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Dad gets a haircut, by Sean Barnet


When I was 14, back in 1973, my father got a new job, and the Saturday morning before he started he went out and came back with a new haircut, a short haircut, shorter than I had ever seen him with before - you could see the white skin of his scalp shining through the bristles round his ears and on the back of his head. The hair on top had been left long but that was shiny too, slicked straight back with something or other holding it rigidly in place. It was very different from his normal, moderate, middle-aged man's cut.

I had more sense than to say anything. Luckily, my brothers, Jeremy (16) and Tobias (10) kept their mouths shut as well. Jeremy and I laughed about it between ourselves afterwards, and Jeremy told me the stuff on Dad's hair was Brylcreem. My brother, being older, of course knew everything.

Then, a couple of times, I noticed my mother running her fingers up the back of my father's head when she kissed him goodbye as he left for work in the mornings.

A few weeks later he came home with another haircut, just the same.

*****

Half term came, a whole week off school. On Thursday evening at dinner my father announced that because of all the long hours he had been working in his new job he was taking the following day off to spend with us boys, and he would take us walking up Wayland Hill (the biggest hill in the area, a couple of hours walk/climb up to the top), so could Mum please make us packed lunches?

Mum, of course, wanted to know why he could not have told her about this earlier in the week, she had plans of her own for Friday, and she had booked the three of us boys in for haircuts with her stylist Sandra. We all needed our regular trims before we went back to school, and she could not cancel at this stage. Sandra was always booked up with regulars all day Saturdays. Sandra would be most put out and might not make any appointments in future..

My father did not "see the difficulty, Darling". He could take us all for our haircuts to his own barber "first thing" on our way to the hill. Anyway, he was fed up with his "sons all looking like girls". My mother could tell Sandra that we were going to a "proper barber" from now on, and no future appointments would be necessary.

My mother lapsed into silence, and my father glared round the table looking for any more opposition to quash.

Jeremy had the longest hair of any of us and was sitting there fingering it in an awkward embarrassed manner. This clearly exasperated my father who was in a bad mood for some reason not apparent to us.

"And that awful mop of yours will have to go, my son."

"Aw, Dad, I don't..."

My father interrupted him. "None of your "Aw, Dad", please, Jeremy. That's "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Do you understand?"

Jeremy looked down and said nothing.

"Jeremy?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Later that evening my father and Jeremy disappeared into my father's study together for maybe an hour.

Jeremy would not tell me what it had been about, but just said that I would find out tomorrow.

*****

The next morning we set off in the car, Jeremy in the front and Tobias and myself in the back. My father was talking as we drove along and Jeremy was answering, and politely adding a "Sir" at the end of each thing he said.

Myself, I rather resented having to call the masters at school "Sir", but hearing Jeremy call Dad "Sir" seemed rather different, like my brother was some kind of smooth operator out of a spy film or war movie.

"Jerry," piped up Tobias," Why are you calling Dad "Sir"? He's not a teacher. We're not at school."

There was a pause.

"That, Toby," said my father, "is because Jeremy is growing up, and will soon be a man. "Sir" is not just for teachers, you know, it is the way grown men address each other when they wish to be polite or show respect. Jeremy is getting too old to call me "Dad" anymore, and he has decided to call me "Father" or "Sir" from now on. It is like In the army, junior officers always address senior officers by their titles, or call them "Sir", and you could say that Jeremy is now my junior officer. When you are his age, you will want to call me "Sir" too, I think.

*****

I did not know which barber shop my father was taking us to, but when we turned up a side street and I saw the barber's pole sticking out I realised that it was Bell's - or Hell's barber Shop as we referred to it at school. Mr Bell was an ex-Army barber well known for the severe butchering he inflicted on the hair of any boy unlucky enough to fall into his clutches.

My father pointed the way, and we reluctantly filed in.

The place was old. The place was shabby. The place was dismal.

