Saturday, November 14, 2020

Series 2, Episode 3: The Jaffa Cake Paradigm

 

Friday morning in the town of Millport. There were high, white clouds flitting across the sky, and grey-blue waves rolling up, bouncing off the rocks, seagulls whirling in the air, their mournful cries carrying across the sea, and in the far distance, a freight vessel edging slowly across the horizon.
But was any of it real?
The men of the Millport barbershop seemed real enough, although there had been no customers yet that day to validate their existence. As the great philosophers of old used to conjecture, if a man doesn’t cut anyone’s hair, can he be called a barber?
They were standing at the window, three men in a row – Barney  Thomson, legend of the fall, Keanu McPherson, hairdresser pursuivant, and Igor, their deaf, mute hunchbacked aide-de-camp – looking out upon the world. The road, a pavement either side, the white promenade wall, and beyond, across the sea, to the distant freighter, bound for the spice islands off the coast of Myanmar.
The men were eating cinnamon buns, which Barney had made that morning. He’d had the dough proving overnight, then he’d risen at four a.m. in order to have time for a second prove, before getting the buns in the oven in time for work. A batch of sixteen, eight of which had gone with DS Monk to the police station, the rest here at the shop. Two each for the men, with a couple spare should they consider any customer worthy of being a bun recipient. Didn’t happen often.
The cinnamon buns, of course, may well also have been fictional. Hard to say. They tasted great though, so that was all that mattered.
On the customer’s bench behind the men lay the raw sewage of that day’s newspapers, already largely condemned to be ignored. Barney liked to play his part, though. He had his order in at the local newsagents, and he didn’t want to cancel it. And occasionally they would get in a customer who’d pick up a newspaper, rather than take a phone from their pocket.
On top of the pile was the Telegraph, headline Hero Johnson Watches Trump Coup With Interest, Makes Notes, beneath which lay the Guardian, Washington’s Capitol Hill Ablaze, Trump Regime Pins Blame On Pelosi; the Express, Johnson Backs Trump Purge Of Leftist Loons; the Mail, No 10 Bloodbath As Priti Patel Closes In On Power; the Mirror, 73 Democrat Lawmakers Executed Or Jailed, As Trump Loses Shit; the Sun, Trump Has Erectile Malfeasance Claims Latest Porn Star To Share Diaper Donnie’s Bed; the Independent, Cummings Leaves Johnson’s Flayed, Mutilated Body Hung From Lamppost Outside No10 On Way Out The Door; the Star, Gove Writes U.S.A. In Crayon On Birth Certificate, Throws Hat Into Ring For 2024 GOP Nomination; the National, ‘Get the fuck in!’ says Nicola, As Scotland Qualify For Euros.
Unlike the town of Millport, the barbershop and the cinnamon buns, sadly there was nothing fictional about the destruction of democracy on either side of the Atlantic.
‘What’s that line about the lamps going out around Europe or something, that Churchill said?’ asked Keanu.
The mood in the shop was sombre. There were so many things going on in the world, and none of them were good. Sure, the cinnamon buns were pretty phenomenal, by the way, but a good cinnamon bun and a cracking cup of tea or coffee can only take you so far in life.
The lamps are going out all over Europe,’ said Barney, his voice low. ‘We shall not see them lit again in our life-time.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding.
They stood in silence for a while. Outside, all was quiet. The wind still, and with the door closed, the sound of the sea was lost to them. Occasionally Barney had music playing in the shop, but not this morning. He’d given Petroc on Radio 3 the first half hour of the day, but with the passing of the Breakfast show, the radio had been turned off and silence had fallen.
‘He was pretty good, Churchill, right?’ said Keanu. ‘He’s like Gandhi or Oscar Wilde. A quote for every occasion. I wonder if he ever said anything about Bond movies.’
‘It wasn’t Churchill.’
‘What?’
‘It wasn’t Churchill who said the line about the lamps going out. He gave a speech in ’38 where he said the lights were going out, but he was mirroring the fuller line from the Foreign Secretary during the first world war.’
‘Who was that?’
‘Who was the Foreign Secretary during WW1?’
‘Aye.’
Barney thought about it a moment, couldn’t remember his name. Looked at Igor.
‘Arf,’ said Igor.
Igor could remember everything.
‘Never heard of him,’ said Keanu. He took a drink of coffee, then another bite of cinnamon bun. It really was the perfect bun. ‘Had a way with words, though, eh?’ he added a while later.
A seagull settled on the promenade wall across the road, looking into the shop. The men looked at the gull, the gull stared back. It was apparent that the gull had an eye for one of those buns, it being entirely possible it’d heard talk of their quality.
No one really knows for sure whether birds understand the concept of glass.
‘I’d eat up, lads,’ said Barney, ‘if only to protect that wee fellow from taking a header into the window.’
And so, as it had been commanded, the men of the shop finished off their buns, and the gull lived to see another bleak day in the west of Scotland.
 
* * *
 
The shop was quiet, the only sounds the repetitive sweep of Igor’s brush, and the click of Barney’s scissors, as he gave young Boffo Longbottom his bi-monthly Lapsang Souchong Variated Undercut. Boffo was looking at his phone, seemingly uninterested in conversation – which, of course, suited Barney perfectly – while Keanu was reading a Fuzzbeed article on his iPad. Entitled Shag, Marry, Skedaddle – The Biggest Bond Villains Graded, it had been placed as an advertising feature – or advertorial, as it’s known in the fools-and-their-money-are-easily-parted business – during one of the previous times the new Bond movie had been scheduled for release, and had never been removed, despite the movie’s continuing late arrival.
 
Everyone loves a Bond villain. But what if you actually LOVED a Bond villain. With so many actual potential Bond villains in the world, from uber-weird Elon Musk, to haunted sarcophagus Mark Zuckerburg, the chances of meeting the real thing keep rising. With the incredible new Bond film, NO TIME TO DIE, out this week, we took a look at Bond’s most famous villains, from the ones who’ll give you the feels, to the ones who’ll have you pressing the ejector button in the passenger seat.
 
ROSA KLEB: You probably don’t want to go anywhere near the brutalist Kleb, the SPECTRE operative from the second Bond film, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. If you do inexplicably find yourself about to head to the bedroom, make sure she takes her shoes off first. SKEDADDLE
 
AURIC GOLDFINGER: No oil painting, but on the plus side, he has a private jet and you’ll stay in the best hotels. However, he looks like he’ll be into some seriously kinky sex, and when he gets the gold paint out, it’s time to run. SKEDADDLE
 
ELEKTRA KING: Glamour millionairess from THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. Sure, she might have you killed so you probably don’t want to stick around, but she’s rich, she’s gorgeous, and who wouldn’t want to take that risk? SHAG
 
ALEC TREVELYAN: Turncoat MI6 character from GOLDENEYE. You know you can’t trust him, but hey, it’s Sean Bean. Go for it, take out a massive life insurance policy, and wait for him to die. Sean Bean ALWAYS dies. MARRY
 
MIRANDA FROST: Frost, from chill thriller DIE ANOTHER DAY, is as beautiful as she is untrustworthy. You don’t want to miss out on the sex – and if you can rope in Halle Berry’s Jinx from the same movie to join you, we salute you – but commitment will be the end of you. SHAG
 
JAWS: Everyone’s favourite loveable Bond giant, Jaws is the vicious villain with the heart of gold. Go on ladies, you know he’s worth it, just watch out for the clash of teeth at the height of passion. MARRY
 
XENIA ONATOPP: Famke Janssen’s killer character from GOLDENEYE has tonnes going for her. Fighter pilot? Yep. Intelligent? Yep. Beautiful? Yep. Has orgasms while committing murder during sex? Wait, what? Yes, the alluring Onatopp likes to crush lovers to death with her thighs. SKEDADDLE
 
BLOFELD: The character has truly found his mark in the hands of Christoph Waltz, first in SPECTRE, and now in the latest Bond thriller NO TIME TO DIE. Cunning and charismatic, he’s evil with a knowing smile and the coolest scar in film. If you like supreme criminal power, and don’t mind being married to a psychopath, Blofeld might just be worth it. MARRY
 
PUSSY GALORE: Is she actually a villain? Who cares? Pussy Galore was the sexiest thing to come out of the 60s, and the 60s had Diana Rigg and Daphne from Scooby Doo. MARRY
 
SAFIN: In NO TIME TO DIE Safin is the uber-intelligent, uber-vicious terrorist that finally might be a match for Bond. Naturally, in the hands of Rami Malek, there’s something delicious about him. But ladies, beware. Safin wants to kill everyone. You’ll want to check this villain out for yourself, but we recommend: SKEDADDLE
 
NO TIME TO DIE, the 25th Bond movie, opens in cinemas, Friday 13th.
 
