Shredded Wheat by Sabrina S
Surreptitiously Nina passed the note across the aisle to Cheryl. Ms Kent, the deputy principal, was still writing on the blackboard, patiently trying to explain early Australian history to the class of ten-year-olds who, lured by sound of cicadas and the heat nudging through the windows, longed to be out of school and in the pool.
Cheryl unfolded the note with a minimum of crackle. “Want to come to my place after school? I’ve got some new Spice Girls stuff. Ask your Mum.”
“Who can tell me the name of Captain Cook’s ship?” asked Ms Kent, still facing the blackboard, yellow chalk poised in anticipation. “And Nina and Cheryl, are you passing notes again?”
How did she know? Nina wondered. She must have eyes in the back of her head!
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Nina shifted her position and flicked her hair out from under her bottom. She had the longest hair in school, the longest hair most kids had ever seen. It was old-fashioned hair, the kind of hair Victorian mothers would patiently roll up in rags every night to encourage curls. The kind of hair little Victorian boys would delight in dipping into inkwells (although modern times had seen it covered in paint and tippex by her male classmates). Nina had never had a real haircut in her life. Her lovely, healthy locks had a centimetre trimmed off them once a year. Thick and wavy, her hair was the colour of wheat, ranging from downright flaxen white to a golden sheen underneath where it was protected from the harsh Australian sun. When Nina stood up it reached halfway down her thighs. And when Nina sat down she could sit on a cushion of soft hair. If she sat down too hard it pulled her head back, so Nina always sat with the grace of a princess. Today she wore it in a ponytail which was so thick her mother’s fist could just encircle it.
Cheryl regarded her best friend with undisguised envy. Her own hair was mousy and fine. If she tried to grow it past her shoulders it became a wispy mass of split ends. The last growing attempt, getting rid of last year’s short layered cut, had been foiled by her mother, who had made annoyed noises last Friday when trying to braid it. The following day Cheryl had been taken to the hairdresser and given no choice but to have her hair cut short.
Mutinously she had sat in the chair while her mother and the stylist discussed options. The end result was that all the layers would be cut off, which would bring Cheryl’s hair just below her ears and make it, the stylist promised, look much thicker.
The stylist didn’t even wash it. She merely wet the appropriate length and swiftly lopped off a year’s worth of growth. The final insult as far as Cheryl was concerned was when the clippers had been turned on and her head pushed forward. Like a boy. The stylist buzzed up the back of Cheryl’s neck under her bob, shearing away the hair in a number two clip. To her surprise, the clippers made her feel queer between the legs, all sort of tingly.
Since Saturday, Cheryl had been harbouring confused thoughts. In a way, she’d enjoyed having her hair hacked off, especially with the clippers, although at the same time it repulsed her. All she knew was she’d like to inflict a no-questions, no-choice-about-it short cut on someone else. And her best friend’s hair was the target of her dreams.
“Well?” Ms Kent’s voice interrupted Cheryl’s reverie. “Nina? Cheryl? Give me that piece of paper.” Swiftly she snatched the note from Cheryl’s fingers. “I see. Well, sorry, girls. There’ll be no Spice Girls this afternoon for you two. I’m putting you down for detention. Don’t worry, I’ll ring your parents and tell them to expect you home later. Now, Captain Cook’s ship…. Kylie, do you have an answer?”
Cheryl mouthed “sorry” at Nina. Nina made an “oh, well” face in return. Nina sighed and turned her attention to the lesson.
Cheryl sighed and turned her attention to Nina’s hair out of the corner of her eye. It rippled like a live thing when Nina moved in her chair. One day when Nina was older she was bound to have it cut off. Cheryl hoped fervently she’d still be Nina’s best friend and could go along for moral support. Already she’d told Nina how great it was having short hair and how easy it was to manage in the hope Nina would take the hint, but Nina had shuddered at the thought.
The lesson dragged on. They were just beginning on convicts and famous convict architects like Francis Greenway who’d been instrumental in shaping the buildings of early Sydney when the bell rang.
“See you all tomorrow, class,” Ms Kent shrilled above the racket of 20 chairs all scraping over the floor at once. “Except Nina and Cheryl. I have a job for you two.”
She led her two mutinous charges downstairs to the office. “Since you two are so keen on paper, you can do some shredding for me. This pile here” – she indicated a mammoth, wavering pile of computer printouts – “needs to be destroyed. This is the shredder here. Now you two are old enough to keep your fingers away from this! You put the paper in here, turn this button on, and feed the paper through. When the bag underneath is full up, we’ll put a new bag on. Okay, Cheryl, you’re first. Have a go.”
