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Great Uncle Alexander, Part 2, by Sean Barnet


GREAT UNCLE ALEXANDER

BY SEAN BARNET

PART II


The barber fastened the cape - so tightly that I felt he might be going to throttle me - and then he looked enquiringly at my uncle - so my uncle would now take charge, of course. How had I ever imagined it would be different?

Uncle Alexander placed his hand on my shoulder proprietorially. "Mr Johnson, let me introduce you to my great-nephew Michael, who has now, to my great satisfaction, decided to get himself a smart, sensible haircut."

"Pleased to meet you, young Michael."

"Michael, let me introduce you to my barber, Mr Johnson, who is now going to give you your long overdue haircut.

I somehow managed to stammer out "How do you do, Mr Johnson?"

"I am very well, thank you, young man ..." He paused for a moment, pulling roughly at some long hair trapped inside the back of the cape. He examined me with obvious distaste. "... And how would you like the young gentleman's hair cut, sir?"

"As you can see, Mr Johnson, this young man currently has the unkempt, dishevelled appearance that is sadly so popular now with young people, so I think that it is time he experienced the salutary effects of a good short back and sides ..." He gave my shoulder a squeeze. "...Time you had a taste of the clippers eh, don't you agree, Michael?"

Things were getting out of control. Despite the ironic tone in his choice of words, my uncle was certainly not joking. Faced with grim reality, I was not at all sure I wanted "a good short back and sides", or "a taste of the clippers" as he so graphically put it. "Er, um, well, er, I ..."

"You don't sound very sure of yourself, young man. Take a deep breath, gather your thoughts, and give us a clear, confident answer. Do you want Mr Johnson to give you a smart haircut, or are you wasting his time ... and mine?

I had got into the barber's chair without threats or compulsion. My uncle had me exactly where he wanted me - literally - and he was not going to give way now. I swallowed hard, and made my abject submission. "Yes, sir. I would like Mr Johnson to give me a smart haircut, sir.

"That's much better, Michael. And would you agree that a short back and sides is by far the smartest haircut for a young man?"

Would I be allowed to disagree? "Yes, sir."

"Good lad. Now, I expect that you would like to tell Mr Johnson yourself how you want to have your hair cut?"

"Sir?"

"So let me hear you say "Short back and sides please, Mr Johnson."

There was no way out of this. "Short back and sides please, Mr Johnson."

"Excellent, well done Michael. Not so difficult when you put your mind to it, is it young man?"

"No, sir.

"And so, Michael, you will now have the privilege of a smart haircut from the most capable barber I know."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." - Why was I saying "Thank you" for this?

"When you are ready, if you please, Mr Johnson."

"Short back and sides for the young gentleman, sir? Certainly, sir. It will be a pleasure, sir.

My uncle then calmly sat down and resumed his newspaper, leaving me to the tender care of "Mad Jack" with his clippers.

As the barber pumped up the chair I managed to catch his eye. "Not too short, please."

"Now, just you relax, young man, enjoy having your hair cut, and leave the rest to me."

"Yes, but not ...

Mr Johnson cut me off in mid sentence. "Now, young man, you keep your mind on your job, which is sit still and keep quiet, and I'll get on with mine, which is cut your hair as instructed. Right?

Cowed and put in my place, I did not dare to reply.

"Right, young man?"

"Michael," came my uncle's voice, "I hope you are not giving Mr Johnson any trouble, are you?"

"No, sir."

"Is the boy giving you any trouble, Mr Johnson?

"Nothing I haven't dealt with a thousand times before, sir.

"Michael, Mr Johnson knows exactly what is required, so there is no need for you to give him any extra instructions. You will have your hair cut as we decided, and you will show Mr Johnson more respect. Any questions, young man?"

"No, sir.

"Mr Johnson, it appears that l have been rather too lenient with with this young man, and that more stringency is called for. Make today's haircut a particularly short one, if you please, Mr Johnson.

"Certainly, sir. We can easily oblige with that, sir.

"Anything you wish to say, Michael?"

I did not like the idea of a "particularly short haircut, nor did I like the implication in "today's haircut" that there might be more haircuts to come, but I realised that I had already pushed my uncle more than was wise, and I had more sense than to argue. "No, sir. Thank you, sir.

"Very good, young man. Thank you, Mr Johnson. You may proceed."

There was a pause, and then the barber did something I had never experienced before, or since. He turned the chair away from the mirror so that l was facing towards my uncle and a blank wall, and I would not be able to see what he was doing. If I had not already understood already, this gesture made it clearer than any words that how my hair was to be cut was no business of mine and that I would have no say in the matter.

