Home » Location » Barbershop » The Importance of Being Ernest (Part 1)

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A hoary old man in a grey overcoat shuffled, unsteadily, along the coldly paved street. The time was almost ten in the morning, and as he eventually approached a peeling, run-down structure he checked, rummaged around in deep pockets before producing a large, ornate key. The shop’s ancient wooden doorway was as much need of repair as the person about to unlock it, and he turned the key with a slow, patient deliberation. Then, having entered the room, he stepped back fully fifty years; for Ernest the Barber’s salon was a spot where the world had, indeed, stood completely still.

Ernest the Barber. Were such an enquiry ever made, that would be the name he would answer to. He didn’t need to, however, because everyone knew his name. Every one of his customers, that was. Well, in truth, only his customers. OK, so his was maybe not the most widespread of social circles, he thought, as he filled the kettle for the morning brew of tea. He removed the overcoat, and donned an similarly drab but lighter khaki work coat, and took stock of the shop’s contents, his sole worldly possessions. The dependable old German clippers that dangled from a wire by the large mirror. A row of shaving brushes, standing to attention like miniature guardsmen. The Erasmus foam, Styptic Pencil and jar of Old Spice occupying their familiar positions on the shelf, waiting so patiently for someone to hand over a pound and give them a new home, which they never did. In a dusty old drawer lived the cut-throat razor and variety of scissors which given the opportunity, he would wield like a true craftsman; however, the prospects these days were becoming fewer and further between.

No need to open up shop at nine anymore, but it hadn’t always been that way. After World War 2, right up to the 1960s, a steady stream of men, young and old alike, would file in for their regulation short back and sides, periodically at three or four week intervals. Even throughout the long-hair 70s and beyond, the trade ticked over healthily as the “regulars”, ageing rapidly but still many in number, kept Ernest’s gnarled hands busy and his coffers full. But, as time took its toll, the flow became a trickle, which in turn faded to little more than a low ebb. Now only a handful of seniors, some almost bald anyway, graced the premises, meaning business was less healthy than even he was, and should really have closed down. For the effort he was putting in, the returns would have been seen by many as pitiful, but the fact was he needed his clientele more than they needed him. The reason: Ernest the Barber was hopelessly, desperately, lonely.

Although this disposition had lasted over thirty years, since his beloved Ethel had passed away, loneliness was not a state Ernest could become accustomed to; he could only adapt to it. Life moved in such a pedestrian, humdrum fashion that he had hardly noticed the passing of the years. Only within the limits of his workplace could he exchange the odd snippet of conversation, a few pleasantries, and even receive a few platitudes in return. A few passes with the clippers and snips of the scissors and each haircut was done and dusted in 15 minutes; Ernest cut hair like he lived life, on auto-pilot. His mind uncluttered by recent memories, he just existed, as a plant exists, and he cared about no one. After the War, when times were hard, he had had to live a fairly hand to mouth existence. But finances improved thereafter, he built up a small cache of savings, and spent most of his current earnings on beer.

The sign over the shop, now faded, had read simply: Ernest Green. Gent’s Barber. Maybe he had once been a pillar of the community, but sometimes pillars crumble into dust due to the passage of time, or simply from sheer neglect. Now, outside its cosy confines, people would treat the timeworn old man as if he weren’t really there, not really made of flesh and blood, just a vague presence. So, after the day was done, Ernest would faithfully retreat to the single man’s only steady haven, the pub. Settled in his own quiet corner of the King Billy, he would down pint after pint of his favourite bitter ale in that slow, protracted way that solitary men do. Come eleven, he would rise unsteadily, bid farewell to no one in particular, wake up in his digs the following morning without ever realising how he had found his way there, and then the whole painfully sterile process would start up again.

Despite the consumption of so much ale, Ernest never awoke with a hangover. Or if he did, it was a hangover that had become so part of everyday life that he never noticed it. A slice of toast and a hot mug of tea at breakfast time made his body feel a shade more tolerable, and it was off to work again. Was it a Thursday? Yes it was, the morning newspaper said so.

“Morning Albert.” The first customer of the day was aged 70 years, and had been a regular for half of them. He didn’t really need a haircut, just a chat, if you could call it that. “Morning Ernest.” “The usual?” “Aye, that will be fine.” The whole world moving on invisible tramlines. “Warm this morning.” “Aye, not bad this time of year.” “They said it looks like rain later on, though.” “Well, that’s summer for you, two nice days and a thunderstorm!” “You’re not wrong there, Albert.” Ritual over, the barber pocketed his three pounds, to find another elderly gentleman waiting his turn. “OK, Fred? What will it be, the usual……?”

