It’s funny how things turn out.
I left England in the late nineties as a besotted middle-aged man and took my heart across the ocean to live with a beautiful and enchanting younger woman in a tiny house on a beach in a small coastal community at the far end of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
It seemed so idyllic from the start, but Pilgrim Beware! Being suddenly immersed in a new culture, even one that shares the same language, is full of pitfalls.
My new fiancée and I had flown back to her place from my cottage in North Yorkshire earlier in the week to re-coup and re-group before setting off again to fly down to a family wedding in South Beach, Miami, Florida. It was to be my first introduction to her family clan and my first family event in the New World.
At the wedding I’d meet my new extended family, but more importantly I was to be presented to the Empress and Matriach of the Clan, my darlings’ Grandmother, not without some misgiving on my part ,however, as I’d heard she was a dragon in silk and furs.
She was also very wealthy and I ‘d been told, had led a gilt-edged life of ease, style and wealthy sophistication. Now in her nineties and in failing physical health but with all her gilded chairs still at home, she reigned over her subjects from regal apartments overlooking South Beach.
However for the sake of the bloodline and maybe too because I wasn’t Jewish, I had to be officially checked over and given Grandma’s blessing, without it we were doomed! There was another tiny matter, it was common knowledge in the family that my fiancé was a lesbian, a fact I might have taken more into account in terms of my own future planning, but love is blind (and deaf, dumb and stupid in my case, but that’s another story)! So with that surprising fact in mind, I expected family members also wanted to see what this strange Anglo Saxon weirdo bloke was doing marrying their lesbian relative.
To make matters more confusing to the clan, I wasn’t a doctor, dentist, lawyer, broker or brain-surgeon like most of the other male members of the clan. No, I was a freelance designer, a term that sounds like something, but means what exactly? Did it mean I’d got pots of money, well no; I had pots- but no money.
In fact years of my personal financial insecurity had turned my initially healthy and jocular bank manager into a worn-out wreck on the verge of nervous exhaustion, demotion and branch closure. He was just too nice and sympathetic to make it as a bank manager. In retrospect I am sure early retirement was right for him, though 46 was perhaps a bit too young.
But Grandma and her whelps knew nothing of my background, so I’d decided when I got there to busk it and err on the mysterious and fuzzy side when it came to my lineage. If anyone asked after my parents I’d planned to say my father was in ‘Building’, (he was, he managed a builders’ merchant yard selling bags of sand and gravel). If asked about my mother, I would simply say that she was in Local Government, (she was, she worked at County Hall as a part-time typist).
Let them think what they liked, I was fabulously and recklessly in love so it didn’t really matter, what did was that making a good impression mattered a lot to my fiancée and she loved her Grandmother very much.
However first impressions count so I planned to dress up nice and smart-in a style suavely debonair, and elegant, a sort of Yorkshire version of James Bond (by gum Moneypenny you don’t sweat much for a fat girl) and at the event rev up my irresistible English charm and wit in the hope of weedling the Royal ‘Blessing’ from Grandmamma that my darling so desperately desired.
Confident in our love whatever may come, we planned to be off to Miami in a couple of days after our jetlag waned. Meanwhile we had time to spruce ourselves up to the projected standard, I might have been broke, but at least I could look like the next upswing in fortune was on its way.
To help this along I’d planned to wear my smarty arty suit, a black linen job, stylish in a wrinkly sort of way, (like the wearer) with a floppy arty white shirt which with it’s wide open collar was I thought sartorially Byronic. I would also wear a pair of black shiny dead man’s shoes I’d bought at a thrift store, which funnily enough always made me come over all ballroom-dancing-like whenever I put them on (to the extend that I believed they were haunted). Pretty smart over all I thought, clothes not cash maketh the man. But on top my scraggy and graying thatch badly needed a haircut.
Because I was going for the sort of Miami Vice meets Oxford Don look, this required my hair be not too long, nor too short so I could flip it back at the desired moment for petulant emphasis.