Hmm, thought Keanu, I wonder which Friday 13th they meant?
‘Who’s your favourite Bond villain?’ he tossed out to the shop, looking round. Boffo Longbottom was only the third customer of the day, so, so far Keanu had made one cut, and it was almost 11 a.m. Some days he went with the flow, as time ground to a halt, and some days he wouldn’t have minded another customer or two.
Even though most right-thinking men are happy to live without conversation, few are there amongst them who can resist talk of Bond villains. Or, indeed, any topic that might be Bond-related.
Barney paused the cut for the moment, Igor leant on the top of his brush and stared off into the far yonder, and Longbottom, who no one in the town had heard talk in over two years, nodded to himself as he stared at his own reflection and considered what might be one of the great questions.
‘Fiona Volpe,’ said Barney to kick things off.
‘I’m not sure I’m familiar with her work,’ said Keanu.
‘Sure you are,’ said Barney. ‘The lady assassin in Thunderball. Helps steal the nukes, rides a missile-launching motorbike, has sex with Bond, nearly kills him, doesn’t quite pull it off because Bond dying isn’t in the script. Something like that.’
‘Right,’ said Keanu. ‘Hmm, not bad. She’s decent.’
‘Aye,’ said Barney. ‘What about you?’
‘I like Silva,’ said Keanu, ‘from Skyfall. I mean, Javier Bardem looks like a serial killing lunatic even when he’s eating Weetabix.’
‘Have you seen Javier Bardem eat Weetabix?’
‘Not sure. And then he’s got that weird jaw thing he does. That shit is awesome.’ A beat, he nodded to himself while he thought about the weird jaw thing, then he said, ‘Igor?’
Igor looked guiltily at them for a moment, then sniggered.
‘Arf,’ he said, unable to stop himself laughing.
‘Ha!’ said Keanu.
‘You are a piece of work,’ said Barney.
‘What?’ said Longbottom. ‘What’d I miss?’
The rest of the shop looked at Longbottom, surprised. Keanu hadn’t expected him to actually get involved in the chat. Indeed, word around town was that Longbottom had taken a vow of silence following the acrimonious conclusion to his relationship with Mavis Dunwoody, after hearing of her part in the hard-core Weymss Bay pornographic movie business.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Barney. ‘Igor can be very non-PC. Some things are better left unsaid.’
‘Oh.’
Keanu was still shaking his head, then in order to move on quickly threw, ‘Boffo?’ into the conversation.
‘Moneypenny,’ said Boffo Longbottom.
‘We’re talking about villains.’
‘Moneypenny’s a villain,’ said Boffo. ‘Pretty obvious she’s been working for the Russians this entire time.’
Everyone looked at him, only Igor with a sly smile on his face.
‘Go on.’
‘She’s always trying to get Bond into bed, even though she knows… she knows he’s a bit of a cunt. And why doesn’t he take her up on it? There’s easy sex there, and Bond’s a piece of work. Don’t go pretending he’s too chivalrous to bed the boss’s PA. Bond would shag your mum if he needed to kill five minutes.’ I’d’ve liked to see Bond shag my mum, thought Barney… ‘He knows, you see,’ continued Boffo Longbottom, tapping the side of his head, his hand lifting the cape as he did so. ‘She exists only to extract information from him. And, of course, in the current incarnation, she shoots him on that bridge, pretending she hadn’t meant to. But we know, she was aiming to kill him, but just fucked it.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney, ‘not sure I completely agree, but it’s a theory. We’ll put it to the full executive steering committee of the Barbershop Practical Hypotheses Department and get back to you on whether or not it has any validity.’
‘I don’t really know what just happened in that sentence,’ said Longbottom, ‘but I’ll take it, thanks.’
Barney raised his eyebrows at the customer in the mirror, between them they accepted that it was time to once more rejoin battle, then Longbottom settled down, and Barney resumed the cut.
Keanu and Igor exchanged a quick glance, conversation over, then Keanu returned solemnly to the next Fuzzbeed article – You Won’t Believe The 7 Weird Things This Mom Found In Her Husband’s Pants – and Igor once more took up the brush.
 
* * *
 
The view from the promenade wall across the road wasn’t the best in the world. Sure, it was better than looking out on a dreary suburban street, or a crowded city centre, and maybe it was more interesting than an endless, featureless sea, stretching into the far beyond, but if you compared it to, for example, the mountains and glens and rocky shorelines of Sutherland, the alpine slopes of Switzerland, or the awe-inspiring river view of the Pillars of Kings on the Anduin, it wasn’t so much to look at.
The grey-blue sea, the small islands in the bay, the sweep of Millport bay around to their left, a mile across the sea the muted green of the mainland, principle feature being Hunterston B nuclear power station – the whereabouts of the missing Hunterston A nuclear power station having long been a mystery – the wind farm up on the hill behind, the turn of the land around to the south, Ayrshire disappearing behind the hills, the constant still line of the horizon; and to their right, the featureless hulk of the island of Little Cumbrae, and beyond that, further to their right, the hills of Arran, their early winter summits covered in a light dusting of snow, currently hidden beneath low, grey cloud.
How often had Barney and Monk sat at their window on the other side of the bay, looking across the water at those distant hills, and talked of taking a few days over there to walk them, to look down on Cumbrae from across the sea? They never did seem to go anywhere. Of course, this was 2020. No one was going anywhere, not even two boat rides away.
Here they were, Barney and Keanu and Igor, three men and their view, enjoying the post-lunch cup of tea, and it didn’t matter that they weren’t looking at Lake Louise, or the Wahiba sands in Oman, and it didn’t matter that they’d each made the decision to come across the road without their second cinnamon bun, and were all now kind of regretting the decision. There was comfort in the familiar, and they’d been standing in silence now for almost fifteen minutes, jackets on against the cold, taking in the day, their thoughts drifting randomly in whichever direction they allowed them to go.
‘D’you think anything’s going to happen?’ asked Keanu after a while.
For another few minutes the men stood and stared out upon the world. A car drove by behind them, far out in the firth a small yacht appeared, inching through featureless distant sea.
‘Might,’ said Barney eventually.
Igor remained silent. Maybe he hadn’t heard.
‘Might not,’ Barney added a while later.
 
