It was in one of those listless summers after graduation that I found myself in the small Japanese town of Sasayama. Four girls from London crammed into a two-tatami-room house that backed onto a forest of singing bamboo; we lolled on pungent old mats, watched the manic TV shows and planned forays into Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. The house belonged to Mary, who was teaching at the local high school, and in her sporadic emails I had seen the focus that life in a new country had demanded of her and had envied it.

Mary had learnt the local bus routes and train times, had begun pottery classes and picked up enough Japanese to order our meals in restaurants. She had even found a way around the absence of black hairdressers in rural Japan: with tubs of relaxer bought in London under her arms, she had patiently taught two friendly sisters, Miki and Miho, the art of straightening Afro hair and then talked the local hairdressers through the process of blow-drying it. The salon was in the centre of Sasayama, between a karaoke bar patronized by a few elderly hunks and their groupies and a small shop selling vintage kimonos and yukatas, its windows were plastered with images of brides with hair lacquered into rolls, waves and rivulets. My own hair was a kaleidoscope of colours after an accident with a home-dye kit and had lightened and frizzed in the heat. Knowing that we would be heading to a hip-hop night in Osaka that evening I decided to get my hair done.

Borrowing Mary’s bicycle, I clanked past heavy washing machines spinning in yards, discarded snake skins as dry and cracked as the sandals strewn on front steps, rice paddies sibilant with crickets and tended by bent-backed old women wearing neon plastic visors. I felt far from home and free. I pedalled harder and harder, alongside the railway station and its bank of vending machines covered in small green frogs and into the narrow alleys of the town centre.

 

Sasayama - Nadifa Mohamed
 

The salon was open and a little bell tinkled as I entered. Three empty seats with hooded hairdryers faced a wall of mirrors, the floor around them spotless and a pile of magazines in a rack beside each chair. A man and a woman stepped out of the stillness and nodded; I nodded awkwardly back, in the stiff-necked way that the local teenage boys seemed to find so amusing. The hairdressers smiled and approached; him in tight black trousers and shirt and her in a white linen dress with a narrow belt at the waist. I gestured to my hair and mimicked a blowdry. ‘Hai! Hai’ she exclaimed, and led me towards the central chair. Placing a plastic cape around my shoulders and a magazine in my lap, the hairdressers took position either side of me, unclipping my hair, she gently, gently unwound the curls on one side of my head while he did the same on the other. Glancing at their faces in the mirror; I noticed his heavily plucked eyebrows, her permed hair, the line of foundation along his jaw, the row of empty piercings along the cartilage of her ear. The way they played with my hair made them seem like childhood best friends who had found a way to keep the promise to never part.

Taking the unopened magazine away from me, the man pointed to the sink and led the way. I stretched out on the grey leather chair and let my head fall into his cupped hands. The wall opposite was emblazoned with headshots; many in softfocus and with an amateurish air that made me wonder if they were taken by the hairdressers themselves. All of the models had dated, set bouffant styles, with vacant, almost martial gazes into the distance, someone’s mother or widow stopped in a thought. The gravity of these images jarred with the suburban trinkets and innocent, doll-like brides near the entrance, the metamorphosis of time kept to the corners. The hairdresser’s fingers probed my scalp and navigated the bones of my skull: the fan whirred, the kettle whistled, and I fell limp and docile.

Wrapping my soaking hair in a towel we shuffled back to the previous spot, where a ceramic cup of green tea was waiting for me. ‘Arigato gozaimasu’, I muttered, embarrassed by my pronunciation. With two hairdryers and paddle brushes, they brushed my hair into a frizz and then stopped, confused, conferring while she applied mousse to the ends. This was an experiment for them and for me. My hair was obstinate, untamed by relaxers; it sought to return to its curl. I watched them, first with humour and then with concern as more products were desperately applied and the settings increased on the dryers and flat irons. Sweat dripped down the male hairdresser’s face, leaving tracks in his foundation, while his friend was flushed and vocal.

My mind drifted back to London and the uncertainty of my life there; the decisions that needed to be made, seemingly so quickly, about where to work, where to live, who to be and of this book, this story that came to me unbidden in fragments, in visions and words that didn’t belong anywhere. Scenes from my father’s crazy life that came to me at the oddest times and demanded attention that I was struggling to give. I would return from Japan to a void.

A brush bounced on the floor and the machines ceased their noise. They were finished. My hair was large, newsreader-style and brittle with hairspray. Our eyes met in the mirror but I couldn’t hide the shock. I said ‘arigato gozaimasu’ again but faintly, insincerely. I paid and bowed deeply to show there were no hard feelings. Wheeling the bike from their entrance, I passed a few shops for the sake of politeness before attacking the ‘do with my fingers. My hair was crispy with hairspray that flecked off in white specks. I flattened, raked, and then let the breeze do the rest, as I pedalled back to Mary and the singing bamboo.

 

Featured photograph by Tetsuo Masumoto; in-text photograph courtesy of the author

Two Poems
Once Was Dark