Sophie checked the address again. She had written it down carefully, but was struggling to believe what she was seeing.
“Cut’n’Curl, Railway Terrace.” She muttered to herself. “And the number 19 stops outside.”
Sure enough, there was a bus stop right across the road. And she was, indeed, looking at a sign reading ‘Cut’n’Curl’. It wasn’t at all what she’d been expecting though. Steve’s family were clearly well-to-do, and his Grandma, on the only occasion Sophie had met her, had been wearing a very posh evening dress and pearls.
With this in mind, and wanting to please Mrs. Stewart, she had dressed in a suit she usually wore for job interviews. The skirt came well below her knees and with the fitted jacket she thought that she looked very smart. Underneath was a long sleeved, high collared blouse, with all the buttons primly fastened. She had scrubbed her face, trimmed her nails, and after carefully combing and parting her hair, she had applied hairspray to make sure it stayed neat and tidy.
The salon in front of her, in contrast, was the most run down and outdated place that she had ever seen. It had clearly been converted many years ago from the downstairs of a Victorian terraced house. The paint on the sign was peeling and the net curtains covering the window were a dingy grey colour. Surely Mrs. Stewart could afford to go to a more up-market hairdresser than this?
A bus pulled up across the road, and moments later, Gladys joined Sophie.
“Hello dear, you found it alright then?”
“Er, yes, thanks.” Sophie was still looking back and forth between the smartly dressed lady and the dilapidated shop. Gladys smiled.
“You’re wondering why I don’t go to one of the expensive salons up in town, aren’t you?”
“Er, well, I didn’t really, er.”
“It’s alright dear. I haven’t always had money, you know. When I was your age, I was a junior secretary, doing filing and a bit of typing, and not paid very much at all. I still used to come here every week, to have my hair set so that I looked presentable for church. Moira’s mother, Doris, ran the salon then, and one of her sets would keep me looking smart all week.
“When I married my Stanley, and his business started to do a bit better, he began to buy me nicer clothes, and he told me I could go to one of the fancy hairdressers like all the other golf club wives did. I told him that I didn’t want a fancy hairdo, though, and I wanted to stay loyal to Doris. So I kept coming here, and she always kept me looking neat and tidy. Shampoo and set every week, and a fresh perm every three months. If Stanley ever suggested that I change it, I just told him ‘if it’s good enough for our Queen, it’s good enough for your wife.’ ”
She pulled open the salon door, making the bell ring, and ushered Sophie through.
“I was keen to keep in his mother’s good books too. She always looked immaculate, and as a new wife, I felt that there was a certain expectation to keep up to her standards. I do know that she appreciated having a daughter-in-law who made the effort to look smart and presentable.”
Sophie had been rather taken aback at all of this, and looked at Gladys with new respect. She cast her eyes down.
“And I suppose that now it’s time for me to be made smart and presentable.”
“Quite right, dear. You made a good start, by having your hair cut to a more sensible length, and I’m pleased to see you dressed properly….”
Sophie beamed, delighted to receive the praise and pleased that her efforts had been noticed.
“… but we do need to take the final step, and get you into a nice tight perm, like the other girls. It will be lovely for you all to be matching, and knowing that you’ll always look like proper young ladies.”
“Same as the other two?” Moira had wasted no time getting Sophie caped up and sat in the chair. Her hair had been given a quick wash and combed through. Sophie was determined to conduct herself with dignity and respect, and was sitting up as straight as possible.
“Yes please. A nice tight perm, and a high, clean neckline.”
Moira started combing and snipping, reducing Sophie’s locks to the minimum required to take one of her smallest perm rods. Sophie was slightly alarmed at how much hair was coming off, as it was already the shortest it had been in years. She distracted herself by remembering what had happened since the engagement party.
As soon as she had accepted Gladys’ proposal, she had relaxed and started to enjoy herself. She had met Tina for the first time, along with a number of Steve’s friends, and got on with pretty much everyone. After her initial uneasiness, she had actually really enjoyed being dressed up in a conservative and grown up way, rather than the tarty and revealing outfits that she used to wear to go clubbing. Despite the primly high neckline and full skirt that left her modestly covered, Sophie felt wonderfully feminine. Sarah and Maria confessed that they felt much the same, all three of them loving the conservative, formal dresses they’d bought for the occasion.
Sarah had rushed off to greet some new arrivals, leaving Sophie eyeing up Maria’s hair. Like Sarah’s and her own, it was set into tight curls, glossy with lacquer, but it was also noticeably shorter than when Sophie had last seen her. Her uniform curls had been cut high over her ears and her hairline had been raised well above its natural level.
