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Sergeant Baxter by Sean Barnet



My father was on at me to get my hair cut - it was falling into my eyes at the front, covered my ears and was way over the collar at the back. This was the summer of 1972 and I was 13, and I wanted my hair as long as possible. My father may have wanted me to get a haircut, but my mother came to my rescue - it was the end of the summer term, so I did not need to have it cut if I did not want to, or at least not until school started again in September.

So my father gave in, for the moment. He was going away for a week on a business trip anyway and would deal with things when he got back.

I heaved a sigh of relief. Long hair was the only possible thing for a teenage boy then. Despite all our talk about "individuality" we were a very conformist lot, and I just wanted to look like everyone else, so I used to fight my father every time about getting it cut, and about how much to have cut.

Strangely, when I knew haircut time was approaching, I used to get wild ideas in my head about going to the sort of old fashioned barber I had been taken to as a child, and getting a short back and sides like I had been made to have then. I don't know why I had these ideas - these haircuts were something I had truly hated. Fashions had changed, attitudes had changed and teenage rebellion had set in, and now, when I had to have it cut, I went to a modern place and had the bare minimum taken off, but memories of being
tormented by that sadistic old barber still lingered on. These ideas were just that - ideas, part fantasy, part nightmare - and there was no way I was actually going to do this and look like an idiot in front of all my friends.

On this particular occasion, as school had finished for the summer, my mother decided she would go away with my father on his trip, to keep him company and have a bit of a holiday herself, so my two sisters and I were sent to stay with our grandparents (my mother's parents), just a few of miles away out in the countryside.

* * * * *

Wednesday was my grandparents' regular shopping day, and we all went into town, together with an aunt who had come along for the sake of a family day out. My grandparents each had different sets of errands, and we were asked who we wanted to go with. My sisters immediately decided to go with my grandmother, as did my aunt, but I said that I would go off with my grandfather.

I don't know why I chose to go with my grandfather. To us as children my grandfather seemed remote and taciturn, always occupied with his garden or his newspaper - and not just remote, but also strict and old fashioned. I do not think he was that way just with us, my father, after nearly twenty years of marriage to my mother, still always called him "Mr Richards" or "Sir", and even my mother's brothers called him quite formally "Father" and "Sir" - but my mother did not, she called him "Da", something from my Irish grandmother and the years they had spent in Waterford when my mother was a girl. We children, growing up in England, always called him "Grandad". So, I don't know why I chose to go with my grandfather rather than staying with all the others - maybe I just didn't want to be the only male in a gaggle of females, but that is what I did.

After going to two or three shops my grandfather said he was due for a trim and we must go to his hairdresser's, which turned out to be an old fashioned barber's shop - no surprises there - up a side street in a part of town where I usually had no reason to go.

I had no apprehensions about going into the barber's with him. I knew my grandfather disliked my long hair - he had always made his disapproval clear ever since I started to grow it longer. "Matthew needs a haircut," he would tell my mother, "the boy could do with a good short back and sides". But she had a way of managing her father which I never really grasped, and she always went her own way without them falling out. It did not occur to me that my grandfather might ever do anything beyond simply expressing his opinion, so, despite knowing what my grandfather thought, I made no difficulty about
going to the barbers with him.

Anyway, there was my growing fascination with old-fashioned barber shops to be satisfied, and this was an opportunity to go inside and watch - without any danger of having to get a haircut myself.

It was a strange place, decorated with all kinds of military memorabilia - pictures of men in uniform, men with beards and men with all kinds of mustaches, and a photograph of some hunters in India back in 1930 with a man-eating tiger they had shot.

My grandfather's turn came, and once he was finished the barber turned to me. "Next please, young man."

l shook my head, and stood up to go. The barber looked at my grandfather. "What about the boy, sir?

"Yes, I must introduce you. This is my grandson Matthew ... and this is my old friend Mr Baxter, or perhaps I should say Sergeant Baxter, we were in the army together, he was my right hand man." He paused momentarily. "So, how about it then, Matthew?"

