Chapter two: Customers Must Have Hair
It was going badly. Exceptionally badly. There were voyages of the Titanic which had gone better than this. Barney caught the eye of the customer in the mirror, and did his best not to convey what he knew and what the victim had yet to realise. Sometimes the first haircut of the day can be catastrophic. A headlong rush to do good, which turns to bloody disaster. James IV at Flodden, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Zulus at Rorke's Drift. It doesn't start out that way, but somewhere along the line it becomes a horror story. Grown men weep.
He surveyed his handiwork, realising the damage being cleaved by his own scissors. The man had asked for a straightforward short back and sides, a Frank Sinatra '62, but things had rollercoastered out of hand.
Ensuring he avoided his customer's gaze, he considered the two options open to barbers in such circumstances. One – keep cutting until all is recovered and the hair looks even. Unfortunately, this usually leaves the victim looking like a US Marine, and if it so happens that he thinks like a US Marine, you're in trouble. Two – cover his head in water, pretend your hair-dryer isn't working, and let the full devastation be revealed to him later on when he is sitting in work, his hair has dried, and his colleagues are having a field day. It's a lucky man who, under such circumstances, has a job which requires headwear.
The man who sat before him was of considerable stature. Seven feet tall, thought Barney.
Giant Kills Barber in Revenge Attack. Option one was not viable. It must be number two, with the expectation that such a large man was unlikely to even ask for the hair-dryer in case anyone else in the shop might equate wanting your hair dried artificially with homosexuality.
Intricate and subtle are the politics of the barber shop.
He hesitated, but the decision was made. Imagining himself to be Clint Eastwood, he fixed a firm look in his eye and set about his work with as much conviction as he could muster.
Ten minutes later he breathed a sigh of relief as the slaughtered head retreated from the shop, the victim still unaware of the full horror which had been visited upon him, and curious as to why Barney had deposited a jug of water over his head. Barney made a mental note, to add to the list, to be certain to avoid the bloke in the street for the next few weeks.
He turned his attention to the bench. A man was waiting, but he recognised him as one of Wullie's regulars, so he nodded a slightly resentful acknowledgement and went about sweeping up the debris from the previous customer – noticing in the process that a disproportionate amount of it lay on the right hand side.
As he swept, he cast a wearied glance over his two colleagues, busy doing that barber thing; cutting hair and talking drivel at the same time. Chris was discussing the likelihood of truth in the rumour that Marilyn Monroe had had forty-three abortions; Wullie was grandstanding on the rights of man, as opposed to the rights of women, one of his common topics, to which Barney hated to listen. The words drifted across the short distance of the shop, and no matter how much he tried to switch off, the sound was always there, eating away at him. Like a cancer. Yes, that's it, he thought, a cancer.
'No, no, you see, I hate that,' Wullie said to a young lad. 'All this garbage about girls maturing faster than boys. It's bollocks.'
'You think so, Wullie?' said the boy, bright eyed, acne-blighted face, teeth yellowed by illicit teenage cigarettes.
Wullie smiled. There's nothing a barber likes more than some eager young sponge. 'Aye, of course it is. Think about it. The thing people equate most with maturity is sense of humour. One person's humour is another's schoolboy immaturity. Benny Hill, John Cleese, the Marx Brothers. For everyone that thinks they're funny, there's some eejit who thinks they're juvenile.'
'I hate Benny Hill,' said the boy.
Wullie nodded. 'Exactly. But he was the most famous British guy in America. You know,' he said, adding edge to the voice, 'that he ran for President against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and won nearly twenty percent of the vote?'
The lad looked impressed, nodding his head. Wullie continued before anyone could object, while deploying evasive scissor tactics to avoid cutting off the boy's ear.
'So that's the thing about comedy. What happens is that these young birds lose their sense of humour when they reach puberty, and boys don't, so they all think they're more mature than us. But they're not. They've just forgotten how to laugh, that's all.'
The lad's eyes had been opened. 'Jings, I never thought of it like that, Wullie.'
Wullie nodded, executing a neat manoeuvre around the left ear.
'Thing is, you can't really blame them, can you? I mean, if I'd had a pint of blood bucketing out of me once a month from the age of twelve, I'd have lost my sense of humour 'n all.'
The lad was impressed with Wullie's sensitivity for the female condition. 'Here, you're not one of these New Men, are you Wullie?' he asked, and Wullie smiled.
