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ALI BABA'S by SEAN BARNET


ALI BABA'S
BY SEAN BARNET

PART 1


(This is another of those stories about a long haired teenager back in the 70s who is made to have a short back and sides. If you do not like these stories please do not read on. You have been warned, continue at your own risk!)

Back in 1973 when I was 14 we moved to Maxton, a small town in the west of England where my father had grown up. My parents wanted to be nearer their own parents, who were now retired. My mother's parents had moved to a village a few minutes outside Maxton, and my father's now lived just a little bit further away, but still within an easy distance, so when the only dentist in Maxton retired my father saw his opportunity and took over his practice.

One Sunday over dinner, my father remarked to his father-in-law that he had been so preoccupied with the business of moving house and settling into his new practice that he had not had a chance to get his hair cut, and did my grandfather know of somewhere suitable?

And, yes, my grandfather did know. "There are two places you might go, there is the traditional barber's, Gibson's on Cornmarket Street, where I myself go now, or there is a "Unisex" enterprise which has opened up on Smith Street which I understand is becoming quite popular with the younger sort - I only tell you because the choice is now so limited. Pullinger's where I always used to go closed down some time ago, and then there is another barber whom I do not think very good."

I wondered what it was that a barber could possibly do to my grandfather's hair that he might find fault with. My grandfather was almost completely bald. He had a fringe of hair round the back and sides, but this was never allowed to grow to more than a few fractions of an inch before he took a trip to his barber's to have it reduced to nothing. Maybe it was the trimming of his neat little military moustache that failed to give satisfaction? I don't know. But I digress.

"So Gibson's is still there then, is it, sir? That is where I had my hair cut as a boy. And is it still the same Mr Gibson, sir?"

"I should expect so. He is now a man in his sixties, so he might well have been there cutting hair since you were a boy."

"Well, thank you very much, sir. I shall certainly pay the man a visit."

My father had this habit of calling older men "Sir" (even his own father). This was for some reason I did not understand. It had always seemed to me to be rather unnecessary, if not indeed a little odd.

I made a mental note to give Mr Gibson a wide berth, and to check out the unisex place ready for when I was sent for my own inescapable back-to-school haircut.

* * * * *

A few days later my father came home from work with a really drastic haircut. It was truly awful! His ears were exposed. I had never noticed before how large they were. His sideboards had vanished, and most of the hair had gone from the back of his head. There was now a patch of white skin next to each ear where his sideboards had been and a wide band of white round the back of his neck, and where he did have some hair left on the back of his head and over his ears it had been reduced to bristles so short that as he moved his head from side to side the pale skin of his scalp shone through. The longer hair on top shone and gleamed with some sort of dressing that had been put on, and it now stayed in place combed back instead of flopping down the sides of his face,

He looked at my mother, "I asked him to "Just tidy it up." And this is what the man did to me!"

My mother smiled, "But it's not so bad, darling. Actually, I rather like it. It reminds me of how you looked when we first started courting, and you are still as every bit as good looking now as you were then."

My father sounded somewhat mollified. "Well it was the same barber, so, I suppose, it's the same haircut."

* * * * *

Later that evening we were watching television. I noticed my mother repeatedly running a finger up and down the back of my father's head, and him letting out little grunts of pleasure.

* * * * *

A few weeks later my father had his hair cut a second time, obviously by Mr Gibson once more. The summer sun had tanned his neck now, and narrow line of white skin round the back of his neck looked quite smart somehow - not painfully naked like the vast expanse of white skin that had been exposed last time. It was sharp and it was crisp - and maybe I was getting used to his new appearance.

My father always kept his hair short from then on - much shorter than I ever remember him having had it previously.

* * * * *

Summer was drawing to a close and it was time for my haircut before starting at my new school. I went to "Samsons and Delilahs Unisex" and came away with an expertly done, fashionable, layered cut, a quarter of an inch off my eyebrows at the front, a quarter of an inch from the bottom of my ears, and brushing my collar at the back.

It was truly excellent, and I was delighted.

