I hadn’t seen my old school friend Zoe for several years. She’d been away on holiday the last time I’d returned to the old home town, but she’d emailed me some recent photos of a charity fund-raising event for which she’d shaved her head. I was shocked at first, but then I laughed.
“I remember the last time you shaved your head,” I emailed back. “As I recall the headmaster suspended you for three days, and insisted you wore a wig on your return.”
“It was the metal studs I’d stuck on my bald head that really caused him to have a total spasm,” replied Zoe.
Ah, those metal studs. Part of Zoe’s punk rebellion. She’d glued them on with false eyelash glue. Her parents hadn’t seemed to mind, they were much cooler than mine. How great it must have been to have a name like Zoe, while I was lumbered with the impossibly dull Catherine.
Four days later I landed at Heathrow, hired a car and headed for Hertfordshire. St Albans had changed so much in recent years, but in other ways it was still very much the same. Still very English, and sort of worn around the edges like a comfy old sofa. Very different from my present home in the south of France.
I drove straight to Zoe’s house, impressed that I still remembered where Park Street was. Zoe had married a local man and they had three sons. One of them opened the door in answer to my knock. A tall, gangling fellow, probably in his twenties. I still thought of us two girls as teenagers. Being childless I found it difficult to imagine how it must feel to have grown-up children.
Then she was there, rushing at me with a hug like a rugby tackle. We held each other at arm’s length.
“Your hair …” I stammered.
Zoe laughed. “Yes, grey. I’m in the autumn of my life, and this is my natural colour. Since shaving my head I decided to let it grow back however it wanted to. My life’s too busy for all that messing about with bottles of hair colour. My hair grows so quickly I was forever touching up my roots.”
Zoe ruffled the straight, steel-grey hair which sprouted about an inch of growth from her scalp.
“Come in,” she said. “Cup of tea, or shall we go straight for the wine?”
“I must say you look very glamorous, Cath,” she said, wrestling with the corkscrew. “Life in France obviously agrees with you.”
I grinned. “Everyone thought I was mad moving over there after Jean Michel died. I wished we’d done it years before, but he always insisted he loved living in England. How were we to know that our life together would be cut short so suddenly? His sister was the only one who understood how I felt, who knew how much I loved our visits to France. She’s been so kind to me, and the locals have made me very welcome. It was hard at first, particularly as I’d just lost Jean Michel, but now I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
My visit with Zoe was punctuated with interruptions from her husband and three sons, along the lines of “Mum, where’s my grey sweatshirt?” “Mum, I’m hungry.” “If Charlie rings tell him I’m on my way.” Zoe was obviously the heartbeat of her family, and she was clearly in her element. Gone was the rebellious, long-legged young woman at the cutting edge of fashion, and in her place was a comfortable, mumsy person with short grey hair and no make-up, wearing saggy tracksuit bottoms and a black cardigan covered in cat hair.
To me it seemed like an overnight change, but in reality it had probably happened over a period of years. I remembered Zoe pregnant with her first child, wearing skin-tight jeans and zipping her husband Dan’s big leather jacket snugly over her baby bump. Still young and fashionable then. I remembered her running along the beach in her bikini, baby number three in her arms and the other two trotting along behind. She used to say that chasing about after three boys had helped her get her figure back. I remembered the last time I’d seen Zoe, seven years ago, just before my move to France. We’d gone out for a meal, just the two of us. I could picture her now. She’d worn a pretty summer dress and her long brown hair swept up in a matching clip. The woman before me bore no resemblance.
That evening as I undressed ready for bed in my hotel room the events of the afternoon replayed in my mind. Zoe was clearly happy. She had a good job, a loving husband, and three sons to be proud of. Did it really matter that she’d let herself go? Dan didn’t seem to mind. Was it any of my business? We were getting together again in a couple of days for lunch and some shopping. It would be a good opportunity to treat her to something new, something that the old Zoe would have worn. Should I or shouldn’t I?
It took me a good ten minutes to perform my end of day regime, scrupulously removing my make-up and massaging in a series of creams that made extravagant promises to keep the ravages of time at bay. I brushed my curly brown hair, suddenly holding it close to my scalp and wondering what I’d look like with close-cropped grey hair. I shuddered and shook my head, knowing that if I didn’t make my fortnightly pilgrimage to the salon my hair would be just as grey as Zoe’s. Would I ever have enough self-confidence to accept what Mother Nature dished out, or would I still be dying my hair an unconvincing shade of brown through my sixties, seventies and eighties?
By Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015