Intimacy

‘The oldest profession’ denotes a trade kindred to my own. In fact quite a cluster of old trades are equally ancient. Their practitioners include the massager, the beautician, the doctor, the physio, the kinesiologist, the acupuncturist. All practise the touching trades; they are the intimate touchers.

The tradie I dread the most is that one who invades my tenderest aperture, violating my mucous membranes while passing casual moral judgements and aspersions, such as, ‘you don’t floss enough.’

Last week I hurried out to visit another ancient professional. I headed for the well-beloved parlour where I visit my own well-loved toucher (of whom I wrote in an earlier post – see July 2017).  Time was short and I found the parlour chockers with men waiting on seats and clustered outside, each standing in silent confession of his private quest.

I raced up a city lane where previously I’d glimpsed another barber’s sign. There it was: I read Barber. I entered and a slim maiden turned from her counter. Smiling, she asked me what I’d like.

‘Can you make this beard almost disappear in ten minutes or less?’
‘Somehow, I doubt I can manage that sir.’ She smiled again, a kindly smile, the smile you reserve for the harmless lunatic and the feeble of mind.
Confused, I looked around. Instead of barber’s chairs I saw racks and racks of shoes. I looked again at the sign: the word, I now realised, was not
‘Barber’ but ‘Bared.’
Bared, it appears, means footwear.

I tried to explain. The shoe lady smiled again.
Blushing richly, I thanked the young lady and blundered outside and along the lane.

Moments later a second laneway led me to the barber’s shop I was seeking. I entered as a stranger, took a seat and watched luxuriant locks that a Samson might covet, sliding in and out of the kneading fists of the barber. Those were mighty paws. The shop itself was snug. The walls were covered with the likenesses of champions of Australian Football, signed by the champions themselves. Here was no mere barber’s shop, this was a gallery of greatness.

The barber, a short man of perhaps fifty years wore a body enclosed in walls of muscle. His movements were deft, swift and precise. He flashed a mirror behind his client with the biblical tresses, the man nodded and rose, the strong man separated him from some of his cash and despatched him.

‘What you want?’
I pointed at my chin.
‘Not head?’
‘No. Thanks. Just beard. No time.’
The man sat me down, grabbed my head, yanking it back to the headrest which rose from his ornate chair, a marvel of worked steel, a classic from the era of The Man from Ironbark. I looked up at my toucher. Most particularly I gazed at his face which he presented as a work of art, or at least of artifice. A close-cropped beard of palest mustard surmounted by tailored moustaches in silvery grey that curved upwards like the toe of a sultan’s slipper. Skin of olive. No breath odour.

I placed my order: ‘short please, very short, as short as you can make a beard without removing it.’ He robed me, wound self-adhesive paper into a clerical collar around my adam’s apple and seized a heavy metallic cylinder that sat in his paw like a classy handgun. I thought, ‘Berretta’. The sound of a chainsaw with a silencer approached my throat. I closed my eyes. The metal slammed against one of my softish parts and ploughed upward and outward towards my mandible. After the initial slapping impact of first contact I reckoned the pressure, although intense, might be consistent with continued respiration. The man ploughed and I respired. I kept my eyes closed.

I lay there for a few breathing minutes as the Berretta slapped, ploughed and buzzed across the regions of my face. With eyes shut I pictured the damage I should see once the assault was completed. Bruises certainly, abrasions of course, possibly burns from the hot metal, perhaps the odd bleeding point.

I realised I had surrendered to my anonymous assassin. Curiously nothing quite hurt. I lay back, flinched a lot and tried to hide my unmanly flinching. Altogether it was a strange exercise, a sort of extreme facial hot yoga.

Too soon it was over. Eight minutes had passed, fifteen dollars changed hands. I emboldened myself sufficiently to ask: ‘What’s your name?’ The barber presented me with his card, upon which I read his forename: BHOUJ. Boldly I essayed the pronunciation: ‘Booohhsh’, I said.
A shake of the head: NO! It’s BOOJJ!
Boojj: a brutish sound. Naturally.

Last night I took some grandchildren to Luna Park. Thirty dollars bought me a couple of rides. In terms of value – I mean fear per dollar per minute – Bhouj beats the scary rides paws down. I still have Bhouj’s card: I’ll be back.

A Backward Country 

There’s a problem here. Police officers wander around singly, unadorned by bullet-proof vestments, no gun at their hips. I took the ferry to Gozo. No-one searched my bag or my body. Same when I entered the bank, the same at The Grand Hotel Excelsior. The same at the Biblioteca National. 

People seem relaxed. A citizen trusts her neighbour. 

The place is full of foreigners but no-one seems to care. We are just across the water from Libya and no-one is afraid. Negligent governments have not sown mistrust. Is everyone here asleep?

A backward country, this. I met Malta’s number three cop. A gentle sort of fellow, he seemed about as menacing as a powder puff. Where were their blokes who swagger around the borders and within them, like the Border Protection Force that keeps all us Aussies feeling so safe?

