huts 4 (rewrite)
Heebie-jeebies, I can’t sit still to read through the file on Norean Kileen. Try not to be too obvious. I spy on her as she waltzes down the corridor beside Wullie the Pole, little against his large, and I wonder what they’re talking about. I wait until Wullie the Pole has the ward keys in his big hands to let her out in the foyer, wait until the door is locked. He heads in a sure-footed circuit towards the telly room. Then I scramble out of my chair and whip down the corridor. I’ve been watching, learning, educating myself. The door to the kitchen is locked, but the metal shutters aren’t pegged down yet. I lift the bottom rail and slide them up, sit my bum on the still warm counter and slide my legs across through, bridging the gap between dining-room and kitchen. The double ovens and hot plates are no longer on, but it’s a closed space. An unnatural glow of strip lighting reflects in the rectangles of white tiled walls and combines with condensation and the stink of grease to tickles the back of my throat. It makes me want to cough, but I swallow the urge down. The dishwasher churns. My hand spiders down on the faux marble worktop to steady myself and I fling my feet and jump cat-like onto the floor. Two sinks full of trays are a work in progress, steeped, leave the water grey and grimy. I crane my neck, tilt my head, unlock the lever and fling open the window.
Looking though the gap my gaze follows Norean. She picks each step, her shoulders back and her hips jutting slightly out of orbit as she trails slowly up the hill, making the most of the sunshine. I know from the light-blue polyester top that she sports that she works in the hairdresser’s shop. But I’m not sure which one. There are hairdresser’s spread out in three different hospital buildings. One just off and over the top of the hill, one in the old section, and one buried in the castle for the real sorry cases, heads without bodies. Hair without a care. To give it the official title it’s called Glenboig Hospital Hairdresser Service. But nobody in our village call it that. If it was referred to at all, it was called the mad barbers, which was shortened to the mad barb. I can’t really remember anything much about it, good or bad, it was just one of those things. We’re a small Scottish village, with only one industry, and harvest the mentally defective from all over Scotland. Mum worked in the hospital and when I was wee, like everybody else, she used to take me to the hospital dentist for filings and getting my teeth out. In the same way she would take me for a short-back-and sides, a mad barb, with some baldy old guy sniping away at the side of my head with scissors and holding up a mirror to the back of my head and asking her if it was alright. I suppose it was cheap. When I got a bit older I took the Corpy bus into Glasgow to get my hair cut by a professional. Being seen by your mates going to the mad barbs was the equivalent of being baldy and being caught prancing the Gay Gordon on the dance floor. You’d need to fling yourself under the wheels of the bus and if you were unlucky you’d need to get up and ask the driver if he would mind reversing over you because the wheels missed you the first time.
But I’m having second thoughts. Pat the side of my head. Wonder if I’m in urgent need of a haircut. I can imagine myself sitting in the barber chair, no longer needing a slat of wood to raise me up to the required height, looking into the mirror and smiling, saying something witty and charming to Norean who is standing with a pair of scissors, with her hand sitting affably on my shoulder, ‘I’d like a feather cut and a bit off my ears.’ I can see it clearly and the way she laughs at my bon mots.
Then I remember Mrs Clovis works there. The soft elastic of her hair, yo-yoing up and down and changing colour with the hairdressing seasons. How she always makes a joke about how she can’t do anything with her jug ears sticking out or her hooter. And you’re meant to laugh and disagree. And all the other women from the village sitting flicking through magazines with bucket machines on their heads, frogs with hairnets and blue hair. All waiting. All listening to every word you said. Never sure which way they’d jump. Mrs Clovis was bound to ask, demand to know in that nasal whine, ‘how’s your mum keeping now?’
How you’d got pink as a newborn pig and say, ‘fine, fine, just fine’. She’d wait for you to admit something. The more awful the better. Cancer is always a good currency with Mrs Clovis.
‘That’s good,’ she’d finally say, licking her lips. Poke you in the shoulder with her bony forefinger and add, ‘You make sure you tell her I was askin for her.’
‘Aye,’ you’d need to say. ‘I will.’ Even though you wouldn’t. You’d worked out there is no point in telling her that fat woman was asking for her that lives a few doors along because even although your mum would never say so, you know from the way her face goes up and down that she can’t stand her.’
Norean Kileen disappears over the hill and I miss her already. I pace up and down the kitchen, strutting like a boxer, whistling a funny little tune, I’m not even sure what it is. I push the Yale up, edge open the kitchen door and step out into the corridor. All clear.