Hairshirt In Reverse

“Have you seen my shirt?”

You respond with a look like you thought you were going to be first in line at the hairdressers, only I’ve beaten you to it. Not that you’d understand how that feels. Your hairdresser has appointments. £75 appointments, which is ten times what I pay whether I’m first in line or not.

“Which shirt?”

You know perfectly well which shirt. Which must mean you also know where it is; must in fact be responsible for where it is. Something else you know: how much that shirt means to me. It used to mean something to you too.

1995. Like a million other sixteen year-olds before me, suddenly I’ve got this hard-on for individuality. I don’t want to listen to the same music as everybody else, or read the same books; I certainly don’t want to wear the same clothes. There was this odd little second hand shop in the back of the Corn Exchange; I was in there every Saturday, spending the peanuts I made stacking shelves Friday nights in Asda. Most of the time, I was the only customer.

Antique cuckoo clocks. Dusty old Serge Gainsbourg records. Coffee mugs with women on the side who lost their clothes when you filled them with hot liquid. (There’s a joke there somewhere, but I’m not in the mood.) Authentic Japanese Godzilla posters. In the window, a vintage 48 key concertina, a working Hornby 00 Gauge train set, and a French policeman’s hat like the one Claude Rains wore in Casablanca. A tag claimed it was the exact same hat. I never believed it.

Of course I remember the day I bought the shirt. It was the day before the evening of our fourth date. Our third, three nights earlier, ended later than either of us expected. Just me and you and the swallows, we’d had Marigold Park all to ourselves. Do you wonder if things might have been different, if the rain hadn’t stopped us, if that had been our night? We ran home laughing. I could see your parents in the front room watching telly, trying not to look out into the street. You made such a big deal about kissing me goodnight, obviously for their benefit; I never shared the thrill. But I’ll say this for you: you knew exactly how to keep a bloke interested.

“Fuck, Porter – you’re going to get so lucky this weekend.”

Spontaneous human combustion – it’s a good job it was raining. I walked home in another dimension. My best shirt was ruined though. And even if it wasn’t, I couldn’t wear it two dates running. I needed something new. Special. I worked overtime Friday, on the frozen food. Fingers lost all sensation by the end of the shift.

The thing is, there wasn’t anything special about that shirt to look at it. Just a plain white collarless short sleeve. It wasn’t what I was looking for when I went in there. I can’t tell you why I bought it. When I held it to my neck in the mirror, it just felt right.

Saturday came and your parents were up in the lakes. You made fresh avocado salad, and we split a Bounty while listening to Nick Drake. It was the first really hot day of the summer, and after tea we walked up through the cornfields behind your house, looking for a place to set down our blanket. I started to take off my shirt, but you put your hand on my chest and told me not to.

“Keep it on.”

The thing is, your first time’s supposed to be all weird and hesitant and bungling… I don’t know about you, but that’s what I expected. When it wasn’t, when it… I mean, where do you go from perfection? Afterwards, you flicked a greenfly off my collar and told me you loved me. I reckon astronauts could have seen me from space that night.

When I got home, I hung the shirt on the curtain rail in the breeze from my bedroom window. I didn’t want my Mum to smell us on it when she did the washing. Except, by morning, I’d made up my mind. It wasn’t ever going in the wash. I know you don’t believe in such things, but sometimes I think that’s where the magic came from.

I took the plastic bag off one of my dad’s suits, just back from the dry cleaners, and rolled it over the shirt. I had this crazy romantic notion I’d get it out again in fifty years time and wear it for our golden anniversary; but of course I got it out a lot sooner than that. After we tried and failed to get into the same university, I needed to take something of you with me to Bath. You hear about all those couples who split up at while they’re away at college, I didn’t want that to be us. So whenever I got lonely, whenever some crazy girl turned my head with a look or a laugh or a keen knowledge of Chomsky… I’d go back to my room and unwrap the shirt, put on Nick Drake, and remember.

And yeah, if we’re being brutally honest now, the times we did get together… weekends, the holidays, that time you fought with Laura and almost dropped out… they were good, they were great, but they weren’t ever quite the same. Still, I always thought once we were together again full time, things would be different. I mean, better. Better even than that perfect time in the cornfield when we were sixteen. But maybe I was kidding myself. Because we’ve been living together – what, nine years now, and yet we seem to spend all our time arguing over who gets to open the new jar of coffee and take the first sniff; it drives me insane that you have to screw up your shopping list and start again just because you’ve spelled ‘quiche’ wrong; and if you buy one more pair of culottes, so help me…

But no, I don’t want us to split up, and do you want to know why? Because whenever I put on that shirt (and OK, yeah, it smells a bit now—

“It stinks.”

–and there are stains I don’t even want to think about), I know I couldn’t ever meet anyone who’d make me feel half the way you did that legendary evening in June, ‘95. So please, I’m going to ask you one more time – and don’t lie to me, Clare, because I’ll know. Please…

“What have you done with my shirt?”

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Rol Hirst was the first man in space from Huddersfield. The Russians still beat him up there.

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