Pompadour, Caesar, Undercut, Crew. French Crop, Ivy League, Mid fade, Buzz.
I guess it starts with the smell of American Crew and sweat. At least, that’s what my mind stretches for as I look back- I’ve no sense for certain, what with the throbbing drum in my head and the hallucinatory quality of my vision. But hair gel. The air was thick with the stuff.
More? A side-parting, then. A vicious one. A pasty line running from just above the temple towards the crown. Pasty line, jet-black hair. Edges drawn precisely. Military fade, the lower scalp peering through the follicles like an inmate through bars.
Control, it screamed. No more so than in the fringe, upturned and flicking away from the forehead, held with wax.
Christ, I was jealous. It’s not that a haircut like that was impossible. I still have a good head of hair; thick, some colour. But to ask for such a cut. There comes a point where you have to let such things go. It was a young man’s cut. An up-and-coming, this-means-business sort of cut. I remembered that feeling, but that’s all it was, a memory.
Pompadour, Caesar, Undercut, Crew. French Crop, Ivy League, Mid fade, Buzz.
You’re looking at me like those things shouldn’t matter. And it’s not like I don’t realise it. But the truth is that I can’t let it go, silly as I feel admitting it. The petty demarcators of a moving life- they are important to me. I want to show what I am.
I had never even thrown a punch before. I didn’t know about the feel of knuckle on bone, the hormonal rush. But in that moment, I thought not of the impending strike, but instead was transfixed by the ghost which stared back at me from the mirror. Face drained of blood, barber’s gown billowing in the gust from the open door, I was a visitation. And they saw it, too; my inhumanness.
Besides my own barber, there were two others in the room. Indeed, I had been sensitive to their presence from the moment the second customer had entered the shop. His entrance announced itself. He swung through the door as you might your own living room.
The other barber came straight to him, and the pair embraced with handshakes and high fives and the inchoate words that come with familiarity.
I watched their hands as they came together. The curl of one around the other, the ease of the fit, the casual intimacy. The way one rubbed his thumb, barely discernibly, over the back of the other’s hand. Both turned to the barber in command of my own hair and saluted. Big smiles; I could see in the mirror the knowledge they were sharing between each other, the looks, the glints in the eye.
As the other customer took his seat, all three men engaged in the light patter of friends checking in with each other. I sat in silence.
They were talking about football. They would be, wouldn’t they?
‘So he drops his shoulder, and you’re absolutely CONVINCED he’s going onto his left. I mean, Boateng’s whole body is pointing that way. And then, he just fucking knocks it the other way. And his BALANCE.
‘And the finish. He barely touches the ball. Tiny, tiny backlift, and the ball’s up, over. Outrageous. He’s a genius.’
I was painfully within myself now. Absolute coward. And just beginning was the flicker of rage I get from speechlessness. The feeling of being unseen.
I have a habit which my wife hates, but which I cannot help. On busy trains, if someone is trying to squeeze past me and hasn’t excused themselves, I always make it harder for them to do so. It might be the slightest cocking of a leg, the tensing of a shoulder, the stretching of an arm. And I know, if I’m with her, she’ll give me a look straight away.
I couldn’t ever explain how angry I get, being disregarded. And how real I feel when the contact comes. The satisfaction of knowing that I am there.
Now the barber on my right was showing his friend a video. I couldn’t hear it, and their reactions gave nothing away: just laughter, loud, faces in faces.
‘Sorry mate, give me a sec.’ I couldn’t fucking believe it. My barber was going to join them. He left me. All I did was nod. Sat there in my gown, a baby. Making a big movement to one side as I freed my arm, I checked my watch, hoping to make a point. But it was ignored, a pitiful gesture, only adding to my discomfort.
The fish tank looked sick. The filter must be broken. How irresponsible, I thought. These chancers, here because people have to get their hair cut, and where else am I to go? The fish have nowhere to go. I have nowhere to go now, in my chair, flecks of hair down my front.
He was back. ‘Sorry about that.’ He smiled, quite a nice smile actually, God he had perfect teeth, and now that I properly looked, he was built like a marine, veins squeezing from his biceps as they left the sleeves of his polo shirt.
‘Was it tapered or squared you were after?’ ‘Squared, please.’ It was a defeat, endorsing this conversation with my nothing responses.
He resumed his work. I willed him to speed up, frustrated at his diligence as he worked his way around the contour of my ear. His pride in his work annoyed me. How pointless, I thought, to treat such unimportant work with this undue care.
All along, the pair to my right laughed and joked, the man cutting my hair occasionally smiling in recognition of their comments.
It was over lunch that I realised I was done. There was something in the side glances of my colleagues, something in the way they acknowledged my observations with nods and smiles. They were listening, but they didn’t care.
I knew the signs because I had been there so often myself. Someone reaches the point where they’re too old to be worth investing in and too insignificant to be taken into the upper sanctum. And that’s it. No one needs laugh at their jokes, respond to their insights. No one is rude, of course; on the contrary, everyone’s suddenly far more polite. But the significance of the new behaviours is clear. You are impotent.
Well, that was me. I was a forgotten currency now. Trapped at my own funereal lunch.
