Here are the first two chapters of my current work-in-progress Haircuts, Hens and Homicide, plus the first draft of the cover by the talented Caiti. There will be minor tweaks to both but they’ll give you a good idea of what the novel is about.
Enjoy! And Happy Easter too!
This was turning into a really, really bad week.
It was hot and stuffy in the vet’s waiting room. And waiting was the key word – I’d been sticking to an uncomfy plastic chair for over half an hour and the time was crawling steadily towards midday. Once both hands of the clock settled over the twelve, the surgery would shut, presumably whether or not myself and the other person in the waiting room had been seen. No one messes with lunchtime in France.
I glanced around the macabrely decorated salle d’attente. It was festooned with posters of animal parasites for the main part, with the occasional cross section of one sort of pet or another thrown in for variety. Definitely unnerving. As if sensing and sharing my discomfort, both physical and mental, there was a shuffle and scrape from the occupant of the cardboard box resting on my knees. That small sound immediately produced another – a loud, angry growl. Across from me was an old, grumpy-looking man with an old, grumpy-looking … well, I wasn’t entirely sure sort of dog it was. It was shapeless and hairy and there was a mean gleam in its eyes. I pulled the box closer to me. The dog growled louder. The old boy pulled off his baseball hat and whacked his dog on the head with it. The grumbling subsided, although the mean gleam definitely got meaner. The man put his hat back on.
The first time I’d visited Gran in France I’d expected to see the entire male population wearing berets. My school textbooks had been resolute on the matter. And not only that, but they also wore stripy tee-shirts, rode bicycles and had a string of onions around their necks. Or was it garlic? Anyway, I’d soon been disabused of such fanciful notions and learned that the beret had been replaced by the baseball cap. Such a cool accessory elsewhere in the world, in France it was the reserve of the over-fifties.
“Come on, come on!” I muttered under my breath, eliciting another growl from Mean Mutt.
I’d caught sight of the animal that was currently monopolising the vet’s time as it had gone into the surgery with its expensively-dressed owner. It was a teeny tiny ratlike toy dog of some sort. Surely any decent vet could have given something so small the once-over in thirty seconds, and a thorough examination in a minute. How on earth could that piddly little runt be taking this long to deal with? I could have growled too.
I had a funeral to go to. That was the reason I was here in France at all. Gran had died last Thursday. I’d known within hours that something was wrong because, being her only living relative far off in distant Solihull, I’d trained her up on Facebook and, regular as clockwork, we had brief chats every morning before I went to work at the struggling Curl Up and Dye hair salon, and again when I came home. Actually, the evening chats were quite long as I had plenty of gossip to pass on. Gran had only moved away five years ago, when I turned eighteen, to live the dream in a small cottage with a couple of acres of land in a remote spot of central France. She knew a lot of the people whose hair I cut, or if she didn’t, then she was acquainted with a cousin or a neighbour or theirs, or was a friend of a friend, or – more usually, given Gran’s non-compromising nature – an enemy of an enemy. So, when she hadn’t been online for our morning natter, and I couldn’t get her by phone during my midmorning break, as per our contingency plan I’d phoned the Mairie in tiny, sleepy Nouzer. Luckily it was open for once and I’d asked if the Maire could please pop round and check on her. I don’t suppose he was mad keen on the prospect, since Gran had at one time or another fallen out with practically everybody in the village, and he’d been dragged in to arbitrate on assorted matters. But bless him, he did his duty and found Gran dead in the armchair in the living room, her latest adopted stray cat purring happily on her cold lap. He got all the official stuff going, no doubt relieved this was the last time Gran would inconvenience him, and I flew out that evening to take over. And so I missed my own leaving party. Jen, the manageress, was “letting me go” that Friday as she couldn’t afford to pay my wages any more.
Either the Maire’s arrival must have spooked Gran’s timid stray, which she’d told me lots about on Facebook, because I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of little Scabby Tabby since I’d been at the house. I hoped she was all right.
I sighed, at which Mean Mutt growled once more. This time the old man muttered something threatening and the dog, reluctantly, dropped its head back onto its paws. I managed not to sigh again as I thought about how this just hadn’t been my year. Completely out of the blue, Jason, my fiancé, had dumped me in January, two months before our planned wedding. He felt trapped, apparently. He was too young to get married. He was twenty-nine, for God’s sake! He needed to see the world. So as well as leaving me, he left his job at the car factory and set off for a world tour. He got as far as London where he literally bumped into Melissa at Euston Station. They instantly shacked up in some tiny bedsit, and the last I heard he’ll be a father before Christmas.
