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Ali Baba's, Part 2 by Sean Barnet
BY SEAN BARNET
When we got back home my mother thanked her father profusely, and then turned to me. "Thank your grandfather, Theo."
"Thank you, Grandad."
"Not at all, young man. Anything I can do to assist, you know."
* * * * *
I went up to my room, and stood in front of the mirror turning my head this way and that to get a view of the sides, and running a finger up through the sharp stubble on the back.
It was both awful and exciting at the same time. It really did not seem like me at all, but some young soldier. Well, it was a "Soldier" me. I tried coming to attention and saluting, several times. I did not know it I liked this or not, it all felt a bit weird.
I could not stay there looking into the mirror all day. I went into the bathroom and had a shower to wash all the itchy bits out. But however much I shampooed the Vaseline would not come out, and I went down to dinner with my hair slicked back and shining and with every single hair held precisely and rigidly in place.
* * * * *
My father had a good laugh at my expense.
"So, your grandfather took you to Gibson's for a haircut then? Last one not good enough for King's School? And now you've got a real haircut at last - even shorter than the one Gibson gave me!"
My mother, whose mood had improved since dinner was now on the table and she could relax, took my side and started to remonstrate.
"Leave Theo be, Roger, he doesn't like it short, and he doesn't find this funny. I'm sure it's not necessary for his hair to be quite as short as that for school. I'm starting to regret getting my father involved in the first place."
But my father was having none of it.
"Nonsense, Darling. It will do the boy good. It will teach him a bit of discipline, and a bit of respect. It will toughen him up. He will learn to take an order, say "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." and like it, irrespective. Don't you agree, Theo?"
Suddenly confronted with this unexpected question, and having no time to think of any answer other than the one that my father obviously expected, I said "Yes, sir."
"You see, the boy agrees with me. He is growing up and showing a mature attitude. He will be a man soon. Is that not the case, my son?"
"And you won't mind it when your grandfather takes you for a haircut that is rather shorter than you might choose for yourself, will you, lad?"
I never called my father "Sir" - well not up until then, anyway. No one I knew called their father "Sir" - apart from my own.
* * * * *
The next day at school I had to put up with a lot of derision from my new class-mates. I did my best to laugh and joke about it along with them. I reminded myself that they were not used to seeing me with my usual longer hair, so the surprise element would soon wear off - and it did, by the next day there were no more remarks.
* * * * *
Over the next few weeks my hair grew back to something more normal, something more like the length most of my new classmates had theirs. But I could not get the sound and feel of those clippers out of my head, and demon barbers started to appear in my dreams, dragging me off for another compulsory short back and sides.
And as for calling my father "Sir", well, I had taken the first step, and it did not seem so bad. It did make me feel more grown up and mature - like my father had said. "Sir" sounded so much manly than the childish "Dad". So I started calling my father "Sir" regularly from then on, and both my grandfathers, and other older men too.
A different kind of "Me" was starting to emerge from the shadows.
But the problem was that I soon found that there was no let up and no going back. "Sir" was now expected of me, and if I forgot then there were disapproving looks until I remembered.
* * * * *
By half-term, despite my drastic shearing of six weeks previously, I needed another haircut to stay within school rules. I was planning on asking my mother for the money, and going to the unisex and getting the minimum cut off - forestalling any attempt by my grandfather to take me back to Gibson's.
But my father raised the subject first.
We were at Sunday dinner, I was feeling rather awkward and self-conscious wearing the new suit that had been bought for me so I could now be smartly turned out at family gatherings. My father was sitting on one side of me and my grandfather on the other.
My father turned to me. "You'll be needing a haircut sometime this week while you are off school, won't you, Theo?"
"Get it cut nice and short. And get it cut nice and early on, and then we will have no last minute panic like last time."
Then my grandfather decided to make matters even worse.
"I would be happy to take the lad with me tomorrow when I go myself, if that is alright with you, Roger."
"Well that is very kind of you, sir. I am sure Theo would like to go with you. Wouldn't you, son?"
