"Crying Uncle" by John K
(Being a particularly relevant single chapter from a midway point in a much longer piece.)
Bob’s Gents Hairdressing was an old-fashioned two-chair barbershop in a quiet cul-de-sac just off the High Street. When Uncle Tim turned the car into the street, Alex spotted the shop from a distance of fifty yards. When he saw the traditional red-and-white pole suspended at an acute angle above the entrance, his heart sank.
Already in 1978, most forward-looking barbershops were dispensing with this classic appurtenance and seeing his nephew’s face fall as he looked up at it, Uncle Tim couldn’t help but laugh.
"Been a while since you saw the inside of a barbershop with a red-and-white pole outside, eh son?"
"Sir, yes it is, sir."
"Well, here’s a tip for you. You can always recognise a proper barber’s by the pole outside. These days, some of them just have an apologetic little red and white sign stencilled on the window – often hidden away in a corner somewhere. Sometimes they haven’t got a pole at all. But those are shops that are strictly off-limits to you now: you won’t ever be using that sort of shop again. A proper traditional barber’s will always have a good solid red-and-white pole outside - and right high up at a nice proud angle. Like a squaddie’s hard-on."
In spite of his nerves, Alex laughed at this; but he was already dreading the ordeal he knew he had in store.
As his uncle parked the car, Alex looked forlornly at the plate-glass window of the shop. It was frosted from about waist-height up so that the interior couldn’t really be seen. But in the lower half, there was a display of old black-and-white photographs of famous boxing and football stars from the 1950s and early sixties: all displayed around a pyramid of a dozen or so jars of Vaseline Hair-Cream.
"Alright then, Champ," said Uncle Tim, as he took the keys out of the ignition. "Let’s get going. But before we go in: just a word or two of warning. This is my favourite barbershop in this town. It took me a few goes – and a few bad cuts! - before I found this place. I like it and I don’t want to lose it now - so I don’t want to get shown up in here. You understand me?"
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Now, I count the barber here as a mate of mine. So you know how you need to behave with him, right? You know how you should talk to him, for instance?"
"Yes, sir! Very respectfully, sir."
"That’s right, lad. Very respectfully indeed. But actually, you shouldn’t really need to say very much at all. Obviously, I’ll give the orders. I’ll tell him what you want doing and how he should do it. You’ll only need to speak at all if you’re asked a direct question. And if you are asked a question, you’ll know how to answer. Right?"
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Otherwise, you just need to sit up nice and straight in the chair, with your lip buttoned. And you do exactly what you’re told. Manage that?"
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Well, see you do, mind."
And with that, he pushed open the door and lead the way into the shop.
Once inside, the first thing that hit Alex - bang in the nose - was the smell. It was exactly the smell he’d noticed that first evening when Uncle Tim had taken off his beret in the car. It was the smell that always hung heavier around him when he’d just come in from a run or, in the evenings, when he was just getting dressed to go down the Legion and the lights shone brightest in his hair. It was the sweet manly smell of after-shave and pomade.
As they walked in, the barber looked up from his customer with an automatic and professional smile - but seemed very much surprised to see Uncle Tim: surprised and a little concerned.
"Alright, Bob? How you doing, mate?"
"Champion here, Tim. But wasn’t expecting to see you today! You were only in on Saturday. What’s the problem, mate? Not short enough for you?"
Uncle Tim laughed, and rubbed his hand up the bristle-tight back of his head.
"No, Bob - no worries there, mate. Crackin’ job as usual. No, I’m not here for me." Here, he turned around to find Alex still hovering in the doorway behind him. Putting his hand on his shoulder, he gave him a gentle push into the room.
"This one here is my niece, mate," he explained, with a mirthless little chuckle. "And I’ve got to say, she’s got me completely snookered about what to do with her - so I’ve brought her in to see if you can do anything with her. Maybe even turn her into my nephew, for a start."
Bob laughed - and so did the elderly gent sitting in his chair.
"OK, Tim – always happy to do what I can to help out an army man. I’ll see what we can manage." Then turning to Alex: "Take a seat over there, Sweetheart. Be finished here in five minutes."
Alex and his uncle sat down in the waiting area, where the latter leafed idly through a motoring magazine, while his nephew gazed fascinated around the shop. At one end were two leather and chrome barbers’ chairs, side by side, each of them placed in front of a wash-basin and mirror. Presumably, there was another barber who wasn’t working today. A melamine work-top ran the width of the room under the mirrors and seemed cluttered with bottles and jars, brushes and combs, scissors and razors. Between the chairs, three hair-clippers hung from hooks, each of them a slightly different shape and size; and each, as Alex soon found, producing an unnervingly different buzz when they were used. The waiting area itself consisted of half a dozen wooden dining chairs and a coffee-table piled with dog-eared magazines. At four-thirty on a Monday afternoon, Alex and his uncle were the only customers waiting.
