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New Town, New Customer by Smart Gent

New Town, New Customer

I’ll always remember that day. It happened thirty years ago. I had recently moved to a small town in the North because of my job and it was my first free day since arriving. That morning seemed like a good opportunity to do some exploring on foot of the town which was new to me.

I discovered that the main street, very different from the big city I had left, had just the essential shops, a library, a post office and a few banks. It was market day and I watched the elderly residents busily shopping for fruit and veg at the stalls.

After strolling pleasantly for a while in the spring air I realised the main shopping street had come abruptly to an end and I was now just walking past residential terraced houses. I changed direction and walked down another terraced street because it looked like there were some more shops at the end.

I was right, there were three: a small newsagents, a sweet shop and a very old fashioned looking barber shop. The barber shop had definitely seen better days, the window looked very dusty and the red paint was flaking. There was a traditional red and white striped barbers pole above the door. My first impression was that the shop seemed unchanged, perhaps since the 50s or 60s, charming in its own way but very different from the modern salons of my home city.

I was lost in thought, standing and staring at this strange shop that time seemed to have forgotten. The sight took me back to my childhood, when my mother would take me for a short back and sides and the elderly barber would ask if I wanted ‘anything on top’. My mother would always say ‘yes’ and the barber would smother my hair in cream then comb it into a neat and shining side parting.

The antiquated shop did seem to be still in business because I could see a yellow light shining above the wooden screen behind the window pane. I moved nearer to the door, so I could see a bit more through the glass. Yes, there was a faded sign on a string saying ‘open’ and an ancient looking sticker on the glass which advertised Vitalis Hair Tonic.

"Are you going in, lad, or are you just gonna stand and stare?"
The sudden voice in a thick northern accent gave me a shock. I swung round to see a friendly wrinkled face, a local pensioner wearing a cloth cap.
"Um, er yes, I am going in," I stuttered, to my own amazement.

Curiosity, it seemed, had got the better of me!

"Well after you then, bonny lad, I’ve got plenty of time" smiled the old man.
My heart-rate was racing faster now as I pushed open the stiff wooden door and stepped into the shop. The inside was just as old fashioned as the outside. Just one barber chair surrounded by wooden chairs, with a table in the middle, piled with old newspapers.

"Got a new customer for you, Bill!" chirped the man in the cap as he followed me into the shop.
Bill the barber, a portly old man in his seventies, was sitting reading a newspaper. He was wearing a long grey barbers overall, white shirt dark tie and polished black shoes. He eyed me up and down for a moment, slowly stood up and nodded for me to sit in the red leather barber’s chair, without saying a word. The barber I now knew was called Bill swung a white nylon cape around my shoulders and began chatting to the man in the cap.

"So how are you doing then Walter?"

The conversation took off, both men passing the time with their gruff northern accents, still quite hard for me to understand. They’d obviously known each other for years.
Here I was, a complete outsider, probably decades younger than most of Bill the barber’s usual customers. I couldn’t quite believe I was sitting in the chair as I stared into the dusty mirror. This certainly wasn’t something I had planned. On reflection though my brown hair did look rather thick and shapeless, it had crept over my ears and was touching my collar. Perhaps I do need a haircut I thought, a trim wouldn’t do any harm.

"Short back and sides", said Bill the barber. It was more of a statement than a question. As I replied, "Yes please, but not too short," my answer seemed to go completely unheard as the hearty banter between the two old men resumed.

After a quick comb through my thick mop the barber picked up a large pair of electric clippers which had been hanging on a hook. I hadn’t had clippers used on my hair for years. Bill the barber started slowly and methodically, first at the back as he drove the humming clippers up through my thick hair. I couldn’t tell how much he was cutting off, even though the clippers seemed to be going up rather high.

However, as he moved to the sides I could clearly see that this was going to be a very short back and sides. After first using the clipper over the comb to remove the excess hair hanging over my ears he firmly pushed the bare buzzing clipper blades up and completely removed my sideboards, leaving bare skin. My hairline now started more than an inch above the top of my ears! He then returned to the back and I could feel the warm blades on my skin, running up once again very high to match the stripped sides.

Putting down the clippers the old barber began to snip away at the hair on the top with a pair of scissors, all the while combing it into a side parting. This lasted for a few minutes until the thickness of the hair on the top of my head was blended into the severely clipped sides and back.

What would people at work say, I fretted to myself, as the barber put down the scissors on the formica bench. Perhaps this shop was well known for its 1950s style haircuts and I could just say to them it was just a silly mistake on my part.

As the barber continued to chat to Walter he dipped his fingers in a pot of white hair cream and smeared it on the top of my head. Rubbing the greasy cream vigorously in he then combed my remaining hair into a neat and rigid shape with a very precise side parting. I smiled to myself, at least when I was a child you were given a choice!
With a flourish Bill the barber brushed the back of my naked neck and ears then removed the nylon cape.

"That’ll be £1.50, sir" he said, hand held out.

I mumbled a thank you and gave him two pound notes and told him to keep the change.

"Much obliged, young man" he said, popping the money into a wooden cash drawer.

Scurrying nervously out of the shop I watched the man in the cap take the seat and the conversation between the two took off once again, interspersed with old man’s laughter.

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