I am four years old and my mother has delivered me across the main road into Mr Middlemiss’s barber’s shop on the corner of Robinson Street for my first haircut that doesn’t involve a bowl and a pair of kitchen scissors. Naturally, I am both inquisitive and also slightly apprehensive (though I don’t realise this at the time having never previously encountered either of these words).
Mr M shows us towards the largest chair I’ve ever seen and then, for good measure, places a padded box on top of that before perching me on the box. He adds to the general air of anxiety by vigorously pumping the hydraulics of the chair without warning. I am now so far off the ground that altitude sickness is starting to kick in and the precipitous drop (several times my entire height) only compounds the terror of the impending procedure.
Mr Middlemiss is considerably older than me (at around one hundred) and his scissors are even older than that. He proceeds not to cut my hair as much as to tear it out by the roots before seizing my right arm and applying the electric trimmers to my quivering flesh: “you see Nicholas, these won’t cut you – but they do make a lot of noise.” Thanks for that Mr M – maybe next time, demonstrate on a part of your own anatomy first?
In the coming months, I grew accustomed to the frequent assaults from Mr Middlemiss until we eventually left Little Harwood and my mother’s ‘Wool & Drapery’ shop for pastures (and barbers) new. Over the years I frequented ladies’ hairdressers with my mother and sister after school, Ernesto the Italian barber in the town centre and various others until my teens when my mother discovered Martin.
Martin’s shop was around four miles from our home and this required a journey by car. Naturally, I was only delivered to the shop on Saturday mornings when it was busier than a nest of wild bees in high summer. I would be deposited on the pavement and collected an hour and a half later to ensure that I would have snaked my way through the endless queue. There were no mobile telephones to enable a quick “I’m done, come and pick me up” call.
Other than the incessant noise of Red Rose Radio’s menu of endless pop music (which I hated) the shop was deathly silent because talking, evidently, was not allowed. There was no: “how would you like it doing?” nor even the ubiquitous “do you have any holidays planned?” just a nod in your general direction, a theatrical flourish of the gown (like a scissors-wielding matador) and then the procedure itself, rounded off by scraping the top layers of skin from your neck with an unsterilised cut-throat razor. Everyone left Martin’s shop looking the same, for to the best of my knowledge, he only knew how to undertake the one cut. I would then retire to the bench and sit out the remaining fifty minutes waiting for my lift home.
I hated the whole event from beginning to end and so was completely nonplussed when my mother announced that I needed a haircut in mid December. Having only endured the ordeal a fortnight earlier I’d been hoping that I might last until mid January. “Don’t be stupid,” she replied “it’s Christmas. You know very well why you need a haircut for Christmas.” I didn’t. I still don’t.
Eventually, having passed my driving test, I was sent off to Martin in the car on my own. Thank goodness I wouldn’t have to sit there waiting for a lift home. Driving myself was to be my salvation and I would never again dread my haircuts. The queue was longer than ever and it must have been forty minutes before I even came close to its head. The telephone rang, shattering the stillness in the shop. Martin stopped scalping the unfortunate youth ahead of me, everyone looked up from their copies of The Sun and even Jason Donovan paused his crooning on Red Rose Radio. Martin picked up the ‘phone and listened intently. Would he actually be capable of speech? Nodding, he turned to the assembled in the shop:
“Is there a Nicholas Palmerley here? Your Mum’s on the ‘phone she says you’ve never been out in the car on your own before and she’s worried you’ve had an accident.” Cheeks burning, I surreptitiously raised one shy finger. A thousand sniggering men tittered then dropped their eyes back to page three and a small part of me died.
As an adult, haircuts are so much more pleasant. Paula drops around to my home every three weeks or so and we sit chatting comfortably in the conservatory, a glass of wine at hand. After 34 years and the tyranny of Mr Middlemiss, Martin and accomplices, I have finally come to enjoy the procedure – just as my hair is rapidly receding, haircutting time is short and I must look to the future.