For Ed, because she thinks I'm going deaf.
‘Oh shit,’ said the barber. ‘Oh Jesus Christ. Oh God.’
The girl paid to sweep up hair clippings screamed and dropped the broom, which knocked over a bottle of tropical shampoo and made the salon smell even more like synthetic coconuts than it did already.
Mitchell hummed along to the Match Of The Day theme tune, briefly wondered what it was doing on his iPod, and glanced up, catching sight of the barber’s expression in the mirror.
A resourceful woman threw a towel over Mitchell’s head.
‘It’ll keep him calm,’ she said.
‘I am calm,’ said Mitchell, from underneath the towel. He removed his right earphone, felt for the other, and realised it was already dangling loose around his neck. ‘Why is there a towel on my head?’
The barber looked down at Mitchell’s ear, and prayed. He wasn’t religious, but given the circumstances it seemed like the right thing to do. Dear God, he thought, if you reattach this man’s ear I will never masturbate in the cleaning cupboard ever again.
‘I’m not enjoying this,’ said Mitchell. It was dark, and the towel smelt of old vegetable water. ‘Could somebody please tell me what’s going on?’
‘Tell him,’ hissed the resourceful woman. ‘It was your fault. You chopped it off.’
‘Chopped what off?’ said Mitchell, catching the whisper. Everything suddenly sounded very sharp and clear, like toothache or a piercing whistle. ‘I don’t mind if it’s wonky. Just do the same to the other side.’
The barber shook his head frantically.
‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea,’ said the woman.
‘I’m sure it’s fine,’ said Mitchell. ‘I said I wanted a-’
He took off the towel. The screaming girl stopped screaming, and Mitchell looked at himself in the mirror as if he were somewhere very far away. His hair was clean, for once, and shiny, and cut neatly across his forehead and in two tidy arcs above his…
‘Where the FUCK is my fucking EAR?’ he said, raising trembling fingers to the left side of his head.
‘Now don’t panic,’ said the resourceful woman, with a glance at the barber, who hid the incriminating scissors behind his back.
Mitchell turned his head to the right, and gazed at the ear-shaped patch of creamy pink skin surrounding a hole the size and shape of a cigarette butt. Behind him, reflected in the mirror, the barber held up Mitchell’s ear.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘This doesn’t usually happen.’
Then the floor-sweeper started screaming again.
‘Where’s the BLOOD?’ she shrieked. ‘Why isn’t he BLEEDING?’ The barber scratched his head.
‘Hey, that’s a point,‘ he said. ‘Does it hurt? How does it feel?’
Mitchell tried to make up his mind.
‘Lighter,’ he said.
‘That’s because I took an inch off at the back and feathered the ends,’ said the barber, drawing two strands of Mitchell’s hair down between his finger and thumb, and squinting over his head in the mirror. ‘It does look…’
The barber faded into silence.
‘A lot better. Um.’ Mitchell let the barber lead him to the front desk, where the pretty receptionist stared at him in horror.
‘Don’t look at the poor man like that,’ said the barber, elbowing her out of the way. The receptionist sidled out from behind the desk and opened her mouth.
‘No, it doesn’t hurt,’ interrupted the barber. ‘It doesn’t hurt, he’s got another one, and I don’t want any more fuss. Haircut’s on the house by the way.’
Mitchell looked down at his ear.
‘Have you got something I can take it home in?’ he asked. The receptionist emptied a box of hair grips, and slid it wordlessly across the desk.
‘Let me do that for you, Sir,’ said the barber, intercepting the box and placing the ear inside. He put on the lid, looked around for a piece of string and tied up the box with a bow, handing it to Mitchell with a weak smile.
‘Thanks,’ Mitchell said.
He thought about asking the receptionist for her number. Instead he put the box carefully into his pocket, tucked the right iPod earphone into his surviving ear, plugged the left into the hole, and exited the salon to the tune of a Pink Floyd track he really hated.
Maybe it didn’t look that bad.
Mitchell curled his toes into the bathmat and tried not to cry as he removed the emergency baseball cap he’d bought on the way to A&E.
He looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, where, staring back at him, a one-eared man holding a baseball cap peered a little closer and said: ‘Fucking fuck. Fucking fucking fuckface no-ear fuck.’
Mitchell opened the box, and tipped the ear into the palm of his hand. It was flat and grimy round the edges, the colour of milk on the turn, and the texture of car tyre. There was nothing to show that the ear had ever been attached to a head, nor any clear way to put it back on.
He dropped the ear into the sink, where it bounced down the side of the basin before coming to a halt in the plughole.
Everything went silent.
Then Mitchell took a shuddering, gulping breath, and sound rushed back in. Pipes gurgled like a stethoscope to a punctured lung. Sheets of toilet paper sank like sodden mattresses from the beds of the Titanic. A defrosting goldfish thumped in the U-bend. Someone in an upstairs flat stuck their fingers down their throat and splattered vomit through the bathroom pipes which reverberated round his skull, magnified several thousands of times, like an bag of footballs exploding in a metal drum.
It was strange and deafening and frightening, and Mitchell clapped his hands to his head in an effort to block out the noise. Eyes screwed shut, he groped for the ear and scooped it out of the sink.
Mitchell sank to his knees on the bathmat. His head was ringing. The ear was cool and damp in his hands. He held it up to the overhead strip lighting and gazed at it, panting. He held it to his right ear. Nothing. To the hole. Nothing.
Mitchell held the ear to his lips.
‘Hello?’ he whispered. No answer. Of course not. Mitchell blushed, and even the severed ear seemed to take on a tinge of pink.
