Saturday, May 15, 2021

Series 2, Episode 11: It’s A Magical World


A blustery day, and cold. Nevertheless, there was a lad in the barbershop wearing just a T-shirt. Green, with the words I’m only talking to my dog today written on it. Keanu had noticed it just before he’d tossed the cape around him.

Without a word spoken, Keanu got to work on the hair, knowing instinctively the customer would be looking for a Paul Hollywood Razorbutt cut, as there was really no other option.

A couple of times Keanu caught the customer’s eye in the mirror. Itching to talk. There was something about a customer who clearly did not want any conversation that made a certain type of barber want to talk even more. Barney, standing at the window with a cup of coffee, knew what was coming.

As he finished the clipper work, and lifted the scissors, Keanu finally cracked.

‘What’s your dog called?’ he asked.

The customer looked unhappily at Keanu from over the top of his black face covering.

‘I don’t have a dog,’ he said.

And that was the end of that.

That evening, armed with the finest haircut delivered this day in the west of Scotland, the lad with the green T-shirt would bake a quite magnificent apple and blackcurrant pie, though the edge would be taken off it when his flatmate Kevin choked on a piece of crust and died before the ambulance could arrive. He’d be the third of the lad’s flatmates to die from choking on home-baked goods since late summer 2019.

Some people have a knack for inadvertently killing their friends.

And some don’t.


* * *


‘See they fucking English,’ began Old Man McGuire.

Uh-oh, thought everyone in the shop.

‘Aside from voting to live in Mordor, same as us, more or less,’ said Keanu smiling. Some days, Keanu alone enjoyed Old Man McGuire’s good-natured ill nature.

A regular morning, customers coming in ones and twos. The second week in May was defying the conventions of a warming planet, and the fact that it was May, by being pretty fucking cold, by the way. Grey, cloudy skies, a chill wind coming in upon the land, not a hint of the tropics on the wind – as there regularly is in Millport – and a cold, grey sea battering the rocks.

Barney and Igor were standing at the window, looking out on the bleak morning, cup of coffee and a Danish in hand. There was little to see out there, bar an old steam packet, bound for the dinosaur plantations on the islands off the coast of Costa Rica.

Old Man McGuire was the only customer, and so the newspaper pile on the customers’ bench sat where it had been since Barney had placed it there first thing, undisturbed by human hand or interest, all the lies, obfuscation, splenic diarrhoea, and pro-right-wing logical contortions left to fester in their own putrid malfeasance. On top of the pile, the Express, headline, Boris Saves Mankind In Amazing Thanos Fist-Fight; beneath which lay the Times, Nurses Cheer As Wages Cut To Fund New Royal Yacht; the Telegraph, Voters Chuckle As Boris Begins Systematic Slaughter of Civil Servants; the Mail, Patel Forces Gove To Eat Own Penis In New Escalation; the Scotsman had Douglas Ross Is Just A Bit Of A Prick Really; the Sun had Boris Went At It Like A Badger, Says Teenage Babe In New All-Night Sex Claim; the Guardian had Tests Confirm Raab The Bastard Love Child Of Hitler And Elizabeth Báthory; the Metro had PM Admits Lying About Previous Lie-Denial Lie; and the Star led with Covid Babe’s Breast Implant Explodes In Space In New Twist.

‘No they’re fucking no’, son,’ said McGuire. ‘That lot eat their young and bite the heads off chickens.’

Keanu gave Old Man McGuire a look in the mirror. The that’ll do, Donkey look he’d learned from Barney, which wasn’t entirely in keeping with the true that’ll do, Donkey spirit of the original, but did the job, nonetheless. Old Man McGuire scowled quietly to himself.

‘Go on, then, Mr McGuire,’ said Keanu, ‘what’s up this time?’

‘This time, son, it’s all this pish about yon European Super League. All they bleatin’ football fans. Wah-wah-fucking-wah. Away and shite, the lot of you.’

‘Thought they might’ve had a point,’ said Keanu, as he continued the basic scissor work on McGuire’s weekly Absolutely Sweet Bob Dylan cut.

