A RED-AND-WHITE STRIPED POLE turned above the shop door, set to spinning by a small electric motor. Angelos leant against his broom and watched it with unfocussed eyes. He’d lost days — weeks — staring up at that pole. The best years of his life had come and gone and still, he could not bring himself to look away. There was something hypnotic about those candy-coloured stripes, the way they corkscrewed endlessly around the plastic shaft. Like a masonry drill, they had worked their way through the front of his skull and embedded themselves in the deepest recesses of his mind.
As a scholar of the trade’s history, Angelos recognised the pole as an ancient symbol of his order. Legend had it that in olden times — back when men such as him were still known as barber surgeons — the red swirl would have been painted with the blood of satisfied customers. Over the course of a long career, the stripe would be added to incrementally, growing thicker and bolder and darker with the passing of the years. It was said that you could tell a master practitioner by the richness of his pole’s pigment. That was the story, anyway.
‘You’d never get away with that nowadays,’ the barber sighed. ‘Not with the health and safety mob breathing down your neck!’
If you wanted his opinion on the matter — which, admittedly, most didn’t — in our mad rush towards so-called progress we were in danger of losing the old ways. People forget too easily: traditions are tradition for a reason. They keep us grounded, remind us who we are, and where we came from. Take this shop for instance! It had been in Angelos’ family for generations. Now that the scissors had finally been passed to him, he considered it his duty to see that good, old-fashioned values were upheld. Of course, he knew what the other shopkeepers said behind his back: that he was a fuddy-duddy, that he was a fusspot. That if his customers weren’t dying, they were already dead — which was why he was losing money hand-over-fist. All because he refused to chase the latest silly fads! Well, if that was the price of sticking to one’s principles, so be it. Maybe tradition didn’t matter a jot if you were a baker or a greengrocer or a nail-bar technician. But Angelos wasn’t a nail-bar technician, dammit — he was a barber, and proud of it!
There he went again, getting himself worked up. He shook himself free of his reverie and resumed sweeping the checkerboard tiles. Like his father before him, Angelos was a demon with a broom handle. He worked the brush deftly, cutting artful sweeps and swirls through the clumps of scattered hair. In no time at all, he had gathered the clippings into a tidy mound, ready to be fisted into black plastic bags and dumped in the wheelie bins round back. He was about to return the broom to its cupboard when something caught his eye: something shiny and hard, standing upright, like a crooked tombstone atop the summit of heaped hair. He squatted low, flicking the apron from his knees as he reached with his thumb and forefinger. Lifting the spectacles from the bridge of his bulbous nose, he squinted at his find. It was a tooth — a child’s tooth — what might be called a ‘milk’ tooth, though milky it was not. Rather, it was the colour of stewed tea, stained brown from its spindly roots to the tarry black cavity that festered in its crown.
Yesterday’s extraction came back to him with a shudder.
Of course, pulling teeth had always been a part of the job (although admittedly, not a part that Angelos had ever truly relished). Still, generally speaking, it was a routine enough procedure: a simple matter of waggling the pliers back and forth until the bothersome molar eased loose. His customers were pensioners for the most part, and their colourless old gums seldom offered much by way of resistance. Yesterday had been different, though. An ordeal, from start to finish!
At around noon — having spent yet another morning leafing glumly through the shop’s books — Angelos had decided that a little midweek treat might help to buoy his spirits. He’d nipped out to the Chinese chipper down the way (electing for a baby’s head, chips, peas and gravy: a personal favourite). Upon returning to the shop, with the parcelled food warming his lap, he tipped back the vinyl barber’s throne and reclined, like a sultan with a tiny wooden fork. As he carefully unwrapped the newspaper package, he luxuriated in its steaming scent, and was just about to take his first mouthful when suddenly . . . all hell broke loose.
It was one of those ‘Young Mum’ types. Angelos had seen her sort before: lip-gloss, cigarette, puffer coat, pyjamas. Big hula-hoop earrings. She’d barged in waving a fistful of money-off vouchers under his nose, demanding that he see to her son (that’d teach him to advertise in the free paper!). You’d be hard pressed to say who was more terrified, Angelos or the boy. A dumpy, moonfaced lad of about eight, he was — not much going on upstairs, by the looks of things — but Christ, could the bugger ever wriggle! Biting and scratching and kicking and clutching, as Angelos did his level best to keep him pinned in the chair.