“Men!” I snarled, forgetting where I was and who I was with.
Mean Mutt sat bolt upright and started barking. His owner started shouting at him. At that precise moment, the surgery door opened and Mrs Swanky Pants and her putrid pet pranced out. Mean Mutt lunged at Putrid, clearly convinced it was vermin of some kind. His teeth missed its neck by millimetres. Putrid began to yip in terror, Swanky Pants screamed and the old man bellowed even louder, trying to drag his furious dog away from its trembling, intended prey. Putrid made a dive to hide behind my legs, closely pursued by Mean Mutt. There was no way I was letting any part of my anatomy get involved in this uneven contest. Clutching my box, I leapt up and onto my chair. There was a surprised scuffling inside the box, a momentary pause, and then an outbreak of angry, indignant and very loud clucking. Yes, there was a chicken in my box. Edith, to be precise. She was Gran’s hen equivalent i.e. intolerant and opinionated, and she let everyone know that now.
The unexpected, ear-splitting sound (and believe me, angry chickens can ramp up the decibels) shut everyone up and temporarily froze the two dogs. Swanky Pants scooped up her diminutive dog and clutched it to her bejewelled, far from diminutive bosom. Mean Mutt’s owner at last got control of him, and started to drag him towards the open surgery door, which I now noticed was almost completely filled by the huge figure of a man. As I watched him, OK I’ll admit it, stared at him – I mean, he was the biggest guy I’d ever seen – his look of astonishment gave way to one of amusement, but that was quickly replaced by abject apology as the woman spun round. But not quickly enough.
“You think this is funny!” she screeched. “My little Frou-Frou could have been killed. Look at him!” She thrust him under the vet’s nose. “He is trembling with fear.”
If Frou-Frou wasn’t before, then he definitely was now. I mean, if I was that small and I was suddenly stuck inches away from something as big as that vet, I’d be cowering and shivering too.
She turned round and cast a haughty look over myself and the old man. He was a typical retired farmer, an elderly man on not much income, in clothes that had seen better days but not the washing machine for a while. He was red-faced, hadn’t shaved for a while and must have lost his hairbrush last century. And I looked like someone whose Gran had just died. I had bags under my eyes, and I was overdue an appointment with the shower. I hadn’t had time to pack properly before I raced out to Nouzer and hadn’t brought many clothes. So today I was wearing one of Gran’s baggy tee-shirts, clean but stained, and my very short denim shorts. They barely showed beneath the tee. Oh, and I had Gran’s flip-flops on too. Very not cool, and I knew that, but I’d only brought one pair of sandals with me. And they were altogether too strappy and flimsy for wearing on Gran’s scooter.
That was how I’d travelled the nine kilometres to the vet’s in the small but bustling – at least in comparison to Nouzer – town of St Loup sur le Roc. It was big enough to have such things as a bank, a post-office, a handful of shops including a small supermarket and two pharmacies, a generous smattering of bars, a hair salon and a vet. The scooter was a lifeline because I didn’t have a car and there was practically no public transport in that part of Creuse. I’d flown out to Limoges Airport from where I’d expected to have to pay a fortune to take a taxi to Gran’s but the kind Maire had picked me up. And since my arrival I’d been getting around on Gran’s 49.5 cc Kymco, never exceeding 50 kmph. That wasn’t because I was being purposefully law-abiding, but because the elderly scooter began to make odd noises when I hit 49 kmph. Edith had accompanied me to the vet’s in a cardboard box attached to the holder on the back of the scooter with a couple of bungees.
So, I wasn’t looking particularly glamorous today but that didn’t excuse Mrs Swanky from looking quite so disgusted at the sight of me.
“You’re a bunch of scruffy peasants!” she exploded. “Peasants!” She whirled round and glared at the vet. “I shall never come here again.”
And she stalked out, her little Frou-Frou still yipping in terror.
“Pfft,” shrugged the old man. “Parisians.” I’m pretty sure he’d have spat on the floor in disgust if the vet hadn’t been standing there.
“Parisians,” agreed the vet, nodding slowly. Then he grinned. “But she’ll be back. No other vet in this area will see that vicious little dog of hers when she’s down here in her holiday home. I’m the only one it hasn’t bitten yet. Not that it hasn’t tried, that nasty little f—” He quickly stopped himself. “Nasty little Frou-Frou.”
I managed a weak smile. I was still a little stressed by my recent escape from the jaws of if not death, then at least a nasty infection.
The vet shook the old man’s hand.
“So, Alphonse, let’s go and find out what’s up with Monsieur Moustache, shall we?”
