***I have been dusting off old stories that have been sitting around unpublished lately. I wrote this one years ago, with the plan that I would have someone check it for historical accuracy as well as edit it. That never happened. Unlike the other historical one I recently published, which was loosely based on real events, people and places I was fairly familiar with, this one is mostly based on “history” I learned from old TV shows and movies I watched as a kid, and I only visited Paris briefly in the ‘80s, so please forgive inaccuracies.***
Sally and I walked down the street, trying to look as nonchalant as possible while actually on the edge of panic. We had the top of our market baskets filled with stuff to look like everyday shopping to conceal what lay underneath. My pounding heart wanted to run, but I knew that walking at a normal pace was what we needed to do. Nothing to see here, just two women out doing the shopping.
“How much further till we get there?” Sally asked, keeping her voice low and level.
“It’s around the next corner, the barbershop. It’s owned by Jacques.” Sally’s step faltered for a moment when I said it but she recovered quickly so I continued. “We’ll use the back entrance though, to avoid attention from regular customers. I just need to signal the shoe shine boy to meet us there.”
I walked up to the shoe shine boy and asked “Do you ever polish blue dancing shoes with silver buckles?”
“Occasionally”, he answered. I sat in his chair and let him start polishing. When he had nearly finished, I made a show of paying him so that it wasn’t obvious that I had stood up too soon.
Sally and I walked casually down the street and turned into the next alleyway. When we got to the back of the barbershop, we waited where we weren’t visible from the street. It felt like forever before the boy opened the back door, and motioned us to enter. Though it had felt like an eternity to my pounding nerves, according to my watch it took about 15 minutes.
The backroom was a disorderly kitchen with a table in the middle.
“Jacques will come back here after the shop closes,” the boy told us in a low voice. “Wait here and please be as quiet as possible. The water closet is over there, and if you’re tired, there is a cot through there” pointing to a tiny room.
After the boy left us, Sally settled down on one of the chairs at the table. She suddenly looked drained; I guess the adrenaline had worn off. I sat next to her, and put my arm around her. She was shivering, even though the little kitchen was warm. She leaned on my shoulder.
“I didn’t mean to kill him.” Sally whispered into my ear.
“I know,” I whispered back, holding her more tightly, “You didn’t have a choice.”
Sally looked so young as I looked into her face. She was just a few years younger than me, but something about her delicate features made the gap seem much greater. Her long blond hair brushed softly against me, a reminder of how innocent her life had previously been. It was a natural golden blonde, not a harsh Hollywood peroxide blonde. She’d grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania in a strictly religious family and so her hair was long and natural in ways I had rarely seen since I’d been a young girl.
She didn’t talk about her family much. Over the 2 years we worked and lived together I had the impression that she wasn’t welcome to return home unless she was ready to get baptised and married. Her upbringing had been very sheltered in many ways.
We met in the summer of ‘38 after answering advertisements for work as translators. As it turned out they weren’t really looking for translators. In the interview I was asked a lot of political questions, my opinion of Charles Lindbergh, and other details which confused me at first. As it turned out the real job was to live in Paris and keep an ear open for early signs of possible war with Germany. Of course the war came. Germany invaded Poland. Then when France fell, our job changed.
We went out with the senior German officers whenever we could. Sally used her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage to explain her fluent German. Our covers were very simple, we were pretty much just who we really were; a couple of unmarried American gals. We even had day jobs as typists for an American firm. I pretended to only speak English and imperfect French, always waiting for Sally to translate anything they said in German, though in reality my French was fluent and I understood German perfectly, as well as a few other languages less useful in our current situation. The officers talked freely around me in German when Sally excused herself to powder her nose. I would listen especially for anything that might help the British or the French Resistance. It was sometimes hard to look bored when I felt like yelling at them for their despicable actions.
They were very relaxed around us. The officer Sally was seeing had even tried to talk her into going with him to Bavaria for Christmas.
At first, it all worked perfectly. Then, all of a sudden, America was at war first with Japan and then Germany. We had planned to just leave with the other Americans and not break cover, but the officer Sally was seeing turned up at our apartment early one morning declaring his eternal love for her and swearing she could remain safely if she just married him. He had everything arranged. The officer I was dating was waiting at the courthouse to be a witness for Sally’s wedding.
Of course she had no desire to marry the officer. In truth, Sally and I were lovers. While trying to let him down easily he noticed that Sally seemed to have been burning papers. He became agitated and walked about our tiny apartment and into the room where I was disassembling a radio set. Things went badly from there, and Sally stabbed him with a screwdriver. So we couldn’t simply leave France as planned. Fortunately, I had contacts who had been smuggling people out of France and it was in this way that we found ourselves in the suburbs of Paris at the back of a barbershop.
