Home » Location » Barbershop » The Importance of Being Ernest (Part 2)

Our Reader Score
[Total: 4   Average: 3/5]

Again, Ernest felt himself plunged into a welter of unacquainted emotions. Exasperated, certainly, by such persistence from one so immature, and a sense of the surreal, obviously, at such a strange request from someone who should really be at home playing with their Wendy house. And yet…. And yet at the same time he could not appear to be able to shake off a feeling of unaccustomed warmth towards these quirky kids. And… hadn’t one of them actually referred to him as – “Uncle Ernest”?

There was absolutely nothing sexual about it, he knew that much. The fact they were under age was of no significance here. No, even had they been eighteen and in full bloom, any notions of physical attraction would have been strangled at birth by his inbuilt pragmatism. Instead, he found himself wanting somehow to protect them, insulate them from the deadening awfulness of everyday life that he himself knew so well. Those poor kids. The scenario was all too familiar to him; no father figure, and no education to speak of. But as well, no job prospects, and no childhood for God’s sake; what of their future? On the streets, possibly, even on the game…. Ernest reasoned that if he could do anything to help them look after themselves, he would; and if young Chloe felt better equipped with a number one crewcut, then so be it.

“OK, I’ll do it. But let’s be quick about it.”

The 12 year old bounded up to the chair, positively beaming as she did so. Meanwhile Ernest poked around in the murky drawer for the closest attachment he had, then affixed it to the main body and set to work. The humming clippers moved easily from forehead to crown, carving a perfect white motorway over the girl’s petite skull. This wasn’t a job to be rushed, however. Only careful, painstaking progress could achieve the regular smoothness that denoted a perfect crewcut, and his perfectionism had always been a source of pride.

As they glided over Chloe’s head, the vibrating teeth speedily chewed away mouthfuls of dense, shiny and clean hair, replacing it with a stubble so close and fine as to be barely visible. Hmmmm….. Front to back, again, and again. With the top shaved, Ernest took the whirring steel to the fine fronds that sprang from the temples. In seconds the sides of Chloe’s head appeared almost bald. Now the blades embarked upon their longest journey, from the child’s quivering nape all the way up to the crown of her head. He’d cropped her hair close before, but it was still thick and the machine hummed a different tune as it ploughed its way through. But in hardly any time at all, the work was done. The giggly girl who just two short days ago had entered the salon with a lush, shoulder-blade length mane, had been transformed into a shaven-headed youth wearing both a ‘Rock Bitch’ t-shirt and the widest smile you could imagine. “Brill!” was the general consensus. Ernest went to grab his coat, but he wasn’t going to get away that easily. “My turn!” Naturally, his chair was now occupied by Tamsin, and his other bete-noire wanted hers BALD…..!

“Look. I can’t, really…” It took one glance into his willing victim’s pleading eyes to persuade Ernest otherwise. For all her streetwise talk and hardened exterior, there was something about Tamsin that cried neglect, need, and a vulnerability of which he had only just become aware. What events must have occurred, to lead a girl of such tender years to think that by shaving her head clean, it would in some way improve her life? Never before, not once, had Ernest the barber been touched to such a degree about one of his clients. Then again, he’d never before had a susceptible little waif as a customer who had actually once referred to him as ‘uncle’….. “So, by ‘bald’, you mean…” “Like a fucking CUE BALL! Oops, sorry….” A guilty glance from Tamsin, worried that she may have blown her opportunity was quickly assuaged by the barber, who, with a flick of a switch, revealed that she would be granted her wish. In five minutes, what remained of her hair had been buzzed to stubble, preparing the head for an expert shaving. In over fifty years in the profession, Ernest must have given tens of thousands of shaves, but this was the first time he’d been asked to ‘do’ a head. Masterfully, he whipped up the foam with the thick bristled brush and massaged it carefully into the girl’s scalp.

Then, having being honed down to consummate sharpness, the old-fashioned long blade scraped every single vestige of hair from Tamsin’s head, just as she had requested. As the salon’s overhead lighting reflected harshly off her soft, gleaming cranium, Tamsin leapt out of the chair with an excited squeal, rubbing her head furiously, as if trying to polish it. “Short enough for you?” enquired Ernest, without even a hint of sarcasm. “Totally wicked!” was the reply, which Ernest took to be a seal of approval. He allowed himself a wry, sad smile. These two were obviously crazy, but whatever it was they were on, he could sure use a bucketful. There they were, still able to take life’s blows on the chin, laugh them off and return them with interest; he’d forgotten when the same could have been applied to himself.

Still, at least his two proteges would not come to any harm now, let’s face it, most folk would run a mile, they would know that. And, thought Ernest, he alone had played no small part in their transformation. Chloe and Tamsin had sought him out, and he had provided a service to bolster their confidence and, in their own words, improve their survival chances. For the first time since he could remember, Ernest actually felt rather important.

“Hey, we’re going now, don’t forget to lock up!” Tamsin must have noticed his dreamlike condition and now she was having to remind him. “Oh, er, yes of course!” stammered Ernest, trying to regain his composure. “Right, er, yes, I’m off myself now”

“…to the pub!” interrupted Tamsin, finding her own cheek highly amusing. “Don’t deny it, I’ve seen ya!” And, still chortling away at their impertinence, Tamsin and Chloe ran off down the road and out of sight. It had been an age since anyone had monitored his progress. Ernest wondered, sadly, if he would that would ever happen again.

