I was late again for my usual 9.00am Wednesday meeting with my editor. The reason was always the same: after my early morning swim, it took ages for my hair to dry and style. I knew this was a childish reason. It would have been better for me, especially in my line of work, to get a shorter, more practical haircut, but I had never had any urge to do it. I was rather pleased with the thick chestnut locks that reached down to my mid-back. It was the kind of vanity and weakness that in other people I usually held a mild contempt. But, hey, I’m a journalist, so I’m allowed a little hypocrisy and self-righteousness: newspapers can’t operate without them.
My editor is Henry Decker, a foul-mouthed 35 year veteran of this business. As usual, he greeted me with a curt: “you’re fucking late again”, but his bark is worse than his bite. I have known him since I joined this newspaper fresh from university 5 years ago and he is really a softie at heart. He moved straight on to business: “I want you to look into something for me. There may be a story in it, or maybe not; you know how it goes!”
“Okay, what is it?”, I asked.
“I feel bloody embarrassed about asking you to do this”, he lied, being as hypocritical and self-righteous as the rest of us. “Do you know Franklin Dodd?”
“The fridge magnate?”, I replied. Henry made a sour face at that. “I’ve only read about him. He’s the city’s biggest seller of electrical white goods. He’s never out of the society pages of this paper. His trophy wife is on the Museum’s board and is always running dinners for one charity or another?”
“Actually, it’s his fucking wife that this is all about. She’s not quite the dumb-blonde that you think she is or, at least, I never got that impression whenever I’ve spoken to her; although, I don’t know now. It seems that she’s up and left him and gone and joined some freaky cult or something, or so he says. He’s my bloody wife’s cousin and he’s been crying on her shoulder about it all. In turn, she has been bending my fucking ear to do something to help the moron. I can’t stand him by the way; he’s an ignorant creep. I doesn’t surprise me that she’s left him. If I was married to him I would be tempted to leave him too; even join a cult, if necessary.”
“So, what’s this got to do with me?”, I asked. “I’m an investigative journalist, not a gossip-columnist?”.
“Well my bloody harridan of a wife is pestering me to do something about it and, I must admit, this cult angle might be interesting. Dodd is really trying to find information to discredit his wife in any future divorce proceedings, the little shit. He’s looking to keep his fortune out of her hands and this cult business might help him. If he can show that she’s gone doo-lally, then that will help his shysters. I’m not interested in that side of it, but I hate these fucking brain-washing cults and if one is operating in this city then that’s our business. I want it exposed.”
“Okay”, I replied, “I’m interested too. What leads do you have? Where do I start?”
“Good girl! Well, his wife, her name is Anne, by the way, left him six nights ago. She had been out that day somewhere, he knows not where, and when she returned she was bald.”
“Yeah, when he left her that morning to go to his office she had a full head of hair. The next time he sees her, she’s as bald as a hard-boiled egg. She had it shaved off, she told him. She also apparently said, “I’m free of hair now and soon I’ll be free of you”, and then she walked out. He was so stunned, he says, that he couldn’t move for ages. By the time he did she was long gone. He hasn’t seen her since and doesn’t know where she went. He’s asked all her friends, but no one knows anything or, at least, if anyone does they’re not telling.”
“Then how do I pick up the trail? There must be something I can go on”.
“There is this”, Henry replied and handed me a business card. “Dodd says Anne dropped it as she left the house.”
The card was printed on both sides. One side showed a line drawing of a woman’s head in profile. It was in an art-deco style and the only remarkable thing about it was that the woman’s head was bald. Underneath the drawing was the following sentence: Calva que Pulcher. The other side had more writing: an address, but nothing else. The address was 15 Whitetop Road in the University part of town; a leafy area given over to student housing, second-hand clothes shops and bars and cafes.