* * *
 
‘You’re full of shite, you old goat!’ cried Old Man McGuire.
The end of the day rush, such as it was. Four forty-five, and there were two customers in. Barney was giving Old Man McGuire his weekly Debilitated Strangler, while Keanu was giving Old Man Jefferson his monthly Constipated Turkman Fauxcut. In a move that they’d both already come to regret, Barney and Keanu had allowed Old Man McGuire and Old Man Jefferson, to get into an argument about Brexit. Barney’s usual route out of such unnecessary conversational diarrhea, hurrying the cut up and having the customer out in seconds, had largely been closed to him as McGuire kept turning around and gesticulating wildly at Jefferson.
‘This,’ said McGuire, ‘this is exactly why Brexit’s happening. That lot in Brussels cannae keep their hands out of our pies.’
‘We’re no’ talking about pies!’ barked Jefferson, ‘we’re talking about cakes!’
‘Ha! There you go again. They’re no’ cakes, they’re fucking biscuits, and soon as we’re out of the EU, the name’ll be getting changed.’
‘Away to fuck.’
‘And guess what, see after that, where will you find them in the supermarket? Oh, look, they’ll be in the biscuit aisle, where they are at the moment, because they’re a fucking biscuit!’
Barney and Keanu had taken a step back, sharing a glance and a sigh. Little to be done with a pair of old fools and the age-old argument about Jaffa Cakes.
‘On you go, change the subject, you old muppet.’
‘Who’s changing the subject? We’ve been talking about flippin’ Jaffa Biscuits for the last twenty minutes.’
‘Aye, and you’ve been saying they were defined as cakes by the EU, which is, as we’ve established here today in court, complete and utter shite, by the way. Now you’ve had your arse handed to you, funnily enough, you’re changing the subject.’
‘My arse? I’ll have your fucking arse, Jefferson, y’old cunt!’
McGuire started to get out of his seat, looking angrily at Jefferson, who similarly started to rise, and then suddenly they were up and squaring off in the middle of the shop, barbershop capes on, small amounts of grey hair falling, each wearing a blue surgical face covering, eyes flaming fire and vengeance.
Barney and Keanu had taken another step back, but Barney was thinking that this probably ought not to go any further. Sure, there was something comical about the situation, but wasn’t it Old Man Jefferson who’d once impaled an axe in the back of Chipper Sudgrove during a disputed game of Scrabble? And a barbershop, as Barney well knew, was a positive arsenal of murder weapons.
‘Cunt, eh? Right,’ said Jefferson, ‘I’m fucking having you.’
Keanu regarded them warily, unsure whether to intervene. He usually left this kind of thing to Barney, and by this kind of thing, he wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, as they’d never had a fight between two men with a combined age of two-hundred and forty-seven. Barney was inclined to walk away, and come back when one or both of them was dead. A fool and his stupidity could not be easily parted. Still, someone had to be the grown up.
Both men had their fists raised beneath their cloaks, hardly the first to come to blows about the Jaffa Cake definition – which is, after all, a window into a much deeper philosophical discussion on identity and language – and Barney sighed heavily.
‘Bollocks,’ he muttered.
McGuire took a step forward, fist raised beneath his cloak, Jefferson braced himself for the weak-ass, old-man’s punch, his face contorted with fury. And then, and then, from nowhere it came.
The whirlwind.
The red handle of a brush, spinning through the air, held lightly in Igor’s nimble fingers, as he introduced some Jet Li type shit to the party, and then he brought the brush down in a sweeping move, in between the combatants, bringing it to a sudden halt with the brush head less than an inch above the shop counter.
Igor looked at Old Man McGuire, and then gave Old Man Jefferson the same harsh, icy stare. The old men quailed beneath it.
‘Arf!’ barked Igor, the old men glanced gloomily at each other, and then returned to their seats, each of them sitting down with the same look, lips pursed like a tightened sphincter, neither of them to open their mouth again for the duration of their cuts.
Igor nodded at the others as he returned to his duties, Barney doffed a fictional cap in his direction in appreciation, and then, well, blesséd silence returned to the shop, and Barney was quickly able to complete the execution of McGuire’s Turkman fauxcut and have him on his way.
 
* * *
 
And that was that, really, for the day. Little else to be reported to the Barbershop Gazette. In all, the day had seen seven customers, which was typical for these lockdown times. Little was happening out there in the world, and that lack of activity was transferring to the barbershop.
They’d cut hair, and they’d chatted, the day had wound its way along the slow-moving waters of the firth of Clyde, and now it was over.
5:30 had come and gone, the Closed sign had been placed on the door, the men were sitting around, polishing off their last cup of tea of the day, little left to be said. Barney waiting for DS Monk to pitch up, before walking back along to the house in the dark. Keanu, jacket already on, about to head out, Igor sitting in the barber’s chair, staring at the floor, waiting for the call from Garrett Carmichael, telling him she was done for the day. If he felt any buzz about finally getting to display his martial arts skills in the shop, after all these years, he wasn’t showing it.
‘So, there we are,’ said Keanu, ‘another day in the bag.’
Barney smiled, not a lot to be said.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nevertheless.
‘Question is,’ said Keanu, ‘another day nearer what?’
‘No one knows, son,’ said Barney. ‘No one knows.’
Keanu nodded, he lifted a hand to wave to the others, and like that, like a ninja, silent feet across barbershop floor, he was gone.
Barney and Igor were left in the quiet, finishing off their tea, all talked out for the day. One minute passed to the next, Barney could feel that Monk’s arrival was not far off.
‘Nice work today,’ he said after a while.
‘Arf,’ said Igor nodding.
And as the door opened upon DS Monk’s arrival, allowing in another blast of chill November air, Igor smiled grimly to himself.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Series 2, Episode 2: Crows Eat Brains 


Just after nine a.m. on a nothing kind of dull Friday morning in Millport in November. Low, white cloud, the sea still, barely a wave to speak of. The men of the shop were standing at the window, their familiar position, looking out on the world. Keanu and Igor were eating pastries, Barney was reading a press release that had arrived in the shop that morning, a regular occurrence among the detritus of the day. And they were all, as ever, drinking the finest Colombian coffee.

‘I like mornings like this,’ said Keanu, as usual the one to introduce unnecessary conversation to the mix. ‘Bleak. Still. That eastern European movie vibe. You know nothing’s going to happen all day, and it’s cool. Nothing’s supposed to happen.’

He was burbling. It wasn’t entirely clear whether either of the others was listening to him.

‘What have you got there?’ he asked, glancing over at Barney. ‘Not like you to give a press release more than two or three seconds.’

Barney took a sip of coffee, continued to read the sheet of paper in his hand. On the other side of Igor from Keanu, with the paper lifted, Keanu couldn’t see what it was, although the rear of it seemed to show a photograph of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, in modern times, walking the familiar crossing outside Abbey Road studios.

‘The Beatles Are Back, And This Time They’re A Shaving Foam,’ said Barney. ‘That’s what it says.’

Igor and Keanu looked at him, each with a speculative eyebrow, then they turned and stared back out at three seagulls sitting on the white promenade wall across the road. In a strange quirk of fate, one of those seagulls was also deaf and mute with a minor spinal deformity, though the gulls were not drinking coffee.

‘Arf?’ said Igor, and Barney turned the page towards him so he could see that the title of the press release was indeed as Barney had read.

‘Go on,’ said Keanu, ‘read it out.’

‘Fine,’ said Barney. ‘Gillette, through their new ecologically-sound subsidiary Eco-man, are delighted to enter into collaboration with Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Richard Starkey, to produce the all-new Beatles range of men’s hygiene products. The line will launch in January with Eco-man Beatles Shaving Foam, a worldwide campaign, and While My Skinguard Sensitive Shaving Foam Gently Weeps, the first new Beatles single since Real Love in 1996… blah blah blah… stuff about how amazing the Beatles were… blah blah blah… Sir Paul is losing his shit over how great this will be for the planet… blah blah blah… Ringo himself hasn’t shaved since 1967 but some of his best friends shave… blah blah blah… the new single’s based on a tune George left in the fridge so that his wife hears it every time she has cheese and biscuits… blah blah blah… all-new Beatles shaving foam will come in four varieties… spice, because George liked India, Cinnamon, because Paul is fluffy and warm, Unicorn – whatever that is – to match Ringo’s sense of fun, and Lemon, because John was caustic and bitter.’

