Clear Mirror by Candy Neubert

Our Short Story of the Month is ‘Clear Mirror’ by Candy Neubert.

A stylist ruminates on the art and strange intimacy of cutting hair, recalling an encounter with a client whose actions took him by surprise.

Candy Neubert is author of Foreign Bodies and Big Low Tide, published by Seren. She works, however, mostly as a poet and short story writer, broadcast on Radio 4 and a regular contributor to The Spectator.


Clear Mirror 

The best kind of client is the one who does not talk much. Any stylist will tell you so, anyone who has cut hair for more than, say, a year. It is not the hair cutting which gets tiresome - it takes time for an artist to tire of his art - it is the conversations we are forced into at the same time. 

          Mrs Beecham is one of the best. Shoulder length, mousy bob trimmed four times a year with wash and blow dry. Pleasant smile, same as usual, thank you so much and a small tip in the box. I don’t judge my clients by the size of their tips, (though naturally I notice the generous ones) – no, I appreciate the tranquillity of a wet head of hair, tilted this way and that to my fingers and uninterrupted by talk. This is how I do my best work. I see the head, shaped and made beautiful by the softness of hair – for what would we be without it, but skulls? I see it, feel it, persuade it into beauty; the act is a whole one. I am interested in Zen, yes. I always give Mrs Beecham a perfect cut. 

          Will she come back again after today? 

          A client once came into the South Molton Street salon with that same brown, straight hair. The stylist – what was his name? – ran his comb through it and suggested a light perm. She seemed surprised. No, she just wanted a trim, a good one. He lifted a few strands and went on to suggest some colouring, perhaps highlights. How insensitive! How offensive! and certainly she seemed offended, but politely murmured that she liked her own hair colour. Oh, Plain Jane! he said. Unforgivable, of course. He forgot himself, in my opinion. Or thought himself too expensive to care. Anyhow, the woman walked out of the salon exactly as she was, with her wet hair and one of our olive green towels still around her shoulders. Madam, I applaud you to this day. This was the moment, I believe, when the crassness of London became clear; when I decided to pursue my art in a place of decorum and good manners. 

          Hereford. Hair Design by Arthur, Hereford. I beg you to pronounce ‘Arthur’ correctly, even in your mind. I remember Marilyn (reception) used the soft English ‘th’ when she came to be interviewed, but now to clients she is at pains – is that the idiom? – to stress the hard ‘t’ as we do in Switzerland. Like so: R Tour. He and I are the only Swiss in Hereford, I’m fairly sure. In Hereford, I have only cut the hair of women. 

          Rodney has mixed feelings about this. Every day I touch only women; six, eight, sometimes as many as ten. Men are more fearful. The very word in English: hairdresser! They do not want their hair dressed. They hardly want it cut, hardly care to admit that it even grows. In London, that was different. All sorts of men, but – crass. In country towns the men do not enter salons of hair design. Just once a gentleman came in as if by mistake. He blinked his eyes, trying to assess his surroundings, and Arthur hurried him into a seat (we were quiet that afternoon) to give him a cut in a very tasteful, understated style. Perhaps the man was travelling through this part of the country, but anyway we have not seen him again. You can pick up a great deal through the tips of the fingertips and likewise through the scalp from someone else’s fingertips. Perhaps that is what put him off. 

          So I left the city behind after my first glimpse of English spirit. Did the woman with the wet hair throw the towel aside or fold it neatly into her bag? Did she let it remain on her shoulders, tossing her head on her way down Bond Street? 

          Aside from this incident, the English people have no elan. No elan, but heart; they are weighed down by heart. See the way Marilyn sits at her desk, and Jackie moves the broom between the chairs – faultless, but heavy. Also Mrs Cunningham on a Friday, her husband reading a newspaper in the car outside, and indeed all of Hereford passing by. The body language has a look of.. what is the word? Viscose? Maybe that is not right; I have a shirt made of viscose. But you have the right words already: heavy-hearted. That is it. We do not walk like that in the streets of Lausanne.

