EXTRACT: Cul-de-sac by Elsa Joubert: 'There and then I decide I'm done with colour'

Cul-de-sac by Elsa Joubert, published by NB Publishers.
Cul-de-sac by Elsa Joubert, published by NB Publishers.

In my first five years in Berghof I have to have a hip replacement twice. The first time when I tripped over the angled wheel of my badly parked car at the Labia Theatre and fractured the hip completely; the second when I got dizzy from bending over and looking askance and crashed down the steps of the Welgemeend art gallery.

The first did not cause as much trauma as the second. Both traumas were owing to a woman's eternally nagging, troublesome connection with her hair: What do the roots look like, has the grey grown out noticeably yet? It's said that a woman's hair is her crowning glory, but it's a shaky crown that gives a lot of trouble. Especially with hospital complications.

My first hip replacement was shortly after I'd been to the hairdresser. No problem; hair still looks good. But when the surgeon said I was not allowed in a car for six weeks, I had to devise a plan. My sister-in-law, Maxie, who came to look after me when I got home, said: 'You can't just turn grey out of the blue now.'

I phoned my hairdresser, Charmaine, and she said: 'Fine, I'll come on my afternoon off to do your hair.'

She sits me down on a straight-backed chair in the kitchen, unpacks her things, drapes the towel and plastic cloak around me. The brushes swip-swop over my head. 'Why is it so dark, do you have the right dye?' I don't trust it.

'You always get a fright,' says Charmaine, 'it's only because it's wet. Let's have tea now. It's a thirty-minute wait.'

'I'm not allowed to sit for so long, I can only stand or lie.'

'Well, then, stand,' says Maxie.

Charmaine chats: 'A colleague of ours got cancer. She was a very beautiful woman, who set store by her appearance. We hairdressers decided to take turns on our afternoons off to cut her hair, colour and blow-dry it. Sick as she was, every day up to her death, one of us did her hair.'

I am touched. It's a beautiful story, but I get tired of standing, and rivulets of dye start running over my face. Charmaine checks her watch. 'Fine, now to bed for the rinse.'

I lie down on my bed on my back, my head at the foot of the bed, neck limp, head in a large black garbage bag. Maxie helps to carry jug after jug of hot water, Charmaine with handfuls of shampoo scrubbing and scrubbing and massaging and massaging, and then at last wringing the water from the hair as you do with laundry. 'The black bag is going to burst,' I whine. 'It won't, your head is hanging over your yellow bucket.'

My head spins as I'm brought upright, I cling to Charmaine; this is my weakness. Because of my light-headedness I cling to dentists and doctors when I get to my feet. 'Okay, okay,' she says. She twists a towel around my head, back to the straight-backed chair in the kitchen. 'Easier to clean the floor,' she says to Maxie. Cloths and towels and plastic are draped around me, and her scissors start snipping. Nice and short. My back starts aching. 'Almost done.'

Her hairdryer starts swishing and swashing, my head jerks this way and that, a style starts taking shape on my head. I start to feel much better.

The second hip replacement was once again an emergency, only two days before my next hair appointment. My hair had grown out when I emerged from theatre and lay on my hospital bed delirious, desperate and despairing. Legs spread open wide, a cushion in between, my legs in rubber stockings with embedded live electrical wires, so that it felt as if live snakes constantly, 24/7, were crawling up my legs. All just to prevent clotting. I resent this operation, the fall was so unnecessary.

From the second day I have to walk, but I struggle, I'm not the athletic type, down the corridor. I look around me and the image I see in one of the polished wall panels petrifies me: a decrepit old lady clinging for dear life to a crutch under each arm, and by her side a young Adonis of a physiotherapist who has hold of her elbow with one hand and, with the other, is desperately trying to gather the two loose flaps of her hospital gown together behind her back so that her old white buttocks are not displayed to the whole hospital. Nor is that the end of it, because around the face of the old lady a mass of grownout grey hair bristles like a curly damp fungus, the loose ends dangling wildly. It's me. There and then I decide I'm done with colour.

 * This extract was taken from Cul-de-sac by Elsa Joubert, author of the South African classic The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena. The Afrikaans version, Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena is about to be turned into a feature film for kykNET.

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