Stylists

30/01/2024

    1

    She and I were sitting outside in a cafe up in Hyndlands. It was early September, about five in the afternoon, and the modest sun warmed our face without the threat of burning our visage. I had been waiting for Cass to finish work in the bookshop on Byres Rd and had been there an hour before she arrived, the luxury of an academic post which allowed me to work from home or at another place that pleased me. Yet I needed to be located in Glasgow, even if Cass sometimes yearned for us to return to Dorset. It was where we were both from, though we met at Edinburgh University. As we sat at the cafe we were both reading books and would have continued doing so if it hadn’t been for two people who sat a table away from us. They were the only others sitting outside, and I noticed Cass looking at the woman with some attention. After a few minutes, after the woman must have noticed Cass’s frequent glances across, Cass said she couldn’t help but admire her hair. It wasn’t until she said this that I noticed it myself, and also that peripherally I would have assumed this was not a couple, but maybe a father with his daughter, and that central to this perception would have been the woman’s haircut. While many women keep their hair as men do not, and the man with her had hair dry and thinning, hers had a lustre and bounce to it that indicated a woman some years younger.  

   The woman thanked Cass for the compliment, paused for a moment, and then said, if Cass had a few minutes, she could tell her the story behind this haircut. Her partner looked at her oddly, yet with love, an expression registering mild trepidation but with an awareness too that this was a story worth telling. She said Cass's comment was the first time in some years that a stranger had complimented her on her hair, and I noticed they were both tanned and wondered if that was why I credited a youthfulness to the woman. But why then not the partner? No, it rested on this haircut, and though I was still looking down at my book, I was no longer attending to the words on the page but the words spoken by this woman who said that they had only a couple of days ago returned from a holiday in Croatia.

                               2

    However, she didn’t start talking about Croatia but the south of France. Twenty-five years ago, she said, she and her husband booked a small villa near a place called La Croix Valmer. Their two children (twins) were eighteen and were travelling with friends, and this was the first holiday they were taking just themselves since the children were born. She said they felt both very young and a little old, and wondered how they would cope with each other’s company. She looked at her husband as she said this and the look registered that they had coped for the last two and a half decades very well, and the start of it, she supposed, was with the haircut. She felt like a new woman, she admitted, and he almost took her for one. I sensed, as I listened, someone who may not have been an accomplished storyteller but would be accomplished in telling this tale, even if Cass and I were the first to hear the entirety of it. 

    They were renting from a Croatian hairdresser who said he was working for the most famous stylist in the world, though she and her husband were initially sceptical. Even when he told them stories about stars whose hair he had cut, they were unconvinced. He mentioned one very well-known actor who was his first celebrity cut in Paris. The hairdresser was at the time twenty-eight. He had arrived six months earlier from Zagreb, where even the most expensive salons charged a rate not much higher than a typical haircut in the West. He was hired by the famous hair stylist after the actor came to Nikolai’s barber shop because he heard he was from Yugoslavia. During those months in Paris, most of his clients were from the region, and the actor had been told about Nikolai by a Bosnian actor friend, and this actor had told the famous actor he should go. The famous actor was vain but he was also adventurous, and Nikolai said when the famous actor came to the shop the actor had heard Nikolai was supposed to be the best hairdresser in Croatia. He now had the chance to prove it with a very famous head of hair. 

   Nikolai told the story with no modesty in the telling and said that this famous actor continued to get his haircut by Nikolai when Nikolai moved to the stylist’s place near Place Vendome. Within a year he was cutting the hair of a host of actors and, in his flat in Paris, he had photos on the walls taken at parties with some of them. Beyond his boastful remarks, however, there was nothing to suggest he was a great hairdresser. There were no photos on the wall of this apartment, and why should there be, they supposed, since he would rent it out? His own hair was lightly greying and cropped, but then even if it were carefully styled that would have told them nothing: who can cut and style their own hair? Perhaps such questions were irrelevant. What seemed clear is that he was successful at whatever he did, since he had a flat in Paris, an apartment he was renting out and another on which he was living, and for some reason, they didn’t doubt that he owned property elsewhere too. But as her husband was well aware, there were people in business who could make a lot of money without being good at anything in particular, just accomplished at making money. She looked at her husband as though he was expected to say a few words and so he did. 

     He said to Cass that for many years he had been in the property business, though he only ever had the one rental agency, which he named and said was nearby. It made him money but no fortune: he insisted on all the flats he rented having a high energy rating and as low a rent as he could justify. He would insist on always offering properties a little below market rates and many people when he said this were unwilling to rent their property through him, even when he insisted this was not only the decent thing to do; it was also good business. But enough people did rent through him and the tenants often stayed for years, well aware they wouldn’t be inclined to find a cheaper place easily. Often the tenants moved out when they could afford to buy but rarely because they’d found alternative rental accommodation. But by insisting on well-insulated, relatively affordable homes with decor in good condition, meant he always had a small portfolio. He made money but he was not rich. He knew of others who started when he did that were now very wealthy indeed. Were they good at what they did? He thought not, and he managed to offer this remark with a modesty quite at odds with the arrogance evident in Nikolai’s apparent claims. It is just to say, the husband said, that because somebody boasts and shows off to you their wealth, we shouldn’t assume they have great skills. Except marketing ones. He found most of the people with such skills in the property business were not those making the fortunes but those doing the work: the joiners, the decorators, the plumbers, the electricians. They didn’t boast about the job they were doing. They just did it. 

                             3

None of this immodesty on Nikolai’s part needed have bothered the couple. He was renting them an apartment, would speak to them when he would sometimes take his morning coffee at the same time as they did, and engage them in conversation. He was a personality, they decided, and an entertaining one. But on one of these mornings he proposed he would cut and style Belinda’s hair. She knew it looked tired and lacked its youthful springiness, its gloss and its colour always seemed exaggerated she would think. She was forty-two, assumed her best years were behind her and that the good looks she was fortunate to be deemed to possess had been passed down to her daughters, whose hair was indeed thick, velvety and soft. She sometimes looked at her wedding photos from twenty years earlier and wished vainly for those years back. 

         One morning she was in the cafe alone, Harry having hired a bike to cycle around the cap and to take in the surrounding villages, when Nikolai arrived and asked if he could join her. Of course, she said, and as they talked, she found herself telling him about the wedding photos, how her hair seemed now tired and she supposed this is what happens when we age. Nikolai insisted that she was still a young woman, just as her husband was proving he was still a vigorous young man after she had told him the distance Harry would be cycling. He said he didn’t believe we were only young once, a phrase he often repeated to his clients as he told them he would make them young again. And she too, he said, could be once again young if she allowed him to do her hair. She looked around the cafe and watched as people passed on the street. She found herself wondering why these women her age and older appeared to her to seem younger. Maybe her gaze was reflecting low self-esteem but she didn’t think so; that the women she was seeing looked much more youthful, energetic and yes, attractive than their counterparts in Glasgow. She said this to Nikolai, who believed what a good hairdresser, and a good exercise trainer, knows is that when people look at others, they notice a small number of things, and if these elements are evident, the person is deemed youthful and healthy. If a woman walks straight and has bounce in her hair she can look a dozen years younger than a woman the same age even if other areas like the age of their skin, the energy in their eyes, the strength of their bones, are the same. These other areas are for the dietician, he said. They promote health; his purpose was to promote confidence. He complimented her then on her eyes and her skin, and she wondered for a moment if this man, who wasn’t much younger than she was, might be trying to seduce her. Instead, he announced he wanted to give her the haircut of her life.  

                             4

    As Belinda paused in the telling, Harry realised he needed to pop into a nearby bakery just before it closed; he would pick up some bread and meet Belinda back at the house. He would also buy some salad and all the other ingredients for dinner. Belinda said he usually did the cooking; he admitted as he left that she did almost everything else. It was the least he could do.

