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Concealments and Changes, Part 1 by Sean Barnet


CONCEALMENTS AND CHANGES

BY SEAN BARNET

PART 1

When I was 16, back in 1974, I won a scholarship to a private school, Hiram's Foundation in Barchester, some 50 miles from where I lived.

The first question was: where would I stay if I went there? My father was all for me boarding, which he said would make me "toughen up a bit" and "make a man" of me. My mother's idea was that I should stay with her uncle who lived in Barchester. My mother thought boarding schools an "outmoded, barbaric cruelty". My father thought asking Uncle Reginald to have me an "unreasonable imposition". My mother said that it was "time Uncle Reginald did something for us".

(As for myself, I had never heard anything good about boarding schools, and I hated the idea - not that I had any say in the matter.)

My mother rang Uncle Reginald anyway (the first time, I think, for many years that there had been any contact beyond the exchange of Christmas cards), and he agreed to put me up (apparently quite readily, no indication to the contrary reached my ears), so my mother won the argument simply by virtue of it being already agreed without my father's say so.

I would not have to board.

My father drove me to Uncle Reginald's on the Saturday before the start of the Michaelmas (Autumn/Fall) term. On the way he explained to me that Uncle Reginald lived with a friend from his army days, a Major Arabin, sharing living expenses to make the most of their "somewhat meager" pensions.

We were given a rather splendid lunch (beetroot soup, followed by artichokes, then moussaka, salad with French dressing, followed by several unfamiliar cheeses and finally tiny little cups of incredibly strong black coffee - my mother was an unadventurous cook and all of this was new to me), and then my father left me to settle in with Uncle Reginald and his companion.

I soon discovered that they did not do too badly on their "somewhat meager" pensions: the lunch, as I said, was splendid, the house had six bedrooms, they employed a full time housekeeper (who had produced the wonderful lunch, and would be responsible for expanding my culinary horizons no end), a cleaner who came in several mornings a week and a gardener who also did several mornings a week - so much for "meager".

At that first lunch I noticed how my uncle and his friend simply called each other by their surnames "Grantly" and "Arabin". I had no idea what I should call my uncle's friend, so I started calling him "Uncle Arabin". Then by the end of the first week Uncle Reginald had become "Uncle Grantly". I soon discovered that if I omitted the mouthful of "Uncle Grantly" or "Uncle Arabin" each time I spoke, then I had to call them "Sir". I deeply resented this. It seemed so humiliating. But I had to do it, I had no choice in the matter.

On Monday morning Uncle Grantly took me to the school outfitter's to be kitted out with my school uniform, and my cadet's uniform.

I should explain that the cadets were an option. The alternatives were various combinations of school orchestra, choir, drama, art, woodwork and visiting the old people. The prospect of assault courses, marksmanship and survival weekends seemed altogether far more exciting.

On Tuesday morning I was taken to the barber's for a haircut. Like almost all boys of my age back then I wanted my hair long, and I had been allowed to have a moderate sort of "feather cut", covering my ears and my collar. However, the haircut regulations at Hiram's were stricter than at my old school, and they had been explained to us when my parents had taken me for the interview back in March - off the ears, off the collar, brushed away from the forehead (but not as bad as I had been fearing). It was one of those classic "Like it or lump it" situations that beset teenage life. I had learned by then that if there was nothing you could do about something it was better to pretend not to mind. I would simply play it cool, and keep my mouth shut.

We arrived at the barber shop, up a little side street, it had screens across the windows and frosted glass in the door to prevent passers by looking in.

We made our way in and sat down. I looked round. The signs were not good: a couple of ancient barber chairs, tobacco stained walls, brown painted woodwork and two tattered old posters for Brylcreem. A few elderly men were waiting. No one my age. A boy, maybe 4 or 5 years younger than me, was in the chair receiving a severe short back and sides, a short back and sides like I had not seen in years.

My heart sank. The two glaring strip lights hanging from the ceiling somehow added to the air of gloom rather than dispelling it.

The boy was out of the chair and one of the old men took his place, another short back and sides. This was obviously a short back and sides establishment. I sat flicking through the pile of old magazines on the table in front of me, unable to give my attention to any of them. My head was full of that poor boy and his barbarous haircut. Uncle Grantly had not been present at the interview when the haircut requirement had been explained, and I could not help but wonder if a short back and sides was what Uncle Grantly had planned for me? Once I was in the chair, caped up, with the barber looking to him for his instructions, I would be in no position to argue.