Cheryl carefully fed the paper into the shredder. When the blades caught hold it was whisked through and turned into strips of ticker tape in a matter of milliseconds. She fed more paper in. This wasn’t punishment, it was fun!
Nina had a turn too, and Ms Kent watched in satisfaction for several minutes from behind her desk as she began to mark assignments.
“Only five or six sheets at a time,” Ms Kent warned. “Now, I have to go to the bathroom. Can I trust you two for five minutes? You won’t chop any fingers off?”
“No, Ms Kent,” said Nina.
“We’ll be fine,” said Cheryl.
Throwing a troubled glance over her shoulder, the teacher headed for the staff toilet. Nina was a good girl at heart but Cheryl was a bit of a wild one. She’d thought of separating them in class last term and this time had put two desks between them, but correspondence still got through. At least now they couldn’t whisper all the time between themselves.
Back in the office the girls were giggling. “My turn,” said Nina, counting out five sheets of paper and nervously feeding the shredder.
“Wonder if it can do ten sheets?” pondered Cheryl. They found out it could.
“Eleven,” suggested Nina, and fed them in. The machine’s engine chugged a little louder but chewed up the paper.
“Twelve,” claimed Cheryl, and watched them turned to strips.
“Fifteen,” grinned Nina, and the shredder gave a lurch and stopped. “Ooops,” she said in a small voice. She looked at the buttons. One said “BACK”, so she pressed it, and the machine jumped back into life and spat the offending paper backwards. Nina put it back in but the shredder stopped again. She bent over it, her ponytail swinging forwards.
Cheryl obligingly pressed BACK and the paper sped backwards freely. “Turn it around,” she suggested, “so it doesn’t have to try and chew up the paper it chewed before.”
“Maybe there’s too much paper,” Nina mused. She leaned forward and read a little plaque on the machine. “Capacity: 12 sheets. Look, Cher, it can do TWELVE sheets. Let’s see if it can do twenty!”
They giggled. The office door opened with a click as Nina put a few sheets back on the shredder and pressed the go button.
“What’s this giggling?” demanded Ms Kent, and the two girls swung around in alarm.
At that point things happened very quickly. The shredder pulled the paper into the blades, and as Nina turned, her hair, already halfway over one shoulder, danced onto the paper and was dragged into the shredder.
Immediately Nina yelped, and the hungry shredder gobbled up her hair. She was pulled down towards it as the relentless blades chewed away. The shredder’s motor worked overtime, shrieking as it mutilated the golden locks.
Cheryl and Ms Kent were rooted to the floor in shock, unable to tear their eyes away from the spectacle of Nina’s shredded hair falling into the bag in long tendrils, short tendrils, and clipped one-inch fragments. Released from her head, it assumed a life of its own and filled the bag with golden froth.
Then both the girl and the teacher came to their senses and rushed for the STOP button at the same time.
The entire episode had taken barely a second, but to Nina it seemed like forever.
She was trapped. The shredder had dragged her head at close as it could to the blades, and her skull rested on the metal plate covering the cutters. She tugged, but was held fast, her ponytail caught all the way to the scrunchie fabric that was holding it in place.
“Owww!” Tears sprang to her eyes.
“Hit the BACK button,” Cheryl suggested, and did. The machine chugged once and stopped with an angry hum. Nina’s hair had stuffed it completely.
Numbly Ms Kent turned the machine off and pulled the plug from the wall.
“Oh, no,” said Ms Kent softly, surveying the scene. Nina’s face was screwed up in an effort not to cry, and her lovely long hair was no more. The girl was caught, her body twisted at an awkward angle as the shredder had pulled her closer and closer. She felt sick. These two girls were in her care and she’d left them for barely a minute. Now Nina was in pain, her hair was ruined and she herself was likely to get sued or, at the least, lose her job.
“Get me out,” begged Nina, trying not to whine. “Get me out of this! My hair hurts!”
Ms Kent touched Nina’s shoulder gently. “I’m trying to think of how.” She examined the shredder carefully. There was really no way of opening the top. It was sealed firmly by rivets with another little plaque giving directions: To be opened by service technicians only. And the awful thought struck her that she was the only adult currently on site at the small school. The other teachers were supervising sport, on an excursion with the children or sick (as the principal was today). She had to make a decision – and quickly, as Nina was hurting.
