Carmella McMahon and the Emporer

Carmella McMahon and the Emporer

Giano Alpedro had not become the reigning emperor of the hairdressing world along the Eastern seaboard for no reason. His skills were legendary, and had nothing to do with the art of the bedchamber, as well as his reputation for exquisite taste and his mercurial temper. It was useful that, on his maternal side, his mother was genuinely Calabrian and his connections to that small town were impeccable. Even in the world of hairdressing, connection to a famous Mafioso family had a certain élan and, within the immediate Italian community, they had a whack of power. Giano had clawed his way to the top of his field in a milieu of high couture, anorexia, hysteria and sheer artistry. He was not without malice and he suffered from two obsessions: the vagaries of the human head and his love of his immediate family.

On Boxing Day he arrived early at his elegant studio in the city and mentally prepared for his post-Christmas annual ritual. He was normally available to his rich and famous clients only on request and after sufficient obeisances had been made. However every year, between 26th December and 30th December, he magnanimously returned to the people. He would take no agency appointments and no one had ever successfully rorted his system at this time of year. His only daughter, Marina, was his receptionist and had the awesome responsibility of ensuring that clients during this period were genuine and had no previous connection to the salon. It was often a very difficult time for her as she was directly in the line of fire if things should go astray. Indeed, like her father, Marina was meticulous in her tasks and almost impossible to fool. Alpedo’s idiosyncratic behaviour at this time of year was either abhorred or admired by the rich and famous.

Marina had taken a booking this morning from an aspirational concierge at an inner city hotel that had potential to become a player in the fashion and gambling world. Alpedro was pleased with her, she needed to refine a little, but in general she had the true spirit of her mafia antecedents and could smile like an innocent while she decimated with the social knife. His client was due at 10a.m. While waiting for his victim Alpedro effectively disturbed, enraged and soothed his devoted staff. Except for the colourist who was always difficult and tended to believe she was a second cousin to Vincent Van Gogh. She was actually a flawless technician so she had earned her boss’ grudging respect although not his forgiveness for failure to kneel at the foot of his enormous ego.

His client this morning was called Carmella McMahon and Alpedro had decided he already liked her. He had a predilection for assessing people on the basis of their names and was, at times, positively superstitious about this, but in Carmella McMahon’s case he already thoroughly approved of the mixture of Italian and Irish heritage. This may account. He thought to himself, for her tardiness. He had no patience for persons who could not meet deadlines and arrive on time, so although he liked Carmella he was planning how to instruct her in the matter of keeping appointments on time. He was a very busy man. He remembered the time he had kept Nicole K. waiting for a good thirty minutes, revenge for her habitual lateness; he had cost her studio a small fortune that day for as it happened he had decided she needed many more and complex treatments than had originally been scheduled. He had his ways and it was considered wise by knowledgeable people not to cross him. He drank his coffee meditatively. Ms McMahon obviously had no idea who he was: Giano Alpedro stylist to the stars and visiting royalty. It was this last patronage that had built his fortune.
He smiled, sat back on a lush baroque chair and waited like a spider preparing for an unwary victim.

Carmella McMahon actually knew exactly who Giano Alpedro was; her delay had been caused by an unusual event that was causing her considerable distress. She was prevaricating. Decisive to the point of being dangerous at times, she never dithered. An all or nothing syndrome was practically structured into her genes. Once she decided to do something; it was done, short of intervention by a deity. So that morning she found herself extremely annoyed. She had been striding around the glamourous mall where Alpedro’s salon was situated in an ever increasing fury with herself. In her entire lifetime Carmella had her hair cut short only three times. She reasoned that the fist two haircuts had not been her decision but her mother’s, the third haircut was a decision made during pregnancy and so not subject to reason and this fourth haircut would be the first time she had made a logical choice. Much of this could be explained, she decided, because she had been the plaything of her older sister who had been a hairdresser and various and terrible things had happened in the hair department.

