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The man and the boy step off the grey street, up two shallow steps and into the barber’s empty waiting room. The man looks through another doorway to a further room where the cutting is done. It too is empty. The boy moves mutely to the man’s left, and sits with his back to the wall that separates the rooms.
‘I won’t be long,’ says the man, stepping through.
[private]With his father gone, the boy feels nervous and alone. He glances at the half-full ashtray on the smoked glass table before him, and the pile of magazines beside it. He sees on the far wall, at about the height of his head, a disused electrical socket with black tape over the holes. On a shelf above it is an abandoned pair of scissors. He hears his father on the other side of the wall behind him, shouting through yet another door: ‘Shop! Shop! Is anyone there?’
The boy picks up a magazine from the table, his face flushing slightly as if it were an act of theft. On the front cover, surrounded by flashes of brightly coloured lettering and oversized exclamation marks, is a woman, curved and bronzed and glistening in a shiny gold bikini. She stands, legs slightly apart, hair thrown back, her hands on her hips. Her lips have opened into what might be a smile, or the remnants of a kiss. The boy pretends to be reading thewords that hang above her head, or those that lay at her feet, as if his interest is in something other than the woman herself.
In the other room the barber appears, ushering the boy’s father backwards and into the big fake leather chair.
‘How are you?’ he says, stroking the bristly hairs on the back of his own neck and trying to mask his reaction to the smell of whiskey that fills the air. ‘Nice to see you. I was just having a chat with Cyril out the back. What can we do for you today?’
For a moment, the man hesitates, then he produces an old creased photograph of himself from some twenty years ago.
‘I want to look like this,’ he says.
The barber takes the photograph and examines it closely.
The man sitting before him is no longer the man in the picture. The man in the picture wears a keenly tailored teddy boy suit which, despite the photograph being black and white, the barber takes to be mauve. The man before him wears cheap cotton trousers and a tired grey jacket. The man in the picture wears a tightly knotted leather tie and a broad, strong smile. This man’s smile is vague and pained. The man in the picture has eyes that are full of pride and hope. He has youth, and he has thick, rich hair, gelled up into an impressive quiff.
The barber knows better than to laugh. He places the photograph carefully to one side. ‘I’m afraid I can’t replace the sideburns,’ he says. ‘I can take it off, but I can’t put it on.’
‘That’s all right,’ says the man.
‘And you’re not going to look exactly like you did then.’ He pauses, waiting for a response that doesn’t come. ‘I mean, things have changed.’
‘I understand,’ says the man.
The barber drapes a black nylon sheet across the man’s chest, and secures it behind his neck. ‘OK, then,’ he says. ‘Here we go.’
In the waiting room, the boy has opened the magazine, and the list of contents tell him that there are three pages devoted to further pictures of the woman. They begin on page fifty-three. Quietly and deliberately, he thumbs through the glossy corners until he finds the number. When he does, he holds his breath, and he can hear the sound of his heart beating in his ears.
The barber snips away at the man’s hair, pausing periodically to inspect his work, and trying to make conversation. He’s a good talker, but he’s getting nowhere with the man, who answers his questions with brief, disengaged statements. He hasn’t been on holiday this year, and has no plans to go. He feels that Rangers might win the cup, but it’s more likely that they won’t. He no longer works at the brickyard, he finished there some time ago. They fall into an awkward silence disturbed only by the clicking of the scissors and the sound of the man’s broad hands moving restlessly beneath the sheet.
The woman is so beautiful that the boy can hardly believe she is real. Just by looking at her he suddenly understands, in his heart, in the pit of his stomach, why he was born, and why one day his children will be born. He understands the essential holiness of life that he has always felt around him, but which was always swirling along the darkest edges of what he knew, always out of reach. He runs his fingers along the shape of her, traces the pattern of her legs, her stomach, her breasts. He wants her to come to him, to take him in her arms, to enfold him and be his.
The barber puts down the scissors and lifts an electric shaver from a hook on the wall. ‘I’ll just tidy you up with this,’ he says, ‘and then we’ll work on that quiff, OK?’
The man nods.
The barber switches the shaver on, and its thin noise underlines his growing discomfort. He shaves the man’s neck slowly, checking his own reflection in the mirror more than once, for reasons he can’t fathom.
The boy listens carefully, trying to work out how much time he has before the barber is finished with his father. Whatever he chooses to do he must do it quickly, but he is not accustomed to making decisions. He knows he can’t take the whole magazine. If he puts it under his jumper it will show through, and he has no coat.
He contemplates pushing it up his trouser leg and tucking the bottom of it into his sock, but it’s an untested technique and the consequences of it going wrong are too great. This reduces his options to tearing the pages out, with the inevitable risk of damage that would involve, or retrieving the abandoned pair of scissors and cutting the pages free. He decides to go for the scissors.
The haircut looks better than the barber had hoped, but he can’t undo time. As he holds a mirror behind the man’s head and to the sides, letting his attempts at redemption be approved or condemned, he feels more keenly than ever his own ageing, and wonders how he has managed to spend so long in this one same building, and where all that time has gone.
The man, however, seems pleased, and a cautious, childlike optimism has stolen into his eyes. ‘That’s fine,’ he says. ‘That’s …’
‘Yes?’ says the barber, eagerly.
The man lifts himself from the seat, steadying himself on the barber’s arm as his legs waver. Then he looks directly into the barber’s face. ‘That’s just the way I looked when she first fell in love with me,’ he says.
The barber does not reply. He takes the man’s money, returns his photo, and leads him back through to the waiting room.
As the boy hears them approach he throws himself back into his original seat, simultaneously throwing the magazine back onto the top of its pile, as if casually tossing aside twenty minutes of time tolerably filled. The scissors he places noiselessly on the floor.
Then he rises to follow his father into the street. His woman is nestled safely in his pocket, and his heart is singing.[/private]
Gregory Heath is widely published as a poet and short story writer. His literary novel The Entire Animal was published by Waywiser Press in 2006; and his collection of poetry, The boy and his animals, is available via his website at www.gregoryheath.co.uk.