Friday, July 31, 2020

S.1 Ep.12


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.

‘What is?’

‘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.’

‘Sure.’

‘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.’

‘Go on.’

‘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.

‘Aye, right.’

‘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 HolocaustCummings 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?’

‘Which wall?’

‘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.

 

1727hrs

 

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.

Tick tock.

5:30.

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.

‘Arf.’

‘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!’

‘Arf!’

‘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.]

Friday, July 24, 2020

S.1 Ep.11


SLOW BOAT TO MILLPORT 


A regular Friday on the Firth of Clyde in late July, the island of Cumbrae blanketed in low cloud and drizzle. Mid-morning, and the Millport barbershop was currently customer-lite. Jefferson, the town’s apprentice apothecary, had been in for his Babylonian fade cut, and the Malloy twins had been dragged in by their mum for their identical Gene Wilder Wonka cuts, and now the customer cupboard was bare, and the men of the shop were enjoying a delicious second breakfast of coffee and Austrian pastries flown in that morning from Innsbruck.
‘D’you ever wonder,’ said Keanu MacPherson, official barbershop No. 2, the Will Riker of the show, ‘if it’s not just that we’re in a sitcom situation, but we’re in an American sitcom situation?’
Barney Thomson, barbershop supremo, and Igor, ship’s counsellor, stared into the middle distance, munching on Tyrolean cowberry turnovers, contemplating the meaning of their existence. While they invariably took second breakfast standing at the window, looking out upon the view, today the view was so miserable, and the window so smeared with rain, they’d retreated to the barbers’ chairs and the customers’ bench.
‘I mean,’ continued Keanu to fill the contemplative silence, ‘I’m not complaining. I guess I’d rather be in an American sitcom situation than in the serial killer splatterfests we usually get around here, break up the monotony though they do. But still, the American sitcom can be questionable.’
‘What’s the difference?’ asked Barney.
‘Between American and British sitcoms?’
‘Aye.’
‘You don’t watch sitcoms?’
‘Forgot how to laugh in my twenties,’ said Barney, drily.
‘Ha. British sitcoms tend to be written by one person, or a couple, and they only have six episodes in a series. Maybe eight sometimes. Your American sitcom is written by a team of robots, and lasts about half the year. And the fact they have robot writers, means the shows can go on forever, year after year, while the star actors are trapped in their parts, being paid a million dollars an episode for their trouble.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘We do seem to have been here a long time now, though I haven’t noticed anyone offering us a million dollars every week.’
‘That aside, we are ticking quite a lot of the boxes. We just have to make sure we don’t have a dressing up episode.’
Barney and Igor stared blankly at him across the shop.
‘What’s that?’ asked Barney after a while.
‘Americans always end up having their characters dress up in various costumes. Gives the audience something else to get excited about. You know, like the alpha character has to dress up as Elsa from Frozen, that kind of thing. It’s a cheap laugh, but they always do it.’
‘Good thing we don’t have an alpha character,’ said Barney, and he took a drink of coffee.
Keanu and Igor looked at him.
‘You’re clearly the alpha character.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding.
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘Well, I don’t actually know who Elsa from Frozen is, but I feel sure I’m not going to be dressing up like her.’
‘That,’ said Keanu, ‘is exactly what the alpha sitcom character would say at the start of the episode.’
Barney looked deadpan across the shop.
‘We also never have sex episodes,’ continued Keanu matter-of-factly.
‘They have sex in American sitcoms?’
‘Well, no, obviously not actual sex, but they have endless episodes where characters get into relationship situations, which are really about wanting to have sex. So take Big Bang Theory for example, which had as its basic premise, nerdy scientists doing space stuff, which is the most amazing, huge and fascinating subject to write comedy about, right? Every now and again there was a space gag or a space episode, but ninety-five per cent of the time, one of the characters would be trying to get laid, or was having relationship difficulties. Like its close cousin the cheap laugh, it’s kind of cheap writing.’
‘Beginning to look more and more like we’re not an American sitcom after all,’ said Barney.
‘I don’t know though. We have been sitting here for a long time. Seems like a lot longer than six episodes.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘Maybe you’re right. Aren’t there American sitcoms where nothing every happens?’
There was silence for a moment, then a Mexican shrug travelled around the room.
‘They say nothing happened in Seinfeld,’ said Keanu. A beat, then he added,  ‘But I never saw it, so I don’t know if that’s true.’
‘Me neither,’ said Barney.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding glumly.
And so they each took a bite of Tyrolean deliciousness, and they took a drink of coffee, and the morning continued unobstructed by events.