Her sister had decreed that only three people in Australia were allowed to cut Carmella’s hair, and in this matter Carmella was following instruction. So Carmella had resigned herself to Giano’s hands long before he knew about it. This would become a serious bone of contention. At last Carmella sighed, braced herself outside the golden archways of the Alpedro famous baroque salon, and entered the domain of the Emperor. She knew enough about herself to realize that this haircut signified her last encounter with a number of her inner psychological demons. Not the least of these demons was the death of her dearly loved mother some six months ago. It is possibly lamentable that Giano had no access to this knowledge. The salon was humming with music, Pachabel’s Canon, the flutter of anxious apprentices and the rich smell of very good, very fresh coffee. Vases of flowers, Christmas gifts, lights and plants seemed to quiver in an environment that had been modeled on a famous baroque palace in Firrenze. Sitting in his chair, concealed from the public gaze, Alpedro recognized his new client. He assessed her immediately noting the uncomfortable body language, the natural red hair and a fine bone structure. Her dress was neither here or nor there, although she could become something quite special he decided, under the transformative power of his craft and the domination off his powerful psyche. Ah women, he thought, they were all vain, even the beautiful and the famous. They just needed him to reshape their image. But first this young woman must believe in him totally. This was the true secret of his phenomenal success. For he knew that belief creates a woman’s reality and although she could look like a horse, with enough faith, she could believe she was a gazelle. With these lofty philosophical delusions Giano considered the nature of what he would sculpt out of Carmella. He knew immediately that her primary colors were red; therefore she needed to be come far more sexualized, she needed to send that ineffable signal to the male species that was pheromonically irresistible. He smiled in anticipation.

Carmella McMahon hated fake baroque, loathed overstuffed chairs, liked Pachebel and was not at all sure about the young woman behind the reception desk who appeared to be looking at her as if she was the next candidate for a Borgia feast. She enquired politely about her appointment and was ushered to a small anteroom equipped with chairs, coffee and a menu-type publication that listed outrageous prices for haircuts, colouring and diverse treatments. She had known it would be expensive but the overdone nature of the whole affair was beginning to irritate her. She had begun a rhythmic little tap with her left foot. Those who knew her would have become wary at this sign. She began to feel positively mutinous about the whole situation. As far as she knew no law had been passed declaring that she absolutely must have a haircut. Her mouth thinned.

Giano decided to make his entrance and with his definitive strut walked into the waiting room and pronounced his judgment. Holding what looked suspiciously like a notebook used by medical technicians, he asked
You are Carmella McMahon, si, and you want your haircut, prego, is past time, signorita, it is the time of the changing, si?
Without waiting for a by your leave he began to pull at Carmella’s hair in quite an alarming manner. Carmella McMahon was not known for tolerance, she rose, looked him in the eye, favoured his dress with a cynical glance and replied
I believe I have just changed my mind; I won’t be needing your services after all.
Few statements could have outraged Giano more, he glared at her, turned on his daughter and began to speak with clarity in a Calabrian dialect that was only used in dire emergency:
Marina, Questa donna e una cretina del cazzo?
Mio non dispachio Papa … the concierge insisted she was genuine
She is cretina o merda, come mai e qui nel mio negozia da parruchiere? Giano continued in a low mumble fury rising as the salon ground to a halt and customers and employees held their collective breath. Giano Alpedo’s temper was famous. It was perhaps unfortunate in the extreme that Carmella understood Calabrian very well. Giano could hardly have known that she had spent her childhood in the backyard of an immigrant Calabrian family. She rose to her full height an addressed a man who was obviously oblivious to the perils of dancing with the devil. Using her finest voice, trained to perfection by elocution and performance and pitched to resound from the ridiculous ceiling she began with her own version of Calabrian insult.
Si, Signor Alpedro, there is an idioto here and it is you. Va fungule, you cheap puta, bloated son of a thousand fathers, I shit on the face of your mother, peasante, vai e scavare la vai scavare la sua morta e trombarla!
And with that she stopped his bluster and moved towards the door. But he was not called the Emperor for nothing. In ringing tones he replied: You came for the hair, you stay for the hair, you are a disgrace to women, what man could look upon you and not despair. E! E! E!
Now it is true that Carmella loved nothing better than a bella borouffe and she was in sore need of a worthy opponent. Not many men who had come to call on her had been able to stand up to her.
I would rather sleep with dogs in the street then let you touch me or my hair
Giano drew himself up and said very calmly and with a dignity that stopped her I believe that you are a coward Carmella McMahon, what is so scary, here, I am Calabrian, I cut hair very well, this is known, why did you come here if not for the hair?

