Vanilla bright like Eminem

Don is just about to experience the happiest moment of his life
January 20, 2004

Don, son of people no longer living, husband of Alice, father of Drew and Aleesha, is very, very close to experiencing the happiest moment of his life. It's 10.03am according to his watch, and he is travelling down through the Scottish highlands to Inverness, tired and ever so slightly anxious in case he falls asleep between now and when the train reaches the station, and misses his cue to say to Alice, Drew and Aleesha: "OK, this is Inverness, let's move it. His wife and children are dozing, worn out by sightseeing; the responsibility rests on his shoulders. He doesn't know that the train terminates in Inverness and that everyone will be told by loudspeakers to get out; he imagines it rolling smoothly on, ferrying them farther south, stealthily leaving their pre-booked bed & breakfast behind. This is his first visit to Scotland; the film in his camera has only two shots left; there's no Diet Coke on the refreshment trolley; his wife's head sags forward, giving her a double chin; big raindrops skid silently against the thick glass of the train windows.

Don and his family have occupied the table seating on both sides of the central aisle: eight seats in all, for four people. He reassures himself that this is OK: the train isn't very full. Plus, he and his family are big people: Americans, head and shoulders above most of the other passengers. Drew, just turned fifteen, is five-eleven; Don is six-two. Both of them have hands like boxers. Three hours ago, on the way down to breakfast in an overheated hotel near Dunrobin Castle, Drew had a little blowout and said "Fuck you, Dad," but they've made up since then, and Don is two minutes away from the big moment.

Alice and Aleesha are across the aisle, slumped opposite each other, their sports bags propped in the window seats, too bulky for the overhead baggage rack. Aleesha, still a child at thirteen despite her budding breasts and chipped white nail polish, has snoozed off in the middle of reading Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her thin arm dangles in the aisle, bracelets of chewed multi-coloured cotton hooped around her knobbly wrist. Her mother is dreaming uneasily, digging her head into the back of the seat as if registering her frustration with its pitiless design. Alice is forty, and hates being forty. Every month, three days before her period, she starts complaining about her body and its worsening imperfections, and Don has to tell her whatever she wants to hear, which takes some guessing.

The happiest moment of his life so far, besides the one he's about to experience, was when he saw Alice waiting for him outside what was then still called Kentucky Fried Chicken, and she smiled at him, and they both knew they were going to drive straight to Ben and Lisa's empty beach house and make love to each other for the first time. Those three days at Ben and Lisa's place were magnificent, and he felt such joy in bed with Alice, getting to know her in that way; but her smile when he had approached her - that smile of welcome and anticipation and conviction that she was doing the right thing - that was a more memorable thrill than anything they did afterwards. Standing in that doorway under an icon of Colonel Sanders, she was wearing a little black dress with a tan raincoat loosely buckled over it: very French, or so he thought then, never having been to France but having seen movies set there.

Today Alice is wearing a khaki-coloured T-shirt and a loose flannel shirt over that: travelling gear. Her little black dress presumably still exists, but it hasn't hugged Alice's body for years. A pity. Don always cherished a fantasy of taking her to Paris one fall. She would wear her dress and raincoat, he would somehow manage to be equally stylish, and the two of them would walk through a park strewn with plum-coloured leaves. But by the time they'd finally got to France in the summer of '97, there were no romantic strolls. Don and Alice had needed all their energy for arguing with the kids about the Louvre versus Eurodisney. And, to their disappointment, the French all seemed to be wearing Gap and Adidas.

Don looks down under the table. He's wearing trainers on his huge feet, military pants. In Scotland, "pants" means underwear. His military pants have lots of pockets and zips and drawstrings and toggles, more than anyone could find a use for. It's a fashion thing, and he wonders if he's too old for it. Yesterday, Aleesha was sitting next to him on a different train from this one, and she unzipped a pocket in the calf of his pants, just to see what was in there. It was a toddlerish action, an innocent gesture of playfulness and boredom, but he felt the charge of her maturing sexuality and was disturbed by it. "That's kinda dumb, Dad," she'd said, dabbling her fingers in the unzipped slit of fabric, a pocket too narrow for anything bigger than a pen, assuming you'd want a pen stowed against your calf. Idly, Aleesha had zipped him up again.

He looks across the table at his son. An inflatable neck cushion is acting as a pillow for Drew's cheek; his brow rests on his muscular forearms; his hands are loosely balled into fists. From this angle, he's not the world's most good-looking kid. His nose is in the process of mushrooming into the same bulbous schnozzle that all the males in Don's family have had for generations; his lips are swollen, bee-stung, more feminine than Aleesha's - an observation that would enrage him if he knew. And, all over his skull, where there used to be a shaggy brown mop of heavy metal hair, is now... The Haircut. The haircut they argued over endlessly.

"You can't bleach your hair like Eminem. You'll look like an idiot. He looks like an idiot."

Drew had sighed, his shoulders hunched against the weight of the pre-senile ignorance being heaped on them.

"Eminem is cool. Besides, it's my hair, and my money."

Frightening, how a sentence of only ten words could provide fuel for so many hours of dispute. Whose money was Drew's money? What did he have to do to make it his own? Was it his if he chose to spend it on boy scout crap or some old Bruce Springsteen record, but not if he spent it on Eminem? And whose hair was Drew's hair, exactly? (Don felt like a maniac arguing about this, but on the other hand wasn't it true that he and Alice had created that hair, and the head on which it grew, one night - or maybe one day - 15 years ago? Every follicle on Drew's scalp was made according to their secret genetic recipe, and nurtured from egg to brunette boy.) Who did Drew think he was fooling, pledging fellowship with ghetto youth and the hip-hop scene, chanting along with lyrics about smackin' bitches and fuckin' wit da wrong niggaz, when he was a white kid living with his folks in the suburbs of West Springfield, with a holiday in Scotland on the horizon? To which Drew's response was that maybe he wouldn't be living with his folks much longer, not the way their attitude was making him puke, and they could shove their trip to Scotland, he'd rather hang out with his friends here, and anyway, Eminem was white, so what's your problem?

