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The Barber of Chat Street

by Gerry 

Posted: 08 March 2011
Word Count: 2566
Summary: Prague, May 1945. Petr Svarc has spent the last six years cutting the hair and shaving the chins of prominent German officers. Now, with the Russians approaching fast and partisans preparing an uprising, there are accusations of collaboration. Petr has only a few hours to salvage some honour, or even save his own life ...

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This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

The Barber of Chat Street

Tuesday May 1st, the War as good as over, and Petr Švarc was enjoying a quiet Kozel dark at the Golden Oak when one of the regulars stuck a knife in his lower abdomen and told him he was dead.
Such a good beer, he was thinking: bitter and sweet at once, with that lovely, nutty aftertaste; always a surprise to get something so good in this dirty old place, with its stink of stale sweat. And here was Honza Mráček coming over, pissed as usual, weaving around. A shame this evil cretin hadn’t been transported to the Vaterland like so many of the other workers, taken there and made into a slave.
Mráček was in front of him now, leaning on the table, his face far too close. Oh, Christ, here comes another mad drunken tirade about his wife – that fucking whore! – or the price of rum ... But there was no smell of beer off him, and the voice was clear, sharp. ‘Can I join you, Hercule, for a bit?’ Mráček said.
‘Of course,’ he said, gesturing to the seat next to his.
‘Hercule,’ said Mráček again, grinning at him as he sat down. ‘That’s who you look like, ain’t it? Model yourself on?’ The voice still low, steady. ‘With your fancy coat and your ’tache there ... Monsewer Poirot.’ Mráček’s frayed railway worker’s jacket was heavy with grime, but his eyes were bright, the whites clear against the smears of coal and soot. ‘And the little white cells,’ Mráček said, tapping his temple, his finger smearing the dirt some more.
‘Grey,’ he said. ‘Grey cells.’
‘Who gives a shit?’ said Mráček. ‘But you’d best start using them, thinking. And fucking quick, Švarc ... About what might happen.’
‘Yeah, happen. You know what I’m fucking talking about.’ And there, under the table: the click of a switchblade nicking a pearl waistcoat button, with Mráček’s eyes flashing as it rested against his belly.
He swallowed hard, not looking down, fingers tightening on his glass.
‘Think of this,’ said Mráček, ‘as a calling card. Fuckers like you are going to be dealt with. And soon. And don’t you go alerting your Kraut mates. It’s too fucking late.’
‘And what exactly have I done?’ he said, feeling the colour draining from his face. ‘Cutting the Third Reich’s hair. Does that make me a collaborator?’ His voice and knees were shaking now, but he told himself to keep going, tell this little bastard what he thought. ‘If it does, then we’re all collaborators. We all work for them somehow. A nation of worthless collaborators.’
‘But you ...’
‘What?’ he said. ‘All I do is cut their hair.’
‘Czechs haven’t been to your shop for seven fucking years. Because it’s been full of Nazi shit, you pissy little ponce,’ said Mráček, pocketing the knife and getting up from his seat. ‘Christ, you look like you’re going to cry. Like a big fucking woman. Your type make me puke.’
He watched the man’s filthy jacket sway towards the door. But the freight-yard worker stopped halfway there, eyes shining in his dirty face as he turned back.
Looking at him, Mráček spat on a finger, and drew it across his neck, sneering.

