Hair Becomes The Bride

PART ONE – PREP

It’s that time again and I’m not ruddy happy about it.
I thought I’d been doing so well at cutting my own hair since that strict Polish girl gave me a five minute regimental, but Mum says I need at least three inches off to even look vaguely presentable.

If she wasn’t getting married this week I might huff and ask her quite why I need to be presentable at all. Firstly, I have a boyfriend who is morally obliged to think I look alright even when I’m at my worst, and secondly, let’s be honest, ‘being a writer’ sounds glamorous if you picture clean-shorn Alain de Botton bashing out his latest deep shit on a brand new iMac in a Bauhaus loft, or even Dame Barbara Cartland (is she still alive?) sitting at home with a blue-rinse arrangement that doubles up as a quill pot and luxury dog hotel, but it’s hardly the kind of life that calls for emergency salon visits to take off the first tremblings of a split end, is it? Most of us are a right ruddy state, and I’m not even a ‘proper one’. I still work part-time in a bookshop, and you’re not allowed good hair in those. (It might even be in my contract to look this bad.)

I don’t think Mum’s really trusted me with hair since I cut off all my sister’s to make a downy bed for a bird’s nest circa 1985. Perhaps I had a presentiment then as a five year old that I would be rubbish at cutting my own hair; maybe that’s why I cut my sister’s off instead.

Anyway. My hair is a mop and I suspect no two strands are the same length, so I am getting it cut for her, today.

Mum is at that bridey stressy stage that I never understand because in the eyes of wedding planners I’m an abhorrence of nature. I don’t care about any of it. I think, to me, marriage is like Gibraltar – been there once briefly, don’t remember much about it apart from the odd monkey, and wouldn’t really care if it didn’t exist. There is no way of expressing that sentiment to people in the middle of counting out a job-lot of sugared almonds into voile baglets for strangers. They will pity you.

I suppose pre-nuptial fretters worry about the small details of a wedding because small things are easier to worry about than the magnitudes. Flowers can be chosen, plucked, cut, arranged. You can’t do that with the future. And that’s really what weddings are about, isn’t it? The future. Yes, also about love and expressing that love and making an outward statement of commitment to that love, but also (and I think, mainly, because I’m a hoot) about saying “I can’t picture my future without you, because…I can’t picture the future at all, actually, because…when I do I think of dying, and I don’t want to do that…alone.”

Naturally with all this jolly shit going on in my head I am dead fun at weddings. I will sit there nursing the table wine, thinking all this cheery stuff. And then, when the booze has kicked in like a bad tribute band, I will take off my shoes and run around on the dancefloor with the children. I am that woman. In ten years time that will have to stop because I will just look like a barren nutter who gatecrashes weddings to get her primal scream out to Agadoo with a hyperactive tot named Horatio, but for now I’m just about young enough to carry it off with some semblance of dignity. (And dignity is as relative as you wish it to be, I’ve found.)

In short, I’m getting my hair cut, and I’m not happy about it.
But my mum’s getting married, and I am happy about that.
And that’s why I’m paying a stranger ¬£30 or thereabouts plus tip to look at me with disappointment in their eyes while I channel my existential anxiety into my follicles; Love.
(And pressure.)

PART TWO – THE WEDDING DAY

“By the way, you’re doing my hair.”
I froze.
“What?”
“Yeah. Jean’s at the venue doing the flowers so I need you to do my hair now.”

It was then that I knew my mother had gone quite mad. Wedding nerves had stripped her of her final strand of sanity; she was teetering on the precipice of mania.

I’d just arrived at her hotel room. Mum plonked herself down in a chair and waited for me to start. I stared at this beautiful lunatic in her underwear and felt that surreal intimate distance you can only feel with the person whose lady parts you once came out of. “I came from you.” I thought, as I stared at her face, a face addled with thoughts of the day’s romance and hope for the future. “You have no future”, I thought. “Not once I’ve finished with you. Literally no one will talk to you anymore. You’ll be done in this town and all towns. You’ll be forced to seek refuge in towns populated solely by people with hair equally as bad as or worse than yours.”

I stopped my dramatic inner narrative and thought instead, perhaps more helpfully, of all the hair skills I knew. There was that thing that some folk do whereby they pull a multi-pronged handled device through one end of their dead shafts to the other. Brushing, I think they call it. I could try that.

I stared at what lay before me. My mother’s head. Unknowable as the vast surface of a strange new planet. This forbidding terrain suddenly not Ma’s, but…well, Mars. I did the only thing I could think of. I necked some booze and got stuck in. Perhaps it was Blitz spirit, but better, because I’m pretty sure they didn’t have champagne in the air raids.

