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Morgan and Willis by SteDJ

“Dear Mr Martin,
We are delighted to offer you the position of part-time sales assistant in our food department starting on Thursday 2nd December. Your working hours will initially be Thursdays and Fridays from 4pm to 8pm and Saturdays from 8.30am to 5.30pm. Remuneration will be £1.55 per hour payable in arrears. Please report to the store at 4pm on 2nd December for induction training.
Please confirm your acceptance of this offer by Friday 19th November.
We look forward to welcoming you to Morgan and Willis.
Yours sincerely,
M. J. Bairstow
Personnel Director, Morgan & Willis Department Stores"

I stood in the hallway reading the letter, then read it again, just to make sure it was real. My very first job! Wow, to say I was excited was an understatement. I would be earning money of my own to spend on whatever I wanted. I couldn’t wait to tell the world, but instead, began by imparting the thrilling news to my mum and dad, who seemed genuinely pleased for me.

It was 1982, I was 16, and after months of pestering my parents, I had finally received the go-ahead from them to get a Saturday job. I had diligently applied all my application letter writing skills from my English classes at school and they had borne fruit, initially in the form of an interview at the prestigious city centre department store Morgan and Willis. The personnel director, a severe woman under the name of Maureen Bairstow, had grilled me about my attitude to customer service, professionalism and punctuality among other things, and made it clear that if offered the position, I was to treat it seriously. I must have made a good impression, as a few days later, I received the offer letter in the post.

Most of my friends at school had Saturday jobs by now, and it was a common playground discussion topic to compare notes on our respective jobs, not least how much we got paid and for those who worked in shops, how much staff discount we were entitled to. A few days before I was due to start my new job though, I was mildly concerned when some of my friends seemed less than positive about the prospect of working at Morgan and Willis.

“My brother worked there," said Jonathan, one of my mates. “He hated it " he said it was like the army. They even cut his hair the day he started. Good luck is all I can say!"

“They never mentioned anything about cutting my hair," I replied. “That must have been a while ago; I guess things must have changed since."

“Well, you’ll soon find out!" laughed Jonathan. “If you turn up to school on Friday with a skinhead, we’ll all know that I was right."

“You’re just jealous," I retorted. “Just because you work in Woolworth’s where they only pay £1.40 an hour…"

Thursday 2nd December finally arrived, and with a degree of trepidation, I arrived at Morgan and Willis at ten to four, a professional 10 minutes early. The enormous department store had been in business for decades, and was firmly established as not only thriving on tradition, but also as being the most upmarket store of its kind in the city. The premises sprawled over five floors, and the store sold everything you could imagine. On arrival at the personnel office, I was greeted by Mrs Bairstow, looking as officious as ever and dressed in an unfetchingly frumpy business suit, her grey hair scraped back into a bun. She asked me to take a seat alongside the other three other new starters, who appeared to be about the same age as myself. We sat uncomfortably ignoring each other until Mrs Bairstow reappeared, clutching a fistful of paperwork attached to a wooden clipboard.

“Right, Mr Martin, Mr Webster, Mr Morris and Miss Brown. Good, everyone’s here. Welcome to Morgan and Willis. First, we’re going to sort out your uniforms, then you’ll have some training on what to expect from us " as well as what we expect from you as an employee of this company. After that, you’ll have a guided tour of the store and meet your department manager." She briefly consulted her notes, and confirmed that we would all be working in the food department. “Follow me please, let’s get you kitted out."

Mrs Bairstow set off at a quick pace down a long corridor, then stopped at a door marked ‘Uniform Store’.

“Right, Miss Brown first, the rest of you wait here."

After a few minutes, Miss Brown, who we later learned was called Julie, reappeared dressed in a hideously shapeless navy blue polyester overall-type outfit complete with a name badge.

“Mr Martin, please." Mrs Bairstow’s voice then summoned me into the uniform store, and I entered a small windowless room full of rack upon rack of the worst kind of institutional work clothing imaginable. In an instant I was measured and presented with a pair of horrible narrow legged navy-blue polyester trousers without pockets, a pale blue shirt, a navy-blue clip-on tie, a crisp white coat overall, which fastened with press studs down the front, and a name badge.