Henry added: “There is no hard evidence that Anne has joined a cult. That’s Dodd’s wishful thinking, perhaps. He saw her shaven head and immediately started thinking of the bloody Hari Krishnas, I bet. However, the University district would be a good place for a cult to lodge themselves, for obvious reasons. Also, The text on the card, Calva que Pulcher, is Latin for “bald and beautiful”. The type of mumbo-jumbo that cults spout always sounds better in Latin. Helps to confuse the victims – they think they are getting some ancient wisdom for their money. So, by adding two and two together to make seven, we might have a cult on our hands. Or, maybe she’s having a mid-life crisis or just got sick of the creep and left him for someone else. Who knows, but I want you to find out”.
I went first to the newspaper’s archive and dug up all the information that we had collected on Anne Dodd, née Harris. She was 31 years of age now. She married Dodds 10 years ago, not long after obtaining a first class honours degree in Art History from the local university. Her expert knowledge and his money had helped her get on to the board of the city’s Museum and they had long been big fish in the city’s high society pond. She was also quite beautiful. The many photographs showed a slim, fit-looking and confident woman. I took notice of her hair: it was thick and dark blonde and varied in length at different times between waist length and shoulder length. In the most recent photo, dated two weeks ago, her hair was piled on top of her head in a very elaborate style. I took that photo so that I could show it around when making my enquiries
I next drove down to Whitetop Road. It was now 11.00am. It was a fairly quiet street and I was lucky to find a parking spot about 10 metres down from Number 15 and on the opposite side of the road from that address. I could see the sign above the large front window, which said “What’s the Buzz?”, and then the red and white pole which revealed the premises to be a barber’s shop. I googled the business’ name using my phone and discovered that the owner/manager was a lady called Calpurnia Jones.
I decided to have a walk past the shop to see the lay of the land, so to speak. I quickly glanced in as I passed the window. I saw a small but bright well-lit room. I saw that the barber was a woman, probably Miss Jones, and that her one customer was a woman too. I did not stop to watch but quickly moved on, so I did not see any detail of what was happening. I returned to my car from where I could spy on the shop through the car’s dark tinted windows.
After 10 minutes the lady customer left the shop and crossed the road near my car. I saw that she was fairly young and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, which indicated that she was probably a student at the university. I noted that her black hair was extremely short in a mannish flattop style. Indeed, the sides and back of her head looked almost white; the contrast with the longer hair on the top of her head making the difference look very stark. However, there was nothing else mannish about her. She was very pretty and looked very assured, feminine and at ease with herself.
The next two-hours passed without much to report. Five short-haired men entered the shop, one after the other, and exited in the same order some time later with much shorter hair and, in one case, with no hair. So, obviously, this was a place where one could get a complete head shave. However, my problem was that I saw nothing suspicious at all. There were no signs of “cultish” activity, such as polite bald-headed weirdos loitering around and bothering passers-by. It looked like a barber shop and acted like a barber shop and that, probably, is all that it was and nothing else.
I broke off my vigil to get some lunch. I walked further up the street to a bar that served food. Bar staff are usually willing to provide information and I hoped to find something useful there, as well as food. I did – my waitress, Alex, was a bald woman in her 30’s. I was surprised by her appearance at first and I must have stared at her head for longer than was polite. She became self-conscious and passed her hand uncertainly over her scalp. She asked me again about my order. I apologised for my poor manners and I ordered a caesar salad and lemonade. When she returned I complimented her on her appearance, for she was quite attractive. She smiled warily.
“Do you like it. I got it done yesterday. I’m not sure I like it. It’ll take a lot of getting used to.”
“It looks very nice, really. How long was your hair before you cut it and why did you do it, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“This time last year it was as long as yours is now. However, I started getting it cut a little shorter on each monthly visit to the local barber shop. My last visit was yesterday. Before that I had what’s called a No.4 buzzcut, about a half inch long. Why did I do it? I’m not totally sure. I initially felt that I just didn’t want very long hair again. But I could never decide on how short I wanted to go. I certainly like it very short and I think I will grow it out now to a more respectable length, perhaps 3 or 4 inches long. Ironically, my husband, who initially didn’t want me to cut it at all, loves it like this. I’ll never understand him.”
