Chapter four: Death Row
Barney looked on proudly as his finest haircut of the month walked from the shop. The lad had wanted his hair cut by Chris, but there had been too many people in the queue ahead of him, forcing him to settle on Barney. And he had shown him what real barbery was all about. The haircut had been a peach. A non-technical short back and sides job, low difficulty certainly, but executed with beautiful panache nonetheless. Even and neat on the top, tapered to geometric perfection around the ears and the back of the neck. Barbery at its finest, he thought to himself, from one of the best exponents of the art in the west of Scotland.
He glanced at the other two to see if they'd noticed, but Chris was too busy discussing the on-going plight of Partick Thistle, while Wullie was contemplating the exact nature of the relationship between Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye. Barney shrugged. If they were too busy discussing trivialities to notice real genius, then that was their problem.
He turned and surveyed the shop, feeling good about himself. A warm glow. Like the pilot who lands the plane in a storm without a bump, or the teacher who discovers the one pupil in a thousand who understands triple differentiation, the barber who carries out the perfect haircut has reason to be proud.
It was a small shop. A row of four chairs along one side next to the great bank of mirrors, and a long cushioned bench along the other, upon which the customers awaited their fate. Wullie worked the chair nearest the window, Chris next to him, then there lay an empty chair, occasionally filled on busy Saturdays by a young girl moonlighting from an expensive hairdressers in Kelvinside. At the back of the shop, working the fourth chair, was Barney, and he resented it. Behind him was a small alcove, making the room into a slight L-shape, where there was a fifth seat, a seat which hadn't been worked since the great hair rush of the late seventies, when every man in Britain had wanted a perm, so that they could look as much of an idiot as everyone else. It was some surprise to Barney that he had not been relegated all the way back there.
There'd been a time when he'd had possession of the coveted window seat – for some fifteen years in fact – but he'd been ousted late one Friday afternoon in a bloodless coup. Wullie had been after the chair for some time and, using the fact that his father owned the shop to his advantage, he'd executed a manoeuvre that had relegated Barney to the back of the room. It'd been the talk of the shop for some time – the talk of hushed voices – but gradually the affair had quietened down, as Wullie had known it would, and they'd settled back into a steady routine.
However, it had widened the gap between Barney and the other two men. They shared no interests whatsoever and consequently no conversation. And they also shared very few customers, most of them preferring to go to the younger men. Barney was left with a few old boys whose hair he had been cutting for years, a few men who didn't care, and the odd stray first-timers who didn't know any better.
He looked over the queue of ten people crammed onto the seat and realised there were none who fitted any of the required categories. They would all be waiting for one of the other two bastards. However, he still had the post-dream-haircut glow about him. Surely at least one of them would have surveyed the majesty of the hair on the bloke who had just left. Surely brilliance such as that would not go unnoticed.
He looked at the row of men, each with their private thoughts about the ordeal awaiting them. A mini-Death Row. Some sat with anticipatory relish, some were nervous, some were angry, present only on the instructions of their wives. Or mothers.
'Who's next?' said Barney, with the confident air of a fighter who takes on all comers.
Like a row of disciples denying all knowledge of Jesus under the scrutiny of an awkward centurion, most of the ten stared blankly ahead, ignoring him as best they could. The two or three nearest him felt obliged to shake their heads, although only one of them could do it while looking him in the eye. Barney gave them an incredulous stare, but since they were all ignoring him, it was wasted. A change in strategy was required.
It is frequently effective for the unemployed barber to remorselessly select individuals who may well crack under the pressure of personal attention. Another useful lesson from Barber School, which Barney had never forgotten.
'You, my good man,' he said pointing to the chap at the head of the queue, 'come on.'
He had chosen unwisely, however, for this was not a man to be browbeaten. He looked Barney in the eye, unconcerned about such things as direct appeals.
'It's all right mate, I'm going to wait for Chris, thanks.'
Bloodied, but not yet beaten, Barney nodded. 'Fair enough.' He pointed to the next in line. 'You then, my man, on you come.'
The man shuffled his feet and stared at the floor, remembering the words of his wife as he'd left the house; 'Here you, mind and no' let that old bastard at your hair, 'cause you know what he did the last time, and if you come home and you've no' got your hair cut, I'll be like that, so I will, I'll be like that, get back out there. See if you spend that money down the boozer, I'll be like that. I will.' Finally shook his head.
Barney rolled his eyes, gritted his teeth, looked like he was going to punch someone. Did his best to remember the lessons he'd learned from years past, and kept his cool. Perseverance, that was what was needed. Someone would eventually crack. He just had to make sure it wasn't him.
He gestured to the next chap, who noiselessly gestured towards Chris. Barney gritted his teeth again. He wasn't coping with this at all well. One more. He'd try one more.
