Along the passage, past the slumbering rather than squeaking ATM, and towards the stairs at the far corner of the atrium. The ‘morning after’ smell of the Indian restaurant, usually so pungent, today hangs more lightly in the air.  Up the stairs, past the beauty salon and the cookery school, a place I’ve never actually seen operating. My footsteps quick, always quick along this passage, because I’m always a few minutes late. It is my antipathy about going? For the time and money, it consumes, for the conversations it forces me to be privy to? Topics played, rewound, played again with each new client.  Clients coming for a cut, or a cut and blow – shorter interventions than mine today – cut and colour. A process that I know will consume at least an hour and a half of my time. 

The beaming smile and open arms of Jackie* my hairdresser, swallow up, Jonah-like, and then release me. 

“Your hair’s gotten long”. 

“Yes, and to tell you the truth, I haven’t been happy with it, with the flop top” I say pointing to the helmet-like pieces on the top of sides of my head.

Jackie still smiling: “Come on, it’s not that bad. It’s because you don’t come often enough”. 

“No. Usually it grows out well, but this last time it didn’t. I don’t know what happened with the last cut”. 

“It’s your hair” Jackie insists, “it’s changed”. Oh God, another one attributing things to the ‘change of life’, enough that dearly beloved attributes everything to it! 

“Your hair used to be coarser, now it’s softer, that’s why it can’t hold itself up so well”. 

“So, it’s my hair’s fault” I chuckle. “In three years, that was the first cut that wasn’t great.”

I speak not in judgment or with an intention to cause harm, but to say how it was for me. It is my assessment that my relationship with Jackie can handle this robustness. On my assessment of knowing and appreciating her for her realness and resilience, in life, and in the salon. 

“I’m telling you, it’s your hair. Look at the last time you had colour, I had to do it twice to get it to take.”

True, twice indeed. It was a long session. 

“What do you say, Sandra?”* I laugh, directing my question at Jackie’s salon partner, fiddling on her cell phone, awaiting her next client. Her own hair wrapped around giant orange and purple rollers and secured under a black elasticated muslin cap. 

“I’m keeping quiet, don’t want to get into trouble”. A brief look up, and then back to the safety of her cell phone.

I take my seat on a black revolving chair, the middle chair, in a row at the long counter. A counter, that in addition to its usual assortment of magazines, jars, bottles, brushes, combs, scissors, and clippers, is punctuated with Christmas decorations, and a plastic Christmas tree at the one end. Thank goodness, no Christmas music, just Highveld Stereo from a speaker at the back, and the whirr of the ceiling fan that blows her slightly cool breath on the back of my neck.

The discussion of a battle plan begins. A plan to overcome my mutinous, ever changing hair. Various strategies proposed and evaluated, essentially a discussion of one. Jackie’s. 

I’ve had my say and now surrender. “I’ll leave it to you, Jackie. You do whatever you think is going to work.” 

Jackie, happy to be in command. But despite the good naturedness of our exchange, I feel a bit of her tension: in the pitch of her laugh, in her fingertips, as she fastens the plastic gown around my neck. I worm my finger between the collar and my Adam’s apple.

“Eish, not so tight. I know you really want to kill me!” 

We laugh, the gown loosened, the tension lightened. Jackie retreats briefly, and then advances from the rear, a thick rubber cap in her hand. The first part of the battle plan ready for execution. An execution that requires four hands. She pulls the cap over the top of my head and down over my ears while I hold it firmly against my forehead. 

“What’re you doing for Christmas?” Sandra asks the woman who has now taken up residency in the chair to my left. 

The rubber cap in place, Jackie lifts her first weapon. Aim, poke, pull. The crochet hook into action. At least one hundred strikes, or what to me, certainly feels like a hundred, as Jackie pulls something between clumps and strands of my very brown hair through small holes in the cap. 

“You see ‘My Bread and Butter’s’ gone?” Sandra’s next question to her client. A reference to the restaurant at the corner of the block. 

“Yes, what happened? It always looked busy”, replies the older woman with just-washed grey hair. Hair that to me already looks short, but is clearly set to get shorter. 

“I don’t know about that, but Grant from ‘Croft’ is moving in there. You know he used to own it before, when it was ‘Scuzi’?” 

The pointing and poking stops, eventually. My head now a spikey clown head mass, just brown, not orange. Jackie’s hands move to her next task. Speedy circles, mixing peroxide powder and some liquid in a small black bowl. Fiery fumes dance their way up my nostrils. I blow out, trying to force their retreat. Slap, slap, splodges of blue land on the cap, then spread by Jackie’s long spined brush. My clown head morphs into a sponge cake with blue icing. 

