‘Will you sell it?’ said the barber and Nora looked at his reflection in the mirror. Her hair was the colour of harvest. He was gently lifting the fine strands with the tips of his fingers.
‘I’d rather as not you’d gone to someone else to cut your plaits off.’
‘I’m too big for plaits,’ she said.
The barber bulked up the mass of hair for the pleasure of seeing it catch and hold the sunlight. ‘And will you sell it after all?’ he said. ‘I’d give you a couple of pounds. No, I mean it. There’s a market for hair like this.’
She had imagined that the process would be simpler. A quick snip! snip! of the barber’s scissors (they had no ladies’ hairdresser in the village) and the plaits, she had thought, would be put into her hand, complete and entire. But things did not work out like that.
The barber placed a table at her right hand. On top of the table he placed a newspaper. Then he started to undo the plaits and drape the hair over her shoulders. Only her mother had previously touched her hair in this way and for a moment Nora could almost persuade herself that the barber was indeed her mother until he did something so surprising, so much out of her mother’s routine, that she lifted her eyes to the mirror.
The barber was lifting and sifting her tresses, then snipping them off with the points of a large pair of scissors. And she had cried out before she remembered that it was for this that she had come. The barber paused.
As he cut off the lengths of hair so he laid them side by side on the table. They lay like newly reaped wheat, longer than his arm and stirring in the light breeze that was everywhere in the small bright shop that morning. Her hair which, once severed from her head, should have been dead, was still alive. The breeze played over it, the ends quivered and turned up, there was motion along the entire length of the tresses. She would have been reluctant to touch them yet she stared at the little load the table was carrying, stared fixedly.
‘There, it’s all over, my lass,’ said the barber. ‘Now if you’ll just hang on a minute I’ll get this little lot fixed up so you can take it home.’
But Nora did not wait. She could not.
Without saying a word she stepped out into the village street and ran. She had made her escape while the barber’s back had been turned, but now that he had noticed her absence and was standing on the step of his shop to shout after her she felt hunted. Passers-by on the other side of the street called across to her.
Then she saw her father. Standing on the doorstep of his baker’s shop in his white shirt, his white apron that reached down to the toes of his flour-encrusted boots and on his head a high white hat, he was as tall and firm as a tower.
What would he say? Seeing him standing there in that frozen, aloof and almost splendid dignity Nora found new causes for alarm. Her mother and she had not consulted Father about the plaits because — well, because it was the kind of thing that was hard to imagine Father getting interested in.
His daughter’s hair? A small and personal matter that needed the kind of intimate talk he never held. He spoke at you directly and powerfully from a distance of six feet, the back side of a horse or the width of a trough in between.
He looked at her and beckoned. She crossed the street and stood in front of him, looked up at the large blond moustache that was a colder, paler tone of the colour of her own hair, and listened. He was scolding her for running. ‘Running about the place like a March hare,’ he said and the words floated out to the faces of the whitewashed cottages opposite. He was not even looking at her.
‘Yes, Daddy,’ she said and entered the house through the yard where the bread was cooling and crackling in the racks. It had proved no relief that her father had not scolded her about her hair. It was, on the contrary, a wholly unexpected grief that he had not even noticed.
‘My, how smart you look!’ Her mother was gay and bustling. ‘Quite the young lady, eh? Well, I must say I’m glad it’s all over and done with. What I say is this: long ‘air is all very well for them as ‘as the time to attend to it. Otherwise it’s a dirt trap. And we’re busy people. No, my girl, you’ve done a sensible thing.’ ‘I feel awful,’ Nora said. ‘Sort of naked.’
Her mother said: ‘Now I’m not going to have any nonsense like that.’ She was bustling about with steaming saucepans and plates and colanders of vegetables. ‘I believe in being in the swim. Whatever else people say about inc they can’t say I’m not in the fashion. I believe in it. It’s up to me, I say to myself. And I’ll see that my daughter does the same. Who wears plaits these days? Ask me that! Go on, ask me that and see what I say!’
She was a plump and still pretty woman with dark eyes that were in surprising contrast to her hair which was clustered in small yellow artificial curls all round her head. She wore cherry coloured ear-rings and a necklace of green shells.
