The Family Way Part 6
Roberta in Wartime
Sabrina S and Sean O'Hare
As the war clouds had gathered over Europe in late 1930s, Maison Roberta continued to flourish. The electric clippers were a raging success. Such was their efficiency and effectiveness George and Roberta could reduce their prices (slightly!) and thus encourage clients back to their establishment now that cash wasn't quite so tight. Unfortunately, for Roberta, women were mostly adopting a longer look and, for the sake of the business she was forced to adapt her styling urges. That didn't apply to herself of course, with George continuing to use the growling electric clippers on his beloved's nape and hear her growling echo.
However when war broke out things began to change. Not immediately of course - the period known as the phoney war - but it all became a lot more real when the British Expeditionary Forces were forced out of France. The Dunkirk evacuation.
Soon after this the call up of able young men for the forces began in earnest. George, a true patriot, immediately volunteered his services but was told his age precluded him from active service. However, his skills were required, and he was enlisted in to the Army as a barber. It was a tearful parting from Roberta on that summer's day in June 1940, only in part because the arm of his itchy uniform scratched her freshly clippered nape at their final embrace. All words - and actions - between them had been completed the night before. There seemed nothing more to say. The young teenage Etonia stood next to her mother looking very sad. The sharply angled bob she now sported sliding forward on to her cheeks as she looked down at the ground.
"Eh lass, dinna look so sad. Tha has to look after your Mam while I'm away."
"Aye, I knows Dad."
"It won't be for long."
"Aye, I knows Dad."
"And tha does remember how to use t'hairclippers don't you Etonia. Just liked I showed you. Tha Mam needs you to look after her hair. She'll rely on you."
"Aye, I remembers that!" she looked up, with a ghost of a smile on her face. "Of course I will," she added with no attempt to disguise the pleasure she might draw from that activity.
"Champion mah canny lass. Aye, you'll do," he said, and gave her a big hug followed by a final one for Roberta before jumping up into the truck and disappearing from view.
* * *
So they hit the road and trundled down the great north road. George and a sundry group of other tradesmen whose services the Army decided it required. After hundreds of miles they finally passed down an avenue of mighty alders and arrived at Aldershot, the home of the British Army.
George quickly settled into the routine. It wasn't exactly arduous giving identical short back and sides to all the new recruits, existing soldiers and the officers using the latest in electric hairclipper technology.
However there was variation to at least some of his days, not least the day when he was confronted by the sight of a German sitting in his barber's chair one morning. Alongside was a young soldier brandishing a rifle, who looked barely old enough to be out of short trousers.
"Ee bah gum, what's t'do?" asked George.
"CO's orders. This German Officer was rescued from a transport plane shot down over the channel. Evidently he's being a right pest. Says he won't go to the POW camp up in Scotland until he's had a haircut. A haircut, I ask you! I reckon he's had a bang on the head or something."
"Gutte Morgen. Oberleutnant Von Schoenhead!" he snapped, giving a slight bow and clicking his heels - quite a feat while sitting in a barber's chair.
"I vish a haircut as I am the personal hairdwesser to the Fatherland's top bwass. I was flying to the coast to personally twim the hair of General G- ... nein, I vill say no more. But in my position I must maintain appearances."
"So you're a camp barber too!"
"Foolish Bwitisher, I am not camp!" he exclaimed, edging away from George. "I have a wife and childwen."
"Aye me too. Well, just one lass. I meant tha is a barber in an army camp just like me."
"I am not wequired to give you any more information. Now I vish to have my hair cut." George nodded and removed the Oberleutnant's cap to reveal a wavy mass of bright red hair. "It has got vewy out of shape. I do like to keep the top wather long but the back and sides may be cwopped quite short. Now zis piece here ..."
"Booger that Fritz, tha'll have an army short back and sides and like it." He turned on the electric clippers.
"Was ist das? And vot spy told you my name is Fwitz! He vill be shot!"
"These? Electric hairclippers. Don't you have them in the Fatherland?"
"Nein, just hand operwated ones." He seemed to be intrigued by the thought and appearance of them, as he watched George quickly reduce the mass of red waves to a much more military-like haircut.
