“How about a day in London?” David says. “Maybe see a show. You could get your hair done. What was the name of that place you always liked so much?”
“I thought…” I start to say. Then I look into his eyes, creases of worry fanning out, and I cancel it. “That would be nice.”
David has never understood about hair, the need to find a specialist, intimately acquainted with the texture and form unique to you. He always thought Zak’s prices outrageous. “Now we’re retired,” he said six months ago, ” we have to watch the money, you know. We really can’t afford that kind of extravagance. I mean, it’s not like a dress, say; at least you can wear that for several years.” He never much liked me spending money on clothes either. “It’s not as if a hair cut lasts more than a few weeks.”
It’s mid-week, so Zak is able to fit me in at short notice. I walk into a cube of glass and chrome; I breathe in caustic fumes. Everywhere surfaces gleam, like an operating theatre.
A young girl, with a profusion of curls heaped over one shoulder and disappearing into her plunging neckline of silicone breasts, checks me in. I am seated in front of a mirror. I stare at the recently acquired furrows of my face.
“Emily!” Zak’s smile is wide, revealing Colgate-advert teeth. “It’s good to see you. It’s been a while. How are you?”
I sense just the slightest hint of reproach. His fingers start to touch my hair, picking up stray strands with a vague distaste.
“I’m fine.” For all he greets me like an old friend, I know his interest is purely professional.
“So what am I doing for you today?” The query is for politeness’ sake, we both know I will leave everything to his expert judgement.
“What do you suggest?” I ask.
He allows his hands free range. They dig into the depth of my scalp, he bunches up handfuls of hair, lets it fall.
His fingers are feminine, neatly manicured. His hair is lacquered into perfect raffish spikes. “A bit ginger beer,” is what David would say. I always scold him, “You can’t tell that about someone.” I look at my reflected image, the smock tenting out obscuring my body’s contours. No-one will be able to tell, I’ve been promised.
“You’ve been going somewhere else,” he admonishes. “The products they’ve used…” The sentence drifts; it doesn’t need to be concluded. He looks like a doctor examining someone else’s botched job.
“I’ve been busy,” I say.
“Well,” he switches to clinical efficiency. “A cut, of course. We will get rid of all those damaged ends. A light perm, I think, very very gentle.” His hands mimic soft flowing waves. “And some highlights, a bit of colour, just to cover up those strands of grey.”
There is a pause, in which I could crudely ask him to put a price on his art.
Instead I nod. “Yes. Whatever you think. I want to look my best.” He smiles. This is what he understands.
His assistant bends over to tuck a towel into my sensible neckline; I close my eyes to avoid peering down her cleavage. Her hands are firm but gentle. I submit to the hypnosis of their orange scented massage. Her lively chatter washes over me, as I luxuriate in the cascade of hot water.
Back at the mirror, Zak’s instruments are laid out in front of him, pristine and sharp. He doesn’t talk much. And when he does he sticks to the topic of our common interest: my hair. I am just a set of symptoms.
His scissors snip away with razor precision, discarding all that is split and distorted. “It will feel so much lighter,” he says. And it’s true. The shorter cut leaves my head feeling free, the wrinkles in my forehead seem to smooth out, as if the skin had been puckered by so much weight.
He pulls on white latex gloves. He twists strands of hair, applies a mix of poisonous chemicals which will infiltrate the cells, and change their structure. He tucks curls round small pieces of aluminium foil. His fingers are quick and deft.
My head is encased in a white machine; radiating waves of heat fix the colour and the curl. I flick through celebrity magazines, the types of story I never used to be interested in, but now I recognise the characters, read their continuing sagas. I’ve spent too much time in waiting rooms.
My hair is shaken free. It is washed again and dried.
“Perfect!” Zak sighs his satisfaction at his handiwork. “You look ten years younger.”
I smile back; it’s true, he has undone the ageing of the previous months.
David has returned, is sitting waiting for me by the entrance.
“You look beautiful,” he tells me, as he takes my hand and his lips graze my cheek. His eyes speak their anxious love.
He goes to the counter. “That’s one fifty,” the girl says. His face registers nothing as he hands over his credit card, without asking for the breakdown of the price.
Zak helps me back into my coat.
“I hope we will be seeing you again soon,” he says. “Don’t leave it so long next time.”
“It might be a while.”
His face remains smooth, except for the smallest pleat of disappointment between his eyes.
“I hope…” His hands indicate my hair, draw a heart shape between us.
“It’s not that,” I say. “What you’ve done is marvellous. It really is. It’s just…”
I haven’t got used to telling people yet, not semi-strangers. A lump rises in my throat, and I swallow it back.
“It’s just my chemotherapy starts next week.”
Sarah Evans has had stories published in a number of magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize 2008, Momaya Press, Earlyworks, Tonto Press and Writers’ Forum. She lives in Welwyn Garden City with her husband, and is part of a small writers’ circle who meet regularly in London.