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REGULATIONS by SEAN BARNET


REGULATIONS

BY SEAN BARNET

(This story was inspired by "He needs a good cut", by SteDJ - I hope he does not mind.)

In 1972 when I was 16, my father started a new job and so we moved to a new town. I needed to get a haircut before starting at my new school. It was a hot day at the end of summer, and my mother was driving me around looking for a barber shop, but they seemed elusive for some reason. Eventually we spotted a barber's pole, the old wooden kind, sticking out at an angle from the building, and my mother drew up the car.

There was an open door into a passageway between two shops, and a faded sign "J. W. Trenchard, Barber, Hairdresser."

"It looks terribly old fashioned." I said. "Can't we find somewhere better?"

"You need a haircut, Luke. We haven't seen anywhere else. It will have to do."

I groaned inwardly, and accepted.

My mother handed me some money. "I'll pick you up in an hour."

I made my way up the long passageway and entered the shop, and groaned again, it was not just old fashioned, it was prehistoric!

I sat down to wait for my turn. There was an old man in the chair, another elderly man waiting and two boys who looked like brothers, one maybe a year or two younger than me and the other a couple of years younger than that.

The elderly customer in the chair was finished, and replaced by the next man.

I looked round, took in the tobacco stained walls, 30s style mirrors and the black and white photos of young men with neat 50s haircuts. I leafed through an old magazine on the table in front of me.

I wondered about the two brothers. They did not look to me like they needed haircuts. My hair covered my ears, their ears were clearly visible; my hair covered my collar at the back, their hair was well off the collar at the back, with an inch or so of bare neck showing between collar and hair-line; my fringe was beginning to fall into my eyes, their hair was neatly parted to the side and brushed back from their foreheads. On top their hair was actually a bit longer than was generally fashionable - I had a layered cut - and this added to the traditional, conservative look they presented. The edges were not "sharp", so their hair cannot have been cut recently, and consequently it must have been a bit longer than when it was newly cut - so how short had that beent?

They were dressed conservatively too, white shirts, ties and smartly pressed trousers. I was wearing faded bell-bottom jeans and a sweat-shirt!

The second man was finished and left. And the older boy gestured to the younger one, who took his place in the chair.

The barber caped him, and then turned the chair so that it was sideways to the mirror and facing into the corner of the room. Then, after a word or two, he picked up the clippers and began work, simply shaving the back and sides of the boy's head.

I looked on, I watched, I was appalled.

The boy just sat there, silent and passive, as the barber moved his head this way and that. He would obediently hold it in that same position until the barber moved it again.

The shaving was followed by a bit of snipping and trimming, then the barber dipped his finger into a pot of something, smeared it over his hands and rubbed it into the boy's hair. Finally, everything was combed into place, the barber turned the chair to the mirror and then showed him the back and sides. The boy emerged from the chair immaculately groomed, but shorn like a guardsman.

The boy then shook hands with the barber, gave him a "Thank you, sir." that sounded as though he actually meant it, and returned to the bench.

Then it was the elder brother - everything just the same.

I was getting increasingly worried.

"Next!"

And now it was my turn.

With grave misgivings I walked over and sat in the chair.

The old man drew the cape round me, fastened it, tugging out my long hair at the back, turned the chair to face the corner as he had done with the previous two boys, and looked at me.

"Yes?"

"Just a trim please."

"You new here, boy?"

I didn't much like being called "Boy", but there was not very much alternative except to answer politely, "Yes, we have just moved here."

"Still at school?"

Another unnecessary question. But I answered "Yes anyway. After all, what did it matter?

"Which one?"

Was the man just nosy? But what else could I do but continue to politely answer his questions?

"I'm starting at King Edward's next week."

"King Edward's? And your name, boy?"

"Luke."

"Luke? Is that a surname, boy?"

This was getting really annoying. But having been brought up to be polite and respectful, and not wishing to offend - and after all I was rather at his mercy sitting there caped up in the barber's chair - I answered "No, my surname is Webster."

