and it totally looks like I just stepped out of a salon (do you know that reference? Say hello...).
So the experience of being at the hairdressers is always a weird one. I'm sure that even the most confident and self-assured person finds sitting in front of their wet bedraggled reflection awkward.
I always have. What is it about the mirror in the hairdressers that makes my face look like THAT?
My current hairdresser is lovely. And I mean it. I sit in the bright orange chair and with that cape on and the music playing loud and she is nothing but lovely. Warm, kind, thoughtful. Everything you need in a hairdresser. And she cuts my hair all nice and good. But when I do catch sight of myself, I see my hands are holding each other tightly, or my jaw is clenching. My shoes look too scuffed.
There is nothing that she does that makes me feel this way. This is like being hauled up in front of the judge. Only I'm the judge. I'm judging myself. No one else actually gives a shit. The cool looking reception girl, the junior with the experimental colour - they don't care. It's just me, and myself. Avoiding my own eye contact.
One of my first published stories was about this. Unusually, I'm going to re-publish it here. It appeared in an anthology by Earlyworks Press called 'With Islands In Mind' in 2006 - right at the start of my writing career. I think of it whenever I'm at the hairdressers, and I'd like to share it.
If you like it, please comment, or pass it on. Thanks.
The Closest Thing
Lifting up a strand of my hair, the woman braces herself and tells me: ‘You suffered a very traumatic experience about six months ago.’
She’s looking at me in the mirror - that odd, but necessary, part of the process. I avoid my own eye contact. Strand of hair still in her hand, she shakes her head at some fuzzy wisps trying to break loose. ‘Very traumatic’, she confirms.
I’m managing a weak smile. This is difficult. It's the kind of situation I hate, not the ‘reading’ (though I didn't realise that would be part of the package), but the exposure.
‘Now what would you like to drink, my darling?’ She runs through the options, while examining my hair, follicle to tip. ‘We’ve got tea – herbal and otherwise; coffee – fresh, not frozen; water – spring, not tap; fruit juice – several colours, and wine – still or sparkling.’
I open my mouth to say ‘water’ but she's eying at the ends of my hair and there's that face of concern again.
So I decide: ‘Wine would be lovely.’
‘Be right back’ she says, dropping my tale-telling hair.
I look down at my clasped hands and wonder why I’m here. I could just go now, of course. Just run away in this cape, head for the door. Go home, lock myself in.
I’m here because you made the booking. Even paid for it in advance. I found the appointment card in with some other things you left for me. ‘Please go’ written on it in biro. I panicked, then saw the date, months away. Chance to prepare, work up the courage. All of a sudden it was time.
Walking through the heavy door, I entered a house of mirrors, all ready to reveal me. Slender black silhouettes poised with scissors, sprays, intimidating style. When one of them approached to take my coat, I didn’t know how best to place myself. She managed.
'Renee will be along in a moment, take a seat.’ She ushered me to a chaise lounge and I perched.
The immaculate, middle aged Renee bustled through the salon, all arms and smiles. ‘Bettina, hi! Nice to meet you. What are we doing for you today, sweetheart?’ She furrowed her pencilled brow, not looking at me, but scanning my hair, scraped back into a pony tail.
‘I don't know, I'm erm, not really, I mean I don't – ‘
Suddenly she reached round to the back of my head and untied my hair.
‘You've got curls! Unleash these curls!’
I felt sick, this wasn't supposed to happen, not here in the waiting area anyway. She ran her hands through my hair, making elaborate noises and gasps, ‘Look at it! Wow, Bettina, look at your mane!’
I wanted to run. Then suddenly she stopped and looked at me, into my eyes and then around my face. ‘You look like - with your hair like that - you really look like someone I know.’
For a second I almost told her, but she shook the thought out of her head and smiled again. ‘Let's begin.’
Now, waiting for Renee to return, I'm wondering if wine was the right choice. You'd be proud of me, say I'm living life to the full. A mid-morning pick me up. You'd be all: why not, Bettina? Who cares, who gives a damn? Your voice in my head like that makes me look up, to see you in me in the mirror, the closest thing to bringing you back.
Renee's bustle breaks my thoughts. She's manoeuvring herself through the salon, with a glass of wine in each hand. ‘Don't fret my darling, mine's a spritzer – I shan't be too tipsy to cut your hair.’
