TIME AND THE HAIRCUT
Priti Patel Eats Flesh Of Covid Survivor In Gruesome Inoculation Bid, read the front page of the Mirror.
Keanu MacPherson, Number 2 to barbershop legend Barney Thomson, held up the paper to let Barney and shop everyman, deaf, mute hunchback Igor, read the headline, than he flipped the paper to the side, where it landed on top of the pile of that morning’s inane newspaper garbage.
Magnificent Boris To Be Cloned As UK Scientists Seek Master Race Gene, said the Telegraph. PM Promises £500m For Whatever As Britain Leads Way In Everything, bloviated the Express. The Mail led with, Covid First Spawned In Barnier’s Spleen, As EU Kills Millions. The Sun had, War With Germany Now Only Option, As Lads Head To Beaches To Defend Britain; the Star had Babe Scientists Develop Covid Cure Using Only Tits.
‘They do say Priti Patel’s a tiny-brained, spineless, authoritarian, bullying twatwomble,’ said Keanu, nodding, agreeing with his own statement, indicating the discarded paper with a thumb.
Barney and Igor lifted their mugs in agreement, there was really nothing else to add, and another little spurt of conversational activity was over for the morning.
A bleak Friday in May, low grey cloud settled over the island, seemingly for the rest of the month. None of that May’s-the-nicest-month-in-Scotland malarkey going on here. The weather was just shit. Grim, to fit the times. Economy in freefall, the neverending lockdown beginning to wear on even those who thought it the right thing to do, people across the land ready to break free from the repressive shackles of confinement, to celebrate the brave new world of unemployment, magnificent economic recession and mental health cataclysm, yet being told to stand steady at the doorway, to pause, to wait it out just that little bit longer before taking the great leap forward into this exciting new societal oblivion.
‘Reckon we’re all fucked,’ said Old Man McGuire, looking grumpily at himself in the mirror.
McGuire got his hair cut every week, even though he didn’t have very much hair, and what he did have grew so slowly he could likely have got away with an annual cut. Today he’d requested an Edward Scissorhands. Keanu had readily agreed, and was in the process of giving him a Bruce Willis Die Hard 6 – Die Again, But Better, which was pretty much the only haircut he could actually give Old Man McGuire.
‘I think you’re right,’ said Keanu. ‘But we’ll still have the sea to swim in, and the hills to look at, though, eh?’
‘Swim? In the Clyde? Are you off your nuts, son?’
Barney, standing at the window with a cup of tea, smiled to himself, and Igor, sweeping up at the back of the shop, chuckled in his strange, grim manner.
‘Anyway,’ said McGuire, looking in the mirror, and indicating the painting that had been hung on the wall behind him, ‘The fuck is that thing doing here?’
‘It’s art,’ said Keanu, pausing for a moment to look at the copy of the Mona Lisa that now took centre stage on the wall above the customer bench.
McGuire gave Keanu the appropriate look, which he rounded off with a curmudgeonly, ‘Fuck’s sake, son.’
‘It’s the latest Scottish government initiative,’ said Keanu. ‘They’re paying artists to paint replicas of famous artworks, then distributing them on a loan basis around essential establishments, like Post Offices and barbershops, so that the general public get a bit of art in their lives.’
McGuire looked at Keanu, his face furrowed and contorted in disapproval, then he said. ‘Sounds like a load of shite. Legalised forgery at that. They shifty bastards in Edinburgh’ll probably sell them off as the real thing when all this is over. Fuckers.’
‘Seriously, Frank?’ said Barney. ‘It’s the Mona Lisa. And the artist has signed her name in the bottom corner. And even if she’d signed it Leonardo, any art historian is going to be able tell in the first five seconds it’s not the original. It’s just a nice little initiative from the government, and now all week we get to talk about the Mona Lisa in the shop, which is, you know, more interesting than talking about the time you got your testicles waxed, which you kept going on about last week.’
‘Humph,’ said McGuire, then he settled down into his disgruntlement, and stared at the Mona Lisa in the mirror.
The Mona Lisa stared enigmatically back.
‘What d’you think of it, then?’ asked McGuire after a while.
‘Overrated,’ said Barney.
‘Bit shit,’ said Keanu.