‘Of course,’ she went on, waggling a cigarette between her lips, ‘we won’t be satisfied with just that.’ She was twisting the ends of Nora’s hair between her fingers. ‘I think — just as a beginning, mind you—we’ll get these ends permed up. Got to experiment. See how the hair takes to it.’ She stood so close that the smoke from her cigarette made Nora’s eyes water. ‘By the way, what have you done with the plaits?’
Before Nora could answer the barber’s daughter appeared as the window holding what were obviously the plaits wrapped up in a newspaper.
‘Dad says you forgot this,’ said the little girl with great solemnity and Nora’s mother gave her a cake for her trouble.
The package lay on the table. At one end it was torn and some strands of hair escaped. As the woman plucked at the paper there was a rattle of trays and pans from the bake-house; the second batch of bread was being drawn. The steamy sweetness of bread hot from the oven was wafted down the stone passage.
‘What can we do with it? What’s it good for?’ said the woman in mock despair. There was, of course, no question of what was to be done with the hair. It was going to be put away in a drawer with mothballs.
‘Let’s put it in the fire.’
But this was absurd, and her mother said so with an affectionate laugh. ‘You wicked girl!’ She wrapped the hair up once more. ‘I’ll make two neat plaits out of this and then you’ll see how nice it is.’
‘The barber said he’d give me two pounds for it. I want to sell it. It’s no good.’
Her mother said something very flattering and delightful.
‘I wouldn’t sell it, my’ dear, for all the money in the world.’
From her mother, then, Nora could expect no understanding. But the girl wanted more than understanding. She wanted recognition of the importance of the change she was going through, she wanted presents, she wanted to wake up early in the morning to find the bed heavy with exciting brown parcels, she wanted the gaiety of a party; at the very least she wanted a kiss. But nobody would give her a kiss, certainly not her father. At mealtimes especially she was tempted to call across to him: ‘I say, what d’you think of the new way I’ve done my hair? I’ve lost my plaits, you know.’ It should have been so simple. But her father would be absorbed in his newspaper, he would be in a hurry to get out on the round, he would be talking of bills. It would have been pleasanter, of course, for him to notice the change for himself. But as time went by it was obvious that he would never notice the loss of her plaits and someone, it could not be herself, would have to tell him. Her mother, then? No, she did not want her mother to tell Father, not at this stage.
Nora knew that the great occasion was being missed. Happiness, she felt, did not depend on either her father or her mother; it depended on herself. She was calling herself to some act of celebration. When, therefore, a gipsy woman looked in through the kitchen window the following Saturday morning and gave them an offer for the hair Nora felt that the dark Romany face (all they could see of the woman) was the creation of her own imagination.
It was the time that her mother had chosen to rearrange the hair. The task was much more difficult than either of them had expected. It was easy enough to unravel the slack plait that the barber had so rapidly made, but the idea of dividing the hair into two great tresses and so recreating the two plaits as Nora had worn them proved to be work for an expert. Even though they made one end of the tress firm under the weight of a flat-iron the plaiting was repeatedly coming to pieces under their fingers. If it was going to be anything of a job at all they would have to take the yard-long hairs one by one and knot them together at the ends. They stood back and looked at the hair. The window was open, the sunlight poured through, and the tresses ran like a river in the brightness.
At this point the Romany head appeared. The woman had come so silently and spoke with such little warning that they were both startled.
‘How did you get in here?’ Nora’s mother demanded. The double gates that led into the yard were propped open — in a few minutes the baker would be starting out on his round — so the answer was obvious. ‘No, nothing today, thank you,’ Nora heard her mother saying. She had been startled and was getting her own back. She would not normally have spoken in this way. Dark Romany eyes looked out of a face that was wrinkled like a walnut. The gipsy woman smiled and Nora smiled. Then the dark eyes went down to the golden hair that was spread on the table.
‘That’s my hair,’ said Nora brightly’. She was surprised at herself. ‘I’ve just had it all cut off.’ The gipsy woman had, she felt, come in answer to her own dark summons. From this impressive face, if from anyone, Nora would learn the answer to a question she could not even frame. The sun left the gipsy woman’s face in a kind of obscurity but she seemed to carry the light of the morning like a javelin upon her shoulder. She leaned forward — she must have been standing on tiptoe — and gazed at the hair.