“Your hair looks very smart.” Sophie commented.
“Thank you.” Maria paused. “Mum was keen that I made a good impression with the Barlows, and she’d seen how short Sarah’s was, so she got Brenda to take mine up nice and high too.”
Her hand strayed unconsciously to the back of her neck, and she shuddered ever so slightly as she remembered her chin being pushed into her chest and Brenda’s clippers running up her nape. She patted her curls primly and gently teased Sophie
“I see that you’ve given in at last, and had a proper haircut, and some nice neat curls.” She smirked.
“Yes,” Sophie sighed, tentatively prodding her own stiffly lacquered bubble. “Mum finally got my hair the way she always wanted.” She paused, and lowered her voice. “Don’t tell anyone, but I actually quite like it!” She hurried on. “I mean, it’s a bit old fashioned, and I wouldn’t want it like this every day, but, you know, for something like this, it’s alright.”
“Well, just wait till you have it permed.” Maria cautioned her. “Then you’ll have neat little curls every day.”
“Don’t all the boys look smart, too?” Sophie hastily changed the subject. “It’s nice to see them all wearing suits, and looking like they’ve actually combed their hair!”
“They do, don’t they? I told you about Andy’s mum getting Brenda to give him a proper short back and sides last week, didn’t I?”
“Oh, yes, it sounded like he wasn’t too happy about it!”
“No, he wasn’t, and she’s not letting up on him. We were all set to go out this evening when she stopped us and made him do his top button up, and then told him off because his hair was a mess. She asked me what I thought, and I tried to be diplomatic, and said that it had looked very nice when it had just been cut.
“Well, that’s obviously what she wanted to hear, and she promptly sat him down, rubbed a big blob of brylcreem through his hair and combed it all neat and tidy, with a proper side parting.”
“Well he does look very dapper.” Sophie said, admiringly.
“I know. He was a bit embarrassed by it all. I hope now he’s seen all the others looking smart then he’ll keep it like that.”
“Are you talking about the boy’s hair?” Sarah asked, as she caught up with them. “Barbara told Steve to make sure that they all had a proper short back and sides, and that she’d have her comb ready if any of them weren’t looking smart enough.”
She looked around thoughtfully at all the gleaming hair and uniform side partings. “It looks like they all went to the barbers; I don’t know if Barbara had to get her comb out, but they do all look jolly smart.”
Sophie had gone to bed tired but happy, and slept like a log. When she woke up on Sunday morning she found that Judith’s careful work hadn’t stood up to a good night’s sleep; her neatly lacquered curls were in disarray. She hadn’t really been surprised though, and after a quick shower she sat down at her dressing table with a comb, determined to embrace her new attitude, and make herself look as smart as possible.
She quickly discovered that Judith had been as good as her word, and her hair dropped straight into the smart side parting that her mother had always insisted on. Unlike when she was a teenager, she was happy to maintain this, but found that her fine, straight hair tended to fall down over her forehead. She dragged it back with the comb, and rather than the Kirby grips that her mother would force in when she had wanted Sophie’s hair to stay tidy, she held her breath and applied a good coating of hairspray.
She had been pleased that her hair had stayed pristine all day, so had no hesitation in repeating the process on Monday morning. When she looked at herself in the mirror, she was delighted with what she saw. She was wearing the long pleated skirt, navy tights and one-inch heels prescribed by the dress code. Her face was scrubbed clean, and her fingernails trimmed short. Her plain brown hair, cut cleanly over her ears, was neatly combed into a side parting and kept firmly out of her face with hairspray.
She could hardly imagine a greater contrast to the way she had looked just a few months ago, when she would turn up to work with a face full of makeup, her skirt as short and heels as high as she thought she could get away with, and her long mane of blonde highlights cascading down her back and over her face.
She felt confident that she now presented the perfect image of a disciplined and respectful young lady, sure to impress her manager, and she wasn’t disappointed.
“Well don’t you look so much better! That’s a lovely short haircut. It certainly should stay nice and tidy for you.” Wendy looked reproachfully over the top of her glasses. “I don’t know why you made such a fuss about having it cut.”
“Thank you Wendy. I do hope it will stay tidy.” Sophie decided to ignore the implied criticism.
“Not quite brave enough to have it permed, though? I hope Sarah won’t be too disappointed.”
Sophie cast her eyes down. “I’m being taken for a perm in two weeks, short and tight, just like Sarah’s.” Even though Sophie had been thinking about this constantly since she had accepted Gladys’ invitation, saying it out loud made it suddenly seem more real, and she briefly wondered whether she was doing the right thing.
