Tidy Hair on a Boat

by Simon Lowe

“I’m chock full of cancer,” said Mrs Winston, sat in Patty’s salon.

“I’m sorry to hear that Mrs Winston.”

“Agony it is.”

“Some cancers aren’t so bad though, are they, these days?”

“Who told you that?”

Trey had a friend. People said she was going to die. Trey visited her friend after work and sat on a bean bag, consoling her with optimistic words and cups of tea. The cancer had a name similar to Trey’s maths teacher, Mr Hodgkins. The cancer came and went. Her friend recovered. Trey felt she had been misled.

“Where’s it got you Mrs Winston?”

“Everywhere luv, shan’t be long now.”

Trey feathered Mrs Winston’s highlights, working hard to get the gradient lengths just right.

“I won’t bother making an appointment for next month.”

“But the freeze dry, you promised.”

“There’s no point, luv.”

“It can’t be as bad as that, Mrs Winston.”

“Sorry duck, I’m on me last legs.”

Trey was very much looking forward to freeze drying Mrs Winston’s hair. Mrs Winston was the only client she had who truly embraced her unique approach. Mrs Winston liked looking at Trey’s mood boards and never questioned her unconventional designs. You’re an artist, she told Trey, I like artists.

“I’ll pencil you in for next month, just in case.”

“There’s really no point.”

In Trey’s experience, old people, like Mrs Winston, had a tendency to exaggerate their ailments; sometimes, they took pleasure in despair, or so it seemed.

“I want you to do something for me Trey, for when I’m gone, like.”

“Mrs Winston, I really don’t think…”

“I want you to cut my Derrick’s hair.”

“Oh, right, okay.”

“You’ve seen the state of Derrick’s hair?”

“It’s very full isn’t it.”

“It’s a dreadful mess Trey. And it will only get worse, when I’ve gone. I can’t have him walking about like that, embarrassing me, not when I’m under six foot of muck.”

“Tell him he’s welcome to pop in anytime.”

“No, he won’t come here. I want you to go to the boat and do it.”

Trey only recently discovered Mrs Winston lived on a boat. It made Trey think about Mrs Winston differently.

“I suppose I could, if Derrick would prefer.”

“I’ll give you a key, just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“You know what men are like.”

“Bloody ‘ell Mrs Winston.”

“Mornings are best. He practises his darts in the mornings.”

“I can’t just turn up.”

“I’d really appreciate it, luv.”

“Let me have a think, I’ll let you know next month.”

“Where’s Patty? I want to say goodbye.”

***

Mrs Winston died on the way home from Patty’s salon on the number three bus. The bus stopped outside Turnstiles marina, waited for Mrs Winston to alight. Her newly feathered hair smelled strongly of coconut. Most of the passengers knew it was Mrs Winston’s stop. They shouted for her to wake up. Come on Mrs Winston, they said, time to get off. A young man prodded her arm. He could see her eyes were open, staring out the window. She isn’t asleep, he said, she must be daydreaming. Come on Mrs Winston, they all said. Time to get off.

***

At the funeral, Trey drank wine and passed trays of sandwiches to the bustling but droopy crowd. She extended her sympathies to Derrick and refrained from mentioning his hair, despite it spreading quickly; a thick fringe covered his ears, like animal fur. She thought it better to wait a couple of weeks. To surprise him.

***

The marina was smoky and damp. Boats arranged themselves like a nearly complete scrabble board. Trey was a bag of nerves. Fortunately, the Rosie Lee was moored near to the entrance and easy to find. It was blue and yellow. Window boxes filled with brightly coloured flowers bordered its roof. A cup and saucer, hand painted on its side, a swirl of steam rising up. The Rosie Lee.

Trey boarded clumsily and the Rosie Lee rocked from side to side. Derrick appeared with a dart in his hand, looking surprised.

‘Hi Derrick, it’s Trey. Trey Gosman?’

‘Morris’s niece.’

Morris Gosman was captain of the local darts team, and Trey’s uncle.

‘That’s right.’

‘What can I do for you, Trey?’

‘I’ve come to cut your hair.’

My hair? Are you sure?’

‘Yes.’

‘I don’t remember…’

‘Mrs Winston arranged it, before… you know.’

Derrick asked Trey to come in. He filled a misshapen kettle with water. In the Midlands, you didn’t wait to be asked for tea.