‘Nora!’ said her mother in indignation, disturbed by her boldness. The morning paper was lying on the chair where her husband had left it after breakfast. She picked it up, opened it and spread it over the flow of hair feeling that, as she could not immediately force the gipsy woman away, the hair had to be protected from her eyes. The Romany eyes followed every movement of her fingers. They stared at the newspaper.
‘If it should cross your mind to sell the hair,’ she said in a steady pure English, ‘how much would you think of asking?’ The gipsy was no longer a saleswoman of whatever she had brought in her basket. She was a purchaser. Her question was addressed to Nora.
‘We’re not going to sell. Will you please go away?’ Nora’s mother was hostile.
The gipsy woman hesitated. She showed a pair of fine white teeth. ‘You think I’d sell it again and make a profit? No, my love, not with hair like that.’ She stretched out a hand towards the table, but Nora’s mother bundled the hair up under the newspaper and moved it away out of her reach. ‘If I bought this hair I should keep it. It’s beautiful hair.’
‘How much would you give?’ said Nora.
Her mother, scandalized, turned on her. ‘Go to your room at once, Nora, you wicked girl. And as for you — if you’re not off the premises within two seconds I’ll call my man —’
‘It’s not your hair,’ said Nora to her mother. ‘It’s mine. I’ll do with it what I want.’
Her mother drew in her breath sharply.
The gipsy woman was talking. ‘You can’t keep it in the house anyway, my love. Dead hair under the roof will destroy you all. Your luck is in it, what d’you say? If it’s not to me then it’ll be to another. But you can’t hold it any longer than you hold your breath.’
Nora’s mother went to fetch her husband. When she returned the gipsy had gone and Nora was spreading the hair out over the table as it had been before the arrival of the gipsy.
What’s going on?’ said her father brusquely. He was carrying a large basket containing bread, for he had been caught loading up the van before going out on delivery. ‘What’s this you were telling me?’ he said to his wife, wrinkling up his face as though he had already forgotten what she had, in great excitement and indignation, been telling him. ‘A gipsy woman?’ And he looked slowly round the room as though expecting her to be there. By now, of course, the gipsy woman was away down the lane. Not seeing the golden flood of hair on the table the baker set his basket squarely on top of it and called for a cup of tea before he went out.
After he had gone Nora thought of the bad luck her hair was going to bring.
Because Father was still out delivering bread at five o’clock Nora and her mother had their tea without him. They ate in a silence broken only by the cries of children at play under the lime trees on the other side of the garden wall. The woman set down her teacup on the table, sat looking at her daughter for a moment and then left the room. Nora heard her walking along the passage overhead and knew that she was going to her bedroom. When she returned she had two one-pound notes in her hand. She gave them to Nora.
There you are, my girl. I don’t want you to get upset by any old gipsy’s tales. They ought to be run in for telling such wicked lies. It’s all nonsense. Hair in the house never brought nobody any bad luck. But I know what young girls think about gipsies and I’ll not have it playing on your imagination. There! I sold your hair and there’s the two pound and that’s an end of the matter.’
Who did you sell it to?’ said Nora.
The woman coloured. Her eyes sparkled. ‘What’s that you say? Well, who’d you think I’d sell it to? The barber, of course. It’s out of the house, you understand, it’s not under this roof.’ She began clattering the crockery on to a tray. ‘Anybody would think you didn’t believe me.’
There was silence.
Answer me,’ her mother insisted. ‘D’you think I’m telling a lie?’
‘What’ll I do with the money?’
‘D’you think I’m telling you a lie?’ her mother shouted.
Nora was startled. ‘I don’t want the money,’ she said and tried to hand the notes back. Her mother would not take them. They were in the middle of their quarrel when Father walked in from the yard. By now Nora was on the point of tears.
Father stood in the doorway holding an empty basket.
Out on the round he frequently picked up a warm good humour that would sometimes last all through the evening. ‘What are you two ‘arpies shrieking at?’ he said with a note in his voice that might almost have been teasing.