Nervously anticipating what was to come, Alex watched attentively as Bob finished with the elderly man in the chair. He had very little hair to attend to but was very obviously a regular here, so they chatted desultorily about mutual friends and football scores; and the barber seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time shaving and re-shaving his customer’s turtle neck. At last, he administered a puff of powder to the nape before flicking it a few times with a brush and removing the cape, with a theatrical flourish. He might almost have been a bullfighter. Watching, Alex felt almost sick with nerves.
When the old man stood up at last, Bob spent considerable time with his clothes brush removing invisible hairs from his shirt before helped him into his jacket. Then, taking him to the cash-register, he rang-in the money. It seemed incredibly cheap to Alex (who was more accustomed to High Street prices). The barber saw the old man to the door and shook his hand in parting; then, dropping the latch, he turned around the "Open" sign and came back to the chair, rubbing his hands in anticipation of the fun to come.
"Righto, Tim. I’ve locked up for today - so we‘ve got ample time. You‘ll have my undivided attention." Then, to Alex: "OK lad, hop up in the chair and let’s see what we can do."
As Alex walked over to the chair, his stomach knotted with fear; but once the barber had shaken out the cape and flapped it over him, this fear was superseded rather by a nervous fascination. He didn’t remember ever having a haircut in a shop like this before; and a sense of sociological enquiry overtook him, as the barber tightened the cape around his neck and tucked a tissue into his collar.
Rather to Alex’s surprise, it seemed not even to occur to this barber to consult him about his haircut while his uncle was present in the shop.
"OK then, Tim," he began. "We’re just about ready here. What is it you’re wanting me to do today?"
Uncle Tim threw down the battered copy of AutoTrader in which he’d been absorbed and strolled over to the chair. Leaning his backside against the counter, he looked intently at his nephew’s head with exactly the expression of incredulous revulsion he had worn that first night in the railway station. His forehead gathering to an ominous frown, he folded his arms.
"What do I want you to do? It’s a bit of a hard one to answer that, Bob," he said, at last. "What do you reckon?"
"You said something before about wanting me to make a man of him, Tim. Is that what you’ve got in mind?"
Sadly, however, Tim shook his head.
"Well, I’m not asking for miracles, Bob. I think making a man of him might be a bit of a tall order for one day. But maybe we could start by making him look just a bit less like Princess Daisy? If you could make him look just a little bit more like a real lad, that would be something."
"More like a lad, eh? OK. What about a good old fashioned Short Back n Sides, then? Can’t go far wrong with that."
"Aye," said Tim, apparently resolved. "Let’s start with that, Bob. But mind, a very short Short Back n Sides. Army recruit style."
"Bare blade, then?"
"Oh aye! Definitely. And don’t be shy with the clippers, mate."
Bob started by combing out all of the hair right round Alex’s head. With only one or two very slight tugs of the comb, it was soon revealed as soft and silkily dark, with a definite wave to it. At the back, it reached well over the bottom of his collar. At the front, it completely covered both eyes and ears.
As the full length of it was revealed, Bob couldn‘t conceal his surprise.
"Bloody Hell!" he exclaimed. "When was the last time you had a haircut, son?"
"About three weeks ago, sir," replied Alex, stoutly, "Definitely less than a month."
"But not what you or me would call a haircut, Bob," interjected Tim. "He goes to that nancy-boy place on the High Street, The Clip Joint. At least, he used to go there."
"The Clip Joint, eh? You’d pay for it there then."
"Aye," added Tim. "And not just in money, either. You pay for it by looking a prick."
"OK," said Bob, clicking his scissors. "Let’s start by letting him see what we’re up to, should we?"
He placed his scissors just above the eyebrows and with three loud crunches the veil of hair covering Alex’s eyes was gone.
He blinked at the sudden flood of light - and looked down shocked at the thick pads of hair already gathering on the cape.
"Let there be light!" laughed Bob. "Wouldn’t want you to miss anything just cause your hair’s in your eyes."
"Is that better, Feldman?" Uncle Tim asked him. "Can you see properly now?"
"Yes, Sir," replied Alex, promptly. "That’s a lot better, sir."
"Well, what do you say to Mr Grigson, then?"
"Sir, thank-you sir!" snapped Alex, suddenly sitting up straighter in the chair.
"Bloody hell, Tim!" laughed the barber, snipping a good six inch swathe of hair from half-way down the left ear. "You’ve got this one well trained!"
"No I haven’t, Bob," said Tim, winking though his tone had the air of menace. "Not yet I haven’t. But I will have soon, mate. You see if I don‘t."
Bob continued to work his way around Alex’s head, taking off several inches with each crunch of the scissors and leaving the hair about collar length all round, like a medieval bob. Looking down as the lengths of hair gathered in his nephew’s lap, Tim shook his head.
"Ruddy Hell!" he said, ruefully. "I hope you’re not going to charge us by the pound, Bob." Then, to the boy: "And you, you wanker, you should be bloody ashamed of yourself . . ."
Alex didn’t think this required a reply - but he blushed and looked at the floor.