The barber was just finishing a customer, he removed the cape, turned the chair away from the mirror, and helped a silver-haired elderly gentleman to get out.

"Next, please!"

My father stood up and looked at Jeremy who got up, hung up his jacket, turned round, gave me a grin and a thumbs up, walked over to the barber's chair, and then slowly lowered himself in.

I wondered at his apparent cheerful willingness, the saying "The condemned man ate a hearty breakfast." came to mind.

Mr Bell fastened the cape, looked at Jeremy with his mop of long hair, and turned to my father. "So, what'll it be sir?"

"Short back and sides, please, Mr Bell."

"A nice short back and sides for the lad, sir? That will be a pleasure, sir."

Mr Bell left Jeremy facing away from the mirror. There were no mirrors on the wall behind us, so Jeremy would not be able to see what Mr Bell was doing to his hair, or exercise and form of control, but sitting with the mirror facing me I had a view of both front and back.

Mr Bell reached for his clippers, rather brusquely pushed my brother's head forwards, and began to cut.

I watched as great swathes of hair fell to the floor.

My father, instead of sitting down again, continued standing there, a few feet away from the chair, watching with an approving smile on his face.

Most of Jeremy's hair was rapidly removed from the back and sides of his head, leaving short stubble and the occasional strand of long hair the clippers had missed. The clippers went round a second time removing those long strands, and sending a fine haze of short clippings down along with them, glinting in the sunlight as they fell.

My brother now had basically shaved back and sides and an enormous, shaggy thatch on the top of his head.

Mr Bell picked up a bottle with a rubber ball attached and proceeded to spray this thatch with something. Then, slowly and carefully this time, he went round once more, lifting hair with the comb and shearing it off with the clippers, blending the long hair on top with the shaved back and sides, creating that classic 1950s, school-boy's and National-Serviceman's haircut.

All this time Jeremy sat there, impassive, saying nothing, moving his head as Mr Bell directed, or rather, allowing Mr Bell to move it for him. But mostly he sat there with his head bent forward, motionless, as Mr Bell cut, and his hair fell to the floor. I wondered at his patience and self-control.

Mr Bell looked over at my father. "Any off the top, sir?" "Yes, a little, I think." Dad replied.

Mr Bell picked up some strange shears, half comb, half scissors, and hacked away at my brother's head a bit with those.

"How's that, sir?"

"Yes, that is excellent, thank you, Mr Bell."

Mr Bell then lathered up round my brother's ears and the back of his neck, and then, opening an old fashioned cut-throat razor, shaved them clean, white and bald.

"Dressing, sir? Keep the boy looking smart, sir."

"Yes, that would finish it off nicely, thank you."

M Bell picked up what I could see was Brylcreem, as Jeremy had said, scooped out a blob, smeared it over his hands and rubbed it into Jeremy's hair. He then combed everything into place, giving him a sharp parting. He turned the chair towards the mirror, showed him the back of his head, which had been shaved almost up to the tops of his ears.

He turned the chair back facing us, and removed the cape with a flourish.

"There you go, lad, that is how a young man should look. All nice and smart for the young ladies now."

As Mr Bell was brushing Jeremy down my father walked over. "A vast improvement, Thank you, Mr Bell. Wouldn't you agree, Jeremy?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Well done, my son. Thank you."

I wondered again at Jeremy's attitude, was he just keeping Dad happy?

Jeremy walked back over to the bench rubbing at the shaved skin on the back of his head with his forefinger.

Dad then turned towards me, "Ben." he said, and he gestured towards the barber's chair.

My turn. Most unwillingly, I went. I sat. I was caped, it was tight.

"Same again, sir?"

"Same again, please, Mr Bell."

My head was pushed down, and the clippers came on with the most tremendous din right next to my ear. I froze. My head was pushed this way and that way, down, up, left, right. But mostly my head was down, I was not allowed to look up. I had a view of the cape and the floor, and nothing much else. The clippers bit, hard and sharp, and then went round once again. Mountains of hair, my hair, fell onto the cape and slid to the floor. But that was not enough, it was snip, snip, snip with the scissors, and yet more hair tumbled.

