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Aunt Heather was nothing like her sister, their mother. The family joke was that they must have come from different fathers. Mum was short and round, relaxed, bubbly and warm and always casually dressed. Heather was tall and lithe, with an austere aloofness about her in both dress and manner.  Always immaculately turned out, she was renowned across the family for her tough demeanour and strict ways with her son and any other children who came into her orbit. Mum often indulged them; Heather never would.  But after the car accident that claimed both their parents, the guardianship board decided it was best to send them north to live with Heather since she’d offered to take them both in. 

Soon after arriving at their Aunt’s house they were led into the lounge room with their bags.  She began sorting through their clothes, tossing most items into garbage bags. ‘I’m not having either of you looking like urchins under my roof.’ The clothes were heading for the local charity shop. Chris started to argue with her but his Aunt cut him off with a sharp glare and a curt, ‘Don’t even think about it, young man.’  Chris knew better than to argue with her – he and his sister had stayed with her enough times previously and knew what to expect if either of them ‘played up’, as she liked to put it. 

Anna was too numb to argue, shocked by what was being taken away from her.  All her favourite outfits gone, tossed aside for some other lucky kids to wear and adore. Bar undergarments, about all that was left were her school uniform and a few of her more bland, prim clothes, straight-laced blouses and skirts and the like, garments she’d stopped wearing an age ago. She was thirteen, not a little girl anymore! She instantly regretted packing them in her bags but then these last few months since her parents had died, had been painful and chaotic.  ‘I shouldn’t have just chucked everything in without thinking.’ 

Aunt Heather told Chris he had to go change into his school uniform.  ‘Nothing else is suitable.’ She handed him his school shoes, shorts, jumper, shirt and tie. ‘But I’m not at school!’  His Aunt gave him a withering look; instantly he regretted his loose mouth.  He moved off to the bedroom, his school uniform in his hands. 

Anna didn’t have to put on her school uniform – but would have preferred that to what Aunt Heather held up for her.  She frowned as her Aunt handed over her brown school shoes, a pleated, red and yellow tartan skirt, thick woollen cream tights, a lace-trimmed cream blouse and fluffy, yellow cardigan.  ‘That horrible yellow cardigan!’ exclaimed Anna to herself. Aunt Heather had knitted it, having sent it to her for her birthday last year.  It was so ‘little girl’, so prudish, so yesterday!  Worst of all it was scratchy as hell against her skin.  Anna had worn it just once, when Aunt Heather had visited last Christmas, under sufferance and only to please her Mummy.  ‘Yuk!’ thought Anna, as she went off to change. 

They both came back in front of her. ‘Now no slouching, stand up straight the two of you.’ Aunt Heather stood up and walked over to them.  She adjusted Chris’s tie and looked him up and down. ‘Socks aren’t meant to dangle above shoes, Christopher.’  With a grimace he bent down and pulled them up as high as they’d go.  She brushed his fringe away from his eyes. ‘Your hair’s a frightful mess but it’ll look far more presentable soon enough.’  Chris swallowed nervously. He hated having his haircut, and guessed by the appalling haircuts Aunt Heather always made his cousin Ben have, that he’d probably be wearing something similar. 

Aunt Heather moved across to Anna and straightened the hem of her tartan skirt. ‘Now young lady, is that the proper way to wear a pretty cardigan?’  Anna didn’t know how to respond, as much from uncertainty as to what constituted her Aunt’s definition of the proper way to wear a cardigan, as her nerves.  ‘Ummm, how should I wear it, Auntie?’  ‘Done up, of course.’  And with that Aunt Heather stepped forward and did up all ten of the little shiny buttons, right to the top of the collar.  She pulled the blouse’s frilly lace collar out over the neckline of the cardigan and stepped back, looking Anna up and down. ‘Yes, that cardigan goes very well with your nice skirt and tights.  Now all you need is your hair fixed up and you’ll be properly turned out.‘  ‘Hair fixed up?  But my hair’s fine, clean and flowing just as any girl would want’ wondered Anna.  The cardigan was driving her crazy and she scratched at her arm but didn’t dare complain about it in case Aunt Heather got upset. 

‘Time we go shopping for some suitable outfits for the both of you.  And deal with your horrid heads of hair.  Get your coats.’  With that she turned and walked off to get the car keys.  The twins looked at each other wide-eyed.  Chris shook his head; a tear rolled down Anna’s cheek.  He took hold of her hand and led her off to fetch their coats. 

