THE TRUMAN SHOW PARADIGM
There was an unfamiliar tension in the air that no one could really explain. The executive committee of the barbershop had met in plenary session, (even though no once actually knew what the word plenary meant,) and had been unable to come up with a reason why the shop was in such thrall to impending disaster. And so the men – crack haircutting genius, Barney Thomson, maverick barbershop number 2, Keanu MacPherson, and shop everyman, urban batcave legend Igor – had retreated to their familiar positions, standing at the shop window, looking out on the world, at the sea and the weather and the clouds and the squalls of rain, the great tankers edging slowly across the horizon, the sea vultures swooping to snatch bluefin tuna from the warm waters of the Clyde.
‘Hmm,’ said Keanu, nodding as he looked out over the troubled waters of Millport Bay, where once upon a time the Scottish navy had battled the Spanish fleet. ‘It has kind of been the arc of this series. You know, heading inexorably towards something.’
Igor and Barney bit contemplatively into a doughnut and watched as a gull swooped like an unfettered eagle on the baby lamb of a kid’s ice cream cone, as the kid howled and the mum blamed the kid, because that was the kind of mum she was.
‘Series?’ said Barney.
‘Yeah, you know, we’ve talked about this. We’re in a long-running sitcom. And even though nothing much has happened, it’s like the producers have decided they should end the series with a bit of suspense.’ A beat, he took a drink of coffee. ‘A cliffhanger.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney, and he took another bite of strawberry frosted cream indulgence. ‘Any use in pointing out we’re not in a TV show, and that this, mundane and dull as it is, is real life.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding.
‘Nah,’ said Keanu. ‘Clearly the entire story of planet earth is currently being scripted by someone. Probably a cross between the Coen Brothers and whoever wrote The Day After Tomorrow. I mean, look at all the weird stuff. Global pandemic, Trump, Brexit, climate catastrophe, virtually everything about social media, the rise of the dictators, the even greater rise of the gazillionaire, fake philanthropist Bond villains… Total madness.’
‘You don’t think that’s just because people are idiots?’
‘Nope,’ said Keanu, just as Igor was about to agree with Barney. ‘I mean, sure, I’m not saying people aren’t idiots. But that’s part of the writing. I mean, there’s no reason for people to be idiots, is there? Everyone has access to mountains and mountains of information, more than ever before. Why should anyone be an idiot?’
Barney and Igor were looking at him as though, well, as though he were an idiot.
‘See,’ said Keanu. ‘Can’t explain it, can you? And that’s because the mass population of idiots is a creation of some guy. Maybe there’s a rogue third Coen brother. That would make sense.’
‘2020 is being written by Loki Coen,’ said Igor, and even though all that emerged from his lips was the word arf, the others got the joke and laughed.
‘Fair point,’ said Barney. ‘That does make a certain amount of sense. So what is it our series has been heading towards?’
Keanu crammed the rest of the doughnut into his mouth, and then chewed, took a drink of coffee, dabbed at his lips with the napkin.
‘You have to look at the recurring themes.’
‘OK,’ said Barney. ‘We’ve been giving people haircuts, there’s that,’ and he smiled.
‘We have to look beyond the haircuts.’
‘The weather is consistent in its inconsistency…’
‘We more or less live next to the Atlantic, so, you know, we’re not talking about the weather. It’s nuts, that’s all there is.’
Barney and Igor thought about it some more, and then Igor held up the last of his chocolate frosted.
‘There we go,’ said Barney. ‘There’s your central theme. Doughnuts. The entire series has been leading towards… some great doughnut exposition. Wait, I hope that doesn’t mean that at the end the plot’s going to have a giant hole in the middle.’
‘It’s not about the doughnuts.’
‘How d’you know? Maybe we’re going to discover the ultimate doughnut flavour. Maybe we’re going to invent a new kind of pastry, like the guy who did the cross between a doughnut and a croissant, but ours will be, I don’t know, a doughnut and haggis. The doughgis. Or a Christmas tree and a doughnut. The pinenut… Wait, there’s already a pinenut.’
‘It’s not about the doughnuts,’ said Keanu, patiently, as though waiting for a small child to finish talking. ‘Doughnuts are just colour. Writers and TV and movie people have been using doughnuts as background atmosphere for decades. And this guy, whoever’s writing our series for us, the Slartibartfast of the Barney Thomson Cinematic Universe, he’s probably like a Twin Peaks fan or something. So the doughnuts are just here as a quirky device, that’s all. A prop to occupy our time. Like Michael Stipe’s girlfriend in The One I Love.’
Barney and Igor looked at what was left of the current doughnuts in their hands, then together they turned and looked at the plate of doughnuts they could see through the open door in the back room.