Three glasses and a lot of asking her to keep her head still later I had somehow (and I know not how) managed to fashion something that was vaguely reminiscent of a bridal up-do. I had exhausted an arsenal of grips, and emptied an apocalypse-whipping sized canister of firm-hold hairspray. I like to think God summoned himself into existence for a bit, just long enough to accompany me through the nail-biting travails of a novice hair primper, before vanishing back into the kind of annoying inaction that keeps Richard Dawkins in quality socks.

Once done, I watched that hair like Kevin Costner watched Whitney Houston at the concert where she almost gets killed in The Bodyguard. With an almost creepy robotic dedication, and a bit of sweating.

Intent on keeping my eyes on the back of her head at all times, I was relieved that the ceremony was the traditional kind where the congregation stares almost solely at the back of the bride’s head. It was almost too convenient. The only thing that threatened to thwart my Terminator-like focus on the coiffured bonce of my mater was the bit of crying with happiness I did at my mother’s happiness – at how wonderful it was to see her giddy like a little girl, at how vulnerable people seem up close when you get to really look at them, at the memory of all the times my mum had done my hair over the years – but all that was quickly controlled. I wondered if I might be channelling the overwhelming feelings of love into the much more manageable diversionary task of ‘wispy bit control’, but commanded myself to save my psychological insights for later, when I’d had more to drink.

I watched the hair. That hair was lovely. That hair was up, on that head, with fortification. That hair and I had been through a lot. That hair needed me. I needed that hair. I would have died to protect that hair.

Not that I would have needed to. The hairspray could have withstood ten atomic bombs and then some.

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Ghosts – 1 & 2

Part 1 – 01-09-14

Do you believe in ghosts?

Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.

If I’ve just watched something spooky and I have to get up and go for a wee on my own, I completely believe in ghosts & I will cling to the walls and imagine that the spectre of a child murderer named Charles Larimer is definitely walking behind me with a clawed hand and a vintage rake.
If I’m having a terribly logical discussion with friends about the scientific likelihood of paranormality, then I don’t believe in ghosts and I think people who do are dickbombs. When sat at a medium’s table, as I was a few years ago, being told things about certain dead people, I will half scoff yet half crane forward desperate for more spurious twaddle that I can mould to the whims of my own desires. I remain annoyingly 50/50. Or 60/40. Or 24/79. Or whatever; I’m very indecisive, spiritually fickle, and dreadful at maths.

But right now, writing this as I am as nighttime falls, I do. I do believe in ghosts. For I am alone in an 18th century hall in the middle of a park, and my imagination dictates that for one night only I must believe the living bejesus out of ghosts. I must. It would be a waste not to. It would be an affront to my imagination, and I quite like that silly old thing.

I am rather aided in my twitchiness by the fact I came to this place to finish a book about a dead man. I’m sort of asking for spectral winds to kick up around me. I deserve whatever I get.

Not content with coming home from a month at the Edinburgh festival and putting my feet up for a few days, I decided that what might make me unwind was a nice self-imposed exile in a purportedly haunted house to finish a book about a decade-dead dad. Some people would go for a spa day, or take their mum out for lunch. Buy a new winter cardigan. Maybe get a fringe, watch a rom-com. I decided to stage my own version of Woman In Black, in pyjamas. What can I say, I’m a martyr for the dramatic arts.

And now I’m ruddy here for the night and I’m not going to lie, my brain is boggling over-time.

So, here’s a quick round-up of PARANORMAL ACTIVITIES NOTED SO FAR:

1) A cupboard that was definitely shut when I arrived was wide open when I went back in the room. It is a bit of a baggy cupboard with no distinguishable catch and evidence of blu-tack in use, but still – PRETTY GHOSTY.

2) I heard the distant jangling of a bell. It could have been the echo of a servant’s bell from 1793, chiming to warn of an impending livestock emergency in which a little boy named Sebastian Crank gets trampled into a puddle, destined to roam the rose gardens for all eternity with sheep poo on his face.

Or it could have been someone going by on a bike.

3) I definitely don’t remember eating all those cashews.

CONCLUSION: Semi Intriguing Stuff If You Want To Pep It Up A Bit.

Despite my low level paranoia, here in an empty old house, I suppose I am somewhat comforted by the fact that if there was an apparition floating anywhere near me I probably wouldn’t see it. Because I’m not wearing my glasses. I could have Gladys Cornworthy, hypochondriac widow and passive-aggressive cross-stitcher who died in 1832 of a clogged colon, wailing and wringing her hands at me right now and I’d just think there was a bit of a draft.

