The Family Way - Part 1
Roberta Starts Her Journey
Sabrina S. and Sean O'Hare
Once again Roberta flicked through the collection of newspaper cuttings of her heroine Coco Chanel, admiring the fashionable and superb chemise dresses and cloche hats that gave her an exotic, exciting and almost unworldly look. She so longed to emulate Coco's elegance and had struggled to save sufficient cash from her meager wages from her toils at the mill. And yesterday a cheap but acceptable copy of a Chanel outfit from London had been delivered to her home.
However that was only half way there as she well knew. Each time she read the words now ingrained on her mind 'and the fashion dictates you shall bob your hair short' or something similar, the butterflies in her stomach turned over as if they were a squadron of fighter aircraft practicing aerobatics for the Hendon air display.
She had long hair, hanging well past her waist when let down. Of course it rarely was. Even now as she re-read the articles, admired her unworn outfit hanging on the wardrobe door and observed the ridiculously small cloche hat in its box on the floor, her long braid in which she slept fell forward and thumped on the newspapers laid out on her bed.
There was a brief knock on the door and her sister entered. She was already dressed for the day in a fussy, long Edwardian style dress that remained the 'fashion' in Yorkshire in the 1920s. Their mother had already styled her hair - equal in length to that of Roberta - into an elaborate top-knot of braids and swirls on which her flower-festooned hat would perch when she left the house.
"Ee our Roberta, are ye not dressed yet. It is time for thy hair to be put oop afore Ah go out t'work. Ah need to get away smartly to 'elp sort things out - they say there is trouble at t'mill and Ah'm a needed there."
"But Ah'm on late shift t'day our Nora ..."
"Tha still needs thy hair attended to thy daft apeth. What would tha young man think with your hair all over the place. It would be quite unseemly," Nora added sternly. She was only three years older than Roberta but sometimes acted as old as their mother. Besides, Roberta knew exactly what Albert thought of her hair all loose ... he told her only last Sunday as they undertook an afternoon nature ramble in Farmer Clegg's barn and, in short, he expressed his undying love for her hair ... and indeed the rest of her. However, thoughts stirred in her mind both then ... and now. She wanted to talk about them to Nora but she couldn't find the words.
And the routine of the house had to be followed. Mother and Nora would pile up each other's hair, while Nora would attend to Roberta's. Every day. And so with practiced hands, half a ton of scaffolding and a matter of fact air up went Roberta's hair into an enormous bun of indifferent appeal but maximum security.
"Ah'm really at a loss why thy've wasted your money on them there clothes. Where's a lass like you going to wear such a thing round these parts. Ah don't know, really I don't. Besides that damn silly little hat is nay gonna fit over this 'ere bun of yours!"
"I know, but what I was thinking of ..." Roberta started to explain.
"Ah've got nay time for all this now," Nora interrupted. "But tha mark my words, no good will come of it of that Ah'm sure," she added somewhat meaninglessly as she gave a final pat to the concoction on Roberta's head and left the room as swiftly as she had entered it with a cheery "Bye!"
The sounds of the front door slamming and the sound of disappearing voices told her the house was now empty. This was unusual as she normally shared a shift with either her mother or sister. But she knew today would be the day to put her long considered plan into action. Not that she was going to find it at all easy, as her butterflies executed a perfect barrel roll in the pit of her stomach. But it was now or never. She quickly pulled the light, chemise dress over her body and slipped on the matching shoes.
She attempted to perch the new cloche hat on her bun but it looked quite ridiculous. She tried her every-day hat, which fitted of course, but overpowered the elegant dress. Bravely, she decided to venture outside hatless.
She marched up Glumsby’s grimy streets to the small parade of shops on the corner of Inkerman Road, passing Arkwright's general store, Miss Emmanuel's wool shop and found herself staring in the dirty window of the unchristened final emporium. It was known simply as The Barbershop and had the traditional red and white pole outside to confirm its status. A barely legible sign was turned around to show it was open although it was impossible to see what was happening inside.
Never before had she been inside. Why would she? Her hair grew and grew, and every few months her mother or sister might trim an inch or two from the ends to maintain its glorious thick quality and prevent split ends from impairing its glossiness. It was the family way of grooming; at home.
But where else was she to go? This was the 1920s and even nearby Harrogate was not awash with ladies hairdressing salons, and then only at a price which would even make the mill owner's wife think twice. However in the small town of Glumsby where Roberta lived this, she had decided, was her only option if she was to follow the dictate of Coco Chanel.. Taking a deep breath which allowed her to hold her butterflies in mid-spin she turned the door handle and slowly walked in and jumped at the sound of a small bell ringing above the door.
