THE WORLD IS CHANGING
The three men of the Millport Barbershop were in traditional formation, standing at the window, drinking cups of tea, eating pastries, looking out upon the world. Barney Thomson, reluctant barbershop death junky of legend; Keanu MacPherson, Luke to Barney’s Obi Wan; and Igor, deaf mute hunchbacked assistant, whose every utterance came out as ‘Arf’, and was said by some to be the Chewbacca of the franchise.
It was quiet out there, what with the entire country being on lockdown. There were those in the land who questioned the previous week’s government legislation that had included barbershops as one of the emergency services, although the majority accepted that the health of the nation’s hair was paramount in a time of crisis. Still, while the men of the shop appreciated being able to come to work every day, there were few customers abroad in such dark times.
‘The world is changing,’ said Barney, and though he sounded just for a moment like Gandalf, there wasn’t much evidence of a changing world outside the window. The town of Millport looked much as it had done since its heyday as a Hanseatic League city-state in the 12th century.
So far that day there had been only three customers. Under the initial legislation, all customers looking for a haircut had to be held in barbershop quarantine for fourteen days before being admitted into the main body of the shop, but since that was a rule Boris Johnson had made up on the spur of the moment during a press conference, and had unsurprisingly been found to be impractical within the first hour, it had quickly been abandoned.
Now customers were required to undergo the Covid-Instatest, newly developed in secret laboratories in space, which had been distributed to all barbershops on earth as a matter of priority. The barbers, too, had to take the test every morning.
Meanwhile, Barney remained as wary as ever of unnecessary chitchat, and so he had the usual anti-conversation prophylactics in place. There was soporific choral music playing – in this instance, Tallis’s Tantibus In Ulmo Platea – and a selection of that day’s newspapers were laid out neatly at the end of the customers’ bench. The Telegraph, headline Ailing Johnson Promises New Age of Enlightenment; the National, headline Sturgeon Encouraged To Retake Berwick And Carlisle While No One’s Looking; the Sun, headline Love Island Babe Bonks Her Way To Virus Cure; the Record, headline Gerrard Thinks Gers Can Still Win League If Everyone Else Dies; and the Express, headline We Can Beat Virus The Way We Beat The Germans, Says Dead Mum.
‘Old Louie said he saw a pod of Orca out in the bay last night,’ said Keanu.
Barney took a bite of Danish – his was a maple and pecan plait – and stared contemplatively at a seagull that was hovering above the white promenade wall across the road.
‘That sounds unlikely,’ he said.
‘Said they were chasing seals,’ said Keanu. ‘Said there were about ten of them.’
‘Ten Orca or ten seals?’
‘He wasn’t clear.’
‘Sounds like one of those things you see on social media that turns out to be bullshit. Like there are dolphins in the Venice canals, or diplodocus on Sauchiehall Street.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor sadly, and the others nodded.
Once again silence settled over the shop, as the Tallis drew to its melancholic end, to be replaced by Agnes Bach’s equally sorrowful, Apocalypsis Nunc. Outside, the seagulls dipped and rose in the breeze, while a large container vessel began to edge its way out from behind the sheer edge of Little Cumbrae, a mile out in the firth. The first car for ten minutes drove past, one minute ticked slowly round to the next.
The Decapitated Head Of John The Baptist
‘D’you think anything’ll happen?’ asked Keanu.
Late morning. He was still standing at the window, although he had cut the hair of a customer – young Pendleton, the newly unemployed face primper – in the interim.
‘How d’you mean?’ asked Barney.
He was cutting the hair of Old Man McGuire who, truth be told, hadn’t really needed a haircut.
Igor, meanwhile, was doing a touch of sweeping up, in case he’d missed anything the last time he’d swept up.
‘We just stand here, day after day. It’s like a black and white Tajik movie you find on Netflix, and it lasts ninety minutes, and literally nothing happens. There are lots of slow shots of black and white hills, and people sitting around in black and white, drinking coffee while sitting outside a small café in a wee town on the border with Iran, and you keep thinking, now something’s going to happen. And it never does.’
‘I saw that film,’ said McGuire. He paused. They waited for it, then it came. ‘It was shite.’
‘You know Tajikistan doesn’t have a border with Iran, right?’ said Barney.
‘Ah,’ said Keanu, nodding. ‘That’s why I didn’t understand what was going on. It was Turkmenistan, not Tajikistan.’
‘Explains everything. Pretty exciting movie, in that context.’
