A couple of weeks went by uneventfully enough. My hair started to recover from the butchering it had received before the Half Term holiday.
No formal time interval between haircuts had ever been specified, but it was now more than three weeks since that last, extra short, haircut, so I knew the next one must come soon. And on the Wednesday morning, over breakfast, Uncle Grantly announced that I "could do with a tidy up". He then immediately remembered that he would be busy that afternoon with some appointment or other. Then Uncle Arabin offered to take me instead, and this was agreed.
I knew Uncle Arabin's opinions about haircuts, and my pulse began to race. Would he push it? He knew perfectly well what the school rules required, and he knew that Uncle Grantly was happy with that. But Uncle Arabin was a forceful man not lacking in confidence in his own opinions, and I could not see Uncle Grantly making any sort of fuss if I came back with another haircut as short as the one I had last time. I would be in no position to object if Uncle Arabin instructed the barber to cut it short again.
We entered the barber's and sat down. There was just one customer, in the chair, head bent forward, being clippered very close round the back and sides.
I sat looking, fascinated, watching as an expanse of bare white skin was revealed. The clippering finished, and then the barber then lathered up the shaved areas and shaved them again with an open razor. I had never seen such a thing. The barber splashed on some cologne or aftershave, and toweled him down. The customer raised his head, and I saw his face in the mirror - it was Vesey!
I don't know why I was so surprised. Vesey obviously had his hair cut regularly like anyone else, and why should that not be at Harding's barber shop? I suppose it was just unexpected.
Vesey was finished, out of the chair, and stood there while the barber brushed all the stray clippings off his immaculate white shirt.
The barber looked at me. "Next, please!"
I hung up my blazer and moved over towards the chair myself.
As I walked over Vesey raised a hand, and as I paused he turned to Mr Harding and said "Now, I hope, Harding, that you are going to give this scruffy delinquent here a good skinning. He needs to look a bit more like a civilised young gentleman, and a bit less like a hairy little ape."
Mr Harding just smiled. He must have heard it all before.
At this point Uncle Arabin stood up and came over.
Vesey suddenly realised that I was not on my own. He stood up very straight. I thought for a moment that he was going to come to attention and salute, but he was in school-uniform, not cadet-uniform, so that would not have been appropriate. "Good afternoon, sir. I'm very sorry I didn't see you there, sir. I'm afraid I spoke out of turn, sir. I do apologise, sir."
"Not at all, young man. Stanhope, won't you introduce us?"
"Yes, sir. This is Vesey, our Head Boy, sir. Vesey, this is my uncle, Major Arabin."
"How do you do, sir?"
"How do you do, young man? And what do you plan to do when you leave school?"
"I hope to join the Army, sir."
"The Blues and Royals, sir, my father's old regiment."
"Ah, the Blues and Royals? Capital. Capital!"
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Well, Vesey, it has been a pleasure meeting you, but we cannot delay Mr Harding any longer, he will have other customers in soon. I wish you well in your career."
"Thank you, sir. It has been a pleasure to meet you too, sir."
I took my place in the barber's chair, Uncle Arabin sat back down on the bench, and Vesey put on his blazer, paid and left the shop.
"Good afternoon, sir. What will it be for the lad, sir?"
"We must follow the example of that charming young man, please, Harding. He is Head Boy after all. So just the same as he had his, I think."
"That's a short back and sides, sir, taken fairly high, and then razor shaved."
"Very good then, Harding, short back and sides, taken fairly high, razor shaved, please."
The feelings that ran through me were intense, but hard to describe. There was shame and anger - at another forced butchering of my hair, fear - of how other people at school might react, but also there was pride - it was manly, disciplined, soldierly, and even pleasure - at the heightened sensations when I rubbed my fingers over the smooth shaved skin and through those sharp, prickly little bristles. I was a terrible mass of contradictions, a real head case!
Uncle Grantly gave me a brief once over. "Yes, very smart. Arabin has certainly ensured that you had a smart haircut."
I had read Uncle Grantly correctly anyway, that was some sort of satisfaction.
I was worried about school the next day, I was expecting some merciless humour at my expense.
I did get "That's some haircut you've got there, Stanope." from my new "best friend" Francis Bold.
So I replied "I thought it was time to smarten myself up a bit. What about you, Hippy?"
Francis pulled a face. "Oh yeah, Skinhead?"
I pulled a face back, and that was it.
There was nothing from anyone else. There were so many boys at school with haircuts like mine that I suppose everyone was just used to it.
That Saturday evening my uncles gave a dinner party. They were inviting one couple called Gwynne and another called Thorne together with their daughter Charlotte. They would all, I assumed, be as elderly or middle aged as my uncles, apart from maybe Charlotte, there was no knowing what sort of person she might turn out to be.
I was kitted out with a dinner jacket and bow tie for the occasion. I felt like James Bond.