“So, Trump’s being impeached”, the short-haired woman next to me declares. 

“No, he’s not” I counter. “That was only the House of Representatives, it still has to get through the Senate, and that’s not going to happen, not with a Senate that’s Republican dominated.”

“Yes, that’s what my daughter says, that it probably won’t happen”. 

“It won’t” I repeat. 

“She did an Honour’s and Master’s in Political Studies, so I suppose she knows”. 

“Hmm” I nod and don’t say: “You don’t need to have done Political Studies to know!”

The last licks of ‘icing’ applied, Jackie pulls a thin plastic cap over my head, sending a fresh wave of fumes up my nose, and stinging my eyes. 

“Let’s give it half an hour” Jackie instructs. 

“Sure, first I want to get these on”. After a few attempts, I manage to force my glasses’ temples under the caps, and over my ears. At least this way, I’ll be able to do something productive for the next half hour, or however long it’s going to take for the blue powder to transform brown to blonde. 

I happily take up a new position at the end of the row, between the spikey, skinny green arms of the Christmas tree, and the skinny brown arms of a spritely looking much older woman. Away from the ceiling fan’s blowy breath, ever so slightly distanced from the conversation. Ear plugs in, my writing book out. A few lines inked. A pause for thought. The old woman, hair now washed and ready for her cut and blow, is lowering herself gently back into the chair beside me. 

Ek het net ‘n half uur voordat ek opgetel is”.

Geen probleem, Mev C, jy sal betyds wees”. Sandra reassures Mrs C that there’s no problem, that she’ll be ready to be collected in half an hour’s time. 

A whiff of peroxide as Jackie lifts the outer cap. “It’s looking good but let’s give it a while longer”. The memory of the last colouring of my recalcitrant hair still fresh in Jackie’s mind. 

Well within the half hour, Mrs C hoists herself out of the chair. Although her frame is light, it’s still a careful process. I want to lend my arm, but I’m too slow. She’s up and away, I presume off to meet her lift home. I wonder how old she is, well into her 80s I reckon. Heavy in years, but a lightness in her being. The twinkle in her eyes, the warmth in her age-thinned voice. 

“She’s 97”, says Jackie, as if reading my thoughts.

“Wow, if I could be that at 97!”. 

“Are you free now?” Long legs striding across the room, a loud German voice. “Yes, good, you can cut my hair now”. A statement or a question, I’m not quite sure. Sandra sets to work. 

“Vot happened to ‘My Bread and Butter’?” 

Oh God no, here we go again, only at much higher volume. I push my earplugs deeper into my ears, ever the optimist, that they’ll surpass my expectations. They don’t, but thankfully the German invasion is short, and sharp. 

Slow tottering steps, Mrs C is back, slightly out of breath, and out of sorts. 

Ek het gestaan en gewag maar nie haar gekry nie.” I stood and waited but I didn’t find her. She lowers herself into the well-worn easy chair next to the door. The ever so slight shake of her hands I observed earlier, now a little more pronounced. The after effect, of the physical exertion: the walk to the meeting point, 20 minutes of standing, the climb back up the stairs. But more so, I suspect, the emotional strain: the not knowing where her person was, of not being collected at the agreed pick-up point. A not knowing that for most ninety-seven year olds would cause severe panic. Not for Mrs C, more of a discombobulation, and still the good sense to return to the salon, despite the stairs. 

I scratch around in the waist pocket of my backpack, find what I’m looking for.

Hierso, vir jou bloedsuiker”.

I squeeze a purple sucky sweet from its light plastic envelope and pop it into her warm, bony hand. Sugar, always good for shock. She smiles and plops it into her mouth. I turn to make my way back to my writing, to my chair next to the Christmas tree. Out of the corner of my eye, a quick glimpse of a vaguely familiar face, a woman standing on the other side of the atrium looking intensely towards the salon. Looking but not quite seeing. 

‘Bing’ in my head. A recollection, a possible connection. I step back towards Mrs C. 

Is Christa jou dogter?” Is Christa your daughter? Her face creases into a crinkly smile.

Ek ken vir Christa”. I know Christa. Her smile stretches further, eyes crinkle yet smaller. Delight all over her face. “Sy het my huis verkoop.” She sold my house.

Christa, who is now standing across the atrium and to whom I shout as I move outside: “Christa, jou ma is hier”. Christa your mother is here. She just stares, a blank look, no movement. I go back into the salon and announce to Mrs C:

Christa is hier”. I help Mrs C to her feet and we slowly make our way towards the door, her hand In my hand, her arm resting on mine.

Christa lyk die donner in”. Christa looks the hell in. A conspiratorial glint in Mrs C’s eye. 

