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Back to the Old Barber - Reposted by Sean Barnet
BACK TO THE OLD BARBER
BY SEAN BARNET
I was not sure that this was such a good idea, not at all sure. I was sitting on the bench in a barber's shop, waiting my turn. It was the same shop I had been taken to for haircuts as a child back in the sixties - haircuts I hated. Haircuts from an ill tempered old man - short back and sides, no argument. No allowances for my fears when I was small, and no nonsense about longer, more fashionable styles when I was older.
This had carried on until I was thirteen when we moved to a different town, attitudes to hair changed, and I started going to a modern place where I could get a trendy, seventies feather cut.
Now I was back here again, unhappily waiting my turn.
I sat watching the elderly barber (Mr Sykes, the same one I remembered, and hated - why had he not retired?) as he cut hair of an even more elderly gentleman, obviously having a "light trim". I had never been allowed anything like a "light trim", mine had always been brutally shaved round the back and sides, cropped on top, and then what little was left greased up with Vaseline.
For some reason I never understood Mr Sykes always made boys have Vaseline (not the hair-cream, but the petroleum jelly - thick, nasty stuff that would not wash out however hard you tried), applying it without asking and with what seemed like malicious delight. And yes I could see some jars of Vaseline on the shelves between the mirrors.
So, I kept on asking myself - why was I doing this?
I was now twenty years old, at university, and I had a summer job washing dishes in a cafe back in this town where I had lived as a child. I was staying with an old friend of my mother's who had spotted the job in the ﬁrst place and then offered to put me up too.
Every day as I walked back from work some awful fascination had made me take a detour up this side street and go past the site of my childhood humiliations. The old barber shop was still there, just the same. The same barber's pole, the same battered sign saying "Haircut Sir?", the same screen across the window to prevent you seeing in. The place had. been preying on my mind ever since the summer job had ﬁrst been suggested, and I had even dreamed about it at night.
The weather was hot, my hair was thick and long, getting in my eyes and hanging round my sweaty neck. I needed a haircut. I could have gone elsewhere, but I had decided to come here. It had seemed like a good idea for some reason, and now I was sitting here, waiting to be called. I sat, looking round, the place had not changed inside either, and with every passing moment this good idea felt more and more like a really bad idea.
Another elderly gentleman took the chair. "Nice and short please, Harry."
This one didn't have much hair to start with, certainly nothing on the top, and he left the chair effectively bald all over.
Do I chicken out and leave now?
Then a small boy, about five or six years old, with a man whom I took to be his grandfather.
"What will it be, sir?"
"Short back and sides, please."
I watched in horriﬁed pity as the boy was given the same treatment as I had received as a child.
- Why do they still do this to small boys?
Now the grandfather himself - another short back and sides, naturally.
I took my place in the chair.
I was examined, suspiciously.
"Yes, young man?"
I had rehearsed what I was going to say many times, but I just stammered a couple of incoherent syllables, and gave up.
Mr Sykes looked at me even more dubiously, eyeing up my shaggy locks, and fastened the cape. I got a grip on myself. This time I spoke slowly and clearly.
"Short back and sides please, sir."
- Why was I calling Mr Sykes "sir"?
"Back and sides? So, that's down nice and close for you, lad?"
I nodded my acquiescence, relieved not to have to say anything more.
He went straight in with the clippers, steering my head with an iron grip just like he did when I was a boy. Head left. Clack, clack, clack, round the right ear ear. Head forward. Clack, clack, clack, up the back. Sharp blades hard against my scalp. Again, and again, clack, clack, clack, up the back, as the clippers worked their way from right to left. Head right. Clack, clack, clack, round my left ear. Great clumps of hair falling on the cape.
Round again, clippers over comb this time.
Sit very still, head down, do as I am told.
The clippers fell silent, and I looked up into the mirror.
A great pang of misgiving hit me as I took in my two awful, sticking-out ears - on display for the ﬁrst time in years - each surrounded with an inch of bare white skin, and the ridiculous, heavy mop left on top. I quelled my anxieties as best as I could, shorter hair was starting to come back into fashion (well a bit shorter, anyway). And there was no way out now, this would have to continue to the end.
Scissors now, trimming round, cutting my fringe at an angle from just over my left eye to high up on the right. I sat, passive, silent, obedient, repeating to myself that I must relax, that this was OK, that this was, after all, exactly what I had come here for.
More hair on the cape, on the ﬂoor, all around, so much hair.
"Any off the top?"
"Yes, a bit, please, sir."
He got out the thinning shears and attacked my hair with those.
Hair rained down about me.
He combed, went over his work again, carefully, checking everything.
Then he did something brand new to me, he lathered up my neck and round my ears, and shaved everything with an open razor. Some kind of scented liquid stung my scalp - and then it stung even more as the man's ﬁngers meticulously searched out all the places the razor had been.
Finally, he picked up the hand mirror and showed, for my approval, an expanse of shaved,
glaring-white skin, going half way up the back of my head.
I had been scalped every bit as drastically as when was a boy. It was bad, but I could hardly complain, could I? I had watched him this afternoon. I had seen that he was still as enthusiastic for his work as he had ever been, and I had known perfectly well what to expect when I had summoned up my courage and asked for this.
And now I would have to live with this for weeks now, putting on a front, carrying on as though my appearance was something unremarkable.
"That'll be a bit cooler for you, lad."
"Yes, sir. It will. Much cooler. Thank you, sir."
"Cream or spray?"
I swallowed. Should I take the "soft option", as my old Head-Master used to call it, or man it out to the end?
I came out with it. "Vaseline, please, sir."
The stuff was rubbed in, I was given a sharp parting and a quiff, and it was finished.
* * * * *
Just glad to get out into the fresh air, I walked off at random, and seeing a low wall, I sat down to think. I sat there shifting about awkwardly with all the sharp little hairs that had fallen down the back of my shirt. I ran a finger gingerly over shaved skin and stubble, all horribly bare and prickly, hardly daring to touch the great slab of greased hair lying tight on the top of my head, trying to come to terms with what I had done.
Well, I had survived. It had been my own choice. I had proved to myself I could do it - voluntarily.
I now had a couple of months to let my hair grow again before facing any of my friends at home or at university.
* * * * *
Except, three weeks later, I was back.