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THE STATION BARBER by SEAN BARNET


THE STATION BARBER

BY SEAN BARNET


This was back in 1973, I was 18 and had just started university, studying to become an architect.

Young men's hair back then was a fraught subject. The older generation were still scandalised by boys and men with longer hair, and they hated the sight of it. At school there were a few boys with elderly or old-fashioned parents who still had the traditional short back and sides. Most of us had moved on and had layered cuts, "razor cuts", or "feather cuts". This layered cut was a compromise, while we were still at school, to avoid trouble. These were often quite short, an inch or two all over, but covering the forehead, the ears and the collar. School and parents insisted on short hair. We wanted to grow our hair as long as possible - on principle. But on the other hand, the very long hair and beards of the late 60s were now beginning to look outdated, and the shorter, layered cuts were gradually coming into fashion with teenagers no longer at school and with young men generally.

Christmas was coming. My father had been given a promotion by his firm to a new position in Abu Dhabi. Flights were expensive, so I would not see my parents until the following summer. The university halls closed down for three weeks until term started again in January, and it had been arranged that I would spend the holiday with my grandmother.

The problem for me was that my grandfather had died many years ago, and my grandmother had recently remarried. I scarcely knew her new husband. I had only met him a handful of times, and always at big family gatherings, never one to one or in small informal groups, so I had hardly spoken to him except the bare civilities.

What I did know about my new step-grandfather was that he was ex-Army, and had a lot of conservative opinions and was not reticent about voicing them.

* * * * *

Term came to an end. I packed my rucksack and set out, a long train journey with more than an hour's wait at one station while I changed trains.

I dressed fairly smartly, I was even wearing a tie, even though smart didn't really seem appropriate for travelling, but I felt I needed to make a good impression when I arrived. But I had not had a haircut. I had not had a haircut since April, at the end of the Easter holiday before my final term at school. I knew I ought to get a haircut. I had been intending to get a haircut. But I had not actually had a haircut. I had simply not got round to it. And it was 1973, we were students, and we all liked our hair long.

I sat on the train thinking that I really should have bitten the bullet and had a haircut. I was also wondering what I should call my new step-grandfather. "Grandfather" and "Grandad" just didn't feel right. "Colonel Fawlks-Denham" was impossible. My grandmother called him "Jerry", but that seemed too informal, like we were mates. Maybe I should call him by his propper first name, but I did not know if he was "Jeremy" or "Gerald". So far I had said so little to him that the problem had hardly arisen, and I had, rather oafishly, called him nothing at all. No one had told me what I should do, and as usual with these difficult social situations I never seemed to get it quite right. I had to come up with something, and it was gradually dawning on me that calling him "Sir" was the only real alternative. It did not suit my young/enlightened/progressive self-image, but at least it would cause no offence. They could always tell me something different if they wanted.

* * * * *

I came to the end of the first leg of my journey. Needing to relieve myself I found the gentlemen's toilets. As was commonplace they were down some stairs, and at the bottom of the stairs on one side was a barber's shop and on the other were the toilets - not an unusual arrangement back then. Having used the toilet, I looked in the barber's. It was empty apart from the barber sitting in one of the chairs, reading a newspaper.

Should I go in? I hesitated, the barber was elderly and the place was obviously very old-fashioned. I had an hour to spare. This was my opportunity to get myself smartened up a little, but I did not want to end up skinned like I remembered being as a small boy.

The barber looked up and saw me standing there. He put down his newspaper, stood, nodded, smiled encouragingly and beckoned me in.

It seemed planned, it seemed inevitable, I went in, put down my rucksack, took off my coat, and, obeying the barber's indication, sat in the vacant chair, and was caped.

"Yes, young man?"

I realised that I had no answer prepared. I did not know what I wanted. I did not know the barber, or what he might do. The barber did not know me.

"Well, er, um, er . . ."

"Going home for Christmas, young man?"

"Yes, well, er, um no. I am going to my grandparents, at least, I am going to stay with my grandmother and her new husband."

"And you want to smarten yourself up a bit for them, make a good impression, especially on this new husband of your grandmother's?"

"Yes, sir. He's ex-Army, and I don't know how we are going to get on."

I had called the barber "Sir" - Why? Perhaps my head was just full of "Sir" now, in anticipation.

"And has he passed any comment on your hair, young man? I only ask, professionally, as I need to know the nature of what I am dealing with."

"Well, not as such, but he's a bit of a stickler, he thinks all young men should have a short back and sides - like it or not."