        Belinda said to Cass she came away from the encounter with the hairdresser at the cafe in La Croix Valmer bemused and feeling as though she had been seduced. When she got back to the flat Harry was lying on the sofa, having returned ten minutes earlier and where he’d already consumed a litre bottle of water, two bananas, half a dozen dates and a handful of nuts. He didn’t feel so young, he proposed and said he might have over-exerted himself. She knew he was doing what a few of his friends were trying to do, to lose a little bit of belly fat by exhausting themselves. She thought again about Nikolai’s comments: that what mattered was a few details others would see and confidence she could convey. 

       Over the next couple of days, they didn’t hear from Nikolai, didn’t see him at the cafe, and it would have been about four days after the stylist’s remarks that Belinda and Harry went to St Tropez for a meal. As they sat on the terrace of this compact fishing village, swelled to its full capacity and beyond by wealth during the ever-expanding summer months, she couldn’t help looking at the haircuts of many women. Yes, women her age and older had elegant figures, finely cut dresses and carefully applied make-up, but others registered the same confidence with hardly any make-up at all, and wearing more casual clothes, jeans even leggings. What they all shared, if their hair was down and not tied back, was conspicuously well-styled hair. She assumed of course that most of these women were very wealthy and were holidaying in this village: that they would be coming from various parts of the world and in each of these parts would be hairdressers capable of styling hair in a manner that left the women with immense confidence. Her hairdresser in Glasgow cut her hair well enough, but in recent years she assumed that the hairdresser was doing the best she could with the hair Belinda had. She would come away from the shop never quite satisfied but always believing that this was her problem and not her hairdresser’s. Either the hair was no longer as strong and buoyant as it was when she got married, or she no longer felt with two children now in their late teens that she was attractive; attraction belonged now to the younger generation.

    Yet she couldn’t let go of the idea that perhaps Nikolai could transform her, could make her look at least a little like the woman she was the day she married. Yet she didn’t tell Harry about what was preoccupying her; didn’t say anything to him about the chat in the cafe with Nikolai. As she said this, just as I had heard her mention how she felt seduced by the stylist, so I wondered if she would have offered these remarks to Cass if he had still been sitting there. I would glance up sometimes from my book and nod to show less that I was listening attentively than that I wasn’t eavesdropping. As she talked it was as though she needed to speak only to Cass but perhaps if she believed I was secretly listening she would have been more hesitant. Yet there was hardly a word I missed, even if I believed it was my place to continue looking like I was also reading my book. However, what she was saying was as relevant to a class I was preparing as the novel I was reading. The class was on what I was calling narrative subjects and whether everything was capable of narrative engagement or whether only certain subjects were given to generate curiosity in a reader. The example I was going to provide from the novel I was re-reading seemed to me less useful than the one this woman was describing. The novel was written by someone acknowledged as a great prose stylist and this may have been what made the story so readable; not so much the narrative. I could see Cass was very interested in finding out if this stylist was who he claimed to be, and if Belinda would go ahead and let him cut her hair. She was in the story. The content was minor and there was no prose style in the telling yet she was engaged

                                5

   Belinda said after their meal in St Tropez, she and Harry saw him once again in the cafe at La Croix Valmer. He explained he hadn’t been around for a couple of days; he was in Monaco where he had clients. They were a mother and daughter; they moved with the father to Monaco when it looked like the government was going to raise taxes, and though the taxes weren’t raised, they feared for the wealth and thought it best to reside in a haven. They had more money than sense, Nikolai said, but they still thought taxation theft and they were going to protect themselves from grand larceny. They paid him three thousand pounds to cut their hair every three months, and would often fly him down from Paris to do it, putting him up in a hotel they owned in the principality. For the very wealthy, a haircut every three months might seem like negligence, but they also employed someone to maintain it weekly: someone who had trained under Nikolai in Paris and who worked out of Nice. 

     Harry said that Nikolai seemed to have a healthy disdain for the super-rich but how did he square that with the job he did? Nikolai replied that he respected their hair; he didn’t have to respect them. He did the job to the best of his abilities and believed he was better than most at it. But the disrespect he often felt towards them was because he knew they weren’t paying for the quality of the service but the reputation that came with it. No haircut, he insisted need cost any more than about a hundred pounds and that is what he reckoned he was worth an hour. He could live well on that but instead many insisted on paying thousands, and why shouldn’t he take their cash? He gave them the very best haircut he could and therein lay his respect, and more importantly self-respect. But he couldn’t respect anyone who knew the price of things and attributed a value to it because of its price. He was happy of course that he was no longer living in a communist country, equally pleased that his country was no longer communist, but that didn’t mean he had to admire the excesses of capitalism even if he benefited from them. 

   Later that evening Harry discussed with Belinda whether Nikolai was a hypocrite. He owned property in both France and Croatia; he cut the hair of the very wealthy, and he wasn’t shy when it came to dropping the names of the famous. Yet they both agreed that they were paying a fair price for the villa, and recalled Nikolai saying that the places he owned in Croatia were rented to family members at prices far cheaper than they would otherwise have to pay on the coast — where they lived, and where they worked in the tourist industry. As they talked, Belinda was about to tell him that Nikolai wished to cut her hair but then chose not to do so. Before she had refrained from telling him as if the conversation that day in the cafe was somehow a betrayal to Harry; this time she thought it was because she wanted to surprise him. She would go ahead and let Nikolai cut her hair and see how Harry would react to what she hoped would be a woman he would take a moment to realise was his wife. 

                               6

     Harry was fully recovered from his last cycle and said there was another lengthy one he would like to attempt in the other direction, about the same distance. It meant, he said to Belinda, he would have covered all the villages within a 120km radius by bike. She wanted to tell him not to exert himself but also didn’t want to tell him where she was going and mused over the idea that she supposed they were both seeking a way of making themselves more youthful than they were. He said he would aim to do the cycle the following day, and this coincided with her provisional agreement with Nikolai, as they had sent each other messages that morning. Belinda said Cass needed to remember that mobile phones had only recently become commonly used. Harry didn’t have one and she bought hers for the trip and because their daughters had recently acquired one. As she messaged Nikolai back and forth, as they arranged to meet at his villa in Gassin, so she felt a complicity that she needed to understand. She was visiting a man she hardly knew at his place about six miles from where they were staying, and keeping it a secret from her husband. Yet she knew this was intrigue rather than desire, and it was as if even the vanity happened to be contained by curiosity. She supposed she would have been no less interested if a friend of hers was going and couldn’t wait to find out what the result looked like.  

    Harry went off for his cycle at eight the next morning, and she contacted Nikolai who said she should aim to be at his place by eleven. Take your nicest dress with you he suggested. You can change into it after your haircut. You will want to look your very best immediately afterwards. When she stepped out of the taxi, she saw Nikolai sitting outside drinking coffee on a blue steel, round folding table with matching chairs. He asked her to sit down and if she wanted some coffee too; it was freshly brewed. The house was on one of what seemed like a series of winding side streets in this hilltop village, and while she and Harry had been to St Tropez of course, and also Ramatouelle, Grimaud and Port Grimaud, this was a village as beautiful as any other and one they had missed. After they chatted for twenty minutes, Nikolai asked if she was ready to be transformed. She said she was. 

   They travelled through the kitchen and beyond to a dining room with a sitting room to the left, and up a spiral staircase to the first floor that had three rooms, two bedrooms that she could glimpse into, and the third the room they entered. In it was a basin, also a mirror, a hairdresser’s chair and all the paraphernalia she would expect to see in a salon except a magazine to sit and read while waiting. She would not need to wait. She sat in the chair as though it was a throne, and recalled again her wedding day and wondered if that was the last time she felt special. It wasn’t that Harry wasn’t a caring and sometimes loving husband. It is just that when you have children you become servant more than master, and when you are ready to return to become again in charge of your destiny, you are twenty years older. You look in the mirror and see that you might be the queen but you are no longer a princess.

