Five-minute memoir: Alison McQueen recalls shear humiliation on a trip to the hairdresser

'I opened my hand to show her the screwed-up pound note my mother had given me'

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The Independent Culture

The cause of the argument was that I wanted to go for a haircut at the hairdressers. It was the long hot summer of 1976, I was 12, and until now my hair had been at the mercy of my mother's uneven shears. Everybody at my all-girls school had a proper haircut, but in my house, such luxuries were definitely not a priority. There was barely enough money around to put food on the table for a family of six.

I remember my mother telling me to go to the barbers with my brothers, and me trying to explain to her over the course of about a week that I didn't want to go to the barbers. I wanted to go to the hairdressers – a sophisticated-looking place with net curtains, around the corner on the junction of where our road met the Western Avenue, a great rumbling dual carriageway that cut through the industrial scrub areas near where we lived. After a great deal of sulking on my part, my mother finally caved in and told me to ask for a dry cut and nothing more. Or else. Then she gave me a pound out of the shoestring purse.

At the hairdressers, I was immediately out of my depth. The woman who was going to cut my hair asked me how I wanted it done and then, before I knew it, ushered me to a sink for a backwash. So help me, I didn't know how to say no. Over the next half hour I had my long stark hair shampooed and conditioned and cut into a style that wasn't at all what I had had in mind, but I hadn't thought it through and hadn't known what to ask for, this being my first visit to a hairdresser and all. She fired up her dryer and explained to me how I should dry it myself in order to get the same effect at home. I told her we didn't have a hairdryer at home.

When she had finished, she showed me the back of my head in a mirror that I didn't understand how to look into, and took off my gown. Then she asked me for three pounds fifty and I felt myself die of shame. (I had already known I was in serious trouble before she asked.) I opened my hand and silently showed her the screwed up pound note that my mother had given me.

The woman looked at it incredulously, and said "Oh, luvvie! What have you brung?" I said to her that I would go home and bring her the rest immediately.

When I got home, my mother completely did her pieces because she had told me specifically to ask for a dry cut and did I think we were made of money? (Remember, this was the Seventies, and three pounds fifty would probably have bought my impoverished family something useful, or edible at least.) I'm not sure what was said next, only that her hands flew to her face and she went mad again when it came out that I had only gone and told the woman at the salon that we didn't own a hairdryer.

My mother was mortified. Everybody in the hairdresser would now know our shame, but I didn't see how that could matter, seeing as none of us ever went in there anyway, and today was clearly going to be a one-off. My mother got away lightly. Had I not been so petrified about the whole wash and blow-dry thing I might well have gone on to blurt out that we had no carpets either and rented out the back bedroom to the bloke who worked in the petrol station over the road. I went upstairs and stayed there, waiting for the cavalry to arrive.

My father used to get home from work at a quarter to six on the dot. Sometimes he would have sweets in his pockets, and if you hugged him in the right place you could give his sheepskin coat a quick pat-down for rustling sounds. Almost as soon as he walked in through the door I presented myself to him, straight backed, and said that I needed five weeks' pocket money in advance and that it was an emergency. This was the first business meeting of my life. Bill Gates couldn't have done a better job of it.

My dad knew it was serious. I could tell from the way he looked at me, his face taking on suitable gravitas. I told him what had happened and said that I had to come up with another two pounds fifty by six o'clock because I hadn't had enough. He put his hand in his pocket and gave it to me, and we said no more about it. His kindness even extended to not mentioning the awful haircut. It took five years to grow out.

I still hate going to the hairdressers.

'Under the Jewelled Sky' (Orion £12.99) by Alison McQueen is out now