The First Refuge Of The Grifter

There were two customers in the shop when there arose something of a tumult of noise outside, a hundred yards along the front. A tumult of whirling white noise. Igor, standing at the window with a good view of events, lowered the newspaper he was reading – the National, headline, New Route To Indy As 95% Of England Expected To Die Of Stupidity – and indicated along to their left.
‘Arf,’ he said, and although he hadn’t quite managed to elucidate the words, ‘There’s a soap bubble helicopter landing on the crazy golf course,’ they all – customers included – understood what he meant.
Barney lifted an eyebrow, his face dropping into a scowl, and went for a quick look. Took a moment to watch as the helicopter touched down, the turbulence sending a three year-old girl, about to birdie the tricky fifth, over the side of the rocks and into the sea. (It is not recorded whether her mother, who jumped in after her to save the child, was successful in the attempt, and while records note that neither mother nor child was ever found, years later there were reports of such a pair living wild on a remote island off the coast of Antrim.)
‘Fuck’s sake,’ muttered Barney, as he turned away, and returned to his customer, Fitzpatrick the milliner, in for his regular Withnail & Tonic cut.
‘What’s up boss?’ asked Keanu.
‘A helicopter carrying someone who thinks he owns the place,’ said Barney. ‘Unlikely to end well.’
‘You think he’s from Westminster, looking for you?’
‘Got to be a fair chance.’
‘That asshole last week did say he’d be back.’
‘Hmm.’
Barney returned to his cut, Keanu returned to his Kafka Trial cut, and for a brief moment normal service resumed, albeit beneath a heavy layer of tension that would inevitably be short-lived.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding again in the direction of the crazy golf, as someone was walking quickly towards the shop.
Almost as though they were professional synchronised barbers, Barney and Keanu now stopped cutting at the same time, their scissors poised in the air, waiting for something to happen. The one-man SWAT team crashing in through the window… the gas attack… the machine gun bullets riddling the shop front.
A man dressed in black appeared at the door. He was wearing a black face covering over his nose and mouth, a stab-vest, and preposterously cool sunglasses for the west coast of Scotland, but at least he didn’t appear to be armed. The three men of the shop and two customers stared at him, waiting to see what he was going to do. There was no obvious reason why he didn’t just walk in.
Although he could likely have held them in suspense, nestled in the palm of his black-gloved hand, he elected instead to go for the quick execution.
He knocked.
The noise shattered the moment.
‘Arf?’ asked Igor, Barney nodded, and Igor walked slowly to the door.
‘Millport barbershop?’ said SWAT Guy brusquely.
Igor stared at him as if he was an idiot. There was little more likely to excite Igor’s contempt than someone asking if the barbershop was a barbershop.
‘Does Barney Thomson work here?’ asked SWAT Guy, this time with even more urgency. He sounded annoyed, and in a hurry.
Igor stared grimly at him, still with no intention of speaking.
‘Yes,’ said Barney from behind.
‘I need you to sign for this,’ said SWAT Guy, and he held forward an envelope.
Everyone looked at him. A few seconds passed.
‘Now,’ he said, glancing urgently at his watch.
‘Wait,’ said Keanu, ‘you’re the postman?’
SWAT Guy stared angrily at Keanu, then turned back to Igor.
‘Can you sign for the letter, please?’
‘Why are you wearing a stab vest?’ asked Keanu. ‘Do people often get stabbed when you deliver the mail?’
SWAT Guy regarded Keanu with what might have been disdain, although it was hard to tell beneath the mask and glasses, then he looked from behind his disguise at Barney – a look that said, I’ve heard all about that guy – and then he turned back to Igor.
‘Sign for the letter.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, after another short stand off.
Strangely able to understand Igor, SWAT Guy held forward a pen. Igor ignored him, and turned away, heading to the back of the shop to get his own pen. Either he had no intention of touching anything that belonged to the absurd fool at the door, or else recognising the man’s hurry, he was happily stalling for time, like a footballer writhing in pretend agony, clutching his ankle for fifteen minutes at the end of the game as the clock ticks.
