Colour reprint as “Comb of Mystery” in Katy
Plot: Tamsin Tregorren lives with gran (her dad is often away at sea). Gran is a fearsome, iron-willed woman who is very old fashioned and strict with Tamsin. She always seems to keep Tamsin looking a frump in plaits, glasses, and buys her second hand clothes (okay, so they do have a limited budget, but that’s not the real reason). She does not even like Tamsin having long hair and only allows it because Dad likes it that way. Tamsin’s strict upbringing attracts sympathy from her classmates, who think gran is a dragon and don’t come to Tamsin’s house for that reason.
There is a mystery about Tamsin’s mother; whenever Tamsin asks questions about her, gran’s temper flares up. Tamsin is not sure she believes what gran says about her mother being dead, and wants to meet her mother. Tamsin also yearns to swim, but gran says she cannot because chlorine brings on her asthma, so she cannot join swimming classes at school. She always feels the odd one out.
One night Tamsin’s comb is ruined. She searches gran’s drawer for a spare and finds a silver fish-like comb. When she starts combing her hair, the comb seems to have a strange effect on her. She combs her hair all evening, and she seems to hear a sweet voice calling to her. She also has a strange, calming feeling, as if she is floating on water. This starts a habit of combing her hair continuously with the comb while feeling those strange effects. But gran is not impressed to find Tamsin combing her hair all evening. She calls it vanity and threatens to cut Tamsin’s hair off. But the comb starts inciting Tamsin to go against her gran. She starts wearing some fashionable clothes with the help of her friends. They also help her to have a go at swimming but gran stops her, screaming about her asthma problem, and drags her out in front of her friends.
Still, the attempt has Tamsin wondering if she really has a problem with chlorine. Then a new teacher insists on pupils producing doctor’s certificates if they are to be excused swimming. Tamsin hopes this will settle the matter once and for all, but gran refuses to take her to the doctor to a certificate. Instead, she’s going to keep Tamsin at home on swimming days although it is illegal and gran could get in trouble. But the comb encourages Tamsin to swim, and she starts doing so in secret at school with the help of her friend Ellen. And when she does, she finds she is a natural swimmer and there is no reaction to the chlorine.
There is another scene when gran catches Tamsin combing her hair. This time she almost cuts Tamsin’s hair off for real. But Dad, who has returned from the sea, intervenes. He says, “Oh Mother, I realise why you tried to do it, but cutting off her lovely hair is going too far!” But he will not tell Tamsin what he meant by knowing the reason for gran’s actions. This deepens the mystery that Tamsin is now more determined to solve.
An eye test (something gran had always kept Tamsin away from) reveals that there is nothing wrong with her eyes and Tamsin discovers the glasses her gran buys her are just plain glass. She now realises the glasses, plaits and everything else frumpy were intended to de-emphasise her looks because gran considers beauty a sin. Furious, she smashes her glasses and starts wearing her hair loose. When she confronts her father over the matter, he is oddly defensive about gran’s actions. Still, Gran is forced to agree to allow Tamsin to wear her hair loose. However, she confiscates all mirrors in the house to discourage any vanity in Tamsin, but Tamsin defies her with a broken mirror in the shed. This time, when she combs her hair, the comb says a name: Redruthan. Later, Tamsin discovers Redruthan is a place in Cornwall. When she mentions Redruthan, and more questions about Mum to Dad and gran, they both clam up oddly, saying that she and her mother originated in London. Now Tamsin is even more determined to find out about her mother.
Gran discovers Tamsin’s secret swimming. She really flips out, cutting up the swimming costume and towel and locks Tamsin in the broom cupboard. She also says something odd about lying being in Tamsin’s blood. Tamsin realises this can only mean her mother, as her father is honest. The comb comforts Tamsin again, saying happiness can begin in Redruthan. Then Tamsin discovers her birth certificate, which says she was born at Gull Cottage, Redruthan. So much for London origins.
Then gran falls sick and has a bad attack. Tamsin is also having second thoughts about the comb, realising it has brought problems for her in encouraging her to defy her gran. She turns to looking after her gran, but eventually gran is taken to hospital. The comb takes Tamsin over again and and urges her to head to Redruthan. This time, Tamsin cannot resist the call, although gran could be on the danger list and needs her badly. She goes Ellen’s house, as she and her parents are heading to Redruthan on holiday. She takes a replacement swimming costume Ellen left for her and sneaks a lift there in the back of their caravan. When she arrives in Redruthan, she feels she belongs there. People are astonished to see a girl running about in a swim costume in cold weather, but Tamsin does not feel cold in it; she feels alive.
Tamsin finds Gull Cottage, and learns that she, gran, Dad and Mum lived there when she was a baby, and locals think there was something funny about them. Her mother did not get on with gran and then disappeared. The comb then leads Tamsin to a mirror that matches it.
Meanwhile, gran discovers what Tamsin has done. Although she is still sick, she leaves hospital and comes to Redruthan, saying she is trying to save Tamsin. Ellen is in tow. Ellen is appalled at how sick gran looks, but gran is determined to save Tamsin. She always did have a will of iron.