At this point, Bob put down his scissors and took the largest and bulkiest-looking set of clippers from its hook.
"Sorry, Tim, but I’ve got to ask before I start with this," he said, brandishing the Wahl. "There’s no chance of you changing your mind, is there? Definitely short back n sides?"
"No chance of you deciding to go the whole hog and opt for a skinhead instead, then? Cause if you did decide to go for that, it should really be the same length all over - and I shouldn’t take the back n sides all the way down with this."
"Nah, definitely bare-blade on the back n sides, please Bob. But listen, mate: leave me something to play with on the top, will you? I’ll decide what to do with that as we go along." Then, laughing, "Be a nice little surprise for him."
This final comment brought a look of horrified apprehension to his nephew’s face that actually caused Bob to laugh out loud.
"I have to say: I agree with you, Tim," said the barber, flicking on the drone of the clippers. "There’s nothing like a proper short back n sides for smartness. It’s just a shame none of the younger ones seem to get that."
"Aye, it is that," agreed Tim, warmly. "Even on a Match Day now, the bars round here are full of lads who look like total pansies, to my mind. Blow-dried curls flicked right down to their shoulders, a lot of them. It’s funny you should mention the skins, though - I’m not right keen on that look myself but at least they do look like lads."
"Lot of army boys going for the straight skinhead crop nowadays," said Bob, putting his hand on the top of Alex’s head and pushing it forward into his chest. "On blokes under twenty-five, a basic Number Two crop is virtually the only short cut I ever get to do nowadays ."
And as he spoke, he placed the clipper at the nape of Alex’s neck and paused a moment before slowly and very deliberately, pushing it right up the back of his head to a point parallel to the middle of his left ear. It left a broad band of dazzling white skin behind. Then, moving slightly to the right, he repeated the manoeuvre, gradually working his way all around the back.
"Aye, those skinhead cuts seem to be getting more and more popular now," said Tim. "But to me, all those skins that hang round the town centre - well, it’s a haircut that looks like they might have done it themselves - instead of getting out of bed on a Saturday morning and getting themselves down the barber’s. It looks lazy and unfinished to me - as if they can’t be bothered to keep themselves tidy. It looks as if they can’t even be arsed to run a comb through their hair."
"Of course, I agree with you, Tim. A hundred percent. But all I know is: it’s the only short cut I ever get to do with the youngsters now. Apart from that long feathered look your niece here was wearing. Now that’s the sort of cut I wouldn’t think of doing in here, anyway - but it’s the only other cut that’s anything like fashionable among the youngsters."
"Aye," Tim conceded, thoughtfully. "But I think that’s what puts me off the skinhead look: it‘s too much like just another fashion. I would hate it if anybody was to look at this one tomorrow and think he’d just changed one fashion for another. The beauty of a Short Back n Sides these days is that nobody of his age would choose to have it. They’d get too much stick off their mates. So, if anybody does see a young lad out and about with this sort of cut, they know somebody else has picked it for him. They know somebody else has taken charge. That’s what I really like about it: it’s the look of a lad who’s submitted to authority; a lad who’s done as he’s been told - and the more obvious that is, the better I like it."
"It’s a discipline thing for you then, Tim?"
"Oh certainly," said Uncle Tim, sniggering too. "It’s about keeping him in his place - and making sure everybody who sees him, knows it."
"Good for you, Tim!" said Bob. "It’s a pleasure to hear you talking, mate."
And at exactly that moment, Bob had worked his way round to the right side of the chair. Now, in one firm sweep, he ran the clipper from the bottom of Alex’s jaw right up through his bum-fluff sideburns and up again to more than an inch into the hairline at the top of the ear. This was Alex’s first actual glimpse of how high up the clippers were being driven - and there was an audible gasp, as his eyes widened with surprise.
Hearing the gasp and the loud click of his throat as Alex swallowed hard, Bob again found himself sniggering; and seeing the opportunity for a further bit of fun, he decided it was time for another consultation with the man in charge:
"That high enough over the ears for you, Tim?" he asked.
Tim stepped forward to a spot behind the chair and frowning, ran a finger up the back of Alex’s head and all around the right ear too. Unthinkingly, he was still holding onto the earlobe as he gave his verdict.
"Nah, Bob - I think it could do with being higher, mate. Higher over the ears - and up the back too."
"OK, Tim, you’re the boss. What do you think? Just a shade higher - half an inch or so? Or a little bit more than that?"
Tim was now abstractedly stroking the back of Alex’s head, while looking at Bob in the mirror.
"Nah, a lot more than that, I think Bob. It wants to be a good couple of inches higher over the ears - at least that; and at least two - maybe even three inches - higher up the back."
Bob gave a low whistle. He was shocked and thrilled at once.
"So really severe, then?" said he, laughing.
"Aye, you got it, Bob: REALLY severe," confirmed Tim, emphatically. "And listen, mate, is there any way you could get it a bit tighter too? Just a touch?"