Two pairs of eyes turned towards her and showed mild astonishment that a woman, dressed as she was, should enter this male bastion. As the eyes turned away, Roberta felt very self-conscious standing on the curling black and white linoleum covering the floor and not knowing whether to say anything or not. There was a line of oddly assorted chairs along one wall and so she decided to perch herself on the least rickety looking one.
Roberta's eyes widened as she watched the barber roughly cutting the hair of the young man in the chair in a reasonably straight line around his head, well above his ears. He then proceeded to shave away everything below that line with a cut-throat razor until it began to gleam whitely, even in the dull light of this establishment. She was of course familiar with this style as all the local men and boys had something similar. After all he the only barber in the area. Was this the only style he could perform she wondered? The butterflies were revving up for their finale as she watched in trepidation. Shite!
"That'll do ye for another fortnight Henry. Now what can Ah do for you lass?" asked the barber pleasantly but with a quizzical air. This was not the barber she had expected but now remembered that Mr Dewhurst had retired and this tall, young man with intense blue eyes had arrived to take his place.
She opened her mouth, but no words came out. She cleared her throat and forced out the words "I want bob" in a squeaky voice.
The barber said to himself "Nay, not another one" but his only outward expression was a sad, resigned smile and an indication that Roberta should sit in his chair. He had now cut several women's hair into this newfangled style. When they came initially he sent them away, sometimes with tears in their eyes. Clearly it required great courage to get this far and he had dashed their hopes. But he hated to upset women, so he decided to do as he was asked. Besides a haircut was a haircut and it helped pay the rent.
Roberta sat down in the unfamiliar chair of porcelain and leather and she felt the equally unfamiliar weight of a cape being thrown across her body and fastened securely at her neck. In the mirror she could merely see the reflection of the top of her bun but the barber began cranking a lever to the side of her and with each squeaky pull she inched upwards seeing her nervous looking face peering back at her from above the vast cape and feeling her feet leave the floor, adding to her sense of isolation and loss of control of the situation.
She watched as the barber silently busied himself undoing Nora's earlier work. Pins were removed and tossed to the counter until all the hair was loose. The barber then dragged a large comb from the crown too the ends. It slid through easily as if the hair was made of silk. Such a shame he thought that a lovely young lady such as this was willing to sacrifice such glorious hair in the name of a passing fashion for short hair. She'll be regretting it next year, and for many years, when the fashion will quite rightly return to long hair he mused. And by then she may have lost all chance of getting a husband.
He worked silently. His cheeky patter for the gents was unlikely to be appreciated by women and he had little conversation on the subject of the latest Paris fashions, always believing that the name Coco referred to a circus clown.
She watched in the mirror with mounting fear as she felt the weight of her thick hair pulling at her roots and laying against her nape and shoulders. Her biggest cut to date - a massive trim of three inches - left her feeling light-headed although there was no appreciable difference to anyone looking at it. How would it feel to lose so much more?
This was probably the longest and certainly the thickest hair the barber had ever been asked to cut off. He sucked the comb thoughtfully, hovering close by the chair, as he tried to decide how to cut it all off and half hoping, half dreading, she might change her mind. He was two years out of barber school, and the incipient spread of The Bob had just begun as he’d graduated. He’d learned the rudiments of the cut and had delivered his share of long locks to the floor in the time since, but this wonderful head of hair made him almost dizzy just contemplating it. Here was his chance to create the perfect bob for such a willing client.
And Roberta was thinking of it as her butterflies began to loop the loop. She almost jumped as the barber suddenly pulled open a drawer and located the largest pair of scissors Roberta had ever seen that were not used for trimming garden hedges.
The barber was now in charge. They both felt it. He had seen pictures of the look these girls believed they craved. Cut high up the back of the neck. So, without further ado, he plunged the scissors into Roberta's thick hair above her left ear and with a practiced hand he began to work them around her head in a straight line much like the customer before. Except this time feet of hair was falling, not just an inch or so.
She closed her eyes tight as the butterflies started their finale. She felt each tug of the scissors. She watched each lock of hair snake down the cape. She heard the loud slap as each lock hit the grimy black and white linoleum. She felt petrified. Unable to move. Especially when she felt him combing the hair onto her forehead, shivering at the cold steel of the scissors on her brow and feeling the snippets of hair slide down her face as her fringe was cut.
