THE DAY BEFORE TOMORROW
Priti Patel Lies Low As Power Grab Gains Momentum, read the front page of the Times, above a story on the Home Secretary’s sleekit ways of the past two months, as she bided her time before inserting the knife in Boris Johnson’s back and making her bid to become the first daughter of Ugandan-Indian immigrants, third woman, and at least twelfth cunt to be Prime Minister.
It was a regular Friday morning on the Clyde. Sun shining, high, white clouds flitting from west to east, the tide on the wane, the gentle waves catching the light, sparkling with traditional iridescent Scottish splendour.
Just after nine am, and so far there had been no customers, and the men of the barbershop were busying themselves with reading the morning papers, well aware they were filling their heads with little but sludge, disinformation, distraction, and bullshit. There was the Telegraph, headline, Johnson Threatens Patel With Pregnancy If She Doesn’t Back The Fuck Off; the Express ejaculated BBQ Burgers For All, As BoJo Delivers Covid-Free Sunny Uplands; the International New York Times had, Blood-Soaked Trump Feasts On Dem Congresswoman’s Flesh During Explosive Press Briefing; the Mail had, Government Announce Frivolous Bullshit To Distract Us, And We Love It!; the Sun led with, Mass Hyde Park Orgy As Babes Give Covid The Finger; the Guardian, sitting sadly at the foot of the pile, had Cummings Kills Journalist With Bare Hands In Front Of Millions, Claims Innocence, Has PM’s Backing.
‘It’s all a bit shit,’ said Keanu MacPherson, Jedi barbershop apprentice to Barney Thomson, tossing the Times back onto the pile, getting up off the customers’ bench and walking to the window.
Outside, the town and the white promenade wall and the islands and the rocks and the sea stared back at him, looking much as it had done since the day the Carolingians arrived on Cumbrae from 8th century France with the Holy Grail, to establish the settlement that would one day become Millport.
‘And yet,’ Keanu continued, as Barney and deaf, mute hunchbacked barbershop everyman Igor had answered only with nods of agreement, ‘you look out there and it’s like nothing’s changed.
‘What’s a chap to do?’ said Barney.
‘Exactly. Bury your head in the sand and ignore all the shit, continuing about your life in ignorance of the catastrophes of the world? Or keep up with the news, share in the agonies of others, and allow yourself to become one with the depressive hellhole that humanity has created for itself?’ A beat, then he added, ‘Tough call.’
He turned to look at Barney and Igor, eyebrows raised.
‘There’s the third option,’ said Barney.
‘Go and buy pastries?’
‘My turn,’ said Keanu, and he smiled, and headed to the door. ‘The usual?’
‘Arf!’ said Igor.
There was no usual. Whoever went out to hunter-gather the pastries, always returned with an eclectic selection. The men of the Millport barbershop liked all the pastries.
The door closed, Keanu disappeared from view, and Barney took a final glance at the article he was reading in the Telegraph, Voters’ Delight As Boris Buffs Up For Summer Calendar Pic Bonanza, then folded up the paper and tossed it across the shop, where it landed with fictional precision on top of the pile.
‘You know who’s enjoying the lockdown?’ asked Malky Six Fingers.
Mid-morning, Keanu and Barney were cutting hair, there was another customer on the bench, Igor was sweeping up at the back of the shop, and Radio 3 was on quietly in the background; currently playing Franz Schubert’s early song, I Weep For My Fellow Man, For We Are All Fucked, being sung in the original Austrian by Italian soprano, Violetta Vermicelli.
‘Go on,’ said Keanu, who was midway through a regulation 1978 Alan Rough, which was more of a statement than a haircut. Malky Six Fingers had clearly decided to go all in.
‘Spiders,’ said Six Fingers.
Keanu noticed Barney smiling quietly to himself, but knew he would likely keep out of the discussion.
‘You’re cleared to continue,’ said Keanu, pausing for a moment, the curling tongs suspended steamily in mid-air, like Alan Rough watching the ball fly past his outstretched fingers.
