ANOTHER ONE BITES THE MUSK
The men of the Millport barbershop were enjoying third breakfast.
Third breakfast isn’t actually a thing, not even for hobbits, but these were strange days. The barbershops were allowed to be open, indeed they were mandated by the Scottish government to be open, but few were there who ventured outdoors in these grim days, and as the pace of life slowed to a standstill, and the very fabric of the nation changed, it seemed that swathes of the male population were becoming accustomed to big hair.
With the oncoming tsunami of economic recession, and men across the land beginning to resemble prog rock keyboard players, it seemed the 1970s were back. On the plus side, if it meant Scotland were going to start qualifying for the World Cup again, there was general agreement it might be for the best.
And so customers were few, and the days were long, and sometimes, by the time lunchtime came around, the men of the shop had already eaten three or four breakfasts.
It was some indeterminate time between ten and eleven. There had been two customers so far. Big Alec Taggart, with hair so gargantuan he’d had trouble getting in the door, before asking for an Egyptian sacrificial tight perm, and Wee Sammy Bampot, looking for his regular lacerated, side-parting half-mullet.
Having cut the hair of one customer each, Barney and Keanu were now eating pastries and drinking coffee, along with able henchman, Igor, the three of them sitting in triangle formation, vaguely staring at the same spot on the floor. Outside, the day was bright, the winds coming in off the sea mild, the clouds high, the waves eager and agitated. Barney was listening to the sixteenth century choral music he found such a palliative in these troubled times, currently Thomas Tallis’s iconic I Have Seen The Lord, And Verily He Said Unto Me, You Are All Dead Meat, And The Crows Will Feast Upon Your Eyes And The Flesh Off Your Bones.
That day’s crop of newspapers lay in a neat pile beside Barney at the end of the customers’ bench, although no one had troubled them with so much as a glance, their bold headlines screaming impotently at a world that had had enough news for this, and many more, lifetimes. On the top of the pile, the Telegraph, leading with, Hero Boris Is Back, Nation Weeps With Joy; beneath which lay the Mail, As Bravura Boris Returns, Ecstatic Plebs In Ejaculatory Celebration; the Express, Near-Dead Covid Patients Leap From Bed With Exultation As Boris Returns Majestic; the Metro, Boris ‘Can’t Be Fucked’ But Will Return As PM Through Churchillian Sense Of Duty; The Sun, Love Island Babe Gets Sums Wrong, Buys Nation’s Year’s Supply of Dettol; the Guardian, headline, Tantruming Trump Suggests Shooting In Face Can Cure Covid; the Star, Harry And Meghan To Divorce By The Time You Get To The End Of This Sentence; and the National, Tories Drink Blood Of Their Enemies In New Lockdown Snafu.
‘We watched Atomic Blonde last night,’ said Keanu, as ever the first to break a silence.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding.
‘Decent movie,’ said Barney.
‘Aye,’ said Keanu. ‘Seen it before, happy to watch it again. Don’t you think… when people, you know the kind of people, say there should be a female James Bond, I always think, why bother? Why not make a bunch of movies with Charlize doing that shit? She’d kick Bond’s arse. And if you want an iconic female spy, why saddle her with all the baggage of a Bond movie? Give her her own shit. Her own tune, and her own gimmicks and her own cocktail and her own gun and her own whatever.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘Sounds about right.’
‘But it’s classic Hollywood, or classic whoever,’ said Keanu. ‘They make a great action movie, a great spy movie, they have a brilliant female lead, and what do they do? They name it after her hair colour…’
Barney smiled ruefully, as did Igor from the barber’s chair by the window.
‘Hadn’t thought about that,’ said Barney. ‘But, you’re right, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Inherent sexism.’
‘Exactly,’ said Keanu. ‘It’s like calling the third Die Hard movie, Atomic Baldy. Would they do that?’
‘No, they wouldn’t,’ said Barney. ‘In fact, they didn’t.’