“Well I’m very pleased to hear it. I knew that you would honour your commitment eventually.” She paused, and smiled triumphantly.
“The best thing about having you girls permed, of course, is that there’s no going back. Once those rods are in then you’re just going to have a head full of tight little curls, no matter what.”
“Right, that’s all the rods in, time to make these curls permanent.” Moira snipped the top from a plastic bottle and swiftly covered each of the tightly wound rods with perm solution.
Sophie had been dazzled at the speed Moira had worked. It had taken just a few minutes for her hair to be ruthlessly cropped down to a uniform two inches and deftly wound onto the slim plastic perm rods. Moira was never gentle with her clients, and the tightness of the rods had Sophie in some discomfort.
“Right. You need to sit still while that processes, young lady. Hands in your lap, please. No touching your hair.”
Sophie felt like a young child, but did as she was told, and sat obediently.
“It used to be a real rite of passage, this.” Moira remarked to Gladys, as she swept up Sophie’s discarded locks. “Girls would be brought in by their mothers with their long plaits, and we’d send them home with a good short cut and a perm. There were often a few tears, but they all knew that it had to be done.”
“Quite right too.” Gladys was equally forthright. “I really can’t understand grown women now wanting to look like scruffy schoolgirls, with great long messes of rat’s tails hanging down their backs. What do they think they look like? If I had my way, I’d march them all down here for a good smartening up.”
Moira chuckled. “If only you could! I expect there’d be more than a few tears, mind, when they realised that they wouldn’t be turning heads any more, but a bit of modesty and humility would do them all some good.”
They carried on for a few minutes, putting the world to rights, then Moira checked her watch. She carefully removed one of the perm rods and checked for a curl.
“Right Missy, that’s a nice tight curl, so we need to get you neutralised.” Sophie was led to the basin and rinsed, then tried not to cough as she was sat up and had the cold and smelly liquid applied to her hair.
When Maria had discovered that Sophie was finally submitting to a perm, she had taken delight in regaling her with all the tortuous details of the process, so although this was Sophie’s first time, she was well aware that this was the real moment of no return. Though her fate had been sealed as soon as she accepted Gladys’ offer, the neutraliser was the step which actually made her curls permanent.
She took a deep breath. This really was it. She was going to be a short and curly girl now, and if that made her look old and frumpy, she was just going to have to get used to it. She reminded herself that she was doing this for her friend, Sarah, and that even if she really didn’t want this perm, the decision was long since made, and she was doing the right thing.
She held onto this thought to help her endure the last parts of the process and was thankful to find herself sitting up again as Moira whipped the rods out from her hair, blotting the new curls dry with a towel. By accident or design, there was no mirror in front of her, so Sophie still had no idea how she looked. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to see or not.
Moira once again attacked Sophie’s locks with comb and scissors, cheerfully announcing “I’m just shaping her up, getting this into a proper, traditional poodle shape, like you wanted, Gladys.”
There was a sharp pop, making Sophie jump, followed by a loud buzzing as Moira, done with her scissors, flicked on the powerful electric clippers.
“Head down, Missy.” A firm hand pushed her chin into her chest, and the clippers were mercilessly run up the back of her neck. An alarmingly large amount of Sophie’s new, tight curls rained onto the floor.
“Four fingers, same as the others?”
“Yes please. I want to see plenty of nice clean skin over her collar.”
Sophie kept her head submissively bowed, recalling how severely Sarah’s nape had been clipped by Moira. She had been quite shocked when she had first seen just how much Sarah’s hairline had been raised, but remembered that after a few days, she had got used to it and even found herself admitting that Sarah did look really smart, though she hadn’t imagined for one moment that she would end up with exactly the same rigidly conservative style.
“There you are.” Moira pronounced triumphantly. “One more young lady, all neat and tidy. Is that all right for you?”
Sophie raised her head and was about to politely thank her, when she realised that Moira wasn’t talking to her.
“Oh yes, that’s lovely. It’s such a treat to be able to take a young lady properly short and curly for the first time.”
“Now, is she having a set, or are we just sending her home like this?”
“No need for a set today, thank you. She can show off those lovely tight curls on the way home.”
“Better make sure she stays tidy, mind.” Moira picked up the enormous can of lacquer and gave Sophie’s hair a thorough soaking.