‘You’re saying I don’t actually like doughnuts?’ said Barney, and he popped the last of the doughnut into his mouth. ‘Because I’m pretty sure I like doughnuts.’
‘Hmm,’ said Keanu, ‘I’m not sure. Let’s examine this. Have you ever eaten a doughnut before the last few months?’
‘Yes,’ said Barney, and he took a drink of coffee and looked back out at the day.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, and he took a drink of coffee and looked back out at the day.
‘Maybe that’s just what you think,’ said Keanu. ‘Maybe someone planted that memory in your head. I mean, is there actual, recorded, written proof of you eating these previous doughnuts?’
Barney gave him a quick eyebrow, and then looked back out at the restless sea. (Yes, the sea was restless again.)
‘See, that’s what I’m talking about.’
‘Is there written proof of anyone, anywhere actually eating a doughnut?’ said Barney. ‘Eating doughnuts is just a thing that happens. Any maybe we’re doing it more now because we’ve got more time on our hands since lockdown started.’
‘Nice,’ said Keanu, nodding.
‘That sounds reasonable,’ he said, ‘a viable basis for the doughnut intake uptick. And yet, it merely paints over the cracks in the façade of our lives here in the shop, as the foundations of our fictional existence begin to crumble.’
Barney and Igor drank coffee.
‘Arf,’ said Igor with a sigh.
‘Hmm,’ said Keanu, ‘there you have a point.’
There was a moment of readjustment, while they adapted to the fact that that particular strand of conversation was over, and an air of uncertainty hung over the shop while they waited to see if anyone was going to pick up any other talking points from what had gone before, and then, just as it looked as though silence might once again settle upon them, Keanu picked up a previous talking point.
‘So, we have to look at the recurring themes,’ he said.
‘Of course,’ said Barney. ‘But not doughnuts.’
‘No, they’re not a theme, they’re added colour. In terms of recurring themes, we’ve got the forthcoming apocalypse, and we’ve got the goons in Westminster insisting more and more firmly that you need to go to London and cut the Prime Minister’s hair. Plus we’ve got your obsession with thinking Trump’s going to resign, something literally no one else believes is going to happen.’
‘Really? Can I just say that when Trump said they should postpone the election, that’s all part of his victim narrative which he’ll use as cover for his resignation.’
‘He’s going to install Haley as his VP nominee, accept the Republican nomination, then quit.’
‘Sure, granddad, but this isn’t about that. We need to focus on the other points.’
‘The most likely scenario here – because, frankly the apocalypse isn’t really a cliffhanger, more of a vertiginous plummet into a fiery pit inhabited by choleric proctologists armed with flaming skewers – is you getting kidnapped and whisked off to London against your will.’
A beat. The men stared out of the window. The day continued outside, untroubled by events unfolding in Keanu’s imagination.
‘Hey, maybe you could dress up as Elsa from Frozen in order to facilitate a daring escape.’
With Barney on the point of a verbal ejaculation, the door opened, and an unfamiliar character stuck his cheery, round, moustachioed face into the shop.
‘Haircut?’ he asked.
‘Come to the right place,’ said Barney.
‘I’ve got a mask.’
‘Cool,’ said Barney. ‘Pop it on, I’ll get togged up, and in you come.’
‘Excellent,’ said the customer.
He took a thick cotton face covering from his coat pocket, placed it over his mouth and nose and round his ears, then entered the shop and hung his coat on the pegs beside the customers’ bench.
‘Just down for the day,’ he said. ‘A grand day out, eh? Name’s Iain Hanger. People call me Cliff.’
And he smiled and took his seat in the chair by the window.
The Philosopher Poet
‘Good day?’ asked Old Man McGuire.
Early afternoon of a quiet day in the shop. A few customers had come and gone, some doughnuts had been eaten, the feeling of tension had hung in the air like a constipated dark cloud, unable to spew forth its heavy rain, and they had arrived at some time after two with little progress seemingly having been made towards an exciting series conclusion.
Perhaps, indeed, this wasn’t a series, and nothing untoward would become of the day.
Barney eyed Old Man McGuire in the mirror. It was unlike Old Man McGuire to enquire after anyone’s day.
‘Fine, thanks, Frank,’ said Barney. ‘You?’
Old Man McGuire cleared his throat, straightened his shoulders a little, warily regarded the on-going progress of his Alan Arkin Kominsky cut, the most appropriate haircut he’d had this season, then said, ‘Shite.’
‘Much like every other day, then, Mr McGuire?’ said Keanu with a smile, from behind the adjacent chair. Keanu’s customer, Old Man Jefferson, in for an entirely coincidental Michael Douglas Kominsky cut, was currently snoozing his way through the afternoon.
