Five Barbers

by M. Y. Alam

I wait outside, watching them through the window, two day’s stubble an imperfect barrier against the biting wind. The bell above the door rings, I enter and take a seat against the wall, a punter going by the name of T – just T – already occupying the first barbering chair, all sleek, modern, ergonomic. The ones you got years ago were more like sofas; padded obese, framed with chrome, heavy but soft. Most now decaying in landfills but a few might have survived, reborn as statements occupying space and performing function in sleek, modern and ergonomic apartments.

A young kid with a pencil stash and nice haircut has unfolded a smock, tying it off at his client’s neck, adorned with gold but his treasures now hidden. T looks at me through the mirror and purses his lips, flicks his head in recognition. The kid calls out to his father in the back room who gives no reply.

‘Number two on top, yeah, Bro. Number one on the sides and back.’

T wipes drool off his chin. The kid nods, clipper in hand, ready for work.
‘Some tram lines and that, like you did last time.’

The kid looks at his customer through the mirror, smiles and asks, without any desire to know:

‘So how you been keeping, then, T?’

His eyes bloodshot, his hands shaking, the man in the chair could do with some time away from his habit. He has a sister, a mother and a father who have all tried to help him ease back into a life less dirty. They’ve talked to him, prayed for him, asked others to intercede on their behalf, too. Better poor than this; better humble and honest than living in a bubble of glorious ignorance. They’ve all failed, of course. Wouldn’t be where’s he’s at otherwise. Maybe he’s too far gone. No. No maybe about it.

T coughs, sniffs and curses to himself. The kid keeps smiling, unsure or perhaps uncaring about how to continue the conversation. It’s not conversation, I realise. Just sound. Not been much else for a long time.

Decades ago a man noticing local demand for his caste and craft set up shop here, a pair of heavy burgundy leather chairs situated next to each other, two white sink basins opposite, their reflections caught in mirrors on the wall. At one end of the worktop a large ghetto blaster, speakers bigger than dinner plates. The music would play during his hours of business and the men in the shop would talk over it, seeming to ignore the ruckus but every now and then, the barber would pass comment about the singer’s tone, his depth, the meaning of the words he spelled into life. He wore a grey hip length coat made of a crease proof nylon fabric, causing his arms to swish in time with the chik-chik-chik of the blades, their kisses sculpting something new every time. He’d lay a short length of worn down wood on one of those big old leather chairs and hoist me up onto it, my father sat behind, reading the Daily Jang newspaper, a lit Embassy Filter in his mouth, music from the cassette player in his ears. Occasionally lifting his head up, monitoring progress, he’d offer an instruction: more off the back, the sides, the top. Always more, always neat, tidy and low maintenance, a habit brought back from his days in the army. Locks of hair would slide off the smock surrounding me, falling gently to the floor, to be swept up later when things were quiet or in between trims, shaves and conversations. Wouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes from start to finish: on snapped the clipper, down went my head, off came the hair and as I walked home, out poured the tears.

I pick up a newspaper and scan the front without connecting even with the headline. Before I can turn the page, the kid’s father walks out from the back room, asking me to sit for him. It’s been a lot of years, his hair is lighter in shade and volume but I recognise him all the same. Not the old barber who’d grip my head fast and have me shorn in a flash, but his son; at that time, like his own son now, a mere apprentice. I smile, thinking for a moment he perhaps recognises me. Twenty years, give or take, since we last met; two decades since his father’s scissors danced and skipped around my head.

As I stand, doffing off my coat, I tell him:

‘Shave. Usthraa.’

He smiles as I take the chair, T still failing to chat sense. My barber puts a towel around my neck and shoulders, tucking my shirt collar underneath before turning to his basin, opening the tap, fingering the flow, waiting on heat to show.
‘These days,’ he says, gently stroking a bone handled cutthroat razor across the whetstone sitting on the counter. ‘Not many take the shave this way.’

He organises the tools and wares of the trade carefully and with thought: clippers, razors and back up scissors in one drawer; talcum powders, oils, balms, lotions and potions in another. The basics, scissors and comb, stick out of his top pocket. His father, he was the same, I recall. Maybe that’s where I picked up my habits, too.

‘It’s a dying art, what we do.’

He smiles then gets to it. Hot water in a mug, a stick of shaving soap in one hand, a fine bristle brush in the other, he builds the lather on my face, the soap’s fragrance filling me with something old.

My very first barber worked out of his home, a terraced around the corner from where we lived. A dining chair in the middle of his front room, a modified bed sheet as protection, a mirror above the mantelpiece framing his works in progress. An old army comrade of my father, he walked everywhere, miles of marching turned feint in his stride over the years. Sometimes he’d make home visits, the trade carried in a small brown suitcase kept ready on a shelf in the hall. A short man with a bald head, black rimmed glasses and a taste for salt in his tea. I tried it once and couldn’t find the appeal. Salty tea, it makes no sense but that never bothered him, happy being his own man, like all men of his generation. His one gold tooth showed itself all the time, him being the smiling kind. His son, a man even then, I admired and looked up to even though I only saw his photograph on a wall: head cocked, leather padded over his raised fists, knees bent and loaded, the canvass stretching under his shifting feet. His mother, the gold tooth barber’s wife, she’d complain about the harm her son came to when caught in the ring. Like her husband the barber, a tooth of gold on permanent display, her being the talking kind.