‘Well, good thing that I’m here to tell you they didnae,’ said McGuire. ‘See yon shite, this money’s-ruining-football shite. This, this is what’s ruining football? This super league shite is the money that’s ruining football? Really? How about the fourth team in your stupid league, potentially a team that doesn’t even know where Europe is because it’s qualified so infrequently before, gets into the Champions League automatically, while forty-odd actual national champions have to scab around for a few places? Then, naturally, money follows money, so the bigger teams get richer, the bigger countries pull out more of a gap, and then inevitably, the fourth-placed team in England is better than the champion of Romania or Belgium. But they weren’t before, not until they engineered English, Spanish and German domination. Funny how the supporters of Man-fucking-United aren’t complaining about that.’

‘It is the way it is, though, Mr McGuire,’ said Keanu, bringing years of barbershop philosophy to a magnificent zenith.

‘Fuck off, son,’ snarked Old Man McGuire. ‘You remember the final in 1991? Red Star Belgrade.’

‘I wasn’t born in 1991,’ said Keanu, laughing.

‘How about 1986 then? Eh?’


‘Steaua Bucharest. I mean, can you imagine either of that lot winning it now? Not a fanny of a chance. Not one fanny. There are all these great teams of Europe, historic teams, actual teams of pedigree, liable to get gubbed by Leicester and West Ham. Money follows money, that’s just how it is. But, aye, sure, on you go, you bleeding-hearted bunch of entitled wankers, complain that this super league is what’ll ruin football. Fuck me.’

‘You’re done,’ said Keanu, smile still on his face, laying the scissors down and stepping back.

‘What d’you mean?’

‘You’re done. Haircut’s finished.’

‘Oh,’ said McGuire, looking at himself in the mirror. ‘That was quick.’

‘That’s who we are,’ said Keanu. ‘Most efficient barbers in the west of Scotland.’

McGuire looked curiously at him in the mirror, then glanced at Barney and Igor.

‘Aye, well, since you don’t seem so busy maybe you could just get me one of they pastries and a cup of tea. Milk, one sugar. I’ve still got some things I need to get off my chest.’

Barney smiled, nodded at Igor to indicate that he would take care of the order, then shared a look with Old Man McGuire, squeezing the old man’s shoulder as he walked past.

‘Coming right up, Frank,’ he said, and McGuire looked, as he occasionally did, slightly abashed about his often-feigned irascibility.


* * *


‘So, what d’you think’s going to happen?’ said Keanu.

The men of the shop were standing at the window, looking out upon the world. It remained grey, with ominous clouds away to the south, promising a grim afternoon. The sea was choppy, churned by an ill wind. There was a single yacht, between the town and the island of Little Cumbrae, the sail stretched and pulled, like a tight-fitting shirt over the belly of a fat man after a huge lunch.

‘Reckon it’ll rain,’ said Barney, indicating the weather with his mug.


‘That’s not what I meant,’ said Keanu.


Barney bit into a custard and asparagus doughnut. The new doughnut shop in town – Custard And Asparagus Donuts R Us – was not due to last, he thought.

‘What did you mean?’ asked Igor, the words emerging in their familiar form.

‘Life,’ said Keanu.


‘Look,’ said Keanu, and he indicated the great beyond with a sweep of the coffee mug, ‘doesn’t it feel like we’re on the cusp of something? Sure, the rise of the dictators has been given a temporary blip with the sidelining of fake orange Vito Corleone, but the next guy over there will be even worse. Turkey, Egypt, Russia, China, all those guys, none of them are going anywhere. China could invade Taiwan at any moment. There’s Russia and Ukraine, there’s several ongoing civil and regional wars in Africa, the shitshow in Syria, new hostilities between Israel and Palestine, conflicts arising all over the place. Then there’s the virus still sweeping the earth, and the climate crisis, and that’s not even mentioning the coming giant flesh-eating spider apocalypse. And even here, where it feels normal and safe and like nothing ever changes –’

‘Certainly,’ said Barney, butting in, ‘the front at Millport has looked exactly the same since the Carolingians established the first settlement on the island in 856.’

‘Right? So we get kind of sucked into this Narnia-like existence, where everything seems fine. But then, we’ve got the coming war of independence, so, you know, that’ll be bad.’

Barney popped the last of the doughnut into his mouth, and then took a mouthful of coffee.

‘You think it’ll come to that, eh?’

‘I’m not saying anyone’s marching to Derby or sacking Berwick, or, you know, picking a field in the vicinity of Stirling for a stramash, but one lot want one thing, the other lot want the complete opposite, and there’s really no compromise.’