'Here you, what about you?' he said to the next in line, his temper beginning to spill over.
The man ignored the tone of voice. 'No thanks mate, I'm just going to wait for Wullie, if that's all right.'
The final straw, settling gently on the camel's back. Forgetting everything he'd learned at Barber School, Barney cracked.
'No, it bloody well isn't all right.' He stared angrily up and down the row of embarrassed faces. 'Not one of you, eh? Not one of you is willing to get your hair cut by me? Am I that bad?'
He pointed towards the closed door. 'Did you not see that haircut I just did. Bloody stoatir, so it was. And you're all going to wait for these two,' he said, sneering. 'It's three-thirty now. If you all wait for them, some of you aren't going to get your haircut at all. I've just pulled off one of the finest haircuts this shop's seen in months, and yet you all just sit there like bloody sheep.' He stared them up and down. 'Well?'
He was aware of the beating of his heart, the redness in his face. Began to feel a bit of an idiot, but something drove him on. Searching for the one who looked the most sheepish, the most likely to crack under pressure.
'You!' he said, pointing. The chap turned reluctantly to look at him. 'Aye, you, young man. How about you? I'll do you a nice Gregory Peck, something like that.'
It was a lad of about seventeen and, with pleasure, Barney realised that he was about to give in. He would have his chance to show the rest of these bastards what a decent haircut looked like.
'Look Barney, if they all want to wait for Chris or me, then that's fine. You can't have a go at the customers. Someone else will come in shortly'
Slowly, Barney turned and looked over at the window. Wullie stood wagging a pair of scissors in Barney's direction. Barney stared back. His heart beat a little faster.
The bastard. The total bastard. That he should have humiliated Barney in front of all these customers.
He stood with his feet spread. An aggressive stance, ready for a fight. Wullie was having none of it. He murmured something to his customer and took a few paces towards Barney. He spoke in a quiet voice, but it was a small enough shop that there was no way that anyone could miss what was said. At the last second, and with a fine sense of diplomacy, Chris turned on his hair-dryer to create some background noise.
'Look Barney, don't think that I'm embarrassing you in front of the customers. You're embarrassing yourself. And them. If they don't want to come to you, it's no bother. Just leave them to it. Gregory Peck, for f**k's sake.'
Barney grumbled something about not leaving them to it, without having the guts to really say it.
'I'll talk to you about it later, Barney, if that's all right with you.'
Barney stared at Wullie, the anger boiling up inside him, but contained for all that. He nodded a bitter nod, sat down in his chair, roughly lifted the paper, and made no attempt to read it.
The moment had passed, but tension still hung thick in the air. Barney looked at his paper for a few seconds, then turned the corner down and glanced menacingly over at the row of men sitting trying to ignore him.
It was the first time he'd felt so humiliated since the window seat debacle, and while he'd eventually let that one pass, there was no way he was going to let Wullie talk to him like that in front of all these bloody goons.
Chris silenced his hair-dryer – much to the relief of the man at the other end of the warm blast – then the only sound in the shop was the quiet snip of two pairs of scissors going about their business. Finally the man at the whim of Wullie's hand asked him if he'd read the gossip about some film star of whom Barney had never even heard, and slowly the shop returned to normal. The quiet hum of pointless chatter, interspersed with electric razors and the gentle flop of hair to the floor.
Then, with the elegant timing of a Victorian watch, the door to the shop swung open. Ten pairs of eyes looked expectantly. The possibility that here might be someone to assuage their guilt. It was a man in his late twenties, unaware of the cauldron into which he had just walked. Quietly closed the door, took his place at the end of the queue.
Barney laid down the paper, stood up, brushed down the seat, lifted the cape, looked the man in the eye. He didn't immediately recognise him. A good sign.
'All right then, my good man. All these others are waiting, so you're next in line.'
Unaware of the expectations weighted upon his shoulders, the man did not even hesitate.
'That's OK, mate, I'm just going to wait for Wullie.'
Barney stood, cape in hand, a bullfighter without a bull. He stayed calm. Bit his tongue, although the sight of Wullie staring at him out of the corner of his eye did nought but increase the desire to explode. He placed the cape back over the chair, deliberately lifted the paper, and once again sat down. Just before his backside hit the seat, he paused, looking once more at the customer.
'Are you sure now, my friend, there's a long queue?'
The man nodded. 'Aye, I'm all right, mate, thanks. There's no rush.'
Barney slumped into the seat, seething quietly within. He hated all these bloody customers. Who did they think they were anyway? Complete bastards the lot of them. But no matter how much he hated them, it did not tie the shoelaces of how much he hated Wullie and Chris. Those smug bastards. He would have his revenge.
