You know how it is. Growing up, you take so many things for granted. Food on the table, new clothes, as old ones seem to shrink, trudging back and forth to school, with your Mum shoving you down the path and turning back before she meets the other mums. You don’t notice the differences, until you’re older. Like Mum always wore a headscarf, pulled tight and knotted in the nape of her neck. And I do mean always. In the house, out the house; even in bed.
I was about nine when I asked. ‘Is mum bald, Dad? I’ve never seen her hair.’ He told me no, she just likes to keep it tidied away, as if that was just perfectly normal. ‘So what colour is it?’ I asked. He said, ‘You’d probably call it fair’. Turns out later, Fairtrade would be a more apt description.
Then there was the fruit bowl. Always full of apples, pears, those little oranges and the like. Sometimes, peaches or cherries or grapes. I should have a colourful diet, Mum always told me. Eat a rainbow, with plenty of fruit to make me grow strong. But when I said I’d had a banana at school, she looked horrified.
‘Never eat those. They’ll make you sick,’ she said. But I wasn’t. ‘Your teeth will fall out.’ They already had; I was on my second set. ‘You’ll get a curved spine.’ I stood straight as a ramrod. And no pleading from me would ever get her to buy me a banana at the greengrocers.
Then came puberty and Dad took me down to his garden shed. His private space, with the threadbare old armchair, his pipe rack, a small old, Persian looking, rug and the lawnmower. And some over-thumbed magazines, stuck up high on the shelf, just under the eaves. ‘Just gardening stuff,’ he used to say, ‘you won’t be interested in those,’ as he pushed them further out of my reach. But I was. I’d been in his shed when he wasn’t there and didn’t find many pictures in those mags that were taken in a garden.
Anyway, Dad sits there, all serious like, puffing on his pipe, a slight rouge filtering over his face, starting off, ‘Well …, it’s like this, lad …’ Whereupon he tried to tell me, in stilted phrases, all the things about growing up, most of which I already knew from my school mates or worked out from his top shelf magazines. Dad was certainly more embarrassed then me. Though it was when I asked him about the itching, he really went pale.
You see, I was getting this constant itch across my scalp. It wasn’t nits. Th school nurse had checked that. It didn’t seem to be an allergy. I’d not eaten anything new or been rolling in nettles or anything like that. Nevertheless, next day, I was whisked off to the doctor by Mum. She made me wait outside, for a moment, before calling me into his surgery. I felt nervous. Had I got some dreadful disease. I had eaten another banana, without telling her.
The doctor, a young chap with a full beard and cold hands, does all the usual poking around and said I was a good, strong, healthy young teenager. Then Mum said. ‘So, is it?’ and he replied, ‘I’m afraid it is. It’s genetic.’ And Mum looked pained, as she said, ‘I’d hoped he would take after his dad.’ Leaving me totally mystified.
That’s when, for the first time ever, my Mum removed her headscarf. A full head of bananas, beneath it. I was totally dumbfounded. Shocked to the core. Speechless. Mostly ripe, but a few green ones on the turn. But definitely bananas.
Now, of course, I’ve grown quite used to it. Mum explained it was a rare unexplainable syndrome, passed down the family line, with hints of witchcraft, overindulgence and alchemy experiments thrown in. No gold there, though, just brilliant yellow. It had been passed down in my chromosomes. Her contribution obviously stronger than Dad’s.
The doctor explained that there was no cure and that over the following year I would find my luxurious dark hair would slowly fall out and be replaced with little green curls. Those curls would thicken out and eventually turn yellow, so that for the first couple of years I’d look as if I’d had a close crop and dyed it. He gave me a letter to take to school, so that I wasn’t sent home for breaking the rules on haircuts. By the time I reached twenty, however, he said I should be sprouting a full crop of healthy fruit, that required regular picking.
Now, before your imagination goes into overdrive, I’m not talking those great fat hands of bananas you see on the supermarket shelves. No, these only grow to that small size you see in packs for kiddies’ lunch boxes. Which is how Mum got away with it, under her headscarf. She told me then, that she used to pull out a few, each week and take them down to the local greengrocer’s shop and he’d pack them with the delivery to the school kitchens. That’s why she was so horrified that time I told her I had eaten a banana at school. I might have eaten part of my Mum.
It took a few days for it all to sink in and get my head around it (or should I say under it?) and I was worried what my school mates would say. Would I be bullied? But Mum fixed that when she brought me a large baker boy cap and said I was to tell them that I had a contagious head infection and I was only allowed in school as long as I kept my hat on. My mates got used to it. Called out a few names to start, but I ignored it all and after a few weeks no more was said.
