Keeley is one of the few hairdressers left in the kingdom when the resident dictator requires a new hair cut. Terrified of saying no, three guards whisk her off to the palace to trim his ‘Eminence’s’ hair. Victoria Smith’s witty and deftly told short story is one for Angela Carter fans everywhere.
She’s pasting bleach onto Mrs Zumacher’s roots when the door whacks back on its hinges and three guards sweep in: black and leather, sunglasses glinting, rifles raised.
‘I’m next?’ Shock hollows out her voice.
A guard nods. ‘The last one –’
‘Uh-uh.’ Another slices a finger across his throat, shaking his head.
Mrs Zumacher eyes her in the mirror. She squeezes the old woman’s shoulders and she breathes.
‘Let’s go!’ Yell the guards.
She grabs her coat and follows them, trotting along with their two-step, smiling and appeasing, like her mum taught her. Though her last memory of her mum was that witless grin as they frogmarched her away.
They speed through the Palace gates and parade into a plush room where the Personal Secretary’s perched, hard and burly, his eyes like black pebbles:
‘This is an honour bestowed upon very few.’
An honour? She knows she is one of the very few left.
He gestures towards a screen.
‘His hair must always look like this. Measurements must be precise.’ His eyes pinion her.
‘Remember.’ He slaps a ruler into her clammy palm.
Then they quick march to the salon where His Mightiness is sprawled on a chair.
The Secretary announces: ‘Sir. Keeley. The new one. Your Excellence, Sir.’ Before he bows and scrapes out.
She clasps her quivering hands and curtseys, head dipping.
‘Begin.’ He commands, swivelling to the mirror.
She swirls the cape over his shoulders, fumbles with the Velcro.
‘Same as usual?’ She asks, forcing a smile. The familiar patter is soothing.
His moustache twitches. ‘Get on with it.’
Her sweaty hands slip on the scissors.
‘Any trips planned, Sir?’
‘Meeting the UN next week. Human rights.’ He spits out the words.
‘They still going on about that your Eminence?’
His moustache quivers.
Her heart clatters along with the speed of the scissors: snip, snip, snip. Quick, sharp.
‘How’s your job, your Excellency?’
He complains of the difficulties of dictating.
‘It sounds awful.’ She commiserates, umming and ahhing in sympathy. Oppressing the populace is so hard, she agrees.
‘Torturing is a torture.’ He deadpans.
‘That’s a good joke Your Excellency.’ She agrees.
She stands back. ‘Done.’
He looks, tipping His head, side to side. His mouth thins.
She circles him, calculating, finger tapping her chin, courage springing from her desperation.
‘Hmmmm … If you shaved here,’ she touches her fingertips to his jaw, ‘you’d soften your eyes, see? Look more sympathetic. Lovely. Yes?’
Her heart pulses through her skin, the razor sweet in her hand.
He shrugs: ‘Why not?’
Sweat beads across her upper lip and she hears her breath, hard and heavy as she lathers suds through his stubble, circling the brush. Then she wields the razor. Swipes. And the blade slides across his neck, slicing in deliciously. Deep. And His mouth opens in a horrified maw, His blood gushing in spurts as He slides to the floor with a most satisfying, wet slap.
Photo credit by Matt Artz.