‘Haven’t you noticed?’ said Six Fingers. ‘There are millions of spiders. They’re taking over.’
Keanu thought about it, remembered the spider he’d had to remove from his bathroom two days previously, shivered at the thought of it, then nodded.
‘You might be right.’
‘They say that when humanity has finally self-destructed, and let’s be honest, that’s likely to come in the next two or three months, it’ll be the spiders that emerge to rule the world. They’ve got it all. Eight legs. Like a million eyes or something. They’re creepy as fuck, sharp as tacks, they’ve got poison, they’ve got fangs, they eat shit, and every other species is scared of them.’
‘Don’t birds eat spiders?’
‘Except there are fewer birds, because humans are bastards and we’ve killed all the birds. Now the spiders are taking over.’
‘Wasps? Don’t wasps eat spiders?’
‘There is such a wasp, but they’ll get overrun. And anyway, is that a battle you want to stick around for? Giant wasps versus giant spiders? Fuck me, man. Give it a couple of years, and planet earth is going to be like one of those shitty movies you get on Channel 5. You know, Spidersaurus versus Gigantawasp, or Sharkodile versus Megabutterfly.’
The shop stopped for a moment.
‘Megabutterfly doesn’t sound so scary,’ said Keanu, after they’d all given due consideration to the beast.
‘That’s a pretty big fucking butterfly, by the way,’ said Six Fingers.
‘I do love those movies, though.’
‘Me too, but you wouldn’t want to be in one though, would you?’
‘In all those movies, when you’ve got your giant thing fighting your giant other thing, there are always people standing by who get to watch. How cool would that be? You get to stand on the sidelines watching while a giant lizard battles a rhinoceros crossed with a pigeon.’
The shop stopped for another moment to visualise the scene.
‘Pidgoceros,’ said Keanu, taking advantage of the silence, and marking a banner film title with the steam of the curling tongs.
In the mirror Keanu noticed the customer on the bench, who had the sinister look of the film producer about him, note something down in a small black Moleskine.
‘Trouble is,’ said Six Fingers, ‘there’s always tonnes of collateral damage, hunners of those innocent bystanders who get taken out. You think the giant bear crossed with a monkfish gives a shit if he takes out a class of schoolchildren? Monkbear doesn’t give a fuck, by the way.’
‘Good point,’ said Keanu, ‘but I’m prepared to take the risk. Got to trust in your own ability to get out of the way in time. When the giant seagull lands, I’m here for it.’
Six Fingers nodded, not a lot else to be said, and with it there was a general agreement that the conversation had run its course, and Keanu could now resume the very finest in 1970s hair styling.
‘Thing is,’ said Barney’s customer, Old Man Treadstone, who had sat silently throughout, so that one might not have imagined he was paying any attention, ‘doesn’t matter how terrifying your gigantic spiderkong actually is, it’s nothing like as scary as Matt Fucking Hancock filming himself on an iPhone, like a psychopath.’
There was general nodding and agreement around the shop, and the gentlemen once again fell into a comfortable silence, the only sounds the sweep of Igor’s brush, the hiss of the curlers, the click of Barney’s scissors, and the majestic swirl of the Wagner/Zutons mash-up, Ride of the Valeries, currently playing on Radio 3.
And I Looked, And Behold a Pale Horse
Early afternoon. One customer. A shifty looking character in for a haircut, quite unlike most of the other men they’d had in since the lockdown began. These days, Old McGuire aside, customers turned up in dire need, their hair blowing in the wind for all the world like they were out of a previously unheard Dylan verse.
This guy, however, oozing nefarious chicanery from every pore, had hair that had recently been attended to by a professional. Not necessarily a competent professional, thought Barney, though he would never have said it, but nevertheless someone who had at least been trained in the art of the hairsmith.
Furthermore, this man, this oily sleekweasel, this vagabond of duplicitousness, this prince of unscrupulous, malevolent darkness, this angry, accursed phantom, had expressly requested that Barney cut his hair, even though Keanu had stepped forward, prepared to begin the job.