"That's more like it. You will address me as "Mr Trenchard," or "Sir". Understood, Webster?"

Things were becoming a bit clearer now. I tactfully said "Yes, sir."

I would definitely not be coming back here again, there must be other barbers in town.

"Now, King Edward's boys all like to have a good, old fashioned, short back and sides, or, at least, they prefer that to a good, old fashioned caning from the headmaster for breaching regulations. So, Webster, is it just a trim? Or will it be a short back and sides?"

Put like that, I really didn't have any choice. Things were now very clear indeed.

"Yes, sir. Short back and sides, please, sir."

"Very good. I like a boy who sees sense. Right then, sit up straight, keep still, and keep your mouth shut. Understand, Webster?"

"Yes, sir."

At his point the shop bell tinkled, and an old man came in. He was obviously a friend of Trenchard's, and the two of them disappeared to talk over some kind of private business in a back room, leaving me in the chair, face to the corner.

I sat. Do I make a run for it? Mum will come back here looking for me. I have to get a haircut today. School rules obviously required a short back and sides. I sat.

I sat. All I could see was the cape, cupboards, two walls meeting and the pile of previous customers' hair which had accumulated in the corner. I remembered having to stand in the corner of the class-room when I was naughty at primary school, with nothing to do except stare at some peeling paint on the walls and a few scraps of paper on the floor. I sat.

Trenchard returned.

"Right then, lad."

He planted his left hand firmly on the top of my head, and pushed it forward. The clippers fired up, and I felt the cold vibrating steel against the back of my neck, biting hard and sharp. The clippers worked their way slowly up my neck and up the back of my head, higher and higher - would they ever stop? My head was steered to the left, and the clippers went round my right ear. Head right, round my left ear.

I sat, head bent submissively - as though I had any choice in the matter. All I could now see was the cape, and my hair sliding down it in chunks to join that pile on the floor. All I could hear was the loud clacking of the old fashioned clippers and the clicking of scissors.

Mr Trenchard clipped and snipped, moved my parting from the centre to the left, cut my fringe on a slant and shaved round my neck and ears, all without saying anything or asking me what I wanted. I was getting exactly the same treatment as the last two boys.

Finally, I saw him dip his finger into the same pot of goo he had used on the previous two, so I said "No dressing, please, sir."

"Regulations." He said, rubbing it over his hands and applying it to my hair with evident satisfaction. He massaged the stuff well in, making sure every last hair was properly greased, and then combed everything into place.

"Now, young Webster my lad.", He turned me towards the mirror, and showed me the shaved back and sides of my head in the hand mirror. "Now, that is how a King Edward's boy looks. That is how a smart young man looks."

I took in the shocking, stark whiteness of the back and sides, the white line of a precise parting and the glossy, gleaming sleekness of the hair left on top - It was short back and sides with a vengeance!

I gave the expected nods of approval, and was released.

Mr Trenchard brushed me down, and held out his hand for me to shake.

I put my hand in his.

"Thank you, sir." he prompted me.

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Adding "Thank you very much, sir." out of a deeply ingrained habit of keeping adults happy.

Trenchard shook my hand warmly, as though we had just reached some special understanding between the two of us.

"It has been a pleasure, my boy."

As I paid I explained that I would have to wait for my mother to come and pick me up. Trenchard just nodded and pointed at the bench, and I sat back down.

The next customer was a middle aged man, and the chair was turned to face the mirror in the usual way.

I sat there rubbing the back of my head. I looked like some kind of freaky throw-back to the era of National Service, but the sand-paper and bristles felt tremendous - which was not the sort of reaction I expected to have. Did everyone at King Edward's really have a haircut like this? Didn't it make us a laughing stock? What sort of place was King Edward's anyway? It sounded like Colditz with that talk of regulations and canings.

