The degree to which a gentleman reveals himself to another is a curious state of affairs at the best of times, though I suppose the holding of a razor to one’s throat helps. That said, I doubt anyone would be the slightest bit surprised at a gentleman’s willingness to betray the confidence of another, whether it be for the purposes of revenge, penance or, as is more often than not, mere conversation. In certain circumstances, however – circumstances beyond even the ken of a learned fellow such as myself – the betrayal of confidence is but a matter of perspective.
As a rule, I myself entertain a certain degree of pride in shouldering the duel burdens of both confession and confidence. However, in an extreme circumstance such as this, it would be remiss of me were I not to divulge the truth of the matter, lest it otherwise consume me.
The barber-surgeon salon I frequent – teeth, enemas, but primarily hair – is by no means the largest in the neighbourhood by any stretch of the imagination, yet it is its modesty of popularity that appeals to a private individual such as myself.
’Tis a dying trade, sir,’ Sutton likes to say, in that common, thunderous timbre of his. As with all patrons of such places, one frequents for the rarefied conversation of men as much as anything else.
Sutton’s salon is situated in a basement beneath one of the more reputable haberdashers of Covent Garden (the name of which I shall refrain form advertising) and it is here that a half-dozen stone steps lead down into another world.
Within can be found three fine chairs of lustrous walnut, a chequered flooring of black and white tiles, a walnut bench set against the back wall and – the pièce de résistance – a chandelier. That’s right. A chandelier, would you believe? Confined below street level, Sutton – for he is the proprietor – compensates with an elegance and style that reflects the level of service both he and his father before him have provided. A lifetime divided. I confess that the cynic in me assumes the warm glow emitted by the aforementioned chandelier flatters even the most unfortunate of God’s creatures. After all, appearances matter, do they not, and good old Sutton takes a level of pride one cannot help but admire, just as I now admire myself in one of his three ornate mirrors:
‘However,’ remarked Sutton, his speech as considered as his countenance as he adjusted the cape at my neck and fussed about me. ‘Appearances can be deceptive, can they not, sir? And you mark my words. All sorts come through that door, sir. All sorts.’
My reflection smiled at his and he continued.
‘’S’nice to have a gentleman such as yerself restore one’s faith in humanity, sir.’ Then, with comb and scissors at the ready, the heels of his hands resting upon my shoulders, Sutton adjusted his composure. ‘The usual, sir?’
‘The usual,’ said I.
And with that, Sutton set to work.
‘Busy week, Sutton?’ I asked.
‘Pshaw! Is it ever,’ said he, combing what remained of my hair before clasping some curls between his fingers and snipping them off. ‘Always busy of late, touch wood.’
Sutton tapped his temple.
‘Well, I tell a lie,’ he added, voice lowered. Curiously, it then seemed as if he were looking through the mirror as much as through me, at something unseen. ‘Tuesday was eerily quiet, come to think of it. For a Tuesday, I mean.’
‘Terrible weather, as I recall,’ said I, my voice lowering with his. ‘No man would’ve had business being out in such a downpour unless one’s business were urgent.’
‘True,’ pondered Sutton. ‘Except for —.’
It was at this point that Sutton looked over towards the door, as if someone had entered, or were about to.
‘Except for what?’ I enquired.
Sutton turned back and rubbed at his forehead with his shirtsleeve, aware he was perspiring. ‘Well, there’s this one particular customer of mine, see, who…’.
He paused again. For effect, I dare say.
‘Go on, man,’ said I, curiosity piqued.
‘Can you keep a secret, sir?’ Sutton enquired, adopting a hushed tone despite my being the only other person in the place. Our reflections locked eyes.
‘Depends on the secret,’ said I, smiling, though without yet knowing if there were something to smile about.
‘See, if I tells you,’ Sutton persevered, his voice now barely perceptible despite his leaning to my ear, ‘there’s a risk of terror, sir.’
‘Terror?’ I snorted, with a little more derision than intended.
‘Sheer terror, sir.’ continued Sutton, unfazed. ‘Terror that may sear itself into your good conscience, sir. As it has mine own.’
I confess I was almost reduced to outright laughter, but any smile failed to materialise, as it was apparent Sutton found nothing remotely amusing about the matter at hand.
‘Well then,’ said I, clearing my throat of merriment and sitting upright. ‘Pray tell, man. Tell. I insist!’
