No ordinary client, nor ordinary venue...although I had been there professionally on a couple of occasions in the past. Nothing quite like this though, and consequently, when I enquired at reception as to the whereabouts of a Mrs. Anne Palmer, I was apprehensive. Her sister, Julie, had telephoned me earlier that morning; it was a Sunday, and I don’t normally work on Sundays, but this was an exception. I had never met Julie, nor her sister, but their parents lived next door to my mother, and when there was an urgent need for a mobile hairdresser, I sprang to mind, she said.
Julie had taken great pains to explain Anne’s unfortunate condition, so I was pleasantly surprised to find her sitting up in bed, albeit supported by three or four pillows; her pallor accentuated by stiffly starched hospice linen. Julie was already there, plus a close friend, Sara; some kind of ‘spirit-healer’– heavily into Yoga, aromatherapy, and the like. Conversation between the two sisters was highly animated, and they seemed to be having a minor contretemps. Apparently, or so I gleaned from the lively banter, Julie had forgotten to bring in some fresh supplies of Tunnocks Tea-Cakes, to which Anne had become seriously addicted over the last few weeks.
“Hi there! Thanks for coming at such short notice,” Anne said, finally realising I had arrived. I have to admit, she didn’t fit at all, the mental picture I’d formed of a terminally ill thirty-something. She smiled a ‘lop-sided’ smile...the scars from a past operation long-since healed, but culminating in the partial loss of her jaw-bone and total paralysis on one side of her face; her battle with cancer unflinchingly fought since her late teens. “And by the way,” she continued, “don’t mind us two; we’re forever arguing. Have done all our lives. Impossible to change a habit of a lifetime...even now, it you know what I mean?”
Sadly, I did. The doctors’ recent prognosis gave her just days to live – the cancer having spread from her jaw to her spine, lungs and liver. I couldn’t imagine what she and her family were going through right now, especially as this was the week between Christmas and New Year. Sensing I was choked up, Anne did her best to put me at my ease, and as Julie had mentioned, she was certainly not the sort who enjoy wallowing in their own self-pity; in truth, pity was the last thing she wanted.
“So...I’m up for it if you are? You’ve got all your gear, I see. Have to say, I’m really excited. I love being pampered; only have to clap my hands in here, and they all come running. Absolute angels – the lot of them! Julie will have told you, presumably, about my crazy idea of being transformed into a redhead? Since my mid-teens, I’ve craved that ‘Titian look’, although I suppose I should have been satisfied with being a natural blonde. Anyway – if I absolutely hate it, at least I shan’t have to suffer it too long; should have plucked up courage years ago, I suppose, but ‘better late than never’. Also it’ll look a treat with that green silk number my sister bought me...My ‘going away dress’, as we call it. Don’t we Julie?”
Again...that wry smile played around her lips, and I wondered, like hell, how she could even contemplate joking at a time like this, and in her eyes a sparkle, I wished I could have bottled for posterity.
Having agreed on the exact shade of red, and after ‘gowning her up’, I proceeded with the job in hand, although, with her being literally shackled to oxygen machines, etc. etc. (not the foggiest idea what any of them were for, but thankfully, she did) the whole operation was somewhat hampered. Even helping her through to the sink in her tiny en-suite bathroom was a challenge, but we managed without major catastrophe. Both Julie and her sister were ex-nurses, so that, at least was a bonus. Sara just sat tight, throughout...thinking positive thoughts, or so she said; insisting she’d have only been in the way, and she was probably right.
With all the messy procedures dispensed with, it was time to get Anne back to bed for the ‘fun-part’; the cut and blow dry, and understandably by now, she was rather tired. Julie wandered off to find herself a cup of coffee, having been at her sister’s bedside all day, and Sara sat at the end of Anne’s bed acting as her ‘mirror’... A self-appointed role, but as it turned out, she was invaluable in handing me the various ‘tools of my trade’, as and when required.
Anne became lost in a world of her own as I preened as I snipped as I blew, so I was mindful to leave her undisturbed in her state of reverie; refreshing, as it was for me, not having to engage in idle chit-chat. ‘Going anywhere nice for your holidays this year?’ Perennially a stock-standard phrase to fall back on. Or, ‘Yes, I think it really suits you, madam; that blue rinse brings out those amazing eyes of yours, and as for that ‘urchin crop’ it was an inspired choice on your part...lying through my teeth. The more flattery I dished out the larger the tip, and at the end of the day, it was tough shit if they didn’t like it. There was always ‘next time’, and then they could plump for pink...and hair extensions, if they felt so inclined. In retrospect, how very much we do take for granted in this life of ours....Planning holidays, booking future appointments, wishing each other ‘Happy New Year...”
Anne was the talking point of the entire hospice that afternoon, and the nurses, finding it difficult to curb their curiosity would wander in, now on then, on the premise they were just checking on her condition. They didn’t have to wait long though, until all was revealed. Two hours later, a vibrant redhead was sitting up in bed demanding a ‘proper’ mirror, at which three appeared on the scene, almost immediately...quite a crowd having gathered in the corridor...patients, visitors and staff. Anne could never have been described as a shrinking violet, and she relished this attention. Her face was a picture of radiance...only narrowly outshone by her shoulder-length bob...resplendently red.
“Well?” she said, admiring herself in all three mirrors, “Do I look drop-dead gorgeous, or what?”
Anne to a ‘T’, that was.
On a grey day in early January, at Anne’s ‘Celebration of Life’, Julie related this story to those who’d come to see her off in style at the tiny chapel...packed to overflowing. To the last strains of a last hymn, her sky-blue coffin, complete with clouds, was illuminated by a shaft of sunlight piercing a rose-glass window depicting the crucifixion. It shone...red as Christ’s blood, whose hand she’d not once let go of through that shadowy valley, and now beyond. I bet there aren’t that many angels in heaven like her; not ones with Titian hair, and blonde roots.