the issue of hair.

an excerpt from my memoir about the heritage of coloured hair.

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silent night.

The gangly man across the aisle to her left extended his hand in greeting. He coupled it with an earnest, overly zealous smile that made her want to projectile vomit onto his shiny shoes and punch him in his stupid mouth, with the tight fist she had formed in the pocket of her too-warm jacket.

“Peace be with you,” he offered.

She turned her entire body away from his enthusiastic greeting only to meet her father’s own skew fingers also offering the same saccharine blessing.

“Fuck you,” she hissed, inaudibly, and buried her balled-up hands deeper into the wool-blend jacket. Pungent plumes of incense singed her nose and burned her throat and she felt entirely overwhelmed and suffocated. She could not wait for this hellish church service to be over.

Della had stopped attending church exactly one week after she had been confirmed. She was 14 years old. She had not wanted to be confirmed in the first place but her parents had felt it the Right Thing To Do and Della had been dragged involuntarily to church ridiculously early every Sunday morning, and Confirmation classes every Wednesday afternoon for a full year to ensure her swift passage to Heaven in the event of her untimely demise. No one had even bothered asking her if she believed in an Anglican Heaven – or anyone’s version of God, for that matter – or if Paradise was in fact her chosen final destination.

Della had already concluded that organised religion was an elaborate scam. This had been firmly established when she had been asked to participate in the holy rite of Confession towards the end of the pre-Confirmation process. She had blatantly lied to the decaying, old minister through her braced teeth – omitting tales of premarital sexual lewdness and petty theft and devastating dishonesty – and she had been pleasantly surprised (and partly relieved) when she had not spontaneously combusted within the claustrophobic wooden walls of the confessional.

God had not seen her; He clearly neither knew nor cared.

So Della made a unilateral decision to no longer blindly follow the pastoral flock, especially not at 7:30am on a Sunday. A decision which her parents did not seem to mind now that their parental and moral duties had been effectively performed; until that Christmas eve, until that Midnight Mass.

It was an unspoken non-issue the entire day until about 8pm.

“Get dressed for church,” her mother stopped in at her room. She was expertly inserting a diamond stud into her left earlobe. Della lay stretched out on her bed, listening to The Stone Roses on her beloved Walkman.

She slid her orange foam headphones off her ears and around her neck, onto her shoulders. “I’m not going.”

“Yes, you are. Get dressed.” She pivoted and walked off to her own bedroom.

Her mother’s words held such fierce finality that they made Della sit upright and swear out loud.

Della untangled herself from the straps of her Walkman and the cords of her headphones and got up from her bed. She slowly peeled off her clothes and – standing in her mismatched underwear and stretched, cotton socks – surveyed the contents of her disorganised cupboard. Though primarily black, her clothes were a loud and confusing mixture of eclectic influences: outright teenage rebel, goth, punk, hippie and dysmorphic body image. Her style – and one would have to use that term rather loosely – clashed heavily with her mother’s last nerve. When Della arrived at any given doorway, her appearance always elicited a disapproving cluck of the tongue, a disparaging look or a sigh heavy with passive-aggression. Della had quickly learned how to ward off these critical expressions with a well-rehearsed attitude and heavily fortified armour of adolescent apathy.

Her mother took her dress sense so very personally: as though Della were intentionally trying to embarrass her or obliterate the family name through her choice of attire. The truth was Della utterly loathed her changing body and had no clue how to clothe it appropriately or how to externally adorn or express what was happening internally. Hence, she always looked like a bit of a fucked up mess; because that was her emotional reality.

Della chose an oversized black-and-white shirt that buttoned down from the neck to the knee and a black knee-length skirt. She considered wearing her 14 lace-up Doc Martens – the ones with the blue and green satin ribbons where shoelaces should have been – but thought they may be a tad disrespectful on Jesus’s birthday so opted for the more acceptable shoe version. She slipped her panythosed feet into the shoes and examined herself in the mirror, the edges of which were decorated with dried, very dead rose buds and carefully cut-out pictures of Keanu Reeves.

