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My Neighbour the Barber by Sean Barnet
Next door to us lived an elderly man, a barber, who was great friends with my parents, and indeed friendly and chatty with all the neighbours.
Though he was friendly, as I say, and we generally got on quite well, he was a barber by profession, and an elderly one at that, so inevitably he expressed his disapproval of my hair.
It was the 1970s, I was 14, and like everyone my age I wanted my hair long. I did not have it nearly as long as I wanted though, neither my father not my school would have tolerated any such thing, but I used to have a shortish version of the "feather cut", showing the ear lobes and just about off the collar at the back - anything more would have been pushing it too far - but even this was too much for Mr Green, who would cast a critical eye over a fresh cut.
"You call that a haircut, Roddy? You look like a girl. You come along to my shop one day, and I will give you a proper haircut, make you look smart, like a young man should." I shook my head and smiled, trying to be polite. "No, it's how we all have it these days, sir."
"More's the pity, young man. You should have the courage to stand against the tide." Just then my father came up and Mr Green turned towards him. "I was just speaking to your young Roderick here, trying to persuade him to let me cut his hair for him. Now, what would you say to me giving the lad a good, short haircut, and making him look smart again, like he used to a few years back? "
"Certainly, I would dearly love that, and thank you for your offer, but I'm afraid fashion is against you, and this, sadly, is a short as I can persuade the boy to have it. "
"Well, think about it, Mr Holloway. I can promise that you will be pleased with the result. "
"That is most kind of you, Mr Green. Thank you again, but he has just had his hair cut, as you see. We shall think about things for next time, won't we Roddy? "
"Yes, Dad." I heaved a sigh of relief. I had escaped for another day. This kind of conversation had happened more than once before, and it always made me nervous. I had an awful feeling that one day I would be dragooned into having the sort of haircut Mr Green had in mind, and it did not take very much imagination to think what that might be.
One thing I had said was not completely accurate. I had said "it's how we all have it", but although most of us at school had a style like mine, there were a few boys whose parents still insisted on the traditional short back and sides.Every few weeks these poor unfortunates would come into school newly shorn, the back and sides of their heads shaved white and naked. I would stare at their haircuts with a mixture of awe and horror, but quite unable to identify what it was that fascinated me so much.
I found that the sight of an old fashioned barber shop had much the same effect, curiosity and nervousness fought for the upper hand in my mind. A desire to look in, and a totally irrational dread that someone might emerge at any moment, and drag me into the shop for a short back and sides of my own - but rationally, I knew things did not work like that.
It was characteristic of these shops that you could not see in from the street. The interiors were screened off, heightening my curiosity. Mr Green's shop was like this. It was in a street I often walked down, but it was at the back of a newsagents called Varley's. Outside was a barber's pole and a hanging sign with just one word "BARBER" underlined by an arrow pointing inwards. Go into the newsagents, as I did sometimes to buy sweets, or pens and other things for school, and at the back was a door with a panel of frosted glass with the words "Frobisher and Green, Gentlemen's Hairdressers". This gave the place an aura of discretion, even mystery, but of course what went on behind that door was no secret at all.
Men and boys went in there with decent amounts of hair on their heads, and came out different - they came out drastically, painfully, shamefully shorn.
I had been taken to one of these old fashioned barber shops for haircuts like that when I was younger, routinely, like all my contemporaries. There really had been no alternative back then, and like all my contemporaries I had hated it. But I remember that the men waiting there loved it. They would sit around smoking, chatting about football and horse racing, or reading a newspaper. When their turn came in the chair they obviously - for some reason I really could not understand - relished the whole thing, and seemed particularly to enjoy having the clippers cut as close as possible.
Now I went to a unisex salon with quite a different sort of atmosphere, and why I was interested in these barber shops I so disliked I really could not explain.
* * * * *
Half term holiday week came - the the half term of summer. It was the end of May and the weather was hot. I knew I would have to have a haircut before going back to school on Monday, but it was now Wednesday and I could put off my haircut until Friday.
I was in town, and wanted to buy myself a drink, or maybe an ice-cream. I was in North Street. I looked around, the only shop selling drinks or ice-creams was Varley's, so I went in.
Mr Green was there, standing at the counter, talking with Mr Varley - most unusually - he was almost always out back busy with his customers.
"Good afternoon, Roddy. You know young Roderick Holloway here, don't you Jack? He is a neighbour of mine. "
"Yes, Roddy and I know each other, he comes here quite often. "
"I have promised to give this young man a smart haircut ..." he turned towards me "... and now, I think, you have come to take me up on my offer? "
"Well, actually, no, sir. I came in to buy a drink. "
"But you are very much in need of a haircut, and must anyway have one before you go back to school? "
"Yes, sir, but I was going to leave it until Friday. "
"Well, no time like the present, lad. There's no point putting off until tomorrow what you can do today, is there, young man?" I was trying desperately to think of some polite way of saying "No".
