Short, Back and Sides
Posted on January 26, 2012
Martin’s Barber Shop had been in the town for as long as anybody could remember; a basic, no-nonsense hairdressers next to the Capital cinema just near to the town centre. Its owner, Marten Hiss had been a German paratrooper in the war and had ended up in a POW camp nearby. He had been captured after crashing feet first through the roof of Mavis’s Hairdressing Salon and landing trouser-less astride the poor owner, as she sat naked on her bed, painting her toes bright red. Mavis never recovered from the shock and her legs would twitch involuntarily whenever she heard anything spoken in German. It was also a defining moment for Hiss who, in an instance, knew exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
He had perfected his hairdressing skills on the heads of his fellow prisoners using a makeshift pair of clippers he had made from stolen knives and forks and saw no reason not to carry on with his new trade when he was released in the late forties. After all, there wasn’t much demand for paratroopers after the war, especially German ones, and the prospect of returning to Dresden to the joys of the new German Democratic Republic wasn’t one he particularly relished.
There was nothing sophisticated about his shop; just a high-ceilinged room below his flat, a few wooden stools and one large adjustable leather chair in front of a mirror that hung from the ceiling. Minimalist in the extreme but functional and a nice little earner. No shampooing, no hair drying, no styling. Just your traditional Short, Back and Sides and occasional Square Neck or Ducks Ass – a shilling for the lot. No more than ten minutes work on each customer and that was that. If you wanted styling, then there was always Brylcreem and what he could do with a few handfuls of the white slutch was legendary. One minute, you were some boring factory worker with your hair flat against your head. The next, you were the sculptured image of The King himself. Elvis personified. He had no finesse in its application. Just a quick scoop with his hand, a simple slop on the crown of the head and two minutes of massage to ensure that every hair was covered and every crevasse filled.
The shop also did its bit for birth control being the main supplier of Durex in the town – especially to the young lads too embarrassed to venture into Boots and confront Edna Wigthorne and her disdain for anything sexual. Yes, they did stock condoms or “protective sheaths” as she called them, but access was restricted to “Married Men Only” and they were locked in a cupboard in the back room. She had the only key and this was anchored to a solid gold chain, which dangled across her huge, sagging breasts, which moved in unison as she waddled around the shop. Even Cyril, her husband, had no access except on the occasional birthday when she had one Babysham too many. Then his terrible nightmares would turn to reality, as she would pucker her bright red lips and descend on him like a beached whale, writhing and squealing in orgasmic ecstasy. In Martin’s, however, it was always handled very discretely with a whispered, “Anything else, sir?” and a mastered sleight of hand as the goods were exchanged and pocketed quickly.
Hiss was a very tall man, thickset with a jaw that looked as it had been chiselled out of concrete. He had hands like shovels with gnarled and ugly fingers, yet possessed a dexterity that belied their size. He would move around his customers in a series of perfunctory steps, military fashion, almost standing to attention before launching headlong with his clippers, attacking like a Blitzkrieg. Hair would fly off as he worked himself into frenzy, thrusting the clippers backwards and forwards in the manner of a sheep shearer. At the end he would stop, make a cursory inspection and lop off anything that was left standing with a pair of scissors. Occasionally, this included a tiny piece of the customer’s ear but they never dared complain.
Everybody called him Marvin not because that was his middle name but because of his obsession with one group, The Shadows and that was the only music ever played in his shop. Take it or leave it. That’s all you got. Hank Marvin, Jet Harris, Bruce Welch and Tony Meehan all day long. Fifteen minutes in there and you were humming those bloody tunes for the rest of the month. Apache and Kon Tiki. They just stuck in your head and wouldn’t go away. He dressed the part. Tight black drainpipes, swept-backed haircut with a quiff, Elvis style, sideburns and thick-soled, blue suede shoes. He had the lot. Customers even tolerated his false teeth that rattled in his mouth and chomped in time to the music. Ten years he had been at it. Ten years of bliss. No competition. The only barbers in that godforsaken little town.