Business was unusually brisk today. Maybe the sunshine had brought the old folk out into the open, and made them think about getting a haircut. Whatever the reason, he had just scalped his twelfth customer of the day and spied two more waiting in the wings. The weren’t regular clients, they weren’t even….Ernest’s eyes swivelled in their sockets; unbelievably, there were two young women in his salon.

They were tall, for girls. He guessed they must be about eighteen. Dressed rather too casually for his liking certainly; he didn’t care much for crop-tops and skimpy shorts, such apparel was, in his opinion, the preserve of the somewhat loose woman. And what on earth were they doing here, anyway?

“Excuse me, ladies, I think you might be in the wrong place.” Ernest proclaimed with as much authority as he could muster. The girls did not reply, having suddenly been overcome with the giggles. With no answer forthcoming, he tried again. “Er, ladies? Can I please ask you to leave? This is a gents’ hairdressers.” Still no reply, instead the girls nudged each other, conversing only in excited whispers.

“You tell him.”

“No, you.”

“It was your idea.”

“And yours too, go on…”

More gasps and nudges. Finally the slightly taller one broke the communication barrier. “Me friend wants you to cut her hair for her.” The other girl flushed bright red. Then: “Yeah, and she does too. We both do, we both want our hair cut like fellas.” No one was quite sure what to say. “But we’re not lezzies!” maintained the first, hurriedly. “We’re not, you know, like that or anything, we just decided, you know, for a laugh….” That was enough for the barber. “A laugh? I see. Well, not at my expense, my dears. Now I really must ask you to move on.”

But the girls just stood there, and appeared rather crestfallen. An uneasy hush prevailed; it wasn’t as if there was anyone else in the shop, but this was a situation like never before. The talkative girl ended the silence. “I just… we just, wondered if you could help us, that’s all…” Her voice tailed off, as did her confidence. As she motioned her friend to accompany her to the door, Ernest felt a slight pang of guilt. For all his repressed fury at the world, he was not an unkind man. He cared little for people, even less for scatty teenagers, but there was something desperate about the two youngsters that moved him to pursue the matter. “Look,” he said, kindly, “I’m not quite sure how I can help you, but I suppose the shop is empty and there is half an hour until closing time…” The two brightened considerably, eyes widening in anticipation, and a cheeky smile
played upon each of their lips. “You sure?” piped the taller one. “We want it really short, you know.”

It was at that point the old man realised just how much hair the girls had to lose. How could he have missed it? It was halfway down their backs, both of them. Thick, shiny and chestnut brown, a bit ragged at the ends for sure, but clearly well cared for and probably combed religiously by concerned mothers. Was this really happening?

“Er, but your mother……” He addressed the first girl, uncertainly. “Oh, she’s fucked off with that black guy from the garage!” came the instant reply. Ernest’s eyebrows shot skywards, whilst inside he winced. He wasn’t at all used to women, let alone teenage ones, and using that kind of language! He hardly swore himself; there seemed little point. “I see. And your father?” “He’s an alcoholic.” This sparked off the other girl who had hitherto been virtually mute. “And mine! Mine’s an alcoholic too!” Then a heated argument ensued. “No, he ain’t!”

“He is too!”

“How would you know, anyway?”

” ‘Cos mum said so! Said he was a work-alcoholic, that’s why he was never home!”

“You haven’t a fucking clue what you’re talking about…”

Ernest decided it was time to take control. “Right. You can begin by moderating your language, young lady, if you don’t mind. This is a respectable establishment.” The girls stared, guiltily. “Now, if I’m going to help you and be done by closing time, then we’ll start by introducing ourselves, shall we?” His tone was firm but noncommittal. An unusual job, this, but essentially just another two to finish off before the King Billy.

“I’m Tamsin, she’s Chloe.” The first girl re-asserted her authority by gesturing toward the other with a nod, and as she did so her long, straight hair fell right over her face. Chloe just stared ahead, sulkily, as Tamsin made her way confidently to the chair. “Don’t bother about her, she’s only a baby.” Cue more indignation. “Shut up you fat bitch! I’m twelve!” squeaked an angry voice from the back. Ernest stood transfixed, caught in shock and uncertainty. An unanswered question hung in the air, but not for long. “And I’m thirteen!” exclaimed Tamsin, proudly. He was simply flabbergasted. How could they be so tall, sassy, savvy and damned cocksure, but at such a tender age? A valid question, but one to which he knew he’d never get an answer. Before positioning the cape he stole a quick glance at his client’s youthful frame. Whatever else could be said about the girl, she certainly wasn’t overweight. Quite the opposite; the rather gaunt appearance and sallow complexion suggested an upbringing that was at best indifferent. Only beside her friend, who was almost anorexic, could she have appeared fat. Still, this was of little real concern to Ernest. After tying the cape, and ratcheting the chair up to its full height, he reached for the comb and ran it through the long brown tresses. “So, how would you like it?” he asked, absently. “I told ya. Short, like a guy.” The barber didn’t often have to ask his customers to be more specific, but this was different. And alas, in vain. “I dunno, you decide!” was the best response he could elicit from the plainly confused child. “Er, right, well – how about if I take it off the neck and maybe round the ears..” “Yeah, whatever. You’re the barber, ain’t ya?” He found such a dismissive attitude unsettling but decided it best to just get on with it.

