Thursday, 12 July 2012

Back from the hairdressers

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
Teresa Stenson  
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.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Kerry Hudson writes a letter to herself

Kerry Hudson is here to celebrate the launch of her debut novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, out now and oh-so-enthusiastically recommended. She's been hot-trotting around the internet all week, answering questions, sharing her publishing experience, giving advice. Today's stop-off is a little different. Today Kerry is talking to herself, specifically herself at 17 (pictured). Enjoy. 


Dear Kerry,

It is your 17th birthday and you are raw and a bit lost at the moment. It hasn't been an easy year. Today a nice friend called David who you've confided in (he is 17, is on the dole and lives by himself in a bedsit but he wants be a teacher one day) will make you celebrate your birthday. He'll take you to a Wetherspoons in Norwich and treat you to a burger and a pint and then you'll go to the cinema together. You'll both try to be cheerful and talk in a hallow way about the big, bright futures you both intend to have as you chew the dry burger and unpeel your arms from the sticky table top. When you catch the train home to Great Yarmouth that night you'll write in a journal with the neon furry cover. When I look at the writing now I see that it is frantic, your pen pressing hard against the paper. You'll write in that childish choice of a journal about such adult things: how guilty you feel and that you should be grateful for just being healthy and having the chance to have a better future but instead that you feel useless and hopeless. You lose touch with David when you leave college but you're grateful to him all these years later for that small kindnesses he showed then, for listening, and holding tight to your secrets like good friends should.

I want to go back to that girl I barely recognise from pictures; a serious, confrontational stare into the camera, eyes too grown up and skirt too short for that skinny little body. I want to take you for a big walk, as an adult you love to walk, miles and miles across whatever city you're in. In my mind I take you for a walk up the coast of Great Yarmouth, beyond the noise and lights of the arcades to where there are only dunes and neat suburban houses. I'll tell you that you think you want to be an actress but that is simply because you love stories and one day you will write whole worlds instead.  I'll tell you even though you've been told that girls like you, from the estates you come from, have nothing to say worth hearing, you'll see that isn't true. People will listen if you speak up. You will go to London and you'll fall in love and know what it is to feel safe with another person. At seventeen you haven't been on a plane yet, or abroad - you haven't even been on a holiday but one day you'll travel the world. You'll go places where the only way you can communicate is to smile at everyone around you and you'll smile a lot in your adulthood. I want to promise you you'll carve yourself a happy, purposeful life and because of where you came from you'll be grateful for each small thing: a good meal, a book you can't put down, the sunshine on a long Summer Sunday.

You don't know yet how much your childhood and teens will shape you. You'll spend your twenties denying them, hiding behind the sofa from your background, telling anyone who'll listen that you refuse to be defined by it. Then, in your late twenties you will come to realise how important it was and how much it gave you: resilience, work ethic, an understanding of what it is to struggle, a need to strive and the gratitude that will remind you how lucky you are every single day.

Your first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was published last week by Chatto & Windus. You're starting to tell the stories of  girls from backgrounds like yours and hope girls just like you will read it. Yesterday I walked up to Hampstead Heath and sat on a hill in a patch of sunshine drinking a cup of coffee. I thanked you for sticking with it, working hard, fighting for your place so that I could be be in my place now...that sunny patch under the big blue London sky.   


Thanks so much, Kerry, for sharing this with us. I find the part about spending your 20s denying how your childhood shaped you really interesting, I think I did a bit of that, maybe it comes from the stubbornness of youth or something - the 'Yeah this happened but I'm fine, I'm strong' etc. Then it kind of catches up with you, but in a good way too. Comes with getting to know yourself, perhaps. Thanks again for such a personal and generous letter. 

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma is out now and can be ordered here.

Catch Kerry on her next couple of stops:
Wednesday: Blurb and extract at bedsheets & biscuit crumbs 
Thursday: Inspiration for the book at Sarah's book reviews 

Click here for my thoughts on Kerry's book, plus details of a pretty fantastic competition open to anyone who comments on this post and any others from Kerry's tour. 

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Kerry Hudson and Tony Hogan

*Edited to include details of the Tony Hogan competition - see below*

So I wanted to write a few words about Kerry Hudson's debut novel before she gets here on Tuesday as part of her mammoth blog tour.

I've never met Kerry in 'real life', though it kinda feels like I have from reading her book and the exchanges we've had on Twitter and email. Mostly it's the book though, which Kerry says herself is based on her own upbringing. It helps that we're the same age, children of the 80s and teenagers of the 90s.  So there were many cultural references that delighted me as I read Tony Hogan (My So-Called Life and lime green flares were both particularly close to my heart). And there are a few similarities between myself and main character Janie - though she had a much tougher time than I did. But we did some of the same stuff, in a similar environment, at the same time. 

