There’s a woman at the front desk asking for me in a confident, clipped voice. I can hear her clearly, above the chatter and the hairdryers. It’s the voice of someone used to getting their own way and although I’ve never heard her speak before, I know immediately who it is.
I was about to go out, but now, I slip off my coat and hang it back on the peg in the cloakroom. Then I fluff up my hair in the mirror, pinch my cheeks and walk out into the salon.
Sally’s tapping a pen on the appointment diary. “Perhaps one of our other stylists – ?” she’s saying.
“It’s alright, Sally. I can fit Mrs Jamieson in,” I say.
The woman looks at me and nods her thanks.
I wave away one of the juniors who is hovering. “I’ll wash my lady, thanks Tiffany. This way, please.”
I sense the girls exchanging looks behind me. I never wash my clients’ hair: the select few whose hair I cut these days are delivered to me with towels around their shoulders and their wet hair slicked back like teddy boys. But this is not just anybody: this is Daphne Jamieson.
It’s the second time I’ve seen her in two days. All those years of wondering and then, suddenly she’s here. And I’m not really surprised. After yesterday, I’ve been expecting her…..
Renee was glowing and panting when she finally reached me. I’d been watching her for a few minutes, scooting across the field, dodging children and dogs and clearly dying to tell me something. She wasn’t supposed to be back for ages. I should probably have waved my hankie or something, so she could spot me in the biggest crowd Meriden Show had ever seen but I’d been enjoying my few minutes of peace.
And anyway, she’d found me now.
“You’ll never guess who’s here!” she said, between gasps.
I lay back in the deckchair, lifted my face to the sky and breathed in the coconut scent of suntan lotion. “I give up. Amaze me.”
“The Potato King! And he’s just as gorgeous as ever!”
The Potato King? For a second, I didn’t know what she meant. It’s Renee ‘off on one’ again, I thought. My sister has more than her fair share of senior moments these days, even though she’s younger than me. But then something clicked and I jerked up, pulling off my sunglasses. “Don’t be ridiculous, Renee! It can’t be!”
And I hated her in that moment, really loathed her because, even after thirty years, the thought of him still made my stomach twist.
Renee pointed across the field. “Well, it is! See for yourself. He’s coming this way.”
My bifocals were in my handbag and anyway, there was no time to put them on. There was a woman with him. Well, there would be. A tall slim blonde in a red summer dress, with her arm linked through his. Even after all this time, I knew it was him. He was still tall and lean and he hadn’t lost his slow, steady gait. The only thing missing was the sack of potatoes swung across his back…
When we left school – me one year, Renee the next – we worked at ‘The Cut Above’ as shampoo girls. Mrs Chapman, the owner, trained us in curly perms, bobs and pageboy styles. She was turning us into ‘stylists’.
Cosmopolitan was our bible and we dreamed of working for Vidal Sassoon in London. Who knows, I might have gone, if it hadn’t been for him.
Every Friday morning, the truck would turn up from Collins’ Farm and there he was, delivering Maris Pipers to the chip shop below the salon. It was Renee who christened him ‘The Potato King’. His real name was Alan but I didn’t find that out until much later.
Mrs Chapman went to the bank on Friday mornings and we’d turn Radio One up in the salon and hum along to Mud and the Rubettes. When the delivery truck arrived, we giggled and nudged each other behind the net curtains, gazing down as The Potato King pulled each sack off, swung it effortlessly over his shoulder and strolled down the path into the chippie.
One day I couldn’t resist peering round the nets and the movement must have caught his eye because he looked up and grinned. After that, he smiled and waved every Friday and although Renee was there too, I knew his smiles were meant for me.
“Renee, can you check my lady under the drier?” Mrs Chapman called one day, coming in from the bank and catching us loitering by the window. She came over, clickedy-click in her heels and looked down onto the path, just as The Potato King was laughing up at me. It was summer by then and he was tanned and bare-chested. “Pretty boy,” she sniffed, dropping the curtain. “Never trust ’em.”
Of course, she was only jealous. Mrs Chapman was at least forty. He would never have looked at her twice.
But he did look at me twice. More than that.
He beckoned me downstairs one Friday and I slipped out of the salon unnoticed. Up close he was even more gorgeous. In my dreams – and God knows, I dreamed about him every night – he was Omar Sharif and I was Julie Christie. He slipped a note into my hand, asking me to meet him that evening at the bus stop by the church and I didn’t hesitate. And I didn’t tell a soul.
“I’m helping Mrs Chapman with a wedding rehearsal tonight,” I lied to Renee.
She stomped her foot. “Aww! The Stevenson brothers’ll be at the youth club! It won’t be the same if you’re not there! We’ll be an odd number.”
I shook my head. “Well, it’s too bad. I’m sure you’ll survive without me.”