"There you go Fritz - or is it Fwitz? Enjoy your stay in Scotland. It should be lovely this time of year," George laughed.
But Fwitz wasn't listening. "Haarschnittenmachinen! Das ist gutte!" he exclaimed as he was led away, taking one last, longing look at the clippers.
(Now, some of our more regular readers may be thinking there is some similarity between Oberleutnant Fwitz Von Schoenhead and another character who has popped in other stories in more recent times. Well, after the war, Herr Von Schoenhead returned to his family in Germany and set up a business - Von Schoenhead Haarschnittenmachinenfabriken - to manufacture with characteristic German precision a version of the electric hairclippers that had so impressed him five years before. The whole family was involved and, when he retired his son took over the general management while his daughter, Hildegarde, supervised the most important aspect of the operation. The testing room. Day in and day out samples of the clippers were removed from the production line and in the hands of experienced testers were run up the back and sides of local men and women who had no money to pay for haircuts. From an early age Hildegarde's son would sit in the testing room with his mother and avidly watch the testing in progress. His name was Fwitz also and, with all this early exposure to haircutting, he quite naturally became a hairdresser. The rest - as they say - is hairstory. However this is quite another Family Way - and equally interesting - but is not part of our current story)
* * *
Back in Harrogate the local people weren't significantly affected by the war. Occasionally the air raid sirens would sound and they all rushed to the shelters. But, at this time, no bombs were heard and few aircraft were seen.
Trade had slowed a little in the salon but it had minimal impact. There was less wages to pay as some of the staff had been asked to go and help on the farms - The Land Girls - now that many of the men had departed to join the services. Roberta and her remaining staff kept reasonably busy.
One day Roberta was tidying up at the end of the day and the door opened. A head peeked around the corner and an upper class voice said, "Excuse me, do you have a snood I can buy please?" Her accent said she wasn't from 'round these parts'.
"A snood?" Roberta asked, as if she had never heard of such a thing and, even if she had, she would never demean herself to touch one let alone sell one.
"Yes, it's a sort of net thing to collect one's long hair in," she said disparagingly. Ah, thought Roberta giggling to herself, she means a waste bin! "I left all mine in London and, because there seems to be no decent shampoo available I have to keep it tied up in this silly headscarf all day when I'm working on the land. But some of us - the ones from London - have been invited to the Officers' Mess at the RAF base tonight and we need to look our best."
"Come on in," said Roberta with a large grin forming on her face, "tha dinna want look a mess in the Mess. I have just what tha needs." The girl's expression brightened considerably. "That is to say, what tha really needs."
She guided the girl to the chair and whisked away the headscarf to reveal a tumble of thick dark waves
"Tha wants to shine at t'Officers' Mess, doesta?" Roberta commented, combing out the mass of hair.
The girl took a minute to translate the broad Yorkshire Dales accent into English. "Aye, I mean yes."
"Aye, well, wi'all this hair, those men won't know tha from local girls. Tha'll all look t'same! Is this t'only haircut they do down south, then?" Roberta fingered the long, wavy pagebob bob that skimmed the young woman's shoulders. The front was caught up in a high roll off the lass' forehead.
"It's the latest fashion!" snapped the girl, thinking the stylist's immaculate bob dated and plain.
"And tha hair's naturally wavy?"
"Aye, well, Ah suggest we clip it raht short at back and sides, and leave a nice tumble of tha curls on top."
"Like a man!?" The girl stood up and haughtily began to fasten her headscarf again. "I think not!"
"Nay, lass, tha'll look far nicer than a man ever could, with tha pretty face and lovely eyes. Tha'll look raht sophisticated. And when tha works on t'farm, tha hair won't get all hot and sweaty and dirty, tha'll be able to wash it more often and tha won't need to hide it under daft scarf....or that snood thing tha mentioned."
Roberta's youngest stylist, Norma, at that moment walked into the salon. She too had wavy hair, and only the week before Roberta had persuaded her to get it cropped in the precise manner she was describing. Norma looked like an enchanting, elfin tomboy with her rich tumble of curls on top and her clipped back and sides. With her rich red lipstick, the effect was disconcertingly sexy.
"Aye, that's the haircut Ah'm talking about," Roberta said. "Now that'd look raht pretty on thee."
