SLOW BOAT TO MILLPORT
A regular Friday on the Firth of Clyde in late July, the island of Cumbrae blanketed in low cloud and drizzle. Mid-morning, and the Millport barbershop was currently customer-lite. Jefferson, the town’s apprentice apothecary, had been in for his Babylonian fade cut, and the Malloy twins had been dragged in by their mum for their identical Gene Wilder Wonka cuts, and now the customer cupboard was bare, and the men of the shop were enjoying a delicious second breakfast of coffee and Austrian pastries flown in that morning from Innsbruck.
‘D’you ever wonder,’ said Keanu MacPherson, official barbershop No. 2, the Will Riker of the show, ‘if it’s not just that we’re in a sitcom situation, but we’re in an American sitcom situation?’
Barney Thomson, barbershop supremo, and Igor, ship’s counsellor, stared into the middle distance, munching on Tyrolean cowberry turnovers, contemplating the meaning of their existence. While they invariably took second breakfast standing at the window, looking out upon the view, today the view was so miserable, and the window so smeared with rain, they’d retreated to the barbers’ chairs and the customers’ bench.
‘I mean,’ continued Keanu to fill the contemplative silence, ‘I’m not complaining. I guess I’d rather be in an American sitcom situation than in the serial killer splatterfests we usually get around here, break up the monotony though they do. But still, the American sitcom can be questionable.’
‘What’s the difference?’ asked Barney.
‘Between American and British sitcoms?’
‘You don’t watch sitcoms?’
‘Forgot how to laugh in my twenties,’ said Barney, drily.
‘Ha. British sitcoms tend to be written by one person, or a couple, and they only have six episodes in a series. Maybe eight sometimes. Your American sitcom is written by a team of robots, and lasts about half the year. And the fact they have robot writers, means the shows can go on forever, year after year, while the star actors are trapped in their parts, being paid a million dollars an episode for their trouble.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘We do seem to have been here a long time now, though I haven’t noticed anyone offering us a million dollars every week.’
‘That aside, we are ticking quite a lot of the boxes. We just have to make sure we don’t have a dressing up episode.’
Barney and Igor stared blankly at him across the shop.
‘What’s that?’ asked Barney after a while.
‘Americans always end up having their characters dress up in various costumes. Gives the audience something else to get excited about. You know, like the alpha character has to dress up as Elsa from Frozen, that kind of thing. It’s a cheap laugh, but they always do it.’
‘Good thing we don’t have an alpha character,’ said Barney, and he took a drink of coffee.
Keanu and Igor looked at him.
‘You’re clearly the alpha character.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding.
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘Well, I don’t actually know who Elsa from Frozen is, but I feel sure I’m not going to be dressing up like her.’
‘That,’ said Keanu, ‘is exactly what the alpha sitcom character would say at the start of the episode.’
Barney looked deadpan across the shop.
‘We also never have sex episodes,’ continued Keanu matter-of-factly.
‘They have sex in American sitcoms?’
‘Well, no, obviously not actual sex, but they have endless episodes where characters get into relationship situations, which are really about wanting to have sex. So take Big Bang Theory for example, which had as its basic premise, nerdy scientists doing space stuff, which is the most amazing, huge and fascinating subject to write comedy about, right? Every now and again there was a space gag or a space episode, but ninety-five per cent of the time, one of the characters would be trying to get laid, or was having relationship difficulties. Like its close cousin the cheap laugh, it’s kind of cheap writing.’
‘Beginning to look more and more like we’re not an American sitcom after all,’ said Barney.
‘I don’t know though. We have been sitting here for a long time. Seems like a lot longer than six episodes.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘Maybe you’re right. Aren’t there American sitcoms where nothing every happens?’
There was silence for a moment, then a Mexican shrug travelled around the room.
‘They say nothing happened in Seinfeld,’ said Keanu. A beat, then he added, ‘But I never saw it, so I don’t know if that’s true.’
‘Me neither,’ said Barney.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding glumly.
And so they each took a bite of Tyrolean deliciousness, and they took a drink of coffee, and the morning continued unobstructed by events.