Then they came along. And she came with them. John, Paul, George and Ringo. The Fab Four. The Beatles. Scousers to boot. No quiffs for them. No Brylcreem. Just that long, mop top cut. Music changed overnight. No more Cliff and The Shadows. Instead, it was Jerry and the Pacemakers, Brian Poole and The Tremeloes, the Undertakers, Faron’s Flamingos, the Searchers, Cilla Black; and that bunch of long-haired misfits, the Rolling Stones and the prancing Mick Jagger. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing some awful raucous group bellowing from some run down tenement and being signed up by EMI. Marvin loathed them.
Hair opened up almost immediately just down the road next to the Cooperative. Shirley was a Scouser who had recently moved to the town when her husband got a job at the local glass factory. She borrowed some money and took the plunge. The shop was ultra modern. White plastic cutting chairs with cushions; full-length mirrors, shampoo basins, recliners and a set of oval basket chairs suspended from the ceiling.
Shirley had the longest legs you’ve ever seen, accentuated by the ultra- short, leather mini skirt she wore and the high-heeled boots. She took on two young assistants, chosen mainly for their physique and looks rather than their hairdressing skills and set about coaching them in the finer arts of cutting and styling. At weekends, she brought in a group of schoolgirls to keep up with the shampooing, sweep the floors and provide a little bit of extra titillation. She didn’t mind if they came in their school uniforms, the older customers seemed to like it. Clippers were banned in her shop and style and fashion were the order of the day.
Pictures of famous pop groups adorned the walls. A jukebox played the latest hits and coffee was served to all the customers (biscuits included). Within a month, she was booming. Teddy boys became mods. Back combs and perms went out of the window and the Mary Quant style became a must. Unisex was her philosophy and men and women, boys and girls sat together with no sexual discrimination whatsoever. For her, success at a stroke. For Marvin, total disaster. Even his pensioners left him, saving up a few pennies a week to look at the young girls’ legs and have their balding heads shampooed by soft-fingered teenagers.
Marvin tried his best to win back his customers. Free cups of tea (sugar included); Wagon Wheels for the kids; a washbasin and a shampoo assistant (his 16 year old nephew, Walter); even some pictures on the walls. The Shadows of course and copies of their platinum discs. He even introduced Cliff Richards into his music collection. But things got worse and worse. He would sit by the door smiling, his teeth chattering in his mouth, waving to people to come in but they were having none of it. He could only look on as the queues lengthened down the street and fashions changed dramatically before his eyes. Cuban heeled boots, two piece collarless suits, flairs and longer and longer hair.
It all came to a head when he paid £100 for Jet Harris to make a guest appearance in his shop when touring in the North West. He had assumed that this would bring back all his old customers, only to find a handful of ageing rockers appearing drunk on their bikes and demanding that Jet autograph their chests just above the heart; with knives of course. Harris had bid a hasty retreat when fighting broke out after he refused to play Apache or Kon Tiki and his Jag was pursued along the East Lancs road, bombarded with beer cans all the way to the sanctuary of Liverpool.
Marvin closed down in despair after being cautioned by the police. He took a job in the aircraft factory at Chadderton building doors for the new Vulcan bomber and the sixties passed him by. He left the shop as it was, almost a shrine to a bygone age and retreated to his small flat. He remained a loner, kept the same clothes, same hairstyle and the same music. He couldn’t be bothered with the opposite sex. Nothing but trouble. Knickers and legs.
Then he noticed a young apprentice at the factory in ankle length boots with laces, his trousers three-quarter length. Marvin assumed that his mother had accidentally shrunk them in the wash especially since he had braces holding them up. He also assumed that he had nits since his head was almost totally shaven. Then he saw more of them hanging round the town centre, looking for trouble. Soon the papers were full of them. Skinheads, bovver boys they called them and they had their own distinctive style, music and culture.
