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The Regular

It’s still early morning but I sense he will be here later in the morning. It’s Wednesday and he might be my first “regular.” While his visit is probably hours away, I am already nervous.

The sun has not yet risen above the multi-storey buildings on the other side of the busy street but already the outside front window of the hair-and-beauty shop is collecting condensation, obscuring the view and running down to form puddles on the stained footpath. From inside the shop, it looks like the street scenes are always melting.

For just a few minutes every morning, the sun touches the front window, turning the growing droplets into crystals that diffuse the morning light into the shop. Then the sun moves higher and the moment is lost and I am reminded that the condensation is there only because the shop’s air conditioning always feels too cold for me.

I grew up here. These streets usually feel like home but I am always fascinated by the Phnom Penh traffic. Although driving in parallel, large trucks and expensive cars pointedly don’t share the road with countless motos, ageing cyclos, bicycles and even still the occasional ox or pony cart. And it all takes places with an unbridled energy and confusion. In quiet moments in the shop, I like to watch the traffic’s unsteady flow across the front windows.

Of course, there is an order to it—even an etiquette—but this rarely takes the form of rules. When the rules are enforced, it is simply another kind of lawlessness as uniformed officers collect bribes for the misdemeanours to be overlooked. What freedom there is comes at a price. Yesterday, a young moto rider was killed just a block-and-a-half from here, toward Central Market. The traffic is a ceaseless and implacable system in which the only largest are most likely to survive.

At least I am out of the traffic after I have arrived at work. Except for the occasional errand I am sent on, now it just washes past me most days, outside the over-air-conditioned bubble in which I work. I’ve been working here four-and-a-half months now. I finished high school but my family couldn’t afford for me to go to any of the many universities around the city. Not that I really wanted to—but that’s what everyone does, if they can afford to.

Of course, we all dream of being an actress or a pop star. But I have enough realism to know I am not noticeably beautiful or talented—if those are the prerequisites for such a career. I am an ordinary girl from an ordinary family in—from what I have learnt of the world beyond our country—a worse than ordinary nation.

So much of life for us ordinary people is about simply surviving. This means having enough money at the end of a day or week to eat and pay the rent, trying to avoid getting sick or injured, generally trying to stay out of trouble. We sometimes enjoy life with family and friends but that takes second place after surviving. Not that life is too grim, it’s just mostly focused on getting by.

Officially, I am a trainee hairdresser. But it isn’t a career, it’s a job. I sweep the floor a lot and I have only recently been taught to wash and blow dry customers’ hair. Sometimes this is as preparation for a full hair cut to be done by one of the others, sometimes it’s a transaction in itself.

Every time the door opens, a gust of hot damp air punches into the cold of the shop. Cooking, exhaust, smoke and dust smells compete briefly with the chemical smells that are the usual atmosphere in here. The distant hum of the traffic climbs to a roar during the moments the door is open. Sometimes I wonder whether these snippets from outside are reminders of the real life going by or interruptions to real life inside. But they probably are not such separate things.

Every time the door opens, all of us turn to assess the prospective customer. What kind of work do they represent? Will they tip well? What else might they offer? The shop is on a main city street and we receive passing and regular customers from nearby business and offices. Cheaper hotels and guesthouses also offer a variety of foreigners who indulge themselves with our comparatively cheap services.

While travelling in what they consider an under-developed country, having their hair washed and blow dried for $2 seems an inexpensive luxury, sometimes to be enjoyed daily, especially when the hairdresser or their shop girl includes a little scalp massaging. Such extra attention usually earns good tips.

During quiet times in the shop, some of the girls mimic the loud foreign accents and their self-conscious self-indulgence. I laugh at our girls’ antics but I also appreciate the tips these customers bring and the reminder of a much different world. While we laugh at these visitors’ difference, I have not yet had the confidence to try to imitate them myself, joining in our own small self-indulgence at their unknowing expense.

