As I wait for the water to warm up I go over the sums again. A one-way flight to London costs $1272 and I’ve only got a couple of hundred left over from the will. If I’m lucky, Mum will give me a few extra bucks for my eighteenth in a couple of weeks. That’s if what I’m about to do isn’t a totally disownable offence.
The water’s hot and holy and I step inside the stream, think of the money that I’ll get for this. I think of my new life not here, about how the breeze will feel on my neck’s nape when my hair is gone.
My hair: it’s long, it’s blackish, it’s been uncut for, like, aeons. In extra-curricular settings it stretches to the bottom of my spine. It often turns heads 90-160°. I sometimes let non-creepo strangers touch it, take photos from multiple angles with their phones. When they ask for maintenance tips I say the line: ‘Never put anything in your hair that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.’
Mum used to say that line when she washed my hair. We’re talking about the younger version of me. Proto-Me. Me circa 2010. First-year-of-high-school-braceface me, wriggling on the low stool in the bathroom where I was born, while Mum lathered my scalp with this weirdo blend of avocado oil and honeysuckle. Of rosemary and hyacinth and shea butter and something that was actually called whipped yoghurt protein. The me with that knock-kneed bumpless beta body, eyes closed, waiting to get older.
Cut to now and Mum tries to stay involved in the conservation of my hair. She brushes it for me while I study at the kitchen table, or while I’m watching my allotted thirty minutes of weeknight TV. Mum calls my hair her masterpiece, her magnum opus, her pièce de résistance. I’m top of my French class, so any time she says this I correct her pronunciation, give her the lowdown about graves and aigus.
The Follicle Fantasy talent scout told me to leave no strand uncleansed, to keep my keratin levels up. She told me to pull out all stops in the Shine Dept. So I wash/rinse/repeat until the ultra organic conditioner bottle starts making these hellish empty sucking sounds. Mike begins hammering on the door, fitting about the water bill and the increased percentage (ie, 100 as opposed to 0) of said bill that I will be responsible for paying if I don’t get out of that bleeping (he actually says bleeping) shower quick smart.
Mike. Step-daddio to be. He says I can call him whatever I’d like. Mike or Mikey or Mick or mate. This was one of his lines: ‘Think of me as a dad on probation. No that doesn’t sound right. A dad on his Learner’s Permit.’ This is Mike’s house where Mum and I are living. Eye-white clapboard domicile just on the right side of the wrong side of the tracks (ie, Footscray). Clean-shaven lawn and concrete driveway that Mike insists on hosing down in the middle of summer with totally ungrey water. There are micro-crucifix tacked above the doorways, cauterised Christs with non-bleeding wounds. Mike says that while he’s happy that Mum has seen fit to take out her very own afterlife insurance policy, he will endeavour to make sure not to shove his faith in any way shape or form down my throat, that I should come to it in my own sweet time. He wants me to think of this house as a totally secular space, a worship-free zone.
‘Our father who art in Heaven/Hallowed be thy name/Thy kingdom come…’ I squelch out from the bathroom, rolling and re-rolling my eyes while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Mike does the whole shaking-his-head-sadly and looking up at the ceiling thing as if to say, ‘Stick it on my tab.’
I tamp down my hair and chuck the towel on the column heater in my room. While I dress I wonder what magnitude of shitstorm I’m likely to be in for at the end of the day. The towel starts to roast on the heater, and for a second there’s the memory of the old house with Dad, the poky cubby of a place with a backyard but no washing line, the house which always smelt just like this (ie, like roasted soap, like scalded cotton) in the winter, because Mum would dry my clothes on the heater. I get my Follicle Fantasy ID badge out from its hiding spot at the back of my Unmentionables (Mum’s word) Drawer. I crank the heater to full, clump out of my bedroom and down past the kitchen. I catch a glimpse of medicated maman in her tatty dressing-gown munching Vegemited toast. Just before I close the front door I hear a bread-muffled, ‘Have a grea–’, and I think of the line she used to say.
I said the line at Maxwell’s sans parentals party last month. This was when Blaise came running out from the laundry with Terrence Wu’s cum in her hair, through the living room dance floor, trying to get into Maxwell’s parentals’ ensuite. Me and the other girls (that would be: Ashley I, Ashley III and Vera) followed Blaise in and like barricaded the bathroom door and all just stood around pretending not to be drunk and patting Blaise’s back and providing home remedies for the removal of sticky substances (peanut butter, WD-40, Vaseline, toothpaste). I was ⅔ of my way through a bottle of ouzo, and I was ¾ drunk and ¼ sad and I was getting that old welling-up feeling in my B-cup chest, like a stranger was breathing into my lungs. I leaned into Blaise’s ear and said, ‘Never put anything in your hair that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.’ I hissed the line, with Terrence Wu’s protein smell smouldering in my nostrils.