“Get changed please, quickly," snapped Mrs Bairstow.

Feeling more than a little self-conscious, I did as I was bid, and Mrs Bairstow stared at me intensely as I changed out of my school uniform into my scratchy new work clothing. I may have been only 16, but I began to think that this woman was a bit on the creepy side, and couldn’t wait to get out of the small room.

Andrew and Richard, the other two lads, dressed in the same embarrassing work outfits soon joined me back in the corridor, and along with Julie we were then frogmarched to a training room, where we sat down as Mrs Bairstow droned on for an hour or so about everything from fire safety, how to stack shelves, how to lift things, the importance of food hygiene, how to be nice to customers and finally to sign various bits of paper which I assumed to be contracts of some sort. We were then treated to a guided tour of the gigantic building where we met our department manager, Mrs Howes, in the food hall. After what seemed forever, Mrs Bairstow obviously decided that we had been sufficiently inducted to her satisfaction, and announced to Julie that she may leave, and that we would see her tomorrow.

“Right boys, follow me please," instructed Mrs Bairstow, as she set off at a brisk pace towards the lifts. Why had she dismissed Julie, and where was she taking us? Once in the lift, Mrs Bairstow pressed the button for the 5th floor, which I was alarmed to see was labelled among other things with ‘Ladies’ Hair and Beauty Salon’ and ‘Men’s and Boys’ Hairdressing’.

Finally, one of us spoke. “Please Miss, where are we going?" asked Richard, looking as worried as I felt.

“You’ve got an appointment with the barbers. The three of you are getting decent haircuts appropriate for employment in a prestigious department store. You didn’t think that you would be allowed to work on the shop floor with hair like that did you?"

Our hair wasn’t that long " just the typical early 80s centre-parted helmet-type cuts, but these obviously didn’t pass muster with Mrs Bairstow.

“Our customers have high expectations when it comes to staff appearance, and so do we as employers, and that includes your hair. Don’t worry though, you won’t have to pay; these first haircuts will be covered by the company."

Whether or not payment was necessary was the least of our worries at that moment, as the lift doors slid open to reveal a sight that no 16-year-old boy in 1982 would have relished " a revolving red and white pole of doom and an illuminated sign: ‘Carlo at Morgan and Willis, Gentlemen’s Hairdressing’ announcing that we had arrived at what looked like a very smart but painfully traditional barber’s shop. I suddenly remembered what I had been told by Jonathan at school about his brother having to have a haircut to work here, and I froze in panic. I momentarily glanced at Andrew and Richard, and saw a similar rabbit-in-the-headlights expression on both of their faces. This was not good.

“Come on boys, this way please," snapped Mrs Bairstow, as she opened the door of the barber shop. “You should feel privileged that Carlo and his colleagues will be taking care of you " not everyone can afford haircuts here." On entering the shop, we were instantly met by a smell you only got in old fashioned barber shops, something like perfumed sanitiser mixed with tobacco smoke. The brightly lit room was dominated by three huge traditional hydraulic barber chairs with black leather seat cushions, each facing a mirror above a shiny white basin. Draped over one of the arms of each chair was a neatly folded candy striped red and white nylon haircut cape. The walls were tiled in dazzling white and decorated with pictures of men with 1970s haircuts " all feather cuts, moustaches and big sideburns. The black and white chequered floor gleamed, contributing to the overall effect of something more reminiscent of a hospital operating theatre than a barber’s shop.

“Hello, Carlo, three new starters please," announced Mrs Bairstow to one of three immaculately white coated barbers who were sitting in their respective barber chairs " obviously between customers - reading newspapers and smoking cigarettes.

“No problem, Maureen," replied the barber, who I presumed to be Carlo, in a strong Italian accent.

“Right boys, I’ll leave you with Carlo, Vincenzo and Mario. Come back to the personnel office when you’re done so that I can inspect your haircuts. Behave yourselves and I’ll see you soon."