‘Ha,’ grumped McGuire. ‘And I suppose you lot have spent the day squeezing the odd haircut in between troughing copious amounts of pastries? It’s a wonder none of you are the size of yon fat bastard off the tele.’
‘Good genes,’ said Keanu.
‘On the other hand,’ said Barney, ‘according to the philosopher poet here, it might be because none of us actually exist.’
Keanu smiled quietly, Barney couldn’t help himself smiling along with him, while at the back of the shop Igor, currently sweeping the floor, ruefully shook his head.
There was one customer waiting, a stranger in town – by an even more peculiar coincidence, in for a Danny DeVito Kominsky cut – but he’d lifted the top newspaper off the pile, The Daily Express, with its banner headline, EU Unleash Second Death Wave Out Of Badness. No one was quite sure why he’d chosen that particular piece of fallacious buttholery over all the others – the Telegraph, headline Saint Boris Accidentally Cures Cancer While Implementing Mid East Peace Plan; the Mail with Tories Sell Access To Gove For A Fiver; the Guardian with I Too Am A Victim Of Racism, Says Priti Patel, As She Opens Immigrant Concentration Camp; the National with Indy In Sight As England Shoots Self In Face With Bazooka; the Sun with Now Snowflakes Want To Ban Nuclear Holocaust; Cummings Tells Gove To ‘Eat My Shit’ In Latest Escalation in the Metro, and the Independent with Hancock Claims Ignorance, Says Covid Not A Health Matter – but he was engrossed nevertheless.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ muttered Old Man McGuire. ‘See you lot, you barbers, with your philosophy. It’s like listening to Donald Trump talk about rocket science. There are words, and some of them might even be relevant to the subject, but when they’re put together, it’s just total, complete and utter shite.’
‘I don’t know, Mr McGuire,’ said Keanu. ‘You know I was featured in Barbershop Monthly’s, Top 100 Young Thinkers this year.’
‘Aye, at number ninety-seven. And ninety-six was a cardboard cut-out of Edward Scissorhands.’
There was a barked laugh from the customers’ bench, from behind the Daily Express, and none of the others knew whether the man was laughing at Old Man McGuire, or at the story he was currently seemingly immersed in on Page 3, Barnier’s Father Revealed To Be Jackal.
‘Go on then,’ said Old Man McGuire, always happy to open someone else’s philosophy up to ridicule. ‘What have you got for us today?’
Barney continued to cut the old man’s hair, not really focussed on the conversation. That something in the air, that sense of impending doom, was getting to him. Igor, too, was finely attuned to impending doom, having experienced his fair share.
Every now and again they would exchange a glance, they would look at the clock, they would will it to be five-thirty, so they could get out of there alive.
‘You’ve heard my sitcom theory,’ said Keanu.
‘For what it’s worth,’ grumped McGuire.
‘How do we know,’ said Keanu, ‘that we’re not in an actual sitcom? How do we know we’re not, you know, in a Truman Show type situation? I mean, that shit happens.’
‘Maybe in your head, son.’
‘We meet so many of the classic sitcom norms, with recurring themes, recurring characters. I mean, look at you, Mr McGuire.’
‘What about me?’
‘No one actually needs their hair cut every week, least of all you, yet here you are. Every week, without fail, getting your hair cut. Isn’t that odd?’
‘It’s a thing,’ said McGuire. His tone might have been defensive, though it was hard to tell with McGuire, with him being so curmudgeonly.
‘What kind of a thing?’
‘It’s what I do, son. Don’t go questioning the very essence of my existence, or I’ll end up thinking about it too much, and before you know it, I’ve stuck my head in the oven.’ A beat, then he added, ‘Course, it’s electric, so I’d just burn the fuck out of myself, but you know what I mean.’
‘You’re not going to do that anyway, Mr McGuire.’
‘How do you know?’
‘You’re a regular on the show. It’s the only work you’ve got, so you’ll likely be on it until you die from natural causes.’
McGuire looked deadpan at him in the mirror, Keanu smiled in return.
‘So, that’s it, is it? You’re entire thesis is based around me coming in for a haircut every week, like I’m a psychopath?’
‘Look around you, Mr McGuire,’ said Keanu, ‘we’re on the set of a TV show. Same, low budget thing every week. Same view, same characters. There’s always a pile of newspapers that hardly anyone reads, least of all Barney, and yet they’re always there.’