Wednesday morning saw a new customer, a major; he knew that from the man’s insignia. The major wanted to chat while he worked. That was fine, of course. All part of the service.
‘Are you the father or the son?’
‘The sign outside, Svarc and son. Which are you?’
‘The son, sir,’ he said. ‘My father’s retired. Long retired.’
‘Are you a father, too? With a son to carry on the business perhaps?’
‘I’m afraid I’ve no children myself, sir.’
‘Now, there’s a pity. Such a pity. My wife says that children are our sunshine, our light,’ the man said. ‘Are you married, Mr Švarc?’
‘I’m afraid not, sir.’
Quiet in the shop now, apart from the snip-snip of his scissors, and the tick of the clock over the mirror. But there, unmistakably, he heard trucks moving again along Újezd. Probably some more of the Škoda T111s he’d seen this morning when he was opening up. With those poor bastards – kids, for Christ’s sake – sitting in the back, clutching their rifles ...
‘Reinforcements,’ said the man.
‘Sir?’ he said, looking at the man’s face in the mirror.
‘Troops. The finest. On the move. That’s what you can hear,’ the major said. ‘This city will never be taken.’
‘That’s most reassuring, sir,’ he said, his eyes dropping. ‘Do we usually have the hairline taken up a shade, sir?’
‘I believe I do. But whatever you think fit, Mr Švarc,’ the man said. ‘I’m entirely in your expert hands. I’ve heard what a craftsman you are. Prague’s finest. Your references glow.’
‘Thank you, sir. Most flattering,’ he said. ‘And perhaps a little pomade on the top to help keep its shape?’
‘Why not? Nothing like a little luxury. Even with a war on, eh?’
‘Indeed, sir.’
A few strokes on the strop for the razor, a squirt from the atomizer, then he began shaving the back of the man’s neck.
‘You know,’ said the man, ‘your German is remarkably good, Mr Švarc. Just like a native.’
‘My family has always spoken it, sir.’
‘Good,’ said the man. ‘Excellent. But then, you have a German name.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘So there are ties between us, Mr Švarc.’
‘Well, my name is Schwartz, too,’ the man said. ‘We could be distant cousins.’
‘Such a small world, sir,’ he said, wiping the blade on the towel by the sink.

‘But this is real coffee,’ his dad said, sipping it.
‘Yes, Dad.’
‘Where d’you get it?’
‘Does that matter?’
‘It might.’
‘A customer.’
‘Nazi fucking coffee.’
‘Don’t drink it, then.’
Thursday afternoon. They were sitting in the chairs in front of the mirror, his father still wearing the sheet, a towel round his neck, his chin faintly damp from his shave. ‘Well, just this one cup, that’s all,’ his dad said. ‘Only one, mind.’
‘Just one Nazi cup,’ he said.
When they’d finished, he went to the sink in the back room to wash up. Pouring on some water from the aluminium pan from the stove, he heard the shop radio snap into life: an orchestra playing, Brahms maybe. Then the German-speaking announcer said how well the war was going, but warning how the streets would be awash with blood if they tried to revolt, the people crushed, smashed. His father said, ‘Go boil your head, Herman.’
The click of the switch again, and silence.
Coming back in, he saw his dad holding out a cigarette. A very white, even cigarette. Factory made. ‘Fancy one of these?’ the old man said.
‘Christ, Dad. Where ...?’
‘Look at it.’
‘Jesus,’ he said, picking it from his father’s fingers. ‘A Lucky Strike. But ...’
‘But the Yanks are on the other doorstep. The Reds coming one way, Yanks the other. They’ll be in Plžen tomorrow, the day after. Be nice if they got here before Uncle Joe’s crowd.’
‘I heard,’ he said. ‘But how the hell did you ... ?’ He looked at the perfect cylinder in his hand. When had he ever had an American cigarette before?
‘I’ve got a few packs,’ said his dad. ‘Usual source. You got a light?’
‘I don’t know ...’ he said, still staring into his palm.
‘Christ, Petr. Lock the bloody door if you’re so scared, roll down the blinds. We can have a nice smoke and the pigs can cut their own sodding hair for once.’
He went over, turned the shop sign to closed, and slid the bolt across. Then he pulled down the canvas roller-blinds on the door and the plate-glass window. Going to the back room, he fetched the lacquer ashtray and the box of kitchen matches from over the stove.
‘Here,’ he said, striking a light for his dad. He lit his own, too, then shook out the match, and sat himself down.
He watched his father drawing on his cigarette, settling back in his chair. Just a smoke together, him and the old boy. Like the old days. His dad looked over now, solemn for once, concerned even, saying, ‘It’s nice you get decent coffee from them, son, but aren't you getting a bit ... worried?’
‘About what?’ he said, pulling deep on the Lucky, blowing out smoke towards the high ceiling.
‘You know.’
The old man’s face was nothing like his, he thought, except for the brown eyes and egg-shaped head. ‘Get lost, Dad,’ he said.
‘Getting lost might be a good idea, son, just now,’ his dad said. ‘For you, anyway.’

