Hair floats through the air in Shropshire. It flies over the hills and drifts across the valleys until fuzzy strands become trapped in a wire fence or the branch of a tree, matting into tight white dreadlocks. Sometimes in the sky you see hundreds of dandelion seed-heads whirling and turning in a vast, dizzy flock. Up on the moor groups of crows surf the wind, daring one another to fly even higher and drop-dive even faster. They bounce up from the heather, swooping skywards in synchronised threes and fours, then throw their angular bodies into the sharp gusts coming off the hilltop to tumble back to ground, cawing and cackling and drunk on oxygen. Distracted by the performance, a fell runner’s foot lands on a small purple stone and he comes crashing down beside a cluster of foxgloves. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! His cries of anger get buried in the breeze. Only a frantic Spaniel hears the despair. Seven months of training for next week’s race blown away. He remembers hearing a crack. A bone, he thinks. Fuck, he says again, his voice choked with regret, I don’t even know if I can walk. He leans on one hand, trying to push himself upright to see if he can stand, but all he can feel is the sweat running over every pore of skin and the tears down his face.
A couple of miles away, in a salon built on a Precambrian fault line and next door to The Dog Samaritans, Mr Paul and I are looking at each other in a mirror. I see a slender man dressed in a shiny grey shirt that is open at the neck and tucked into a pair of pressed pinstriped trousers. His hair is short, with a metallic quality. I imagine him, back in the seventies, a bit of a demon on the disco floor. What does he see? A middle-aged woman in red jeans and a T-shirt. Without make-up. Tanned, but a bit scruffy. Running his fingers through my hair in exaggerated scoops, he certainly looks disappointed. He lifts one of my locks to the light. Have you ever considered highlights? A few blonde streaks would make all the difference you know. You could even have a bit of red in this. Another lock comes up, but he lets it flop between his fingers as if to emphasise the failure of my hair. Some gold might look nice in this. Give it a bit of lift. That’s what you want — a bit of lift — especially in the winter when I bet you go quite grey. I nod obediently. Very grey, yes, my whole face looks like a dirty rag come January. He smiles at the crown of my head. Highlights could sort that out. Could make all the difference. They can really help with ageing. And you could even leave some of this, if you like it. He fingers the verge of white hair above my forehead and looks at me with what I recognise to be pity.
Even so, maybe he’s right about my skin. Maybe a bit of gold would help. But even if I wanted to dye it, I’m not sure I could afford to. I catch Mr Paul’s eye. It costs a fortune doesn’t it? He shakes his head. Not really. Then he turns and shouts across the salon. Girls! How much are highlights these days? A full head? For this lady. He puts a finger on the ridge of my head and I feel the gaze of the entire shop. Other customers are staring at me in their mirrors, and their stylists have all swivelled round for a peek. Trish, you know the latest prices don’t you? A heavily pregnant woman inside a long tube of lycra approaches. She’s so blonde, she reminds me of the Cindy doll I had as a child and whose hair I chopped off. Synthetic, I think, yet plump with nature. Trish nudges up beside Mr Paul behind me and the pair of them lean forward, their eyes fixed on me in the mirror. A few seconds of consideration and Trish’s glossy lips assimilate into a smile. Fifty-eight, she says, patting me on the shoulder. But they’ll last you six months, adds Mr Paul. That’s what’s so good about highlights — they last ages. He touches the back of my neck. So what’s it going to be?
Just a bit of a trim please, and perhaps I’ll think about highlights nearer winter. Mr Paul is pouting, as if I’ve made a profound remark that requires considerable reflection. So we’re talking about six to eight weeks since your last cut are we? Perhaps eight to ten, I say. So two to three months, he replies, which ruffles me. What we’ll do is put some layers into the sides, cut through the back a bit, soft into the neck — you’ve got a neck like mine, so we won’t go too short there — and a bit of weight off the front, yes? I want to tell him that the only thing I really care about is that the front stays slightly longer than the back. Instead, I watch him disappearing off the side of my mirror.
Alone with my reflection, I study the length of my face and wonder if, to a stranger, I look like a horse. I’m expecting a trainee to appear, to cloak me in black nylon and lead me to a basin where my head will be massaged in coconut conditioner. Alas, she never comes. Instead, Mr Paul returns with a pair of scissors and a comb and a white gown, which he throws over me and fastens at the back of my neck. You can put your hands through the holes here if you like. Then he lifts a small plastic pump to my head and sprays me with water. What about the wash? Surely I’ll get a wash. Women always get a wash, don’t they? I thought dry cuts were for men and barbers. But he’s already holding the scissors to my neck.