"Maybe," the girl agreed doubtfully, wondering what Squadron Leader Kent would say. The fine Squadron Leader was the man her heart was set on. Chisel-chinned and with an insipid fairness that said 'Surrey' in capital letters, Squadron Leader Kent had the Land Girls flocking at his feet. He could have the pick of any of them. The girl decided at that moment to take the plunge and cut her hair. In a sea of pageboy bobs, snoods and rolls, she'd be noticed if nothing else.
"Right," she said firmly. "Cut my hair, then." She marched over to the nearest chair and slung her handbag onto the bench. A ration book in the name of Miss Lucy Benton-Smythe peeked from the top.
Lucy Benton-Smythe couldn't see Roberta's delighted smile, as Roberta had unpinned the roll at the front and a fringe of curled hair flopped over Lucy's face and eyes.
Etonia, home from school, opened the door of the salon to see her mother lift up the electric clippers and move towards the shiny long head of hair in front of her. Silently she crept to the back of the salon and settled in to watch. She adored watching haircuts and longed for the day when she could take her rightful place in the world as a hairdresser.
"Ah'll take t'bulk of it off first," Roberta stated, gathering Lucy's hair in a ponytail with one hand and pushing the clippers into the base of it with the other. The clippers growled and spat and chewed through the hair, which, released, sprang back in a curly bob.
Before Lucy could do more than gasp, Roberta plunged the clippers into the hair at her nape. "Tha'll have to hold riaht still," she warned, before drawing them carefully up into the hair. Roberta could cut hair with terrifying accurate precision with the clippers, without the need for a comb or other form of guard. She sheared away Lucy's nape, leaving half an inch of pelt covering it, and half an inch it was all up the back and sides, with Lucy's hair gradually getting longer near the top.
Lucy sat stunned. Never in Madam Pomfrey's Beauty Salon did a hairdresser pick up a pair of clippers and cut a lady's hair! It was totally unknown in Knightsbridge! One's hair was cut carefully with scissors, a couple of strands at a time if necessary. One read the Tatler and had one's nails varnished while the stylist worked on one's hair so unobtrusively one was almost unaware of it. But not here in Harrogate!
Lucy felt the top of her left ear being bent over, and then her eyes widened as she watched her reflection and saw the clippers racing up the side of her head. All her waves, carefully cultivated and just like a movie star's, dropped onto her lap or the floor. From here her hair looked as if it were being shorn quite as short as Squadron Leader Kent's. She gulped, but was too scared of the buzzing, growling clippers racing through her hair to say a word.
When all the hair at the back and sides had been clipped to Roberta's satisfaction (and this took a while to her own and Etonia's delight), Roberta put the clippers down and picked up scissor and comb. Carefully she cut the top.
* * *
"Well hello there! And what's your name, you unusual little creature?" asked Squadron Leader Jack Kent, peering over the heads of the Land Girls in all their finery that surrounded him.
Lucy Benton-Smythe looked up sadly from her gin and tonic, wondering which of her glossy-haired colleagues he was talking to now. Never normally one to be a shrinking violet at such occasions, she felt extremely self-conscious of her new extremely short haircut. Before coming out she had pulled and pomaded her hair to try and effect some length but all to no avail. It stubbornly fell back into the style Roberta had cut - shorn, with clippers no less, all the way up the back and sides with a glossy, wavy cap flowing back from her forehead and tapered into the near stubble at the back. There was nothing to be done but wait for it to grow back. And she knew it would take ages. But she refused to miss out on the chance of a gin and tonic or three.
As she looked up she noticed all the other girls looking at her with unconcealed smiles on their faces. And then to her horror she saw that the Squadron Leader was addressing her! "I, er - I'm Lucy, Squadron Leader."
"Lucy! But I've seen you before surely? Yes, you had that glorious tumble of glossy hair last time. And now you have had it cut as short as mine," he grinned, fingering his own immaculately barbered nape. The other girls smirked as one. They knew Lucy had had the loveliest hair of them all even if not the most attractive. But now she had lost her best feature. "How unusual!"
