AIDA AUSTIN: She is wearing her usual air of ‘colourful past’ and bright red lipstick

Monday, midday. I am walking to work with my head lowered, just to be on the safe side.

“Thank god,” I think, “for growing up with five siblings who always enjoyed the cut and thrust of insult contests.”

I cross the road.

“It is because of those vigorous exchanges that I have a robust sense of self.”

From behind my fringe, I can see Paul outside the furniture emporium, putting out his Auld Shite signs. I keep my head down.

“For without that wonderful training, I would never be able to work here.”

“Kettle’s on,” says Paul, as I reach the pavement, “I’ll be there in a minute. Elizabeth’s inside already. The mad cow.”

“I’ll make coffee,” I say, scuttling past him, eyes downcast.

“What the **** is wrong with you?” he says. I glance at him from underneath my fringe. He is looking at me with a funny eye.

“Nothing,” I say firmly, staring at the pavement and picking up speed as I walk past him. For I do not like the look of that funny eye. I do not like the look of it at all.

“What are you in such a hurry for?” he says.

I break into a trot. That is not a funny eye. That is a fiendish eye.

“A woman came in for you about two tables she needs doing,” he calls after me.

I accelerate: that is the eye of a beast, about to eat its young.

Inside, I raise my head, put on the kettle and turn to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is a customer. She is French.

Elizabeth does not have a fiendish eye.

I am safe with Elizabeth.

“Oh,” she says, “I like zis hair. I like zis hair-cut very much. Turn to me properly so I may see zis hair better.”

She removes a fag from her mouth to wave it around in the air, scrutinising my fringe for a long moment with a discerning look.

“Yes,” she pronounces finally, replacing the fag in her mouth, “zis hair-cut is very nice indeed. It is – I am looking for ze right word – oh yes, I have ze word. Ze word is ‘gamine’. Yes, zis hair is very gamine.”

“I only had my fringe cut,” I say, taking my overalls from their peg, “but I think the hairdresser lopped off a bit too much. And thank you Elizabeth – but I think I might be a bit too old these days, for ‘gamine’.”

“But zis is preposterous,” Elizabeth protests, “zis is not ze case at oll. Zis short fringe is an iconic style. You haff to sink of zese film stars... like Audrey Hepburn and Greco and… Seberg. Turn zis way again. Yes, zis is a timeless classic.”

I turn to her. She lowers her spectacles and stares at my head.

“No,” she says emphatically, “dis is actually very appealing. I am a very big fan of zis hair.”

“I’ll take gamine,” I decide, looking at Elizabeth, who is wearing her usual air of “colourful past” and bright red lipstick.

I look at her again. She is also wearing an extraordinary hat I fear she may have fashioned herself, wellington boots and a fag on her lower lip.

“I’ll still take gamine,” I decide.

I stand up look at myself in an old mirror. There is something unbecoming going on with the seat of my overalls.

The seat is so stiffened with paint that it is jutting out at a ridiculous angle. I pull on my paint-spattered puffa jacket and zip it up.

The bottom of my jacket ends where the jutting begins, which is very unhelpful.

What with my extraordinary silhouette, I don’t know where I stand, any more right now, on the gamine thing.

I fear Paul will.

I take my silhouette upstairs. There are no mirrors upstairs.

I will be out of everyone’s sight up there, including my own.

It is just a shame, I think, at the top of the stairs, that up here I am not out of earshot:

“She had it cut zis morning,” Elizabeth says downstairs, “and I think it iz very gamine.”

“SO THAT’S THE AFTERS I WAS LOOKING AT OUTSIDE?” Paul shouts.

I find my jig-saw.

“SHE PAID FOR THAT?”

I plug in my jigsaw.

“IF SHE’S NOT CAREFUL,” he shouts, “SHE’LL END UP LIKE YOUR ONE.”

“But who iz zis one zat you are talking about?” says Elizabeth.

“You know the one,” he says.

“I don’t know zis one.”

“You do, you dozy old mare. THE AULD SKINNY-ARSED TOURIST WHO WALKED UP AND DOWN THE HILL LAST SUMMER.”

The dozy old mare is in for it now; he is has a very egalitarian approach to insults. I might be spared.

Elizabeth still doesn’t know who is zis one.

“THE ONE WHO LOOKED FIFTEEN FROM THE FRONT AND FIFTY FROM BEHIND,” he roars above the noise of my jig-saw.

Elizabeth knows the one.

I know the one. The customers walking around the emporium know the one. Everyone knows the one.

“SO WHERE’S THE OLD MUTTON HIDING THEN,” he shouts, starting up the stairs.


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