Eyeing Poll Boost, Boris Vows To Have Another Baby Next Month, read the headline in the Telegraph.
Barney Thomson, barbershop legend, tossed the paper on the top of the pile of that morning’s news, where it landed with a flop on the Daily Express, covering up the headline, Rush For UK Passports As EU Scum Eye Our Benefits, Jobs And Women. Beneath the Express lay the Mail, headline It’s Time For War With Germany!, the Sun, RAF Mark VE Day By Bombing Dresden, the Times, Mark Francois Launches One-Man Assault On Cologne, the Guardian, Claiming Inner Light Can Cure Covid, Trump Anally Inserts Light Bulb During Dramatic Presser; and the National, Ichthyosaurs Return To Clyde As People Get Tae Fuck.
It was mid-morning, some time between second and third breakfast, and the Millport barbershop was quiet. So far that day Barney and his young padawan, Keanu, had cut the hair of one customer each, while Igor, the sweeper upper, had kept the shop shipshape and ready to receive an influx of customers that likely wouldn’t come for some months. If, indeed, ever again.
‘D’you ever follow sunspot activity?’ asked Keanu, turning from his position at the window, to engage Barney and Igor.
Outside, the day had a familiar look about it, as one day in lockdown blended into another. A grey and white cloudy sky, broken up with patches of blue, here and there the sun catching the waves out on the water, as the sea stretched away to the mainland and to the shore of Little Cumbrae, a mile across the firth.
Igor shook his head, Barney gave Keanu the quizzical eyebrow. It was something else to think about, other than whether or not to have tea or coffee with third breakfast.
‘Go on,’ said Barney, as Igor leant on his broom, happy to pick up whatever vibe of the conversation he could, considering he was deaf. Few were there in the world of men who truly understood Igor.
‘There’s a cool website, SpaceWeather.com, and it gives daily details of sunspot activity, among other stuff.’
Barney found himself glancing out of the window as though he might be able to see the sun, although from the position in which he was sitting in the middle of the shop, he would never be able to see the sun, regardless of cloud cover.
‘Much sunspot activity at the moment?’
‘Hardly any,’ said Keanu. ‘We’re in deep solar minimum.’
‘That’s what they call it. It comes in an eleven-year cycle. Should be coming out of it again within the next year, and regular sunspot activity will kick off again.’
‘Why do sunspots go in an eleven-year cycle?’
Keanu stared at him across the short distance of the shop.
‘Science,’ he said, after a while.
‘That’ll do,’ said Barney. ‘How many sunspots are there today?’
Silence, then a slight creaking of Igor’s broom, as he shifted position.
‘You also get the temperature of the thermosphere,’ said Keanu.
‘This keeps getting more and more exciting,’ said Barney. ‘What’s the temperature of the thermosphere today?’
Keanu lifted his phone, took a second, then said, ‘3.33,’ eyebrows raised, as though this was significant.
‘Times 10 to the power 10, W,’ said Keanu.
‘What does W stand for?’
Keanu glanced sideways to the camera, then looked back at Barney.
‘Science,’ he said again, since that had worked the last time.
‘You’re bringing us half a thing.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor from his broom, nodding.
‘Because it doesn’t matter what it actually stands for, does it? What’s important is that it’s historically cold. It says here that the maximum was 49.4, recorded in 1947, and the minimum was 2.05 recorded during the previous solar minimum in 2009. So, from that we can see the thermosphere is getting to close to its recorded low.’
Barney glanced at Igor, Igor shrugged, Barney turned back to Keanu.
‘Will this affect us down here in Millport in any way.’
‘Probably not. But that’s the beauty of it, right?’
‘Everything on earth is blighted by us. The human race. We fuck up literally everything. Sure, every now and again we create something magnificent. I don’t know, the Night Watch or Sergeant Pepper or The Godfather. Whatever. But there’s so much natural beauty in the world, often on a magnificent, grand scale, and the chances are we’ll ruin the shit out of. Even space, immediate space just up there, we’re filling up with our junk, and President Moron’s talking about mining on the moon. I mean, the moon’s a barren rock of nothingness, but we’ll still manage to make it worse.
