WARNING: THE CONTENTS ARE NOT FOR THE FAINT HEARTED
Chapter eight: The Accidental Barber Surgeon
It came sooner than Holdall had feared. Every morning he'd sit in his office waiting for the phone to ring, the angry herald of more news of stray body parts popping through someone's letter box. Every time the phone rang he'd assume the worst, and given what he'd told the press the evening before, he was even more fearful this particular morning.
However, fate did not even bother to tease him. There came no endless stream of calls concerning more mundane matters, leading to the dramatic one confirming his worst fears. The dreaded call arrived first, and within three minutes of him sitting at his desk.
A woman in Newton Mearns, a woman with a missing daughter, had received what appeared to be two breasts, neatly packed into a small wooden box, that morning. So she had turned up on the doorstep of her local police station, hysterical, and who could deny her that, demanding to speak to the bloody idiot who'd been on television the previous night implying that the police had as good as got their man.
The policeman on duty had done his best to calm her down, and had then put the call through to Holdall to tell him the grim news. And to ask him what the hell he'd meant when he'd talked to the press the previous evening.
When the call had come down from McMenemy's office, Holdall had not been the least surprised. Ill became those who were summoned up there two days running.
The rain was falling in a relentless drizzle against the window of the shop, the skies grey overhead, the clouds low. Every now and again someone bustled past the shop front, their collar pulled up against the cold wind, a dour expression welded to the face.
The shop was near deserted, as it had been most of the day. Wednesdays were usually slow, and with the cold and miserable weather, this day had been even worse. Barney had had to do only two haircuts all day, both of which had been ropey; one indeed, so bad that he thought it might lead to retribution. He hadn't liked the way the man had asked Wullie for Barney's address on his way out, and had been surprised that Wullie had claimed ignorance on the matter. Nevertheless, it was a day for keeping his head down.
At three o'clock Wullie had offered Chris the chance to go home early, telling Barney that on the next quiet day he could take his turn of an early departure. After that there were only three more customers, all of whom had wanted Wullie to cut their hair. Barney had sat and read a variety of newspapers then had finally given in to the boredom and had fallen asleep, his dreams a web of exotica.
He awoke with a start to slightly raised voices, dragged from a screaming drop down a black, bottomless shaft. Barney stretched, yawned, squinted at the clock. Two minutes past five. Time to go. Thank God for that.
He stood and stretched again, busying himself with clearing up, not something that would take very long. Took his time, however, doing as many unnecessary things as possible, not wishing to leave before Wullie. He listened to the idle chatter from the end of the shop and was not impressed.
'Now 16thcentury Italian art,' said Wullie, as he put the finishing touches to a dramatic taper at the back of the neck, 'there's the thing. Full of big fat birds getting their kit off. It doesn't matter what the painting's about, in every one there's always about five or six huge birds with enormous tits.'
The customer nodded his own appreciation of 16thcentury Italian art as much as he could, given that there was a man with a razor at the back of his neck.
'I mean,' Wullie continued, after pausing to pull off some intricate piece of barbery, 'you've got some painting of a big battle scene or something, or a nativity scene for Christ's sake, and they'd still manage to get in some great lump of lard, bollock naked, legs all over the place, dangling a couple of grapes into the gob of another suitably compliant naked tart, with nipples like corks, and her lips pouting in a flagrantly pseudo-lesbian pose. I love it, so I do. It's pure brilliant.'
'Even so,' said the customer, holding up his finger as Wullie produced a comb to administer the finishing touches, 'I still don't think it's a patch on modern art. That's got far more life and soul to it than a bunch of birds with their kit off.'
Wullie stopped combing, looked at the man as if he was mad.
'You're joking? I mean, fair enough, if they painted a bit of paper completely orange, then put a red squiggle in the middle of it and called it A Boring Load Of Crap That Took Me Two Minutes And Isn't Worth Spit, then that'd be fine. But they don't. They'll do that, then call it Sunrise Over Manhattan or Three Unconnected Doorways, or I'm A Pretentious Wank So You've Got To Give Us Three Million Quid. Piece of bloody nonsense.'
'No, no you've got it all wrong. These things have got a depth and soul to them that the likes of you can't see. If you can't see what an artist is saying, then it's because you're not in tune with the guy. That's hardly his fault.'