Monsieur Moustache? Seriously? This old farmer had called his dog something so soppy? That was strangely heartening and my smile became a proper one. Grumpy Alphonse must really care for that hound. You didn’t bother giving a quirky two-part name to an animal you didn’t care for, now did you. You’d give it some off-the-peg dog name like Rover or Fido or Prince that required no thought whatsoever. Not something like Monsieur Moustache. Animals should have names, and nice ones too, I decided.
“You know, you can get down now, if you like.”
The words woke me from my reverie.
I looked down at two amused faces. The vet was extending his hand to me. Yup, I was still standing on the chair.
“Oh gosh, yes. Um, thank you.” I laughed self-consciously and felt my cheeks start to burn. I manoeuvred one arm so that it supported Edith’s box safely and took the vet’s colossal hand. I daintily stepped down, at least as daintily as was possible in slightly large flip flops. Edith clucked again. Monsieur Moustache growled.
“So, a chicken,” remarked the vet, nodding towards the box. “That’ll be a first for me!”
My embarrassed smile gave way to a frown of worry. How could a country vet not have had dealings with chickens before? I thought I’d be entrusting my poorly hen to a poultry expert.
“But everyone has chickens!” I blurted.
That was perfectly true in and around St Loup. There was invariably a handful of chickens, often accompanied by a raucous cockerel, in someone’s garden.
“True, but they don’t bring them to the vet,” he shrugged. “Why pay twenty euros to see me when they can put it out of its misery by wringing its neck and then go and buy another one for three euros from the market.”
There didn’t seem to be answer to that. French people weren’t generally known for their compassion towards anything edible.
“No, they’re utilitarian in the main,” the vet carried on. “For eggs or the pot. Some people keep a few ornamental chickens. Alphonse here could tell you all about those, he’s into bird fancying.”
The feathered type, I assumed.
Alphonse nodded enthusiastically. He opened his mouth, but the vet chipped in first.
“I’m sure you two can get together sometime and discuss aviculture. But let’s get this dog of yours sorted out now, Alphonse. It’s nearly dinnertime.”
See, I was right about the dinner thing.
He took Alphonse firmly by the elbow and steered him into the surgery.
I sat back down. The vet reminded me of someone, with his remarkable height and width, longish red hair and large moustache, but who? A rugby player? A wrestler? I frowned in thought. Then I smiled. Of course, Obelix from the Asterix books. That’s who he looked like.
I listened idly to the muted voices and occasional growl of protest coming from behind the closed door. I felt slightly downhearted. I was worried that perhaps Obelix wouldn’t able to sort poor old Edith out for me. She’d been floppy and listless for a couple of days now. Usually she ruled the roost, such as it was. It consisted of three more chickens – Maude, Gloria and Cynthia – and Ophelia, the duck. But she thought she was a chicken. Gran had found an abandoned duck nest with still-warm eggs and shoved them under Edith, who was broody at the time. Only one had hatched, and that was Ophelia. She trailed around after the chickens all day and stared disdainfully, as did they, at the small duckpond in the back garden. She’d yet to get a feather wet in it and she was four years old.
It was now five to twelve. So long as I was back home by one, I’d be fine. All the funeral arrangements were in place. The hearse would be arriving at two to take me and Gran to the crematorium in the nearest large town. I hadn’t made plans for getting home, since I didn’t know how long Gran’s goodbye would take, but I had enough money for a taxi. I wasn’t optimistic that there’d be anyone I could get a lift back to either Nouzer or St Loup with. Gran hadn’t made many friends, and no one was coming over from England to the funeral. I’d told a couple of her vague cronies but they’d pleaded prior engagements at bingo or the bookies, or lack of funds due to spending so much time at bingo or the bookies, or simply a distrust of going abroad to a country where they might inadvertently eat a snail. My bessie, Kayla, had offered to come to support me, despite the fact she and Gran had always hated each other, but she was six months pregnant and both I and Scott, her boyfriend, had dissuaded her for very sensible reasons. It was going to be just me and Gran.
Alphonse and Monsieur Moustache emerged a couple of minutes after twelve and amazingly Obelix motioned me to come in. I’d been prepared to be fobbed off although I’d intended to put up at least a token fight. That proved unnecessary, and thank goodness, as I’m not a great one for conflict. Fifteen years of living with a grandmother who could start an argument in an empty room had left me with a distinct preference for the quiet life.
As I passed Alphonse, he slipped a grubby piece of card between my left hand and Edith’s box.
“Come and see my birds, mam’selle,” he invited me.
