I spend a lot of time at the sink. Something is squeezed from a bottle, applied, massaged, left to marinate, rinsed and repeated two or three more times. It must have been decided by management that the staff can’t tell you what they’re doing as they do it so I just catch glimpses of the stylist and the apprentice in the mirror, murmuring and mixing and pointing. I get a pretty good crick in my neck and a comprehensive study of the ceiling.
It’s white. Pure, snowy white like the walls and there are two navy blue pillars that slice the room into thirds. A beam runs across the centre of the ceiling and on it there is a plug point. Inexplicably, inaccessibly high. It has not been painted and is caked in dirt, the only smudge on this crisp, pristine décor.
I sit there immobile and try to think of things to say.
In Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? the author takes an apprenticeship at a hair salon. She falls in love with the job and for her birthday receives a book called Hair Heroes, which profiles the most important hairdressers of the twentieth century. The book only deepens her love of the profession:
“one of the hairdressers is quoted as saying, ‘I know all the secrets of the Western world – but I’ll never tell!’ The secrets of the Western world! I had found my kin.”
It is a cliché of hairdressing that people tell you their innermost secrets, but as with most clichés this one has a strong basis in fact. People feel comfortable imparting secrets to a stranger, a person who knows no one they know and therefore couldn’t disseminate the information even if they wanted too.
As someone who still gives a fake name when ordering takeaway coffee, this is not something I’ve ever been comfortable with. I was even recommended my current hairdresser on the sole statement that “they don’t make you talk too much”. But even if you’re not going to spill your guts, you still need to have something interesting to say.
“Are you up to much today?”
The lady who’s been fiddling with my hair for half an hour breaks the silence.
“Um. No, not really.”
I’m yet to make an impression.
I have bleach blonde hair so have to go to the hairdressers a lot. I used to bleach it myself at home but on one fateful occasion, after I washed the peroxide off, most of my hair sprang into tight curls that stretched like elastic when I pulled them and then fell apart in my hands. When your hair becomes cobwebs, it’s time to start paying someone.
She’ll ask me about Halloween next, I can feel it. Surely all festivities are a hairdresser-chat goldmine. I’m not going to a party but I can say that I am. What am I dressing up as for this fictional party? A witch? No, too traditional, too obviously a lie, go more left-field. A cornflakes packet. Yes that’s good, I saw someone go as that once.
Bleaching is a lengthy process. It’s a lot of dead air to fill. You’re looking at a three or four hour salon experience so you have to give yourself up to it. If you have somewhere to be or things to do you’ll go mad. I purposefully book an appointment on a day where I have nothing at all in my diary. But this does not make for interesting conversation.
The sensible thing to do would be to wait until I had something fascinating to say before visiting the hairdresser. But that could take months.
She’s putting purple stuff in my hair now. This is normally one of the final stages. We’ve lapsed back into silence. I cross and uncross and re-cross my legs. There is no way to achieve comfort at the sink. It’s ok though; I have the perfect customer sound bite all ready to go.
As we’re finishing up with the final rinse I hear an intake of breath. This is it.
“So are you doing anything later?”
This is not what I had planned for. This is just the earlier question rephrased. Don’t panic. Forge ahead. Don’t deviate from the plan.
“Yes” I say, “Cornflakes.”