My turn came, reluctantly I took my place in the chair, and I was caped up.

The barber, of course, then turned to my uncle. "Good morning, Mr Grantly, sir. I trust you are well, sir. What will it be, sir?"

"Yes, good morning, I am very well, thank you, Harding. Now, let me introduce you to my young nephew here, John Stanhope. He will be starting at Hiram's Foundation tomorrow, and he will be staying with us for the next two years. I am sure that his hair is not appropriate as it is, and I do not wish him to start off on the wrong foot. I take it that you know what is required, Harding?"

"Of course, Mr Grantly. Hiram's Foundation regulations? Just leave it to me, sir. It will be a pleasure, a great pleasure, sir."

Mr Harding unfastened the cape, and then refastened it rather tighter than before."Right then, Master Stanhope, sit up straight and keep nice and still, and we will soon have you looking smart for Hiram's."

He combed my hair straight down all round my head, covering my face down to my nose, and then pulled a comb sharply across the back of my neck to free the long hair trapped in the cape, and tucked in a tissue. He sprayed my head with water and combed my hair again, moving my parting from the centre to the left hand side, but leaving a wet fringe hanging down over my face.

The barber pushed my head forwards slightly and to the left, and out came the scissors. Snip, snip, I could feel the touch of cold steel round the right ear. Head forwards. Snip, snip across the back. Head to the right. Snip, snip round the left ear.

Head back up.

"Close your eyes, please, young sir."

Snip, snip across my forehead, at an angle. At least I could see now.

Mr Harding carried on snipping away with the scissors. At least no clippers.

Hair rained down onto the cape in great heaps and then slid down onto the floor. All I could do was watch.

Then "Head down now, Mr Stanhope!"

Click. Clack, clack. I was wrong about clippers! Obediently, I bent my head. The barber gasped my head firmly and pushed it to the left once more, pulled down my right ear, and clack, clack round they went. The antique clippers made a noise like a petrol mower. Pushed forwards again. Clack, clack, up the back. He pushed my head to the left, pulled down my right ear. Clack, clack. Then, just as I thought it was over, clack, clack, clack, clack round a second time, and I was pushed around and mauled about yet again.

"Head up now, young sir."

I lifted up my head and looked in the mirror. It was so short. It was awful. Two great, ugly, sticking out ears. I looked such a complete idiot!

Mr Harding combed my hair, snipped away a little more with the scissors, combed again, examined his work critically, and snipped again. He combed it once more, and finally he was satisfied. "There you are, Mr Grantly, off the ears, off the collar, and should remain so for the next three weeks or more, and now tidily brushed away from the forehead. Hiram's regulations, sir. Everything as you wish, sir?"

"Yes, that looks quite splendid, thank you, Harding."

"Some dressing, sir?" To my uncle, not to me, of course, I was not to be consulted.

"A little Brylcreem would be good, I think."

"Yes, sir. Keeps everything tidy, sir."

My hair was duly slathered in thick, greasy goo, combed back into place, and finally I was freed from my captivity.

*****

Returning home I ran up to my bedroom and examined my new appearance in the mirror. I now looked as slick, shiny and groomed as a mafioso in an old gangster movie. The back and sides were a crisp velvet scarcely a quarter of an inch long. I stood there running my fingers through that velvet and feeling the spiky resistance. It was weirdly pleasurable. It felt very masculine. It was unsettling. This was not what a teenager was supposed to feel about short hair in the days of long-haired rebellion. Then of course there were my sticking out ears on display for all the world to see, nothing could be done about that, I would simply have to endure it.

After 20 minutes or so of combing my hair and examining myself I realised that it was time for lunch. My uncles were real sticklers for turning up promptly at meal times. I ran the comb through my hair one last time, wiped my greasy fingers on a tissue, and hurried downstairs.

*****

Going into the dining room I was greeted by Uncle Arabin. "Ah, yes, indeed, a haircut! Capital! A vast improvement, young man. No more wild-man of Borneo look. I'm sure you feel all the better for it?"

"Yes, sir."

"So, all ready for school tomorrow then, lad?"

"Yes, sir."

"The boy looks so much better with a good haircut, don't you agree, Grantly?"

