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Great Uncle Alexander, Part 1, by Sean Barnet


GREAT UNCLE ALEXANDER
BY SEAN BARNET

PART I

We were less than a week into the long summer holidays, and I had already had one big row with my mother. It had started with me staying out later than I was supposed to, and then she went on about how I lay about the house all day uselessly doing nothing - though quite what she wanted me to do I really do not know because she never said. Nor was I getting on with my mother's new boyfriend, who had moved in a few months previously, and was now trying to both ingratiate himself with me and to throw his weight around at the same time. And, to make things worse, I was not doing well at school, my marks were down and I had got into trouble a couple of times recently - nothing I thought very serious, just a bit of fooling around, but the fuss was endless. My mother was at her "wit's end as she put it to Uncle Alexander (my father's uncle, so he was my great-uncle, but I shall simply call him "my uncle" here) in one of her long, complaining conversations with him on the phone.

Uncle Alexander's response was simple, and direct, and to the point as always. "Send the boy to me for the summer, and I shall see what I can do with him.

Now I liked my uncle - "Nunc" as I had always called him, being unable as small. child to get my tongue round "Great Uncle Alexander", and the name had stuck - but despite the pet name, I stood in awe of him. My uncle was a tall, vigorous, rather stern man in his early sixties. He had spent the first twenty years of his career in the Navy, and had then set up his own business dealing in agricultural machinery, so he was used having his own way and giving orders.

My father had died in a car accident when I was a baby. My uncle, after he left the Navy, had settled in a small market town a little distance from us, and, as he had never married and had children of his own, he had in some ways been a father figure to me. However, the distance meant I did not see as much of him as I would have liked. I enjoyed my uncle's company when I had it, but I never saw enough of him to become completely at ease, and I always remained more than a little nervous of his disapproval.

My uncle had sold his business a year or two back and was now retired. He occupied his abundant surplus time and energy sitting on committees - telling other people what to do - and with what my mother referred to as his "projects. I was pleased at the idea of getting away from home and staying with my uncle for the whole summer, but I knew there might be a downside, and I had a terrible feeling that I might become his next "project".

One reason I was apprehensive was because I was very aware of my uncle's views on the subject of hair - my hair in particular, which I knew he loathed and detested. It was 1973, long hair was the fashion, I was fourteen, and I wanted my hair as long as possible.

I had to get my hair cut for school, of course, but this was only a few times a year, before the start of each school term and usually at the half-term break as well. Most of us at school had the then fashionable feather cut which, when freshly done, was about two or three inches long all over, layered, with a fringe skirting the eyebrows at the front, not quite covering the ears, and covering the neck, and maybe part of the collar at the back. This was actually quite short for a teenage boy in the 70s, even in provincial England, and we would constantly push the limits. But allow it to get too long, and there was the risk of being apprehended by the headmaster and made to get a haircut conforming strictly to the school rules - off the collar, ears showing completely, sideburns down to half an inch or less and fringe brushed neatly away from the forehead. The next day we would have to wait in the corridor outside the headmaster's study with other assorted miscreants, ready for inspection. We would stand there, endlessly, facing the wall and in silence, with masters and prefects walking past to and from their common rooms, until the headmaster chose to emerge and pass judgement. Anyone not meeting the standard would be sent back to the barber. Fail a second time and expect to be caned.

My uncle, naturally, did not approve of boys having anything less than the traditional short (or rather more accurately, shaved) back and sides. A few boys who were firmly under the thumbs of elderly and conservative parents still had this horrible style. Ultra-short haircuts are so common now that it is difficult to convey quite how shockingly harsh a short haircut, let alone one with any shaved scalp, looked back in the long hair days of 1973. However, this was definitely not me. It was now nearly the end of July, I had not been sent by my mother for a haircut at half term, and had kept quiet about it, and I had somehow avoided being told to get it cut by any of the masters at school. So I hadn't been near a hairdresser since April, and I was looking pretty shaggy - which was how I liked it. I knew that a teenage boy's objections to getting his hair cut would not be taken seriously by a man like my uncle, and I was not not relishing the prospect of him frog-marching me off to a barber the moment he got his hands on me.

