Series 2, Episode 10: Doughnuts In The Time Of Melancholy
April. Or second winter, as it’s known in the west of Scotland.
The men of the Millport barbershop were standing at the window, looking out on a grim morning on the Clyde. The clouds were low and grey, and there was a light snow falling, though it was not quite cold enough to settle, and the roads and pavements displayed a familiar bleak, damp chill of midwinter.
‘Have you seen what’s happening in Brazil?’ asked Keanu MacPherson, barbershop number two, newly installed as head of corporate services.
Keanu, legendary haircutting über-genius Barney Thomson, and Scottish Barbershop Sweeper-Upper of the Year 2020/21, Igor, were eating morning pastries, drinking the first cup of coffee of the day, looking out on the world while listening to Petroc Trelawny’s Radio 3 morning show, which was currently playing Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s early eighteenth-century lament, All Hope Is Gone, For I Have Been Anally Penetrated By Despair.
‘Was it on the news?’ asked Barney.
‘I’ve vowed to not look at the news again until Matt Hancock’s no longer on it. What’s happening in Brazil?’
‘Utter Covid shitstorm,’ said Keanu.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding.
‘Are they struggling to put together a football team?’ asked Barney.
‘Not sure, but I guess it’ll come to that. The virus is running wild, Bolsonaro doesn’t give a shit, more and more people under forty are ending up in ICU, there are new variants popping up all over the place. The pathogen has been let loose. If it spreads like that beyond Brazil, scientists have no idea how the vaccines will fair.’
‘What about crazy people on the Internet with no immunological training? What have they got to say about it?’
‘Some think everything’ll be fine, some think there wasn’t a virus in the first place, and some think we’re all going to be dead by this time next year.’
The men looked out over the grey sea, white waves barging and tossing and arguing, desperate to be the next wave breaking on the rocks.
‘We’ll all be dead by this time next year?’
‘Would that be bad?’
‘Suppose not,’ said Keanu. ‘The giant flesh-eating spiders would be happy, they’d have a field day.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, and the others nodded in agreement.
* * *
It was some time after ten o’clock, and the shop was buzzing, even if it was only buzzing in the way in which buzzing had been redefined for the age, which meant there were three customers in. Barney and Keanu cutting hair, one customer waiting on the bench, reading that morning’s copy of the National, while drinking a cup of tea and eating a doughnut.
Charlie Six Toes had been attracted by the headline, Re-Education Camps To Be Established After Election, Tory Voters First In Line. On top of the pile now was the Times, headline, Prince Philip Dead For Seventh Day Running, underneath which lay the Telegraph, Hero Boris Set To Marry Queen In New Triumph For Britain; the Express, EU Now UK’s Bitch, Says Frost; the Scotsman, Salmond Takes To Pornhub In Latest Desperate Appeal To Voters; the Mail, Downing Street Doubles Down On Racism Report, Tells People of Colour To Fuck Off; the Sun, Booze Babe Downs Seventy-Three Pints of Gin In Post-Lockdown Sesh, Bonks Man; the Guardian led with, Patel Lurks In Shadows, Feasting On Flesh Of Civil Servants; while the Star led with, Prince Harry’s Back, And This Time He’s Married To Jennifer Aniston.
Meanwhile Barney was giving Hieronymus ‘Archie’ Gemmill a winged strudelburger fade cut, Keanu was giving Old Man Lakefield his weekly, Tom Cruise Dental Undercut, and Igor was taking a moment, basking in what had recently been officially recognised by the Nobel Committee as The Cleanest Barbershop Shop Floor In Northern Europe, standing at the window, leaning on his broom, looking wistfully out on a bleak Friday morning. The gulls were on the wing, the eagles were hunting for the weak and the old, and in the far distance the packet ship, SS Gulliver was passing through the narrow passage between Little Cumbrae and Portencross, on its way to the nutmeg islands off the coast of the Dutch East Indies.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, indicating the ship on the horizon, and the others glanced out to sea.
‘Aye,’ said Barney, ‘kind of stupid. But that’s where we are.’
He nodded an apology in the mirror for the brief interruption, and then resumed the quick snip of the scissors.
‘Where?’ said Gemmill.
‘What?’ said Barney.
‘You just said that’s where we are,’ said Gemmill. ‘Where are we exactly?’
‘Igor just said the thing about the ship, and it’s kind of stupid, but, as I said, that’s where we are.’
Gemmill looked curiously at Igor, turning his head, forcing Barney to once again temporarily suspend the cut.
‘All he said was arf,’ said Gemmill. ‘No offence.’
Igor didn’t turn.
