Short, Back and Sides

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I'm in an Italian barber shop. The building is modern; the décor is retro. My barber is a Turkish guy from Eastern Europe. His beard is sharp; his clothes are shabby. He is thin and his price is hefty. I am sat in a red hydraulic chair, in the middle of a row of three, facing into the mirror, around which are a row of lightbulbs. The window is on my right. My groomer wears a surgical face mask and black latex gloves - he struggles to breathe through the blue material of the former. On the far wall, a widescreen is playing electronic rock music videos. He covers me in a black robe, branded with a male grooming product.

'What are we doing today?' He mumbles through the fabric.

Knowing my vocabulary, I replied casually: 'I want my head shaved – a number 2.5 back and sides, 3 on the top. I want the back tapered and I want it faded at the temples. Trim my beard - not too short - about a number 4. Sharpen the edges,' I added, pointing to under my chin and along the edge of my cheeks, 'and tapered at the chin.' I then made a scooping gesture down my beard into a point. 'Can you also trim my eyebrows – again, not too short, and de-fuzz my ears.'

'Very good, sir.' He replies.

He set about with shaving my head first, whilst I listened to the music; he had electric blue clippers. His English was not fantastic, probably lower entry level, so we didn't speak much. It was a hot day and the overhead fans jerked as they rotated. Behind me, on a long wooden bench, sat two other customers: a tired looking middle-aged guy, in drab generic store clothing, sat with his young son, approximately ten years old. Lockdown had only recently relaxed and, perhaps not anticipating many customers, the young barber, in his late twenties, is working alone. The father, behind, is reading a glossy men's style magazine. His son is transfixed by the glow of his smartphone, likely gaming. Beside him is a tall stand with coats hanging from it.

Gazing softly at my reflection, my appearance is somewhat frazzled, having not been professionally groomed for four months.

'Been busy?' I asked the barber.

'Not much. People are scared.'

'There are not many cases around this area. If you're going to get it, you're going to get it'.

My neighbour had had it and had recovered, and she was in her sixties. I'm relatively young and have no relevant underlying health conditions, so I wasn't particularly bothered, although young people had died. Of course, there was always the risk of spreading it to the older members of my family, but I was prepared to take the risk.

'Maybe.' He replied with a hint of scepticism in his voice.

He'd shaved the top of my head first and was working his way around from the back to the sides. He then got some mini-clippers out and worked on my nape. Already, I looked fresher, now that my hairline wasn't fuzzy around my ears and it was closer cropped to my head.

Previously, I'd had my hair long, like a hipster, to match my holistic yoga lifestyle, but time was not on my side and male pattern baldness got the better of me, so I'd shorn the lot off. My barber, then - a balding guy in his fifties, who had recently cut his own pony tail off - uttered a small sound of disappointment. I pulled my cheek to the left, tight against my jaw bone, like a model. 'Yeah, yeah.' He added.

By now, the barber was working on my beard. Small beads of perspiration began to appear on his forehead. I was grateful for the mask, more that it precluded conversation than protected me from contamination. When I'd first started going to the barber's, I'd asked for it to be trimmed by scissors, but the clippers did just as good a job, plus it was less effort on his part.

I was beginning to shape-up now. The fade at the point my beard joined my hair made all the difference – my Millennial partner's suggestion. I closed my eyes in anticipation of him blowing the hair off me with a dryer. He then reached over to some barbering accoutrements, picked up his straight razor, and began to remove the blade from the delicately folded packet - like an invitingly thin confection - before sliding it in place. Fortunately, he pumped some shaving cream into his hands. On a few occasions, barbers have shaved me dry, leaving angry razor burns on my cheeks and neck. He massaged the cream into my cheeks – the gloves felt clinical against my face. He applied gentle pressure on my jaw, encouraging me to turn my head to the left. I knew the procedure, so expected him to work on my cheek line, before correcting my mishappen neck line, that had grown out over the duration of my confinement. He worked slowly, with small considered movements. Although relaxed, I felt the V of muscles at the back of my neck tensing. I'd been groomed like this on numerous occasions, so this was an everyday occurrence, but, increasingly of late, I'd been possessed by these overpowering urges. It was like outside forces were conspiring against me. I knew to stay as motionless as possible, to allow the barber to focus on his work, but something was getting the better of me. I covertly gripped the arms of the chair tight, beneath the thin cloak of fabric. The barber seemed oblivious to my concerns.

Behind me, the father was shuffling through assorted motor and technology magazines. The boy was still mesmerised, seemingly having not moved from the spot all this time. I became momentarily more aware of the chugging guitars, as muscular musicians postured on the screen to my left, behind the counter. Suddenly, my neck snapped violently in their direction. The unexpectant barber didn't have a chance. The blade bisected the entirety of my cheek – the metal effortlessly cutting through the fibres of my tissues like a cliché. My face opened up into a bright red rictus, parting the deep, yellow subcutaneous tissue, down to the bone. Not that any of this was visible, as a red sheet of blood poured out of the wound all over the gown.

People say that time stands still in moments of trauma, but this was virtually a freeze frame, as the barber stood over me, his eyes wide, and likely his concealed mouth agape. The magazine the father was flipping lay tented on the floor, as he sat bolt upright, gripping his son's arm to his right. The tightness of his grip had yanked the boy from his digital stupor and he was bawling uncontrollably, not that I could hear anything. The room had gone silent, but for the rhythmic squeaking of the fan. The moment was so sudden that I felt no pain, only a searing heat. I wanted to reach for my face to press the lips of skin together, in lieu of stitches and steri-strips. I don't know what compulsion provoked me to inflict such fantastic damage. Already, I was visualising the raised pink scar bisecting my face. It would take some time to heal.

By this point, the barber had snapped alert, instincts taking over, and was reaching for a bundle of light grey towels to stem the flow we had opened. I felt the energy leaving my body, and a wave of nausea overcame me, as the shock set in. I pitched forward in my seat into his arms, covering him in crimson. Behind me, the boy was inconsolable. His father was trying to avert the boy's gaze, as he stood up and reached for his coat. He virtually had to drag the boy from the premises, causing the door bells to jangle uncontrollably.

'How is that, sir?' The barber asked me, seemingly not for the first time, as the door bells reverberated, signalling the arrival of another customer. The barber was holding a rectangular mirror behind my head so that I could see my hairline. Before me, his work was reflected in all its artistry. I was fixed up and looking sharp. The close shaven skin of my cheek looked smooth and unblemished. The integrity of my face was intact. The barber stood awkwardly awaiting a response - his clothes blood free. Behind me the father and son were oblivious, as a rotund, white haired man sat beside them. I shook my head infinitesimally, as if shaking myself to consciousness. The guitars glitched on, the fan continued to rotate; my knuckles were undoubtedly white beneath the cape. My eyes were so wide, they had gone dry. I rapidly blinked them, resumed my composure and smiled famously.

'Excellent.' I finally replied.

I would give him a big tip.

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