What are the ethical implications in getting a free hair-cut as 'the man in her life' a couple of days after you've actually split up with the woman in your life? Perhaps it depends on what happens in the wake of that initial decision, no matter if the moral problem resides, finally, in that first action.
For months Barbara and I had been arguing, with as many days of dispute as warmth, and I finally thought this had to stop. What were the arguments over? Amongst other things it was my desire to spend a week alone visiting a female friend in Paris some time soon, and Barbara's decision some months before, in feeling neglected by me, to sleep with someone else. Claire was attractive, sensitive and single; but she was also a friend I'd known for fifteen years, and for many of those years I would visit her in her home city. Claire and I had met at university, slept none too successfully with each other a few times, and realised whatever bond we had it wasn't sexual. But it was, it should be said, intimate. We were always happiest in each other's company rather than in a group, and some would argue it was justifiable that Barbara was jealous, for is not intimacy as central to a relationship as sex? And was Barbara's one night liaison with a stranger when she was drunk completely absent of this intimacy, and thus barely an infidelity at all next to the closeness I had built up over many years with Claire?
But these were conundrums we never managed to resolve, and I went ahead and booked my trip to Paris for the following month, and Barbara and I agreed after nine months that we should part. A couple of days after we split up I came across the hairdresser voucher that she very kindly had given me a few weeks before, and I realised that the voucher was valid for only one month - I needed to use it quickly. I popped along to the hairdresser's, which happened to be round the corner from where I lived, and booked my appointment with Sally. That was the name on the courtesy card, and I suppose the deal was that the free haircut had to be done by the same hairdresser who cut Barbara's hair. As I booked in for the following Thursday, she said she would look forward to seeing me. I couldn't help but reply that I would look forward to seeing her. In a salon generally made up of chubby women with what appeared to me ineptly expensive hairdos, Sally, who sounded Australian, seemed their antithesis: smooth-skinned, healthily tanned and with dark brown hair down to her shoulders, she looked in her mid-to-late twenties and gave off an air of outdoor freshness. She struck me as being, to use that overly utilised and under-thought term, "refreshing". As I left the salon I found the very air I was breathing somehow less stale, no matter if it was the first warm day of the year after an overly fresh and crisp winter.
Over the next few days before the appointment I found myself thinking less of Barbara and more of this Australian hairdresser, and at the same time looking forward to my Paris trip. It was as if I were being doubly, or fully unfaithful - thinking very much of my Australian hairdresser as sexually attractive, and Claire as emotionally the person with whom I most wanted to talk.
But the day before the haircut I got a phone call from Barbara asking me if I had used the man in her life voucher yet. I asked why she wanted to know, and she said that she would like to give it to someone else. I suggested that she moved quickly; but that I'd moved quicker - that I had gone and had my hair cut that very morning. Such is the advantage of the telephone: a white lie is so much easier to offer. She said okay and goodbye and put the phone down. Would I have lied if I hadn't been stung by the idea that she had so quickly replaced me; that she was already quite literally grooming another man to take my place? Then again, I supposed there was no reason why the person she was going to give the voucher to couldn't have been a friend - any friend as long as it wasn't the man who was no longer in her life.
The next day, during the haircut, as Sally kneaded my scalp after applying shampoo to my hair, she asked who it was who had offered me the voucher. I said it was a good friend, a friend who taught pottery classes. She of course remembered who it was, and asked me a couple of questions about her, and would have assumed that we were a couple. It is after all, she said, laughing, a haircut for the man in someone's life. Maybe, she proffered, that was what Barbara wanted me to become. I cryptically proposed it might be closer to the opposite.
As we talked all the way through the haircut, as she told me about Australia and her copious travels, and that in fact she had just returned from a trip to Morocco, and I told her about my occasional but strangely often eventful excursions, I knew we'd built up enough of a conversational affinity for the request of a drink on my part and acquiescence on hers to seem more than just a precursor to sleeping together. Though I couldn't pretend as she leaned over me and blew some loose hair out of my ear that there was no hint of sexual excitement on my part.