When I came downstairs dressed and ready Uncle Arabin looked me over and said that I was missing "just one detail".
He took me back upstairs. "Fetch your comb, lad."
We went into the bathroom, Uncle Arabin opened the bathroom cabinet and produced a tub of Brylcreem, which he opened and held out in front of me. He did not have to say anything, of course I understood his meaning. Gingerly, I dipped in a finger and took out a small blob.
"You will need a bit more than that, lad."
I dipped my finger back in again, and took out rather more.
Walking over to the mirror, I spread the stuff over my hands as I had seen the barber do, and then smeared the gloop into my hair. I combed it into the approved manner, slicked back, razor sharp parting, quiff. "Sir?"
"Very good, Stanhope, now you are presentable."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
We came back downstairs with me looking like a 40s film star, groomed, sleek and glossy.
The guests arrived and we were introduced, and to my delight Charlotte turned out to be a girl of my own age. And a beautiful girl she was too, with long dark brown hair and brown eyes, wearing an Indian cotton print dress, red and purple, full length, just revealing two pretty little feet in gilt-leather sandals.
I had hardly any chance to talk to Charlotte before it was time to go into dinner, and then we were sitting on opposite sides of the table. The adult conversation was entirely of their own middle aged concerns and not something either of us could participate in. Charlotte and I were facing each other directly, but we sat in silence. I wanted to say something, but we could hardly have a quiet conversation by ourselves across four feet of dining table, obstructed by fruit, flowers and candles. Her dress was terribly low cut, and she was leaning forward slightly over her food. I tried not to stare, well, not too much anyway!
The adult conversation came round to the subject of HAIR. That is MEN'S hair, YOUNG men's hair, and young men's LONG hair, currently in fashion. What a DISGRACE it was! How UNTIDY it was! How UNHYGIENIC it was!
Mr Thorne turned to me. "You have your hair nice and short, young man. Indeed, that looks like a good, old fashioned, short back and sides, to me, am I right?"
"Yes, sir. Short back and sides, sir."
"With Brylcreem, too, I think?"
"Yes, sir. Brylcreem, sir."
"And you do not mind having it short? You are not inclined to grow it long like so many young men now?"
Mrs Thorne burst out laughing. "Oh Geoffrey! Don't be so daft! You cannot ask the poor boy a question like that. He is not going to admit that he wants to grow his hair in front of a room of old fuddy-duddies like us, particularly with his uncle sitting there. His uncle, and certainly his school, will insist on short hair, and he will have no choice in the matter."
The rest of the room laughed too.
When the laughter died down Uncle Arabin began. "But seriously, the traditional short back and sides is something that builds character and discipline in a young man. It is practical, it is hygienic, it is smart, and, as you can see, it suits our young Stanhope very well. It should be a requirement for all young men, as it was when we had National Service."
There was a murmur of agreement.
And then it was Uncle Grantly. "Yes, as Major Arabin has observed, John does look very smart. But then my old friend Arabin has always been something of a stickler for short haircuts, for all the 40 years and more I have known him. Where I do disagree with him is in the matter of compulsion. We really should not impose more than a minimum standard on our youth, or we will seem oppressive in their eyes."
"A minimum standard, what is the minimum standard then?" asked Mrs Gwynne.
"Well, I am content that John should keep within the school rules at Hiram's."
"But John's hair is rather shorter than most boys' at Hiram's, is it not?" Mrs Gwynne replied.
Uncle Grantly laughed. "Yes. As you have observed. That is because his last trip to the barber's was under the Major's supervision!"
Everyone laughed again, Uncle Arabin along with the others.
I was feeling rather uncomfortable at having my appearance discussed and commented on in this manner. I understood well enough that it was not meant unkindly, but at 16 I was so self conscious that almost anything embarrassed me.
"But the boy does look extremely smart." said Mr Thorne.
"Indeed, I must agree, he does." answered Uncle Grantly "However, that being said, John is free to grow his hair a little longer if he wishes, as long as is allowed by his school anyway."
Uncle Grantly turned towards me. "That is a promise, John, so long as you keep it within Hiram's regulations."
"Thank you, sir. But it's alright, sir. I quite like it short, sir. There's a lot of us at Hiram's who keep our hair short, sir, particularly those of us in the Army Cadet Corps." I said, feigning a calm indifference to the subject that I really did not feel.
And there was a little round of applause from the assembled guests.
The conversation moved on.
As we left the dining room and walked across the hallway to the sitting room for coffee Charlotte lagged behind with me.
She whispered "I think you are incredibly brave, having your hair so short, when that is what you want, not minding what other people say. We shouldn't be afraid to be ourselves and stand out against the crowd."
And then "Can I have a feel?"
Charlotte rubbed her hand through the stiff little bristles on the back of my head, and started giggling so loudly I had to push her hand away and tell her to shush.