There was no escape. I could tell from my father's tone of voice that he was not going to take "No" for an answer. Like it or not, I was in for another severe haircut at "Ali Baba's" under my grandfather's supervision.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Had my father had set this up deliberately? Last time my grandfather had suggested taking me to his own barber my father had turned him down - so why the change now? I did not understand.
So here I was: smartly dressed and short haired - well, short haired for a teenage boy back in 1973. My hair had grown out to about an inch at the back and sides and maybe 3 inches or a bit more on the top. I had carefully brushed it away from my forehead and behind my ears, keeping it in place with a little Brylcreem, in preparation for the family dinner. I told myself at the time that this was just to placate the adults, and to put them off the scent as to how long my hair was growing, but looking back I would say that I was starting to rather enjoy looking smart and was trying out a new persona.
In addition, I was now politely calling all my seniors "Sir", and, finally, I had just replied "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." to the suggestion of another skinning from Mr Gibson.
How on earth had things come to this? It was absolutely exasperating.
* * * * *
My second haircut from Mr Gibson was just "Short back and sides" rather than "Very short back and sides".
But it seemed no different from the last time. I was given another good scalping.
Afterward, as I ran a finger through the sharp stubble, I shuddered with a sort of delighted, grim satisfaction at just how closely shaved it was.
And this time I knew to say "Thank you for an excellent haircut, sir." without having to be prompted by my grandfather.
* * * * *
I started to feel that my normal way of dressing in tee shirt, jeans and trainers looked a bit odd with my immaculately groomed, glossy, slicked back hair. There was obviously nothing I could do about my hair, so I began to experiment with dressing smartly, often wearing a white shirt and a tie, smart trousers and polished shoes, even when I was out of school and going nowhere in particular. I didn't really feel comfortable with that way of dressing, but nor did I feel comfortable in jeans anymore. Looking smart felt stiff, awkward and formal. I didn't feel I could relax. Wearing jeans felt scruffy, slap-dash and neglectful. I wasn't fully at ease with myself either way.
* * * * *
My mother found a part time job, and it became the normal thing for my grandfather to pick me up from school.
I knew what would happen, sooner or later - probably sooner.
I had to make a choice. I had to be prepared with an answer. This would be my last chance assert myself a bit like any normal teenager, or go along with my grandfather's plans to turn me into a "Smart, well-disciplined young man".
A lot of questions went through my mind:
I had been calling my father and both my grandfathers "Sir" for some time now (not altogether willingly, and not altogether unwillingly, but it was becoming a habit and starting to feel like the proper thing to do) - so was I a normal teenager now?
And which was better, what did I want to be - a "Normal teenager" or a "Smart, well-disciplined young man"?
But what about the new friends I was now making at school - did I want them to think that I was a bit weird?
Or maybe I should just toughen up, do what my father had said, and show a mature attitude. Be a man, and not complain about having a short haircut?
So wasn't trying to wriggle out of this haircut business a bit cowardly, a bit dishonourable? I could simply accept that this was my duty, and it was what had to be done.
Anyway weren't the school's haircut regulations were quite strict enough as it was without me having the back and sides of my head shaved naked like some throwback to the 1950s?
There was, of course no answer to any of this. Looking back now, it is obvious that I wanted two contradictory things, I rather wanted to have a short back and sides and look smart, but I didn't want to look odd and not fit in. One or other of them was going to win out in the end, but at 14 years old I was not used to making hard choices.
* * * * *
And every day decision time was drawing nearer.
* * * * *
I was of course anticipating that my grandfather would raise the subject of a haircut when he picked me up from school one afternoon, but once again my father got in first.
One evening at supper, "You're starting to look a little untidy, Theo. It's time you had a haircut, young man."
"A haircut ? … er … sir?"
"Yes, a haircut, my son. You need a haircut. I have spoken to your grandfather, and he will take you to see Mr Gibson tomorrow after school. Don't worry about money, I shall reimburse him."
