My Mum always said, wash behind my ears. Always. Without fail.
Every day after I’d pretended to brush my teeth and wash my face, she would march into the bathroom and give me a once over. She would scan me up and down, shake her head and then tut. As soon as that dreaded tut left her mouth, I knew I was done for. I knew that she had found me out. The subterfuge was over.
“Brush your teeth and have a wash, right this very instant.” She would say.
I would hang my head in shame and do as instructed. She would stand in the doorway, blocking my exit and watch as I completed the task. After I had dutifully brushed my teeth and washed my face, I would turn to leave. She would remain in the doorway and shake her head.
“Wash behind your ears, young man. What do I always tell you!?”
I would return to the washbasin. Lift the already sopping flannel and scrub behind my ears until I heard a satisfied “hrmpf” and the rustle of my departing mother, leaving the exit clear. I would then rush out of the bathroom and upstairs to my bedroom, free to be a little boy again, free to play with my toys and games, free to watch cartoons on the TV, free.
Back then, I was a little kid, just like any other. I would get away with what I could, and get caught most of the time, the innocent life. As I grow older, my mother left me more and more to my own devices. I was old enough now to partially fend for myself; the business of brushing my teeth and washing my face was a task I was expecting to take on my own. I was growing up, becoming a teenager, then a young man, then a full-grown adult who would leave the confines of the family home to venture forth into the cold and ruthless world.
I did an okay job, just like all the rest, but somewhere along the way, I forgot that one important lesson. The one thing my mother said to me time and time again, day after day.
“Always wash behind your ears.”
Why did I forget that simple message? Was it an act of rebellion? Juvenile deviance? Childless mutiny? I’m not sure. Maybe I just forgot? Either way, I let that significant message slip away from me. It never occurred to me that there might be more to it than a simple everyday task. It never even entered my mind that there might be something else in that message. A message that mothers all around the world had tried to pass on to their sons and daughters. Always wash behind your ears.
How could I know? Why didn’t someone explain the details to me?
So, there I was. A full-grown adult in my late twenties. Things hadn’t been so bad. I lived with a few guys who I went to university with, a group who didn’t want to go home but hadn’t plucked up the courage just yet to go it alone or take the plunge with a partner. I lived the way most single people lived. Nine to five. Live for the weekends. Drank too much. Smoked the occasional cigarette on a Saturday night. Standard really.
Somewhere along the way, I just forgot to wash behind my ears. I just stopped caring about it. I didn’t see the big deal. As I said, no one had explained the truth to me. How long it had been going on, I have no idea. Years? Over a decade? Who knows, either way, there I was in bed. The backs of my ears unwashed, trying to get to sleep on a work night, when suddenly, I heard it.
“Hallo? Hallo? Can you hear me, chum?”
I quickly sat bolt upright in my bed, the covers falling off me in my haste.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
I couldn’t work out where the sound coming from? It was quiet, as if from a distant. I waited in silence for an answer, my heart beating in my chest. Time seemed to stretch on forever, until I heard it again.
“Hallo? I can hear you, chum? Can you hear me?”
I leapt out of bed in a panic. Where was this voice coming from? I quickly raced to the window and threw the curtains open and pressed my face up against the cold glass. I peered up and down the road, but it was empty. I turned and ran to the door and pulled it open. The hallway was as empty as the outside. Where could this voice be coming from? I returned and sat down heavily on the bed. I glanced at my digital clock. It was nearly midnight.
I sat for a minute and listened as hard as I could, but the voice had gone. I climbed back into bed and pulled the covers back over myself and rested my head against the headboard. The ordeal had given me a fright and sleep was well and truly gone. I leant over to grab my book thinking that a few chapters might bring on tiredness, when I froze mid-motion. The voice had returned.
“Look, before ya start running around, chum, just hold on a sec. Just hear me out please, I can explain.”
Despite my fright, I remained calm and returned to leaning against the headboard and waited. What else could I do? I considered that it might be a dream, but I was willing to let it play out. Or at least I hoped it was a dream, rather that, than insanity. I waited. Finally, the voice came back again.
“Thanks, chum. All that running around does an arf make me dizzy.”
The voice followed it up with a chuckle. I couldn’t quite place the accent, but it was vaguely southern, possibly somewhere in London, it had a cockney tinge to it. The voice continued.
“Na then, chum. We can talk. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to talk to ya. First thing first, let me introduce me self. My name is Bob.”
The voice fell silent. I was dumbstruck. What was happening, I wondered? Whoever it was clearly was waiting for a reply. I had no choice but to answer the man, wherever he was, if he was anywhere.
“Nice to meet you.”
Not a very good reply I’ll admit, but the situation was unusual. The voice began again.
“That’s great. Na that we have been properly introduced, I need ya to do me a favour. This might sound crazy, but trust me, this will make it easier. Grab ya phone and open it to the camera for a selfie.”