‘What can I do for you?’ asked Barney, looking his customer in the eye in the mirror.
‘I’d like a Tony Blair, please,’ said the man, the words delivered with a smirk. ‘Early Blair. Pre-Iraq Blair.’
Barney pictured Tony Blair, he looked at the customer in the mirror, he looked down at his hair from above.
‘You’ve already got a Tony Blair,’ he said. ‘How about I take the clippers to it and give you a Dead Lenin.’
The smirk vanished from the customer’s face.
‘Not funny,’ he said. ‘No, let me be clear. This is your job interview. Give me a Tony Blair, whatever it takes, and crack on. We don’t have all day, the helicopter’s waiting.’ He paused, he held Barney’s eye in the mirror, then he said, ‘Get the haircut done.’
Barney glanced round at Igor and Keanu, both of whom were standing at the window, waiting for the arrival of the Scottish Godzilla from the depths of the Firth of Clyde, and they smiled and rolled their eyes.
‘You fucked it, mate,’ said Barney. ‘Get the haircut done. Not punchy enough. Too many syllables.’
‘What would you have said?’ asked the customer, eyeing him cautiously in the mirror, wondering if he was about to utter the next great catchphrase, the one that could be used, amended or abused, to take control of the political landscape for the next four and a half years.
‘I don’t mean to trouble you,’ said Barney, ‘but I’m in a bit of a hurry. How about that?
‘They said you were mouthy.’
‘You really want a Tony Blair? Funny haircut for one of your lot, isn’t it?’
‘Ha! Blair was the best Tory PM since Maggie. That’s why we could never beat him.’
‘You wouldn’t say that in front of Johnson, would you?’
‘Now, let me be clear,’ said the Tory MP, who wore his profession and party allegiance on his smug face like a Spartan’s sword dripped the blood of his enemies, ‘you made short work of the agents who were sent to you a couple of weeks ago, but the time for games is over. The Prime Minister, as is apparent whenever he appears in public, urgently requires work done on his hair. It is literally so bad, it’s beginning to undermine the government.’
‘You don’t think that’s more about everything they do, everything they say, and their general level of complete incompetence?’
‘No,’ said the Tory MP firmly, ‘I don’t. Definitely the hair. Look, people think Boris is hiding, they think he’s lazy, they think he doesn’t like scrutiny. None of that’s true. He longs to be out there, out front, talking to the press every single day, like Churchill multiplied by Alexander the Great, but… the hair! Dom feels it really undermines the message, and it’s about time something was done.’
‘And you think I’m the only barber in all the land who can fix this?’
The Tory MP smirked, the smirk turning into an open laugh, endearing himself even more to the shop.
‘Really, don’t think so highly of yourself, Mr Thomson. Every time the PM appears in public, it means another barber has been summoned from somewhere in the land, and they’ve had a go. You were not first choice, nor will you be last. You are one of many, but you have at least previously proven yourself in the crucible of prime ministerial hair, and so it is time. Dom thinks it’s time. You need to come to Downing Street.’
Igor and Keanu were watching grimly from the window. Igor, his eyes dark and shadowed, looked as though he was on the verge of opening the trap door beneath the barber’s chair. Keanu was more worried. He never liked it when Barney got whisked away to London. Barney, of course, had no intention of going anywhere.
‘And they sent you?’ said Barney, spraying a little water over the MPs hair, deciding he might as well occupy himself while they were chatting.
‘Yes, of course they sent me. And here I am. Look –’
‘Who are you, exactly?’
‘Toby Tortington-Davies, MP for Hermione-sub-Mendip, third parliamentary undersecretary to the Whips Office.’ He paused, he steelily looked Barney in the eye. ‘They call me the Enforcer.’
‘They do,’ said Tortington-Davies, as Barney started to snip away at the lush hair on the back of his head. ‘Dom likes me to take charge of things. I never fail to complete a mission.’
‘What missions have you completed so far?’ asked Keanu from the window.