Although late May, it was still early for a Northerner to have a haircut. Where I came from, the moorlands of North Yorkshire, no one “casts a clout till May goes out” and of course that went for hair as well, which had been hidden all winter under a flat cap. In fact come to think about it, sheep- shearing time in the early summer was really about right to “cast a clout”. Where I lived, on the breezy hills above the farming town of Kirkbymoorside, then and only then would you consider going without your jumper, but cautiously and as long as you were not too far away from warm dry shelter and wearing long underwear!
But I needed a haircut and as the temperature was in the seventies off I went, still jet-lagged to find a competent hairdresser. I didn’t bother asking anyone where I should go; I thought I’d explore the town and no doubt come across a hairdresser. Actually I didn’t need a ‘hairdresser’ as such, a barber would do. I was still in that heady state most people that come to live in America from England have that I was living in a movie- everything looked that way, and this was picturesque New England, all white houses and churches against a deep blue sky. So I pictured the old-fashioned sort of barber in a white jacket performing his trade with flaming tapers, razors and scissors as though in a Norman Rockwell painting.
It’s of those masculine rituals, getting a real haircut, especially in a new country. In fact it was going to be more than a haircut, I decided it was a personal initiation to my newly adopted land.
Course I didn’t want something too brutal; I needed a sensitive approach, not a short back and sides. I knew exactly what I wanted and how much I wanted taking off. But I didn’t fancy a unisex salon, they might talk me into something I’d regret and I hadn’t got much on top as it was. I was after all planning to keep most of what I’d got as I wasn’t sure I’d be getting any more!
Wandering about after lunch on that warm and flower-scented afternoon, with the white houses of the old town on the left and the blue waters of Cape Cod bay on the right, I was in heaven. Everything fitted into my dream- picture of a New England Coastal town.
I knew exactly what the barbershop would look like; I’d seen it time and time again in gangster and cowboy films. There’d be mirrors and chrome and leather and white aprons and a linen sheet and steaming white towels to swathe me in. There’d be oils and creams that smelled like my dad before he went to the pub on Saturdays and I’d lean back and relax with complete trust in the professionalism and the warm steady handed competence of the barber. Eyes closed I would waft away in a heaven within a heaven.
But one more thing to make the picture complete; there had to be a red and white candy-cane barbers’ pole outside.
Then I turned a corner and there it was, just as I’d pictured it. Approaching up a little hill on a side road, I knew inside there’d be a line of strong silent men, waiting their turns reading newspapers in an orderly fashion. To complete the scene a freckled faced kid would be squirming in the chair with his proud plump mother looking on.
As I got closer it looked even more like it was straight out of my imagined painting. Here was America, bright and picture perfect and all summed up in this building shining white in the sunshine. It even had the pole outside, all I had to do was go in and join up.
The small white building stood alone on the side of the street. It had two broad front windows and a glass paneled door in the middle. There were no advertisements in the windows I liked that. Just a card on a chain in old-fashioned type that announced the place was ‘Open’, with an accompanying list of opening times and a price list. It was reasonable, eight dollars for a cut, not bad.
I peered in but couldn’t see any one; though I noticed it looked spotlessly clean the black and white tiled floor was brushed to a hairless sheen. A small pile of dark hair in the corner looked as though the old-fashioned broom leaning against the wall had brushed it there. Even if it was quiet and empty now, it looked as though the barber had been busy.
I was a bit disappointed though that there were no men reading newspapers or a freckle faced boy with an obedient hound. It was empty as far as I could see, but it still looked like a Rockwell.
Anyway the fact there was no-one waiting was a good thing, I wouldn’t have to wait.
I stepped through the door to a bling-bling-bling from the bell mounted over it on a spring.
In the middle of the room, like throne was a wonderful barbers’ chair all black leather and chromium fittings mounted on a big circular pedestal with a foot-lever. It looked like it’d come out of a gangster film, I ‘d never seen anything like it outside a cinema.
Just to be on the safe side, I examined the back for bullet holes, for all I knew gangsters might hang out on Cape Cod, I didn’t want to get blown away I just arrived.
It was quite, apart from the bell on the door, the only other sound came from the ticking of a square framed clock that looked like it had been on the wall in the same place since the Mayflower’s captain had called in for a trim and a delouse.
