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Marshall's, by Sean Barnet



I stood, looking with some trepidation at the barber shop on the other side of the street. I did not like what I saw. It was not at all what I would have chosen. First of all the window was screened off and I could not see in. Then it seemed like something out of the past. It reminded me of the barber shop I had been taken to as a small boy to be given a short back and sides - and these were not happy memories. But this was definitely the right place, it had "J. T. MACBRIDE, BARBER, HAIRDRESSER." written above the door. This was where I had been told to go for a haircut, and go in there for a haircut is what I would have to do.

This would be my third haircut in as many weeks. It was 1980 and Britain was going into deep
recession. I had graduated from university two years earlier, but apart from bits of voluntary and temporary work I had never had a job. Eventually my father had found me something, through an old friend from his university days, at Marshall's - a long established firm of surveyors and country land agents. I had got my hair cut for the interview three weeks ago. I had shone at the interview (though I strongly suspect that I was the only candidate) and had been offered a trainee post, but I had also been told that my hair was rather too long for them and I should get it cut before starting - which I did. Arriving at work for the first time this morning, I had been sent out again directly with instructions to come to this particular barber shop and get another.

I mustered up my courage, crossed the street, and went in. The inside was no better than the outside, it looked as though nothing much had changed for the last 30 or 40 years.

There were two silver-haired barbers, one with a customer and the other reading a newspaper. He stood up to greet me. "Yes, sir?"

"Mr Marshall sent me."

"Mr Grigg, sir? Yes, we have been expecting you, sir. I am Mr Jones. Mr MacBride is busy as you see, sir. But I can attend to you, if that is agreeable, sir?"

Much though I was dreading this, I saw no point in delaying matters.

"Yes, Mr Jones, that's fine."

"This way then, if you please, sir."

I moved, reluctantly, towards the chair.

The barber drew the cape around me, fastening it like a garotte at my throat.

"Just a trim, please, Mr Jones."

"No need for you to worry, sir. I have my instructions from Mr Marshall already, sir. We'll soon have you looking spruce, sir."

It looked like I had no choice. I nodded my acquiescence.

He looked at me for a moment. "I see you have had your hair out quite recently, sir."

"Yes, on Friday."

"But not short enough, sir?"

"No, not short enough, apparently."

"Well, no need for any anxiety on that score now, sir. I'll shave the back and sides very good and close for you, sir."

"You're going to shave?"

"Yes, sir. With the clippers, sir. But they will cut very close, sir."

"Is that really necessary?"

"It has to be done, sir. Now, if you would just like to bend your head right down for me, sir."

I had never been called "sir" so many times in my life before. But it meant nothing. I would still have to do as I was told - if I wanted to stay in a job.

Submissively, I bent my head.

"That's right, thank you, sir. Now, keep nice and still for me, if you please, sir."

Click. Buzz. Contact - Cold, sharp, vibrating steel met the back of my neck. I sat fighting the urge to pull away as the clippers made their way upwards, into the nape, and then up the back of my head, two or three inches up the back of my head, shaving close.

Momentarily my head was allowed up, but then pushed from to one side and then the other as the clippers exposed an inch or so of bare white skin around each ear.

The barber reached for a towel and draped it round my shoulders.

"Have you been working for Mr Marshall for very long, sir?"

"No, this is my first day."

"You will find, sir, that Mr Marshall expects his staff to maintain a very high standard of personal appearance, and especially for the gentlemen to keep their hair short. That is something to be glad of these days, don't you agree, sir?"

I had no chance to reply to this as the barber pushed me forwards over the sink and started to wash - at least the old man knew to cut hair wet rather than dry.

I was eased back into the chair and toweled down.

"As I was saying, sir, Mr Marshall likes his staff to keep a high standard of personal appearance. All of the gentlemen there come to us for their haircuts, sir, and if you come to us, we will make sure that you always meet the required standard."

"I'll bear that in mind, Mr Jones. Thank you."

And he began to snip. He made a left hand parting, cut a diagonal fringe, and took the merest fraction off the very top, leaving a good three inches of hair. And then did some more trimming, clipper over comb, to blend in the back and sides.

