Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Always Leaving

From the first I was determined to leave. It was not the most comfortable of interviews. Alice was a thin and starchy and appeared used to getting her way. It was hardly the most engaging of jobs: being a trainee at a hairdresser's. A hairdresser's with pretensions of being an upmarket salon. Basically I was expected to sweep the floor and make the tea. Even for that role she made me feel distinctly unqualified.

She was not a pleasant interviewer. She looked at my arm.

“You'll regret that,” she rasped.

I did not need to look where she was gazing. I was proud of my tattoo. The pain was worth the wonderful green snake coiled through one eye of a skull and hissing joyfully having twisted its way through the frontal lobe. I did not dignify her pathetic attempt at art criticism with an answer. Being twenty years older she was unlikely to understand. At least that's what I believed in my naive late teens. She looked harshly at me.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “you will. In time.”

I can't quite remember why I got the job it all seemed such an inauspicious start. There must have been plenty of girls willing to work at a hairdresser's – even without all those pretentious.

At first I did little more than sweep, clean and be constantly admonished for loitering with a sullen expression. A few weeks later and I had saved enough out of my meagre wage packet for a second tattoo. I'm not sure if this was simply to spite Alice.

This time the tattoo was just above my ankle and was smaller and less painful. I remember strutting into the salon defiantly. Just waiting for someone to notice the blue and gold butterfly its wings emblazoned with large green eyes. Alice did not say anything and remained taciturn all day. How I felt so pleased with myself.

Alice had money, some kind of social position, mostly assumed. With that came her expectation of being looked up to, of being treated deferentially, as some kind of authority. Me, nor the numerous other girls who passed through the salon, ever reciprocated. This only annoyed Alice and cause her to escalate the haughtiness. Behind her back it all the became something of a macabre joke. A comedy quickly pushed aside when she strode into the salon. Soon followed by fleeting, knowing smirks.

Fast forward twelve years of drudgery and being looked down upon. It was difficult to hate Alice even though I desperately wanted to. All this time I wanted to leave but somehow it was never the right time. Next week, month, when I had a bit more saved, when holidays, Christmas, that weekend festival was over. Then I'll swan up to her and tell her what I really think. Then depart never to return. A shocked Alice left behind standing mouth open. It was only a daydream, a vague aspiration.

The cancer and Chemo were having their affect. Alice's hair was just starting to fall out. She was always thin and starting to look emaciated. Little absences become more frequent with her constant trips to hospitals and doctors. These made the salon a more friendly, chatty, place to work. At least until her haughty and brisk return.

It was late one Friday afternoon and time for the weekend to begin. I made the mistake of not absconding quickly enough with the other girls.

“Off,” Alice said, looking in a mirror, “take it off, all of it off.”

It was starting to get dark and really I wanted to be away. Alice untangled the tight mop on her head and sat in a chair waiting. She had never trusted me with her hair before.

“You're absolutely sure?” I asked, hoping above all she would have second thoughts. It was not like her to be impulsive.

Alice nodded. Her black hair danced for the final time. I picked up the shaver and started. Alice never once sneaked a look in the mirror. The black, presumably dyed, hair cascaded to the floor I had recently swept.

I felt the pressure of the confessional: to divulge my hidden life and troubles. But the moment was far too unbearably intimate for me. Some things, many things she had no right to know. Pity was not on the agenda, neither for her nor me.

“Done,” I said, not an instant to soon.

The pity remained unspoken.

She looked incongruous, the smart designed dress and atop the skinhead look. The fine black follicles waiting to bristle and the occasional white blotches where all hair had already departed. She looked so much older the lines in her face highlighted and now no longer in shadow.

As soon as was decent I left. Alice locked up the salon with a thin scarf tied round her head.

And those tattoos: how I so regretted them now. My tastes have evolved and they no longer express who I want to be. Forever they will be a reminder of what I never was. How Alice – sitting in that chair and with me shaving her head – would have gloated over that confession. But I could never have tolerated that. It's impossible for her to know now. That, at least, is one good thing.

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