I said aloud, ‘Hello’. There was no reply.
So I went over to the chair and climbed up and sank back into the black shiny leather, in front the large beveled edge mirror in front of me showed only me, there was still no sign of the barber.
“Hello,” I said louder, “ you have a customer.” Still nothing.
I sat a bit longer then considered cutting it myself. Just in time I heard a little grunting snore and turned to see where it come from.
Behind me at the end of a row of chairs lined against the rear wall, next to a pile of newspapers and magazines, was a little old man in slippers soundly asleep. I hadn’t noticed him because he was hidden in deep shadow in the corner. I thought he’d know where the barber was; he’d probably fallen asleep waiting for him after his lunch. Shame to wake him up, but Miami wouldn’t wait. I coughed, and then coughed again louder. The second cough woke him up.
“Sorry,” I said, “ are you next?” I asked. He blinked and looked surprised to see anyone.
“What?” He said in a hoarse voice.
“Are you next?” I enunciated more slowly, in the way that English people do to foreigners. He started to get up. As I’d assumed him to be the next customer, though he was almost completely bald I moved to vacate the chair. But he waved me down with a thin scrawny hand covered in liver spots.
“No.” He said. ”Sit!” I stayed put.
That was generous, I thought, he was going to let me take his turn, and then instead of sitting down and dropping off again, he shuffled over towards me. He was a very very old man who’d probably arrived with the Pilgrims- actually he probably was the captain, and wasn’t too steady on his legs. Not surprising if he was three hundred years old. He was bent over wizened and blotched like an old rockfish. His milky eyes stared out dimly from misted brown-rimmed glasses hung on his nose below porcupines of white eyebrows, starkly more hairy than his polished head. About him he wore a pulled thread cardigan buttoned incorrectly, so that it hung down two button- holes on the left-hand-side
“I don’t mind,” I said, “if you would you like to go next, when the barber comes back?” Straining up again from the chair and believing that politeness is an international language.
Besides which, I’d always had a reverent respect for old people, hoping that there’ll be a karma pay-back when I get up there, which won’t be so long.
But he ignored what I’d said and to my surprise shuffled over to a drawer, opened it and took out scissors and a comb. He wasn’t the next customer; he was the barber!
But so ancient and shriveled, how would he even reach my head, let alone hold the scissors? Maybe I should get up and kneel on the floor. The first question was quickly answered, as from the side he pressed the lever with a well-practiced jab of his slippered foot and surprisingly I plummeted six inches, that’s a long way in an unexpected free-fall.
He was so very frail looking I speculated on what I’d do if he died halfway through the haircut?
Then as though to answer my doubt, with an unexpected gusto he swung me round to face him, scissors in hand.
At the quarter turn I stopped dead in line with his creased bristly face.
“Waddywan?” He said in a thin rather scary voice and though he was close up and I could smell his old breath, he wasn’t really looking at me.
“Pardon?” I said, wishing to ensure he’d got the idea I was a person of refinement with manners, an English gentleman in fact, worthy of polite treatment from a colonial.
Then, with the deftness of a magician he passed the white sheet over me lassoing me round the neck, tightening the pressure on my breathing tube with several wads of tissue paper. In the mirror, with bulging eyes and a reddening face I thought I looked like a large turkey leg. I was pinned back in the chair and my arms and hands couldn’t find a way out, what if I needed to escape? Then I felt the veins on my forehead standing out and thudding as the blood tried to get in and out of my head. I expected him to slap clamps on my forearms and attach electrodes. Meanwhile as I was being prepared and as consciousness began to ebb, the sunshine dimmed.
“Waddyawan?” He said again, this time louder and more abruptly.
Thankfully I realized he was asking me a question. He needed to know how I wanted my hair cut. I thought to avoid misunderstanding and get things absolutely clear; I’d speak slowly and at the same time demonstrate how much I wanted taking off.
“Please don’t take off too much,” I said fluffing my hair into a limp quiff, “ I’m going to a wedding tomorrow, I don’t want to look like I’ve been scalped.”
He looked at me blankly like I was a complete dummy from Mars and lifted the scissors.
