Aunt Heather was nothing like her younger sister, their mother. The family joke was that they must have come from different fathers. Mum was short and round, relaxed, bubbly, warm, and always dressed casually. Heather was tall and lithe, with an austere aloofness about her in both dress and manner. Always immaculately turned out, she was renowned across the family for her tough demeanour and strict ways with Ben, her son, and any other children who came into her orbit. Mum often indulged them; Heather never would. But after the car accident that claimed their parents, the guardianship board decided it was best to send the twins north to live with Heather since she’d offered to take them in.
After arriving at their Aunt’s house and having lunch with her, Aunt Heather had them bring their suitcases containing their clothes into the lounge room. They stood in silence as she opened both and emptied the contents on the floor. She sorted through Christopher’s and then Anna’s clothes, tossing most items into garbage bags.
‘I’m not having either of you looking like urchins under my roof.’ The clothes were heading for the local charity shop.
Chris started to argue with her, but she cut him off with a sharp glare and a curt, ‘Don’t even think about it, young man.’ Chris knew better than to argue with her – he and his sister had stayed with her enough times previously and knew what to expect if either of them ‘played up’, as she put it.
Anna was too numb to argue, shocked by what was being taken away from her. All her favourite outfits gone, tossed aside for some lucky kids to wear and adore. Bar undergarments, about all that was left were her school uniform and a few of her more bland, prim clothes, straight-laced blouses and skirts, garments she’d stopped wearing an age ago. She was thirteen, not a little girl anymore! She instantly regretted packing them in her suitcase but the last few months since her parents had died had been painful and chaotic. ‘I shouldn’t have just chucked everything in without thinking.’
Aunt Heather told Chris to go change into his school uniform. ‘Nothing else is suitable.’ She handed him his school shoes, shorts, jumper, shirt and tie.
‘But I’m not at school!’ His Aunt gave him a withering look; instantly he regretted his loose mouth. He moved off to the bedroom, his school uniform in his hands.
Anna didn’t have to put on her school uniform – but would have preferred that to what Aunt Heather held up for her. She frowned as her Aunt handed over her brown school shoes, a pleated, red and yellow tartan skirt, thick woollen cream tights, a lace-trimmed cream blouse and fluffy, yellow cardigan.
‘That horrible yellow cardigan!’ exclaimed Anna to herself. Aunt Heather had knitted it, having sent it to her for her birthday last year. It was so Little Girl, so prudish, so yesterday! Worst of all it was scratchy as hell against her skin. Anna had worn it just once, when Aunt Heather had visited last Christmas, under sufferance and only to please her Mummy. ‘Yuk!’ thought Anna, as she went off to change.
They came back in together. ‘Now no slouching, stand up straight the two of you.’
Aunt Heather stood up and walked over to them. She adjusted Chris’s tie and looked him up and down. ‘Socks aren’t meant to dangle above shoes, Christopher.’ With a grimace he bent down and pulled them up as high as they could go.
She brushed his fringe away from his eyes. ‘Your hair’s a frightful mess but it’ll look far more presentable soon enough.’ Chris swallowed nervously – he hated having his haircut. He remembered Aunt Heather had always had his cousin Ben’s hair cut in a terrible, short style – he guessed he’d be wearing something similar soon enough.
Aunt Heather moved across to Anna and straightened the hem of her tartan skirt. ‘Now young lady, is that the proper way to wear a pretty cardigan?’ Anna didn’t know how to respond, as much from uncertainty as to what constituted her Aunt’s definition of the proper way to wear a cardigan, as from her nervousness.
‘Ummm, how should I wear it, Auntie?’
‘Done up, of course.’ And with that Aunt Heather stepped forward and did up all eight little shiny buttons, right to the top of the collar. She pulled the blouse’s frilly lace collar out over the neckline of the cardigan and stepped back, looking Anna up and down.
‘Yes, that cardigan goes very well with your nice skirt and tights. Now all you need is your hair fixed up and you’ll be properly turned out.‘
‘Hair fixed up? But my hair’s fine, clean and flowing just as any girl likes’ wondered Anna. The cardigan was driving her crazy and she scratched at her arm but didn’t dare complain about it in case Aunt Heather got upset.
