Random Acts
by Chrissie Ward

      When Molly opened the door of the hairdressing salon and saw the vase of daffodils on the bench, she wanted to turn and walk away.  But she was too slow; Janine had seen her.

      "Good afternoon, Mrs Langton," Janine greeted her with a welcoming smile.  "How are you today? The usual shampoo and set?"

      "Yes, thank you," Molly said resignedly, and allowed herself to be swathed in a blue and green checked wrapper, led to a chair and tipped backwards over a basin.

      "Isn't it warm?  Only September, but it feels like summer, doesn't it?"

      "Mm," said Molly.  She always found it difficult to speak while her neck was stretched back.  She came to this salon mainly because of the cheap rates offered to pensioners, but she often wondered whether the penalty of having to listen to Janine’s non-stop chatter was worth the saving in money.  To be fair, Jane was a competent hairdresser, as long as you didn’t expect anything innovative—her training must have been done some time ago.  Molly kept her eyes shut while Janine’s hands shampooed, massaged, and rinsed her hair.

      "We can't complain about the winter, can we?  They say it's a New Zealand record.

      A towel was wrapped around Molly's head, and pat-pat went Janine's hands.  Molly was tipped up in the chair and had to open her eyes.  The daffodils were directly opposite, the bright yellow trumpets screaming mockingly at her.  Janine was ushering her to a chair not three feet away from the flowers.  Molly couldn't bear to look at them.  She kept her eyes fixed straight ahead, staring at her reflection as Janine combed out her wet locks.

      "Some people think it's all down to global warming," Janine chattered on, "but I don't know.  El Nino's been around for ages, hasn't it?"

      "I don't know either," Molly whispered.  Her throat was as tight as if she was still tipped backwards, and her voice sounded odd in her ears.

      Janine paused in her combing.  "Are you all right, Mrs Langton?"

      "Yes, I'm fine," Molly lied, and forced herself to smile into the mirror.  Janine inspected the smile and must have found it passed muster, for she began separating locks of hair ready to be wound on to rollers.

      "I went down to see my sister at the weekend," Janine remarked, drawing the basket of rollers towards her.  "It rained all day Saturday, but Sunday was gorgeous."

      "That's good."

      "My sister gave me the flowers, her garden's full of them.  Aren't they lovely?"

      She paused expectantly, and Molly had to open her eyes.  Janine was admiring the daffodils with a pleased expression on her face.  To her embarrassment, Molly felt tears well up and run down her cheeks.  She brought one hand out from under the wrapper and wiped hurriedly at the wet streaks, but Janine had noticed and was looking at her in consternation.

      "Oh, Mrs. Langton, whatever's the matter?"

      "It's—it's the daffodils," Molly gasped, the muscles of her face twisting as she fought to keep back further tears.  Don't break down, she told herself.

      "Are you allergic to the pollen?  I'm terribly sorry.  You should have said."  Janine dropped the comb, picked up the vase and backed away with it.  "I'll put them over here—or would you rather I took them outside?"

      "No, no, they'll be all right there.  I'm not allergic, it's just ..."  Molly drew her handbag from the shelf under the bench and bent her head over it, hunting for the clean handkerchief which she should have put there that morning.  She couldn't find it.

      Janine put the vase of flowers down in the far corner of the room and came over with a box of tissues.  "Here you are.  Would you like a cup of coffee?  Don't worry, I haven't got anyone else booked in ‘til four."

      The coffee was only lukewarm, but Molly sipped it while Janine hovered discretely, rearranging her brushes and lotions.  Molly stared at herself in the mirror and thought how ridiculous she looked.  Foundation was caked in the wrinkles under her eyes.  One side of her head was covered in rollers, and on the other side the thin grey hair hung down her scraggy neck.  Her hair had once been so beautiful; it had swung softly around her shoulders in lustrous splendour.  Look at her now!  You're pathetic, she thought.  A pathetic old woman.

      "Are you feeling better?" Janine asked.  "Shall I carry on now?"

      "Yes," said Molly.  "I'm sorry."

      Janine picked up a roller and combed out another lock of hair.  She was quiet, embarrassed out of her talkativeness, but smiled sympathetically at Molly in the mirror.  Molly knew she had to explain.

