Danny Wallace investigates the many uses of an alleyway
"I am alone, pounding the streets of the city, hunting for a private alleyway down which I can dart in order to carry out my illicit business."
I am alone, pounding the streets of the city, hunting for a private alleyway down which I can dart in order to carry out my illicit business.
People do all sorts in alleyways these days. I remember the security guard of a building telling me in grave tones one day to avoid the alleyway behind his building. “People commit many atrocities down there!” he said, with haunted eyes, like a man who had seen too much. The word stayed with me. Atrocities. That’s a hell of a word to use.
Yet today I must find an alleyway of my own, not for atrocious reasons but for necessity.
I stayed in a hotel last night and forgot to bring any toiletries. A fact I did not realise until I had washed my hair with the hotel shampoo, which may or may not have been Fairy Liquid. Now I have stepped out into the hot, windy city and my barnet’s been blow-dried by muggy filth. It’s all weird and soft like a baby, and this is unacceptable, so I darted into a newsagents.
“Do you have any hair wax?”
I said, pleading, and this kind stranger who saw my plight directed me to the back of his shop, past the cooked sausages. Maybe this won’t be so bad, I think. Surely all the best hair products are sold in newsagents. That’s what newsagents are for. Hair products, and meat.
Yet all he had were thick, plastic towers of neon-bright gels; gels called things like ‘Fury!’ or ‘Beast’; the kind of gel that turns gentlemen’s hair into sticky black thorns. These are gels that remind me of lads’ holidays in Malia or Malaga, at can-strewn, lad-filled swimming pools that shimmer green not because of algae, but from a thick viscous layer of ‘Fury!’ coating the top.
“This will not do!” I yell (though actually I politely say, “Sorry to bother you”) and on I stride, desperate for a Boots or a Tesco Express to save me. My meeting is in 15 minutes. I am not particularly vain. The shirt I am wearing as I write this genuinely exposes most of my underarm. My trainers would have been rejected by Chaplin in The Tramp. But I will not and cannot go into this meeting displaying the soft, floaty hair of a baby. Which is just a great rule for any meeting, really.
At last I find a small supermarket. I grab a tiny tub of matt paste and, because again I don’t want to look like vanity has overtaken me, a cheese and onion sandwich. A cheese and onion sandwich offsets any notions of vanity, which is why they so rarely feature in perfume adverts.
And this is where I am now, pounding down the street, desperate for an alleyway I can quickly wax on and wax off in. Though that makes it sound wrong.
I can’t use a reflection in a car window. Nor can I ask to borrow a hand mirror, because it’s not 1885. This is alley work, pure and simple.
Yet wherever I go, it is like extras in the movie of my life are being mobilised to populate the scene. A man on a Brompton bike suddenly develops tyre problems and brings his mighty beast to a halt – outside an alleyway. A pride of policemen gather by another.
But there! A narrow, empty, pedestrianised street – that is actually on the way to my meeting. It is perfect.
Quickly, I twist open the tub of paste and subtly get some on my fingers. Too much! Not to worry. Now I walk down this alleyway rubbing my hands together gleefully, looking like an evil genius who’s just nailed another plan.
I dart into an alcove, glance nervously around, then smoosh the paste in my hair, making mad repetitive movements, at great speed, all the while checking the coast is clear. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve completely forgotten how to do it. I am out of my comfort zone, waxing in the wild with an unfamiliar brand, and nothing is the same any more.
Of course, that coast isn’t clear. There is a man pretending he is not watching me from an office window. I realise immediately this is precisely the sort of behaviour that would end up on YouTube. Whatever I have done I must live with. It is time to leave the alleyway!
I am on a street 10 seconds later. No one is looking at me oddly. I go to my meeting and no one says, “Hello baby hair, was that you scratching madly at your head in an alleyway?” And I get away with it.
Though a while later, back at the hotel, I see in the mirror that as well as my hair, I seem to have also waxed my forehead. To anybody in that meeting, it must have looked like I moisturise with some kind of wallpaper sealant.
I could feel embarrassed. But in that moment, I remember again the words of that security guard. And I congratulate myself. Because what I did in that alleyway was not an atrocity. And while simply not committing an atrocity is a very low bar, I beat it all the same.
Sometimes life is about taking whatever little win you can.
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