In the morning the helicopters are gone, but the stink of arson hangs heavy in the air. I get my broom and my shovel and start to clear up the shattered glass outside the shop. Nayla won’t come down. She’s just sitting watching the news channels replay the violence. To me it is as if they are re-playing highlights of some end of the world game, each side scoring points from the other. We are lucky. We didn’t get burned out, and there’s not a lot you can loot from a barbers’ shop.
Joshi is not so lucky. His place is a pile of smoldering rubble. Yesterday it had been a honey-pot, buzzing with the ladies looking for something new to wear to next month’s big do. He had a sale on! Smart boy. He knew the wedding was coming and his window was so well dressed that hummingbirds could not have ignored it. Now all his stock is ash and dust. It is carried away into the drains by water from the fire engine’s hose. Joshi’s big dreams are going down the drain.
On the corner is a crowd of TV people. Their cameras scan everything, looking for clues, for the hidden meaning of recent events. Nayla watches me through their lenses. I am beamed upstairs onto our flat-screen TV where she watches them watching me sweeping up the mess. I think to wave to her, and then think again. I would be waving to all the others sitting and watching. All those other people drinking their cups of tea, eating breakfast, getting their kids ready for school, wondering if their neighborhood will be next, wondering if they will be on the morning news sweeping up someone else’s mess.
Perhaps I should go inside. I do not like the idea of so many people watching me sweep up. Perhaps I should make Nayla a cup of hot sweet tea and watch the news with her. But this shattered glass would stay here on the pavement. It won’t sweep itself up. Mayor Boris won’t do it for me. The shop would not be ready to be open for business, if not ‘as usual’ then what? Men still need their hair cut. I still have my chairs and both mirrors, and the coffee pot remains. So I keep sweeping, because hair keeps growing.
There is blue and white Police tape stretched across one end of our road and a small square marquee erected next to a BMW car. A man was shot dead last night. Some evil drug dealing man they say, who probably took many lives on his own account with such a harsh trade. The Police ask me what I know. I cut his hair, I tell them nothing else. It is my barber’s bond.
He was a good boy some of the time and a bad boy the rest. Nayla knows his mother. They play cards every once in a while. I used to cut his father’s hair too, before he moved away. Not bad people, bad times, maybe, bad timing certainly.
I have been going around in a small circle and now I have created a Mount Kilimanjaro of broken glass. It sparkles in the early morning sun. Today I will be the open-door barber until the glass company comes and boards up the front of my shop. I don’t know if I can pay for new glass yet. I need to look at all my paperwork. I don’t believe in ‘buy now-pay later’ either. How can you buy without paying? No-one expects to do that in my shop.
I have to go out to the back, right out the back and into the yard, to find a suitable box. I push open the green door of the disused outside toilet. I haven’t looked in here for years. The last time would have been when Devan was still living with us.
Still living, still with us, still here. I stop for a moment. I shake my head. It has been ten, no, eleven years since I last spoke to Devan. He spoke to his mother more than me. For all I know Nayla still speaks to him, though whether he has ears that hear I could not say.
There is an empty tea chest on top of the old privy. It will do the job very well, and then the glass company can take it away when they box in our windows. At least my customers won’t hurt their feet or damage their shoes on their way in.
And here is Haroun. He fills the window of our shop. There are tears in his eyes. I wave him in and we embrace.
“Haircut Haroun,” I say. It is not a question. What else would a man want in a barbers’ shop? I pull out a chair for him and he lowers himself carefully. I smile. He is a big man but he would never hurt my chairs.
I pick up my tools, scissors, comb, and for a moment the world is as it was again. The coffee pot works hard to fill the open space with the scent of routine. I touch Haroun’s head and we look at each other in the mirror.
“Did you watch India lose the cricket?” I say,
“I couldn’t bear it,” Haroun says,
“I had to turn it off the radio too,” I say, “Coffee?”
I pour a small cup for each of us and stir in brown sugar.
“You know,” I say, “that I have cut your hair for more than thirty years Haroun. You are one of my very best customers.”
“Why would I go anywhere else my friend? You know how to cut my hair, how I like my coffee. It has taken this long for you to get it right. I don’t want to start again with someone else.”
This chat is the same chat we have every time he comes here.
“One day your hair might just stop growing Haroun, then what would happen?”
“I would come just for the coffee and fine conversation.”
“As long as I have a coffee pot you are welcome, and you know, the thousandth haircut is free.”
“What number am I on now? This must be the nine-hundred and ninety-ninth?”
“Not quite. I think you are still in the eight-hundreds.”
“Then I must come every day.”
“No appointment necessary.”
I snip away, hardly looking at his head, my hands know where to go, what to do.
There is a knock on the door frame.
It is the glass company.
Our shop is secured, but I have all the lights blazing now as if it was the middle of winter. The door is propped open to help me remember it is August and they say it might be thirty degrees today. I have just left the shop, popped upstairs to see Nayla and found her asleep on our bed, her diary lies beside her, open at today’s date. She has written another essential list of small jobs she must do. I am happy that she is asleep. Neither of us had any rest last night.
I have always read her diary. I read her lists so that I may know how better to help her out. Nayla always has so many small jobs she can never do them all herself, and I know she hates to ask for help.
I pick up her diary to see if there is anything I can tick off for her while she sleeps.
At the top of the list she has written call Devan. I replace the diary beside my sleeping wife and go back downstairs to the shop.
And here is Sanjay. He was old when I came to this street, Nayla with our baby in her arms, her baby boy. I think Sanjay was born old.
“Your shop,” he says, waving his arms to show me the boards on the window. I have seen them, but not looked at the job properly. “Your shop is a mess. What did they do? How are you? You’re beautiful wife, is she here? Why are you here?”
“Haircut Sanjay,” I say, and offer him a chair. He accepts of course. What else do you do in a barbers’ shop?
Sanjay is like a small bird, never still and always making a noise. I comb his white hairs and try hard not to snip his ears.
“You must leave,” he says,
“We cannot leave,” I say,
“Then what will you do?” he says,
“If I go then who will cut all the hair in this street?” I give him an questioning look in the mirror, “Your hair will fall in your eyes and you will not see where you are going.”
“That would not be a good thing. Have you seen Joshi’s place?” he returns my look.
“Oh yes, poor boy. Nayla and I, we are lucky to still have our home and business.”
“But what of the future?”
“Ah, the future? You know what they say about the future?”
“I will make you coffee.”
There is a knock at the door.
“Excuse me sir?”
It is the pretty girl from the TV news.
I was always hopeful that we might have a big family. At the end of my life I saw myself surrounded by many grandchildren. I suppose that to have had just the one was always a little disappointing. He was Nayla’s treasure and my shame. I could not understand what I had done to make him want to dress up in girls’ clothes.
When he left I was still trying to make a man of him. I offered to cut his hair in the modern fashion but he wanted to let it grow. He tied it in plaits and braids to taunt me. He hid his dirty books in the outdoor privy.
It made me angry then that he would look at pictures of men. Now I am not angry. I am sad, but for different things. Sad because I would not have what Haroun has, sad because now I have only Nayla, the shop and my friends.
And here is a new customer. He is tall; broad shouldered, and almost fills the doorway. I have seen him before. I know this man. I catch my breath.
“Haircut,” I say, and offer a chair. In two steps this man is in front of me.
“I saw you on TV,” he says.