This was the first written piece that I received money for. Not a lot, but money, none the less. Hopefully, it’s the first of many.
It’s about something from my past that really used to worry me. Anyone who knows me, knows my memory is bad, but this memory from thirty years ago is still with me. It’s started as something insignificant – having your hair cut – but went on to be something a little darker.
It was available as part of an anthology, ‘The Asylum Within’, but appears to be out of print now. Here it is:
Jim watched as the wrinkled arm brought the pristine scissors towards his face. The arm had been tattooed long before, the design now hidden in folds of ageing skin. The other arm came down on the top of his head, tilting it to the left.
“How d’you want me to do it?” The voice was deep, gravely. “D’you have a preference?”
Jim looked at his reflection in the mirror. The years had not been good to him; the skin around his eyes had started to sag, his face was pale and blotchy. The antiseptic stench of the room was strong, causing Jim to breathe through his mouth. He licked his lips and tasted it anyway.
He sighed as he looked at the man standing behind him. This was probably for the best; it had to be done.
He regarded his surroundings reflected in the mirror, while he composed his reply. There were a number of people sitting around the edge of the room. He counted a dozen , men and boys. They looked on impassively. A single bulb hung in the centre of the room, its scant light creating deep shadows in the corners. A single narrow window up near the ceiling provided some much-needed sunlight.
The man behind him shifted Jim’s head slightly and cleared his throat. His attention was drawn back to the scissors, now millimetres away from his neck. He hoped the ordeal would soon be over. He bit his bottom lip momentarily before he replied.
“Just a bit off the back and sides, please sir.”
“Antone. You can call me Antone.” There was the slightest trace of an accent. He began to cut Jim’s hair, just above his collar. “The name’s Antonello, but everyone calls me Antone.
“Ok, Anthone. Italian?”
“My father was Italian, God rest him. My mother was English.” He looked into the mirror as he spoke, glancing only briefly at the hair he was cutting. Jim wished he would pay more attention but said nothing. He looked again at the tattoos on Antone’s arms. They extended from his wrists and continued beyond his rolled up shirt-sleeves. They were not the arms Jim expected on a barber.
Antone continued cutting in silence. It was Jim that spoke first. “Have you been cutting hair long?”
“A few years.”
Jim smiled. He looked at Antone’s grey, whispy hair, his wrinkled skin and his slightly hunched-over posture. Quite a few years, thought Jim. Antone adjusted his position. He lifted the grey hairs around Jim’s ears and began cutting. The thought of having part of his ear sliced off by a barber had terrified him as a boy. He had carried this fear into adult life. Even now, many years later, he held his breath as the first snips were made.
“Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you,” Antone said, smiling.
Jim blushed slightly and let his breath escape slowly.
“Yet.” Both men smiled.
“Old habits,” Jim said. The moment of levity relaxed him a little. He felt his shoulders slump, and he released his grip on the chair arms that he hadn’t realised he had been holding. He turned his attention back to the mirror and the room behind him. The other patrons stared back at him. Some were Jims age, some much younger; two of the boys could not have been more than ten. They were all silent; the only sounds those of the scissors, and Antone’s laboured breathing. He sat in the solitary barber’s chair, positioned in the centre of the room. Being the centre of attention fuelled his self-consciousness. Coupled with the oppressive silence, it made his face burn red. He felt compelled to speak.
“I’ve not noticed you here before. Have you been here long?”
“I’ve been running this shop since my father died. It’s his name on the front. I never bothered to change it.”
“Gino’s. Was that your father?” Jim could feel everyone’s eyes on him, and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “A family business then?”
“It was my father’s dream, not mine,” Antone moved in front of Jim, blocking his view of the mirror, “but it’s a means to an end.” He brushed down the hair on Jim’s forehead. “Close your eyes, please.”
Jim closed his eyes as Antone cut his fringe. After a moment, and with a flourish, he removed the cover that was around Jim’s neck.
Jim looked at himself in the mirror. He ran a hand through his hair and turned to look at the sides. “Smashing,” he said. “I can see why you’re so popular.”
“No,” said Antone, “Not too popular. Just popular enough.” He spun Jim’s chair around to face the room. Jim blinked as he tried to comprehend what he saw; the room was empty, save for a row of chairs along the back wall. He looked up at Antone.
“Where did everyone go?”
“Sorry,” said Antone. He lazily spun the chair back, so it faced the mirror again.
The room was full once more. The patrons stared back, unblinking. Jim threw a glance over his shoulder, but saw nothing. Turning back to the mirror, he reached his hands over his head. His elbows popped audibly. He frowned at his reflection as he waved his hands slowly above his head. He looked back over his shoulder once more at the empty room, before spinning his head back to the front. The faces stared back at him, expressionless.
“How are you doing that?” Jim ran a hand over his face and rubbed his eyes.
“It’s not me.” Antone placed a firm hand on Jim’s shoulder. “They’re just there.” He gave a small wave to the patrons at the back of the shop. No one waved back.
Jim tried to turn around once more, but was held in place by Antone’s hand. “I’m sorry sir, but I can’t let you go.” Jim tried to stand but with both hands pressing on his shoulders, he could not leave his seat.
“What are you doing? Get your hands-” His words were cut off as Antone placed a hand on each side of Jim’s face, squeezing his cheeks.
“I’m afraid it’s you or me.” Antone continued applying pressure to Jim’s face. “And it’s bloody well not going to be me.” Jim cursed his years as he scrambled to get a grip of the man’s hands. Slowly, Antone’s fingers began to slip under the outer layers of Jim’s skin. As if moving beneath latex, his fingers spread wider and ventured deeper into Jim’s face. His body began to buck and thrash as his efforts to free himself became steadily weaker.
Jim could only stare wide-eyed into the mirror and watch helplessly as Antone’s posture became more upright; the previously slack skin on his arms tightened, revealing the tattoos; the years dropped from his face; his grey-streaked hair began to revert to black.
“Just the wrong place at the wrong time.” Antone’s fingers were now buried knuckle-deep in Jim’s flesh. His feeble attempts to remove the hands had all but stopped. His own bones were starting to show through his brittle skin, the hollows in his face were becoming more pronounced, and his breathing was becoming ragged.
Antone towered above the skeletal form slumped in the chair, biceps tight against his shirt sleeves. With a final flex of his fingers, he pulled them out of Jim’s face and breathed deeply.
“Thank you. Not as much as I hoped, but enough for now.” Antone ran his hands through his long hair and then grabbed Jim, pulling him out of his seat. He dragged the limp body across the floor into the storeroom.
Jim watched as his body was dragged out of sight. He turned to the other patrons, now standing. They reached for him and took his arm, guiding him to a seat at the back of the room.
Jim took his place with the others and looked on, silently.