‘So, the Charlize movie was based on a graphic novel called The Coldest City. Would that have been the best name for a movie? Maybe not, but, you know, it’s still a name, isn’t it? It’s still a name for a film that doesn’t telegraph your lead actress’s hair colour.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘Maybe they’ll make a follow up, and not call it Atomic Blonde 2.’
The three men looked at each other, and then all nodded in resigned agreement.
‘Is it time for fourth breakfast yet?’ said Keanu.
‘He said he was being sarcastic,’ said Blake Pidgeon, the only other customer to arrive before lunch.
He was looking in the mirror, watching Keanu deliver a near-perfect Miami Vice, collar-combo cut, eyebrows raised, as he paid Donald Trump the respect his office demanded.
‘I don’t know,’ said Keanu, ‘he didn’t sound sarcastic.’
‘Aye, I know,’ said Pidgeon, ‘but you’ve got to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, ‘n’ all that. I mean, he talks some amount of shite, right enough, but see those press people, it’s not like you can believe any of them, is it? I think Trump’s brilliant, by the way. And funny as fuck. I mean, it’s entertaining ‘n’ all that. Much better than some boring bastard who stands up there and talks shite. No one wants to listen to that.’
Barney had his back turned, standing at the window, looking out upon the world. A deserted street, the stark white of the promenade wall, the blue-grey sea, peppered with the white crests of waves, the gulls and the sea eagles, the mainland and the island of Little Cumbrae, and on out beyond the far horizon, where the Brodick ferry crept slowly across the top of the water.
His face was set hard, hands thrust in his pockets. Contemplating walking over to the other side of the street, taking in the air for a while. At least until Pidgeon had gone.
His other alternative was to tell Pidgeon to shut the fuck up.
At the back of the shop, Igor was sweeping. There was nothing to be swept, but he liked to keep himself busy. Barney could tell from the sound of the brush that Igor, too, was unimpressed with the fool Pidgeon. That Keanu was letting him talk did not bother them so much. Keanu always let the customers talk, too polite to do anything else.
‘I mean, you may not like the way he says stuff, but when you break down what he says, is he actually that wrong? I mean, he’s the president ‘n’ all that, you don’t get to do that without –’
‘Holy suffering fuck!’ said Barney, finally turning.
Barney never swore at home.
Keanu held the scissors away from the hair, as Pidgeon turned to look curiously at Barney.
‘What’d I say?’ he said.
‘Really?’ said Barney. ‘You’re not sure what it was about the endless stream of shite you’ve been chatting since you got in here that I’d object to?’
‘I’m a customer,’ said Pidgeon, defensively. ‘What happened to the customer always being right? In fact, I’m a customer in a barbershop. So not only am I always right, it’s expected that I talk masses of shite while I’m sitting here. It’s literally in the job description. Look up the phrase barbershop customer in, fuck, I don’t know, the Oxford dictionary or something. Customer who gets his haircut by a professional, while both customer and hairsmith exchange absurd and borderline psychotically bullshit conversation.’
He looked at Keanu in the mirror and smiled. Keanu, amused by Barney’s annoyance, smiled back.
Barney found himself glancing at the wall, where once he’d had a list of proscribed conversations. Though topics on the list had come and gone, Trump had been a constant. He hated listening to Trump, he hated looking at him, he hated conversations about him, he hated when anyone treated anything he said with anything other than total disdain, because clearly that was all he deserved.
The list had become hard to police, and so it had had to go in the end. And now, in these strange lockdown days, when people came to the shop in search of company and conversation as much as quality hair, it would have been cruel to regulate subject matter.
The downside of that was he found himself in this kind of position.
‘He clearly, one hundred per cent, was not being sarcastic,’ said Barney. ‘He wasn’t speaking to the press, he was speaking to that doctor lady, who looked about as comfortable as a haemorrhoidal monk sitting on a cactus, and he was being entirely serious, because he’s a fucking moron.