The problem was plain to see: too much fizzy pop had stained a vibrant pink moustache across the boy’s top lip, while inside his mouth, the baby teeth had rotted down to gnarled, bloody stumps. There was nowt to do ‘cept pull the lot. When it was all over, Angelos — panting and sweaty — had gently suggested that the woman might want to start thinking of ways she could encourage her son into adopting a more rigorous regimen of oral care. Well, that set her off, didn’t it? It was all How dare you! and Keep your fat spotty beak out! and What’d you know about it, you childless wee creep? In the end, he’d had to stuff her pockets with free vouchers just to get her out the shop. By that time, of course, his lunch had gone stone cold — he slid the gloopy, gravyish sludge into the wheelie bin with the hair.
‘You can’t say anything these days,’ the barber lamented.
He was well and truly in a funk now. He dropped the boy’s tooth into his shirt pocket and put away the broom; then, sinking into the vinyl highchair, glared at his crumpled reflection in the shop’s mirrored wall.
‘You are become a potbelly, Angelos,’ he could hear his father say.
‘I know, Papa.’
‘There is a white hairs in your moustaches.’
‘I know, I know.’
‘Forty-six years of old, and still no sons! Who will keep our shop when you are die?’
‘Our shop’, that was a good one. In reality, though the family name still hung above the door, the business had ceased to be ‘theirs’ in any meaningful sense decades earlier. The bank owned it now, along with the flat upstairs and everything else: Angelos was merely their tenant. And as for a son? Ha! You’d need a wife for that. Or a girlfriend. Or some conceivable hope of attaining either. About five years ago — back when he’d still considered his loneliness a quirk of a hectic work schedule, rather than a grinding inevitability of his existence — he’d been handed a printed leaflet to stick in the shop window:
Feeling HOT, HOT, HOT?
It’s SINGLE’S NIGHT!
Every THURSDAY, 7-10
@GLOTTAL COMMUNITY CENTRE
Angelos had spent that whole week thinking about it. On the evening of the event, he’d showered, shaved and doused himself with a half-bottle of Pagan Man; he put on his best paisley waistcoat and shuffled down to the community centre a full hour early. From the bus shelter across the road, he’d watched as the crowd filed in: meaty men in short-sleeved shirts, cackling divorcées wearing feather boas and pink cowboy hats. And he’d wanted to go in, really he had. He just . . . couldn’t. It was all too tacky, too embarrassing.
‘I’m a businessowner!’ he had told himself, as he tossed the crumpled leaflet back into the drawer. ‘A craftsman! I’ve no time for these modern trifles.’
Back in the present-day, he took a battered leather case from the drawer below the mirror, cradling it in two hands, as though it were an ingot of the most precious metal. It never ceased to raise his spirits. The premises might no longer be in the family name, but this — this belonged to him. On the occasion of his father’s retirement, with no small ceremony, the old man had handed it down. Locked inside this shabby case was Angelos’ birth right, his heritage, the one thing he had left. He levered open its delicate hinge, and breathed in the reassuring musk of crushed velvet and phenolic disinfectant. Inside, set flush in the rich, carmine lining, lay the perfectly-ordered tools of his trade. Under the shop lights, the esoteric instruments shone like mirrored silver: scissors, razors, needles, fleams—
A bell tinkled above the shop door; Angelos snapped the case shut.
A blast of cold, wet air flooded the room. In the doorway, a round, lumbering figure — densely swaddled in layers of mismatched corduroy and wool — was attempting to force its way inside. It was a tight squeeze: the entrance was narrow, the ambulatory ball of yarn near-spherical. It groped about blindly, its vision impaired by the long, tartan scarf that had been wrapped, turban-like, about its neck and head. Just a narrow sliver of face was left exposed, through which two watery blue eyes shone.
‘. . . Francis?’ Angelos croaked.
‘Good morning to you, young man!’ came the bright but muffled reply.
Ach, of course! Thursday, how could he forget? Francis was one of his regulars. Looking like a decrepit relative of the Michelin Man, he stumbled inside, trailing fat wet droplets across Angelos’ newly swept floor. All manner of bottled lotions and treatments began raining from the shelves as the old duffer struggled to shed his wet outer layers. Angelos leapt to his aid.
‘Much obliged!’ said Francis, as the heavy coat was lifted from his shoulders. ‘It’s coming down stair rods out there!’