I’m not a great noticer of things in general, really. I have walked past people I know in the street and they have had to shout at me repeatedly until I realise they are there. I have slept through a hurricane. I carried on eating in Hong Kong, oblivious to low scale earth tremors, to be met with incredulous “how did you not notice that?”
I just thought it was the dim sum trolley going by.

Basically, bring it on, spirit world. I sort of hope you’re there, but you’re going to have to do something really impressive to get past my imagination and get me to notice the real you.

Part 2 – 08-09-14

For those of you who read my column last week, I have some more things to say about ghosts. For those of you who did not, I have some things to say about ghosts and if any of it doesn’t make sense then it serves you right for not being there for me when I needed you.

Just after writing it, after I ejaculated the sentiment “bring it on, spirit world – you’ll have to do something really super mega for me to notice you” (when I was staying overnight, finishing my book, alone in a big empty house), I was aurally assaulted by a malevolent spirit.

How did it manifest itself?
By switching on a stereo two floors beneath me really loudly just past midnight after I climbed into bed.
How do I know it was malevolent?
Because it picked Radio 1.

Once I had stood at the window for an uncomfortable amount of time (have you tried not blinking for five minutes? It gets very dry.) and ascertained it wasn’t youths in the park enjoying the dying embers of a cider summer, I thought “Right. Come on, Hasler. You can do this.” and crept through the house like an erect-nippled detective, whacking on light switches and whimpering to myself, until I sourced the root of the evil. A stereo covered over by a black sheet. A SODDING BLACK SHEET? THAT’S PRETTY MUCH THE UNIVERSAL SYMBOL OF DARK FANTASTICAL MYSTERY. I half-expected ectoplasm to splurge forth and encrust my face, but I got worse. I got Robin Thicke. Resisting the urge to scream, I ripped out the plug and legged it back upstairs. Locked my bedroom door.

Somehow I slept. I put it down to an errant alarm set to go off at Heart Attack O’ Clock for the alone girl in her pants, and slept. (I’m that hard.)

The next morning, when I reread my column before sending it to my editor and saw my final comment claiming that the spirit world needed to up its game, I knew I had invoked everything I deserved with my cockiness. After a good stiff cup of tea, I laughed at myself. Silly girl.

I settled at my desk and began my day’s writing. I was so close to finishing my book, and for the first time since beginning it three years ago, I had the time and space to spread out my fathers’ letters and documents, to get a proper grasp on the scope and chronology of everything he left behind. I wanted to make sense of it all, once and for all. Write it in my book, and put it down.

Delving into Dad’s diaries from the 1960s – when he was at Naval college sailing around the seas of the world playing scrabble and sharing fags and having scraps and bugling with boys named Pancho and Yorkie – I read through to the end of the last diary he ever wrote, searching for little signs and significances. Early signs of his bi-polar, indicators of mood, flashes of heart. Searching for a bit more sense.

December 1964. He had returned from a massive tour – out over the Atlantic from the Bay of Biscay, round to the Mediterranean, on to Port Said, Suez Canal, Red Sea, Aden, Arabian Sea, Muscat, Persian Gulf, Kuwait, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Umm Said, Chalna, Calcutta, Trincomalee, Colombo, back to Aden, back to the Red Sea, Suez, the Mediterranean again, Biscay and round, and found himself dropping anchor in…Southend. The very town in which I was now sat, in that quiet house. He and the boys had hung around on deck for five days and got bored, sailed further up, docked in Tilbury, and went to a dance in Gravesend. A dance in Gravesend. The metaphor would be laboured if it had been written. Then the diary stops. I never knew he’d been here. He was here.

I looked out of the window, and down to the sea. There. He’d been just out there as a young man, before his life had really started, forty years before he used his rope skills one last time. There’s no way he could have known he would die here, and that years later still his daughter would be writing a book for him in the same town, staring down at the same sea.

It felt like too much stuff to feel all at once in the same instant. I shivered. My skin felt far colder then than when I stood in a dark room alone with the stereo blaring at me from under a black sheet.

I didn’t really believe in the spooks that are conjured in havoc by your imagination in an old empty house. Not really.
But I did believe in seas and Dads and diaries and those strange prickles up the neck born of uncanny coincidence. Ghosts are the wisps of things we allow to live in the mind.

I finished my book in the house. Worked my socks off to finish. I felt I had to finish it there.
And I left some of my ghosts behind to play with the others.

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