I was taken by surprise.
“Oh! Thank you, merci, yes I will. Oui.”
Alphonse touched the peak of his greasy baseball hat and was gone.
I carefully placed Edith’s box on the table in the surgery and opened the flaps. But Obelix was more interested in me for the time being.
Up until now the conversation had been in pidgin French. Well, on my side, I mean. Naturally the three French nationals I’d encountered this morning were pretty good with the language. So it was a surprise, but a nice one, when the vet carried on in English. Extremely good English.
“Are you on holiday?” he probed unashamedly. “Ah no, not with a chicken, silly me. I’m guessing you must live here then. Haven’t noticed you around though.”
How to explain without launching into a long, complicated monologue. Even in my mother tongue it was more than I felt up to at the moment.
I settled on, “I’m, er, sort of staying for a little while.”
Which I was. I’d already started the process of getting Gran’s cottage valued and onto the market, but I’d have to rehome the birds and cat, if she ever reappeared, empty the house and smarten it up considerably. That would take a while. And since I was without a fella and a job back home, and was currently inhabiting a tiny, vile rented flat in a grotty block, I was in no rush. But I’d have to go sometime.
The vet obviously accepted that was all he was going to get.
“I see. But you at least have a name? I’m Erik.”
Nah. Obelix suited him much better.
“Holly,” I replied. And thinking I should at least give him a smidgen of further information, I added, “From Solihull.”
“Holly from Solihull,” he repeated. “Very poetic.”
He’d clearly never been to Solihull, or my part of it at any rate.
“And this is Edith,” I said, to bring us back to the subject in hand: curing my poorly hen.
I lifted Edith out of her box and placed her next to it on the table. She didn’t make a fuss and sat there quietly, but fixed the vet with her gimlet eye, daring him to cause her any indignity whatsoever. “You poke, I peck,” she seemed to be saying.
“So, what seems to be the matter?” asked Obelix.
He stroked her head with a finger and Edith grumbled a complaint.
“Since…” I was about to say “Gran died” but that would call for all those explanations. I started again. “Since the weekend, she’s hardly moved or eaten anything. That’s not Edith’s style at all. I kept thinking she’d perk up again, but she hasn’t.”
Obelix nodded. He picked Edith up. She uttered a token squawk of disapproval.
“How old is she?”
“Eleven or twelve,” I shrugged.
“What?” exclaimed the vet, eyebrows shooting up. “Twelve years old? Seriously?”
I shrugged. What was the fuss about? “Yes, the person who gave her to Gran when she moved here five years ago said that Edith was seven and too tough to eat, but might lay a few eggs before she died. She’s never laid loads, but one or two a week.”
“Ciel mon mari,” muttered Obelix. “Normally they live up to seven or eight, and that’s at a push and in good conditions. Here.” He held Edith out to me. “Back in a jaffa.”
I assumed he meant jiffy and I took my hen obligingly. I realised I’d spilled some of the beans about Gran now, but so far I’d got away with it.
Obelix turned to the laptop on the desk in the surgery and typed a few things in, slowly and clumsily with a lot of Gallic sound effects, mainly frustrated-sounding. Then came a disappointed one. If he’d been looking up what might be wrong with Edith, then things weren’t good.
“No, not a record,” he announced sadly.
“Record?” What was he talking about?
“Twelve isn’t a record age for a hen. The oldest one ever was sixteen. I just wondered if Edith could get into that Whiskey Book of Records.”
I looked at him blankly for a moment, then it clicked. I couldn’t help smiling. “Guinness. Guinness Book of Records,” I corrected him and nodded.
“Oh yes, I knew it was a drink of some kind,” he smiled back.
“So, about Edith?” I prompted, holding her out to him.
“Right, of course.”
He felt her all over, prised her beak open and peered in, then gave her back to me.
“I’ll check her temperature.”
He rummaged in a drawer for a thermometer.
“Brace yourself, Edith,” I told her quietly. “Mind you, seeing as how you squeeze a huge egg out of that orifice, this should be a doddle.”
I made sure I had her wings firmly clamped down. I’d been hit in the eyes or on the nose a few times now by resentful chickens when holding them and it was surprisingly painful. Edith was good, though. Her expression changed subtly as the thermometer went in but she bore it with impressive fortitude.
“Normal,” shrugged Obelix a moment or so later, reading the temperature.
Edith and I both relaxed.
“I can’t find anything wrong with Edna at all,” he told me. “She’s a perfectly healthy if very old chicken.”