     Nikolai initially washed her hair with the tenderest of touches and with the most aromatic of shampoos, and afterwards began to cut it with a concentration she supposed was usually reserved for portrait painters. She felt, sitting there, like an artist’s model and that she must remain as still as possible while Nikolai went about his craft, as if producing a masterpiece that wouldn’t be putting oil on a canvas but removing hair from her head. At that moment she sensed an odd feeling of dislocation. If for years she was at one remove from herself as so much of her energy went into making sure her daughters ate their breakfast, made it to school on time, did their homework, and got through their teenage years neither pregnant nor suffering from too many insecurities, here she was both the most important woman in the world and in the hands of another human being. Again, she thought of her wedding day and the moment the ring was put on her finger and the sense this was an irrevocable gesture. There were a hundred and twenty people at the wedding that morning. They were there to celebrate the marriage of course, yet also as part of a coercion: to insist the commitment Harry and she were making socially binding. It was unusual that so minor a thing as a haircut would give her a similar sense of magnitude. 

    When the cut was finished, Nikolai dried her hair and she did indeed look transformed. He had made her look ten years younger and many a surgeon would envy his result, all done with scissors rather than a scalpel. She marvelled at her hair as if it didn’t belong to her, and her face seemed so transformed by the cut that she didn’t quite recognise herself. Sure, she was looking better than she might usually have done in Glasgow due to the sun and sea air, but this was more than a healthy improvement; it was indeed the transformation Nikolai had promised. She slipped into the bathroom; changed into a dress she had bought in St Tropez, and for the first time began to understand what it meant to look like a million dollars. She asked Nikolai how much she owed him, and he said he wouldn’t consider taking a payment. He wanted to prove a point, he added, and then said nothing more as he smiled. During the cut, Nikolai had talked about retiring from cutting rich and famous people’s hair; that they came with such expectations, paid such high prices, that they robbed him of the joy of discovery in the cut, and the pleasure of seeing the surprise on a person’s face. If he could spend his life cutting the hair of people who didn’t expect to look special and he managed to make them look so, there would be great pleasure for him and great pleasure for them. The money he was earning may have been impressive but many of those whose hair he cut looked almost indifferent. 

                                7

   If she were in any doubt over her transformation, her husband’s reaction confirmed that she was a changed woman. She had arranged to meet him in their regular cafe in La Croix Valmer and, as she stepped out of the taxi, he could be seen momentarily looking at this other woman who happened to be her. He clearly didn’t at first recognise her and she might have been concerned that he was looking admiringly at what he thought was another woman. However, that was what, at that moment, she most liked about her appearance: that she wasn’t quite herself. When he saw this woman looking back at him, he looked uncomfortable and lowered his gaze, as though he might have admired this woman’s looks but Harry wasn’t going to flirt with anyone but his wife. As she came up to the table, he showed discomfort as he began to look up again; then shook his head a couple of times saying he didn’t think he would have ever l like he was cheating on his wife with his own spouse. 

   She added that the next few days were almost as exciting as their honeymoon, a comment I didn’t doubt she wouldn't have made if Harry were still there and if she didn’t think I was absorbed in my book. It was a complicit comment between women; the sort I supposed would often be heard at the hairdressers. 

      During the remaining days of the trip, she hoped to see Nikolai again, to thank him, and to buy him a drink, perhaps dinner. She wanted above all to say that she didn’t quite believe him before he cut her hair; that he was boastful and arrogant. Now, after the cut, she deemed him modest, even understated. But it seemed he was busy, cutting a rich person’s hair she assumed, and when they came to leave the apartment, it was to someone else they gave the keys.  

     She never contacted Nikolai again, and when she looked him up online she could find no trace of him anywhere. Was it possible he lied about his status and that he wasn’t well-known at all? He didn’t name a single celebrity whose hair he cut but she worked out to whom he seemed to be referring. She tried to find online who cut their hair but whatever name came up it wasn’t Nikolai’s. Yet if he were a liar he wasn’t a charlatan: people complimented Belinda on her hair for weeks afterwards, and she would never have another cut that received such compliments again. Until now, she said, saying Cass may have been the first person to remark on it, but she had yet to see any friends. She supposed if a stranger felt obliged to compliment her, she would be surprised if her friends didn’t. She said this with an odd distance and without arrogance, as if she had bought a painting from an artist and would have been offended if people failed to admire the artist’s skill.

    We had been sitting outside the cafe for an hour, and the sun was beginning to disappear behind the flat across the street. It wasn’t yet cold, and Cass and I usually didn’t eat until 730 but we intended to carry on down to Byres Rd to the supermarket near the corner of Great Western Rd. In other circumstances, I would have probably proposed to Cass that we should start moving. But I knew Cass wanted to hear more of this woman’s story, and I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t intrigued myself. Did this haircut the woman was sporting, and that Cass commented upon, suggest she had finally caught up with this enigmatic stylist? Depending on how the story ended I was tempted to use it as an example in the class.

                              8

 Belinda said to Cass she would continue to get her hair cut by a very competent stylist here in Glasgow and, while she never felt aghast when coming out of the hairdresser, she always had a vague feeling of deflation. The haircut was no more than upkeep, like applying some make-up in the morning. 

     For years, of course, Belinda and her husband were keen to go to Croatia. She supposed it was Nikolai who had put the place in their minds. However, in more recent years various friends had been and talked up the beauty of Diocletian's Palace in Split, looking down on the city from the heights of Marjan Park, the sheen of the streets in Dubrovnik, passing through the hilly side streets of Zagreb’s old town. They visited all three cities but chose to stay most of the time in Zadar, in a flat in the centre of this fortressed, peninsular town whose walls you could walk along as if you were strolling through a boulevard. You could look down at the boats docked below and at the bridge, illuminated like a light sabre. It was a remark Belinda’s grandson made: they went with one of their daughters, her husband and their six-year-old son. They had rented an apartment within the walls, a building several centuries old and a former nunnery. They were on the top floor, with a courtyard they could use with a long table they would sometimes eat at. There was also a one-room flat with a shower, toilet and kitchen facilities they were also entitled to use, and for ten days the five of them stayed in Zadar without at all feeling on top of each other. 

    However, what made the trip special for Belinda was a hairdresser she found in a side street, recommended to her by the woman who owned a trinket shop next to the apartment. She greeted this woman each day and bought a couple of items one afternoon, and Belinda realised as they talked for fifteen minutes that she was at least a decade older than she assumed. She tried to work out why. She concluded it was the haircut, complimented her on it and asked who cut it. The shop owner gave her the person’s name and explained that it wasn’t the easiest shop to find, and drew directions on a piece of paper. 

                                9

  For various reasons, she didn’t go straight away. The family had a couple of day trips and when she did go she couldn’t get an appointment until three days later: the day before they were all due to fly back to Scotland. As the woman, who seemed to work alone, looked through the book in front of her, she said she had nothing for a week. Belinda became briefly but intensely anxious, and felt an incommensurate relief when the woman said yes — there was one: she’d forgotten to cross out a cancellation. 

    Throughout the trip, she’d observed her daughter, now in her late thirties, and could see she never had the vanity of her mother and that Belinda saw that this vanity had on occasion been of little use to her. She often saw herself as a disappointment: that she didn’t quite live up to what people would have called her youthful beauty, and sometimes saw that people’s initial response to her was of an attractiveness she wasn’t quite capable of meeting. This was difficult to explain, she said to Cass, almost in a whisper, and I missed a few words as a bus pulled up at the stop nearby. Her daughter she said was very pretty and so consistently healthy that she always seemed the same. Her weight never went up or down, her hair always looked healthy and neat, her skin never had a blemish. Her twin sister was similar. Everybody said both sisters looked great, and they did. Belinda said she always thought she herself could look better, and had these isolated moments, like on her wedding day, and when Nikolai cut her hair, where she supposed she was beautiful. She didn’t think going to the hairdresser this time could return her to her youth or the relative youth she felt in the south of France, but she believed as people got older they fixated more on what they could regard as a good quality. She knew she still had a slim figure and that she had a nice smile, and while she had never found another stylist since Nikolai to make her hair look special, why not try once more in the country from which he claimed to have come? 