‘Getting Ken Clarke and Rory Stewart to fuck off, that was me. Getting Starmer elected at Labour, another one of mine.’
‘He dismantles Johnson every week at PMQs,’ said Keanu.
‘Does he?’ said Tortington-Davies, immediately being answered with two yeses and an arf!
‘Doesn’t matter,’ he said, tossing a casual hand beneath the smock. ‘He’s boring as fuck. Remember, it won’t always be like this, there won’t always be a limited number of members in the Commons. A month from now, six months, a year, whenever, when they’re all back in there, and Boris is back to his extraordinary dazzling self, and Starmer’s boring everyone to death with “facts”, BoJo will be wiping the floor with him, and we’ll be hitting seventy per cent in the polls.’
Barney had stopped snipping. He’d had enough. There were so many triggers these days, although in Barney they did not trigger anger or a fight or annoyance or any similar negative emotion, they just triggered weariness. He’d had enough of political tribalism, and all its accompanying bullshit.
Anyone suggesting the PM was dazzling was high up the trigger list.
‘We’re done,’ he said, laying down the scissors and whipping the cape away from Tortington-Davies’s neck.
‘I don’t think we are.’
‘That’ll be twenty-five pounds, please. You can pay Igor on your way out.’
Tortington-Davies gave Barney a long slow look, the kind that usually crushed the newbie MPs in the House, but which had no effect on Barney, and then he looked at the price list.
‘I doubt you gave me any sort of haircut at all,’ he said, ‘but look at the board. Haircut, eleven pounds.’ He paused, then he repeated, slowly, ‘Eleven.’
‘And at the bottom of the board it says Specials, twenty-five pounds. The Tony Blair is a special. And look in the mirror, you have Tony Blair’s hair.’
‘I already had Tony Blair’s hair when I came in here, damn you.’
‘That you will have it when you leave is what matters. Twenty-five pounds, please.’
Tortington-Davies contemplated the scam, contemplated making a scene, then reached into his pocket, took out his wallet, extracted twenty-five pounds and held it forward.
‘Igor will take the money,’ said Barney, and Tortington-Davies turned away, grudgingly handed the cash to Igor, then grabbed his coat and stood at the door, looking back at the men of the shop.
‘This isn’t over,’ he said. ‘You will come and cut Boris’s hair. It’s time to decide who you are, Mr Thomson. Are you a patriot, or are you a leftist, liberal, workshy abecedarian?’
‘Oh, fuck off,’ said Barney.
‘You will –’
‘Out! Now!’ snapped Barney, walking towards him, as though willing to push him from the shop, and with that, Toby Tortington-Davies, MP for Terryandjune-on-the-Wold, walked away, too full of self-confidence to have a flea in his ear, already thinking about his next problem as he walked quickly along the seafront, back towards the helicopter pad.
The men of the shop watched him for a brief moment, he was soon out of sight, and then Barney said, ‘Dazzling. For God’s sake, what is wrong with these people?’ Then he opened the door, placed the stop at the bottom, and joined the others at the window.
‘Get some air in,’ he said after a while, and Keanu and Igor nodded, and slowly the ill-feeling of any room, after it’s been visited by a Tory MP, began to clear.
Late afternoon, not long before closing time. The men of the shop had crossed the road. Barney and Igor were leaning on the white promenade wall, looking out over the calm blue sea, as it stretched south towards the tropics, while Keanu had jumped up and was sitting on the wall, similarly looking out on the great beyond. They’d each brought a mug of tea with them, and those mugs seemed to be refilling themselves.
There was nothing on the horizon bar the sparkle of clear, cool water. In the air, the smell of the sea blown in from distant lands, seagulls on the wing, a gentle breeze, and the promise of another long hot magical summer on the Clyde.
‘Doesn’t look like the apocalypse is coming today,’ said Keanu, after a while.
Igor looked along the sea front, one way and then the other. There were no cars in movement, only a few pedestrians abroad, little other sign of life. Late afternoon, and the town of Millport was still asleep. As it had been since 1977.