I felt rather stupid. I’d wasted the vet’s time. It was just that… I couldn’t bear another death at the moment. If Edith keeled over, I think I would too.
“I’m sorry,” I began, but suddenly the surgery door burst open and a tiny, determined women strode in. Edith shot into the air in a flurry of panic and feathers. I grabbed her and held her firmly against my chest. I think my heart was beating nearly as fast as hers.
“C’est le merde!” the new arrival declared angrily, hurling her handbag at Obelix’s desk.
“Maman!” snapped the vet. “I’m with a client.”
The woman stopped and seemed to notice me for the first time. She wasn’t massively impressed by what she saw, judging by her expression and the fact she continued to ignore me.
“But this is an emergency! It’s an outrage!” she fumed.
Obelix gave me an apologetic look.
“What is, Maman?”
“I had an appointment for eleven at Gregoire Mulard’s for my hair. I want to look nice this afternoon. The door to the salon was open so I went in and sat myself down. There was no one around, but you know what that man is like. He’s always nipping down to Jacky’s bar. So I waited and waited, but he didn’t show up. So finally, about quarter of an hour ago, I went to Jacky’s but he said he hadn’t seen him this morning. He came back with me and we went upstairs to Gregoire’s flat above the shop, and there he was, passed out on the bed. Blind drunk! Selfish man! I can’t go to the funeral this afternoon with my hair like this! I’ll die of shame!”
And she burst into tears.
Several things struck me at once. The first was that I didn’t know French women cried. I thought they only had one emotional setting: ferocity. Mind you, looking back I’d always been in Gran’s company when I’d met any French women and she had the knack of bringing that quality out in everyone. The second was how could someone so tiny be the mother of someone so huge. He must have been nearly the size as her when he was born. Number three thought was that there was another funeral going on this afternoon. That was quite a coincidence. Or maybe not. I’d read in a local paper that the St Loup area had the oldest population in the whole of France. So presumably folks were popping off all the time. Then I had a fourth thought: I could help. If only I’d had a fifth one of ‘best not get involved’.
“Um, I’m a hairdresser,” I ventured hesitantly.
Maman’s head snapped round towards me at such speed I was pretty sure I was about to hear a nasty cracking sound.
Not the most flattering response but I didn’t look like a hairdresser in my current attire, and certainly nothing like a French coiffeur or coiffeuse, whom I imagined were elegance personified.
“Yes. I’ve got my City and Guilds and everything,” I justified myself.
Maman’s unflinching stare matched Edith’s.
“These are just my farm clothes,” I added lamely.
“You can do my hair? Now?”
“I don’t have my equipment with me…” I began, but Obelix suddenly whisked Edith out of my hands.
“I’m sure I have everything you’ll need,” he assured me happily.
“But what about Edith?” I protested.
“I’ll give her some vitamins,” promised Obelix, coming to a snap prognosis, “lots. And I won’t charge for the consultation. But please, please do my mother’s hair? You don’t know what she’s like.” There was an edge of desperation in his voice. “She’ll still be talking about this in twenty years’ time.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about. I’d lived with Gran long enough.
“I’ll need sharp scissors, a comb, and shampoo for starters.” I took charge. “Towel, somewhere to wash Maman’s… I mean, madame’s hair.”
He ushered me into a small room off the surgery which acted as both kitchen and pre-op scrubbing-up area by the looks of things. There was a sink at roughly the right sort of height, although no shower fitting but that wasn’t really a surprise. However, there were a couple of plastic cups on the draining board that I could use to wet Maman’s hair.
Maman was right on our heels and was already in the process of taking down her bun. I hadn’t noticed before how vast it was. She was removing hairclips from her hair at the rate of several a second. Finally she untwirled a tatty hair net and her grey hair came down in a heavy sticky curtain. It wasn’t a pretty sight but I managed not to flinch. Maman plonked herself down on a chair which she scooted backwards so that it was against the sink. She leant her head back. It must have been incredibly uncomfortable, but, as I’d already sussed out, she was a determined woman. Pain was no object. I began to run the water.
“What do you need first?” asked Obelix.
“Shampoo,” I told him. I looked down at Maman’s greasy locks. “Something… with oomph.”
He nodded then opened the door to a cupboard. It was full of cleaning and cleansing materials. He pulled out a slightly grubby bottle of ‘Chaton Rayonnant’ – glowing kitten – shampoo.
“Will this do?” He didn’t look like he thought it would.
I didn’t either. Maman bore no resemblance to a kitten for a start, but as I poured an experimental glob onto my hand, I could feel that it wasn’t up to the task. It might add a shine to a clean kitty’s fur but that wasn’t going to work here.