Barney and Keanu watched SWAT Guy for a moment or two, then shrugged and turned back to their haircuts. SWAT Guy was left alone at the door, waiting on Igor’s slow walk to the rear of the shop, the root around the small room at the back for a pen – which was entirely a pretend root around – and then the equally slow return.
SWAT Guy held forward a small clipboard, a lined receipt document on the top, the letter in question, Barney’s name written on the front, clipped beneath it. Igor, relishing his small moment of triumph, decided to sign his full name, marking each letter with painful sluggishness, to take as much time as possible.
Conte Alexandru Pompiliu Gheorghe Igor Tătărușanu Protopopescu.
SWAT guy finally snapped, snatching the clipboard away from Igor and thrusting the letter at him.
‘See that he gets it,’ he said harshly, and then he turned quickly away, one step, two steps, then he broke into a jog, and was climbing back into the helicopter by the time Igor had closed the door of the shop and was handing the letter to Barney. Barney took it, tossed it onto the worktop, and then returned to his cut.
The click of a single pair of scissors, the slow tick of the clock on the wall at the rear of the shop, one second round to the next. Eventually Barney noticed he was the only one working, and that the others were all staring at him. Waiting.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Come on, boss,’ said Keanu. ‘The tension’s unbearable. You’ve got to open it.’
‘Aye,’ said Barney’s customer.
‘Aye,’ said Keanu’s customer.
‘Arf!’
Barney nodded reluctantly, lifted the letter, ran his finger along the seal, and began reading under the watchful eye of the shop. Fifteen seconds, then he scrunched the letter up into a ball and tossed it into the bin in the far corner. He sighed, lifted his scissors, then accepted he had to address the issue before continuing with the cut.
‘The Prime Minister’s chief advisor is looking for me to go and cut the PM’s hair. They want me there until at least Brexit’s done and dusted.’
‘Brexit will never be done and dusted,’ said Keanu, mildly incredulous.
‘I think he means end of January next year.’
‘Ah. What else did he say? After he popped in here last week, I was kind of expecting threats and extortion, or a horse’s head in the bed, something like that. Sending a letter seems kind of tame, to be honest.’
‘I wondered about that,’ said Barney, and now he did resume the haircut, his scissors swiftly clipping across the top of the Withnail & Tonic cut, ‘but he’s gone for the carrot in the first instance. He says that we, as the Millport Barbershop, can bid for a government contract to supply PPE. The details are all there. If we go ahead, we’ll be the only bidders, they’ll pay us £108m in cash, and we won’t actually have to supply anything. He states they’ve handed out so many of these contracts since the coronavirus arrived, that it’ll just get lost in amongst all the others and no one will notice.’
They all stared at him, they looked at the bin, they looked back at Barney.
‘Wait, what?’ said Keanu. ‘You just got offered £108m for like five months’ work, and you tossed it into the bin?’
‘That’s pretty much what happened.’
‘You were just saying no one offered us a million pounds an episode to appear in this sitcom, and now the money’s rolling in.’
Barney gave him a look, and finally Keanu nodded, accepting the inevitable.
‘Aye, all right. Tainted money.’
‘Yes, tainted, and let’s not forget, illegal, money. So, they can all fuck off.’
‘Interesting that he thought he’d have more luck buying you off, than actually threatening you with violence.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘I guess that’s just who they are. They think everyone can be bought.’
‘Maybe they’ll threaten you next time.’
‘Arf,’ growled Igor from the window, his back turned, looking out over the sea as the helicopter flew swiftly away from the island, heading south.
Barney and Keanu shared another look, together they shrugged away the ill taste of the offer from the strange SWAT Guy, and slowly normal service was resumed.
Silence settled upon the shop. One minute ticked round to the next.
‘Wankers,’ said Barney’s customer suddenly, and even though it wasn’t entirely clear, they were all pretty sure he was talking about the Westminster government.