Wullie shook his head as he dusted off the back of the neck.
'Come off it. Any nutter can splash paint onto something and call it Moon Over Five Women With Hysterectomies,' – Wullie was indeed a new man – 'or something like that. My two year-old niece could do it, and she wouldn't get three million quid.'
'Of course not,' said the man, as Wullie removed the cape from around his neck and handed him a towel, 'and that's the point. If just anyone does it, it doesn't mean anything. The artist, however, is expressing himself, is letting you see what's inside. It means something because it comes from within, from his soul. That's what gives it heart, and that's why people are willing to pay money for it. Artists bare themselves to the public.'
Wullie thought about this for a second or two. The man stood, brushed himself down.
'A fine defence of modern art you've constructed there,' said Wullie eventually.
'Aye, thanks,' said the customer, fishing in his pockets.
'However, it's a complete load of pants.'
The man produced a five pound note from his pocket.
'You're not listening to me, Wullie.' He paused, stared at the ceiling, tried to think of how he could best get his point across. He was not used to such intellectual debate. Reaching for his jacket, he found what he was looking for. 'Let's put it this way. Say some wee muppet playing at St Andrews hacks out of the rough at the side of the green and it flies into the hole. Now, it may seem like a great shot, but let's face it, he didn't have a clue what he was doing. You know he's lucky. But if Tiger chips from the rough and it flies into the hole, you know he meant it. It's a thing of beauty. It's art. The execution and the outcome are the same, but the intentions are different. That's what it's all about.'
He stopped on his way to the door, holding out his hands in a gesture of 'there you have it'.
'Are you saying,' said Wullie, 'that Tiger Woods is the same as one of they bampots who throws paint onto a picture?'
The man laughed.
'I'll never win. See you next time, Wullie, eh. See you, Barn.'
The barbers said their goodbyes, Barney grudgingly, then Wullie turned to start his final clearing up for the day after fixing the Closed sign on the door.
Still muttering at the discussion which had just finished, Barney completed the minutiae of clearing his things away. Now that Wullie had finished, he felt free to go. Naked Italian women; these people didn't half talk some amount of mince.
'Can I have a word, Barney?'
Barney looked up; Wullie walked towards him and sat in the next seat up from his. Barney looked into Wullie's eyes and sat down, suddenly feeling a tingle at the bottom of his spine. It could've been the label on his Marks and Spencer's boxer shorts, but he had the feeling that it was something worse.
Wullie was staring at the floor. Looked awkward, like a seventeen year-old boy not wanting to tell his father he'd written off his new Frontera San Diego. He struggled with himself, then his eyes briefly flitted onto Barney and away again.
'Em, this isn't very easy, Barney. I'm not really sure how to say this,' he said. Looked anywhere but into Barney's eyes. Barney stared, a look of incredulity formulating across his face. He couldn't be going to say what he thought he was, could he?
'I'm afraid we've hired a new barber, Barney. It's an old friend of my dad's who's just moved into the area. You know, my dad wanted to give him a job and…'
Barney switched off, knowing what was coming. He couldn't believe it. Felt a strange twisting in his stomach, a pounding at the back of his head. Cold, wet hands. The gutless, gutless coward, making himself out to be merely the messenger of his father's decision, rather than the instrument of it.
How the hell could they let him go? He was the only one in the place who could give a decent haircut. Certainly he was better than these two young idiots, surely everyone could see that? But of course, Wullie would have been telling his father something completely different. Maybe his mother had been right; poison wasn't good enough for him, not violent enough.
'…so, you can work here for another month if you like, or we'll understand if you want to leave now, and we'll keep your wages going for the rest of the month. You don't have to make any decision right now, but if you could let us know in the next couple of days.'
Not once had he been able to look Barney in the eye, and then he sat, an attempted look of consolation on his face, eyes rooted to the floor.
Barney was in a daze, a thousand different thoughts barging into each other in his head. Could not believe it had happened, could not believe that they had had the nerve to do this to him. He was by far the most superior barber of the lot of them. This was ridiculous. His immediate thoughts were of violent retribution. Vicious, angry thoughts involving baseball bats, sledgehammers and pick axes.
