I imagine the grass under their feet, their tanned, evenly pigmented feet. They’ve flicked off their thongs, which they wear without pain, without their toes in a death grip, as they settle in to a spot in the summer sun. The tan of their feet sweeps up over their ankles, along their long, leggy legs, straight and muscular, exposed in the short shorts that the hot weather demands. It is a natural, climate-appropriate style, all the way up to their singlets and their bare arms, brown and vascular. They stretch out on the grass, relaxing in the chlorophyll calm, easy grins on faces shaded by hats and caps, broad-brimmed or baseball, straw or skull, hats that fit, hats that protect, hats that look good. I imagine that grass, and it is green as fuck.
Not like the grass on my side of this UV imagery. Over here, there are no tan lines or easy grins in the sun, no singlets, no even pigment. It’s all pink and angry skin, socked and sneakered feet, trousers at all costs, and most definitely, absolutely, no well-fitting hats. If my envy conjured a lush park peopled with the sun-tolerant, my reality is a bale of hay languishing on the median strip of a highway.
So it will be for the next three months of summer, in which Australia will make me feel as welcome on her molten shores as a shit in a bathtub. Three months of shade chasing and zigzagging from awning to awning, sidling up to a lamppost at an intersection and leaning with relief into its shadow, or muttering in agitation when someone else gets there first. Genetically speaking, it is clear that I shouldn’t be here. While everyone else seems to relish the heightened sensuality of the season and the lust of exposed skin and steamy nights, I long for more layers and a bridge to hide under while I wait for a few billy goats.
Nature’s project to render me physically hilarious actually begins in October, when the first pollen dust hits the eyeballs, setting off a corporeal false alarm that will run for at least two months. With its trivial cause and symptoms that are both harmless and wholly annoying, hay fever is one of those special ailments from which a victim suffers miserably but without the benefit of any sympathy whatsoever. The frustration of all that itching and sneezing leads to a desperate search for a cure, whether gorging on local honey or coating nostrils in Vaseline or swilling liver-killing doses of antihistamine that even a Russian athletics coach couldn’t mask.
Ultimately, there is only one proven treatment: never, ever, go outside. If you have already made this mistake, you must also burn any clothing that was ever touched by pollen’s cunning and powdery fingers. There have been occasions, in the depths of blissful antigen-free winter, when I have worn a jacket for the first time since the previous spring. Within minutes I am a sniffling, swollen mess of poorly evolved humanity, confused and searching frantically in my vicinity for an explanation. Recognising the old foe’s dirty trick, I barely have time to throw off the jacket before deteriorating into a blur of limbs to the face.
It is a lifelong battle that I am destined to lose. I was once sent home from primary school because my symptoms were so bad, and although I was probably milking it a bit, I did look sufficiently ridiculous that my mum arrived with a thermos full of ice cubes to soothe my bloodshot and bulging eyes. It worked – perhaps too well, nearly sabotaging my homebound hopes – but I remember being aghast when she walked into the school office, my little brain unable to figure out why she would bring soup to a hay fever fight.
The true evil of the seasonal progression is that hay fever is at its worst when it is hot and windy, climatic conditions which alone require all of my Petri-deep character to withstand. Nevertheless, I would take either of those over prolonged, direct sunlight. Even in winter, when the sun is low and hunching between the shoulders of buildings, I cower and dodge its aggravating angle. It’s the celestial equivalent of an oncoming car cresting a hill at night, headlights now tilted as if deliberately trying to blind and run you off the road. Sitting in your car, enraged and hidden, you’ll curse the driver, the danger, perhaps the failures of their character or the misfortune of their birth. The only difference in my case is that a sunny footpath provides no such privacy.
Well, you say, buy a hat. Quite right – it was another failed attempt to do so that prompted this entire rant. There comes a time every year when I must confront my sun-phobia and the ordeal of solving it, but every year the same insurmountable obstacle looms in front of me like Gandalf to a Balrog: the shape of my head.