We arranged to meet the following evening, after she finished work, at a bar called the Villager on George IV Bridge here in Edinburgh, a bar she knew reasonably well, and where a former Australian flatmate used to work. It was never really my kind of place - I would be more inclined to hang out in a caf across the road. Yet with my new, very slick haircut, and a pair of jeans and a T shirt I bought that morning, I felt a little more comfortable in this trendy dwelling. As I walked in and looked around to see if she was there, I couldn't find her and instead managed to attract a few glances from a number of women who may just have been responding to my glances in every direction, or perhaps my new look really made a difference. I'd always maintained that in bars like this one people didn't look at you; they just looked at your image and decided whether it was acceptable - if you belonged to some fashionable club. I ordered a half pint of lager, and sat at the one remaining free table. After about ten minutes, Sally rushed in, apologized for her lateness, and I asked her she what would like to drink? She asked for the same drink I was drinking, and we ended up staying in the same bar at the same table for several hours. When I told her that I would be going to Paris in ten days' time, I almost wanted to invite her to come: she was effusive about travel, had so wanted to go to Paris and had not yet been, that I felt if she could get so excited over merely the thought of the city, what sort of fun would we actually have going there together? But of course I didn't invite her, and I'm not sure whether this was because of a fidelity to Barbara or to Claire, and in this very ambivalence I felt I could momentarily understand Barbara's reservations, and realised how complicated I chose to make my life. Was sitting there in that bar not part of these complications; taking advantage of a free haircut and then inviting the very hairdresser out for a drink?
But then how can we have an uncomplicated life when so much relies not on chance encounters and assertive choice, but a series of causes and consequences that we are merely part of? Or at least that is what I felt when later that evening, after Sally invited me back to her flat, and, after we sat for a while drinking herbal tea, she said that we couldn't go into her room: an Aussie friend was visiting and was sleeping there. But out of these contingencies decisions can be made - I said that was fine, I needed to be going anyway; I had work to do the next morning.
This wasn't really a lie but it was certainly an excuse, and the next morning, delivering the post, I wondered if I was really attracted to Sally whether I would not only have stayed longer, but also if I would have missed my shift. I'd been working on and off as a postman for almost ten years, and though a number of friends and certainly my family wondered why I didn't want to do something more ambitious, I always replied that it kept me fit and gave me time to do other things: like travel and read. My two passions. It also gave me time to visit my really close friends, two of whom lived in the Highlands, one in Paris, two in Berlin and one in Istanbul. So when I say one of my passions happened to be travel, I could almost as easily have said friendship. Often I would be visiting the friends in Paris, Berlin or Istanbul, or going to another country with one of the other of my friends from the Highlands. It was a compact, predictable life, and yet I always felt it was underpinned by a certain value system that, maybe until the events described in this story, I had never previously needed to analyse. Was the haircut the process of this minor yet telling unravelling, and its conclusion a curious assuaging of moral fret?
The next evening, after reading in my favourite caf, I went once again to the bar across the road, returning to see if the looks I'd received the previous night were simply those of people looking at me because I was looking around for someone, or whether they were looking especially at me, and so as I sat at the bar I noticed two girls in the very corner seats Sally and I were sitting on the previous evening. They were smiling across at me, giggling, and one of them offered a hand gesture suggesting I join them. They turned out to be hairdressers, and said that they were just admiring my haircut, and wanted to know where I had it done. When I told them they said they knew a couple of the girls who worked there, but they hadn't heard of Sally, and asked what classification she happened to be. I looked bemused, and they explained that there were usually about six categories, from someone fairly young and inexperienced, up to a master stylist. They asked how much I paid for the haircut, and for some reason I didn't tell them it was free, but that I'd paid thirty six pounds for it - the very price Barbara had paid for hers. I presumed mine was a free haircut which would have cost the same: it was a sort of pay for one and get one free deal. They said that suggested a reasonable standard. They asked if I wanted to join them for a drink and I said why not: both were pretty, a few years younger than me, and really the difference between them physically seemed to be the difference between the quality of their own hairdos. The brown-haired one had tints running through her hair, and a lank style; while the one with blonde-hair looked like she did very little to it except have it cut neatly on a regular basis. I was much more attracted to the blonde. For some reason we still hadn't exchanged names when half an hour later Sally walked in with what looked like a colleague from work, and I found myself instinctively shrinking into my chair, wondering, I suppose, how I was going to explain sitting with two hairdressers that, perhaps, her colleague knew.
But Sally and her friend went straight up to the bar and ordered their drinks, whilst I suggested to the two hairdressers I should really be going. They asked where I was off to, and I said I didn't know, and they wondered whether I was trying to avoid somebody who was in the bar. How did they guess, I asked. They believed that so many people had slept with so many other people in this bar that half the people went looking for someone, and the other half left trying to avoid someone. I insisted that wasn't the case, or at least not as cynically as they might have believed, as I proposed that maybe I would stay for a bit longer, and that I would get us all another drink.
