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A Wiffle Son

by jonsun 

Posted: 04 February 2009
Word Count: 5183
Summary: A colonnial barbers' revenge and the keys to the kingdom

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Short Story
By John Sunderland

I took my heart across the ocean when I went to marry a beautiful and enchanting younger woman who lived in a tiny house on a beach in a small coastal community at the far end of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
It seemed so idyllic from the start, but Pilgrim Beware! Being suddenly immersed in a new culture, even one that shares the same language, is full of pitfalls.
My new fiancée and I had flown back to her place from my cottage in North Yorkshire earlier in the week to re-coup and re-group before setting off again to fly down to a family wedding in South Beach, Miami. It was to be my first introduction to her family clan and my first family event.
At the wedding I’d meet my new extended family, but more importantly I was to be presented to the Empress and Matriach of the Clan, my darling’s Grandmother, not without some misgiving on my part as I’d heard she was a dragon in silk and furs. It was her ninetieth birthday and she expected to meet me.
She was also very wealthy and I‘d been told, had led a gilt-edged life of ease, style and wealthy sophistication. Now in her nineties and in failing physical health but with all her gilded chairs still at home, she reigned over her subjects from regal apartments overlooking South Beach.

However, for the sake of the bloodline and maybe too because I wasn’t Jewish, I had to be officially checked over and given Grandma’s blessing. Without it we were doomed. There was another tiny matter; it was common knowledge in the family that my fiancé was a lesbian, a fact I might have taken more into account in terms of my own future planning. But love is blind (and deaf, dumb and as it turned out stupid in my case, but that’s another story). So with that surprising fact in mind, I expected family members also wanted to see what this strange Anglo Saxon weirdo bloke was doing marrying their lesbian relative and a) was he an imposter after the family silver, or b) was he a nut-case, meaning he’d probably fit in nicely.