                              10

   Belinda arrived at the hairdresser ten minutes early and waited in one of the two waiting suite chairs available in this confined, compact space, with the only light coming from a couple of fluorescent tubes and the open doorway. There was only one salon chair and the hairdresser was speaking in Croatian to a woman whose hair she was blow-drying. 

    As Belinda took a seat in the salon chair, the hairdresser, who was about fifty, asked, in English, what she could do for her and Belinda found herself discussing a haircut twenty years earlier as though she was here to speak about herself as much as about a haircut. As the woman started to work, Belinda found that she was telling this woman about a cut twenty years earlier in France by a stylist who said that he cut the hair of the famous and yet he insisted on cutting her hair for free. As she said this Belinda realised this sounded like nonsense: why would someone who could earn hundreds and augment his reputation with well-known faces, offer to cut her hair for nothing? If she remembered having difficulty believing Nikolai as the master stylist before he proved it with a cut, why should this woman believe she was anything but an egotistical fool telling fibs? Yet the woman didn’t smile or laugh but looked like she was listening. Though it was hard to tell, Belinda thought, if the concentration was going into the haircut or in trying to comprehend English. 

   Yet the woman was more fluent than she initially assumed, and when in trying to justify herself Belinda added that the person who cut her hair was Croatian and that he was getting frustrated cutting the hair of the rich and successful, that the expectations were high and the pleasure for him diminishing, she asked Belinda for his name, and asked her to describe the person. 

    She did so well enough for the hairdresser to say that she knew him, that he was one of her teachers at the beauty school in Zagreb. He helped train them to cut hair, but he also became interested in other aspects of health and beauty; and also retained a small salon in the city where he worked three mornings a week. It might have seemed exclusive she said, and she supposed it was since he only took on clients based on recommendations — but his prices were the same for everybody and no more expensive than any other stylist in the city. At college, he had talked about hair styling on egalitarian rather than elitist principles, and one reason why he was training others was so that people wouldn’t at all feel obliged to come to him. She said he managed to be at the same time very arrogant and very modest. He made it clear he had skills few others possessed, but he also knew they were just skills — they could be taught and he would teach them. 

    Belinda was of course astonished that after all these years she found out what had happened to Nikolai, and asked if he was still working. The hairdresser said that a couple of years earlier he had semi-retired, left Zagreb and was now living on a small island where he was working as the local barber. He was cutting the hair of people who didn’t have much left, she said, sitting in the cafes, playing bocce in the village square, drinking coffee during the day and a glass of wine in the evening. That was what she had heard anyway, from a hairdresser friend who had seen him there the previous summer.  

   As she was finishing blow drying the hair, Belinda could see in the mirror the transformation she recalled twenty years earlier. There were more wrinkles now, and while she would have fitted into the same dress she wore that day leaving Gassin, she no longer would have quite had the confidence to wear it. But there seemed more to the haircut this time, a feeling that this wasn’t about her looking glamorous; more about her as someone who had wandered into a tradition. That might have seemed like nonsense, she supposed, but after the cut, the stylist said that she didn’t have another client for thirty minutes and was going to get a coffee. They sat outside at a cafe a couple of doors away on the other side of the street from the shop, and they asked each other a little about their lives. The stylist said after she trained at the beauty school, she wanted to leave Croatia. Like many in those years just after Communism, after the war, she wanted to earn far more than she could at home, and worked in Germany for eight years. She worked in Hamburg initially and then moved to Frankfurt, cutting the hair of many a financier’s wife. Yet for all the money she could make, she was often reminded of remarks her teacher made: that cutting a rich person’s hair might give you status in the eyes of a person who can’t afford such a cut, but you will always be a servant to those who are paying you well for your services. 

    When Nikolai would say this to the students she didn’t take it seriously, maybe never even really took it in; however, as she worked in the West and was perceived as from the East, as she was well-remunerated but felt somehow as if her services were deemed servile, she increasingly recalled Nikolai’s remarks. There seemed, she said, to be a set of assumptions around cutting the hair of people with money, a mood of fear, anxiety and even paranoia sometimes. She returned to Croatia, worked for five years in Zagreb, and then came to this, her home town, where her parents could help look after her two children and where, in turn, and in time, she went on to look after them. 

      She looked across at the shop and could see her next client entering. There is no hurry, she said, taking a final sip from her large Macchiato. But if this had been Frankfurt, she would have been there already, tense and obliging. She said there they were, her and Belinda, sitting with a coffee. She would never have felt free to ask a client in Germany to join her as she had asked Belinda to join her now, and wouldn’t have felt able to take these long breaks between clients. Here she was part of a community; there she was serving one. 

                             10

     Belinda didn’t know whether what the hairdresser said was generally true or specific to her, to the woman’s insecurities and inadequacies, her feelings of exile and a residue of the fear she felt during the war. The hairdresser had admitted all these were possible. But what Belinda sensed more was that this woman was part of a world much greater than vanity and ambition, even if she could cut hair well enough for Belinda to return to Scotland and have people comment on the cut.

    She said that it might appear she was insulting all Scottish hairdressers; that in the last twenty-five years, she was given two exceptional haircuts and in countries other than her own. She didn’t doubt there were brilliant hairdressers here but finally what mattered more to her was staying local, feeling it was important that just as she got her fish from a shop on Byres Rd, her bread from a bakery in Hyndlands, her fruit and veg from a shop on Woodlands Rd, so she got her haircut in a salon in Finnieston. She never received a bad haircut of course and was always happy speaking to the stylists, enjoying the walk there and the walk back, getting a free coffee while she waited and chatting with other customers. It was all part of her Glasgow life she said, even if took a Croatian hairdresser to make her think about it. 

     It was now nearing 630, and Cass said she supposed we should be going. Belinda apologised, saying she’d spent most of the time speaking about herself, and Cass reassured her that this wasn’t how it seemed at all — that she had talked more about others, and told a fascinating story. As we walked home, stopping off for some items in the supermarket, and a few more at a whole food store and the fruit and veg shop Belinda mentioned, we didn’t talk, perhaps both musing over the story we had been told even if Cass might have wondered if I had been listening at all. I had occasionally turned the page of my book and did read a few lines, but I was probably following the story as closely as Cass. However, while I had been thinking of whether so negligible a tale could pass for a story, I suspect Cass was giving thought to other things, other aspects of what she’d heard. That evening over dinner, I said a few words about how I listened carefully to the story and would use aspects of it in my class the following day. Cass said little. 

    Several weeks later I discovered what had been on her mind afterwards as she told me she no longer wanted to live in Glasgow, that everything the woman said about Glasgow being home, made her realise how much for her it wasn’t. She felt a bit like the hairdresser, Belinda discussed, and understood the woman’s desire to be back where she could be with family and friends, saying she would go back there as soon as she could. It wouldn’t be much of a financial loss to me, she added; I was paying the mortgage anyway — I would just have to cover all the bills. She might open a bookshop in Salisbury with a friend, she added, someone who moved back there a year ago to give birth. Perhaps, she said, if that evening when we got back I had talked more about community, about home, maybe we could have discussed her feelings of dislocation. Instead, though, I wanted to speak of techniques and storytelling, about stylists of a different sort. All the time she was looking back to the story the woman told; I was looking forward to the class I would teach. She had no sense of anticipation going into the bookshop the next day and knew her life needed to change. 