Not long after that, as we sat at breakfast discussing the coming day's business, it was Uncle Arabin who brought up the subject of me getting another haircut. It can only have been a couple of weeks since my last, drastic, shearing, which he himself had supervised. Maybe he had taken what I said at the dinner at face value, I don't know.
"Stanhope, young man, you are becoming hirsute."
"Hirsute, Stanhope, lad. Hairy. You look like you could do with a haircut. If you have no after school activities planned for today, I can take you to Harding's this afternoon."
"No offense, Arabin old chap," interposed Uncle Grantly "but John does not need a haircut, not yet, I think. I can take him myself next week. Unless that is, John, you wish to avail himself of the Major's offer?"
I had said at that dinner that I liked my hair short, but that was just a front. And I knew what Uncle Arabin's ideas on haircuts were, from experience. It would be so nice to look like a normal teenager, to just BE a normal teenager.
But I still had to keep up my front, that being the mature, together, laid-back, young man that could easily cope with this, and did not mind at all.
And then there was another thing, there was the question of honour and duty. At that dinner Uncle Arabin had said that the traditional short back and sides built "discipline and character". And wasn't he right in thinking discipline was a good thing? To say "No", would seem evasive and ungrateful, disloyal and dishonourable. Didn't I have a duty to adopt a "disciplined attitude", to "man up" and "take it on the chin"?
So, carefully maintaining my air of sang-froid, I said "No, that's quite alright, sir. I think I could probably do with a haircut. So, if the Major is offering, I would like to accept, sir.
"So, I shall pick you up after school then, shall I?" said Uncle Arabin.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
I spent the whole day wondering what I had done. I knew what was coming. It was too late to back down now. I had given my agreement.
Uncle Arabin picked me up after school and took me to the barber.
Uncle Arabin asked for a "Short back and sides, taken fairly high, razor shaved", as anticipated, and once shorn I dutifully said "Thank you, sir." to Mr Harding and then to Uncle Arabin for the privilege. I had no one else to blame, I had volunteered for it. It was severe, but it was starting to seem routine. Indeed, it might become routine for some time to come.
However, "Sir" was another matter entirely. Calling my uncles, and other men, "Sir", made me feel mature, disciplined, masculine and, above all, confident. I had hated it when I first came to stay with them, but now it was part of my sense of who I was, and I really liked it.
No one at school commented the following day.
I had been fibbing at that dinner party - hadn't I? Or did part of me actually rather like things this way? I no longer knew what I thought or what I wanted.
The Thornes lived only a 10 minute walk away, but the Hiram Foundation had two schools, boys and girls, so Charlotte and I did not cross paths.
But Charlotte stayed on my mind. I just kept on thinking about her. I was sure a girl as lovely as she was, as easy to talk to, so confident, must already have a boyfriend. She was way out of my league. But she hadn't said anything about a boyfriend. The Christmas holidays were coming, I would be going home 50 miles away, with no possibility of seeing Charlotte for weeks to come. I took the plunge and rang her, and yes she agreed to meet up!
I wanted a Friday evening, and there was only one Friday left before the start of the Christmas holidays, so it was my last opportunity to do things the way I wanted. I would not change after school, but stay dressed in my Cadet's uniform for our date.
I worked on my boots all week, bringing them to a high state of shine.
Then there was one more thing, though my haircut was less than two weeks old, it no longer looked as smart as wanted. I wanted that sharp, clean, fresh "just come out of the barber's" look, and that "just come out of the barber's" smell.
But there was a problem. Haircuts back home had always been initiated by my father. Haircuts here were always initiated by my uncles. Someone else had always told me when to go, and given me the money. Clothes were the same. My mother always decided what I needed, and paid for it. Whenever I had asked for something particular at home the answer had always been "No, you don't need it." or "No, we can't afford it."
At breakfast on that Friday morning I bit the bullet. "Uncle Grantly?"
"I think my hair is starting to get a bit untidy, sir."
Uncle Grantly looked at me. "A haircut? It looks fine to me. Besides, I am busy all day today."
But Uncle Arabin came to my rescue with a big grin on his face.
"Remember, Grantly, old chap, our friend Stanhope here has got an appointment with a certain young lady tonight. He wants to look his best for her. I am busy too, but in the circumstances I think we can trust him at the barber's by himself. He is 16, after all, and he understands the requirement well enough by now, I think."
Uncle Grantly turned to me. "So, you want a smart haircut to impress Charlotte Thorne then, eh?"
"Yes, sir. I want to look my best for her, sir."
"Well, in the circumstances, I suppose we can help with that. And where are you taking her?"
"I don't know, sir, we haven't decided where to go yet."
"Well, take her somewhere nice."
He got out his wallet, and handed me two crisp, new pound notes, and then a third.