At this point Mr Varley chipped in. "I hope you are not planning anything too rigorous and severe for this young man, Arthur. The boys don't like it, you know, not any more, not these days. "
"You know me, Jack, I am never too rigorous or too severe. Anyway, a bit of "rigorous and severe" is what this boy needs. I would call it making him look smart, and it will do him the world of good." Mr Varley laughed. "Yes, I know you all too well, Arthur." I did not like the sound of this at all, and I was irritated by being talked about rather than to - almost as though I was not there, or had no opinion of my own on the matter.
I had an inspiration. "I'm afraid I don't have enough money on me today for a haircut, sir. "
"You don't need to worry about that, Roddy. We will make this one "on the house", just to remind you what a smart haircut is like. So, no more excuses, lad. We can't stand here chatting all day. You and I have a job to do, and we had better get started." Mr Green looked at me.
I looked at Mr Varley - no more help coming from that quarter.
I had run out of answers.
I stood there, awkwardly, staring down at my shoes. I could see that Mr Green was determined, and he was not going to give up until he had achieved his goal. Perhaps going shorter would not be so bad in the hot weather? Maybe I could limit the damage by asking him for "just a trim"? But I knew "just a trim" was not at all what Mr Green intended.While I hesitated, Mr Green acted decisively. He opened the door to his shop with one hand ... "See you later, Jack." ... placed the other on the middle of my back, and propelled me gently but firmly in the required direction.
Once inside the barber's shop he introduced me to Mr Frobisher, who looked up from his customer, said "Pleased to meet you, Roderick." and he smiled encouragingly.
Mr Green then pointed towards an incredibly ancient barber's chair. "The chair awaits you, young man. Make yourself comfortable." Obediently, I sat, and as Mr Green swept the cape round me I summoned up what little confidence I had left to say "Just a trim today, Mr Green, not too short, please. "
"Don't you worry, Roddy. I have cut many a boy's hair before now, and I know how it is done.
So sit up straight, keep nice and still, and leave the rest to me, please." He fastened the cape, pulled out all the long hair at the back, and pushed my head forwards.
Put firmly back in my place, both literally and figuratively, I had no option now except to keep quiet and do as I was told.
He ran a comb through my hair. "Yes, very thick and neglected. We will soon sort this out." He clicked his scissors loudly, and began to cut.
He cut quickly, in a business-like and purposeful manner quite unlike the girls at the salon.
Great clumps of hair fell on the cape and slid down onto the floor. How much was he going to cut? But it was far too late to do anything now. Whatever Mr Green did now I would I would simply have to "man up" and "take it on the chin", like the masters at school used to tell us whenever we attempted to complain about anything.
There was a pause. I looked up. Mr Green gave me a big smile, and clamped his hand in an iron grip on the top of my head. He pushed my head to the left, and clack, clack, clack, the clippers went up the right temple and round my ear. Head forwards, pushed right down, clack, clack, clack up the back. I could feel the blades biting sharp and close as they went high up the back of my head, repeatedly, closer each time. Then round the left ear.
Now the thinning shears, then an open razor round the ears and neck, the sting of tonic and finally an application of Brylcreem.
No questions were asked, no "How is that?" no "Any off the top?" no "Any dressing for you? "
"There you are, lad." I looked up at my new, shorn self, all ears and forehead, hair gleaming and glistening, perfectly straight parting, everything sleek and slick and shiny.Finally, he he took the hand-mirror and showed me the back and sides, and yes, they had been shaved completely white and naked. "There you are, young sir, all nice and smart now.
How a young man should be." I had no choice but to nod politely and say "Yes, sir. Thank you, Mr Green." I was allowed out of the chair and handed a tissue. I rubbed the back of my neck and head - smooth as a baby's bottom and then a thousand tiny prickles.
Was that a thrill, or was it a shudder? I could hardly say.
"Feels good, doesn't it, lad? "
"Yes, sir." - No point complaining now.
I repeated my thanks, and we said our goodbyes.
* * * * *
Back out in the street, I was overwhelmed - back and sides like the finest sandpaper, top all greased up and shining.
I was going to come in for so much stick for this from everyone at school on Monday morning. I would have to tough it out, make out it was for the hot weather and that I wanted a "real haircut" for a change.
But it felt ... it felt tremendous - Tremendous? Horrendous, more like! I must be going crazy.
No one in their right mind wanted to have a haircut like this.
* * * * *
My father must also have thought it was tremendous, though his actual words when I explained to him what had happened were that it was a "great improvement", and that I ought to be "grateful" and "stop complaining".
* * * * *
Then one evening at dinner, only three weeks later, just as I was beginning to look a little more like my normal self again, he told me that I was starting to look "unkempt", that I needed a haircut, and I must go back to Mr Green's for it.
"But Dad, it's only three weeks ... "
"No "But Dad"s, young man. Mr Green said that he would make you look smart again, which he did, and he promised that I would be pleased with the result, which I was. So, from nowon you are going to carry on looking smart, whether you like it or not. You will get your hair cut, at Mr Green's, on your way home from school, tomorrow." and he handed me the money.