Which provoked Don to tell his son exactly what his problem was. Eminem, he said, was a walking invitation for kids to give up on everything and wallow in negativity. Thanks to rap stars like him, kids were being sold pessimism the way they were once sold chewing gum. Kids who were too young to know a damn thing about the big wide world were coming to the conclusion that planet Earth was rotten to the core and there was nothing to be done about it except buy CDs and T-shirts.

Alice, trying to stop the conflict getting too global, suggested that Eminem had the right shape of face for bleached, close-cropped hair, but that it wouldn't suit Drew's features at all.

"It's only fuckin' hair!" Drew had yelled. "What is it with you people?" He was cursing a lot lately, whenever he got mad, mostly at his father, but even sometimes at his mother. Every time he yelled "fuck," Aleesha would flinch, as if someone had just thrown a glass against the wall.

Now Drew lies sleeping on his inflatable cushion, his arms freshly sunburnt, his hair close-cropped and creamy white. His shoulders are well muscled, almost a man's shoulders, and Don realises all of a sudden that his son is better built than Eminem can ever be - taller, stronger, fitter, handsomer.

Aleesha wakes from her doze, roused by a sudden beam of sunshine. She squints through the window in case it's Inverness already, then looks to her father for confirmation that it's not. He shakes his head and she smiles. Why the smile? He doesn't know, but he smiles back.

Aleesha leans sideways into the aisle, stretching her arm across the empty space towards her brother. In her hand is the comb she was using as a bookmark just before she fell asleep. Carefully, oh so slowly, she runs the teeth of her comb through her brother's hair. Time slows right down. The comb lifts the nap of Drew's crop, revealing rich brown roots under the bleached exterior. The way it lifts and resettles as the comb passes through it is mesmerising, like watching wheat being rustled by the breeze.

Drew doesn't stir; he's either deeply asleep or determined to ignore his sister. She combs on, tenderly, aware of her dad watching her, aware of the spell she's casting over him. Drew's hair lifts and resettles, lifts and resettles, the bristles soft as a brand-new paintbrush, luxury bristle, mink fur. It's a good haircut after all, damn it. In fact, it's the best haircut Drew has ever had, the best haircut on this train, the best haircut in all of Scotland north of Inverness, maybe the best haircut in the world.

Out of the corner of his eye, Don sees Alice repositioning herself, laying her head down on her bag, shifting her weight from her butt to her side. The swell of her butt is sexy, and he gets a glimpse of her naked flesh where the T-shirt has come untucked from her jeans. He still wants her. He's looking forward to the next time they're alone together in a bed, at home or not at home, anywhere where he can run his palms over her warm skin and stroke her hair off her face.

His son snoozes on the table in front of him, a big man of a son, hair feathery and vanilla bright, almost too bright in the sunlight, and above it hovers the beautiful hand and arm of his daughter, coloured cotton bracelets dangling from her wrist, which flexes rhythmically as she grooms the white pelt of her one and only brother, grooms him pointlessly, for he's as combed as combed can be, except that there is a point, because this is the happiest moment of Don's life.

In thirty seconds from now, a refreshments trolley will come down the aisle, and Aleesha will be asked by a stunted guy in a uniform to move her arm please, and she'll put it back and Don's happiness will ebb a little, just enough to make it no longer the happiest moment of his life, but that's OK, because it was a long moment, longer than Alice's smile in the doorway of what has since been renamed KFC. In fifty seconds from now, Aleesha will ask her mother if she can have a chocolate bar, and Drew, still slumped motionless on the table, will say, in a deep voice and distinctly, "Is there any Pepsi?" In half an hour they will be in Inverness; in three days they will be home; in two years Aleesha will announce to her parents that she's always hated the name Aleesha, it sounds like one of those dumbass names that black people invent, and she's going to call herself Ellen from now on. And in five years, despite her parents' confident predictions, Ellen won't have grown out of being Ellen, she'll still be Ellen and she'll have had an abortion and her smile will be different, lop-sided and a little discoloured by smoking, but she'll be engaged to a man who adores her, and pregnant with a baby she intends to keep.

And by then, Drew will be living in South America somewhere, and Don and Alice will never see him any more, and their friends will say that they must be very proud of what he's trying to achieve there, and they'll say yes, they're proud, and they'll show these people a photograph of Drew on a construction site in what looks like a shanty town, and he'll be wearing glasses perched on his gigantic schnozzle, his dark brown hair slicked with water and sweat. And Alice will go and make coffee, walking stiffly because of her tennis shoulder which isn't tennis shoulder at all but the first signs of the illness that will kill her when she's fifty-nine, after which Don will tell everyone he'll never be able to love another woman, but three years later he'll marry one of the people he said this to, and she'll be warm and funny and a great cook and not as good in bed as Alice but he'll never tell her that, he'll die before he tells her that, because she'll make him happy, happier than he ever expected to be in his old age, happier than any of the other miserable old coots that live in his neighbourhood, happier than he's ever been, in fact, except for maybe a couple of isolated moments, like the smile of a young woman waiting to be his lover, her face glowing in the light of a fast food franchise, and like the hand of his daughter floating above the head of his son, on this morning in a Scottish train, the haircut making everything worthwhile, shining so bright it leaves a pattern on your retina when you close your eyes, vanilla bright like Eminem.