The barber pushed my head forwards, and started to run a comb through my hair, tugging at the knots. He muttered something bad temperedly and sprayed my hair with water, and then tried again with more success, combing everything straight down all round. My outgrown fringe covered my eyes, and all I could see now was my fringe, some cape and a small patch of floor.

He got out his scissors, and began to snip. I felt cold steel touch the back of my neck and then make its way round my ears. He snipped away endlessly. Being effectively a prisoner, all I could do was sit and watch in horrified fascination as my beloved hair slid down the cape and and piled up on the floor - how much more could he cut off?

Finally, he came to the fringe. "Close your eyes, boy.

I felt the scissors start just over my left eyebrow and work their way at a slant across my forehead to high above my right eye. I could see again, but I would be forced to keep my hair neatly parted on the left for a very long time to come.

"Now, young man, we have come to the part that my younger customers look forward to most, and I am not a man to disappoint them."

I realised what was coming - was this man serious, or was he taunting me?

"I like all my boys to feel the full benefit of their visits to me, and for them to really know what it is to go to a good, old-fashioned barber. So, you bend your head right down, and make sure you don't move, at all. Understand, young man?

I lowered my head, and mumbled a "Yes, sir." into the cape.

"What was that, young man?"

"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!"

There was a click, and a tremendous buzzing noise like an angry wasp came towards my right ear and settled on my cheek next to the ear-lobe. My whole body stiffened. I felt myself colouring with shame and anger as the clippers worked their way up the side of my cheek, up my right temple and round my ear. I was hoping desperately that neither the barber nor my uncle would notice my reddening face.

How had I been so stupid as to allow myself to get into this situation? I could hardly believe that I had been such an idiot.

The enraged insect now began to crawl its way up and down the back of my head. The barber pushed the vibrating clippers hard into the sensitive area at the nape, sending chills down my spine.

He loosened the cape and pulled at my collar and clippered low round the back of my neck, allowing a cascade of itchy, scratchy clippings down inside my shirt, and finally took the clippers round my left ear.

Then he placed a single finger on the centre of my forehead and pushed my head up. I moved too far, and he pushed my head firmly forwards again. The clippers made second pass, slightly higher up this time, the barber lifting up hair with the comb and then running the clippers across the top.

"Any off the top, sir?"

My uncle hardly glanced up from his paper. "Yes, it is very thick and unruly, you had better thin it down, please, Mr Johnson."

He then produced the strange looking shears, half scissors, half comb, which I had not seen since my days with the barber back home, and he hacked away with those. He tousled up what hair I had left, combed through it again, and gave me a quick brush down. This was followed by some slower, more deliberate, trimming with scissors and comb. More and more hair fell, slid down the cape, and joined the great heap on the floor.

Another combing into place, another brushing down.

"Any more off the top, sir?"

"No, I think that is enough, thank you, Mr Johnson."

l heard a trickle of water, and the soft wet bristles of a shaving brush went round my ears and across the back of my neck. The razor followed. The barber grasped my head firmly, squashed down my ears, and then pulled my skin taught with his thumb so the bristles would stand to attention and be cut down close. He looked at his work critically for a moment, smeared some warm soapy water on my upper lip, gripped hold of my nose, forced my head up and backwards, and the slight fluff of my budding moustache fell beneath the razor.

Then my whole head - scalp, neck, ears, face - was doused with fiery, smarting, stinging stuff - shocking me with an inexplicable pleasure. He wiped round my face and neck with a rough towel, and then rubbed hard on the top. "That feels a bit fresher, doesn't it, young man?

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.

The barber finally combed everything neatly into place, squirted some powder onto the back of my neck (I have never understood what all this powder was for, barbers never seem to use it now) and brushed me down once again.

He turned to my uncle. "How is that, sir?

My uncle came over to inspect. "Yes, that is the most tremendous improvement. Thank you, Mr Johnson. Turn the boy round, and let me see the back.

The mirror gave me a jolt. I had two sticking-out ears, and the sides of my head had been clippered down to the skin, which stood stark white against the summer tan on my face. The mature, sophisticated, 1970s teenager had gone and been replaced by a 1950s schoolboy.

"I think we should go a little higher up the back, Mr Johnson. It wouldn't do to have any unsightly long hair showing at the back when the boy is wearing his school cap, would it?"

