And what we can do for you today?

Last year Martha Dillon was chosen as the subject for a profile in a local magazine. It was on a page called ‘Retail Ramblings’ and was an irritating piece, placing rather too much emphasis on the amount of time (22 years) the salon had been on the High Street, and describing Martha in the opening paragraph as ‘a local institution’.

In fact, the only reason why she keeps a copy of the magazine in the reception desk drawer is the photograph contained on the second page of her profile. It was taken on a clear winter’s day during the close season, and the photographer, with a dash of artistic enterprise which was unusual in the magazine, had positioned himself on the pavement, looking inside.

Now, alone in the salon during the lunchtime lull, Martha looks at the photograph. Through the glass, the room is in shadow, with the hood dryers in a ghostly line along the back wall. She stands, wearing her cream Zara dress, her dark eyes cast downwards, her hands resting on the appointments book on the desk.

There is something accidentally classical about the scene, as if Vermeer had returned to the 21st century to paint a new study, ‘The Local Hairdresser’.

She puts the magazine in a drawer, and looks around. Apart from the lack of customers, the salon is as it should be: Chill FM on at precisely the right volume; the hair (mostly grey) of previous customers brushed away out of sight; there is a smell of shampoo and newness.

Martha catches sight of herself in one of the many wall-mirror. Under the spotlights, she is rather different from the pale, somewhat mysterious figure in ‘Retail Ramblings’. Her shoulder-length hair (modified Pageboy style) seems rather too severely in place. There are tributaries of age around her neck and eyes, All the same – with both hands, Martha smooths the waistline of her skirt, raises her chin and gives a professional smile – she is not looking bad, for a local institution.

Her two o’clock, the local estate agent Peter Hapgood, arrives, bustling into the salon like a man with an impossible list of highly important things to do.

Martha greets him, takes his coat and, expressing sympathy for the pressure of his life (Peter recently retired from the agency but has, he often says, ‘many, many irons in the fire’), she leads him to the first styling chair. After he sits down, she stands behind him, she surveys his almost completely bald head, fluffing up a tuft of grey hair still gamely hanging on around the margins of his naked cranium.

‘And what can we do for you today?’ she asks.

There was a time, in the early days, when she followed the latest thinking in the business. According to the trade magazines, going to the hairdressers should be a life experience, with much fussing about and discussion of the latest styles, and cups of coffee, and exactly the right kind of music. Martha tried it for a while but soon discovered that anyone looking for a makeover, a refreshment of their personal brand, a coiffure, tended to go to one of the town’s flashier establishments: Cutz, The Demon Barber, or Curl Up & Dye.

In fact, the very last thing required by the clients who gravitated to Martha Dillon Hairdresser was innovation or surprise. They wanted a basic haircut or, as she preferred to put it, ‘a dry trim’. For them, a trip to the salon was, and is, a regular, unexciting part of the monthly routine – practical, ablutionary.

Peter Hapgood is studying his shiny head in the mirror. ‘Just a general tidy-up, please, Martha,’ he says.

She reaches for her scissors, then hesitates, like someone who simply doesn’t know where to start. It is something of an art, fretting over a man’s bald scalp as if there is something there to cut. The less hair a man has, she has found, the vainer he is likely to be about what is left. For the next 20 minutes or so, she will carefully tend to one desperate little wisp of fluff on Peter Hapgood’s head after another, until the expected time of a hairdressing appointment has been completed.

Sometimes, in the past, she has actually managed to take longer with him than she would with a client who had hair, an achievement of non-activity which gives her a small sense of professional pride.

The truth is, she likes this therapeutic part of the job, playing the age-old feminine role of pandering to male delusion. For the next few minutes, Peter will no longer be a retired estate agent with a reputation of being something of a local bore; he will be a man in his prime, a thruster so bristling with life that he needs the gentle hands of a woman to keep his rampancy in check.

Ah, the ego of the ageing male. She smiles as she snips at the air above Peter’s head while he drones on about something or other which happened when he was selling (or perhaps buying) a house.