I needed the autonomy of movement. Leaving the table with a vague excuse, I headed straight for the building’s groundfloor exit. No one stopped me to talk on the way out. Toby didn’t even come after me, friend that he might be.
I couldn’t face going straight home. It was 2pm, and the afternoon, devoid of plans, seemed to stretch over me. I watched scurrying folk about me, full of purpose, of direction. I started to walk.
For eleven years, I have stared at the Museum of London from my office. For no reason better than the absence of an alternative destination, my feet transported me there now.
When I was young, my father had taken me to museums with the strategy of a man who understood that there are some things you simply need to know. It had made sense to me: I set about the accumulation of information diligently, following maps, swallowing passages of text. I enjoyed telling others about my findings. It is something I have done with my own children.
But what was before me now was impenetrable. I was in an exhibition dedicated to The Clash. I knew, and even liked, some of their music. But as I moved from case to case, the photographs and memorabilia seemed to lose focus: against an echo of London Calling, the dark corridor ahead of me narrowed and stretched, my feet became unsteady and my eyes tired. There were others in the museum, but as I stumbled for the exit, no one even turned round. I was a ghost in my own afternoon.
Back on the street, I breathed deeply. One step at a time. I came to Martinelli’s.
You walk into a barber shop. You are seen immediately. There are questions, exchanges, nods: absolute purpose. I needed that certainty now.
‘Is this enough off the top?’ He had done a great job. As I’ve got older, my hair thickening, the fringe has become harder to manage: too clumpy to flick up and over as I used to wear it. But this time, he’d thinned it out with precise, inward clips, leaving just enough to fold over in my old style. I gave him a hum of approval, and nodded as he reached for the wax.
‘Same stuff as I use- just got it in.’ He went to work, shaping, massaging, easing the lift into the top of the hair. It was masterful. I was overwhelmed, the smell of the wax, the warmth of his hands, the metronomic working of my scalp. The nerves at the crest of my head seemed to singe with each movement of his fingers.
He looked the haircut up and down, moved round the side and had one last flick of the fringe. He was pleased, I could tell.
‘Mind if I take a quick photo? We’re trying to get more of a presence on social media. Don’t worry, it won’t show your face- well, side-profile anyway.’ I tried to suggest opposition, but I could hardly say no.
Mistake. Over came his friend, and now my barber was posing, leaning down over my hair with his thumbs up, his stale aftershave and waxy hair coming over me in nauseous waves. He put his hands on either side of my head and twisted it slightly, carefully repositioning the angle of the hair in relation to the camera.
‘Ok.’ I grunted it. It was all I had, sad little man. But it was enough, the phone went away, the photoshoot over. One final piece of activity: he loosened the collar of my gown, and unsheathed the cut throat razor sitting on a perch under the mirror. In he came, close again, this time the smell of the wax and aftershave pouring over me so much I felt I couldn’t breathe.
He held the razor just above the edge of the back of my hair. His hand was perfectly still. And then down it came, the blade cold against my neck. He dragged it across the loose hairs, a tiny, deliberate motion, finishing the movement with a barely perceptible flick. Then up he came, and along to the next portion of hair.
As he worked, I watched his expression in the mirror. The narrowing of the eyes, the hunch of the back as he came in close. He was exercising complete control. I was mad with envy; he had me. And then:-
A nick. I could see straight away: he had got as far as the top of my ear, and a trickle of blood was now evident, crawling its way down the line of my sideburn.
I didn’t act straight away. But as I watched the blood work its way down the line of my jaw, the rage which had been sitting in my gut as I sat, miserably mute, now swelled. My head became heavy and full, my nostrils billowing with the smell of the wax, my arms cold and with the feeling of no longer being attached, my chest tight.
The barber leant forward, reaching for the tissues on the shelf in front of me.
As he did, I grabbed the clippers which were suspended in a holder by my side. The barber looked at me, in confusion rather than alarm. I scrambled out of my chair, raising my arms as I did. I had no sense of what I was doing now. And then he started to laugh! Right there, in front of me, blood still wet on my cheek, and he was laughing.
I turned my shoulders towards him, and pulled my right arm back. He moved his shoulders across himself, expecting a punch. This was exactly what I had intended, but now, as my arm approached – clippers still in hand – I moved upwards, turning the switch of the device as I did.
And then I was at it. One long sheer followed by another, up and down his head, taking it all. The two others, who had at first approached sensing more threatening injury, were now laughing themselves, falling over each other in hysterics. The barber, who, being of much greater physical stature, could easily have pushed me off, simply stood there, eyes wide with bewilderment.
I had started now, and was only spurred on by the ridicule. In uneven, mangling rows, I mowed through the hair, each new wave less effective as the clippers clogged with waxy clippings.
Eventually, breathless with frenzy, I brought my work to a close. In front of me was a mess: an uneven mass of shaved hair, clumps remaining untouched, bloody scratches where I had made direct contact with the skin.
The barber watched me for a moment. He then put his hands out for the clippers, which I returned. The room was silent.
I didn’t raise my eyes. I couldn’t even feel embarrassed. I picked up my coat and, gown still attached, stepped out into the late afternoon abyss.
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