Jasper stood rigidly, his wizened neck hiding beneath his balding head. His cagey eyes shone clear blue in the harsh summer sun as he glared at the children dancing around the Maypole with youthful glee, ribbons twirling and spinning with delight.
Jasper shifted from one foot to another before giving into the pleas of his aging limbs and lowering himself to a nearby bench, collapsing with an almighty groan that scared away the pigeons hovering nearby.
As he reached out to steady himself, his crooked fingertips found a discarded daisy chain, draped over the back of the bench. Jasper examined the flowers with narrowed eyes, their little yellow faces grinning up at him. He crushed the gleeful petals in his withered hand with cold enjoyment. He’d take no pleasure from a fanciful accessory left behind by its creator, no pleasure at all and he made certain no one else would either.
Suddenly the wind around him picked up restlessly and the Maypole, which had been abandoned by the children, began to spin at a frantic pace.
It was as though it was being twirled by a giant’s unseen hand, turning it like a child’s spinning top. Jasper’s mouth went dry as he watched the crazed Maypole, its coloured ribbons lashing the air like a ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails’. Several gaudy streamers flew out and wrapped themselves tightly around his thin frame.
The wind roared in his ears and suddenly everything went black.
Jasper awoke with a start, lifting his head abruptly and smacking the headboard with a crack. For several minutes all he could see were dots before his eyes until he caught sight of the reality of his sparse bedroom, clearly visible from beneath his bed covers.
He gradually took in his surroundings before mustering all his strength to sit up. Jasper stopped. His gaze fixed on the mirror opposite the rickety old bed. He was shocked by the reflection gazing back at him.
There was the familiar face, riddled with deep lines and wrinkles that told the story of years of pain, loneliness and despair. Some deserved, some just life’s cruel blows. He saw his brows sagging over deep sullen eyes, and his thin, unforgiving mouth.
But what was this? In place of his day-old stubble, now grew a tremendous beard. It was pure white, coarse and vulgar, and certainly not his.
Upset by his discovery, Jasper heaved himself off the bed and staggered across the room. His unsteady legs carried him over the floorboards as he scrambled round the corner and into the bathroom. He noticed bruises already appearing on his bony hip after he collided with the door behind him. Jasper lurched forward and grasped the sink. He raised his head to look in the mirror and fumbled for the scissors on the shelf. Finding them through gritted teeth, he began to shear it off. He wanted it gone and then he would take the time to work out from where it had appeared
After a frantic few minutes, Jasper was satisfied with his work. Wild eyes looked again at his reflection. He was pleased by the smooth jaw and sallow skin now visible to his discerning gaze.
His bearded image now gone, he couldn’t find the strength to decipher what had just happened. So he seized his trench coat, throwing it onto his hunched shoulders and headed out the front door, intending to forget the whole debacle.
Jasper enjoyed the brisk walk, though his aches and pains reminded him of his age with every step he took. But it wasn’t long before he began to notice a strange weight that slowed him down. Jasper took another uncertain step forward and abruptly tripped, landing headfirst, in a nearby flowerbed.
Jasper coughed and peonies tumbled from his mouth. His hostile eyes looked around in search of the perpetrator, cursing them under his breath. He caught sight of a flash of white, and blindly he grabbed hold, only to let go a moment later with a confused cry of pain. All around him lay snow white tresses, entwined with flowers and soil. The beard was back. Five…no… twelve times as long!
Jasper climbed to his feet in agony, turned around several times, feeling the distasteful thing with dismay as it swayed in the breeze. He bent down and gathered it up in his arms before hastily heading back towards home to locate his scissors once more.
It was ten minutes before Jasper felt the tiny tug on the ever-growing beard. He cautiously turned to see a small girl with eyes wide, examining his beard, captivated by the length she held in her little fist.
“Get off!” Jasper scowled, glaring at the child who was touching him with her sticky fingers. The little girl was startled and looked up, but would not relinquish his beard.
“Is it magic?” she enquired, her delicate brows furrowed in thought as she plucked a daisy out from the tangled hair.
Jasper stared. He’d never known a child to be so brazen once he’d scowled his unfriendly scowl and yelled and scolded them!
“Leave me alone,” Jasper griped, briskly snatching the hair from her grasp.
He stomped away, resuming his journey homeward. But the sound of crying stopped him in his tracks. The little girl had thrown herself to the floor and was howling in distress. He traipsed back to where she lay, and peered at her unsympathetically, eyes squinting at her dejected form.
“This is ridiculous and you are wasting my time,” Jasper remarked.
The little girl sat up without warning, her eyes glinting with tears. “I can’t find my way home,” she said in a whisper.
Dumbfounded Jasper stared at her in horror. What a day it was turning out to be. Who was this infant? Where was her mother? Why were they here together and why had her fears now become his concern? Was it really his duty to help this small child?
Gradually her sweet demeanour overshadowed the plight of his wearisome beard which paled into insignificance. Swayed by the sight of her trembling lip, his stubborn heart melted and he reached out a hand to help her up. Eyes bright, the girl took his hand and with a smile, gradually got to her feet.
As they made their way Jasper began to gently prise his rough hand from hers, only to find her little grip tightened. They were partners now, at least while they walked and until he brought her to the safety of her home. The strangeness of his beard had intrigued her and despite his harsh rebuffs, she had trusted a bearded stranger for help. Her need had diminished his.
Resigned but strangely heartened, Jasper headed off down the road, hand in hand with the little girl. Moments later he realized that the beard was beginning to shrink. Maybe he was beginning to be kind, again, enjoy life and love people once more.