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A Hopping Haircut by Shortbacker


A Hopping Haircut

I watched my mother being driven from our home in the small seaside village of Middleton in an ambulance and I turned to my aunt who was loading my suitcase into a taxi for the trip to the railway station. She ran her fingers through my curly brown hair and told me not to be sad and that it would all work out for the best. My mother had suddenly become very ill. At the time, no-one explained to me what was wrong her and it was only when I was much older that I discovered that she had suffered a serious nervous breakdown. I was eleven years old and just finishing my junior school. My father had died several years before and my nearest relatives were an aunt and uncle who lived in East London. My aunt, was different to my mother in many ways. She was considerably more robust with none of the middle class home counties affectations that I had grown up with. She had met my mother’s brother during the war when she had been evacuated as a child to our village. They married after the war and he now worked in the docks. They had two children: a boy who was much the same age as me and a daughter aged eight.

I knew it was wrong but I was far from sad. I was about to exchange my dull rural life for an extended stay in the big city with my cousin Alfie and I was very excited. However, I did my best to play the role that was expected of me and my aunt tried her best to console me, telling me that I would soon be back in the countryside because we were all going hopping in the summer holidays. Apparently, me, my cousins Alfie and Maisie and my aunt were all going to Kent as soon as school finished for the summer to pick hops. Uncle Sid would join us at weekends and for a week in August. I had no idea what hopping involved but Alfie assured me that it would be a ‘grin’ with lots of opportunity for mischief with the other lads. Alfie was was totally unlike me in many ways. He was a free spirit who, when he was not driving his teachers mad at school, ran wild with his gang of mates around the old bomb sites in the neighbourhood. I was immediately admitted as an honorary member of Alfie’s gang and joined in their nefarious activities with enthusiasm. Once the school holidays arrived, we left the house early in the morning and roamed the streets until tea time. My aunt was happy that we we not under her feet as she seemed to be increasingly occupied with preparations for the forthcoming hopping preparations.. Everything we needed for the trip to Kent was placed in a large wheeled container called the hopping box.

Occasionally, Alfie would get caught for some minor misdemeanor, like breaking a window with his catapult and be marched home to receive summary justice from his mother. Aunt Vi did not spare the rod. She was quick to administer a slap on the legs or a clip around the ear for minor infringements but more serious breaches, like breaking windows, would be dealt with by a few cracks of the belt across the back of the legs or even a caning. She often threatened to ‘tan your hide’ and occasionally delivered on the promise. I was normally spared the worse of her temper but I did get the occasional boxed ear, largely on the pretext that I was the sensible one and should have known better.

There were exceptions however like the day we got caught stealing empty lemonade bottles from the sweet shop. The scheme was seemingly foolproof. I would go into the shop and engage the owner in conversation. Mrs Stevens, the owner, was a nice old lady and was happy to help me when I went in on the pretext of being lost and in need of directions. While I was distracting her attention, Alfie and some of the gang, would climb over the fence into the yard at the back of the shop and steal empty bottles from the crates which I then returned to the shop to claim the three pence deposit. We had successfully run the scam several times until one afternoon, Alfie was spotted in the backyard by Mrs Stevens husband. William Stevens, also known as Butcher Bill, who ran the barbershop at the back of the sweet shop and had slipped into the yard to smoke his pipe. Alfie and the gang had scarpered when they saw him coming but he quickly realised what was going on and marched back through the shop.

"You girl!" I heard him roar as the barbershop door into the sweetshop flew open. I was in the middle of another bottle deposit transaction with Mrs Stevens and froze with fear. I should have ran but I just stood and mumbled

"I’m a boy not a girl."

"Well you look like a girl to me with all those curls. Little boys don’t have curls. Where did you get those empty bottles from?"

"We found them over the bomb site," I lied.

"Who’s we?" I continued.

"Me and my cousin, Alfie Hutchins," I continued.

"Oh! " the old barber exclaimed, "and is that the same Alfie Hutchins that I just saw in our backyard?"

I blushed and stared silently at the floor.