“Where did you say you got it done?, I asked.
“Oh, in Calpurnia’s place, the barber shop across the road. Cal is a regular customer here. She has been very supportive. She loves cutting hair, the shorter the better, but she never tried to force me to make one choice or another. A lot of women and girls go to her for short haircuts. Often they are emotionally distressed; you know, after breaking up with boyfriends and such. She has a bit of a reputation as an Agony Aunt and quite often she sends them away without a drastic cut if she thinks they don’t really want that. She’s a lovely person. Are you thinking of getting a short haircut yourself?”
The question made me pause for some unaccountable reason. I hesitantly answered: “Er…no”, and I changed the subject by showing her Anne’s photo. “You wouldn’t have happened to have seen this woman by any chance”, I asked. “No, sorry. She’s very pretty”. I believed her.
I went back to the car. This was turning out to be a different kettle-of-fish, it seemed. Alex’s story tended to confirm that there was no actual cult angle to this story, but I still need to eliminate that possibility. What was all that “Calva que Pulcher” business about? Calpurnia Jones, I thought. Isn’t Calpurnia a Roman name? And, where the hell was Anne Dodd?
The afternoon passed almost like the morning and only one visitor to the barber shop made me sit up and pay attention. It was around 4.00pm that I noticed her first. She was walking slowly down the street towards in my direction but on the opposite side of the road. A few metres before she reached the barber shop entrance she upped her pace and crossed the road. She slowed her pace again while she passed opposite the shop and she looked at it attentively all the while. As she passed my car I got a closer look at her. She was a pretty lady in her mid-20’s of slim build. Her light blonde hair was in a ponytail that reached to the top of her shoulders. She looked highly-strung for she gave a little startled jump when a car horn sounded further along the road.
I saw her the second time about 10 minutes later. This time she was walking up the street in the opposite direction to her last journey. She stayed on the same side as the barber shop this time and she looked through the window the whole time it took her to pass it by. She then stopped about 10 metres beyond the shop where there was a bus stop. She let two buses stop without getting on. All the while she watched the shop. After 15 minutes. a freshly shorn man left the shop with a smile on his face. Obviously another happy customer. The young woman then moved slowly towards the shop’s entrance. She paused at the door and took a deep breathe before entering.
Thirty minutes later she left, and she was completely bald now! However, this time she was smiling and appeared to be feeling a good deal more comfortable than before. She crossed the road in my direction. I took some photos of her. I’m not sure why I did that, but I was intrigued by this turn of events. I had never seen a bald woman in real life before but here today I had seen two in person. Self-consciously and with some unease, I touched the bottom of my hair.
At 5.30pm, the last person left the shop and closed up. This was Calpurnia Jones, I assumed. She was a tall Amazonian-type of woman in her 40’s, with a kind face but she was not especially good-looking. Her head was completely hairless too. I took some photos of her, “for the record”. She got into her car and drove off. I followed her to a residential street a couple of miles away. She went inside a modest but clean and well-maintained apartment building. I sat in the car and watched the building but she did not leave it again. I saw no Hare Krishna’s nor other bald “space-cadets” in the neighbourhood, so at 11.00pm I left for home too. I lived alone, married to my work.
Before going to bed I fired up my PC and uploaded the photos I took that day. I found myself staring at them intently, especially at the smiling features of the younger woman, Calpurnia’s last customer, after she came out of the shop newly shorn. She seemed so happy. I self-consciously touched my own hair again and again.