    Cass left a month later, and I remained. I still sometimes go along to the cafe in Hyndlands but I have never seen again Belinda or her husband. It seemed odd; I would have supposed it was one of their regular places.  

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Stylists

1

She and I were sitting outside in a cafe up in Hyndlands. It was early September, about five in the afternoon, and the modest sun warmed our face without the threat of burning our visage. I had been waiting for Cass to finish work in the bookshop on Byres Rd and had been there an hour before she arrived, the luxury of an academic post which allowed me to work from home or at another place that pleased me. Yet I needed to be located in Glasgow, even if Cass sometimes yearned for us to return to Dorset. It was where we were both from, though we met at Edinburgh University. As we sat at the cafe we were both reading books and would have continued doing so if it hadn't been for two people who sat a table away from us. They were the only others sitting outside, and I noticed Cass looking at the woman with some attention. After a few minutes, after the woman must have noticed Cass's frequent glances across, Cass said she couldn't help but admire her hair. It wasn't until she said this that I noticed it myself, and also that peripherally I would have assumed this was not a couple, but maybe a father with his daughter, and that central to this perception would have been the woman's haircut. While many women keep their hair as men do not, and the man with her had hair dry and thinning, hers had a lustre and bounce to it that indicated a woman some years younger.

The woman thanked Cass for the compliment, paused for a moment, and then said, if Cass had a few minutes, she could tell her the story behind this haircut. Her partner looked at her oddly, yet with love, an expression registering mild trepidation but with an awareness too that this was a story worth telling. She said Cass's comment was the first time in some years that a stranger had complimented her on her hair, and I noticed they were both tanned and wondered if that was why I credited a youthfulness to the woman. But why then not the partner? No, it rested on this haircut, and though I was still looking down at my book, I was no longer attending to the words on the page but the words spoken by this woman who said that they had only a couple of days ago returned from a holiday in Croatia.

2

However, she didn't start talking about Croatia but the south of France. Twenty-five years ago, she said, she and her husband booked a small villa near a place called La Croix Valmer. Their two children (twins) were eighteen and were travelling with friends, and this was the first holiday they were taking just themselves since the children were born. She said they felt both very young and a little old, and wondered how they would cope with each other's company. She looked at her husband as she said this and the look registered that they had coped for the last two and a half decades very well, and the start of it, she supposed, was with the haircut. She felt like a new woman, she admitted, and he almost took her for one. I sensed, as I listened, someone who may not have been an accomplished storyteller but would be accomplished in telling this tale, even if Cass and I were the first to hear the entirety of it.

They were renting from a Croatian hairdresser who said he was working for the most famous stylist in the world, though she and her husband were initially sceptical. Even when he told them stories about stars whose hair he had cut, they were unconvinced. He mentioned one very well-known actor who was his first celebrity cut in Paris. The hairdresser was at the time twenty-eight. He had arrived six months earlier from Zagreb, where even the most expensive salons charged a rate not much higher than a typical haircut in the West. He was hired by the famous hair stylist after the actor came to Nikolai's barber shop because he heard he was from Yugoslavia. During those months in Paris, most of his clients were from the region, and the actor had been told about Nikolai by a Bosnian actor friend, and this actor had told the famous actor he should go. The famous actor was vain but he was also adventurous, and Nikolai said when the famous actor came to the shop the actor had heard Nikolai was supposed to be the best hairdresser in Croatia. He now had the chance to prove it with a very famous head of hair.

Nikolai told the story with no modesty in the telling and said that this famous actor continued to get his haircut by Nikolai when Nikolai moved to the stylist's place near Place Vendome. Within a year he was cutting the hair of a host of actors and, in his flat in Paris, he had photos on the walls taken at parties with some of them. Beyond his boastful remarks, however, there was nothing to suggest he was a great hairdresser. There were no photos on the wall of this apartment, and why should there be, they supposed, since he would rent it out? His own hair was lightly greying and cropped, but then even if it were carefully styled that would have told them nothing: who can cut and style their own hair? Perhaps such questions were irrelevant. What seemed clear is that he was successful at whatever he did, since he had a flat in Paris, an apartment he was renting out and another on which he was living, and for some reason, they didn't doubt that he owned property elsewhere too. But as her husband was well aware, there were people in business who could make a lot of money without being good at anything in particular, just accomplished at making money. She looked at her husband as though he was expected to say a few words and so he did.

He said to Cass that for many years he had been in the property business, though he only ever had the one rental agency, which he named and said was nearby. It made him money but no fortune: he insisted on all the flats he rented having a high energy rating and as low a rent as he could justify. He would insist on always offering properties a little below market rates and many people when he said this were unwilling to rent their property through him, even when he insisted this was not only the decent thing to do; it was also good business. But enough people did rent through him and the tenants often stayed for years, well aware they wouldn't be inclined to find a cheaper place easily. Often the tenants moved out when they could afford to buy but rarely because they'd found alternative rental accommodation. But by insisting on well-insulated, relatively affordable homes with decor in good condition, meant he always had a small portfolio. He made money but he was not rich. He knew of others who started when he did that were now very wealthy indeed. Were they good at what they did? He thought not, and he managed to offer this remark with a modesty quite at odds with the arrogance evident in Nikolai's apparent claims. It is just to say, the husband said, that because somebody boasts and shows off to you their wealth, we shouldn't assume they have great skills. Except marketing ones. He found most of the people with such skills in the property business were not those making the fortunes but those doing the work: the joiners, the decorators, the plumbers, the electricians. They didn't boast about the job they were doing. They just did it.

3

None of this immodesty on Nikolai's part needed have bothered the couple. He was renting them an apartment, would speak to them when he would sometimes take his morning coffee at the same time as they did, and engage them in conversation. He was a personality, they decided, and an entertaining one. But on one of these mornings he proposed he would cut and style Belinda's hair. She knew it looked tired and lacked its youthful springiness, its gloss and its colour always seemed exaggerated she would think. She was forty-two, assumed her best years were behind her and that the good looks she was fortunate to be deemed to possess had been passed down to her daughters, whose hair was indeed thick, velvety and soft. She sometimes looked at her wedding photos from twenty years earlier and wished vainly for those years back.

One morning she was in the cafe alone, Harry having hired a bike to cycle around the cap and to take in the surrounding villages, when Nikolai arrived and asked if he could join her. Of course, she said, and as they talked, she found herself telling him about the wedding photos, how her hair seemed now tired and she supposed this is what happens when we age. Nikolai insisted that she was still a young woman, just as her husband was proving he was still a vigorous young man after she had told him the distance Harry would be cycling. He said he didn't believe we were only young once, a phrase he often repeated to his clients as he told them he would make them young again. And she too, he said, could be once again young if she allowed him to do her hair. She looked around the cafe and watched as people passed on the street. She found herself wondering why these women her age and older appeared to her to seem younger. Maybe her gaze was reflecting low self-esteem but she didn't think so; that the women she was seeing looked much more youthful, energetic and yes, attractive than their counterparts in Glasgow. She said this to Nikolai, who believed what a good hairdresser, and a good exercise trainer, knows is that when people look at others, they notice a small number of things, and if these elements are evident, the person is deemed youthful and healthy. If a woman walks straight and has bounce in her hair she can look a dozen years younger than a woman the same age even if other areas like the age of their skin, the energy in their eyes, the strength of their bones, are the same. These other areas are for the dietician, he said. They promote health; his purpose was to promote confidence. He complimented her then on her eyes and her skin, and she wondered for a moment if this man, who wasn't much younger than she was, might be trying to seduce her. Instead, he announced he wanted to give her the haircut of her life.

