I’ve always had a thing for hairy girls. I think it is because of my mother. I remember her rocking me to sleep when I was sick and my little fingers used to pull at the long tufts of dark hair on her arms, coiling them into little tendrils. To me that is the only rational explanation. My mother was a hairy woman and I think I equate that now, with warmth and nurturing.

My first crush was Tammy Wilkinson who had a fine down of soft brown hair which ran over her neck, disappearing beneath her little school uniform collar when she sat in front of me in Year Six. I always wanted to reach forward and stroke it but I never did. Over the years, girls and women became more self-conscious of their hair, tying it up into braids and buns, plucking away eyebrows until they were pencil-thin, waxing every square inch of their bodies. To me they all seemed to be in denial pretending to be those rubbery Sphinx cats instead of the magnificently lush Siamese felines that they were. In a crazy world where a Brazilian became an actual thing, I felt like a man lost and bewildered. Out of touch. The only real primate in the village.

The first time I saw Gretel Lynch I was sucker-punched. She was the new girl in the office, the first point of call for our business clients. At first glance I thought she looked to be wearing a cloak of some kind, a shawl, as if she was burying herself away nervously, shyly. But as I stood, speechless, beside the water-dispenser, my jaw slack, my spectacles making a slow slippery descent down my nose, my interest turned to captivation as the girl walked passed me and smiled and I realised that she was not wearing any kind of head covering but rather, the girl was blessed with an all natural, lush and tropical dark mane that she wore with palpable pride. She was all hair. Gretel Lynch was positively Amazonian. It haloed her face and fell in a thick dark blanket around her shoulders, curling, undulating about her head almost all the way to the gentle curve of her hip. In a small pale face her eyebrows threaded an unbroken, sturdy bridge across her brow above deeply intelligent eyes and her peach- blossom lips were dusted with the faintest tantalising whisper of fine shadowy fuzz.

I loved Gretel from that first encounter. I sought her out in the office, in the cafeteria, just to catch a glimpse of her resplendent loveliness. The trouble was, I was a senior accountant in the firm and she was a front desk girl and the company had a strict policy against employees becoming romantically involved. Les Alderson and the coffee trolley lady had both been fired less than a month earlier for going on one date to Sizzler. It was an ironclad rule in the office and was strictly enforced.

The other glabrescent girls who all looked like Mexican hairless Chihuahuas when standing beside her, shunned Gretel, whispering and giggling behind their smooth Mattel hands, deliberately organising after-work drinks without inviting her along. They saw themselves as the embodiments of perfection against this one untamed spectacular woman. In those first few weeks the others spoke to her as if was an alien, as if somehow she had missed the memo that to be beautiful one must be bald for all but a little ironed curtain of pale hair falling about the scalp. The vacuous mass of the female hive could not wrap their scant heads around the fact that a woman might want to shake her tresses and proudly display the shaggy decorations that nature bequeathed her.

One day I heard two girls pass by my cubicle and whisper.

She could be attractive if she only used a razor and some wax. Or a chainsaw.

Followed by cruel laughter.

I wanted Gretel so badly. I loved her not in spite of her fleece but because of it. This was the very root of my obsession. I knew that. But my infatuation became a fever that would not break. A sickness. I maintained an adoring surveillance of Gretel from a distance for some months. The closest I ever came was standing behind her in the cafeteria some days and I would inhale the musky scent of her hair and hold my breath for as long as possible before releasing it, hoping that some of that fug would seep into my very being. I hated the way the other girls huddled at the far end of the long table, running their long white fingers through the glossy flat bobs on their heads while casting furtive looks of pity down toward Gretel. I wondered if on some primal level they weren’t jealous of this exotic beast of a woman. Her hair was lustrous and thick to the point of making me want to sob and her face was open and relaxed, revelling in its beauteous naturalness. It was a rare thing and I think it frightened them.

Gradually I began to take in more about Gretel Lynch than just her hair. Beneath the dark tentacles that fell from her shoulders was the rise of a sumptuous chest and I felt drawn to nestle into it and be rocked to sleep. I could make out her voice from the front foyer, separating it like a lamb from the flock and I shut my eyes and let myself caress the rich cadence of it. As time went by Gretel grew more unattainable. I was raising her onto an unreachable platform, a dais of unrealistic perfection. My fantasies of her were forcing her higher and higher away from me like a retreating helium balloon toward a bottomless sky.

I had never dated a woman. I lived alone with three cats. All Turkish Angoras. Gretel was the first woman who had come along and bellowed the embers of lust in my loins. And yet we barely spoke. Some mornings when Kelly was away, Gretel would bring in my daily schedule. I liked it printed out so that I could scribble on it. I would nod and mutter something through a dry mouth while a blush would creep up my neck to fan out over my cheeks.

