Hair is Fine, but Water is Better

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I sat in front of the TV, transfixed by the words coming out of Jackie Hewitt’s mouth. As the government minister for the environment, her every word held weight and importance. However, her broadcast took me by surprise. Her announcement would change my life forever.

‘Women of our great nation, I come to you today with a plea. As we continue to face the devastating effects of the drought crisis, it is our duty to make sacrifices for the greater good of our fellow citizens. And thus, I ask that all women who have hair longer than fifty centimetres – so, reaching past the middle of the back – to voluntarily go to a National Hair Service Severance Centre as soon as possible to have their hair cut.’

I watched as the minister stood tall and confident, her perfectly coiffed black hair pulled back into a tight bun at her nape, disguising its length. It was an unusual and austere look for her. She invariably wore her exceedingly long hair in a variety of elaborate French-braided styles that women such as I had emulated over the years. For this speech, she wore a tailored red suit and she spoke with great conviction, her voice echoing through the speakers.

‘Your selfless act will reduce the volume of water used for hair care during the current drought crisis and reduce the pollution of our dangerously low levels of groundwater resulting from excessive use of hair conditioning and styling products.’

I sat there in disbelief as Jackie Hewitt went on, wondering how she – a government minister – could be so heartless. However, as she dropped her smile, her words became even more intimidating.

‘If there are insufficient volunteers, in two weeks the government will schedule compulsory haircuts for all women whose hair exceeds the maximum permitted length. If the rapidly deteriorating situation has not improved by then, your failure to act promptly may oblige us to reduce the limit to shoulder length … or even shorter!’

Hewitt brought her rousing speech to a conclusion with political platitudes. ‘You are all reminded that your small sacrifice is for the greater good of all your fellow citizens. Please remember that Hair is Fine, but Water is Better.’

The drought crisis was changing everything about the way we lived. I was struggling to imagine living in a world where the government dictated how long my hair could be.

= * = * =

I looked over at my husband, Robert, who looked equally shocked and angry. I had always prided myself on my thick, long hair that stretched down to my knees. For the government to tell me I needed to cut my hair for the sake of water conservation seemed absurd. However, as a community minded and eco-friendly person, I could not help but feel a sense of duty to do my part for the greater good.

‘I am sorry, Robert, but I have made up my mind. I am going to a Severance Centre tomorrow morning to have my hair, er … cut,’ I blurted out, surprising myself that I could articulate those dreadful words. ‘It’s the right thing to do.’

‘What?’ Robert’s face turned red with anger. He loved my long hair and had always admired it. ‘Are you crazy? You are not cutting off your hair!’ he yelled.

‘Look, Robert, it’s just hair,’ I said, trying to convince myself more than anyone else. ‘Mid-back hair is still considered long.’

‘Are you serious?’ Robert exclaimed, standing up from his chair. ‘I love your long hair, Layla. I do not want to see you cut it just because the government says so.’

I tried to reason with him, explaining the importance of conserving water and reducing pollution. But he would not listen.

I sighed, feeling the weight of my decision. ‘Hair is fine,’ I said, robotically echoing Hewitt’s words, sounding as if the smooth-talking politician had brain-washed me. ‘But water is better.’

Feeling defeated, I went to bed that night, feeling torn between my love for my long hair and my duty to my country.

= * = * =

The next day, I made my way to the nearest NHS Severance Centre. Hastily printed posters blighted the smart storefront, obscuring the classy signage for The Mall Barbershop. It was now a government-run facility. NHS Severance Centre one poster proclaimed, with the increasingly familiar slogan Hair is Fine but Water is Better printed on another placard next to it.

I joined an extensive line of equally sad and silent long-haired women, all waiting to have their beloved locks cut off. After what felt like hours, I reached the temporary desk placed outside the shop. Senior Officer Gail Parker, a government official, sat at the desk behind her laptop and sign expressing her name and rank. I was curious as to what “Senior Officer” might signify in the wider workings of government. However, given the speed with which the government had implemented the programme and Parker’s air of self-importance, I did wonder if it was just a title that she had invented for herself.

‘ID card?’ Gail Parker demanded without any pleasantries, barely looking up from her laptop.

I rummaged through my bag and found my ID, handing it over to her. She recorded my arrival and then asked for my thumbprint to formally sign the agreement for the forthcoming procedure. I pressed my thumb on the scanner, receiving a copy of the signed agreement and a leaflet on “Hair Aftercare”.

I would have liked to have read the agreement before I signed it but, naturally, I trusted the government to ensure there was nothing untoward within it. At that moment, I was more curious as to what the “Hair Aftercare” leaflet contained.

