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Great Uncle Alexander, Part 3, by Sean Barnet



The summer days passed. I was acutely, agonisingly self-conscious about my 1950s army-conscript haircut. The brutal nakedness of it, particularly at the back where I had been clippered ruthlessly close and high at my uncle's insistence, left me feeling exposed and vulnerable. Nor did my uncle help when he ran a finger up and down through the sharp stubble on the back of my head and said "So, you're glad you came round to my way of thinking about haircuts, eh? The only possible answer to this of course was a meek and obedient "Yes, sir.

Then I had to start shaving. My uncle bought me some shaving kit. He showed me how to use it, and told me that I must shave every morning from now on. It hardly seemed necessary, but I did as I was told.

I looked, and I certainly felt, thoroughly subordinated, like some boy soldier, and not at all like the independent free-spirit I wanted to be.

However, life went on. In all other ways life went on very pleasantly. We worked in the garden. We ate, we read and we talked.

We had a day out to a nearby town. My uncle bought me blazer and a pair of cavalry-twill trousers from some shop he used himself. He also bought me shoes, shirts and many other things he thought I must have. We had lunch, and we looked round the cathedral.

Another day we went to my grandmother's. So I polished my shoes, I put on my cavalry-twills, a crisp new white shirt and a tie. I gingerly applied some Brylcreem and slicked back my hair. I put on the blazer. It felt rather stiff and awkward, not "me at all - I looked more like an off-duty officer cadet. Fortunately, my grandmother's innocent delight at my smart new appearance was not something to embarrass me. My other great-uncle, Uncle Alexander's older brother James, was also there. Uncle James was far too well bred to pass more than the briefest of comments "Looks very nice, lad." And he made no comment at all when I started to call him "sir" - that was obviously the most natural thing in the world as far as he was concerned..

An old Navy friend of my uncle's came to dinner one Sunday after church. I put on my suit, a stiff collar and a tie done in a half-Windsor knot as my uncle had shown me. I called the man "sir, of course - it was getting to be automatic. He seemed to take something of a liking to me. He asked me about my future plans, and I was able to talk about them quite readily - not tongue tied as I usually was with an adult stranger. I was starting to feel a bit more at ease with the formal clothes and formal behaviour, and it seemed that knowing that I was dressed correctly and behaving correctly gave me a degree of confidence I would never have had otherwise.

* * * * *

One morning, over breakfast, my uncle produced his wallet. "I am very pleased with what you have been doing for me in the garden, lad, so I must pay you something for all your hard work."

"Thank you, sir. Thank you very much, sir."

"Take yourself into town this afternoon, I'm sure there are things you need, and if there isn't anything you actually need, I'm sure a young person like you will find things to spend money on."

"Yes, sir. I'm sure I shall. Thank you, sir."

My uncle looked at me closely. "How long is it since we had our trip to the barber's, young man?"

"Two weeks, sir."

"Mmm I thought as much. When I was your age I went to my barber every two weeks as a matter of course. I don't seem to need to go as often as that now, so I think my hair must have grow more quickly back then. Now, I would like you to give some thought as to how often you should have your own hair cut. If you want a rule to to guide you, then you will find that every two weeks is a beneficial discipline for a young man to follow, but this is up to you to decide. You are fourteen years old now, and you must start to take responsibility for these things for yourself."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

So I went into town.

Although I wasn't exactly being told that I had to get my hair cut, my uncle could hardly have made his wishes more obvious. I wanted very much to please him, and I had already discovered that he could turn strict and demanding if I did not. But how on earth could he expect me to get another haircut after only two weeks? My hair had not yet recovered from the most recent onslaught - the back and sides were now covered with barely enough short, crisp velvet to stop the skin showing through, and in another four weeks or so, when term time came, I might have just about enough hair to avoid total derision from everyone at school.

