrible little nicks, they would heal and the stinging, the terrible burning, well it wouldn’t last forever.
Tyler poured aftershave onto both of his hands and, steadying himself, he slapped them against his face. He yelled out in pain. It was worse than he had imagined, much, much worse. But hopping in front of the mirror, he persevered, rubbing the lotion into his skin. But the bleeding wouldn’t stop and, grabbing a fresh bunch of tissue, he started again to mop.
He was supposed to be meeting with Terry in less than an hour. He needed to ring her, make some excuse and reschedule for next week.
Digging into his pocket he fished out the scrap of newspaper. He unfolded it once again but looking down he scrunched it in his hand, rolled it with his thumb until it was a hard and tiny ball. Along with the bloody tissue he dropped it into the toilet bowl and flushed