I’d missed the train, and the next was due in 45 minutes, so I popped into the nearby salon for a haircut, two months since the last one. Half Price Monday for Students, it said on a board outside. Inside, three women attended to three female heads in a spacious salon with the doors and windows flung open to the warm air and the view of the long-stay car park. I was directed to a chair, and presently a woman came bounding through a door, exuberantly, like a chat-show host bounding down the studio steps to wild applause. She was slim and tanned with strong-looking legs, aged about 50. ‘And how are you today?’ she yelled, as if I were deaf as well as old. Gawd help me, I thought. Here, clearly, was the loudest, chattiest and most socially confident woman on the firm. And I guessed that I was about to be expertly questioned and that my foolish inconsistencies were about to be exposed to everyone within earshot, including the ticket collector over at the station.
‘Are you local?’ she began, undeterred by my downcast statement that I mustn’t grumble. I told her I lived in France but had come to Exeter for the day to see an accountant. And did I travel here every year to see my accountant? No, I said. I was up shit creek without a paddle and it had been an exploratory first interview to see if he would consider taking on the role of the paddle. And what did I do for a living? I am a student, I said.
Everyone in the shop had been listening with anticipation, respect and appreciation to their sauciest interviewer turning it on for the girls, and everyone laughed, including her. Her laugh was a short sharp shout and very alarming.
It was kind of her to fit me in and I hoped I hadn’t interrupted her lunch, I said. I mustn’t worry, she said. She had finished her sandwich. Not that she ate much anyway. She didn’t need to. She hadn’t room in this body of hers for more than a small sandwich. At which point she snaked her hands sinuously over her body to demonstrate how spare the frame was and how mouse-like the cavities contained within it must be.
She changed the subject to gin. It had plenty of room for that, she said. Oh yes. In fact, gin was all she lived for and she didn’t mind admitting it. Now everyone else in the salon — including a previously mute woman under the drier — suddenly came to life and agreed that they lived for gin too. And when I said that I liked gin, I sensed that my approval rating within the salon had shot up to a virtually unassailable height. There followed an open debate about fruit in gin and tonic. A slice of grapefruit went surprisingly well, I contributed. The interest this aroused was profound and I now sensed that the position of temporary salon philosopher and guru was open to me should I want it.
The rough clippering of the back and sides of my head was now completed. She laid the clippers aside and resumed her work more circumspectly with the scissors.
I was still considering claiming the half-price student discount and I asked her if many students took advantage of Half Price Mondays. The Asian students were the only ones with enough money to spend on their appearance these days, she said. Then she said: ‘But we’ll be alright won’t we, when we leave? We’re always alright in the end, aren’t we?’
In other words she was telling me she was a Brexiteer and we could talk about that next, if I liked. The dog-whistle delicacy of her overture surprised me, given the courage and volume with which she projected her personality and other opinions on to the public stage. And a slight drop in air pressure suggested that she was touching on an issue of consuming interest to all three of the hairdressers, which was second only to gin.
I credited her sophistication by giving an equally oblique answer. And I’m now tired, in any case, of the arguments put up by both sides, which are otiose because ideologically based and fundamentally unbridgeable. I think I said something about the EU project being doomed to failure anyway, whether we stayed or went. But it was a pleasant enough thought that if civil war did break out, we Brexiteers, like the Wehrmacht, would be fighting to the last with smart haircuts.
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