To make matters more confusing to the clan, I wasn’t a doctor, dentist, neither a lawyer, broker nor brain-surgeon like most of the other male members of the clan. No, worse, much worse- I was a freelance designer, a term which sounds like something but means what exactly? Did it mean I’d got pots of money, well no; I had the pots, but no money.
In fact the years of my personal financial insecurity had turned my initially healthy and jocular bank manager, in his cozy homely little bank in a North Yorkshire country town, into a worn-out wreck on the verge of nervous exhaustion, demotion and branch closure. He was just too nice and sympathetic to make it as a bank manager, especially with customers like me. In retrospect I am sure early retirement was right for him, though 43 was perhaps a little too young.
But Grandma and her whelps knew nothing of my background, so I’d decided when I got there to busk it and err on the mysterious and fuzzy side when it came to my lineage. From what I had experienced already, Americans by and large loved the English anyway without exception as long as they had a pronounced accent. But just to be on the safe side, if anyone asked after my parent’s I’d planned to say my father was in ‘Building’, (he was, he managed a builders’ merchant yard selling bags of sand and gravel). If asked about my mother, I’d simply say that she was in Local Government, (she was, she worked at the Town Hall as a part-time typist).
Let them think what they liked, I didn’t care I was fabulously, genuinely and recklessly in love so it didn’t really matter. What did was that making a good impression mattered a lot to my fiancée as she loved her Grandmother very much. And after all her Grandmother had financed her though Vassar, the top drawer intellectual finishing school for brilliant girls.
So knowing that first impressions count I planned to dress up nice and smart-in a style suavely debonair and elegant, a sort of Yorkshire version of James Bond (by gum Moneypenny you don’t sweat much for a fat lass) and at the event rev up my irresistible English charm in the hope of weedling the Royal ‘Blessing’ from Grandmamma that my darling so desperately desired.
Confident in our love whatever may be the outcome, we planned to be off to Miami in a couple of days after weaning ourselves off the jetlag. Meanwhile we had time to buff ourselves up to the projected standard. I might have been broke, but at least I could look like the next upswing in fortune was on its way.
To help this along I’d planned to wear my smarty arty suit, a black linen job. It was stylish in a wrinkly sort of way (like the wearer) with a floppy arty white shirt which with its wide-open collar was, I thought, sartorially Byronic. I also planned to wear a pair of black patent leather shiny dead- man’s ballroom shoes I’d bought at a thrift store, which funnily enough always made me come over all ballroom-dancing-like whenever I put them on. I would at least look pretty smart over all I thought; clothes, not cash maketh the man. But up on top my scraggy and graying thatch badly needed a trim.
Because I was going for the sort of Miami Vice meets Oxford Don look, this required my hair be not too long, neither should it be too short. I wanted to be able to flip it back at the desired moment for petulant emphasis.
Although late May, it was still early for a Northerner to have a haircut. Where I came from, on the moorlands of North Yorkshire, no one “casts a clout till May goes out” and that went for hair as well, which had been hidden all winter under a flat cap. In fact, come to think about it, sheep-shearing time in the early summer was really about the right time to “cast off a clout”.
Where I lived, on the breezy hills above the farming town of Kirkbymoorside, then and only then would you consider going without your jumper, but cautiously and as long as you were not too far away from warm dry shelter and wearing long underwear! And never would you lose your cap. But a tweed flat cap might look a bit out of place at the Miami Biltmore.
It would be warm down there so I had to get a haircut. Taking me leave of my fiancée off I went, still jet-lagged to find a competent hairdresser somewhere in the town. I didn’t bother asking anyone where I should go; I thought I’d explore and no doubt I’d come across a hairdresser. Actually I didn’t need a ‘hairdresser’ as such, a barber would do. I was still in that heady state most people who come to live in America from England have when they first arrive, the impression that I was living in a movie. Everything looked that way and this was picturesque New England, all white houses and churches against a deep blue sky. So I pictured an old-fashioned sort of barber in a white jacket performing his trade with flaming tapers, razors and scissors as though in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Getting a real haircut, especially in a new country is one of those masculine rituals. In fact it would be more than just a haircut. I decided it was a personal initiation to my newly adopted land, never mind saluting the flag and all that.
Course I didn’t want something too brutal; I needed a sensitive approach. Not a short back and sides, not a crew cut or anything like it. I knew exactly what I wanted and how much I wanted taking off. But I didn’t fancy a unisex salon. They might talk me into something I’d regret and I hadn’t got much on top as it was. I was, after all, planning to keep most of what I’d got left as I wasn’t sure I’d be getting any more!
Wandering about after lunch on that warm and flower-scented afternoon, with the white houses of the old town on the left and the blue waters of Cape Cod bay on the right, I was in heaven. Everything fitted into my dream- picture of a New England Coastal town, except me.
I knew exactly what the barbershop would look like. I had a picture of it in my mind, I’d seen it time and time again in gangster and cowboy films. There’d be mirrors and chrome and leather and white aprons and a linen sheet and steaming white towels to swathe me in. There’d be oils and creams that smelled like my dad before he went to the pub on Saturdays and I’d lean back and relax with complete trust in the professionalism and the warm steady handed competence of the barber. Eyes closed I’d waft away on a magic carpet in a heaven within a heaven.
But one more thing to make the picture complete; there had to be a red and white candy-cane barber pole outside.
I hadn’t been walking for more than a quarter of a mile and turned a corner and there it was, just as I’d pictured it. I walked up a little hill on a side road on which it stood. I knew inside there’d be a line of strong silent men waiting their turns reading newspapers in an orderly fashion. To complete the scene a freckled faced kid would be squirming in the chair with his proud plump mother looking on.
As I got closer it looked even more like it really was straight out of my imagined painting. Here was America, bright and picture perfect and all summed up in this building shining white in the sunshine. It even had the pole outside. All I had to do was go in and join up.
