The Elegant Art Of Falling Apart

By Jessica Jones

Sometimes we have to lose everything to understand this moment is all we have

Saturday, 4 August 2012

How to Get a Wig [book extract]

Lately I’ve been staying in too much. Not just in my flat but in my bathroom. I sit on the edge of the bath amidst a phalanx of mirrors. I inspect my head from every angle. I ponder my forehead. Is it possible to arrange the few short hairs into a Joan-of-Arc style fringe? I examine the back. Is my crown one giant bald spot or is it just the angle of the light? Would it be less apparent if my hair were a different colour?

Mostly, though, I just stare at myself in much the same way that a cat regards its own reflection. That is to say, with an attitude of wary puzzlement. I look away and then back, trying to catch myself unawares. My mind won’t seem to come to terms with my new appearance. That thing looks strangely familiar but what is it? Do I look like a baby? An old man? David Bowie? ET?

I consider the notion of getting dressed and going out into the street just as I am. But the thought of it makes me feel like I’ve just woken up from one of those dreams where I’m naked on a crowded tube train. It’s too confronting.


The phone is ringing. Shivers of nausea course through my stomach. My brain pulsates with a force 10 Texas-chainsaw-massacre headache; my chest and shoulders heave. Every muscle groans as my eyes adjust to the light.

I’m experiencing this extra-sized misery because I caught a cold. On Sunday afternoon my glands came up. By Monday morning I knew things were going to get rough. I went to see the available GP-du-jour. She issued me with prescriptions for penicillin and Tamiflu then sent me packing with instructions to consult my oncologists before taking either of them and ‘probably best to stay indoors five days, just in case it is swine flu’. 

Rosie Cox is on holiday. Several hours later I spoke to a very jovial Doctor Leslie who is covering for Rosie. He advised me not to take either drug. 

Then in the night a Battalion of Trolls visited with jackhammers to pound my head, hot coals to wrack my shoulders, and a bucket of green–grey phlegmy oysters to coat my lungs. 

The next morning Dr Leslie suggested that I start in on the penicillin. ‘If you’re no better tomorrow we’ll get you into hospital,’ he said. So here I am in bed, nearly unconscious and on the verge of being admitted to hospital with a cold. This is my first experience of what a compromised immune system really means. And the phone is still ringing ...

‘Hello, this is Janine from the surgical appliance department at St Mary’s. I have a letter from your GP requesting a wig for you.’ Somehow I can tell that Janine is not pleased to have received this letter. ‘You are not a patient at this hospital.’ 

‘No,’ I agree. 

‘Where are you having your chemotherapy?’ demands Janine. 

‘At the Harley Street Clinic,’ I reply warily. 

‘Well, we won’t be able to deal with them,’ states Janine flatly. 

‘Well, that’s okay, I don’t want you to deal with them, I want you to deal with me. I’m the one who needs a wig,’ I say, trying to sound brightly optimistic. 

‘But you’re not a patient at this hospital.’ 


‘Then you should ask the Harley Street Clinic for a wig.’ Case closed, she implies, but quick as a flash I rejoin. 

‘I did — and they suggested that I contact you.’ 

She parries: ‘Won’t your private health insurers give you a wig?’ 


‘Oh, so they don’t provide total care?’ crows Janine in triumph. 

I crumple. ‘I suppose not, but I’m still entitled to a wig.’ 

‘But you’re not a patient at this hospital.’ 

‘But St Mary’s is my local hospital and I am entitled to a wig — and, what’s more, I need a wig because I hardly have any hair.’ I add this just to give her the full picture, in case she thinks that I am some random transvestite chancer trying to build a free wig collection courtesy of the NHS. 

Janine pauses, no doubt considering the futility of the situation.

‘I’m going on holiday for two weeks,’ she says finally. ‘I’ll do my best but I don’t see how this can possibly be sorted out before then.’


Time passes in a delirious, underwater-movie kind of way. It’s day three in the bed. The phone is ringing ...

‘Hello, this is Janine from the surgical appliances department at St Mary’s.’ I detect a change in Janine’s demeanour. Not exactly kindly, but ‘conciliatory’ may be the word to sum it up. 

‘I’ve sorted everything out. I’m going to send you a voucher for a wig. Take it to the wig shop in Craven Street. You can have whatever colour you like. It won’t be human hair because your hair is going to grow back. I’m sending the voucher by first-class post. You might not get it today but you should get it tomorrow.’ 

I’m speechless with joy and gratitude. Thank you, thank you, Janine, or Janine’s twin sister, or whoever you are. 

I call Iris pronto. She is overjoyed at the prospect. ‘Get out of bed and get a cab and let’s get down there NOW,’ She cries. I hang up and sink back into delirium.