Enlightenment II – Just When You Thought It Was Safe
To Watch Butt-Naked Wife Swap Goes Jesus
There was a little more bustle around the shop, as word got around that an acceptable copy of the Mona Lisa was hanging on the wall. Of course, to enter the shop one had to undergo the Covid Instatest distributed to barbershops nationwide, so quite a few people came along, stood outside, and stared through the large picture window. With Barney, Igor or Keanu usually standing on the other side, however, the gawpers rarely stayed long.
Late morning and there were now three customers in. Barney was cutting the hair of Toby Flintstone, in for his regular Augustine Three-Quarter Firework, while Keanu was giving Old Man Worthington a short back and sides. Both customers were studying the enigmatic Italian in the mirror. The customer in waiting, young Heppenstall, was reading the Sun.
‘D’you think it’s working?’ asked Flintstone after a while.
‘How d’you mean?’ said Barney, who was currently carving Flintstone’s hair into the most elaborately quaffed example of Greco-Roman chic this side of the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410.
‘By foisting art on the masses like this, d’you think they’ll manage to induce this new Scottish enlightenment they’re after? Don’t you think this kind of thing needs to be organic? It happens, or it doesn’t. Usually it doesn’t. You can’t create the Renaissance, you can’t force progress in this way. It has to evolve naturally.’
‘Maybe society just needs a nudge,’ said Barney. ‘Maybe all that separates 21st century Scotland from the next great illumination is for the government to say, here you go, have a look at this for a change.’
‘Did you see this?’ said Heppenstall from the bench. ‘Apparently Maz from Love Island is getting her boobs re-inflated.’
He didn’t look up to see if anyone shared his interest, smiling at himself instead. Flintstone gave Barney the benefit of a raised eyebrow, and Barney smiled.
‘They’re never going to achieve any shite with the Mona Lisa, are they?’ said Old Man Worthington, with a cantankerous mutter from beneath Keanu’s scissors. ‘It’s been so absorbed into the mainstream. And there’s so much shite said about it. ‘No one knows what she’s thinking’, and ‘she’s looking at you, rather than you’re looking at her’, and blah-de-fucking-noncing-blah. What a load of keich. Look at her. Look!’
They all looked at the Mona Lisa, and then back at Old Man Worthington.
‘What’s the difference between that and any other portrait? If the fucking artist painted the geezer staring straight out at you, then the geezer’s looking at you as much as you’re looking at him. If you think it’s different, it’s because you’re projecting something on to that inanimate thing. Fine, there may be plenty of shite portraits in the world, but there are literally thousands of portraits with some bird looking enigmatic as fuck, often enough with her tits out. Leonardo my arse. He can fuck off.’
Somewhere in the ether, Leonardo Da Vinci, who just before his death had invented a device to allow him to survive in space for all eternity, allowing him to listen to what people said about him, stared dejectedly into the pit of immortality.
‘Wouldn’t mind getting an Hieronymus Bosch next,’ said Keanu. ‘Ant And Dec In The Nest of Demons, something like that.’
‘Bosch!’ scoffed Old Man Worthington. ‘Load of magic mushroom-induced shite, by the way.’
‘Ha!’ ejaculated Heppenstall from the bench. ‘Says here Matt Hancock got tested for Corona. Test came back 99% arsehole.’
Worthington and Flintstone laughed. Keanu shook his head.
‘Classic,’ said Heppenstall. ‘Oh, look, more tits on the next page…’
The men of the barbershop were standing at the window, enjoying a post-lunch cup of tea. The day outside had turned even bleaker, so that there was hardly anyone abroad, and the brief queue of those coming to look at the Mona Lisa from outside had dried up.
It was one of those dank days on the Clyde, where the grim, soaking drizzle seemed to infect everything. Every piece of clothing, every room, every scrap of paper, every broken heart. This was the history of Scotland in miniature. Potentially glorious, yet all the beauty suffocated beneath miserable disappointment, be it the floundering of Darien, the oppression of Westminster, or Hansen and Miller colliding on a playing field in Málaga.
The only surprise of the year was that the lockdown hadn’t been introduced with Scotland 4-0 up against France in the final of the Euros with ten minutes remaining, the entire tournament then being ordered to be replayed, with Scotland failing to get to the finals at all, losing 8-1 to Israel at Hampden.