Finally, the weird new sensation of a soft, warm, wet brush, round my ears and the back of my neck, then my skin pulled taught by the barber's thumb, and the cold, sharp blade of an open razor.

I endured all this as submissively as I could. No point arguing. No point protesting. No point making any fuss. Head down, don't move, just cooperate with the punishment - don't risk anything worse!

Once all my superfluous locks had been consigned to the floor, my remaining hair was slathered up with grease. Then every hair was combed precisely into its newly appointed place.

Mr Bell did not trouble to turn me back to face the mirror to see the result, nor to show me the back of my head. He just removed the cape, and said "Next!" Now it was little Toby's turn.

As I went back to the bench I turned to look at myself. I had two little sticking out ears - much lower down the side of my head than I remembered! My hair was slick and glossy, I had a razor-sharp parting, and there was stark, white skin on the sides of my head.

I sat there on the bench, watching poor Toby, sitting on a plank across the arms of the chair, being scalped like his brothers. He had a miserable look on his face, he was squirming about, resisting Mr Bell's grip, and trying to pull his head away from the clippers.

Mr Bell tapped his head sharply with the comb. "Keep still, boy!"

I felt very sorry for him, even though I had just received the same treatment myself, even though I was secretly rather enjoying the feel of all those prickles, pushing the bristles this way and that, and running my fingers over that smooth, freshly shaved skin.

Once the three of us were done, much to my surprise, my father sat in the chair himself.

Only now did Mr Bell turn the chair back to face the mirror. So it seemed that though we boys were not allowed to see what Mr Bell was doing, or exercise any control, the older customers were - of course!

"Yes, sir? What'll it be for you, sir?"

"Short back and sides, same as you gave my boys, please, Mr Bell."

And he had a haircut just like ours this time, shaved close round the back and sides, rather than just a bit of skin shining through long bristles.

Once he had been satisfactorily shorn and Brylcreemed himself, and had paid and thanked

Mr Bell, my father turned to us. "Well done boys, you have made me proud of you all."

We filed out of Hell's Barber Shop, a family of four, sporting our four identical haircuts. I heard my father give an extra "Thank you" to Jeremy for some reason - some reason I did not fully understand - but I was just starting to piece the clues together in my mind.

*****

We climbed up Wayland Hill.

We ate our sandwiches, and looked out at the view over five counties.

******

Back down at the bottom of the hill, hungry and tired, but with some sense of achievement, Dad took us to a local tea shop where we drank tea and ate a lot more sandwiches, and cake.

*****

Mum was surprisingly OK about our close shearing. She said how nice it looked, and how nice it was that we all looked the same, and how nice it was that we all looked just like Dad now.

*****

We had a couple of days to try and get used to our new appearance before school on Monday. I don't know how Jeremey and Tobias got on, but my friends took the Mickey no end.

They took the Mickey again three weeks later when Dad took us all back to Bell's for another shearing.

The next time Dad did not take us himself, but sent us under Jeremy's supervision. This did not result in any relaxation of rigour, Jeremy was now just as much an enthusiast for a short back and sides as Dad, both for himself and for us his brothers. It became the usual thing that, as soon as we had any covering of hair on the back and sides of our heads, Dad would give Jeremy the money for the three of us, and he would take us to Bell's on our way home from school.

Toby soon got used to things, and sat quiet and obedient like his brothers.

Eventually our classmates got used to our close shorn locks and stopped commenting.

*****

We never did go back to Sandra's. To be honest, I did not miss that. I was getting fed up with her fussing and finicking, and her incessant talking. I had been starting to think that something more "masculine" might be in order. Well, we got that in bucket loads!

And I began to call Dad "Sir", just like my brother.

THE END





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