‘Zero sum, as the Yanks say,’ said Barney.

‘Exactly. Either way, people are going to be upset. Country’s split down the middle. Whichever way it goes, that’s an awful lot of people getting pissed off.’

‘Aye,’ said Barney, nodding. ‘Fair enough.’

‘What’s to be done, then? Maybe we could club together and get a spot on one of fake-Bond-villain Elon Musk’s spaceships to Mars. We could set up the first barbershops on another planet.’

‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding.

‘Doesn’t make any sense,’ said Barney. ‘No matter what resources they throw at Mars, how is it ever going to be a better place to live than earth? All these clowns with their money, wanting to go into space. Seriously? Spend the damn money on making the planet we’re on more habitable. The trouble with the earth isn’t the earth. It’s the people. And it’s the same damn people that’ll go to the next planet.’

‘So, it’ll be shit ‘n’ all,’ said Keanu, nodding.

‘Exactly. It is, after all, already shit. It’ll just be shit with added assholes.’

And so they stood, the three of them, looking out to sea, as it stretched to the far horizon, and the south-west passage to the great croissant islands off the coast of Brittany.

‘If only we were in charge,’ said Keanu after a while, interrupting what Barney and Igor had begun to consider a rather enjoyable silence.

Barney had nothing to say to that. The idea of being in charge of anything other than a barbershop – which more or less ran itself, and when it didn’t, Igor ran it – filled him with dread. Some days, he thought, he could not escape from this life quickly enough.

‘We could establish a political party, then run in, I don’t know, whenever the next election’s going to be. When d’you think there’ll be another election?’

‘Let us not talk of such things,’ said Barney.

‘We don’t need anything fancy,’ said Keanu, talking of such things all the same. ‘We could be the Barbershop Party. People trust barbers. They know that we know things. We know how things run.’ He turned and indicated the shop, then looked back at the view. ‘Look at it. The shop.’ Neither Barney nor Igor turned to look at the shop. They’d already seen it. ‘Now imagine the country being run like this shop. Right?’

He looked at the others, trying to get some buy-in.

‘How hard can running a country be? All we’re doing would be taking the principles of running our successful barbershop business, and multiplying it by, say, twenty. And there we are. Who was it who said show a man how to run a shop, and he can control the nation?’

‘Literally no one,’ said Barney.

‘Think it might’ve been one of those old Greek guys. Herodopholus or Archisumption.’

‘Now you’re just making up names.’

‘But as I said, people trust barbers. They just do. So, we’ve already got a head start. From the moment we launch, chances are we’re running second in the polls. Behind the SNP in Scotland, and behind the Ringwraiths in the UK.’

‘Think you might be on your own,’ said Barney, and Igor nodded. ‘I’ll vote for you, though.’

‘Arf!’ agreed Igor.

‘Oh, decent,’ said Keanu, perking up. ‘Solid start. We’re already ahead of Alex Salmond and the LibDems.’

Barney smiled, lifted the coffee cup and drained it, then looked to his left as the door opened and the first customer of the afternoon popped his head through the door. A stranger in town.

‘Hi guys!’ said the stranger. He was Gen Z, and therefore thought it OK to include someone two and a half times his age beneath the guys umbrella.

The men of the shop, suddenly wary, all nodded.

‘Like, I don’t mean to disparage or anything,’ the Gen Z continued, his sentences all curling up in the middle and in the end, like month-old lettuce, ‘but I’m looking for someone who can execute a Spanish high fade rollercoaster undercut. Like I said, I’m not implying that you gentlemen can’t per se, but you know how it is, there are a lot, and I mean a lot of barbers out there who’ll tell you they can do the Spanish undercut, but when it comes to it… yikes. No offence, but my dad always said, never trust a barber.’ He laughed, a laugh which extended and became louder in the face of the three blank faces staring back at him.

‘He’s all yours,’ said Barney.

‘Arf,’ said Igor nodding. Igor didn’t even want to sweep up after this comedian, although obviously he would. Igor always swept up.

‘I can do that,’ said Keanu, ‘so come on in. Let’s talk manifesto pledges of the new Barbershop Party.’

And so the young chap entered the shop, closing the door behind him.

‘Politics? I love politics,’ he said. ‘Thanks guys!’