I did my few necessary bits of shopping, and started wandering round looking at books, clothes and records, but inevitably I couldn't keep my mind on any of these things, and I ended up walking down the street towards the barber's. I walked past. I walked on a few yards, turned round, walked back, and I walked past again. I sat down on a bench and tried to collect my thoughts. There was no point compromising, no point going to somewhere else, or asking for "just a trim" - I didn't have enough hair to just trim, it would be "short back and sides or nothing. My pulse was racing, and I had to admit it, I was afraid. I was afraid in the same way I had been afraid of that awful old barber back home.

I sat there for some time. I had to make a decision. I had to make a decision soon, the afternoon was wearing on. It isn't such a big thing is it, a haircut? I had been hankering for a firm, fatherly hand to guide me for most of my life, hadn't I? So why all the fuss now? And if this felt like a punishment, then why not treat it like one, and tough it out - or was I a coward after all?

I stood up, walked back to the barber's shop, made my way up the dim passageway, put a sweaty hand on the door handle, and went in. There was a queue. I sat down to wait my turn, butterflies in my stomach, trying to calm my nerves.

What the barber had done to me last time had been bad enough, and here I was back for more of the same. Surely this was madness. I had no desire to look like an escaped inmate from an Approved School for delinquents - but I had no choice, I must go through with this, and I would have to like it.

After what seemed forever, I was summoned.

The cape was fastened - no long hair at the back to get snagged this time.

"Yes, young man?"

I had made it into the chair without losing courage, now all I had to do was speak up confidently, and give the man permission to do his worst.

I tried to sound as casual and relaxed as possible, as though I had been doing this regularly all my life, as though I actually wanted this. "Short back and sides, please."

I bowed my head, and the clippers began their work.

Fifteen minutes later, and I was walking out into the fresh air and sunshine - cropped, shorn, and with the most tremendous feelings of energy and exhilaration.

I got back to my uncle's house. He gave an approving nod.

I went up to my room to examine the damage. It was short, very short, breathtakingly short, and, with back and sides closely shaved, neat parting and every hair held perfectly in place, it was a sergeant-major's dream - and a teenage boy's nightmare.

I combed through the heavily Brylcreemed and still surprisingly thick hair on top, feeling the
overwhelming, silky, scented, sensuousness of it all. My mother had always strictly forbidden the barber from putting anything at all on my hair, and my previous couple of experiences had done little to lessen the impact.

But once the novelty had worn off there was the aspect of Brylcreem that I really did not like. "Silky was also "greasy - greasy on my hands, greasy on my comb. And then there was the feel of my hair pressing down tightly against my scalp, stuck down with a kind of glue that would not dry. I now fully understood why Brylcreem was so reviled by all my friends at school. My uncle might want to see me with my hair smartly slicked, but to me it seemed like just one more humiliation. Why had I submitted so readily and had my hair cut, and Brylcreemed too, exactly as my uncle wanted, this second time? I hardly knew. OK, the Brylcreem would wash out, and my hair would grow back again when I went home - but I was left with an uneasy sense that I had done something fateful, and I would not be able to avoid the consequences, good or bad though they might be.

* * * * *

Another two weeks of a summer went by. Two weeks of beautiful summer, two weeks of nervy anticipation.

* * * * *

The day came. I polished my shoes and dressed smartly. I passed inspection, and we went into town.

We went round from one shop to another. I could think about nothing but the coming haircut, aching with
expectation. At last my uncle said, "It is time I had a trim. Do you want to come to the barber with me, or do you still have any shopping of your own you need to do?"

My heart leapt at the opportunity to escape now being - I am sure purposely - offered to me. I drew a deep breath. I was dreading another merciless shearing, but it had become a point of honour with me not to shirk from it. "No, sir. I'll come with you. I'm due for a haircut myself, sir."

And so we went together to the barber.

There was no long queue this time, just one customer in the chair, a young man in his early twenties, handsome in spite of the horrendous haircut he was getting. He was almost finished. Now his neck was being razored. Soon, another of these "Mad Jack Specials" would be inflicted on my own head with its two weeks of offending hair growth. Was he a soldier, or simply very conservative, to have his hair cut so short? Once he was out of the chair, and I saw his tweed jacket and brogues, I put it down to sheer, diehard conservatism.