* * * * *

But on the first day of term at the King's School my new form-teacher was not so delighted. It was "Unacceptable". Regulations required that "Hair must be brushed away from the forehead, off the ears, and off the collar at the back." I must get it cut. This was Wednesday, and I must get it cut by Monday.

During the course of the day I observed the other boys. Nearly everyone had hair conforming precisely with the regulations, not quite a short back and sides, but almost. I say "nearly everyone", one or two were pushing it a bit with hair brushing the tops of their ears or creeping down to the collar, but quite a few more were going in the opposite direction with what was definitely the traditional boy's haircut, shaved close round the back and sides. I looked at them with a mixture of incredulity, awe and repugnance. Did they really like their hair like that? Was it forced on them by their parents? What sort of place was this that I had come to?

* * * * *

My mother picked me up in the car after school, she was late and in a bad mood. I did not say anything about the haircut until we got home.

She was furious. "Theo! Why did you not say anything to me earlier? I could have dropped you off somewhere in town, and you could have made your own way home. But the shops will be closing anytime soon, and now I have to start getting dinner ready. Tomorrow is Thursday - that's early closing day - and on Friday we are going off to Birmingham for the weekend to your Auntie Margaret's."

She decided to ring her father.

My grandfather promised to pick me up in ten minutes. He would take me to his own barber, who, unlike the unisex salon, did "good, old fashioned, no-nonsense haircuts", and he would "make sure the job was done properly this time".

Ten minutes later my grandfather was at the door. His only words, to my mother, were "Right, let us see what a proper barber can do for him." He pointed at his car in a manner that left me in no doubt that I must get in straight away, and we were on our way into town within minutes of his arrival.

* * * * *

It will come as no surprise that my grandfather was not a fan of long hair, or "Hippy hair" as he called it.

Since we had moved to Maxton he had made more than one attempt at persuading me to have my hair cut - to go with him to his barber who would give me a "sensible haircut", and turn me into a "smart, well-disciplined young man". It appeared that a visit to the barber was supposed to have an effect on more than my hair - it was going to benefit my personality as well. Anyway, when he failed with me he had tried my mother and then my father, but they had both brushed him off with replies such as "Boys have it like that these days", or "It's a phase, leave him be, he will grow out of it."

But now, of course, he was going to have things his own way, and neither I, nor anyone else, was in any position to stop him.

(For the record, I don't think I would have been any better off with my other grandfather. He was an equally firm believer in the benefits of compulsory short haircuts for teenage boys. He used to say "Short back and sides is the only suitable haircut for a young man, Theo. It's what is right and proper." But apart from that he was not involved in the story I am telling here.)

We drove into town in silence.

* * * * *

We parked, my grandfather led the way, and I followed. I knew exactly where we were going, I had already explored Maxton. Gibson's was not actually on Cornmarket Street itself, but up a covered alleyway off one side. The alley lead to some back entrances and then via another covered alley into the next street. Anyway, the barber's was obvious enough from Cornmarket Street as there was a rotating sign standing on the pavement in saying "BARBER SHOP" on one side and "HAIRCUT SIR?" on the other. Then there was an old fashioned, angled, wooden barber's pole over the alleyway entrance, and looking down the alley itself you could see another, illuminated, rotating, pole over the door, shining in the shadows.

The door itself was just that, just a door with no way of seeing in. A sign said "R. T. Gibson, Gentlemen's Hairdresser".

I had been up this alleyway more than once, and this door had always seemed to be beckoning me in, inviting me in for some nefarious, sinister, hidden purpose - well, an obvious purpose really, but certainly that is what it felt like in my imagination.

And naturally I was already calling it "Ali Baba's" in my head as well.

We went up the alley and went in through the door. There was a steep, narrow staircase up to the shop. My grandfather led the way as before, and with a mixture of dread and curiosity I climbed the stairs after him. He pushed at another door, a bell tinkled, and we entered. The barber looked round from the customer in the chair, and he acknowledged my grandfather with a nod and a smile.

I hung up my blazer, and we sat down to wait.

I looked round. I observed the walls stained by years or tobacco smoke and the vintage posters advertising Brylcreem. Obviously it had not changed much since my father was a boy back in the 1930s.