"Thank you, sir."
Uncle Arabin gave me a grin and a thumbs up.
I grinned back. "Thank you, sir!"
After school I went to Harding's.
He already knew my face and even my name. "Good afternoon, young sir. Good to see you again, Mr Stanhope. Are you well, sir? And your uncle, Mr Grantly? And Major Arabin?"
"Yes, we are all very well, thank you, Mr Harding."
"And what will it be, sir?"
"Short back and sides, taken high, razor shaved, please, sir."
"So you want it short then, son?"
"Very good then, young man."
Click. Clack. Head down. Clack, clack, clack, blades pressed in hard and sharp against the scalp. Head this way. Head that way. Snip, snip, snip with the scissors.
"Any off the top, son?"
"No that's fine thank you, sir.."
Lather up, scrape with the razor.
Mr Harding finally splashed on the Bay Rum (It was this, I understood now, that gave that marvelous barbershop smell), and showed me the back and sides in the hand mirror. "How's that, young man?"
Mr Harding had given me the most rigorous shearing yet, a really brutal scalping.
It was what I wanted, wasn't it? Well, it was certainly what I had asked for. It was clean, it was sharp, it was smart, and that was what mattered, so I would have to like it.
Anyway it was too late to change my mind now. "Yes, that looks very nice, thank you, sir."
"Cream or spray?"
And there was another necessary requirement to looking smart, and I would have to like this too. "Brylcreem, please, sir."
And, as before, Mr Harding applied a great dollop of thick, greasy, offensive gloop, and then combed my hair into place.
I looked at myself in the mirror, hair slicked back, gleaming and glistening, razor-sharp parting and a quiff. Yes, this was how a smart, well disciplined young man ought to be.
"A bit of grease on it makes all the difference, doesn't it, lad?"
"Yes, sir. It does, sir. Thank you, sir."
I left the barber shop with a better sense of self - smart, polished, confident.
At 7:30 that evening I was ready and waiting, under the town clock, immaculate in my uniform, hair properly shorn and slicked into place.
As Charlotte approached I came to attention and saluted. "Cadet Stanhope reporting for duty, ma'am!"
Charlotte laughed, "Yes, John!" and she carried on laughing.
It was infectious, I could not keep a straight face either, and I soon creased up laughing too.
We went to see a film, "The Sting", which had at last arrived at Barchester's one and only, independent, cinema, and then to a cafe for frothy coffees. We talked about the film which we both thought was fantastic, and the music was great too. Charlotte pointed out that Robert Redford did not get a real haircut in the barber shop scene. "It was a terrible cheat - he should have taken his medicine like a man, and had a genuine, 1930s style, smart haircut." I could hardly disagree. Then we talked about school and A-levels and what we wanted to do at university, she wanted to be a doctor and I wanted to be an architect, and we had a wonderful evening together.
We walked back home together through the dark, quiet streets. Charlotte wanted to have another feel of the back of my head.
But she started off by playing with my ear. Then she gave a gentle caress to the back of my neck, the newly shaved back of my neck. "Smooth as a baby's bottom!" she said. Her fingers wandered a little higher, "Sandpaper!" She explored a little further. "And prickles, too! I think I like prickles! Major Arabin was absolutely right, you know, all boys should have haircuts like this!"
And she rubbed her fingers up and down, giggling.
My reaction to the feel of Charlotte's fingertips on the back of my head, pushing all those sharp little prickles into my scalp, and her fondling of the sensitive area in the nape of my neck, was embarrassing, and difficult to control. I was left in no position to say anything at all in reply.
I gently removed her hand, put her arm in mine, and guided her forwards.
I walked her home, not saying much, hardly able to pay any attention to what she was saying, just letting her talk, as women do, and murmuring agreement whenever it seemed I needed to.
We walked on, eventually, I was back in full possession of myself.
Outside her front door I was rewarded with our first kiss, and the promise of another meeting. Her hair smelt of honey and rosemary and lemons.
Returning to the garden gate, I saluted.
Charlotte told me I was a "Prize Chump".
"Yes, ma'am! Cadet Prize Chump at your service, ma'am!" I managed to say with a straight face, and saluted again, but then of course I started laughing myself.
Charlotte, laughing too, said that she would ring me the next day and we would arrange something, and blew me a kiss.
I stood waiting until she had let herself into the house and closed the door behind her, and then walked off back towards my uncles' house, a happy man, wishing the short distance rather longer, not wanting the moment to end.
From then on my uncles left me to manage my own haircuts. I was provided with an allowance for this and my other personal needs, and then left to get on with things myself. I kept my hair short, very short. It was my decision.
The history of my relationship with Charlotte is another story, a story of a different kind which I shall not tell here, but I will say that Charlotte and I have been happily married for many years now, and we have children and grandchildren.