The small white building stood alone on the side of the street. It had two broad front windows and a glass paneled door in the middle. There were no advertisements I liked that. Just a card on a chain in old-fashioned type that announced the place was ‘Open’, with an accompanying list of opening times and a price list. It was reasonable, more than reasonable, at five dollars for a cut, not bad at all, maybe I would have two.
I peered in but couldn’t see any one, though I did notice it looked spotlessly clean. The black and white tiled floor was brushed to a hairless sheen. And a small pile of dark hair in the corner looked as though the old-fashioned broom leaning against the wall had brushed it there, no grey amongst it so I could see. Even if it was quiet and empty now, it looked as though the barber had been busy earlier.
I was a bit disappointed though that there were no men reading newspapers or a freckle faced boy with an obedient hound and a rosy cheeked mum as the place was empty as far as I could see. Still looked like a Rockwell painting.
Anyway the fact there was no-one waiting was a good thing, I wouldn’t have to wait. I pushed down the brass latch and stepped through the door to a bling-bling-bling from the bell mounted over it on a spring.
In the middle of the room, stood a single barber chair, just as I had imagined, all black leather and chromium fittings mounted on a big circular pedestal with a foot-lever, the Cadillac of barber chairs. It looked like it had come out of a gangster movie. I had never seen anything like it outside a cinema.
Just to be on the safe side, I examined the back for bullet holes, I mean, I was new in town. For all I knew gangsters might hang out on Cape Cod I didn’t want to get blown away, I’d just got there.
It was quiet, and apart from the bell on the door which still rang gently, the only other sound came from the ticking of a square framed clock which appeared for all the world as though it had been there since the Captain of the Mayflower (which landed first in the bay after crossing the Atlantic) had called in for a trim and a delouse.
I said aloud, “Hello”. There was a door leading off to the house behind, but no reply. No-one seemed to have heard.
So I went over to the chair and climbing up slid down and sank back into the black shiny leather. In front of me the large beveled-edge mirror reflected only me alone in America. There was still no sign of the barber.
“Hello,” I said louder leaning across to the slightly open door, “ you have a customer.” Still nothing.
I sat a bit longer then got a bit impatient and considered cutting it myself. But just in time I heard a little grunting snore and turned to see where it came from.
Behind me at the end of a row of chairs lined against the rear wall next to a pile of newspapers and magazines was a little old man in slippers like an elf curled over, soundly asleep. I hadn’t noticed him before because he was hidden in deep shadow in the corner. I thought he’d know where the barber was. He’d probably fallen asleep waiting for him after his lunch. Shame to wake him up, but Miami wouldn’t wait. So I coughed, and then coughed again louder. The second woke him up.
“Sorry,” I said, “ are you next?” I asked. He blinked and looked surprised to see me.
“What?” He said in a hoarse voice as he athritically got to his slippered feet.
“Are you next?” I enunciated more slowly and more clearly, in the way that English people do to foreigners. I’d assumed him to be the next customer, but as he was almost completely bald I couldn’t imagine he’d come in for anything but a polish. I moved to vacate the chair. But he waved me down again with a thin scrawny hand covered in liver spots.
“No,” he said. “sit!” I dropped back and stayed put.
That was generous of the old chap I thought. He was going to let me take his turn. Then instead of sitting down and dropping off again, he shuffled over towards me. He was a very, very old man who’d probably arrived with the Pilgrims. Actually he probably was the captain, and not too steady on his legs. I thought they were probably sea legs, surprising if he was three hundred years old, but it had been a long voyage.
He was bent over, so quite small, an elf wizened and blotched like an old rockfish. As he shuffled he stared at me through milky eyes and foggy brown-rimmed glasses that hung on the end of his nose held there by a small but obviously useful growth. Above the specs his stark porcupine eyebrows, more hairy than his shiny pink head, went up and down individually. To complete this look, he wore a pulled thread cardigan buttoned two buttons incorrectly so that it hung down two holes on the left-hand-side.
“I don’t mind,” I said, “if you’d you like to go next when the barber comes back?” straining up again from the chair and believing that politeness is an international language. Besides which, I’d always had a reverent respect for old people, hoping that there’ll be a karmic pay-back when I get up there, which won’t be so long.
But he ignored what I said and to my surprise shuffled over to a drawer, opened it and took out scissors and a comb. He wasn’t the next customer; he was the barber!
But so ancient and shriveled, how’d he even reach my head let alone hold scissors and comb? I thought maybe I should get up and kneel on the floor. The first question was quickly answered, as on reaching the chair, from the side he pressed an unseen lever with a jab of his foot and I plummeted six inches. That’s a long way in an unexpected free-fall.
So he was the barber. I wondered what I’d do if he died halfway through the haircut?
Then as though to answer my doubt, with an unexpected gusto he swung me round to face him, scissors in hand, close up he looked like Freddy Kruger’s granddad.
At the quarter turn I stopped dead in line with his creased bristly face.
“Waddyerwan?” he said in a thin and rather scary voice. Though he was close up and I could smell his old breath, he wasn’t looking at me.
“Pardon?” I said, wishing to ensure he’d got the idea I was a person of refinement with manners, an English gentleman in fact, worthy of polite treatment from a colonial.
“Waddyerwan?!” he said again, though in a way suggesting sudden impatience and pointed to my scalp with the scissors, though again not directly at my head.
Then, with surprising deftness like a practiced magician, he passed a white sheet over my body, lassoing me round the neck at the back, and then proceeded to tighten the pressure on my breathing tube with several wads of tissue paper. In the mirror, I caught my reflection with bulging eyes and a reddening face, I looked just like a large turkey leg. Now I was pinned back in the chair under folds of sheet and my arms and hands couldn’t find a way out. What if I needed to escape? Then I felt the veins on my forehead standing out and thudding as the blood tried to get in and out of my head. I expected next him to slap clamps on my forearms and attach electrodes. Meanwhile as I was being prepared by this evil elf and as consciousness began to ebb, the sunshine outside dimmed.

