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Letters from London

A Little Off

Just when companionship is the last thing you want at the hair salon, in walks Barry—who frankly couldn’t give two licks what you want.

Credit: Mike Mills, My Mother's Hair, 2008. Courtesy the artist and pool gallery.

I’ve always been uneasy about getting my hair cut. It involves being friendlier with strangers than I am with most of my friends. If I could get my hair done by videoconference my life would be happier. For the moment, however, technology in this area has advanced little beyond hacking with knives, and I still have to resign myself to this ritual business with the fingers. It’s disgusting. Thankfully I have found a dour angel who shares my feelings. She is my hairdresser and her name, which I have changed here to protect her identity, is not Barry.

Barry is not one of these glamorous hairdressers. She’s a thin-lipped, bleached blonde mess with a bad temper, but she’s open on Sundays and she does my bangs for £4. The salon, between trendy Shoreditch and the Islamic Cultural Centre, is painted metallic gray inside and out, and once a week I find Barry there alone, scowling at the sky, waiting for the day to end. Barry and I, we are cut from the same piece of hair.

One of the things I find most endearing about Barry is her lack of proficiency in English. I’ve never been one for making chat with hairdressers. Some might call this uncharitable, but I find it creepy when someone whose fingers are in my hair starts trying to get the subject onto something else. Perhaps on the hairdesser’s part it is a way of relieving the awkwardness of the moment; to bring us back to breathing in and out. Perhaps she too finds hairdressing disgusting, and to focus us all on the world around us rather than the fistfuls of genetic material being examined, touched, trimmed (shudder), she asks about holiday plans to take us off to a calm place. Imagine you are on a quiet beach, she might be saying. A beach where no one is touching you. But for me the chatting is a violation. It’s like making eye contact with your masseuse during the boobs bit of your full-body. Frankly, I won’t have it. And neither will Barry.

One Sunday I found Barry working side by side with the salon owner. With Barry’s stubby fingers all over my head, the owner beside us dyed and curled into existence a bright red cloud on top of a slightly fat woman. When she was done the owner of the curls stood up and did a giant twirl, showing off her new head-style. Through some incomprehension of the physics of her own body, however, she seemed to be sticking out her ass for us to admire, while her hairstyle drooped coyly toward the floor. It was a beautiful moment. Barry and I looked at each other in the mirror.

I’ve never been one for making chat with hairdressers. Some might call this uncharitable, but I find it creepy when someone whose fingers are in my hair starts trying to get the subject onto something else.

“What do you think?” the woman asked, breathless from twirling and beaming with pride.                  

Barry shook her head and said slowly in her liquid Polish accent, “I don’t really like red hair.”

In her rented chair, within the metallic-and-toilet-floor themed salon, Barry gives me her own post-communist Dora the Explorer cut. She doesn’t approve of it, but she manages to achieve it each time by painstakingly trying to even out my fringe bit by bit until it’s almost all gone, like a skit of a woman cutting the legs off a table trying to shave away the wobble. By the time she’s finished there’s nothing left, and she’s accidentally given me the closest thing I’ll ever have to a trendy East London haircut. She may not even know she’s in Hipsterville, but she does a great fringe.  

On one side of Barry’s salon there is a cafe/florist/bookshop, the sort of place where you can make your own marshmallows and ironic ceramic iPad cases for just £75. The customers of this shop can occasionally be heard walking past, complaining about the price of their risotto pans and the extensions they’re building to fit their dining tables. I close my eyes and try not to listen. In my house, we make risotto in a shoebox.

On the other side of the salon is a newsagent, from whence occasionally emerge tanned, stubbly men with big bellies, smoking roll-ups. They stand in the door and tell Barry it’s time for coffee, and wink at me in the chair. With her tongue clasped firmly between her lips and her brow lined in concentration as she goes at my head, Barry firmly tells them in her best English accent to bugger off. The men always bugger off smiling.

She doesn’t really smile, she doesn’t speak, and she’s not very good at cutting hair, and I love that. She goes about the business of my hair with a distant clinical gravity that inspires no confidence in her ability to style, and absolute faith in her ability to be a human being. She rolls her eyes in blatant disgust at almost anyone who passes through her door, and I have never once seen her offer anyone a cup of tea or coffee. She does not own any magazines. Customers are discouraged from making themselves comfortable.

She goes about the business of my hair with a distant clinical gravity that inspires no confidence in her ability to style, and absolute faith in her ability to be a human being.

The appeal of this may be hard to discern from the outside, but the fact is that Barry feels like a leveller. She is equally rude to everyone. She is only herself and she is unconcerned with fashion, even with hairstyles. She is earnest and honest and goes about her work with all the creativity and pleasure of someone shovelling snow. In London terms, in her lack of pretension and her understated universal spite, Barry seems sometimes like an innocent.

Sitting with her in the cool silence of the salon, listening to the traffic and the Sunday organic wine crowd passing by, I think how there is little in such a vast city to bind people together. I feel a wave of something like love or admiration for all those people who manage to create affinities out of money and fashion and careers in finance. I wonder if silent Barry knows how lonely and difficult it is to be a human being in a place like London and how unlikely it was that we should have found each other. We have built our friendship out of such staples of love as animus and silence, but it seems others, in a heroic display of industry and dedication, have built theirs out of nothing at all, and I wonder if she realizes how brave they are.

Sometimes, in the still of a hot Sunday afternoon voices will reach us through the open door, carried on the thick air from next door, someone saying “...Vivienne Westwood oven gloves for our cooking holiday in Afghanistan.” Barry in her wordless, sullen serenity will go over and quietly shut the door, so we are enveloped in a cool, toilet-floor silence, broken only as Barry softly mutters, “Bullshit,” and without looking at me goes back to hacking away at my hair, millimeter by millimeter. 

Béibhinn Dunne is an Irish writer, from Dublin. She enjoys listening to other people’s conversations, and is currently living in London for the weather. More by Béibhinn Dunne