The Pros and Cons of Conditioning by Laura Besley

I research how to make my boys’ hair grow faster: I wash it in special shampoo and ignore them when they complain I rinse it in cold water; I make them take additional vitamins after breakfast and massage their scalps while they’re watching TV; I buy a special brush with bristly bristles to distribute their natural oils and I do this two, three, four times per day.
       By early December, six weeks after we last went, their hair is just about long enough to warrant another cut.
       It’s a Friday afternoon. After school. Both kids are a bit cranky, but they know the drill: if they sit nicely, the barber will give them a lollipop.
       ‘Hello, Helen,’ he says, as I bustle both boys into the warmth of his shop. ‘How are you?’ The hard h of his accent is like steel cutting silk.
       This simple question, yet I have no answer. It’s the way he looks at me, head tilted ever so slightly to one side, like he wants to know the answer. The real answer.
       He smiles. ‘Coffee?’
       I nod, the blush rising on my cheeks like berry-red hair dye.
Milk with one sugar is what he gives me. I’ve given up sugar. New diet. Trying to lose some weight before Christmas. Part of me wonders why I bother. It’ll only pile back on again. The other part of me thinks: if I can get some off now, I’ll feel less guilty during the festive season.
       The barber settles the eldest into a chair, asks him about school. The youngest one sits next to me, role playing one dinosaur chasing and eating another. It’s a dinosaur-eat-dinosaur world.
       I take a sip of the coffee, the sweetness bringing back memories of when life was simpler. Sweeter.        When I didn’t feel pulled in a million different directions. When my emotions didn’t feel like they’d been wrung out. When Paul still asked me how I was. When he still wanted to know the real answer.
Kid One is done. The barber holds up the mirror. ‘Happy, Helen?’
Now that’s a question. Assuming he means the haircut, I nod, say, ‘Looks great,’ and drain the dregs of my coffee, now cold.
       In the chair, Kid Two is quieter, less chatty. Kid One is sitting next to me on some kind of handheld game console thing. A fake Game Boy for a quarter of the price. Sweets. Screen time. All these things I had strict principles about before I had kids.
       ‘How’s work, Helen?’
       I’ve told him before I run my own business. A secondhand bookshop. People are often disgruntled when they see the prices because they confuse my shop with a charity shop. It’s a bookshop, I always tells them. For selling secondhand books.
       I shrug. ‘It’s okay.’
       Both of us being small business owners makes me feel like we have something in common. A connection.
       ‘Actually,’ I say, ‘it’s been tough.’
       He nods. ‘For me too.’
       We talk about rental prices going up, footfall lowering due to online shopping. Although he’s cutting Kid Two’s hair, I feel like he’s really paying attention. Really listening. Not like conversations at home when Paul is watching TV at the same time, or playing on his phone.
       ‘Actually, Helen,’ he says. ‘I’m closing. Christmas Eve will be my last day.’
       I watch him, his back curved, crouched over Kid Two, snipping away at the final few stray strands. In the mirror’s reflection I look at his face: slightly puffy, eyes lacking their usual sparkle and berate myself for not having noticed sooner that something wasn’t right. Being able to see both the back of him and the front at the same time feels like seeing our lives as they are now and how they could have been if we’d met in a different reality.
       ‘I’m so sorry,’ I say.
       When he finishes, he gives both kids a lollipop, tells them to be good for Mummy.
       I pay, put my purse away.
       ‘Take care, Helen.’
       ‘You too.’
       Walking to the car, the cold winter wind making my eyes water, I realise I don’t even know his name.

Laura Besley is the author of (Un)Natural Elements, 100neHundred (shortlisted for the Sabateur Awards) and The Almost Mothers. She has been widely published in online journals, print journals and anthologies, including Best Small Fictions (2021). She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Micro Fiction and is currently working on her first collection of short stories after being awarded a DYCP grant by Arts Council England. 

Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea.

If you’d like to read some of Laura’s work, you can visit her website ( or connect on Instagram: @besley_laura or X: @laurabesley 

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