But at this, Bob looked doubtful.
"Well, that‘s the bare blade there, Tim. It doesn‘t get much tighter than that, I‘m afraid."
Tim was disappointed.
"No?" he said. "That’s really as close as you can go? That’s a shame, Bob," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "But if that’s the best you can do, I guess it’ll just have to do."
But seeing his disappointment, Bob had a suggestion.
"I guess I could try the edger?" he volunteered. "Usually just use that for tidying up the outline - but, as there won’t really be an outline here, I guess I could use it all over the back n sides, like an ordinary clipper. That should take it all the way down to bald."
Tim was delighted with his inventiveness.
"Good man, Bob!" he exclaimed, grinning. "Let’s try that then."
Tim returned to his place against the counter, only now he was so relaxed that his backside was actually resting on the ledge, while his brightly-shining left boot dangled a good three inches off the floor. Truth to tell, he would have been hard pushed to remember an occasion when he had enjoyed himself more. Meanwhile, Bob got back to work - re-doing, much more rigorously, all that he’d previously done.
The edger was a much smaller clipper than the Wahl used before and Alex noticed a different and more insistent insect-like buzz - but the mist of clippings falling onto his shoulders were tiny now, hardly visible but as the faintest flecks of shadow.
After several minutes of intense and up-close work, Bob switched off the edger and returned it to its cradle.
"Alright, Tim, that’s about as close as I can get it with the edger," he said, gently running his flat palm right up the back of Alex’s head. "Feels pretty good, there: smooth as a baby’s bum. You want to take a look, mate?"
Uncle Tim came round the back of the chair - and beamed.
"Oh aye!" he exclaimed. "That’s a lot better, Bob!" Delighted, he again ran his forefinger lightly up the newly balded back. "Feels great, that! Nice and high too, now."
"Aye, there’ll be a good five inches of bare skin over the top of his collar before you even get to the start of the blend."
"Outstanding, mate!" said Tim, giving a playful little slap to the bare back of Alex‘s head, before returning to his perch on the counter and re-folding his arms.
"I’ll tell you what, Bob," he said, his grin ever-widening now. "It’s a treat to see a craftsman at work!"
"Oh it’s a pleasure, Tim. A real pleasure. As I said before, I don’t often get the chance to give a youngster this sort of a skinning nowadays," and saying so, he again unhooked the bulkier black clipper he’d used at the beginning.
"Well, fill your boots, Bob! Make the most of the opportunity, mate. You won’t hear me complaining."
"No," he said. "I can see that, Tim! But what about him?"
He nodded at the boy sitting silent in the chair.
"Feldman?" asked his uncle, surprised. "Oh trust me on this one, Bob: he knows better than to say anything unless he‘s asked - other than maybe: "Thank you very much, sir!" that is."
With a loud guffaw, Bob put a steadying hand on Alex’s shoulder. Now using the clipper-over-comb technique, he commenced the slow and meticulous process of blending the longer, thicker hair on top with the blazingly denuded back and sides. This was a much longer and slower business - the clipper-blade zipping along the comb with the tiniest falls of hair. In spite of everything, Alex felt himself beginning to relax. There was something reassuring about having Uncle Tim standing over him, so intently in control. It felt safe, secure, almost restful. Bizarrely, after a few more minutes, he found himself actually enjoying his haircut.
Presently, though, turning off the clipper, the barber again returned it to its hook and began spraying his head with water. Then, taking up his thinning shears, he began to snip them with a weird clacking sound all over the top of Alex’s head.
"So how short are we taking it on top, Tim?" he asked, clacking away. "Any decisions about that yet?"
His uncle’s reply to this surprised Alex, rather.
"Not VERY short," he said. "I want to have something left to play with, Bob. You know, maybe try out a few different ideas, depending on what mood I‘m in on any given day."
"You still want it pretty severe, though, don‘t you?" asked Bob, a little anxiously now. "The sort of look he probably wouldn’t pick out for himself, I mean?"
"Oh aye - definitely that," he said. Then, rather wistfully: "I guess I’m thinking Sergeant Major’s Bum Boy, you know?"
Bob looked totally dumbfounded by this, leaving Tim to go on and explain:
"When I first joined up," he said, "there was one lad in our platoon who used to get marched down the barbers by the Company Sergeant Major every single week . That CSM was a total twat. He was the sort of bloke who’d stand over the barber while this lad was in the chair to supervise and "suggest" adjustments, you know." Suddenly, bethinking himself of a connection he’d not previously made, he laughed. "A bit like meself with this one, in fact!" he said. "Then, when he’d finally got it just exactly how he liked it, he’d hold the lad’s haircut up as an example to the other recruits. I can still hear him now, barking at some kid: "You’re looking a bit scruffy, Private. You need to get yourself a haircut like Private Miller over there. Barber Shop Parade this afternoon at 16.00." So you can imagine how popular that made Miller with the rest of us. We all called that style of haircut the Sergeant Major’s Bumboy Cut. Dead traditional and always absolutely perfect: never a single hair out of place. That’s the sort of look I’ve got in mind for him."