"I think we need a word with Vi Hitchens," Mr Stevens said to his wife, and I was led roughly back home to face my aunt’s displeasure.

My aunt assured Mrs Stevens that I would be very sorry when she finished with me as she saw her out of the house. Then she turned to me and let loose. "What would your poor mother say you little so and so? You are a disgrace to the family and a fool for doing what that idiot son of mine tells you to do. Get over my knee now!" As she set about my bare cheeks with a thick leather belt, she let me know how disappointed she was and how I had let her down. She expected it from Alfie but I was supposed to be the clever one. Anyway, he would get what for when he came home.

I was quickly reduced to sobbing tears and sent to my room to contemplate my evil deeds only to be summoned back half an hour later to see Alfie get his punishment. He too was quickly sobbing and pleading as Aunt Vi set about him with the belt but he gave me a quick wink to let me know it wasn’t as bad as he was making out. We were both sent to bed with no supper but later my aunt relented and brought us some bread and dripping. She was quick to anger and quick to forgive but she wagged a finger and told us "You will both apologise to Mrs Stevens when you go for your hopping haircuts on Friday." Alfie grimaced but said nothing.

When we were alone we compared the damage and it was clear that Alfie had got the worse of it. He shrugged it off and said that he had had worse. " Though we’ll probably get it again from Butcher Bill on Friday." He did not elaborate.

On Friday morning, after we had breakfast, Alfie and I headed for the door only to be intercepted by my aunt. "Not so fast you two mop heads. It’s time to sort those birds nests out. You both need haircuts before we go hopping. Here’s two pence each. Go to Mr Stevens and ask for a tuppenny all off and mind you say sorry to Mrs Stevens."

Alfie tried to protest but with no success. We both walked sullenly to the sweet shop where we gave our mumbled apologies to Mrs Stevens and then headed towards the back room which had a barber pole painted on the door. Alfie pushed the door open and raised his eyebrows to the heavens as we noted the long line of boys waiting to be seen to. We were about to take a seat when Mr Stevens looked up from behind his half rim glasses and said to me, "Sorry, I don’t do girls."

"I am a boy," I blurted.

"Oh yes, I remember you now, the boy with girly curls who steals empty bottles. Sit down lad and I’ll deal with you later."

I took a seat next to Alfie and looked around. There were six boys waiting ahead of us and two mothers. I recognised some of the boys from Alfie’s gang and was surprised at the lack of banter. All the boys sat quietly while the two mothers chatted together about holidays and hopping. I had never been in a barbershop before because my mother always took me to the Ladies Hairdressers in the village with her to get my curls trimmed. I was amazed at how bleak it all was. No frilly curtains and upholstered chairs here, just black and white linoleum on the floor and sepia tinted walls that supported a few black and white pictures of short haircuts. The boy that Mr Stevens was working on was sitting on a large chrome and leather chair facing a mirror with shelves on either side. He was caped in a grubby white sheet that draped all over the chair making his head seem very small. His head was bent forwards almost at right angles and Mr Stevens was pushing a old electric clipper noisily up the back causing large clumps of hair to fall to the floor. Once he had finished removing all the hair from the back and sides, he removed a pair of scissors from his the breast pocket in his overalls and went to work on the top lifting the hair with a comb and then snipping it off. He combed the hair forwards onto the boys forehead and then cut it across in a straight line halfway up. He returned the scissors to his pocket and took another pair from the shelf that had toothed blades which he proceeded to snip at random over the top of the boys head releasing large clumps of hair that tumbled to the cape. Once satisfied, Mr Stevens turned to the boy’s mother and said, "is that short enough Edith?"

"That’ll do," she replied and after some spreading of hair oil, combing and dusting, the cape was removed with a flourish allowing the boy to climb down and test the back of his head with his hand to assess the damage. The barber took the money and the boy and his mother departed.

" Next," shouted the barber and Joey Johnston stood up and walked slowly to the chair.

"Hurry up lad, we haven’t got all day," admonished Butcher Bill. "What do you want?"

" Crewcut," replied Joey.

