Laura had long, thick luscious hair. It was this that the hairdresser commented on. A compliment before he packed a punch with what he was really thinking. A truth he could not ignore and that he chose to sandwich between the long thick luscious compliment and an anecdote about a raucous staff night out. ‘Your hair seems very thin at the back darling, in fact, you have a bit of a gap’. He proved his point with a flash of hand mirror. Laura pretended to look and shrugged it off.
‘My hair’s always been thinner at the back.’ She lied. She bought the expensive thickening conditioner he assured would help the problem. He laughed: she was worth it. Laura didn’t pretend to laugh. She was worth so much more.
Around the time that she gave me the first bundle of hair, we chatted about choices. She was very matter of fact. Spoke of her life as if it was one of those magazine questionnaires. The diagram sort, the kind where yes or no points you in arrowed directions until your choices lead you to the bottom of the page and your fate. We were drinking Bloody Marys - must have been hung-over. We only drank Bloody Marys when we were hung-over. I remember feeling guilty, I’d not believed her and I think she knew it. I’m certain that explains the hair bundle.
She showed me the carpet burns as an afterthought. Being dragged by your hair across a carpet leaves grazes that can be misinterpreted. It was a hot summer’s day, but she kept her knees hidden.
It was his eyes she told me, that was what she’d noticed. We laughed at the cliché ‘Strike it from the record, strike it from the record,’ we chanted, our words seasick with vodka. We’d become friends, this younger woman and I. Our husbands worked together, they went for beers and played tedious games of crib.
‘I can see that,’ I said about the eyes thing. They were gold and green and flattered and fluttered your stomach. She said they were the colour of seaweed, specific seaweed that she’d seen in Ireland as a teenager. This led to us talking about Maggie. Laura was in no rush to get home and would keep hold of my company for as long as she could. She seldom spoke of Maggie, unless drunk. She knew the subject of Maggie fascinated me, I hoped she didn’t find this ghoulish. We moved on to vodka and orange, there are only so many Bloody Marys that a person can drink and we’d long buried our hangovers.
Laura’s feelings about her sister reminded me of a fruit machine. Pull the handle and watch the cogs spin – you never knew what you’d get.
‘Ireland was the last holiday with Maggie’, she explained. ‘There are photos, I don’t look at them. I picture my sister concave and dead-eyed easily enough and my parents are still the same confused grey people today. Grief doesn’t pack such a punch if it’s consumed gradually, and my sister’s ‘problem’ was our every meal for years. You see’, she said, ‘it’s all about choices’.
When I picture Laura now, I picture her on her wedding day. Long luscious hair piled high. I’d never seen a bride so beautiful. Her mother always kept her hair short when she was a child. People constantly mistook her for a boy. This is what Laura would say when people remarked on her beautiful hair, as if she had to explain herself to accept the compliment, as if having is more acceptable if you once lacked.
Maggie was always cold, and that was Laura’s first thought when she caught her sister running her arms over the gas hob in the kitchen of that rented whitewashed holiday cottage. The smell was foul, the hairs on Maggie’s arms shrivelled and died in the flames. If her sister had not always kept herself covered, long sleeves whatever the weather, Laura would have noticed that she had become coated by fine fur. If this had been a few years later, Laura would have ‘Googled’ it, and she would have found that the correct term for what Maggie was burning from her arms was lanugo. Her body’s way of keeping warm in the pinched face of starvation.
Not long after that last holiday Laura met the man she would marry. Her first boyfriend. Her escape route. She was eight months pregnant before her parents noticed. With her father it was unsurprising, a workaholic who spent more time at the office than at home. With her mother it was upsetting, mothers should know their daughter’s bodies. As Laura grew, Maggie shrunk. Their mother saw what was not there and ignored what was.
Laura’s eyes were swollen from crying that day, her face blotchy beneath makeup. She pulled the hair bundle from her bag and placed it on the table. He’d dragged her by her hair across their flat, he’d dragged her from room to room. The bundle of hair sat on the pub table between us. It was then she told me about the humiliating experience with the hairdresser. I kept glancing at the hair, it was shocking how much there was. I sipped my drink. ‘Can I keep this?’ I asked, and I balled it up and slipped it into my pocket.
I said nothing when I got home. I kissed my husband, glad he was who he was, but angry that he’d been so easily fooled, so ready to believe this man. It had been a matter of weeks after their wedding that Laura had turned up on our doorstep. Her face crumpled and flecked with tissue as she spoke of cruelty and unpredictable anger.
Attention seeking and highly strung – those were the words my husband used. Cries at anything apparently - unstable, it obviously runs in the family. I had believed him too. This man my husband worked with, this man I’d entertained in my home, this man with the gold-green seaweed eyes who I’d found attractive in my safe married way. We’d chatted alone on the patio – the ostracised smokers. Marlborough Lights despite the cold. Laura got pregnant early in the relationship. They got married. He loved her of course, he’d just not realised how flaky she was. I should have paid more attention to this word. Flaky is never said with love.
When she gave me the second bundle of hair we once again chatted about choices. I said the things you say: think of your child, leave him, leopards never change their spots. Despite her distress we laughed at the cliché. ‘Strike it from the record, strike it from the record’, we chanted - this time through a bottle of red wine. I noticed how the wine had stained the corners of Laura’s mouth into a Punch and Judy grimace.
‘I chose him’, she said. ‘It’s all about choices. This morning I stood in the shower, watching streams of hair disappearing down the plughole and I thought, why my hair? Why does he pull my hair?’
When I got home I weaved the new bundle of hair into the first one. Over the next few months the bundle grew. It was like one of those ever expanding elastic-band balls. I never showed my husband, I’m not sure why. He continued with after work beers and crib.
When Laura gave me the last bundle of hair we drank thick tumblers of gin and tonic with slices of lime. ‘I was hiding’, she said, and ran her hands through her new pixie crop. She explained how she’d hidden behind long hair for so many years and that now she was facing the world without armour. ‘I had it cut yesterday - the anniversary of Maggie’s death’, she said. For her sister she would find strength and a new beginning. She drained her gin and tonic.
When I got home they were playing crib at the card table. A fire burned in the hearth. They greeted me without looking up. I slumped into the armchair next to the fireplace, pulled the hair bundle from my pocket and threw it into the hungry flames. The smell was foul. They didn’t seem to notice.
About the author: Vanessa Gellard was born in London, spent childhood years in the Canary Islands, and now lives in Hove. She studied creative writing at Sussex University. Currently working on her first novel, she’s had short works published on Paragraph Planet and has read the odd short story at literary nights in Brighton.
Photo: (c) Minette Layne via Flickr Creative Commons