4

As Belinda paused in the telling, Harry realised he needed to pop into a nearby bakery just before it closed; he would pick up some bread and meet Belinda back at the house. He would also buy some salad and all the other ingredients for dinner. Belinda said he usually did the cooking; he admitted as he left that she did almost everything else. It was the least he could do.

Belinda said to Cass she came away from the encounter with the hairdresser at the cafe in La Croix Valmer bemused and feeling as though she had been seduced. When she got back to the flat Harry was lying on the sofa, having returned ten minutes earlier and where he'd already consumed a litre bottle of water, two bananas, half a dozen dates and a handful of nuts. He didn't feel so young, he proposed and said he might have over-exerted himself. She knew he was doing what a few of his friends were trying to do, to lose a little bit of belly fat by exhausting themselves. She thought again about Nikolai's comments: that what mattered was a few details others would see and confidence she could convey.

Over the next couple of days, they didn't hear from Nikolai, didn't see him at the cafe, and it would have been about four days after the stylist's remarks that Belinda and Harry went to St Tropez for a meal. As they sat on the terrace of this compact fishing village, swelled to its full capacity and beyond by wealth during the ever-expanding summer months, she couldn't help looking at the haircuts of many women. Yes, women her age and older had elegant figures, finely cut dresses and carefully applied make-up, but others registered the same confidence with hardly any make-up at all, and wearing more casual clothes, jeans even leggings. What they all shared, if their hair was down and not tied back, was conspicuously well-styled hair. She assumed of course that most of these women were very wealthy and were holidaying in this village: that they would be coming from various parts of the world and in each of these parts would be hairdressers capable of styling hair in a manner that left the women with immense confidence. Her hairdresser in Glasgow cut her hair well enough, but in recent years she assumed that the hairdresser was doing the best she could with the hair Belinda had. She would come away from the shop never quite satisfied but always believing that this was her problem and not her hairdresser's. Either the hair was no longer as strong and buoyant as it was when she got married, or she no longer felt with two children now in their late teens that she was attractive; attraction belonged now to the younger generation.

Yet she couldn't let go of the idea that perhaps Nikolai could transform her, could make her look at least a little like the woman she was the day she married. Yet she didn't tell Harry about what was preoccupying her; didn't say anything to him about the chat in the cafe with Nikolai. As she said this, just as I had heard her mention how she felt seduced by the stylist, so I wondered if she would have offered these remarks to Cass if he had still been sitting there. I would glance up sometimes from my book and nod to show less that I was listening attentively than that I wasn't eavesdropping. As she talked it was as though she needed to speak only to Cass but perhaps if she believed I was secretly listening she would have been more hesitant. Yet there was hardly a word I missed, even if I believed it was my place to continue looking like I was also reading my book. However, what she was saying was as relevant to a class I was preparing as the novel I was reading. The class was on what I was calling narrative subjects and whether everything was capable of narrative engagement or whether only certain subjects were given to generate curiosity in a reader. The example I was going to provide from the novel I was re-reading seemed to me less useful than the one this woman was describing. The novel was written by someone acknowledged as a great prose stylist and this may have been what made the story so readable; not so much the narrative. I could see Cass was very interested in finding out if this stylist was who he claimed to be, and if Belinda would go ahead and let him cut her hair. She was in the story. The content was minor and there was no prose style in the telling yet she was engaged

5

Belinda said after their meal in St Tropez, she and Harry saw him once again in the cafe at La Croix Valmer. He explained he hadn't been around for a couple of days; he was in Monaco where he had clients. They were a mother and daughter; they moved with the father to Monaco when it looked like the government was going to raise taxes, and though the taxes weren't raised, they feared for the wealth and thought it best to reside in a haven. They had more money than sense, Nikolai said, but they still thought taxation theft and they were going to protect themselves from grand larceny. They paid him three thousand pounds to cut their hair every three months, and would often fly him down from Paris to do it, putting him up in a hotel they owned in the principality. For the very wealthy, a haircut every three months might seem like negligence, but they also employed someone to maintain it weekly: someone who had trained under Nikolai in Paris and who worked out of Nice.

Harry said that Nikolai seemed to have a healthy disdain for the super-rich but how did he square that with the job he did? Nikolai replied that he respected their hair; he didn't have to respect them. He did the job to the best of his abilities and believed he was better than most at it. But the disrespect he often felt towards them was because he knew they weren't paying for the quality of the service but the reputation that came with it. No haircut, he insisted need cost any more than about a hundred pounds and that is what he reckoned he was worth an hour. He could live well on that but instead many insisted on paying thousands, and why shouldn't he take their cash? He gave them the very best haircut he could and therein lay his respect, and more importantly self-respect. But he couldn't respect anyone who knew the price of things and attributed a value to it because of its price. He was happy of course that he was no longer living in a communist country, equally pleased that his country was no longer communist, but that didn't mean he had to admire the excesses of capitalism even if he benefited from them.

Later that evening Harry discussed with Belinda whether Nikolai was a hypocrite. He owned property in both France and Croatia; he cut the hair of the very wealthy, and he wasn't shy when it came to dropping the names of the famous. Yet they both agreed that they were paying a fair price for the villa, and recalled Nikolai saying that the places he owned in Croatia were rented to family members at prices far cheaper than they would otherwise have to pay on the coast where they lived, and where they worked in the tourist industry. As they talked, Belinda was about to tell him that Nikolai wished to cut her hair but then chose not to do so. Before she had refrained from telling him as if the conversation that day in the cafe was somehow a betrayal to Harry; this time she thought it was because she wanted to surprise him. She would go ahead and let Nikolai cut her hair and see how Harry would react to what she hoped would be a woman he would take a moment to realise was his wife.

6

Harry was fully recovered from his last cycle and said there was another lengthy one he would like to attempt in the other direction, about the same distance. It meant, he said to Belinda, he would have covered all the villages within a 120km radius by bike. She wanted to tell him not to exert himself but also didn't want to tell him where she was going and mused over the idea that she supposed they were both seeking a way of making themselves more youthful than they were. He said he would aim to do the cycle the following day, and this coincided with her provisional agreement with Nikolai, as they had sent each other messages that morning. Belinda said Cass needed to remember that mobile phones had only recently become commonly used. Harry didn't have one and she bought hers for the trip and because their daughters had recently acquired one. As she messaged Nikolai back and forth, as they arranged to meet at his villa in Gassin, so she felt a complicity that she needed to understand. She was visiting a man she hardly knew at his place about six miles from where they were staying, and keeping it a secret from her husband. Yet she knew this was intrigue rather than desire, and it was as if even the vanity happened to be contained by curiosity. She supposed she would have been no less interested if a friend of hers was going and couldn't wait to find out what the result looked like.

Harry went off for his cycle at eight the next morning, and she contacted Nikolai who said she should aim to be at his place by eleven. Take your nicest dress with you he suggested. You can change into it after your haircut. You will want to look your very best immediately afterwards. When she stepped out of the taxi, she saw Nikolai sitting outside drinking coffee on a blue steel, round folding table with matching chairs. He asked her to sit down and if she wanted some coffee too; it was freshly brewed. The house was on one of what seemed like a series of winding side streets in this hilltop village, and while she and Harry had been to St Tropez of course, and also Ramatouelle, Grimaud and Port Grimaud, this was a village as beautiful as any other and one they had missed. After they chatted for twenty minutes, Nikolai asked if she was ready to be transformed. She said she was.

They travelled through the kitchen and beyond to a dining room with a sitting room to the left, and up a spiral staircase to the first floor that had three rooms, two bedrooms that she could glimpse into, and the third the room they entered. In it was a basin, also a mirror, a hairdresser's chair and all the paraphernalia she would expect to see in a salon except a magazine to sit and read while waiting. She would not need to wait. She sat in the chair as though it was a throne, and recalled again her wedding day and wondered if that was the last time she felt special. It wasn't that Harry wasn't a caring and sometimes loving husband. It is just that when you have children you become servant more than master, and when you are ready to return to become again in charge of your destiny, you are twenty years older. You look in the mirror and see that you might be the queen but you are no longer a princess.

