‘So. What do we want today?’
I’m sitting in my local barbers chair, caped up like a clown – my head bulging through the top like a glob of cream forced through a chefs piping bag. Nobody looks good in a barbers cape. If ‘clothes maketh the man’, then capes maketh the man look like an idiot. A faint smell of cologne, old magazines and tobacco lingers – with an unsettling trace of halitosis. John, my old Greek barber, stands behind me, hands resting on my shoulders. His eyes meet mine in the mirror. When I first met John, I had thick brown hair like Mick Jagger in his prime. Now, there’s more hair on my ass than my head. This rather narrows my style choice.
‘The usual thanks John. Number two on the head, three on the beard.’
It’s passed closing time. The radio is off, and the glass door is locked. Piles of hair and whiskers lie in clumps on the floor like coughed-up fur balls from a giant cat. The two other barbers have gone, lighting cigarettes the moment they exited. It’s just me and John. Out come the clippers, and the clipping begins.
John’s been a barber here for forty eight years. He was hoping to rack up half a century, but next week he’ll be shown the door -kicked out by developers who bought the building last Spring. The barbershop only takes up a thin slice of the Art Deco block, but they want to renovate the lot – increase rent on the shops below, and convert the top level to apartments. Such is the way of the inner city. John often laments that he didn’t buy the whole building when he had the chance in the late 1970’s, before Sydney prices went crazy. Instead, a Turkish woman did – the fact that she was Turkish really sticks in John’s craw. Anyway, she clung on to it until her recent death, her children cleaned up, and the old Greek barber is out on his ear.
John doesn’t want to, but he will probably retire. Too much hassle trying to find new premises, and his son Dimitrios isn’t interested in taking over. Dimitrios worked here for a few years but now he’s a DJ in Ibiza. Not surprisingly, exchanging a life of tapas, cocaine, and sun-kissed Dutch girls, for one of grooming old men and Hipsters, doesn’t appeal. Last month I said to John that when he retires, at least he’ll have more time for fishing. John looked at me as if I had six heads, as if I couldn’t have suggested anything more ludicrous.
‘I hate fishing,’ he told me, eyes locked with mine in the mirror. ‘Waste of my time. You want fish, just go to ‘Polous Brothers.’
He wasn’t keen on my suggestion of a holiday in Greece either.
‘What for? My family’s here. Greece is a mess. Too many relatives wanting money.’
I’ve stopped trying to lighten John’s mood. Now, as I sit in the dimly lit room, the last rays of the Autumn sun sneaking through the top of the glass door, I’m aware that this is the end of an era. I’ve been coming here for over twenty-five years. My son, Joe, had his first haircut here. But this is the last time John will cut my hair. I’ll probably never see him again.
‘How’s the family? Your boy?’ he asks.
‘Bit of a madhouse as always,’ I say. ‘But Joe’s working hard. Saving up to go backpacking.’
I didn’t tell John that I’d recently discovered my nineteen year old son had been fired from his bar job for stealing money, and that it then dawned on me that I wasn’t going mad thinking that cash had been going missing from my wallet on a regular basis for a while now, and that I didn’t have the courage to tell my wife because we’d both know what this behaviour would tell us, and that my faith in my son was very much shaken. So I lied.
‘Ah, good. Good. Where’s he going?’, asked John.
‘Mostly central, southern Europe, I think. I’m not really sure. Originally he was talking about Spain, but the plans seem to change all the time. I think he wants to spend some time Croatia though. A bit cheaper.’
‘Ah, Croatia! Those girls will eat him alive eh?’
I smile. ‘I think that’s what he’s hoping for.’
What I was saying wasn’t all bullshit. Joe had recently talked about wanting to travel to Croatia. I’d suggested that he better fucking well stop stealing, work and save hard like a normal person, and not spend all of his money on getting wasted. Some of my ‘suggestions’ came out angrier than I intended. But I’ve had chats like this with Joe before. He’d be alright for a time but it wouldn’t last. What’s so disappointing about his latest effort is that he has, at least to my knowledge, been going well. He’d been working at the bar for four or five months. He was behaving himself. They liked him.
Usually something will piss Joe off and he’ll hit someone, or do a runner. The first facility Joe went to, he lost it when they tried to give him a blood test. Started swearing at the doctor and throwing things around. They kicked him out. The last time, we’d paid for this expensive place in the mountains, and he’d had a fight with a girl after he asked her for a cigarette. She’d refused and called him a ‘scab’, so Joe decided to flip a table over and walk out. Hitch-hiked back to the city. This happened on the first morning he was there. He arrived home just a few hours after us. Before Joe had lost the bar job, I thought he was on the way up. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know anything.
