Highly Commended, ‘Finishing Touch’ by Mary Byrne


In his room, Phil, the lead stylist, carefully laid out what was needed on his trolley: curling tongs, combs and a variety of ribbons and silk blossoms in white and pastel shades. The client, Helen Marsden, was due for her pre-wedding run-through at ten o’clock.

In the beginning, weddings had made him tense – there were lots of things that could go wrong – but he’d been doing them for five years now and had it down to a fine art. It was satisfying being part of the joy and excitement. Like a big family he was allowed to join for a day. Sometimes, he’d even be asked to the meal. Always, he’d have a large tip.

He remembered her. Late twenties, same age as him, quiet, didn’t smile. She came every few months for a trim. He would try the usual conversations on holidays and evenings out, but she never joined in so he ended cutting in silence. He didn’t even know her job.

At five to ten, she arrived. He took her coat and asked his assistant, Nicola, to bring a coffee and some perfume sprays. Brides had the privilege of choosing a free scent.

He combed through her hair – a rich, natural chestnut colour — glancing at her in the mirror as he did so but she was staring at the floor and seemed uninterested.

‘Would you like a colour put on? A temporary one.’

She looked up as if surprised.

‘Do you think I need one?’

He considered. Normally, he’d say ‘yes’ – it was the company policy – but her colour was so stunning, he couldn’t bring himself to.

Then he had to ask the usual questions. Would she wear a veil? Did she want it up? What about curls? What colour was her dress? Did she want flowers? He showed her the blossoms.

‘No veil. Yes, I’ll have it up. No curls. You can put in blossoms if you like. It doesn’t bother me. The dress is white. Mid-length.’

It was the same tone you might use when ordering a train ticket: single, Manchester, today, window seat.

‘Where will it be?’ he asked.

‘The Town Hall.’

‘The Victoria Room?’

‘Yes.’

‘Very nice. High ceilings, chandeliers, wood panelling. They’ll be great photos.’

He smiled but she didn’t smile back.

He washed her hair. She wore no make-up – her skin was flawless. He blow-dried to give fullness and began to style.

‘I’ll put it up and twine the flowers through at the end. Does that sound OK?’

She nodded.

He gathered her hair into a ponytail with a band, used tongs to give more shape to the resulting bun which he pinned, sprayed, and chose some white blossoms. He noticed she was following his hands in the mirror.

There was silence except for his comb pulling through and the chatter from the main salon.

‘I don’t love him.’

He thought he’d misheard and continued placing the flowers.

‘I don’t love him,’ she said, this time more distinctly.

He stopped for a moment, comb in the air. What was he supposed to say? ‘Mm.’ He tried to sound sympathetic. ‘Everyone has wedding nerves. I made the taxi go round the church three times before I got out.’ He laughed unconvincingly.

‘I’m not nervous.’

She put her head down. For a moment, he thought she might be crying.

‘Miss Marsden? Helen?’ He clattered the comb onto the trolley.

She sat up again and stared at him.

‘I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I didn’t know I was going to.’ A coil of hair had come loose and swung back and forth as she moved.

He was used to women telling him secrets but nothing like this.

‘It was alright in the beginning but now it makes my skin crawl when he touches me.’

He swallowed hard. This was way out of his depth.

‘I can’t help you, I’m afraid.’

‘No, of course you can’t.’

Then she did begin to cry, sniffling, her nose running too. He gave her a tissue.

‘I’ve messed everything up,’ she sobbed. ‘My life, his, everybody’s.’ She ran her fingers through her hair and he watched in horror as the style fell apart, blossoms and grips sliding to the floor. He picked them up and methodically sorted them back onto the trolley, looking away from her hunched-up form. He must keep control. At least keep talking.

‘Have you told anyone else? Your mother? Your bridesmaid?’

‘No, didn’t know how. And now it’s too late.’

‘Is there an older person – an aunt maybe?’

‘Nobody.’ Tears coursed down her face.

He let her cry but after a while said, ‘I’ll tidy it. You can’t go out like that.’

She let him remove the rest of the grips and then comb her hair until it was the same as when she came in.

Nicola must have heard some noise for she opened the door a fraction and poked her head in. Her eyes widened.

‘Can we have two more coffees, please, Nicola, and a glass of water.’

When the door had shut, she said, ‘Maybe I can go through with it. That would be easier for everyone.’ She blew her nose. ‘Other people have done it. Some people who have arranged marriages must have done it. Everything’s booked. My parents have spent thousands and his parents have spent thousands too.’

He looked at his watch. The next client was at eleven-thirty – the one who owned a dress shop, who would make a fuss if he was late. He made a point of moving his trolley back against the wall and hanging up the hairdryer.

‘I’m sorry I’ve been such a bother.’

‘No trouble.’

‘I’ll pay you.’

‘Right.’

‘I’d still like you to do my hair on the day.’

‘Are you sure?’ He tried not to grimace.

‘Yes, I’ll get over it.’

He opened a drawer in the trolley and pulled out his business card. ‘That’s my mobile if you need it.’

Her hand shook as she took it. She was pursing her lips as if still trying to keep the tears back. He didn’t normally allow himself to get too personal with clients, so was surprised by the surge of pain.

When the coffee came, he sat down beside her.

‘You know I said I let the taxi go round the church three times before I could make myself get out.’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, that wasn’t quite true. I only got out because I didn’t have any money left and I needed a pee.’

‘No!’ She smiled, her face softening. ‘But it was alright then, wasn’t it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And you’re still married.’

He had tried to jolly her along with the wrong thing. ‘No. We divorced a year later.’

‘But you were happy. For a time.’

She had told him the truth and for some reason, he couldn’t lie either. She sat watching him, her face deadly pale, her eyes red and still wet, her hair hanging almost wild even though he’d combed it. She wasn’t pretty like his ex and the women he normally went for. It was a deeper attraction – like recognition.

‘No, I wasn’t happy.’ He saw his reflection in the mirror. ‘After a few weeks, I could only touch her if I thought of someone else.’ The words shocked him. What was he saying?

‘Look, Miss –’ He jumped up. ‘Helen. Helen, you can’t get married.’

‘I thought you wanted me to.’

‘No!’

‘What about all the money?’

‘Better to lose it than to be miserable for the rest of your life.’ He took the water and gulped it down in one go. ‘I regretted it as soon as I got out of the taxi, and when I walked into that church, I knew I was a dead man.’

She was watching him. ‘Why did you do it then?’

‘She thought she was pregnant and it was my fault – both our faults, and I couldn’t leave her.’ He stopped. ‘You’re not pregnant, are you?’

‘No.’

‘Well, you don’t have to then. Nobody has to anymore.’ He touched her shoulder. ‘Why don’t we start again? I’ll do your hair but not for a wedding. Let me shape it a different way.’

He rifled through some magazines and picked out styles he thought would suit. She had good bone structure. Cut it shorter, layer the sides. Get rid of the heaviness weighing her down.

To his surprise, she agreed. Her face brightened. A little pink returned to her cheeks.

‘Do you like films?’ she said, looking up as he was cutting.

He smiled at the incongruity. ‘Yes.’

‘Would you consider going to one with me – I mean when this is all over?’

He laughed. ‘Yes, why not?’

And she laughed too

When Nicola came for the cups, she was startled to see Phil humming as he snipped, all trace of ribbons and blossoms gone. The bride-to-be, turning to glance in her direction, looked radiant.

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