He lathered up some soap in a shaving mug.

"Head back down again for me please, sir.

I complied.

A warm wet shaving brush went round the back and sides, and then an open razor. This was definitely not just an edge shave - so much for what he had said earlier about only shaving with the clippers. The razor scraped away half an inch or so round each ear and then shaved not only my neck but a good two inches up the back of my head also.

Then the sting of Bay Rum.

"Head forwards for me, sir.

A final touching up with the clippers - no doubt to remove any stray hair that might happen to have escaped earlier.

The blow dry was almost instantaneous - not much hair to dry - but the three inches on top now looked absurdly bouffant compared to the clean-shaved back and sides. Perhaps it would start to lie flat tomorrow, but now it looked ridiculous - this really was the last word in humiliation.

"Brylcreem, sir?"

I instinctively said "No, thanks." - I hated the stuff.

"You would not wish your hair to look untidy, would you, on your first day, sir? Now, if you are not accustomed to using Brylcreem, I think that you will find the trick is only to use a very little of it, sir."

He dipped a finger in the Brylcreem tub and lifted up a small blob for me to inspect. It didn't look like I had much choice in the matter and the small amount seemed like it would be harmless enough.

"Yes, OK."

So the stuff was rubbed in, and everything was combed neatly into place. To be honest it really was "OK". My hair was instantly smoothed, controlled and given a slight sheen.

"Much better, don't you agree, sir?" said the barber, as he showed me the back and sides in the hand mirror. "I think we can say that you will pass inspection, sir."

My heart sank at the sight of all that bare, white, shaved skin.

"Yes, that is much better. Thank you, Mr Jones."

I was released, brushed down, and we went over to the till.

The barber offered me a tub of Brylcreem. "You will be needing this, sir, to keep your hair in order, sir.

Yes, perhaps I would give it another try. I paid for the haircut and the Brylcreem, and even gave the man a tip.

"Thank you very much, sir."

Mr Jones took out a card, wrote down a date, and handed it to me saying "We'll see you again in two weeks, sir. It's just a reminder for you, we don't do formal appointments here, sir."

"Two weeks?"

"Or sooner if you wish, if you find it grows quickly, sir."

"No, I am sure two weeks will be soon enough. Thank you, Mr Jones."

* * * * *

Out in the street I felt the shock of winter air against my scalp, and rubbed a thumb over smooth skin and fine, sharp stubble in disbelief.

As I walked back to the office I was convinced that everyone I passed was staring at me. But the sky did not fall in. Yes, it was bad - but it was mostly in my mind. It was not unbearable. I had a job. The other men at the office looked the same. I had joined a club.

* * * * *

I met Mr Marshall as I went up the stairs.

"Ah, there you are Grigg, back from your visit to the barber, I see. Yes that looks so much better, don't you agree, lad?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good to see a young man looking smart, Grigg. Now, I am going to Mariott's farm this afternoon, you had better come with me. Bring your Wellingtons. Two o'clock sharp mind."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

He had called me "Grigg", just my surname and nothing else, it was like being back at school.

* * * * *

Two weeks later, and I was back at MacBride's.

I did well at Marshall's, and made a career there.


When Mr Marshall retired the haircut policy relaxed. This was just as well as Mr Jones and Mr
MacBride retired too, and there was no-one else in town who cut hair quite like they did - until now.

Now there is a young Turkish guy who has opened up shop, and he knows exactly how it is done.

The place was found by our promising new trainee, who then anxiously asked me if his haircut wasn't too "radical" for some of our more conservative clients.

I told him not to be concerned.

Naturally, I then had to try the place for myself, and now I go there always.

There is, as I say, no strict haircut policy here any more, but I have I have been recommending the place to my colleagues, and a couple of the younger staff members seem to have followed my example.

Incidentally, the firm is still called "Marshall's". Mr Marshall was the third Mr Marshall, and his son was the fourth. Both staff and clients are so used to the head of this firm being called "Mr Marshall" that, occasionally, I find that I am myself addressed as "Mr Marshall", like all my predecessors.


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