‘True,’ said Barney, ‘but there was nuance.’
‘What was the nuance?’
Barney indicated the sea.
‘He was pointing out that the ship there, the SS Gulliver, is on its way to the spice islands in the Banda Sea. It takes out essential supplies for the Indonesians, such as kippers, Tunnock’s teacakes, square sausage and Cullen skink, plus a couple of snail-mail letters to justify its position as a Royal Mail packet ship, then it returns with two-hundred-and-fifty pounds worth of nutmeg.’
Gemmill looked deadpan at Barney in the mirror.
‘It’s a Westminster initiative to replace the £294billion trade with the EU,’ said Barney. ‘Liz Truss herself is on that ship, standing at the front like Kate Winslet.’
Gemmill continued to look sceptical.
‘And the wee fella said all that with the word arf?’
‘Not entirely,’ said Barney. ‘He was more pointing out how stupid it was, but that it was, nevertheless, a fitting metaphor for the preposterousness of Brexit and the cavalcade of lies spouted by Johnson and his troupe of mendacious fabricators.’
‘Archie’ Gemmill did not look convinced, but in the end what really was there to make of it? Either Barney was making fun of him, or he wasn’t, and either way it didn’t really matter. He’d been told that if he wanted to hit the night clubs running when they opened, he’d have to get himself down to Millport for the finest haircut in all the land, and here he was, in the hands of Barney Thomson, and he could already see his hair was looking sensational. This haircut, thought Gemmill, was going to be like a Lynx advert times a million.
‘So weren’t those figures of women at the ships’ bow usually naked?’
‘Far as I know,’ said Barney, ‘though I’m no expert.’
‘Aye, but you’re a barber. Barbers know things.’
‘Good point. So, yes, they were usually naked.’
‘So, is this Liz Truss woman naked?’
‘Igor?’ said Barney, turning to the window.
‘Arf!’ said Igor, nodding.
‘Sounds like she is.’
‘Well, that’s no’ bad,’ said Gemmill. ‘You’ve got to love the naked birds on ships. Who is she anyway, I’ve never heard of her?’
‘Let’s leave it at that,’ said Barney.
Gemmill looked curiously at Barney, then finally shrugged and settled back into the seat, happy enough that the conversation was over, and Barney could get on with the finest haircut seen in the seven kingdoms in many a year.
Barney, for his part, was always happy when a conversation was over.
* * *
Lunchtime. The day had been quiet, time had passed, much as it usually does, one minute moving inexorably onto the next whether anyone wanted it to or not. The men of the shop were taking a break, standing across the road, coats on, leaning on the white promenade wall, looking out to sea, munching sandwiches and drinking apple juice.
The sleet had long-since stopped, and now the sun occasionally appeared from behind scattered white and grey clouds. The breeze was fresh, the sea still choppy, but somewhere, buried beneath the last of winter’s chill, there was a hint of warmth, a taste of the Caribbean carried on the wind.
‘Did you hear about the murder in West Kilbride?’ asked Keanu after a while, using his sandwich to vaguely indicate in the direction of the Ayrshire coast.
Igor gave him a quick sideways glance, and then turned back to the sea. Barney stood in silence for a while, looking out on Little Cumbrae, thinking, as he occasionally did, that it would be a good place for the base of a Bond villain.
‘There was a murder in West Kilbride?’ he said eventually.
‘Oh, aye,’ said Keanu.
‘Are you sure I want to hear about it?’
‘Well, there was no blood, so there’s no, you know, severed head, or scattered viscera, or remains splayed across the wall or body parts cooked in a pot. Or minced, for example. No minced body parts. Or that thing that killers sometimes do, where they cut off the penis and stick it in the mouth, or decapitate someone, then cut open their stomach and leave the head in the gaping, bloody wound. Or flaying. There was no flaying, human skin left in a heap on the floor, or stretched out over the sofa, so that it looked like a jumpsuit made of human skin. And it wasn’t like the police turned up, and there was a dog feasting on human remains, like those pot-bellied pigs in The Deerhunter.’
Barney and Igor looked at him, then looked at their sandwiches, then turned back out to sea.
‘So, there was none of that,’ Keanu continued.
‘I think you might have missed a few scenes from Game of Thrones there,’ said Barney, and Keanu laughed. ‘Anyway, now that you’ve put us off our lunch…’
‘So,’ said Keanu, ‘there was this woman got into an argument with an old guy along the sea front. The woman was sitting on a bench, drinking a glass of wine, eating a bag of Kettle chips – crushed black pepper flavour…’
‘Good to have the detail,’ said Barney.