I must also explain that when I was small my mother made a couple of disastrous attempts at taking me to have my hair cut at an old fashioned barber shop. I screamed and cried at the sound of the clippers, and the experiments had to be abandoned almost before the barber had started. After that she started to take me to a ladies' hairdresser. This was not very much better. I hated the woman who cut my hair. She had very long, pointed, shiny red fingernails, bright-red lips, glasses in sparkly frames with turned-up corners, and an overdone manner with children. "Isn't he a perfect darling? Such a sweet little cherub!" etc, etc. I would squirm about and make a fuss. I would constantly have to be told to sit still, and more than once it all ended up in tears, again. When I was a little older, maybe about eight years old, my mother tried me once more with the barber. I was being teased at school about going to a ladies' hairdresser and my mother thought I might now behave myself better with a
man in charge. Yes, I did behave better because I was frightened of the gruff old man who was none too gentle with small boys who fidgeted, and being a little older I was more able to control myself anyway. But the clippers still scared the life out of me - anyone under the age of fifty is not likely to remember just how much NOISE those old-fashioned clippers made - and they never used guards in those days so you always ended up skinned. I don't know why they didn't use guards, they are such simple idea they must have been invented by then, but I don't remember coming across them until the early 80s when shorter haircuts were beginning to come back. When I was about eleven my mother decided I was old enough to go and get my hair cut by myself, and not long after that the first "unisex" hairdressers' opened in our town, so, with great relief, I went there, and at last I got trendy cuts in a more relaxed atmosphere - but I still didn't like it much, the whole saga had left me with an aversion
to barbers, hairdressers and everything connected with the subject.

And so I was dispatched to my uncle's.

As soon as my uncle had me to himself in the car for the 50 minute drive from our house to his, he raised the subject of me calling him "Nunc" even though I was now fourteen years old. "I think that you are getting far too old to be using such baby talk. From now on you will call me "Uncle Alexander", or else "sir". That is "Uncle Alexander" when you first address me, and "sir" after that. And my housekeeper is always "Mrs Howard", remember. Any questions, young man?"

"No.

Great Uncle Alexander gave me a look.

"Er, I mean, no, sir. No questions, sir."

"That is better, Michael. Thank you. It may seem awkward at first, but use it all the time and it will soon feel easy and natural."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.

And so we drove off. After such a beginning I was fully expecting that our next stop would be a barber shop - marking the start of a life of early morning runs and cold showers - but we went directly to my uncle's house, ate a good dinner, spent a surprisingly relaxed and pleasant evening and went to bed.

* * * * *

We soon settled into a comfortable routine. My uncle had a large garden which needed a constant work in the summer, so we spent almost every morning together there. I was just old enough to get satisfaction out of tasks such as clearing a flower bed of weeds which I would never have had any patience with a year or two earlier, and there were more interesting things to do like helping him put up a new pergola. Then we would have a big lunch. In the afternoons we would read and snooze, and in the evenings, since my uncle was far too conservative to have such a thing as a television in the house, we would sit in the garden with a drink, watch the sun go down and talk - talk as I had never talked with an adult before. My uncle would smoke one of the few cigarettes he allowed himself each day. "It's a filthy habit I picked up in the Navy and can't seem to break. Don't ever let yourself get hooked, young man." Never had I been treated so much like a grown-up, or given had so much adult attention. It seemed very strange at first having to call Uncle Alexander "sir" all the time, but I got used to it - in a way it felt like being a man not a boy. And it did soon start to feel easy and natural as he had said, even respectfully affectionate.

Nothing was said about a haircut - to my great relief, after all the worry I had gone through. But this was also the most enormous anti-climax, and, though the days passed uneventfully, the visions I had in my head of being dragged off to the barber did not go away. I had a niggling, annoying thought - was I actually disappointed? No, the whole thing was ridiculous and irrational, it could not possibly be true.