‘But the sun? The sun doesn’t give a fuck, man. We can’t do anything to it. We can’t touch it. We could fire every weapon we’ve got on earth at it, and the sun wouldn’t even notice.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘Not bad.’
Keanu nodded, then turned away, looking out at the familiar seascape framed by the white promenade wall and the clouds.
‘I used to look at Arctic ice graphs every day, but that got too depressing. Sunspots, though, they’re nothing to do with us. And meteor showers, that’s another one. Nice to just lose yourself in the minutiae of something beyond human control.’
‘All right, caller,’ said Barney, ‘you’ve persuaded me. SpaceWeather.com you said?’
‘Yep. Take a look. They also sell little bits of jewellery that have been into space. And sometimes Mr Spock bobbleheads that have been into space.’
Barney looked deadpan across the shop.
‘They take an actual Mr Spock figure into space, he goes on a space walk outside the, like, thing, and then they bring him back to earth…’
‘And sell it.’
‘For how much?’
‘So, you know the Enterprise was NCC-1701, right?’
‘No,’ said Barney, ‘but on you go.’
‘They divide that by ten, so sell it for a hundred and seventy dollars. And ten cents.’
‘A hundred and seventy dollars?’
‘For a Mr Spock bobblehead?’
‘That’s been to space!’
‘I got that.’
‘And it’s being done by students, raising money for, like science and shit, it’s not, you know, some US mega-corps, ripping off the gullible public.’
‘Have you bought a Mr Spock bobblehead?’
Keanu’s brow furrowed, and he looked at Barney as though he was nuts.
And that was that for the Mr Spock bobblehead.
There were three customers in the shop, and with the customers there was a sudden life and buzz about the place, such as there hadn’t been seen in the Millport barbershop in some weeks. The clip of scissors, the hum of clippers, the occasional blast of a hair dryer, the relentless sweep of Igor’s brush, as he ensured the floor of the shop was permanently ready to have dinner eaten off it.
Barney was cutting the hair of Old Man McGuire, in for his regular Jack Nance Eraserhead cut, Keanu was giving Tommy Penhaligon a Corrugated Quadruple Axel With A Corrupted Toe Loop, while Kevin Watson was waiting on the substitutes’ bench with a head of hair like a tumbleweed tornado, reading an article in the Telegraph headlined, Boris In £80m HarperCollins Deal For 2022 Bonking Memoir; Nobel Committee Already Excited.
‘Has anyone famous been in here recently?’ asked Tommy Penhaligon.
Keanu was taking his time over the CQAWACTL cut, what with it being one of the most complex haircuts in the western world. Considering his next move, and reluctant to ask the Jedi master currently cutting hair to his left, he had to search the air for the remembrance of the words that had just been spoken, then he had to put them into some sort of context.
‘You know we’re in Millport rather than, I don’t know, Chelsea, or Beverley Hills or something?’
‘Aye, but you know what barbershops are like,’ said Penhaligon. ‘Every bastard needs their hair cut, even famous bastards. I saw a thing once,’ he added, and then did that thing where he left a gap for Keanu to ask him what the thing was about, a conversational tic that Barney for one had never understood.
‘Oh, aye?’ said Keanu, playing the required part of the curious. ‘What thing?’
‘It was in Buzzfeed. Top Ten Random Places You’re Most Likely To Meet A Celebrity.’
‘Cool. Where’d the barbershop come?’
‘Number two. Makes sense, right? Like I said, everyone needs a haircut. And sure, the likes of Jay-Zed and some other cunt, they’re going to have their own people. But, like F-listers, and footballers and that lot? In and out of barbershops like badgers.’
Barney and Keanu shared a look, a smile, and then Keanu returned to the cut, finally settling on the next manoeuvre.
‘What was number one?’
‘Anal Beautification Clinic,’ said Penhaligon.
Keanu paused. ‘You’re making that up.’
‘Naw. People love that shit. Every famous bastard wants to have an attractive arsehole these days, ain’t that right, Barney?’
Barney laughed, shook his head, made a brief I’m-not-getting-involved gesture.