Post-Apocalypse Narrative Conjecture

Early afternoon, the shop quiet. The drizzle had passed, the streets had begun to dry, the fresh breeze from the west had brought light, fast-moving cloud, and patchy blue skies. The men of the shop were standing at the window looking out on the world, the last customer had been dispatched ten minutes previously with the most glorious Imperial Fade cut ever seen outside of Coruscant, there was quiet choral music playing in the background – Arvo Pärt’s beautiful lamentation on the unfolding cataclysm that is the human race, Yes, I Look East And I Weep, But When I Look West…? Holy Shit, Man, You’re Fucking Kidding Me By The Way – and the pile of that day’s newspapers – the Guardian with PM Ordered By Kremlin To Pretend He Gives A Fuck; the Mail with Raab Calls Britain’s Amazing New Trade Deal With Christmas Island Start Of East India Company 2, ‘we’ll get cut-price chocolate Santas,’ says Raab; the Mirror with Raab Shocked To Learn Christmas Island Not Off Lapland Arctic Coast; the Guardian with Raab Shocked To Learn Lapland Doesn’t Have Arctic Coast; the Independent with Hancock, Gove And Patel To Feature In New ITV Game Show, ‘I’m A Cunt, Get Me Out Of Here’; and the Express with Boris: Russian Heroes Helped Win Brexit Like They Helped Beat Hitler – lay impotently unread in a forlorn heap of lies, bullshit and propaganda.
‘D’you really think,’ said Keanu, usually the first to break a doughnut-induced silence, ‘that when the human race finally implodes, it’s going to be giant carnivorous spiders that take over?’
Barney popped the last of a peanut butter and white wine, maple sugar-frosted doughnut into his mouth, dabbed at his lips with the napkin in which he’d been holding the pastry, took a drink of coffee, and indicated the great beyond.
‘No one,’ said Barney, ‘thinks the spiders are going to take over.’
‘Wait, what? I thought we’d agreed.’
‘Arf.’
‘Exactly,’ said Barney. ‘There may have been a customer-led discussion on the subject, but it was never officially ratified by the shop’s executive committee, and submitted to the scientific editorial department at the New England Journal Of Hairdressing.’
‘Oh, I thought it was.’
‘Nope.’
They stared out of the window for a while, their third doughnut each of the day polished off, looking away across the grey-blue sea, to the mainland, and south to the distant, undiscovered horizon, beyond which lay nothing but dreams. And Girvan.
‘So, you don’t think it’ll be spiders?’
‘I don’t think it’ll be spiders,’ said Barney, nodding. ‘I’m not saying the spiders won’t grow exponentially in size, and become this fearsome, giant, rapacious mammal-slaughtering predator, but I doubt they’ll be at the top of the food chain.’
They drank some more coffee, the conversation coming in bitesize chunks, as they each applied all their evolutionary biological knowledge to the problem of what would come next, once the human race had finally submitted to its own idiocy and greed.
‘I’m afraid,’ said Barney, after a while, ‘that the only logical answer is whatever we evolve in to.’
‘But we’re all dead,’ said Keanu.
‘Arf,’ agreed Igor.
‘But are we, though?’
‘Well, yes, that’s the basic premise. The human race is extinct.’
‘It’s a flawed premise,’ said Barney. ‘The chances of there being a species extinction level event that affects the entire human race, but doesn’t at the same time wipe out pretty much all other life on earth, is pretty slim. A nuclear war’s going to kill virtually everything except cockroaches and seagulls, so it’s hardly worth having a discussion about it. If there’s a plague, like Covid-19 times two thousand, three hundred and fifty-six, chances are there’ll still be some people, however few, who’ll be immune. Even in the nuclear war scenario, someone will survive. Some people. And those people are automatically going to be at the top of the food chain, because they have opposable thumbs, know how to use a gun, and can operate the TV remote. Doesn’t matter how few of them there are. And pretty much the only way you can guarantee there’s no one left, is a planet-wide extinction level event, like an asteroid the size of the moon, or something, that kills everything, reducing the planet to a barren desertified rock with a punctured atmosphere, floating pointlessly through space, devoid of all life.’
‘Interesting,’ said Keanu. ‘Who d’you think would be at the top of the food chain then?’
Barney gave him a raised eyebrow, realised he was joking, and smiled. The men drank coffee, the day passed by before them, time marched relentlessly, if slowly, onwards.
‘I think you’re being a bit literal there, my old friend,’ said Igor, under cover of the word arf. ‘It’s a bit of fun. So humour the lad. Imagine, for the sake of argument, the skewed premise that all human life has died, but all other life is left alive. What wins?’
Igor could say a lot with the word arf.
‘What he said,’ said Keanu.
‘Fair enough,’ said Barney.
He watched as the Ardrossan ferry edged into view on the horizon. The wind still blew, the ever-changing clouds flitted across the sky, formations in the shape of Iceland and Australia and dinosaurs were created and vanished, rose and fell, the gulls circled and swooped and parried and argued and squawked, the sea tossed and turned, the waves broke on the shore, and the men of the shop drank their coffees and enjoyed the aftertaste of a delicious doughnut.
‘Sheep,’ said Barney after a while.
Keanu glanced at him, saw the wee smile on his lips, rolled his eyes, shook his head, couldn’t help laughing.