My first experience of death, the passing of the barber with the gold tooth. I went to the house of mourning with my father and we sat in the front room, a large sheet of material covering the floor, the men cross legged, some on their knees, all of them looking down, sorrowful. I was the only child in the room and not knowing what to do, what to think, I kept my head down like I would in a barber’s chair but all the time, somehow, I watched. People came from all over the country and they all did the same thing: they cried and they prayed and they cried some more. Grown men in tears, it didn’t seem possible, or real. His sons, even the boxer who never cried once no matter how hard he fell, sobbed and whimpered like a child. They were like that for days and I didn’t know why, didn’t understand the loss, its nature. All I knew: that little brown suitcase had lost its purpose.

My barber comes in close, handle of bone pointing up, forefinger and thumb holding the blade. Eyebrows raised, he scrapes down my cheek, smooth, short and repeated strokes, hair and soap building up on the edge.

‘I’ve seen you before.’

‘A long time ago. When your father was still here.’

He moves his head from side to side, like Indians do in the movies: not agreeing, not disagreeing, neither.

‘That’s many years.’

To my right, his son – generation three – continues with his work on a man who is now unable to keep his mouth shut. The kid smiles and nods at all the right moments, for the most part allowing his scissors and a trimmer to do the talking, now and then venturing a question, eliciting more depth but invariably gaining only repetition.

‘He’s good,’ my barber smiles, perhaps proud of the fact, ‘but he’s still learning.’

‘That’s good.’

‘Wants to expand: hair dressing, he calls it.’

I smile, but manage to suppress a childish giggle.

‘Hair dressing, it’s for a different manner of person,’ he says, tapping the arms of the designer chair.

‘You and me, maybe we belong to a different world.’

My barber nods, then frowns. We both know I’m right. Only a matter of time before his son convinces him otherwise.

The third barber had a shop further down the hill, just past the playing fields, on the corner of a street, half of which had been knocked down some years before. Past its best, the shop’s exterior woodwork needed paint, something less loud than the ancient but still vivid green. Yellowing net curtains and Technicolor Indian movie posters set behind steamed up windows, kept the outside world where it belonged. During the winter, steady streams of visitors flowed in and out, and while the barber shaved and cut, they would sit and talk about news, about home and about here, about politics big and small, about the men they knew, had forgotten or simply lost. During the summer, they would sit outside on chairs while he waited on trade. Newspaper shared, tea drunk, the world aging with their blessings.

My barber puts a hot and damp towel over my face and lets it sit there for a few seconds before taking it off again, wiping off any remaining soap. Skin feels tight but smooth, new again. Next to me, T is all but done, nodding satisfaction as the kid holds a looking glass to the back of his skull, the image reflected in the mirror facing them. The apprentice proceeds to brush off stray snips of hair, then dabs talcum powder around the back of his client’s neck.

‘Touch a gel on top, Bro.’

The kid duly obliges, rubbing it in, before shaping a style with his fingers. All good. The kid undoes the smock, the man with the new hair has new energy, eyes now alert, face less tired. He stares at himself in the mirror, nodding but only until he sees me watching him.

‘Summat worth seeing Bro?’

‘Nice haircut.’

‘Almost as good as you, eh?’

‘Better,’ I smile.

T nods, gives me a wink. Me and him: we’re good. At least for now.

My barber splashes a few drops of ancient Imperial Leather after shave onto a palm, then sets the bottle down before applying his hands to my face. Stings like hell but the sensation leaves as quickly as it came.

I pay the man and he puts the money in the same drawer his father would use as a till. As he hands over the change, we stand there for a few seconds, staring at each other like we know some common secret. We do, of course, our trade involving the same science, art, history and instinct. But the moment dies once T gets to his feet. Not so happy after all. The hair, it’s not right; not like last time. The tram lines aren’t straight, the length too short, the shape too keen. My barber shakes his head.

‘Let me see,’ he sighs.

‘Bro,’ T begins. ‘This aint right. Your boy, he’s messed it up.’

‘Okay,’ my barber says. ‘Let me see.’

‘You think I’m paying for this shit I’m not.’

Not the kind of conversation I remember. It was louder than this but at the same time more civil. They’d talk shit, argue, moan and whine all the damned time, the men in these barber shops, but never once would they pull anything like this. Debate, dispute and all other disruptions were welcome but not this. No lying, no cheating.

My barber resmocks T as I put on my coat. I place a hand on T’s shoulder, whispering in his ear as he looks at me through the mirror. I sense him about to fidget, respond with some manner of aggression but I whisper some more until he looks away. I shake my barber’s hand, saying we’ll meet again if God wills it. The bell above the door rings and as I step out back into the world, I stop and watch them through the window, the wind bitter on my naked face.

Copyright © M. Y. Alam & National Short Story Day

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