‘I had mine done about three year ago,’ said Old Man McGuire. A beat, while the others stared at him, then he added, ‘Hurt like fuck taking a shit for a fortnight afterwards.’
‘Too much information, Frank,’ said Barney.
‘He started it.’
‘Did you meet anyone famous when you were in there?’ asked Penhaligon.
McGuire humphed a little, then said, ‘Brad Pitt.’
‘Talking of arseholes,’ said the guy from the bench, ‘I see Farage is trying to make the news about him again. What a prick, am I right?’
Life On Earth III
The slow post-lunch period. Customers gone, and the men of the shop had closed the door and come across the road to stand by the promenade wall to drink their cup of tea. There was a spring freshness in the air now, clouds having largely cleared, seagulls on the wing, the tide coming in, waves in a restless sea spattering against the rocks, spray bouncing, looping into the air, before being taken by a breeze containing hints of an early summer’s warmth.
There was a yacht on the wind, far out in the bay, the mainsail at a billow, the yacht low in the water; on the horizon, a cargo vessel, having recently left Hunterston Port, now heading south, bound for the distant colonies with nuclear waste material. There were a few clouds in a blue sky, though not a contrail to be seen. The skies were clear of air traffic, and to their left and to their right, along the road that ran beside Millport promenade, not a car was moving, and only a few pedestrians were abroad.
The town of Millport had literally become an eastern European art house movie.
‘If the three of us stand here long enough,’ said Keanu, ‘we’ll probably get nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign language category,’ and Barney smiled grimly, and Igor said, ‘And we’ll all turn into black and white,’ though it came out as ‘arf,’ and the others nodded in agreement.
Down on the rocks in front of them two gulls squabbled over a fish, and although it wasn’t much of a fish, nor much of a squabble, it drew their attention for a few moments.
Seagull A standing over his fish, Seagull B making occasional parries to try to steal the fish, Seagull A squawking angrily every time Seagull B made a half-hearted attempt at snatchery.
‘It’s like watching Poundshop David Attenborough,’ said Barney after a while.
‘This is actual David Attenborough,’ said Keanu. ‘The only thing we’re missing is David Attenborough, and that wee beardy Scottish guy with the camera telling us how long he sat submerged in seaweed before he got the shot.’
They watched the seagulls, as the seagulls engaged in a protracted Mexican stand off, as though entered in Big Train’sclassic world staring championships.
‘Not so sure,’ said Barney after a while.
‘That this is actual David Attenborough.’
‘Sure it is,’ said Keanu. ‘I mean, yes, he has lots of naturally dramatic bits, like walruses plummeting to their deaths off cliffs, and lizards being chased by snakes, and dolphins playing golf, and all that shit, but there’s a tonne of it that’s just, I don’t know, ants running along a thing, or wild dogs eating their dinner, or a bird chirping some shit or other at another bird. Watch it with the sound off, and all you’re doing is watching an ant. I mean, really, who cares? But as soon as you turn your man on, bingo! There’s context. There’s narrative drive. Suddenly you’re rooting for that little ant as he starts trying to drag the enormous leaf back to the nest. Then the spider comes along, and you’re like, fuck off spider, and you’re cheering that wee ant on like you’ve got fifty quid on it to win the National. Unless, of course, your man Attenborough started, in the first place, to talk about the spider, and how he needs to kill an ant to get a shag, or to feed the bairns, and there are all these little spiderlings back at the web, and they haven’t eaten for days, and suddenly you’re like, come on Spider, you can do it, and you’re cursing the ant like it’s a Brexit-supporting, serial killing paedophile.’
At that moment Seagull B made a positive lunge at the small fish, managing to get a beak on it, although immediately Seagull A responded with a sharp jab to the top of the head, and Seagull B backed off again.
‘Interesting Brexit conflation you just made there,’ said Barney.
‘I do what I can.’
‘Whose side d’you think Mr Attenborough would have us on here?’
‘Seagull A,’ said Keanu. ‘That fellow caught the fish, he needs to feed the weans, he’s got little Eustace and little Maurice back at home squealing for their supper. Seagull B’s just a bastard.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor.