Nikolai initially washed her hair with the tenderest of touches and with the most aromatic of shampoos, and afterwards began to cut it with a concentration she supposed was usually reserved for portrait painters. She felt, sitting there, like an artist's model and that she must remain as still as possible while Nikolai went about his craft, as if producing a masterpiece that wouldn't be putting oil on a canvas but removing hair from her head. At that moment she sensed an odd feeling of dislocation. If for years she was at one remove from herself as so much of her energy went into making sure her daughters ate their breakfast, made it to school on time, did their homework, and got through their teenage years neither pregnant nor suffering from too many insecurities, here she was both the most important woman in the world and in the hands of another human being. Again, she thought of her wedding day and the moment the ring was put on her finger and the sense this was an irrevocable gesture. There were a hundred and twenty people at the wedding that morning. They were there to celebrate the marriage of course, yet also as part of a coercion: to insist the commitment Harry and she were making socially binding. It was unusual that so minor a thing as a haircut would give her a similar sense of magnitude.

When the cut was finished, Nikolai dried her hair and she did indeed look transformed. He had made her look ten years younger and many a surgeon would envy his result, all done with scissors rather than a scalpel. She marvelled at her hair as if it didn't belong to her, and her face seemed so transformed by the cut that she didn't quite recognise herself. Sure, she was looking better than she might usually have done in Glasgow due to the sun and sea air, but this was more than a healthy improvement; it was indeed the transformation Nikolai had promised. She slipped into the bathroom; changed into a dress she had bought in St Tropez, and for the first time began to understand what it meant to look like a million dollars. She asked Nikolai how much she owed him, and he said he wouldn't consider taking a payment. He wanted to prove a point, he added, and then said nothing more as he smiled. During the cut, Nikolai had talked about retiring from cutting rich and famous people's hair; that they came with such expectations, paid such high prices, that they robbed him of the joy of discovery in the cut, and the pleasure of seeing the surprise on a person's face. If he could spend his life cutting the hair of people who didn't expect to look special and he managed to make them look so, there would be great pleasure for him and great pleasure for them. The money he was earning may have been impressive but many of those whose hair he cut looked almost indifferent.

7

If she were in any doubt over her transformation, her husband's reaction confirmed that she was a changed woman. She had arranged to meet him in their regular cafe in La Croix Valmer and, as she stepped out of the taxi, he could be seen momentarily looking at this other woman who happened to be her. He clearly didn't at first recognise her and she might have been concerned that he was looking admiringly at what he thought was another woman. However, that was what, at that moment, she most liked about her appearance: that she wasn't quite herself. When he saw this woman looking back at him, he looked uncomfortable and lowered his gaze, as though he might have admired this woman's looks but Harry wasn't going to flirt with anyone but his wife. As she came up to the table, he showed discomfort as he began to look up again; then shook his head a couple of times saying he didn't think he would have ever l like he was cheating on his wife with his own spouse.

She added that the next few days were almost as exciting as their honeymoon, a comment I didn't doubt she wouldn't have made if Harry were still there and if she didn't think I was absorbed in my book. It was a complicit comment between women; the sort I supposed would often be heard at the hairdressers.

During the remaining days of the trip, she hoped to see Nikolai again, to thank him, and to buy him a drink, perhaps dinner. She wanted above all to say that she didn't quite believe him before he cut her hair; that he was boastful and arrogant. Now, after the cut, she deemed him modest, even understated. But it seemed he was busy, cutting a rich person's hair she assumed, and when they came to leave the apartment, it was to someone else they gave the keys.

She never contacted Nikolai again, and when she looked him up online she could find no trace of him anywhere. Was it possible he lied about his status and that he wasn't well-known at all? He didn't name a single celebrity whose hair he cut but she worked out to whom he seemed to be referring. She tried to find online who cut their hair but whatever name came up it wasn't Nikolai's. Yet if he were a liar he wasn't a charlatan: people complimented Belinda on her hair for weeks afterwards, and she would never have another cut that received such compliments again. Until now, she said, saying Cass may have been the first person to remark on it, but she had yet to see any friends. She supposed if a stranger felt obliged to compliment her, she would be surprised if her friends didn't. She said this with an odd distance and without arrogance, as if she had bought a painting from an artist and would have been offended if people failed to admire the artist's skill.

We had been sitting outside the cafe for an hour, and the sun was beginning to disappear behind the flat across the street. It wasn't yet cold, and Cass and I usually didn't eat until 730 but we intended to carry on down to Byres Rd to the supermarket near the corner of Great Western Rd. In other circumstances, I would have probably proposed to Cass that we should start moving. But I knew Cass wanted to hear more of this woman's story, and I couldn't pretend I wasn't intrigued myself. Did this haircut the woman was sporting, and that Cass commented upon, suggest she had finally caught up with this enigmatic stylist? Depending on how the story ended I was tempted to use it as an example in the class.

8

Belinda said to Cass she would continue to get her hair cut by a very competent stylist here in Glasgow and, while she never felt aghast when coming out of the hairdresser, she always had a vague feeling of deflation. The haircut was no more than upkeep, like applying some make-up in the morning.

For years, of course, Belinda and her husband were keen to go to Croatia. She supposed it was Nikolai who had put the place in their minds. However, in more recent years various friends had been and talked up the beauty of Diocletian's Palace in Split, looking down on the city from the heights of Marjan Park, the sheen of the streets in Dubrovnik, passing through the hilly side streets of Zagreb's old town. They visited all three cities but chose to stay most of the time in Zadar, in a flat in the centre of this fortressed, peninsular town whose walls you could walk along as if you were strolling through a boulevard. You could look down at the boats docked below and at the bridge, illuminated like a light sabre. It was a remark Belinda's grandson made: they went with one of their daughters, her husband and their six-year-old son. They had rented an apartment within the walls, a building several centuries old and a former nunnery. They were on the top floor, with a courtyard they could use with a long table they would sometimes eat at. There was also a one-room flat with a shower, toilet and kitchen facilities they were also entitled to use, and for ten days the five of them stayed in Zadar without at all feeling on top of each other.

However, what made the trip special for Belinda was a hairdresser she found in a side street, recommended to her by the woman who owned a trinket shop next to the apartment. She greeted this woman each day and bought a couple of items one afternoon, and Belinda realised as they talked for fifteen minutes that she was at least a decade older than she assumed. She tried to work out why. She concluded it was the haircut, complimented her on it and asked who cut it. The shop owner gave her the person's name and explained that it wasn't the easiest shop to find, and drew directions on a piece of paper.

9

For various reasons, she didn't go straight away. The family had a couple of day trips and when she did go she couldn't get an appointment until three days later: the day before they were all due to fly back to Scotland. As the woman, who seemed to work alone, looked through the book in front of her, she said she had nothing for a week. Belinda became briefly but intensely anxious, and felt an incommensurate relief when the woman said yes there was one: she'd forgotten to cross out a cancellation.

Throughout the trip, she'd observed her daughter, now in her late thirties, and could see she never had the vanity of her mother and that Belinda saw that this vanity had on occasion been of little use to her. She often saw herself as a disappointment: that she didn't quite live up to what people would have called her youthful beauty, and sometimes saw that people's initial response to her was of an attractiveness she wasn't quite capable of meeting. This was difficult to explain, she said to Cass, almost in a whisper, and I missed a few words as a bus pulled up at the stop nearby. Her daughter she said was very pretty and so consistently healthy that she always seemed the same. Her weight never went up or down, her hair always looked healthy and neat, her skin never had a blemish. Her twin sister was similar. Everybody said both sisters looked great, and they did. Belinda said she always thought she herself could look better, and had these isolated moments, like on her wedding day, and when Nikolai cut her hair, where she supposed she was beautiful. She didn't think going to the hairdresser this time could return her to her youth or the relative youth she felt in the south of France, but she believed as people got older they fixated more on what they could regard as a good quality. She knew she still had a slim figure and that she had a nice smile, and while she had never found another stylist since Nikolai to make her hair look special, why not try once more in the country from which he claimed to have come?

