Nan used to tell me tales of her Granny Sarah, her own mother – she of the permanently- escaping-from-the-skirt-waistband white blouse, who accidentally killed her favourite chicken in the kitchen by sweeping it up with a besom broom and then burst into tears. I think I would have both liked and feared Granny Sarah, whose rages and whose sorrows swept over her and all who surrounded her like clouds on an English summer day.
One of the things Nan told me was that, like many Victorian ladies, Granny Sarah never cut her hair. And she washed it once a year, in the water-butt outside. The water in the water-butt was softer, since it had come down as rain. As an adult I have wondered about that green algae you get floating on top of water-butts – all the mosquito eggs and the floating bits of detritus – but as a child I did not, just accepted that Granny Sarah’s hair remained clean and glossy because she only washed it once a year, presumably around midsummer since they didn’t have hair-dryers in those days, and because she brushed it with a hundred strokes of a soft hairbrush every single night before retiring to bed.
For most of my adult I felt compelled to wash my hair every single day, until it was as dry as dust. This was because my mother had believed in washing children’s hair once a week and no more, which was probably standard for the 50s. By the end of the week it was itchy-itchy-itchy and dripping with grease, or so I felt. Mum rarely did this herself – I seem to remember soap in the eyes, and tantrums. Nan took care of the hair-washing, on Sundays, providing a folded flannel for me to cover my eyes and keep out the stinging soap. Hey presto! no more tantrums.
Now it’s more like every other day. Your hair gets dryer as you get older, like the rest of you. A sere leaf you are, by the end. Just dangling there waiting to drop ‘orf.
Today I went to the hairdressers in my old town. It was very cold, and having miscalculated I arrived there far too early. I seemed to have left the car heater on windscreen defrost all the way down and my feet felt like solid blocks of ice.
I was still early, but I went in. They had given me a male hairdresser. I knew technically it was a unisex salon but I had never, hitherto, seen a man in there or a male hairdresser. I tried to make polite conversation as he washed my hair for me – the hair-wash girls must have Saturdays off – asking him about the difference between barbering and hairdressing. He said barbering you could learn in about twenty minutes, hairdressing took years. In the old days, he said, you learnt them both at once. Now there were separate courses and people only did one or the other. I sighed, mentally. I had a feeling he was going to be hard work.
I remembered my last haircut. I couldn’t remember her name but we talked non-stop, about men (of course) about love and life, about iron deficiency and constipation, about her D&C – something to do with afterbirths – and my infected cat bite, about hospitals and children and cabbages and kings. I was exhausted by the time I came out, but happy. Women talk like that. Women, on the whole, say more than is necessary. Men say less than is necessary. Far less.
It is quite scary having your hair cut by a man when you’re not used to it. He zoomed around me on that stool of his, chopping bits away here and bits away there. Why had I let him persuade me to have it cut shorter and sort of shaped in at the back? I was going to end up with some sort of short-back-and-sides thing, or even shaven. I was sure he was going to… barber me.
And then he started sneezing, loud horrid sneezes. Eventually he had to go off and blow his nose trumpetingly somewhere out the back. So much for avoiding infection, I think. What’s the point of all that disinfectant soap and hand-washing if barbers are going to sneeze at you. And then he couldn’t find the hairdryer, and when he did, having hunted all round the salon for it, it turned out to be held together with black duct tape, and huge. It was the longest hairdryer I had ever seen. I said something to the effect. He spent some time explaining to me the difference between professional hairdryers and the paltry sort I would have at home. Professional hairdryers dried the hair more quickly, he said, so they had to be huge.
I closed my eyes at this point so as not to be staring at parts of him I didn’t want to be caught staring at, as they circled around me at an ever-increasing rate. With women it’s the cleavage. No, look at me they coax as they start on your fringe, squinting in concentration. And there you are, faced with some vast, pink unwanted cleavage. With men it’s… even worse.
He kept donking me on the head with that ultra-long hairdryer. No woman hair-stylist had ever done that. After the second painful donk I was wondering whether to make some tactful little joke about it? Just casually? The third time, he noticed, and apologised, but the fourth time, he didn’t notice again. This is getting beyond a joke, I thought. I hope this new hairdo is going to be really good to make up for this battering.
And was it? Well, it was certainly different. And that’s all I’m saying.