Scrunch time

The column Where does an expat living in Australia go for a trim and a scalp massage? To the marsupial hairdressers of bohemian Melbourne, of course.
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The girls at my hairdresser's call me Heoward. It's a nose-ring thing. `Hi, Heoward! How air you?'

It's queerly comforting. They are like little talking marsupials. I gaze at them in amazement. They don't look big enough to have the wherewithal to produce words. The only time I see such creatures is when I come here to have my scalp massaged, my beard trimmed, and my hair scrunched. I've stopped asking for a cut. If you ask an Australian woman hairdresser for a cut you come out bald. You know what marsupials are like: they nibble everything. So I just pop in for a scrunch. Then halfway through I suggest they take a bit off here and a bit off there.

They're all scrunched themselves. And dyed. If you were dropped here from Mars with a knowledge only of Earthlings' colours and cuisine you'd say they were all wearing red chilli noodles on their heads.

We are in what is called the Flinders Quarter. Le Quartier Flinders. An acre of quaint bohemian village lanes in the middle of a straight city. You buy recycled Levi's here, designer-trash, books about the environment, freshly squeezed carrot, lettuce and mango juice and strong cappuccinos. It's a brave part of town, favoured by people in wheelchairs, sellers of the Big Issue, junkies and assorted crazies. One particular crazy has taken against my girls. He is diagonally scarred from his right eyebrow to his left cheek and has Michelangelo's Last Judgement tattooed on his neck. "Get fucked!" he shouts whenever he happens to be passing. Maybe they took too much hair off him once. I blush for my marsupials, who aren't old enough to be subjected to such verbal violence.

I love them. They're so small. They have no breasts or buttocks. I can't imagine how you sit when you have so little flesh to sit on. But they manage it. They hover on invisible cushions of air, an inch or two above tiny upholstered toadstools, and ask me how my day's been.

They look Greek to me. They could be Nana Mouskouri's grandchildren. But my scalp masseuse comes fromWnd my scruncher from Walhalla in the east. So how have they got to look so Greek? It's partly environmental. Melbourne claims to have a bigger Greek population than any city outside Athens. Greek is in the air and communicates itself to everybody. Even the Chinese in Melbourne look a little Greek. It works the same way in Manchester. It doesn't matter from what exotic place you hail, live in Manchester for a generation and you end up looking like a clog dancer. But my girls have made themselves look even more Greek by not eating. If you starve yourself your nose starts to stick out like Maria Callas's.

However, it's not Maria Callas on the CD player. It's Blondie. She seems to be singing "Denise Denise" - the name of a lesbian lover, for all I know - but they tell me it's "Dennis Dennis", in French. Just the thing for Le Quartier Flinders. They're surprised I don't know it. "You know Blondie, Heoward? Debbie Hairy?"

I nod and smile, reaching for a biscuit and sipping my tea from a stainless-steel teacup designed for fairies. The minute I lean forward to sip tea they have to stop working on my hair. So why do they force tea on me in the first place? They don't give you tea when you're having your tonsils out.

"Don't you think she's great, Heoward?" Kylie Stassinopoulos asks me.

I reserve judgement. "Why do you like her?" I ask.

She scrunches up her teensy body. She is wearing jodhpurs today but takes up so little room inside them there is space for the horse. "I dunno, Heoward, I just like her music, you know?"

Once an academic, always an academic: I give her C minus for critical vocabulary, E plus for effort and Z for intelligible inflection.

"So what's your favourite Debbie Hairy song, Heoward?" she asks me.

"I'm more a Maria Callas fan," I say. Tight bastard.

"Who does she sing with?"

"Freddie and the Dreamers," I say, but she hasn't heard of them either.

This isn't the best conversation in Melbourne, but I come here to escape conversation. It's worse if you go to a men's hairdresser. Worse for me, anyway. I have bad memories of men's hairdressers. They abused me as a child. They sat me on a narrow wooden plank, which was a humiliation in itself, and whispered stuff in my ears. "Psst! Want a camera, binoculars, carton of Scotch, black and white television, three- piece suite? No? What about a jam-jar then? What about an MG, resprayed, new plates, soft top, false reg, taxed for the year, the lot?" I was six years old - what use did they think I might have for an MG?

But the more I refused the longer they kept me, and the longer they kept me the more hair I lost. I feared for my safety. It didn't seem wise saying no all the time to a man with a razor in his hand.

You don't have worries of that sort in Le Salon Quartier Flinders. It's safe here. I feel as though I am on retreat. It's like camping by a river and waking to discover that the tiniest birds know your name. "Hi Heoward, hi Heoward."

I am Romulus on the she-wolf's teat. I am baby Tarzan up a palm tree with the apes.

And now a wonderful thing happens. The foul-mouthed crazy with the Last Judgement tattooed on his neck pauses in the lane, pops his slashed head around the door, and treats the girls to a glorious smile. "Love you," he calls sweetly. "Love you."

I am not at the hairdresser's, I am in Disney heaven. Attar of Greek roses falls from the skies like happy-tears while marsupials with angel wings gently blow until I'm dry