I went to a barber shop. Hidden up a staircase above a (not very) supermarket, and around some corners, it was a narrow establishment, its proportions little bigger than our guest powder room in my home. I hesitated at the threshold. Something faintly seedy about the joint, hard to pin down. A scent of tobacco breath mingled with barbershop smells. There were two chairs, one occupied. A tangle of odd black electric cords hung from a power point, metal implements lay scattered as if some disturbance had been and passed.
 

A young man with olive skin and a spade-shaped black beard looked up from the head he was trimming and waved me in. He was lean and tall, his black hair falling in wild waves about his narrow head. I guessed the young man might be in his late twenties. He looked lithe and coiled – Caravaggio before a brawl.

A second young man seated in the depths of the room rose as I entered. He too was tall, but better fed, perhaps a few years younger. His head was crowned with tight black curls pulled back into a pony tail, his jaw covered in a curly black spade. I thought I caught a fugitive smile. He waved me to the second chair, stood over and close to me, and raised an eyebrow. It was a question. I answered with a question: Can you make me beautiful?

I no English much.  

I pointed to my own chin, scruffy with whitish undergrowth. Zero, I said.

He nodded enthusiastically.

I pointed to my scalp, an arid garden.

Two, please.

More nodding, a big smile.

I sat back and considered. Flowing beards are all the go here, but it’s the barbers not the barbered who wear them. I looked around for a cut-throat blade, sighted none, sat back again and relaxed. The two young men were engaged in jovial conversation with a third, the customer in the first chair. I wondered what the joke was. Perhaps it was me. I listened for words I might recognise. The local language Malti is Semitic. It sounds quite a bit like Arabic, from which it traces its origins, with plenty of words similar to Hebrew which I can speak tolerably fluently. As the men conversed I sensed this might be street Malti, pretty rough and ready, perhaps untroubled by grammar or syntax. I listened some more. Lots of words were familiar, too many: this was Arabic, not Malti.

In all the flow of camaraderie and good humour, my barber man concentrated hard on my hair. His movements were gentle and deft. In the mirror my scalp rose into view from its sheddings; a wide and empty plain surfaced where I was used to seeing hairs. Two was shorter than I expected. Given the intimacy between me and the barber man, I felt we should be on first name terms: 

What’s your name?

Asraf.

My name is Howard.

Hawa?

How-wad. 

How Wad.

I nodded and grinned. Good to meet you, Asraf. 

From where you come?

Australia.

Asraf digested this: Much far.

Yes. Where do you come from Asraf?

Tripoli.

Libya!

Yes.

Asraf grinned and resumed operations.

My artist spent a lot of time and close concentration on corners and in nooks where I seldom gaze. Nostrils were explored, earholes broached, ear perimeters subject to hair-by-hair extirpation. Finally he straightened, turned, laid down his electric instrument, and advanced bearing a cut-throat blade. I felt a tremor. My misgiving derived not for Ironbark but Sinai: the biblical prohibition echoed -Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard. For some reason the naked blade is held to violate this Law while the electric trimmer is accepted – by some. I waved away Asraf’s trusty skibouk: Not this one. I like electric. After a further fifteen minutes of electric search and destroy Asraf was content there were no escapees.  
Asraf removed the tarp from my torso. I rose and together we surveyed my remains:

Shukran, I said.

How you know Arabic?

I produced my yarmulke and applied it to my naked scalp.

Asraf’s grin was huge. Reaching for his phone he leaned and wrapped his arm around me and took a photo of us both. A modest sum augmented by an immodest tip changed hands. We shook, I left and went to buy groceries next door. Exiting the grocer’s a few minutes later, I nearly bumped into Asraf and Carravaggio. They’d gone outside for a smoke. Whenever I see someone smoking I feel a pang, and I ask myself, Why? 

I waved as I passed by my friend from Tripoli and guessed the answer to Why? might lie in what he’d seen, what and whom he’d left behind. 

 

Unclose Shave in Yangon

I want to find a hairdresser. Or a barber – the difference is a matter of cost and prevalence of ‘product’. In my case hair is not prevalent and product finds little to work on.

I don’t really need a haircut, not even a trim of my whiskers. The purpose of my trip to the barber is to get close to people. Barbers, like doctors (in older times the two professions were one) are people who work intimately with the body. They are paid to touch, like embalmers, sex-workers and massagers.  (Many years ago, while still unhappily captive in the virginal state I visited a number of massage parlours in Hong Kong. I was a window shopper; I left untouched, a confusing experience for the service providers.)

Here in Yangon I want to bring my short hairs to the hairdresser. I ask the concierge form directions. She smiles – I’d pay good money any day just to bathe again in the smiles of Yangon – and says ‘Certainly sir’. It is very close. Just next door. Fortunately she does not add ‘You can’t miss it’, because I know I can. And I do.

I take the escalator to the third floor of the building indicated by the smiling one. I step off the moving stair and find myself in a supermarket whose narrow aisles and jampacked shelves are an indoor replica of the street markets outside. No-one here speaks English. In the home hygiene section – which is very close to the smoked, salted, cured and pickled fish section – an employee smiles and wants to help.

“Barber?”, I ask.

She smiles and shakes her head.