"Yes I, er - I had it cut ..." Lucy said rather uselessly. But couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Yes, that's rather clear! Well, there may be a war on, but I think it's a rather desperate measure for a young lady to go to the barbers for a short back and sides!" he stated, cruelly turning the knife Lucy felt. There was undisguised laughter now from all the girls. Lucy didn't know what to do or say.
The Squadron Leader pushed through the giggling circle of his admirers and held out the hand that had been holding his iced glass and ran it down Lucy's nape. She nearly exploded, both from the touch and coolness. It sent shivers down her spine. What an incredible sensation!
"Well I must say it looks and feels quite wonderful. I can quite understand why you did it. I'm surprised more of you women don't do something similar. Would you care to accompany me out on to the verandah Lucy?"
Her confidence returned in a flash. "Thanks, I would love to Squadron Leader."
"Please, it's Jack. Tally-Ho!!"
Tally-Ho indeed thought Lucy, casting a smile at the crowd of silent, open-mouthed women as she left, with Jack's arm loosely around her and her own hand lightly running up her nape.
* * *
Roberta knew the day would be quiet. It always was in the week, but she opened up at 8am just the same. Etonia remained with her and, as usual when the salon was empty, amused herself by reading the style books that Roberta had lovingly created from magazine pictures and also with the equipment of the salon itself.
"So Etonia, you reckons you knows how to use those clippers now does tha?" Roberta asked.
"Aye, Mam. I can't wait 'til I hasta chance to use them! Dad's shown me just what to do." She looked down almost reverently at the clippers on the counter.
"Well lass, now's tha chance. Mah nape is growing now tha Dad is away. Ah'll be tha first customer."
Etonia's eyes nearly popped out of her head as he Mother sat down in the chair, selected a cape and tied it around her own neck. She leaned forward and brushed all the longer hair of her bob forward leaving the growing nape exposed.
"Mam, are you sure?" she asked, clippers in her hand as she looked down at the most famous nape in Yorkshire. "I'm only 13," she added, but looking older with smartly angled bob. Although her father had allowed her to watch closely and learn, she never expected to get a chance to actually cut hair for several years. Despite her qualms, she began to feel strangely eager.
"Aye lass, I'd like you to."
Etonia briefly combed through the half inch of hair growing at the back of her Mother's head. And then switched on the clippers.
"OK Mam, here goes."
She placed the bare blades of the clippers on her mother's nape, in a way she had so often felt her do on her own in the past. She noticed hr Mother shiver a little. She recognised that sensation ... although she didn't understand it at all.
She edged the now growling clippers into her Mam's hairline with a smoothness that belied her age and experience. And left a path of matching smoothness. Etonia couldn't help but gasp at what the clippers could achieve in her hands.
As she reached the line of longer hair, still held out of the way by her Mother, she moved the clippers away and traced a similar line until all the exposed hair had been clipped away to leave it looking like the last time her Dad had trimmed it.
"It feels tha's done a good job there lass. Now if tha could trim the line of the bob a tad higher ... ah'd like to show Yorkshire as much of mah nape as I can. Let the world know what a canny lass tha is."
So with comb and scissors, Etonia began snipping away. It didn't matter that she had never done this before. Her years of watching seemed to give her an inherent confidence in her ability. It was in her blood. Without hesitation she raised the line of the bob much higher than at had been in recent times, angling the line steeply downwards in a graceful curve. Small clippings began to fly as Etonia honed her creation. She didn't work quickly but neither woman was in a hurry.
Finally the scissors and comb were put down and Etonia held up a mirror so that her Mam could see her new cut from all angles. Not quite believing how much shorter she had cut it, Etonia began to feel a little nervous as her Mam silently appraised her new look with a critical professional eye.
Finally a hand went up to her nape and a small smile appeared on her face. "Aye lass, I reckon tha'll do!"
She jumped up and gave her daughter a big hug, and both were smiling broadly. After a short while, Roberta went silent and took a step backwards. The critical professional expression returned to her face once more as she appraised her daughter. "Raht lass, Ah reckons it's tha turn now don't you?"
Quicker than Roberta would have believed possible her daughter was sitting in the chair, cape tied around her own neck and baring her nape. Ready for the clippers.
© Copyright 2001, Sabrina S and Sean O'Hare. Comments welcome firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com