Barbara Mercer

Story time at Susie’s Dos

It was the same ritual, the walls had changed though and these days it was just her and Susie, and the hairdo was only once a month or so. She could remember when she’d gone down Joan’s every Thursday morning, the smell of setting agent and overheating hood dryers, the row of busybodies waiting for their pink or blue dos to dry, identikit bodies draped in respectable clothes. If it was raining when they left, they’d get their carefully folded plastic rain bonnets out of their handbags so that perfect hair would not be displaced one inch nor be contaminated by wet. 

Her hair was permed, otherwise it would be dead straight and she couldn’t stand that, she needed that bit of wave. She’d started having it permed after her parents had died and she’d, at last, had a bit of money and the house to rent out. It was her bit of luxury, her way of consoling herself for all those years when the pennies hadn’t stretched, when she’d fed the girl and quietened her own stomach with a mouthful of gin and endless cups of thin tea from a teapot she’d only fed once a day. 

Course, these days money was no problem and she didn’t have to carry on seeing Susie, who’d left the noisy salon and set up in her own place. Even if her own place was a converted garage. However, she feels that loyalty is important, and Susie does a good job. At least she no longer has to deal with the accusatory eyes of gossips, though her news is very old now and these days, unless you are royal or a celebrity or something, divorce just seems to be one of those things. And even what the girl went through, even that isn’t what it was, doesn’t have the same weight anymore.

She shifts in the chair; it’s perming time and she is uncomfortably aware of the fumes. Susie comes in from the kitchen holding two mugs and a packet of biscuits tucked under her arm; she puts one of the mugs down in front of Emily.

‘There you go, a nice cup of tea.’

Susie always describes tea as nice, thinks Emily, whether she is offering you a drink, handing you a mug or even recalling a cup of tea drunk on a day out or a visit to a relative. Susie doesn’t seem to encounter a bad or disappointing cup of tea. Maybe because she expects ‘nice’, ‘nice’ is what she gets.

Emily sighs.

Susie frowns, Emily is usually full gas on the gossip by now, complaining about some tenants or the government or simply commenting on the latest news about her pretty extensive family, though not so much about her daughter. Susie knows that Emily has a daughter, and she is pretty sure they are in contact, but somehow there is a gap, a void, the absence of something in the way that Emily talks about her daughter, (whose name, come to think of it, Susie doesn’t even know) that stops Susie from asking. Hairdressers are generally good at this, good listeners often are, they hear the nuance, the things that are not said, the absence of desire to communicate within communication itself.

However, she has known Emily a long time, 15 years maybe. She takes a chocolate digestive out of the pack, puts the pack in front of Emily.

‘Are you alright love’.

Emily looks at the packet of biscuits on the shelf in front of her, and the mug of coffee, then she raises her eyes to the mirror. Susie has just sat down on a stool just to her right and taken a tiny bite out of her biscuit. Susie once told Emily that she only offers biscuits to two customers a day and only ever has one biscuit at a time.

‘Otherwise, I’d be the size of the Cannock bus.’

Emily picks up her mug and gently spins the chair so she is facing Susie. This is better, she no longer has to look at her wrinkles in the mirror.

‘I’ve always thought that a hairdresser is a bit like one of those catholic priests.’ Emily starts.

This is not the first time someone has said something like this to Susie, it usually means that there is a very interesting piece of information about to come out. She says what she always does.

‘Oh, everything my customers tell me in here is like the grave. Unless it’s very illegal, but I don’t suppose you’re about to confess to the Brink’s-Mat are you?’

Emily laughs, releasing just a little bit of tension she didn’t know she had.

‘No, hardly. I’m not sure I’ve done a single thing that isn’t legal in my whole life. I was far too old for the sixties and all those drug shenanigans and really, what else would I do? No. No major crimes, no bodies.’

She stops, how does she start the story, how does she express the idea, no, she is damn near certain, the fact.

Susie stays quiet, she knows how this works, in silence, the story will come to you.

‘I …’ Emily stutters, tries again. ‘I think you know I have a daughter?’

Susie nods.

‘She’s a good girl, lives in Wiltshire, lives with her bloke, I think they’ll get married eventually, he has a couple of kids from his first marriage.’

Emily pauses, breaths in sharply.           

‘Anne had a hard time with her father and me, most of her first ten years we were shouting at each other, and then he was gone and it was hard to make ends meet.’ 

Emily folds her mouth up, like she is trying to hide her lips. This is not very flattering but Susie is not going to point this out.

‘She insisted on doing shorthand and typing at school, her teachers thought she could do better. But she was adamant. She worked Saturdays at Woolworths too, I didn’t realise, but she was dead set on leaving here, just dead set, making sure she had enough money to tide her over. She got out by applying for the civil service, she was smart. She was only 17 when she told me she was going, going to London. Got on the train, the steam train would you believe it, the last year they ran on the line down to London before the electric, got on the train with her nan’s old suitcase and that was that. She’d come back at Christmas for a couple of days that’s all. But gone, really gone.’