Then one day, he was returning from work when he saw two of them standing outside his shop, peering in. He approached them cautiously and asked them what they wanted. The taller one turned, stared at him and asked if he was the owner. He had an elongated neck and a tiny face covered in spots. His Adam’s apple wobbled as he spoke. He reminded Marvin of one of the characters in the Beano Magazine with bug teeth. He had this hunched appearance and his overcoat hung below his knees, stopping just above his bovver boots. Marvin nodded hesitantly. The shorter one moved closer and asked if it was open, pushing against the door.
He was about to say no, when he opened the door instinctively and they walked in. He switched on the light and turned and faced them. The taller one stroked the top of his head and asked him what he charged. He pulled out a photograph of a group and pushed it in front of Marvin, pointing at the singer’s head. “Five Shillings,” said Marvin without thinking. The taller one pushed himself into the chair and leaned his head back. “Two Grade,” he said and shut his eyes. “Make it quick. Got some action to go to.”
Marvin pulled out the clippers, made a few simple sweeps from front to back and side to side and the skull shone in front of him. It was like déjà vu and memories of his time in the POW camp came flooding back to him. The lad stood up, stroked his head, pulled the coins from his pocket and squeezed them into Marvin’s hand. The shorter one followed him into the chair. “3 grade for me,” he said, “Want a bit more class. Leave the sideburns.” Marvin adjusted the clippers, modified his skim and finished in a few minutes. The boy admired himself in the mirror turning from side to side. He gave Marvin the thumbs up and handed him the money. They turned to leave.
The shorter one stopped, came back towards Marvin and leant over towards him, placing his mouth against his ear. He whispered. “Johnnies, got any? On a promise.” Marvin pulled away and nodded.
He unlocked the cupboard, felt amongst the jars of Brylcreem and pulled out the box. Despite the passage of time, it was still sealed and he opened it, pulling out the oblong packets. “Four’ll do,” said the shorter one. “Two each. Won’t manage any more after ten pints.” He laughed.
Marvin passed him the condoms and they left. He sat down in the chair and tried to take it all in. He assumed it was a one off and that was that. A little bit of nostalgia and it would over, he thought. But the next night there were more of them. Then gangs formed outside his shop. He worked through till midnight each night and tried to keep the day job going but it was too much. He packed the factory job in and even trained Walter in the finer arts of shaving and 2 and 3 grade clip-guard. It wasn’t just confined to men. Female skinheads joined the lads in the shop demanding feminine variations. He obliged and soon mastered the feathercut, short on the crown, with fringes at the front back and sides.
As for himself, he had no option to join them. Off went the Elvis cut; away went the drainpipes and blue suede shoes; and in its place came the combat trousers, the braces and the Doc Martens. He even shaved his head, the full one grade. Up went the pictures of the groups, The Specials, Madness and The Selecters even Sham 69 and Menace and in came their music booming out of the windows. He didn’t mind it. It was far better than lying on your back in a factory with a rivet gun in your hand and stinking of aviation fuel. When he looked in the mirror, it was almost as if he was back as a paratrooper again.
Hair on the other hand didn’t survive. Fashions changed. Long hair and Mods went out. Skinheads and punks took over. The brick through the window and the swastika carved in her front door finally did it for Shirley. She returned to Liverpool and got a job in Woolworths in the lingerie section. At least she had security there; and anyway arthritis had started to set into her hands and feet and she didn’t look the part in that short, leather mini skirt anymore. She was over forty after all.
Marvin opened the door to his flat, took the pack of beer cans from his fridge and flopped on the couch. His hands were still twitching from the days cutting. He was still alone despite his recent success but he didn’t mind. He enjoyed his own company. He always had. He looked around and wasn’t alone at all. The pictures of Hank, Bruce, Tony and Jet still adorned his walls, smiling at him. They were his family and always would be. Fashions would come and fashions would go. But they would always be there for him. Always.
He turned on the record player, placed the needle at the vinyl’s edge and there it was, Apache, its twanging guitar cords resonating through his head, reassuring him that some things never change.
© Graham Walker 2012
Photo courtesy of Flickr user psygmon7.