Ja, sy lyk baie ongelukkig”. Yes, she looks very unhappy, Mrs C agrees. 

We chuckle. Christa edges closer as I leave Mrs C, hands firmly placed on the railing, steady on her feet, secure in the knowledge that she is being collected. I head back inside, a voice calls out from behind me. 

“Oh Sharon it’s you, I didn’t recognise you”. Who would have with my blue head and black cape? I smile and wave, and step back into the salon, back onto the battlefield, back to my posting alongside the Christmas tree.  

Jackie returns to check the blue icing sugar. Yes, it’s good. The first battle is won! I leave my writing and head for the basin, slither down, a backward limbo of sorts, onto the hair washing chair. The chair moving ominously forward as my neck manoeuvres towards its target, the U in the basin behind me. Some force and persistence required to pry the thick rubber cap loose from my head, the blue ‘icing sugar’ now more like cement.  A slow Mexican wave as it releases bit by bit, until the last section breaks free with a sadistic snap. Rinsed, I’m back to my original station in the centre chair. The circulating sweep of the ceiling fan, and a rain-bearing breeze blowing cool breath on my wet head. My hair follicles crawl and stretch, gratefully freed from the confinement of the cap. A downside of the release, the return of sound, sound previously dulled by the rubber and plastic that covered my ears. The high-pitched repetitious squeaking of a girl band, so typical of Highveld Stereo. Two lines, chorus, two lines, chorus. The rat-a-tat-tat of Sandra’s cell phone typing, and bloody ‘bloep-bloeps’ of her incoming ‘WhatsApp’ messages.

“Cell phones should come in just one setting”, I scowl, “silent!”

More tapping and bloeping. Oh God, let it soon be over. 

Relief. The phone set aside, as Sandra puts her fingers to a different task. Releasing the bright plastic rollers from their captivity under the black muslin cloth. Great pipes of dark hair hold their form until they’re straightened by a large toothed comb in Sandra’s right hand.

Jackie angles my head forward, scissors poised: “You want the back uneven?” 

“Yes, wispy, not a straight line”, I say. Snip, snip, the scissors tickle the back of my neck. 

“I’ll say one thing, you have a good neck.” My laugh, a machine gun spluttering. The first time in 50 years, that my neck has received such an acknowledgement. 

“Yes, a long neck, good for a short cut”, Jackie continues. 

“So I won’t use the thinning scissors like usual, I’ll just cut straight into your hair”.  It sounds worse than it is.

“Sure, whatever you think is best to avoid a future flop top.”

Nearly there.

Snip, snip, snip, stop. Jackie’s forefinger periodically rests flat against my ear.  The faint smell of fried onions, cumin, and turmeric drifts closer and then away with the movement of her fingers. A not unpleasant smell, a smell that tells of an aromatic meal cooked and enjoyed the night before. 

“Shall I go a bit shorter? I’m worried about your crown, shorter, and your hair might stand up.” 

“Go shorter”, I say, “I’ll live with any stand-up comedy.” We’re approaching the home straight. 

“Should I put a bit of gel in it?”

“Yes, thanks, that will be good.” Jackie fingers’ rub together, then through my hair, first flat forwards and a pull up at the front. 

“Charlize Theron”, she pauses and looks on approvingly. “Let me show you the back.” 

She hurries away and returns with a tray-size mirror that she holds chest height, looking like the Ladies Runner-up at Wimbledon. Slightly uncertain, waiting for the applause. I feel her holding her breath. 

“It looks great! Thanks, Jackie, it really does, the colour and the cut.”

Something between a laugh and a gasp escapes her lips. “It has to be great, after you shitting me out like that when you first arrived!”

“I didn’t, I just said how it was for me because I know you value honesty and I know you like a challenge. And now, see how good it looks!”

Jackie beams, her chest expands. 

“I just wish one thing”. 

“Oh no, what now?”, Jackie’s eyebrows ask. 

“I just wish my friends in Palestine could see me now.” 

I’m lost in Jackie’s laughter and heart holding hug. A hug so much like those I received in Palestine. 

I leave grateful and happy. Grateful for the quality of my relationship with Jackie, for her resilience and resourcefulness. Grateful for the sweetness of the connection with Mrs C, the soft touch of her bony hands, the twinkling in her eyes, the remembering she brings of my own beloved grandmother, whose bony hands hopefully hold others between hers in the heavens above. 

I leave happy. Happy to be blonde again, happy to have a haircut, and no longer a helmet-head. Happy to be stepping out of the salon, and off to buy a case of Heineken, on ‘special’ at the bottle store below. The bottle store at the opposite end of the block from what used to be ‘My Bread and Butter’.

* Not their real names.