She hardly dared to look in the mirror as he worked but as he put down the scissors she stole a glance and recognised an acceptable imitation of the bobbed look sported by Coco Chanel. What she failed to recognise was herself. She had been scalped. Her initial thought was how ridiculous she looked with so little hair. Her second thought was how ridiculous she looked with so little hair!
Her thoughts were interrupted as the barber tilted her head forward. She had no idea what he was doing, even when she felt something cold and metallic rising up her nape. But light, akin to the feel of a spider crawling upwards. The movement was accompanied by a quiet, mechanical clicking and she began to feel it nuzzling in to her hairline and sensed rather than knew that more of her hair was being removed. She sat there unmoving. She remained petrified and said nothing.
The barber was surprised. By now most of his earlier clients were twisting around to see what he was trying to do and, when confronted with the handclippers, almost screamed at him to stop or at least to just tidy up the damage they had already wrought at the back of their head. This required skilful clipper over comb work to graduate the shaved lower nape into the longer hair of the bob, and failed to deliver the precise lines of the Paris look.
He worked the clippers further and further up her neck until they reached the line of the bob. He even worked them a little way under which helped the glossy cap fall much better. He continued to denude the remainder of the back of her head - even a little around her ears - while Roberta sat motionless and quiet.
Finally he stopped and she observed the small and purposeful twin-handled cutting machine gleaming on the shelf in front of her. Their task finished.
He held up a mirror and moved it around behind her head and she took in the fact that he had almost shaved the back of her head. She felt like screaming. "Well there ye are lass. All done just as thee asked."
Is it she thought. Did she really ask for it that short? The cape was whisked away and the chair released so her feet returned to the ground. She tossed the hair and it swung out and then fell back into its perfect glossy shape. Her hand explored the back of her head and she marvelled at the sensation, just like velvet, that now replaced the long braid that would normally hang there when her hair had not been fixed in place for the day by Nora. "Aye, I 'spose t'is as I asked," she said in fascination, as the butterflies in her stomach began to take on a completely new formation ... and a new meaning.
The barber too felt odd. Being allowed to complete the bob to his true vision was a first and the fall of the glossy hair, contrasting sharply with her smooth nape, gave an elegant profile to this lovely young woman now standing before him in her thoroughly modern chemise dress. He decided she was quite the most beautiful woman he had seen for some time and wondered if there was a young man in her life as he watched her leave his establishment with a noticeable bounce in her step.
Roberta turned towards him as she passed the window and, even through the grime of the window, he felt the warmth of her totally disarming smile. He felt he was dissolving into an amorphous mass, flowing like the silken lengths of her former crowning glory now covering his floor.
"Flippin’ ‘eck!" Albert’s mouth dropped open long enough for a fly to venture in, take a look around and fly back out again. "What t’heck hasta done to tha hair, our Roberta?" Disbelievingly he reached out and touched Roberta’s shaved neck. Where the masses of soft, sweet smelling hair had caressed his fingers only yesterday, now there was stubble, erotic stubble that made Roberta tingle when Albert touched it. Albert made a face of disgust. "Ah’ll have to call you Bob from now on, wi’ that haircut! That’s not a woman’s haircut! It’s short! It’s a man’s!"
Instead of taking her in his arms like the heroes on celluloid in the Harrogate cinema, and stroking her shiny, short cap of hair and fastening his mouth on hers as he told her (presumably in a muffled voice) how wonderful she looked in her chemise dress with her wildly fashionable bob, Albert stalked to the other side of Farmer Clegg’s barn.
"Ah’m a bit old fashioned, y’see," he said in a strained voice. "Ah like lasses to look like lasses. Ah liked yon frilly long dresses, and tha hair all done oop in a bun Ah could take down bit by bit. This daft dress y’wearing looks like a flippin’ chaff sack! And tha hat….not a flower in sight on it! And tha hair! ‘Tis not ma cup of tea, Bob. An old fashioned lad and a new fangled lass ain’t goin’ to mix, Ah tell thee straight. Ah think it’s best if we don’t see each other any more."
Roberta – who was now thinking of herself as Bob as it seemed so appropriate – burst into tears. Where were the shining eyes as Albert discovered he had a lass who was at the height of fashion? Albert’s eyes were shining, but it was a mix of grief and anger. And, as she knew, once he’d made up his mind there was no changing it.