I felt bad as soon as I said it, then Blaise’s face puckered up like a fist and all the girls crouched down next to her. Some of them shot death stares at me as I walked out of the bedroom, but of course nobody could really get too mad considering all the (heavy-duty) shit I’d been through over the past year. I autopiloted through the party out to the front yard. I sat on the verandah and removed my high-ish heels, rubbed at the blisters blooming along my Achilles T’s. From here I could see into a house across the street. A mum and a dad and a girl the same age as me (+/– a few years) watching TV in the living room half dark. I stayed there for what seemed like a long time, biting and re-biting the side of my palm, watching the family pass a packet of Tim Tams across the couch at five-minute intervals.
I walk to the corner and take a right, in the non-school, non-city direction. At the tram stop I ease my headphones on, hyper aware not to muss my hair. There’s an ancient guy trying to catch my eye, patting the space on the bench next to him. I pretend to study my ID card until the tram arrives.
The card says my name is Aphrodite. The talent scouts said that they weren’t happy with the name Kate, that it didn’t have enough, like, zing. They gave me a list of Greek goddesses, told me to pick the one that best represented my follicular character.
The tram jags up the track at the peak-hour pace and by the time I arrive at the salon it’s well past nine, well past showtime. I see a row of space age barber chairs with the dome helmets retracted and a red carpet leading through to the back of the salon. An FF representative with a clipboard and headset and a shock of pale yellow (the same colour as Dad right at the end) hair sits behind the counter, tinkering at her nails with an emery board. Her nametag says: ‘Hi! I’m Molly!’
Molly hustles me along the carpet and down a corridor that leads to the backstage area. Through the red velveteen curtain I hear the audience murmuring in that far-off dreamy way, settling and resettling on their chairs, getting texts on their phones.
I got the idea the night of the engagement party, the party in the same draughty community hall where I first met Mike. There was a trestle table with plates of crustless sandwiches and a tureen of non-spiked punch. All of Mum’s friends from the Pre-Mike era stood together in little clots checking the time on their phones and averting their eyes from the sight of Mum and Mike slow-dancing in the centre of a circle of guitar/tambourine toting Godbodies. Mum stayed at Mike’s that night and I was at home in my childhood bed getting drunk on Dad’s Drambuie. The doona was a tent over my head and I was on Google Earth, zooming in on cities at random, trying to find a good running away destination. That’s when I saw an ad for Follicle Fantasy in a sidebar, telling me to trade my locks for cold hard currency.
Which brings me to here: waiting behind the curtain breathing in/out/in and running my fingers through my hair to make sure it falls plumb down my back.
Molly hustles me through the curtain and the stage lights are bright in my eyes and I can see the outlines of heads down below and not much else except for the woman to my left whose smile keeps flickering in and out like her face can’t get a signal. She’s maybe like 40-50 with a streak of black down the middle of her all salt/min pepper hair. She’s très pregnant under her muu-muu and she’s all bowed forward with one hand on the small of her back. That’s what most of the other women look like on the stage: tired, lined (ie, too old to be doing this). One girl with this auburn thicket of split ends is itching her arms and making this soft keening sound, which is totally audible over the PA’s panpipe track. It’s at this point that I start to think that this may not be my best ever idea but then I think of Mike winking and giving the thumbs up to the kitchen door crucifix and I rip the biggest smile I can.
‘Welcome to the Follicle Fantasy Silent Auction.’ A man’s voice coming from the air itself, like God in the movies. ‘We’ve got hair from the snow-kissed tundras of the North Pole, to the azure waters of the Mediterranean. And all of it can be yours for the rightest of prices. We’re thankful to our wonderful surrogates for their follicular donation. Let’s give it up for them.’ There’s a round of polite applause. ‘You have the opportunity to help these wonderful women change their lives, while you change yours. Now backs to the stage ladies. Backs to the stage. Let that hair hang out.’
As the surrogates turn 180°, I see him off to stage right, reading from a laminated script, bald except for a nubbin of black fuzz on the crown of his head.
‘I’d like to invite all potential bidders to the stage to get a closer look at the product.’
I stare at a water stain on the wall above the curtain as I hear the crowd rustling along the rows of seats and up the stairs onto the podium. I keep my eyes on the stain as their fingers scuttle through my hair. I smell nail polish and skinny latte breath from the middle-aged mouths of strangers.