He didn’t need to worry, for throughout the following weeks and months the girls would come and see him nearly every day. “For a trim, you see” they would joke, and regale him with tales of fist-fights and other childhood scrapes, how they were building up quite a reputation for themselves on the estate, and how people referred to them both as the “mad skinheads”. If the continual presence in the salon of a couple of shaven headed female tearaways was reducing even further the number of regular customers, Ernest didn’t seem to notice. For he was happy now and gained great pleasure in seeing Chloe and Tamsin’s faces light up as he gave their pates a quick ‘once-over’ with the razor. But usually, they would just drop in for a chatter and on occasion he would bring in food for them, hot-dogs or a doughnut perhaps, which they would devour ruthlessly.

That feeling of having something to live for, so it had not gone away after all. For decades, it had simply lain dormant, waiting ever so patiently for an occasion like this to happen. Soon, Ernest could hardly remember those desolate times when his only way of finding someone to talk to, properly, was to slope off down the road and get legless in the King Billy.

In fact, as the weeks progressed, he found that he didn’t even need to visit the dingy old pub that often. Any money that he earned, (and his savings were fast dwindling, but hey, who cares?) he had found a far more satisfying reason to spend it. Like the time when Chloe’s footwear had fallen apart, possibly after contact with a particularly resistant head. No shoes? No problem, dear, get yourself a pair of Doc Martens, they’ll do the trick. It’s your birthday? Here’s ten pounds, buy yourself a present from me. It wasn’t long before the girls realised how much he needed their company, and that if ever they missed a visit, how much it pained
him. Soon their demands became greater and more persistent, but Tamsin and Chloe were wise enough to only do it in a gradual, barely perceptible way so that their benefactor wouldn’t notice.

In his innocent, contented state, Ernest certainly did not notice, but a few of what remained of his patrons did. Though the girls were careful only to ask for cash when the shop was empty, it was clear to anyone peering in that, from time to time, the proprietor appeared to be handing over money. And that suddenly, one of the pair would appear carrying a brand new portable CD player, or sporting a leather jacket. It just didn’t seem right. How could the old man not realise what was happening? Of course, he had no idea, and no inclination to question what was being exacted from him. To Ernest, these two girls whom he regarded as his own responsibility, even his own flesh and blood, were the only things in the world that he loved.

It was a day pretty much like any other when two sharp-suited gentlemen strode into the salon and sat in the corner. They were younger than most of the usual clientele; maybe mid 30s, and Ernest did not recognize them at all. He was somewhat irritated too, as it was half an hour to closing time and there were a couple of others to attend to, and of course his girls were there making small nuisances of themselves. He’d given them a ‘job’ of sweeping up all the loose hair but in reality they were just pushing it around the floor, then using the brushes as makeshift weapons. “Why are these two always here?” queried Geoff, one of the regulars, during his haircut. “They’re bloody pests, both of them, why d’you allow them in?” It was a question Ernest had become well used to. “Oh, don’t worry, they’re just my girls. If they weren’t in here they’d only be causing mischief on the street. Besides, they’re not really doing any harm.” Geoff seemed unsure, and on his way out, vowed never to visit again while those ‘nutters’ were present. After a while, only Ernest, his girls and the two younger men remained. “OK, who’s next?”

“Mr Green, is it?” “Er, yes, that’s right..” said the barber, somewhat uncertainly. One of the men flashed a card and uttered one word that shook Ernest to the core: “Police.”

He tried to look at the man but found his gaze beaten down by the officer’s unswerving glare. “Those two girls, are they in any way related to you?” Ernest just smiled. “No, not at all. They’re just a couple of friends. Is there a problem?” The second officer spoke. “We have reason to suspect that the persons in question may be attempting to blackmail you.” Ernest just stared, blankly. “We have photographic evidence to show that you, Mr Green, have been giving money to a pair of known juvenile offenders, and that such monies…” A loud, relieved guffaw from the barber. “Oh God no! Blackmail? You are joking, aren’t you? I was just giving them a few bits and bobs to help them out, that’s all. Hell, I’ve nothing else to spend my money on. I mean, you must have seen them, they’ve hardly two pennies to rub together, I just wanted to help…..!”

“In that case, Mr Green,” The officer’s features hardened to a contemptuous scowl. “I must warn you that any further contact with these two girls will see you up in court for aiding and abetting. These two have been terrorising St Ann’s for months, and you must have known that. Burglary, mugging, vandalism, and we can’t touch them yet because of their age. I mean, what in God’s earth were you thinking of?”

Ernest gathered up every last bit of what remained of his will to proclaim at last: “Look, I’ve no idea what they get up to. I don’t really care, to be truthful. All I know is that I don’t mean them any harm, I simply try and care for them as I would if I really was their uncle. They’re all I have. I mean, who are you to tell me who I can and can’t give money to, anyway?” He voice had risen to a demented squeak. “It’s a free country, isn’t it? Just go, and leave me be. Please, just leave me ALONE…!

The first policeman strode purposefully towards Ernest until their faces were an inch apart. “Old men like you shouldn’t be giving money to under age girls under any circumstances, Mr Green. Neither should they be shaving girls’ heads, consensual or otherwise. Look, we could have you on any number of counts. Just take this as a friendly warning, OK?”

Already, Ernest could feel the earth falling away from beneath his feet.

“And Mr Green, we have been observing you and we know your habits. If you are ever again seen within five yards of either of them, and rest assured you will be watched, then I’ll personally guarantee that the only bars you will be walking into for the rest of your miserable life, will be iron ones. Get my meaning?” Ernest nodded, wretchedly. “Just be aware, sir, that your next warning will not be quite as friendly.”

Ernest did not hear the clink of the doorbell as the two constables made their way out. He wasn’t aware of anything. No tears flowed. Only the returning, familiar emptiness that had always been there like a big, black hole waiting once again to swallow him up. There was only one place now. A place where comfy chairs, warm beer, and secure anonymity had always tempted him far away from the merciless, grim reality of life, and was about to do so again, and take him forever comatose into the best kind of escape route he could ever possibly have imagined.

Leave a Reply