Another chapter of something I’m working on at present. It’s set about twenty-five years ago, as you might realise from the smoking reference…
Alfie observed her as he asked the question. In a moment of weakness earlier that week, Katrina had told him she’d had a postcard from Mick, and that he was coming to London.
It was the first time she’d ever mentioned a guy, and Alfie had stilled the second his name left her lips. He stopped what he was doing—the ever-necessary sweeping up of chopped-off hair—and looked at her.
About to reply, Katrina paused. She recognised the tone. It was the sound of someone asking something they thought was crucial, and Katrina couldn’t stand the thought of anyone knowing too much about her. Her secrets were her own. If she wasn’t prepared to share how she felt about Mick with Daisy, she certainly wasn’t sitting down to a confidential with Alfie.
She bent to the floor with the dustpan and brush. “He’s this old friend from back home. Nowheresville, remember?”
When she had started at Chevelure Chic last year, Alfie had cosied up to her straight away. The salon was miles apart from Dulcie’s, the hairdressers where she’d started her apprenticeship at the age of sixteen. There weren’t pensioners’ specials for a start, where little old ladies could come in and get their hair washed and set for less than the price of one of the glossy magazines that littered the low-slung coffee tables of Chevelure Chic’s waiting room.
No, this salon catered for what Daisy called “famouses”, the rich, the great and the good of London came here to be pampered and flattered. It had taken Katrina one or two tries to get the flattering bit right, but a few terse words from Chevelure Chic’s owner had done the trick. Nowadays, she simpered with the rest of them.
Alfie, one of only two young male apprentices, waited for her outside the salon after her first day.
“Want a fag?” He held out a packet of Marlborough Lights.
Katrina wrinkled her nose up. “No. I only smoke menthols.” She hadn’t expected him to produce those too, but he did so.
“Where are you from, love?” Alfie was a Londoner through and through. She thought his accent ugly, too harsh for someone so young. He was about her age, she guessed, and slight, another contradiction to the voice.
Like everyone who worked in the salon, he took advantage of the freebies on offer, and his hair was incredible—thick, dark and shaved in at the sides, with the top of it artfully curled and hanging forward on his face.
His hair was the best-looking bit of him. The rest Katrina didn’t care for, not when the vision of perfect maleness she held in her head was tall, blonde and blue-eyed.
“A wee place in Scotland. You’ll no’ have heard of it.” She lit the cigarette and held it to her mouth. Moving on was something Katrina was experienced at. The best way to get through it was to keep talk of where you’d come from before to a minimum.
“I might have done.”
“You won’t,” she said flatly. The denial was a waste of time anyway. When she came in the next day, he smiled at her triumphantly.
“Kirkcudbright! I bribed Michelle to let me check your records to see where you’d worked before.”
He pronounced it the way all English people did. Kirk-cud-bright.
She poked her tongue out. “It’s Cur-coo-bree, smart arse. And up yours.”
“Want to go for a drink after work?”
Nevertheless, she did go out with him a week later. In the company of the other young hairdressers, admittedly, but out. After a while, she began to like his company. He was sarcastic, and he did a great impression of the boss, Rick Javeson. Alfie didn’t push her either, seemingly content to have her to talk to, the two of them bitching about their boss and colleagues.
“I dunno when he’s coming,” she said now. Katrina and Alfie stood outside, in the narrow alleyway that ran by the side of the premises, taking a fag break. It was now a regular routine where one of them smoked a Marlborough Light, and the other a Menthol. Rick didn’t allow smoking in the salon, although his richest clients could do it while they waited for their highlights to take.
“You should meet him.” Again, she was careful, making sure she didn’t sound excited. Allowing Alfie this contact with her past life was a biggie, and the hand behind her back crossed its fingers he would say no.
“Alright then,” Alfie said, blowing out a stream of smoke into the frosty air. “Someone needs to show the country bumpkin the big smoke.”
“He’s not a country bumpkin,” Katrina said. “Not anymore. He’s been working in Edinburgh for months. He’s used to big cities.”
Alfie rolled his eyes, dropping the butt of his cigarette to the ground and grinding it out with his heel. “I went there a couple of years ago. It’s tiny.”
She argued with him about that. She couldn’t contradict the tininess of Edinburgh as he kept coming up with facts, the size of London’s population compared to Scotland’s capital, and where the seat of the UK’s power lay. But it wasn’t all about size, was it? At that, she faced him and deliberately looked him up and down. Alfie was self-conscious about his height.
“Cow,” he said, and walked off. Another feature of their relationship was trading insults that sometimes went too far. She’d make him a cup of coffee (black, three sugars) in the afternoon, and they’d be friends again by closing time.
Later, as she made her way back to the Walkers house via the noisy, crowded Tube and the pavements that you shared with hundreds of others, Katrina allowed herself one of the daydreams that had appeared in her head ever since the postcard had arrived.
In this particular one, Mick told her the telly thing was an excuse. He’d come to London, he told her seriously, watching her as carefully as Alfie had watched her earlier.
Will you marry me, Katrina? I now know that you are the –
She stopped the thought. It might only be a daydream, but even thinking that way seemed stupid; the kind of thing Daisy would probably do. “I’m no’ Daisy,” she said it out loud, and those around her in the Tube carriage drew back in alarm. Speaking to yourself was a well-known nutter alert, the horror being that the self-speaker might then address you.
She got out at Highgate, surging out of the station with the thousands of other people. There was the beggar who always tried to catch her eye. This time, she smiled at him and dug in her bag for the loose change that always fell out of her purse.
“God bless ye, ye wee sweetheart!”
Aye, of course, he was drunk. And yes, he had to be Scottish.
To her surprise, she spotted Daisy, waving frantically at the top of Archway Road. Her mouth was open and her eyes round. She waved both hands and then held both fingers out, pointing at the spaces next to her.
Katrina blinked, her eyes closing and opening as if to confirm what was in front of her. On one side, Daisy’s dad. On the other, Mick.
©Emma Baird 2017