“Waddyawan?” he said once more, this time louder and more abruptly, with an ear cocked in my direction.
It was then that I realized he was asking a question. He needed to know how I wanted my hair cut.
I thought to avoid misunderstanding and get things absolutely clear, I’d speak slowly like a proper Englishman whilst at the same time demonstrating just exactly how much I wanted off.
“Please don’t take off too much,” I said fluffing my hair into a limp quiff. “I’m going to a wedding tomorrow, I don’t want to look like I’ve been scalped.”
He looked at me blankly like I was a complete dummy and lifted the scissors.
I stopped him, pulling my head back from the points. To make absolutely sure he understood how much I wanted off I managed to free my right hand from the straight jacket and showed him with my finger and thumb held slightly apart and up in front of his face,
“ Could you take just this much off?” I said slowly holding my hand in what I hoped was his field of vision.
The gap between my digits was about a quarter of an inch, or in metric terms about five millimeters, but I didn’t think he’d understand those. He looked closely over his misted glasses, recording the measure of distance. Then he nodded and without saying a word pressed another hidden lever. I dropped backwards like stone. I thought maybe I’d insulted him with my hand gesture and he was about to catapult me through the door and out into the bay. But no, he turned his back and started clanging about in a drawer.
I thought to myself. “Come on John, it’s fine. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a barber with at least three hundred years of experience. I’ll just let him get on with it.” So I lay back and relaxed, thinking how many others must have sat there like me over time. Boys to men, he must have seen hundreds, maybe tens of thousands, of locals in that chair, like a doctor, only more regularly month after month, year after year from infant locks to baldness, he’d have seen whole generations of the local manhood rise and fade from seed to flower and back to seed, from the blonde fluff of childhood to the silver mantle of later life. No wonder he was a chronicler with scissors, he was a father confessor with a comb, sharing the doubts fears, dreams and aspirations of a community. With that smiling thought I relaxed to join the throng of haircut heritage all around me, like happy well-groomed ghosts of haircuts past and closed my eyes in reverie.
Tomorrow I’d meet the Grande Dame in Miami and proudly enter into the bosom of my new American family. My fiancée would be stunning and I’d be smart and dashing, with my second-foot patent shoes on the ballroom floor and newly tailored hair, complimenting her perfectly. Hands across the ocean, the old and new world framed in gilded glory by the background of the Biltmore’s finest stage. Guests would smile and say we looked good together, the perfect couple even if we were weird and I had no money.
So in this golden perfect moment I drifted off, eyes closed, smiling and contented. I remember that smile.

BRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZZZ! Right across my head, it went, like a motorbike.
I woke up startled!

The old man had taken electric clippers set to their finest setting and cut a line across my head side to side. I had a swathe like a harvester’s first cut in a cornfield. I involuntarily sat up just as he was about to take his second sweep and swung round and almost kicked him through the window!

“What have you done you bloody idiot!!” I screamed, “You total berk!”
(I’m afraid I carried on a bit further with the screaming insults). The poor old guy jumped back like I’d pole-axed him. His jaw dropped and his yellowed top-set nearly fell out of his mouth.
I must say that I have felt bad about my outburst ever since because I think he was genuinely shocked and surprised at my reaction and I’d never shouted at an old person before.
And I did shout, really! He shuffled back a quick couple of paces, whilst I turned purple in the mirror.
“I’ve just come to bloody America,” I ranted “ and I’m going to a wedding tomorrow and I wanted to look my best and now look what you’ve done, you NIT. I look like a middle-aged punk! I said take THIS MUCH OFF.” And I gestured with my fingers again in front of his nose.
Whilst I’d lost mine, he kept his composure and nodding said, “We call that a ‘Wiffle’ son.”
“What!” I bellowed. “I don’t care what it’s called. What are you going to do about it, stick it back on?”
“It’s a Wiffle. I’ll have to finish it son. It’s got to be done!”

I sank like one of my mum’s cakes, like the elevator rope broke. It was all ruined. A chasm of black opened up and I was on a gravity ride to oblivion filled with seething emotions not least of which was the fact that I almost booted a old man and stuck his clippers up his hairy nose and had verbally assaulted him, a poor frail old man. What was I thinking? For God’s sake it was hair, only hair and vanity after all.

Half an hour later I was back at home. Of course there had to be a gang of visitors round to meet the strange straight Englishman who was going to marry a local gay gal.
When I’d taken off my newly purchased baseball cap and the laughter had died down and they’d all run through the hair jokes, I was informed it was a well-known fact that the barber was a menace and should have retired years before. He was now considered a liability to the hairdressing profession and an embarrassment to the town. No locals would ever dare go to his shop. He relied totally on tourists and visitors who fled never to spend money in town again. And said they’d tried to tell me!
In fact he only opened the shop these days because of a lifetime habit and spent most of his days bent over and asleep in a chair. They added, amongst sniggers, that he’d gone stone-deaf years before and refused to wear a hearing aid.
I said, “Well what about the pile of hair in the corner then? It looked like he’d had business earlier.” They told me that hair had been there since 1963 and that’s what I was supposed to think.
Well boyaroony did I feel and look stupid standing there with my sunburnt reddened face, white legs and a little spike of hair (all that was left) stuck out on the front of my forehead. I looked like a G.I., an English overweight white legged fifty-year-old version in Army Stores shorts. It was my fault really I shouldn’t have made that gesture. How was I to know he was stone deaf?
You will be glad to hear there is at least both a sad and a happy ending to this story.
I’ve always wondered if the shock I gave the old man by reacting so drastically had hastened his way to the great Barber Shop in the sky because he was dead and buried within three weeks. And if I did I’m really sorry, but maybe in heaven you should have a sign that says, ‘Stone deaf Barber –no hand signals!’