          It was Mrs Beecham today who opened my eyes. I have been moved by a woman in a way I would never have thought possible. Shall I tell Rodney? If I do, then it must be this very evening, or not at all, for it would seem odd to simply mention such a thing casually in the future. 

          The subject of women is not an easy one for Rodney. It is enough that I treat them with care and tenderness every day. This is important. Arthur has done much to enhance my skill, and he taught me two things. Firstly, to talk with the outer edge of one’s soul. To know that this edge is vast and infinite and so it is possible to remember, without detracting from one’s work, that Mrs Eliott has a daughter at boarding school, that Miss Neave breeds Doberman Pinschers, and so on. They come for this, this contact of words. Secondly, the physical care, the sure touch. It is a form of love. Which leads me to Mrs Beecham. 

          She sat before the mirror this afternoon in a blue robe such as each client wears. She nodded hello, fell into her usual silence, and I began. The hair is divided into sections - I use only one clip - and the cut begins at the nape of the neck, that exquisite place. In most cases the client instinctively inclines forward, an attitude of submission. I find this touching. Thus we give assent to the will of others, to love, to execution. I think of these things and my thoughts flow into my hands. This is why it is harder when the flow is broken by conversation, but the true master will not notice this. Arthur, for example. 

          I cut the hair at the back, section by section to the crown. The left side, and the right. I lift the hair from the scalp with unvarying tension. Some clients, even when silent, make jerking movements as they reach for coffee cups or turn pages. But a few, like Mrs Beecham, close their eyes and are perfectly still. Not even tempted by the mirror! To concentrate one’s mind, as the Japanese say: clear mirror, quiet water. Lovely, is it not? And the English: still waters run deep. How the cultural differences echo through the two phrases! So two beings, foreign to one another, are concentrated, artist and living subject, linked by a fingerful of hair. 

          Rodney teases me about my lyricism. ‘Over the top’, as he puts it. Rodney’s own idea of romance is obtuse. I have just referred to the dictionary for ‘obtuse’ and I believe this to be my meaning. He has attractive blunt hands, also. But no elan! No, I shall not recount Mrs. Beecham’s haircut to Rodney. 

          Thus because of a second English woman I shall move again, this time back to Switzerland. Not immediately, but soon enough. For I realise that if I cannot share Mrs Beecham with Rodney, with whom can I share any of my innermost thoughts? 

          She was acutely aware of my touch; of course I sensed this. But only when I came to check the length of the hair in front of her face, bending towards her, did I realise that she was in more than a state of trance, that with her hand beneath the robe she was, in fact, pleasuring herself. How else can I say it? And like a lover driven to accompany his love along the meandering path towards joy, I continued to cut. Combing across her head, lifting the hair, pulling it gently away from the scalp, and – snip snip! Back to the nape of the neck (she exhaled in a tiny sigh) and up to the crown, left side and right side again. 

          A quick glance in the mirror assured me that we were unobserved. Arthur was discussing something with a new client, Marilyn talking into the telephone, and our trainee out of sight with Jackie in the backroom. I returned with awe to the experience before me, in my very hands. I ran the edge of the comb behind the ears, coaxed the hair between my fingers, my scissors sang with their own music. I thought: I am as close to a woman as I will ever be. With total wonder I heard her small cry and glanced quickly again into the mirror. Arthur still spoke to his client, Marilyn into the telephone, cups and saucers clattered from the back. A tear came from beneath Mrs Beecham’s closed lids and ran down her cheek. I had noticed nothing, had I? I knew nothing. I reached for the drier, feeling, for once, clumsy, but then her eyes opened and she smiled in her pleasant, distant way. Don’t bother drying it, she said. 

          She paid, and left a small tip. Out into the world, another woman tossing her wet hair, as she will do so forever on the pavements of memory. Cut a little shorter, perhaps, than usual.