He turned, and he and Barney shared a smile.
‘Suppose we should look on the bright side,’ said Keanu, after a moment when Barney has thought he might be able to enjoy the silence. ‘Consider all the artists and singers and movie people and writers. What are they doing right now? They’re literally stuck inside, forced to create art, whether they like it or not. There’s nothing else to do. At the end of this, if we’re not all dead, there’s going to be this extraordinary creative outpouring. It’ll be like La Belle Epoque, multiplied by the mid-sixties Beatles.’
‘Arf,’ muttered Igor from the back of the shop, head shaking.
‘No, I’ve not been reading the Telegraph,’ said Keanu, with a smile. ‘Look, at this very minute someone somewhere’s writing the next Star Wars, and someone else is painting the next Haywain. We should get in there, while the opportunities are rife. We could bring something like that to Millport. You know, a small art gallery… or a major film studio.’
He smiled at his own suggestion then turned away to look back across the white promenade wall, out to sea. Away to the south there was a suspicion of cloud, but it would come to nothing. The day was set fair.
‘See if I see any more modern art,’ said McGuire, and he shook his head. For a moment Barney paused the haircut – McGuire had asked for an unexpected Harald The Bald, which Barney had had to Google – and then he restarted the snip of the scissors once McGuire had resumed his familiar, stationary pose of disgruntlement.
‘Lizzie made me go and see something a couple of weeks ago, over by,’ McGuire rambled on, pointing vaguely west, though it wasn’t entirely clear whether he meant the other side of town, Bute, Arran, the Mull of Kintyre, Islay or Newfoundland. ‘Some Swiss artist. Jesus, the neck of the guy. All sorts of shite, but there were pictures made with lollipop sticks and cotton wool. The kind of stuff that if a Primary One kid did you’d give him a slap for wasting the material. And they all had names like Scrofulous Cupboard In The Key Of Melancholy. Load of pish.’
‘I’ve got a plan for that,’ said Barney, to the sound of Keanu laughing, as he laid down the scissors, brushed the back of McGuire’s neck, and lifted the small white razor to use around the periphery of the cut.
‘Can’t wait,’ said McGuire, grudgingly.
‘It’s called the Decapitated Head of John the Baptist Test.’
‘If some guy makes art with lollipop sticks, you get to cut the cunt’s head off?’ asked McGuire hopefully, and for a second it looked like he might smile.
‘Don’t think we’d get away with that, Frank, ’ said Barney, enjoying the look of derision on McGuire’s face.
‘Ach. Go on, then.’
Keanu and Igor looked round, neither of them having heard of the Decapitated Head Of John The Baptist Test, Igor leaning contemplatively on his broom.
‘Before an artist can publically display something a child could do, they have to prove they have actual artistic ability. To do this, they’d have to paint the decapitated head of John the Baptist.’
Keanu and Igor gave it a moment’s thought, before nodding to themselves in agreement.
‘What if they can’t paint the decapitated head of John the Baptist, but can paint the decapitated head of Charles I, or Mary Queen of Scots?’
Barney stopped for a moment, gave McGuire something of a raised eyebrow.
‘If they could do one, why wouldn’t they be able to do the other?’
‘Maybe John the Baptist had a particular feature the artist struggles with.’
‘No one knows what he looked like,’ said Barney. ‘You can make him look like, I don’t know, a transvestite Dominic Raab, it doesn’t matter. It’s just, you know, being able to prove you can paint a guy’s head. Skin texture, dead look in the eyes, bits of bloody neck skin…’
Sometimes I talk too much, thought Barney.
McGuire didn’t look happy, albeit he never looked happy, then he muttered, ‘Bastard had a beard, I know that much,’ and left it at that.
‘I like it,’ said Keanu, nodding, turning away again to address the day outside. ‘The Decapitated Head of John The Baptist Test. Maybe we could think of some other situations to which it could be applied.’
‘Such as?’ asked Igor, still leaning pensively on his broom, although it only came out as, ‘Arf?’
Keanu looked out at the wash of the waves, and the skirl of the gulls.
‘I don’t know… Does it fit on a platter, for example?’
‘Does what fit on a platter?’ asked McGuire.
‘The thing you’re testing,’ said Keanu.
And that was more or less all the explanation anyone was going to get.
Barney finished the razor work, he brushed off the back of McGuire’s neck and shoulders, and then he produced the hand-held mirror and showed McGuire the finished article.