The First Refuge Of The Grifter
There were two customers in the shop when there arose something of a tumult of noise outside, a hundred yards along the front. A tumult of whirling white noise. Igor, standing at the window with a good view of events, lowered the newspaper he was reading – the National, headline, New Route To Indy As 95% Of England Expected To Die Of Stupidity – and indicated along to their left.
‘Arf,’ he said, and although he hadn’t quite managed to elucidate the words, ‘There’s a soap bubble helicopter landing on the crazy golf course,’ they all – customers included – understood what he meant.
Barney lifted an eyebrow, his face dropping into a scowl, and went for a quick look. Took a moment to watch as the helicopter touched down, the turbulence sending a three year-old girl, about to birdie the tricky fifth, over the side of the rocks and into the sea. (It is not recorded whether her mother, who jumped in after her to save the child, was successful in the attempt, and while records note that neither mother nor child was ever found, years later there were reports of such a pair living wild on a remote island off the coast of Antrim.)
‘Fuck’s sake,’ muttered Barney, as he turned away, and returned to his customer, Fitzpatrick the milliner, in for his regular Withnail & Tonic cut.
‘What’s up boss?’ asked Keanu.
‘A helicopter carrying someone who thinks he owns the place,’ said Barney. ‘Unlikely to end well.’
‘You think he’s from Westminster, looking for you?’
‘Got to be a fair chance.’
‘That asshole last week did say he’d be back.’
Barney returned to his cut, Keanu returned to his Kafka Trial cut, and for a brief moment normal service resumed, albeit beneath a heavy layer of tension that would inevitably be short-lived.
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding again in the direction of the crazy golf, as someone was walking quickly towards the shop.
Almost as though they were professional synchronised barbers, Barney and Keanu now stopped cutting at the same time, their scissors poised in the air, waiting for something to happen. The one-man SWAT team crashing in through the window… the gas attack… the machine gun bullets riddling the shop front.
A man dressed in black appeared at the door. He was wearing a black face covering over his nose and mouth, a stab-vest, and preposterously cool sunglasses for the west coast of Scotland, but at least he didn’t appear to be armed. The three men of the shop and two customers stared at him, waiting to see what he was going to do. There was no obvious reason why he didn’t just walk in.
Although he could likely have held them in suspense, nestled in the palm of his black-gloved hand, he elected instead to go for the quick execution.
The noise shattered the moment.
‘Arf?’ asked Igor, Barney nodded, and Igor walked slowly to the door.
‘Millport barbershop?’ said SWAT Guy brusquely.
Igor stared at him as if he was an idiot. There was little more likely to excite Igor’s contempt than someone asking if the barbershop was a barbershop.
‘Does Barney Thomson work here?’ asked SWAT Guy, this time with even more urgency. He sounded annoyed, and in a hurry.
Igor stared grimly at him, still with no intention of speaking.
‘Yes,’ said Barney from behind.
‘I need you to sign for this,’ said SWAT Guy, and he held forward an envelope.
Everyone looked at him. A few seconds passed.
‘Now,’ he said, glancing urgently at his watch.
‘Wait,’ said Keanu, ‘you’re the postman?’
SWAT Guy stared angrily at Keanu, then turned back to Igor.
‘Can you sign for the letter, please?’
‘Why are you wearing a stab vest?’ asked Keanu. ‘Do people often get stabbed when you deliver the mail?’
SWAT Guy regarded Keanu with what might have been disdain, although it was hard to tell beneath the mask and glasses, then he looked from behind his disguise at Barney – a look that said, I’ve heard all about that guy – and then he turned back to Igor.
‘Sign for the letter.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, after another short stand off.
Strangely able to understand Igor, SWAT Guy held forward a pen. Igor ignored him, and turned away, heading to the back of the shop to get his own pen. Either he had no intention of touching anything that belonged to the absurd fool at the door, or else recognising the man’s hurry, he was happily stalling for time, like a footballer writhing in pretend agony, clutching his ankle for fifteen minutes at the end of the game as the clock ticks.
Barney and Keanu watched SWAT Guy for a moment or two, then shrugged and turned back to their haircuts. SWAT Guy was left alone at the door, waiting on Igor’s slow walk to the rear of the shop, the root around the small room at the back for a pen – which was entirely a pretend root around – and then the equally slow return.