One of the reason why she finds cutting Peter’s hair so relaxing (apart from there being nothing much to do) is that, conversationally, he is self-sustaining: he runs on his own energy. Talking to the customer, she has always found, is a more demanding part of her job than anything involving scissors or a razor.

In the early days, she found the business of starting a new line of chat every half hour or so particularly exhausting. She would try to assess what kind of conversationalist was settling into the styling chair. Was he an inconsequential natterer, like Peter, requiring the merest prime of the pump (‘How have you been?’) to release a steady stream of anecdote and opinion? Or a confessionalist? Or someone who expects a running commentary on what was happening to his hair?

In the tourist season, she still occasionally gets the type of customer who believes that their appearance, and perhaps their lives, can be transformed by what she is about to do to their heads. They arrive, carrying a photograph torn out of a celebrity magazine, convinced that the Gwyneth look or the Brad cut was for them. There will be an earnest discussion (dear God, those discussions!). When, later, Martha holds up a mirror to introduce them to their new selves, a look of unmistakeable disappointment will flash across their faces. They are not Gwyneth, utterly unlike Brad. They are just them, looking slightly absurd and undignified, like a dog emerging from a poodle parlour.

Peter Hapgood is talking about racing. Would that be cars, she wonders. No, horses, almost certainly. She makes an encouraging noise (Hm? or sometimes Yeeesss) on the rare occasions when there is a pause in the one-way conversation. It is a bit like sex, she thinks – a few appropriate noises in the right places are all a man needs to keep him happy. As she snips at a brave, solitary hair growing on the open wasteland of Peter’s scalp, she wonders what on earth has made her think of sex.

‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘Hm.’

‘Of course, it’s not the same with today’s point-to-points…’

There is one brand of conversationalist which Martha truly dreads. The client who won’t – just won’t – talk about himself, or football, or the weather, but insists on asking her personal questions.

He is never genuinely curious, the prober. He is angling, furtively positioning himself. Sometimes, alone in the salon with some creep asking impertinent questions about whether she has a partner, or whether she misses her husband, or lobbing embarrassing intimacies from his own life into the conversation in the hope that she’ll reciprocate, Martha feels a knot of rage within her. How dare he talk to her as if she is some sad bint sitting alone in a bar, longing for male company? She’s a hairdresser, not a bloody escort girl.

‘What was that?’ asks Peter.

‘Hm?’

‘You were muttering.’ Peter looks at her in the mirror. ‘You sounded quite annoyed.’

Martha smiles. ‘Sorry, I just remembered something I had forgotten to do.’

She turns her attention to a small tuft of pubic fluff emerging from Peter’s right ear.

‘Trouble at home?’ he asks in a tone which he no doubt believes is seductive.

‘Home is fine, Peter,’ she says firmly.

The problem with working in a small community, she has discovered, is that everyone knows just slightly too much about everyone else. Her divorce, for example. Some customers see her ex-husband Chris and his new wife Treena at dinner-parties or local events. A few of them use their next visit to the salon to update her with unnecessary titbits of information, often containing a small depth-charge of poison gas.

‘To tell the truth, I thought Treena had put on a bit of weight.’ (She’s pregnant).

‘Chris was looking a bit peaky the last time I saw him.’ (They must be at it day and night).

‘Of course, I’m sure they have their moments, like any couple does.’ (He’s just about to dump her, like he dumped you).

Even old fools like Peter become slightly predatory when they are alone in the salon with her. Like most men, he seems to think that a divorced woman is available in some general way, that she is broken and needs fixing – filling, like a hole in the road.

And yet, rather to her surprise, she still likes the company of men. There’s something undeniably heroic about male vanity. No matter how old or hideous they may be, remarkably few of them have completely given up the chase.

There is even something companionable about the mannish smells which float upwards as she stands over a client – tobacco, alcohol, the musty smell of clothes overdue for a wash, sometimes, among her older regulars, an unmistakeable pissy fragrance.