With that, Mrs Bairstow exited the barber’s, leaving the three of us to our fate.

Almost simultaneously, the three barbers rose to their feet, put out their cigarettes and unfurled the striped capes ready to welcome their three victims for a shearing.

Instantly, Carlo took charge.

“You, there!" he barked, pointing at Andrew and directing him to the far chair. “You, there!" pointing Richard to the middle chair and “You, here!" directing me to take a seat in Carlo’s own chair. We hesitantly and apprehensively took our places in our respective barber chairs, and the choreographed theatre continued as the three enormous capes billowed through the air, settling over each of us, completely covering us from neck to toe before being tightly tucked into the shirt collar of each reluctant wearer. This was followed by a small white towel, which was neatly positioned over the back of the cape before also being snugly tucked in just a bit too tightly. I was then raised upwards in a series of sharp jolts as Carlo pumped the chair up, and as I glanced to my right, out of my eye corner I could just see Richard with a face like thunder also slowly moving upwards as Vincenzo jacked the chair up to a suitable working height for him high above the ground. It crossed my mind that all this synchronised barbering would have been quite funny to observe had we not been the focal point of all the activity " as it was, none of us were finding this remotely funny or enjoyable; quite the opposite in fact.

From the far end of the room, I could just make out Andrew feebly addressing Mario, his barber,

“Please can I just have a light trim sir. I only had my hair cut last week…"

“I cut your hair short for working in Morgan Willis, young man. You no decide how I cut the hair, so sit and quiet please," brusquely replied the Italian barber in heavily accented slightly imperfect English. This did not sound good at all. My mate Jonathan really had been right all along.

With a dry mouth and tightly gripping the arms of the chair, I stared into the mirror at my caped reflection. My thick blond hair was about five inches long on top, parted in the centre and flicked back, half way over my ears, and a couple of inches over my collar at the back " pretty typical for the early 1980s. But not for much longer it would seem, judging by what I had just heard.

Suddenly, and without warning, the action began. Carlo abruptly dragged his comb through my blond locks before firmly grabbing each side of my head and roughly shoving it forward, so all that I could see was my long fringe and a bit of the red and white cape over my knees.

“You, stay still, boy," snapped Carlo, as he grabbed an enormous pair of black electric hair clippers, snapping on a plastic comb attachment and dragging the cable across the floor, lining up the clippers ready to start their onslaught on the back of my head.

With a vicelike grip, Carlo’s heavy hand then took hold of the top of my head, forcing it yet further forward until my chin was uncomfortably buried in my cape, and with a sickening electric ‘clack’ the clippers hummed into life and immediately began their trail of destruction up the back of my neck. The humming momentarily changed to a low-pitched growling sound as I felt the machine chewing into the long hair on the back of my head, instantly and effortlessly severing it off. I flinched and tried to move my head out of the way of the clippers, but all that did was to make Carlo tighten his grip even more and shout at me to keep still. Carlo made more and more passes up the back of my head, and I was alarmed at how high the clippers seemed to be going. This was going to be one hell of a short haircut.

Seemingly satisfied with the destruction he had wrought on the back of my head, Carlo suddenly lifted my head up, and for the first time since the shearing had begun, I could see into the mirror again, and was pleased to note little obvious change - from what I could see, anyway. That didn’t last for long though, as the manically humming clippers appeared round the side of my head and round my right ear as Carlo folded it down, dramatically mowing off several inches of hair at a time and leaving behind nothing but a short velvety fuzz. Huge clumps of my blond hair tumbled down and rapidly began to build up on my shoulders, before slipping down the front of the cape to gather in a heap in the nylon folds over my knees. A mixture of fear and anger gripped me as the other side of my head received the same brutal treatment, and as the barber switched off the clippers, I was left with a shaved back and sides contrasting with the disproportionately long blond mop which remained on the top of my head.

I glanced to my right just in time to see a huge parcel of Richard’s brown locks slip down from his shoulder to the floor " he too was getting a brutal short back and sides and had been left with acres of white skin and heaps of severed hair at the base of his neck on the back of his cape.