The clothing shop Aunt Heather took them to was stocked only with the most conservative children’s clothes imaginable, all so ordinary, conventional and old-fashioned; they left after an hour or so burdened down with more than enough items to weigh heavily across both Anna’s and Chris’ minds.  They dropped the bags off at the car and then Aunt Heather walked them a block down the high street, stopping outside a barbershop.  She swung the door open and waved the twins through. 

Anna went in first.  She’d never been in a barber’s before and hesitated, looking first at the two barbers, then down at the big leather-cushione
d chrome chairs with footplates, then at the huge wall length mirror, below which was a bench laden with scissors, jars, razors, clippers and towels. Sweetly warm, almost musky smells filled her nostrils. She turned away quickly and made for the red vinyl bench seat along the opposite wall and took her coat off.  Chris moved in beside her. Aunt Heather came round and sat down next to her. 

Anna looked back up at the barbers. One, a middle aged gent, was cutting a male customer’s hair with scissors.  He turned to Aunt Heather, ‘Hello Mrs O’Sullivan, we haven’t seen you in here for a few years.’  ‘Hello Tom.  Yes, that’s right.  My son’s now living in Edinburgh, studying at university.  And growing his hair, I’m afraid.’  ‘Ah well, that’s the youth of today for you, you can’t stop them once they fix their minds on something.’  ‘Yes, well, I can’t pretend I’m pleased about it.  He looks positively horrid.’  ‘They test us, those youngsters, yes they do.  Anyway, I shouldn’t be too long with old Bill here.’  ‘Oh there’s no hurry, Tom.’  ‘Yeah, not for her perhaps’, thought Chris, who just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.  He picked up a magazine lying next to him on the bench and tried to distract himself from what was soon about to happen. 

The other barber was a plumpish woman, perhaps in her fifties, with short, steel grey hair and a long white coat over a knee-length black skirt and red turtleneck. Anna had never imagined a woman would be cutting hair in a barbershop.  Weren’t barbershops for men and boys: male customers, male barbers?  What was even more surprising was the fact a lady about the same age as the barber was having her hair cut. And quite short, except for the top, which had been swept back over the crown.  ‘I’m almost done Eve’ said the lady barber to her customer. ‘Do you want me to thin out the body above the neckline some more?’  ‘I think so, Lois, my hair grows back so quick.’ The barber picked up a set of shiny electric clippers, put a small guard over the teeth and began using them to trim the hair above the woman’s neckline. She removed the guard and used the naked edge of the clippers to trim the hairline across the customer’s neck, continuing along the line of the cut around and above her ears.  Anna was both fascinated and frightened by the noise of the buzzing machine.  And the result. A little shiver went through her. 

Tom finished with his customer, shook the cape and started dusting down the seat. ‘Christopher,’ said Aunt Heather.  He looked up, slowly stood, reluctantly put the magazine down, took his overcoat off and made his way across to the chair. 

‘This is my nephew Christopher, Tom.  He and his sister are in my care now.’ Tom pulled off some coarse tissue paper, placed it on the collar of Chris’s shirt, folding it down and said, ‘Pleased to meet you Christopher.’ 

‘And how do you want it cut, Mrs O’Sullivan, short like your young boy?’ 

‘Yes Tom, just as short.’ 

‘Fine.’ Tom held a comb along Christopher’s neckline, just below the bottom of his ears.  ‘Taken this high, Mrs O’Sullivan?’ 

Aunt Heather held her thumb and index finger up, making an inch-wide gap between her finger and thumb.  ‘Higher.  About so.’ The comb moved up Chris’s neck.  ‘This high?’ Aunt Heather nodded. ‘Yes, that looks right.’  Christopher sighed and silently cursed his Aunt.  ‘Why so short!’ he screamed to himself as the cape was wrapped around him and buttoned up. 

‘Poor Chris!’ thought Anna, feeling his discomfort intensely.  He’d never had his hair cut short before – their mother wasn’t fussed how he wore his hair, as long as it was kept clean. 

‘Anna’.  Anna’s thoughts were brought back to earth by her Aunt’s verbal prod.  She looked across to the other barber and noticed her standing there with a white plastic cape in her hand.  She looked at her Aunt then back at the barber.  ‘Anna, go and make your way over to the chair.’  Anna felt her mouth dry out and a flush of heat across her body.  The cardigan felt itchy again and she started scratching her arm.  ‘Anna.  This instant!’ ‘Ah…I feel all hot, Auntie, can I take the cardi…’  Her Aunt took hold of her arm, lifted her up and led her across to the chair.  ‘I’m sorry for this Lois, she’s normally a good girl.’  The barber turned to Anna. ‘First time in a barber’s shop is it?’  ‘Aha’.  ‘You’ll be alright. It’s just like any other hairdressers.’ 