I realise I’ve just cast myself as a Balrog, a harsh but not useless comparison, because now try this: imagine the Balrog wearing a hat. What kind of hat could possibly fit him? What kind of hat could possibly make him look less like a danger to children? Imagine there is an answer to those questions (there isn’t), where on earth could he find that hat? That’s right. He couldn’t.
This is what it’s like when your head is as ill-suited to headwear as mine. It’s enormous, obviously, but not in a Mount Rushmore, impressively-carved-out-of-stone sense, but in a ‘the gap between the eyes of a hammerhead shark is enormous’ sense. Size is not the only culprit, however, but also the proportions, the interplay of length to width to volume to ear protrusion. My head is the embodied antithesis of the golden ratio. I am the customer that haunts the nightmares of milliners.
Hats and I were never meant to be. My favourite hat of all time was bought at the Australian Open as a young, tennis-obsessed boy. It was a white cap with a black peak and I can’t tell you how many imaginary tournaments I won while wearing it, clinched heroically in a fifth set tiebreaker, playing alone against a wall. One day, in a frenzied burst of parental tidying, it was hung on a wall-mounted light globe beside a mirror, its cheap synthetic material snug against the globe’s glass. Some hours later, in a twist you might think predictable, it caught fire. A hole was burned straight through its side, and although I carried on wearing it for some time, tufts of hair poking out through the char like the flames that destroyed it, it was never the same.
As an even younger boy, I had a broad-brimmed straw hat to protect my still freckle-free skin. I had no concept of materials or their suitability for certain tasks – having sandals made of jelly being another example – so it was a cruel shock when I was caught in a sudden downpour and the straw sagged and drooped like soggy bread. Ruined. It was another early portent of a headwear future filled with disappointment and ridicule, a fate sealed a handful of years later at the onset of my teen years. Just when puberty was beginning to dig the trenches for a long battle to come, its chemical warfare turning my undercut-perfect straight hair into a thick, wavy boof, the well-known manufacturer of sportswear, Canterbury, released a series of designs utilising random off-cuts of fabric. They had named these designs: ‘UGLIES’.
Just like the person who placed a synthetic hat in direct contact with a light globe, you should know where this is going. A hat was given to me as a present, a generous but sadly oblivious gift, with the word UGLIES emblazoned across its patchwork front. I was young enough that I hadn’t yet formed a sense of where I belonged on the aesthetic pecking order, but luckily my brother was close at hand to help me at this important stage of development. The sledging was gleeful and unsparing. One should expect to be mocked by one’s siblings, but the punch lines shouldn’t literally be embroidered on a hat for them.
So here we are at the beginning of December, and as the sun continues to wilt my resistance, I will have to subject myself to the ignominy of trying on hats in a shop. A smug young person with a small head will ignore all my anti-social signalling and thrust a hat in my direction. With bitter satisfaction, I will watch the confusion bloom in their eyes when they discover that one size doesn’t fit all, oh no not at all. I will swear at the sheer functional incompetence of most hats, at all the one inch brims and tiny peaks that are as shade-creating as eyelashes and then I’ll swear at the people who wear them just to accessorize their perfectly ordinary skulls. Finally, hot and flustered and not a little sweaty, I’ll make a bad purchase in a panic, the weight of judgement and discomfort pressuring me into a hasty buy I will regret as soon as I leave the building.
It’s almost a law of nature by now, an annual ritual as sure as the season that provokes it, much like my springtime Telfast dependence or my envy of the tanned and sun-loving. Maybe I should just embrace the sombrero, bare my shins and learn to walk in thongs like the rest of humanity, or at least stop fantasising about how green that grass must be. I know you’re supposed to just accept yourself these days, but sometimes it really is greener on the other side. Just ask any billy goat crossing a bridge.
On the other hand, they are typically heading for a lush meadow, and if I consider what that would be like – no shade and a haze of pollen in the air – my summer plan seems clear: find a good bridge, and stay under it.