Tea

5:17pm. There had been a few more customers, but the afternoon had been uneventful as afternoons go. Now they were sitting around, wrapping up the day, a last cup of tea, the three men of the shop, plus Detective Sergeant Monk, who’d stopped by to join them. It had been a quiet day of policing on the island of Cumbrae, and she’d been able to wind things up a little early.
‘No crime then?’ asked Keanu, from his position at the window. The others were sitting around, on the customers’ bench and the barbers’ chairs.
‘Just the usual trouble with the drug smuggling syndicates working out of Wemyss Bay.’
‘Any chance of a shoot out?’
‘Looks likely.’
‘Machine guns and grenades, that kind of thing? That’s what happens on shows.’
‘I assume so. Might be happening tonight, but Thad said he’d take care of it. He’ll call if it turns out there are more than fifty of them.’
‘Cool.’
‘That aside, there’s the Russian warlords laundering money through the Indian Face Café, the Somalian people-smugglers operating out of the Lion Rock luxury villa complex, and there’s the Trump Brothel that’s just opened up near the bowling green, but hopefully we’ll get that shut down by the end of the day.’
‘When you put it like that I’m surprised you’re finished so early.’
‘Thad’s the best constable in town,’ said Monk, ‘he knows what he’s doing. How about you guys? Busy?’
‘Average,’ said Barney.
‘Arf,’ nodded Igor.
‘Barney nearly had to dress up as Elsa from Frozen,’ said Keanu, ‘but it looks like he might’ve gotten away with it.’
Barney looked deadpan across the shop at Monk, who nodded and smiled.
‘You can tell me all about it over dinner.’
‘You might not get the full story without me there,’ said Keanu.
‘Oh,’ said Barney, deciding they should move on, ‘the Tories have more or less offered us £108m if I’ll go and cut the PM’s hair for the next five months.’
‘Using a fake PPE contract as cover?’
‘Yep.’
‘Decent. What d’you think?’
‘Thought I’d ignore it. I mean, do we need a hundred and eight million pounds?’
‘Not really. And it’s worse than that anyway. You do a good job with Johnson, chances are the moron across the pond is going to want you. And you know what they’re like. They won’t ask, they’ll probably just use CIA rendition tactics, they’ll snatch you from your bed one night, the next thing you know you’re standing behind Trump in some room in the bowels of the White House, trying to make him look like Lincoln or whichever former president someone just told him was a Republican.’
‘And nobody wants that,’ said Barney.
‘No-siree. Imagine he won re-election by one vote in Michigan, and it was because you’d given him a Ronald Reagan ‘81. People don’t know Reagan was a Republican. They say things, but they didn’t know him. No one knew Ronald Reagan better than I did. He was a great friend of mine, a great friend, a great person… woman… man… camera… TV… and he said to me, Donald, he said, people don’t know this about me, but I’m a Republican. And you’d be responsible for everything that followed. Death, destruction, unfettered plague, rampant stupidity…’
Barney stared vaguely into the horrific middle distance.
‘I mean,’ said Monk, ‘it’s not like the same thing can happen here. Boris Schmoris. We’re so fucked, no one pays attention to us anymore anyway. But Trump? That guy has the power to bring western civilisation to its knees, and he’s made a solid start. Give him another four years… holy shit… Don’t do it, Barney.’
He shook his head, smiled, she smiled with him, they drank their tea.
It had been another uneventful episode in the life of the Millport barbershop, and so, as the dust settled on the day, it continued on its sleepy way, the afternoon drawing towards its inevitable conclusion.
‘Maybe something will happen tomorrow,’ said Keanu, after a while.
The clock ticked.
‘Arf,’ said Igor some time later, and the others all nodded in agreement.