And then one day toward the end of the financial year, our busiest time in the office, Gretel appeared in my cubicle and asked me if I would fix up her income return for her that year. Me. It was a cold morning in the office because the heating was broken and a repair man was standing on a step ladder in the foyer, working on it, while the Sphinx kittens in high heels and short skirts mewled over the curve of his arse in his overalls.

I looked up from my desk at Gretel, my heart hammering like a runaway timpani and I carefully placed my red pen at the top of my worksheet and then knitted my fingers together as if in prayer. She moved closer to my desk and I could smell the lavender shampoo like a perfumed halo around her. Her face was full of happiness, even I could see that. She looked like a woman in love. I have seen that look on television in movies. My heart leapt, wondering if perhaps my feelings were reciprocated although they seemed hidden, almost out of sight, repressed, beneath a nervously bitten lip. She was so close, her hand resting on the desk, tiny tufts of dark course hair sprouting from her finger joints. I wanted to reach out and touch her. I wanted to tell her she was the most beautiful Grizzly Bear of a woman I had ever seen. Frida Kahlo, my long-time pin-up girl, paled in comparison. Gretel smiled and took a strand of her own hair in her hand and twisted it about her palm, one finger circling and I felt the bottom of my belly drop and my pulse quicken.

I am the very cliché of an accountant. I am nervous around people. Socially stilted. Anxious when confronted by anything warmer and fleshier than a ledger of neat numbers. But of course, the cliché is not true, the stereotype. My firm is filled with young men in tight pants with neat beards and horn-rimmed glasses who charm the very pants off the office girls. The new generation of accountants seem like rock-stars compared to my graduating year back in the dark ages. Gretel was younger than me – in fact – quite a bit younger.

I was an anxious man around women and I broke out in a sweat when one got too close. Worry and concern about whether they found me repulsive or not, hung over me like a thick fog of pollution. My father had left my mother before I was born so I was never sure how to be around women. I knew I was more like my father than my mother but I never managed to find out if that was a good thing or not.

My clients were mostly men. I’m not sure why that was but it suited me fine.

“I have written a book,” she told me softly, her body twisting with embarrassment. “I’ve made a little money on the side with it. All the other girls get Tony to do their tax but I don’t want him to know about ….about my book. I trust you to keep it on the quiet.”

I was flustered. She was confiding in me. Gretel Lynch wanted me to do her return. Tony Hadley was the office pin-up boy. He was what the young people called a hipster. He wore his hair short but for a long ginger beard that tufted up at the end like a goblin’s shoe. He wore ghastly tight nylon shirts and his jeans were spray painted onto twig-like legs. I couldn’t see the appeal. He looked like a juvenile Ned Kelly without any of the old bushranger’s bravado. He was an arrogant little tosser who couldn’t balance a ledger to save his life. If he wasn’t the boss’s son I doubted that he’d have the job.

Gretel slid a manila folder over the desk to me and put her finger to her lips and winked. Her stout long brow creased like a crow in flight over her nose and a dark lock of hair fell over one eye. Her forearm was a warm fuzzed meadow of dark hair and I longed to twist them into little knots in my fingers.

That night I sat in front of the computer and looked up the title of the book. On my desk lying in the opened folder was the annual statement from Gretel’s literary agency. She had made three thousand and eighty six dollars in royalties for ‘It’s Raining Men.’ I tried to keep an open mind but from the cover and blurb I read it seemed my girl had written an erotic fiction book, the sort of bodice-ripper that housewives all over the planet were soaking up these days. I got out my credit card and bought an online copy. My first ever e-book.

That night I lay back against a stack of pillows in bed and read the book in one sitting until my eyes ached and my left hip throbbed. I found it so hard to believe that my Gretel could have written the words that I had read. It was a steamy romance with plenty of spice. Her heroine was a self-portrait of loveliness. She described her ample, voluptuous body and her swing of dark hair. She tousled with a man and I imagined I was him. Mr Green. She gave him a beard in the story. I don’t have a beard but I figured she was disguising me because she was embarrassed and didn’t want to be obvious. It briefly occurred to me that the bearded man was not me but I pushed the concern aside.

I did her tax return. It was a simple and straightforward affair. Gretel got a nice return and she told me she would put it toward a trip to Bali.

“I had hoped the book would be a best-seller so I could become fabulously rich and famous,” she had laughed in my office, her hair catching the sunbeams that filtered through the blinds. “But real life’s not like that. Writing will just continue to be a hobby.”

She gave a shrug and walked away, her long locks bouncing against her derriere.

