I walked to the salon in fiery sunshine. Gorgeous, zaftig Elody was wearing a short satin dressing gown of silver and gold. She was alone. ‘Ça va?’ she said, helping me into the gown. ‘Black dog,’ I said. ‘What is black dog?’ she said. ‘Cafard,’ I said. ‘A black ox trod on my foot.’
I sat in the chair, removed my glasses and stared in the mirror. The straps of my black face mask made my ears stick out. And strewth, the hair. ‘Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren,’ I said. Elody speaks no English and my French is rudimentary. ‘What?’ she said. I had a stab at translating the limerick into French. She stared at me via the mirror with rapt, sceptical attention.
‘Alors,’ she said brightly, dismissing Edward Lear and turning our deliberation to the task ahead. ‘All off,’ I said. ‘Clippers. No prisoners.’ She didn’t understand the term ‘no prisoners’ in English or French. But with Elody mutual incomprehension doesn’t matter as long as she finds you amusing or absurd enough to laugh at continuously. If there is a thought equivalent in French of the phrase ‘all joking aside’, Elody would be unaware of it. She plugged in the clippers and began striping my nut.
‘Cafard?’ she said with mock seriousness to the absurdest and most unserious of her regulars. I once told her I sometimes went for cycle rides. After that I was the fanatical cyclist. If I told her I’d been somewhere, whether to Aix-en-Provence or Australia, she would ask in all seriousness if I had cycled there. After I had expressed a mild liking for a reproduction of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting on her wall, I was the artist- cyclist. Doubtless from now on I will be the artist-cyclist with depression.
The salon reopened three days ago. Elody was maskless. But as she bent to curve the clippers around my ears, the point of one of my hairs pricked her eyeball. She rinsed the eye with water at the sink and returned to the mirror wearing one of those full plastic visor jobs to protect her eyes from my dangerous hair. Catching sight of herself in the mirror, and my sticking-out ears, she was rendered temporarily helpless with laughter. Seeing Elody corpsing in an industrial visor made me feel ineffably sad.
But the visor reminded us — if we’d already forgotten it — of the pandemic. This is only the beginning, the easy bit, predicted the artist-cyclist sagely. The ensuing slump, revolution, famine and war will be the hard bit. That made her shake with mirth. Yes, but think how you artists will prosper, she said, pushing my head down. You thrive on disruption and suffering. Where were the great artists during the recent prosperity? Name me one. Your time for greatness is at hand. I am very happy for you. I hope you remember me in your future greatness.
You can say anything to Elody and she’ll laugh at it. It must be tongue-in-cheek, however. The moment you embark on anything serious or sincere her spirit visibly recoils. And because she talks to me as though I’m mad, I feel licensed to arbitrarily change the subject like a mad person.
Had she by any chance heard of the new cheval de merveille Pinatubo, I said? Blew away the best of the Irish at the Curragh by nine lengths? Highest-rated juvenile for 25 years? ‘Ah, but he will make a fine banquet for the artists during the coming famine,’ she said. ‘We must save the thoroughbreds for sustenance of the artists to maintain their output in this creative period.’ ‘Not the hair stylists?’ ‘No. The hair stylists will cut the artists’ hair and be content with cannibalism.’
Presently, and for the first time in weeks, I could discern the shape of my bonce. My ears stood out like the handles on the FA Cup. I waggled them at her with two forefingers. ‘Ah, the big ears of the artist,’ she said. ‘Picasso, Cézanne, Van Gogh: all the great artists had big ears.’ ‘Van Gogh had little mouse’s ears,’ I said. ‘What was left of them.’ ‘In which case,’ she said, ‘Van Gogh’s reputation is exaggerated.’
She brushed the hair out of my neck, tore off my gown and I stood up feeling cheerful. ‘Elody, you are…’ Sensing I was about to say something meaningful, she wagged a warning finger at me and said: ‘Attention!’
I said it anyway. I told her she was a breath of fresh air, which she is, with her centralised and assiduous good humour. It was a mistake. Her lovely young head dropped forlornly. Our cash transaction embarrassed her. The valediction was monosyllabic. I exited the cool salon into the furnace of the street.
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