SWAT Guy held forward a small clipboard, a lined receipt document on the top, the letter in question, Barney’s name written on the front, clipped beneath it. Igor, relishing his small moment of triumph, decided to sign his full name, marking each letter with painful sluggishness, to take as much time as possible.
Conte Alexandru Pompiliu Gheorghe Igor Tătărușanu Protopopescu.
SWAT guy finally snapped, snatching the clipboard away from Igor and thrusting the letter at him.
‘See that he gets it,’ he said harshly, and then he turned quickly away, one step, two steps, then he broke into a jog, and was climbing back into the helicopter by the time Igor had closed the door of the shop and was handing the letter to Barney. Barney took it, tossed it onto the worktop, and then returned to his cut.
The click of a single pair of scissors, the slow tick of the clock on the wall at the rear of the shop, one second round to the next. Eventually Barney noticed he was the only one working, and that the others were all staring at him. Waiting.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Come on, boss,’ said Keanu. ‘The tension’s unbearable. You’ve got to open it.’
‘Aye,’ said Barney’s customer.
‘Aye,’ said Keanu’s customer.
Barney nodded reluctantly, lifted the letter, ran his finger along the seal, and began reading under the watchful eye of the shop. Fifteen seconds, then he scrunched the letter up into a ball and tossed it into the bin in the far corner. He sighed, lifted his scissors, then accepted he had to address the issue before continuing with the cut.
‘The Prime Minister’s chief advisor is looking for me to go and cut the PM’s hair. They want me there until at least Brexit’s done and dusted.’
‘Brexit will never be done and dusted,’ said Keanu, mildly incredulous.
‘I think he means end of January next year.’
‘Ah. What else did he say? After he popped in here last week, I was kind of expecting threats and extortion, or a horse’s head in the bed, something like that. Sending a letter seems kind of tame, to be honest.’
‘I wondered about that,’ said Barney, and now he did resume the haircut, his scissors swiftly clipping across the top of the Withnail & Tonic cut, ‘but he’s gone for the carrot in the first instance. He says that we, as the Millport Barbershop, can bid for a government contract to supply PPE. The details are all there. If we go ahead, we’ll be the only bidders, they’ll pay us £108m in cash, and we won’t actually have to supply anything. He states they’ve handed out so many of these contracts since the coronavirus arrived, that it’ll just get lost in amongst all the others and no one will notice.’
They all stared at him, they looked at the bin, they looked back at Barney.
‘Wait, what?’ said Keanu. ‘You just got offered £108m for like five months’ work, and you tossed it into the bin?’
‘That’s pretty much what happened.’
‘You were just saying no one offered us a million pounds an episode to appear in this sitcom, and now the money’s rolling in.’
Barney gave him a look, and finally Keanu nodded, accepting the inevitable.
‘Aye, all right. Tainted money.’
‘Yes, tainted, and let’s not forget, illegal, money. So, they can all fuck off.’
‘Interesting that he thought he’d have more luck buying you off, than actually threatening you with violence.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘I guess that’s just who they are. They think everyone can be bought.’
‘Maybe they’ll threaten you next time.’
‘Arf,’ growled Igor from the window, his back turned, looking out over the sea as the helicopter flew swiftly away from the island, heading south.
Barney and Keanu shared another look, together they shrugged away the ill taste of the offer from the strange SWAT Guy, and slowly normal service was resumed.
Silence settled upon the shop. One minute ticked round to the next.
‘Wankers,’ said Barney’s customer suddenly, and even though it wasn’t entirely clear, they were all pretty sure he was talking about the Westminster government.