‘Well, glad to see that . . .’ Angelos began. He held the sopping coat away from his body, unsure exactly what he ought do with it. It had a damp, musty odour: pipe-tobacco and pets. He flung it over the radiator to dry. ‘. . . you made it.’
With his mass significantly diminished, the old man got comfortable. ‘Ah, you know me, Angelos,’ he replied, rubbing his arthritic hands together in an attempt to rouse the circulation. ‘Thursday mornings, come hell or high water!’
It was like that with a lot of his regulars, Angelos had noticed. The Older Gents. They were an aimless breed, for the most part, and he supposed that this fortnightly ritual gave a certain shape to their weeks: barber’s one day, dogtrack the next — communion and roast beef double-bill once Sunday rolled around. Angelos pitied them. In their meagre, solitary lives, he saw a grim portent of the future that awaited him.
‘Take a pew,’ the barber said, lending Francis an arm as he manoeuvred his wizened frame into the vinyl highchair. Once he was settled, Angelos lay a heavy rubber bib across the old man’s shoulders and tucked a brown towel into the front of his shirt. The two men conversed via the medium of the mirror:
‘Right then, sir, what can I do you for?’
‘Number two round the sides, please, and—’
‘—a little off the top?’
‘Ah, you’ve got me marked there, Angelos!’
‘Well, if it ain’t broke.’
‘Too right!’ the old man said. ‘Creature of habit, I am.’
‘As are we all, Francis. As are we all.’
Angelos stared down at the old man’s domed pate: a soft-boiled egg, brown and speckled. A gentle rap with a teaspoon and it’d crack right open. There wasn’t much hair to speak of, just the ghost of hair — long and limp and wispish — scraped over from the back and sides into a coiffured pile on top. It clung loosely about his scalp, like thin mist upon the bog. Not much to work with, but Angelos would do his best. He set about his task capably and without fuss. A spritz of water here, a gentle combing there — snip-snip, snip-snip — trimming back the unruly hairs around the old man’s cavernous ears.
‘Those eyebrows could do with a seeing to, n’all,’ Angelos thought.
As snowy white tufts of hair drifted onto Francis’ shoulders, the two men set the world to rights. They held forth on topics great and small: the football, the politics, real ale, and the love of good women.
‘None for me, tah,’ the latter replied. ‘Don’t want them young lasses chasing me down the street!’ He turned to Angelos, grinning up toothlessly, before catching himself and adding with a sudden solemnity, ‘Not with my heart.’ The old man sensed an opportunity to segue into one of his favourite topics: ‘And how about yourself, young man?’ He enquired, teasing. ‘Have you started courting yet?’
‘Me?’ said Angelos, as though the question might just as easily have been addressed to his horsehair shaving brush. His mind flitted briefly to the crumpled SINGLE’S NIGHT leaflet in his drawer. He cleared his throat: ‘Bit late for all that carry-on now, I reckon.’
‘Get away with it, you’re only a nipper!’ said Francis, before adding with a saucy wink: ‘Plenty of lead in the old pencil yet, I’d wager!’
‘Aye, but no bugger to write to!’
They laughed a soundless laugh. The joke was new to neither man; it was an old one, and the old ones were the best. As their smiles faded, Francis’ speech continued in earnest: ‘Honestly, though, do find yourself a girl — a nice one. And settle down! That’s what I’d do, if I had my time again’ — he grabbed hold of the barber’s arm — ‘A woman’s touch! Make a house a home, they do: aspidistras in the window, lace doilies under the ashtrays, the whole shebang! They say it’s never too late, but . . . no. Not true. It’s a terrible thing, Angelos, to grow old alone.’
Francis’ voice trailed away to nothing. From his trouser pocket, he produced a rotten grey handkerchief and loudly blew his nose. When he began dabbing his leaky eyes, Angelos became suddenly fascinated with the action on his pedal bin. Over the course of a working day, a barber must be many things: counsellor, hairdresser, dentist, surgeon. He sensed that they were approaching ‘that time’ of the appointment. Lowering his voice, he asked the question that Francis had been waiting to hear, speaking the words casually, as though they were the most natural thing in the world:
‘And will you be wanting a bleeding today, sir?’
The old man did not answer directly. Instead, he let his toothless maw hang open — gumming upon it for a second — as though weighing in his mind the relative pros and cons. As though, this time, possibly, he would perhaps not — would perhaps abstain, instead. As though, really, when it all came down to dust, he had shuffled here today, through the rain on two bad hips, for any purpose other than this.
