Hairs are sprouting on my chin. It is pruning season again. We have the word “pruning” from prunus, the genus which includes the plum, and its ugly daughter and near-eponym, the prune, as well as its fabulous and malodorous grandson, Slivovitz. The earliest of the prunus family to bear fruit is named for that precocity: it bears fruit “a praecox” , hence “apricot”. Shakespeare calls this fruit “apricocks”. But I digress.
Our hotel, the imposing Madrid Intercontinental, sits on the majestic Avenida, seemingly the aorta of this most masculine city.
The Intercontinental is a place of gold surfaces and plush furnishings. In its grand foyers an espresso doble costs nine euros. That translates to fourteen of my Aussie dollars.
The Intercontinental swallows the money of the incontinent spender. It is all a little uncomfortably grande for this Aussie. Gilt-ridden, I open the door to the street and run the gauntlet of liveried door openers and greeters and bowers and scrapers, the accouchers who deliver us residents to the world.
I am glad to get outside.
There is a narrow side street that runs next to the Intercontinental. Here Toorak encounters Springvale. Every third premises sells expensive fashions that you can buy.
There are elegant beauty shops where you can exchange expensive euros for beauty, beauty which must die. Fine cake shops and smart restaurants compete for the custom of coutured tourists and people on fat Spanish pensions.
And then there are ill-lit cafes where working men come to smoke and drink strong coffee in the early mornings and after work. The closest of these is three doors from the Intercontinental. This place is narrow, its roof low, it is a cave where denizens sit in their ones, taciturn, scowling at the football news or the racing news or the political news. All the news, I gather, is one.
It would be a hardy soul who’d break into their silo of quiet. That person turns out to be the young daughter of the owner, a cheerful elf in black apron, black leggings and black t-shirt. She glides around the shop, replacing ashtrays and taking orders.
I open the door to this subterranean place and the elf smiles a welcome. Her smile is perfectly delightful except for the gap where someone or something has knocked out a lateral incisor. Most of her smile expresses her simple, innocent delight in seeing you, but the gap speaks of unsaid dark things like assault or dentistry.
I drink a thimbleful of thunderbolt espresso. It is affordable. People slip in, drift out. No-one looks up, human speech in the cave is low and short; people are here for their serious purposes of quiet solitude and customary chemicals.
On the next block there is a not-very-super market. I pass it by day, and in the evenings and during my early morning run. There is a short man who sits on a low balustrade outside the not-so-supermarket (NSS). He has a smooth face, baby-pink, baby-fleshed, that extends beyond his absent eyebrows to his hairless scalp. It is a face that is opaque to my searching gaze. Taciturn, he sits, nothing more, sits like patience on a monument.
He is there most times I pass. Does he live here? What does he live on? What is he thinking?
Eventually my questions are answered when I pass the NSS at lunchtime: he is lunching from a clear bottle of clear liquor; and that evening, when he is insensible, spread out along the length of his balustrade.
Every block has its coffee shop, its shoe shops (Toorak elegant and Springvale basic respectively), its mixed business, its tobacconist-cum-keycutter, and its barber shops. I am bound for Caribbean Unisex to attend to the pruning. I avoid the elegant establishments; I am more at home in the unfashionable joints.
Regrettably, every block has its dogs, whose owners (generally Toorak) are not socialized in the matter of dog pooh. While I am no veterinarian, I am confident that canine constipation is rare in this part of Madrid. These dogs are overfed. The rain softens yesterday’s leavings and renders the going slippery.
I weave my way between the hazards to “Caribbean Unisex”, a place of haphazard décor, where the young lady asks: “Can I help you?” She is tall and slim and black. Her clothes are close-fitting and her short hair dances out from her scalp at very angle of curl and spike. Her hairdo is delinquent and eloquent: this is a funky joint.
Espero que si, is my attempt to say I hope so. I run my hand through the chin
No es para senores, aqui. Solo senoras y senoritas.
So much for unisex: they cut the hair of every gender here excepting the masculine.
The lady from Caribbean waves me in the direction of the men’s hairdresser a little further up the street. I saw it when I passed earlier; two gentlemen peered at me from the dim narrow space of the interior. They looked hard and unsmiling. Their shop was not prepossessing.
I retrace my steps to the shop of the barbers who do not smile. The shop is small. There is a narrow wooden bench which might, at a pinch, accommodate six waiting buttocks. I lower mine to the timber and sit and wait.
The two hairdressers are hard at work. They don’t acknowledge my arrival. They are short, swarthy men, stocky and powerfully built. Their customers look the same.
There is time to look about me. The large church opposite, occupying an entire block, looks as if it were built in the 1950’s. For the first time I study the geometry of the brickwork on its façade. Framing a large cross is an even larger six pointed star, the Star of David! A puzzle.
I return my musing gaze to the barber shop.