I told no-one of my obsession though I wondered if the others in the office were on to me. More than once I caught furtive grins from some of the younger lads as I shuffled behind Gretel in the lunch queue. Spring gave way to Summer and I kept my ear to the ground and bristled at rumours that Tony Hadley, the hipster with the new snake-skin shoes, was courting my hirsute princess. The stories were just idle gossip.

I stayed in Gretel’s shadow. I became less attentive to my work when she moved into the cubicle opposite me after a promotion. My work-mates assumed my distraction was the usual pre-Christmas malaise that settles on people at that time of the year but in my case, Christmas was the last thing on my mind.

I re-read her book, “It’s Raining Men,” over and over so that I could almost recite it. I liked the story.

One day, I was alone with Gretel in the lift and out of the blue I found myself suddenly emboldened.

“I read your book and I liked it,” I told her. She looked startled.

“And I like you too,” I blustered.

It just came out like a surprise fart. I was mortified. It was like my mouth had disengaged from my brain and gone rogue. Gretel burst into tears and hurried away as soon as the lift opened on the ground floor. I fled to the safety of the newsstand in the foyer and tried to convince myself that it was all just a bad dream and that I would wake up drenched with relief.

The festive season descended and the office was covered in tinsel. A tree appeared and we were all given a Secret Santa name on a slip of paper and had to buy a gift for that employee anonymously and put it under the tree. I got Tony Hadley.

On the last day before the holiday fortnight, at the close of business, we congregated in the reception area for the staff Christmas party. There were red and white hats and candy canes galore. Champagne flowed and the mood was jolly. I sipped a drink and made small talk with the boss. He asked me if I was thinking yet about retirement. I shrugged and muttered something about a five year plan. For over an hour I drank cheap bubbly and made polite small-talk with all the young number crunchers, the new generation of snazzy dressers and loud laughers.

The gifts were handed out. My Secret Santa had given me a spotted bow-tie. Everyone clapped. The bow-tie was my thing. I had worn one every working day of my life. I owned forty-seven. Now forty-eight. Gretel received a pretty, floral photo frame. I watched nonchalantly as the hipster opened my gift and frowned at the cheap plastic razor. People around him laughed and slapped him on the back. Time to trim the squirrel they guffawed.

I adjusted my green and red Christmas bowtie and ran a hand over my sweating scalp as Tony Hadley sidled up to me and began telling jokes. He was witty, handsome, young and hairy; everything that I was not. When Gretel joined us I jerked like a startled horse.

“I wasn’t lying when I said I loved your book,” I said in a rush and immediately clapped a hand over my renegade mouth.

“Oh, you and everyone else,” smiled Tony. “Isn’t that right darling? It’s a bestseller!”

I didn’t know whether to be more startled that Tony Hadley knew of the book or that he had called her darling. Both hit me like poison arrows.

“That’s right,” Gretel smiled and I noticed for the first time that she now had two eyebrows, the gap between them glaring at me like a shiny white line down the middle of a road. “It suddenly went crazy and they started selling like hot cakes. I’m leaving the firm. Handed in my resignation today. Tony and I are getting married.”

“I guess you figured who Mr Green was?” Hadley winked at me and I felt ill.

There was nothing else for me to say. I went home early and missed their big announcement to the revellers.

With a glass of port I sat in the spare room surrounded by the mountains of books, jutting up around the walls like leaning towers of Pisa; hundreds, thousands of them. I opened one and read it again. Every reference to the hero’s hair had been neatly ruled out with a black felt-tip marker. Mr Green had been neatly shaved in print to more resemble me.

I looked at my reflection in the cold television in the corner of the room. I looked like a golf ball, all white and smooth. I ran a hand over my face, a face devoid of hair; eyebrow-less, whisker-less. I thought back to my diagnosis from the doctor of alopecia at the age of eleven. Gretel didn’t know how lucky she was to be blessed with so much hair; so much hair that even thinking about it made my pulse race. It broke my heart to think of Tony Hadley, that weasel of a man with his trendy shoes and well-oiled beard. I blamed him for that travesty of the eyebrow bisection. Even her top lip had been adulterated with wax, obliterated. He was whittling away her true beauty, making her less than she was.

Back in the office after Christmas, I lingered at her desk. The personal touches were gone, the photo frame of her dog, a German Shepherd, gone. The coffee cup with the Keep Calm logo. Gone. But on the corner of the white Formica desk-top, I saw something that made me gasp and my belly flutter. A hair. One long, dark, wisp of hair. I picked it up carefully and walked slowly back to my own cubicle. I sat. I pulled out my top drawer and I opened the little silver box and whirled it into a coil and let it fall to join the others. I had a little nest of black hair now and enough, I warranted, to weave it into a tiny plait that I could run through my fingers to comfort me, to nurture me. My own little Gretel Lynch braid of love.

By Nikki McWatters from Australia

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