"Now at least I know what the problem is. Thank you. Well, short back and sides would be a very good choice. It makes a young man look smart, well organised, disciplined. To my mind it is by far the best thing, and it would make the right impression on your new grandfather - wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes, sir. I suppose it would."

I realised I had agreed to rather more than I really wanted to, so I hurriedly added "But we all have our hair much longer these days, that is how we have it now."

"Well that, I think, is a terrible shame, young man. But, as you know, us older folks take a different view, and we value smartness."

"Yes, sir. I know, sir. But we like it longer, so not too short, please."

"Right then, young man, I think I know what is required. You just relax, and we will soon have you sorted out."

* * * * *

The barber combed my hair down on all sides, pushed my head forwards, and started snipping.

Quite what was it that I had agreed to? What was the man going to do?

The chair was facing away from the mirror. The chair had been facing away from the mirror when the barber had been sitting in it reading his newspaper, when I then sat on it, during our brief talk, and it was still. The barber had made no move to turn it back to the mirror. I had never experienced anything like this before. It was weird. All I could see was my hair falling on the cape, and sliding down to the floor. I could feel the teeth of the comb against my scalp. I could feel the comb lifting my hair. I could hear the snip, snip, snip of the scissors.

I saw very little. I didn't even see much of the barber who was mostly standing behind me. What I saw, only too clearly, was all that beautiful, lovely hair of mine sliding down the cape and piling up on the floor.

How much was he going to cut?

My heart sank.

There was a pause, my hair was combed down over my face, and the cold metal blades of the scissors made their way across my forehead - at an angle.

I raised my head, but it was pushed firmly straight back down. There was nothing to see anyway, so I just kept it bent down steadily until it was moved by the barber's hand.

The cutting continued.

There was a pause. As I have said, the barber was mostly standing behind me, but now he moved round in front. He was holding the clippers, cleaning and oiling them. He turned them on and off a couple of times, they made a loud, aggressive, clacking sound.

I most certainly did not want any of this. "No clippers, thanks."

"No need to worry, lad, just going to clean things up a bit and make everything all neat and tidy for you."

I was more or less a prisoner there under the cape. Anyway, I could hardly leave with a half-finished haircut. So what could I do but submit?

My head was now grasped very firmly and pushed right down. The clippers hit the nape of my neck, and clacked their way up the back of my head, hard, sharp and cold. This was repeated several times as the whole back of my head was "cleaned up a bit".

My head was then pushed to the right and the clippers clacked loudly round my left ear, pushed left and they clacked loudly round the right.

I really only had myself to blame. I should have had a haircut before I set out, somewhere more fashionable. And I should never have mentioned my new grandfather's liking for a short back and sides.

My head was raised a little and the clippers went round again, this time I felt the comb raising my hair and heard the sound of the clippers against it.

Then a brush full of warm soapy water made its way round my, now naked, neck and round my ears - another weird new sensation. Then my head was pushed right, and a sharp razor scraped round my left ear, then down my left cheek. Head forwards, round my neck. Head left, razor round my right ear and down my right cheek - removing the last traces of my carefully cultivated teenage sideboards. Head up slightly, and sharp, stinging, scented aftershave was splashed all over the shaved areas.

It must, I thought, be coming to an end, I would soon be free, free to inspect the disaster zone.

There was a pause.

I felt the barber's hands on my scalp, rubbing in rubbing in some soft, smooth, greasy dressing - Yeugh! Then the comb, making a side parting and pulling the rest of my hair back.

Finally, I was turned around and allowed to raise my head.

"There you are, young man." The barber beamed a warm smile. "All nice and smart now for your grandmother and her new husband."

The barber picked up the hand mirror and showed me the back and the sides of my head.

I looked at the mirror. I was appalled. It was horrible! I had been absolutely scalped, Back and sides shaved white. Hair on top all slicked back and shiney.

What could I do? What could I say? I felt like swearing, or crying, but what would be the use? I nodded, and I was released from the chair.

I went to pay.

The barber took a small tub of Brylcreem off the shelf and offered it to me.

I shook my head. "No thanks."

"Take it, lad, it is a free sample they are giving away. You will be wanting to put a bit of grease on that hair of yours. Gives it a nice shine and makes it lie right."

I reluctantly accepted, I could bin it later, I shook his proffered hand, politely said "Thank you", paid, and escaped.

* * * * *

Sitting on the train for the final part of my journey I tried to come to terms with what I had done.