* * *


There was an end of term feel about the place, even though it wasn’t the end of term. Barbershops have no terms. Nevertheless, it was a Saturday afternoon, the shop had just closed for the weekend, and Monday morning seemed a long way off. Perhaps, in fact, life being as it is, Monday morning would never come.

The CLOSED sign was on the door, and the ladies had stopped off, feeling themselves drawn inexplicably to the shop, to share the last cup of tea of the day. Garrett Carmichael, town lawyer; Detective Sergeant Monk, town sheriff; and Sophia Cane, owner of the Wishful-Thinking Hair And Absinthe Boutique on Cardiff Street.

The doughnuts had been distributed, tea was being drunk, Sinatra’s eternal tale of inter-species love, One For My Baby, And One More For The Toad was playing on the radio, and there was a comfortable silence over the shop.

The silence, naturally, was destined not to last.

‘Any interesting tales from the front line of law enforcement today?’ asked Keanu, popping the last of the pecan, sugar-frosted, cream and jam doughnut into his mouth. ‘Tasty,’ he added, to no one in particular, with his mouth full.

‘Busted another diamond smuggling operation round at the old fish factory,’ said Monk, who’d already finished her doughnut. Sipping her tea, staring vaguely at the floor as she spoke.

‘Big shoot-out?’

‘Twenty-six dead,’ she said. ‘Surprised you didn’t hear about it on the news.’

‘We don’t listen to the news.’


‘Fair enough. So there was that. Then there was a rumble down on the promenade. And they blew up the Chicken Man last night, so that happened.’

‘How about the gambling commission?’

‘Hanging on by the skin of its teeth.’

She looked up, nodded at Keanu, then turned to Barney, who was watching her with a slight smile on his face.

‘It’s all true,’ she said, smiling sadly at Barney.

‘Crazy times,’ said Sophia.

‘How about the legal business?’ said Keanu, looking at Garrett. ‘Anything interesting?’

‘It’s Saturday,’ said Garrett. ‘I didn’t do any work. I went for a walk round the island, stopped for an ice cream at Fintry – it was shut – so in the end I didn’t stop for very long, and then I went home and cleaned the bathroom.’

‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding. He liked the smell of disinfectant in the morning.

‘Sounds like a helluva day in Millport,’ said Keanu. ‘How was the salon?’

Sophia, a mouthful of doughnut, nodded to acknowledge the question, then swallowed, took a drink of tea, lifted the mug a little towards Igor to indicate the quality of the hot beverage, then said, ‘That shit was real. Massive amounts of hairstyling going on. There were perms, there were pixie cuts, there were beehives, there was a ’95 Jennifer Aniston, there was a Gal Gadot, there was all kinds of shit.’

‘Wow. Who was the Gal Gadot?’ asked Keanu perking up, and he got an eyebrow in response and smiled sheepishly.

The little burst of conversation came to an end, the day’s events, such as they were, having been reported, and once more silence came upon them. Barney, standing with Igor by the window, turned and looked out upon the world. There was little to see out there, bar the grey hills, and the grey sea, merging on the far horizon with the grey sky. Not a ship, nor a submarine to be seen, a land of shades, contours and ever-changing lines, an Ansel Adams photograph in real time.

And with the silence and the flat exterior, melancholy settled upon them, a melancholy as grey and deep as the land.

‘Arf,’ said Igor, indicating the world beyond, and one or two of the others nodded in agreement.

‘This is where we are,’ said Barney.

He took a drink of tea, watching as a seagull landed on the white promenade wall across the road. 

‘Hmm,’ said Keanu. ‘There’s a funny kind of a feeling abroad, don’t you think?’

‘Yeah,’ said Sophia. ‘What is it, exactly?’

‘Not sure,’ said Keanu, and he looked around the others.

‘It’s the sense of an ending,’ said Monk. ‘Suddenly, out of nowhere, as if this might be all that there is.’

‘Wait, what?’ said Keanu. ‘Like there’s about to be a nuclear apocalypse? That escalated quickly. Whatever that was. There are so many things to choose from.’

‘No,’ said Barney, shaking his head.

They knew he had more to say, but he held them in silence for a few moments, words on the cusp of being spoken.

‘It’s like the last Calvin & Hobbes comic,’ he said eventually. ‘It’s final, and yet, it’s not. It’s Calvin & Hobbes going off into the world to get in adventures. It’s just…’

‘We don’t get to read about them anymore,’ said Monk.