He couldn’t sleep. He got up again, went to the bathroom, had another glass of water. Coming back, he felt how cold the sheets were. A big bed, his father and mother’s. Where she’d died all those years back. And where he’d been alone for ... well, always.
Oh, Christ.
And Mráček was in his head again now, nasty little rat-faced turd. The rumours were there, too. Tomorrow was the day, May 5th. Prague was going to rise up, they were going to take back their city before the Russians came. And Mráček would be there, somewhere. The little rat looking for anyone he’d ever had a reason to hate, with his thug’s weapon ...
But maybe men like Mráček were the future. Foul-smelling little men with a vendetta. And the means to pursue it.
His hand went out to the bedside table. He picked up his book, opened it. Murder on the Orient Express. How many times had he read this, now? Ten? Twenty? A beautiful murder. Everybody did it. Ha! Oh, Agatha. Perfection. Cassetti, evil Cassetti, stabbed to death by everyone who hated him. The whole world had reason to detest him, want him dead. A crime you could applaud, understand ...
And you, Hercule, you let them get away with it, didn’t you?
He wondered now if Hercule was lonely, too, and whether the great man worried when people didn’t like him, because he was so arrogant, aloof.
'At least,' he said, 'you have their respect, Hercule.'
And respect was something you earned, he thought.

The radio was on in the shop: a Wagnerian morning so far. He touched the top of the stove in the back room. Good and hot now. Holding his nose to the paper bag, he saw there wasn’t much coffee left. Pity. Such a good smell, though. This stuff tasted good, but its aroma was that much better, he decided.
He stopped now, listening. The music had cut out. Another power failure, he thought; or the plug had fallen from the ceiling socket again. Going to the shop door, he could hear faint static from the set and a low hum. Then a voice: their usual announcer, yes, but that wasn’t German:
Je právĕ čest hodin.
He was across the room and fast, almost stumbling. His hand reached for the switch, jerking it to the left.
Silence now, except for the clock: just after six.
He stood for a moment, waiting, thinking.
It had begun. The radio had told him.
He went over to the window. Not a movement in the street, not a sound from anywhere. No trucks, tanks, no armoured cars ... But there, up towards Petřín hill, a gunshot. Definitely. And another. The best thing to do now, he thought, was lock this place up, go straight back home. He tugged at the blind, pulling it right down, tying the string on the hook underneath -
‘Herr Švarc?’
The voice was behind him.
Drawing in his breath, he turned. The tall, uniformed man took off his cap, and put it on the stand by the door. ‘Major Schwartz, sir’ he said. ‘And ... how are you today?’
‘Couldn’t be better,’ the Major said, striding to the chair furthest from the window. ‘Just a shave please, if I may. Sounds like we’ve got some trouble, doesn’t it. We’ll deal with this rabble,’ he said. ‘Now, how about some of our coffee?’
‘I was just brewing up, sir.’

‘Take cover!’ the man in the pinstripe suit yelled as he ran past, a rifle in his fist, a Mauser. Václavské námĕstí was almost deserted: an overturned 12 tram halfway down, its windows smashed.
No going back that way now, he thought.
Home, Petr, home.
He dug his hands deeper in his pockets. Round to the left of the National Museum, he saw a group of men in grey running towards Vinohradská. He recognised the uniform; he must have seen it a hundred times in the shop. The SS. The Waffen-SS.
He felt for his handkerchief, wiping his palms again. Perhaps he could go to the right there, cross the street, head round the back of the radio building, then home. Home. So close now.
He reached Legerova street. No traffic, nothing moving, a burning car up near the crossroads. But there was the sound of heavy vehicles coming up the hill from the station ...
Faster now. Cross here, Petr. Hurry, you bloody fool.
Over the street, and he heard screams, shouts, machinegun fire. Jesus. Maybe he should have stayed where he was, on the other side of the river, hidden away from all this. But where had there been to hide?
Too late for that now, Petr – come on. Another two streets to go, and we’re there.
Heading up Římská, he looked to the left: a line of SS on the other side, firing at the rear of Czech Radio. A man in a fedora popped his head out from a fourth-floor window like a cuckoo clock, bullets peppering the wall, splintering the frame.
He told himself to look away, keep his eyes ahead. Just move. But one of the Germans was turning round to him now. Then another. Oh, God. Their Mausers towards him. Hurry on, Petr. Maybe they would just ignore him, he thought, see he wasn’t a threat, recognise he wasn’t part of this ...
‘Halt! Halt!’
No, God, no. Please, God.
He stopped, raised his hands. Then, turning towards the two grey uniforms, he said, ‘Bitte, nicht schießen!
Nothing in their faces.
The one on the left had no helmet. Such a handsome young man, beautiful even: golden hair in the sunshine, lips like a girl ...
Nicht schießen! Bitte, nicht schießen!’ he said, as loud and clear as he could now.
Then, over their heads, his eye was caught by someone kneeling on the radio station roof by the Czech flag, a rifle to his shoulder. A partisan, had to be. And aiming at him. Christ, why? Because he’d spoken German there? But, for the love of God, he was begging for his life here. What choice did he have?
A puff of smoke.
Before the crack of the shot reached him, the bullet had burst through his chest, making an exit wound as big as a fist. And thunk: his head smacked against the cobbles.
The shooting continued.