‘Time we go shopping for some suitable outfits for the both of you. And deal with your horrid heads of hair. Get your coats.’ With that she turned and walked off to get the car keys. The twins looked at each other wide-eyed. Chris shook his head; a tear rolled down Anna’s cheek. He took hold of her hand and led her off to fetch their coats.
The clothing shop Aunt Heather took them to was stocked only with the most old-fashioned children’s clothes imaginable, all so ordinary, conventional and conservative; they left after an hour or so burdened down with more than enough items to weigh heavily across both their minds. They dropped the bags off at the car and then Aunt Heather walked them a block down the high street, stopping outside a barbershop. She swung the door open and waved the twins through.
Anna went in first. She’d never been in a barber’s before and hesitated, looking first at the two barbers, then down at the big leather-cushioned chrome chairs with footplates, then at the huge wall length mirror, below which was a bench laden with scissors, jars, razors, clippers and towels. Sweetly warm, almost musky smells filled her nostrils. She turned away quickly and made for the red vinyl bench seat along the opposite wall and took her coat off. Chris moved in beside her. Aunt Heather came round and sat down next to her.
Anna looked back up at the barbers. One, a middle-aged gent, was cutting a male customer’s hair with scissors. He turned to Aunt Heather.
‘Hello Mrs O’Sullivan, we haven’t seen you in here for a few years.’
‘Hello Tom. Yes, that’s right. Ben’s now living in Edinburgh, studying at university. And growing his hair, I’m afraid.’
‘Ah well, that’s the youth of today for you, you can’t stop them once they fix their minds on something.’
‘Yes, well, I can’t pretend I’m pleased about it. He looks positively horrid.’
‘They test us, those youngsters, yes they do. Anyways, I shouldn’t be too long with old Bill here.’
‘Oh, there’s no hurry, Tom.’
‘Yeah, not for her perhaps’, thought Chris, who just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. He picked up a magazine lying next to him on the bench and tried to distract himself from what was soon about to happen.
The other barber was a plumpish woman, perhaps in her fifties, with short, steel grey hair and a long white coat over a knee-length black skirt and red turtleneck. Anna had never imagined a woman would be cutting hair in a barbershop. Weren’t barbershops for men and boys: male customers, male barbers?
What was even more surprising was the fact a lady about the same age as the barber was having her hair cut. And quite short, except for the top, which had been swept back over the crown.
‘I’m almost done Eve’ said the lady barber to her customer. ‘Do you want me to thin out the body above the neckline some more?’
‘I think so, Lois, my hair grows back so quick.’
The barber picked up a set of shiny electric clippers, put a small guard over the teeth and began using them to trim the hair above the woman’s neckline. She removed the guard and used the naked edge of the clippers to trim the hairline across the customer’s neck, continuing along the line of the cut around and above her ears. Anna was both fascinated and frightened by the noise of the buzzing machine. And the result. A little shiver went through her.
Tom finished with his customer, shook the cape and started dusting down the seat.
‘Christopher,’ said Aunt Heather. He looked up, slowly stood, reluctantly put the magazine down and made his way across to the chair.
‘This is my nephew, Christopher, Tom. He and his sister are in my care now.’ Tom pulled off some coarse tissue paper, placed it on the collar of Chris’s shirt, folding it down and said, ‘Pleased to meet you Christopher.’
‘And how do you want it cut, Mrs O’Sullivan, short like your young Ben?’
‘Yes Tom, very short.’
‘Fine.’ Tom held a comb along Christopher’s neckline, just below the bottom of his ears.
‘Taken this high, Mrs O’Sullivan?’
Aunt Heather held her thumb and index finger up, making an inch-wide gap between her finger and thumb. ‘Higher. About so.’
The comb moved up Chris’s neck. ‘This high?’
Aunt Heather nodded. ‘Yes, that looks perfect.’
Christopher sighed and silently cursed his Aunt. ‘Why so short!’ he screamed to himself as the cape was wrapped around him and buttoned up.