This appeared to be such a logical statement from a man who was patently mad that it caused Carmella to rethink some of her earlier judgments. It was just possible that she was as difficult as Alpedro in the matter of hairdressing. With some attempt at grace she replied If you are prepared to take my desires into consideration, Signor, I will permit you to cut my hair.
Giano was both delighted and outraged and his face was a curious canvas of these conflicting emotions, however he was a man who loved a hunt, and clearly he had just won a major victory. He permitted himself to smile.

With some ceremony she was ushered to the basins where her hair was washed, rewashed, pulled and combed with respect from Giano’s daughters who were all impressed with her battle with their father, No even La Kidman had driven him to such a display.
Eventually Carmella arrived in front of the mirror with Giano slashing the scissors somewhat alarmingly about her head.
A moment, Signor, we will cut my hair according to my design if you please. I would like something very simple, I dislike women who attempt to conceal their age with cheap fabrications and fake hair dye.
At this Giano Alpedro screamed in outrage, flung the scissors on the floor and marched out of the front door of his elegant salon, shrieking curses and foul imprecations. His eldest daughter followed him and persuaded him that it was unseemly to be seen exiting his own establishment in such a state. Giano took a huge breath and returned to his customer. He refused to be defeated by such obvious ignorance, by a woman who had no sense of propriety and no concept of an aesthetic.
Madam, he said in his very best ruling class English, I am an artist. What I do is transform woman, I use the palette of my craft to make them beautiful to behold, to turn heads in the street, to make them happy and confident in their body, I re-make age, I make beauty. If this does not suit you then you should not be here, you can go to any grubby little salon in the suburbs and get the cut and the perm. I will not lower myself to your faulty standards.

Carmella McMahon was secretly a romantic, as an adolescent she had been an ardent fan of the Brontes and nourished a fantasy that one day Heathcliff would come striding across the moors and claim her as his own. In this scenario perhaps a little beauty would not go astray.
Oh all right she said rather gracelessly do your worst. And then she closed her eyes and resigned herself to her fate. Giano set to with a will, having subdued this difficult creature he had no idea when she would rise up again. After two hours of cutting, washing, colouring and various obscure devices being placed over her head Giano declared that his creation was complete. All through this exercise Carmella had kept her eyes defiantly closed. At last Giano begged her to open them.
Signora, please, you must at least glance at what I have done, if you truly hate it, we will begin again.
At this appeal Carmella opened here eyes, stared at herself in the mirror and then burst into floods of tears, speechless with grief she wailed and moaned in a quite uncharacteristic manner for she was a woman who valued self-control almost obsessively. Giano was nothing if not a creature of intuition; it was part of what raised him to be a truly great artist.
Ah, ah he said knowledgably Now I understand, at last, you are mourning a death, Carmella McMahon, that is the cause of all this trouble.
How did you know that? Oh I feel like such a fool!
In Calabria we have a saying, young lady, that until you cut the dead from your hair, you cannot begin to truly heal. And the first haircut is the most painful for the dead are entwined in the hair of the living. Now dry your eyes and drink the coffee, it is really very good. Today you are beautiful again.

It remains unclear whether Giano’s magical acts were responsible for the subsequent changes in Carmella McMahon’s life. However within two weeks of her battle royale with the Emperor of hairdressing, it is true that she had met her Heathcliffe and within six months she had married him. Although her husband was darkly and enigmatically handsome he had a sweet temperament and spent his days studying the vicissitudes of cane toads and their ecological relationships.
Together they had four beautiful daughters, and Giano Alpedro happily claimed credit for all the good fortune that attended his difficult client. His one regret was that he was never to meet her equal in battle again. This remained the case until Carmella’s youngest daughter undertook her hairdressing apprenticeship with her mother’s mentor. Alpedo’s family were delighted for Carmella’s daughter could swear in four different dialects of Italian and her daily struggles with her oppressor returned his failing vigour to its former glory. The Emperor reigned supreme again.

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