Down in Malostrána, Major Schwartz was very peaceful now, his hands resting on the arms of the barbershop chair. The open razor lay in his lap; the blood on the blade was already dry.
The shop door was locked. Both of the blinds were down.

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Comments by other Members

euclid at 19:08 on 08 March 2011  Report this post

Is this part of a longer work? A book, maybe? It's very impressive.

I loved the sense of time and place and the understated voice of the MC.

Gerry at 20:09 on 08 March 2011  Report this post

Thanks! I only joined WriteWords as a full member today and I've never been on one of these things before, so I was a bit scared about getting comments. No, I was very scared. It's supposed to be self-contained. Maybe it could become something longer. As yet, I don't know. It's based on a true story I made up.


euclid at 21:03 on 08 March 2011  Report this post
What d'you mean, Gerry:

True story or
made up story?

It can't be both.

Gerry at 21:09 on 08 March 2011  Report this post

Sorry, I was being daft. It's made up. It's just I remembered the Coen brothers saying how if you tell them it's a true story people are always that much more impressed. I just don't have the bottle to lie as gloriously and completely as they do.

Becca at 09:58 on 09 March 2011  Report this post
Hi Gerry,
welcome to the short story group. I did like the straightforward style of the writing in 'The Case of the Erstwhile Trimmer.' I did find the title puzzling, and felt it didn't do justice to the writing. More importantly, the piece doesn't come over as a short story, as JB suggested, but much more definitely as part of a novel.

euclid at 10:46 on 09 March 2011  Report this post
I agree with Becca about the title.

I think you could make a powerful short story out of it, for example: if the barber killed the German officer unbeknownst to everyone, and was shot before his patriotic act was discovered.

You would need to flesh it out a bit. Maybe expand on the MC's relationship to that other person (with the switchblade) and why he was covered in black (coal?) dust.

Gerry at 19:15 on 09 March 2011  Report this post

Thanks to everyone for their comments. But, please, what do do I need to do to make it read like a short?

Becca at 08:41 on 10 March 2011  Report this post
Hi Gerry,
In a short story something has to change. In this story what changes is that Petr murders the major and gets shot himself, all else is scene setting and build up. But these two happenings are on the last few lines.
Scene 1:- An important German has his hair cut, and the scene for the story is partially set.
Scene 2:- Father and son drink coffee, a favour from someone, and a bit more of the atmosphere and setting is built up.
Scene 3:- Very similar scene to the one before except they smoke cigarettes, and the father warns the son about something that is withheld from the reader.
These two scenes could've been one scene, in a short story you can't afford the luxury of not saying very much in a lot of words. The important elements in these two scenes is that father and son are getting perks from Germans and the father is worried about the son.
Scene 4:- Petr is in a bar and someone threatens him, and the reader gets to realise that he is a collaborator. [So this is the nub of the story, a vital element in it and it's a very long way down the page].
Scene 5:- a scene in the shop - but I don't know what Petr is supposing or what it means. In this scene the German comes in again.
Scene 6:- Petr is on the street, the SS are out there, he's in trouble. We learn in the last sentences that he murdered the major, but, as reader, I don't know why he was shot himself.
So this is the kind of stretched out way you can write in a novel because you've got all the time in the world to explore setting, character nuance, ideas and concepts etc. If I was writing this as a short story, I'd start with the murder scene and use that as centre piece around which the other important elements unfold.

Gerry at 09:19 on 10 March 2011  Report this post
Thanks very much. In fact, I started rewirting it last night sort of along the lines Becca is suggesting. I'll post it here in the next couple of days. I think the problems lay in structuring and putting in stuff that I didn't need etc. Anyhow, I'll let you know how things are progressing. Thanks again.

euclid at 10:28 on 10 March 2011  Report this post
Hi Gerry,

I don't agree with the others on this.

This is a fine short story, imo.

The whole punch of the story comes from the main character killing the German and getting shot, and this belongs exactly where it is - at the end.