I shook my head. Obelix had another rummage and came out with some anti-flea dog shampoo. That had to have a nice lot of chemicals in it so it might just do the trick. I took that from him, and also requisitioned the washing-up liquid. We were in business.
The sink was full by now and I began to slosh water onto Maman’s hair. It was sliding straight off, such was the thick waterproof barrier of grease that it was having to contend with. I persevered.
By now Obelix had added a rabbit anti-tick shampoo to my collection. Like the other bottles, it had been hanging around for a while and was about half full.
“How come you have so many different open shampoos?” I asked.
“We occasionally have to bath some of the animals that come in if they’ve got bad infestations of parasites. This morning I had to do a guinea-pig with the worst case of mange I’d ever seen.”
Maman’s expression didn’t change so she clearly didn’t understand English very well. My own expression may have flickered momentarily as I wondered if any mange mites had been clinging on to the sides of the sink and were now swimming towards my hands and Maman’s scalp. I grabbed both the rabbit and dog shampoos and squeezed generous quantities over the old woman’s hair and began, reluctantly, to work it in. I hoped the combination should kill off any lurking nasties in the water.
After three water changes and all the washing-up liquid, I was getting somewhere at last and Maman’s hair was several shades lighter. Obelix meanwhile had raided his operating kit and supplied me with a razor sharp pair of scissors. A comb, possibly a lice comb, had come out of the cornucopic cupboard and he’d given it a good wipe down on his blue cotton scrubs. I swilled it around in the sink of anti-everything soup I’d created for good measure. Obelix also produced a pile of towels and, unbelievably, a hairdryer. I’d already noticed that there was a warm air hand-drier on the wall behind me as I’d bumped my head against it a couple of times while I was washing Maman’s hair. I’d been figuring out ways of using that to do the drying when the time came. But now that particular problem was solved.
“I’d no idea vets were so well-equipped,” I smiled.
“Well, in the old days we’d just give the wet animals a good rub with a towel, but now that we have so many second-homers in the area with their lap dogs and fluffy cats, we’ve had to go upmarket,” he explained. He then muttered something under his breath along the lines of not thinking much of these people and their pampered pets. The earlier contretemps with Frou-Frou’s owner was clearly still rankling. There were a good few words I’d never heard before. I made a mental note to look them up later. You could never have too many swear words at your disposal in any language.
After a few rinses, I motioned Obelix over to help me sit his mother up. I was concerned that we may not get her neck upright again and I’d rather he was the one that broke it in the attempt. She’d been remarkably patient through the procedure so far. And then I saw why. She hadn’t just been shutting her eyes so as not to get stray soapy bubbles in them – she’d fallen asleep! I guess she had had an eventful morning.
“Much as I hate to stir the hornets’ nest,” sighed Obelix sadly, giving Maman a little shake.
I nodded in understanding.
But Maman woke with a smile on her face, and, fortunately, a revised and improved opinion of me.
“That was very relaxing, dear,” she said, wincing slightly as Obelix, supporting her head in his massive hand, half shoved, half coaxed her into a sitting position. “How about un petit café, Erik?”
“Maman, this isn’t actually a hair salon,” he frowned. “And anyway, you hate the coffee I make.”
“True,” she sighed. “Now, chérie,” she turned her attention back to me. “Brush, dry and back in a bun please.”
While I’d been washing her hair I’d been thinking about how to style it. It was too long and heavy for her delicate build and features.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said bravely.
I don’t know who looked the most shocked at my response. It was obvious now that no one ever said ‘no’ to Maman. But I’d already said it, so I could only plough on. But how to sell her my idea of a hairstyle makeover?
“We need to ‘relook’ you,” I declared, throwing in the term I’d picked up from browsing through some French women’s mags.
The stunned silence continued to reign.
“Give you a filmstar look.”
“Not Gérard Depardieu I hope!” quipped Obelix.
Both Maman and I levelled dagger-like stares at him.
“No,” I said firmly, “I was thinking more of…”
I couldn’t actually think of a single French actress with the hairstyle I intended for Maman. I knew plenty of mature and graceful English actresses, but wasn’t sure if Maman would have heard of them, or, if she had and given the usual French antipathy for all things English, would want to imitate one. I was going for the Vanessa Redgrave shoulder-length, no-fringe look. Ideally I’d have opted for Helen Mirren, but a fringe at the same time as much shorter hair would be too much for a seventy-something French lady who’d probably had the same scraped-back hairstyle since she was sixteen.