‘Now, what’s all this about Trey?’

‘I work at Patty’s salon? Mrs Winston was my client.’

‘I know, you did all those funny hairdo’s for her.’

‘Mrs Winston was very open minded.’

‘She certainly was.’

‘And she asked me to come and cut your hair. As a favour.’

‘Worried I might embarrass her, was she?’

‘No, I don’t think…’

Derrick put a strong looking mug of tea in front of Trey and smiled.

‘It’s alright Trey, here.’

‘She thought it was one less thing for you to worry about.’

‘I’ve never worried much about my hair, she knew that.’

Trey sipped her tea. She could feel – what were they called? Tannins? – coating her teeth and tongue; it was strong tea, bitter. They sat at a table by the window, it was like being on a train. Derrick’s hair was wiry and tousled. It had height. They used to call it volume. Not now. Oh dear. She had failed Mrs Winston already.

‘Fine,’ said Derrick. ‘As you’re here. But nothing too, you know… unusual.’

‘Mrs Winston said I was an artist.’

‘Oh, that explains it, she liked artists.’

Trey hoped there would be pictures of Mrs Winston hanging on the walls of the Rosie Lee. Old photographs from the 60s, her wedding, when she was pale and young, a sultress. Instead, there was a man aiming a dart.

‘Who’s John Lowe?’

‘The Gentleman of Darts.’

‘Is he your favourite player?’

‘Not really.’

‘You’ve got three signed photos of him. Framed and everything.’

Derrick sighed. He was going over old ground.

‘I went to the NEC, years ago, when darts was all the rage, you know.’

‘In the 80s?’

‘I s’pose.’

‘It’s all the rage again, Derrick.’

‘Darts?’

‘The 80s.’

Derrick slid from his seat and lit the stove; more strong tea was on its way. Trey had not anticipated chit chat. Usually men liked to have their hair cut quickly and quietly. She had prompts, talking points, to stop it becoming awkward; they mostly elicited grumblings about the state of football and how foreigners had ruined the game. She preferred old women, chatterboxes who spoke in lengthy monologues without a need to reply. They allowed Trey to focus on her snipping.

‘So, what happened?’

‘When?’

‘At the NEC. In the 80s?’

‘Oh, right, so all the top players were there as you’d expect, Bristow, Jockey, the lot; but the queues were horrendous. By the time I got to the front they’d all buggered off; old Stoneface was the only one who stayed.’

‘Stoneface?’

‘John Lowe.’

‘The Gentleman of Darts. Of course.’

‘Keith Dellor was my favourite, if I had to pick. I’d have liked his picture, really. He had a cracking stance.’

‘Can’t you get something off eBay?’

‘I could ask Sue, I suppose.’

‘I’ll have a look, if you like, bound to be something.’

‘Don’t worry luv, besides, I’ve had Stoneface up there for years, I’m used to him now.

‘Can I have more milk?’

‘We should get on with this haircut I s’pose, did you bring scissors and that?’

‘Scissors? You haven’t seen my mood board yet Derrick.’

‘Bloody ‘ell Trey.’

Hardback books: stories about war and darts, a plinth for Derrick’s bathroom mirror. Trey put a towel over his shoulders and half filled a pint glass of water to dip her comb in.

‘How’s Jamie getting on?’

‘Fine, he’s still at Uni.’

‘Got a good arm your brother, if I remember rightly.’

‘He never phones. It annoys mum, a lot.’

‘Having too much fun I expect.’

‘It’s been ages though, weeks.’

‘No point worrying I s’pose.’

‘I guess... I don’t know.’

There was a point to worrying. His new friends were not like their friends at home. They were boys who were pleased to be boys, glad of it. On her first visit Trey drank and danced, watching them bob up and down, wreck themselves silly. She joined in as best she could, embracing the revelry, as you do! When it was over, she shared a taxi with one of Jamie’s new friends; a tall boy with thin lips and far more teeth than was necessary. He convinced her to spend the night in his room. Tired and bored, she agreed. Trey assumed it was normal in Jamie’s new world, to commit meaningless acts, to remove oneself, it was the point, wasn’t it? The rite of passage? But Trey had made a mistake. An error of strategy. Because when she visited next, Jamie’s new friends were expectant. The tall toothy one had led the way; now they all wanted a go, in turn, and Jamie was ashamed. It was better, he said, if she didn’t visit anymore. He’d rather they hung out at home, in the holidays. But Jamie had friends in London now. He spent the holidays working in offices, paying off his debts, staying away. He stopped calling. He had escaped.