“Hairdresser?”

Another smile, another shake.

Between the fishes crowded in their oily jars and the soaps and toothbrushes and loofas, we two are a crowd. I perform a cramped charade in which I shave myself and finger-scissor my scalp. This time the smiles come with a nodding of the head. The lady points to her left, waves to her right, semaphores straight on, sir, smiles, nods a few times and farewells me. Three minutes later I am back. This time my lady of the home hygiene and fish section conducts me in person to the hairdressers whose shopfront I had passed a number of times, its windows being full of dated-looking TV sets and computers and earphones.

Inside there are three chairs. In one a lady of middle years sits with bits of silver paper in her hair. Her naked feet are being rubbed with oils, her calluses pumiced and her nails trimmed and painted.

She looks sublimely ridiculous. And contented.

A matronly woman waves me to an old fashioned barber’s chair, sits me down and drapes my front in a thin cape of pink cotton. The cape has pretty frills at the hem. The lady does not speak. Should I?

After a silence I look up and back over my shoulder and follow my hair lady’s gaze to the TV set on the far side of the room. She watches as a man steals up a darkened stairwell towards another who is unaware of his approach.

The scene, in black and white, is one of mounting suspense. The stair climber carries a heavy handgun. His quarry, a skinny bloke, walks around the landing aimlessly, whistling. His hands are empty. The man with the gun is powerfully built and has a menacing way with his unaimed gun.

The camera shifts from the armed climber to the unwitting waiting man. The waiting man turns his back to the stairwell at just the moment when he might have seen the climber’s warning shadow fall on the floor before him. Gunman broaches the top stair, raises his gun and abruptly the screen is occupied by a slim lady wearing bright fabrics of non-black and white who invites the viewer to become rich overnight by buying a ticket in the lottery.

My hairdresser releases an audible outbreath. The lady with silver paper in her hair breathes out, her foot beautifiers and the four of five unemployed adults crowded around the screen all relax and my hairdresser has time to ask: Mister, you America?

I am not. I say Australia. The lady nods and smiles happily – Yes, Austria. My sister Germany.  Another happy smile.

I say and I show that I’d like my whiskers cut short. I indicate the clippers. The TV show is altogether too engrossing and too exciting for me to submit to the cut-throat razor.

There is no further conversation. My lady flicks a switch, the clippers hum a soft, low speed sort of hum and start idly to nibble at my stubble. The man with the gun aims at the skinny whistler. His shot misses and the skinny man starts to pay attention. My hairdresser does not: her clippers cruise the surface of my face in a pacifist manner, threatening neither hair nor hide.

Skinny man knows how to handle himself. His movements are a fluid flurry of legs and arms as he spins low towards the bulky man. His kick to the armpit of the shooter – the gunman’s arm is raised as he fires again – disarms the thick man and upsets him. The hairdressers and the foot beautifiers and the crowd of unspecified watchers closer to the screen (now grown to eight persons) are united in their appreciation of the kick. The gun slides to the staircase, the thick man regains his feet, he shows his teeth to the skinny spinning man and closes with him.

For the next many minutes the two men wrestle, trade fatal blows to vital organs, throw each other across the landing, stomp on feet, faces and hands, hyperextend joints to dislocation point and grunt a lot.

To this point the scriptwriter has not earned his wage. Neither has the cutter of my beard: my face is warm with the caress and massage of the innocuous clippers and my beard is intact.

During the next ad break an oversize sack of rice makes its way from the escalator towards the wide open door of the parlour. Grasping the sack are two thin brown arms. Above the sack the skinny face of a young male looks seriously this way and that.

No-one speaks. The bag of rice is dumped onto a counter directly in front of the TV. Now voices rise in urgent chorus. A clamouring as the thin hand waves a receipt, someone signs, money changes hands, the rice man counts it and leaves at just the moment that the skinny man grabs the gun and chucks it down the stairwell. Meanwhile a third man steps from the elevator and enters the landing unseen. He assists the bulky man in overpowering the athletic skinny man. This takes a good ten minutes of grunting and emotionless brutality, as the skinny man performs a good deal of ballet and aerial escape. With every escape the crowd in the salon claps, with every reverse they draw breath.

Ultimately, the newcomer presses the elevator UP button, the elevator arrives and is despatched upwards. The man now forces open the outer elevator doors in time for his teammate to fling the aerialist through the open door into the lift well. The flinger grunts, the aerialist screams, a crashing sound is heard and the multihued lottery lady appears and invites us all to buy some more tickets.

The crowd is silent stunned.

I can’t help feeling my face is an anti-climax. But the haircutting lady appears satisfied: she switches off the humming clippers, examines my face, nods her head, holds a mirror behind me (an odd thing to do as the arena of all her operations has been anterior), nods her head again, rubs some Chanel No. 5 onto my face and jowls and removes my pink frilly cape.

She accepts ten American dollars without complaint. And I’m happy: I reckon ten dollars is a fair sum for the live entertainment and the TV show.

The Barbers of Madrid

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

 

Madrid Barber Shop

Madrid Barber Shop (Photo credit: enric archivell)

 

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.