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.
‘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.