I almost opened my mouth to protest that it was more than short enough already, but I quickly
changed my mind, I could hear my uncle's reaction in my head, "I shall be the judge of that young man, followed by him asking the barber to take it shorter still, and then maybe something worse to come when we got back home.

"Of course, sir." came the barber's reply, "It won't take long, sir. If you would like to sit down for just a moment, sir."

My head was pushed forwards once more, and the angry wasp again began crawling over my scalp, up and down the back, and then a second time round the sides for good measure. There was some more snipping up the back with the scissors.

Another squirt of powder, and another brushing down.

"Short enough, sir?

"Yes, that's much better. Thank you, Mr Johnson."

The barber combed my hair into place one more time, and then picked up the hand mirror and
showed me the back of my head - now cruelly shorn, with two or three inches of naked scalp exposed above the natural hair line - and then the sides - similarly shaved for an inch or so around the ears.

"There you are, young man, all nicely cleaned up round the back and sides for you."

There was absolutely nothing I could do. I gave the required nods of approval.

"I'm sure that feels much better, doesn't it young man?"

What could I say? "Yes, sir.Thank you, sir.

The barber looked at my uncle. "Everything to your satisfaction, sir?

"Let us see, Mr Johnson. How do you like your haircut, Michael?

Again, what could I say? "It's very smart, sir. Thank you, sir."

"And is everything to your satisfaction?"

I certainly did not want any more cut off, so it was another "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Yes, Mr Johnson, everything is indeed most satisfactory. Thank you, Mr Johnson, a most excellent job."

"Very kind, sir. And what dressing would you prefer, sir? Cream or spray, sir?"

"I think some hair cream would be in order, please, Mr Johnson."

The barber scooped up some white goo out of a tub and rubbed it over his hands. He gave me a big grin as he ruffled up my hair and massaged the stuff in. Once he was sure that every last hair was thoroughly coated he carefully combed everything back into place, giving me a perfectly straight parting on the left and making a small quiff on the right hand side. My hair suddenly seemed a much darker colour than it had been, and it shone and glistened in the light in a way it never had done before.

"How's that, sir?

"Very nice. Thank you, Mr Johnson.

The barber let down the chair, removed the cape, handed me a tissue, and I was released.

I was greeted by my uncle's contented smile. "Well done, Michael. That looks far more gentlemanly. Very well done indeed."

"Thank you, sir."

The barber and my uncle went over to the till. I put on my jacket, and stood for a moment wiping away the irritating little hairs from my face and the back of my neck. My neck was as smooth as the proverbial baby's bottom and the back of my head felt like sandpaper. I turned towards the oddly strange yet familiar figure in the mirror - yes, this actually was me. But it was not only me, unnervingly, it was also somebody else as well, I was now the absolute image of my father at my age in a photograph at my grandmother's - a young man kitted out in natty looking pin stripes, same face, same sharp haircut, same sleek, glossy, slicked-back hair.

"Say "Thank you to Mr Johnson, young man, for giving you such a splendid haircut, and then we can go.

"Thank you, Mr Johnson, for the haircut, sir."

"It was a pleasure, young sir."

The barber shook my hand - this seemed almost like having to shake the headmaster's hand and say "Thank you, sir." after being caned at school. "And one soon to be repeated I hope, young man?"

"Er, yes, sir."

My uncle nodded and smiled, and thanked the barber once again.

As we left the shop my uncle handed me a small brown-paper bag. "Some Brylcreem for you, lad. You will want to wear something on your hair to keep it looking smart, and I think you will find that this is by far the best thing to use."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Back in the car, I sat for a moment looking at myself in the mirror on the back of the sun visor, trying to take stock. I was appalled and yet thrilled by the whole thing: by my incredibly conservative, smartly disciplined appearance; by the tingling soreness where the razor had been; by the feel of cold air around my ears and against all that bare skin; by the mingled scent of tonic and hair cream every time I moved; and most of all by the stubbly, spiky, prickly sensations as I rubbed my hand up the back of my head.

"Haircut come as a bit of a shock to the system, has it, lad?"

"Yes, sir. Er, I mean, no, sir. I mean it is very short, sir, but it's done, sir, so ..."

"So you'll grin and bear it, then, eh lad?"

"Yes, sir. I'll grin and bear it, sir."

There was a slight pause, and then, "You know that suits you very well, lad and it makes you look so much like your father. I was very sad when we lost your father, he was a fine young man.

My uncle started the engine, and we drove off.

"Your mother tells me that you are "difficult". Why is that, Michael?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Mmm ..."

TO BE CONTINUED





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