How to start; that was the puzzle. Here sat a bright young girl with dark brown hair hanging almost to the floor, and she wants it short. If he cut it off at earlobe length then he’d still have the volume to contend with, so, literally thinking on his feet, Ernest reasoned it best to gather the hair into a tight ponytail, chop it off, and start from there. That way it would closer resemble a young lad’s unruly mop that he could then try and whip into shape. He proceeded to gather up the thick and surprisingly heavy mass of hair. “Ow! That hurts!” cried Tamsin after his ham-fisted efforts had jerked her head back for a third time. “Sorry, I guess I’m not used to this” was the best response he could muster. Finally, after all her hair had been scraped back and amassed into a bulging, foot-and-a half long pony, the unique haircut was about to begin.

Even the store’s sharpest scissors found the ponytail a difficult animal to dispose of. Biting into the thick bulk produced a heavy scrunching sound that seemed to go on forever, but eventually half of Tamsin’s hair parted company from the other half, leaving the rear of the girl’s head a tousled scrag-end that could now only be improved upon. She obediently bowed her head as the comb moved rapidly from nape to crown, coupled with frantic chopping, up down, up down, soon to be followed by the whirr of the clippers as the # 2 attachment smoothed all the back down to an even quarter-inch. Tamsin’s long hair still draped down over her tiny ears, but buoyed by his initial success Ernest decided to dispense with the scissors altogether and just took the clippers straight to the luxuriant quantity of hair that still adorned the side of the young girl’s head. Zzhnnick! The hair sheared off without resistance, huge swathes of it falling silently, curling as it hit the floor. Then the other side, instantly transformed from Pantene-shiny full body to Eton crop, hugging the temples so tightly it must have hurt.

Still, the youthful customer appeared quite unfazed by the radical treatment. She just stared ahead as the image in the mirror mutated from confident schoolgirl with flowing locks to gawky schoolboy sporting a brutally truncated crop, rounded off with a side parting. The whole transformation had taken just fifteen minutes. However if Tamsin was pleased with her fresh look, then she seemed determined not to show it. A coquettish turn of the head to examine the re-style, then a polite thanks before handing over the money, and the cropped girl sat back down again. Ernest’s slight letdown feeling was tempered by the rapt attention displayed by Chloe as her eyes followed her friend all the way back to the seat, before bounding straight into the barber’s chair in its already elevated position. “Same for me, please!”

The old man marched to the door and overturned the sign to read ‘Closed’, as he did every day at 4.45. You don’t need latecomers barring your way to the pub. This time round there wasn’t time for complex scissor work. With just four crunching scythes from one earlobe round to the other, a whole 2 years’ growth of hair was departed from its host. Chloe just grinned. Then, when the droning clippers beavered their way through the rest, she squirmed with apparent delight as they ran all the way to the crown. Within minutes the entire back and both sides were mown down to a fine, semi-transparent stubble, after which the 12-year- old let out an excited yelp. “Wow! Cool!” she exclaimed. “Nearly finished, Chloe,” warned Ernest, “just got to finish the top.” Soon enough, as the rest was thinned down properly, Ernest decided to comb it all forward this time, before chopping the fringe all across the top of her petite forehead. A nice touch that, he thought. Meanwhile Chloe seemed well pleased with the result, and even offered the barber a tip. “You’re OK, love, you keep that for a bag of chips.” counselled Ernest, genially. “You look like you could use a good feed. Now I really must close the shop now.” And with that the newly shorn girls filed out of the shop and skipped gaily down the road, leaving the proprietor scratching his own head, and feeling more than a little bewildered.

Now, students of the human condition may have detected a very gentle increase of spring in Ernest’s step that evening, as he headed off to his evening haunt. Had they been paying attention, the bar-staff at the King William IV would have noticed how he proffered the grubby note with more of a willingness than was customary, and that for once he hadn’t moaned about “breaking into a tenner”. Of course no one was paying attention, and as for the man himself, so inured was he to the w
orkings of his inner self that were his stomach ever to tighten in emotional anticipation, he would surely have put it down to indigestion.

The fact that the following day was a Friday did, however, have little impact upon the man who opened up the shop that morning. If anything, weekends were even more dreary in that they contained more empty hours to fill. Ah, yes: ‘Something for the weekend’. So geriatric was his clientele he hadn’t heard that for decades, and the rubber in his condoms was probably degraded by now in any case. There they were, the usual suspects, all in need of someone to inform about which parts of their bodies weren’t working today. But they passed the time. At least they did that.