My uncle took his turn first. I sat, cold and sweaty, attempting to reassure myself. However much I might hate it, short back and sides really was the right thing, it showed a bit of discipline - and was that anything to be ashamed of? My own feelings and preferences were of no consequence. It was a necessary thing - so I had better just get on with it. What was I so afraid of? I had very little hair left to cut, so what more damage could the barber do?

The barber turned towards me. "Right, young sir, let's be having you.

My uncle gave me an encouraging smile, stood watching as I settled myself in the chair, and then, saying nothing either to me or to the barber, he turned away, sat down on the bench, and picked up a newspaper.

The barber fastened the cape, pumped up the chair, and there I was once more, back in the hands of Sweeney Todd.

"So, good morning, young sir. It's a pleasure to see you again. What will it be, young man?"

"Short back and sides, please, Mr Johnson."

"So, no more scruffy long hair then, young man?"

"No, sir.

"Just the regulation short back and sides from now on?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well then, young sir, let's do your great-uncle proud, shall we? I have bought some new clippers since you were here last. Very efficient I find them ..." he pushed my head forwards "... and I am sure you will appreciate them.

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.

The clippers clicked into life with a discreet hum which was quite different from the din made by the previous ones - this was not going to be so bad after all.

Then the blades met my scalp, sharper and closer than I had ever thought possible. I winced, and pulled my head away.

"Keep your head still, if you please, young man. You should know the drill by now, lad."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

The rebuke was enough. This was just a haircut, and I could take this in my stride. I took a deep breath and unclenched my hands from the arms of the chair.

The clippers fired up again, remorselessly. This time, as I bent my head for the ordeal and the barber began to strip the back and sides, I found that somehow I went from being afraid to feeling secure, and even grateful that I should be made to endure this.

A shiver went through me as the vibrating buzz hit the nape.

"They cut satisfyingly close, don't you agree, young man?"

"Yes, sir. Very close, sir. Thank you, sir."

The barber went back over the nape one more time, searching out every last vestige of hair.

"Take it nice and high at the back, please, Mr Johnson."

"High at the back, young man?"

"Yes please, sir."

He stripped higher, much higher. I made another conscious effort to relax, and told myself that this haircut of my uncle's choosing (and, if I had been completely honest with myself, now of my own choosing too) did not look so bad when I wore the conservative, formal clothes my uncle had been buying me. Those clothes made me into a different person, someone from a completely different background, someone for whom this haircut was appropriate and natural, someone like the young man who had been there before us - and this, of course, was what my uncle intended.

The barber changed back to the old, noisy clippers for his second, blending in, pass - more bark, but a bit less bite.

At last the clippers fell silent, and I was allowed to look up at my reflection. The sides were
shaved even higher than they had been the last two times, and the hair on top, short though it was, seemed ridiculously out of proportion and heavy by comparison.

"Any off the top, young man?"

There was nothing for it, "Yes, thin it down, please, sir."

Out came the thinning shears, and more hair fell.

This would probably be my last haircut from my uncle's barber for some time, maybe the last one ever. In two weeks time I would have to go back home and back to school. I was enjoying life with my uncle far too much to want to leave - despite the obvious drawbacks. I would miss him a great deal. I was not looking forward to home and the constant friction with my mother and her creepy boyfriend, or the ribbing I would get at school school either.

Finally, we came to the end. "Short enough?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

The razor made it way round my ears and my neck, followed by the sting of tonic and a rough
towelling. I was getting used to the routine.

The barber combed everything neatly back into place, snipped away at a few stray hairs, and then picked up the hand mirror to show me the back and sides of my head. "All nice and short for you, young man."

I observed ruefully just how high the barber had shaved - to a level up above the top of my ears - and then how much more he had reduced to mere stubble. But I had to give the man his due, I had to admire his skill. I had been shorn cleanly, evenly and precisely, but more severely than ever. And now I would have no choice but to "grin and bear it" - a phrase whose meaning I had been getting all too familiar with recently. But at least it was a man's haircut, and much better than the straggly rat's nest my hair had been only a month earlier.