I stopped him, pulling my head back from the points of the scissors. To make sure he understood just how much I wanted off I managed to free my right hand from the straight jacket and showed him with my finger and thumb held slightly apart and up in front of his face,
“ Could you take just this much off?” I said slowly.
The gap between my digits was about a quarter of an inch. He looked closely over his misted glasses, recording the measure of distance. Then he nodded and without saying a word pressed another hidden lever. I dropped backwards like stone. I thought maybe I’d insulted him with my hand gesture, and he was about to catapult me through the door and out into the bay. But no, he turned his back and started clanging about in a drawer.
I thought to myself. “Come on John it’s fine, he knows what he’s doing, he’s a barber with at least a hundred years of experience, I’ll just let him get on with it.” So I lay back and relaxed, thinking how many others must have sat there like me over time. Boys to men, he must have seen hundreds maybe tens of thousands of locals, like a doctor only more regularly, month after month.
He’d have seen whole generations of the local manhood rise and fade, from seed to flower and back to seed. From the blonde fluff of childhood to the silver mantle of later life, no doubt he was a chronicler with scissors, a father confessor with a comb, sharing the doubts, fears, dreams and aspirations of a community. With that smiling thought I relaxed to join the thong of haircut heritage and closed my eyes in reverie.
Tomorrow I’d meet the Grande Dame in Miami and proudly enter into the bosom of my new American family. My fiancée would be stunning and I’d be smart and dashing, with my second-foot patent shoes and tailored hair, complimenting her perfectly. Hands across the ocean, the old and new world framed in gilded glory by the background of the Biltmore’s’ finest stage, guests would say we looked good together, the perfect couple even if we were weird and I had no money. I drifted off, eyes closed, smiling contented to myself. I remember that smile.
Then BRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZ! Right across my head, it went like a motorbike.
I woke up startled!
The old man had taken electric clippers set to their finest setting and cut a line a line across my head. I had a swathe like a harvester’s first cut in a cornfield. I involuntarily sat up just as he was about to take his second sweep and swung round and almost hit him!
“What have you done you bloody idiot!!” I screamed, “You total berk!”
(I’m afraid I carried on a bit further with the screaming insults). The poor old guy jumped back like I’d pole-axed him, his jaw dropped as his yellowed top-set nearly fell out of his mouth.
I must say, that I have felt bad about my outburst ever since, because I think he was genuinely shocked and surprised at my reaction and I’d never shouted at an old person before.
And I did shout, really! He shuffled back a quick couple of paces, whilst I turned purple in the mirror.
“I’ve just come to America,” I ranted “ and I’m going to a wedding tomorrow and I wanted to look my best and now look what you’ve done, you NIT, I look like a middle-aged moron! I said take this much off.” And I gestured with my fingers again.
He kept his composure and nodded and said, “We call that a ‘Wiffle’ son.”
“What!” I bellowed. “I don’t care what it’s called, what are you going to do about it, stick it back on?”
“It’s a Wiffle. I’ll have to finish it son. It’s got to be done!”
I sank like one of my mum’s cakes, like the elevator rope broke. It was all ruined. A chasm of black opened up and I was on a gravity ride to oblivion, filled with seething emotions not least of which was the fact that I almost smacked an old man in the face and stuck his clippers up his hairy nose and had verbally assaulted him, a poor frail old man. What was I thinking? For God’s sake it was hair, only hair and vanity after all.
Half an hour later I was back at home. Of course there had to be a gang of visitors round to meet the strange straight Englishman who was going to marry a local gay gal. When I’d taken off my newly purchased baseball cap and the laughter died down and they’d all run through the hair jokes, I was informed it was a well-known fact that the barber was a menace and should have retired years before. He was now considered a liability to the hairdressing profession and an embarrassment to the town, no locals would ever dare go to his shop, he relied totally on tourists and visitors, who fled never to spend money in town again.
In fact he only opened the shop because of a lifetime habit and spent most of his days bent over and asleep in a chair. They added, amongst sniggers that he’d gone stone-deaf years before and refused to wear a hearing aid.
I said, “Well what about the pile of hair in the corner? It looked like he’d had business earlier.” They told me that hair had been there since 1963 and that’s what I was supposed to think.