It had become another busy day. Just why they always decided to turn up on a Friday when not one of them worked was a mystery. It was colder today; maybe that was bringing them in, or it could just be force of habit on their part. Still, a crowded day passes quicker than a slow day, thought Ernest, chopping away, and he was gratified to hear his clock chime four times instead of the anticipated two. Two hours more gone and he had never even felt it; to him that was an unexpected bonus.

“Just excuse me a moment.” Ernest broke off from the job, his peace having been disturbed by a couple of ruffians kicking some bottles around, just outside the shop window. Not only would they discourage custom, but he’d have broken glass to sweep up afterwards. “Hey, you two!” yelled the old man from the doorway, “Clear off or I’ll call the po…” then stopped, dead. He hadn’t recognised them at first, unfamiliarly clad in jeans and t-shirts, but Tamsin knew his name, and gave him a cheery smile. “Sorry Ernest, we’re just playing.” He wanted none of it. “Please go and play elsewhere, will you, you’re putting my customers off.”

“But we’ve nowhere to go!” pleaded the teenager. “Well, where do you live?” “St Ann’s.”

That response drew a chill to match the icy blast coming straight from the Arctic right down the Derby Road. Had the good Saint been aware that her name would grace the most run down, lawless, drug-infested part of town, where fathers were as rare as intact windows and the antics of joy-riders in stolen cars the main attraction, she would surely conclude that her name had been taken in vain. Locals used to joke that St Ann’s was so bad even the rats had moved out, and at once Ernest glimpsed the desperate prospects that lay ahead of the unsuspecting pair. Something within compelled him to invite them in, as if in some way that would dispel their future for a short while. Then he noticed something else, Chloe’s left eye was purple, and swollen.

“What happened to you?” Six heads turned to hear the youngster’s proud reply. “Oh, Dawn off the estate called me a dyke, so I smashed her head in!” Ernest looked concerned, as well he might. “Well you don’t look too good yourself. Shouldn’t you see a doctor with that?” Then her friend intervened. “Nah. Shoulda seen the state of Dawn, had to go to Queen’s and have SIX stiches!” As they tittered uncontrollably, one waiting gent bravely enquired as to why their hair was so short. “Oh, Uncle Ernest did that, didn’t ya?” Tamsin stole a glance at the old man and winked. “We asked him to, so people know we don’t take shit from no one, see?” As the gent recoiled, Ernest just stood there. Lost in a fog of unknowing thoughts, not having even noted the profanity, he just wasn’t sure how he felt… “AHEM!” A gruff voice splintered the illusion. Yes, there was an unfinished client in the chair, and more arriving. Back to business.

The little private mist cloud clearing, Ernest set about finishing off the remainder, comb and scissors in one hand, clippers in the other, lopping off mostly grey hair with accustomed ease. Still, he could not resist a glance at the odd couple in the corner, chatting away and laughing, completely oblivious of him, or indeed anyone else. Tamsin and Chloe seemed so curious with their soft girly features, pubescent curves and perky breasts, but topped off with unbecoming short back and sides haircuts. Maybe he’d taken too much off. However, it hadn’t appeared to worry them, and as one had pointed out, they’d asked for it. Soon it was approaching lock-up and Ernest had to intrude on his guests’ little world and ask them once again, to move on. Please.

Tamsin broke off from her conversation with a start. “Oh, we were just saying, weren’t we, how much we both like our hair!” ” Well, I’m glad you approve,” declared Ernest, “but I really..” “No one’s gonna f…. er, mess about with us now!” Tamsin corrected herself, quickly, before launching into a heated tirade: “You see, they used to pick on Chloe, them lot up the hill, ‘cos she’s small and they used to call us snobs ‘cos our hair looked nice then they’d pull it out, and I’m sure they’re lesbians anyway, and I knew we were just as hard as them, harder, but we didn’t look so tough so we had this idea….”

“Yeah!” interrupted Chloe, whose eye socket was growing puffier by the minute, “We wanted to scare the shit outta them, so they’d leave us alone! In fact now I’m gonna keep my hair short. In fact, I might have a skinhead one day… In fact…,”

A pause. But before the barber could intervene, Chloe’s triumphant final declaration stopped him in his tracks. “….in fact, I want it right now!” “But there’s only ten minutes left, and your eye looks awful!” maintained Ernest, but the girl was defiant. “Oh, that’ll heal. Anyway, I’ve had worse. So come on, give us a real bonehead then I’ll look really hard! Oh come on!” Her tiny frame shook with mock indignation. “Pleeeeease!”

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