‘Well,’ said Sutton, sliding his pince-nez up the bridge of his nose. ‘If you insist. As I said, Tuesday dragged on like nobody’s business, I don’t mind telling you. I felt it in these old legs of mine come the evening, I did. Anyway, that afternoon rush hadn’t materialised, what with the weather being what it was. So much so that I’d had half a mind to shut shop early. Heavens, I’d even let Stevenson away at lunchtime, I had.’
‘Very decent of you,’ said I.
‘Hardly,’ said he. ‘Intolerance masquerading as a kindly act. I don’t mean to be unkind, like. Stevenson knows his trade well enough, I’ll give him that, but he’s a bit off-his-chump at the best of times and the blessed silence he leaves in his wake proves preferable company, if you gets my meaning.
‘Anyway, I’d allowed the coals of the stove to reduce, what with there being no customers, and the chill of the evening soon made itself known. To keep warm I swept the floor for all it was worth and, during what seemed like an age of idle thoughts, I found myself gawping at all the feet scurrying by my little window there. Eee, it was a wretched downpour, sir.’
‘Aye, terrible day it was,’ I concurred. ‘So, did you?’
‘Did I what, sir?’ replied Sutton, his brow furrowed.
‘Did you shut up shop early?’
‘Was about to. There I was, watching the well-to-dos and ne’er-do-wells – forgive me, I don’t mean to judge, sir, but, well, what daylight reaches my window is frequently blotted out by the riff-raff lurking on the corner; gossips with nothing but their idle pantry politics.’
Sutton tapped his scissors off the frame of his pince-nez and a wry smile broke out across his face.
‘I can’t help but listen sometimes, sir. Anyway, by then the rain had given way to dusk and the sunlight finally saw fit to make an appearance. Glistening off every surface, it was. Beautiful. I tell you, it was as if humanity blossomed before my eyes.’
I stared quizzically.
‘The theatre crowds, you understand,’ Sutton clarified. ‘Thank heavens for the ladies in their finery, I say. Why, I even had a fancy to take in a show myself down at the penny theatre on the corner. Not to be, mind, as right there and then, a hansom pulled up right outside. Couldn’t see much, but I heard the door slam. Not that I thought anything of it, mind, except I heard the coachman take off at speed. Must’ve been lashing his poor beast for all it was worth. So, it was only once I’d taken it upon myself to turn my sign to CLOSED that I saw the brass tip of a cane hesitate at the top of my steps. I released the sign and the cane then tapped its way down. So, I opened the door. No early finish for me.’
‘Typical,’ said I.
‘No, sir,’ Sutton said, his face falling before my eyes. ‘Nothing typical about this. Not about the gentleman who came through that door. In he came, rain dripping from his top hat all over my nice, clean floor and I don’t mind confessing that I cursed the fellow under my breath a little for it. However, it soon dawned upon me who it was and a feeling of dread impressed itself upon me, sir. So much so, that I even wished Stevenson were still about.’
‘Crikey, indeed. I tell you this for nothing neither, I’ve come to know some of my customers quite well over the years and, in the case of this particular gentleman, too well by half.’
I observed a tremble in the fellow’s hands, ‘You alright, Sutton?’ I asked.
‘Try as I might,’ said he, his reflection seemingly adrift in the looking glass. ‘I shall never forget this particular gentleman. Not until my dying day. Baraclough’s his name.’
‘Rings a bell,’ said I, trying for the life of me to put a face to the name. As I pondered, I noticed a look of irritation make itself at home upon Sutton’s face.
‘Undoubtedly!’ said he. ‘Lord Baraclough – Lord Henry A. Baraclough, to be exact.’
‘Of course,’ said I, feigning clarity, somewhat. ‘Politician, wasn’t he?’
‘Yes indeed. Home Secretary under Bennett.’
‘Ah yes,’ said I, the penny dropping. ‘Odd chap, as I recall. The ‘Political Pustule,’ according to The Times. Or was it The Mail?’
‘Matters not,’ sniffed Sutton. ‘Born in Sri Lanka, as I recollect, which goes some way to explaining his foreign ways, I suppose. Whatever his upbringing, he obviously never succumbed to that most incurable of maladies that Stevenson likes to refer to as ‘pride in failure,’ that which one must endure in lieu of realising one’s dreams. No, indeed. No, Lord Baraclough is of a class and breed that has no need of dreams.’
‘Wait a moment,’ said I. ‘Didn’t he get tangled up in that business with the poisoning?’
‘The Ilford Poisoner – distasteful business. Treated as Attempted Murder. Didn’t make life easy for him, I must say.’
‘But didn’t the papers find her – the cook, wasn’t it? – didn’t they find her innocent?’