The Matriarchal Grandmother was enthroned in the reception as I’d been told, in what looked like her “dragon” chair on a podium at the front of the grand hall. She was pretty fearsome looking, like a monitor lizard with rouge, bright red lipstick and rheumy eyes and a big, slightly cockeyed wig with a black lacy hat over that and skin that hung in folds like it had melted. However she appeared, I could tell she was still the boss, as the family treat her with a great deal of respect, no doubt stimulated in their reverence by hopes of getting their hands on her money. Because of that she held the power and still controlled the strings.
Once there, we were just a couple amongst many guests. Actually we didn’t stand out, even with my wiffle, which gave me the aura actually of just having returned from the battlefield. It was a crowded, smart and expensive affair and Grandmother seemed endlessly preoccupied with a hundred other guests. But it wasn’t that she was ignoring us, or me for that matter she was biding her time, and as it turned out, picking her moment.
Eventually just as we both were getting champagne happy and I’d convinced myself that a life in the armed forces of the USA was probably it for me, I saw the old girl look over from her throne and crook a bony be-jeweled finger in my direction.
I thought, “This is it.” She’ll be wise and canny and then she’ll make a gesture of welcoming me and my bride-to-be into the treasure chest of the family, and that will be it. It would be like the movie, ‘ The Godmother’. I’d have to cut off a small finger. I had plenty. What the hell and then, mission accomplished.
So I went over and climbed up the steps onto the podium. She was as old, if not more ancient than the barber. In fact she could have been his mother as well. All the more impressive then that she was still the head of the family after being so long a widow. Her war-hero husband ‘Jimmy’ apparently had been lost at sea, and though long passed at least to her was still around. My fiancée had heard how she’d now all but lost her hold on reality and mixed up people from the past with those of the present.
Once more, she crooked her finger as I stood a few respectful feet away on the podium and signaled me to come right up so she could speak closely. I was summoned and I wasn’t even a member of the clan, a stranger in their midst.
This was the big moment. Matriarchal words of wisdom would be forthcoming followed by ‘The Blessing’. The room suddenly hushed as guests twenty deep, turned to watch me a total stranger approach the throne.

“You are” she said in a scratchy voice, “my grand-daughter’s new fiancée? The man she hopes to marry?” I said, “Yes I am maam.”

She got hold of my lapel and pulled my ear even closer to her rouged lips.
Her breath rasped. I thought she was going to give me the combination to the safe just before she croaked, and hoped I could remember the numbers. Looking around at the reception room from my now elevated vantage point at all the rich and shiny people below it suddenly struck me that the combination to the safe was exactly what most of them were hoping to hear. But then she spoke again!

“You know dear all the men in our family wear ties.” She rasped in an edgy whisper.

It was bit of a let down actually. That was it, the Matriarchal Message, the intonement of the rights to her granddaughter! But wait. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she’d spoken in code?
I did feel a little crestfallen, standing there with my forehead tuft, my white bristled and pimply skull, in my open-necked shirt amongst two hundred men all wearing ties feeling completely out of place amongst that tanned mob of rich folk, after a five thousand mile journey and for what? Doubtful sartorial guidance? Then she spoke once more and hadn’t let go of my lapel.

“But,” she said, her powdered cheek touching mine as her bony old fingers ran over the top of my head, “I do like your wiffle.” She fluttered her long false eyelashes.
Then a sort of glazed look passed over her ancient face as she looked at me differently through memorie’s eyes. And as a sultry smile played across her thin painted lips, her voice suddenly changed and became girlish, younger and playful, sexy even!

“Jimmy you naughty boy!” She said feigning a slap on my face, “What a lovely surprise. It’s been so dull here- I’ve been lonely all season… here.” She went to stand up. “ Let me take your arm,” she said as she placed a white satin-gloved hand on my wrist. “My darling, you may escort me into dinner now, we have so much to talk about.”

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