I was floundering. Think, Holly, think. Annoyingly I could suddenly only conjure up images of longer-haired non-French actors: Brad Pitt, Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, Johnny Depp… Hang on! Our Johnny was long-time partner to that beautiful French singer-cum-actress with exactly the right sort of hair. Surely Maman would take the bait.
“More of Vanessa Paradis.”
There was another few moments of silence. Obelix’s eyebrows shot into orbit but Maman looked thoughtful. Her slight frown gradually gave way to neutrality and then a smile lit her wrinkled face.
“I’ve often thought she resembled me,” she announced.
I had the all-clear.
Obelix had temporarily lost the power of speech. I was worried that when it returned he might say something to burst her bubble and bring my plans crashing down – something along the lines of “You’ve got to be kidding me!” or maybe he’d just double up laughing – so he needed distracting.
“I’ll need the styling brush that’s in my rucksack in the waiting room,” I instructed crisply. “It’s under the chair I was sitting on.”
No hairdresser goes anywhere without at least one styling brush somewhere about their person. But from now on I’d add a comb to that ‘indispensables’ list, in case I was ever hijacked to do a haircut again.
Obelix blinked a few times, rubbed his head, broke into a grin, and fortunately nothing more, and went to retrieve my bag. I sighed with relief.
I put a dry towel around Maman’s shoulders and began to comb her long hair into submission. It was fine and in remarkably good condition, being only a little dry at the ends. Still, that would all be coming off imminently.
I glanced at the clock. It was now half past twelve. I had to be out of here in half an hour.
Buoyed up by the thought of soon looking like a renowned popstar and former Chanel model, Maman became very chatty. I only half listened, and the speed at which she spoke meant there was no hope of understanding her anyway, as I had to concentrate fully on the task in hand. However, I made what I hoped were appropriate noises whenever there was an expectant pause in the conversation. I’d done the same thing throughout my hairdressing career, if you can my five years of cutting hair that. I’d become a good judge of what people were saying without actually listening. I mean, there’s only so many long rambling tales of child prodigies, cute cats and cheating boyfriends you can listen to without wanting stick your scissors in your eye. I’d learned how to pick up from the general tone of the customer’s voice – fiercely proud, soppily indulgent, totally disgusted or whatever – the subject of the monologue and what sort of reaction was called for. I could only pray that French intonations were similar to English ones on the whole.
I worked fast and was thankful that there was no mirror. I’ve had plenty of clients who have confidently and excitedly asked for something drastic to be done but have quickly gone quieter and whiter as they’ve watched the reflection of the work that was underway. So far I’ve only had the one who leapt up and ran away when I turned around to get my thinning scissors, but a good handful have got cold feet halfway through and so we’ve had to settle on a disappointing compromise. “Have the courage of your convictions,” I wanted to tell them. “And at the very worst, your hair will grow again!” I didn’t have much time for dithery clients.
Fortunately I could keep Maman in blissful ignorance of the extreme makeover she was getting. I was shoving the long clumps of hair that fell to the floor under her chair with my foot so that she wouldn’t catch a glimpse of them and start to rethink the Vanessa Paradis approach.
After fetching my brush, Obelix had sat himself down at his desk and done a bit of paperwork. I was grateful to have him there as bodyguard.
Blowdrying commenced. The hairdryer was ace. I hadn’t given it more than a passing glance when Obelix had first produced it. I’d been expecting a feeble, ancient model but this was a top-of-the-range mega-powerful one.
I caught Obelix’s eye.
“I’m impressed,” I shouted over the noise and nodding down at the drier in my right hand.
He smiled. “My receptionist and veterinary nurse, Blandine, organised it for us. It was quite expensive but she reckoned it would pay for itself in saving on time and thus also on plasters when drying bad-tempered animals. This less time handling those evil little bastards, the more intact we remain.”
“Some of my customers can be evil too, but at least they don’t usually bite or scratch,” I conceded with a grin. “Oh, I don’t mean your mum,” I added hastily.
Aha, that explained the improbable size incongruity.
“My mum was Welsh.” Thus the red hair and rugby-playing build. “I was brought up bilingual for the first few years of my life. But after Mum died, I went totally French, apart from when I was with my grandparents in Cardiff.”
“So that’s why your English is so good then. And where’s Blandine today?”
“On holiday this week, hence the chaos. If she’d been here, we’d have had Frou-Frou and her owner in and out in ten minutes. Blandine knows how to handle these tough Parisian women.” I’d have thought he’d have had plenty of training with Maman, but maybe he was programmed to give in to strident females. “And I’d be able to find my stapler.” He was rummaging through the piles of paperwork on his desk. Suddenly he stopped. “Ah.”
