|Apr/May 2012 Fiction|
I am thirteen-years-old and the summer Saturday girl at The Punnet, a mostly pensioners' hair salon located on the Old Circular Road, Manchester, England. I have no idea why the hair salon is named The Punnet. The salon owner, Teresa Murray, is nice enough, but not the type I feel I could ask such a question. My name's Viv, but the other kids mostly call me Tintin. I've a huge hooked nose, like some prehistoric bird's beak. The kids tease that my nose could open a tin of peas.
Mum says we have to know what's true. What's true is all that matters, Mum says.
"Could your nose open a can of peas?" Mum asked that afternoon after school when the nickname Tintin first took hold.
"No of course not," Mum said. "See?"
I was seven and almost choked on my snot and the crash of my breath.
Saturday girl at the hair salon is my first ever job. I mostly shampoo the old dears, make them tea and biscuits, tidy the magazines, and sweep the floor bald. I also take out the pins and curlers for those getting sets and perms. Of all my tasks at the salon, I most like to brush Mrs. Dabney's tea-brown wig. The wig looks alive on my left hand, warm and moving and shining. I love that I don't have to worry about making small talk to the wig or causing the hairpiece harm or getting anything too much wrong. My least favorite task is when I have to rub wet cigarette ashes into the hairline of the women getting colors so the telltale dye won't bleed into their skin. I hate to touch the wet ashes and rub the foul black paste against the old women's papery skin. I worry I'll tear right through to blood and brain.
These past three weeks, every Monday morning, I take the Number Ten bus into town and visit the record shop. After I give two pounds to Mum toward housekeeping and one pound to Dad towards savings, I have two pounds left over from my Saturday wages to buy a 99-pence vinyl single, two magazines, and three bars of caramel chocolate. Last Monday, I bought Shakin' Stevens's "Green Door." Side B of the single is "Don't Turn Your Back." I've played both songs so often this past week, Mum and Dad say the record needle has gone through them, leaving grooves in their brains. While the songs float out like apparitions from the record player and into my bedroom, I dance in front of my wardrobe mirror. Sometimes, when I dance a certain way, I look almost lovely.
Last Saturday night, Mum and Dad finally allowed me to go to the youth club disco in the local school hall.
"If I'm old enough to work, I'm old enough to go to the kids' disco."
Of course Dad insisted on driving me to the hall and coming inside to check things out. He also shouted above the music before he left, telling what felt like everyone that he'd be back at ten sharp to take me home.
I joined my friends in the corner. I suppose, according to Mum's "what's true" tests, they're not really my friends. They didn't even pretend to care that I'd showed up. I just thought maybe, it being my first disco and all. Some of the older boys sniggered while I danced and teased me because I was out on the floor on my own. I wasn't alone, though, I was with the Beatles and the Stones and Madonna and Michael Jackson and Shakin' Stevens. When Spandau Ballet played "I'll Fly for You," I forgot anyone else was in the place. I think at one point in the chorus, I might have flapped my arms, and that's why Billy Barsden pointed and hooted.
Later, when I went into the girls' room, a boy hid in the last cubicle with Mary Martin. I recognized her red shoes with spiked heels. Mary and the boy grunted together like they were in pain. Then murmured like they were eating something delicious. In my head, I heard Mum's voice, "You don't drop your knickers for anyone, you hear me?"
First thing my fourth Saturday at The Punnet, Mrs. Dabney arrives to exchange her wigs. She has two wigs in constant rotation at the salon. The wig she drops off this morning is the older and sadder of the two, and it feels like a dog's coarse coat until I work my magic. While I brush the freshly shampooed hairpiece, I wonder what Mrs. Dabney's head looks like without her wigs. I see another flash of Granddad, that one time I had to help Mum lift him from the bathtub. My stomach sickens, thinking how Mrs. Dabney's bald head with stray hairs probably looks like Granddad's ball sack. Granddad's ball sack won't get out of my head, how it floated in soap scum on gray bathwater like something dead.
Mid-afternoon, Mrs. Roche appears for her weekly wash and dry. Mrs. Roche is the largest woman I've ever encountered, and she smells of vinegar. She likes to be shampooed hard and to have her scalp scrubbed. She likes to feel my fingernails.
Mrs. Roche moans while I wash her hair and massage her scalp.
"That's the girl," she says. "Get in there. Don't be afraid. I don't hurt too easy."
"That's it. Harder. Harder." She sounds like something gathering speed and about to take off.
Mrs. Roche also insists I towel-dry her hair with every last ounce of my strength. I go at her until my shoulders ache and arms feel like they're about to drop off.
"You've more in you than that," she says.
I feel all eyes in the salon on me. Teresa and the three other old dears shake their heads and hide smirks behind their hands and steaming cups of tea.
Mrs. Roche lets out a terrible roar. I pull the towel from her head.
"My ear," she shrieks.
Blood drops from her spilt earlobe and onto the shoulder of her ivory woolen cardigan. I've ripped out her earring. Teresa abandons her client and flaps and fusses over Mrs. Roche. She orders me onto all fours to find Mrs. Roche's gold stud earring and backing. I say sorry so many times I sound like one of my vinyl singles going round and round.
At the end of the workday, Teresa holds back three pounds from my wages, the amount of the discount she'd given to Mrs. Roche "on account of all the trouble." That leaves me with just two pounds for a nine-hour shift.
"I'm sorry," Teresa says, "but I think I have to let you go."
"I'm afraid you're just not as sharp as I'd like," she continues.
I drag myself toward home in the sunshine amidst the buttery rush of people and fumes of smoking cars. In the distance, St. George's church bells ring out six o'clock. I try to hear what Mum would say, what she'd try to get me to see as true and not true, but I can't lower the needle onto the right vinyl. All I hear are the echoes of the church bells, clinging to the afternoon air.