Right then the clippers started up behind Anna.  She shot a nervous glance over at Chris, watching his long, fine hair being shorn away in neat steady runs over his head. ‘But they don’t use clippers in any hairdressers I go to!’ thought Anna. Anna turned back and looked up at the woman, worry written on her face. 

The barber waved Anna onto the chair.  ‘I’m sure your Auntie knows what’s right for you.’ Reluctantly, Anna sat down. 

The barber put the cape down on the back of the chair, lent across to the counter and removed some tissue paper, pulled Anna’s long hair away at the back then placed the paper along the collar of Anna’s blouse and cardigan.  ‘They don’t do this in ladies hairdressers either,’ Anna said to herself nervously.  The cape was put around her and done up tightly at the back.  Anna’s heart beat quickened, as did her breathing.  She felt hot and enclosed and trapped.  ‘This cardigan is so hot and itchy!’ she screamed to herself. 

‘How do you want it cut?  Trimmed a little or shorter?

‘I want it cut short all round.  A no nonsense haircut.  There’s no need for a girl to be distracted by long hair.’ 

Aunt Heather described the haircut she wanted.  Anna stared at her through the mirror in horror, mortified by what she was hearing. 

‘That is short’ said the barber. ‘But that’s fine, I can do
that.’

Anna didn’t know what to do, what to say.  Her beautiful long hair, half way down her back…all going…going…gone.  A tear rolled down her face.

The barber caught her look in the mirror, picked up a pair of scissors and said with an air of indifference, ‘Oh don’t fret, hair always grows back.’ 

Anna burst into tears. The barber stepped back, looking across at Aunt Heather. 

Anna, sobbing, pleaded with her Aunt to let her keep her hair long.  ‘Or…’sniff ‘...at least…’ sniff ‘…let me have it…’ sniff ‘…cut not quite as short…’ sniff. 

‘Anna, pull yourself together. Now. Or else.  You’re an embarrassment.  To yourself, and to me.’

‘But Auntie, I…’

‘Young lady, you’ve already earned yourself a punishment when we get home. Now stop being selfish, show some respect to Lois and myself and sit up straight.  This instant.’

Anna felt completely deflated, ensnared. Somehow she regained control over her tumbling emotions, settling her sobbing down.  ‘I’m sorry Auntie’ she said quietly.  ‘I’m not the only one you need to apologise to.’  Anna looked at the barber through the mirror.  ‘I’m sorry, miss,’ she said, scratching once more at her arm. Lois dipped her head slightly in acknowledgement.  ‘You’re not the first girl to cry in this chair. And not the last, I suspect.’ 

Aunt Heather turned and went back to the bench seat. 

The barber pushed Anna’s head forward away from the back of the chair, gathered up her long dark hair into a bunch and in one forceful drive of the scissors, snipped it all off above the shoulders.  She dropped the mass on the floor. 

‘Mrs O’Sullivan, how high do you want the fringe?’ piped Tom. 

‘About so high,’ she said putting her fingers high across her brow.

‘Very well.’  Tom put the clippers down and pick up the scissors.  Chris and Anna exchanged pained glances through the mirror. Chris had had most of his hair reduced to a quarter inch all round, except towards the front, where his fringe reached his brow. ‘Oh sis!’ ‘Oh bro!’ 

Anna looked back at herself in the mirror.  Her hair was now sitting between her shoulders and ears.  ‘Why can’t this do? It’s bad enough…’  The barber didn’t muck around though: she started cutting away at her sides, taking them to the bottom of her ears in a straight, precise line.  Without stopping she moved behind, pushed Anna’s head forward, lifted the length away from her neck with a comb and cut another six inches away.  Anna could feel the cold air on her neckline: she drew a deep breath and closed her eyes. ‘And this is even badder…’ 

Clippers started up near her again and she jolted upright in her seat, startled into opening her eyes.  But it was in the next seat that they were having their effect: Chris’s neck was now the centre of the clippers attention, buzzing any remaining length away, up and down, up and down, finishing well above the bottom of his ears.  Anna was torn between sympathy for her brother and relief the clippers weren’t about to be used on herself. 

The clippers died. ‘Mrs O’Sullivan?  Short enough?’ 

She looked up from her magazine, studying Chris in the chair.  ‘Mmmm, that’s much better.  Very good Tom.’

