Things collected in Uncle Norman's beard. It was why Aunt Hilda
refused to dine with him any more. His beard was a haven for the
lost and wayward - discarded peas and unwanted carrots, fallen
beans and errant breadcrumbs. Not that Uncle Norman cared, of
course. His beard was big and bushy and grey about the edges,
but he wore it with pride whenever he strutted about the high
'There's a lifetime in this beard,' he told me one morning, as
we sat talking of this and that by the fire in the hearth. 'It's
been with me longer than I care to recall. And the day they shave
it off is the day I'll be dead.'
Aunt Hilda sniffed behind her Morning Chronicle. The paper rustled
as she spoke. 'Then you'll be dead this time next week, Norman.
I've asked Mr Hardcastle, the barber, to come
round on Tuesday morning, and I'll not let him leave until your
whiskers are no more.'
We went to the park. We did that whenever Aunt Hilda took to sniffing
behind her Chronicle. Uncle Norman told me that to remove himself
from the room was the only way he could safely have the last word
on such occasions. We stood by the lake and threw bread at the
ducks. Uncle Norman was deadly with a stale crust.
'Will she really make him do it, Uncle?'
'Mr Hardcastle - will Aunt Hilda really make him shave off your
Uncle Norman placed a calming hand upon my shoulder, but I felt
the tremble in his fingers. 'No, lad. Aunt Hilda has threatened
my chin for as long as I can remember. And she's had her near
misses, I should tell you. She managed a trim once, when I was
drunk after Mrs Fogg's funeral. And there was the time I fell
off the ladder and woke up staring at her approaching with the
wallpaper scissors. But my beard's survived, and so have I, and
I daresay it'll do so no matter what Mr Hardcastle or Aunt Hilda
That evening, whilst we sat watching News at Ten, and Uncle Norman
dozed in his favourite armchair all but lost to a haze of pipe
smoke, Aunt Hilda talked softly of times gone by.
'His beard was what drew me to him, you know, back in the days
when it was neat and trimmed, and as sharp as the creases on his
Royal Navy uniform. We cut a dash, back then, the two of us, dancing
the night away to Glen Miller and Irving Berlin. Handsome, he
was, not weatherworn and browbeaten like he is now.'
Uncle Norman twitched in his seat. Something dark dropped from
his beard. I imagined it scurrying away.
Aunt Hilda sighed. 'But look at him now. He's a stubborn old soul,
and no mistake. I'll have that beard off him if it's the last
thing I do.'
'Will you not let him keep it, Aunty? I know it means so much
Aunt Hilda winked and her words came whispered. 'Aye, I know,
lad. But between you and me he likes me to keep on at him about
it. It keeps him going; gives him something to fight for in the
mornings.' She shook her head gently. 'Now that he's so frail
he needs something to fight for, else he'd not bother with mornings,
or noons, or nights. And then, well, what would he do?'
On the Sunday before the Tuesday we didn't go to the park. Uncle
Norman had a limp, and a cough that rattled his chest and shook
the dust from his beard. Young Doctor Dawson peered down into
his ears and felt a palm at his brow. 'Rest,' he said. 'And plenty
of it. No excitement, that's what you need, Mr Watson, lots of
rest and two of these blue pills three times a day.'
Uncle Norman sneered at the doctor's back as he left. 'What does
he know, eh lad?' he whispered. 'My beard's older than he is,
and twice as wise, I'll warrant. Rest is only for old fogies and
coffin dodgers, not for rowdy folks like us, eh?'
Just the same, I watched as Uncle Norman nodded off. He lapsed
into his sleep with his mouth twitching as if there were still
words he would say before he went. He sat snoring and wheezing
like a punctured accordion. Aunt Hilda felt his brow. I watched
the worry edge across her face.
So it was the Tuesday came. Aunt Hilda was a lunatic let loose
with a duster. Uncle Norman sat in his favourite armchair, a blanket
wrapped about his legs. Flames licked the nuggets of
coal in the hearth. They bathed the ceramic ducks upon the wall
to a golden hue but feared to colour Uncle Norman's pale skin.