McGuire studied the mirror for a few moments, then said, ‘That wasn’t what I asked for.’ A beat, then he added, ‘Suppose it’ll do. No’ like I’m getting a shag the night anyway.’
The Seven Faces Of Fanny Courvoisier
‘How about you, then?’ asked Barney of Keanu, as the three of them stood at the window, looking out on a pleasant afternoon in spring.
There had been a lunchtime rush, such as it was in these times. There’d been young Potter, still dutifully getting his Goblet of Fire cut after all these years; Big Alec Nine Toes, getting his perennially absurd side-fade mullet in a red wine sauce; Duke Henderson, former Clydebank full-back and erotic model, with his Simon Le Bon Rio cut; and wee Tommy Lankstallion, with his familiar Mohican/low-ballerina-bun combo. And now the rush was over, and the men were able to enjoy a sandwich while taking in the view out across the islands in the bay, to the mainland to the south.
‘How d’you mean?’
‘What’s your plan for the lockdown period? I mean, obviously you’re here, at the forefront of the emergency services, but what are you working on the rest of the time?’
‘Just started a new book,’ said Keanu nodding, sandwich held poised, waiting for the next bite. ‘Crime writing wasn’t quite working out, so I’m going for a bit of a thriller this time.’
‘Go on,’ said Barney, when Keanu paused. Igor looked round hopefully. He liked thrillers.
‘It’s called The Seven Faces of Fanny Courvoisier.’
‘Intriguing,’ said Barney. ‘What’s the hook?’
‘We have a female British spy in The Hague looking into the death of Fanny Courvoisier, who worked at the ICC.’
‘Then our spy quickly learns that Courvoisier had six other identities, with which she worked at six other major international organisations. The UN, the EU, the OSCE, FIFA, that kind of thing.’
Igor nodded in approval.
‘And a talking monkey. She had a talking monkey.’
‘She had a talking monkey?’
‘Yeah. Don’t try to talk me out of it.’
‘Sounds great. Every book should have a talking monkey,’ said Barney.
‘Who d’you imagine playing the spy in the movie?’ asked Igor, in his own way.
‘Vikander,’ said Keanu, and he looked at Igor and shrugged.
‘Can’t go wrong with Alicia,’ said Igor, after his fashion. ‘And you’re quids in if the director wants to add some nude scenes.’
‘Look forward to it,’ said Barney, taking a bite of a traditional bacon, lettuce and tomato. ‘How’s it going with Bring Me The Flayed Corpse Of Mountebank Stump, by the way?’
Keanu had written sixteen books in various genres, never quite achieving the breakthrough into the ranks of Amazon bestsellers. Before going for crime novels, he’d tried essay collections, short story collections, dinosaur romantic steam punk, dystopian femslash, swashbuckling theological southern gothic, and post-apocalyptic medieval hen lit.
‘Hit two hundred sales at the weekend,’ said Keanu. ‘Ebooks, that is. Plus seven paperbacks.’
‘Yeesh,’ said Barney, then he dropped his eyes for a moment to consider that yeesh wasn’t really a word. ‘That’s not going to get you your ten-bed mansion in the Perthshire countryside, is it?’
‘Nor the DB9, nor the hot tub time machine,’ said Keanu. ‘But thrillers are a good genre. People like thrillers.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney.
He popped the last of the sandwich into his mouth, then glanced over his shoulder, his thoughts already turning to the post-lunch cup of tea.
‘People like crime,’ said Barney. ‘You’re good, son, but maybe you should stick with what you’ve been doing. Try to build a following. Maybe Mountebank Stump didn’t sell many, yet it sold more than the previous one. Rather than switching genre every couple of books, you could aim to establish a brand. Then when someone says to someone else, you ever read that Keanu MacPherson? the other guy’ll be like, the crime writer? Sure, I read all his books. I love Detective Inspector Balustrade.’
‘Hmm,’ said Keanu. ‘Maybe you’re right. Establish a brand. I’ve never really tried to do that. I could get my own little ex libris type of thing, like a skull or a skeleton, something like that. That’d be cool.’
‘Sounds good,’ said Barney. ‘You started work on The Seven Faces of Fanny Courvoisier?’
‘Just getting going.’
‘Maybe you could reconfigure it as a DI Balustrade novel.’
‘Hmm,’ said Keanu. ‘What about Alicia Vikander?’
‘She could play Fanny. Oh, wait, she’s dead right from the start.’
‘Or is she?’ said Keanu.