‘And, just for a second, because it’s not worth any more time than that, just for one second consider the possibility that he was being sarcastic. With, at the time, something like forty-five thousand of his people having died from this thing, how, in the name of all holy fuck, would sarcasm be appropriate? Really?’
‘They’re Americans,’ said Pidgeon, ‘they probably don’t know what sarcasm actually is.’
‘Sure, that’s great,’ said Barney. ‘The stupidity defence. Everyone, everyone, including us here in the elevated thought chamber of the barbershop, should give everything that man says the contempt it deserves. He’s a moronic, narcissistic, mendacious, bloviating, racist, attention-seeking man-baby, and the sooner he’s returned to the hollow world of celebrity TV where he belongs, the better for everyone. Sadly, that likely won’t happen. We’re stuck with him, because people are idiots.’
‘Are you saying I’m an idiot?’ said Pidgeon.
‘Don’t come in here and say things like I think Trump’s brilliant, by the way, and not expect to be thought a fool, Mr Pidgeon.’
Barney held him with his finest contemptuous stare, glanced at Keanu – who looked as though he was enjoying every minute of the conversation – then Barney couldn’t help himself smiling ruefully, rolled his eyes, and headed to the door, head shaking.
‘I’m going to take in some air,’ he said, tossing a hand to the shop, then left, the door closing softly behind him.
They watched him cross the road, and then he was leaning on the promenade wall looking out to sea.
‘Let’s get this Miami Vice done and dusted,’ said Keanu.
‘What got in to him?’ asked Pidgeon, turning back to the mirror, admiring just how amazing he was going to look when the Miami Vice was done.
‘You were talking shite, to be fair,’ said Keanu.
‘Like I said, it’s my job,’ said Pidgeon.
‘Arf,’ said the grim voice from the back of the shop.
Keanu and Pidgeon turned to look at Igor. Keanu nodded, Pidgeon looked taken aback.
‘Aye, all right,’ he said.
He looked guiltily at Keanu in the mirror, and shrugged.
‘Better get on then, son,’ he said. ‘And I’ll keep my mouth shut.’
Igor nodded at Keanu, Keanu – always a fan of the strange dynamic of the shop – smiled knowingly, and then returned to the fray, once more putting the scissors to work.
The methodical sweep of the brush, the click of the scissors, in the air that special barbershop magic…
‘Who d’you suppose the next real-life Bond villain is?’ asked Reginald ‘The Juice’ Brown.
Late afternoon, another quiet day coming to an end. Barney had talked himself off the barbershop ledge while looking out over the view, and had returned to the shop in a better frame of mind. Albeit, only once Pidgeon was long gone.
Now, this. Aged forty-one, furloughed porn movie stand-in, The Juice was getting his regular Burt Reynolds Smokeycut and moustache trim, and Barney had been quietly going about his business, as he always did, hoping he’d get to the end of the cut without having to engage in conversation. And failing.
‘You think there’s been a previous real-life Bond villain?’ asked Barney.
‘There must’ve been some bastard,’ said The Juice. ‘I mean all that Bond stuff, it’s based on real life, in’t it?’
He caught Barney’s eye in the mirror. Barney remained non-committal. He might have said that no, none of it’s based on real life, but as ever, he chose to leave it. People could think what they would think.
‘Aye,’ said Keanu from the window. ‘There’s always some grain of truth. All real life spies travel first class and stay in the best hotels, and I mean, they must get literally hundreds of women.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding in agreement.
‘Exactly,’ said The Juice, and now he turned to Keanu as much as he could, given Barney was still mid-cut, in order to continue the conversation. ‘So who d’you think the real life villain is? Which famous rich fucker seems kind of benevolent, and there are all sorts of people lining up to suck him off, then it’ll turn out he’s a bastard? They’re all dodgy, after all. Yon Amazon bloke, shifty as fuck by the way. And Zuckerburg? That guy looks like a haunted enema. But I reckon it’s Bill Gates, the do-gooding bastard. He’s all, I’m going to cure this, and put an end to that, and give away all my money, all that shite. Bastard’s richer now than he was when he said he’d give all his money away in the first place. Nice trick.’