The customer in the chair was a boy of about a year or two older than me. Now almost finished he had a haircut practically identical to my father's. Mr Gibson was apparently a "One style only" barber.

The job complete, the boy stood up, was brushed down, and he paid. He put on his jacket - a King's School blazer. He had obviously fallen foul of King's School haircut requirements just as I had.

"Next, please!"

My grandfather stood up, and I obediently stood up too.

Mr Gibson turned to my grandfather. "Good afternoon, sir. It's only a few days since I saw you last. I hope nothing is the matter, sir?"

"No, nothing is the matter. Well, nothing that cannot soon be remedied. I have brought my grandson, Theodore, to see you, Mr Gibson. He has just started at King's School, and he has been told to get his hair cut."

"Yes, I can see the problem, sir. We must make sure Theodore's hair meets school regulations, but I see no difficulty there, sir."

Mr Gibson gestured me towards the chair, and a slight push from my grandfather on the small of my back helped me on my way.

I sat. I was caped. I really did not want a haircut like my father's, but what was I going to do about it?

"So, King's School regulations, sir? And any special requirements, sir?"

"As you say, we must make sure that the boy's hair meets regulations. I would not like his hair to be found unsatisfactory a second time, so I think short back and sides would be best. I mean a very short back and sides."

"Certainly, sir. Short back and sides - very short back and sides. That will be a pleasure, sir. And would you like the boy facing the mirror or facing yourself, sir?"

"Facing me, please, Mr Gibson."

I was swivelled round to face my grandfather, who raised his hand a little to preempt me saying anything in protest.

"Now, young man, sit back and enjoy your haircut. You will find that having your hair cut by a first-class barber like Mr Gibson is one of the great pleasures of male life."

The barber pumped up the chair. "Now, sit up straight, boy, head forwards, and keep still."

The clippers were loud, the clippers were cold, the clippers were sharp - and the vibrations went through me like an electric current. They went a horrifyingly long way up the back of my head.

It was relentless, ruthless, remorseless.

My head was pushed to the left, my right ear held down and the clippers shaved that side of my head.

Then the other ear and the other side.

Head up a bit. Head pushed this way and that. A comb running through my hair and scissors going snip, snip, snip.

All I could do was sit there, very quiet and obedient, watching my hair fall onto the cape and slide down onto the floor, never to be recovered.

The scissors made there way across my forehead, giving me a slanted fringe.

Eventually, "Short enough, sir?"

"Yes, I think that is short enough, thank you."

"Any dressing, sir?"

"Yes, Vaseline the boy up, please, Mr Gibson."

"Vaseline for the boy, sir? As we used to do when we were his age? Very happy to oblige. Yes, it will finish off the job very nicely, sir."

Some thick, sticky, greasy stuff was plastered into my hair, and everything carefully combed into place.

"How's that, sir?"

"That is most satisfactory, most satisfactory indeed. Thank you, Mr Gibson."

"Not too severe, sir?"

"No, not too severe at all, thank you, Mr Gibson. Indeed, a little "severe" looks very smart - well disciplined - and is exactly the right thing for a young man of Theodore's age."

"My own opinion exactly, sir."

Then at last I was turned to face the mirror.

The first thing I registered was my ears which seemed to stick out in a way they had never done before. Then there was this empty space above my ears where hair ought to be - visible hair did not start for three quarters of an inch or so above where they joined my head. Instead there was just bald, white skin.

What hair there was left on top now gleamed and shone in the electric light, and there was a perfectly straight, white line of a parting on the left hand side.

Mr Gibson showed me the back and sides in the hand mirror, and I winced inwardly at the shaved expanse.

"I think that will pass muster at King's, young man."

My hair was now so short that I could not see how it possibly might not. I nodded my agreement - not my approval.

I was handed a tissue and released.

I stood wiping my neck and round my ears, horrified at the prickly, exposed, vulnerable nakedness of it all.

"Thank Mr Gibson for your excellent haircut, Theo."

"Thank you for my haircut, Mr Gibson."

"That is "Excellent haircut", Theo."

"Thank you for my excellent haircut, Mr Gibson."

"That's better, young man."

TO BE CONTINUED



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