Hiding her excitement, Cheryl said, in the saddest voice she could muster, “We’ll have to cut your hair off, Neen.”
“No!” Nina tried to pull herself free and stifled a scream. “My hair’ll be ruined! Can’t you get it out of this thing?”
“It’s already ruined,” Cheryl pointed out, and reached into the waste bag. Trying to be helpful, she lifted out two big handfuls of shorn-off blonde mane and held it in front of Nina’s face. Little snowflakes of golden hair drifted free and floated gently the floor.
Nina burst into tears like a baby.
“Nina, I’m very sorry,” said Ms Kent, who really felt for the girl, having had long hair herself as a child. Her own hair was now a practical short cut which would never pose a shredder any threat. “I really think it’s the only way. Your hair is trapped nearly all the way to your head. Even if we got a service technician out to unbolt the shredder we couldn’t rescue much hair anyway. It would have been cut the instant it hit the blades and you’ll have to have it cut short and tidied up regardless.”
Cut short! Nina’s worst nightmare! Her hair had survived paint and chewing gum and every tease her classmates had thrown at her, and her parents had always managed to get her flowing locks through it unscathed. She was going to grow it past her knees!
Now the tears flowed down Nina’s cheeks and she sobbed like an infant, with screams and great hiccups. Again and again she tugged at the shredder but her hair was immovable. Finally, when she had cried so hard she almost choked, she had calmed down enough for Ms Kent to get the scissors.
Cheryl’s mind ticked over frantically. She drew Ms Kent aside. “Ms Kent,” she whispered. “I’m Nina’s best friend. Maybe she wouldn’t be so upset if I cut her hair off. You know, we trust each other.”
Ms Kent considered this. Things couldn’t get much worse, could they? Her heart was already in her mouth about her employment situation after tonight. She nodded. “Okay, but be careful.”
Cheryl felt that peculiar twinge of excitement again that she’d felt at the hairdresser’s on Saturday. The office scissors had ten inch blades. They weren’t particularly new but they looked like they’d cut bulk hair.
“Nina, I’ll do it for you,” Cheryl said gently, hoping her voice wasn’t shaking as much as her hands were. “You’re my best friend ever. Would you rather me do it or Ms Kent?”
“You,” Nina whispered bleakly, and screwed her eyes shut. So she didn’t see the secret smile on Cheryl’s face as the other girl positioned the scissors against her hair.
Cheryl deliberately started cutting as high as she could above the ponytail. She was a quick thinker, and her defence would be that it would be easier to cut and less painful for Nina than trying to hack through the fist-thick wad of pony down near the elastic scrunchie.
She pushed the blades as far into Nina’s flower-scented hair as possible, and tried to bring them together. SHRAAAAKKKK! Nina’s hair was so full that only a fraction of hair near the base of the blades was severed. Cheryl tried again and managed to chop off another little lock.
Nina said, “It pulls!” as she felt the scissors tugging at her hair. This couldn’t be happening, she thought. It’s a nightmare. Any second I’ll wake up and have hair down past my bum again.
“This’ll take forever,” muttered Cheryl, and Nina moaned.
“I’ve got stronger fingers,” offered Ms Kent, and took the scissors from Cheryl. Cheryl realised she couldn’t really protest or it would look peculiar, so, to her regret she became an audience instead of a participant.
Ms Kent used all the strength in her hands as she scrunched the blades into Nina’s golden hair. A thick lock fell away; freed from its weight, it bounced up in a curl.
“Wow,” said Cheryl encouragingly. “You’ve got great curly hair! I never realised!”
But her eyes never left Ms Kent’s hands as the scissors pounced again. This time the hair left on Nina’s head was at the very back, and it was barely an inch long.
“You’re pulling,” gasped Nina, reaching to her head and wailing as she encountered the tuft the scissors had just created. It was shorter than her brother’s hair!
“Nina,” said Ms Kent sternly. “Stop being a baby. If you hold still this awful ordeal will be over sooner. None of us is enjoying it.”
Speak for yourself, thought Cheryl, who was memorising every second of this amazing occasion to play back later, again and again.
Barely a quarter of Nina’s hair had been cut off, and Ms Kent got back to the task in hand with renewed vigour, sawing away until a clump the diameter of her thumb was clipped away.
The teacher decided to try a different tack, and rather than cutting from the side, slid the scissors in at the bottom of Nina’s hair and began to cut upwards, parallel to the girl’s head, taking in only a narrow lock at a time. The hair fell away quicker, but the downside was, it was shorter.