‘And Seagull A knows once he takes off with the fish, he’s vulnerable to attack, so all he can do is stand over it for now, trying to protect it. It’s a waiting game.’ He paused. They waited, while watching the seagulls wait. ‘Attenborough would narrativise the shit out of this.’
‘Is that even a word?’
‘What are you doing, guys?’ said an approaching voice from their right, and they turned at the arrival of Detective Sergeant Monk of the Millport constabulary.
She stood a few feet from them, looking disapproving, and they stood in their positions, looking sheepish.
‘You can’t all stand over here,’ she said. ‘I know you’ve all been tested, and you’re in the shop every day, but the optics are terrible. The islanders see you lot doing this, and they think you can get away with this mindless hanging around because Barney and I are a thing, and then I look bad, law and order breaks down, and before you know it, there’s looting, mass riots, cars are getting set on fire, shop windows are getting smashed, and decapitated heads are being left on spikes at every junction.’
They stared at her, they turned, they looked up and down and along the deserted road, they turned back.
‘You narrativise like David Attenborough,’ said Barney.
‘You can stand out here one at a time,’ said Monk. 'If I see all three of you doing this again, I'll unleash the robodog,' and she swung a finger in the direction of the shop.
‘Ma’am,’ said Barney, Keanu nodded guiltily, and Igor muttered, ‘Arf,’ apologetically. Old Man McGuire, who was on the other side of the road, heading home, having walked slowly around the bay, shouted, ‘About time you arrested one of them,’ across the road, and then he giggled darkly to himself and walked on.
Another day was close to biting the dust. Fifteen customers had come and gone. Fifteen customers were currently walking the roads of the island with the finest hair in the world of men.
Five minutes to closing time, and the men of the shop were standing at the window, cups of tea in hand, looking out over the remnants of the afternoon. The sun was casting a weary eye over the sea, the waves were beginning to pick up, the endless perpetual motion, the ebb and flow of coastal weather, continued.
‘We missed the news at five-thirty,’ said Keanu, breaking a lengthy silence, which Barney and Igor had been enjoying.
‘We never listen to the news,’ said Barney.
‘Sometimes I listen to the news when you’re not in the shop,’ said Keanu, and Igor cast him a baleful glance.
‘What d’you think you’ll have missed?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Maybe they found a vaccine.’
A moment passed. Another. A seagull settled on the promenade wall and stared across the road.
‘For the coronavirus, or for political stupidity?’ asked Barney, and Igor nodded grimly.
‘Arf,’ he said.
‘Absolutely,’ said Barney.
‘Maybe Trump resigned, like you keep saying he will,’ said Keanu, and he smiled, believing, like many others, that Trump would never resign.
‘We’ll know if Trump resigns without hearing it on the news,’ said Barney.
‘It’ll be like a disturbance in the Force, but, you know, a positive disturbance.’
‘Ha,’ said Keanu. ‘Like the Force will have an orgasm,’ and he started to laugh, quickly stopping at the looks he received.
‘Don’t be disrespecting the Force, son,’ said Barney.
‘Sorry, boss,’ said Keanu.
A flash of movement, and then two men in dark suits appeared, crossing the road from their right. When they reached the pavement by the shop, they stopped for a moment and stared inside. Since Barney, Keanu and Igor were standing at the large, broad window looking out, they were staring at each other from about three feet apart, only a pane of glass between them.
‘Uh-oh,’ said Keanu.
Igor lifted his mug in order to hide behind it. Barney stared gloomily across the divide.
‘Fuck,’ he said softly.
The two men held them in a business-like stare for a few moments, then finally moved, a few feet to their right, and then into the shop, closing the door behind them.
For a while no one spoke, as the two sides got the measure of one another, then the men in suits looked around the shop, as though committing it all to memory for the report they would have to write up.
‘There are no customers?’ said one of them, eventually. He looked like Hugo Weaving in the Matrix, multiplied by Hugo Weaving as Elrond. The other guy looked like he’d been cloned from Hugo Weaving, but was clearly the subservient Hugo Weaving of the pair.