I shook my head again. "No ... thank you, Grandad."

"Come on, be a sensible chap now, you really could do with one.

"No, Grandad."

"Im afraid this grandson of mine is a young man who doesn't like having his hair cut."

The barber, a towering bear of man, all bristling short-cropped salt and pepper hair, great big moustache and bushy eyebrows, looked me up and down. "They none of them do, sir, not these days.They don't like any sort of discipline. But if you don't mind me saying so, sir, his hair could certainly do with some attention, nevertheless."

"I would have to agree with you on that, Sergeant, but as you see, the boy is quite unwilling.

"Maybe just a trim for the boy then, today, sir? He will have to have it cut at some point, whether he likes it or not, and I think it might be better to get the worst of it over and done with now, while we have the boy here, and establish a principle too, sir."

"Well, I don't know what his mother would say. Unfortunately, she allows him to have it this way - quite ignoring his father - and much to my own annoyance too, you know."

"Yes, it is very bad, sir, to have a boy of his age hiding behind his mother's skirts. And what does the boy's father have to say about the matter, sir?

"Well, the boy's father agrees with me, that I know, and he wishes the boy to have it cut. But he is very involved with his work and is away a great deal, and he has not followed things through to a proper conclusion."

"That is very sad. sir. A boy needs a fatherly hand."

My grandfather turned towards me, and gazed at me steadily for what seemed forever, and then slowly shook his head. "No, this has gone on quite long enough, young man. The state of your hair is unacceptable. You will have it cut. And he jerked his head sideways slightly indicating the barber's chair.

"But I like my hair how it is, Grandad, I don't want to have it cut."

"Come on now, lad, you are being ridiculous. It is hanging in your eyes, and it's a wonder you can see where you are going."

"But Mum said "

"Your mother indulges you far too much, Matthew, much more than is good for you. It needs to be cut, and you will do as you are told."

"But Grandad "

"No "But Grandad. You will have your hair cut." My grandfather jabbed his thumb twice in the direction of the barber's chair.

I still did not move.

"Proceed, Sergeant."

The barber came to attention, playing his old role of sergeant with evident relish. "Yes, sir!

I looked at Sergeant Baxter.

Sergeant Baxter looked at me - smiling like a crocodile. "This way, young man, if you please."

I looked at my grandfather, who sat down, took out his tobacco pouch and began filling his pipe.

I looked at the door - but the barber was strategically positioned to block off my escape.

"Look lively!

I jumped. I walked over, heart pounding, obedient to the sergeant's bidding, and I sat in the chair, as I must.

The barber pumped up the chair and fastened the cape tightly around my neck. I had the most awful feeling in the pit of my stomach - my fantasies and nightmares were now becoming all too horribly real.

"Just a trim for the boy, as we said, sir?"

"No I think that while we are about it we should do the job thoroughly. Better take it nice and short please, Sergeant.

This was really too unfair. I would never forgive my grandfather for this.

"Nice and short, sir? Certainly, sir. It will be a pleasure, sir."

The barber pushed my head forwards. "Now, young man, you are a disgrace. What are you?

"A disgrace.

"A disgrace, what, young man?

"A disgrace, sir!

"No, young man, I am Sergeant Baxter, and you will call me "Sergeant Baxter" or "Sergeant". Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sergeant Baxter!"

"And what are you?

"A disgrace, Sergeant!"

"Yes, you are a disgrace, young man, and now I am going to cut your hair short so that you will become something less of a disgrace. So sit up straight, keep your mouth shut, and make sure you keep your head still - Do you hear me, young man?"

"Yes, Sergeant."

"And what will you do?"

"Sit up straight, keep my mouth shut, and make sure I keep my head still, Sergeant."

"That's right. So, do we understand one another?"

"Yes, Sergeant."

And he began to cut.

And l sat, back ramrod straight, head down, motionless.

Great piles of hair fell about me.

And he cut.

And cut.

"Short enough, sir?"

"Perhaps a little shorter."

"Certainly, sir."

And he cut some more.

"How's that, sir?"

"Yes, that's much better, thank you, Sergeant."

