Two stylists work at this deeply rural French ladies’ hairdresser. Christelle is a gorgeous 17-year-old point-of-lay pullet, so lithe and well made I want to weep. Sylvette, the owner, though knocking on a bit, is a man-eater on the rampage. I had my old barnet thatched here for the first time about two months ago. Christelle scissored and shaved my hair with a cut-throat razor for the best part of an hour and I came out of there mentally deranged but with the best haircut I’d ever had. Later that day I found in my jacket pocket a torn-off piece of card with Sylvette’s name and phone number written on it in black biro. She must have slipped it in while I was under the cape. I was surprised because although she’d washed my hair, all we had said to each other was ‘bonjour’ and ‘bye bye’. They don’t beat about the bush, the French. Or perhaps the bit of card represented a painfully coy, old-fashioned approach. Fearful that going to bed with this woman would be a bit like stepping into the ring with Kendo Nagasaki, and worried that by doing so I could be in all sorts of trouble on several other counts, I let the offer pass. Two months later, I’m like an overgrown laurel and back at the salon for another intricate razoring by Christelle. I’m ten minutes early and waiting in the hair-washing chair while Sylvette finishes painting an elderly woman’s tightly plaited head. Sylvette will shampoo my hair then shove me across the room into Christelle’s cutting chair. Today Sylvette is wearing a black jumper with armoured shoulder protectors, a choke chain suitable for a bull mastiff and a black microskirt perforated with metal studs. And she’s clumping about in these bondage boots with triple ankle chains and sturdy heel brackets, which, given the right circumstances, and a length of chain and padlock, would secure her ankles to the bedposts and keep them there no matter what. She’s still keen on your Low life correspondent, it seems, in spite of his no-show. While daubing at her client’s head with the paintbrush, she turns around and fixes me in a half nelson with her menacing stare, holding my eye until I feebly submit by averting it. My French is une mauvaise farce. I can ask for a glass of rosé and an ashtray, if you please, at the café, but normal-speed colloquial hairdressers’ French, heavily accented with a regional twang, I can barely recognise as the French language, let alone apprehend what is the topic of conversation. Now Sylvette and Christelle are having a supercharged, hilarious conversation in the mirror, with witty interjections from the painted heads.
What it’s about I don’t know. But I’m guessing that they are being pert and making saucy conjectures about the sexuality, or the size, probably, of the English man sitting in the chair sedulously studying his smartphone. Sylvette is making all the running, forcing the other three into enraptured shouts of laughter. Then she turns to me and enlarges an eyeball horribly by yanking down the lower eyelid with a forefinger. I point a finger at my chest and convey with a cheerful shrug that if it’s me they are talking about they must do their worst because it will be as nothing when compared with what I’m used to in my day-to-day existence at home. I’m looking down at my phone again when Sylvette clomps over and invites me to place my arms through the holes in a hair-washing gown. I sit back down in the chair and lay the back of my neck on the cold basin rim and stare up at the ceiling. Sylvette’s coarse but not unsexy face intervenes. It is studying mine. The hazel eyes are perfectly at ease, as though it is all the same to them whether the helpless prey is upside-down or the right way up. Then she rests the tips of her fingers on my head and douses my scalp with cold then warm water. The touch is overly, disappointingly gentle. But this is merely the prelude to a wonderful fingertip symphony. In the language of the fingertips, the woman is masterly. I close my eyes in surrender. The touch is by turns soothing, kindly, caressing, playful, haughty, insolent, savage and brutal. The brutal sequence hurts. I open my eyes and look searchingly into hers. They smile down indulgently. I close my eyes again. After the brutal climacteric, the touch is contrite, sad and gently elegiac, then I am dismissed with a last quick, painful tug and a towel is thrown over my head. A quick rub-a-dub-dub and I’m back in full daylight and Sylvette is propelling me across the room towards the lovely growing girl with the cut-throat razor.