Haircuts are milestones on the journey of life

About once a month I let Alice have her way with me.

She knows what I like and I let her get on with it. We have an understanding; the kind of rapport I neither expected nor desired when, for all those years, I let men do the job.

For Alice has a professional tenderness coupled with a sort of proprietorial interest in me that the old, male practitioners never had.

Oh, they used to ramble on about what they, mistakenly, thought I might be interested in: politics, cricket, rugby, that sort of stuff. They were, to a man, invariably complete experts, able to run the country far better than the reigning prime minister and ready with instantaneous solutions to the All Blacks’ problems.

Some of them could even tell the odd smutty joke that might be halfway amusing; but with Alice it’s different, she has a far better line of conversation and makes me feel like a human being whose opinions are worth respecting.

Anyway, there I was this morning, watching her skilled movements in the mirror as she worked her efficient way around my thinning hair, when I fell into a sort of tonsorial reverie.

‘I wonder how many haircuts I’ve had in my lifetime, Alice.’

Her colleague, Debbie, piped up, ‘Oh not very many, Mr Donovan’.

(I’m very fond of Debbie, she knows just what to say at these moments).

‘Well I reckon that if my mum took me for my first short-back-and-sides at age five, and I’ve had a haircut, on average, once a month since then, I’ve had (pause while Alice’s scissors play a catchy little tattoo and the grey cells under the scissors rattle in sympathy) . . . eight hundred and fifty-two haircuts not counting this one!’

Good grief!

I looked at my craggy old face in the mirror, and as I watched, the years rolled back and a succession of tress-trimming edits appeared. . .

***

... I remembered the first time: a small boy sitting on a hassock balanced on a plank perched across the oaken arms of a stuffed, brass-studded, leatherette chair, wincing as the hand-held clippers occasionally caught the little hairs at the back of my neck. Me writhing. The barber’s impatience. My mother watery-eyed as the little locks, dark brown and lustrous tumbled to the linoleum...

... I remember when ‘Johnny’s’ Hairdressing Salon opened at the end of the street and all the kids were queuing to get in, not only because Johnny was a retired, punch-drunk middle-weight boxer, but also because he had the latest electric clippers, the ones with the Bakelite handles and sheep-shearing cutters that hummed and vibrated so fast across each other that you couldn’t see them moving.

There was a sensuousness about the way they purred over your scalp in long, clean swaths. Those were the days, too, when they covered what was left of your hair with sweet-smelling Nufix cream that set hard and left your head covered in a hedgehog mat of sharp spikes. If you slept carefully and didn’t wash your hair you could keep it like that for over a week. (Anyway, only girls washed their hair and if you did happen, by some awful accident, to get yours washed you couldn’t go out to play for the rest of that day otherwise you might get a chill and die).

There used to be a joke about haircuts; the fourpenny one and the sixpenny one, the latter more expensive because the inverted pudding basin they put on your head was smaller and therefore exposed more hair to be cut off all around under the brim.

... I saw myself as an eighteen year old just drafted into the air force. A thin, fit face, and, hovering horribly above it, the lugubrious bloodhound image of a military barber, roughly, uncompassionately embaldening (I’ve just invented that word) the young skull with the practised hands of a Gestapo torturer.

I saw the raw recruit, head shaven, fresh from the ruthless scalping, standing on parade as the duty sergeant stopped behind him.

‘Am I hurting you, laddie?’

‘No, sergeant?’

‘I should be - I’m standing on your long back hair, you nasty little man. GET IT CUT!’

... In the fifties, in my early twenties, I worked near Shepherd Market, that well-known Mayfair concourse which, by day, was the precinct of stylish office workers and ‘suits’ from advertising agencies.

My first haircut there was in stolen office time at about 4.00 pm on a wintry day; outside, the light leaden with dusk. The salon was large – about six chairs, I guess – and I sat, the only customer, having it explained to me that it was no use my complaining that he’d cut it too short, the barber couldn’t actually stick the bits back on again, when into the shop came four beautiful, elegant young women. They sat themselves down with hardly a word to the idle barbers, and started to tease each others’ hair and carefully to make up their perfect faces.

I, a shy youth in those days, admired them covertly in the mirror. They were superbly groomed and looked as if they’d each stepped out of the pages of Vogue. They left soon after, painted Renoirs with tossing curls, and I asked the barber who they were. That was when I first discovered that Shepherd Market by night was the most fashionable of London’s red light districts. The girls were prostitutes and it was their daily ritual to dot their i’s and cross their t’s in the men’s hairdressing salon before starting trade for the night...

***

‘Is that all right, Don?’

The past dissolves and there’s Alice, holding up a mirror to the back of my head. The bald patch is getting bigger. She’s done her best to conceal it but I think she’s fighting a losing battle. These days, despite the administrations of the World’s Best Hairdresser, my haircuts are not so much haircuts as re-arrangements!

‘Thank you, Alice; you’ve restored me to the front rank of old-aged sex symbols. God willing I’ll be back next month’.

That’ll be the eight hundred and fifty-third. I wonder if I’ll get to the thousandth? And if I do, will it be a cut and polish rather than a haircut?.

Whatever, I hope Alice will still be around.

As I said, she understands me . . .0

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