Sophie was released from the cape, and finally got a chance to see her new curls. They were, as she had expected, very short, and very tight. Her hair was taken straight back from her forehead and Moira had not held back with her clippers, leaving plenty of clean white skin showing around Sophie’s ears. Her hand strayed to the back of her head where she felt an enormous expanse of bare skin which abruptly transitioned into a line of tight curls, set hard with a heavy coating of lacquer.
Even the plain, frumpy bob that her Mum had given her seemed a distant memory, and she found it hard to believe that just a few months ago she had had a mane of poker straight, highlighted tresses tumbling halfway down her back.
“Perfect!” Gladys dug out her purse and paid Moira, tipping generously as always, one reason why Moira was happy to accommodate her at short notice, and to make sure that the young ladies left looking exactly the way Gladys wanted them.
“Now, bring her back any time. She’ll be needing that neck clipped every four weeks at least, and if it was up to me, she’d have it set regularly, just to keep her in order.”
“Mmm, perhaps you’re right,” Gladys mused. “A regular wash and set might be just the thing for her. I’m sure she’d benefit from the discipline of maintaining a traditional hairstyle.”
Sophie couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. She knew that her long hair was gone, and was pretty much resigned to it’s loss, but she had only agreed to have her hair permed for the wedding, and out of respect for Sarah and her new family. She certainly hadn’t planned on keeping the short tight curls any longer than she had to.
Now Steve’s grandma was talking not only as if the tight, curly perm was staying for good, but as though she could now have Sophie’s hair styled just as she wanted. Sophie’s thoughtful and considerate attitude had been taken as submission, and Gladys was quite happy to take charge and impose her vision of what a respectable young lady should look like.
Sophie unwittingly pictured herself as a regular customer at Cut ’n’ Curl, receiving prim, old-fashioned roller sets under Gladys’ strict supervision, and found the prospect strangely tempting. There was something about having no choices, no decisions to make, which appealed strongly to her. Perhaps she should allow the two older ladies to take charge, at least until the wedding. After all, she was hardly going to be looking anything other than prim, proper and respectable until she could allow her hair to grow out again.
Gladys and Moira were entirely unaware of Sophie’s epiphany, but had carried on blithely discussing the best way to make sure that she stayed looking presentable at all times.
“Right, well that’s settled then. You can come every Thursday, straight after work, for a wash and set. Moira stays open late on a Thursday. If you need it set again in the week, I’m sure you can fit it into your lunch hour.” Galdys raised her eyebrows quizzically. Sophie lowered her eyes.
“Yes Mrs. Stewart. That would be lovely.”
She took a deep breath, and looked up again.
“Thank you for getting my hair sorted out. I knew that I needed to have it permed for the wedding, but I’d been terribly worried about it; it seemed like such a big step.” She shook her head. “I feel so much better now that it’s been done.” She smiled, bashfully.
“You’re very welcome, dear. You look much smarter now, and I’m certainly not going to allow any backsliding. I want you here promptly at five o’clock every Thursday, and on your best behaviour, please.”
“Yes, Mrs. Stewart.”
“And don’t wash your hair in the meantime, mind.” Moira butted in. “That’s a fresh perm, you mustn’t get it wet. I’ll give you a nice firm set on Thursday, you’ll just have to keep it tidy until then. You’ll need to sleep in a hairnet, and a fresh coat of lacquer every morning.”
“Yes, Mrs. Connolly.”
“Very good.” Gladys nodded approvingly. “You’ve conducted yourself a great deal better than Tina did. It makes a nice change to find a young lady who respects traditional values.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Stewart.”
“Right. Pop your jacket back on, and you’re done. The chemist on the corner sells hairnets and lacquer. I want those curls immaculate when you come back on Thursday, please.”
Sophie realised that she’d been dismissed, so carefully buttoned up her jacket, making sure that she looked presentable. She caught her reflection in the mirror, still slightly shocked at the severity of the tight perm.
As she walked out onto the street she felt a gust of wind. It chilled her bare neck and exposed ears, but Sophie could tell that her stiff, tight curls were unmoved. She wondered how people would react to her, as a young woman with such an old-fashioned hairstyle. What would her friends think?
She smiled ruefully as she realised that her chances of getting a date were pretty much zero, at least until her hair grew back out to something more normal. On the other hand, her mum would be delighted, and would certainly let her know about it. She shuddered as she imagined the triumphal crowing, and Mary telling her how darling she looked with her tight little poodle curls. At least, she thought, she had no plans to see her mum, so she’d have some time to get used to it, and should be spared the gloating for a few weeks.
Also published at https://f35hstories.wordpress.com/