Acceptable, surely? She really did not want to piss her mother off on Christmas Eve.

She scraped her hair back and secured it into her uniform bushy ponytail and didn’t even bother trying to smooth down the wisps of coarse hair that puffed up defiantly at her hairline. She grabbed her prized hooded camouflage jacket that she had bought at Sergeant Pepper’s off Greenmarket Square in the centre of the city. She had diligently saved up for months to buy it and wore it all the time, even in the muggy December heat. She paused at the door, half-turned, then threw the jacket back on the bed.

Leave the jacket. 

Just leave the jacket. 

She hates the jacket.

Della walked down the passage to the lounge. He mother sat on one end of the beige upholstered couch smoking one of her Courtleigh Slims, dressed in an emerald-green jersey-knit dress with three-quarter length sleeves that came down to a modest length past her knees. The dress was cinched in at the waist by a thin, glossy black patent leather belt and accentuated her mother’s shapely figure. She wore black patent leather high heels, one of which was now tapping impatiently on the grey-brown carpeted floor. Her older brother sat on the opposite end of the couch, slouched over and immersed in a game of Donkey Kong on a small orange handheld console. Her father was finishing a drink he had just poured at the fold-out bar attached to ivory melamine TV wall unit, swirling the ice in his glass and downing the contents.

“What are you wearing?”

Della’s felt her stomach start to churn. She had really tried but clearly she had failed.

“Clothes.”

She knew this was the wrong answer.

“Don’t be a fucking smart ass. I told you to get dressed for church.”

“I am dressed for church.”

“No, you’re not. Go get changed.”

“This is what I’m wearing. I don’t have anything else, and I look fine.”

Della’s mother shot a look at her father who, like a seasoned Olympic athlete in a relay race, passed the facial expression expertly onto Della.

“Your mother told you to go get changed,” he interjected.

“I told you…”

The words were not given an opportunity to be repeated. Della felt the eruption of sharp pain across her middle back as it connected forcefully with the cold, hard concrete lounge wall. Her father had pushed her into it by shoving both his hands against her shoulders. Her head snapped forward and as it did, he dug his fingers into the base of her ponytail and twisted it savagely, forcing her entire head and body to turn too. She instinctively wrapped her hands around his hand and tried to pry her hair loose. Her scalp felt as though it might tear right off. She screamed and thick globules of saliva and bile caught in her throat and made her splutter and choke, drowning the scream.

“Why don’t you ever fucking listen?” he shouted, breathlessly.

She couldn’t see his face. He had her long ponytail now slung over his shoulder and was dragging and pulling her across the entrance hall, down the passage, by her hair. With his free hand, he slapped at her wildly, hitting any part of her body he could reach, her arms, her chest. She scraped her knuckles across the bumpy wall trying blindly to hold onto something, to make it all just stop, and eventually hooked her fingers around the door frame of her own bedroom door. But as she did, her father swung her around by her hair and towards the cupboard. She held out her hands to lessen the impact but was too slow and hit her forehead against the cupboard door. She bounced back and collapsed limply onto her back, onto the floor and lay there, feeling as though there were no longer any bones in her body.

He stood over her, panting, face reddened from exertion and rage. “Find… something decent to… wear.” He wiped the spit from his mouth with the back of his hand. “We will wait in the car.” He left the room.

And later – head, body and mind throbbing – Della found herself at the end of the cramped pew, in turns awkwardly genuflecting and standing and sitting; dutifully and ragefully playing her assigned role in the Christmas episode of Happy Families, alongside The Accuser, The Enforcer and The Perpetual Bystander.  She was clad in an ill-fitting floral-paisley dress, a navy linen jacket (that had been mistakenly purchased because it had looked black in the distorted shop lighting) and had squeezed her feet into an old pair of black pumps that were one size too small.

As the minister’s sermon extolled the blessings of the birth of Our Lord and Saviour, Della was quietly and deeply outraged by the overbearing hypocrisy of so very many things all at once.

The church bells overhead and in the distance gonged and chimed midnight, heralding in the joyous Noël.

She wanted to scream.

Fuck Christmas.