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The 1960s and 1970s will go down in history as the era of Hair. It even had its own hit musical. The hippy look, the page boy, the mullet, the shag, the layered feather cut… They may seem a bit passé now, but those decades long hair had only one name attached to it – cool.

That was, except for me. If there was another boy in the Western hemisphere who spent his entire teenage years sporting a side-parted comb-over and the shorn back and sides of a concentration camp victim, I’d like to meet him. And his carer.

But it hadn’t always been that way. Not for my first four years, at least. I only recall the latter portion, of course, but I do recollect aged grandmas and aunties billing and cooing over my nice, fair, wavy locks. “Ooh, he’ll turn a few heads with those!” one would say. “What a lovely set of curls you have, Philip. You’ll have all the girls after you!” You know the sort. And I lapped it up for fun. Then school beckoned.

“He wants it cut like a lad!” barked my father to the guy in the beige overcoat, while I sat, caped and trembling in the raised chair, and wondering what the hell was coming next. “Two-penny All-Off?” enquired the Beige Overcoat Guy.

“That’s the one.” And with that the old man flicked a switch, brought a hot, buzzing contraption to my head and proceeded to shave off every curl that had adorned the side of my five year-old cranium. And of course, he didn’t stop there. “Move your head down, please!” The barber’s tone was gentle, but firm, with no choice but to comply. In seconds, where there had been scores of tight little wavy ringlets much beloved of kind relatives, there was nothing. From the nape of the neck almost to the crown, all round and both temples, smooth as a baby’s bottom.

I don’t recall crying, but I must have done. Father looked on in grim satisfaction as the barber hacked away towards my crown, then after slathering what little remained with Brylcreem, yanked his comb sideways hard across the skull to leave me with the most brutal side-parted comb-over imaginable. This was the dreaded “two-penny all-off”, official haircut of the 1930s Depression and the following twenty years. And due to my father’s unshakeable rigidity and iron-fist rule, (“As long as you’re under my roof, etc…”) this was to be my hair `style’ for the next fifteen.

It wasn’t too bad at first, I was in good company pre-high school. But with the advent of the Rolling Stones, and those loveable mop-heads from Liverpool, all short styles gradually fell from favor, until the end there was just me, the walking anachronism. “Slap Head!” “Baldie!” were just two of the numbingly predictable sobriquets I grew up with. Hardly surprising, then, that I developed a terminal hair fetish.

And still there was that ghastly comb-over. It was scraped across the way bald men do when trying to hide their shiny pate, except of course I wasn’t. I even combed it that way myself, never having known any different. At the age of 20, I was allowed sideburns. A year later I left home. It was 1977.

*

“Are you sure?”

Her hesitation, though what I would come to realize was out of character, was nevertheless understandable. Still the comb-over remained, but by 1988 courtship and marriage had more or less dictated that I grow far more comfortable with my hair, finally allowing the curly waves free rein to warm the neck and cover the ears, but always kept in fashionable check by expert lady barbers who would keep the look nicely rounded to offset my angular features. The wife liked it, and so did I. And that’s the way it would have stayed, had I not found myself outside `Alvaro’s’ one afternoon, and a sight which made my jaw drop in silent, abject horror.

For one the other side of the window sat a quivering, petrified child of about eight. Behind him his traumatized mother, motionless with mouth wide open. Between them, a lowering, raven-haired young minx in her mid-twenties, approaching her job as if hewing coal. The woman had obviously just lopped off all the poor boy’s hair like a sheep, the entire lot from both sides and the back of the head, all off. But still not satisfied, she was now proceeding to attack the top of his head in seeming random fashion, as if pruning a unruly shrub. Pull it up and – snip! snip! snip! Then I realized I had to move on, not wishing to intrude on the victims’ obvious grief, but I could only imagine what the hapless soul would have to endure next day at school. The woman appeared to be possessed, whilst Signor Alvaro (the owner) just looked on. This was, after all, the late 80s. No one had their hair like that these days. Yes, and despite everything, it was an image I could never quite shake off, so distinct were the parallels to my own childhood. Yes, there was a certain sense of inevitability that one day I would end up in that self-same chair.

Ok, I’ll come clean – that day was the next day. Childhood memories are inexorably powerful.

So was I sure? “Yes, thanks. I’m quite used to having not much hair. Short back and sides, side parting, and a small quiff, that’s me.” “Right you are, then.”