‘Arf,’ said Igor, sniggering.

‘You’re making that up,’ said Keanu, and he held his hand out for Barney to give him the press release.

Keanu nodded as he read it, then he handed it to Igor, who instantly scrunched it up, threw it over his shoulder, and landed it squarely in the middle of the bin.

‘You’re not making it up,’ said Keanu. ‘Wow. And I see Sir Paul and Sir Ringo are doing in-shop appearances to promote the product. Will we get them in?’

‘I thought we’d bid for John’s ghost, or perhaps the George hologram.’

‘Might be a bit weird having an actual, living ex-Beatle in the shop.’

‘Not ex-Beatle,’ said Barney, indicating the binned press release. ‘Current Beatle. They got back together.’

‘Arf!’

‘Indeed,’ said Barney, taking a drink of coffee, ‘if those two don’t get the Beatles back together, no one else will…’

 

* * *

 

Unusually, both Barney and Keanu were cutting hair, while Igor diligently swept the floor at the rear of the shop. Mid-morning, the first two customers of the day arriving at the same time. Thumper Ackroyd, in for his monthly Berlin Duck Schadenfreude Curly Quiff, and Tony Six Ears, another regular, in for the edgy aesthetic of a Fukuyama fauxhawk.

Both customers had lifted a newspaper off the small, usually undisturbed pile on the bench, and the haircuts were progressing in conversational silence, accompanied by the quiet click of scissors, the occasional buzz of the clippers, the old-fashioned rustle of newspaper pages, and the monotonous, yet comforting, sweep of Igor’s brush. Ackroyd had fallen asleep reading the Telegraph – headline, Johnson’s Near Invisibility As PM Adds To Mysterious Aura Of Omnipotence – while Six Ears was reading the Scotsman – headline, Nicola Remains Stern, As Scotland Enters Lockdown 4.0, Clause 9, Section 19, Subsection 2c, Chapter 126, Paras 14f-71d.

‘Fuck’s sake,’ muttered Six Ears, and Barney had to pause for a moment while Six Ears shook his head. Ackroyd stirred in his sleep, but didn’t fully wake up. Barney waited until the head movement was finished, then began cutting once more. Keanu glanced over, a familiar smile on his lips, waiting to see if Barney was going to take Six Ears up on his offer of conversation, unsurprised that he had no intention of doing so.

‘Jesus,’ grumbled Six Ears. ‘The shite you read in these papers.’

‘What’s that, Mr Ears?’ asked Keanu, and Barney slung him a low-key side eye.

‘See when I’m king,’ said Six Ears, even though, frankly, he was currently not even in the top three hundred and twenty-nine thousand in the line of succession, so his chances were slim, ‘see when I’m king, first thing I ban is the term ‘wild swimming’. I mean, that there, those two wee words, are literally everything that’s fucked up about life.’

Barney continued to cut hair, imagining that, at that very moment, if Paul McCartney was standing in the corner singing I Want To Shave Your Beard, or All You Need Is Foam, it might be awkward, but at least he wouldn’t have to listen to Six Ears talk about wild swimming. Even though he knew he was going to agree, roughly, with everything he was about to say.

‘I quite like wild swimming,’ said Keanu. ‘Sophes and I often nip round Fintry Bay. Deep as fuck pretty quickly, by the way, so you’ve got to not let your imagination run away with you. Who knows what kind of leviathans lurk in the deep, dark canyons of the Clyde, eh?’

Six Ears slung Keanu an annoyed look, then glanced at Barney – who’d once again paused the cut – before settling back in position.

‘It’s just swimming, though, in’t it?’ said Six Ears. ‘Swimming. When I was a wean, I went swimming. That was it. The first time you hear the term ‘wild swimming’, you’re like, fuck’s sake, that sounds brilliant. I’ll have me some of that. Wild Swimming sounds like you’re going to be, I don’t know, swimming with bears, or, or, swimming through an Icelandic waterfall as you plummet a thousand feet through the air. Turns out it’s none of that. It’s just swimming. Like you used to do when you were a bairn. You saw a bit of water, you said, mum, can I go swimming? and she said, aye, all right, but be careful, and try not to get wet, and that was it. Now there are articles and shows and radio programmes, and books with instructions. How to go wild fucking swimming? Really? Take yer kit off and jump in the water, for fuck’s sake.’

He looked angrily at Barney, as though everything that was wrong with society was Barney’s fault. Barney, however, had seen much in the world, he had lived lives, he had the collected knowledge and wisdom of Gandalf, Elrond, Dumbledore and Alex Ferguson. Looking harshly at Barney, was like staring into the Total Perspective Vortex.

Six Ears shuddered, then turned back to Keanu, Barney patiently waiting his moment to resume the cut.

‘And see they dry suits and wet suits and whatever. Seriously? Just get in the fucking water, you numpty. See when I was a wean, you’d swim out there in the middle of January if your mum let you. A wee pair of trunks, and off you’d go. No one gave a fuck. Nowadays, all these precious little fuckers, called Hugo and Abigail and Tyler and fucking Chardonnay, from the chavviest fuck to the posh rich-boy tory cuntbasket, they’ve all got the swimming gear of the fucking day. Everything’s got a name, everything’s got equipment, everything’s packaged and sold and squeezed into a perfect little marketing bubble. I’m like that…’

He shook his head, continuing to stare harshly at Keanu, who wasn’t really giving him anything in return, then Six Ears glanced quickly at Barney, accepted he wasn’t getting anywhere, and settled back down into the cut, thinking like everyone else in the shop – except Ackroyd, who was still sleeping – that the quicker they got it over with the better.

Barney resumed the cut, determining that he could get Six Ears up and out within three or four minutes, Igor laughed quietly to himself and resumed sweeping, which no one had really noticed he’d stopped, and Keanu too returned to his cut.

Keanu left it a moment, another, one second to the next, and then with perfect comic timing said quietly, ‘I quite like wild swimming.’

 

* * *

 

The quiet, post-lunch period. To be honest, every period was quiet at the moment. The men were drinking a cup of tea, leaning on the white promenade wall across the road, looking out over the shore and the small islands in the bay, the grey-blue chop of the waves, stretching away to the mainland on their left, the island of Wee Cumbrae on their right. In between, the horizon to the south, the passage through the islands to the distant lands of south Ayrshire, from where the great whaling vessels out of Girvan would voyage down the Irish Sea, on down past France and Portugal and on, on, past Senegal and Guinea, deep down to the south Atlantic and the Antarctic Ocean, where the trump whales lay on beaches of ice waiting to be hauled on board, harvested at sea, their enormous orange blubber returned to the great whale carcass factories of Turnberry.

Autumn was in the air, and behind it – in the way a whisper of oaky liquorice might appear from nowhere at the end of a sip of red wine – a hint of winter, carried from the north.

‘Funny,’ said Keanu, after a while.

Barney, his mind drifting away in a Mitty-esque fantasy of him and DS Monk taking off across the oceans, detaching themselves entirely from society, barely heard.

‘Arf?’ asked Igor.

‘Life these days seems this bizarre juxtaposition. On the one hand nothing’s happening. There are endless days like this. I mean, we’re not alone leaning on a promenade wall, drinking tea, staring at the sea, busy doing nothing, right? Even if some of the other people doing it are only metaphorically looking at the sea. So, there’s this kind of phony-life period, but that’s the analogy. Like the phony war of 39-40. It’s like there’s something waiting to happen. Something huge and momentous, and truly cataclysmic. So much bad shit going on out there in the world, and here we are, and plenty others like us…’ and he finished the thought by lifting his mug and indicating the great beyond.

He took a drink.

‘Juxtaposition,’ said Barney, repeating one word, as if to indicate that he’d switched on enough to listen.

‘Don’t you think?’

