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Alison Napier

HAIR. My hair was fuzzy black when I was born and stuck upwards like a bush-baby.

My dad called me Rook even though I preferred to think the colour was the more ornithologically accurate blue-black of a raven. When I was nine or ten my mother brushed my hair one hundred times before church, although this ceased when I lost religion and she lost patience at roughly the same time.

In secondary school I hid behind a veil of long dark hairy curtains and Kirby grips. Effective but uninspiring. A few years after leaving school I was a barmaid (as we called them then) in an Inverness hotel, and, dabbling with my heterosexual phase, I got a perm. I looked like a cut-price Marc Bolan wearing ill-advised giant Deirdre Barlow specs.

This also was not my best look.

Aged 21 I went belatedly to university and came out as a lesbian and so a short dykey crop was de rigueur. I liked this and it was easy and I teamed it with photochromic cool shades. My relationship with my hair had come of age. I faded into fifty shades of grey in my late twenties though my eyebrows stayed dark. I still sport a version of the short no-nonsense functional cut, getting an economy 'wash and trim' every six or eight weeks, with 'no products, thanks.' Before I go to work or out for a meal I stick my head under the shower, apply Pantene Shampoo (whichever version is on offer though I swear they are all the same), scrub at it with a towel then Blast'n'Dry with the high setting of a powerful hairdryer.

You can tell that I do not spend a lot of time or money on my hair.

But now it will all fall out in a week or two, including my eyebrows ('sooty smudges' as my mother called them and still dark), my eyelashes (to which I am in fact oddly attached as they are long and also dark, have been occasionally admired and envied and may contribute to my myopia) and all 'body hair'. Hairless legs will be interesting and new. So yes, I am a mass of contradictions – and suddenly it matters. I have become a cliché of cultural hair-related body-image anxieties.

Hair is absurdly complex and emotive. It is subject to court cases when a black school pupil wants traditional corn rows, it is a statement of identity, it is used to control and humiliate (Nazis shaving heads in concentration camps), jobs require specific hair-lengths (army, police) and even Jeremy Corbyn has seen his own hirsute style being subjected to ridicule.

It seems there's not a huge body of research on this but such evidence as exists confirms the view that the experience of alopecia is psychologically damaging, causes intense emotional suffering, and leads to personal, social, sexual and work related problems.

In a study of cancer patients with and without alopecia, those with alopecia had a poorer body image (BMJ 22.10.10). Not surprising. My fears therefore are understandable. More research please.

So I bravely headed off to my new hairdressing salon, Hair Dot Comb. (But mercifully not Curl Up and Dye.) The appointment lasted a full hour during which I was coaxed into three wigs, learned a great deal, saw what I would look like both with no hair (while wearing the tight cap for fitting) and with a proper hair style. It was quickly apparent that wigs are not made the way my hair looks.

At one point I could feel tears starting so I shut them down, at another point I started to laugh hysterically as the sight of me in a grey wig, with a woman behind me brushing it up as I tried to flatten it down and muss it up simultaneously. Suz watched calmly and patiently from the side-lines and exchanged intelligent comments with owner, Fiona. The final one, the simplest and also the most expensive (£195 and paid for by NHS Scotland) was agreed upon.

By now I knew I was officially a Vulnerable Adult, entirely lacking in Mental Capacity and in urgent need of a statutory intervention.

The wig was boxed and placed in a smart paper carrier, and I watched a hand, my hand, reaching out to take it. Suz dealt with the social niceties, we left the shop and walked ten yards to a café. Suz ordered a large strong black coffee and I had apple juice because another almost insignificant side-effect that had emerged was that lots of things, including my beloved tea, tea that has been my friend for almost fifty years, now tasted of low-grade washing up liquid. Weird. We sat at the window looking out at the afternoon school pupils and the shoppers and the bus drivers. I checked them all out to see if they were wearing a wig. And maybe they all were because in fairness to current wig makers they are very realistic indeed.

A taxi home was considered but rejected as it was now rush hour and the gentle walk across the park felt good. I was beyond tired and my stomach muscles ached, as if I had carried a sack of potatoes with me all day, but we crept from park bench to park bench and watched the swans and the coots, and the gulls swooping for the last of a Greggs sausage roll on the path. Eventually we got home.

'Try it on,' Suz said. 'No,' I said, 'but do feel free.'

Suz has beautiful thick dark hair with one or two white streaks starting to emerge. She pulled the wig on, tucking her hair underneath, arranging it in the mirror. I could see that yes, it looks entirely normal and not like a wig at all. (I should add that I have no previous experience with wigs and attribute all my hair-based-fears to Miss Piggy, Donald Trump and a Hamlet cigar advert from the 1990s). I saw how she might look when she is older and her hair has gone grey and I wondered if I would still be here to see it. She looked great.

My hair began to fall out like a cat moulting on day 17, not day 14 as predicted, leaving a trail of silvery threads on the carpet and the sofa and pillows and cushions. I will assume that that is the oncologist's only error. I immediately got a very short haircut. More came out as I ran my hands through it so Suz shaved it all off as I sat on the sofa with a towel round my shoulders watching TV. I wear a range of hats and post photos of them on facebook. And I feel far better than I thought I would. The wig stays in the box.

This is weird, bizarre in fact, but not, in the grand scale of things, a catastrophe.

To be continued......

See Episode 1 here.

See Episode 2 here.

See Episode 3 here.

See Episode 4 here.

See Episode 5 here.

See Episode 6 here.

See Episode 7 here.

See Episode 9 here.

See Episode 10 here.

See Episode 11 here.

See Episode 12  here.

See Episode 13 here.

See Episode 14 here.

See Episode 15 here.

See Episode 16 here.

Meet The Author...
Alison Napier
Who Am I?

Alison Napier is 58 and was diagnosed with a Grade 3 breast cancer in June 2016. She is a social worker to trade and is also a writer. Her short stories are published in many collections and anthologies in both Scotland and England and her non-fiction has appeared in a variety of national newspapers and journals.

She lives in Perthshire with her partner Susan, enjoys her allotment on an island in the River Tay (regrettably prone to regular flooding…!), cooks once a week for a lunch club for older people and plays the recorder with a fine bunch of friends in her spare time.

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