“Let’s just go lie down and rest for a bit” I whispered to Sally “We may not get the chance again for a while”. She nodded and we walked arm in arm, into the room with the cot and we lay down and Sally snuggled against me as I pulled the blanket up around us. Her head cradled in my arm, I stroked the long golden curls. She fell to sleep and soon after I did too.
“Trixie, Sally. I have closed the barbershop and drawn the curtains ” Jacques the barber said, waking us up as he peered in the doorway of the small room. “Come out now and and we can all talk normally.”
We slipped out from under the blanket and went to the kitchen. Jacques was standing there waiting for us. He gestured for us to sit at the table and then sat down after us.
“I assume you’re not here to give me information.” Jacques said. In the past whenever I had spoken to Jacques, it was to let him know about something Sally and I had learnt, or to pass messages from the British.
“There is a dead German officer and a smashed radio in our apartment and he may already have been discovered” I explained. “We need to leave France, but risk being stopped if we try to travel under our own names.”
“Congratulations on killing the German officer, I didn’t expect you to be personally joining the fighting quite so soon after you Americans took so long joining the war.” Jacques teased, and then his face became serious. “You’re in luck, I have a couple of passports that can get you to Ireland. Come out front.”
Jacques got up and walked into the shop then over to a cabinet. He pulled one of the drawers all the way out and piled its contents on one of the chairs. Turning the drawer over, he opened a hidden compartment in the bottom. He flipped through the various sets of papers in the drawer while Sally and I stood watching. He pulled out two green booklets that said “Irish Free State” in English below a harp with the same written in Gaelic above.
“These are for a mother and son. Fortunately they are old, so the picture of the son is of him as a young boy, and he would be 16 now.” Jacques said, though I didn’t understand what was fortunate about it at the time. “You can pass as Irish, yes?”
“The mother will work for one of us,” Sally said, “but what about the other? Neither of us is a 16 year old young man.”
“You look young enough to pass for 16.”
“Yes, but I am not a boy.” Sally pointed out.
“Fortunately for you, I am a barber, so we can fake it.” Jacques said matter of factly. “The family of Michel, the shoe shine boy, live in the apartment upstairs they will barter clothing. One of his suits should fit you.”
Sally stood for just a moment looking pale as the color drained from her face. Then she started backing toward the door muttering “No, no, no.”
I was standing between her and the door, so when she turned and broke into a run, I was able to reach out and catch her. The weight of her body colliding with mine almost knocked me over. Sally was strong, but I was a fair bit taller. She strained against my arms, but I held her.
“No, I can’t. I’ll find another way out.” Sally pleaded in my ear. “Please don’t make me do this, there must be other ways. You go ahead, and I’ll catch up to you.”
“I’m not leaving without you”. I spoke calmly, trying to sooth and reason with her. “If you’re caught you will be shot, but first they will try to get information from you. You’ll put all of our contacts in danger.”
As I tried to sooth her, she continued to whimper pleading to find some other way. As we kept talking, I thought back to what I knew of her background. She had long hair that had never been cut. My own hair fell about my shoulders in a fashionable manner, grown out from the short shingled cut I’d had when that had been all the rage a few years earlier. I had offered to trim her hair once when I had been trimming the edges of my own hair with scissors. I’d pointed out how much easier it would be for her to curl it into a fashionable style if it was a bit shorter and even at the bottom. Frankly, I thought it needed thinning out too but I knew she wouldn’t allow that. She declined my offer to cut and tidy up her hair and said in her childhood community it was considered a great sin for a woman to cut her hair.
In many ways, she had left behind the superstitions from the community she grew up in, but some of them had lingered. Not cutting her hair was one of them. I don’t think she really thought she was going to be condemned to eternal damnation, but her childhood instincts made it feel all wrong. I guess like it bothered me when people opened umbrellas inside even though I didn’t really believe it would be bad luck.
She might have been more rational, if she weren’t already so shook up from having killed a man. Then again, maybe that belief in not cutting hair was just very very deeply ingrained.
“Please, please I can’t.” Sally had begun to sob slightly as she continued to plead. “I’ll find another way out of France, I can hike to Switzerland. Please don’t let him cut my hair, Trixie.”
My attempts to convince and sooth Sally had failed. I sighed and braced myself for the greater struggle I knew I was about to set in motion. I held Sally as tightly as I could then looked over her shoulder, the soft blonde hair under my chin and against my neck.
“Jacques, just start cutting.” I called over to him. Sally started struggling hard, and Jacques frowned at me reluctantly. “Jacques we need to get this over with.”
Jacques started moving. Swiftly he walked over to the shelf by the barber chair and picked up a long pair of scissors. He approached us tentatively looking nervous. “If she moves too much I could accidentally stab her.”
“It’s ok Jacques, I’ve got her. Go ahead and cut.” I encouraged him.