‘Aye,’ said Barney. ‘I was agreeing with you, rather than questioning. Nice way to put it. How’s your horror writing career coming on, by the way? It’s not like you don’t have plenty of time.’

Keanu took another drink, accepted that Barney obviously didn’t want to discuss the strange dual timelines of life on earth in late 2020, as the world entered what felt like the two hundred and fifty-seventh month of the year, and once again randomly indicated the air.

‘I’ve started a follow-up to Crows Eat Brains,’ he said. ‘That book’s doing OK on Kindle, after all.’

‘Sales made it above five hundred?’

‘Whole different ballgame the horror novel, you know. Should’ve thought of it years ago. So far sales are over three thousand. Placed a couple of ads, I’ve got my gruesome, bloody cover, and I’ve got my great new tagline. People love that shit.’

‘What’s the tagline?’

Just when you thought it was safe to run naked into the woods at midnight…’

He looked at them expectantly, smiled, and then took a drink of tea.

‘That’s your tagline?’

‘Yep.’

‘And the follow-up?’

‘What’s it called, or what’s the tagline?’

‘I meant the former, but if you’ve also got the latter…’

Keanu took another drink, and then framed the title with a left-to-right movement of his hand, as he stared solemnly out across the sea.

The Feasting Of Crows,’ he said. ‘Tagline: they’re back, and this time they’re ravenous.’

‘Nice,’ said Barney.

‘Arf,’ agreed Igor, nodding.

‘Ravenous is a good word,’ said Barney. ‘Powerful.’

He had no idea whether that was a good title and a good tagline. He didn’t understand the public, and therefore had no conception of what they’d react to. He himself had had enough horror in his life to never want to read the bastard terror children of Keanu’s imagination.

‘Thanks.’

‘What’s the plot?’

‘Greedy mining executives, spurred on by corrupt government officials, dig deep down into the earth, where they shouldn’t go.’

‘Like the dwarves at Erebor?’

‘Exactly.’

‘And they find crows? Deep in the earth?’

‘Aye. Giant, carnivorous, troglodyte crows, living in caverns thousands of feet beneath the surface.’

‘I think I might have seen that movie,’ said Igor, though it emerged as ‘Arf.’

‘But not with crows?’ said Keanu, looking a little concerned.

‘Arf.’

‘OK, well that’s all right. I mean, how many actual original horror ideas are there in the world? It’s a tough business. Crows Eat Brains wasn’t entirely original, and, yes, fair enough, neither will this be. But needs must when opportunity knocks.’

‘Just need a movie deal now,’ said Barney. ‘And then you’ll hit the big time.’

‘I don’t know. I was thinking I might try to make the movie myself. Those low budget horror movies have a cool niche.’ A beat, a drink of tea, then he said, ‘I could be an auteur.’

‘Sounds good,’ said Barney. ‘You think you’ll film on Millport?’

‘Great location. I’ll direct it myself, try to get some funding together, wait for all the coronavirus shenanigans to pass, and then we can see when George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson are available.’

‘Oi, you lot! Any chance a cunt can get a haircut around here?’

The men of the shop turned. Outside the door stood Old Man Hickenlooper, leaning on one stick, brandishing the other stick in the air.

Barney smiled, lifted his mug of tea.

‘Better get over there before he falls over,’ said Keanu.

Barney laughed, Igor smiled grimly, and with the sight of the McBrooker twins on the horizon, heading their way with long hair flowing extravagantly in the breeze, the extended lunch break was over.

 

* * *

 

End of the day, another one biting the dust. Another Friday in the bag, another week nearer the end of the Great Pandemic of 2020, the precursor to the Even Greater Pandemic of 2021, both of which would be dwarfed by the forthcoming Mother Of All Pandemics of 2022, and 2023’s Last Great Pandemic On Earth.

Keanu and Igor were sitting by the window, drinking a cup of tea, but they were quietly seeing out the day, as it was now dark outside and there was nothing to look at but the reflection of the shop. There would have been little to see outside in any case. The clouds had not moved, those choppy waves seemed to be set on repeat, the same waves slapping up against the same rocks, the tide neither coming nor going. Inside the shop, too, little had changed. Igor and Keanu unmoving, the clock on the wall reluctant to click from one second to the next. Bar the first couple of customers of the day, none had bothered to place their hand into the septic tank of the newspaper pile, and all that shit went unscooped. The Mail’s Raab In Isolation After Contact With Empathic Human, the Times’s Trump Machine-Guns Cheering MAGA Crowd, Gains Power From Drinking Victims’ Blood, the Sun’s Boris Congratulates Trump on Fake Win With Gift Of Queen Victoria’s Porcelain Anal Beads, the Star’s Hancock Commits To Starving 10,000 Children To Death By Christmas, the Guardian’s Patel Sacrifices Gove During Weird Three-Way Sex Ritual Involving Chicken, and the National’s Sturgeon Cross, But No One Entirely Sure Why lay in a neat and undisturbed pile.

The only sound, bar the occasional slurp at a mug of tea, was the click of Barney’s scissors as he cut the hair of the final customer of the day, Old Man McGuire, who’d squeezed in just under the wire at five twenty-nine. McGuire had humphed a couple of times but had yet to engage any of them in conversation.

Of course, he’d only been sitting there for two minutes, seventeen seconds, so it was never likely to be long in coming.

‘So,’ he began, and Barney looked over the top of McGuire’s wavy Ivy League cut and looked wearily at him in the mirror, ‘they say Trump’s going full tired-three-year-old-not-getting-sweeties-at-the-supermarket.’

Barney sighed inwardly. They’d been doing well not talking about the orange wankturnip, as news of his slow death gripped the world, and he’d been enjoying the peace. At home, Monk was glued to the news, the slow-changing graphics, the breathless commentary, which to Barney seemed a bit like people getting excited during the afternoon session of the fifth day of a rain-affected Test Match that was still in the first innings. His dipping in and out, not looking for several hours, casting an occasional glance, reaped a few more benefits in watching the gradual change from red to blue.

‘That was inevitable,’ said Barney, reluctantly joining the fray.

‘You did say last week. Of course, you said he was going to lose heavily.’

‘He might yet, once the dust has settled,’ said Barney, saying the right things, words leaving his mouth one after the other. ‘Maybe not as much as it should’ve been, but the trouble with democracy is, as we know, people are idiots. What can you do?’

‘You’re fucking right about that,’ said McGuire, nodding, and Barney raised the scissors for a moment to avoid disaster.

‘And here we are,’ he said, ‘just people discussing the idiocy of our fellow humans, who are at this very moment somewhere else, doing something not so different from us, discussing our idiocy.’

McGuire gave Barney a familiar eyebrow, then glanced at Keanu to see if he was going to join the fray. Keanu was smiling, nodding to himself, as the last cup of tea of the day drew towards its end.

‘What are you smiling at?’ humphed McGuire.

‘Classic Barney,’ said Keanu. ‘That deep philosophical shit. I love it.’

‘Deep! You could paddle in your boss’s philosophy and no’ get the soles of your shoes wet,’ tutted McGuire. Barney and Keanu laughed, bringing an even bigger disgruntled frown to McGuire’s face.

‘Arf,’ said Igor, and that at least was something they could all agree on.

‘Anyway,’ said McGuire, ‘the jury’s still out on your prediction, son, so you’re not out of the woods yet.’

‘Which one?’ asked Barney.

‘You says last week Trump would resign rather than hand over power.’

‘Oh, that.’

‘Aye, that. I put fifty quid on that, so you’d better be right.’

‘Seriously, what d’you do that for, Frank?’

‘You’re a sage!’

‘You keep saying I talk shite!’

‘Calm the fuck down, son, it’s only fifty quid. I’ll buy you a doughnut if it pays off.’

‘What odds did you get, Mr McGuire?’ asked Keanu.

‘50-1 on.’