Poor men. When looking down on another battered, greying, balding cranium, with the nicks and bangs which life has inflicted on it, she sometimes experiences feelings of sympathy. What hard work it must be to be them. At some point, the awful realisation will dawn on them that they are not going to be anything remotely special, after all.

A woman is different. She expects less. Disappointment has always been part of her lot.

Peter talks on. Something about a horse. A few minutes later, she decides she has given him his money’s worth, trims his neck hair with the electric clippers, then holds up the mirror to show him his marginally neater bald head.

Much better,’ he says, as he always does. ‘Martha, you’re a star.’

He pays her, adding a tip with his usual show of awkwardness. With one last hopeful look, as mournful as a guilty retriever, he is gone.

Martha sweeps up, then returns to the appointments book to check her day. One appointment, and the chance of walk-ins at this time of year is remote.

She turns the pages which are rather too white for comfort. Unless something very surprising happens in the next few months (preferably the bankruptcy of one or more of her competitors in the town), the salon will have to close. Rates and rent are on the increase. What her accountant Geoffrey Mossman calls ‘footfall’ is on the decline. Marketing is the thing, he says, as if he has just discovered a miracle cure for the footfall problem.

Perhaps, he suggested the last time they met, there might be a case for bringing a new partner into the business.

Out of the question, of course. The salon is her own small, fragrant kingdom. The very things which Geoffrey is urging upon her – youth, a new crowd, bustle, laughter, shouted badinage over loud music – are what she wants least at her work and in her life.

In the early days, she used to rent out chairs during the busy season, allowing a few freelances a berth in her salon in exchange for an hourly rate, but they would bring with them their own little habits, leaving the stack trolley where she walked, talking too much or too loudly, eating sandwiches at work. Martha would feel oddly invaded by their presence. She is happy like this. She is one of life’s natural sole traders.

Happy: it is a relative term. Since she and Chris split up, she has learned to make do with her own company. The salon makes her feel worthwhile. She provides a service, cheers people up with her scissors and clippers. She is part of the High Street community.

All the same, there is something about this afternoon which makes her feel restless.

An unwelcome memory returns. It was during the tourist season, a few months after the divorce had become final. She was working on the lustrous, over-abundant hair of a coastguard, a man in his late twenties who stayed every summer during the busy season. As she massaged his head, something very like a sense of longing suddenly and unexpectedly coursed through her body, making her feel faint, as if she had been slipped some kind of drug.

When she came to, the man was looking at her in the mirror.

There is something about a reflected stare; it can be intimate, almost naked. The coastguard knew what was going on, and an unmistakeable Jack-the-lad leer had settled on his face. How foolish men looked when they were randy. It rescued Martha, this sobering reminder that, for all his prettiness and muscles and the smell of the sea which seemed to emanate from his bronzed skin, he was in the end just another oversexed male.

‘All right, love?’ He may have winked. If he didn’t, he might as well have.

Perfectly all right, thank you.’

She finished his hair quickly and badly, responding coldly to his attempts at conversation. It had been a near thing.

Once, she now remembers, she cut Chris’s hair in the nude.

It was in the early days of their marriage when they both occupied the same (or at least similar) gardens of fantasy. The idea of his naked hairdresser-wife tending to him excited Chris and, in those days, anything that excited Chris excited her.

Desire is a sort of madness. Together they discovered things about themselves they never knew existed. They shocked one another, laughed at their own shamelessness, seeing how far they could go. It was disgraceful behaviour, really.

Eventually, in the way of marriage, embarrassment set in. Chris decided that they should ‘start a family’ (a phrase Martha secretly disliked – it her feel like a car). Their playground became a workplace. The sheer relentlessness of her husband – the more inconvenient the time or place, the more urgent his need – began to feel like a form of control to Martha.

‘What’s up, love?’ he once asked, his voice irritatingly slurred with desire. ‘You used to be my do-anything girl.’

God, that annoyed her! He really knew how to say the wrong thing.