Carlo then grabbed my head again, one hand at each side and abruptly steered my attention back to the mirror directly in front of me, as he liberally sprayed my remaining hair with water from a squeezy bottle causing rivulets to run down my face. He then took his comb, carefully fashioning a sharp side parting, then using the comb to scoop up a huge section of hair, he gripped it between his fingers and I observed with horror as with three decisive snips of the scissors, he deftly sliced off about 4 inches of wet hair, which being heavier, fell with a light muffled thud onto the cape. With lightning speed and precision, the process was repeated across the whole of the top of my head as the scissors snipped away frantically and long hanks of hair rained down relentlessly. Before long, a large mound of darker coloured wet hair had built up in my lap on top of the lighter coloured dry hair, causing a wet patch to gradually soak through the fine nylon fabric as the cape sagged between my knees under the weight.

Very soon, I was left with no more than an inch and a half of hair on top " barely enough to lay down. The remains of my fringe was the next to go, as Carlo combed it forward, and in the blink of an eyelid reduced it to a sloping line high across my forehead, the shortest part ending up barely an inch long. As if that wasn't enough, there was then yet more clipping as the barber expertly whizzed the clippers over the comb, blending in the shaved back and sides with the longer hair on top.

Without really needing to look, I could tell that the others were suffering the same fate as I was " I could hear the same intense snipping and clipping coming from the other chairs, and out of my eye corner I could just make out their red and white capes, like mine, liberally scattered with massive chunks of cut hair. I had no doubt that we would all end up looking just the same, like new army recruits.

I hardly recognised myself in the mirror. I looked horrible, and my ears stuck out far more than I ever remembered. As tears began to well up in my eyes, the barber began to attack me once more " this time with a cut throat razor. Having untucked the back of the cape, I could feel the razor scraping round my neck before being applied to the stubble above my ears, carving out distinct arches and scraping off the remains of my sideboards at an angle from the tops of my ears.

“Nearly finish," announced Carlo, as he took a bottle of some sort of perfumed yellow liquid, liberally sprinkled it over my head and roughly massaged it into my remaining hair. Taking his comb and a big black hairdryer, he then blasted my head with a torrent of burning hot air, precisely arranging every hair as he created the perfect 1950s short back and sides. Perfect for Morgan and Willis, that is…

Finally, I received a vigorous brushing down, and Carlo used the hairdryer again, this time to liberate the remaining bits of hair stuck to my face as well as to send the mountain of cut hair from the cape to the floor, creating a huge storm of flying hair clippings in the process. As he breezily waved his hand mirror behind me, my heart skipped a beat as my eyes settled on a reflection that I didn't recognise at first - white skin on the back and sides, gradually blending into a gleaming side-parted top. I was horrified to see how I had gone from trendy 1980s teenager to nerdy 1950s throwback in less than twenty minutes. As the barber whipped off the cape and let down the chair, I did my best to flight back the tears before stepping down to face my new work colleagues who were standing waiting for me, both with the same hideously brutal haircuts as I had just received. I rubbed my neck and was horrified to feel nothing but sharp bristles, and glancing back at the heaps of what had been my hair scattered around the base of the chair, I saw Carlo beginning to sweep it up. I was shocked to see just how much I had lost.

“We’d better go and report to the dragon," said Andrew, also rubbing his neck whilst wiping traces of tears from his eyes and referring of course to Mrs Bairstow. That broke the ice, and the three of us each managed a weak smile. Some say that there’s bonding in adversity, and from there on, the three of us instantly seemed to have a lot to talk about as we moaned about the injustice of our unwanted scalping.

On arrival back at the personnel office, Mrs Bairstow immediately gave our horrid new haircuts her seal of approval.

“Much better. You can either report back to Carlo in three weeks’ time, and have him cut your hair with a 30% staff discount, or you can get it cut at your own barber. But whatever happens, your hair must be kept exactly as it is now for as long as you work here. Mrs Howes will be conducting regular inspections. Understood? See you tomorrow, don’t be late."

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