The first real problem came with girls. When I’d got to that age I was interested, but they were not. Not with a boy who never took his cap off. And might have a disease they could catch. Not that they could, of course. So, I resigned myself to celibacy until I went to college. There my constant cap became quite a draw, but the closer I got to the female students, the more I worried about taking it off in a romantic encounter.
Tending mini bananas is quite a chore. You can’t let them get too wet with the sweat of exertion, or they develop a sour smelling mould. Same goes for regularly removing the ripe ones, before they go brown and blotchy and ooze a sticky mess down the back of your neck. And you have to lay them carefully in rows, after sleeping, or they stand up at all angles and you can’t get you cap on tidily.
Well the night came when I knew I’d lose my cap – more than my cap with a bit of luck – and I ignored my Mum’s caution that they would grow back bigger and thicker and shaved my head. I thought it had done the trick. I got a girl very interested in me; things were getting quite steamy and we went upstairs from the communal area in my student house and into my room. Clothes started littering the floor, until we both lay in close embrace on my single bed, she naked and me in nothing but my cap. She grasped the peak with her hand, but I clutched at her wrist and held it for a moment, before letting her rip it off.
She looked most disappointed. ‘Oh. You’re just bald. Is that all you’ve been covering up. It’s been driving me bananas thinking you might have some ghastly birthmark or lewd tattoo, you were hiding. Wait ’til I tell the other girls they’ve missed nothing.’ And then she started laughing. ‘Sorry, but my Mom said never go to bed with a bald old man unless they’ve got money. Well at least you’re not old. Hang on, where’s your loo, I’m going to wet myself.’
‘First door on left, top of the stairs, second landing,’ I automatically replied. Then, as if that wasn’t enough to take the heat out of the evening, my exposed pate began to perspire profusely. Well, you know that model glue smell that bananas give off. Well imagine it ten times as strong. So, while she had popped out the room, still not a stitch on her, I lived a little in hope, so I topped up my aftershave and mopped my head with a towel. Then I checked in the mirror to see all was well, only to find all the fluff had adhered to my scalp in haze of white. The only solution: slam the cap back on.
She came back, took one look and exclaimed, ‘Oh, no. Not with that on. You perverted or something?’ and hastily started dressing. I wanted to explain, but I don’t think she was the type to go for bananas. More a peach cocktail girl.
So that was that. The bananas came back, thick and fast and I found a backstreet food bank that happily took a couple of dozen mini bananas every now and then. No more girls, for a while. Not before I asked Mum how she and Dad got together. Apparently, he had a poor sense of smell and the only scent that really got through to him was bananas. Reminded him him of his days making model aeroplanes, from balsawood and tissue, as a boy. Happy carefree days. He said they were made for each other – and he’s been glued to her ever since.
Now, the chances of me finding a model making girl are quite slim and I certainly don’t want a glue sniffer for a partner, so I had to resign myself for a solo life for a time. I finished college and got a job in a food factory; gutting fish for frozen fish and chip suppers – so no one notices my natural odour – and it’s my excuse for dousing myself with a very pungent aftershave.
There was a girl I flirted with, quite lightly, in the tea breaks. She reminded me of Mum in a way. She always wore a headscarf, knotted tightly at the back. So, I plucked up courage and asked her, ‘Have you got any bananas under there?’ She blushed and replied, ‘Don’t be cheeky. I suppose you’ll be asking me for a date, next?’ Then she cocked her head, looked hard and long at my cap, then, brow furrowed, said ‘You’re serious, aren’t you? Is that what you’re hiding?’ I nodded my head, slowly and she smiled. ‘You can walk me home tonight, if you like. Perhaps go for a drink. I think we’ve got something in common.’
After work we strolled down towards our local, “The Bunch of Grapes”, and she confided in me she had to keep her head covered because she had “a condition”. It was a bit embarrassing, she said, she would tell me if I promised not to tell a soul. And if I’d swear on my cap to keep it a secret.
She pulled me into the shadow of a shop doorway. The deep old-fashioned type. ‘Cherries’, she said. ‘I’m a red head. They fetch a good price, out of season, down the market. Now let’s see what’s really under that cap?’ I slowly removed it, as she, in turn, unknotted her headscarf.’
That was all a good many years ago, but you may have seen us down the seaside. We’ve got an ice cream van on the promenade. Special flavours, too. Banana split and cherry pie. You’ll remember us by the oversized, bright orange, baker boy cap I wear and her tightly bound cherry red headscarf. Oh, and the blood orange twist ice lolly? That was our daughter’s idea, when she became of age.
Image via Pixabay