Then another boy came in. He too was turned to face into the corner of the barber shop. I watched as he was given a good scalping just like the rest of us. Obviously this was another King Edward's boy being prepared for the start of the new term.

My mother arrived.

"My! Goodness me! Oh, darling, don't you look smart!" A kiss on one cheek. She turned me round full circle, inspecting from all angles. "You have had it cut so short, love!" A kiss on the other cheek. "And haven't you always said you didn't want it short?"

Mr Trenchard paused from his work of removing all superfluous hair from the boy in front of him, and turned towards my mother.

"Regulations, Mrs Webster. King Edward's School regulations. And if you take my advice, madam, you will bring the boy back here every three weeks. That way he will avoid any trouble at school - at least on the subject of hair length."

"Yes. Thank you. Yes. I shall bear that in mind. Come on, Luke, we must be going.. Goodbye, Mr Trenchard, and thank you again."

*****

As soon as we got home I tried to wash out the thick greasy stuff Trenchard had put in my hair, whatever it was, but with little success. After repeated washings over three weeks it had mostly gone. But guess what? Three weeks had passed, so my mother delivered me back to Trenchard's for a repeat shearing, and he put a whole lot more grease back in.

Later on I worked out why we were turned to face the corner of the room. Trenchard did not want us commenting on the haircut in any way, or giving any instructions. So we were turned away from the mirror so we could not see what he was doing. Nor did he want us talking to the other boys who were waiting, or reacting in any way to them pulling faces or laughing at us. So we faced the corner.

Evidently how our hair was cut was no business of ours. Our superiors had decided what was suitable. A boy was expected to present himself for a haircut every three weeks, to sit, silent and obedient, and to accept the result as the right and proper thing, correct, inevitable, ideal.

Everyone at school did indeed have the regulation short back and sides. In some ways this was a relief, everyone was in the same boat, and I did not stand out in the way that I was afraid that I might.

The conservative atmosphere was pervasive: strict uniform policy, masters very particular about being called "Sir" all the time, compulsory military drill and so on.

I got little sympathy from my father when I complained about all this. He assured me that he had known what the school was like before deciding to send me there, that his school had been exactly the same, that it had done him no harm and it would do ME a great deal of good!

I noticed my new friends seemed to have taken on the consevative ethos too, even out of school they dressed traditionally with jackets and ties and smart trousers. When my friend Grafton-Jones came round to my house one week-end he asked why I called my father "Dad", and not respectfully address him as "Sir" like everyone else at school? - this was news to me, I had never come across such an idea before, it seemed bizarre.

At the end of that term it so happened that I was due for my three-weekly scalping a few days before term actually finished, so I suggested to my mother that I could probably give it a miss until it was time to go back to school at the end of the Christmas holiday, and she agreed. Luckily no one picked me up on it at school, and I did not receive the dreaded order "Get that hair cut!"

However, a few days into the holidays my father said to me "You are looking unkempt, my boy. You seem not to have had your usual hair cut. Any reason?"

I explained that I was waiting until the end of the holidays.

"Well, I'm afraid that will not do, my son. I want your grandparents to see how smart you can look when they come on Christmas Day. I want you with your hair cut, wearing your new suit, shoes polished, immaculate.You need to get it cut, my lad."

"Yes, sir."

And so it was.

"Sir." had recently become routine when speaking to my father. And at his insistence I was beginning to dress much more smartly. He also insisted that I kept my hair short - regulation short - irrespective of whether it was term-time or holiday. I put up a bit of opposition to this - self respect demanded it - but it was just token really. Was I coming to rather enjoy my visits to Mr Trenchard, though I could not admit this, even to myself?

After two years at King Edward's I went off to university, a quite different place with a different atmosphere and different people. So I took the opportunity to rebel. I changed the way I dressed, and I changed my hair. But after usual 70s experiments - a curly perm, mullets and so forth - when I left university I went back to having a short back and sides. And I have done ever since.

Thank you, Mr Trenchard. Thank you, sir!

THE END





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