***

Trey went to the Rosie Lee with her mood boards and her scissors and cut Derrick’s hair every month. Usually, afterwards, they had lunch. Beans on toast or a bacon sandwich (white bread, butter, brown sauce). Derrick added lettuce and tomatoes, ‘to be healthy’. They ate and chatted, ignoring the tomato and lettuce.

‘You know the Mucky Duck’s closed for a week, bloody refurbishments.’

The Black Swan. Home to the local darts team.

‘What are you going to do?’

‘Not sure yet.’

It occurred to Trey that without darts, without the Mucky Duck, Derrick was at a loss.

‘It’s only a week, you’ll manage, I’m sure.’

‘I s’pose.’

‘You know what next month is don’t you?’

‘What?’

‘Our one-year anniversary.’

‘You’re kidding.’

‘Nope. I think it’s time.’

‘You’re not freeze drying my hair Trey.’

‘I really think it’s time Derrick.’

***

Trey’s mood board was a glacial storm; a mosaic made from cheap earrings. Derrick had to admit, it certainly, “caught the eye.”

‘I brought bubbles.’

‘Champagne?’

‘Asti Spumante. It was on offer.’

Trey removed a wire cage from the cork and popped the Spumante open.

‘You shouldn’t have any, not before handling that stuff.’

‘We’re celebrating, aren’t we?’

‘I s’pose.’

The Rosie Lee looked different. Derrick had taken down shelves, his dart board and pictures were gone. The smell of fresh paint combined with a flowery smelling candle.

‘What happened to stoney face?’

‘I’m decorating, cleaning the place up.’

‘Looks good.’

‘I’m not finished yet.’

‘No, but...’

‘Fancied a change, that’s all.’

Trey put a spoon in the Asti Spumanti, to keep its fizz, and took a thermos from the fridge. She put on thick rubber gloves and laughed with excitement when cold smoke leaped out.

‘Jesus, Trey.’

‘You’re not still worried are you, Derrick?’

‘I don’t know why I agreed to this.’

‘Too late now.’

‘It’s bloody not.’

Trey sank metal tongues, her mums old salad servers, into the liquid nitrogen and counted to ten. She heard Derrick take a breath when she squeezed the metal along his hair, sapping his sheep’s curls, turning them into velvet. Trey was delighted with the outcome. She dipped the tongues in the thermos again. Thick, cold smoke began filling the Rosie Lee, erasing Derrick’s face from the mirror. Trey said it was like being in a nightclub. Derrick thought it was more akin to a terrorist attack.

***

When Trey arrived at the Rosie Lee the following month, to see how the freeze dry had held up, she was surprised to see the curtains drawn and no sign of Derrick. It was winter and bitterly cold, especially in the marina. The reek of smoking wood burners was nauseating. Trey headed back through the marina when she remembered the key Mrs Winston had given to her, just in case. It had stayed in her wallet all this time. She could wait for him inside. Derrick wouldn’t mind, not in this weather, not at all.

She made tea with plenty of milk and sat in Derrick’s armchair. The walls were still bare, whitewashed. The chair was hard, there was something sharp underneath, digging into Trey’s legs. Worried she had broken Derrick’s chair, Trey removed the seat cushion. Oddly, there was a cardboard box squeezed inside the base of the chair, its lid creased and bent. Trey opened the box and saw files and folders inside, documents, faded and yellow. There was an envelope, sticking out.

Michael Putts
Putts Private Investigation Services
3a Thames Court
Hinckley
Leicester LE7 4HQ
23rd February 1979

Mr Derrick Winston
The Rosie Lee Boat
Turnstiles Mooring
East Goscote
Leicester LE3 9KG

Dear Mr Winston,

My report is complete and based on my findings I do have a conclusive result for you – although I must admit, it is not the result you or I would have hoped for. Please Mr Winston, allow me to forewarn you, this will not be easy. The files in this box provide all the evidence you need, the facts do, of course, speak for themselves. But be prepared for some difficult truths.

Just as you suspected, Mrs Winston is not a full time cleaner at Calder’s and Sons. Indeed, Calder’s have no record of a Jennifer Winston having ever worked for them. As you know, Calder’s employ cleaners to cover each hour of the day and night. In many ways, it was the perfect cover.