The Stevenson twins were just farm kids. Renee had this thing about ‘double dating’ and I’d gone along with it for a while. Malcolm Stevenson, the eldest, was nice enough, but now, compared to Alan – The Potato King – he just seemed like a boy. Alan had a Suzuki motorbike and a leather jacket. He smelled of Brut.
That was just the start of it. We had to meet in secret because my parents would’ve gone barmy. They’d rather have seen me with a nice sensible Stevenson boy. And of course I had to keep it from Renee because she’d have been jealous and upset and she could never keep a secret. It never occurred to me – or at least, I put it out of my mind – that The Potato King had his own reasons for meeting me on the sly.
To avert suspicion, I stopped waving at the window on Friday mornings.
“Sensible girl,” Mrs Chapman said, nodding across the salon at me, as Renee was still tweaking the net curtain back a couple of weeks later. “He’s courting, you know,” she continued, removing a pin from her mouth and deftly clipping it into her client’s hair.
I stopped sweeping the salon floor for a heartbeat. Then I forced my face into a blank stare and carried on. The soft bristles of the brush moved over snippings of brown, blonde and grey hair. I pushed it all into a pile next to the skirting board.
“Oh yes. Good as engaged, so I hear,” she continued. “Daphne Collins, the farmer’s daughter. He knows which side his bread’s buttered, that one, that pretty boy.”
We knew of Daphne Collins. She was blonde and pretty and clattered through the village on horseback at weekends. Her friends were all in the hunting set, so our paths had never crossed.
“Now stop sulking, Renee,” Mrs Chapman said, “And come away from that window and wash my eleven o’clock lady, if it’s not too much trouble! And where d’you think you’re going, Susan?”
I had rushed past her with my hand to my mouth. I just made it to the toilet. I was sick as a dog.
On the day of his wedding, I told Renee I had stomach cramps and that I’d come to the salon later when I’d got something from the chemist. Then I caught the number 7 out to St. Giles’s Church. I didn’t even have enough money for the fare but the conductor took pity on me and waved away the ten pence piece I’d found at the bottom of my bag.
It was pouring with rain, I remember that, and when I jumped off the bus, I landed in a puddle and the dirty water splashed all up my trouser legs. I couldn’t feel it. The conductor shook his head. “Have a care, love!” he yelled, as the bus roared off down the lane, in a cloud of diesel fumes.
I found ‘our’ gravestone and hid behind it and tortured myself, watching the bridal party arrive and leave. When they’d all gone, I stood beside the kissing gate, with tears streaming down my face, mixing with the rain.
Then Mrs Chapman came for me. She roared round the corner in her red mini and pushed open the passenger door, without a word. Renee told me later that the strangest thing had happened in the salon that day: Mrs Chapman had just suddenly left a customer in the middle of a demi-perm, without a word of explanation. Renee and the other girls reckoned it must be the start of the change.
“You’re not in any kind of trouble, are you?” she said, handing me her handkerchief and I shook my head because I didn’t know, then, that I was. She muttered, “Pretty Boy” and we didn’t say another word all the way back to my house.
For the rest of that summer the song on the radio always seemed to be The Three Degrees: “When Will I See You Again?”
And I never did see him again. Not until the Show yesterday. After he married Daphne Collins, they honeymooned in Whitby (Renee found out from a customer) and on their return, The Potato King worked for his new father-in-law, managing the farm. No more delivering potatoes. At least, not in our village. The next piece of news that Renee passed on was that they’d bought another farm up North and they moved away.
And now, after thirty years, he was back, coming towards me at the Meriden Show with that slow, steady gait. With his wife at his side.
I pulled my sunglasses back down and realised that Renee was waiting for me to speak.
“Well, this is a blast from the past,” I managed. “What’s he doing back here?”
“Apparently they’ve come to sort out the farm. Daphne’s brother can’t manage it any more. It’s got to be sold.”
They reached us and he was close enough to touch. Not that I would, of course. I stood up and immediately regretted it: my legs were shaky as a newborn colt. His face was lined and his hair was more grey now than black but he was still a good-looking man.
Renee was chattering away and for once, I was grateful. “Remember us, the Davis sisters? Well, we’re the Stevenson sisters now, of course. You had your hair done in our salon on your wedding day, Mrs Jamieson. I’m Renee and this is – ”
She turned to me. I pushed up my sunglasses and waited for The Potato King to finish the sentence because of course he could never have forgotten me but his face was blank. His wife, smart and sleek in her red summer dress was watching us both in turn, a strained smile quivering on her lips. She was still a Clairol Summer Blonde. She had darting, worried eyes, like a bird. Is that what it’s like, I wondered, when you marry a Pretty Boy?
“Susan,” I said simply, looking straight at him.