Barney nodded, looking out upon the seascape, then he turned and looked at Monk, with a small movement of his shoulders.

‘So, wait, what?’ said Keanu again. ‘We’re still going to get in adventures?’

‘Such as they are,’ said Barney.

‘But in some strange way in which we can’t possibly fathom, this might be the end of the show?’

Barney looked at him, then looked around the room at the others, realising that despite all his efforts, he was kind of the alpha character and the others looked to him for answers.

‘I don’t know,’ he said finally. ‘Guess we’ll find out one day, one way or another.’

‘But if this is the end of the show,’ said Sophia, ‘shouldn’t you have had some really terrible final episode, like Lost and How I Met Your Mother and Game of Thrones?’

‘Arf,’ said Igor nodding, thinking it not a bad supposition.

Silence came upon them again, while they considered their place in the great carnival of existence. Sinatra had long since finished, to be replaced by Hoagy Carmichael, and his 1956 classic Winter Moon, recorded with the Pacific Jazzmen. Perhaps not as out of place for a May afternoon in Scotland as one might think.

The music was slow, the key was minor, and it perfectly fitted the mood of the day.

‘Maybe we’re not a show at all,’ said Barney.

‘But if we’re not a show,’ said Keanu, ‘how can we end?’

Barney turned, as usual looking at Monk first as he did so, and shrugged.

‘No one’s saying it’s ending,’ he said. ‘It’s just, it feels a little like that, doesn’t it? Something strange in the air, like we’re all going to be here, stuck in this spot, like a Hopper painting, for the rest of time.’

‘And people’ll walk by the shop and see us through the window,’ said Sophia, ‘and it’ll be a work of art. A burst of colour, projected onto the blank canvas of life.’

‘Hmm,’ said Keanu. ‘Not so bad.’

They all looked out of the window, as though such a passer-by could have been coming at just that moment, but the street outside was deserted, the world being instead one of gulls and wind.

‘Still,’ Keanu continued, since no one else was picking up the talking stick, ‘seems kind of sudden. I mean, where’s the narrative arc?’

‘Good point,’ said Garrett, giving him a nod.

‘There isn’t one,’ said Barney. ‘We’ve always been our own thing. There’s no need to adhere to the conventions of any kind of genre, be it, I don’t know, crime or sitcom or whatever.’

‘Or porn,’ said Sophia, winking at Keanu, who blushed.

‘Steady,’ said Barney, and Sophia smiled and made a formal apology via a small movement of her mug.

‘So, this is all that there is?’ said Keanu.

They all looked at him, and then, as one, turned and looked out at the day, a day which seemed just a little lighter than it had done a minute earlier, as the sun poked through the clouds from far out to the west.

‘Hey,’ said Monk, feeling the need to inject the still of the afternoon with a little pep, ‘how about we get Chinese carry-out and everyone eat at ours tonight?’

She looked at Barney as she said it, just in case his face was going to do a thing, but Barney too recognised the passing of the years, the changing of the guard, the tick of the hands of the clock from one age to the next.

‘Good plan,’ said Barney, and the others nodded.

Chinese carry-out it would be.

‘Epic,’ said Keanu. ‘Look at that, the day’s picking up.’

‘It’s a magical world,’ said Sophia.


Igor downed his tea, held his mug aloft to indicate that he would now collect the tea mugs of the barbershop for the final time, and with six mugs in hand, he walked through to the back room to wash up and get the Chinese carry-out menu off the noticeboard.

Barney Thomson, the foremost barber of his day, smiled at Detective Sergeant Monk, as she joined him at the window, and they looked out upon the vast seascape, and the going down of the sun…


* * *


And so the days passed, and the Age of Barbers came to an end. All things must pass, after all, the good and the bad, the glorious and the indifferent. This is what life is.

Sadly, the Age of Barbers was to be replaced by the Age of Idiots, but we can’t say we hadn’t seen it coming.

Friday, April 16, 2021

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.’


‘Yeah, scientists.’

‘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.


‘Adds context.’

‘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.’

‘Fair enough.’

‘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?’


‘OK. So…?’

‘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?’

‘The Record!’

‘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.’

‘Which one?’

‘Which one?’

‘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.