"Yes, sir. Very smart, sir. Thank you, sir."

I was dreading the next question, and I really did not know what answer I would give.

"Cream or spray, young man?"

Would I take the less offensive option of spray, or even say "No, nothing on it, thank you"?

I knew perfectly well what my uncle wanted - almost a month ago he had asked the barber to put cream on my hair, and then given me some Brylcreem to use myself. But a handful of experiments had been enough - it was every bit as objectionable as my friends had said. My hair had not, of course, stayed in place of its own accord, my slant-cut fringe flopped onto my forehead, and the longer hair on top always looked a tousled mess next to the smartly clippered back and sides. My uncle had said nothing - so far - but I had an instinct that the time had now come for me to make my decision. I had, as he wished, started to wear my hair properly short. So, however unpleasant a duty it might be, would I now do as he wanted and start to wear my hair greased?

Making up my mind proved easier than I had expected. I realised quite suddenly that I ought not to worry so much about what my uncle, or my mother, or anyone else, might think. Yes, I would listen to their advice, but in the end I must take on the responsibility and do what I myself thought was right.

"Cream, please, sir.

A grin, a pair of warm, greasy hands rubbing my scalp, a dense, generous slick smeared into my hair, a razor-sharp parting, a quiff, and there I was, shom and gleaming, a fresh faced, old-fashioned boy-scout grinning back foolishly, as though I was actually enjoying this.

"Feels nice to have a bit of grease on your hair, doesn't it, lad? Gives it a lovely sheen.

"Yes, sir. It does, sir.

The exact truth was not so simple. The stuff did feel a bit slimy, as I knew that it would. Nevertheless, I was glad that I had not flinched from asking for it - the disorderly willfulness of my hair had become an irritation. It needed to be controlled, and to do this was a part of adult male self-discipline. Also, once I overcame my initial revulsion, I had to admit it looked smart, very smart, and looking smart was always good, even if a little uncomfortable at first, like wearing a stiff collar and a tightly knotted tie.

The barber handed me a tissue, and I rubbed at the expanse of shaved skin and fine stubble. It felt good - why did it feel so unbelievably good? "Thank you, sir. That's very close, sir. Thank you very much, Mr Johnson."

Yes, this was how a real haircut should be - shaved, bristled, slicked - clean, sharp, orderly.

The barber smiled back at me, knowingly, and then swung round the chair so that I was facing my uncle. "Here you are, sir, one extra short haircut, sir. I must say what a pleasure it is to cut the hair of a young gentleman who is so obviously keen. I hope that it meets with your approval, sir."

"Yes, it does meet with my approval. Excellent, Mr Johnson, a splendid job. Thank you very much indeed.

And only then did the barber remove the cape and let down the chair.

As we walked out of the shop my uncle put his arm round my shoulders and bent towards me,
speaking quietly, "Very well done, Michael. You can be proud of yourself, son." I felt a rush of
emotion, this was the first time in the five weeks I had been there, I think the first time ever, that he had called me "son".

We went to the "Rose and Crown" and had steaks for lunch, and then I had Black Forest Gateau, while my uncle smoked a cigar with an air of profound enjoyment.

I rubbed a finger against the newly shaved skin above my ear. "Thank you, sir."

"I knew you would come round."

We drank our coffee, and went home.

* * * * *
My uncle seemed to like to make his announcements over the breakfast table. A couple of days later he paused halfway through a piece of toast. "I have been speaking with your mother, Michael, and she has agreed that it would be best if you lived here with me from now on. Do you have any objections to this, young man?"

Did I have any objections? I could not believe my luck. "No, sir. None at all, sir. I don't have any
objections, sir. Thank you, sir. Thank you very much, sir.

Well, I am glad to see that you are so pleased, that is very flattering. Now, I have to find a school with a vacant place for you, and you have the lawns to mow before it starts to rain, so eat up your breakfast, and we can get on."

* * * * *

And so it was that I came to live with Great Uncle Alexander. I wholeheartedly embraced my life there - and with it the sharp, disciplined pleasures of the barber shop.


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