The other stylists smile and tut and roll their eyes in a 'that's our Renee' kind of way. Now I can really see why you liked her so much. ‘She's amazing!’ you'd say, fluffing your hair in my long hallway mirror, pulling away the coats and scarves hung all over it. ‘And she knows stuff, Bets. But most importantly she knows about hair type. With our hair, you've got to be careful or you'd tie it back everyday in a pony tail.’ Your reflection eyed me, knowingly, as I stood behind you, wondering (not for the first time) how we came out of that same egg.
Renee takes a drink and smacks her lips several times. ‘First taste of the day.’ And I think – at least that's something - and I hold mine in my hand and draw stripes in the condensation.
‘Don't turn it into Art, sweetheart, drink it.’
I sniff it, as if that means something to me. It stings my nose, reminding me of those first few tastes of alcohol, of being a teenager with you. I tip the glass to my lips and take in the cold wine, hold it in the cup of my tongue for a while. This is the part where you'd tell me to 'Just drink it Bettina!' and say I was stalling. When I do swallow it, I can't tell if it's cold or hot anymore.
‘Vino, vino, vino. It's the best, you know!’
I look up to see her smiling at her rhyme, and looking into my glass I smile too, because it's funny because it's not funny, and it's something you might say.
‘That's better, a smile's what we need, Bettina! A smile and curls – the perfect combination. Now, I cut to type, like that old saying – don't cut the cloth the wrong way. Is that a saying? Who cares. I love your hair.’
Renee runs her fingers through it, pulling at strands here and there. ‘How do you want me to cut it? What do you see for us today?’
‘Um, well, it's been a while and I usually tie it up, so, something easy, so I can wash it and leave it.’
‘Brilliant. This is gold dust. I need to know about your lifestyle, your personality, because I strongly believe the cut has to suit that. Now, let's get you over to the sink, because when I'm shampooing I'm getting a map of your head.’
Shampooed and conditioned, I sit with a towel wrapped and twisted elaborately on top of my head. For all the time I spend hating my hair, I hate the bareness of my face without it. Renee loosens the towel and rubs my scalp roughly, declaring, ‘This is to enliven, I am bringing the follicles to life!’
It falls like sea weed over my face. Renee begins tugging at strands, finding a parting.
You used to say this woman had liberated you and your hair. I found this amusing. You – you were anything but in need of liberation, with your confidence and your ease. I had studied it, tried to imitate it, grown bored with it, been worn down by it. I'd been the punch line and subject of anecdotes delivered to large crowds, and have always known I was seen as a pity: a pity we were so different.
‘Now Bettina, I want you to do something for me because I just do not know how this hair wants to fall. I want you throw your head back and shake it all out.’
I scan behind me around the salon, and at Renee who is swinging my chair in encouragement.
‘Come on, throw yourself back like a rock star diva!’
I shake my soaking head a couple of times. It is not enough.
‘Come on girl, take a gulp of wine, throw your head back and give it some attitude!’ She is demonstrating in front of me, her choppy blonde bob flying and swinging in her face.
I laugh because her energy is contagious, and she is so like you it's tormenting.
‘Yield to the laughter!’ she yells and takes my hands, pulling them from side to side as I just let it all go and throw my head back, my eyes squeezed shut, my wet hair whipping my face with slashes of water.
Renee is whooping and when I stop she is clapping and I see that through the laughter I am crying a little.
I wipe my eyes and reach for the wine.
‘That feels better, doesn't it?’
‘Much.’ I mean it.
‘And let's see where this hair is falling. It wants to be a side parting you know… how do you normally wear it?’
It was one of those distinctions Mum implemented early on to tell us apart quickly. Mine in the middle, yours to the side. But it stayed with us into adulthood, though the differences became easier to spot.
‘Your hair is crying out to be side-parted Bettina, and it is my responsibility to listen to the hair.’ She holds up her hands, as if to say, 'It's out of these hands', and I wonder just whose hands we are in, then.
Renee nods, as if I have passed a test I didn't know I was taking. ‘Look at this, see? How it softens your face now, to the side.’
It feels wrong, and I'm torn between thinking you're going to tell me off for copying you, or say I should have done it sooner. But then it doesn't matter now, does it? I used to hate your unpredictability. I could worry for hours over it, only for you to not care at all.
I look up at my reflection. Suddenly I realise for the first time that you have sat in this chair and looked at yourself. And I don't care how much we might look like each other, it's not much at all really, because you would be laughing and moving your head around to see yourself better, you would be toasting the haircut, the shampoo, the day with Renee.
I've been scared of mirrors since you died, scared they would reveal you behind me as I brush my teeth.
I can see you more than ever in this one.