Barney and Keanu glanced at each other, Barney rolling his eyes.

‘Aye, all right, son, could’ve been better. Turns out everyone thinks Trump’s going to resign.’

‘So, if he resigns, you win a pound.’

‘Aye.’

‘Good luck, Frank. There were no other better bets you could’ve made?’

‘There were others, didn’t fancy any of them.’

‘Arf?’ asked Igor, looking over the top of his mug. Igor himself was not impartial to taking a wee chance online, but he largely bet speculative money on Scotland to win games of football, so lifetime he was down three and a half million pounds.

‘100-1 on that Trump uses the word fuck during a press conference.’

‘Seems fair,’ said Keanu.

Barney might, under other circumstances, have stopped the cut to let the conversation play out, but it was the end of the day, it was a Friday, and he was looking forward to going home, sitting down to dinner with DS Monk over a bottle of wine and a tuna steak, and hoping that someone might have been brutally murdered in Millport that day so she had something to talk about other than the American election.

‘250-1 on that he goes full scorched earth, burning down as many of the institutions of the state as he can on his way out the door.’

‘Hasn’t he been doing that already?’ said Keanu.

‘The bookies think it’ll get worse. Oh, you do get a favourable 15-1 that he moves to Arkansas and marries Ivanka, but I’m sceptical.’

‘Aye, she’ll cut him loose soon as look at him. That is a one-way lust, by the way,’ said Keanu.

‘You’re done,’ said Barney, stepping back, and whipping the cape away from Old Man McGuire’s neck.

McGuire looked angrily at himself in the mirror. Of course, he hardly had any hair, and there was nothing to see, so he was in no position to complain. But Being In No Position To Complain And Still Complaining was his middle name.

‘The fuck?’ he said.

‘Frank, you’re done. It’s the end of the week. We all need to go home, open a bottle of wine, and watch the Mandalorian.’

‘The fuck is that?’

‘It’s a show, Frank. Come on, up, oot!’

Old Man McGuire reluctantly accepted his fate, dragged himself to his feet, dusted off his shoulders, looked at himself in the mirror, and then took his coat from the hook above the bench.

Barney lifted the mug of tea he’d left hanging, took a quick swallow, winced at the fact that it had inevitably long gone cold, and then looked around the rest of the shop, as the others rose and the end of the day settled upon them.

‘As CJ used to say, that’s a full lid,’ said Barney, and he took the mugs from Igor and Keanu, and turned to the back of the shop to wash up.

‘The fuck is CJ?’ barked McGuire.

‘See you next week, Frank,’ said Barney.

‘The fuck is CJ?’ asked McGuire more quietly, directing the question to Keanu.

‘No one knows, Frank,’ said Keanu, ‘no one knows.’

And with that, Igor began to sweep up the last hairfall of the day, Keanu went about the business of wrapping up the shop, Old Man McGuire headed out into the chill of evening, once again leaving without paying – McGuire never paid – and somewhere, far beyond their understanding, the show’s theme music started up and the credits began to roll…

Saturday, October 31, 2020

 Series 2, Episode 1: The Rzeszów Covenant

 

‘If we sit here long enough, nothing will happen.’

It was a quiet Friday morning in Millport, late October, and the men of the barbershop were drinking a cup of tea and eating a morning pastry. Just after ten a.m., and so far, the two barbers – crack, haircutting genius Barney Thomson, and ace barbetorial padawan, Keanu MacPherson – had had one customer each, and there were currently no more on the horizon. The streets of the town were quiet, a cold wind was coming in from the sea, rain was in the air, and few people were abroad.

‘Aye,’ said Barney, nodding, before taking another bite of his Bavarian apple cinnamon Danish.

Igor, deaf, mute hunchbacked hairdressing assistant – who’d recently been voted Cosmopolitan’s Hottest Barbershop Sweeper-Upper 2020 – nodded sagely. Sure, if we sit here long enough, nothing will happen, didn’t really make any sense, but it was, as the millennials say, a mood. Or is it Gen Z who say that? Or are Millennials and Gen Z the same thing? No one really knew. Or, at least, Igor didn’t.

Keanu popped the last of the chocolate pecan doughnut into his mouth, licked his fingers, then got out of his chair and went to stand at the window, as though he believed his own words, as though they might atrophy in silence, or perhaps turn to stone where they sat, permanent memorials to themselves, the last great barbershop on earth.

Barney was sitting on the customers’ bench, staring straight ahead, not really thinking about much. He certainly wasn’t looking at that morning’s newspapers, currently lying beside him, so far untouched. On top of the pile, a picture of a scientist holding a generic test tube on the cover of the Express, beside the headline, Scientists Create Vaccine From PM’s Spunk As Boris Saves Christmas.

Keanu looked out over the white promenade wall across the road, beyond which the sea roiled against the day, the waves hitting the shore, white spray dissolving in the wind.

‘Amazing what happened when you went to London,’ said Keanu, absent-mindedly, mug of tea hovering just beneath his mouth.

‘Hmm,’ said Barney.

‘I mean, you got plucked out of here like that lot were plucking a goose. Didn’t think we’d ever see you again. Yet, here you are. Home again, safe and sound.’

‘Hmm,’ said Barney.

‘I mean, d’you think that story will ever be told?’

‘Doubt it. Some things are best left unwritten.’

‘I guess,’ said Keanu.

‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding.

Earlier in the summer an agent of the government – and a mysterious figure from Barney’s past to boot – had arrived to take Barney to London, so that he could lend his years of haircutting experience to the Prime Minister’s ongoing battle against coronavirus. Or, more accurately, the Prime Minister’s ongoing battle with rubbish flyaway hair.

Barney didn’t like to talk of what happened next. It was a tale of adventure, betrayal, corruption, greed, murder, treason, treachery, sex and dinosaurs, but who really wanted to hear about that? There was enough madness already in 2020. What people wanted, thought Barney, was silence.

Maybe that was just what he himself wanted.

‘Maybe one day,’ said Keanu, ‘it can be made into a TV show. Or a movie. Barney Thomson 2020, The Untold Story.’ He made the banner headline to mark the title of the show, then turned around to include the others in his vision.

‘Sure,’ said Barney. ‘Everything else has been on Netflix, that might as well be.’

‘Cool. Who d’you think they’ll get to play you?’

Barney, surprisingly, had already thought about this. After all, who hasn’t imagined their own life as a movie, even if it would just be a long, slow movie in black and white where nothing ever happened.

‘Al Pacino,’ he said.

Keanu smiled, Igor shook his head. Barney lifted his cup of tea and took a drink. A small smile traced the corners of his mouth.

 

* * *

 

‘You fucked it, mate,’ said Barney’s customer.

Naturally he wasn’t talking about his haircut. It was literally years since Barney had made a mess of anyone’s hair. Changed days from his time at Henderson’s in Partick, when he had been the Conservative Government of barbers. He’d looked like he knew what he was doing, but in reality, he’d just been shit.

He was currently giving Old Man McGuire, the most regular customer in town, his weekly Strictly cut, which involved mousse, triceps and fourteen different pairs of scissors.

‘Go on,’ said Barney, stepping back from the cut, smiling at McGuire in the mirror.

Keanu looked round from his position at the window, having barely moved in the past hour. Igor, meanwhile, was sweeping up at the back of the shop, even though the floor, as usual, was one of the most immaculate surfaces this side of Scandinavia.

‘You said Trump would resign before the election.’

Barney nodded.

‘That, Frank, is correct, I did.’

‘Well, what have you got to say for yourself?’

Barney held his gaze for a moment and then shrugged.

‘I was wrong?’

McGuire humphed.

‘That it?’

‘Pretty much.’

‘You were wrong?’

‘Well, I was.’

‘I know, it was me who pointed it out.’

