Saturday 29 October 2022

Saturday Sample: Last Chance Salon by Fiona McNeil, breakfast tea


My trouble is that I’m way too trusting. Always ready to see the good in people. It’s got me into hot water more than once, I can tell you.

So when I got talking to a bloke in a pub and he gave me a hard-luck story, I fell for it, hook, line and solid gold sinker. He had a business he needed shot of, he said. His wife was none too well, they were moving abroad, he said.

–“I don’t suppose you….no, silly question. Forget I mentioned it,” he shrugged.

He sighed and looked into the middle distance with eyes that spoke of wisdom and pain endured. The sort of facial expression that looms large in cowboy films. Think Clint Eastwood in a poncho, chewing on a cheroot, or John Wayne on a dusty ranch putting a recalcitrant young’un in his place.

Of course, with all my years of hamming it up, I should have spotted his technique a mile off. No such luck.

“No, no,” I urged. “Please go on.”

And so I woke up the morning after with a pounding head and the keys to ‘Hairs & Graces’ in Penge. Penge! I ask you! Even the name sounds like a cross between ‘penny-pinching’ and ‘gunge’. I couldn’t have chosen a less glamorous location if I’d tried. I’d been through it once or twice on the way to somewhere else but never had reason to stop. And when I went down there to take a look first-hand at the turkey I’d bought, I very nearly kept on walking.

Hairs & Graces was the three Ds – dismal, dreary and run-down – and sandwiched between a newsagent and a tyre-fitting workshop. The outside was painted a light green, cheap soap colour and it was peeling off in places, lending a scabby look. There were yellowing nets like old ladies’ drawers in the window and posters of beehives and sideburns that were so old they’d faded to green in the sunlight.

Inside was no better. I’d been hoping for rough plasterwork, maybe a little chrome here and there, but the place looked as though it hadn't changed since the Fab Four made bowl cuts popular.

The walls were the colour of pink instant pudding and the floor covered in grey lino. The glass tables, the coat rack, even the pot plant holders were embellished with white, curly, wrought iron, all collecting dust. There were even some of those old-fashioned, space helmet-style dryers. It would have taken several thousand pounds to modernise the place and I just didn’t have that kind of money. I could have cried.

So I did what I usually do in times of crisis. I put my feet up, lit a fag and considered my options.

What I really wanted was my money back. But even if I went back to the Hope & Anchor, (known locally as the ‘Dope & Wanker’, which seemed an accurate enough description of me, given the circumstances) to track down Mr Grant P. Worrall, I was unlikely to be successful. I’d signed the papers and he’d disappeared into the sunset.

On the other hand, I could have a bash at running the place, I speculated. I’d spent a few months in the wig department of a regional theatre and could probably manage a trim or a blow-dry. Perms were out of fashion and colouring was just like playing with a chemistry set. The punters round here were unlikely to have high expectations. How hard could it be?

But then again, sound financial acumen had never been my strong point, not that it had ever stopped me from trying. I was a landscape gardener for a while but I wrenched my back pushing a wheelbarrow full of turf. I sold trinkets from the Far East on a market stall until the whole of my stock was pinched from the back of the van.

I even managed a rock band for a year or two. Great fun but the lead guitarist was hard work. Always bloody complaining. One day he took exception to my socks. As I recall they had a rather nice, pink and grey Argyle pattern and my mother had given them to me for Christmas.

“You’re wearing middle class socks,” he announced, as if that were the ultimate betrayal, though of what I couldn’t tell.

I can’t speak for my socks but I’d never made any claims that I was anything other than middle class. I was privately educated. My father played golf. I didn’t see what the problem was. But I’d had enough of him and his griping and it was time for something new. So I walked out. Never saw any of them again which was a bit of a shame. Sound lads, the rest of them. Last I heard, they were gigging in a pub off the A2.

However, I’m nothing if not optimistic. Every time I begin some new enterprise I think, “This time, it’s going to work. I’ll show ’em all that Rafe Bunce can be a success.”

But, sitting there in that has-been hair salon, I suddenly felt myself completely spent, like someone had pulled my plug out. I had one of those moments of clarity people often talk about. An epiphany, you might say. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t a successful businessman running an empire from a luxury penthouse. I was a chain-smoking, fifty-something, sometime actor in a cardigan, washed-up in a stagnant corner of south London.

Who to turn to but The Bard for a fitting phrase to sum up my anguish? “O, I am fortune’s fool!” I wailed, putting my head in my hands.