Tamsin comes face to face with her mother – and discovers she is a mermaid! Her name is Nerina, and Nerina explains that when she first saw Tamsin’s father, she knew she must have him. Mermaids can swap their tails for legs when they want to marry humans, and this is what Nerina did to marry Tamsin’s father. Gran had opposed the marriage as she did not trust a woman whose past was a mystery, and she was right. The marriage soon fell apart due to Nerina’s selfish, vain cold mermaid nature; this made her a “vain, lazy wife” who spent all day preening in her mirror while leaving baby Tamsin crying in her cot. The irony of the whole situation is revealed in that it was left to strict gran to look after the neglected baby and give her love (see below), which by mermaid standards was “spoiling”. Eventually gran worked out the truth, so Nerina left, and she was missing the sea anyway. She left the comb, knowing it would bring Tamsin to her. Now she wants Tamsin to join her in her mermaid realm and starts pulling Tamsin down there. She does not seem to understand or care that Tamsin would drown because she is human.
Gran and Ellen arrive, and Tamsin manages to get away from Nerina in order to say goodbye to gran. Gran explains that all her tactics were to ensure that Tamsin did not grow up like the vain Nerina and to keep her away from water. Tamsin now understands gran did not mean to be cruel but says vanity and swimming are in her blood; she is a mermaid’s daughter after all. Gran begins pointing out what a cold fish Nerina is; she shows no love, no affection, and only sees Tamsin as a possession she must have and does not care that Tamsin would drown if taken down below. Indeed, Nerina told Tamsin not to call her “mother”, calling the term “an ugly, ageing title”. Ellen adds that gran has shown Tamsin love, in risking her life by discharging herself prematurely, in order to find Tamsin.
They get through to Tamsin. She realises her mother does not love her because a mermaid cannot feel love as humans can. She agrees to come home and look after gran.
Nerina isn’t giving up that easily though; she is determined to have what is hers. She retrieves the comb and throws it after Tamsin, trying to tempt her with all the comb has done for her and can do for her. But Tamsin has gone with gran and Ellen, and the comb gets lost forever in the waves.
“Combing Her Golden Hair” is regarded as another of Jinty’s classics and was one of her most popular and enduring stories. It can also be regarded as one of her most unconventional ones. It takes established formulas in girls’ comics and then turns them completely inside-out. And it does this with a conclusion that takes readers completely by surprise because it is not what they expected.
We have seen the formulas in this story used in so many serials: a strict guardian who never lets their charge have any fun or be herself; a guardian who imposes bizarre and unfair sanctions because they seem to have such an enormous chip on their shoulder for some reason; a shy girl who gets more confident when she acquires an object with strange powers, but it may come with a price; and a good old fashioned mystery that is just begging to be unravelled. The mystery here is the mystery of Tamsin’s mother. It is not hard to guess that the mother has something to do with why gran’s strictness is so extreme. When the comb appears, the plot thickens even further. If it has a connection with the mystery mother, it drops a hint that there is something supernatural about the mother. And whatever it is, it is clearly connected with swimming, the sea, and all the other things that gran seems to go all out to squelch in Tamsin.
At any rate, we laud the comb because its actions seem to be aimed at freeing Tamsin from the iron apron strings of her severe gran and her harsh, bizarre measures that really shock us at times, such as when gran goes so mad she nearly cuts Tamsin’s hair off or locks her in the cupboard. We all reckon that gran should be reported to child welfare, but we will settle for the ultimate liberation, which surely must come when the mystery of Tamsin’s mother is revealed. Once it is, Tamsin is going to be free of her horrible gran forever and go off arm in arm with her mother and she lives happily ever after. That’s how it always ends up in girls’ serials, right?
Nope, not in this case. It breaks all the clichés to give us a happy but completely unconventional ending that is full of surprises and irony. It turns out that the mother is the villain; not actually evil, but a possessive, selfish, cold fish who wants Tamsin the same way she wanted her father – as possessions, and has no love for them. The mother used the comb to lure Tamsin to her while winning Tamsin’s confidence and trust by encouraging her to rebel against her grandmother and doing the things that gran was trying to keep her from. Gran had been set up as the villain of the piece, but she was actually a heroine – or anti-heroine? Once we learn all the facts, we can understand what made the gran the way she is and the thinking behind her actions. But she was not going about them the right way and it could easily be construed as child abuse. Trying to deny Tamsin what she is was not right either. As Tamsin herself told her gran, she is a mermaid’s daughter. We can only hope that in the aftermath, Tamsin and her gran will get along much better and gran will be more tolerant of Tamsin’s mermaid half. She will have to be, because Tamsin has a mermaid/human heritage she will be getting to grips with.
Perhaps the greatest irony and surprise of all is Nerina telling Tamsin that gran spoiled her rotten as a baby. Gran spoiling Tamsin? We have to laugh at that after seeing the way gran has brought Tamsin up. But the whole irony of it all is that it was the severe gran who gave Tamsin love while the cold-fish mother did not because it was not in her mermaid nature and gave baby Tamsin all the care she needed when the mother neglected her. And gran again showed Tamsin love by risking her own life to save Tamsin from what she sensed was going to happen once Tamsin met her mother. She was right, and she saved Tamsin’s life by showing she was the one who really loved Tasmin while the mother did not. So gran emerges as a proper heroine now and redeemed herself for her earlier harshness.
Readers are astonished when the reunion between mother and daughter is not liberation and happiness; instead, it is life threatening for Tamsin. But then, mermaids have been associated with sirens, who lured people to their doom with hypnotic singing. Mermaids have also been connected to things like shipwrecks, flooding, drownings and luring people to their doom. Other mermaid folklore portrays them as more benevolent and even tragic, depending on the region. But not in the case of Nerina, who was clearly inspired by the darker side of mermaid folklore.