      "I have daffodils in my garden too," she said.  "I planted them when I moved in five years ago and I've divided the bulbs every year and—and they were doing really well.  I put them along the fence beside the street, and on either side of the path leading up to the front door.  This morning…"  She swallowed.  "Someone had—beheaded them."  She couldn't put into words how she had felt when she looked out the window and saw the scattered yellow flowers, their petals already fading, their mangled stems bleeding sticky sap.  "Smashed them with a stick or something.  All the flowers broken off, all of them."

      "No!"  Janine's mouth and eyes rounded in horror.  "Oh, that's dreadful!  No wonder you were upset.  Who could have done such a thing?"

      "Well, I wondered if it might be the kids who rent the house across the street.  I don't know if they're students or working, they come and go at odd times.  They look a bit rough—but a lot of young people do these days, don't they?—without necessarily being rough.  It's so hard to tell."

      "Are they Maoris?" Janine asked.

      "No," Molly said, frowning slightly.  "One of the girls has a Maori boyfriend, but I don't think he lives there.  But what—what worries me"—frightens, she thought; why can't I say it?—"is that whoever did it came into my garden.  They opened the gate and—and walked up the path..."  They had violated her space, invaded her safe domain, the cosy home she had made a refuge in her widowhood.  Today they had destroyed her daffodils—what might they do tomorrow?  The newspapers were full of stories of elderly women being raped, beaten...

      "That's awful, really awful," Janine said, shaking her head.  "Have you been to the police?"

      "No, what could they do?  I didn't see anyone.  I don't know if it was those kids, but if it was..."  Molly hesitated.  "If it was them, why would they do it?  Do you think they've got something against me?  I've never even spoken to them, but maybe they don't like the way I look."  She realised too late that this was not a very tactful thing to say to her hairdresser, but Janine showed no sign of taking offence.

      "No, no," she said.  "Why should they have anything against you?  It probably wasn't them at all. Some passing vandals—a random act."

      "Random..." Molly echoed, and a bell of recognition rang in her head.  She had seen those words only that morning, and in unexpected circumstances.

      Sticking to her usual routine—it was the only way to keep panic in check—she had gone to the supermarket to do her weekly shopping.  But she had forgotten to go to the lavatory before she left home, and as she walked across the car park she felt an urgent need to pee.  The public lavatories, which she had never used before, were housed in a grandiose mock-Doric concrete edifice with a flight of shallow steps leading up to the entrance.  Two girls were sitting in the middle of the steps, blocking the way.

      The girls should have been pretty.  Their cheeks were plump and smooth, fresh skin curved taught over young bones.  But their hair hung in matted hanks, their eyes were smudged with kohl, their lips were dark purple and their slender bodies were draped in tattered black rags.  They might have been on their way to a fancy-dress party as Dracula's daughters.  Molly thought, don't they care how they look?  And don't they realise how brief youth is?  One girl lit a cigarette, and the other took it from her with blue-tipped fingers.  They put their heads together, giggling and whispering, and ignored Molly as she squeezed past.

      She had always hated public lavatories, hating the thought of all the other people who had used them before her, and the evidence of that use they left behind.  She crouched awkwardly in the cubicle, trying to keep her bottom clear of the seat, and as her bladder emptied she looked up and saw the graffiti written in felt-tip pen on the back of the door.

      Do random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.

      Huh! she had thought.  Tell that to whoever destroyed my daffodils!

      But, oddly, she was feeling calmer now that she had told Janine what had happened.

      "I'm sure you're right," she said.  "Just a random act."

      Janine picked up the last roller and began to wind the last lock of hair.  "There's so much…" she started to say, but then turned in surprise as the salon door opened.

      "Gidday," said a young man's voice.  "Can I have a hair cut?"

      Janine's mouth opened and closed like a silly fish before she said, "I'm sorry, Sir.  I'm too busy."

      "I usually do it myself," the man said.  "The barber lets me use his clippers."

      Janine was still gripping Molly's hair.  She tugged on it unconsciously, and Molly tried to suppress a squeak of pain.  She wished she could see whoever it was who had come in, but was unable to turn her head against Janine's grasp.

      "Where do you usually go?" Janine asked the intruder.

      "Harry's, but he's away at the moment."

      "Well..." Janine said.  "If you can do it yourself ... okay."

      "Ta," the man said.

      He came forwards, and Molly saw him in the mirror.  She was horrified.  Talk about rough!  He had several days' stubble on his face and wore a black singlet tucked into ripped jeans, the jeans held up by a wide leather belt with evil-looking studs.  Worse, there were barbed wire tattoos round his biceps and his neck.  Molly caught Janine's eye in the mirror and pulled an alarmed face, but Janine smiled soothingly back.  The man stepped out of Molly's view.