But it wasn't just the familiar feeling, there's an honesty in the writing, that rare feeling of truth and energy that comes from reading stories you believe in. I felt like when I read Kate Atkinson's Behind The Scenes At The Museum. This family got under my skin, I wanted the best for them, I recognised them. The writing is so strong, so funny and grabbing (yes, grabbing). 

Here's the blurb:

When Janie Ryan is born, she's just the latest in a long line of Ryan women, Aberdeen fishwives to the marrow, always ready to fight. Her violet-eyed Grandma had predicted she'd be sly, while blowing Benson and Hedges smoke rings over her Ma's swollen belly. In the hospital, her family approached her suspiciously, so close she could smell whether they'd had booze or food for breakfast. It was mostly booze.

Tony Hogan tells the story of a Scottish childhood of filthy council flats and B&Bs, screeching women, feckless men, fags and booze and drugs, the dole queue and bread and marge sandwiches. It is also the story of an irresistible, irrepressible heroine, a dysfunctional family you can't help but adore, the absurdities of the eighties and the fierce bonds that tie people together no matter what. Told in an arrestingly original -- and cry-out-loud funny -- voice, it launches itself headlong into the middle of one of life's great fights, between the pull of the past and the freedom of the future. And Janie Ryan, born and bred for combat, is ready to win.

and it's available on Amazon here.

Kerry's visit on Tuesday will be magnificent. I know because I've read what she's sharing with us. When Vanessa Gebbie was here for the launch of The Coward's Tale, I asked her to write a letter to herself before she became a writer. It was a hugely popular blog post and readers and writers alike enjoyed Vanessa's letter. So I asked Kerry if she'd like to do the same, and she has, and the result is wonderful. Come back on Tuesday to see what now-Kerry has to say to 17-year old Kerry.

This is open to anyone who comments on one of Kerry's blog posts for the Tony Hogan tour. Usually a blog tour involves a draw for a free copy of the book that's being launched. This prize is above and beyond any I have seen before.

Official details from Kerry:
This prize draw is open to anyone who hosts or comments on a Tony Hogan post. There is no purchase necessary. There is no limit to how many times a name can be entered i.e. if you comment on three blogs you have three entries but it's only possible to win one prize per person. The winning names will be drawn at random on Wednesday 1st August and announced on my Tumblr blog and on Twitter.

1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes consist of:

1st prize - A three chapter or synopsis critique plus afternoon tea at Beas of Bloomsbury, London (at a mutually beneficial date and time) with Juliet Pickering from the AP Watt Literary Agency to discuss your critique. Plus a personalised copy of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before he Stole My Ma.

2nd prize - A  literary hamper containing a personalised copy of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma as well as three of my most recommended writing theory books and Hotel d Chocolate chocolates to enjoy while reading them.

3rd prize - A personalised copy of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma.

How amazing?!

Please note this post is not the one to leave comments on. Kerry will be here on Tuesday with her letter to herself, but if you want to get commenting elsewhere now (and why wouldn't you?) you could head over to Sara Crowley's blog where she is today (Sunday) or The Little Reader where she will be tomorrow. Wait until tomorrow to go there. Or she won't be there. Unless it is tomorrow today. I'm going now...

Thursday, 5 July 2012

still here

Just a quick stop-gap post. More regular blogging will resume again soon, most likely in the next two or three days. June was a bit busy and that thing happened where I kept thinking 'I'll blog soon' but then life and other writing took priority. And I got a little bit ill with a throat infection and lost my voice for a few days, days when we had Mario's sister here and I could really have done with being able to communicate other than just nodding and/or frowning. I could whisper, but that made everything I said sound dramatic.

Writing-wise I've been working on the story that might make it to the Mslexia Children's Novel Competition if it's ready in time (Sept). Because I'm such a flighty writer, always working on a few things at once, realistically this might not happen. But I'm going to keep going with it, keep carving out the story of these characters in this place and see where it takes me.

Along with that I'm working on a few short stories and building a potential selection to send to The Scott Prize in October. And a few other things, a non-fiction idea, a comedy project. This sounds like I'm spreading myself too thin, but this is how I work. It makes seeing progress and productivity particularly difficult.

Excitingly we will have a guest with us next week in the form of Kerry Hudson who is stopping off here on Tuesday July 10th as part of her blog tour for the brilliant (I've just read it) novel 'Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma'. I will say some more words about this book soon, but right now I have to get ready for work, which is the other thing I've been doing.