"Crewcut please, Sir", corrected the barber as he tightened the cape and took a set of clippers off the shelf. The sound of loud buzzing filled the shop and lasted just a few minutes as Joey’s hair was consigned to the floor leaving his scalp covered in short bristles. Mr Stevens then took a razor and ran the blade across a thick leather strap that was hooked to the back of the chair. He then used the sharpened razor to scrape away the hair above Joey’s ears and high up his neck. I watched Joey since in the mirror as his head was roughly pushed from side to side and down onto his chest. He was finally released and left the chair leaving his hair scattered around the chair. He too ran his hand over is head as if assessing the damage, before handing over some money and leaving the shop with a cheery, "See you later lads."

The next boy was with his mother and she gave the barber instructions that it as to be "short with a side parting." I watched as Bill Stevens went through the now familiar regime of clippers and scissors followed by razor and hair cream before geometrically dividing the hair on one side with a sharp parting. We had been in the shop for around half an hour and we Alfie was getting restless. A father and son entered the shop and the father exchanged greetings with the barber. Alfie groaned when the newcomer was told he was next and was ushered to the chair. " Be quiet, you urchins," snapped the barber and her set to work on the mans head with scissors and comb. After what seemed like an age of snipping and shaving the man got up and made way for his son. "Bowl cut please Ted," he instructed, at which the barber removed all the hair around the sides and from the back of the boys head and the cut a straight line all around with the scissors above the top of the ears. "Dork," Alfie muttered under his breath. The next newcomers were boys on their own and we gradually moved to the top of the queue. When it was our turn and the barber shouted , " Next!", Alfie indicated with a nod that I should sit in the barber chair. I walked slowly over and climbed up to the big seat, while Bill the Butcher gazed at me critically.

"Come among little girl. Let’s get these curls sorted out. What’s it to be? Nice shampoo and set?"

He picked up a brush and began tugging on my hair. I heard Alfie behind saying, "My Mum said we’ve got to have a tuppenny all off for hopping."

"I should think so too," said the old barber with a sadistic glint in his eye. "Little boys do not have curls." With that he pushed my head down to my chest and picked up a large set of electric clippers. There was a loud buzz as they roared to life and then the pitch fell as I felt them work up the back of my head and over the top. I stared down at the cape as a mound of curly brown hair fell onto my lap. The clippers were pushed up and over several more times and then slowly up the sides. When I was allowed to look up , I saw the alien vision of my nearly bald scalp with a tuft of curly hair sticking up at the front. The barber wetted down the tuft of hair and then attacked it with thinning shears and scissors. He then ran the razor up and down the leather strop and scraped away the hair high above my ears and on the back of my head. By the time he had finished the tuft of hair on the front of my head had begun to curl again. He tutted loudly, picked up the clippers and quickly shaved it all off.

I sat stunned and bald as the cape was removed . It was only when Alfie appeared at my side that I dared to get out of the chair and feel the devastation. Alfie grinned and jumped in the chair only to emerge ten minutes later with a nearly bald head but with a small tuft at the front. We walked to the counter to pay.

"That will be six shillings and four pence," said Mr Stevens with a wicked smile.

Alfie bristled " No way! It’s four pence for two tuppenny all offs."

"Yes and six shillings for the bottle deposits that you stole."

We both slumped. The money we had made from the bottle return scam had been divided and long spent.

"Obviously if you can’t pay, I will have to call a policeman," the barber continued.

Alfie looked horrified. "Please don’t call policeman Mr Stevens," he pleaded in his best contrite voice.

There was a long silence during which the barber appeared to be thinking deeply.

"I suppose we could handle it internally," he said eventually. " Let’s say you two work here for me for the rest of the day, sweeping and cleaning, and then I’ll give you a good stropping when you’ve finished."

We had little choice. Alfie and I spent the rest of the day working in the barber shop and when it closed we both had to bend over the arm of the chair for six hard seats with the old leather strop. Still Aunt Vi seemed pleased with the haircuts and we had hop picking to look forward to.



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