Post-Apocalypse Narrative Conjecture
Early afternoon, the shop quiet. The drizzle had passed, the streets had begun to dry, the fresh breeze from the west had brought light, fast-moving cloud, and patchy blue skies. The men of the shop were standing at the window looking out on the world, the last customer had been dispatched ten minutes previously with the most glorious Imperial Fade cut ever seen outside of Coruscant, there was quiet choral music playing in the background – Arvo Pärt’s beautiful lamentation on the unfolding cataclysm that is the human race, Yes, I Look East And I Weep, But When I Look West…? Holy Shit, Man, You’re Fucking Kidding Me By The Way – and the pile of that day’s newspapers – the Guardian with PM Ordered By Kremlin To Pretend He Gives A Fuck; the Mail with Raab Calls Britain’s Amazing New Trade Deal With Christmas Island Start Of East India Company 2, ‘we’ll get cut-price chocolate Santas,’ says Raab; the Mirror with Raab Shocked To Learn Christmas Island Not Off Lapland Arctic Coast; the Guardian with Raab Shocked To Learn Lapland Doesn’t Have Arctic Coast; the Independent with Hancock, Gove And Patel To Feature In New ITV Game Show, ‘I’m A Cunt, Get Me Out Of Here’; and the Express with Boris: Russian Heroes Helped Win Brexit Like They Helped Beat Hitler – lay impotently unread in a forlorn heap of lies, bullshit and propaganda.
‘D’you really think,’ said Keanu, usually the first to break a doughnut-induced silence, ‘that when the human race finally implodes, it’s going to be giant carnivorous spiders that take over?’
Barney popped the last of a peanut butter and white wine, maple sugar-frosted doughnut into his mouth, dabbed at his lips with the napkin in which he’d been holding the pastry, took a drink of coffee, and indicated the great beyond.
‘No one,’ said Barney, ‘thinks the spiders are going to take over.’
‘Wait, what? I thought we’d agreed.’
‘Exactly,’ said Barney. ‘There may have been a customer-led discussion on the subject, but it was never officially ratified by the shop’s executive committee, and submitted to the scientific editorial department at the New England Journal Of Hairdressing.’
‘Oh, I thought it was.’
They stared out of the window for a while, their third doughnut each of the day polished off, looking away across the grey-blue sea, to the mainland, and south to the distant, undiscovered horizon, beyond which lay nothing but dreams. And Girvan.
‘So, you don’t think it’ll be spiders?’
‘I don’t think it’ll be spiders,’ said Barney, nodding. ‘I’m not saying the spiders won’t grow exponentially in size, and become this fearsome, giant, rapacious mammal-slaughtering predator, but I doubt they’ll be at the top of the food chain.’
They drank some more coffee, the conversation coming in bitesize chunks, as they each applied all their evolutionary biological knowledge to the problem of what would come next, once the human race had finally submitted to its own idiocy and greed.
‘I’m afraid,’ said Barney, after a while, ‘that the only logical answer is whatever we evolve in to.’
‘But we’re all dead,’ said Keanu.
‘Arf,’ agreed Igor.
‘But are we, though?’
‘Well, yes, that’s the basic premise. The human race is extinct.’
‘It’s a flawed premise,’ said Barney. ‘The chances of there being a species extinction level event that affects the entire human race, but doesn’t at the same time wipe out pretty much all other life on earth, is pretty slim. A nuclear war’s going to kill virtually everything except cockroaches and seagulls, so it’s hardly worth having a discussion about it. If there’s a plague, like Covid-19 times two thousand, three hundred and fifty-six, chances are there’ll still be some people, however few, who’ll be immune. Even in the nuclear war scenario, someone will survive. Some people. And those people are automatically going to be at the top of the food chain, because they have opposable thumbs, know how to use a gun, and can operate the TV remote. Doesn’t matter how few of them there are. And pretty much the only way you can guarantee there’s no one left, is a planet-wide extinction level event, like an asteroid the size of the moon, or something, that kills everything, reducing the planet to a barren desertified rock with a punctured atmosphere, floating pointlessly through space, devoid of all life.’
‘Interesting,’ said Keanu. ‘Who d’you think would be at the top of the food chain then?’
Barney gave him a raised eyebrow, realised he was joking, and smiled. The men drank coffee, the day passed by before them, time marched relentlessly, if slowly, onwards.
‘I think you’re being a bit literal there, my old friend,’ said Igor, under cover of the word arf. ‘It’s a bit of fun. So humour the lad. Imagine, for the sake of argument, the skewed premise that all human life has died, but all other life is left alive. What wins?’
Igor could say a lot with the word arf.
‘What he said,’ said Keanu.
‘Fair enough,’ said Barney.