‘That’s all there is, Frank, what else d’you want me to say? I thought he’d run away, he didn’t. Probably just wishful thinking on my part.’

McGuire humphed again. He was, as he humphed, shaking his head, making it impossible – or, at least, inadvisable – for Barney to resume the cut.

‘Not much of an explanation,’ said McGuire. ‘I mean, you’re standing there, you’re this famous barber philosopher guy. People listen to you. You have a position in society.’

‘He’s not wrong,’ said Keanu.

‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding, now leaning on his brush, taking in the conversation in that strange way of his, given that he was deaf, and lip-reading wasn’t an option, since McGuire was wearing a blue face covering.

‘You’re the town sage,’ continued McGuire, his tone cantankerous. ‘I mean, I used to think that years from now some cunt would write down the stuff you say, and your name would pass into legend. Barney of Millport you’d be known as, and there’d be a little red book of your sayings, and a statue along the front there, and possibly a prize in philosophy named after you.’ He paused. Barney waited for it. it came. ‘Turns out you just talk shite, like the rest of us.’

Barney couldn’t help smiling, which was the effect Old Man McGuire’s curmudgeonliness usually had on him.

‘Never said I didn’t,’ he said.

‘Humph,’ said McGuire, and now he broke the harsh look and stared at himself in the mirror. Barney gave it a moment, and then moved back in to get on with the cut.

A few snips of the scissors, then McGuire said, ‘So, what d’you think’s going to happen on Tuesday?’

Barney smiled ruefully, knew that Keanu too would be smiling, even though he’d turned away again to the window.

‘Why d’you care what I think about Tuesday?’

‘You’re a sage.’

‘You just said I talk shite!’

‘You do! But like I said, everyone talks shite. Maybe you, in your official sage capacity, talk marginally less shite than all those others. So, go on, we all know you completely fucked it before, but this is your chance at redemption.’ McGuire barked a laugh, then added, ‘Everyone loves a good redemption story. You can be Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life.’

‘Jimmy Stewart doesn’t need redemption in It’s A Wonderful Life,’ said Barney, to the accompanying click of his scissors.

‘They think he stole the money.’

‘But he never actually stole it.’

‘Aye, a decent enough point, son,’ said McGuire. ‘He didn’t steal the money, and you were talking shite, which means you can get even more redemption than Jimmy Stewart. Let’s hear it.’

Barney, the flawless professional, stepped back for a moment to judge the course of the cut, and then returned to the delicate job of trying to craft anything from the little hair that McGuire actually still had.

‘Fine,’ he said.

‘Excellent,’ said Keanu from the window. ‘Igor, get the kettle on, Barney’s doing his American politics soothsayer routine.’

‘Arf!’

‘Calm down,’ said Barney, though he was smiling as he shook his head. ‘Right. Trump loses the vote by, I don’t know, ten to fifteen million, but due to their ridiculous system, and all the blatant cheating his side will do, they’ll manage to make it look closer than it is, and maybe be able to dick around with it for a few weeks. However, ultimately they’ll have got their arses handed to them, and even that Machiavellian spunkmuppet McConnell won’t be able to stand in the way of the tide, and they’re going to have to accept they lost. The presidency, the House, maybe the Senate.’

‘Not bad,’ said McGuire. ‘Not especially sage, mind you.’

‘Trump won’t concede though,’ continued Barney unabashed. ‘He can’t. He’s incapable of admitting he lost anything. That’s why he’s spent four years setting up the narrative that the vote’s fixed. So, instead of conceding, he’ll resign in December.’

‘Ha!’ barked McGuire. ‘I knew it! Still banging on about resignation. You’re a one-trick pony, son.’

‘Hear me out…’

‘Aye, I am, I just need to interject every now and again to meet my grumpy old man objectives.’

‘Whatever,’ said Barney. A beat, then he added, ‘I’ve lost my thread now.’

‘Diaper Donnie’s resigning in December,’ prompted McGuire.

‘Aye, right,’ said Barney. ‘So, he resigns rather than admit he lost. He hands power over to that robotic, fake-Christian turd-monkey Pence, who gets to call himself the 46th President for the rest of his life, even though he’s only actually president for a few weeks, with the quid pro quo that he pardons Trump and his family, of every federal crime on the books.’

Barney thought about it for a moment, and then looked at McGuire in the mirror and shrugged.

‘That’s all I’ve got.’

McGuire held his gaze for a moment, then his old, wizened hand appeared from beneath the cape and he contemplatively scratched his chin.

‘You know, I think that might be not bad,’ he said. ‘What about you?’ he then added, glancing at Keanu. ‘You think the boss is on to something?’

‘As good a theory as any,’ said Keanu. A moment, the men contemplated this uncertain future, then he added, ‘Unlikely to put any money on it, however.’

‘Oh, God, aye,’ said McGuire. ‘Your man here might pass for a sage in this town, but he still knows fuck-all about politics…’

 

* * *

 

And so the day went, a nothing day much like most days that had passed in 2020. For such a shit year, when so many things seemed to be going wrong, the world teetering on the edge of the apocalypse, an awful lot of people had done virtually nothing, spending endless days stuck in small rooms, living a life on repeat, a Groundhog Day life, one alarm clock blending seamlessly into the next.

Barney, nevertheless, had got quite used to it before being dragged off to London, and now he was enjoying the still of a quiet day in the barbershop more than ever.

One customer, two, three customers, four, no more. The hours passed, lunch came and went, Barney manned the shop while Keanu took a stroll with his partner, Sophia, and Igor nipped along the road to the lawyer’s office where his true love was waiting for him with a chicken and lettuce on granary, and a bag of salt & vinegar. Barney ate vegetables and rice from an old Tupperware tub, and washed it down with his fourth cup of tea of the day. No customers disturbed the banquet.

And now, the afternoon was swirling by, a muddle of seconds and minutes, jumbled one on top of the other. The men of the shop were standing at the window, looking out on the world, a cup of tea each in hand. The world outside the window was quiet, although it was, as the Band Aid fellows would point out, a world of dread and fear. The virus was spreading, faster now than in the dark days of the spring, and few were there amongst the people who would be able to avoid its rasping, grasping touch.

‘What d’you make of the brazen bull?’ Keanu threw into the mix out of nowhere, ending a near fifteen-minute silence, when the men had drunk the kind of neverending cups of tea that usually only exist in fiction.

Igor shuddered. Barney looked concerned – he didn’t like it when Igor shuddered – and then gave Keanu the eyebrow of curiosity.

‘Go on.’

‘You ain’t ever heard of the brazen bull?’

‘Nope. Is it a pub in Largs?’

‘It’s not a pub.’

‘Is it a bull with an unusually high level of confidence, even for a bull?’

‘It’s this supposed torture/execution device from ancient Greece. They’d make a life-size, hollow bull out of bronze with a door in the side. They’d put the victim inside the bull, lock the door, then light a fire beneath it and roast the person alive.’

He nodded at the description, then took a drink of tea. The tea, as if by magic, was still at the perfect temperature, even though it had been poured some twenty minutes previously.

Barney and Igor looked out upon the seascape, the waves still tossing white froth in the wind, the gulls swirling in the breeze, their mournful ululations carrying songs of melancholy and loneliness far away across the sea.

‘Is that a real thing?’ asked Barney.

‘Might be,’ said Keanu. ‘Might not. It was told that an intricate series of pipes was connected from inside to the bull’s mouth, so that the screams of the victim would emerge as more melodic wailing.’

‘Hmm,’ said Barney, and he too took a sip of perfect-temperature tea. ‘That edges it into the fanciful territory I feel.’

‘You’d hope. It sounds pretty horrible.’

Igor shuddered again. Across the road a slow-moving figure emerged from their left, and they watched the progress of Mrs Cranston as she edged across their line of vision.