* * * * *

I had been there for a week or so when one day, at breakfast, my uncle announced that we were going into town shopping that morning, so could I please change into a smart pair of trousers, and put on a jacket and tie - if we met anyone he knew, he wanted me looking presentable. This left me in a quandary, "smart" was hardly an aspiration for a teenage boy in 1973, it was a word speaking of the attitudes of a previous generation. I lived in jeans and T-shirts, and I had almost nothing in the way of "smart" clothes. The only thing I had that qualified as smart was the dark-blue, pin-stripe, three-piece suit that had been bought for me to wear at a cousin's wedding at Easter - and that seemed ridiculously too dressed-up for a trip to the shops, but that was all there was, so I put it on. It was my first ever suit. I had tried it on a few times before, but this was only the second time I had worn it for real, and as I was changing my clothes I suddenly began to feel nervous, as though I was getting ready for some important exam. But nothing was going to happen today, it was a perfectly ordinary day, and
I simply wasn't used to wearing a suit.

My uncle had a faint look of surprise on his face, but he smiled. "Yes, that's very good, young man, very good indeed."

We visited three or four shops, went back to the car to drop off the bags and packages, and then the bombshell dropped. "Now, young man, the next thing is a visit to my barber ..."

My heart began pounding, this was it, but my uncle continued "... it is time I had a trim. And, while we are there, you might like to get a respectable haircut yourself for once. He is an excellent barber and he has cut my hair for the last twenty years. He is one of the old school, and can be relied on to give you a good, smart, no nonsense haircut. He is not like the hairdressers you go to, who hardly cut anything off at all. So, if you would like to start looking like a boy not a girl, then this is your opportunity."

It dawned on me that I was actually being offered a choice, and my self-protective instincts
immediately kicked in. "Thank you, sir, for the offer, sir. But I am happy with it as it is, sir. I won't need to get it out until I go back to school in September, sir."

"Not to worry, young man All in due course."

I was a little puzzled by this last, rather cryptic, remark, but the immediate danger was passed, and I walked with my uncle down the street.

Turning into a side street we came to the barber's shop. There was a slim, red and white striped pole, angled out from the wall and topped with a brass knob, and standing outside the door was a board saying "BARBER OPEN, HAIRCUT SIR? We walked up a narrow passageway leading back behind another shop, and we came into the barber's itself.

Nothing in the shop looked like it had changed in the last twenty years, or maybe since even before the war. Nearest to me was an empty, antique, chrome and red leather barber's chair, and there was a second chair further away from the door where the barber was at work. On the left-hand side was a shiny wooden waiting bench. The mirrors had beautifully made dark wood surrounds, certainly from the 1930s, with shelves full of tubs of Brylcreem and Vaseline, bottles of Bay Rum, Pashana Aftershave and other stuff I had never seen before. And then there was the barber shop smell - hair lotion, aftershave and tobacco smoke all mixed up together, taking me straight back to that awful old barber at home.

Sitting on the bench were a couple of middle-aged men and a boy of about my age who had clearly already had his turn in the barber's chair. He had been painfully shorn, with an inch or so of pale skin left quite disgustingly naked round the back and sides. The longer hair on top looked strong and thick, and might have been curly, but was controlled and smoothed down with a heavy application of grease. Another boy, who I guessed must be his younger brother, was in the barber's chair receiving the same treatment. The elderly barber looked up as we entered, nodded to my uncle, and resumed the business of scalping his second young victim just like the first. I felt a slight shudder and heaved a sigh of relief that I had turned down the offer of a haircut in this place the very first moment it had been suggested.

We sat down to wait. The younger boy was soon finished, and once the brothers and their father had left the shop and the next customer was settled in the chair, my uncle leaned over saying "You see what smartly turned out, well groomed young men those were. Think how much better you would look with a decent, proper haircut like that for once."