Ms Kent sighed. This poor little girl! Still, it was probably better to cut the hair off as swiftly as possible, as Nina was held at quite an uncomfortable angle. Her shoulder and back muscles must be hurting quite a bit by now.
Again and again she pushed the blades into the nape of Nina’s neck and sheared away the hair in ragged locks. Now half of it had been cut. This had taken almost ten minutes. Her arm and hand were aching, and she stopped for a moment to rub the muscles in her forearm.
Cheryl took the scissors and copied what the teacher had been doing, only she laid the blades even closer to Nina’s neck and reduced the hair at the nape to stubble. Realising she’d be reprimanded if she continued like that, she regretfully left the hair longer as she cut it away.
It was hard work. After a minute Cheryl was feeling hot and her arm was aching too, but she wouldn’t tell Ms Kent that!
She noticed idly how much darker Nina’s hair was in its underneath layers as she cut it away. Growing more confident, she tried to cut off a thicker clump and the scissors fell to pieces in her hands.
“Oh, shit!” cried Cheryl. “I mean, oh, sugar!”
Ms Kent chose not to castigate her. “What’s wrong, Cheryl?”
“The scissors have broken!”
“Shit!” Ms Kent said herself. The stationery order hadn’t come in this week and there were no decent big pairs of scissors to be found that she knew of, only the little safety scissors for cutting paper which were kept in the classrooms. She thought hard and remembered, vaguely, that the principal had confiscated something odd a couple of weeks ago.
“I’ll be back,” she promised, and went into the principal’s office.
Two minutes later she was back in the office with her prize: a pair of electric hair clippers.
Cheryl’s heart quickened and Nina moaned. “No, not clippers! I’m not a boy!”
Nina thought of her brother getting a haircut and how quickly the clippers could decimate his wild curls to a shorn, slick crewcut. In a matter of moments, it seemed, they could wreak havoc on the thickest hair. She felt sick at the memory.
“Hush, Nina. We should have done this in the first place. It’ll free you much more quickly.” Swiftly the teacher plugged them in and switched them on. She’d never used clippers before and regarded the buzzing implement dubiously.
“I’ve seen how they work,” offered Cheryl. To her surprise Ms Kent let her take the clippers and set them against Nina’s hair.
The clippers almost made more noise than the shredder as they attacked the trapped golden locks. The blade had no guard and Cheryl almost frightened herself as she put them near Nina’s nape and moved them up. A broad bald patch was exposed at the back of the girl’s head.
Nina felt the blades vibrating against her skin, and then a cool rush of air caressed her nape where the hair had been shaved. Realising what had happened, she bit her lip and tried not to cry.
“Oops,” Cheryl said in a small voice.
Ms Kent inspected the damage. “Cheryl, be careful. Maybe I’d better do it after all.”
“It’s OK,” Cheryl said confidently. “I can do it.” Carefully she pushed the clippers into Nina’s hair again and watched in satisfaction as they ploughed into it, painlessly cutting away the ponytail. She was aching to put the clippers against Nina’s skin again and shaaaaaaave the hair off, all of it. She thought if she made enough of a mess of the hair left on Nina’s head the only option would be a very short haircut anyway. With this in mind she pushed the clippers haphazardly into Nina’s precious locks. “Does it hurt, Nina?”
“Not as much as the scissors,” Nina said truthfully, closing her ears to the buzzing and trying not to think that her hair was being cut. The scissors had pulled and tugged at her thick locks; the clippers were far more efficient and she felt a blessed release on her scalp as they chewed swiftly through her hair and liberated it.
Leaning over Nina’s head and hiding what she was doing from the teacher, Cheryl placed the clippers closer to her friend’s head again and buzzed it close. There was only a little left to cut now, and Cheryl, with shaking hands, brought the clippers closer and closer to the remaining trapped hair with exquisite slowness. Then they were nibbling at it, the blades howling, and suddenly Nina was freed.
With a slump and sigh Nina sat on the ground, rubbing her shoulders. God, it was good to be free! Her body was screaming in protest as being held so long in one position.
Cheryl looked at the stub of ponytail left in the shredder with nothing short of awe. Shit, it was thick! It was like a severed arm, with sinews hanging from it in the form of longer locks where she had clipped closer to Nina’s scalp. Stunned, she couldn’t move.
Ms Kent, however, was kneeling beside Nina and comforting her, hugging her close and stroking the ravaged, ruined hair.