‘Aftercare?’ I questioned, but Parker was already attending to the next woman in line.

‘Next!’ barked a gruff voice from within the shop so, with great trepidation, I stepped inside, not knowing what to expect.

= * = * =

Within NHS Severance Centre, previously known as a barbershop, a bald middle-aged man confronted me. On his white barber’s jacket, he had pinned a tacky computer-printed badge proclaiming him to be Hair Severance Operator Ben Adams. To me, he looked just like an old man’s barber and, I had no doubt, the day before that was exactly what he was.

‘Sit,’ he ordered without any greeting or preamble, after he had led me to a large leather and chrome barber chair that faced a mirror on the wall.

I complied, trembling with fear, noting an array of terrifying looking hairclippers hanging from hooks by the mirror, while sharp-looking scissors adorned the shelf below. For a woman who had never stepped inside a salon, let a lone a barbershop, it was a frightening spectacle.

HSO Adams, without invitation from me, undid my ponytail and quickly brushed through my hair. He was struggling to manage the length of my hair, unsurprisingly for a barber more used to short-back-and-sides. I idly wondered why the government had decided to use barbershops as Severance Centres rather than salons that would have stylists with the necessary skills to manage long hair.

‘Ouch!’ I howled, reacting to Adams attempting to force a comb through a tangle he had created in my hair.

Rather than apologise, he looked up and glanced at my reflection in the mirror. ‘Not long now,’ he sniggered quietly. ‘Well, it is … but not for long.’ I had no idea what the stupid man was talking about.

I decided it was time to start discussing my needs, given that Adams seemed unwilling to do so. I was about to speak when he interrupted me by harshly tugging a section of my hair into a ponytail, secured on my crown. His action was unexpected and its purpose unclear, so I was unsure how to react.

Before I could protest, in the mirror I saw him pull the rest of my hair into seven more long bunches, sprouting ridiculously at different angles from my head. Pluming upwards, I resembled a cocker spaniel with stupidly long ears. It was obvious that HSO Adams had no idea how to style a woman’s long hair, and I had no choice but to intervene.

‘Excuse me, sir, may I choose the length and style now?’ I politely asked, not unreasonably I thought. Naturally, I expected to have a say in the matter regarding the styling details such as whether he gave me layers or a fringe, rather than simply a blunt cut that was level with the middle of my back.

‘No,’ the barber sniggered, as if I were being ridiculous, ‘did you not read the agreement?’

I sheepishly admitted that I had not. I could feel a lump forming in my throat.

‘Too bad,’ he said with a chuckle, bizarrely removing his large red hairclippers from a hook by the mirror. What could he be using those for, I wondered.

‘Even so, I -’

The loud insistent whine of an electric motor starting up, interrupting my objection.

Without a word, a grinning HSO Adams pulled one of my thick long “spaniel ears” taut, forced the blade of the hairclippers through the base, against my scalp, and pushed hard. In seconds, the blade had glided through my hair, like a knife through butter, and severed the ponytail in one long piece. It was the longest piece he could have taken as only the shortest of tufts remained behind in the wake of the clippers.

I found the speed with which he had conducted the horrible act was shocking and the terrible carnage that resulted was mortifying.

I wanted to speak, but words failed me.

Adams calmly and cruelly laid the ponytail measuring 130 centimetre or more along the shelf immediately before me.

I wanted to complain, but I could not breathe.

Adams, still grinning, dispatched another of my ponytails with equal ease. Buoyed by his success, the barber quickly removed my remaining long hair. Adams had laid out all my hair on the shelf, while a horrific patchwork of uneven tufts was all that remained on my scalp.

Adams silenced the clippers and returned them to the hook. He lifted my hair from the shelf and held it up triumphantly, admiring its length, as if it was hard-won trophy. He spoilt that illusion by carelessly tossing my beloved hair into a large transparent plastic crate, already brimming with the long hair, of varied colours, from many other unfortunate women.

‘No!’ I finally reacted, bewildered by his actions, with tears streaming down my face. Far too late, I cried out in anguish, ‘It’s far too short.’

‘And I’m not even finished yet,’ the despicable Adams smirked, as he threw a white haircutting cape over me.

‘What do you mean?’ I whined, but he simply grinned and ignored my question.

Retrieving the hairclippers, he ran the blade back and forth through the uneven clumps until not one hair remained.

‘No …’ I murmured, without any conviction, all fight having left me.