I stood close to the full-length mirror in my bedroom and considered my appearance. My hair fell to just below my breasts. I had never had it shorter than shoulder length in all my adult life. I wondered…
I woke early, or rather I didn’t really sleep, and made my way over to Whitetop Road by 8.30am. I found a parking spot on the opposite side of the road again but slightly closer to the barber shop. Calpurnia Jones arrived around 9.00am and opened the shop for business at 9.30am. I had formed a plan for today. I would watch the activity around the shop until lunchtime and then, if nothing happened, I would simply go in and speak to Calpurnia to see if she knew anything about Anne Dodd.
Something happened at 10.00am! Anne Dodd appeared!
She was walking quite calmly towards my car on my side of the road. It was obviously her. She was dressed in a bright summer dress which showed her figure off to good effect, but what really set her apart was her almost bald head. It had been seven days since she first shaved it and now a layer of short dark stubble had grown back. She looked stunningly beautiful and happy. When she was a few metres away from my position she crossed over the road and without hesitation went into Calpurnia’s barber shop.
I phoned Henry and told him. He asked me what I intended to do. I said that I would follow her after she left the shop. I asked him not to inform Franklin Dodd yet.
Thirty minutes later Anne and Calpurnia emerged from the shop. Anne was completely bald again; her white scalp gleaming in the morning sun. She gave Calpurnia a light kiss on the cheek and was off, walking in the direction she initially came from. I watched for a few seconds and then followed on foot.
She did not go far. She entered a small cafe further down the street and sat at an open air table. A waiter brought her a cup of coffee and she settled to read a newspaper (my newspaper, in fact).
I decided to end this. I wanted to find out what had happened to her and taking the bull by the horns was the best approach.
“Mrs. Dodd? Hi, I’m Sarah Wellington from the Mail. May I speak to you? Some people in our newsroom are asking questions about your whereabouts.”
She looked up at me, startled at first, but then she smiled resignedly. “I suppose this was going to have to come out sooner or later. Now’s as good a time as any. Please sit down Sarah and call me Anne. Would you like some coffee?”
And it was as simple as that. She told me the whole story. There was no cult. She had simply grown tired of her philandering, boorish husband and had walked out on him. She was temporarily staying nearby in the apartment of an old university room mate who now worked as a lecturer in Art History at the university. Her friend was away at the moment in Europe, so Anne had the place to herself and that was helping her to find some space to collect her wits.
“Why did you shave your head? I’m sorry to be blunt, but I have to ask.”
She smiled and replied: “It is just one simple step that I am taking to help me get control over my life again. Franklin tried to manage too many aspects of my life and appearance. His own entry to the social world we moved in depended on my contacts. I lent him respectability and he wanted to keep that under his tight control, so that I could never embarrass him, for example; although, God knows he needs no help from me there.”
“It also reminded me of the time when I was last fully in control of my life. That was before I married him, when I was at university. In those days I shaved my head soon after I arrived here. I kept it bald on-and-off for a couple of years because I quite liked it that way. I’ll keep it this way for a few weeks, I think; it really makes me feel free and I love rubbing my hand over it. It takes me back to a happier time.”
“What does “Calva que Pulcher” mean? Your husband thinks you joined a cult?”
She laughed. “Oh, “bald and beautiful”: that’s just an old in-joke between me and Calpurnia, the lady who shaved my head. She owns a barber shop just up the street there, but I suspect you already know that. She’s owned the shop for many years and it was she who used to shave me when I was at university. I studied some Latin in those days and I had those business cards made up as a present for her one year. She still has some around and she gave me one when I visited her last week. We had a good laugh about it.”
“One final question: would you mind if I touched you scalp?”, I asked. Anne laughed and lent forward. I reached out slowly and touched the hairless skin with the tips of my fingers. I shivered and my stomach lurched. Anne laughed again and said: “Maybe you should have a word with Calpurnia”.
And so, that is why Anne Dodd left her husband. There was no great mystery after all. No great scoop for an intrepid investigative reporter. The story went to the gossip-columnists after all. Anne immediately reverted back to using her birth name of Harris and moved back into “society” and her charitable works, but without Franklin whom she divorced. She didn’t need him for anything.