Then an awkward pause. Mr Paul has recognised the expression on my face. My eyes are fixed on the tremor in his fingers. We share a look of fear and, very briefly, he blushes. Guilt floods me. I shouldn’t have lingered there. I’m sure it doesn’t matter. Mr Paul flashes me a plea, and I notice the softness in his face, the sudden slump in his shoulders. I’m sure it’ll be fine.
He starts cutting, snipping away at speed, sending large brown curls into my lap and onto the floor. Trying to pretend I didn’t see anything, I open a conversation. So have you always lived here, Mr Paul? Oh no, I’ve worked all over. Coventry, Birmingham, Warwick, even Southampton for a bit. He starts to look happier and his cutting slows a little. Then I went eastwards, as far as Norwich then Colchester. I used to get Dutch clients coming over especially to get their hair done and you know what I noticed? Unlike the British, who never complain, the Europeans are very particular. If they don’t like what you’ve done, they say so, plain as day. The amount of times I had to reshape, resnip and restart. Then I spent couple of years in London, and I even did a short burst in Glasgow. He’s almost chuckling now. Ever heard of Teasie Weasie from the 1960s? No, can’t say I have. Mr Paul looks surprised. Teasie Weasie Raymond was the first of the celebrity hairdressers, the first one on telly. He taught Vidal Sasson everything he knew — and me. I trained under Raymond for over five years. Remember Diana Dors? Certainly do. Well, she paid a hundred thousand for Raymond to fly to Australia to do her hair for a show. Or was it America? I can’t remember. But it was a lot of money. He was huge, Teasie Weasie, absolutely huge. The only real hairdresser of his day.
Mr Paul’s reminiscing is interrupted by the phone, which no one seems to want to answer. Girls! he shouts. Can one of you get that? A woman in her forties apologises to an elderly lady in curlers and goes to answer the phone. I watch the stylist leaning over the reception desk, phone to her face, choosing a boiled sweet from a glass bowl. It’s for you Mr Paul, she says. Ursula wants to know when you can do another cut. He looks in the mirror to the top of my head, then at the woman standing by the phone. Well, this one’ll only take another ten, Jenny. Then I’ve got Mrs Stalkey’s blow-dry. That’ll be fifteen at most. So thirty minutes tops should be about right. Give me time to get a coffee. Great, says Jenny, putting down the phone. But how is he going to finish cutting my hair in ten minutes? He’s only done the back. What about all the layers he said he’d put in? I don’t want him rushing. Normally it takes about three quarters of an hour. Perhaps thirty without a wash. I feel a light sickness wash over my stomach. I wonder what Teasie Weasie would say. I bet he wouldn’t have done Diana Dors in ten minutes. You’re quick then, Mr Paul? Oh well, when you’ve been doing it as long as I have… Punctuating the point, he takes a large slither of hair off the front of my face and runs his scissors along it like a hedge trimmer. It falls to the bridge of my nose, a good three inches shorter. He flashes a smile at the mirror and carries on chopping through the top. I watch him closely, despite being completely resigned to his will.
He tells me about his daughter. She runs the salon now. I gave it to her on my sixtieth birthday. Thought it was time to pass it on to the next generation. I know she’s my daughter but she’s a brilliant stylist. Better than I ever was. Better than her mum, too. That’s what made her bugger off. She couldn’t cope with the fact our daughter was better than the two of us put together. Teasie Weasie said so. I sent her to train there like we’d done twenty years earlier. And the moment he clapped eyes on her, he said it, just like that. The best I’ve seen in all my years. Raymond said that about our Cath. Never been more proud. But her mum couldn’t take it. And our Cath won’t even walk up there now. Not to the moors. She loved it as a kid, her and her sister, all the time they were up there. Knew them like the back of their hands. But she won’t even join us for the Christmas ramble now. Just stays down here in town. It broke her really.
The sound of velcro unpeeling. Right, that’s you done! Happy? When you get home, give it a quick shampoo and it’ll look better. That’ll give it the bounce you’re after. Could I just have a quick look at the back, please? Of course you can. Here. He holds up a circular mirror behind my head, but I can’t see the shape clearly enough. I twist around, trying to get a better angle. Could you just hold it a bit more that way? I ask. But Mr Paul looks irritated. There you are, he says switching sides. But the angle still isn’t right. Happy? I think of his comment about the British and the Dutch. I realise that he was giving me an instruction. Yes, I say, happy. Thank you so much. Good, so that’s eleven-forty and you can pay Jenny. He looks over to the waiting area, to a table piled with women’s magazines where an elderly lady is sitting with a small white dog:
Mrs Stalkey, would you like to come over?