‘Right? Anyway, the woman’s wearing a crop top and Lycra running pants, which, as details go, is actually more crucial than the flavour of the Kettle chips.’
Igor gave him another quick glance, then looked back in the direction of West Kilbride. Although, of course, West Kilbride is hidden from the view of Millport, being round the corner of the mainland.
‘So, she’s wearing sports gear, it’s like five degrees, there’s more than likely a freezing wind coming in from the sea, and she’s drinking wine,’ said Barney. ‘Right.’
‘Nuh-huh,’ said Keanu. ‘I know what you’re thinking. You’re getting your classic picture of someone in sports gear drinking booze.’
‘That was the picture you painted, after all,’ said Barney.
‘I was painting the intentional false narrative. This woman is trained. She’s more or less a ninja.’
‘There are ninjas in West Kilbride?’
‘There are more-or-less ninjas in West Kilbride, and she’s one of them. So, she’s been working out. She gets up in the morning, she cycles to Troon, she runs along the beach to Ayr, she runs halfway back, then gets in the sea and swims back to Troon. Then cycles back to West Kilbride. She does this every day, year-round.’
Barney and Igor were nodding in appreciation.
‘Nice,’ said Barney. ‘Even in January, when there’s sea ice?’
‘I don’t think there’s been sea ice in the Clyde since the eighties.’
‘So, this is who she is.’
‘Is she training for something? That sounds very triathlony.’
‘Nope. She’s just a ninja.’
‘OK, so get to the bit where she was drinking wine and she killed someone.’
‘So, it was three days ago. A still day. No wind in from the sea, sun shining, gorgeous early afternoon. She’d done her training, and she thought she might as well indulge in one of the small pleasures of life. She took a pasta salad in a box, one of those wee bottles of wine, and went and sat down by the sea front, looking out on a flat calm, snow still dusted on the top of the Arran hills.’
‘That’ll have been Tuesday?’
‘It was beautiful on Tuesday, right enough.’
They paused for a moment to watch as, away to their right, one of the Royal Navy’s new Brexit-class submarines, HMS Titanic, hoved slowly into view, then they turned away, Barney made a small gesture with his sandwich, and Keanu continued his narrative.
‘So she’s just sitting there minding her own business, eating lunch, enjoying the view. Enter the old guy, who, being an old guy in Scotland, has the inalienable right to give someone their opinion on any matter, even when it’s not called for. So, off he goes. What’s a young lassie like you doing sitting here, dressed like that in the middle of winter, drinking wine? Etcetera et cetera.’
‘He knows it’s April?’
‘We’ll never know. I mean, on the one hand he’s got a point. Sun and flat calm aside, it was still pretty cold, and the woman’s wearing a crop-top and drinking wine on her own sitting on a bench. On the other hand…’
‘It’s none of his damned business.’
‘Exactly. They get into an argument. The old guy doesn’t back down. The argument became heated, but she says she finally lost it when he brought the war into it. He literally said, I didn’t land on the Normandy beaches so you could disgrace this bench with your bare skin and your cheap booze.’
‘He was quite the age, then?’
‘Turned out he was like eighty-one. He was four when D-Day happened. He was on a Normandy beach one time when he went on a battlefield tour about ten years ago.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, rolling his eyes.
‘She says it was obvious he was never old enough to have been at D-Day, and that was when she lost her shit.’
Barney popped the last of his bacon, lettuce, blue cheese and peanut butter on wholemeal into his mouth, then took a drink of juice.
‘Go on then, how’d she kill him?’
Keanu paused a moment – as a writer, he knew how to build tension – then he made a small gesture as if to include the universe in his statement and said, ‘With her mind.’
Barney took another drink. Igor raised an eyebrow.
‘With her mind?’
‘She thought him to death?’
‘How did that work?’
‘She stared at him, locked eyes and stuff, then made his brain explode. Like, inside his head.’
‘So, the exploding brain was contained within the skull?’
‘It’s not like the skull doesn’t have holes in it. Wouldn’t the brain have, you know, burst out the ears and the mouth and the nose and the whatever?’
‘Well, a woman who spoke to the Record said she saw definite leakage from the nose.’
‘Good to know,’ said Barney. ‘What about the pathologist’s report?’
‘They haven’t published it yet.’
‘But they’ve arrested the woman?’
‘The police are saying the old guy had a heart attack. And they’re not even blaming the woman for that, because apparently he just used to walk through town, picking fights with anyone he could. Just one of those types of people. He was an ill-tempered-argument-related heart attack waiting to happen.’
Barney and Igor looked silently out to sea. For the moment, there were no ships in sight, and the submarine had suddenly vanished.