I heard a noise like someone clearing their throat. I slowly lifted my head and saw a figure silhouetted against the light. My first thought was that the place was haunted. It would have come as no surprise.

I screamed and leapt to my feet.

“Sorry,” someone said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

A young woman stepped forward, not yet eighteen years old by my reckoning, and wearing a dark blue raincoat in the style once favoured by district nurses. Her hair was cropped short, her face was freckly and her small, slightly slanting eyes looked much too knowing for her years.

“The door was open,” she explained in a voice that sounded different to the usual Penge-ish twang.

Seeing that she was, in fact, a living being who had entered the premises in the standard way rather than wafting through a wall, I composed myself.

“Yes. Well,” I said, trying to make my voice a bit deeper. “What can I do for you?”

“I work ’ere,” she said.

That took me by surprise. Judging by the amount of mail silted up on the doormat when I’d come in, I’d assumed the salon was no longer functioning.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Mr Worrall said he was closing for a while. Said I was to keep stopping by to see when it was open again,” she went on.

I was certain I wouldn’t be able to pay myself, let alone any staff. “I’m the new owner and no-one said anything to me about any employees,” I pointed out. “I’m sorry, but…” I let the unspoken assumption that she would have to clear off hang in the air.

“But I’m the junior hairdresser,” she answered, pronouncing it ‘ur-dresser’. She had a soft voice but there was no mistaking her determination.

It was then than I pinpointed her accent. Lancashire, if I wasn’t mistaken. Bolton to be precise. I’d done panto up there one year.

“Well, I’m very sorry but—”

The door opened and someone else came in.

“Hello Suky, love!” said an old lady in a knitted hat that looked like porridge, coming towards the girl. “I’m not late, am I?”

“No, you’re fine,” she answered. “Take a seat and I’ll be with you in a minute.”

I had the sense, then, of being elbowed out of the way. Upstaged, as it were, and I didn’t like it. I was pretty sure Richard Branson didn’t have to put up with this kind of thing.

“Now hang on just one minute,” I warned, holding my hand up like a traffic cop and addressing my remarks to the room at large, lest anyone else was lurking in there. “We’re not actually open at present.”

The old lady stared at me, her lips twitching, as if she didn’t understand what I was saying. Suky, as the girl was apparently called, picked up a book from the cash desk and brought it over to me.

“Mrs Abercrombie has a booking,” she whispered, pointing at that day’s entry.

“Oh. I see. Well, just this once,” I huffed. “After that, we’re definitely closed. Definitely.”

Suky changed into an overall, took the woman’s coat and set about washing and styling her hair.

I lit another cigarette, reverted to my former boots-up position and observed. The girl appeared to know what she was doing. She was quick and quiet in her movements, her comb darting like a viper’s tongue as she spooled the woman’s hair onto rollers.

But as I watched, I was struck by the quality of Suky’s own hair. It had a texture unlike anything I had ever seen growing out of someone’s cranium. It was like shredded wheat, coconut matting or the fuzzy texture inside a suede boot. The poor girl, it had to be said, looked like a boiled sweet that had been hanging around in someone’s pocket and had bits of tobacco stuck all over it. Still, she obviously wasn’t letting it hold her back.

When Mrs Abercrombie’s session was finished, she paid and left the salon smiling. But before Suky could put the cash in the till, I snatched it from her hand.

“There you go,” I said, thrusting a tenner at her. “Thank you for your efforts. Now, if you don’t mind—”

“We’ve got three bookings first thing,” she said, ignoring the money.

“Three?” I hesitated.

“A restyle, highlights and a set,” she nodded.

I wouldn’t be able to cope with that lot by myself and she knew it.

“Well, maybe come back just for tomorrow, then,” I relented. “But after that we’re closed. Definitely.”

Suky came back the following morning and the next day and the next day after that. Soon she’d been there three weeks. I was forced to admit to myself that the salon was indeed open for business and what’s more, I had an employee.

So, reluctantly, I moved into the flat above with a load of brown, second-hand furniture and tapped my old man for yet another loan in order to meet running costs. Between us Suky and I managed to meet the modest needs of our clientele, she tackling the more elaborate hairstyles, leaving basic washing, setting and trimming to me.

I quite enjoyed myself, truth be known. I was master of my own domain and the old ladies were an appreciative audience for my rather tired repertoire of jokes. I found their meaningless chit-chat comforting. “Do you think it’s going to rain, love? Only I’ve left my washing out,” or, “There was a dreadful queue at the post office.” It was, as they say, very ‘real’.

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