The shelves are filled with bottles. When sunlight comes in the walls are like stained-glass windows, segmented into deep reds and milky pinks and rainbow-edged blues. She finds what she wants by instinct and memory, but there are labels as well; she gives a half-turn to a bottle marked Fortification, sitting on a shelf with a dozen others in even darker shades of green.
Even the colours fade when compared to the smell. There's honey and lavender and peach and rose, thick and familiar, but others as well, more obscure: gingergrass, jojoba, aloe, neroli, orchid milk, vetiver. She recognises them all.
She's thin and dressed in black, and she's called Amaranth, because in this job she can be.
"Ylang ylang," she's saying, "and jasmine. And some other things. A bit of frankincense, believe it or not." She pulls a bottle from behind the counter, Revivification. It's a transparent golden brown, darker at the bottom. When she turns it top-down a slow bubble of air drifts upwards.
"I suppose it'll help." Her customer's feeling anxious and dumpy, peering sidelong at one of the dozen mirrors, lifting her hand to the back of her head where long red curls used to sit.
"Of course it will." Sounding confident is the most important part. "Give it ten days."
Amaranth transforms; she creates. Her elixirs defend against heat, they release shine, they clarify. They protect and nourish and restore, they balance or hold in place, they rejuvenate and brighten, they enhance nature or defeat it. She doesn't have any newt eyes or blindworm stings, but she has exemplary sheafs of hair dyed to a hundred different colours, and she has a broom. Hairdresser bibs hang like bats from her row of hooks.
The next customer's five minutes late and blonde. She's carrying a book. Washes her hair every day, Amaranth guesses; doesn't wear it down in public, gets the ends trimmed every six months, wants to be someone else. The last one's a given. They all want to be someone else.
"Hi," she says. "I'm just in for a trim. Sorry, I'm running a bit late." It's not a question, but it sounds like one.
"You must be Melanie," Amaranth says. "Sit down." She flaps a bib off the hook and pulls it around the girl's neck, then untwists the hair from its clip. It's long and a bit frizzier than it should be, and other hairdressers probably tell her it's lovely. "You could do with a better shampoo."
Melanie looks at herself in the mirror. "I usually buy whatever's on sale," she says; lying, Amaranth thinks, probably too embarrassed to admit that she tries for extra gloss or extra bounce and it never quite works out.
"It's good hair," Amaranth concedes, "so you can probably get away with it, but you'd be better off with... I don't know. Something that strengthens and brightens. Maybe a shampoo with cypress. Rose."
"I really just want it trimmed," Melanie says.
Amaranth goes over to one of the shelves and picks up a few bottles of dye. "No you don't," she says. If she's wrong the girl might walk out now, but she waits ten seconds, and that's long enough to be sure. "Usually," she goes on, "I have to be careful about this. People want help, but they don't always want to admit it. Sometimes they don't even realise it themselves. You do, though. I can tell." She puts the bottles of dye down on the counter, between magazines, next to the girl's book.
"Burgundy," Melanie reads quietly, sitting still under the black bib. "Russet. Deep claret."
"We won't even have to bleach first, with your hair." Amaranth tilts her head and looks at the mirror. It reflects them both.
"I don't know—"
"Look," Amaranth interrupts. "What's this?" She gestures to the shelves around her, and the mirrors, and the sinks.
"It's your chance," Amaranth says. "Everyone wants to be someone else. Everyone wants to step into a different life. Look at the people on the other side of the window. They all wish they could come in and sit down and then walk out half an hour later and leave their old selves behind in the chairs." There was a man earlier in the morning who froze outside for at least a minute, and there's a woman there now, halting her stroller and peering in at the thousand coloured bottles. Amaranth looks back at her. "See?" she says.
"I only made a ten minute appointment," Melanie says.
"That's okay. I don't have anyone else coming for half an hour."
"And it's just hair. It won't make me somebody else."
"If you really believe that then appearances matter more than you think."
"And I can't afford it."
"I'll turn you into someone who doesn't care whether she can afford it or not."
Melanie shifts in her seat. "I just don't think it would suit me."
Amaranth shrugs. "It might suit the person you'd become. But if you like, okay then, just a trim." She picks one of the bottles up.
"No," Melanie says. "Wait."
Amaranth sits the bottle back on its shelf; russet. "I don't want to waste time. If it's just a trim you want, we might as well get started."
"I'm not sure."
This is it. Amaranth picks up the burgundy as well. "If you take much longer we won't have time for a dye job anyway."
"And red... maybe brown?"
"I don't want to make you a brunette." Amaranth reaches for the last bottle on the counter, but Melanie's hand comes up and grabs.
"No," Melanie says. "Don't put it back. I'll have that one."
"Deep claret," Amaranth says after a moment. "Good choice. I think," she adds a few minutes later, trimming off split ends to get started, "you might need some shampoo to stop the new colour fading. And it's got a bit of bounce to it, this hair of yours. The right conditioner and you'd stop weighing it down so much, get some nice loose curls. I think that'd be good."
Melanie doesn't say anything. She looks up at the ceiling blankly while Amaranth clears her old self away to make room for the new one.
"Yes," Amaranth says. "Curls."
Later, when she dries the red hair, the new Melanie stares into the mirror, biting her bottom lip and looking down, embarrassed, and then up, then grinning, then starting all over again.
"I told you you'd like it when it was done." Amaranth unhooks the bib and shakes the last of the old hairs free. New Melanie stands up and looks at herself in the mirror, then takes a step back and tries flicking a strand of hair over her shoulder. She's still taking surreptitious glances at herself as she leaves, swinging a bag filled with new shampoo and conditioner.
"You've left your book," Amaranth nods towards the counter as New Melanie pushes open the door to leave.
Melanie reaches back and grabs it, bending the pages, then spins back to the door and walks out. When she passes the window she's not looking in wistfully, she's grinning at her reflection again from under eyelashes that she'd never really noticed before.
Amaranth sweeps up, half-filling a dustpan with thin blonde strands. She's almost finished when the next customer comes in.
"Hello there," says a woman with thick brown hair and very high heels. "Delia Ferguson. I'm in to get my roots done."
"I'll just be a moment," Amaranth says.
"I'm in a bit of a rush," the woman says. Amaranth smiles, and finishes sweeping up.