      "Do you live around here?" Janine asked him over her shoulder.

      "Yep," said the man.

      "Do you have a job?"

      "Yep," he said again.  "Fish filleter, apple picker, kiwifruit pruner—you name it, I do it."

      "That's very… very versatile," said Janine, and she turned her attention back to Molly.  "Now then, Mrs. Langton, let's pop you under the dryer.  Another coffee?  No?  There you are, then."

      Molly picked up a magazine, opened it with pretended casualness and peeped at the intruder over the pages.  Did he really go to "Harry's Hair"?  It was the barbershop a few doors down, an old-fashioned establishment where the waiting men sat, patiently gossiping, on brown vinyl benches.  This character would be almost as out of place in Harry's as in the salon.  Molly thought he needed a shave and some new clothes more than a haircut—his light brown hair was only about an inch long.  Now, seated in a chair in front of the same basin that Molly had used, he was in the process of reducing his hair length to a quarter of an inch.  He certainly seemed to know what he was doing, running the clippers efficiently over his skull again and again.  Satisfied at last, he put down the clippers and stood up, then leant forwards and rubbed both hands vigorously over his head.  Bristles flew everywhere.  He brushed down the front of his singlet, then turned on the tap and rinsed out the basin.

      Janine abandoned the pretence of checking through her appointment book, Molly let the magazine drop on her lap, and they both watched in fascination.  The man looked round the salon, fetched the broom from the corner and swept his hair clippings into a neat pile.  He looked round again, and went over to the trapdoor in the middle of the floor.  He hooked his finger through the ring and lifted it up, then seized the broom and swept the clippings down into the space beneath.  The broom was placed carefully back where it had come from.

      Molly saw his lips moving, and surreptitiously pushed the helmet of the dryer up so that she could hear.

      "...much is that?" he was asking.

      "Don't bother," said Janine.  "I won't charge, since you did it all yourself."

      "Oh no," he said.  "I always pay."

      "Well, two dollars then."

      With some wriggling of hips, the man extracted coins from the pocket of his tight jeans.

      "Ta," he said to Janine, and he nodded to Molly as he left the salon.

      It wasn't until Molly was released from the dryer and Janine was brushing out her waves that they had a chance to discuss him.

      "I hope you weren't worried," said Janine, "but I thought if that young man was one of Harry's clients, he must be all right.  To look at him, you'd never expect him to be so tidy, would you?"

      "I suppose if he does things like filleting and pruning, he'd have to be neat with his hands," Molly replied.

      "I wish I had more clients like him, it would save me a lot of work!  I'm only joking, Mrs. Langton, you know I value your custom.  I just meant that he wasn't any trouble.  Would you like some hair spray today?"

      "Thank you."

      "Now, you mustn't go on worrying about your daffodils.  I'm sure it wasn't anything personal against you, just some kids looking for mischief."

      "Probably," Molly said, and turned to leave the salon.  The events of the day had caught up with her, and she was exhausted.  All she wanted was to get home and lie down.

      "Oh, Mrs. Langton!" Janine called.  "Why don't you have these?  To make up..."

      She lifted the daffodils out of the vase.

      Molly stared at the cut stems dripping slimey water on the floor and recoiled in distaste.  "Oh no, no, I couldn't."

      "Do take them.  My sister gave me plenty.  I've more at home.  I'll put them in a bag.  I'm sure I've got one somewhere."  She rummaged in a drawer, found a plastic carrier bag and pushed the flowers into it.  "Here you are," she said, smiling and holding out the clumsy bouquet.

      Molly looked at the flowers.  Their golden trumpets were dumb and senseless, their beauty had lost all meaning for her.

      "No, really," she said.  "You keep them."

      Janine's face fell.  "I thought you'd like them."

      Molly stood in the middle of the salon, befuddled by weariness.  What was the point; of life, of anything?  If appearances were deceptive and beauty held no more truth than ugliness, then why did she bother to come here every week and have her hair done?  Was it from loyalty, or penny-pinching habit?  Self-respect, or vanity?  Oh, what did it matter.

      "Same time next week?" Janine asked hesitantly.

      It does matter, Molly thought.  There was a point, although she could perceive it only dimly through her tiredness.  With an effort she straightened her shoulders and lifted her neatly-waved head.

      "Yes, thank you," she said to Janine, and held out her hand for the flowers.  "You're very kind."


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