My father paused, and I was about to reply with the now obligatory "Yes, sir." when he raised a finger and started up again. "Your grandfather has agreed to take charge of your haircuts from now on, he will take you to get your hair cut whenever it is necessary, so I don't want to hear anything from him about you being difficult. I expect you to give him your full cooperation. Any questions, young man?"
"Yes. How often will my grandfather take me to get my hair cut? I don’t want it too short, sir."
"Whenever it is necessary."
"But how often will that be … sir?"
"Whenever your GRANDFATHER judges that it is necessary, young man." He paused momentarily, and then he continued "And it will also be however SHORT your grandfather judges is necessary, young man. Any more questions, Theo?"
Now that it had come to the point, as with calling my seniors "Sir", I knew that failure to comply was not really an option.
* * * * *
I did not sleep much that night. With this being imposed on me I was upset and angry, but lurking at the back of my mind was the sense that I was also excited.
It looked like the question had been decided for me - I was indeed going to be a "Smart, well-disciplined young man" - at least for the foreseeable future.
How I was going to LOOK had been decided for me. But I still had a certain amount of choice about how I played this. I could complain, and then I could bring my mother round to my side too. If I had my mother on my side and complained long enough my father would be bound to eventually give way. Or, I could maintain an "I'm far too grown up and mature to care about this" attitude in front of everyone, at home and in front of my new friends at school. Or, I could even make out I liked it, and wanted it this way - if I could pull that one off, I could manage anything.
And I had a certain amount of choice too, I realised, about my own internal mental attitude. Yes, it was humiliating to be made to have my hair cut short against my will, but couldn't I just think of it as being "Grown-up", and "Self-disciplined"? After all, didn't we have to do all sorts of things we did not want to in life? I could react against this, or run with it. And It would be so much easier to maintain a front If I chose to go with it.
In one way the question had been decided, in another I was really no further on, everything just went round and round in my head, repetitively, obsessively. Why was I getting so wound up about this?
* * * * *
The next day after school I was taken by my grandfather back to Gibson's.
As I sat nervously waiting my turn I kept telling myself it was best to be positive and throw myself into the thing. I kept repeating to myself that short back and sides was "Disciplined", it was "Military", it was "Masculine". I told myself that it would "do me good", it would "make a man of me", and that, like my other grandfather said, it was "the only suitable haircut for a young man." Even the prospect of some more thick, sticky, offensive Vaseline rubbed into my hair didn't seem so bad, it would "finish off the job nicely", and was no doubt the "right and proper thing".
It was my duty.
It was how it was going to be.
And it was how I wanted it to be.
I got in the chair obediently, the cape was drawn round me, and I was turned round to face my grandfather as usual. I tensed up as I heard the click and buzz of the clippers coming towards me from behind, but then, as the barber grasped hold of my head, pushed it down, and the clippers hit the nape of my neck, I felt a great surge of joy go through me.
Mr Gibson proceeded with the task of removing all hair from the back and sides of my head, and I sat there, quiet, fully cooperative, as I was given my properly severe shearing.
This would be me from now on, a smart, disciplined, short back and sides boy.
I said "Thank you, for an excellent haircut, sir." as was expected - this time with unfeigned enthusiasm.
And then I made a point of turning to my grandfather and giving him a clear and confident "Thank you, sir".
My grandfather smiled at me benignly, and I grinned back happily, rubbing a finger over the fine, sharp sandpaper on the back of my head.
* * * * *
Well, from then on my hair was always kept very short.
My hair was kept rather shorter than my father's.
My hair was kept much shorter than was actually necessary for school.
Even when we went on a family holiday together if I was due for a haircut while we were away, which was often the case as my hair was cut every couple of weeks or so, my grandfather would search out a suitably traditional barber to give me the necessary short back and sides. I rather liked going to a new barber and having my grandfather there to ensure that my hair was cut properly short, and afterwards I would politely say "Thank you, sir."
So things worked out exactly as my grandfather (well, both of my grandfathers really) wanted them.
I became that "Smart, well-disciplined young man".
And I did find that getting an excellent haircut from a first-class barber like Mr Gibson is indeed one of the great pleasures of grown-up male life.