‘Shaw was her name. Something Shaw. I forget exactly. Something about poising the family’s dumplings with arsenic, according to the family doctor. Not that any tests proved conclusive, like, or that anyone actually died, just upset stomachs for a few days. Still, they were a rich family and, more importantly, friends with the PM and, well, she was just a cook, so…’
‘Hanged, as I recall. A crying shame.’
‘As I live and breathe. Mind you, it made Baraclough’s name all the same, but he resigned before the Liberals took over. Customer of mine since long before his rise up the ranks, but it’d be a stretch to call him a regular, mind. We’re talking, ooh, perhaps two or three times a year at best. Fact is, he’s so irregular is Lord Baraclough that I begin to doubt myself at times, doubting that which I’ve seen with my own eyes. Perhaps that’s the point.
‘Anyway, I took his hat and cane and gubbins, as per. I tell you, the gentleman’s hair was a right state at the back and he’d obviously been tending to it himself of late. Whiskers could’ve done with a trim too, but he wasn’t in for that. Tall man. Broad. Strong despite his years. You’d lose in a fight with him, alright – no disrespect, sir. And quite the aquiline countenance. Those eyes – eyes that draw you in and don’t let go. Every movement, every gesture considered. Well, without a by-your-leave he made his way to that seat next to you and assumed the position.
‘‘Pleasure to see you again, sir,’ I remarked. Well, stuttered, more like. He just looked at me, so he did, considering my reflection as he sat there basking in the silence.’
‘He didn’t reply?’
‘‘Is it, indeed?’ he asked me. No, I tell a lie, not asked – stated, like.’ Sutton shook his head. ‘Ee, that voice. How could I forget; such clarity of projection, as if each syllable were questioning the sheer audacity of my existence, as if daring me to live up to him.
‘‘The usual, is it, sir?’ I then enquired, clearing my throat.
“Naturally,’ says he. Then – now what was it… oh yes, he says, ‘However, I must impress upon you that my… abscess, as it were, has become somewhat enflamed since last we met. I hope I can still count on your circumspection, not to mention your discretion, in dealing with it?’’
Sutton’s countenance was now of a moroseness I have not encountered before or since.
‘Discretion?’ said I, peering at Sutton.
‘Well,’ Sutton said, coming to. ‘His humors have often been unbalanced, but the severity of his ailments are somewhat fantastical, sir, but I’m coming to that. So I breathed deep to steady myself. ‘Of course, sir,’ I said. ‘Of course.’ And I meant it, too. I mean, I asked myself at the time, who on earth would I tell that would believe a single word, present company excepted, mind. Why, they’d think me mad. Who knows, perhaps I am. Perhaps I imagined it all. Perhaps you’ll think me mad before you leave here today.’
‘Far be it for me,’ said I, noting the seriousness of Sutton’s tone.
‘Well,’ Sutton continued, ‘not being one to imperil custom, I went about my business, I did.’ Sutton then reached down to a drawer set below the mirror. ‘First of all, I removed this here box.’ He produced said box and opened it before me, a most handsome leather-bound box it was too, one containing a small, brass, square instrument no larger than his palm. ‘My scarification tool, what one uses when breathing a vein. Not many barber-surgeons indulge nowadays but, well, there you go. Anyway, Lord Baraclough preferred the nape of the neck, depending upon the severity of his… affliction. Before such a procedure, however, I needed to trim the hair at the back to judge matters for myself.
‘His hair, white and quite wiry, covered most of the crown but it was what lurked at the back that held me in a vice of fear. You see, far be it from me to gossip but, back when he’d been Home Secretary, there’d been the beginnings of a growth on the back left of his occipital bone, though certainly nothing compared to what I’ve witnessed since. Just a slight protrusion back then. Nothing to write home about.
‘Just as I was plucking up the courage, Lord Baraclough says, ‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’ Those lurid, corrosive eyes of his then drifted towards the door.
‘’Oh!’ says I. ‘Oh yes, I believe I am indeed, sir,’ I said.
“Then pray rectify,’ he says. So I locked the door, as was the habit, and turned the sign, the way he liked. Then I set to work.’
‘But why on earth would he wish you to lock the door?’
‘My dear sir, I’m getting to that. So, I combed through the hairs at the back, just like so. Gentle. Ever so gentle. I could feel him tense up all the way up from his toes, so I could, and I couldn’t help but feel a certain degree of power, I must say. Right away I could feel the protrusion, as if he’d been given what for by a Mutton Shunter’s truncheon. My eyes couldn’t help themselves but occasionally flit to his reflection in the mirror. Each time they did so, there he was, staring, as cold as death, right back at me. Right into my soul. I lost my concentration.
