Meeting the Mother in Law

In the middle of Australia’s same sex marriage plebiscite,  a hair colourist has a heart-felt awakening.

“Meeting the Mother-in-Law,” the nail-polish label said. She held it up. And it suited her. Although it didn’t quite match her hair.

I looked away and resumed lipstick scrabbling. I was happy caching my favourite shades: Dark Plum, Faded Pink, Pale Honey. But I could feel her eyes on me. Waiting.

We were completely alone in the cosmetic section of David Jones : Melbourne’s largest department store. White counters and mirrors. By now we should have been surrounded by  cosmetic consultants immaculately made-up and coiffured whispering in seductive tones.

She tapped me on the shoulder. I jumped back a half step.

“Excuse me,” she said, “Would this suit me?”

I smiled. I nodded. Then I thought: I know her. I’ve seen her before somewhere but I don’t know where. Maybe on TV as an extra in a commercial.

“Do you think you could get me the matching nail polish?”

I shook my head. “I don’t work here,” I said softly.

Time stopped. We looked at each other, waiting for the other one to speak. This is the first time, I thought.

“Although it does suit you,” I said turning professional. “You’re an Autumn. Green eyes, fair-pale complexion.” She was a photograph brought to life; one I would never dare touch up. Apart from the hair.

She smiled and her eyes caught mine and it was all I could do not to disappear.

“Thank you,” she replied.  “You’re a stylist, aren’t you?”

“No. I’m a hair colourist. Or at least I’m studying to be one.”

We swapped introductions: Tennille meet Ally, Ally meet Tennille. And before she left I managed to give her my business card. And I tried to think nothing of it. Which wasn’t easy . Because every minute afterward drifted for days.

A week later, I was checking the salon appointment book. The usual regulars same time same day same shade of grey: blue, purple, pink rinses. And another name, familiar yet unfamiliar. Could it be? I felt a twitch : like static electricity.

All that day I was a child again waiting for Christmas midnight so I could open the presents. I rushed through the rinses from Toorak and South Yarra gabbling agreement as they poured out the trivial tribulations to me.

Except for one subject: the upcoming vote: Australia was deciding whether same-sex couples should marry. Nearly all of them were against it.

Except for one old biddy who whispered, “You know it isn’t right.”

I suppressed a sigh. Not another one, I thought.

“Everybody should be with the one they love.”

“Yes,” I said more strongly than I expected. Up until then, I’d ignored the media cacophony. Too many people arguing and calling each other names. Besides I had to keep up my classes: four days a week.

Then Ally appeared. I felt a small spark go through me. I took a deep breath and turned professional. Make the customer comfortable.

But it went all weird. We’re trained to get the customer talking. We even practice it in class: role plays listening to each other during the customer service module.

But I told Ally everything. About home: a one pub town in central Victoria. My move to Melbourne. The little bed-sit in Fitzroy. Coffee even how the weather is different.

She laughed at that. Her laugh was like bellbirds in spring. Instant joy to anyone who heard it. And that smile that made dimples in her cheeks. Which drew my eyes to her mouth. I didn’t know why then.

And as her eyes danced, she asked me, “What do you think I do?”

“You’re a social worker,” I blurted out. Another laugh.

“You’re psychic aren’t you?”

I shook my head and explained. It was a game I played with my clients: matching their occupation to what they wore. Usually it was easy: pensioners, well-off retirees, executives were obvious. But some were more challenging: except social workers who dressed dowdily to fit in with their clients. Although I’d never tell Ally that.

“So how did you know?”

“The pashmina,” I replied.

“Our insignia,” she laughed again.

“And what does this social worker do?” I asked.


She dropped her voice.

“They need to be listened to. It’s important that everyone can be heard.”

I felt a thrill of electricity pass through me. She’s opening up to me. Really listening.

“Like customer service training?” I ventured.

“It’s more than that,” she replied. “They need to feel that we’re standing where they are.”

I nodded.

“Like you, I’m still learning. I’m studying a Master of Counselling. Four days a week.”

“And out-of-hours?” I ventured.

She dropped her voice and whispered. “I’m an activist.”

And then it knocked me on the head. That’s where I’d seen her before. On TV. Campaign for Yes advertisement. Spokeswoman for Same Sex Marriage.

“And you?” she asked.

“I’ve already decided,” I said.

“Like most everyone else in this area,” she replied.

“But quietly,” I said. “Otherwise my friends and relatives won’t ever talk to me again.”

She nodded knowingly.

Which meant she must be…but she didn’t say. And despite that, that was the moment I fell for her.

