Imogen is a striking blonde. She has the white-gold hair other people try to achieve with peroxide. Her friends are shocked when she chops it off; at the time it is almost down to her waist. In nightclubs she would toss it, shimmering, as she danced, and men would stroke it as they kissed her.
Imogen hates it. It’s like a parasite growing out of her head, usurping her personality. She’s sick of the blonde jokes, the snickers from feminists. And curious children don’t even bother hiding their fascination. Imogen has had her ponytail pulled, as if to summon a servant, more times than she cares to remember. Once, a toddler peered around the hood of its stroller to goggle at Imogen’s retreating back. Mummy, mummy, it’s a Pantene lady! it shrieked. Imogen was mortified.
She reasons that people don’t realise how rude they’re being. It’s her right to wear her hair however she damn well wants to. But it’s just impossible; her hair precedes her everywhere. Friends introduce her at parties, and people emit little sighs of recognition — ohhh, Imogen with the hair. Ohhh, I’ve heard about you.
She threatens she’ll just shave it all off. Her best friend Dave calls her bluff.
— Go on then, he says. What’s stopping you?
— What if I end up looking like a neo-Nazi? Imogen says.
— Or a lesbian.
— That too, she says. It’s fraught with danger.
— What could be more dangerous than parasite hair? reasons Dave.
— I guess. But my mother would kill me.
— Come on, you haven’t called your mother in three months.
— That’s right, she’s mad enough with me already. I don’t need her getting madder.
— Look, Dave says, if I shave my head too, will you do it?
— You wouldn’t dare.
— You’ll only find out if you shave your head.
— Okay, says Imogen. I’ll do it, but only so I can watch you chicken out.
They go over to Dave’s house the same day, before they lose their nerve.
— Maybe this is a bad idea, says Dave nervously. The two of them are in the kitchen eating chips.
— Come on Dave, says Imogen. It’s not like we’re about to do something illegal.
— I’d feel better if we were.
They go to the bathroom, where Dave keeps his shaving gear. Imogen looks at her reflection in the mirror.
— One last look, says Dave. He revs the shaver like a chainsaw in a horror movie.
—I’d better chop off my plait first.
She gets a pair of scissors and positions the shiny rope between their blades. One snip later, the plait lies on the tiles like an amputated limb. Dave and Imogen stare at it for a while.
— Well, there’s no going back now, remarks Dave, somewhat unneccessarily.
— What are we going to do with it?
— I dunno.
— Chuck it! she says with conviction.
—You might want it later.
— I’ll only feel guilty.
— Well, I’ll keep it then.
— What, she scoffs, hang it on the wall? Use it to whip rude, staring children?
— I dunno, says Dave, it’s kinda cool.
— Time to shave, Dave, says Imogen. The severing of the plait has given her confidence.
He cuts a big swathe of hair across the top of her head. It looks like a half-harvested cornfield.
— Maybe I should leave it there, he says, laughing.
She takes one look in the mirror and freezes him with a stare.
He cuts off more hair, shaving it almost to the skull. She wriggles, trying to get loose hair out of her clothes. He holds her still between his palms. Her head is warm as he bends it forward to shave the back. He never really thought the human head had so many planes and bumps. He’s reminded of the plaster heads he’s seen, demonstrating that quack science of telling personalities from people’s heads. What’s it called again?
Imogen feels slightly tingly all over as the shaver buzzes over her head. She almost giggles out loud as it tickles the back of her neck. Dave’s fingers feel cold on her scalp, and his breath is a warm breeze just behind her right ear.
— Finished, he says.
Imogen looks at herself in the bathroom mirror. She is vaguely disturbed by what she sees.
She looks pale and gaunt. Her eyes look very large, and her features sharp. Where her hair used to hang, there is now a darkish shadow. She feels her head, and it bristles. It’s weird.
She smiles oddly at Dave. — Well?
— It’s different, that’s for sure. He seems bothered by something.
— You liked my old hair better, didn’t you?
— I’m still getting used to it, that’s all. He still looks disturbed.
— Your turn, says Imogen.
Dave just sits there. Dave looks pained.
— Chickening out, are we? I knew it.
— No I’m not, says Dave. But his voice is uncertain.
Imogen is pissed off. — I’ve gone through with it. You’ve got to keep your part of the bargain.
— I said I was going through with it, says Dave.
Imogen works faster with the shaver than Dave. Sheaves of brown hair fly as she manoeuvres it across his head.
—Steady on, Dave protests; but only meekly.
His vague discomfort is compounded now that she’s closer to him. It’s a distinctly unpleasant feeling. He feels his heart speed up. It feels like an electric razor in his chest; trembling, buzzing, cutting.
Afterwards, they go into the living room. — We could get t-shirts made up that say ‘Chemo Twins’, says Imogen.
— How about ‘Masturbation Gives You Cancer’?
— You’re all talk. You’d never wear it in public.
— You thought I’d never shave my head, didn’t you? Dave runs his hand experimentally over his stubbly scalp.
— Feels weird, says Imogen. Can I feel yours?
She touches Dave’s head, and feels a vein throbbing under her fingers.
— You okay, Dave?
He won’t meet her gaze. She persists. — You don’t look well.
He drags his eyes up to Imogen’s. — I don’t feel well.
— I’ll put you to bed, then.
— Don’t say that, Im.
— Why are you acting so weird?
— Im, how long have we been friends?
— Four years, maybe.
— And you never wanted to shag me?
— Well … I’d be lying if I said never. It has occurred to me. But we got past that, didn’t we?
She looks at Dave again. He’s looking at her shaven head.
— I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Dave.
Something changes in Imogen’s expression. — I guess maybe I should go, she says. Neither of them moves for a moment. Dave thinks maybe Imogen is going to kiss him, but instead she rises clumsily and half-runs out of the room.
Dave sits on the carpet for what seems to him like a long time. His head feels very cold. After a while, he gets up and goes back into the bathroom. Bits of his and Imogen’s hair are mingled on the floor. The plait is still lying there. He picks it up. It smells of Imogen.
He takes the plait into his room, and gets into bed. He holds Imogen’s hair and cries.
Imogen sits at the bus stop, rubbing compulsively at her scalp. For the first time, she wishes for her hair back.