But he couldn't show his hand. Not yet. He had to be calm about it. If he was going to avenge this heinous crime, he had to be calculating and cold; he had to pick his moment. Cool deliberation away from the scene of the crime was required. And as he sat staring angrily into Wullie's eyes, which remained Sellotaped to the floor, he decided that he would have to stay in the shop, however great the feeling of humiliation, however great his desire to leave.
'I'll stay for the month,' he said abruptly.
Wullie looked up at him, for the first time, surprised. He hadn't expected an answer so quickly, hadn't expected the one he'd been given and, moreover, he'd been thinking about the phone call to the shop that morning from Serena, the girl from the Montrose. Wondering if that was her real name, anticipating Friday night; vague intimations of guilt.
'I'll stay for the month.'
Wullie stared briefly at the floor again. He and his father had assumed that Barney would just take his leave. Hadn't reckoned on an awkward month with Barney still in the shop. He looked up.
'All right, that'll be great. You're sure now?'
'Aye,' said Barney, almost spitting the word out. Managed to contain his wrath. Fingernails dug into palms. Wrath would have to be for later.
'Right then. That's great, Barney. I'll let my dad know.'
That's great, is it? You've just stabbed me up the backside with a red hot poker, and you think it's great because I accepted it. F**king bastard. He thought it, didn't say it.
Wullie attempted another look of consolation, succeeded only in a tortoise-like grimace. Went about his business.
Barney stood up to clear away a couple of things which didn't need clearing away. Didn't want to immediately storm out of the shop, knowing his presence would unsettle Wullie. Didn't want him to be at ease any earlier than he should be. Although, should he ever be at ease?
As he lifted an unnecessary pair of scissors from his workplace, he realised his hands were shaking. Didn't want Wullie to see what effect it was having on him. Steadied himself, lifted a cup to get a drink of water. Filled it at the sink next to his workplace – Scottish tap water, the sweetest tasting drink; that was what he'd always thought; not today however. But as he raised it in his still trembling hand, the cup slipped free. Struck the edge of the sink surround and disgorged its contents, some over Barney, mostly over the floor. He muttered a curse. The water ran over the smooth tiles of the floor, a mocking river of humiliation to his disgrace. Mumbling a few other appropriate words which came to mind, he grabbed a towel to dry himself off. Wullie looked over at him and started to walk into the rear of the shop.
'I'll get a mop, Barney,' he said.
Like burning someone's house down, then offering to replace the welcome mat, thought Barney.
'Don't bother, I'll do it in a minute,' he growled, but Wullie felt the restlessness of the guilty and scurried off to retrieve the mop anyway. Barney shook his head and began to clear away the final few things lying around his work area. He lifted the pair of scissors again and studied them, his eyes drifting to Wullie, his back turned to him in the storeroom at the rear of the shop.
What damage I could do with these, he thought, but he knew he never would. If he was to avenge this crime, it would have to be by some subtle act of treachery, not a brutal and bloody stabbing.
He still held the scissors as Wullie emerged from the storeroom with the mop, walking towards him. Barney pursed his lips, tried not to appear too angry.
'Look, Wullie, it's all right. I said I'd get it.'
'I'll just give you a hand, Barney, it's no bother.'
Fine last words.
Wullie stepped forward to start clearing up the water, not noticing it had run so much towards him. His first step was firmly placed into a pool of lying water on a smooth tile, and his foot gave way. He attempted to regain his balance, and in doing so fell towards Barney. Barney raised his hands to catch him. Automatic reaction.
Wullie slumped heavily into Barney and his outstretched hands. Neatly, exactly, with medical precision, the scissors entered through Wullie's stomach and jagged up under his rib cage. He rested in Barney's arms for a few seconds, then pulled back to look at him, an expression of stupefied surprise on his face.
He lurched back, blood pouring from the wound, the scissors embedded in his stomach. Fell back against the chair, which toppled backwards, allowing him to slump down onto the floor. His back rested against the bottom of the chair, his eyes stared blankly one last time up at Barney, his head fell forward onto his chest.
Barney stared mutely down at the body on the floor and the pool of blood spreading across the tiles. His face mouthed silent words of horror, his voice a hushed croak of wind, and finally when it found some substance, it was the weak and desperate voice of the frightened.
'F**k,' he said.
Friday - chapter nine: Garbage Removal