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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

An Unpainted Portrait, Cut Down

Cut Down To Size

The light streaming through my radioactive Home Office curtains broke in roughly, kicked the crap out of the room, and savagely shook me awake before laughing in my face. I’d never woken up in an entirely orange environment before, and I must say that it was a surreal experience. I struggled out of the lumpy bed, stumbled to the window and opened the curtains just a crack to allow the full spectrum of light to flood in. For the next two minutes everything turned blue while my retinas and brain adjusted.

After our morning parade and inspection during which we were shouted at by a man whose voice suggested that a small rodent had nested in his underwear and was eating its way out, we changed out of our best uniforms and returned to the classroom. A few minutes passed until Tendril materialized in the doorway, wearing his canoe-sized indoor boots. “Follow me!” he half-shrieked, and withdrew. Scrambling to catch up with him, we saw him beetling down the corridor, cross the foyer and then head into the accommodation building. I wondered what fate awaited us as we trudged along the dismal administration corridor past open office doors through which unhappy-looking people behind desks piled high with paper regarded us with mute appeals for rescue in their eyes…

Within a few seconds, all became clear as we arrived at the very last door. The room was situated at the furthest corner of the building from all other forms of life. More than a little ominous. Constable Tendril explained thoroughly: “SHUTUP!”; which, I think you’ll agree, covered every eventuality. “Hair cut!” he said without any further adornment. Hair cut?! Throughout the selection process I’d been keeping my hair very short by the standards of the day. Only the weekend before I’d taken myself off to an old-time barber for an even shorter haircut, and the good fellow had done everything except take off the top of my skull with a saw. I’d taken some verbal flak as a result, both from my girlfriend and my friends. I looked quite ridiculous already and therefore, I thought, was sure to be spared. However, my hair – and my imagination – was about to be upgraded.

The ‘barber’ – I use the term with a liberal dose of creative licence – was a strangle little fellow. At least 107 years old, he had obviously been performing this function since the Boer War, from which era he had forcibly dragged his favourite hairstyle. We didn’t know at that point that it was his only hairstyle, but we would find out all about it in the not-too-distant future. To add to the dimly-lit Vincent Price atmosphere, he wore an enormous built-up boot on one foot and this clumped ominously on the vinyl floor as he worked his way around an ancient red leather and steel chair of torture. Apparently, the constabulary budget didn’t run to a huge pipe organ and demonic organist, or else I’m sure we’d have had some mood music to accompany our savaging. Subsequent enquires revealed a rumour that when they were building the FTC accommodation block in the late sixties, they had found him cutting hair amid the ruins of his old barber’s shop which had sat next to the convent. Expediently, they’d built the structure around him. From time to time, they fed him recruits to prevent him from wandering out into the street.

The only tool in use that day was a very large – and impressively old – electric hair clipper. Made of low-grade pig iron and Bakelite, it came in at an approximate weight of 30lbs and an output of around forty-eight thousand BTUs. I knew this because I could feel the warmth of it across the room. I’d once insured things with less potential for disaster. The heavy-duty cable for it looped over the barber’s shoulder and writhed across the floor like a thick, black snake. It then disappeared into a hole, and, I mused, into the cellar which held a Messerschmidt aero-engine converted into a generator. The floor vibrated ominously.

As the first sacrificial lamb, I waited pensively for the onslaught upon my head. Stumbling forward when beckoned, I assumed an emotional foetal position. I was welcomed; “Sit there, lad.” A loud ‘CLACK!’ and a slight change in the floor vibrations signified that the clipper was activated. With the skill of a blind blacksmith after a few too many jugs of scrumpy, the clumping, wheezing butcher – sorry; barber – set about what was left of my hair. As the Messerschmidt hummed beneath us, the large, blunt and extraordinarily hot clipper buzzed around the back of each ear, my sideburns and collar line. From time to time instead of cutting, he would – presumably for his own entertainment – catch and pull a few hairs out. My flinching made him grunt with apparent satisfaction.

There was, of course, no mirror available for my assessment and approval of his efforts. There was no “Can you just take a bit more off the sides?” or “Leave that as it is please.” I would have to wait until I reached a washroom to check out the damage. After several minutes, I was finally released by Charlie Clipperhands and climbed out of the chair. There seemed to be far more hair on the floor than I had been carrying around on my head before the process began. This worried me. With a dry mouth, I staggered and stumbled past my wide-eyed, uncharacteristically silent colleagues and along the corridor. Setting aside all efforts to retain my dignity and holding on to door frames for support, I made my way to the nearest washroom, next to the public telephones. There, I found a much-needed reflecting device and slowly looked up. It was not a moment without inner turmoil.

The hair on top of my head had mysteriously been left quite alone and now rested in splendid isolation like a fluffy little crown atop a mountain of bristly skin. Far, far below sat my suddenly lonely ears. It looked as if I’d pushed my head into a giant electric pencil sharpener and I now resembled ‘Bert’ from Sesame street. Further examination revealed five or six little chunks of skin missing from parts considered unimportant by Crumpton’s Sweeney Todd. In fairness, I was only bleeding a little, in accordance with standing orders which prohibited recruits from engaging in excessive exsanguination without special authority from the Chief Constable. Aside from that, in a remarkably short space of time, I’d been turned from a relatively normal human into something resembling a chimney pot with a large, abandoned bird’s nest on the top.

A short time later, seated back in the classroom, I had the perverse joy of watching my bemused and emotionally tattered colleagues as one by one, they returned from the same shattering experience. Their expressions ranged from disgust to bemusement, from bewilderment to outright alarm and in one case, nausea. I took a growing satisfaction from each hairdressing disaster as it became clear that, again, I’d got off relatively lightly. Maybe the old boy hadn’t yet warmed up properly when he mauled my head. The haircuts – all truly appalling – ranged from the mediaeval page boy (Mark, bless his cotton socks) to the Brighton Rock skinhead. Bruce – the skinhead – looked more confused than anything else when he finally turned up, and with a nervous, unconvincing laugh said “Ah told ‘im…ah said: ah only need a fookin’ polish!”



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