"Yes, certainly, Harding has done an excellent job, as I knew he would."

And we sat down to lunch.

*****

Wednesday was a whirlwind of new things, new places, new people, timetables, and rushing from one place to another, not knowing where I was supposed to be or supposed to do when everyone else did.

*****

On Thursday I began to take stock. Being very self conscious about my new, dramatically short, haircut, I started to observe everyone else's. To my great relief I saw that the vast majority of my fellow pupils had haircuts just like mine, Mr Harding had obviously known what he was about when he said he would give me a Hiram's Foundation regulation haircut.

I carried on looking at the haircuts over the next few days, and indeed weeks, in a way I had not really done before.

The first thing I noticed was that many, I might say most, boys had a band of white skin round the back of their necks, bearing witness to summer holidays spent in the sun followed by a back to school haircut. Nor was I used, when sitting at my desk or moving about at my old school, to see everyone in front of me with an inch of clean white collar and another inch or so of bare neck on display.

There were a few boys who had come back to school with longer hair, but after the first few days these were no longer in evidence. I assumed that they had all been sorted out with a "Get that hair cut!" order.

And then there was another minority, quite a large minority, with hair shorter than required by the school rules, some of them had it much shorter. Did they want such a thing? Did they have parents who thought the strict school rules not strict enough? I did not understand.

There was one particular boy in the year above me who stood out. He had a real short back and sides, shaved right down close like they had it in the Army back in the 50s. On top he had thick, long, blond locks, evidently curly by nature, but brushed straight back, and held in place by I knew not what. He was so impossibly handsome he managed to make this haircut look good. I later found out that this was Vesey, Head Boy, Head Prefect and Captain of the cricket team.

*****

A few weeks passed, I began to settle in with my Uncles Grantly and Arabin. Uncle Grantly was the more modest, more reticent of the two, Uncle Arabin was the one with the more vocal opinions, and a great, emphatic moustache to go with them. I got used to calling them both "Sir", it became routine. And then there was the way I had to dress. My uncles always wore suits, comfortable, tweedy suits, but still suits. They did not approve of my jeans and tee shirts, so I had to wear smart trousers and a tie. And then they discovered that I did not actually own a suit myself. We were invited out to Sunday dinner. I dressed smartly, but Uncle Arabin asked me why I was not wearing a suit, to which I replied, to his surprise and dismay, that I did not have one! That deficiency was rectified soon after.

*****

Then one morning at breakfast Uncle Grantly remarked "Time you had a haircut, lad."

"Yes, sir." was my well trained automatic reply.

"Yes, sir." Had now become my reply to almost everything, it was simply easier than arguing, and then having to give way.

But I found it difficult to carry on with my bacon and eggs. It was nothing to worry about, just a haircut. So what was it? Was I afraid? Excited? Nervous? Last time had not been as bad as I had feared, had it? I had survived. No one at school had passed any remark at all about my haircut, after all I looked just like everyone else. So why was I getting so wound up? It was so ridiculous.

"I shall pick you up after school, and we shall go to Harding's together."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

*****

Uncle Grantly picked me up in his aging Jaguar at 4:00pm. Harding's was not busy, just one customer in the chair.

We sat down to wait. My heart was beating. I was nervous. Despite my previous escape with something relatively OK, I was convinced, for no reason, that this time the barber was going to give me a short back and sides, like Vesey's, like the one he had given that poor lad last time, like the ones I had been given by demon barbers back home as a small boy. I shuddered.

My turn came.

"Good afternoon, Mr Grantly, sir. How are you today, sir? What will it be, sir?"

"Very well, thank you, Harding. Just a tidy up for the lad please."

"Just a tidy up, sir? Very good, sir."

And I was given exactly the same haircut as before.

*****

I am not sure how to describe my feelings about this second haircut. Relief, certainly, my nightmare fantasies had not been realised. On the other hand "Smart" was now beginning to feel OK, seeing the other boys at school with short, neat haircuts made them seem both normal and right. And then I really loved the sensation of rubbing my fingers through all that prickly velvet.

On the subject of "Smart", this new school was very much hotter on the issue of appearance than my old one. We had to wear caps (long since given up at my old school), keep our ties correctly knotted, shoes polished and blazers fastened. Also, more generally, we seemed to be constantly having to stand up, raise our caps, and call people "Sir". It was like the army.