‘It’s my hair.’ Nora turned sulky. ‘It’s been cut off.’
‘What!’ Her father set his basket on the ground, took a couple of steps across the kitchen, bent down and seized her by the shoulders. ‘What’s that you say?’ His voice was pitched high with outrage. ‘What the ‘ell –’ His hand clutched at the nape of her neck, he picked her up in his arms and held her. ‘When was this done?’ he demanded of his wife.
‘The doctor said long hair was giving her headaches. You know very well when it was done. You’ve got eyes in your head, haven’t you?’ ‘You’d got no damn call to do anything of the sort.’ He was more upset than angry and Nora, still held tightly in his arms, was thrilled to the first strong emotion to come anywhere near expressing the loss of her plaits. His anger called up another anger of her own and the impulse that she had, a moment before to kiss her father, was suddenly transformed into spite.
‘Mummy told me a fib.’
‘Don’t you talk like that to your Ma, you little spitfire.’ Father joggled her in his arms.
‘She told me she’d sold my plaits and got two pounds for them. She didn’t, she didn’t, she told a fib.’ She found that she was still holding the pound notes in her hand and she threw them on to the floor.
‘Here, here, here!’ Father was forgetting his own anger in an attempt to console her. ‘If they’re gone they’re gone and we won’t have ‘em back again. Stop it, d’you hear me!’ He gave her leg a slap.
But Nora was not to be so easily shaken out of her fit.
‘I don’t want them in the house; I don’t want to hear of them; I don’t want to see them: you can burn them if you like. I don’t care.’
Her father set her on her feet with a jolt.
‘What’ve you done with the plaits? Go and get ‘em.’
When her mother returned with the package of hair he took it in his hands and showed it to his daughter. ‘You see what I’ve got here? You see what I’ve got in me ‘ands?’ Nora nodded. She was both frightened and proud of her father.
‘Now stay ‘ere, both of you,’ he said and, taking the package with him, left the room. They could hear his boots gritting away down the passage, heard him fling open the door of the bakehouse — and after that Nora had to follow him in her imagination. She saw him go over to the firehole and knock the steel door open with the handle of a palette knife. At this time of the day the fire would have burned low, but even so there should be a channel of red coals thrust right to the very back of the oven. And when her father tossed the package on to the coals, for a moment nothing happened. It lay there on the fiery floor as tight as a bun. Then unseen hands appeared to be opening it, folding back the double thickness of paper until the polished tresses themselves lay quietly under the blue incandescence. The newspaper pouted up in vigorous flame and the hair, each strand vibrant with desperate life, began to move. It was indestructible. The fire did not come to it for it was, suddenly, the fire itself, a fine net of gold spun into a heap, flaring from within. And then it had gone.
Nora went upstairs and entered her room. She felt free and happy.
A couple of months later her mother was turning out some drawers when she found the hair, still wrapped in newspaper, thrust under some of her husband’s underclothes where he must have pushed it. Like her daughter the woman had assumed that the hair had been destroyed. The sight of it moved her in a way that was quite unexpected. The hair had been hidden away like her husband’s love and tenderness. If, almost by accident, she could come across the one was it not reasonable to think that she could come across the other also?
She took the package over to the window and unwrapped it in the sun. The hair sprang up like warmth and joy released and she could not keep back a cry of pleasure at the sight of it. And as she took pleasure in the sight of the hair so she took pleasure in the thought of her daughter, her walk, her poise, her growing self-confidence. It was as though she, the mother, was standing where the road forked. She was not hesitating which of the roads to follow — she really wished to remain where she was — but the compulsion to continue was strong enough to split her sympathies into two. Under this continual twin recession of her nature she could hardly draw a breath, could not have blown a petal from her lips. She was, at one and the same time, the mother who was no longer young and youth itself, walking from room to room, going up the street and down the street, with smuts of red upon her lips and the short hair curling above her neck.
She thought it strange that it should have been her husband who had shown her that the plaits had gone for ever.
P.H. Newby, CBE: novelist, historian, and managing director of BBC Radio. First winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.
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