Her name was Oona, she hailed from Dublin, and spoke with a soft but barely penetrable Irish accent – you really had to concentrate, not that she ever said a great deal. Her center-parted jet black hair caressed her shoulders as she moved, her long bangs framed features which may have looked pretty had she ever smiled, but she never did. Not once. Sullen-faced, she turned the clippers on and placed them not, as was usual, at the temple, but the nape of the neck. And she’s off! Once more it was as if Oona was entering a sheep-shearing competition, like they do in Australia. Up the neck, past the skull-bone, and then some. And again – zzhipp! Once again, further round, zzhipp! Move the ear, uncovered in an instant. Sideburn, gone. Temple, bare. Same again on the other side. Bzzhhip! Is it level? No, a bit more off the other side to even up the scalping, lap completely covered by discarded tresses. A year’s growth off in 2 minutes. A sudden awareness of that old saying: “Always be careful what you wish for, for it may come true.” I’d kind of known what was coming , but it still came as a shock. And there was more.

“I think we’ll get rid of this shall, we?” As she spoke, Oona was running a comb across my head from left to right, where I had always parted my hair. “Wh…What, all of it?” I stammered. “The parting,” she responded with a glare, “it doesn’t really suit you now.” I supposed she had a point – it did sit rather awkwardly now on top of so much nothingness. But I’d imagined she was about to just thin it out a little, then I’d leave the shop looking once again as I had a teenager, having achieved some kind of `closure’ with the tribulations of childhood. No such luck. No, Oona had an idea, so she did.

Oona’s idea was first to take a large hairbrush and sweep all the remaining hair back, a feat never attempted before. It took quite a few stokes before she managed to get it just right, that being almost comically upright or sprouting off at crazy angles. Then she reached into a drawer and produced a can of firming spray, and gave me the once over to keep it in place. After that – well, you’ve guessed it, out came the scissors, and with all the subtlety of a hedge trimmer, the dour barberette proceeded to slash away right to left, straight across, barely an inch above the scalp. Chop! at the front where my hairline was beginning to recede. Chop! Chop! further back where the hairline broadened out. Chop! Chop! Chop! over the head, working back inexorably to the crown. Then I became aware of how close she was standing. In fact, I could feel the soft curve of her breast against the side of my head as her slim body heaved in and out, her breathing having developed into an unusually heavy, hard, pant. Was she getting off on this? Did the process of lopping off the flowing locks of unsuspecting men rea
lly turn her on? True I wasn’t exactly unsuspecting, but the finished result was outside even my vivid imagination.

You couldn’t brush it forward; you couldn’t brush it to the side. Even after washing, the stubble would stand to attention, following the vague contour of the skull and resisting all attempts to do anything than comb it back so the truncated hairs stood upright even more. As for the back and sides, that had been shorn so close it took two weeks to reveal any hair at all. A kindhearted individual would say it was unique. The silence that greeted my return to work (and the fact my wife nearly had a fit) indicated that I was, without doubt, officially in possession of A Bad Haircut. The kind that passes without any comment at all, from anybody. Friends, relatives, co-workers, all quite unsure what to say to someone happy to face the world with an abomination above their ears.

But here’s the thing – I quite enjoyed it! After a few years of `normality’, trying to look like everyone else, having it cut so other people liked it, now here existed something different and so totally off-the-wall no one could ever imitate it, nor would want to. It was unique. Terrible, but unique, and eight weeks later I was back in the chair again. Signor Alvaro was absent this time, leaving a bored Irishwoman brooding over a popular magazine. She didn’t even look up when I entered the shop, just grunted in the vague direction of the chair, deigning to join me only when she’d finished reading. “Won’t take so long this time.” Those were the only words she uttered during the next ten minutes, as again click, whirr, whizz, `two-penny all off’ in double-quick time. Again she stood so near, I could see in the mirror some of the finely shaved hairs landing inside her cleavage, but she hadn’t seemed to mind. More heavy breathing as the top of my head was pared down as if with a scythe, followed by a rummage around in a different drawer, and a new can of spray introduced. Don’t ask, I reasoned to myself. She’s going to do it anyhow. And she did. Whooosh! Another hole in the ozone layer, and I became immediately conscious of wearing a rather heavy hat. “What was that?” That, sir, is called Hair Cement. Keep you looking grand, so it will.” And if `looking grand’ meant having a lavatory brush clamped to your head, then so it did. And that was me for the next few weeks; back and sides clean as a whistle, topped with the toughest bristles you ever saw. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could move them. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was ever fed back to me about what people thought about my latest haircut. Behind my back, of course, they were having a field day.