Adams exchanged the red hairclippers for a smaller device that resembled a man’s electric shaver. I soon realised that the awful machine vibrating against my scalp gave the same result. The device eliminated the dark shadow that had remained after the hairclippers. As I struggled to focus on my reflection in the mirror through my tears, I saw that HSO Adams had rendered me as bald as a billiard ball.

‘If a job’s worth doing,’ Adams chuckled, ‘it’s worth doing well. You won’t find smoother anywhere.’

‘What?’ I snapped. ‘I thought my hair was supposed to be at least down to the middle of my back, like the environment minister said!’ I wailed.

‘That’s not what it says in the agreement you signed,’ the barber chuckled, as he massaged my head with a polishing cloth and an oily liquid.

‘Er, yes,’ I responded, meaninglessly. ‘No, but -’

‘Besides, think about it,’ he said, whisking away the haircutting cape, ‘if the government reduce the maximum length permitted then you would only have to come back next week. Far better to get it all over and done with now,’ he added with twisted logic.

‘You say that, but it wasn’t your hair,’ I moaned angrily, my fight returning, fuelled by his lack of sensitivity.

He simply scratched his own bald head, grinning sarcastically, suggesting that it would have been a struggle for anyone to take any hair from his head.

‘But it’s just not fair to -’

‘Look, I’ve given you a nice clean and smooth look after removing the bulk of your hair,’ Adams sighed loudly, interrupting my flow. ‘I didn’t need to do that, and it has used more than the time the government allocate for each severance, so just try to sound grateful.’

‘What?’ I said, reacting in the only way I could to the imperious barber who was confident of no repercussions from the authorities.

Ignoring me, the odious Adams continued. ‘Now, leave by the side door. Quickly please, as we do not want your new hairstyle to cause anxiety to the other public-spirited women who are queuing up outside for my excellent services’ he grinned.

‘I’ve a good mind to -’

‘Next!’ he barked, before facing me for the last time. ‘Remember,’ he grinned. ‘Hair is Fine, but Water is Better.’

= * = * =

As I left the Severance Centre, hiding my tears, I passed a man loading a van with a collection of plastic crates, resembling the one I had seen on the floor of the barbershop. As I got closer, I could see that they contained huge quantities of human hair. I idly wondered if mine was in there, causing more of my tears to fall. I was mildly curious about where the van would take the hair. HSO Adams had undoubtedly cut off more hair from women that morning than he would by trimming men’s hair in a month. Obviously, he would need to dispose of it all somewhere.

Feeling overwhelmed, I desperately needed a drink. I also wanted time on my own so I could calm down before facing Robert. So, I made my way to a nearby pub, pulling the hood of my jacket up to hide my bald head and to avoid answering questions from anyone I knew.

As I sat at a table by the window with a large glass of Chardonnay before me, I absently flicked through the “Hair Aftercare” leaflet that Senior Officer Parker had given me. As if rubbing in what had just occurred, the government’s literature was advising how I should protect my bald head in the sun. They also gave recommendations on electric shavers that I could purchase to keep my bald head smooth.

Feeling angry and frustrated, I stuffed the leaflet in my bag and idly looked around the pub as I sipped my wine. To my surprise and annoyance, I saw Senior Officer Parker and HSO Adams bursting through the door of the pub, clearly in a celebratory mood. Once they had ordered their drinks, they moved to a nearby table.

I could see Parker and Adams, but they ignored me as they only had eyes for each other. With my hood still pulled up, they did not recognise me as one of their earlier victims. Their laughing and joking were not what I needed to help me unwind after my trauma. So, I downed the rest of my wine and gathered my things together, ready to move.

‘So, what about all the hair that’s cut?’ HSO Adams asked. ‘Will it really help to alleviate the drought situation?’

Curious, I settled back down in my seat to hear Parker’s reply.

The Senior Officer laughed, almost spilling her drink. ‘No, of course not, Ben,’ she confessed, tapping his arm reassuringly, ‘this whole thing is just a ruse. The government know they can’t do anything about the drought. But the government pretending to do something – about anything, really – even if it is ineffective, will always be more popular with the voters than not doing anything at all.’

‘That’s a bit cynical, isn’t it?’ Adams remarked.

Parker shrugged, downed the rest of her drink, and chuckled. ‘Scientists have calculated the effect on water supplies if women used less water for shampooing and conditioning. In summary, the programme would have to run for years to have any noticeable impact on water supplies or pollution,’ Parker giggled, nodding her thanks to the barman who had bought her over another drink. ‘Isn’t that simply hilarious!’

