On some level, I must have known this hateful day would dawn. In some distant, thickly veiled corner of the subconscious, I guess the certainty had been festering away for a while.
Yet the announcement came with the nausea-inducing force of a jackboot to the gonads. “Matt,” it began – and it speaks to the uniqueness of our relationship that no one else has ever used that diminutive twice without rebuke – “I’m afraid this is our last appointment. I’m retiring on 12 August.”
The inglorious 12th, it pains me more than words can possibly convey, is to be the day Mr Gary Stevens hangs up his scissors at the Mayfair branch of Geo F Trumper, the archly traditionalist gentleman’s hairdresser.
“But Gary…” I stammered as he lowered my head towards the sink, “you said you’d never leave me. You said you’d stay till the last hair left my head.” “Yeah, I know. Sorry, mate, but I’m 65 now. It’s time.”
We lapsed into a reverie until he started towel-drying the hair, and then debated how long he has been cutting it. I reckoned it was 25 years, but Gary said it couldn’t be that long, because never once did we have a happy talk about Tottenham Hotspur. It was our anguished support for Spurs that initially bonded us.
“It must have been after 1991 you first came,” Gary posited, “cause that’s the last time we won the FA Cup, or anything worth winning. I reckon it was springtime, 1993. Long enough, anyway.”
Well, obviously not long enough. Not for me, at least. Of all the professional relationships a chap can have, the only ones that feel irreplaceable are with doctor and barber. Partly, it’s a tactile thing. Who else other than a lover or a suspicious customs officer touches you so intimately?
But the intimacy runs deeper than a hand on the cheek to guide the head to a better cutting position, or what follows the donning of a latex glove. With a long-standing barber, as with a doctor, you empty the heart. And with a barber, if not with a doctor, he empties it back. Like anyone else, I’ve had my troubles over the twentysomething years at Trumper’s, and shared them with him. But Gary has had unspeakably more than his share, and shared with me his daughter Kirsty’s deterioration to a dreadful genetic disease, and then her death.
Although we usually avoided politics – his views being a shade robust for my tastes whereas mine are a little too effete for his – we have discussed pretty much everything two fellows can discuss. And through it all, scissors in hand, he showed me more tenderness than I probably deserved.
He had the gentlest touch, physically and otherwise. More than once, when I could afford the luxury of also being shaved, I dropped off with his cut-throat at my neck. His delicacy about the balding was impeccable. The economy has been up and down like a yo-yo during our time together, but for the hairline it’s been unbroken recession. About 15 years ago, he subtly altered the angle of the post-cut mirror inspection to spare me the spreading Friar Tuck. “Exactly the same, Matt,” he’d lie whenever asked about the thinning. “No worse at all than last time.” Brutal honesty is the last thing you want in a marriage, be it made in the eyes of God or in the swivel chair, and brutal honesty is the last thing Gary offered.
Never in any of our 70 or 80 triannual meetings did we have a cross word. Once, he gave the scruffiest customer in Trumper’s history a bit of an old-fashioned glance when I was late due to a flat tyre. But the moment instantly passed as we resumed the moaning about Spurs.
The twentywhatever years we spent together saw the most breakneck cultural development since the Industrial Revolution, if not the discovery of fire. But while technology and the internet were transforming the world beyond Trumper’s Victorian façade at startling speed, inside this stately oasis of perfumed permanence, everything other than the prices (£38 for a cut now, though for so much more, of course, than a cut) remained precisely as it was when first we met.
Whether I will return to Curzon Street is a question that is impossible to decide while the wound of separation is so raw. But I think it might feel too callous and treacherous; too much like moving a ready-made replacement into the marital home within months of burying a spouse.
“So, Matt, this is it,” he said as I shoved the tip into his hand with a clumsily ill-disguised handshake for the final time. “It is, Gary, I’ll miss you,” I muttered as we hugged. “I’ll miss you too, mate. You take care of yourself.”
Engulfed in a rain cloud of traumatised disbelief, I staggered off to the surgery a mile away to consult the last surviving man in my life about a familiarly bewildering range of medical concerns. “You look a bit pale and, erm, confused,” said the doctor, ushering me towards the examination table after I’d alerted him to the first item on the hypochondriacal roster. “Has something happened?”
I was about to confide when a monstrous thought occurred. “Do you mind if I ask your age?” I said. “Not at all. I’m 65.” “Sweet Lord Jesus, that’s all I need,” I yelped. “Not you too. Tell me you have no plans to retire.” “Absolutely not,” he said. “You promise?” “I swear it. I’m going nowhere.”
Yeah, yeah, I heard an internal voice sneer as he snapped on the latex glove. That’s what they all say.Reuse content