“Careful, damn your eyes!’ he barked at me, wincing, like. I apologised profusely of course and, once he’d settled down, I carried on. I trimmed the excess hair as best I could, then, beneath, I saw it, as clear as I see your face right now.’
A vacant expression overcame Sutton and I felt my own irritation begin to rise. ‘Well? Go on!’
‘Well, hard to describe, really, but, based on previous visits, what I saw was what… what it breathed through. The hairs around it agitated, like.’
‘Breathed through?’ said I, wondering if Sutton were not simply leading me on.
‘A hole, sir. No bigger than a farthing, I’d say, but there it was alright – breathing away.’
I felt compelled to question Sutton’s sanity at once, but he anticipated my inclination and raised his hands in a placatory gesture.
‘But it wasn’t the hole that bothered me most, sir. Oh no. No, it was the eye just above it. Well, eyes, I suppose, but only the one of ‘em was open. Both had been closed on previous occasions, but not now. As I removed the hair oh-so-delicately, the eye blinked and I swear on my mother’s eldest son, it looked right at me. The other eye, as I said, didn’t open. Never has, but I put that down to it being situated closer to the ear. What passed for a nose seemed to give the gentleman the most trouble, the most swelling. It was this area that I felt needed draining the most, so I felt it best to do so before proceeding any further.’
“What do you make of it?’ Baraclough asked me, most keenly. I did my best not to look unduly concerned, like, so I took this here scarificator and – see the dozen small blades there?’
As Sutton held the tool before me he pressed some concealed button and I witnessed a dozen-or-so blades rise up from slits upon its surface. They were small but sharp.
‘And I grabbed my bleeding bowl, which I rested against the nape as best I could. I then placed the scarificator against it, just below the eye, so as not to damage it, of course. No word of a lie, I heard a groan. But as God is my witness, sir, I couldn’t say for sure which part of him it came from. Anyway, the growth began to subside, that eye staring up at me the whole damn time.
‘I then looked to the mirror and saw Baraclough’s eyes a-glistening. The gentleman’s whole demeanour seemed to have transformed to that of a terrified child. I hardly knew where to look, if truth be told.
“I thought I was free of it,’ said he, though quietly, like. ‘Now, however, it’s as if a madness has set upon me. It feels larger each and every day and… and I even hear it speak to me at night, Sutton. Denying me even the solace of sleep. Drain it, man. For the love of God, drain it.’
“What does it say to you?’ I asked him, surprised at my boldness.
I sat up in the chair and stared wide-eyed at Sutton until he put me out of my misery.
“Names,’ says Baraclough,’ Sutton obliged. “Just names, Sutton. Over and over again. I am cursed. Shall I never be free of this malignant cruelty?’
‘I could try and lance it,’ I suggested. ‘Though, due to its positioning, it would prove most painful.’
“No need,’ says Baraclough. ‘It would soon grow back, I assure you.’
‘Meantime, that eye kept looking up at me. Well, once the bleeding was done with I trimmed the rest of the hair and gently combed over the eye. Then, without so much as a ‘Thank you’, Baraclough left.’
Sutton then seemed to lose himself to the memory.
‘Until next time,’ I suggested.
‘Perhaps,’ Sutton muttered. ‘Perhaps.’
For the remainder of my haircut, neither Sutton nor myself felt the need for further conversation, no doubt consumed by what we had just shared. That was until he held my coat out for me and I then paid him for his services.
‘Well,’ I said, adopting a cheerful tone. ‘Thank you once again, Sutton. Until next time.’
‘Yes, sir,’ he replied, pocketing the money in his waistcoat pocket and offering a cursory bow. ‘But please do me the courtesy, sir, of keeping what I told you to yourself. Not that I need to say it, I know.’
‘Of course, Sutton. I give you my word as a gentleman. Who would believe it anyway?’
As a boy, Ian wanted to be a writer. More specifically, he wanted to be a novelist. Even more specifically, he wanted to be a knovelist with a silent ‘K’. Nevertheless, Ian moved to Edinburgh and has since self-published his debut novel, The Life Lived, has appeared alongside Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood in the book Tales On Tweet, and has read his short story work twice at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Along with short stories, Ian writes novels for both Young Adults and Old Adults whenever his two young children allow him the time.
Published in a variety of publications both online and in print, links to more of Ian’s work can be found at ianmurphywrites.com
Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC15O9uWNvA_1oSbTXANNfLg
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