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One of the first things I do is cut my hair with neat, chunky snips over the sink.
This may or may not have been planned.
What I mean by this is that deep down, I knew that I would at some point reach for the scissors and do to myself what little kids do to Barbie dolls – brazenly and easily, like snipping the ends from spring onions for a sandwich.
When I’m done, I stare at hair in the sink and think of Tupperware boxes full of worms. Glow worms, I think, a sudden revelation. I will dye my hair phosphorescent.
I do not even go to the mirror to look before I am out through the front door in slippered feet, towel still hanging from my shoulders. Nobody will question this, but they will whisper. This is good. I am a walking exhibit of grief.
I call at the small convenience store next to the station. Outside, a small boy squats on the warm concrete with his arm hooked around a cocker spaniel, both of them watching with shiny brown eyes as I pass. The boy looks up at me, sucking quietly on an ice lolly. He lets the dog have a lick, then puts it back into his mouth.
“You’ll get germs doing that,” I say. Cold water tracks down my neck.
When the boy sticks his tongue out, it is blue and nasty.
I come to this shop a lot, but today it is not for his six-pack of Fosters or a pint of milk. “Blue top only,” he’d always said. “None of that red top shit.”
Two women in gym clothes stare at me as I pass the sandwich cabinet, a reduced calorie sandwich and a pasta pot weighted in each hand. Their firm buttocks stick out like globes beneath their leggings.
I wonder if maybe they think I am just taking a break at the hairdresser’s to grab lunch, but then I remember the slippers and shuffle along towards the haircare aisle. They stare after me, then whisper. I do not strain to listen.
Platinum blonde is easy to find anywhere you go. I know this from the long afternoons spent scouring the shelves of the local chemist for reddish-brown, as close to my natural colour as I could get for the greys to go undetected. This was part of the process: the bottles of Olay, the smooth legs, and the stinging pluck of my brows daily. I still rub in the Olay as normal. I still inspect my brows for stray hairs, and sweep razorblades along my shins despite them never emerging from my bobbled pyjama bottoms.
The blondes are all lined up on the top shelf, women peering out of the boxes with bleached teeth and pearlescent shoulders exposed. Their hair falls around them with the ease of water. They are nothing like me, but the box still fills me with hope.
I pick the brightest, whitest blonde I can find. The name of the shade is somewhere between porn star and celebrity baby: Champagne Vanilla.
“Jesus Christ,” my sister Rhiannon says, staring at me over the worktop of my darkened kitchen. I stare back at her, hair sticking out wildly, the exact shade of the uneaten clementines between us. “What the hell have you done?”
Her voice shatters in her throat. She is about to start sobbing, but I am the one who looks like a fluorescent toilet brush.
I shrug. “It’s just hair.”
If this had happened any time before, I would have dashed straight over to the salon, wailing and wearing a wide-brimmed hat, begging them to fix it. Today, I just looked at myself in the mirror and surveyed the uneven sprigs of bright hair with the calm of somebody choosing which bananas to put in the trolley.
“Oh, Silvia,” she says, and walks over to me, pulling me into a hug. Her arms are dimpled and soft, like knuckled dough, and her perfume is stifling; the same cloying neroli sweetness she’d worn for years. I stiffen then pat her awkwardly as a sign to let go. She holds me tighter and starts rubbing my shoulder, the way Mum used to whenever I fell over or cried after an injection. “It’s okay.”
Bollocks, I think.
She moves her fingers tentatively to my bare neck and brushes it with her fingers. “Why?” And when I don’t answer, she offers tea.
Tea. Tea, it seems, has been the answer to everything. Sweet tea is what is given to crime victims, or grieving people, in TV dramas. I am not a TV character. In reality, tea does little else other than to make my tongue feel warm and heavy and oversweet. It coats my teeth with its thick aftertaste, then sloshes around in my belly with uncomfortable heat. I let her make it anyway. She wants to feel useful.
They all want to feel useful.
“I’ll call Julie,” she says, banging through the cupboards to look for biscuits. She crams an M&S shortbread into her mouth. They’re what Rhiannon would call posh biscuits; she scoffs another while tipping the kettle. “Biscuit?”
“No thanks,” I say. I can’t remember the last time I ate anything. I am a ghost.
“Remember that time I tried cutting my own fringe after a night out ’cos I thought it would look nice? Awful. But Julie sorted it for me straightaway. She should have an appointment.”
“I don’t need an appointment, Rhi.”
“I’ll pay for it. I mean, she’s not cheap, but it’s because she’s so good you end up not minding.”
“No.” I picked the milk carton off the worktop and put it back in the fridge. “I don’t need a sodding hairdresser.”
Rhiannon’s thumb starts to tap away on her phone. She is probably texting Mum to tell her I’ve finally lost my mind.
“Don’t text Mum.”
Rhiannon doesn’t look up. “I’m not.”
“I know you are.”
“I’m texting Julie to see if she can fit you in today.”
“I told you, I don’t want to go.”
“You’ll feel better.”
“For God’s sake.” I bang a cupboard door shut for no reason. The cat bolts from under the table like a meteorite. “What’s she gonna do, bring back my husband with a set of highlights?”
Rhiannon stares at me over the rim of her coffee mug. His coffee mug, with the wrong person attached to it.
The ridiculous thing is I hated him. There, I said it. I hated the man.
Grief slaps me across each cheek and says, “No, no, you loved the man. Now do something with your bloody hair. Just in case he comes home.”