Barney rolled his eyes, shook his head and went back to his sweeping, an act in which he was deliberate and slow, as he was in everything he did. He had never had the knack of talking drivel to complete strangers. Certainly, he could talk about the weather with the best of them, or could cast an opinion on the repeated episode of Inspector Morse shown the night before – although the opinion usually belonged to someone else – but when it came to uncompromising asinine bollocks, he just didn't have it. He had been cutting hair for over twenty years, and yet, in this respect, he remained an amateur. Still, on this imagined Day of Days, he had something up his sleeve.
The door to the shop opened, accompanied by a gay tinkle from the bell. It was a Sad Man. Barney groaned. The 'few pathetic strands of hair' brigade. Men for whom hair is something which happens to other people. Men who grow a few strands of hair to a length of several metres, wrap it tenuously around their scalps, then wonder if people notice.
The Sad Man looked at the man in the queue, who gestured that he was waiting for Wullie, then walked towards Barney. Barney ushered him into the chair, ran a discreet and well-trained eye over his baldy napper, and wrapped him in the cape.
'What will it be then, Sir?'
'A short back and sides'll be just fine, Big Man.'
A short back and sides. What a joke. Barney looked at his hair, and dreamt of being able to cut it off at its roots. He lifted a pair of scissors, and they itched in his fingers. Twitch, twitch, twitch, eager to cut. Had to control the muscles in his fingers, the thoughts in his head. He sighed, put the scissors back on the worktop and lifted a comb. Might as well do as he was bid. As usual. One day he would have his revenge on all these bastards.
He combed the hair several different ways. He wasn't a fast worker, but he could have had this hair cut and the guy out of the shop in under a minute. But they never appreciated that, these Sad Men, so he knew to spin it out for at least twenty. Make him think he had a decent head of hair on him. A dream maker, that's what he was. He felt like Steven Spielberg as he pondered the tools of his trade. Scissors, brushes, combs and razors, before deciding on an electric razor. Might as well pretend he had to shave the back of the neck and round the ears.
On a normal head of hair that would be good for at least five minutes per ear. He'd been told at barber school that he would resent ears at first, so much would they get in the way, but in time that resentment would pass and he would come to love and cherish the ears, like you did any other more straightforward part of the head. However, it had never happened for Barney. His resentment of ears went beyond rationality, and he knew he would never be cured of it. And, as always, even though there was little to be done with this Sad Man, Barney got himself into a tangle of arms and legs as he attempted to negotiate the elaborate folds of skin and cartilage.
However, ten minutes into the cut things were going smoothly. He was making it look as if he had much work to do, the Sad Man seemed happy, and there had been minimal conversation. Barney looked around the rest of the shop. Chris was reading the paper, Wullie had just finished telling his next customer of Florence Nightingale's outrageous lesbian tendencies.
Barney smiled. Now might just be the time to drop his bombshell, show the others he could compete on level ground. Show them that when it came to talking shite he was right up there with the two of them.
He had no interest in football. He hated it with something approaching passion, if so dour a man could feel passion for anything. Grown men as little boys. A war substitute. But even though he knew nothing of football, he had done something grand. That weekend he had looked at the league tables. He now had a little knowledge.
'Hey, any of you ever read these lonely hearts messages?' said Chris from the bench, the paper rustling in his hands.
Barney turned round quickly, nearly depriving the Sad Man of his right ear. God, would they ever shut up?
'Listen to this.
Single woman, late 30's. Interesting looks. Likes gardening, books and quiet nights. Seeks Marty Feldman lookalike.' He laughed, was joined by Wullie and his customer. 'Interesting looks? Bloody hell, she must be a stankmonster if that's the best she can do.'
'Ugly bird, left on the shelf, more like,' said Wullie.
'And these guys are just as bad,' said Chris. '
Forty-six year old aesthete... What's an aesthete again?'
'I think it's someone who changes his y-fronts twice a day,' said Wullie.
'They probably meant athlete. It'll be a printing error,' said Wullie's customer.
'Aye, right,' said Chris. '
Forty-six year old athlete seeks attractive woman in early twenties. Bloody hell, I bet he does. For long walks, gin and tonic as the sun goes down, Corelli's Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Wordsworth, and Renaissance architecture.' He shook his head. 'What a flipping bampot.'
'What are you saying?' said Wullie. 'You don't like Corelli?'
'Not sure,' said Chris. 'Was he the Juventus centre-half the Rangers tried to sign?'
Chris laughed and returned to reading the paper. Barney simmered. He waited to see if Chris would say something else, thinking, 'just shut up for five seconds'. Got ready to talk his own bit of drivel. Opened his mouth, smiled.
