stoical

…possessing or showing great restraint and strength of will when adversity strikes

Helen’s hair was forever a problem; her hair was her crowning glory. “What can you do?” she would ask herself, when she found herself in the more than familiar position of not knowing what to do; to do with her hair, to do with her job, to do with the sound of the cargo trains screeching on their tracks every night for three hours when she would normally try to go to sleep – intractable problems.

And she didn’t answer this question. Helen didn’t attempt to answer this question. Nor could it be classed as a rhetorical question, because not only was the answer not obvious, but answering the question was outside of the abilities of Helen, an intelligent and reasonable young woman, who you had to agree had beautiful hair.

Of course, it came from her mother’s side – her father went bald in his early twenties.

The fear of Helen going bald could be said to have dominated her late teens if it wasn’t jostling with so many other near debilitating fears: the fear of death, the fear of growing old, the fear of heights, the fear of enclosed spaces, the fear of fear, the fear of apathy, the fear of spots, wrinkles, cellulite, friendlessness, being hated, being ignored; then there was the whole group of fears, a subclass, which could be termed the fear of failure, and there was the fear of being completely ordinary – which Helen frequently referred to as the curse of mediocrity, in order to somehow avoid such a fate by appearing to be intelligent, and there was the fear of being stupid – how could you know? and the fear of suffering some kind of accident which would render you in some way mentally retarded, and there was her old favourite, the fear of rejection, which could be classed under “the fear of failure”, but really deserved a subclass all to itself, and the fear of getting your fingers, all four on each hand, cut off with an ice skate (but Helen never went ice-skating), the fear of elephants, zebras, horses, cows, cats, rabid dogs and psychotic killers – none of which you could reason with, the fear of being buried alive, the fear of having organs removed from her body by mistake, and the fear of loosing a limb, going blind, being horribly disfigured or being crippled (a set of fears she could not put in descending order of fearfulness), then she had a fear of flying, a fear of speed, a fear of being left behind… there are so many things you can be afraid of – What can you do?

But by asking this question, not at all a rhetorical question, a question which surely had an answer over and above simply shrugging her shoulders, Helen had seemed to have left all of these fears behind – though a haunting fear still remained with regard to anything even loosely connected with her hair, its growing, treatment, cutting, styling, the proximity of naked flames, the level of moisture in the air, the chances of precipitation, the likelihood of an operation on her brain, the effect of wearing a hat, other people wearing hats, other people’s hair, dandruff in any context, birds, insects, bats, cats, leaves blowing through the air, overhead cables….

But this fear was working at a subconscious level, because, as Helen would readily tell you, tell anyone, she told several colleagues at work last week over her last mid-morning coffee before being fired – “What can you do?”

Several nods, a meaningful silence, and the simultaneous slurping of coffee and tea acknowledged the profundity of her comment.

With such a shrug of her shoulders, and a near meaningless verbal quip, Helen had done away with years of accumulated agonizing fears.

Walking home that Summer’s day (she had been fired and asked to clear out her desk just before she would have left anyway), the wind in her hair, the level of moisture in the air being beyond tolerable, it just now starting to rain, Helen simply shrugged her shoulders. Yes, she was annoyed. Certainly, she didn’t want her hair to be exposed to such intolerable conditions. Certainly, she didn’t want to be told that her services, presence, offensive emails and efforts were no longer required. Yes it was all intolerable, but with the tolerance of a wise old man she raised her gaze from the ground, stuck her chin out and walked head held high, her hair blowing about her, absorbing a bucket-full of this beautiful day’s moisture, and as the rain came down, it all of a sudden poured, it was a downpour of once in a month proportions, she didn’t swear, or hiss or kick at a dustbin she just walked past, she didn’t scream, which she wasn’t beyond doing at the least provocation, she didn’t raise her voice, she wasn’t even talking to herself, she wasn’t even keeping it all in – there was nothing to keep in – she smiled; Helen smiled.

Helen wasn’t in denial. She hadn’t transported herself to some mythical happy place where all is well, she didn’t occupy her head with other thoughts or worries; she was fully aware of her situation, she was unemployed; she was fully aware of the manner in which her hair was being pissed on and pulled at by the elements; she could feel, actually feel, her hair soak up the air’s moisture and begin pulling at her scalp.

Helen’s lips moved to the shape of the following words: What can you do?

Helen walked to the tram stop in the rain, eschewing any opportunity to shelter from the elements, even though she was in no rush whatsoever, she even stood outside of the shelter whilst waiting for the tram – it was full, the shelter, but that wasn’t why she stood out on the platform exposed to all the elements – and when the tram arrived she stood squashed against the door, her bare leg exposed to the wet drips of someone’s wet bag, umbrella or weak bladder, someone else’s wet hair dripping onto her now soaking shoulder and someone else’s shoulder less than two inches from her face. Not being able to see anything other than that shoulder and the rucksack it supported and which it swung into her face when that shoulder’s owner got off at the stop before hers, Helen grinned – but wasn’t bearing anything. And falling out onto the platform at her stop, falling into the still inclement weather, walking, wet and cold and unemployed, a half a mile to the house, she still managed a kind of a smile – What can you do?

Upon dropping her wet bag, wet coat, wet jacket, wet shoes and sodden newspaper onto the ground about her, catching the eye of Oscar sitting on the sofa of the front room, Henry standing at the kitchen door fully taking in her manner of appearance, Smith’s head hovering over his shoulder smiling absurdly, Helen simply, clearly and forcefully reiterated her mantra – “What can you do?”

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