There is a mirror in front of the barbers, arranged so we customers can watch our transformation. Below the mirror, on a benchtop, the barbers keep their tools of trade. Between duplicate sets of cut-throat razors, clippers, scissors, brushes, combs, and jars of unguents, stands a topless young lady. She is about 18 inches tall and is made of black wood. She wears a grass skirt and is slim, sinuous and tall for her height, if you know what I mean. Her hair is styled after the manner of the young lady in Caribbean Unisex.
Although she is slim, her breasts are full and they defy gravity. So does her face: alone in the shop, she wears a smile.
My time approaches. The customer on my left rises from the barber’s chair, takes money from his pocket and pays and leaves. There is no conversation.
My man turns to me and indicates the empty chair. He signals me to rise and occupy the chair. Does he sense, from my dress or my deportment that I am un Ingles, un estupido, who does not speak Spanish? Or does all this taciturnity reflect an establishment run for the deaf by the mute?
I honour the custom of the house, by showing in dumb play that I want a haircut and my whiskers trimmed.
My man nods.
As he reaches for his weapons, I study his profile. He is about forty, serious but not unfriendly looking.
He cuts my hair – numero dos is the length I specify – then raises the cut-throat blade. I signal my aversion to the cold steel, pointing and nodding at the beard-trimmer clippers. The prince of silence obliges me, now holding his breath as he mows through a regiment of my stubble, now breathing audibly in his concentration on the next attack. His rhythm is reassuring. I feel safe to look around and contemplate the black lady who smiles at me intimately, from the close distance of the bench.
A new silence breaks the silence, as the trimmer falls quiet and movement stops. I look up at the barber. He looks down at me.
Es finito? – I ask.
The man shakes his head, extends his index finger and touches the aperture of my right nostril, then the left, raising an eyebrow in interrogation.
I don’t get it. Is he offering to pick my nose?
Now his finger broaches my ear hole, now its opposite number. Again the interrogative eyebrow.
Suddenly I understand: the peso has dropped: would I like the hairs of my ears and nostrils trimmed?
I really am indifferent to hairs that I cannot see and that cause me no trouble. But my wife and daughters do notice these hairs and find them unattractive and they tell me so. I am inclined to believe that all body parts have their purpose or function, especially hair. On the scalp and limbs it insulates; on the upper lip it strains soup; in the umbilicus it catches lint; and inside the undies it attracts and stimulates.
My womenfolk are not convinced that ear hairs are necessary to save wax and that nose hairs protect me from inhaling locusts and other airborne plague species.
So I nod, say Si, and gesture for him to proceed.
Abruptly, Mister Silence leaves the room, passing behind the curtain that separates the shop from quarters in the rear. Voices are heard, one male, one female, and another one, piping.
My man returns, leading a toddler, a moon-faced little girl of unusual plainness. The man sits on the bench, pulls her onto his knee, holds her adoringly, puts his mouth to her ear, and pays me no further attention.
Movement from behind the curtain and a woman appears, bearing a can full of dark liquid – molasses? – and a fistful of supersized cotton buds. I catch only a glimpse of a round face that closely resembles the little girl’s, before my head is tilted sharply backward, and my nose is pushed upwards from beneath, flaring my equine nostrils even further. I look up into two dark eyes that are gazing deep into my nostrils – at what? My soul, probably.
Surprised, uncertain, uncomfortable, I gaze back. The lady plunges a long cotton bud into the jar of liquid and withdraws it. I catch sight of it, dripping darkly, in the moment before it is thrust into my right nostril. The liquid is hot, very hot. I am under attack, both surprised and amazed.
I do not cry out. This is not a place where a man would cry out when a mujere, a woman, hurts him. And I don’t want to be a crybaby in the presence of the topless beauty.
My lady assailant now twists the cotton bud, while simultaneously pinching my nostril closed around it.
Now she pulls her fiery appliance from the constricting nostril, which burns like my lips after eating chilli.
I glimpse the face of my depilator. It is empty of remorse, guilt or apology, Not even mirth.
For my part, I am too slow of wit to rise, pay and flee.
Already, my left nostril is being flattened and widened, already the cotton bud, dripping molten wax is about to penetrate a cavity that has only previously accommodated my excavating finger.
Fire flames within me, but once again, moral cowardice stills my voice. I don’t open my mouth in case the lady with the wax decides to beautify my uvula.
I stand, reaching for my wallet. But a strong female arm presses me back into the chair.
Es finito, no?
Apparently not. The lady is shaking her head, pointing to her ears.
My head is flung back, the woman bends and reaches across me, then in one swift movement, sets fire to my right ear hole. Tears fill my eyes. I sit and wait for the coup de grace, which is not long in coming. Both ears burn.
I am hairless, speechless, witless and stumbling inside my brain for the moral enlightenment that must surely follow such sensory extremity.
Across the road, the large brick church looks down at me implacably. The Star of David – in Hebrew, Magen David, the shield of David – has not protected me.
I pay, managing to extend a hoarse gracias, as I take my tearful leave of mother, father and daughter, and of the wooden lady; and breathe fresh air into my hairless nose, and feel the cool night of Madrid offering comfort to my smooth, unoffending ear holes.