"OK, I’ve got you," said Bob, positively glowing. "So we’re talking army-style, are we? A bit like yourself then?"
Tim nodded vigorously.
"Aye, a bit like mine, Bob - but maybe just a touch more severe, you know. Like you’ve already made the back n sides, in fact." He stepped forward again and putting his fingers under Alex’s chin, he lifted his head up and turned it quizzically to the left. "Maybe a bit more juvenile, too," he suggested. "You know, less of a man’s cut - and more of a boy’s. But a boy whose cut’s very obviously been ordered by a man - and a man with pretty exacting standards when it comes to grooming."
Thoughtful, Bob stepped back a moment, suspending his thinning shears as he looked the boy over again.
"A bit of a traditional Boy Scout look, then?"
Again, Tim beamed.
"Aye! Exactly!" he said. "A Boy Scout look! But not a Boy Scout like they have them today: you know, scruffy little buggers in old jeans and a t-shirt. No, more the sort of Scout you saw back in the 1950s - one with a really strict Scout Master."
At this, Bob seemed to renew his snipping with redoubled vigour.
"Fifties, eh? So you’ll want it slicked up, then? Like your own?"
"Oh aye, definitely! Don’t be shy with the Brylcreem, Bob," he admonished; and suddenly lifting up his boot, he put it on the seat of the chair between his nephew’s knees. "It wants a real bright brylcreem shine on it. Just like the shine on that boot." he added, smirking.
Here, Alex gave a discernible start. Bob noticed it and put a steadying hand on the top of the boy’s head. He had sat perfectly impassive for quite a while now - and this was the clearest indication yet that something had given him a shock.
Tim noticed it too and smiled confidentially at the barber.
"I’ll let you into a little secret, Bob. I’ve had him bulling these boots for me for three days now. I showed him how do it on Saturday morning - and I‘ve had him at it, off and on, ever since. I don’t know how many times I’ve re-inspected them and made him start again - But, I’m glad to say, he’s finally made a decent job of them. And maybe he’ll understand now why it was so important he got them right in the end. I want the shine on his hair to match the shine on these boots."
Predictably, perhaps, Bob was full of admiration for the imagination deployed in the boot-bulling. It seemed to him a stroke of genius.
"So a thorough good slicking up, then!" he said, nodding. "And a nice sharp part? On the left, maybe?"
"Of course. I think a nice side-part gives a lad a sense of responsibility. It teaches him to carry a comb - and to check up regularly throughout the day that his hair’s still looking neat and tidy. I remember a time when you often used to see lads checking their hair in shop windows and in the wing-mirrors of parked cars. Then the comb would come out of the back-pocket and there’d be a quick flick through with it and off he’d go, set up for the rest of the day, looking fresh and smart and shining. You never see that nowadays. But it’s the sort of thing I’m wanting to encourage in this one."
Again, he nodded at Alex.
"Ideally, once he’s trained, I’d like him always to be a little bit on edge in case there’s a snap haircut inspection when he happens to be looking a little bit untidy. But, at the same time, he needs to know that whatever happens, a quick once over with a well-greased comb will soon put him right. Especially since he‘ll be coming in here so regularly to keep it tuned up right."
By this time, Bob had put down the thinning shears and was walking slowly around the chair, spraying Alex’s head with a fine mist of water.
"OK Tim," he said. "Just about finished with the cutting now, mate. It’s really just a matter of making sure it’s properly finished off."
"Looking good, Bob," said Tim, nodding.
Now, Bob began running his hands over the thick damp locks on the top of Alex’s head, lightly ruffling them up with his big thick fingers.
"So lets get this right," he resumed. "We want a nice straight part down the left hand side, then over and back off the forehead?"
"Sounds good to me, Bob," said Tim.
"So really, Tim, what you’re wanting is just a slightly higher and tighter version of yours?"
Tim hesitated here.
"Not exactly, Bob," he corrected. "What I was thinking is this: whereas mine is slicked over-and-back diagonally straight from the part, what I’d really like for him is to have it more over-THEN-back. Do you know what I mean, mate? So it’ll be combed straight over at right angles from the part and then, from a point about two thirds of the way over his head, diagonally back from there. Am I explaining that right?"
"Bloody Hell, Tim," exclaimed Bob. "That sounds the business, mate!"
"Just thought it might look a bit neater," said Tim, half apologetically and slightly embarrassed by the enthusiasm he’d excited. "Anyway, let’s give it a try."
"Aye, let‘s do that!" said Bob, unscrewing the lid from a huge jar of Brylcreem.
As always when he opened a new jar, Bob held it up to his nostrils to enjoy the full rich sweetness of the aroma.
"Bloody lovely!" he observed to Tim. Then, turning back to Alex: "Go on, son: have a snort of that!" he said, thrusting the jar right under his nose.
As instructed, Alex gave a long hard sniff.