Likewise, Mrs Winston is not a member of the WI. Contrary to what you have been led to believe, Mrs Winston does not play an active role in the community. Indeed, Mrs Winston has no civic responsibilities in the Goscote area to speak of.

So, you see Mr Winston, you were right to contact me, there is a grave deceit occurring and I am afraid to say, it only gets worse. As you suspected, there is another man involved. His name is Alan Marsh. He is a successful local artist, you may have heard of him. He paints our once proud factories with workers looking very glum, lots of charcoal and smoke stacks, socially aware, they call it. Not to my taste, I like a bit of colour, a few trees and daffodils if you know what I mean. Mr Marsh earns a decent living though, give him that. Some of them go for hundreds, would you believe.

I apologise. I’m stalling. It’s just hard to come straight out with these things sometimes. You see, Mrs Winston and Alan Marsh are not having an affair. No, it is much worse. They are married.

Mrs Jennifer Winston is also Mrs Jennifer Marsh of Chesterley Way. One of the old cottages, near the new estate. It is important to state Mr Winston, I do not suspect there to be any collusion on the part of Mr Marsh here. He is, I believe, equally as convinced by Mrs Winston’s stories as you once were. You will see from their marriage certificate, they are newlyweds, although I have been able to trace a courtship lasting a period of two years.

It is my professional duty to inform you that bigamy is a crime. However, I am not legally obliged to report it as such. This decision I will leave to you Mr Winston. You will find various physical and documentary evidence in the files. It is, as I say, a conclusive result, albeit a difficult one to accept.

I am sorry Mr Winston. I know this is made all the more difficult with you having a young daughter, Susan. You are in an unfavourable position, of this there is no doubt. I will offer no advice on the matter. I certainly shouldn’t like to be in your shoes. Sometimes, I feel such shame. But this is my job, and I can’t excuse the truth.

Yours Sincerely,

Michael Putts P.I

Trey placed the envelope back inside the box and remade Derrick’s chair. It was not possible to wait for Derrick now. She had to leave. She shouldn’t be smooching with Derrick’s private things, his history, without consent. Yet despite being scandalised and troubled with guilt, Trey returned the next day. She half expected Derrick to be waiting, holding the envelope up in the air saying, ‘care to explain?’ But instead, Derrick was on the deck of the Rosie Lee, smiling at her arrival.

‘Ahoy there,’ he said.

‘Where have you been?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I was here yesterday. Bloody freezing it was.’

‘Sorry luv, I was over at Sue’s.’

‘Everything alright?’

‘Come in, I want to show you something.’

Trey’s mood boards, all twelve, were hung like paintings in a gallery. All the way through the Rosie Lee.

‘Sue got them framed for me, that’s where I was yesterday, picking them up.’

‘I can’t believe it.’

‘Original artwork that is.’

‘I didn’t know you kept them.’

‘Look good, don’t they?’

Derrick lit the stove. His hair was still straight. He’d been combing it by the look of things. How old was he? Not as old as before. Nothing like. The pictures, his hair. It was the closest Trey came to hugging him.

‘Where’s your dartboard going to go?’

‘I’ve stopped all that.’

‘As if. You love your darts.’

‘Told your uncle last night.’

‘Why?’

‘I’ve got other priorities, more important things.’

‘What priorities?’

‘Sue’s expecting.’

‘You’re going to be a grandad!’

Trey went to the bathroom for a strange, unexpected cry. There was a mug of near-black tea, sat on the table, when she returned.

‘So, Jamie quit Uni.’

‘When?’

‘He’s been in London for six months. Mum got a cheque reimbursing all his tuition fees through the post.’

‘Cheeky bugger.’

‘Rang me at three in the morning.’

‘Hope he apologised.’

‘Yeah. He absolutely hated it in York. He thinks I should move to London with him!’

‘You should, easier to be an artist there than it is here.’

‘Is that what I am, an artist?’

Trey looked away, scared her face was flashing clues or worse, tears. If she did go to London to be an artist, she would come back every month, to cut his hair and drink his tea.

To be with him.

About the Author

Simon Lowe

Simon Lowe is the author of one novel, Friday Morning with Sun Saluki. His stories have appeared in Storgy, Chaleur magazine, Visible Ink. He is a British writer living in Hertford, UK.