He didn't know how, but somehow he would. He was sure of it. He looked along the shop at Wullie, and then past him out of the window. It was a dark day, the rain falling in a steady drizzle, as it had done all afternoon. Doleful figures passed by, hunched against the wind and rain, unaware of the injustices within the shop past which they scuttled. But some day they would find out. Some day, everyone would know about what went on in the shop. Some day soon.
Robert Holdall slumped into his seat with the enthusiasm of one settling into the electric chair. Another press conference. The Chief Superintendent was forcing them on him almost daily. He would have liked to have argued that they were stopping him from doing his job, but he had so little to go on that the only thing that they were getting in the way of was his afternoon tea and sandwich.
He was accompanied as usual by the burly press officer, a woman of quite considerable stature, who exercised an amount of control over the press that no man had ever managed. And as Holdall readied himself to read his prepared statement, she silenced the packed room with a couple of dramatic waves of her right arm. This was a woman who ate large mechanical farm implements for breakfast.
Holdall stared gloomily at the words written down in front of him. God it was short. Of course it was. They had nothing to say to these people. What could he tell them? That they were thinking of arresting everyone in Glasgow who didn't own a car? Of course not. And so he had written down three sentences of total vacuity. A nothing statement, forced on him by a bloody-minded boss. He would liked to have seen him sit there and read out this garbage.
He finished staring at it, looked up at the collected press. Aw shite, he thought, there are even more than usual. Maybe a few up from England. He made the decision quickly and without any prior consideration. To Hell with it, he thought, give them something a bit more solid than this piece of vacuous mince.
He cleared his throat and, pretending to read from the paper in front of him, began in his low, serious press-voice.
'Ladies and gentlemen. I shall be necessarily brief today, which I am sure you will understand when you hear what I have to say.' He paused briefly. Shit. What was he going to say exactly? Cleared his throat again, took a drink from the glass of water at his right hand, then jumped into the blazing inferno, eyes open. 'Late last night, officers from this station came into possession of a valuable piece of evidence, the exact nature of which I am not yet at liberty to divulge. It has given us a very definite direction of inquiry which we are now pursuing with all possible vigour.' Not bad, he thought. Optimistic, but vague. Don't blow it. 'Given the nature of this new information, we are hopeful of a major development in this investigation, some time in the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours.' Christ, what are you saying? You idiot. Shut up, and don't say any more. 'I am afraid that I am unable to disclose any more information at this time, but you can be assured that when these anticipated further developments have taken place, you will be notified in the usual manner.'
He closed his mouth, blinked, looked up. A brief second and the room had erupted in a cacophony of noise. He sat looking like a stuffed fish, while Sgt Mahoney did her best to calm the crowd. Eventually, after some time and with much difficulty, the room had returned to rest, and the Sergeant pointed a yellowed finger to a man with his arm raised, near the front of the crowd.
'Bill Glasson, Evening Post,' he said, a look of surprise upon his face. It was the first time he'd been called at a press conference in fourteen years, and he had no idea what question to ask. He knew they were not going to get anything more out of the guy, but they were obliged to shout at him. It was their job. When the tumult erupted he had been asking what the inspector had had for breakfast that morning, just so he could add to the clamour. A new question was needed, however.
'So,' he said, thinking frantically, 'you say you have some idea who the killer is. Do you know exactly who the killer is?'
Holdall shook his head. What a crap question, he thought. He could have sworn that before, this bloke had been asking him something about breakfast.
'I'm sorry, but I'm not at liberty to discuss any information other than that which I have just given to you.'
When it became obvious that he wasn't going to say any more on the matter, the clamour immediately started up again, and after a minute or two, was quietened down. Enough of this, thought Holdall. What's the point? If I go on with this, I'll just end up saying something even more stupid than I already have done.
He muttered quietly to the sergeant that he would only take one more question, and when she announced this to the crowd, there was an even more extravagant commotion and frantic waving of hands. She selected the most innocent looking one, a young blonde haired woman sitting in the centre of the room.
'Greta Burridge, the Mail.' Greta Burridge swallowed. Third day on the job. She had her question to ask, however. 'So, Chief Inspector Holdall, does this mean that the rumours that you intend to arrest everyone in Glasgow who doesn't own a car are unfounded?'
Holdall sat at his desk, his head firmly buried in his hands. He still hadn't come to terms with what an idiot he'd been. Looked at his watch. Another forty minutes, and then he would have a meeting with the Chief Superintendent. He was going to have to explain himself. As always, he couldn't help thinking of the time he'd been dragged to the Headmaster's office when he was fourteen, after exploding a small bomb in the music teacher's sandwich box.
And he hadn't had an explanation for that either.
Monday - chapter five: Alas, Poor Nietzsche, I Knew Him, Bill
The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson - collected chapters
Meet the author: Douglas Lindsay