Of course, some of the girls make themselves available in other after-hours ways to some of the men. They discretely offer their cheaply-produced business cards to customers—usually “regulars” or foreigners—who look like they may be interested. These cards have just a name, usually false, and their mobile phone number but the men know what they are about. I’m told they can make more than a week’s wages in a couple of hours with these men. I’ve never yet done anything like that. I certainly don’t have a business card. But I have coaxed some good tips from customers after spending longer than needed in washing their hair. I’m happy with that.

I’m still nervous about regulars. When the first return customer asked for me by name—Aang, from my name badge—I felt sick. I had wanted to remain anonymous, just another wash girl or, even safer, a broom girl doing my job. I wait at the back of the shop, ready to wash hair or sweep when given the signal from the manageress at the front counter or one of the hair-cutting girls. If that’s all there is, it stays simple.

The door opens. The traffic is moving slowly. It’s the morning rush hour at a near standstill. Horns beep, motos work their way along the footpath, streets vendors yell to offer their food above and between the stalled vehicles of so many different kinds. The too-warm air jolts into the too-cold air. I remember walking to school, just a few months ago, about this time of the morning along these streets.

Two foreign couples negotiate service and I am soon washing the dusty hair of tall blond man, who will have his hair trimmed and face shaved before they board their flight home—I’m not sure exactly where that is—later that day. I discover this from what I can understand from their unhurried snippets of conversation. They seem relaxed and were obviously looking forward to going home.

While the foreigners are occupying four of the chairs, a low-ranking Cambodian army officer struts in with his assistant for his regular wash, trim and dye. His greying hair is soon restored to a black that rivals his boots for shine and concealment. The girls know his needs from previous visits. He is a regular who is unashamed to ask a girl for her card. I am glad I am busy with the foreigners.

By the time I am finished, it is time to sweep again. The foreign man’s blond hair mixes with his partner’s tinted colour, the officer’s false black and a younger customer’s true black. Unless it is especially long—in which case the hair is sold to wig makers across town—and whatever the hair’s colour, thickness or style, it all mixes in the long-handled dustpan and ends in the bin out the back.

It’s a busy morning and, if he follows the usual pattern, he will be here by early lunchtime. He looks like he works in a nearby office or shop. He has come the past two Wednesdays—and last week he asked for me.

The door opens again—another blast from the heat and the traffic and the outside world—and two wealthy Khmer women begin barking their instructions. Their type treats us worst. They are so anxious to be preoccupied and so desperate to be different from the shop girls who serve them. But, like all the rest, their hair still ends up in the same bin.

As I empty the hair from the dustpan into the bin at the back of the shop, I am insulated from the world outside more than I am at any other time. Just twice I have visited family in my home village outside the city and I particularly noticed the absence of the city’s perpetual noise. It was almost unnerving.

Even when I am at home and awake late in the night, there is always at least a murmur, often more, often worse. Here in the backroom the growl of the outside streets seems just an innocuous mumble. But I know my busy-ness is always monitored, so I can’t let this sense of distance—this unusual quietness—sink into my mind. I just snatch at it, then get back out there to sweep or wash or wait.

I don’t know if I should expect him. I might be presuming too much. I watch the clock, I watch the door, I watch the traffic outside.

A truck has scattered its precariously-stacked load of chairs, probably hired and due to be delivered to a wedding party somewhere in the suburbs. The brightly-coloured plastic chairs are rounded up by the small group of men who crew the truck, as the traffic continues to weave and flow and beep and honk around them and the various obstacles.

More hair has fallen onto the polished tiled floor. I sweep it up. On the other side of the shop, a well-dressed woman is having her nails manicured. From across the room, I feel the strength of the chemicals.

I hear the shop door open again. The same hot, humid gust, the same traffic noise, the same street smells. I turn to see him enter the shop and quickly busy myself sweeping up an imagined pile of hair in the corner, my back to the counter where I can hear the manageress greeting him. I notice it is exactly 11:30, almost like he had made an appointment. Perhaps he did in his mind. I strain to hear the conversation but it is mostly lost amid the other noises.