What the story lacked for me was:

1. I didn't pick up that Petr killed the German - that needs to be more obvious (I thought the German committed suicide).
2. What were the main character's feelings about the Germans and about being considered a collaborator. Did Petr fear death? Was he a patriot?
3. Was he considered a collaborator just because he cut the German's hair or did he collaborate in other ways?
4. An understanding of who the sooty individual was and his role in the story.
5. Why was Petr trying to get back to the shop at the end? (Or was he?)
6. Who shot him? The SS or his own people, or the Americans? This needs to be clear.
(I assume he was shot as a collaborator, but given the chaos in the streets, he might have simply been unlucky)

At the beginning, the German asked about the name of the shop etc. This suggested that the German had not been in the shop before. So in the span of the story he visited the shop what? twice? This doesn't ring true. I mean, where did the German get his hair cut before? Also, two haircuts hardly constitutes collaboration on a grand scale.

Finally, I wouldn't worry about the length of the story, or using too many words. Many experts would say 2500 words is short for a good short story, and the words you choose to use are the way you put your own artistic stamp on your work.

Gerry at 14:07 on 10 March 2011  Report this post

Thanks, JB. I intend to keep the revelation of the German's murder for the end but I am restructuring it quite radically. The opening scene, for example, will be Petr being threatened by the soot man. I must get on with it now whilst it's in my head ...

Thanks again, and thanks to everyone else.


By the way, the title is going to be either 'Where is my Home?' - the name of the Czech anthem - or 'Going Home' - the name given to the only bit of Dvorak that everyone can hum. Or I might call it 'The Barber Did It' so as to avoid any further confusion! Or 'What the Barber Saw' maybe.

Gerry at 15:11 on 11 March 2011  Report this post

Thanks, Michael.

fiona_j at 21:07 on 13 March 2011  Report this post

This is very good story. I didn't read the original so don't know how it differs but this builds up well and has a sad ending. I like the way we see him die first and then realise that he's killed the major.

I presume at the end he's trying to get home? I presumed until that point that he lived by the shop.

Overall I think it's a very good short story, with a clear plot and a sad but well devise ending. Well done.


Gerry at 22:03 on 13 March 2011  Report this post

Thanks very much, Fi. Glad you liked it. This is a redraft of a version that started in the wrong place - it needed something to happen at the beginning, there was too much build-up, scene-setting. It think I might have it right now.

That's a good point about home. I maybe need to say earlier that he lives a distance from the shop so as to avoid any later confusion. Topography matters.

I see that, like me, you're new to WW; are you going to be posting something soon?
I was a bit afraid about doing it at first, but people have been both kind and constructive.

Thanks again.


euclid at 23:42 on 13 March 2011  Report this post
I still don't like the title. I think it's not serious enough for the story.

How about something like The Barber of Prague,
or The Barber of [street name]


Gerry at 23:54 on 13 March 2011  Report this post

Point taken, JB. I'll have a think.



Becca at 09:19 on 14 March 2011  Report this post
Hi Gerry,
You really did get to grips with it! It's got much more shape now. The first scene is good and it comes straight to the point about collaborators, and I liked that you identified the man who confronts Petr as a freight-yard worker. The section in which Petr is thinking about the book he is reading and coming to his realisation is excellent, and the build up of tension in the last scene also very well managed. Yes, now it really is much more like a short story.

Gerry at 10:21 on 14 March 2011  Report this post

Thanks, Becca. What shall I do with it now?


euclid at 10:35 on 14 March 2011  Report this post
Write another one

Becca at 10:39 on 14 March 2011  Report this post
Is it that you want to get it published? If so, the writing and style are certainly good enough. The engagement with publishers is a kind of sometimes gruesome, sometimes delightful journey of experience all writers go through personally and individually. You start by studying the websites of publishers who publish short story. But before I say any more, is this what you mean when you say what shall I do with it?

Gerry at 10:44 on 14 March 2011  Report this post

Hello, Becca,

Yes, I would love to do that, if you think it's good enough. Is there a good place to start?


Becca at 10:50 on 14 March 2011  Report this post
Well if you google something like 'short story magazine markets' you will very quickly uncover the whole landscape. It's always useful to study the links that publishers' websites display as these very often take you to other publishers, or other writers' resources that are useful.

Gerry at 10:53 on 14 March 2011  Report this post

I'll have a go. Thanks very much, Becca.

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