Do you know what? I didn’t even care. Of course I realized that Oona was a pretty awful hairdresser. I’d seen Signor Alvaro wield the clippers with more style and precision than she could only dream of; in fact I wondered why he employed her. She was moody, miserable, didn’t even crack a smile when you offered her a tip. But she had something that drew me back, some indefinable quality seemingly rooted an another world somewhere. Though be that as it may, so severe had been the last scalping that I left it ten weeks till next time.

When it came, the next haircut proved a revelation. It was as if the real Oona had been `body-snatched’ and a pseudo-Oona installed in her place. This time she didn’t rush. This one didn’t shave as much off, took a little more care with what remained and rather than just hack away frantically, seemed to have turned off the auto-pilot and at least tried to create a hair style. Also, the `cement’ remained in the can. There was even an attempt at conversation: “Tell me, are you in the Forces?” I laughed. One glance at my puny frame could tell her I’d never been anywhere near. “I see,” she replied, softly. “It’s just there’s only one other lad who has a haircut like yours, and he’s in the Army.” Which seemed a strange thing to say. I’d only ever witnessed her hands whirling like a mad dervish, slashing away at hair- that- is- evil-and-must-be-destroyed. Well, until today, that is. She even smiled – almost – when I tipped her and said “That’s grand”, which was the nearest I ever had to a compliment. So many questions. Did the girl save the violent treatment for just two clients, and if so, why? Why me, I’d never asked for it. Where there any other haircuts in her repertoire, after all? And why the sudden change in behavior?

I had to admit to a sense of disappointment after the next two trips. I’d gone at regular eight week intervals, positioned myself in line so as to obtain her services instead of the owner’s, only to receive the same kid-gloves treatment as before. It seemed Oona was losing her touch. Or maybe she’d been warned by Alvaro that if she `skin headed’ another customer she’d be out. So I had to resign my self to anonymity once more, like you do. Hell, it’s not the end of the world.

For some reason I’d only left it six weeks until the next one – probably since the last trim hadn’t felt like too much of a haircut at all. I opened the door. First thing I noticed – Alvaro wasn’t there. Second, the shop was once again empty. Third, the Beast was back. A nod towards the chair. Cape on. A withering glance at my head. “You’ve been combing it sideways again!” This being more of an accusation than a statement. Her top lip, exhibiting the fine sprinkling of tiny black specks that earlier had been her considerable mustache (she’d electric shaved it, with equal carelessness) curled up in disapproval. I thought, why not? She’d left more on last time. “Soon sort that out.” She was reading my thoughts now. I knew I was in for a hard time.

I’m not sure exactly when the penny dropped. It could have been when the clippers were sailing up the side of my head, relentlessly, so far I thought she must be giving me a mohawk. Or maybe it was the fierce brushing followed by the hysterical lopping-off of anything which got in her way. But then it dawned. Oona was an Irish girl, young, attractive and sublimely sensual by nature. She must be on the Pill, it being banned in her own country. And so, at certain times in her fixed 28-day cycle, this sultry creature positively oozed hormones. The abrupt, heavy panting while her bosom rubbed against your bare head . Throwing herself into her work without a care as to the end product. The brusque, artless way in which she followed no agenda but her own, whilst apparently making the agenda up as she went along, and of course the unmistakable relish shown when reducing a client’s hairstyle to bare fuzz on top, and nothing else. No need for spray, this one was going nowhere for a long time. But even as the haircut represented nothing but total humiliation, I realized now that it wasn’t personal, and that in reality I delighted in the degradation. I am a fetishist, after all. Maybe she was, too. A hair fetishist with PMS and the power to make a difference. Boy, did she wield that power.

It wasn’t long after that Oona disappeared forever from Alvaro’s shop. It’s clear now he had been absenting himself throughout his employee’s `difficult’ days, maybe she had been impossible to work with. Her haircuts, if you could call them such, had become ever more eccentric, and I really missed that. A loose cannon in a barber shop who will take off as much hair as she wants, the more the better, while regarding you with contempt. You don’t get service like that any more. People are just so damn polite these days.

So what of the present day? Well, now the Oonas of this world are no more, mens’ barbershops hold little interest, and so despite having a full head of hair I shave mine bald; twice, sometimes three times a day. Banish it forever; it seems the only sensible option.

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