The sea too was being suffocated by the weather, a flat calm now extending out to the grey horizon, the horizon itself lost in a dull haze, the line between sea and sky obliterated. The white promenade wall across the street from where they stood was lined with gulls, each of them with their backs to land, looking out to sea, as though waiting for something to happen.
‘Maybe the wind changed, and Scotland’s stuck like this,’ said Keanu after a while.
Barney and Igor stared straight ahead, out past the gulls, into the grey beyond, and nodded.
‘Maybe you’re right,’ said Barney. ‘Maybe the entire country’s like this.’
‘Or the entire world,’ said Keanu. ‘The planet’s been bitten by the lockdown bug, and has shut itself down. No more weather, no more wind, just bleak, low cloud and rain for the foreseeable future.’ He paused. He took a drink. He stared grimly across the road. ‘It’ll be like living in Fife,’ he added, after a while.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, and the others nodded.
Keanu checked his watch.
‘Two o’clock. Maybe we could stick the news on, find out what’s happening.’
Barney took a drink, gave Keanu something of a side eye, then reluctantly nodded. Even Barney, now internationally recognised as the coolest customer on the block, was a little unnerved by the on-going heavy weight of silence.
‘Cool,’ said Keanu.
He turned the radio on, resuming his position as the BBC newsreader dispensed with the introductory message of the hour, and raced straight to the headlines.
‘The total number of deaths in the UK from Covid has been rounded down to zero, after new government guidelines for measuring the metric, with ministers claiming complete success in tackling the illness. In other news, leaked internal Foreign Office documents indicate Dominic Raab has issued an ‘obey me or die’ edict to all staff; scientists discover Michael Gove no longer actually exists; President Trump says his brain is now too big for his own skull, and will be transplanted into the head of an elephant …’
With one step Barney reached the radio – he was like a squash player in total control at the centre of the court, only ever one step away from all the crucial parts of the shop – and turned it off.
‘Enough of that,’ he said.
‘Aye, fair enough.’
Returned to position, the three men resumed where they’d been thirty seconds previously, staring out of the window into the grey nothingness. Time passed, though neither pedestrians nor cars passed with it, and the gulls did not move.
Such were these days.
The Tin of Beans And The Last Crusade
‘What are you writing now, son?’ asked Danny McLeod, Thane of Kames, in for his familiar William Wallace cut. ‘Been a while since I read one of your books.’
Keanu paused, nodding at the question. As a pursuer of literary superstardom, he liked it when people asked about his books. While permanently feeling like he was on the edge of a breakthrough, it remained the case that his bestselling work, Bring Me The Decapitated Head Of Mountebank Stump, had yet to crack five hundred sales.
‘Well, I had been writing a kind of fast-paced, espionage thriller called The Salamander Eats No Chickens, but I’ve got to admit, been struggling with it. Fast-paced espionage thriller isn’t really my genre.’
‘Sounds decent, though,’ said Kames.
‘Thanks, but you know, I think I might have to let it go for now. First book I’ve had to abandon since The Man Who Ate His Own Legs. Still,’ and he indicated the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa in the mirror, ‘I’ve been taking some inspiration from our visitor here. Think I might write a Mona Lisa story.’
‘Art theft. Nice. That’ll make a great movie ‘n’ all.’
‘No, not about the painting. I’m going to fictionalise the life of the Mona Lisa herself. And rather than her being some boring wife of a guy who did a thing, I’m going to make her a glamorous, kick-ass spy, who sleeps with hundreds of men and saves the world on a regular basis. The whole boring wife thing is going to be her cover.’
‘So, kind of like True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger?’
‘If you like, except it’ll be the Mona Lisa, and it’ll be awesome.’
‘Hmm,’ said Kames, ‘not bad. Better make sure no one’s done that before, though.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ chipped in Barney distractedly from the window.
‘Nah,’ said Keanu, ‘we’re good. I really like the idea. If I check to see if someone’s done it before, and they have, then I’m stuffed. But if I don’t know that someone else has done it, and go ahead and write it, my thing’s going to be completely different, and I can genuinely say I had no idea someone had done something similar.
‘And if it goes well, I can do the same with the decapitated head of John The Baptist, the lad in the Hay Wain, and that tin of Campbell’s soup that Andy Warhol made famous for fifteen minutes.’