The Hair Separation Operative, Ben Adams, did not look overly convinced by the joke.

‘The primary objective of the programme has always been to boost government popularity. The government are incredibly pleased with the environment minister’s proposal. However, Jackie Hewitt’s plan has always been to secretly sell all the hair that we have got for free,’ Parker continued proudly. ‘I’m collaborating with her to export it for an incredibly good price to wealthy countries for use in the hair extension industry. It’s a lucrative business, and we will all make a huge profit.’

Adams looked thoughtful. ‘Wow, that’s, er, unexpected …’

‘I really shouldn’t have said anything so please, Ben, keep it quiet,’ Parker said, drunkenly waving a finger in front of her lips. ‘And, of course, there will be an excellent bonus for you today after your superb productivity.’

Adams looked a little worried. ‘Hmm …’

‘And it was a great idea of yours to slightly modify the proforma agreement to give us the authority to shave off all their hair rather than leave fifty centimetres. The significantly longer hair attracts a proportionately much greater price for long hair extensions, and that’s obviously brilliant. Thank you, and I know Jackie is incredibly pleased with your contribution.’

Adams looked more worried once he realised that he was fully complicit with the conspiracy.

My heart sank as I realised the truth behind the government’s Severance Centres. I had sacrificed my beautiful long hair on the altar of deceit and greed, and I was just another pawn in their profit game. I vowed never to trust the government again.

As I left the pub unnoticed, the conspirators clinked their glasses, treacherously toasting to ‘Hair is Fine, but Money is Better.’

= * = * =

Understandably, Robert was devastated when he saw me, but he was incredibly supportive. Robert had always been a good man and always would be a good man.

By the time we went to bed, he was as intrigued by the look and sensation of my bald head. As, indeed, was I. Fuelled by white wine and our love for each other, we enjoyed an interesting evening together. Different for sure, but very entertaining.

= * = * =

Despite what had occurred the previous evening, the way representatives of the government had treated me earlier, simply was not right. So, the following morning, I returned to the Severance Centre and marched straight to the front of the queue. I stood by Senior Officer Parker’s desk to confront her about what I had learnt. With my bald head uncovered, I heard gasps of astonishment from the latest batch of women waiting in line as they spied my shaved head. They had my sympathy, but my focus was on Parker.

I shared my knowledge about the true purpose of the National Hair Service programme and how it was all just a ploy for profit. She simply laughed at my naivety and tried to silence me by waving her hand.

‘Now, if you don’t move along, I will have my colleagues detain you for obstructing government business,’ the Senior Officer said spitefully.

I debated my next move, while observing Parker processing the unfortunate woman waiting by her desk. The woman’s fearful eyes had been flitting between my bald head, her own long hair, and the inside of the barbershop. The doubt on the woman’s face indicated that she was ready to beat a hasty retreat. Sadly, Gail Parker had noticed this too.

‘Next!’ came a familiar cry from within the shop.

Parker immediately jumped to her feet and hustled the woman inside the barbershop before she had an opportunity to change her mind.

Turning back towards me, Senior Officer Parker rewarded my continued presence with an intense stare. Without taking her eyes off me, she picked up her phone and tellingly held a finger poised above the screen.

Not wishing for more “Officers”, senior or otherwise, to confront me, I decided to leave. However, I was unable to hold back my bubbling anger. I contacted a variety of news sources to share the truth of my story and provide them with the facts related to what I had overheard. They all listened to me avidly and assured me that they would investigate what I had told them.

The next day I expected to see headlines about the government’s deceit and details of resignations, especially the environment minister. However, the only mention of the programme was a report on how successful it was proving with false and meaningless government statistics concerning the volume of water that the programme had had already saved and the reduced level of pollution in the groundwater. The conspiracy was more widespread than I had imagined.

The bland news articles that I read all culminated with a quote from a government spokesperson, reminding everyone that, ‘Hair is Fine, But Water is Better.’ I wanted to scream.

Unsurprisingly, there were no government statistics related to the profits earnt from selling my hair and that of all the other misled public-spirited women.

= * = * =

Once I realised that this was all part of a huge conspiracy across many groups within our country, I was devastated. I hoped that one day, the truth would come out, and justice would be served.

Could I be the one to expose and topple the conspirators, I pondered wisely?

Should I unearth a whistleblower and persuade them to talk, I wondered keenly?

Would I be the one to enjoy shaving Minister Hewitt bald, I contemplated gleefully.

In the meantime, all I could do as I ran my new electric shaver over my completely bald head, was to remind myself that Hair is Fine, but Truth is Better.

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