"Like that smell, do you son?"
"Yes, sir!" he said, with what sounded to Tim like sincere enthusiasm. "Yes sir, I do!"
"Pleased to hear it, lad!" said Bob, laughing. "Cause like it or not, it’s a smell you’d better get used to!"
Over at the counter, Tim was laughing too.
"Too right, Bob!" he said. "And that reminds me, mate: have you got another barbershop-sized jar to spare? Cause, if you have, you’d better put it on the bill and the lad can take it home with him . . ."
Bob seemed surprised at this.
"He’s not just going to be sharing with you then, Tim? I’d have thought you’d have plenty in."
"Nah," said Tim, laughing. "I think we’d better start him off with a jar of his own, Bob." And looking down at Alex with an air of admonition: "Make it easier for me to monitor how much of it you’re getting through, Feldman. We wouldn’t want you skimping on it now, would we?"
"Sir, no sir!" snapped the boy.
Bob, meanwhile, had dipped three thick fingers into the jar and brought up a generous dollop of cream. Smearing it into his palm, he rubbed his hands vigorously together six inches or so above Alex’s head, soon producing a rich greasy squelching sound. Hearing it, Tim couldn‘t help laughing; and as he did so, Bob’s now-gleaming hands were plunged roughly into Alex’s damp locks. Tim watched intently as Bob massaged the pomade more and more vigorously through Alex’s hair. Much to Tim’s amusement, the boy’s head seemed almost to be bounced around his shoulders by the kneading force of Bob’s fingers. Finally, having ensured the job was very thoroughly done, he seemed almost to wipe off his wet hands over the back and round the sides of Alex’s extremely high taper, smearing a slight shine to the narrow band of shadow just beneath the crown and a slightly brighter one to the wide expanse of bare skin below it.
To Alex’s surprise and disappointment, the hair on the top of his head had now assumed an appearance of almost comic disorder. The haphazard strands of heavily-brylcreemed hair seemed to clump together in oddly lacklustre wisps and raggedy spikes, like the comic-book caricature of an unkempt and dishevelled lunatic. More surprisingly still, the upshot of all this greasing was curiously matte. Glancing fretfully at Uncle Tim, he wondered what on earth could have gone wrong - and only hoped he wasn’t in some way to blame. But Uncle Tim still sat quite contentedly on the counter, swinging his boot with nonchalant unconcern.
Tim, of course, knew well enough what was to happen next. Taking his barber’s comb from the breast pocket of his shirt, Bob stepped forward now to effect a transformation. With a few firm strokes of the comb, the dull mangled hedgehog of hair was all smoothed forward into a shimmering skull-cap that, in spite of all the cutting and the mounds of hair on the floor, still extended in a sort of flattened peak right down his forehead, almost to the eye-brows.
"OK, Tim," said Bob, looking up at him with real relish of the moment. "Let’s see if we can’t find that part, should we?" Here, he put his foot on the bar and began pumping up the chair in shuddering jolts, then coming round to the front, he bent his knees so that his own eye-line was on a level with Alex’s. Intently scrutinizing the smooth flat cap he had created, he searched for that hint of a break that would mark exactly the right point to place the part. At last, he frowned; and very deliberately placing the tip of the comb at a point on the hairline parallel to the middle of the left eyebrow, he very tentatively prised open just the beginnings of a nick in the silky-smooth surface of the hair. Frowning still, he turned now to face Tim:
"What do you reckon, Tim?" he asked. "That about the right height for it?"
Tim came forward and slowly hunkered down so that his own brightly-shining head was level with the barber’s rather more grizzled one. Like Bob, he searched for the right place but Tim’s search was informed by very firm ideas of his own.
"I’m not sure, Bob," he said, dubiously. "But I think, maybe, it could be a bit lower."
"Aye," explained Tim. "Further to the left."
"So more like yours, then?"
"I think so, aye."
"OK, you know best, mate," said the barber; and smoothing out the original break, he re-positioned his comb so that the part was now projected to begin just above the outer edge of the eye-brow.
"Aye," said Tim, "that’s more like it."
Nodding, Bob placed the tip of the comb at exactly the point agreed and in one smooth backward movement, split the hair right across Alex’s head from the front hairline to the crown. Then, with a few deft flicks to left and right, the part was made. Slowly and very deliberately, the left hand smoothing almost tenderly in the wake of the comb, the hair to either side of the part was slicked into a much more definitive, almost sculptural shape and Alex had now a deep, and dazzlingly white, side-part.
Even Tim seemed astonished by the outcome.
"Stunning!" he exclaimed. "Absolutely stunning, mate!"
Bob was wreathed with smiles now; but there was a becoming modesty and a professional judiciousness about his reply:
"Aye. He’s got a great head of hair, this one, Tim," he said. "Nice and thick, and plenty of body. You could do anything with it. Takes the brylcreem well, too." He smiled, teasingly. "That must be in the genes, mate." He paused, laughing; and lifting odd locks with the edge of the comb, he bent to examine the shine on them more closely. "In fact, Tim, with that sort of hair, he’s just the sort of lad they’d have got in to advertise this stuff in the good old days. You know, like Dennis Compton."