“Ah, as in, Alphonse was in here.”
Why would he have come in here? The surgery was the room next door. Obelix must have read my thoughts.
“When Blandine’s off, I bring customers in here to pay after the consultation. Normally she’d take care of that at the front desk. And our Alphonse is a bit of a magpie.”
That seemed a very restrained way of saying he was a thieving git. I filed that information away about Alphonse for when, or possibly now if, I called by to see his birds.
Another few minutes of the hairdryer going at warp speed and some furious brushing on my part and Maman was ready. We might have been lacking a tad in the Paradis area, but we certainly had a Vanessa resemblance with the hair. A slight wave had emerged to Maman’s tresses once the heaviness had been reduced by the simple approach of cutting most of it off, and she really did look rather lovely.
“There, all finished,” I smiled at her.
She ran a thin hand down her hair.
“It feels so soft,” she marvelled. “Goodness, I feel like a new woman.”
“And you look like one too,” agreed Obelix, looming up behind me. “Mademoiselle Holly, you’re a genius.”
I half-smiled. It would be Maman’s verdict that would be the deal-clincher.
“I want to see,” said Maman. “Where’s my handbag, Erik?”
Obelix had put it under his desk. He retrieved the voluminous bag now and Maman battled with the firm clip and then delved inside. As her head bent down, her hair swished gracefully forwards around her face. She gave a little giggle.
“Ooh, that feel’s funny!”
Finally she brandished a powder compact at us. She flipped it open, held it up… and gasped. My heart stopped momentarily. Surely she liked it – she looked lovely. And, I added pragmatically, beggars can’t be choosers.
Still she didn’t say anything. She didn’t like it. I’d taken a gamble and it hadn’t paid off, like with Jason. The silence crept on.
“But I am beautiful!” she suddenly cried. “Look at me, I’m gorgeous!”
Obelix burst out laughing. I grinned like an idiot and Maman put her compact back, dropped her bag to the floor, got up, a little creakily, and kissed me on both cheeks.
“You are indeed a genius. You have taken thirty years off me. Why, oh why, have I allowed that moron Gregoire to make me look like an old maid all these years? I could have been looking like this! I would have had crowds of men following me around!”
“Papa wouldn’t have liked that,” Obelix pointed out with a smile.
Plus all the men in St Loup put together hardly amassed to a crowd, but I kept that observation to myself.
“Pfft!” Maman waved her hand dismissively. “Even a married French women is allowed to have admirers. Now, I must go and show everyone.”
“But Maman, it’s lunchtime.”
I was painfully aware of that. I was starving but there wouldn’t be time to eat now. I had to get myself and Edith home, have a shower and make myself look presentable before the hearse pulled up at the front door.
“Ah bon,” Maman nodded. “Everyone will see me at the funeral anyway.”
The one she was off to was going to be a very different affair from Gran’s lonely sending-off. I felt tears prick my eyes. Gran really wasn’t… hadn’t been such a bad old stick. True, she would try the patience of any saint, but deep down – very deep down – she was kind, caring and loyal. She’d brought me up after my nineteen-year-old Mum had gone off to India to “find herself” twenty years ago and disappeared. Neither the police nor private investigators had ever managed to find out what happened to her. So Gran had lived all that time, not knowing, worrying, feeling guilty, yet lavishing love on me and protecting me. Who could blame her if she became bitter and intolerant with the outside world? Even after Mum had been declared “dead in absentia” I don’t think she’d ever given up hope that her daughter would turn up on the doorstep one day, safe and sound. I’d only been three when Mum had vanished and so had adapted to life without her much better than Gran. I had a few happy memories of Mum – a picnic, at the seaside, at the zoo – and she was always smiling. But she can’t have been as happy as she appeared, at least to me. Not if she left me.
I shook myself from my reverie, and realised mother and son were looking at me expectantly.
“So? Ma chérie, would you like to join us for dinner?” Maman was saying. “We only live a few houses down the road.”
“Oh. Oh thanks, but no, I’m sorry. I have a, er, thing this afternoon. At two. I have to run.” I hope that didn’t sound too ungrateful. “I’m delighted you’re pleased with your hair.”
“I am, and I shall be telling everyone how wonderful you are, everyone!”
I repacked my rucksack, collected Edith’s box from the surgery table, and after more cheek kisses from Maman and a bone-crushing handshake from Obelix, scuttled back to my scooter and pottered home if not speedily, then at least determinedly.
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