It’s been four days since Janine promised to send the wig voucher.

From: Iris

Subject: Wigless
I take it the voucher never came today?

From: Jessica

Subject: Re: Wigless
No. But no post at all so I'm still hopeful. There have been some postal strikes around London.

From: Iris

Subject: Re: Wigless
I got a stack of mail actually. But some parts of outer London have been effected by the strike

From: Jessica

Subject: Re: Wigless
Portobello Road is NOT outer London

From: Iris

Subject: Re: Wigless
It'll come tomorrow or monday it probably has to sit in a post room for a day or two before it even leaves the hospital

From: Jessica

Subject: Re: Wigless
Yes there's probably a troll who collects it from surgical supplies in cupboard-under-the-stairs and trudges it through the gothic labyrinth to some post room in the bowels of St Mary's where they wait for a flight of owls to deliver the magic envelopes.


A week later.

From: Jessica

Subject: Wigs, at last!
The wig voucher has arrived! It has been to three different postcodes. Someone kindly opened it and sent it on to me. Shall we try to go today or on Monday?

From: Iris

Subject: Re: Wigs, at last!
We can go this afternoon call and see if they are open and I'll meet you in a few hours 

From: Jessica

Subject: Re: Wigs, at last!
Oh damn. The wig makers are only in on Monday so I have to call then to make an appointment.

Before I can press send on this last one the phone rings... “Well? Are we going to get the wig?” 


I’m up early in great excitement. Today is wig day. I miss the bus. 

Text to Iris:

Just missed bus. Phone about to die. Please go in and tell them if you get there before me.

Text from Iris:

The bakerloo line is down and the traffic is gridlocked I have been trying to get bus for 30 min. 

After the delay in receiving the voucher, I feel there is a wig curse upon me. But that’s just unnecessary pessimism. As I’ve learned, it’s likely to give one cancer or shorten one’s life in a dozen other ways so I shrug off the curse and, sure enough, another bus comes along.

Raoul’s turns out to be a fusty, old-fashioned place with hairdressing stations in the front and a wig-fitting establishment in the back. They do all the wigs for patients at St Mary’s. I’m ushered into a curtained cubicle decorated with textured wallpaper and a blue painted dado rail.

A nice enough but not very interested blonde lady comes in. She does not ask me my name nor bother to introduce herself. I guess she fits wigs on cancer patients all day every day and has heard all the stories. I imagine it could be quite a depressing job if you let it get to you. She asks me what my hair used to be like. 

‘Rita Hayworth in Gilda,’ I reply hopefully. 

‘I don’t think we have any wigs like that,’ she states. 

‘Well, what have you got?’ The look on her face says This is going to be a long session...

First up is a short, spiky number. It is brown with reddish highlights. I have never imagined myself as the head of the Human Resources Department but now I see that, with the right hairstyle, anything is possible. I hand it back with a shudder.

I realise that wig choosing might be more tricky that I’d thought, especially since I have no idea what I want. Luckily for me, at this point Iris arrives.

The next wig is a winner. It’s a dark brunette — ‘cappuccino’ — with no highlights, cut in a stylish bob with a blunt fringe, shorter at the back and then angled down to curl into the jawline. It’s by René of Paris, Van Nuys, California — made in Thailand. I study the care instructions. How to wash it (cold water only, use wig shampoo and conditioner). How to dry it (shake and hang upside down overnight). And then WARNING: Avoid exposure to heat such as; blow dryers, curling irons, hot rollers, ovens, barbecue grills... Well I understand that heated styling tools may cause the nylon hair to frizz in an undesirable manner and I am often in need of a reminder not to stick my head in the oven but under what dreadful circumstances, I wonder, would I be desperate enough to barbecue my wig?

Next is a long black coif — too Morticia Addams. Then a layered short ash-blonde look — too Lady Di. Then a long, yellow blonde style — Iris suggests adding a pair of sunglasses and a kaftan and going out dressed as Cousin It. Finally a copper red wig with highlights in about ten different shades. It’s very long and multi-layered with a flicky fringe. To me it looks like a cross between Suzi Quatro and Farah Fawcett. Iris insists it’s got potential. 

I try the dark bob again. It’s very French and sexy. Then the red mop. ‘I don’t think so,’ I tell Iris. 

‘Wait,’ says Iris, ‘look at it from the back.’ 

‘Hmmm,’ say I. 

Iris enlists the support of the wig lady, who holds up the mirror so that I can see it from every angle. 

‘It looks lovely,’ says the wig lady. 

‘It’s better than your own hair ever was,’ says Iris. 

‘Hmmm,’ I say again, but not in nearly such a definite way. ‘I’ll take them both.’

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