Until now, Tim had been grinning broadly at this rhapsody; but suddenly seeing that his nephew’s cheeks were burning, he decided to call a halt.
"Advertise?" he exclaimed. "What, like a bloody male model, you mean?" he asked, scornfully. "Give over, Bob! Do you not think he’s enough of a pansy as it is?"
At this, Alex’s cheeks burned more brightly than ever, though for a very different reason now. As Tim had intended, he hung his head in shame.
"Well anyway," Bob persisted, running his comb down the extremely high taper at the back, "he’s got a crackin’ natural wave there, Tim. It’d be a shame not to make the most of it. What about a nice little flip-over at the front? A very short flip-over?"
Tim was dubious now.
"’Flip over‘?" he said, suspiciously. "I don’t really know what you mean, Bob. But we definitely don’t want anything too fancy, do we?"
"No, no," said Bob, reassuringly. "Just a bit of a quiff, that’s all. I know exactly the sort of look you’re after, mate. And you know me, Tim. No danger of me giving him anything that’s even slightly cissy - you know that. But a little bit of a quiff - just a modest one - well, it’ll just set off that wave on the right hand side nicely, mate. Really catch the light . . ." He was speaking more slowly now and in the preoccupied tone of a man fitting his actions to his words. Combing and smoothing as he spoke, patting it almost lovingly into place, the flip-over was made even before it had been sanctioned. "There you go, Tim," he concluded, stepping back from the chair. "How about that, mate? Finishes it off nicely, I reckon."
Stepping forward, Tim looked it over appraisingly, even taking hold of the chair-arm to turn it around and remind himself again of the back and sides. Only now, with the combing complete, could he savour the full harmonious effect of the whole.
"That’s amazing, Bob!" he said, rotating the chair again with a low, admiring whistle. "When I think of the state of him when we came in here - what a big girl’s blouse he’d managed to make of himself - well, it’s hard to believe this is the same lad. You’re a bloody artist, mate!" Once again, with the back of his hand, he stroked up the back of Alex’s head. "Still can’t believe how close you’ve managed to get that nape! Bloody well done, Bob!"
Then, returning to the counter and resuming his seat on it, he returned his attention to his nephew.
"OK, Feldman. Bend your head down, lad. Take a good long look at all that nancy-boy hair all over Mr Grigson’s floor. OK. Now, keeping your head bent down - still looking at the floor, turn it VERY SLOWLY to look to your left." He watched, delighted, as a broad straight streak of bright white light crept slowly over the smooth dark hair on the top of his head from left to right. "Good lad! Keep looking at the floor, now - and remember, as slow as you can - turn your head to the right." The same wide white dazzle crept slowly back again to the other side.
"Wow!" said Tim, simply.
"Aye," said Bob, grinning. "It’s a proper Light Show! Just what you wanted, Tim!"
"It is that alright, Bob!" exclaimed Tim. Overcome with the excitement of the moment he’d been waiting for these weeks, he suddenly seized the barber’s hand and shook it vigorously. "Just look at the gleam on those comb tracks, man! And I love that little pomp bit on the right. That flip-over thing. That was an inspiration, mate!"
Bob himself was blushing now.
"All part of the service, Tim," he said, self-deprecatingly. "All part of the service."
Then Uncle Tim remembered that there were duties still to perform; and coming back over to the barbers’ chair again, he perched on the arm of it.
"OK, Feldman," he said. "You can lift your head up now."
Alex instantly obeyed - and the shock of seeing the new haircut again in the mirror was evident in his eyes.
"Well, that’s us just about done for this evening, son. It’s been quite a day for you. What do you say to Mr Grigson, lad?"
"Sir, thank you, sir!" said he. Then, for emphasis and quite voluntarily: "Thank you very much, sir!"
"Good boy! And do you like your new haircut, lad?"
"Sir, yes sir!" And again, unexpectedly: "Very much, sir!"
This came to Tim as a bit of a surprise - but he could hardly have been more pleased.
"Good lad!" he exclaimed. "And you want to keep it that way, don’t you?"
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Well, I think we should be able to manage that, son." Here, he looked over at Bob who was just then searching through a store-cupboard under the counter for the ordered jar of Brylcreem. At Tim‘s reassurance of his nephew regarding the permanence of his new look, Bob looked up with a smile.
"From now on, Feldman, you’ll be coming in here every week to see Mr Grigson for a tidy-up. You know I come in here early every Saturday morning, don’t you? Well, from now on, you’ll be coming with me. Understand?"
"Sir, yes sir!"
"And that’s the haircut you’ll be getting," he nodded at the boy’s head in the mirror. "That’s your haircut, I’ve decided. Just occasionally - and just for a bit of a change or maybe as a bit of an experiment - just occasionally, I might ask Mr Grigson to make one of two tiny adjustments. But I’m pretty sure this is the haircut we’ll keep on coming back to. You understand that?"