Jacques reached for Sally’s hair and gathered up her loose golden locks into his fist. I watched as he raised his scissors to the handful and closed them. The sound of the blades crunching through her hair was just audible over Sally’s sobbing on my damp shoulder. Shhhl, shhhl, shhhl, sh-clack.
As the scissors snapped closed, Sally stopped struggling and her weight shifted from pushing against me to simply hanging from me. I lowered both of us to the floor, just holding Sally.
Sally looked up at the long locks hanging from Jacques’s hand and her sobs changed tone from desperation to grief. As I comforted Sally, Jacques dropped the hair to flutter to the floor.
“It’s started now, there’s no way to go back”. I tilted Sally’s face to look at me.
“I’m going to be the only girl with all my hair cut off” Sally said miserably.
I knew it wasn’t true, but also knew that simply pointing out the inaccuracy of the statement was not going to help Sally in the moment. So I said the only thing I could think of that might help: “As soon as we’re safe, in London or Washington or wherever we end up, and I don’t need to look like the respectable mother of a 16 year old any longer, when this is over, I’ll cut my hair to be just like yours.”
As I spoke, I began to remove the hairpins holding back the front of her hair in rolls off her face. Sally began to calm down as I stroked her head. She now looked less panic-stricken but her eyes remained miserable.
“Ok, you won’t be alone. We’ll make it the next big fashion together” I went on, then looked at Sally. She nodded slowly. “Jacques will do a much better job of finishing this if you go sit in his chair instead of my holding you down here on the floor.” A length of Sally’s hair had been trapped between me and Jacques’ long scissors and remained long. Sally’s hair looked untidy and very uneven.
I stood up then and reached down to help Sally up. She was shaking her head no, but she reached up to take mine anyway. I gave her a quick peck on the forehead once she was standing. Then, with my arm around her waist, I led her over to one of Jacques’ empty barber chairs. She was half walking, half being dragged with her face lowered. To spare her the misery of watching the rest of her hair being cut off, I turned the chair away from the mirrors as Sally pushed her into the chair.
Jacques came over then and started shaking out his barber’s cape. It billowed in the air before he swished it over her with the flourish of a matador. He tossed Sally’s now shorter, but still way too long to pass as a boy, hair to the front so he could close the cloth in the back. Sally looked down at the ragged edges of her hair. I could see the reluctance coming back as she gazed down at the untidy and uneven amount of hair left. I worried as Jacques started turning the chair towards the mirror. I didn’t want Sally catching any glimpse of this ugly untidy hair. I caught Jacques eye, and shook my head, no.
“I… I can’t do this. I know it’s half cut already, but I can’t… It’s just wrong.” Sally said in a hoarse voice, before she started to try to get up.
I let out a sigh and leaned down to block Sally’s way. I hadn’t wanted to have to hold Sally down for an entire haircut, but I had been prepared to if it was necessary. My elbow rested between her breasts, I put enough weight into it to keep her from getting up, but I hoped not enough to hurt her. My hands rested on her shoulders.
“Please don’t make it harder Sally.” I said.
Jacques didn’t hesitate this time and started cutting right away even though Sally was trying to get out of the chair. He used his comb to lift the hair along the side of her head and running the scissors with a rapid, rhythmic, snipping motion slicing the hair above the comb. The gold locks rapidly fell away in small clumps first onto her shoulders and then into Sally’s lap. Since I was holding Sally down, the hair also fell on me. Some strands hung off my arm giving me a nervous, tingling but warm sense.
The feel of the soft silky locks on my hands and fingers filled me with so many regrets. I normally felt Sally’s hair running through my fingers when we lay together in bed. The severed locks laying against my hand and arm felt the same, but I knew that once they fell, I wouldn’t feel them again.
Sally was sinking back down into the chair as it became clear we had passed the point of no return. The hair on one side of her head hung only slightly over her ear in short tufts.
Jacques was moving around to Sally’s back snipping away at the few long tresses that had been missed when Jaques had gathered her hair into a bundle while she struggled to reach the door. I watched as they fell to the floor behind the chair. Soon, he had worked his way to my side of Sally. I had to move and let Jacques come around. I hated moving at that moment, since it meant letting the hair slide off my hand. I knew I might never feel her long hair again, the touch of the tufts of fallen hair left me with a lingering reminder of the intimacy we had shared while making love.
I moved to Sally’s front, tentatively releasing the grip I had on her shoulders and lowered myself to sit on the footrest of the barber chair. I held her hand as I watched the now shorter blond strands raining down all around her. The hair now falling on me and Sally was only a few inches long. It was hard resisting the temptation to start playing with the soft pile of her shorn perfectly curled locks that lay so close to me in her lap.