As I moved towards the bar, I tapped Sally on the shoulder and asked her how she was. She was fine, she offered, and wondered what I happened to be doing there. I said in a half lie that compensated for the potential cynicism of the place that I thought she might show up, but as soon as I said it I wondered if she was unhappy to see me: didn't she express her surprise that I was there? But instead she looked touched, said that I should join herself and her friend, and that she had very much enjoyed my company the previous last night. I said I would only be a moment; that I had to buy a couple of drinks for some people that I'd met and that afterwards I would join them. When I returned to the girls' table they asked me, having presumably observed me at the bar, if I was avoiding or stalking somebody. I cushioned their cynicism with a smile and proposed that there had been some misunderstanding: that we'd spent the evening together but I had had to leave before the end of the night. Why I was telling them this I didn't know, and yet maybe I did know - there seemed to be such an air of emotional calculation, a sense of the predatory in the bar, that I felt like some holy fool suddenly trying to make absurd gestures to improve the world. I gave them their drinks and then, taking mine, went over to where Sally and her friend had managed to find seats.
Over at Sally's table, she introduced me to her friend, who was a fellow hairdresser but who didn't work in the salon: she was backpacking round Europe and basically here in Edinburgh had been sleeping off her strenuous travels: she was the girl who'd been sleeping in Sally's bed. This was her first night out since she had arrived a few days ago.
This time I invited Sally - and her friend - back to my place, which was on the same side of town as their flat, and not far from the university. Sally's friend said that she was still tired and would just go home, but insisted Sally and I continue hanging out. Back at my flat I put on the kettle and asked Sally to choose a CD to listen to, and as I came in to the sitting room with two mugs of herbal tea, I could see Sally crouching over the CDs, her jeans low on her waist, and the lower part of her back on show, caught beautifully by the two side lamps in the room. I placed the mugs down on the makeshift coffee table, a small crate, and took a seat on the couch. She commented on the relative paltriness of the CD collection next to all the books, but noticed I had plenty of Tindersticks - that would more than do. After placing the CD in the player she stood up and turned to face me and, stretching, leaned back slightly and I saw the smoothly tanned navel, and a hint of a tiny tattoo just coming into view around her jean waistline. I wasn't generally very fond of tattoos, but this seemed so small, and so hidden, that I felt it alluded to a mystery rather than removing whatever mystery one possessed. So many tattoos seemed to be advertising sexual wares, and I remember on one trip to India almost every westerner on the beach seemed to have this would-be mark of liberation. It suggested to me not the freedom to choose, but that they'd all been enslaved by a sexual expectation, and tattooed like a prisoner; the opposite, surely, of liberation. But Sally's tattoo seemed different, or was it just that this was the first tatooed woman with whom I might be sleeping? I asked if I could see her tattoo, and as she came towards me, pulling her jeans and her black underwear down slightly, I saw it was a tiny dolphin. I kissed it, and then got up off the coach and started kissing her on the lips.
The next morning, though it was Sunday, she left early, saying she needed to get back home - she had promised to go walking with her friend. I was still half asleep and said I would ring her later. That would be lovely, she said, and a moment afterwards I heard her pull the door quietly behind her.
Later that morning I got a call from Barbara asking if we could meet up in the afternoon. I asked her what was wrong, and she testily wondered if something had to be wrong every time we would meet up. I responded with equal tetchiness but, after managing to speak cordially to each other, we arranged to meet later that afternoon. As I got off the phone I felt a weight of past that over the last few days I felt I'd removed: and yet equally this heaviness also seemed a little like a moral conscience. It made me think of the previous night with Sally, my trip soon to Paris, and how little I had given to thinking about Barbara and her possible pain. The weather had now been warm for several days, and we arranged to meet at a caf with tables outside, a place not far from my flat. I was a little surprised she chose it: it was both a busy caf and a busy space where people would often pass by. As I arrived, locking my bike to railings next to the caf, I saw Barbara sitting there reading a book. I wanted somehow to approach her as a stranger, to try and look at her not as someone with whom I'd been intimate, but as a person just sitting outside a caf reading. She was wearing a sleeveless vest and her Bavarian complexion meant she tanned easily: her arms were quite brown and her face equally so. She looked lovely...and yet. As I sat down she asked whether I would like something to drink and when I mentioned I would like a tea she abruptly got up and went inside and ordered at the bar. She seemed to need those couple of minutes to adjust herself to company, and it wasn't only with me - since at least as long as I knew her she would have problems meeting people; that she felt somehow she was always meeting a stranger.