"Sir, yes sir!" Then again, for emphasis: "Thank you, sir!"
"You‘re welcome, lad! That’s just what I like to hear!" He looked over at Bob to register with a shrug and a lift of the eyebrow his surprise at such enthusiasm. "Now, between your visits here - so that’s from Saturday to Saturday - it’s important you make an effort to keep everything in tip-top shape yourself." Here, he turned to Bob: "You got that Brylcreem, Bob?" And, on being handed the jar, "Good man!" he said, parenthetically. Then turning back to Alex, he held it up to show it to the boy. "So you’ll be needing this to keep yourself looking tidy. Now, don’t worry. Obviously, most of the time, I’ll be there to supervise - so you can depend on me to keep you right. But it’s important you learn to do this stuff yourself - for any time when, for whatever reason, I’m not around." Bob, having again gone round to the back of the chair, was now undoing the cape. Lifting it carefully off the boy’s shoulders, he gave it one quick shake and an avalanche of hair was sent tumbling to the floor.
"OK Feldman," concluded his uncle, "I think we’re just about done here for the night. But before we go: do you see that dustpan and brush over there in the corner? Next to the bin?"
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Well, go and get them, then. And get all this crap swept up. It came off your head, son, and it was only there in the first place because of your own daft ideas about "fashion" - so it’s only right you should be the one to clean it all up."
As Alex stood up to obey, Bob automatically and unthinkingly picked up his clothes brush and began to flick stray bits of hair from his shoulders.
"No need for that with him, Bob," protested Tim. "You’ve worked hard enough for one day. Leave the lad to get on with the job."
As Alex hastened to sweep up around them, the two men carried on with their conversation, only just lifting their feet when the boy needed to sweep under them.
"In fairness to the lad, Tim," said the barber. "It has to be said: he’s been good as gold this evening. Not a word or a look out of place since he came in here, in fact."
"Aye - and not a hair out of place either, now that he’s going out!" laughed Tim. "But you’re right, Bob. He’s been sound. Mind you, it’s not as if he’s six years old! I mean, you didn’t need the booster seat for him, did you? By the time I was his age, I’d already done a tour of Aden."
"Well, they don’t grow up as quick as we did, Tim," said Bob. "But credit where it’s due: the lad’s done well."
"He has," conceded Tim, glancing over his shoulder at Alex, who was just done shovelling his hair into the dustbin. "And later on tonight, I might even treat him to a can of beer. You finished sweeping up, lad?" he asked.
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Alright then. We’re finished here for tonight - so just say goodnight to Mr Grigson and go and wait for me by the car. I just need to settle up here and I’ll be out in five minutes."
"Goodnight, Mr Grigson, sir," said Alex, smiling for the first time that evening. "And thank you again for the haircut, sir."
"It was a pleasure, son," said Bob. "A real pleasure. Look forward to seeing you bright and early on Saturday!"
Alex started to go out but hadn’t quite got to the door when his Uncle called him back.
"For Christ’s sake, Feldman!" he bawled. "Don’t forget the bloody hair-cream!" Nodding at the huge jar of Brylcreem still standing forgotten on the counter. "That would’ve been a great bloody start, wouldn’t it?" he grumbled.
"No, sir! Sorry sir!" gasped Tim, hurrying back to pick it up; then with a final apologetic smile to the barber, he scurried off into the gathering gloom of October.
Tim went with Bob to the cash register and, as the barber took his money, he finally asked the question for which he had dismissed his nephew to wait outside.
"So what did you think of him then, Bob? Really and truly, I mean."
"Seems a thoroughly nice kid," said Bob. "Intelligent too."
"Oh, he’s that all right!" said Tim. "But that’s not what worries me. I mean, I told you on Saturday morning about the problems he’s been having, didn’t I? And how I’ve promised his mother to see if I can toughen him up a bit? But, to be honest with you Bob, there are times when I wonder whether I might have bitten off more than I can chew. What do you reckon, Bob? Think he’s really got the makings of a man in there?"
Bob put his hand on Tim’s expansive shoulder and grinned.
"To be honest, Tim, after tonight’s performance, I think he’s more than half-way there already," he said. Then, with a great air of saying something rather daring: "He’s certainly got all the right equipment there - and plenty of it too!"
At this, Tim threw back his head and laughed.
"Ah, you clocked the hard-on then, did you? I wondered whether you’d noticed that."
"Well, the size of him, you could hardly miss it, Tim! I noticed as soon as I took the cape off."
"When you took it off?" said Tim, laughing. "Matey, he had it before you put it on! He was already stiff while we were sitting there waiting for you to finish up with old George."
"Never!" said Bob, laughing too. "Well, maybe it was George that caught his eye," he suggested, playfully.
"Maybe it was!" laughed Tim. But then, more thoughtfully: "But myself, you know, I think it was the shop . . ."