'Listen to this one,' said Chris, laughing. '
Mature woman, mid-80s, looking for love. Skilled in Eastern lovemaking. Seeks man in 20s/30s for nights of passion. No cranks. Mid-80s! Can you believe it? Cheeky old midden.'
'There's some strange folk out there,' said Wullie. 'Bet she gets loads of replies. Good luck to the gallus old cow.'
'Eastern lovemaking?' said Wullie's customer. 'You think that means she's shagged someone in the back of a motor in Edinburgh?'
The others laughed, Barney fumed, annoyed at himself for listening. Mid-80s. Incredible. It could've been his own mother, and he shivered at the thought.
Silence again. This time he would seize the moment.
'What d'you make of those Rangers, eh?' he said to the Sad Man, slightly louder than was necessary, and he cast an eye over the rest of the shop to see the reaction he had elicited. Chris was laughing at the paper, and ignoring him; Wullie glanced over, but no more. Barney looked back to the customer.
Sad Man shrugged. 'What about them?' he said. 'Don't really follow it myself.'
He caught Barney's eye in the mirror and looked convincingly back. He was lying. He'd been a season ticket holder at Ibrox for over seventeen years, but he was aware of Barney's conversational deficiencies and there was no way he was talking to him about anything. Even the Rangers.
Barney had little reply, as he was already almost at the cusp of his knowledge; so he lurched into his usual silence. All that waiting for nothing. Feeling spurned, he hurried through the rest of the haircut, managing to stop himself cleaving off several feet of hair emanating from behind the right ear.
Five minutes later, the Sad Man handed over his cash, an extra fifty pence included, and walked out into the light drizzle of morning feeling like Robert Redford.
Barney watched him go, shaking his head with every step. If he ever got to run the shop he would have a sign put in the window.
Customers Must Have Hair. He sneered and looked at the waiting area. The next customer up, he shuffled his razors and contemplated whether or not to mention the fact that he knew Rangers were five points clear at the top of the league.
The day dragged on, following its usual course. Barney only cut about half the amount of hair as the other two, partly because he was a lot slower, partly because few people sought him out in particular ahead of the others. It wasn't until late in the afternoon that he felt able to broach the subject of football again, and with an almost mathematical inevitability he was caught with his pants down.
It was a big bloke, a labourer from a site down by the Clyde. He was wearing a Scotland top, making Barney feel confident in starting a football conversation. Once again he bided his time, then chose his moment with a flourish, foot firmly in mouth, when all else in the shop was quiet.
'What d'you make of those Rangers, eh?' he said, not quite as cocksure as before, but still with a glint in the eye.
'What about them?' growled the Scotland strip.
Displaying the kind of blinkered enthusiasm which allowed Custer to stop for a KFC and a doughnut at the Little Big Horn, Barney failed to spot the warning signs.
'Five points clear at the top of the league. Some team, eh?'
The Scotland strip grunted. 'They're shite. Lost their last three games now. Pile of pish, so they are.'
Barney hesitated, but he bravely determined to battle on, like the German tanks in the Ardennes, until he ran out of fuel.
'Aye, but you know, five points clear at the top of the league. Can't be bad, eh?'
'They're still shite. They're only five points clear at the top of the league because everyone else is even more shite than them.' He looked at Barney. This was a man who ate babies. 'What do you know about football anyway?' he growled.
Barney swallowed, scissors trembling in his hands. Unable to think of an answer, he quickly resumed some gentle snipping, a layer of tension now descended on his little area of the shop. For once he did not dither over a cut and, while ensuring that he did not make a hash of it, sent the Scotland strip packing as quickly as possible. He left with a grunt and all his change in his pocket.
As the door closed behind him, and Barney breathed a sigh of relief, Wullie laughed and spoke to him for the first time since twenty-five minutes past eight that morning.
'If you're going to tell someone how good the Rangers are, try not telling a Celtic fan next time, eh Barney? We don't want a riot in here.'
He laughed again and was joined by everyone else in the shop. Barney, suitably embarrassed, retreated to the hiding place that was his natural reserve, and plotted his usual plans of revenge.
Bastards. They were all bastards.
He looked out the window at the massive figure retreating into the distance, and dreamt of him falling into a manhole, breaking his neck.
The rain thundered down with ever greater intensity. The skies were dark; occasional ferocious streaks of lightning rendered the clouds. The street lights were already on, fighting a losing battle against the gloom. Barney bent low over his brush, sweeping with slow deliberate strokes, and thought of dark deeds. Deeds to match the weather. Deeds which fate would force his hand to commit within the week.
Saturday - chapter three: The Lure of the Flashing Blue Light
The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson - collected chapters
Meet the author: Douglas Lindsay