As we sat talking about the break-up and my trip to Paris, she looked at me steadily for the first time since I'd arrived and said she liked my haircut. I said thanks again for the voucher that she gave me. She smiled, or perhaps smirked, and I felt as guilty as she wanted to make me feel but with many more reasons for that guilt than she could have guessed. That was often the problem with Barbara - she hyperbolised a detail into a broader problem; ironically in this case her sense of judgement matched the action, even if she knew only the half of it. I said I was still going to Paris for a week; that I was taking the Eurostar and had booked to take my bike on it as well. Over the last few weeks I'd been thinking a lot about a trip I'd made to Paris several years before, where, having taken my bike, I found myself cycling around Paris thinking that this was the freest I'd ever felt and that it was a sense of liberation I wanted to retain. Claire had lent me the flat for about ten days while she was staying with her parents in the South of France, and apart from a couple of meetings with casual friends in the city, I hadn't seen anybody until Claire returned. I remember saying to myself this is what freedom is and how important it was for me to protect it. In the last couple of relationships since then, and especially with Barbara, that need for freedom had created much animosity. It was with Barbara an acrimoniousness that lead to us sitting opposite each other on a wonderfully sunny day with only the slightest of breezes, unable to talk to each other without bitterness. My sense of freedom was never based on infidelity, but it was based on not being readily available to another: a justified reason for resentment on Barbara's part, perhaps?
At least we're getting some sun, I thought. At least we're getting some sun she said. I felt at that moment she wanted me to say that I'd booked for two, that I'd also reserved room for her bike, for with Barbara I often felt that during the moments of her greatest bitterness she would really only be waiting for me to say that I wanted her to come with me - on a holiday, to see a film that I'd prepared to see with others, to go for a walk or for a cycle - and that corrosive tone would disappear and a cooing, loving, mellifluous voice replace it. But that day I didn't want Barbara to come with me, and any doubts were removed over the next twenty minutes sitting in that cafe in the sun, where my sense of guilt was multiplied and then quickly dissolved.
As I've stated, the caf was usually busy: especially so when the sun was out and, consequently, where all the outside tables were occupied. There was also a stream of people who passed along this busy thoroughfare and who would often stop and talk to people they knew sitting at the tables, which added to this air of busyness. As Barbara and I sat running out of things to say, or things to talk about that didn't almost inevitably lead to tension, I saw Sally and her friend walking up the road in the direction of the caf. As she approached she grinned broadly and was coming towards my table looking like she wanted to offer me a big kiss when, only a yard or two away from me, she must have noticed me flinch, show some instinctive resistance, and the smile quickly disappeared. It came half-heartedly back again as she noticed Barbara, and asked her how she liked her haircut. Barbara said she was very happy with it indeed. Though I suspect Sally and her friend had intended to get a coffee, they decided to move on, and I realized that as Sally moved away my shrunken body language had probably ruined any possibilities with her. I would remember for a long time afterwards that expansive grin met by my contracted posture. Is that so often where rejection lies - and had I frequently offered some variation of it to Barbara?
But what about Barbara, whose own posture since I'd arrived at the caf was in retreat? Suddenly it went on the attack, as she insisted that not only had I gone and got a free haircut as the man in her life, I was also happy to get a new woman in my life on the back of the haircut. I said it was purely a coincidence, and what could I say? Probably I shouldn't have used the voucher, but is that really so culpable an act? Everything else I insisted was down to chance.
Chance however was to come to my aid, or at least alleviate my feelings of guilt and allow me to act decisively only a few minutes later - if chance it was. Somebody came up behind Barbara, put his hands over her eyes and asked her to guess who it was. This was no friend that I knew of, and there was something in the way Barbara removed the hands from her face that suggested an intimacy at least as great, probably greater, than the affectionate and sexual moments I'd had with Sally. He introduced himself to me and me to him, but my name seemed not to create a flicker of curiosity on his face and I assumed Barbara hadn't told him about me. She didn't seem especially perplexed by the awkwardness of the moment, as I had been a few minutes before with Sally, and I'm not so sure if she felt this apparently chance appearance assuaged her discomfort over Sally showing up a few minutes before. If Sally had shown up after this intimate stranger, would Barbara's response have been the same? Of that of course I would never know, but I decided that the ease with which Barbara could feel intimacy with another, made her not especially morally questionable - who was I to judge? - but at least emotionally safe. I felt she knew as they say how to look after herself, or at least to find promptly another who could look after her. But what really alleviated any feelings of guilt and allowed me to assume an emotional pragmatism was a casual remark Barbara's newfound friend made about whether she'd managed to find the voucher for that man in her life haircut. Perhaps had it been any other gift I would have thrown it on the table, and stormed off, but a luxury haircut doesn't allow for that kind of luxury. I simply stood up and said that I needed to go; aware that my indignation was hardly justified, my situation with Sally almost certainly irreparable, and my trip to Paris a luxury I very thankfully could afford
© Tony McKibbin