*****

Another few weeks or passed by. My father would be coming up on Saturday, and I would be going home for the week of half term. I would see Mum, Grandma, and all my old friends.

*****

On that Friday morning, at breakfast, Uncle Grantly put down his knife and fork half way through a kipper. "Time you had a haircut, lad."

This time I attempted some resistance, I did not want to look like a fool in front of my friends at home. "It's only two weeks since my last haircut, sir." (Actually it was over 3) "I really won't need a haircut until after I come back, sir."

"But your father will not be bringing you back until next Saturday, and there will not be time for you to get your hair cut before school on Monday. I do not want you in trouble at school for want of the correct haircut."

"I could get my hair cut while I am at home, sir."

"No, Harding knows exactly how it should be done. Besides which, I want your father to see just how smart you can look, wearing your suit and with your hair cut. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir."

As usual any attempt to argue met with abject failure.

*****

Uncle Grantly picked me up after school and took me to Harding's, as before. Fridays being Training Days I was still in my Cadet's uniform.

There was a customer in the chair and one waiting, so we sat down on the bench. My uncle took out a book, and became engrossed, chuckling to himself and shaking his head.

My turn came, I sat in the chair and was caped up, and then there was the usual "Good afternoon, Mr Grantly, sir. How are you today, sir? What will it be, sir?"

No response.

Then again, louder "Good afternoon, Mr Grantly, sir. How are you today, sir?"

This time "Oh, yes. Please excuse me. I am very well thank you, Harding."

"What will it be, sir?"

"The boy is going back home to his parents for a week's holiday. I want him looking very nice and smart for them. Just the back and sides, please, I don't think it needs anything off the top."

"Yes, sir. Very smart back and sides for the lad. Very good, sir."

"Right then, young sir, head down forwards for me and keep nice and still."

I did as instructed. Mr Harding grasped hold of my head and pushed it firmly further forwards. I heard the click, clack, clack, and then cold, sharp, vibrating steel hit the nape of my neck and travelled up the back of my head. I wanted to scream "Stop!", but it was too late. Harding had misunderstood. He must carry on as he had started, and I would have to endure the result as best I could.

Clippers up the back of my head, pressed in firmly. Clippers round my right ear. Clippers round my left ear. And I just had to sit there and take it, like a prisoner taking punishment, just waiting for it to end.

When Mr Harding was at last finished he showed me the back and sides in the hand mirror. He had shaved me white, almost an inch above each ear and two or three inches up the back. It was my worst nightmare realised.

"Mr Grantly? Mr Grantly? How's that, sir?"

"Oh, yes, yes. Very good, thank you."

"Some dressing, sir? Any cream or spray for the lad, sir?"

"Oh, yes, cream, please."

I was Brylcreemed up, given an ultra precise white line of a parting, and I was let out of the chair. Then, after some delay, my uncle closed his book, accompanied the barber to the till, and paid.

I felt a terrible cold breeze blowing all around my head as we walked out into the street.

*****

I really did not want to let on how upset I was by this butchering of my hair. It would seem childish and immature, not a grown man's response to such a trivial thing. I would just have to put a brave face on things. I would say nothing, I would talk of other things. So on our way back home in the car, partly in order to satisfy my real curiosity as well as to help me maintain my air of indifference, I asked my uncle what book he had been reading.

"Trollope, "The Warden". You must read it, I shall lend it to you when I have finished."

"Thank you, sir."

"So, what do you think of your haircut then, lad?"

Well, it was awful, I really hated it, and I did not know how I was going to face my friends back home. I felt humiliated, I felt angry, but I could not say that. I tried to sound casually unconcerned, but my true feelings came out in my phrasing and especially in my tone. "It is rather short, sir, for my taste, sir."

"Ah, I can tell that you don't like it. You all want it long these days. Well, he did cut it rather shorter than I intended, but you will have to agree that it does look extremely smart, does it not?"

"Yes, sir." I replied, through gritted teeth.

Uncle Grantly laughed. "Of course!"

But as we continued home I could not resist rubbing at the expanse of bare skin and sharp little prickles on the back of my head. It was weird. It was exciting. It made me nervous.

*****

Uncle Arabin was rather more enthusiastic. "Ah, my young soldier back from the barber, and with what looks like a proper haircut too this time. Let me have a look at you. Yes, a genuine, regulation short back and sides. Capital! Put your beret back on, Cadet Stanhope, and let us have a salute from you … Attention!"