‘I think this would look great on Francesca don’t you think?’ A voice says from behind me. ‘Is hair an acceptable twenty-first present? Is that a done thing?’
‘Ask her if she’s a smoker,’ says another. ‘I don’t want smoker’s hair.’
I just stare at the stain looking for the face of Jesus or the face of Mike while I feel a wedding ring diamond tickling the nape of my neck.
Mike and Mum met at grief counselling. Mike was the counsellor, Mum the griever. Group sessions in the hall owned by the church. They assured me that nothing happened until well after. They assured me that Mike had been the perfect professional, that he was just there as a friend with two shoulders to cry on, that he was merely a Letting Go Facilitator. Apparently they ran into each other at the supermarket and they went for a coffee, then another and soon Mum was leaving my dinners Gladwrapped in the fridge because she was attending these nocturnal prayer sessions at Mike’s house. These metastasised into forced stepfamily dinners where I would just push food round my plate and pointedly not watch Mum and Mike holding hands under the table.
When Dad went into hospital for the last time, I used to wake up every night to the sound of his LPs playing in the living room. Mum would be sitting on the floor in her dressing-gown bobbing her head to Creedence or the Temptations and I’d lie down next to her and put my head in her lap. We wouldn’t say anything, just stay there, occasionally getting up to turn over a record or to get more tissues. I remember the feeling of her fingers tracing figure eights on my head. I remember it felt like this: ∞ ∞ ∞
Mum was different after she met Mike. Serene. Accepting. I wasn’t sure whether it was God or the Prozac, but that was about the time we stopped talking about anything except for Mike and the hair. I know that I should be happy for her happiness, that it’s good that she’s moving on, but, well, here I am.
They put it in bags. These really long plastic bags attached to the back of the barber chairs with a nozzle at the bottom where the air gets sucked out. Vacuum sealed. We’re led into the salon, arranged in front of the chairs. The woman with the split ends is at the entrance with the announcer, rattling the front door making the bell ding-ding like crazy.
‘But I need the money. I just need it. Can’t you use it for doll’s hair or something?’
‘We can’t make the clients bid. That’s just totally not in our mandate. Try to think of this as a learning experience.’
I’m in a white smock, lying on the leatherette chair, eyes closed and listening to the hairbag crinkle and winnow behind my head. I wonder if this will make Mum cry, whether Mum’s capable of that anymore.
‘You went for $1250!’ Molly pins me to the chair with a mini-hug. ‘That’s a Follicle record. You’re going straight to our Wall of Fame.’ She points to the facing wall with this series of Before & After portraits. The left ones show smiling hairy women and the right show trying-to-smile and non-smiling bald women.
‘Who’s buying it? I mean can I like meet them?’ My voice suddenly has split ends.
‘Fraid not.’ Molly assumes hairdresser Position A, produces an electric razor and gives it a couple of test buzzes. ‘We kind of take the confidentiality of the transplanter-transplantee relationship very seriously here. If it helps, you should imagine that it’s going to somebody with cancer or with something, you know, terminal. Now just keep still and this will be over ASAP as.’
The hair, my hair, the hair that Mum and Dad made. Ripped from my scalp and sewn strand by strand into a wig. I get the feeling of falling, I get a deadweight dropping of the innards. I get the image of Dad in the bed and all the bags pumping in and out of him and the way that his legs stuck out of the paper gown that reminded me of a pair of cocktail umbrellas. I remember his skull, how it indented at the temples. I remember thinking that this was the first time I’d understood the meaning of the word skull. I remember how shiny it was after the last round of chemo, how it actually produced glare. The image of my hair, custom-fitted in wig-format onto Dad’s drumskin skull, and Mum brushing and brushing it and taking big whiffs of the thickest parts at the back and whispering in his ear, ‘Never put anything in your hair that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.’
It’s weird because everything is happening really fast but also really slow, so that when the razor touches the front of my head it feels like I’ve been here forever. When I sit up with a jolt and the razor hacks a strip off my scalp it feels I’m already kind of a completely different person. Molly gives this little yelp and drops the razor to the ground. It writhes on the tiles next to my hair hunk and all the other surrogates start sitting up and making these oh-oh mouth sounds. Still in my smock, I rip out the salon door and into the jaundiced late-morning. I run to the tram stop and stand there, checking the timetable, with clenched fists and an almost cellular longing for home. I can see my reflection in the grimy glass of the tram shelter and I think how I look like Mum (whose name is Celia) and I prod at the bald spot and wonder how long it will take to grow back, grow back out, grow up.