‘Cut your son’s hair for nigh on fifteen years so I should remember how you like your young men to look.’ 

‘Indeed you do, Tom.’  They exchanged a smile through the mirror.  Tom went to the bench and lathered up a soap brush and picked up a cutthroat razor.  ‘Just need to clean up around the neck and above the ears.’ He undid the cape around Chris’s neck and loosened the tissue paper. 

Anna’s face was now veiled by her hair combed forward. Through the fine mass she could still make herself out in the mirror…until a white coat stepped in front of her view. ‘Auntie said she wants a high fringe.’  Anna discerned a hint of malevolent pleasure in the barber’s voice and gripped the huge arms of the chair tightly, conscious of how tight the cape was around her neck and how hot she felt under it, magnified by the layers of clothing she wore.  She wanted to cry again, until she remembered how Auntie had reacted to her earlier tears. 

Anna felt the edge of the scissors against her forehead, perhaps half an inch above her eyebrows:  in seconds her veil was gone.  The barber stepped back to judge her work then just as quickly moved in with the scissors once more.  Right-to-left in one deft cut, another line of her fine hair flaked and fluttering down before her eyes. Instinctively she started opening and closing her lids rapidly, trying to dislodge the little flecks of shorn hair from her lashes and eyes.  The barber stepped to the side and Anna brought a hand up to brush away what she could.  She caught her new look in the mirror.  ‘Oh god!’ 

‘Sides back to the ears, said Auntie.’  The barber started in at the edge of the fringe, cutting one side and then the other right back about 3 or 4 inches to the front of her ears in a sharp line.

The barber finished razoring Chris then picked up a spray bottle and covered Chris’s head with its sickly sweet scent, using his comb and hand to straighten and pat the fringe as he went.  ‘There.’ The cape swirled off him and Chris got out of the chair as quickly as he could, sliding onto the bench next to Auntie in a few short strides. She looked at his hair and said with a smile, ‘Now that’s a far more appropriate hair style for a boy.’  Chris blushed – Auntie had a way of making you feel so inconsequential, so ‘young’.  He looked over at the mirror in despair; what a sight he made, his hair cut in a shockingly cropped manner, the cut’s dreadful effect made worse by the length of retained fringe.  He put his hand to his head and felt the stiffened effects of the hairspray on his fringe, now ‘styled’ with enough chemical firmness to withstand gale force winds. His Auntie’s curt, ‘Stop messing it up’, stopped him in his tracks.  He slumped back on the bench numbed.  

Anna looked over at her brother, relieved she didn’t have to stare back at her own predicament, at least for a littl
e while.  His beautiful shoulder length hair, reduced to nothing more than a mass on the floor next to her.  ‘Oh Chris…’ The barber titled her head to the right, the firm hand on her head pulling her back to her own situation.  The scissors came in for another straight run, this time cutting away the last of the hair below her ears.  Her head was titled back up – the hairline was now a good half-inch up the side of her left ear.  The barber trimmed the line carefully then went to the other side and cut the hair there to the same length.  She moved to the back and evened up the neckline with the sides. 

The barber turned around.  ‘Mrs O’Sullivan, the nape.  I can trim it to blend in with the neckline or remove the lot.  What would you like?’

‘I leave it up to you Lois, whatever you think works.’

The barber nodded and moved across to the bench, picking up a set of clippers and taking off one guard and replacing it with a smaller one. Anna was shocked – surely clippers weren’t normally used on girls or women, no matter what the last customer in this chair felt. 

‘Please no, not clippers,’ pleaded Anna.  The barber stopped and looked at Heather.  ‘Anna, do you want an even shorter haircut?’  ‘But Auntie, please…’ ‘Anna, I’m warning you, one more word young lady and you’ll be sporting a considerably shorter look.’ Overwhelmed, Anna slumped down in the chair.  The barber prodded her shoulder with a finger. ‘Sit up.’  Anna automatically obeyed.  The firm grip returned, pushing her head forward and holding it there.  The clippers came to life, Anna giving an involuntary shudder as she felt the powerful buzzing against her skin for the first time. Suddenly she felt like she was going to wet herself and contracted her abdomen muscles in panic. Several rapid movements of the clippers up and down her nape followed.  The barber released her grip and moved to the bench.  Anna lifted her head up and watched in horror as the small guard came off the clippers.  Her head was titled forward once more.  ‘A smooth, clean nape goes well with a blunt cut like yours’ said the barber but before Anna could react, the clippers burst back into tormenting life. The pressure in her lower stomach intensified. Anna’s hands dropped off the arms of the chair to her thighs and making tight balls of her fists, she stared numbly at the hair lying bunched on the cape, hating the dreadful feel of the naked blade edge marking a straight line across the edge of her hair. ‘Please don’t let me wet myself!’ Her head was pushed lower as the clippers started up and down her nape again.  She didn’t want to think about what her neck must now look like. The heat under the cape and the cardigan’s cloying scratchiness over her arms grew worse.