He watched as the Ardrossan ferry edged into view on the horizon. The wind still blew, the ever-changing clouds flitted across the sky, formations in the shape of Iceland and Australia and dinosaurs were created and vanished, rose and fell, the gulls circled and swooped and parried and argued and squawked, the sea tossed and turned, the waves broke on the shore, and the men of the shop drank their coffees and enjoyed the aftertaste of a delicious doughnut.
‘Sheep,’ said Barney after a while.
Keanu glanced at him, saw the wee smile on his lips, rolled his eyes, shook his head, couldn’t help laughing.
5:17pm. There had been a few more customers, but the afternoon had been uneventful as afternoons go. Now they were sitting around, wrapping up the day, a last cup of tea, the three men of the shop, plus Detective Sergeant Monk, who’d stopped by to join them. It had been a quiet day of policing on the island of Cumbrae, and she’d been able to wind things up a little early.
‘No crime then?’ asked Keanu, from his position at the window. The others were sitting around, on the customers’ bench and the barbers’ chairs.
‘Just the usual trouble with the drug smuggling syndicates working out of Wemyss Bay.’
‘Any chance of a shoot out?’
‘Machine guns and grenades, that kind of thing? That’s what happens on shows.’
‘I assume so. Might be happening tonight, but Thad said he’d take care of it. He’ll call if it turns out there are more than fifty of them.’
‘That aside, there’s the Russian warlords laundering money through the Indian Face Café, the Somalian people-smugglers operating out of the Lion Rock luxury villa complex, and there’s the Trump Brothel that’s just opened up near the bowling green, but hopefully we’ll get that shut down by the end of the day.’
‘When you put it like that I’m surprised you’re finished so early.’
‘Thad’s the best constable in town,’ said Monk, ‘he knows what he’s doing. How about you guys? Busy?’
‘Average,’ said Barney.
‘Arf,’ nodded Igor.
‘Barney nearly had to dress up as Elsa from Frozen,’ said Keanu, ‘but it looks like he might’ve gotten away with it.’
Barney looked deadpan across the shop at Monk, who nodded and smiled.
‘You can tell me all about it over dinner.’
‘You might not get the full story without me there,’ said Keanu.
‘Oh,’ said Barney, deciding they should move on, ‘the Tories have more or less offered us £108m if I’ll go and cut the PM’s hair for the next five months.’
‘Using a fake PPE contract as cover?’
‘Decent. What d’you think?’
‘Thought I’d ignore it. I mean, do we need a hundred and eight million pounds?’
‘Not really. And it’s worse than that anyway. You do a good job with Johnson, chances are the moron across the pond is going to want you. And you know what they’re like. They won’t ask, they’ll probably just use CIA rendition tactics, they’ll snatch you from your bed one night, the next thing you know you’re standing behind Trump in some room in the bowels of the White House, trying to make him look like Lincoln or whichever former president someone just told him was a Republican.’
‘And nobody wants that,’ said Barney.
‘No-siree. Imagine he won re-election by one vote in Michigan, and it was because you’d given him a Ronald Reagan ‘81. People don’t know Reagan was a Republican. They say things, but they didn’t know him. No one knew Ronald Reagan better than I did. He was a great friend of mine, a great friend, a great person… woman… man… camera… TV… and he said to me, Donald, he said, people don’t know this about me, but I’m a Republican. And you’d be responsible for everything that followed. Death, destruction, unfettered plague, rampant stupidity…’
Barney stared vaguely into the horrific middle distance.
‘I mean,’ said Monk, ‘it’s not like the same thing can happen here. Boris Schmoris. We’re so fucked, no one pays attention to us anymore anyway. But Trump? That guy has the power to bring western civilisation to its knees, and he’s made a solid start. Give him another four years… holy shit… Don’t do it, Barney.’
He shook his head, smiled, she smiled with him, they drank their tea.
It had been another uneventful episode in the life of the Millport barbershop, and so, as the dust settled on the day, it continued on its sleepy way, the afternoon drawing towards its inevitable conclusion.
‘Maybe something will happen tomorrow,’ said Keanu, after a while.
The clock ticked.
‘Arf,’ said Igor some time later, and the others all nodded in agreement.