‘That’s all you’ve got? Everything you describe, all of it, is normal. Virtually every cunt who goes to work, goes to the same place every day. Every bastard’s life is like the set of a TV show. Everybody’s life has recurring themes. Most people live like their life has been contracted out to the lowest bidder. Why’d you think this is exceptional?’
‘Decent point,’ said Keanu. ‘But there’s all the stuff I just said, which you can’t really brush aside, and then there’s the recurrence of weird shit. How come Millport has had all these murders in recent years? Doesn’t make sense in a wee place like this. And now, now we’ve got agents of the current shitshow government in London piling up here every week trying to get Barney to go and cut the blond buffoon’s hair.’
‘That guy does have a shite haircut, by the way,’ said McGuire.
‘But really, the man is loaded, he has the entire Tory party behind him, and they’re not short of a bob, he’s got dodgy Russian oligarch money coming out his arse, and he’s spending government money like it’s two-for-one 99s at the ice cream van. He can get literally anyone on Earth to cut his hair.’
McGuire glanced at Barney, who had fully retreated from the conversation, and was a million miles away, as he robotically carried out the Arkin. That army of angry stormtrooper ants that was walking up his spine was getting heavier and heavier of foot.
‘Look,’ said McGuire, ‘your man’s good, I’ll give him that, but it’s not like he has skills that no other haircutting cunt on earth has.’
‘Exactly, Mr McGuire!’ said Keanu. ‘There we are. So it doesn’t make sense, other than in the context that we exist in some kind of sitcom or comedy drama type situation.’
‘Hmm,’ said McGuire, and he nodded, and Barney, in another world, instinctively stopped cutting hair as a precaution, then restarted the cut when McGuire’s head stopped moving. ‘Looks like you might have a point.’
He moved again, turning to look out of the window, and now Barney finally seemed to return to the real world, and followed his gaze. Keanu too looked out over the sea, and the sound of the sweeping from the back of the shop stopped as Igor leant on his broom and joined the throng.
The clouds were high and patchy, there was plenty of blue sky, a warm July sun was shining, the blue-grey waters of the Clyde were sparkling, the gulls were swooping and diving, the sea eagles in chase, picking them off one by one in a bloody gull massacre.
‘Hmm,’ said Keanu. ‘Not often you see sea eagles eating gulls out there. This is what I’m talking about.’
‘Well, have you tried breaking through the wall, then?’
‘What d’you mean, which wall? The wall. The one they talk about in fiction. The fourth wall, or whatever fucking number it is.’
‘Fourth, right enough.’
‘What are the first three?’ asked Barney, still with that faraway quality to his voice.
‘No one knows,’ said Keanu.
‘So, why don’t you get out there? Try to break free. See what’s on the other side.’
‘How far d’you think I’d have to go?’
‘Fuck knows,’ said McGuire. ‘Get a boat off of Danny The Hatchet, and start rowing. If you reach Ireland you’re probably wrong. If you hit a wall about fifty yards out…’
‘We went to Perthshire last year,’ said Barney. ‘The three of us. And the sergeant came too.’ Something in his voice said he wasn’t convinced.
‘Did you though?’ asked McGuire. ‘Maybe someone just planted that idea in your head. Because that’s what happens.’
‘Yep,’ said Keanu, ‘you’re right.’
And they all sat and looked out of the window, until eventually Old Man McGuire got bored, and he humphed and turned his head back, and he gave Barney a glance in the mirror that said, bored now, can you get the fuck on with my hair, and Barney did as he had been bidden, and soon enough Keanu was cutting hair, and Igor was sweeping up, and the conversation, that had started out light-hearted but had become strangely disturbing, had petered out, and normal service was resumed.
The customer on the bench, who had remained unseen throughout, lowered a corner of his newspaper, glanced warily at Barney, and then resumed his position.
End of the working day, and nothing had happened. The feeling of impending doom hadn’t entirely left them, but the afternoon had been so uneventful they’d been lulled slowly but surely into some sort of security. Few customers, nothing particularly eventful going on, the world continuing outside their window as it did every other day.
Nice theory from Keanu, but none of them really believed it, and none of them would be going to speak to Danny the Hatchet to rent a rowing boat. Life was as it is, repetitive, uneventful, occasionally strange, and that was just how things were.
They were standing at the window, the wrap-up cup of tea in hand, protection against any last minute upset.
‘I should touch wood,’ said Keanu, ‘and I literally will, but looks like we made it, eh?’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, warily nodding.
‘Hmm,’ said Barney, who had regained a little of his equilibrium ‘Let’s see how the next three minutes play out.’
Keanu looked at his watch.
‘Two,’ he said.