‘Perhaps, we’re already living through the real disaster,’ said Barney. ‘Worldwide devastation, the large-scale corruption of governments and business, the collapse of societal norms… a slow motion apocalypse.’
‘Hmm,’ said Keanu. ‘Sounds like a shit movie, though.’
‘Aye,’ said Barney. ‘There’s unlikely to be a sequel.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, unusually talkative for a late afternoon.
‘On the other hand,’ said Barney, indicating the flat calm, ‘this is exactly how disaster movies start. In fact, this is so exactly how disasters movies start, the odds of there being a tsunami, an earthquake, a giant meteor or one of your colossal sharkiraffes are pretty short.’
At that moment a gentle wave broke on the rocks beneath them, the noise hushed and subdued, becoming one with the calm air, before vanishing into nothingness.
‘Hmm,’ said Keanu, ‘you’re probably right. D’you think we should seek cover now, or wait to see what develops?’
‘Let’s give it a minute,’ said Barney.
A seagull cried as it circled overhead, and then wheeled away along the shore to look elsewhere for food.
‘What d’you think’s most likely?’ asked Keanu after a while.
‘Which natural disaster’s most likely?’
A beat, then Barney and Keanu said together, ‘Flood.’
‘The thing with disaster movie type disasters,’ said Keanu, ‘is that no one can see them coming, except one mad scientist played by Paul Giammati or John Malkovich or someone, and then the volcano explodes, or the fault line ruptures, or the thing does the thing, and it’s like, shit, didn’t see that coming.’
‘So, look up the scientist guy,’ said Barney. ‘Then we’ll be able to prepare.’
‘Trouble is, how do you tell the practical, sensible scientist from the million nutjobs? And that’s the problem with the Internet; the nutjobs have all been amplified. In fact, it’s worse, because your logical science guy is an actual logical scientist, and he’s just working away quietly in his lab, submitting reports to Holyrood and Westminster and the UN, and those reports are being ignored, and he goes home and frets about it, but he’s had to put up with it all his working life, so he’s phlegmatic, and just becomes, if possible, even quieter. Meanwhile the nutjob is screaming the place down, and it’s all you can hear, so you just think, yeah, there’s nothing to worry about, just some nutjob saying the world’s about to end, so you ignore them, and then before you know it that wee hill outside New Cumnock, which you always thought was a bing, turns out to be a supervolcano and everyone dies.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘Same as everything really, be it politics or sport or whatever. The sensible person sits quietly in the corner, while the clown shouts to the heavens and everyone talks about them. Depressing really.’
‘And that’s why you never look at social media or listen to the news,’ said Keanu.
‘Maybe you’re right.’
For a while they sat, and stood, in silence, watching the placid arrival of the waves upon the shore. Away to their left a giant steel beast of a boat – carrying nuclear waste, to be buried in the depths of the Indian Ocean, where it would awaken a sleeping monster – began to emerge from behind Farland Point, as it moved slowly away from Hunterston docks.
‘Haw, you lot!’ came a shout from across the road, and they turned to see Old Man McGuire, standing outside the shop, waiting to be admitted for that week’s Pinochet Retro Disconnected Undercut. ‘Any possibility of a man getting a haircut around here?’
Barney smiled across the road.
‘You’re up, kid,’ he said to Keanu, and Keanu downed his mug of tea, swung his legs over the wall, and trotted quickly across the road, Igor in his wake, ready to take McGuire’s swab test.
‘You, eh?’ said McGuire to Keanu. ‘Suppose you’ll have to do.’
Barney watched them for a moment, this small burst of activity to round out the afternoon, then turned away and looked back out to sea. Another day more or less in the bag. Seventeen customers, including Old Man McGuire, but not including Twatington-Smythe of the Incompetent Party. A regular, solid day of lockdown activity.
He lifted his mug, he drank his tea, the sea continued to touch the shore, the birds cried in the clear blue sky, and out there in the wide, wide world, the great disaster movie that was twenty-first century planet earth, lurched relentlessly onwards towards the final act.