After speaking to Anne, I headed back to the car and phoned my findings through to Henry. He laughed and apologised for wasting my time. It was Thursday, so he told me that he did not want to see me in the office until Monday.
I sat in the car for a while and pondered. Eventually I crossed the street and entered Calpurnia’s shop when I knew that she had no other customers.
“Hello love, have a seat”, she said, pointing at the red chair in front of the large mirror. I took a deep breath and sat down. “What do you have in mind?”, she asked.
“I…I…I’m not sure” and then a flood of information burst out of me: about how I had come to be there, about Anne and how I felt when I remembered her appearance and that of Alex and the other women who had visited the shop.
Calpurnia laughed loudly: “Oh dear, you aren’t half confused about this. So, you are considering whether to shave your head. It’s a tough decision; I’ve seen women in this situation time-and-time again and sometimes they don’t always make the right choice. In your case, I think it would be best if we do not do it today. You should not rush into this.”
“I’ll tell you what. Let’s compromise and do a little test. I’ll cut your hair shorter, let’s say 4 or 5 inches so that it reaches down to the top of your shoulders. I will also give you a fringe. That may help you to decide whether you feel comfortable cutting your hair and wearing it shorter in public. It will allow others to get used to it too. You might decide later that you would prefer to take it shorter incrementally as Alex did, or the moment might pass and you might decide that you would rather not go shorter at all.”
“Also, and this is the special part of the test, I will under-shave the back of your head in the occipital area. It will be completely hidden from the view of other people, but you’ll know its there. You’ll be able to rub it and that might help you decide finally if you are ready for the whole lot to come off. How about it?”
So, that is what we did. The best part was the under-shaving. She used clippers and then lathered the quite large denuded area and shaved it clean with a safety razor. It was like a roller-coaster ride. My stomach was in my mouth the whole time and for hours afterward.
At home that night, I could not concentrate of anything. Neither TV nor books could hold my attention. My hands kept reaching for the shaved area under my hair.
What pushed me over the edge was the wine!
I stood before the mirror as I had done the night before, although this time I was just a little drunk on alcohol and pent-up nervous energy. I thought initially that the new cut was not short enough. It reached the top of my shoulders, which was quite the shortest it had been for many years. But, I was ready to cut another inch or two off it.
I used the sharp scissors that I kept in the kitchen. I cut each side first, an inch to begin with and when that did not satisfy me another inch. I looked intently at what I had done and it gave me more courage. I cut both sides again up to the base of my ears. I quite liked how I looked now.
The problem came with the back. It was difficult reaching round to cut a line that was level with the sides. Also, I hardly had a steady hand by now. The result was a mess, to say the least. The line of hair was jagged and, worse, went too high in some places with the result that the bald patch under the occipital area was clearly visible in places now.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit”, I mumbled. There was only one solution: I opened another bottle of wine. I decided not to do anymore cutting, but instead to return to Calpurnia tomorrow to see if she could repair the damage in some way.
But before eventually going to bed, I had another look at the damage. By this time the second bottle was working its effects. I picked up the scissors again and tried to even the line. That, of course, only made it shorter and more jagged, with nearly all of the bald area exposed now.
I stood for several long minutes drunkenly contemplating my appearance in the mirror. All the while I rubbed the bald area with my fingers. Finally the dam broke and I started cutting all of the remaining hair away.
I kept some bic razors and shaving cream in the bathroom for my legs. I went there next and spread a layer of cream over my head. I looked at myself in the mirror; and sometimes at a booze blurred face. Taking a deep breath, I brought the razor to my head and started scraping.
I forgot to tell you one last thing about Anne. One year has passed since I solved the “The Case of the Missing Bald Wife” but she has kept the bald look; still regularly visiting Calpurnia. The gossip-columns were excited about her appearance for a while but, you know, last week’s news is history.
I must end now. I’m off for my regular Friday appointment with Calpurnia. I’m never late for appointments now.