‘Exactly. So Alicia could be perfect. I’ll talk to Sophes this evening, see what she thinks.’
There was a flash at the window as a young man strode quickly by, then the door opened, he stepped into the shop, and standing half-in, half-out, he looked at the barbers.
‘This the barbershop?’ he said.
Barney, Keanu and Igor all stared at him, then each in turn looked around the barbershop – of all the shops, easily the most recognisable – then they turned back to him.
‘I’ve got a haircut emergency situation,’ said the man.
‘Clearly,’ said Barney.
And so the next part of the afternoon unfolded.
* * *
‘The Seven Faces of Fanny Courvoisier?’
Old Man Samson was looking curiously at him in the mirror. An innately cantankerous man, Samson – like his father, and his father before him, all the way back to the old times – became even more on edge when he went for a haircut.
‘So she wears masks like yon Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible?’
‘She has plastic surgery? I mean, if she has that much plastic surgery she’s going to look like one of they celebrities with a face like melted butter.’
‘No,’ said Keanu, and he stepped back a little so he didn’t inadvertently stab Samson in the side of the head.
No one was in any rush. Barney and Igor had crossed the street, and were leaning on the promenade wall, looking out over the bay. Every now and again a car would pass behind them, and the driver would slow down and shout out to them, or beep the horn in thanks at the important emergency work they were doing for the community during the crisis.
‘She doesn’t actually change her face. She has all these jobs at different major international organisations, but there’s no obvious crossover, so no one knows she’s doing all the other stuff. It’s a mystery.’
‘So she doesn’t have seven actual different faces?’
‘So why’s it called the Seven Faces of Fanny Courvoisier?’
Samson looked offended, as though personally insulted by the name.
‘Depends how you want to consider the use of the word face,’ said Keanu.
‘What kind of shite is that?’
Keanu smiled. Always tricky, he thought, for the aesthete to explain his art.
Samson grumbled, muttered something under his breath, shook his head.
‘Might as well call it The Seven Jobs of Fanny Courvoisier. She could do a night shift at Tesco, a bit of dog walking, and make dirty phone calls between the hours of nine and ten. Ha!’
Keanu glanced outside at Barney and Igor, for a moment wished that he was over there, committed himself to crossing the street and taking in some air as soon as old Samson had gone on his way, and then he clicked the scissors.
‘Come on then, settle down, old man, we’ll crack on.’
‘Seven Things That Fanny Courvoisier Did Including, But Not Limited To, Giving Guys Blow Jobs While On Her Tea Break At The Call Centre.’
He barked out another laugh. Keanu smiled ruefully, then returned to the age old of task of cutting a Samson’s hair.
The Premier League Stratagem
And so the day went. Every now and again a customer arrived, they went through the necessary protocols, and the haircut was administered. Finally, as the clock ticked round to five-thirty, with the street deserted, and the last customer already twenty minutes behind them, Igor placed the CLOSED sign on the door, and the men stood at the window, looking out on the end of the afternoon, enjoying the final cup of tea of the day.
Outside, bar the movement of the shadows cast by the sun, and the slow coming of the tide, little had changed. The clouds meandered sedately across the sky, but at any given moment it was impossible to tell how the cloudscape was any different from five minutes previously, as though it was permanently etched above, as painted by Constable.
Across the road, two gulls were involved in a stand off over the remnants of a discarded sandwich, which even by seagull standards, represented slim pickings. Occasionally a passer-by trooped along in front of them, laden with shopping, or taking their government prescribed Walk Of The Day. There was neither a contrail in the sky, nor an active vessel abroad on the water.
‘What d’you think’s going to happen?’ said Keanu eventually, after a silence that had lasted at least half a cup of tea’s worth, and which Barney and Igor had been embracing.
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘It’s early days, could go all sorts of ways. Let’s say a couple of million deaths worldwide. Maybe things are settled into their new normal in two years. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Trump resigns in the next couple of months. Sure, for reasons unfathomable to the rest of us, his approval ratings are currently up, but he can’t bluster the pandemic away. He’s so far out his depth. And look at him, he’s miserable as fuck. He doesn’t want to have to put up with this crap. His entire country is sinking, with him at the helm. He’s a coward, so I reckon he’ll jump ship. By this time next year, Nikki Haley’ll be US president, and they’ll rebound in their usual, money-grabbing, fuck-the-small guy way. I mean, look at the 1920s.