I tried to stop myself. I’m a girl, I said. She’s not a boy. Thank God for that, I thought and laughed to myself.

Relating to boys was like talking to prisoners through a glass wall: fear, anger, revenge: all the symptoms of misogyny.  But all boys felt awkward, fumbling and overbearing. Unlike girls. Only thing was I had done nothing about it.

She became my regular client and secret love. Every few weeks, I’d practice what I’d learned on her. And it was fun. She was open to new ideas and easy to work with. I felt like she was my forever client.

She’d tell me about her studies. She didn’t treat me like a dumb hairdresser. More like a professor or a tutor: an equal. And any dumb questions I had, like the psychology she explained. I learned from me. And applied it to my more difficult clients.

As Ally said, “If we could all listen, really listen to each other, we’d understand and there might be peace.” Which described how I felt when I was with her.

Still I kept telling myself: this is only a friendship. You’re overfeeling things I said. Until I found myself replaying her words in my head. Seeing her face in my dreams. Hearing her laugh. That smile, those dimples and that mouth. And her hair: now red, vibrant and defiant: a perfect match for Meeting the Mother-in-Law: the lipstick and nail polish she always wore.

But any time I asked her about her private life, she answered, “I haven’t got one.”

“And you?” Ally asked back.

I shook my head. That night after class I went home and cried. She and I were going nowhere.

The following day, I thought, I’ll put off her next appointment. I’ll set her up with one of the other girls. Maybe Muriel: she’s more experienced than me. But I couldn’t even pick up the pen to change the appointment. And when I did, the phone rang.

“Yarra Hair,” I said. It was Ally.

“Tennile, I need your help,” she said. “An emergency appointment.”

I pencilled her in the book.

Friday night and the last appointment.

“Tennile,” she said as she made to leave, “I feel so dowdy. None of my outfits suit me. I look like a business casual slacktivist. I need your help. Will you go shopping with me?”

I nodded a little glumly as I locked up the salon. She had a date and needed my help, I thought.

“We need to apply what you’ve learned on me,” she said provocatively.

And I did. Dress ups with my best friend. We wafted through Melbourne’s high couture establishments: trying on and swapping outfits. And I made sure I used everything I had learned from her to eventually convince her: as an Autumn she looked fabulous in russet red or olive green. Not the washed-out whites, greys and mousy browns she tended to favour, I added.

And loaded down with shopping, she said to me, “What about a drink?”

I agreed and we lugged our shopping four flights of stairs to a silent bar somewhere in Swanston Street. Her and me squashed in a booth drinking cocktails while an acoustic guitar strummed love.

“Now we can share secrets,” she began. I caught my breath. She had set all this up, so she can administer the shock.

“You first,” I said hesitantly.

“You know I’m gay,” she began.

“I..I thought you might have been. But you don’t look…”

Ally laughed. “I’m straight-passing. Often have to turn down unwanted…”

And this was the shock? I should’ve drawn myself back. But inside I was secretly delighted. My beautiful counsellor was finally opening to me. Perhaps what she had taught me had finally found a use. And the peace that came with that was the perfect calm.

“Unlike me.”

“I’m sure there are many men who would love to get together with you.”

“Talking to guys is like yelling through glass. My lips move but they can’t hear anything. In the end I gave it away.”

“Took a vow?” she said leaning closer to me.

“Gave up awkward,” I replied.

“Like now?” she was even closer.

“No,” I said softly leaning in.

It was then the music stopped and the barman stopped by.

“We’re closing up,” he said.

“But..but this is Melbourne,” Ally replied.

“Sorry love.”

And with that we found ourselves on the street calling an Uber home.

Hers came first.

So, it was on the corner of Swanston and Collins Street, she said goodbye.

“What about the weekend?” I asked. She shook her head.

“I have to go.” And then she leant forward and kissed me goodnight. I made sure I kissed her back.

“Yes, Yes, we won, we won!” The day of the vote and we were clustered in front of the TV while the results rolled in.

New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania all voted Yes. Even Queensland!

Champagne corks popped. Popcorn scattered. And then Ally disappeared.

To the bathroom, I suppose. But I wasn’t prepared for the surprise she had for me when she returned.

For she started waving her fingers concert-pianist style, eyes shining. All I could see was a red blur.

“What’s this, Tenille?”

“Umm, new nail polish,” I said.

She nodded, smiling, hopping from one foot to another. Until she stood still.

I looked down at her fingernails. Red, defiant and vibrant: Meeting the Mother-in-Law.

I reached forward and took both her hands in mine.

“Let’s do this,” she said. And we did.

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