The bulk of Sally’s hair was gone from her head, but Jaques was still cutting. His comb was now held flat against the side of her head as he continued to cut the hair closer to Sally’s scalp, around her ears and the back. The hair falling now was only a fraction of an inch. What was left behind was just a couple of inches at the longest part on top of Sally’s head. Around her ears and at the back of her head, the hair was very short, mere stubble and one could see Sally’s scalp, her ears clearly visible now and they looked so pretty.
I rested my head against Sally’s knees as tiny hairs rained down. It wasn’t very bright in the shop, but the short falling hairs caught the little light there was every now and then and reminded me of the way tiny fish will glimmer in a stream as the shiny blond snippets fluttered down.
Jacques’ comb raced up the back and sides of Sally’s head as his shears clipped away, making a gentle rhythmic sound I could just hear over Sally’s quiet sobbing. Click, click, click.
When I was a girl in the ‘20s, I’d had my hair bobbed to what had felt very short; it’s shortness was nothing compared to the length of Sally’s hair now. Jacques was cutting the sides so short that her light blond hair became near invisible, the scalp skin was clearly showing through and the hair only a slight shadow. I squeezed Sally’s hand, trying to comfort her for what I knew would be a shock when she finally saw it.
As he worked towards the top he left it a bit longer, but it wasn’t going to be long enough that Sally would be able to curl it. I had hoped that she would have enough to curl at the front at least, but Jacques obviously wanted to leave no room for doubt that this haircut could only be a boy’s.
When it was over, and Sally sat in the chair just sobbing gently with her face in her hands, Jacques asked me to clean up while he went to get boy’s clothing for Sally.
I looked around and let out a deep sigh. The blonde hair was everywhere, and I wasn’t sure whether it was a common enough occurrence in Jacques shop for such long hair to be cut that the evidence of it wouldn’t raise questions. Questions were the last thing any of us needed.
I carefully unwrapped the cloth draped over Sally’s shoulders. Many long blonde strands still clung to the cloth. I let them slide off to the side, joining the pile that was already there on the floor. I shook it gently, trying to get any hairs that were still trapped in its folds to fall.
There was a broom and dustpan in the corner. I went over and got them and started to sweep up. It looked and felt like such a horrible waste, as the once glorious locks became nothing but a tangled ugly mass soiled on the floor in front of me.
By the time I had finished sweeping up, Jacques had come down with the clothing for Sally to change into. Jacques sent me to the room with the cot to help Sally change, while he finished cleaning up and burned the hair in the fireplace in the kitchen. I helped Sally wrap a strip of fabric around her chest, and tied it tightly. She assured me that though it was uncomfortable, she could breath well enough.
Once sally was dressed as a youngman, we sat down and carefully moved my photograph from my own American passport to the Irish mother’s passport. A few details of the description were slightly off, the passport said hazel for eye color while mine were brown, but we felt it unlikely anyone would notice.
It was then that Jacques earlier comment about the photo in the son’s passport made sense. We had no way to get a new photo of Sally as a 16 year old boy, but the differences in her appearance from the little boy in the passport could be explained away by the changes a child undergoes while growing up.
Sally and I were lucky enough to get a compartment to ourselves on the train heading towards the sea, so we could speak freely. She was leaning against me, looking out the window. I reached up and stroked my hand down the back of her tightly clipped head.
“Are you ever going to forgive me?” I asked.
“You did what you had to.” Sally said with a shrug, then sighed. “Compared to killing a man, it was…”
I waited for her to finish, but she just sat there silently, so I spoke. “We are at war, and you only did what you had to. You saved many lives by killing him, mine just to start, but others too. You can go to confession and receive absolution.”
“I’m not Catholic.”
“Well, do whatever it is you do to receive forgiveness.” After I said it Sally sighed again and looked out the window some more. I didn’t know much about her faith, I wasn’t even sure if she believed anything after leaving her community behind.
I wanted to distract her, so I continued. “Do you think we’ll be returning to the States, or do you think they will want us to stay in Britain?” Sally just shrugged. “Even if they want us to return to the States, I’ll get my hair cut like yours as soon as we can stop using these Irish passports. We might be waiting for a ship back for a while.”
“You don’t have to cut your hair just because you made a promise in the heat of the moment.” Sally said as she turned and faced me.
“I always keep my promises.” I stated, then added. “You’ll feel less odd about your hair if mine’s short too, won’t you?”
Sally didn’t say anything and just shrugged again. I assumed that meant she would indeed feel less odd if she wasn’t the only one, but didn’t want to feel responsible for making me cut mine.
“I’m rather looking forward to getting mine cut like yours.” It was just a small white lie to make her feel better. “It looks so easy and carefree. It’s very practical. I bet with the war, shorter hair will be back in fashion in no time.”
In retrospect obviously I would have lost that bet. Sure slightly longer hair had been the trend recently, but who would have guessed Lana Turner was about to bring really long hair back?