She thought: Ah could wear ma Edwardian frocks again, and pin hairpieces on ma head until it grew back. He might be able to accept that.
Then she thought about her chemise frock, the most comfortable item of clothing she’d ever had in her life, and the neat louis heeled pumps that gave her feet a delicate, fashionable look, and most of all her hair, the hair that had only been cut two hours before but was already feeling far more comfortable and likable than her long, time-consuming locks. Bob loved her bob, couldn't keep her hands off it. Her mother and Nora hadn’t seen it yet and undoubtedly their reaction would make Albert’s look like the squeak of a mouse, but Bob couldn’t possibly ever grow her hair again after today.
Tears stung her eyes. Memories of the good times they’d had in the hayshed mingled with the knowledge there’d be no more. Bob wouldn’t change herself for Albert, and he was unwilling to accept her as she was. She wiped her eyes with the shred of lace that passed for a hanky.
"Ah’m sorry Albert," she sobbed, "Ah can’t go back to frilly dresses and long hair."
"And Ah can’t abide yon lasses wi’ haircuts like boys," grumbled Albert, putting his flat cap on his own shorn dark head and tying his bootlaces. "Ye’ll have trouble finding a lad now, our Bob. Mark ma words."
Bob took her hanky from her eyes to discover he’d gone, he’d slipped out the door with no goodbye. She sat on a hay bale and sobbed until her hanky was soaked and her chemise covered in teardrops.
It took two miserable hours for Bob to recover her composure enough to be able to walk back into Glumsby without bursting into tears.
"Ah’m a fashionable woman," she told herself sternly, fixing the cloche hat closely on her elegant bob and enjoying the way it pressed on her nape and made her newly shorn bristles tingle. "Ah need a modern man, not an old-fashioned one. Why, Ah can picture Albert as an old man, he’ll still have a horse and cart, not a car!" Forcing herself to be cheerful, she held her bobbed head high and walked down the High Street, noticing the glances from passers-by – a mixture of shock and admiration depending on the age and the gender.
She turned onto Inkerman Road and the young barber was locking the shop for the night. Looking at his hands turning the key and remembering how they wielded the scissors that sawed through her hair, Bob felt the butterflies return to her stomach in a very pleasant way.
"Happy wi’ t’hair then?" the barber said shyly. "It looks very nice. Even covered oop wi’ that hat."
Bob whisked the cloche from her head and ran her fingers into her hair, marvelling at how good it felt at the ends. "Oh aye, Ah’m very happy wi’ it. Ma boyfriend didna like it though. He told me we were through because I were too modern for him."
The barber blushed. He wasn’t used to talking to women, his world was a world where men were his stock in trade, his companions. And here he was talking to the most beautiful, fashionable woman in Glumsby like he’d known her forever.
"That’s right daft!" he exclaimed. "You look right smashin’, especially wi’ that haircut. If tha were going wi’ me tha’d get right fashionable haircuts for the rest of tha life! Ah’d be proud to be seen wi’ ye, Miss -?" He realised he didn’t know her name.
"Roberta," she grinned, "But Ah think Ah’ll be called Bob from now on. Which Ah rather like."
"Ah’m George," he said, extending a hand which Bob shook. It was warm and strong and big, and Bob couldn’t resist leaving her hand in his for a just a little longer than necessary.
"Well Miss Bob," George said, unable to take his eyes from hers, "Would tha like to go for a walk, then, mebbe oop to t’Dales?"
It was a summer’s evening, and the sun was still high and the air vaguely warm and redolent of cut straw and mown grass. Bob nodded silently, and left her hand in his as they walked to the edge of town. The silence between them was comfortable, as if they’d known each other a long time.
From a distance, Nora could see a bareheaded woman in a dress that was like that wretched chemise Roberta had bought. The cheek of any girl to go bareheaded in the street! And to have her hair cut off in a bob! Nora shuddered. Thank heavens Roberta wasn’t like that. She was a nice old-fashioned girl, was Roberta, and with luck she’d marry that nice Albert one day and settle down to a steady life in the way their family had always done. That hussy on the street over there – why, look at the way the young man was touching the back of her neck with one finger! Nora shuddered, both at the thought of a public display of affection and the thought of a woman’s hair being shorn so short. She primped up her own bun and let herself into the house. It was only when she noticed that neither Roberta nor the chemise dress was in sight that she began, just a bit, to wonder.
To Be Continued
© Copyright Sabrina S and Sean O'Hare, 2001
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