‘Check the big brain on Brett,’ said Barney, unable to stop himself. Sarcasm wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever, but already he was thinking these clowns could leave, and never return.
‘You’re Barney Thomson?’ said Alpha Hugo Weaving. ‘This is Keanu MacPherson, and the hunchback is Igor?’
The men of the shop chose to neither confirm nor deny.
‘Igor only seems to have one name, like he’s a Brazilian footballer?’ said Omega Hugo Weaving, and again none of the men answered.
‘I’ll be blunt, Mr Thomson,’ said Alpha Hugo Weaving.
‘Please,’ said Barney. ‘And then you can fuck off.’
‘Interesting. You’re needed in Westminster. Pack a bag, you’re coming with us.’
‘No,’ said Keanu, the single syllable coming out slightly strangled, then he shook his head to try to expunge the ejaculation, and took a drink of tea.
‘I don’t think I will b –’
‘We understand you worked as personal barber for the three previous male prime ministers. The current incumbent, who we can’t name for security reasons, has problem hair, and he’d like you to come and do for him what you did for the others.’
‘I’d sooner shoot myself in the face.’
‘That can be arranged,’ Omega Hugo Weaving predictably chipped in.
‘That won’t be necessary,’ said Alpha Hugo Weaving. ‘Mr Thomson, we have a helicopter waiting to take us to Abbotsinch, from where the Prime Minister’s private jet will take us to London. You have an appointment to cut his hair at twenty-one hundred hours this evening.’
‘I’m busy,’ said Barney.
‘Pack that bag, Mr Thomson, the helicopter leaves in ten.’
A tense silence settled upon the shop. They’d all been here before, that moment when the brusque government officials arrived to whisk Barney away. It never ended well. Usually people died.
‘Can you let your people know,’ said Barney, ‘that I now possess a German passport, which I was able to get because of my mother’s grandmother, Helga Rubenstein, who fled to the UK in the late nineteenth century.’ He paused to allow the information to sink in, then he added, ‘So tell the Prime Minister, I’m an EU citizen. E. U. Let him know.’
They stared at each other from a few feet in the silence of the shop. Igor’s eyes were wide with anticipation. Keanu was on tenterhooks, albeit, he didn’t know what tenterhooks actually were.
Barney made the banner headline gesture, then said, ‘PM Flies In EU Citizen For Hair Cut, Undermines Entire UK Industry.’ He paused, then added, ‘Also Buys Oranges From Spain.’
Although Alpha Hugo Weaving was still staring at him, Barney could tell his eyes glazed over as he focussed on something else.
‘Did you get all of that?’ said Alpha Hugo Weaving into space.
The response, coming from some remote location, was lost on the others in the shop, and then suddenly, on the snap of someone else’s fingers, Alpha Hugo Weaving turned on a sixpence, nodded at Omega Hugo Weaving, opened the door and was gone.
Omega Hugo Weaving paused on the threshold, looked menacingly at Barney – albeit without really managing to pull it off – said, ‘We’ll be back,’ and then closed the door behind them.
Two seconds later they were out of sight, and the small drama was over.
The men of the shop watched the space where they’d been, they stared across the road at the white promenade wall and the gulls and the sea and the land and the sky, and then somewhere in the town a bell began to strike six.
‘I take it you don’t really have a German passport,’ said Keanu after a while.
‘They might check that and come back,’ he said.
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘I’ll need to think of a Plan B.’
‘You think you could stand behind Boris with a pair of scissors and not stab him in the back of the head?’
‘Let’s not find out.’
They each took a drink of tea, the bells finished their chimes, late afternoon continued to slowly fade across the land.
‘Wait,’ said Keanu after a while. ‘That guy said you’d cut the hair of the three previous male prime ministers. I thought when you cut Cameron’s hair, it ended up all just being a dream sequence?’
Igor stiffened, took a hurried drink of tea, glanced uncomfortably to his side.
Barney, altogether the coolest customer of the three, slowly shrugged.
‘No one knows, son, ‘ he said. ‘No one really knows anything at all…’