Time passed, even more slowly than Mrs Cranston, until eventually both of them disappeared stage left.

‘What made you think of that?’ asked Barney.

A beat, and then Keanu said, ‘What?’ because it’d been so long since they’d been talking, he’d forgotten the subject matter.

‘The bull.’

‘Oh, right. Yeah, I was just standing here, and I’d asked myself the question, what wouldn’t you do to Matt Hancock?’

‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘And the brazen bull is as far as you’d go, or would it be too far?’

‘Well, it seems pretty horrible, so I don’t think I could do the bull thing. To anyone.’

‘You’re too nice,’ said Barney.

‘Arf,’ nodded Igor.

‘Maybe for Hancock a Cersei Lannister walk of shame type of thing. And then banishment to the outer kingdoms.’

Barney smiled, took another drink of tea – the mug finally coming towards the end – and then shared a naughty glance with Igor.

‘It’s nice that you want to see Matt Hancock naked,’ he said. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to be alone?’

‘Bugger off,’ said Keanu, taking the joke, as Igor sniggered.

The door opened, the first customer for more than forty-five minutes appeared in the shop, multi-coloured face-covering drawn high up over his cheeks, wild hair still shifting in the wind as he stood in the doorway.

‘Haircut?’ he asked.

‘You’ve come to the right place,’ said Keanu.

 

* * *

 

Late afternoon, the final customer of the day, Barney at work, Keanu at the window, locked into the never-changing view of the world, Igor sweeping up at the rear of the shop.

Little had changed since the morning, neither inside nor out. The tide had moved, one supposes, the clouds had frittered from west to east, filling in the gaps where the blue sky occasionally showed, the gulls perhaps had changed personnel, but it was impossible to tell.

Inside the shop, there had been seven customers all day. Conversation had been Covid-centric; occasionally some had touched on the upcoming Scotland-Serbia game, or the not quite so important upcoming US Presidential election. The newspapers had remained on the bench, undisturbed the entire day. The Telegraph’s Magnificent Johnson Saves Earth With New Covid Execution Strategy, the Times’s Covid x Brexit = Great British Bonanza, the Mail’s Giant Sea Mines Placed In Channel As Hero Border Control Step Up Island Defences, the Sun’s Covid Babe’s Dying Wish Granted With London Eye Bonking Session, the Guardian’s Hancock Throat-Punches Upstart Labour MP In Commons For Asking Health-Related Question – ‘the fuck does he think I am?’ says Hancock – the Independent’s Priti Patel Launches Dramatic Leadership Bid With Gove Poisoning, and the National’s 83% Support Indy In New Poll As Ruth Davidson Chokes on Sausage, all lay in an impotent pile, like a heap of unused dung at the bottom of a barren field.

‘So,’ said Barney’s customer, forty-nine year-old Toby Dreadnought, a man in search of a midlife crisis, in for his regular Variated Crane Fly cut, ‘wasn’t it you who said Trump would resign before the election? Made an arse of that, mate.’

Barney looked at him in the mirror, glanced at Keanu, turned back to Dreadnought.

‘We’ve done that one today,’ said Barney.

‘What one?’

‘We’ve talked about this already with another customer. Under the Rzeszów Covenant of 2019, barbers no longer have to repeat a conversation on the same day.’

Dreadnought held Barney’s gaze in the mirror, eyebrows positioned in curiosity, then said, ‘That’s not an actual thing.’

‘It is,’ said Barney. ‘Not all barbers are signatories to agreement, of course.’ He paused, he 

indicated a small notice on the wall behind, that few had ever previously noticed, then added, ‘But we are.’

Dreadnought’s eyes narrowed as he tried to make out the document in the mirror, of course could see little of it, then looked suspiciously at Barney.

‘What else is covered in this agreement which, frankly, I’ve never heard of before?’

‘Why should you have heard of it?’ said Barney. ‘Just because I know you, doesn’t mean I know anything about the covenants around cleaning toilets.’

Dreadnought took a moment to catch up, as Keanu laughed gently, then he rolled his eyes, accepting the jibe.

‘Fine, whatever,’ he said. ‘So, what haven’t you talked about today?’

Barney resumed the cut, quickly snipping away at the back of the head. This cut had to be executed quickly, and Dreadnought punted out into the end of the afternoon. He had little patience for talkers these days, with the odd exception such as Old Man McGuire, whose irascibility continued to amuse him.

‘The war in Nagorno-Karabakh,’ said Barney. Dreadnought looked blank. ‘The absurd new abortion laws in Poland. Potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan in April 2021. Anything related to the fields of physics and chemistry. The novels of Nobel winner Olga Tokarczuk… it’s really a pretty long list. I could go on.’

‘I don’t know anything about any of them,’ said Dreadnought.

Barney finished off the scissor work, scooped up the clippers, and began to buzz quickly around the back and side of his head. Barbers with Barney’s level of skill can do most haircuts in under two and a half minutes, if they really need to.

‘What about the new season of Star Trek: Discovery?’ said Dreadnought.

Keanu started to say something, but was instantly cut off by Barney.

‘Not bad,’ he said. ‘Don’t watch it myself, but I know Keanu does, he has opinions, and we haven’t talked about it today. Unfortunately, you just used the word ‘season’ rather than ‘series’, so that disqualifies you from talking about it, what with us not being in America.’

‘That’s not a thing.’

‘It’s a thing. Section 14 of Rzeszów – we just call it Rzeszów – deals with conversational topics and the influence of outside cultures and language. We’re obligated by its terms to do everything in our power to stop the creep of alien cultures, particularly, to be honest, American.’

He silenced the buzz of the clippers, lifted a brush, quickly swept away around the neck, and then whipped off the cape and stood back.

‘You’re done.’

‘Wait, what?’ said Dreadnought.

He looked in the mirror. He was done. Best haircut of his life. His time in the chair was over, and there was nothing he could do about it.

 

* * *

 

Darkness had come across the land. There was little point, now that the clocks had gone back, in standing at the window looking out on the world at this time. All they’d see was their own reflections. Instead, they sat around the shop, drinking a wrap-up cup of tea, chewing the fat of another uneventful day in the shop.

‘Arf,’ said Igor.

Keanu nodded.

‘Yep, nice move on the Rzeszów Covenant,’ he said. ‘And I liked the way you distracted him at the end so he didn’t think to look at the sign. Would you like me to get an actual Rzeszów Covenant certificate printed off to put on the wall?’

‘Sure,’ said Barney, nodding, ‘if you can be bothered writing one. We can run with that.’

‘Why don’t you just e-mail me the real thing?’

Barney and Igor looked at him in the way they’d so often done in the past.

‘It’s not a real thing,’ said Barney.

‘What?’

‘What d’you mean, what?’

‘You just made up it up?’

‘Yes.’

‘On the spot?’

‘Yes!’

‘Wow…’ Keanu shook his head, laughing. ‘Man, I completely fell for that. I mean, I was thinking, shit, I must have missed that in some morning briefing or other. Didn’t like to say in case I looked stupid.’

‘Wouldn’t want that,’ said Igor, sniggering, though it came out as arf!

‘We don’t have morning briefings,’ said Barney.

‘Sure, we do. When we sit around drinking tea, catching up. What’s that, if not a morning briefing?’

‘Aye, fair enough.’

He took a drink of tea, he glanced at Igor, they looked at Keanu and shook their heads in a benevolent way.

‘I look stupid now, don’t I?’ said Keanu.

‘Pretty much,’ said Barney, ‘but you’re OK, we’re not on live TV.’

‘Live broadcast from inside a barbershop is banned by Rzeszów,’ said Keanu, and Barney smiled, and Igor smiled in his own grim way, and the day came to a slow conclusion after the fashion of an American 70s sitcom happy ending.

There would be other days, of course, albeit, in these dark times, no one could be entirely sure how many.