I came to attention and saluted. "Sir!"

Uncle Arabin walked round me and inspected, back, front and sides.

In the end he was satisfied. "At ease!"

I stood at ease.

"Yes, lad, well done, and good, smart haircut. You have passed inspection, Cadet."

"I am afraid John does not share your opinion about haircuts, Arabin," came in Uncle Grantly "he finds it "rather too short", like most of his generation."

"Yes, and more's the pity. But the lad will come round once he gets used to it. Young Stanhope here will soon learn the practical advantages of having a good short haircut, and he will come to appreciate a smart appearance too."

Uncle Arabin turned back to me with a friendly smile. "Remember, lad, a smart, well disciplined appearance goes hand in hand with a smart well disciplined attitude of mind, cultivate the one and you will cultivate the other. Remember that Stanhope, you will find it benefits you all your life."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Attention! … Dismiss!"

*****

My father came to pick me up the next day.

As I already said, I was nervous about the reaction I would get from my old friends. But my father was going to be awkward too. I had had several battles with him about my hair and about the way I dressed generally. Appearing in front of him in a smart suit and with a short back and sides would be a terrible climb down. How was I to endure his triumph?

But the question of my hair did not come up over lunch, only the usual questions about how I was behaving myself now I was living in their house? - "Very well." How I was doing at school? - "Very well." And some more general conversation about my uncles' health, my father's health, my mother's health, the weather, and so on.

There was very little for me to contribute to this conversation apart from "Yes, sir." or "No, sir." in response to the occasional enquiry directed at me.

I now called my uncles "Sir" as a matter of course. Six weeks staying with my uncles calling them "Sir", six weeks at Hiram's calling the masters "Sir", and six weeks in the cadets saluting and saying "Sir!" had made this practically automatic. Indeed, I rather enjoyed the military sound of it, even when I was not in uniform.

But when it came to my father my father I was in a bit of a quandary. "Dad" just didn't seem right for the formality of the occasion, and it felt childish. So with me calling my uncles "Sir" hadn't I better call my father "Sir" as well?

But, I had never called my father "Sir" before. None of my friends ever called their fathers "Sir" either. It simply was not the way we related to them. It seemed a really strange thing to even contemplate.

The first couple of times when I spoke to my father I called him nothing at all. But it grated. It sounded ill mannered, boorish, a bit surly by comparison with the way I called my uncles "Sir".

SoI took the plunge, and called my father "Sir" for the first time in my life. Everything seemed to fall into place. I felt like a junior officer talking to my senior. It felt absolutely right, like my relationship with him had not seemed for ages.

Towards the end of our meal my father did ask about my brand new, conspicuously smart, three piece, dark blue, fashionable chalk-stripe suit. He wanted to pay for it, and he wanted to know how much it had cost. My uncles would hear nothing of this. They insisted that it had been paid for out of the allowance he gave them for my keep, and they doggedly refused to say what it had cost.

On the way home in the car my haircut was the first subject my father brought up. "That's a smart haircut you've got there, son."

"Yes, sir."

I immediately realised that this "Yes, sir." was a very good way of not giving away any information much without sounding rude. I did not want to tell the true story about Uncle Grantly's inattention and the barber's misunderstanding yesterday. I knew my father would find the whole thing hilarious, laugh out loud, and, worse still, recount the story to other people.

"It is a change from what you had at home."

"Yes, sir."

This tactic seemed to be working.

"You used to say that you hated it short and insisted that you wanted it long."

"Yes, sir."

But then came a question I could not answer without divulging any information at all.

"So what brought this on then? Did Uncle Reginald want you to get a decent haircut, and you did for him what you would not do for me?"

I had no wish to insult my father, and fortunately an answer came to me. "I joined the Cadets, sir."

Yes, this was true, I had opted to join the school Cadets when it was suggested to me. However, there was no requirement for the cadets to have their hair any shorter than specified in the normal school regulations - but my father did not know that.

"You joined the Cadets, then?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, there's a surprise. Excellent!."

It seemed that my father accepted this not only as an explanation for the haircut, and, as a bonus, for me now calling him "Sir" as well. So, no more awkward questions. I had avoided losing face. Maybe this story would do for my friends too.

TO BE CONTINUED





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