By the time Pepukai emerged from the kombi at Highfield, it had just gone half past nine. She was thirty minutes late. Kindness had said she should come at nine or just before. She had followed the directions in the text message: take kombi to Machipisa, get off at Gwanzura, cross road, walk past Mushandirapamwe Hotel, go left after TM, go past market, saloon (that is how Kindness had spelled it) is next to butcher.
She found the salon with no problems. From the butchery next door came the whirring sound of a saw on bone. Everything about the salon spoke of distressed circumstances, the peeling paint outside, the worn chairs and dirty walls inside, the faded posters for Dark and Lovely and Motions Hair relaxers. This place made her usual hair place in Finsbury Park look like the Aveda in Covent Garden. Then again, none of the Nigerian or Kenyan women at her salon in London would have done her hair in long thin braids that lasted four months and cost only fifty dollars. If they had, it would have cost her five hundred pounds and two days or more, if she was lucky.
There were five women inside. Four were standing talking together in a huddle, while the fifth swept the floor. They could have been a representative sample of the variegated nature of local womanhood. One was large with a big stomach and bottom and skin like caramel, another was her opposite, thin and sallow with long limbs and dark gums, the third was medium-sized in everything, height, breasts, bottom, complexion, while the last was short and slight with delicate hands and bones and skin so light it was translucently yellow.
The one thing they all had in common was their hair. It was dressed in the same weave, a mimicry of Rihanna’s latest style with dark hair tumbling to the shoulder, and reddish hair piled up over one eye so that they had to peer out of the other to look at anything. It was a hairstyle that neutralized features rather than enhancing them; it suited none of them, giving them all the same aged look. Pepukai thought back to the Greek myths she had loved as a child. They looked like the Graeae might have done, had they had one eye each and had there been four of them.
Away from the group of four, the youngest of the women, not a woman at all, Pepukai realised, but a teenage girl of maybe sixteen or seventeen at the most, was sweeping the floor, leaving more hair behind her than she swept before her. Her hair was not in the Rihanna weave of her workmates, but was half done, with her relaxed hair poking out in wisps from one side of her head, while the other half was in newly-plaited braids.
All five looked up as Pepukai entered. She was the only customer. She felt their eyes on her, giving her that uniquely female up and down onceover that took in every aspect of her appearance and memorized it for future dissection.
‘Can we help,’ the largest of the women said.