‘I suppose,’ said Barney, ‘if something does happen, we ought to just face whatever it is head on. And the most likely thing, after all, is the Westminster cowboys turn up spouting shite, and I tell them to bugger off. Or worse case, I end up back down there for a few days while they discover that even I, supreme barbershop genius that I am, can’t fix that clown’s head, neither inside nor out.’
‘Ha,’ said Keanu. ‘Nice. Neither inside nor out.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, which was a bit of a downer after Barney and Keanu had attempted to lift the mood, as both of them recognised that what he’d actually said was, ‘that’s not the worse case scenario, you know it isn’t, there’s always worse, and then when you think of the absolute worst thing that can happen, just wait and watch while things get even shittier.’
The mood flattened, together they all turned and looked at the clock, and as the final minute before five-thirty ticked around, they all looked out of the window with the trepidation of a football supporter with his team of underdogs clinging on by a single goal against Bayern Munich, late into injury time.
‘And, of course,’ said Igor, again under the cover of the word arf, ‘we may imagine the possible drama will be over by five-thirty, but that’s an entirely artificial construct on our part. Could happen at any time.’
Barney took a deep breath, nodding slowly, and then he turned and looked once more at the clock. And then, sure as day turns to night, and the moon rises and the tides turn, he felt it coming, the it, the something wicked, and he swallowed and looked at the door.
A figure appeared, a woman around Barney’s age, blonde hair swept back, sunglasses, long dark coat. She paused for a moment, her eyes only on Barney.
‘Crap,’ said Keanu.
‘Yep,’ said Keanu. ‘A woman in a long dark coat. That’s got to be even scarier than a man in a long dark coat, right?’
Barney didn’t answer. The woman might have been wearing sunglasses, but he could still see the dark eyes behind. He could see right through her, same as he’d seen right through her so often in the past. Not that he’d ever seen her looking like this.
She opened the door, and now, finally, she looked at the others, a quick assessment, then she turned back to Barney.
‘You’re needed in London,’ she said. A pause, and then she added, ‘And then DC.’
They all stared, held captive. Of all the attempts Downing Street had made to get Barney on board, none of them had been made by a woman, that most rare interloper in the male domain of the barbershop.
‘You’ve changed,’ said Barney.
‘Nice observation coming from you.’
‘I thought…’ said Barney, then the words drifted away.
‘You’re not the only one to go on a journey the last twenty years, sunshine,’ she said. ‘You and your male-dominated bullshit little empire. It’s not just about you, Barney. There’s a big, wide world out there.’
‘You managed to break away from the TV then?’
‘Better than you managed to break away from the barbershop,’ she shot back.
A moment, a silence rich with discomfort and agitation, then Barney lowered his head, stared gloomily at the floor and muttered, ‘Fuck.’
‘That’s all you’ve got?’
‘Seriously,’ said Barney, ‘how did they get you involved?’
‘We’ve all got our part to play. I had one part, and now I’ve got another. Like this is the theatre, we’re a travelling troupe of characters, and now this is me, the government enforcer.’
She stared along the line, one to the other, then back to Barney.
‘Get your coat,’ she said.
‘Fine,’ said Barney. ‘But I’ll need to see Sergeant Monk before we go.’
The slightest hint of annoyance at the name played on her lips, Barney walked to the back of the shop, threw on his coat like he was Martin Sheen in The West Wing, then returned to fray.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said. ‘You can carry the load. Things are pretty quiet around here.’
‘Hang on a second,’ said Keanu. ‘You can’t just leave!’
‘Watch him,’ said the woman.
‘Who even are you?’
‘I told you. I’m the government enforcer.’
‘Yes, but what’s all this, I had one part to play, and now I’ve got another thing? Who were you before?’
She held his gaze for a moment, and then looked at Barney. Barney could feel the past and the future coming crashing down together, colliding in this moment, the calamitous present.
‘My wife,’ he said eventually, and at that Agnes Thomson couldn’t stop the small smirk coming to her face, then she opened the door, walked quickly out into the warm Millport summer’s afternoon, Barney glanced at his fellows, shrugged quickly, and then followed her out, taking his phone from his pocket as he went.
The door to the shop closed, Barney and Agnes Thomson disappeared from view, and silence descended upon them…
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, Keanu and Igor were still standing at the window, staring out at the gulls and the sea and the islands and the waves and the pterodactyls soaring on the wind.
‘What just happened?’ asked Keanu, finally breaking the long silence.
‘Arf,’ said Igor bitterly.
Keanu lifted his empty mug to his lips, an automatic movement, then lowered it again when he realised it was cold and empty.
‘Yep,’ he said eventually. ‘Arf…’
[SCENES FROM THE BARBERSHOP FLOOR WILL RETURN LATER IN 2020.]