Photo credit to Olphotog
In the late fifties I hated trips to the barber. I was in my early teens and what was not to hate? The way hairs got down my shirt and itched. The way a fresh haircut made my ears stand out. The heavy breathing of the barber as he went about his work, pausing for sips of tea. The way everyone waiting watched as I was shawn. Piles of hair on the floor. The flash of the hand mirror as the barber asked, “is that OK Norman ?” Ignoring me and addressing the question my father who was watching from the waiting area, as if I was irrelevant. My father would make sure he got good value for money and that the cut would last at least three or four weeks. Style never entered his equation.
Lightning’s shop was on Bell’s Road in Gorleston. As a barber he was quick once you got to the chair. The waiting area was almost always full however as he was the only barber in town. If you wanted choice, it was a bus ride to Yarmouth where there was a barber in the town centre near to the Regent cinema, but nobody wanted to add an hour to their barber shop visits. The place in Yarmouth was a long dark room, with chairs for waiting on one side and chairs for haircutting on the other. There was just one power point serving the stations, the electrical adapters had adapters plugged into them. I stopped off there a couple of times on the way home from school as I was getting older. Once when it came to my turn, a toff breezed into the shop and the next available barber said sorry son, this gentleman is in a hurry, and seated him in the chair. I noticed them smirk at each other. Another time, I was halfway through a haircut when the electrical bundle went bang and caught fire. Everyone had to be finished with hand snippers, scissors and razors. I didn’t go there again after that.
Lightning was a Pole. When it was your turn in the chair it was best not to indulge in casual conversation, just settle back and listen to his laboured breathing. Otherwise, it would be Pardon, Could you repeat that, Sorry what? Or you could just take a stab at what he said and guess the reply based on that. Then you would be repeating yourself until it matched the comment and you got the nod. So silence was best. I learned quickly to hold my breath when he came in close. I have never liked garlic sausage. Especially Polish garlic sausage.
Dad and I always cycled down, propping our bikes against the brick wall outside. There was never need to lock them – this was the nineteen fifties. People could be trusted. Stepping into the shop, everyone turned to see who was coming in. Lightning smiled, then gave a nod towards a waiting seat as if you needed an introduction or guidance. Once the ensemble had satisfied it’s curiosity, all attention returned to to the person in the chair. Dad always rummaged in the newspaper pile once we were settled to find one with a good horse racing section. He would study this carefully, I don’t know why, because he worked on hunches and his accumulators had odds which were less favourable than those for being struck dead by a meteorite. The next stop after Lightning would be the bookmakers on Quay Road. I didn’t mind the detour. If the tide was coming in we stopped off to see what the fishermen were catching. Only idiots, eternal optimists and men who didn’t get on too well with their wives fished the ebb. That was when the sewage sluice opened and the healthy sea air was transformed. So if it was the ebb we gave it a miss.
When it was my turn, Lightning would pump up the chair and ask my father how I would like it cut. The stock answer was plenty off, short back and sides. I wanted to grow my hair longer and have it styled. These were exciting times. The birth of skiffle, rock and pop. Rebellion was fuelled within me by Elvis, and later by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. But no, it was always short back and sides. I was self conscious of my large ears and as Lightning set about shaving my head they would grow rather like Pinnochio’s nose did. At the end, Lightning would turn to my father and ask if I wanted anything on. My dad, being one with an eye out for value would agree. The full extent of ‘anything on’ was a large dispenser of Brylcreme on the counter. He would squirt a large dollop of the perfumed emulsion into one hand, massage them together, then plaster what remained of my hair into submission. By then my ears were at maximum and bright red.
When someone was nearing completion, the tension in the room rose perceptibly. I always put this down to fear of queue jumping, although it may have been more to do with something akin to stage fright, because the next person would become the centre of entertainment for the following ten minutes. Lightning had a little post cutting routine for the men. He would lean in to the customer’s ear and while half turning to wink those waiting and whisper, ‘Something for the weekend, Sir?’ Inevitably he got the nod and would go to a locked wall cabinet and take out a small packet, half concealing it in his palm before slipping it to the customer under cover of the hairdressing sheet. I always wondered what this was all about until I became brave enough to explore the bedside cabinet in my parents bedroom, on my dad’s side. I showed them to my sister and we laughed, although I remember we still weren’t sure at the time what they were for. That came much later.
It is little wonder, faced with my dad and his conspiracy with Lighning, that when I became eighteen I stopped having my hair cut altogether. My ears disappeared along with self consciousness and I enjoyed the best time of my life. There is no fear of meeting Lightning again, were he still living he would be 120 and much noticeably slower. However, even today as the hairdresser holds that mirror to the back of my head, I wait for my father’s approval. Glancing in the main mirror I see the waiting customers and he is not amongst them, but what is evident is that now everyone is very much younger than me and of course my father has been long gone. Time has moved on but has not absolved my hatred of having a haircut. Lightning saw to that.