Norman shivered though the room was uncomfortably warm. And it
was stuffy, so very stuffy, as if all the air was being sucked
away from it.
'It's only the barber coming, Hilda,' Uncle Norman croaked. 'Not
the Queen of England. Will you not sit down and rest yourself,
woman? You're fairly making me dizzy.'
'I'll not be having folk come to my house if it's not done and
dusted,' said Aunt Hilda. 'Mr Hardcastle may only be the barber,
but Mrs Hardcastle can still tut as loudly as the Queen of England.
Eat your soup and prepare yourself to lose that bird's nest about
your neck. And sit up straight.'
'Surely you'll not be taking advantage of a man in a weakened
Aunt Hilda raised a finger as if to argue but a rapping upon the
door took her words. 'That'll be him now, Norman. You'll be on
your best behaviour or you'll have me to answer to.'
Mr Hardcastle walked like a barber - in little circles as if permanently
orbiting his best chair. He spoke in scissor snips, fast and snappy,
as if he was someone on first name terms with
talk of the weather and the football results and the local supermarket
prices and. Aunt Hilda nodded politely at his ramblings and offered
'Now then,' he said at last, rubbing his hands as if to warm them
to the task. 'Where's the patient? I've brought my sharpest scissors
and finest cut-throat razor.'
Aunt Hilda led him through into the front room where Uncle Norman
sat. 'Will you be wanting more soup, Norman, or shall we begin?'
Uncle Norman did not answer. He sat unmoving by the fire, staring
into the flames with the Chronicle folded neatly to his lap. His
pipe lay tilted at an odd angle in his grasp.
'I said more soup, Norman?' Aunt Hilda tapped his shoulder and
he slumped forward in his chair. His soup bowl tumbled into the
copper-coloured waste bin to the side, a single toll to mark the
passing of Uncle Norman. Aunt Hilda raised her palm to her mouth.
Mr Hardcastle coughed. 'Would you like me to shave off his beard
anyway, Mrs Watson?'
Aunt Hilda stared down at Uncle Norman's prone form. She spoke
softly, a stutter to her lips. 'Shave it off? No, you'll not be
doing that now, Mr Hardcastle. It was his pride and joy, you know.
I think at the end he loved it more because it riled me. You do
that when you love someone, you know, love things that rile them.
And if the truth be told, a trim was all I was going to let you
give him anyway.'
'But his beard's full of soup, Mrs Watson, and the Lord knows
'Then I suppose it's a matter between the Lord and Norman, now.'
Aunt Hilda folded her arms. She grinned and a single tear leaked
down upon her cheek. 'And I don't suppose He'll have any more
luck with removing it than I did.'
We buried Uncle Norman in his Royal Naval uniform. Mr Garish,
the undertaker, said it was loose since Norman's illness had wasted
him away but Aunt Hilda insisted. And his beard did not look any
more worse for wear despite it clinging to a now departed chin.
Uncle Norman's medals shone upon his stilled chest. The Reverend
Nodds sang his words with much practised ease, and pall bearers
stood respectful and bored at two-fifty an hour. But even as the
rattle of earth fell upon Uncle Norman's coffin lid Aunt Hilda
gripped my palm.
'I did love him, you know,' she whispered, 'beard and all. Fifty
years we were wed. Folk who don't love each other don't stay wed
for fifty years.'
'He knew, Aunt Hilda,' I said. 'And you know, he told me he would
have shaved it off if you had really asked him, so it's clear
he loved you too.'
Dust to dust, there's no soup now in Uncle Norman's beard. There's
just the memory of a man whose beard was big and bushy and grey
about the edges, who wore it with pride whenever he strutted about
the high street. And in that memory no one may shave that beard
And no one would dare try.
Copyright © 2005 Steven Pirie