The clippers stopped, the hand came off her head.  Anna lifted her head but when she saw the barber soap up a brush and pick up a cutthroat razor, she dropped her gaze back on to her cape, trying not to think about the little wet patch she could feel in her panties. The soothing warmth of the brush somewhat surprised her but when the razor started scrapping across her nape, any comforting thoughts evaporated.  In less than a minute her nape was shaved smooth, ending along the blunt edge of her cut, an inch higher than the bottom of her ears. 

‘Almost done,’ said the barber returning the razor and brush to the bench.  ‘Almost done?  What else!?’ thought Anna, pained.  The barber picked up her scissors, moved back in front of Anna and started snipping away at her fringe.  ‘Not anymore, please not anymore’ screamed Anna to herself, feeling the wetness between her legs spreading. The scissors touched her forehead and Anna cringed and closed her eyes again.  A minute passed then the barber trimmed the bottom edges of first one side, then the other.  Anna opened her eyes and realised in horror that her fringe and sides had lost another quarter inch or so, the line as blunt and precise as the last.  She clamped her stomach muscles tighter. 

The barber put her scissors aside and reached for the hair spray bottle.  Anna felt like retching as its awful chemical scent drenched her hair and face, the barbers comb and fingers smoothing her hair dead flat.  She knew not a single hair on her head was going to move for hours. ‘I’m a Helmet Head…’ 

The cape was unclipped and swept away in one movement.  Anna got out of the chair slowly, shocked by her new appearance. ‘Mrs O’Sullivan?’ said the barber.

Anna turned away from the mirror, and stared mutely at her Aunt.  ‘Oh, that’s much better, Lois.  It’s so simple.  No distracting length.’ 

She stood up and turned Anna around, running her fingers slowly across her niece’s nape.  Anna broke out in goose-bumps and then a hot flush.  The woolly itchiness on her arms and little bits of shorn hair down her neck started agitating her.  She began fiddling with the collar of her blouse and cardigan but her Aunt put an instant stop to that by brushing her hand aside. 

‘I like what you’ve done with the nape – it looks and feels sensational.’ 

‘Yes, I thought it would’ said the barber. 

‘Well, we’ll have to keep it like this.’ 

‘Happy to oblige whenever you want, Mrs O’Sullivan.’ 

Anna was desperate for the toilet.  She turned to the barber.  ‘Please miss, may I use the lavatory?’  The barber sent her through to the back of the shop. 

Anna just made it in time.  After finishing and drying her panties as best she could, she washed her hands, staring back at her reflection in the mirror above the sink.  She shook her head slowly, from side to side.  ‘I feel ridiculous…a helmet head…and with these clothes!  I look like a six year old…or like those orphan girls in those photos of fifty or sixty years ago or something…’ 

Her hand ran up her nape, pulling a face as her fingers felt the smooth, nakedness for the first time.  ‘It’s terrible…thank heavens Amy and Helen and Sarah won’t see me like this’.  And then she released that moving north to Aunt Heather’s, meant a new school. ‘I’m about to start at a new school.  Oh god, what will the girls there think of me, looking like this?!’  Her bottom lip started to tremble and&a
mp;nbsp;tears welled up in her eyes.

‘No Anna, best not, not now.’  She drew a deep breath, dabbed her reddened eyes with tissue paper and walked slowly back into the shop. 

The barber and Aunt Heather were chatting away as Anna came towards them.  Aunt Heather turned and studied Anna’s hair.  ‘By the way Lois, the hairspray you use.  I like the finish it creates.  What brand is it?’ 

HairFirm.  We sell it if you’d like a bottle.’ 

‘I think their haircuts suit a daily application.  I’ll take one.’ 

Chris stood up, he and Anna exchanging sad glances, sharing the same sad thoughts.  While Aunt Heather paid for the haircuts and spray, the two of them gazed at each other in the mirror.  ‘He looks like I feel / she looks like I feel.’ And as they left the barbers, Auntie’s final comment magnified their shared despondency. ‘See you for their trims in a fortnight.’Chris took his sister’s hand; they squeezed their hands together tightly. End  

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