Anahera Press hopes you enjoy this short story by Serie Barford, extracted from her collection Entangled Islands (2015).
Both of my parents had dark curly hair in their youth. Dad had the black hair of a qualtagh, the desirable first-footer who brings the magical power of beginnings into Scottish homes on New Year’s Eve, and Mum had a frizzy bob that was cut into layered waves by the hairdresser in the salon at the top of the arcade stairs.
Mum reinforced the waves by setting her hair in plastic curlers, anchoring them with skewers and bobby clips, then wrapping her head securely with a scarf so that she could sleep on her spiky helmet without dismantling it during the night. I have vivid memories of being shaken awake on school days to the sight of loosened skewers poised like daggers above my eyes.
My mother cut quite a figure in those days with her hair-sprayed coiffure, immaculately pressed homemade clothes and hibiscus-red lipstick. My sister and I were really proud of the fact that she once caused a car accident outside the dairy when she worked at the Four Square at the top of our street. Mum had been sweeping up lolly wrappers and minding her own business when a guy who was gawking at her backed into another car. Boom! That was my news at Morning Talk at school and the whole class clapped.
I felt really lucky to have such a pretty mother and I could tell that Dad was proud of her too. He’d heard about the crash while he was having a cuppa in the lunchroom at work. Grandma said it was a pity that the driver wasn’t hurt because he was a married man and shouldn’t have been eyeing her daughter like that. I wasn’t really sure how people’s eyes changed when they got married but my sister was waiting for me so I let the matter drop and ran outside to play.
Rosy had thick, straight brown hair with chestnut highlights. She was short so her ponytail went a long way down her back. It was my job to turn Rosy into a princess with Victorian ringlets. I accomplished this by tearing old sheets into arm-length strips to make rags that I wrapped around her freshly washed hair before she went to sleep. We’d sit in the lounge on the sofa and I’d chant, “Wrap the hair around the rag and the rag around the hair,” over and over until her head was wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy. When Rosy woke up in the morning I’d gently unwind the rags and her hair would fall in ringlets down to her waist.
I did such a good job of turning Rosy into a princess that she was picked on by Miss Archer, her school teacher, who detested prettiness and assurance in little girls. Miss Archer started shouting at Rosy, scrawling over her exercise books with red ink, making her stand in the corner and sending her out of the classroom for no reason at all. My sister tried to appease Miss Archer by sitting up straight and being extra good but that only made Miss Archer snigger and smirk.
Miss Archer liked to disrupt our games, especially if we were turning the big skipping rope and playing All in Together Girls at lunchtime.
All in together girls
never mind the weather girls
when is your birthday
please jump in
January, February, March
April, May, June, July, August
September, October, November, December.
Miss Archer couldn’t skip properly and she’d jump in and run out at the wrong time and the rope would snag on her puffy arms or legs. Sometimes she’d snatch one end of the skipping rope from a girl’s hand and wriggle it on the ground like a snake. Then none of us could skip and we’d just hang about the sidelines until she got bored of spoiling our fun and went to eat her lunch in the staff room.
After a while my sister started biting her cardigan and blinking like a flashing car indicator. It was really annoying. We’d be talking to her and she’d be nipping the spaces between her buttons, sucking her cuffs and blinking so fast we couldn’t see her eyes. Then she started talking and walking in her sleep. Mum took Rosy to a doctor who was concerned and discussed treatments for neurological conditions such as Saint Vitus’ Dance and persuaded Mum to visit school and find out what was happening there.
Mum took time off work and visited Miss Archer in her classroom the following day at morning tea time. I stood on tippy toes outside the window so I could see what was happening. Miss Archer attempted to dismiss my mother with disdainful looks and a comment about a busy schedule. Mum just pressed her lips together, stood her ground and skewered Miss Archer to the current affairs notice board with her steely green eyes.
Miss Archer tried to wriggle away but Mum had spent years sleeping on spiky hair curlers, so she wasn’t going to be put off by one squishy teacher. It was an incredible face-off between two women who understood the power of language—one of whom was imprinting the pain of a miserable childhood onto a student who seemed to have everything that she’d been denied as a girl. Miss Archer dissolved into tears just as the bell rang for class. Mum hugged the defeated teacher and dried her stricken blue eyes with an embroidered hanky.
That afternoon I washed my sister’s hair and put it in rags. Then I tried to groom my own hair, but basically it was an unbrushable mop.
“Time to trim that frizz into waves,” Mum said.
I shook my head and Mum sighed. She wanted to control my hair like she managed her own locks but I loved my wayward curls. Mum was sick of dragging me down the arcade and up the stairs to the hair salon. Sometimes the hairdresser would razor cut my hair so short that strangers thought I was a boy. When that happened I’d tearfully put the rags in my sister’s beautiful hair and I’d tell her how I was going to run away from home and grow my hair down to my ankles.
One weekend my parents had visitors who stayed for dinner. The woman was my mother’s friend and I talked to her, but didn’t like the way her husband stared at me. I was quietly eating a piece of pineapple pie when he suddenly threw down his fork, glared at me and announced, “That girl’s got Polynesian hair and a white face!’’
We all stopped chewing. We were shocked. He’d said it as if he was declaring me unclean, or a liar or a cheat. I knew it was some kind of insult but didn’t understand why he’d said it. Everyone knew I had frizzy hair, blue eyes and a pale face. So what? My grandmother and my parents exchanged glances over my head.
“They’d both pass if she’d cut her hair,” he said.
“Me and Rosy pass? Pass what?” I asked.
No one replied and the evening finished on a sour note. I was upset. I didn’t understand how my hair had spoilt the meal.
The next time Mum suggested that I “cut my hair like a Pālagi” I just fixed her strongly with my fierce blue eyes and raged, “I’m not a Pālagi!”
My grandmother couldn’t control her face. It wobbled and stretched then gave way to a shrill cackle. Then she pulled me close and stroked my cheek.
“Get the tortoiseshell comb from my dressing table,” she said.
I fetched the long-toothed comb and stood still as Grandma wound my hair into a short rope that she twisted and secured with the comb’s teeth into a mound on top of my head.
“You’re not a little girl anymore,” Grandma declared. “It’s time to put your hair up. And when you sit down on the couch, remember to keep your legs together and put a cushion on your lap.”
Everyone smiled and I made Grandma a cup of tea, making sure that I selected a matching cup and saucer and served her as if she was as important as Father Martin.
Mum watched Grandma drink her tea and rolled her eyes. “Fiapoko” she said. “That girl’s so fiapoko”.