Perhaps it had sunk.
‘So, the guy had a heart attack?’
‘According to reports. But that’s unconfirmed.’
‘So where does the brain exploding thing come from?’
‘The woman gave an interview. To the Record. She said she’d made his brain explode. She’s been feeling guilty, had to get it off her chest.’ A beat. Neither Barney nor Igor had anything to say to that. ‘She’s worried she might do it again. Says she needs help.’
‘So that she doesn’t blow up anyone else’s brain?’
Barney let out a long sigh from puffed up cheeks, then ran his hand across his face.
‘Is it possible you foreshadowed the false narrative of the entire story when you created the image of her being some bum in sports gear drinking booze in the afternoon?’
Keanu looked curiously at Barney, and then frowned when he realised what he’d meant.
‘Wait, what? No, I mean, the woman had a whole spiel. She’s been in like Tibet and shit like that, learning moves. She knows, you know, the eastern arts. She can use her mind in exceptional ways. She’s more or less a Jedi.’
‘Where are you getting all that stuff?’
‘And where are they getting it from?’
They looked at each other. Beneath Barney’s steady Keanu finally began to question the story.
‘Wait…’ he began, but then wasn’t sure what to say next. ‘Oh,’ he managed.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding.
‘Oh,’ said Keanu again.
Barney drained his cup of apple juice, looked over his shoulder, noticed there was now a queue of one waiting outside the shop, then he gave Keanu a shoulder squeeze.
‘Well, you never know, perhaps the pathologist will discover the brain is complete mush.’
Then Barney, Igor in tow, walked across the road, ready to resume the afternoon’s barbetorial activities. Keanu, head down, eyes directed vaguely at the road, stared into the black void of his own naivety.
‘Well, that’s disappointing,’ he said, to no one in particular.
* * *
These were the days, such as they were, for what else is there in a barbershop? A necessity in any society, emerging slowly from lockdown or not, but there is little to be done but cut hair, one customer after the other, on and on until the end of time. This is who we are.
Some barbershops might offer coffee, some might offer head massages and nasal waxing, some will play loud music, some will have a television in the corner, sound on or off, but none of it really matters. The hair is all that there is.
What a life, thought Barney Thomson.
‘Might be time to go and walk the Silk Road,’ he said quietly to himself, as he put the finishing touches to Old Man McGuire’s weekly Jabba The Hut pompadour fade.
Keanu, giving old Tony ‘No Hair’ Spaghetti his regular Pretend Bouffant Ood, glanced over at Barney, then returned to his cut. He hadn’t heard what Barney had said, but there was something troubling about his demeanour.
At the rear of the shop, Igor swept the floor.
‘What was that, son?’ said Old Man McGuire, having given Barney’s words a few seconds’ thought before deciding he hadn’t actually heard what he’d said.
Barney engaged McGuire in the mirror, contemplated an oh, nothing or an it doesn’t matter, but the endless days of working in a barbershop were weighing heavily upon him, and so he said, ‘Think I need a holiday, Frank.’
‘Aye,’ said McGuire, ‘you’ve got that look about you. Haunted. Where are you going to go? Seems daft to go abroad, literally every cunt outside Britain has covid.’
Barney smiled, as he snipped away at the little hair McGuire still had on the top of his head.
‘Maybe a big peregrination,’ said Barney.
‘Oh, aye? Like that we bastard Frodo in Lord Of The Rings?’
‘Epic,’ said Keanu, perking up. ‘Can I come, or do I have to stay and man the shop?’
‘The shop’s all yours, son,’ said Barney. ‘And I wouldn’t get too excited, I don’t think I’m about to go anywhere. Just one of those days.’
‘Aye, well don’t be taking it out on my hair,’ said McGuire. ‘I need you to focus.’
‘Frank,’ said Barney, ‘you don’t have any hair.’
‘That might be the case, son,’ said McGuire, ‘but there are few amongst men who own their lack of hair like I own mine. So fuck off and tell us where you’re going for a walk. A bit more than round the island, I take it.’
Aware that Keanu and Igor were now invested in what he was going to say, Barney mentally rolled his eyes at his own stupidity. This is what happened when you chose to talk; people talked back. Only old Spaghetti, who’d dozed off, and whose head was now tilted slightly awkwardly to the right, wasn’t paying attention.
Bugger it, thought Barney. Might as well embrace five minutes of chat. It wasn’t like he was going to be committed to going anywhere.
‘There’s the Silk Road,’ said Barney. ‘A classic.’