Well, my new grandfather would be happy. That, at least, was something, I supposed.

And it would grow back a bit in the next few weeks before I returned to university and my new friends, who, I was sure, would think it hilarious, and maybe things would not be quite as bad as they would have been at school.

And then I could not stop running my fingers over the shaved and clippered areas. Smooth, sand-paper, spikey. I got a sort of electric thrill, coupled with a sense of disbelief, every time I touched them. And the scent of after-shave clung to my finger-tips.

I took out the tub of Brylcreem from my bag and looked at it - quite what I was going to do with it I did not know. It seemed a shame to just throw it away. I opened it, smelt it. I thought it actually smelt rather nice. I put the lid back on, and put it back in my bag. I would think about it again later. It really was not that important.

(I did throw it away, I put it in the waste paper basket in my bedroom at my grandparents' house, but when the waste paper was emptied the Brylcreem reappeared amongst my other toiletries - someone obviously thought it had ended up in there by accident.)

* * * * *.

My grandparents were very welcoming. No comment was made about my hair, there was obviously no need, but they soon decided that my clothes were not suitable for when they entertained guests. My new step-grandfather took me out and bought me a suit and a whole load of other things, smart looking, formal things. It was quite a new experience for me to dress "Up" rather than "Down". I would stand, dressed in my suit, my hair slicked back with Brylcreem, immaculately turned out, looking at the full-length mirror in my room. My image no longer said "Student", it now said "Gentleman", it no longer said "Chaotic", it now said "Organised".

I got on fine with "The Colonel" (as I took up referring to my step-grandfather). He turned out to be charming and delightful, and full of funny stories and informative conversation. I soon got used to calling him "Sir". Indeed, as I came to appreciate and respect him, I began to rather like calling him "Sir", it felt right and natural. Indeed, the general old-fashioned formality and dignity of life with the two of them was something of an eye opener, it was a different world.

* * * * *

On my journey back to university I kept well clear of those toilets and that barber shop.

* * * * *

Only one person said anything about my haircut. "Joining the Army, then?" So I said "No, just moving on - When are you going to drop that "ageing-hippy" look of yours?"

* * * * *

I started wondering to myself if short hair was not so bad after all. So far I had just kept up a front, pretending to be cool about it, but now I was really wondering about keeping it short. It looked grown up and masculine. It was easier to manage, it was easier to wash and dry, it did not fall in your face, and it felt "disciplined". But as my hair gradually grew out I was starting to look more like everyone else, and I felt far more comfortable like that.

But there was more to it than either practicalities or the desire to look like everyone else and fit in. As my hair grew longer, thoughts of barber-shops and haircuts would not leave me alone, and soon they intruded on every waking moment not occupied by some immediate task or other distraction.

My rational side remained in control, and I allowed my hair to grow throughout that Spring Term.

I was going back to my grandparents for the Easter holidays. I decided to get a cut before I went, something neat and tidy, but not too short. It would be tactful towards the Colonel. And it would assuage that nagging, aching desire inside me for a haircut - and I would not again make the mistake of going into the station barber's.

I found a modern place near the university, and a few days before the end of term I went and had a cut, fairly short by the standards of the day, off the ears and off the collar. It was OK, but it felt like something of an anti-climax.

But for the last few days of term my head was now full of the barber at the station.

The questions kept on coming into my mind. Why had I avoided going anywhere near the place on my way back from visiting my grandparents? What had I been afraid of? Was it because I knew I could not trust myself not to go in for a repeat skinning? Was that what I really wanted, a proper, old-fashioned, short back and sides, close-shaved and greased up - as it should be?

I kept imagining the Colonel's voice telling me "Get that hair cut, lad!" - Not that he ever had said such a thing, not directly anyway, but I was in no doubt about his views, and he seemed to embody the whole weight of parents, teachers, headmasters and authority generally, all in one.

* * * * *

Again there was more than an hour before my connecting train.

I went to the gentlemen's toilets. The barber was sitting there with his newspaper, waiting for me. I had no choice. I went in.

"Good afternoon, lad." He rose and shook my hand as though I was some old friend he was glad to see once more. "Off to your grandparents again?"

"Yes, sir." - How had the man remembered me?

I took my place in the chair, facing away from the mirror as before.

The barber caped me, and he scrutinised my hair closely, running a finger through the half-inch long hair covering the back and sides of my head.

"Short back and sides then is it, lad?"

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


THE END












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