The boy’s father considered there to be two primary aspects to parenting – the importance of time spent with the child and the importance of time spent without the child. One took precedence over the other. Once a month, without fail, the father would take the boy to the barber and they would both get their hair cut the exact same way. The father would have a shave and the boy would envy him while he had it. It was because of this ritual that the boy would forever remember the back of his father’s head.
The barber shop had a display window that prevented any further view into the shop itself, the display backed by small, textured glass panes bordering on the opaque. The main window was lined with a yellow UV film that was intended to protect the items of the display from fading in the sunlight and this subsequently gave the items on display the permanent hue of sun damage. The film had not been fitted correctly. It was somewhat warped and the goods on display would fluctuate and distort as in a funhouse mirror. Shaving brushes of badger hair, lathering bowls of handcrafted oak and beech, porcelain scuttles, combs of varying widths and lengths, safety razors and, of course, cut throat razors; all fluctuated.
Just as the boy couldn’t see inside from the street, neither could he see outside once within.
A bell above would ring. The father entered first and the boy followed. The shop had an odd layout; a short, narrow corridor until the salon all of a sudden revealed itself and, as always, revealed itself to be empty.
The interior permitted very little in the way of natural light and there was plenty of dark wood furnishings to absorb that which found its way within. Fluorescent tubes hung over a mirror that ran the length of one wall and if they were meant to flatter they did not. There were three chairs and the same mirror reflected the leather-clad bench opposite. Not once had the boy ever seen more than the one barber at work and he assumed that the other two chairs were relics from a more fortunate time. In the far corner was the cream coloured portable plastic television hanging from the ceiling by a chain. A muted news broadcast oscillated, the only noise emanating from the ceiling fan. It was warm inside the place and the boy could smell that which all barber shops smell of.
The boy sat. His father removed his overcoat and draped it onto the anorexic coat stand, followed by his hat. He patted down his hair and, oh, what a thick, fine head of hair it was.
‘Henry!’ called the father.
There was a selection of magazines stacked precariously at the end of the bench and the boy reached over to much disappointment. He assumed that most patrons of the salon must be either fly fishermen or gamekeepers of large estates before such assumptions were dispelled by the rustle of beads.
At the rear of the salon a beaded door curtain hung before a dark doorway and it was from here that Henry appeared. The beads draped over his wide frame as he emerged. What hair he had was pasted down across his scalp; slick, oiled strands spoiling an otherwise balding head. Overweight but not jolly with it, the man Henry always appeared uncomfortable in the white smock clasped tight around his throat. He was older than the boy’s father but the two men related to each other as equals and the barber was one of the few men the boy ever saw his father smile with.
The two men shook hands and talked about the weather until Henry gestured to the middle chair. Henry had yet to acknowledge the boy, which was as routine as conversations about the weather. In the mirror, the boy acknowledged his reflection before becoming obscured by the back of his father’s head. A black cape was then draped over the father and fastened around his throat and Henry required no instruction before combing through the thick, lustrous hair. The father’s hair was soft when washed and dry and the boy had inherited such hair and did not want it. But his father’s hair was white. It had always been white to the boy but there had been mention of jet black hair in younger days, before the father became a father. All his children had jet black hair and so the boy supposed there was a modicum of truth to the rumour.
Henry sprayed a fine mist of water over the hair and combed it through before taking his scissors to it. The two men talked low and all the boy could decipher was their tone. His father would occasionally nod his head back or turn somewhat in his direction, Henry all the while nodding his head in agreement or shaking his head in understanding. The boy had learned from past experience not to smile or attempt to engage in any way with Henry, or even with his father when he was in Henry’s presence. It always struck the boy how this man called Henry, this barber, could dictate where his father positioned his head with just the most subtle of gestures.
As if averting his eyes from intimacy, the boy looked down to the floor as his father’s hair fell to it, cascading in clumps, some floating alone and delicate. Old rain – the boy thought of it as old rain, even if he wasn’t sure why or even if it made any sense – just old rain. Henry’s brogues shifted around the chair, trampling the hairs as if they had never mattered.
Once all was as it should be, Henry held up a hand mirror to the father’s neck and the father nodded with each angle. Henry then rubbed something in his hands and ran them over the father’s head, making a mess of him before combing neat. The chair then reclined.
Like a magician producing a white rabbit, Henry suddenly produced a white towel from nowhere that steamed even in the warmth of the room and he draped it over the father’s face until only the tip of the nose were visible.
Without a word or a sound, Henry took a cut-throat razor, extracted it from its handle and honed it along a leather strop that hung from beneath the shelf. He looked at the boy as he did so and still refused to smile. He then placed the razor down and lathered the soap in the bowl before removing the towel from the boy’s father. Straining, the boy could just make out that his father had his eyes closed and the boy wondered if he was asleep, though the furrow of his brow remained.
The lather was briskly applied until the father sported a cream beard.
Henry took the razor, muttered something, and neither man spoke further. He began from the sideburns down, wiping the blade after each sweep of it onto a towel draped over the back of the chair. Then the upper lip. Then the chin. The cheeks. The boy watched. The boy heard. He heard each individual coarse stump of hair as it was cut away. Even the sound of the ceiling fan gave way.
The boy watched his motionless father and watched as the man Henry tilted the head up a little and drew the blade straight across his father’s throat, the arterial spray obscuring reflections of the mirror and even reaching up as high as the fluorescent light. Henry wiped red soap onto the towel. Blood ran down the chair to the floor and all the white hairs were consumed by it, drowning in it. The blood then pooled across the floor towards the boy’s feet and the boy raised them just as it reached his toes. The ceiling fan rotated silently, now reflected upon the floor. What a mess, thought the boy. What a mess.
‘What did I tell you, Henry. Daydreamer.’
The boy’s father was wiping the back of his neck with tissue paper as he stood over his son. Henry, shaking his head and smiling, collected all the white hair from the floor. He had a dustpan and brush, both with long handles to prevent any degree of effort, and once all the hairs had been collected, the lid of the dustpan slammed shut.
‘Come on, Blue. Your turn.’
The father called his son ‘Blue’ sometimes. The boy never knew why, but he liked it when he did and it was rare for him to be called such in the company of others. Henry brushed the seat before the boy sat on it and then pumped the chair until at the correct height. As always, Henry pulled the cape tight around the boy until it dug deep into his neck. He proceeded to cut his hair but not his throat.
‘Perhaps next year, Henry,’ said the father. ‘Once he’s a man.’
Henry held out the father’s coat for him as he put it on while the boy put his own on himself. The father put on his hat before the men shook hands again, laughing about something-or-other and the boy assumed money had changed hands. Henry then swept the boy’s hair into the dustpan before disappearing back beyond the beads.
The bell rang as father and son stepped out into the street into a fresh rain. The father took hold of the boy’s hand while the boy rubbed with his other, rubbing at the back of his neck in vain, each follicle scratching, itching, prickling for the rest of time.
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