It’s fragile, human love. Once the sight of Chris could make her sick with longing; now, quite suddenly, the lurch in her stomach was caused by irritation. She realised (how she could never have noticed this before?) that his bossy, business manner was a front, a way of getting out of chores or conversations which bored him. He talked as if he was a local Alan Sugar, the town’s Donald Trump. To this day when a client uses certain phrases – about being at the sharp end, or walking the walk, or thinking outside the box, or throwing the dummy out of the pram – she has to resist the temptation to stab him lightly with the point of her scissors.

The end of most marriages will be accompanied by a discordant fanfare of lies and half-truths, but Chris produced a peculiarly annoying porky.

His greatest wish, he later told friends, had been to have a family, and unfortunately that had not been possible with Martha. It sounded good, presenting him as a reasonable, respectable caring man, and her as a shrewish self-seeker, but it was nonsense.

The problem was simpler, and altogether less tragic. When the bodies of Chris and Martha grew tired of one another, there was nothing much they had in common. She was increasingly unimpressed by his impersonation of a successful executive, and he had neither interest in, nor respect for the business Martha had established. She suspected that being married to a hairdresser played badly at his sales conferences and executive weekends.

The family line, though, sounded good when delivered in the sorrowful tones of a disappointed husband.

Alone in the salon, Martha smiles. It has never caused her a moment of guilt or regret that she played the game of marital deception, too. She had simply continued taking the pill. There would come a moment, she reasoned, when she and Chris were ready to bring a new person into the world and at that point she would allow herself to become fertile.

The moment never came. In fact, as Chris worked away on his starting-a-family project with the clear-eyed, slightly stupid focus with which he promoted some product at work, he became day by day, night by night, less like a man she wanted to father her child.

Then, as predictably as a river finding another course afters its flow has been impeded, Chris found a lover. Rather to Martha’s surprise, she was not the pneumatic bimbo who traditionally materialises on these occasions but a rather plain young woman who worked in HR at his office. Since the divorce and re-marriage (two events that were indecently close, in her view), she has met Treena twice. She is not terribly exciting, but sensible and balanced.

Martha, it seems, had been part of Chris’s immature years. She still finds that quite funny.

She looks down at her appointments book for the name of her four o’clock.

Bernard. Bernard Harriman.

Unusually among her clients, Bernard has a full head of hair. He is in his sixties but his bouncy grey curls give him an oddly boyish look, at odds with the solemn, curmudgeonly good looks. He speaks little and, when he does, the subject tends to be his hobby, local history. It has been through others that Martha has discovered that for years he was a schoolteacher – a good one, by all accounts.

He has never married, a fact that has cast a murky light on his private life. These days, no single man who has been a teacher, a music coach or scoutmaster can escape an unexpressed general suspicion about their motives.

Martha, though, has seen something in his eyes, when he occasionally glances at her in the mirror as she works, or makes his next appointment as he is about to leave. The expression on his face reminds her of an old-fashioned phrase: the glad eye.

Yes, Bernard Harriman sometimes gives her the glad eye.

He has been a customer for a couple of years now and, it seems to Martha, that his appointments have recently become more frequent, his clothing – he is a tweed or flannel man – more dapper.

Today he is slightly early.

‘Martha,’ he says.

‘Bernard.’ She smiles.

She shows him to the first styling chair. As they discuss his hair, she runs her fingers through his locks and tugs at them in the brisk, maternal way of hairdressers.

‘This needs some work, Bernard,’ she says.

‘Yes, it’s bit… wild.’ Bernard laughs, as if he has confessed a guilty secret.

‘Maybe I should wash and condition it.’

‘If you’ve time.’

‘I’ve time.’

It is after she has shampooed him and is pressing her fingers into his scalp that she notices a mole, reddish in colour, at the point his neck meets his shoulder.

She lays a finger on it, applying gentle pressure. Then, as if her index finger has a life of its own, she strokes it.

When she looks up, Bernard is staring at her in the mirror, an uncertain smile on his face.

‘You ought to have someone look at that,’ she says.

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