"Tidy up round the back and sides ... with the clippers, sir?"

"Yes, certainly, the boy must have the clippers. That's the problem with these new-fangled places these day, they dont use clippers. I want him to look nice and smart - army style."

"Yes, sir."

The barber grasped hold of my head. The clippers fired up, clacking away noisily. The barber pushed my head firmly forward, running the clippers up the back and round each ear.

"How's that, sir? I can go closer if you wish. Or would that be too severe, sir?"

My grandfather paused before replying. "Now, I seem to remember that when l was a lad there was no "too severe, a boy's hair was always cut very short, and I am sure that it was the same for you, Sergeant."

"Yes, it was, sir, I remember it well. Short was the order of the day for young men, very close indeed round the back and sides, and we liked it. It was a bit severe by todays standards, but none the worse for that if you ask me, sir."

"Rather the better for it indeed. So let us have this lad's done the same, if you please, Sergeant. I think my grandson might find a little severity beneficial."

I would never, never forgive my grandfather for this.

"Most beneficial, sir. It will do the boy a world of good. Make a man of him, and he will thank you for it soon enough, sir."

Thus egged on by my grandfather, the barber took a new set or clippers, pushed down my head once more, and went round a second time. I could feel the sharp edge of cold vibrating steel now, pressed in hard, biting closer, shaving higher. I sat there, obedient to the barber's grip, and bore it - what else could I do?

Then some more cutting and trimming with scissors - more slowly and more carefully now.

Then something quite new to me - and secretly thrilling - a warm, wet soapy shaving brush, a cutthroat razor round my ears and neck, and then the sting of hair tonic.

"What do you think, sir?"

"Yes, a first class job, Sergeant Baxter, first class.

"Thank you, sir. Some dressing for the boys hair, sir?

I was quietly hoping not, or if I had to have it, please let it be spray and not Brylcreem,

"Yes, perhaps some Brylcreem for the lad.

My heart sank, I had bad memories of Brylcreem, it was just so greasy and horrible.

"With your permission, sir, I find that there is a great deal of resistance to the use Brylcreem amongst the younger generation these days. They go home and wash it out straight away, so now I like to use Vaseline on all my boys, sir. It does not wash out, so once the hair is properly dressed it remains that way for some length of time. But there is Brylcreem, of course, if that is what you prefer, sir."

"No, not at all. I used Vaseline myself when I was his age. It does the job very well. So let us have Vaseline."

The two inches or so of hair I had left on the top at my head received a good, heavy slicking, and everything was all combed neatly into place.

"As I was saying, sir, this does not wash out, so the boy can go for a swim, or have shower, and all he will need to do is run a comb through his hair afterwards, and his hair will remain orderly. He will find that keeping himself well groomed is that much easier, and I am sure that he will be grateful for it."

The barber showed me the closely shaved back and sides of my head in the hand mirror. I tried to tell myself that it was not so bad after all, it was masculine, disciplined, military. But I knew it would be laughed at - I would he laughed at.

I nodded my acceptance - not that voicing my true opinion could have made any difference now.

Theatrically, the barber swung the chair round so I was facing towards my grandfather. "There you are, sir, shorn like a guardsman, sir."

"Thank you, Sergeant, yes, quite splendid, just what the boy needed, now he looks how a young man ought to look."

"Thank you, sir. That is what we do here, we make boys into young men, sir."

And at last I was set free.

I stood, and took in the dreadful new sense of raw nakedness as I rubbed a tissue against my shaved neck and the prickly stubble on the back of my head - for the next week or so I would not be able to resist the weird new sensation of running my fingers through the sharp stubble as it gradually grew back.

"Well done, Matthew, good lad. Now thank Sergeant Baxter for giving you such a smart haircut.

Angry though I was at the humiliation that had been inflicted on me, I knew that I must control my feelings, I had to speak up clearly and answer as required. All my parents' endless lessons in good manners came to my aid. "Thank you, Sergeant Baxter. It's very smart. Thank you, Sergeant.