‘I reckon it’s yon Wetherspoons guy,’ said Keanu, joining in the fun.
‘Nah, son,’ said The Juice, ‘he’s no’ a villain, he’s just an arsehole.’
Keanu had no argument to that – no one had – and said, ‘Richard Branson?’
‘Arsehole,’ said The Juice, and Keanu and Igor laughed.
‘Elon Musk,’ said Barney, the words reluctantly spoken. Sometimes, when conversations lacked narrative drive and he thought he was going to be stuck listening to them going nowhere for the rest of his life, he felt obliged to participate. ‘Stand out, far and away, the obvious real-life Bond villain. If that’s even a thing, and I’m not sure it is.’
‘Don’t know much about him. What are his Bond-villain credentials?’ asked The Juice.
Barney and Keanu glanced at each other. A silent conversation, where one of them said, we wouldn’t discuss this live on TV in case we got sued, and the other shrugged.
‘So rich his wealth has to be described in adjectives rather than numbers,’ said Barney, lifting the scissors and taking a moment.
‘Check,’ said Keanu.
‘Comes across as a bit mental.’
‘Sounds like Ian Fleming made up his name as some sort of weird in-joke.’
‘Has got lots of weird shit going on in space.’
They nodded, then Barney clicked the scissors and turned his attention back to the Burt Reynolds.
‘Not bad,’ said The Juice. ‘Seems you know what you’re talking about Mr Thomson. Have you been briefed by MI6?’
‘The space thing’s the giveaway,’ said Barney, ignoring the MI6 question in such a way as to make it look like he had a direct line to C.
‘Go on,’ said The Juice.
‘You don’t know about the SpaceX satellites?’
‘No one told me.’
‘It’s a network of, I don’t know, like twenty thousand satellites or something, that’ll provide global Internet access. There’re four hundred up there now. A few years from now, the sky’ll be covered in them.’
The Juice, new to this information, looked as though he might be at the outrage end of concerned.
‘Twenty thousand? Why the fuck would you need twenty thousand satellites? I don’t even have one.’
‘All sounds a bit suspicious, doesn’t it?’ said Barney. He paused, he lifted his eyebrows at The Juice in the mirror, then he added, ‘At least, that’s what my people at MI6 are saying.’
‘Ha!’ said The Juice, not for a second thinking Barney was joking. ‘Twenty thousand,’ he added in a low voice, low-key incredulous, head shaking.
And so the conversation drifted away, lost in the silence that soon re-encroached on the day. The Juice stared at himself in the mirror, admiring his own moustache, contemplating twenty thousand satellites in the sky, wondering what that would look like, which made him realise he had no idea how many satellites were already in the sky, and that maybe it was more than twenty thousand.
Keanu and Igor stood at the window, each of them considering another cup of tea, and wondering if these strange times were not so strange after all, but the new normal, and that life would ever be thus.
Barney, having briefly given in to the demands of conversation, was happy to return to a period of silence, where he could practice his mastery of the Burt Reynolds, and think about nothing.
Outside, the wind blew gently, the waves tossed and argued and scrambled and fought, bundling endlessly upon the shore, the gulls circled and cried, jubilating at the legions of the fish in the sea, now that the humans had to stay indoors and watch Netflix, and high white clouds frittered the day away, coming from the west, heading to the east, never stopping to look upon the land.
* * *
And somewhere, far away, across the sea and the continents, in a large underground facility, where fifteen thousands workers sat in long rows in front of computer monitors, headphones in, listening to conversations around the world, the Millport barbershop discussion was logged – having been picked up through a tiny microphone placed in a set of clippers Barney had bought from Amazon the previous summer – tagged #AnotherOneBitesTheMusk, and passed up the chain to be included in the daily report, which would be placed in front of Jeff Bezos at nine pm, Pacific Time, that evening.