For the next few months, I will publish fiction stories by African writers every Tuesday. These stories were submitted as entries for the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize, which is part of the Writivism Program, run by the Center for African Cultural Excellence (CACE). CACE is a not-for-profit organization, headquartered in Kampala, Uganda, committed to entrenching a wide understanding of culture and identity from an African perspective. The Writivism Program connects literature to reality.
Today’s story is one that most, if not all, ladies who have ever permed their hair will identify with. That
creamy crack relaxer struggle is legitimate. Enjoy! (Side note: Also thought the story’s title was spot on given the fact that this is the first “Fiction Tuesday” on this site.) OK…carry on.
by Beverly Akoyo Ochieng’
Urembo Parlour. The salon in Judy’s bedroom. Two floors below Brenda at the C3 block in Highrise.
Brenda passed it every day, slowing down to mouth along to the songs floating out of the salon. TLC, Aaliyah, Tamia – Brenda hummed along, like a secret. Sometimes she paused to stare at the poster on the front door. Absorbed by the picture of the girl with silky hair, stylishly cut with a fringe swooping over her eye, imprinting every detail onto herself while tracing over the pink floral lettering. Beautiful Beginnings.
The door opened with a sudden sweep.Judy found Brenda humming along to Monica while clutching a lock of hair.
‘Aah, I see you’re enjoying the music!’ she cooed.
Brenda smiled nervously. Judy followed Brenda’s gaze to the poster.
‘Think you’d like to have that done?’ Judy asked.
She nodded, containing herself. Of course I’d love to do it!
Brenda stood awkwardly while Judy peered at the bird’s nest atop her head and gave it a poke. ‘Your hair is so nice and thick,’ she said, ‘the chemical will hold well!’
Brenda spent the days that followed dreaming herself into the poster and mulling over Judy’s words. She tugged obsessively at her hair. How would she ask Ambetsa? Her mother could be so unyielding at times. When Brenda had asked for a mobile phone, she had muttered grouchily about ‘Young people these days!’
‘Ama,’ Brenda begun cautiously. ‘What if I relax my hair?’
Her mother, who had been plaiting the hair in question, stopped midway. Brenda anticipated her anger, or the tired lecture about how she was just a child and did not know what was good for her.
‘Why?’ Ambetsa asked softly. ‘What is wrong with this hair?’
What is wrong? Brenda wanted to shout. It’s an impossible clump!
‘It will still be mine, Ama,’ she said instead.
‘When I was in school, we had to keep our hair short and natural.’ Her mother resumed plaiting and Brenda held her breath.
Ambetsa sighed, ‘Fine,’ she patted her handiwork, ‘but you will have to find your own means –’
‘Yes, yes, Ama,’ Brenda shrieked excitedly. ‘I will!’
Brenda had put aside three weeks of lunch-money, but now, as she sat in the worn green seat in the bedroom of Flat 4, she began to wonder if it was worth it.
She wanted to claw into her scalp with a nail. Anything that would relieve the flaming fire-ant itch that coursed through it. She tried to distract herself with the music. Boyz II Men crooned about reaching the End of the Road, not particularly a favourite.
Judy continued to apply the relaxer, oblivious to Brenda’s torment, moving methodically from root to tip, clogging the air with its dense ammonic smell. Brenda sighed and rolled her eyes. She wished she were at the end of the road! At her beautiful beginning.
‘Is this supposed to happen?’ Brenda asked impatiently.
Judy paused. ‘Imagine it’s just starting? Just give it a moment dear,’ she urged. ‘Urembo ni uchungu.’
Beauty is pain.
The chemicals bit into her scalp. She winced, clenching her jaw as she resisted the urge to scream. Where is the relaxing bit? Brenda seethed and suddenly longed for her mother’s cold fingers. The way they would comb through her Afro with pomade. The silent intimacy when she plaited her hair on Sunday evenings.
Brenda sat on her hands and bit her lip. She glared at the box that held the relaxer kit. She glared at the girl on the box. The girl in her head. Her promising smile detached from the fire ants marching over Brenda’s scalp.
Judy disappeared but Brenda could still hear her. A woman came in complaining about a lemon bleaching cream. ‘Ai! Judy! Is this supposed to make my skin itch?’
‘Mrembo, I was just telling her, beauty is pain.’
A maxim befitting the wonderful Urembo Parlour Brenda thought, and squeezed her eyes tightly against her itchy scalp and throbbing temples.
Judy came back, bustling about, singing along to Toni Braxton. ‘Let’s get you washed,’ she said cheerfully. Brenda needed no further encouragement.
Her cooked scalped breathed as the cold water ran through it. She inhaled the citrus scented shampoo and relaxed as Judy’s fingers worked through her hair. Her head felt light. Too light.
Has it fallen out? Brenda panicked for a moment. ‘Is it still there?’ she asked.
Judy clucked. ‘Haiya! Do you think I don’t know what I’m doing?’ She patted a towel on her head and sat her up in front of the mirror.
Brenda watched her wet hair tumble behind her. She twirled a soft lock. Giddy in her seat, she sang as though the song spoke to her. ‘Let it go, Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow, everything’s gonna work out right.’
Judy blasted the blow-drier, muffling the music, but the familiar tune played on in Brenda’s head. The billowing heat reignited her scalp but she was too lost in her reflection to care.
Straight, silky and sleek.
She even had a fringe!
Brenda absorbed the mirror image of herself. She tilted her head and it bobbed. She ran her fingers through the soft tresses possessively.
‘Just remember to come back every six weeks for a retouch,’ Judy was saying, taking Brenda’s towel.
She stared at Judy blankly.
‘The hair will keep growing, my dear,’ Judy chortled, tidying the small space.
Brenda blanched. I’ll have to do this again after six weeks? And then again? And again? Her head spun. How would she tell Ambetsa?
‘So I’ll be seeing you soon!’ Judy said, leading Brenda through the narrow hall.
Brenda gulped but nodded.
A light breeze rushed in and Brenda’s locks danced in the wind, kissing her cheeks. She felt like the living image of the Beautiful Beginnings poster. Brenda took a deep breath and stepped out.
Beauty is pain.