This is a vignette, featuring one of the characters in my Middle East novel.
Beryl Vine is at the door, her small face beaded with sweat from the short walk to our bungalow. She has a flowery plastic bag full of hairdressing things. I invite her in, apologising for the noise.
Beryl seems like a large, soft ball, but her tiny feet are no bigger than Amanda’s. She wears tight nylon trousers in pea green, the seams stretched so that you can see the ladder of stitching that runs up over her hip like a zip at each side. Her white sleeveless top barely covers the waistband, and she has a ring of sweat under her arms making the material go see through. I can smell her sweat over the scent she wears. Despite the heat, her make up is perfect, even her mascara. Her grey eyes are accented with green eye shadow and her thin lips drawn in with pink lipstick. It’s as if she’s invented her face. In the folds of her neck is a tiny heart-shaped locket – the sort of thing a little girl might wear.
Amanda peeps around the door of the kitchen.
‘Hello Auntie Beryl. Please don’t cut my hair off.’
Kevin is roaring around the living room and peeps briefly around the door.
‘You’re not cutting mine, so there!’
He pokes his tongue out and runs away. Mum is still washing her hair and shouts at him from the bathroom not to be rude.
‘And I thought my boys were hard work!’ Beryl settles onto a kitchen chair, making the padded plastic seat gasp.
‘I could murder a cup of tea, Cath.’
I fill the kettle. The spout is dented where Mum dropped it. It didn’t pour properly in the first place, as if it begrudged us boiling water in a place where everything is hot. I put it on the stove. It hisses and makes little farting noises on the hotplate.
‘Two sugars, ducks. Can’t stand the taste of the reconstituted.’
I don’t blame her – reconstituted milk’s vile.
Beryl pulls out a kitchen chair.
‘Are you going to be my first customer of the day, madam?’ she calls to Amanda, who has put on a yellow T-shirt over her swimming costume and hangs at the door like a lost puppy.
‘Yours just needs the fringe doing, poppet. I’ll put it in rollers like your mum if you like, but I’ll need to wet your hair.’
‘I want to wash it. It’s dirty with dirt and sand and germs. And the germs are dirty too.’
Amanda hates dirt. She bangs on the bathroom door and Mum shouts.
‘Are we doing yours today, Cath?’
‘I’m growing it.’
I don’t want another schoolgirl cut. No more pigtails and Alice bands.
‘You’ve got lovely hair, and so much of it!’
Beryl reaches out and tugs gently at a strand.
‘So many young girls are having it short these days.’
‘Mum always wants me to have it cut off. It looks childish.’
‘Cath, my dear, there’s no way you would look childish. Not with a figure like yours. You could wear it up – you’re old enough now for something a bit more sophisticated. Or I could do the fringe for you. Make it look like Jean Shrimpton.’
She rummages in her bag for scissors. The bag almost boils over with rollers and clips. Kevin shouts, ‘I am not having a haircut!’ and slams his bedroom door, kicking it. I can hear Mum shouting from the bathroom at him, and Amanda squawking as her hair is washed with medicated shampoo.
Beryl raises her eyebrows. ‘Sit down, Cath, whilst we’ve got a minute.’
She dampens a black styling comb with water at the kitchen sink and wets my hair at the front.
‘You’re a pretty girl, Catherine – you don’t make enough of yourself.’
She cuts what she calls a graduated fringe, blending it into the longer hair. She’s quick with the scissors, despite that her podgy fingers barely go through the holes.
‘That’s much more flattering, you go and look. Marianne Faithfull isn’t a patch on you!’
‘I thought I was supposed to be Jean Shrimpton!’
There’s a tiny mirror above the kitchen sink. I can see only bits of myself, cut in half by a crack that runs diagonally across the glass. The hair that had hung in curtains across my face now falls in a long, smooth curve to my shoulder.
‘I trained in London, you know, with the best. I could have had my own shop.’
‘Why didn’t you?’
‘Usual reasons, Cathy my dear. Met a man.’ She drinks her tea, downing half the cup at once.’
Beryl’s husband is called Ron. He’s short and bald and has a neck like a tortoise. Surely she can’t mean him?
‘Happens to the best of us, girl. We think that all we want is a man. Then look what happens… Up the duff at twenty-one. Four kids by twenty-seven.’
Beryl has only three kids, but I don’t have time to ask about number four because Amanda bounces in with her hair dripping.