"Not at all, young man. But it is really your grandfather you must thank for bringing you.

"Thank you, Grandfather ... Thank you ... sir.

I felt myself involuntarily coming to attention as I said this little word "Sir".

"Grandad" no longer felt quite right somehow, rather more respect seemed necessary.

Calling my grandfather "Sir felt good, it felt grown up, it felt soldierly - but I was also immediately conscious that it was risky. What else was I really saying with this little word "Sir"? - Was I now saying "I agree that you were right after all to make me have this haircut and "You give the orders, and from now on I shall jump"?

But I had now used this little word "Sir to my grandfather, and there would be no going back.

My grandfather nodded and smiled approvingly. From then on he was always formally "Grandfather or "Sir, and he corrected me when I forgot.

My grandfather placed a hand on my shoulder. "That is a haircut you can be proud of. young man.

"Yes, sir. I shall, sir. Thank you, sir."

"So, no complaints then, old chap?

No, I was not going to admit that I was upset, though looking back I am sure my grandfather had already guessed that l was, I would keep up a front. "No, sir. No complaints, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Well done, Matthew, spoken like a trooper."

"Thank you, sir."

* * * * *

My sisters giggled and pointed, and my grandfather reminded them that they were supposed to be young ladies. My grandmother and aunt politely said I looked very smart - which I suppose I did according to their ideas of how a teenage boy should look. I mumbled some sort of embarrassed reply.

My grandfather decided that we must have lunch at my favourite place. I had profiteroles for dessert - which went some way to compensating me for my injury.

* * * * *

My father came to pick us up on Saturday morning. He grinned widely when he saw me, but said nothing. He returned my grandfather's enquiring glance with the merest inclination of his head, and he simply talked about other things as we drove home.

My mother was appalled, but my father laughed, and told her that he was very glad that her father (with the emphasis on HER father) had decided to take the problem in hand, and had dealt with it.

That Sunday, when we all went back to my grandparents' for lunch, my father pointedly thanked my grandfather twice in my mother's presence, and then told him that he was welcome to take me for a haircut any time he thought I needed one. I thought that this was just one of his jokes, but my grandfather would take him at his word.

A few weeks later and there was another Sunday lunch at my grandparents'. As we were leaving my grandfather asked me if I would like to come into town with him the next day. I had, just about, forgiven him for my haircut. My hair was gradually recovering - maybe half an inch now decently covered the back and sides of my head - and my relationship with him was recovering along with it, so automatically I agreed.

Monday morning arrived. I dressed up smartly as my grandfather approved and I went off with him in his car, wondering why my grandmother was not there, and why he had asked only me and not my sisters also.

I came back shorn.

My grandfather got his way this time with remarkably little trouble I think on his part.

My grandfather said that we were going to Baxter's, and added that he was overdue for his regular trim as he had been busy, and he really could not delay it any longer. My own hair was still so extremely short by normal standards that, innocent that l was, I never imagined that he might have anything more in mind than this regular trim of his own.

But when the barber turned towards us and said "Next" my grandfather nudged me with his elbow. "There you are, lad, you go first."

I looked at him.

"Go on, lad, don't keep the man waiting."

I opened my mouth, but I was too stunned to speak, and I just sat there.

My Grandfather now spoke very slowly and deliberately, and I could hear an edge in his tone. "I thought that you had learned your lesson, Matthew, and that you would not make an unseemly fuss like last time. I hope you will not now disappoint me."

For one instant I thought about arguing.

"No, sir. I won't disappoint you, sir."

I stood up. I walked. I sat.

The cape was secured - I was secured.

"Good morning, Matthew. It is a pleasure to have you here again, young man."

"Good morning, Mr Baxter. I mean, good morning, Sergeant." - No, I could not possibly bring myself to say that it was a pleasure to be there.

The man picked up his clippers even before turning to my grandfather. "Yes, sir? What will it be, sir?"

My grandfather came over, and ran a finger high up round the back and sides of my head. "Short back and sides for the lad, please, Sergeant," he announced cheerily, "shaved nice and close."