Nina’s hair fell around her ears at the front in wild curls, almost to her jaw, but the back was a total mess of short hair, shorter hair, and a couple of shaved patches. Ms Kent felt a dreadful pity as she contemplated it.
Nina put her hands up to her head and ran them through what was left of her treasured hair, and burst into tears again as she felt the back of her head. “My hair! What can I do about it?”
“It’ll have to be tidied up,” Ms Kent agreed. “It’ll soon grow again though. Let me try and ring your mother again. She may be home by now.”
But there was no answer at Nina’s house.
“You can’t go home looking like that,” Cheryl said. “I mean, no offence, but your hair’s awful. Why don’t we go straight to the hairdresser’s and see what they can do?”
“That’s a good idea,” Ms Kent said. “I’ll take you, Nina. Cheryl, do you want to come along for moral support?”
Does a bear shit in the woods! thought Cheryl, hiding her excitement. She merely nodded as if sharing her friend’s pain. As Ms Kent helped Nina to her feet, Cheryl picked a lock of Nina’s golden hair from the shredder bag, and slipped it in her pocket.
Half an hour later, Cheryl’s fantasy came true as she watched the stylist begin on Nina’s hair. The advice from the stylist was that nothing short of short would do. The back was such a mess it wasn’t really suited to any cut but crew, and as for the shaved bits! Well, she’d do her best to even it out. Cheryl’s artless and haphazard clipping had achieved its goal.
Nina sat numbly, looking at her reflection, her neck sticking out like a chicken’s from the blue vinyl cape. Whatever the stylist did, it couldn’t look any worse that it did now, all hacked and ragged. It stood out from her head in a crazy, lopsided halo of curls and frizz. Lost in misery, she wasn’t really watching as the stylist plugged something in beside her.
She jumped as she heard the sound of the clippers again, and then the stylist spun the chair around so Nina couldn’t see her reflection. All too quickly the clippers were placed at her forehead and before she could protest were running back over her scalp, shearing her hair away to a centimetre long, so short it couldn’t even curl. She had no idea what she looked like as she felt the clippers at the front again, ready to make another pass over her head. Unable to stop them, she felt tears rolling down her cheeks.
Ms Kent patted her shoulder gently, and Nina sniffled.
Cheryl couldn’t believe she was witnessing this. Clumps of golden curls fell behind Nina’s chair as her hair was swiftly clippered away. The top was almost finished now, and the stylist was gently pushing Nina’s head to one side.
Then Nina heard the clippers loud in her ears, and the pretty tendrils that had always jumped and curled in front of her ears were shorn away. She felt the clippers gliding up the side of her head, and watched disbelievingly as hair that now looked long dropped onto her lap with almost an audible plop.
The stylist buzzed up the back of Nina’s head, evening the ragged clumps into a sleek crewcut, pushing the girl’s head forward as she did so. All too quickly for Cheryl, she’d done the back and was now revving up behind the ear on Nina’s other side. Despite the fact that Nina’s hair was short anyway, a lot of hair had been shorn and the floor was covered in soft blonde locks.
The stylist changed the guard on the clippers. “I’m going to taper the back where it’s been shaved. You must hold very still.”
To Cheryl’s delight the clippers shaved all of Nina’s nape bare, right to the skin. The spectacle of the blades shaving Nina’s neck and the little locks of hair falling away to leave bare skin was one Cheryl would remember forever. Then the stylist took a comb and skilfully tapered the cut so that shave blended gently into buzz, and was a centimetre long again by the occipital bone. Because Nina’s hair was so fair, the crewcut made her almost look totally bald.
Nina felt the cold rush of air again on her neck, and realised she’d been shaved. She shuddered at the thought of what she must look like. Her head felt funny and tight now, as if her hair was readjusting to its new length.
The whole haircut had taken barely minutes. At last the stylist was brushing away the clipped hairs from her neck and unbuttoning the cape. Nina ran her hands over what was left of her precious hair, shuddering as she encountered her shaven nape and the tapered buzz. She couldn’t bear to turn around and look in the mirror at the result of the second shearing she’d had that day. Instead she looked at Cheryl, who had a decidedly odd expression on her face.
Cheryl couldn’t POSSIBLY be enjoying this, could she? Nina reached out a hand and grabbed the other girl’s. Cheryl squeezed her comfortingly in return and Nina was reassured. She was so glad her best friend could help her through this ordeal…what else were best friends for?