I looked around and found my phone in its usual spot on the bedside draw. Picking it up, I unlocked it and flipped the camera so that I could see myself in its reflection.
“Great, thanks for that, chum. Na, hold it and bring it so that ya can see behind ya left ear.”
My left ear? This was getting stranger and stranger by the moment. Surely, it was a dream, I thought. How could it be anything else? Dutifully, I did as the voice, Bob, had asked and brought the phone so that it was facing behind my left ear.
“Great, na take a picture.”
I sighed and took a picture. This one will be a hard one to explain away tomorrow when I’m late for work, I thought, but I took the photo anyway.
“Na, take a look at the picture.”
I swung the phone back around and looked at the screen, expecting to see the back of my ear. My tired eyes focused on the picture and my heart stopped. I nearly keeled over right then and there, but somehow, I held it together. There on the screen, underneath my ear, was a tiny face. Just standard features, eyes, nose, mouth and a rather impressive brown moustache which curled up at the tips, the same colour as my hair, I vaguely noted. My mouth hung open. Before I could process what was taking place, the voice began again.
“Sorry to break the news this way, chum, but it had been going on for long enough. I couldn’t go on forever, not saying anything. It’s been murder keeping shtum, I can tell ya that right na.”
My head began to spin, and I let the phone slip out of my hand to the bed with a plop. What was happening? Had I gone completely insane? Was this just a bizarre dream I was going to wake up from? I asked these questions to myself, but neither seemed like the truth. I was sure I was awake and I still had my faculties about me. The truth, as incredible as it seemed, was that there was a small face underneath my left ear and it could talk. Minutes passed by in silence while I mulled this over until finally, Bob broke my reverie.
“Look, chum. I know this has been a bit of a shock, but ya’ve only got ya’self to blame, ya see. Didn’t ya Mum always tell ya to wash behind ya ears? I mean come on, chum, that was some good advice right there. Should have listened to her, mothers are a wise breed. They’re the collective memory of the whole of humanity, you know. They say do something, ya do it or else there’s trouble.”
Bob fell silent again. I was stunned. He had chastised me thoroughly. The worst part of it was he was right. I hadn’t washed behind my ears in years. It had all come back to me, my mother telling me to wash behind them when I was a child. What a fool I had been, I realised. I didn’t really know what to say, but I mustered up enough courage to reply.
“Sorry about that.”
I heard a slight expelling of breath from Bob. Where that breath was coming from was a mystery to me, but I decided not to dwell on the matter until I knew the full details of the situation.
“Na worries, chum. It happens. Ya’ll find ya aren’t the only one, I can promise ya that.”
I ventured a question. “Erm, Bob… is this… erm… a permanent fixture? Will you be… erm… be with me forever?”
Another sigh, this one longer, so much so, that I felt it slightly on the bottom of my ear.
“I’m afraid it is chum. That’s how it works apparently. I’m not sure the fine details, ya understand, but I know enough to say that it’s permanent. Na before ya start, this isn’t a great situation for me as well, ya know. I aren’t too thrilled with the prospect of living underneath ya left ear. Especially considering the state it’s in, I can tell ya. That’s going to stop right now. And while we are on the subject, there’s going to be a few changes going forward. I’ve got a few ideas that I promise ya will make a big difference, and before ya say anything, there’s no use arguing. Ya don’t want me talking in ya ear all day and night that’s for sure, but if ya’re willing, we can make this work.”
Bob fell silent again. Clearly, he was waiting for me to contemplate this new information. I sat for a few moments and did just that. Of course, there was a temptation to go downstairs and grab a kitchen knife and gouge the little bastard out from his spot and have done with it, but I hesitated. I mean, I was and still am a vegetarian, how could I kill a living, breathing, sentient being if I didn’t even eat chicken? It was a tough one. The reality of the situation was that if I wasn’t going to kill him, then I would just have to live with him. I sighed; it was long and deep, before answering.
“Okay, Bob, you have a deal. I’d say we should shake it on, but I’m not sure that’s possible.”
Bob burst into laughter. “Na that’s the spirit! I knew ya could be reasonable! Just think of it as a new and beautiful partnership.”
I stop talking and look around at the others in the circle. A few of the group nod their heads along in agreement, one of them is nearly in tears. I come here once a month to meet up with others. We’re all in the same boat. We all didn’t listen to our mothers and we all now have faces underneath our ears. We in this group choose to live with it. Most find a happy equilibrium. Some find it harder than others.
Luckily for me, I get along well with Bob, unless of course, the football is on, then we argue something rotten but other than that we’re friends. We even went on a date with Julie from the group. She and I had hit it off immediately. Bob and Carol are slowly warming to each other, I think. Only time will tell. For now, I’m happy enough with the situation.
Would I prefer to have Bob there or not? That’s a hard question to answer. Some days I just wish I’d listened to my mother when she had said those fateful words – “Always wash behind your ears.”