My Mother’s Hair

“Your hair is your aerials, man…”

– Danny, Withnail and I.

I’d always known I was adopted. My new parents told me even before I was old enough to understand. They’d refer rather euphemistically to “the lady who had you”, avoiding any more loaded words like “mother”, and then inevitably follow it up with a reassurance: “but we love you just as much as if you were our own.” In the pragmatic way of children I accepted this, understanding that there were things at play that I didn’t understand and didn’t really need to. Little was known of “the lady who had me”; we knew she was from Ireland, had been very young, and was said to have wanted what was best for me. It came as something of a shock to me at around the age of 12, talking to Dad one night, when he let slip that she had had blue eyes and long auburn hair. Had he met her? No, but it turned out he had all the reports of the social workers involved in the adoption, the psychologist’s assessment and the medical records. “You can see it all when you turn 18,” he said, and that, with an air of legal finality, a coming of age, was that.

But still I wondered. Because my hair was different. Mum had a kind of mousey brown bob which was gently greying – until one holiday, coming home from boarding school, I suddenly noticed that she’d gone silver with a startling abruptness. (She must have been in her early 30s.) Dad had dark brown hair, kept short-back-and-sides, and combed ruthlessly across his crown. In contrast I had a wild mane, the thickest hair anyone had ever seen, which formed giant curls of its own accord and shone with a glint of fire when the sun caught it. “It’s auburn”, they said. “Such lovely thick hair.” This being the late 70s the fashion was to have it long, and I clearly remember getting off a bus one day with Mum and my sister, and her bumping into some foreign lady she knew – one of the diplomatic wives. “What pretty little girls!” the lady pronounced. I scowled at the pavement. It’s a little ironic, looking back on it.

A local woman called Zetsa used to babysit us when Mum and Dad were out at some cocktail party. Cocktail parties were a theme of my childhood. I remember the diaphanous dresses Mum wore, how she’d kiss me goodnight carefully to avoid smearing her lipstick, and the lingering scent of some expensive perfume in the hall after they’d departed. Zetsa wore no perfume. She was a gypsy – an actual Roma, from a village high in the Rhodope Mountains – with a head of tight curls dyed a deep, unnatural black, face like a cracked walnut, a gold tooth, and hands like paddles. She was kindly, in a brusque sort of way, and lived somewhere out in one of the new socialist paradise housing projects on the outskirts of the town. She spoke only Bulgarian, I only English, but somehow we communicated, within the confines of the dynamic between six-year-old boy and forty-something gypsy woman. I remember one night in the bath she decided to wash my hair, and abruptly seized a bar of Imperial Leather soap and began scrubbing away with it. I remonstrated mildly. “Not with the soap! We have special soap in the bottle for hair. Shampoo.” I pointed to the bottle of Head and Shoulders on the side. She ignored my protests and muscularly worked up a fine crown of suds. My world disappeared spluttering in a cascade of water as she tipped a jug over my head.

The next morning at breakfast Dad began hooting with laughter. “What on earth have you done to your hair? Looks like you were dragged through a hedge backwards.” I inspected myself in the mirror. It was pretty wild. Great auburn tufts stuck out in all directions, and it felt as thick as wire wool. We slicked it down with water at the kitchen sink, and he tried to run his metal-toothed comb through it until I yowled in protest. My hair was uncontrollable. I told him Zetsa had used the soap instead of shampoo, and he said: “Of course. They don’t have shampoo.” Who they were I didn’t enquire. But he must have said something, because next time she washed it she reached for the Head and Shoulders with a wink. And I remember the softly plosive Bulgarian words that she murmured as she ran those huge hands over my head and worked in the shampoo with her fingers. “Stoi moyata, malka kotka, az sŭm izmivane na kosata.” Sit still, you little cat, and let me wash your hair.

On returning to England we found the fashion had changed. My headful of auburn curls was of a previous decade; this was the 80s now, in Thatcher’s Britain, and the hippyish licentiousness of the 70s was passé. This was the decade of the floppy-fringed, foppish tosser, and if you didn’t want to be seen as a Sloan, you kept it short. I remember a barber using clippers to give me a grade 3 buzz cut, and a slight sense of bereavement at the nest of chestnut locks that fell about my feet. For the next ten years or so I kept my hair short, and by the time of my teens it had become something of a ritual to visit the barber with my friends and demand a grade 3 flat-top, which was then coerced into a spiky mat with pots of gel. We’d smoke Marlboros on the top deck of the bus into town and if we had any change left over from the haircut would pool it and buy a can of lager from the newsagents next door, sharing it on a park bench as we self-consciously preened ourselves and eyed up the passing, unreachable girls.

But short hair didn’t suit me – my hair had other ideas, and would begin to sprout into a wild entanglement within a couple of weeks. You can try and coerce me, but I’ll always rebel. After leaving school, and a brief stint at an art college – that time-honoured tradition for the bright but unconventional – I decided to grow it. Then, one summer in Berlin, a festival that went on for days, and an old castle in the grounds, and dancing on the battlements in front of a sunset that looked like the desert; I could make out a camel train heading east, and those clouds were dunes lit umber and ochre, fading to a rolling purple in the distance. I felt the music through the soles of my feet and out through the top of my head in silvery brilliance, my hair as aerials, each follicle bristling in tune with the world.

I remember coming home from the festival on the U-bahn, wild-haired and wild-eyed, and two crew-cutted drunks smirking, then, on reaching their stop, when they were a safe distance away on the platform, one loudly saying to his friend: “Is that male or female?” I didn’t care any more. I have my mother’s hair.