‘So, assuming the same kind of 1920s outcome, but with a new millennium, hyper-speeded-up time frame, give it another few years, then the world’s economy completely crashes, there’s a train wreck of a world war, and this time everyone dies.’
Igor stared grimly out of the window, eyes lowered, contemplating the imminent destruction of civilisation.
Keanu took a drink of tea, nodded sagely to himself, then pointed across the road.
‘I meant, between the two gulls.’
A beat, as everyone adjusted to being part of the same conversation.
‘Who wins the sandwich?’ said Keanu. ‘The one on the left, or… the one on the right?’
Together they watched the sandwich battle, which had now been going on for several minutes. Barney and Igor were staring blankly at it, kind of looking through it, through the white promenade wall, into the great beyond.
‘Well, Geoff,’ said Keanu, with a football pundit’s intonation, ‘I’m not sure who’s going to come out on top in this one. Could go either way at the moment, but I tell you what… I wouldn’t like to be the sandwich.’
Barney and Igor turned to him, both looking deadpan. A beat.
‘Missing sport, are you?’
‘Aye,’ said Keanu, and he nodded. ‘You’ve got to get your competition somewhere. There aren’t even clouds racing across the sky, which is the least you can expect from clouds around here.’
The men drank their tea, the world continued at its new, somnambulant pace.
‘I’ve got a plan,’ said Keanu after a while, just as the other two men of the shop were fully immersed in silence appreciation.
‘Go on,’ said Barney, smiling, accepting the yin and yang of the workplace.
‘OK, cool,’ said Keanu, perking up at being able to put his plan out into the universe. ‘So, this is for English Premier League teams, right. Not Scotland. It wouldn’t be worth it.’
‘Exactly. So, every coach and player in the English Premier League has to isolate for two weeks. When they’re clear, they get together, but the squads and coaches collectively are then isolated. Match officials, and groundsmen and the like, are similarly isolated. Then they play out the rest of the season in empty stadia. Two games a week, games staggered, every one shown live on TV, like, around the world. It’d be awesome. Everyone would have live football to watch. OK, the league’s as good as over, but it’d be like warm water in the desert. No one would care about that, it’d just be live sport. The world would thank us. I mean, if that clown Johnson mandated that, he’d be king by the end of the week.’
Barney and Igor, neither of whom had watched a game of live football in a combined one hundred and seven years, looked at each other.
‘Hmm,’ said Barney, ‘maybe you’re right. On the one hand, his initial inaction cost thousands of lives. On the other, live football. He’d probably win that battle.’
‘Exactly,’ said Keanu. ‘No idea why he doesn’t do it.’
‘Maybe you should give Downing Street a call.’
‘You got the number?’
‘Direct line, in case of emergencies. I’ll send it to you later.’
They smiled, the moment passed, Keanu’s brilliant idea to lift the spirits of planet earth went out into the universe, although it remained unclear whether it would find its way to the top of the English Premier League’s management structure.
Finally the seagulls, after several minutes’ epic tussle, a kind of mini Helm’s Deep multiplied by the Thrilla in Manila, went their separate ways, leaving the sandwich behind on the pavement. Perhaps word had reached them that there were now more fish in the sea, what with nature reclaiming the earth in mans’ absence.
Keanu drained his tea, tapped the empty mug in his hands.
‘Sophes’ll be done by now,’ he said. ‘I should be getting home.’
‘Aye,’ said Barney.
‘D’you think anything’s ever going to happen again in Millport, like ever?’
‘Not sure,’ said Barney.
‘Jeez. Like, are we just going to stand here every week, looking out at the view, and nothing will happen? I mean, really? Is that going to be a thing?’
‘Our lives will become black and white, auteur cinema.’
‘Pretty much already are.’
‘And no one will get murdered?’
‘Possibly,’ said Barney. ‘I mean, in normal places, people don’t get murdered.’
‘Hmm’ said Keanu. ‘Well, we’ll see. Maybe someone’ll get murdered next week. I mean, obviously not someone we know or care about. And preferably, someone that no one cares about. That’s what usually happens around here.’
Barney rolled his eyes, smiled, drained his tea, took the mugs off the other two and headed to the back of the shop to wash up.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding, as the fellowship prepared to break up for the day.
‘Aye,’ said Keanu.
And as Barney ran the mugs under the warm water, and Keanu tossed his light summer coat on, outside the incoming tide slowly encroached on the land, the clouds inched across the sky, and the world edged one more day closer to its end…