‘A-aye,’ he said at last, the word catching just a little in his throat. ‘Aye, Angelos. I believe I will.’
The barber closed his eyes and nodded his silent consent. While Francis removed his jacket, he shut the blinds on the bay windows for privacy’s sake. The shop grew suddenly dark.
‘Leeches, or fleam?’ he asked softly over his shoulder.
‘Oh, fleam, fleam,’ said Francis, a little life coming back into his voice. ‘Never could abide them little bloodsuckers.’
‘Aye,’ said Angelos, ‘Me neither, truth be told.’
With a slight tremor in his fingers, the old man fumbled to unfasten his cuffs and slowly — almost coyly — began rolling his shirtsleeves. The barber averted his gaze, busying himself with the accoutrements of his task: he fetched the wooden bowl from below the sink, and once more took out his battered leather case. Levering open the hinge, he again inhaled that evocative musk. He removed his finest set of fleams. From a handle of polished brass, thin sheets of silver metal fanned out in order of ascending size. The instrument was precise, its action smooth and well-greased. At the tip of each blade, a small, hooked barb curved inwards, sharp and ready.
Angelos turned back to the old man in the highchair. In the murky twilight of the shuttered shop, he had closed his eyes and was waiting patiently with his arms exposed. The barber took a step forwards, positioned the bowl accordingly, and took Francis’ by the hand.
The old man’s forearms were papery white. Through the thin, aged skin, cords of purple and green protruded, running up from the wrists. Upon the pallid flesh, a mess of raised scars rested like maggots. There were hundreds of them: some very old and faded, others fresh and rawly pink. Each tiny nick represented a fortnight that had elapsed in the old man’s life, from his boyhood until today. A macabre tally, carved into the unfeeling rock of a prisoner’s cell wall.
Angelos selected the appropriate fleam from his fan. He pressed its barb firmly against the slack flesh, and cut. He made the incision swiftly — as neat and clean as was possible — still, as he did, he felt a weak squeeze from the old man’s hand as the familiar pain came, sharp and sweet. For an instant, this worrisome modern life, with all its terrible vagaries, was super-condensed to a white-hot quarter inch. Small, manageable. A single rivulet of warm, red blood trickled down his forearm, flowing along its contours. The old man sank back in the highchair as the tension pulsed gently from his tired body — then landed, with a soft patter, in the wooden bowl below.
Once the treatment was complete, Angelos dressed the wounds and helped a now slightly unsteady Francis back into his voluminous outer layers. The customer was visibly diminished — he seemed smaller than before, frailer. The barber wondered: how many fortnights did the old man have left in him? He walked his client to the door, wished him well, told him come back soon. Before departing, Francis pushed a few extra coins into his palm. Naturally, Angelos tried to refuse the tip, but the old man was insistent.
‘Cheap at half the price,’ he slurred, leaning in close. From this distance, Angelos could see every crack and crevice on his withered face. The watery blue eyes clouded over, and for a moment, he seemed to grow confused. ‘Take your girl to a picture show,’ he muttered faintly. ‘Or the dancehall! The young ones love their dancing, you know.’ He closed the barber’s fist around the coins, then looked him dead in the eye. ‘There’s time for you yet, my lad.’
Angelos waved him off, watching as he tottered down the street and disappeared around the corner. The barber emptied the contents of the wooden bowl into the sink, rinsing it under the tap until the water ran clear. He sterilised the instruments, then returned them, one by one, to the leather case. The shop was quiet now, with just the low, staticky hum of the radio to break the silence. Angelos’ scratched at the nape of his neck: his skin itchy with the hair of other men. He unbuttoned his starched collar and sank into the vinyl highchair, then dropped Francis’ coins and the boy’s rotten tooth into his glass tip jar.
‘Another day,’ he thought, ‘Another dollar.’
The blinds were still closed; there would be no more customers today. He began to roll his shirtsleeves. Beneath the thatch of dark hair, his own arms were laddered with a network of tiny scars. Life is very long. After a hard day’s work, we all need something to take the edge off. Just a little, off the top.
Still seated, he pulled the drawer towards his body and slid the leather case inside. Before closing it, he reached in further — elbow-deep — right to the back. His hand closed around a crumpled ball of paper. He took it out. Opened it up. Flattened the creases against his knee.
It’s SINGLE’S NIGHT, it read.