John changes the clippers to a smaller setting, and begins tidying up around my ears and nape. I glance into the mirror and check out the decor for the five hundredth time, but take it in more closely because it’s the last. The room is narrow. Black and white checked linoleum floor. Beige laminex counter with two chipped pink porcelain sinks. The three barber chairs face the long mirror. Long straight razors sit in tall glass jars of blue disinfectant. Scissors and combs rest on small white towels. Electric clippers hang off hooks, and boxes of tissues and rolls of crepe paper lie within reach. On the wall behind me, old photographs of hair models wearing stone wash denim are pinned slightly out of level. An old poster has illustrations of the essential styles of the period – ‘The Continental’, ‘The Businessman’, ‘The Ivy League’, ‘The Crewcut’, ‘The Caesar’, ‘The Hollywood’. John has a glass display cabinet at the end of the counter containing a few crappy products for sale – a round plastic scalp comb, a couple of green cologne bottles, a tin of moustache wax, some nail clippers. They’ve been for sale since my first visit. A new design element is blue-tacked to the mirror in front of me. It’s a postcard of a voluptuous nude woman kneeling at the waters edge – her wet black hair reaching the small of her back. Her body’s facing away, but she looks alluringly over her shoulder – the promise of heavy breasts obscured. Blue water. Blue sky. Blazing sun. ‘HOLIDAY IN CRETE’ in embossed gold lettering is printed across the skyline. The postcard was as tacky as hell but it looked like heaven.
‘She’s new John’, I say.
‘Ah, yes, a friend sent it. I never saw anyone like that in Crete before – I’m waiting for her to turn around.’ We both share a laugh. John clears his throat. ‘Where’s he working?’ John asks.
‘Joey, your boy.’
‘Just down the road. At Gus’, the butcher. Do you know him? He’s the father of one of the boys Joe used to play soccer with.’ This is true. I managed to talk Gus into taking Joe on.
‘Gus. Yes. I know him. He’s from Naxos. He’s closing down soon too. Supermarket’s taken his business. Your boy, he wants to be a butcher?’
’No. God no. He’s just helping out. Sweeping up, fetching meat from the fridge, that sort of thing. I’m not sure what he wants to be.’ I pull a hand out from under my cape and wipe my forehead. I feel hot.‘The last couple of years have been pretty tough,’ I add.
John stands upright and pauses. He shakes his head a little and gives me a ‘I-understand-but what-can-you-do?’ shrug, in the mirror. He’s had his own difficulties with his daughter. The old barber shuffles to the front of my chair and motions with his scissors if I want my eyebrows clipped. I decline. Glancing towards the back of the shop, I remind myself not to forget my jacket like last time. Too many things on my mind. Where my jacket hangs, there’s a couple of waiting chairs and a magazine table. Magazines you’d find in any barbershop around the world. Articles about the Royal family, how to jump like Michael Jordan, essential suits for Winter, celebrities who suicide, collectable wrist watches from the 60’s, the allure of the Maldives, and of course, how to get a six pack for Summer.
‘It’s good, he’s working, it’s good’ mutters John as he begins to lather up some shaving cream for my neck and beard-line. ‘You should be proud of your son. The world is full of so many bloody bastards.’
He tells me about his sister, an accountant, who does the books for one of the biggest brothel owners in the city. This fella owns four. ‘High class’, whatever that means. His sister says that eighty percent of the girls are on drugs. And these girls are beautiful. ‘Beautiful!’ He tells me how they take drugs to cope with the work, and how they hobble home exhausted at the end of their shift. But they find it hard to sleep, and have to take sleeping tablets to knock themselves out. Then they have to get back on it again the next day, to get their energy back. Prepare themselves for more men. He tells me many of the girls also sell drugs for the brothel owner – to the businessmen, the politicians, the lawyers, the doctors, the sportsmen of this city – the men who run the place, tell us how to live, laud it over us. And these girls take the drugs with them – dope, coke, ice, whatever – putting their income up their noses, into their lungs, into their arms. And then they’re in a loop. A blur. Only a few are able to save for their future, and get out before their looks fade and their value falls. One Russian girl his sister knew was different. Always in control. Strict. Driven. Never touched the drugs. Narrowed down her clients to those she could control and exploit – no weirdos. Saved like a demon. After eight years she had bought two apartments in the city and left the industry. But she was a unicorn.
John could be very chatty when he got on a roll. I was finding it difficult to keep my eyes open. The feeling of the straight razor scraping down my neck was exquisite, and my head lolled onto my chest. John lapsed into silence as he splashed some cologne onto his hands and rubbed them firmly over my neck and scalp. And that was that. Finished. He whipped off the cape and brushed me down.
‘All done’, he says. I ran my hand through the stubble around my jaw, over my head, and stood up. ‘Thanks John’, I said. I handed him twenty five bucks, and we shook hands. His grip was firm and his eyes were watery. I looked away. Thankfully there was a knock on the door. John broke from me to unlock it. It was Joe, my son, who must have finished his shift down the road at the butchers.
‘Hey Dad, saw you through the door,’ he says.
John hadn’t seen my son for years and was astonished by his six foot three frame. He clasped Joe’s wide shoulders and beamed, looking from me to Joe and back again, as if to locate some resemblance. Joe looked bemused.
‘So handsome! He must look like his mother, no?’ John joked. He turned to Joe. ‘Let me give you a haircut. A little trim.’
‘No, I’m good thanks’, replied Joe, ruffling his unruly thatch.
‘Come on Joey. Sit down, please. My treat,’ protested John.
‘Joe. Take a seat,’ I said, glaring at my son with firm insistence. Joe cottoned on that maybe he should sit.
‘Sure, why not,’ says Joe.
Joe sat down, just as he’d first done over fifteen years before. When he was a little boy. When his little feet dangled above the ground. I wandered over to the waiting chair, sat down and pulled out an old magazine. John fitted the white crepe paper around Joe’s neck, and fastened the cape. He placed his hands on my sons shoulders and locked eyes with him in the mirror.
‘So. What do we want today?’