I knew better than to argue with my father when he was in this kind of mood. I nodded my acquiescence, and went the next day after school as instructed.
* * * * *
I sat nervously waiting my turn, leafing through old magazines, but unable to concentrate on anything I found. Why was I so nervous? I had coped last time, this could not be any worse.
I watched the two barbers at their work. Not every customer was getting the treatment that had been meted out to me by Mr Green, not even Mr Green's customers. If that man had not dragged me in here and done what he did three weeks ago I would not be here now, waiting for more of the same. I sat cursing him under my breath, cursing the day I had walked into Varley's newsagents.
As I waited I could see that it was getting more and more likely that I would be called by Mr Frobisher. This would would be a relief, it would be my opportunity to get a "trim". After all, when Dad had told me to get a "haircut", he had said nothing about what kind, and besides he did not have a short back and sides himself, just an unremarkable middle-aged man's cut.
But as I sat there I began to think that such a stratagem would be dishonourable. My father had sent me here specifically, obviously expecting I would come back with the same haircut as last time. Would it not be better and far more straightforward to throw myself into the thing wholeheartedly and get the haircut he expected? I began to feel more nervous.
Perhaps this was in fact the most suitable haircut for a young man to have? Other boys had to have that kind of haircut - why should I be exempt? Why not be a man about it, and get the haircut that was only right and proper, the short back and sides that was expected of me? I suddenly began to feel a whole lot more nervous.
At last Mr Frobisher did call me. "Next, please, young man." I calmed down a bit, now I could relax, I could ask for "just a trim" as I had intended.
I settled myself into Mr Frobisher's chair, he drew round the cape, and looked at me inquiringly. "Yes, young man?" I did not know what to say. I knew what I ought to say, but I did not want to say it.
"Yes, young man? How do you want it?" I had to answer.
Self-discipline kicked in. "Short back and sides, please, sir. "
"Short back and sides? That's shaved nice and close? Or leave just enough to keep the back and sides covered?" It was so tempting to pull back a bit. But to do so now would be a disgrace, simple cowardice. I had already taken the most difficult step, this was just one small step more, the reply came a little easier this time. "Shaved nice and close, please. "
"Good lad. Head right down for me then, please, and we will soon have that hair of yours dealt with. "
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
* * * * *
Ten minutes later, and I was released from the chair. I rubbed a finger up the back of my head taking in the sharp, close cut stubble. It was not quite so much of a shock as it had been last time, and at least this time it had been something of my own choosing - in part anyway - and my "Thank you, sir." was rather more genuine.
I had made the right decision. A short, smart haircut was important, it was masculine, it was disciplined, and it was an obligation that I ought to carry out willingly, not evade - whatever my own personal preferences.
School tomorrow would be a different matter, but I had faced them down last time and I would again.
* * * * *
My father expressed his approbation. "So, I see you went for a haircut. Yes, a nice short back and sides - very good. And Brylcreem too - excellent, well done, son."
* * * * *
Two weeks later my father again told me I needed haircut.
I wondered for a moment how to react. Was there anything to be gained by arguing? Was a haircut such a bad thing? Was it worth fighting over anyway? I decided it was time to be grown up.I nodded, and I gave my father a uncharacteristically respectful "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
* * * * *
The next day after school I went for the required haircut.
I knew where I had to go, of course, and precisely what kind of haircut I would have to get.
There was absolutely no point in attempting any sort of manoeuvers. I rehearsed what I would have to say - "Short back and sides, please, sir, shaved nice and close." Though if it was Mr Green again then I might not have to say anything at all.
I sat waiting my turn, once again. My stomach churning, once again. Leafing through magazines and unable to concentrate, once again.
This time I was summoned by Mr Green.
"Good afternoon, Roddy. I hope you are well. It is nice to see you here again. Same as last time?" My reply came out automatically. "Short back and sides, please, sir, shaved nice and close ... yes ... like last time ... yes, sir. "
"Short back and sides? Shaved nice and close? That's what I like to hear. So, you have come round to a different way of thinking then? "
"Yes, sir. "
"No more looking like a scruffy, long haired layabout then? "
"No, sir. "
"Good, lad." Mr Green gave me a big smile, clamped his hand in an iron grip on the top of my head, and fired up his clippers.
* * * * *
Back out in the street I ran a finger up the back of my head, and, I had to admit, it felt ... it felt tremendous.
* * * * *
From then on my relationship with my father changed. I stopped calling him "Dad" like a child, but began to call him "Sir" which felt more like a grown man speaking to a senior. And Iwas treated like an adult in various other ways, and expected to take responsibility for more things myself. In particular I was no longer told when to get a haircut, but I was expected to go unprompted to Frobisher and Green's for a haircut every two weeks - an appropriately rigorous and severe haircut.
And as for me, well I loved it. I loved that freshly cut sensation - back and sides like the finest sandpaper, top all greased up and shining. I absolutely loved it - Yes, sir!