‘Poor Chris!’ thought Anna, feeling his discomfort intensely. He’d never had his hair cut short before – their mother wasn’t fussed how he wore his hair, as long as it was kept clean.
‘Anna’. Anna’s thoughts were brought back to earth by her Aunt’s verbal prod. She looked across to the other barber and noticed her standing there with a white plastic cape in her hand.
She looked at her Aunt then back at the barber. ‘Anna, go and make your way over to the chair.’ Anna felt her mouth dry out; a heat flush crossed her body. The cardigan felt itchy again and she started scratching her arm. ‘Anna. This instant!’
‘Ah…I feel all hot, Auntie, can I take the cardi…’ Her Aunt took hold of her arm, lifted her up and led her across to the chair.
‘I’m sorry for this, she’s normally a good girl.’
The barber turned to Anna. ‘First time in a barber’s shop is it?’
‘You’ll be alright if you just sit still and let me cut your hair the way your Aunt wants it cut.’
Right then the clippers started up behind Anna. She shot a nervous glance over at Chris, watching his long, fine hair being shorn away in neat steady runs over his head. ‘But they don’t use clippers in any hairdressers I’ve ever gone to!’ thought Anna. Anna turned back and looked up at the woman, worry written on her face.
The barber waved Anna onto the chair. ‘Your Auntie knows what’s best for you.’ Reluctantly, Anna sat down.
The barber put the cape down on the back of the chair, lent across to the counter and removed some tissue paper, pulled Anna’s long hair away at the back then placed the paper along the collar of Anna’s blouse and cardigan. The cape was put around her and done up tightly at the back. Anna’s heart beat quickened, as did her breathing. She felt hot again, enclosed and trapped. ‘This cardigan is so hot and itchy!’ she screamed to herself.
‘How do you want it cut? Trimmed a little or shorter?
‘I want it cut short all round. A no nonsense haircut. There’s no need for her to be distracted by her hair.’
Aunt Heather described the haircut she wanted. Anna stared at her through the mirror in horror, mortified by what she was hearing.
‘That is short’ said the barber. ‘But that’s fine, I can do that.’
Anna didn’t know what to do, what to say. Her beautiful long hair, half-way down her back…all going…going…gone. A tear rolled down her face.
The barber caught her look in the mirror, picked up a pair of scissors and said with an air of indifference, ‘Don’t fret, hair always grows back.’
Anna burst into tears. The barber stepped back, looking across at Aunt Heather.
Anna, sobbing, pleaded with her Aunt to let her keep her hair long. ‘Or…’sniff ‘...at least…’ sniff ‘…let me have it…’ sniff ‘…cut not quite as short…’ sniff.
Aunt Heather stood up. ‘Anna, pull yourself together. Now. Or else. You’re embarrassing me. And yourself.’
‘But Auntie, I…’
‘Young lady, you’re close to earning yourself a severe punishment when we get home. Now stop being so self-centred and show some respect to the barber and myself. Sit up straight. This instant.’
Anna felt completely deflated, ensnared. Somehow she regained control over her tumbling emotions, settling her sobbing down. She sat up straight.
‘I’m sorry Auntie’ she said quietly.
‘I’m not the only one you need to apologise to.’ Anna looked at the barber through the mirror.
‘I’m sorry, miss,’ she said, scratching once more at her arm. The barber dipped her head slightly in acknowledgement. ‘You’re not the first girl to cry in this chair. I’d say you may as well get used to it.’
Aunt Heather turned and went back to the bench seat.
The barber picked up a thick wooden hairbrush and began brushing Anna’s hair back in fast stokes. Pushing Anna’s head down and away from the back of the chair, she gathered up the mass of her long dark hair into a tight bunch. Anna tried not to think about what was about to happen but when she heard the scissors cutting through her tresses in one single, forceful drive, a tear again rolled down her cheek. Her hair was now snipped off just above the shoulders.
The barber held up the cut hair for Anna to take in. ‘See. That wasn’t hard when you behave and sit still,’ she said with a wry smile. She dropped the mass on to the chequered floor next to the chair.