"Back and sides, shaved close, and taken very high, sir? With pleasure, sir.

I bowed my head. I resigned myself.

And so for a second time I was shorn - shorn every bit as drastically and uncompromisingly as before, and slicked.

As we walked out of the shop, my grandfather asked in a tone that only allowed one answer "Any complaints, young man?"

"No, sir. No complaints, sir.

As a consolation I was taken out for a nice lunch.

* * * * *

My mother tried to tell me that I did not always have to do what my grandfather wanted, but I said that this was a matter just between him and me - mens business - and I asked her not to interfere.

She tried my father, but he told her that he had made an agreement with her father, and he was sticking to it.

After that I gradually began to start calling my father "Sir also. "Dad" was beginning to sound just too childish. When my sisters commented on this he told them that it was because I was becoming a man. In the end I called most older men "Sir.

* * * * *

The next time my grandfather suggested a trip into town I knew what was coming. Put on the spot in front of the whole family, again I automatically said "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Back home I thought of ringing him with some excuse not to go, but I in the end I knew that I had a duty, and go with him I must.

I took this third shearing with better grace. I sat waiting ready with my jacket off, feeling sweaty and fiddling with my tie. Was I to go first again? I did not want to get it wrong. I looked nervously at my grandfather as the elderly gentleman before us was being handed a tissue and having the cape removed. He nodded.

"Next, please!"

Obediently, I got in the chair, and sat there in anxious anticipation while the barber said goodbye to his customer. Now that I had begun to show willing perhaps my grandfather would relent a little and not insist it being quite so short?

As before, the barber reached straight for his clippers. "Short back and sides for the boy, sir?"

"Yes, Sergeant, short back and sides, please. Like last time, shaved nice and close. That's how the boy likes it - Don't you lad?"

My grandfather's intention was very obvious - "Short back and sides. Like last time, shaved nice and close. - My hair was now to be kept this way. It was a great deal shorter than my grandfather's own moderate trim, but then severity was supposed to be good for me, and I would have to submit to this. By coming at all I had effectively given him my agreement.

"Yes, sir." I replied.

Once all the clipping and cutting and shaving were finished, and my hair slicked back, thick, shiny and immovable, I gathered myself together and managed a reasonably confident "Thank you, Sergeant" to the barber and a "Thank you, sir" to my grandfather. At least I was now beginning to find all these "Sirs" and "Sergeants" a bit less awkward than I had done before.

Once again, as soon as we out of the shop my grandfather asked "Any Complaints. young man?

"No, sir. No complaints, sir. Thank you, sir."

This time I think I almost meant it, I was learning respect, and finding it easier to accept discipline, and even to enjoy it.

Then my grandfather took me out for another good lunch, and we talked.

* * * * *

Back at school in September, my friends - my so-called friends - were absolutely merciless when they saw me. I put on a brave face, and made out that I had decided for myself that it was time to lose the mop and get a "real haircut" for a change - I don't think any of them believed a word or it.

From then on, as soon as I had enough hair to look something like a normal human being again, my grandfather would take me to the barber for another maximum stringency shearing, or during term time he would often give me the money with strict instructions to pay a visit to Baxter's before I saw him next - and it never occurred to me to disobey or to try to find a way to get out of doing this.

My hair was now cut so regularly that it did not change much, my friends got used to it and stopped ribbing me even when I came into school with it newly shorn. And I gradually started to believe my own propaganda about it being my own choice. After a while I had to admit to myself that I was actually looking forward to my next trip to Baxter's. I not only started liking my hair short, but I began to enjoy the sound and the feel of the clippers, and the whole business of having it cut.

And I got to know my grandfather - much better than I ever had done before.

My father never commented on my hair again.

* * * * *

Once I had left school and moved away from home I made one experiment with growing my hair longer, but this did not last long. The feel of hair brushing against my ears and on the back of my neck drove me crazy, and l was soon searching out a traditional barber to give me that gratifying close-shorn feeling, and I have kept a short back and sides ever since.

Thank you, Grandfather. Thank you, sir.


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