‘Aye,’ said McGuire. ‘There are hunners of Silk Roads. I mean they all basically go from China to Europe, but it’s no’ like Route 66 or the A9. It’s like going from Largs up to Glasgow, you can go any which way. And they’re all the Silk Road.’
‘I’d have to do my research,’ said Barney, smiling.
‘Sounds like you’ve no’ given it any thought whatsoever. What else have you got?’
‘Walk across Canada.’
‘Flat as fuck for ninety percent of it. Next?’
Keanu was smiling now. There was little finer in the shop that Old Man McGuire going full curmudgeon.
‘How about the length of the Alps, from France to Slovenia?’
‘If you call that a walk,’ grumbled McGuire.
‘South America, Patagonia up to Columbia?’
‘I saw the thing where yon Ewan MacGregor did it on a pretend motorbike. Looked shite.’
Barney laid down the scissors, then ran a quick brush over the top of Old Man McGuire’s head, and lifted the small white clippers to finish off around the neck and ears.
‘Africa might be a bit hot, but we could give that a go,’ said Barney.
‘The fuck? You’ve got spiders coming out your arse, you’ve got Boko Haram, you’ve got ISIL, you’ve got a plethora of man-eating beasts, you’ve got snakes, you’ve got spiders, you’ve got insurgency in the Maghreb, you’ve got the Libyan civil war, the Somalian civil war, the Central African Republic civil war, the Tigray conflict, you’ve got the Kamwina Nsapu rebellion in the DRC, you’ve got whatever the fuck that is that’s going on in Mozambique, and God knows what else. I’d like to see you pick your way through that lot. I’ve seen you struggling to pick your way through the fresh produce aisle in the supermarket. And on top of all that, you’ve got the spiders.’
‘You’re done,’ said Barney.
‘I’m no’ sure that I am, son, there’s at least another fifty local conflicts I haven’t even men –’
‘I mean, your haircut’s done,’ said Barney. ‘You’re free to go.’
Old Man McGuire regarded himself suspiciously in the mirror, but he had to admit that Barney had indeed finished, and that he’d given him one of the world’s finest haircuts this week. Which was decent, given that he didn’t, as Barney had noted, have any hair.
‘Oh, right,’ he said.
‘That’ll be seven pounds, Frank,’ said Barney. ‘You can pay Igor on your way out.’
* * *
And there went another day. Customers had come and gone, just as the sun had come and gone, and now the men of the shop were standing at the window, looking out on the grey end of the afternoon, sleet once again threatening.
They each had a cup of tea, and a final doughnut. The sea was empty, not a vessel in sight, a clear horizon all the way to the Straits of Lamlash, and the south-west passage to St Helena.
Funny business cutting hair. There’s a certain intimacy, paying such close attention to another person’s head, and yet, there is zero intimacy in a barbershop. And there it is, day after day, week after week, month upon year. Cutting hair. Chatting. Sweeping up. Sterilizing combs and scissors. Occasionally having to mop up blood.
What’s it all for?
‘You really thinking of going for a long walk?’ asked Keanu, the words edging tentatively out into the silence.
Although he himself imagined great future deeds, and could not countenance working in a barbershop for the next fifty years, he didn’t really like the idea of Barney going anywhere.
‘Pipe dream,’ said Barney. ‘But you never know. There’s just something about the idea, right? Taking yourself away from everything, going on the road…’
‘Are you thinking of filming it? Making a show?’
Barney smiled, shook his head, but didn’t look at him.
‘That’s not really you, is it?’
‘Nope. Just me and the sergeant, if she’ll come, out on the road. Not really getting in adventures, just walking. Getting the gradual change in surroundings, feeling the contours of the land, the changing of the air, all the things you miss in a plane and a car. Plus all those nights you wish you were home in your own bed, juxtaposed with getting to the end, when the melancholy settles upon you, and it feels really empty to be back home.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor.
‘Aye,’ said Barney. ‘For all the travel shows Michael Palin made, all the amazing stuff he did, the best bit, the truest bit in all his shows, is when he gets back to London at the end of Around The World In 80 Days, and you really get the sense of just how flat he feels.’ A beat, while Barney felt the flatness, taking the others along with him. ‘It’s over. The end of the adventure.’
And so it settled upon them, that melancholy feeling, even though all they were at the end of was another day in the barbershop, another day travelling around the sun on a small planet in a big universe.
After a while, Keanu puffed out his cheeks and let out a long slow breath. Igor popped the last of the doughnut into his mouth and mechanically finished it off, downing it with the end of his cup of tea. Barney stared at the end of his doughnut, the last mouthful, and decided he didn’t really feel like eating it.
In the distance, the Ardrossan ferry came into view, inching its way across the horizon.