Well boy did I feel and look stupid standing there with my sunburnt reddened face, white legs and a little spike of hair (all that was left) stuck out of the front of my forehead. I looked like a G.I., an overweight fifty-year-old version, with white legs and shorts. It was my fault really, I shouldn’t have made that gesture, how was I to know he was stone deaf?
There’s both a sad and a happy ending to this story.
I’ve always wondered if the shock I gave the old man by reacting so drastically had hastened his way to the great Barber Shop in the sky, because he was dead and buried inside three weeks. And if I did I’m really sorry but maybe in heaven you should have a sign that says ‘Stone deaf Barber –no hand signals!’
The happy thing was that, my fiancée and me, made it to the wedding.
The Matriarchal Grandmother was enthroned in the reception in what looked like her “dragon” chair on a podium at the front of the grand hall. She was pretty fearsome, like a monitor lizard with bright red lipstick and eyes and a big slightly cockeyed wig, and with skin that looked like it had melted. I could tell though that she was still the boss, as the family treated her with a great deal of respect no doubt backed by hopes of getting their hands on her money. Perhaps because of that power over them she still held all the strings.
We were just a couple amongst many guests; actually we didn’t stand out, even with my wiffle, which gave me the aura actually of just having returned from the front. It was a crowded, smart and expensive affair and Grandmother seemed preoccupied with a hundred other guests. But it wasn’t that she was ignoring us, or me for that matter, she was biding her time and as it turned out picking her moment.
Eventually just as we were getting champagne happy and I’d convinced myself that a life in the armed services of the USA was probably it for me, I saw her look over from her throne and crook a bony be-jeweled finger in my direction.
I thought this is it, she’ll be wise and a canny and then she’ll make a gesture of welcoming me and my bride into the treasure chest of the family, and that will be it. It was like being in the movie, ‘ The Godmother’.
So I went over and climbed up the steps onto the podium. She was as old, if not more ancient, than the barber. All the more impressive was that she was still the head of the family and long after her war-hero husband ‘Jimmy’ had passed on. Who though long passed apparently, at least to her, was still around as my fiancée had heard she’d all but lost her hold on reality and kept mixing up people from the past with those of the present.
She crooked her finger again to me to come right up so she could speak closely into my ear.
This was the big moment; Matriarchal words of wisdom would be forthcoming followed by the Blessing. The room was suddenly hushed as guests twenty deep, turned to watch as I approached the throne.
“You are?” she said in a scratchy voice. “My grand-daughter’s fiancée? The man she hopes to marry?” I said, “Yes I am.”
She got hold of my lapel and pulled my ear even closer to her rouged lips.
Her breath rasped. I thought she was going to give me the combination to the safe, just before she croaked, and hoped I could remember the numbers. Looking around at the reception room from my elevated vantage point at all the rich and shiny people below it suddenly struck me that the combination to the safe was exactly what most of them were hoping to hear. Then she spoke again!
“You know all the men in our family wear ties.” She rasped in an edgy whisper.
It was bit of a let down actually, that was the Matriarchal Message, the intonement of the rights to her granddaughter! But wait maybe I was wrong maybe she spoke in code?
I did feel a little crestfallen though, standing there with my forehead tuft, my white bristled and pimply skull, in my open-necked shirt amongst two hundred men all wearing ties feeling completely out of place amongst that tanned mob of rich folk, after a five thousand mile journey and for what, doubtful sartorial guidance? Then she spoke once more; she hadn’t let go of my lapel.
“But,” she said, her powdered cheek touching mine as her bony old fingers ran over the top of my head, “I do like your wiffle.” She fluttered her long false eyelashes.
Then a sort of glazed look passed over her old face as she looked at me differently. And as a sultry smile played across her thin painted lips, her voice suddenly changed and became girlish, younger and playful, sexy even!
“Jimmy you naughty boy!” She said, “What a lovely surprise, it’s been so dull here, I’ve been lonely all season… here,” she went to stand up, “ let me take your arm,” she said as she placed a white satin-gloved hand on my wrist. “My darling, you may escort me into dinner.”