I retreat into the back room and peer from the vantage point of that gloom into the bright shop. I suspect I see him leering at the other girls but, as I have expected all morning, I hear my name called.

I force a smile and step confidently toward the front counter, keeping my eyes on my employer rather than on my customer—my “regular.” But I am no less watching him. He is neatly dressed but does not appear wealthy, perhaps just a regular office worker. He looks old enough to be my father.

I know what is expected. With my eyes down, I move toward the station at the back of the shop, not wanting to look directly at him or to catch his gaze in the wall-long mirror.

The door opens again, offering a moment of relief. Like everyone else, I turn to see the new arrival, greeting the street’s heat-sound-smell with exaggerated interest.

My customer seats himself as I turn my attention back to him. He seems to sigh as he eases into the large chair. In doing so he seems more like an ordinary man. I choose not to worry about what might happen next. I just need to do this job, just survive this moment.

I pour shampoo on his black hair. There are a few flecks of grey but these are soon lost in the foam. I massage the strange head, focusing down and not daring to look up at the face that might be watching me in the mirror. To me, he is only the top of a head. Although his hair is probably thinning with age, it is still just a bunch of ordinary hair to be washed. I don’t need to worry about anything beyond that.

The shop door opens as another customer leaves. I continue washing, massaging, trying to measure in my mind how long I should keep doing this before it is too long.

Without warning, he asks how long I have been working as a hairdresser. Surprised, I look up and meet his gaze briefly before quickly looking away. Not knowing how else to respond, I simply answer his questions: “Four . . . four-and-a-half months.”

The door opens again. The sound and new arrivals distract us all. I am happy for the disruption. Perhaps the conversation will go no further.

“How old are you?” he asks.

I consider lying but can’t think of any reason for not answering honestly. “Eighteen,” I murmur.

Before he can ask anything further, I tilt his head and chair back toward the tub, grab the towel and rinsing hose, and begin rinsing the shampoo from his hair. The shift breaks any conversation. But in this different posture, I cannot avoid seeing more of his face. His eyes are closed and I watch him in the mirror as I work.

I think I notice a tear squeeze from one closed eye. Perhaps it catches the light for an instant, then is gone. It doesn’t spill poetically down his cheek. It’s just gone. I might have imagined it.

I begin drying his hair and sit him upright again. After gentle attention with a towel, the blow dryer seems unnecessarily loud. I see the door open and close again but because of what I am doing, distracted by the blow dryer and the moment, I barely hear or feel it.

I am almost done and will soon turn him over to the girl who will cut his hair. Previously, he has not had his hair cut—only a wash—and I take this as a good sign. As I am finishing up, clearing away the towels, he reaches out to my hand and places a small amount of money it. It’s only the equivalent of a few cents but my first tip for the day.

“I had a daughter your age,” he murmurs.

Distracted by the money, I almost don’t hear him. But as I pull my hand back, he has my attention.

The door opens. The traffic intrudes and he waits for it to recede.

“She died last year in a moto accident,” he continues in a louder and steadier voice. “She and a school friend were run over by a truck. You remind me of her. I . . . I hope you don’t mind.”

I am not sure what I mumble as I retreat from the customer and the hairdresser begins her work.

I wait in the back room, unsure of what to do with the emotion that has found its way into this transaction. I drink a glass of ice water and busy myself tidying the room, out of sight. A few minutes later, I hear the door open, again admitting the screech of the passing traffic. Then it closes and the usual drone returns.

When I come back into the shop, he is gone. I take up the dustpan and brush, and collect the fragments of his hair, together with that of another customer who left while I was washing my customer’s hair. It goes in the same bin out the back.

Outside the traffic might be thinning in the early afternoon heat before renewing its strength for the slow evening rush.

This continues our monthly feature, Stories with Nathan Brown. Read the first one here: “Mystery.”

Photo by Mediacolor’s/Alamy.

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