10

Belinda arrived at the hairdresser ten minutes early and waited in one of the two waiting suite chairs available in this confined, compact space, with the only light coming from a couple of fluorescent tubes and the open doorway. There was only one salon chair and the hairdresser was speaking in Croatian to a woman whose hair she was blow-drying.

As Belinda took a seat in the salon chair, the hairdresser, who was about fifty, asked, in English, what she could do for her and Belinda found herself discussing a haircut twenty years earlier as though she was here to speak about herself as much as about a haircut. As the woman started to work, Belinda found that she was telling this woman about a cut twenty years earlier in France by a stylist who said that he cut the hair of the famous and yet he insisted on cutting her hair for free. As she said this Belinda realised this sounded like nonsense: why would someone who could earn hundreds and augment his reputation with well-known faces, offer to cut her hair for nothing? If she remembered having difficulty believing Nikolai as the master stylist before he proved it with a cut, why should this woman believe she was anything but an egotistical fool telling fibs? Yet the woman didn't smile or laugh but looked like she was listening. Though it was hard to tell, Belinda thought, if the concentration was going into the haircut or in trying to comprehend English.

Yet the woman was more fluent than she initially assumed, and when in trying to justify herself Belinda added that the person who cut her hair was Croatian and that he was getting frustrated cutting the hair of the rich and successful, that the expectations were high and the pleasure for him diminishing, she asked Belinda for his name, and asked her to describe the person.

She did so well enough for the hairdresser to say that she knew him, that he was one of her teachers at the beauty school in Zagreb. He helped train them to cut hair, but he also became interested in other aspects of health and beauty; and also retained a small salon in the city where he worked three mornings a week. It might have seemed exclusive she said, and she supposed it was since he only took on clients based on recommendations but his prices were the same for everybody and no more expensive than any other stylist in the city. At college, he had talked about hair styling on egalitarian rather than elitist principles, and one reason why he was training others was so that people wouldn't at all feel obliged to come to him. She said he managed to be at the same time very arrogant and very modest. He made it clear he had skills few others possessed, but he also knew they were just skills they could be taught and he would teach them.

Belinda was of course astonished that after all these years she found out what had happened to Nikolai, and asked if he was still working. The hairdresser said that a couple of years earlier he had semi-retired, left Zagreb and was now living on a small island where he was working as the local barber. He was cutting the hair of people who didn't have much left, she said, sitting in the cafes, playing bocce in the village square, drinking coffee during the day and a glass of wine in the evening. That was what she had heard anyway, from a hairdresser friend who had seen him there the previous summer.

As she was finishing blow drying the hair, Belinda could see in the mirror the transformation she recalled twenty years earlier. There were more wrinkles now, and while she would have fitted into the same dress she wore that day leaving Gassin, she no longer would have quite had the confidence to wear it. But there seemed more to the haircut this time, a feeling that this wasn't about her looking glamorous; more about her as someone who had wandered into a tradition. That might have seemed like nonsense, she supposed, but after the cut, the stylist said that she didn't have another client for thirty minutes and was going to get a coffee. They sat outside at a cafe a couple of doors away on the other side of the street from the shop, and they asked each other a little about their lives. The stylist said after she trained at the beauty school, she wanted to leave Croatia. Like many in those years just after Communism, after the war, she wanted to earn far more than she could at home, and worked in Germany for eight years. She worked in Hamburg initially and then moved to Frankfurt, cutting the hair of many a financier's wife. Yet for all the money she could make, she was often reminded of remarks her teacher made: that cutting a rich person's hair might give you status in the eyes of a person who can't afford such a cut, but you will always be a servant to those who are paying you well for your services.

When Nikolai would say this to the students she didn't take it seriously, maybe never even really took it in; however, as she worked in the West and was perceived as from the East, as she was well-remunerated but felt somehow as if her services were deemed servile, she increasingly recalled Nikolai's remarks. There seemed, she said, to be a set of assumptions around cutting the hair of people with money, a mood of fear, anxiety and even paranoia sometimes. She returned to Croatia, worked for five years in Zagreb, and then came to this, her home town, where her parents could help look after her two children and where, in turn, and in time, she went on to look after them.

She looked across at the shop and could see her next client entering. There is no hurry, she said, taking a final sip from her large Macchiato. But if this had been Frankfurt, she would have been there already, tense and obliging. She said there they were, her and Belinda, sitting with a coffee. She would never have felt free to ask a client in Germany to join her as she had asked Belinda to join her now, and wouldn't have felt able to take these long breaks between clients. Here she was part of a community; there she was serving one.

10

Belinda didn't know whether what the hairdresser said was generally true or specific to her, to the woman's insecurities and inadequacies, her feelings of exile and a residue of the fear she felt during the war. The hairdresser had admitted all these were possible. But what Belinda sensed more was that this woman was part of a world much greater than vanity and ambition, even if she could cut hair well enough for Belinda to return to Scotland and have people comment on the cut.

She said that it might appear she was insulting all Scottish hairdressers; that in the last twenty-five years, she was given two exceptional haircuts and in countries other than her own. She didn't doubt there were brilliant hairdressers here but finally what mattered more to her was staying local, feeling it was important that just as she got her fish from a shop on Byres Rd, her bread from a bakery in Hyndlands, her fruit and veg from a shop on Woodlands Rd, so she got her haircut in a salon in Finnieston. She never received a bad haircut of course and was always happy speaking to the stylists, enjoying the walk there and the walk back, getting a free coffee while she waited and chatting with other customers. It was all part of her Glasgow life she said, even if took a Croatian hairdresser to make her think about it.

It was now nearing 630, and Cass said she supposed we should be going. Belinda apologised, saying she'd spent most of the time speaking about herself, and Cass reassured her that this wasn't how it seemed at all that she had talked more about others, and told a fascinating story. As we walked home, stopping off for some items in the supermarket, and a few more at a whole food store and the fruit and veg shop Belinda mentioned, we didn't talk, perhaps both musing over the story we had been told even if Cass might have wondered if I had been listening at all. I had occasionally turned the page of my book and did read a few lines, but I was probably following the story as closely as Cass. However, while I had been thinking of whether so negligible a tale could pass for a story, I suspect Cass was giving thought to other things, other aspects of what she'd heard. That evening over dinner, I said a few words about how I listened carefully to the story and would use aspects of it in my class the following day. Cass said little.

Several weeks later I discovered what had been on her mind afterwards as she told me she no longer wanted to live in Glasgow, that everything the woman said about Glasgow being home, made her realise how much for her it wasn't. She felt a bit like the hairdresser, Belinda discussed, and understood the woman's desire to be back where she could be with family and friends, saying she would go back there as soon as she could. It wouldn't be much of a financial loss to me, she added; I was paying the mortgage anyway I would just have to cover all the bills. She might open a bookshop in Salisbury with a friend, she added, someone who moved back there a year ago to give birth. Perhaps, she said, if that evening when we got back I had talked more about community, about home, maybe we could have discussed her feelings of dislocation. Instead, though, I wanted to speak of techniques and storytelling, about stylists of a different sort. All the time she was looking back to the story the woman told; I was looking forward to the class I would teach. She had no sense of anticipation going into the bookshop the next day and knew her life needed to change.

Cass left a month later, and I remained. I still sometimes go along to the cafe in Hyndlands but I have never seen again Belinda or her husband. It seemed odd; I would have supposed it was one of their regular places.


© Tony McKibbin