‘The Tin Of Soup And The Goblet of Fire,’ he said, making a banner headline gesture beneath the black cape.
‘The Tin of Soup’s Adventures in Wonderland.’
‘Fifty Shades of The Tin of Soup,’ said Igor, and he chuckled darkly, and even though all he actually managed to say was ‘Arf,’ the others all understood, even Kames, and they laughed along with him.
‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll And The Tin Of Soup,’ said Keanu, not willing to let the joke go just yet.
‘Not bad,’ said Kames. ‘Wait, that might be it. Dr Jekyll turns into a tin of soup.’
‘Decent,’ said Keanu, perking up, thinking maybe they’d hit on a solid literary idea. ‘Then someone eats him, and he transforms back into himself, inside someone’s stomach.’
They all stared.
‘Needs work,’ said Barney.
‘No, no, it’s good. Maybe the doctor doesn’t reconstitute as, you know, a complete doctor, which would be weird, but instead infiltrates the person who eats him, moving throughout his body, and taking over.’
The others at least gave this some thought, until finally Kames said, ‘And it works, until the guy goes for a shit, and then…’ and he finished the gag off with the appropriate noise.
Barney, thinking that was a suitable end to the conversation, lifted the tea to his lips, and turned away, nodding ruefully.
Outside, the day had not changed, the low, grey cloud sat above them like a giant, neverending patch of cotton wool, sucking up all the life and the art and the music and everything that ever was, leaving nothing beneath but a barren wasteland of desolate humanity.
‘Weather’s going to be the same tomorrow,’ said Barney, his voice low, subdued, melancholic, taken by the day.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding.
Keanu and Kames shared a grim look in the mirror, nodded at each other, they both glanced at the Mona Lisa to include her in the general acceptance of the inevitability of time and the haircut and that all things must pass, even conversations about tins of soup, and that one day, even this low grey cloud would pass, but not yet, not today, and as Keanu resumed the cut, and Kames closed his eyes and tried to think of nothing, Keanu thought, hmm, Time And The Haircut, that might be the perfect sleeper book, like one of those Norwegian books about chopping up wood that everyone buys and reads for no particular reason, other than it’s written at such a different pace to real life, it transports you onto another plane, and maybe Time And The Haircut could be its philosophical equivalent.
Barney looked out upon the great grey beyond, and considered the ill fate of all mankind.
* * *
‘Which piece of art d’you suppose we’ll get given next week?’ asked Keanu, as the three chaps stood at the window, looking out on the end of a day, which was not noticeably different from any other part of the day.
The Closed sign was on the door, and they were enjoying a final cup of tea of the afternoon. Across the road, the seagulls remained determinedly lined up on the wall, barely moving, although one of them had now turned to face the shop. In the hands of a master storyteller or filmmaker, that lone gull could have been ominously creepy, but this wasn’t that kind of story or film. This was just three guys chewing the fat, watching the world stand still.
‘I’ve asked for Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment On A Politician In The Air Pump,’ said Barney. ‘I like that one.’
‘Nice,’ said Keanu, nodding, then, ‘never heard of it.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, and Barney nodded, and Keanu hadn’t quite understood what he meant.
Across the road, one of the gulls took flight, squawking as it went, but the others did not follow. The sea continued to be becalmed, and now, as afternoon transformed into evening, it seemed the only change was that the mainland to the south, and the island of Little Cumbrae in the firth, were beginning to be swallowed up by the rain and the mist. Soon even the small islands in the bay would vanish, and the town would be submerged in soaking drizzle.
‘I’m going to write a book called Time And The Haircut,’ said Keanu after a while. ‘It’ll be a bestselling philosophical treatise on the interconnectedness of time, thought, football, politics, life and hair. It’s going to be really slow and meditative. Nothing will happen. People are going to love it. No, wait, they won’t love it, but someone somewhere will say it’s amazing, and everyone will buy it, but no one will actually read it, like A Brief History of Time. Then I’ll be awarded the Nobel.’
Barney and Igor stared straight ahead, looking out into the gloom. The gull that had attempted to break free from the monotony of the wall, having flown quickly to the pier, now returned and settled back into its place, and resumed its vigil over the end of the grim afternoon.
‘I’ll still come to work, though,’ said Keanu, and Barney nodded, and Igor said, ‘Arf,’ and so the day wound its way to an end.