Old Heaney The Barber

(An excerpt from Tales From Old Stopsley)

Richard K. Walker

© Copyright 2003 by Richard K. Walker 


Photo of a barber shop.

Old Sickle Saunders was always sat on the big old bent tin dustbin outside Old Heaney's barber's shop. He sat there all day, chewing with gums naked of teeth on his old clay pipe and letting the world go by.

"Don't you go in there," Sickle Saunders always said to every one of Old Heaney's customers. "He can talk the twenty-seven legs off a nine tailed donkey!"

Of course no one took any notice of Sickle Saunders or his absurd remarks. Sickle Saunders had been banned long ago from the inside of the barber's shop and he sat outside hating Old Heaney who was, in an odd Stopsley way, his best friend.

Sickle Saunders's hair was a peppery- white, thick- clotted mane that hung down to his shoulders. This made him look like a well- thatched and fat haystack. His thin, worn smock and thick gaitered trousers were always covered with the feathers of the various hens that he fought daily for their well fertilised, brown eggs that were sold, nightly, along with strong elderberry wine, by every wizened old crone in the village. Old Heaney used to make him nearly respectable by cutting his hair every six months.

We all came to watch. It was a major event in the village. All us boys crept from every corner and never mind school, just to see the fun.

One moment Old Heaney would be red faced as a turkey cock and as thin as a rake, inside his shop clipping away, while his waiting clients passed the long wait with a flick through all of the colourful and very pornographic books taken from a pile on the floor. Then, without a word, Old Heaney would stop in mid click of his scissors and shoot out of the door.

Always the routine was the same.

"Time for your trim, Cyclamen," Old Heaney would yell at Sickle Saunders.

"No it bain't!"

"Oh, yes. I've heard it said that you smell, Cyclamen. So I've gotta cut the dirt orf yer before the Vicar comes fer mid-week communion."

"Ain't a-goin'!"

Always at this point all the waiting customers would rush out and hold Sickle Saunders down firmly on his tin dustbin. Old Heaney descended on him then and Cyclamen Saunders was shorn of his locks like a sheep caught in a mechanical scythe. Then all hell would break loose. Sickle Saunders would leap up and do a kind of dance. He would spin right out into the main Hitchin Road and yell all the obscenities that he knew. It was like he was possessed of the Devil. Torrents of vile words poured out in a thick river to suddenly stop in mid yell. Then he would fall to the ground and lie as docile as an old dog lying in the sun. There he would stay until the Vicar was sent for. Then he would follow the Vicar, like a hog with a ring through its nose and on a long lead, all the way to the church.

Strangers could never understand the spectacle or why Old Heaney would not let his friend into the barber's shop at any price. We tried to explain that Sickle Saunders's mother would not let him go inside, even though she was ninety-one and was constantly told by the village crones that her oak coffin, with the elm lid, was ready and it was time that Cyclamen got himself a wife to look after him. Mary would do, they said, even though she was well past forty and had hands as big as coal shovels. Surely everyone knew that these more than made up for her remarkably flat chest. A nice haircut would tickle Mary's fancy and set Cyclamen up for life. But nothing anyone said did any good.

The one occasion, long in the past, when Sickle Saunders had slipped his mother's leash and had entered Old Heaney's shop had been disastrous. After half an hour he had promptly disappeared from the Village sporting a nice short back and sides, complete with fancy bit of lighted taper singeing.

Sickle Saunders was not seen for well over a year. His mother ranted and roared at Old Heaney, but it did no good. Old Heaney's rude books had made their mark and Sickle Saunders had gone off to London to find out if the women in the wider world were, in fact, so much better than the village girls and did in fact have breasts that did not look like two old round turpentine cans that had partly rusted away.

Sickle Saunders came back in style. Two policemen had carried him from the back of a pony and trap and had laid him in his bed face down. London had burned all the spark out of him. All he was fit for was to sit on the tin dustbin that contained all of Old Heaney's really wicked books and warn the rest of us boys of the evils of the flesh.

"Don't go in there," Sickle Saunders would say from his perch on the bin. "Haircuts only lead to women and a life of misery."

None of us ever took any notice, but as the years of our lives rolled on and took their toll, we knew what he meant. How many of us forgot his warning as we studied Old Heaney's new set of girly magazines? Out of all of us, only a couple had cause to believe old Sickle Saunders homily, in later life. He delivered it, on every boyhood Wednesday.

"Love only lasts three weeks, boys," Sickle Saunders would yell, making his tin dustbin quiver. "Remember that or you'll spend the rest of your rotten lives trying to recapture a dream and diggin' fer potatoes."

And as for Old Heaney, he was still arguing with Sickle Saunders when he gave us all a short back and sides just before we went off, as conscripts, to join the army.

When we came back, Old Heaney and Sickle Saunders had long gone. A new unisex saloon stood in the place where the men's barber's shop had once been. All the books inside were about how best to feed babies. And all the village girls had lost their rusty turpentine cans. They looked as good as women anywhere, except for a few who had painted the nails on their coal-shovel hands a deep and bloody red. Their hairy and knobbly legs sticking out from under their tiny mini skirts made us all take the train back to London and the hardness army life, within a week. But what wonderful week's leave we had.

The Vicar organised a barn dance in the village hall and we all tasted the lavender sweetness of our village girls and knew then forever that London women's sophistication was as brittle as glass compared to the soft and gentle warmth that would call to us from home when some of us were to lie alone in foreign fields without a wife to keep us company in years to come. Sickle Saunders knew that and at last had married Mary and had gone to live near Farley Farm on the other side of Luton. He had been pleased to distraction when Mary had shown him how she could carry a dozen eggs in each hand.

As for Old Heaney, no one would recognise him now, dressed in his pink suit in Soho. His new establishment was said to cater to Royalty and politicians. He did, however, have a weird statue of a monkey sitting on the lid of his wonderful new, gold plated dustbin, placed just outside, by his fancy barber's plate glass shop door.

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