Beryl grabs Amanda and plonks her down, pulling Amanda’s T-shirt over her wet head like a turban.
‘I think we need a towel. Be a dear, Cath.’
In the living room, Kevin is sobbing into the piled up scatter cushions in an ‘I hate you’ spat. Mum is standing, hands on hips, her damp hair flopping over the collar of her blouse. She looks in desperation at me. What does she expect me to do – wave a magic wand?
‘Auntie Beryl can give you a haircut like the soldier…’ I say, remembering the soldier on the bus.
I try to find a clean towel, but they are all piled on the bathroom floor soaking wet. I filch out the driest.
Back in the kitchen, Amanda is cross-legged on the chair playing with a couple of Beryl’s rollers; my hair is scattered like feathers on the lino around her.
‘What’s all that hair doing on the floor?’
‘Your sister had her hair cut.’
‘Because she wants to look nice.’
‘Why shouldn’t your sister look nice?’
Amanda looks at me with wide eyes.
She makes a face.
‘Why can’t I have my fringe cut like Catherine’s?’
Beryl imitates Amanda’s voice. She makes short work of Amanda’s fringe, and toffee coloured tufts flutter down beside my dark ones. Then she winds small red rollers into the rest of her hair, fastening them tight with hair grips. They look like angry caterpillars.
Kevin storms in with Mum behind, carrying an armful of wet towels.
Beryl turns, ‘I’m not sure that naughty boys deserve haircuts.’
‘It’s not because I deserve it. I just need one. That’s not my fault!’
‘Well sit down. That’s what men do in the barber’s.’
Kevin sits on another chair. Amanda tries to throw a hairgrip at him.
‘That’s enough, young lady. If you want me to finish, you had better give me the hairgrips, not throw them.’ She dribbles blue setting lotion onto the rollers.
‘It just needs to dry now. You go and sit quietly or the curls won’t set.’
Amada sits in the open doorway with a beaker of orange and a biscuit.
Mum bundles the soaked towels outside to put them on the line. They’ll be as stiff as boards in an hour.
Kevin walks importantly up to the seat.
‘I want to be like a soldier.’
‘Crew cut, then?’ Beryl looks at Mum, who shrugs.
‘It’d make it easier. He won’t brush his hair.’
She lights up. With her wet hair and no make-up she looks like a smoking fish.
Kevin is as quiet as a mouse whilst Beryl runs the cutters over his scalp. His pale hair falls, leaving his skull small and exposed. A shelled nut. He runs his hand over the soft stubble unbelievingly. Amanda giggles from the doorstep. Kevin looks as if he might cry.
‘Remember, Kevin.’ Beryl says, looking at Mum. ‘Hair grows back – but only if you’re good!’
He runs outside. I get my essay and leave Mum and Beryl to talk. I sit on the back veranda by the birdcage and fill up my fountain pen from the Quink bottle. There’s a small grey-brown bird hidden in the spiky myrtle, foraging quietly, trying not to be seen. Its colour almost exactly matches the soil. I write: Sir Thomas Wolsingham … a man motivated by his vicarious desire to rule… I looked up ‘vicarious’ in the class dictionary. Out of the corner of my eye, a small hand reaches around the corner of the bungalow. A little whimper followed by a big sniff.
‘What is it, Kevin?’
He is not crying exactly, but he is not happy. ‘
‘Does my hair look really stupid?’
‘No, just a bit – er – stark.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means it looks a bit bare. We have to get used to it.’
I reach out and run my hand over the stubble. It feels like the bristles of a soft brush.
‘Quite a few boys have their hair clipped short. Your hair’ll grow back soon enough.’
‘I’m not sure that I really want to be a soldier.’
‘You have plenty of time to decide what you want to be.’
It seems like a lie. In a year, when we get back Home, I’ll be expected to go out to work. How many choices will I really have?
‘Amanda said that she thinks my hair looks as if the rats got it.’
‘You have to be careful of rats!’
I tease him to take his mind off his hair. I feel guilty for suggesting a crew cut – I didn’t think Beryl would cut it so short.
‘The rats’ll have to be careful of me, you mean…’
He runs off, the pink of his scalp catching the light. History books are full of battles and soldiers, some of them boys not so much older than Kevin.
Bits of my hair have fallen into my exercise book. They make nice curves on the paper, smearing the ink from my fountain pen into fan shapes. I wonder what Stuart will think of my hair now?