There’s a pause, Emily looks down at her coffee mug as if surprised she’s holding anything. Susie looks at her customer, one of her not quite old dears.

‘That must have been hard.’

Emily looks up, nods and twists her lips.

‘It was, but that’s not . . .  the third Christmas, the third Christmas she didn’t come back. She wrote, said she had a lot of work, but it worried me, I worried she didn’t have the money for the fare, where was she going to spend Christmas day?’ I got to Boxing Day and couldn’t stand it. As soon as the trains were running, I got one down there. I’d never been to London before. I was terrified, but so determined, just determined to get there, to find out if she was OK. She lived in the East End, it was a nightmare journey, I had to keep asking for help, though those Londoners, they’re not as bad as they say, they do help a body.’

Emily takes a sip of what must be, by now, only lukewarm coffee and grimaces.

‘She was in digs; I didn’t even know she’d be in when I rang the door. Another girl answered and I asked for Anne. The girl asked me who I was and when I said I was Anne’s mother I thought the girl had stopped breathing for a moment. But she asked me in and led me upstairs and knocked on a door. I heard Anne’s voice say ‘come in’, and then …’

Emily’s hands are shaking a bit and Susie gently takes the coffee mug away.

‘Are you OK?’ She asks.

Emily nods. 

‘She was huge, she was pregnant, my little girl.’

‘Oh.’

‘I wasn’t cross or anything I just wanted to know she was ok and there she was, pregnant.’

Emily is not crying but Susie can see that this situation could easily change. Susie ostentatiously checks the time.

‘Look at that, let’s get the perming solution out before we forget and I’ll have made you bald.’

Emily offers a tentative smile and gets up to walk over to this mini salon’s only wash basin. 

Back in front of the mirror Emily and Susie go through the little dance that they always go through after a perm where Emily moans that Susie won’t colour her hair at the same time and Susie insists that Emily has to wait a couple of weeks before the colour. At least this only happens every three months or so. Eventually they reach their usual consensus which, as every woman knows, is that the hairdresser is correct. Susie has combed out Emily’s hair so now starts to section it prior to cutting, she looks at Emily’s face in the mirror. Time for the next episode Susie thinks. 

‘So, what happened?’

‘To the child? She, it was a girl, she was adopted, it had all been arranged before I got there. Anne’s landlady had sorted it out, she had adopted several kids herself, I think originally Anne hoped that she’s take her baby, but the husband put his foot down. Well, they already had six.’

‘When was the baby born?’

‘Oh, January, she was due at Christmas. But she was late. I stayed. I rang work, said I’d found my daughter ill in London and I had to have leave even if it was unpaid. The landlady found a room for me in one of their other houses, someone                       had just moved out and she said I could have it for a couple of weeks.’

‘That was kind of her.’

 ‘Mmmm, yes, I think she felt responsible, not responsible that it was her fault or anything, but that here was this girl alone in London and who was going to help. I think Anne had given the impression that I’d be angry or unsupportive and if she                        felt that way then that was my fault.’

‘She didn’t want to keep the baby?’

‘In 1968? You’re nuts. OK, there were women that did, but not many, and it was either a struggle and you were an item of gossip or you pretended to be widowed or something and still struggled with the money. I got the impression she hadn’t known the lad long, and she hadn’t told him as she found out he’d met a girl while he was away working and was planning to marry her.’

            ‘Ah.’

‘And you know, once she was in that maternity hospital, there was no going back. They established she was unmarried and immediately wanted to know where she was placing the child, otherwise I think they’d have placed the baby themselves. I was glad I was there for her, especially when the intermediary took the child off, that was hard. I’d been out and bought a blanket to go in the carry cot and a little soft toy squirrel and a bunch of freesias for the woman…’ 

Emily takes a breath, sighs it out, now, Susie can see there are tears forming in Emily’s eyes.

‘The woman who would be the mother, the adoptive mother.’ Susie prompts gently.

‘Yes, for her . . .’

‘That must have been so hard.’

‘Yes, I think poor Anne just shut herself down, locked it all up. She never talks about it. But, the other day . . .’

Susie has finished trimming Emily’s hair and sets the scissors down.

‘What happened?’

Emily’s words come with a rush, quickly as if she doesn’t trust herself not to say them, not to have come so far and keep them in.

‘I saw the child, the girl … the, she’s a student, she came to view the house . . . ‘

‘Are you sure? Do you think she knows who you are?’

‘No, she’s oblivious, but she’s the spit of Anne at that age, small dark petite, and the eyes, she has Anne’s eyes. And . . . she’s going to be living there, I rented the house to them, how could I say no? They’re exactly the tenants I want.’

‘Except one of them is your granddaughter. Your only granddaughter. Aren’t you going to say anything?’ It’s too pointed a question; Susie sees that immediately.

 ‘I don’t know, I really don’t.’ Emily shuts her mouth abruptly; Susie can almost hear the click. 

Story time, she thinks, is over. She picks up the hair dryer and the volume brush and goes to work on the newly formed curls.

Flights, Issue Eight, March 2023