I shook my head, and probably pulled something of a grimace.

"Well, young man, you know my opinion."

We sat waiting, and I caught some snatches of conversation between the barber and his customer. The customer commented on how unusual it was to see boys with such smart haircuts these days, and what a disgrace the rest of them looked.

The barber agreed, and became talkative. "Those are two nice, polite, well brought up boys, and they don't give me any trouble. But you are right, sir, the younger generation don't seem to take any pride in their appearance any more. Now, a young man always looks his smartest with his hair nice and short, clippered good and proper round the back and sides - only most of them are none too keen on it these days. But we can't have them looking like young savages. And getting a good haircut teaches them what's what and who's boss. "Mad Jack" they call me, sir - I was thinking of putting that on the board outside: "Mad Jack's Barber Shop. Anyhow, the more traditionally minded fathers hold firm. They know the value of a smart haircut for their sons. Their boys soon learn to adopt a more manly attitude and accept that this is how things are going to be - indeed, how things should be. Boys take to a bit of discipline, sir, and they stand a little taller in consequence."

"Now that's how things always were when I was a lad," rejoined the customer "it was no argument, do as you were told, or feel the back of your dad's hand - and it never did me any harm. I brought up my own boys the same way, and fine young men they have turned out to be."

Then there was more from both of them about "long haired layabouts", "bring back the birch" and "National Service would sort them out".

I gave my uncle an anxious sidelong glance, but he was reading a newspaper and there was no way I could tell if he was paying any attention to all this or not. I picked up a magazine and leafed through it looking for something to distract my mind from the scary thoughts invading my head - scary thoughts of sitting in that chair, and putting myself - voluntarily - into the hands of this vicious, clipper-happy old barber.


Why would I want to do such a crazy thing? I told myself all the reasons why I didn't want it: I hated getting my hair cut, even at the unisex salon; short hair did not suit me; none of my friends at school had short hair; short hair looked repulsive; no one of my age had short hair these days, and the few that did were despised by everyone else; everyone would laugh at me; this barber was a total butcher who would leave my hair in a state that would take months of growing to recover from; I had the whole summer to enjoy my long, shaggy locks before going to my usual place at the start of September for a professional cut, just short enough to be acceptable at school. But the picture of myself in that chair would not give me any peace.

"Next, please! I almost jumped out of my skin, but it was my uncle's turn, and I was left to my
thoughts.

My mind came up with a compromise: Yes, I could get a haircut, I would ask the barber for "a light trim", and he would no doubt cut it fairly short, but not too short, and it would still have time to recover before school in September. My uncle would be pleased - and that nagging urge would be satisfied.

Immediately, my stomach began churning and my palms started to sweat. I felt uncomfortably hot and so I took off my jacket and hung it up. I sat down again and told myself that I did not have to do this if I did not want to and I could back out if I wanted, without disgrace. "Without disgrace"? Was this some sort of a test? - Only if I made it one. I should try to look at things logically. Was there really any need to do this? Did I seriously want to risk looking like those two poor brothers? - Or was taking that risk what this was all about?

I was sitting there, going over this, over and over again, getting nowhere, when I realised that my uncle was out of the chair.

"Next, please!"

The barber stood there, looking at me.

My uncle stood there, looking at me.

Now, if I had used a little intelligence, if I had got up and put on my jacket before my uncle was finished, I would have made it obvious that I was only there with him, not having a haircut myself. But I had failed to act. I was sitting there, ready, in waistcoat and shirt-sleeves, and the barber and my uncle were standing there - expectantly. I felt a moment of panic.

My uncle must have seen the look of fear which crossed my face. "Come on, there's a good lad, it's only a haircut, it isn't going to hurt."

Even then, I might have said something, though the lump in my throat would probably have stopped anything coming out. Hardly knowing why, I obediently stood up, and walking as steadily as my trembling legs allowed, I went over and I sat in the barber's chair ....


TO BE CONTINUED




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