Then it started to crackle.
‘Hello?’ said a female voice from inside the ear. ‘HELLO? Is anyone there?’
Mitchell stared at the ear in astonishment.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ said the woman. She pronounced her vowels and consonants ultra-carefully, as if she hadn’t had much practise. ‘Not again. I hate it when this happens.’
‘Don’t hang up!’ said Mitchell.
‘Who is this?’ said the woman, after a short pause.
‘It’s Mitchell,’ he said.
‘How did you get this number?’
‘Look, it’s a long story but somebody cut my ear off and I seem to be using it as a telephone.’
‘Oh,’ said the woman. ‘I thought you might be ringing up about the broadband.’ A pause. ‘You’re not selling anything?’ Suddenly suspicious. ‘Are you religious? You're not going to try and convert me?’
‘Listen, lady,’ said Mitchell. ‘You’re the one talking out of my ear.’ This was followed by a longer pause.
‘What are you wearing?’ she asked. ‘No, forget that. I’m wearing a tangerine dressing gown. Upstairs in 5A. First door on the left past the fire extinguisher.’
‘Um. OK,’ said Mitchell.
The line went dead.
Mitchell climbed the narrow stairs to 5A, wondering if he’d hit his head on anything sharp recently. He met an elderly woman between the second and third floors, who was clearly wondering something similar.
‘Did you know your cap’s on sideways?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ Mitchell said, pulling the visor lower as he tried to squeeze past.
‘What’s that you’re carrying?’ said the elderly woman, her moustache twitching questioningly.
‘It’s an ear,’ said Mitchell. ‘My ear, actually. Now please let me pass. I have a date with a woman in tangerine sleepwear.’
The elderly woman moved her breasts and stomach out of the way to let him through, and craned her neck to watch Mitchell’s hand leap up the banister as he took the third and fourth flights of stairs three at a time.
Mitchell knocked on the door of 5A.
He knocked again, louder. Still nothing.
‘She won’t be able to hear that,’ shouted the elderly woman, from lower down the stairwell. Mitchell leaned over the banister. ‘I said, 5A won’t be able to hear that. And put your cap on properly.’
The elderly woman shuffled off down the stairs. Mitchell turned back to the door. He cupped his hands around the keyhole and shouted ‘TANGERINE DRESSING GOWN!! ARE YOU THERE?’
He waited. He counted to ten. He uncurled his fingers and looked at the ear in the palm of his hand. Mitchell raised the ear to his lips.
‘Tangerine dressing gown?’ he whispered, glancing around to check no-one was watching.
‘Yes?’ crackled an impatient voice. ‘Are you coming or what?’
‘I’m outside!’ Mitchell said. ‘I’m standing on the doormat!’
‘Oh,’ said the voice from the ear. ‘Hold on a tick.’ After a short pause, a young woman in bare feet and a tangerine dressing gown opened the door.
‘Hi,’ said Mitchell. ‘This is going to sound ridiculous.’ He held up the ear. ‘This used to be attached to my head.’ Mitchell took off his cap. ‘But now it isn’t, and for some reason I can talk to you through it.’
The woman looked at him without saying anything.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Have I – have I got the wrong flat?’
The woman pointed at the ear.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘That’s right. We spoke on the phone. Um. On the ear. A couple of minutes ago.'’
The woman pointed at his mouth.
‘I know,’ Mitchell said. ‘It sounds stupid but I swear that really is what happened.’ He trailed off. The woman stuck out her tongue, crossed her eyes and let a small trail of drool hang from her lower lip.
‘OOO!’ said the woman, snatching the ear. ‘OOO arr ooo id!’
‘Hey, careful!’ cried Mitchell, trying and failing to grab it back. The woman in the tangerine dressing gown waved the ear in front of his face. ‘Stop it!’
She backed into the flat, holding the dressing gown closed and the ear high above her head, and Mitchell followed her warily all the way into a small bathroom full of pot plants.
The woman in the tangerine dressing gown picked up a lipstick and scrawled in big red capital letters on the white rim of the sink: YOU ARE STUPID.
‘Ooo arr ooo id!’ she said, jabbing a finger at the words.
‘I’m stupid,’ said Mitchell.
‘Ess!’ said the woman. TALK INTO THE EAR, DUMMY, she wrote, and handed it back to Mitchell.
‘I’m stupid,’ said Mitchell, into the ear.
‘No shit,’ said a female voice. The woman in the tangerine dressing gown folded her arms and rolled her eyes. ‘Jeez. Finally.’
‘Wait,’ said Mitchell. ‘This is weird.’
‘THIS is weird?’ said the voice. ‘I’ll tell you what’s weird. Spending twenty-seven years of my life learning sign language when some bozo downstairs could hear me all along.’
Mitchell stared at the woman in the tangerine dressing gown.
‘OK, no,’ said the voice. ‘This actually is quite weird.’ The woman in the tangerine dressing gown shifted from foot to foot, and tried to change the subject. ‘So you, um, live downstairs?’
Mitchell opened his mouth and closed it again.
‘Fair enough,’ said the voice. ‘I probably wouldn’t want to make small talk with an ear either. Nice meeting you.’
The woman in the tangerine dressing gown turned her back, and started rubbing at the lipstick letters with her sleeve.
Mitchell took a step towards the door.
‘Wait!’ said the voice. ‘Sorry. Just one last thing.’ The woman stopped wiping the sink. ‘What do I sound like?’
‘Who do you want to sound like?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know.’
He thought for a moment. The woman in the dressing gown turned around. Mitchell noticed that she had very nice ears.