He shook hands quickly, with no sign of recognition. He glanced over my shoulder.
“Did you ever deliver potatoes to the chip shop on the High Street?” Renee said and I gave her a sharp nudge. He wouldn’t want to be reminded that he was once a manual labourer. He didn’t seem to want to be reminded of anything.
Alan Jamieson shook his head and frowned. “No, I never did that round. Perhaps it was my brother. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we really want to see the Highland Cattle judging – ”
“Which reminds me,” Renee said, turning to me with a grin. “Our clever husbands are scooping all the prizes over in the show rings! Aren’t you going to come and cheer them on?”
She was already making to leave without me, as though she knew the answer. I’ve never taken much interest in farming. I’ve let Malcolm get on with his precious cows and sheep and he’s left the salon to me. We’ve been happy enough; we’ve muddled through, as they say. But he’s an honest man, a good man. I suddenly realised how lucky I was.
“Wait for me, Renee,” I said, folding up the deckchair. “I’m coming too.”
Then I linked my arm through hers and we started to walk across the field together.
“Oh, Susan, I think the sun must have gone to your head,” Renee said, with a smile. “Being so nice to me all of a sudden!”
I smiled back and patted her hand.
Now, I stare at Daphne Jamieson’s face in the mirror. She’s still tense, like yesterday and strained around the eyes.
“Right, what are we doing today, then?” I say brightly. It’s what I always say and she mutters something about a trim. It’s obvious that she’s recently had her hair cut and it’s not going to take long to snip a few ends and I wonder if she’s ever going to speak and finally, she does.
“I did come to your salon on my wedding day,” she starts slowly. “With my bridesmaids.
Wendy Gold, Sally Elliott, Jane Mason. It was pouring with rain. Awful. We all had our hair done. Your sister was there, but I didn’t see you,” she says.
I shake my head and say I can’t really remember. It was an awfully long time ago.
“There were rumours at the time… ” she seems embarrassed, but perhaps she thinks this is her only chance to say what she’s come to say. “Rumours around the village about you and Alan. And I thought… well, this is silly… but I thought I saw you standing outside when I walked into the church that day.”
Sally comes over then and asks if Mrs Jamieson would like a drink. She starts to say no and then she changes her mind. “Yes please, dear. I’ll have a black coffee.” She looks carefully at Sally and watches her in the mirror as she walks away.
“That’s my daughter,” I say.
And I thank God, not for the first time, that Sally is the image of me and not her father.
“You were saying, Mrs Jamieson. About rumours?” I prompt. Because I can’t pretend she hasn’t said it and perhaps it’s best to be up front. Mrs Chapman taught me that.
She sighs and shakes her head. “Oh, it was just something someone once said to me. It’s a long time ago now and probably just a load of nonsense but… ”
It seems like yesterday. That’s what she wants to say. That’s what I think too. I bite my lip.
“Do you have any children?” I ask her and she shakes her head.
And I think back to that time when finding out I was pregnant felt like the end of the world. Mrs Chapman helped me and listened to me when I had no-one else to turn to. She said she’d take me in if my parents threw me out. But then Malcolm Stevenson asked me to marry him. He knew, of course. I could never have deceived him like that. He knew that Sally wasn’t his child but he’s always loved her as though she was. And we were so lucky to have her because we weren’t blessed with any more.
I must be staring into space, dreaming of the past because Daphne Jamieson suddenly coughs politely.
“Was there…? I really need to ask you this. Was there ever anything between my husband and you?”
Sally brings the coffee then and places the mug down on the glass shelf, in front of Daphne Jamieson.
“Ring Mrs Chapman, would you, love, and just tell her I’m running a bit late?” I say and Sally nods.
Mrs Chapman lives in a retirement home a few miles away. Even after all these years, I can’t call her anything but ‘Mrs Chapman’. I’ll have plenty to tell her when I go round to do her hair later today. I want to make her proud of me, though. I have to make sure that I do and say the right thing now.
I look at Daphne Jamieson’s face in the mirror and I think, it’s true; there was once something, on my side at least, between Alan Jamieson and me. That’s why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him for all these years. But it was a long time ago. A lifetime ago. And there are two thirty-year old marriages hanging in the balance. Seeing him yesterday, I know the truth. The Potato King is dead and buried and it’s time to set us both free.
I see Daphne Jamieson’s eyes relax as I look at her through the mirror and tell her firmly, “No, Mrs Jamieson. There was never anything between your husband and me.” I run my hand gently through her hair. “Now then, how does that feel?”
Hesitantly, she touches it. It’s still wet, of course. I’m going to dry it carefully in a minute and finish it off with some hairspray. She looks back at me and smiles.
“Thank you,” she says and there’s a new lightness in her voice. “That feels much better.”
Helen Yendall asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work