Ian Critchley

Upper Kutz

Christmas Eve at Upper Kutz and we’ve got the tree in the window with all the lights and baubles. There’s tinsel around the mirrors and a mix of Christmas tunes on shuffle. We’ve already heard Wham! three times. The punters have been coming in a steady stream for their fades, comb-overs and quiffs, or just the good old short back and sides, a last-minute dash to look presentable for the big day. We’ve been at it since eight, me and the boss, Trent, and my fingers and feet are killing me and there’s hours still to go.

‘You see that fight last week?’ Trent says to the guy in his chair. ‘Oh, man. I thought he was going to last the distance, maybe get the points verdict, but bam! Out cold in the tenth.’

Trent’s into his boxing, hence the name of the place, though why he had to go with that spelling I’ve no idea. The walls are decked out with moody black-and-whites showing Ali in his prime beating the shit out of someone. Then there’s Liston, Foreman, Tyson, even Cooper. A pair of old gloves sits in the window, right next to the tree. Christmas as a contact sport.

‘Hey, Mickey,’ Trent says to me as I finish up with a customer. ‘I’m parched. Your turn to do the tea.’

‘It was my turn last time.’

‘Yeah, but you make a much better cuppa than me.’

That’s true. I know he’s not trying to pull rank. Trent’s not like that. He’s treated me more like a brother than an employee since I started here – how long’s it been now? Eighteen months? Yeah, must be.

I tell the next bloke in the queue that I’ll be just a mo and head out back to the kitchenette. As I flick on the kettle, my phone vibrates in my pocket. Fishing it out, I stare at the screen and think about not opening the message, but then I do.

You know you are always welcome here Michael. Love Mum x

Fuck’s sake.

I don’t reply.

* * *

‘Go into hairdressing, Michael,’ Uncle Phil told me when I was floundering around after school. ‘People will always need their hair done.’

Phil was Dad’s oldest friend. He’d been in the army and ended up doing all the buzz cuts. Not much skill involved in that, of course, but he made himself out to be something of an expert. And I’d taken his advice because I had no other advice to take.

My brother David laughed when I told him what I was going to do. Him on the fast track, something to do with finance, while I worked with my hands for tips. And Mum and Dad made all the wrong assumptions about my love life. I didn’t bother arguing with them. There were already too many arguments.

* * *

I take the two mugs back out and balance them on the narrow ledge beneath the mirrors.

‘You’re a star, Mickey,’ Trent says. ‘A Christmas star.’

I whip the cape off the back of the chair and brandish it at the next customer. He’s a short guy, in his seventies, I reckon, and he’s got more hair coming out of his ears and nose than the top of his head.

‘Just a tidy-up, young man,’ he says as he slips into the seat. He takes off his glasses and holds them in his lap, then sits blinking and squinting into the mirror. ‘Want to look my best for tomorrow. Six grandkids! It’ll be exhausting, but Christmas is all about families, isn’t it?’

I snip and comb. My own hair looks a mess. I’ll ask Trent if he’ll do me after closing. He’s good at the sculpting, the latest trends. Maybe I’ll get some entirely new look.

After a while, the man asks, ‘Who will you be with tomorrow?’

‘I fancied a quiet one this year,’ I say.

Mum will have David. He’s coming back from Australia.

‘There,’ I say to the man. ‘All done.’ I hold the hand mirror up to the back of his head and he scrambles for his glasses.

‘I’m not sure it’s short enough,’ he says. ‘I’m kidding! Any shorter, I’d be bald as a coot.’

My phone vibrates again, but I wait until the man has paid before checking it.

Don’t ignore me Michael.

A few months ago I shaved off all my hair, a do-it-yourself job, the full grade zero, and boy did Mum not like that. She accused me of trying to be a hooligan, a headcase.

‘It looks awful, Michael,’ she said. ‘I’m glad your father’s no longer here to see it.’

That was typical, her bringing Dad into it, using him to bolster her arguments when he was no longer around to contradict her. I could give her the benefit of the doubt, though. He hadn’t been gone long, and I knew she missed him and mourned him, and maybe bringing him into the conversation was her way of keeping him close. Maybe.

Thing is, I didn’t shave my hair off to spite her. Sometimes you just need a change. Something radical, to make people look at you differently. I saw a part of my body I’d never seen before. The bumps, the veins – a whole new world to explore. I could see, quite clearly, a white ridge just behind the hairline, and I remembered the day David pushed me off our garden swing. Someone said I cracked my head open, and I had visions of my brain oozing out of a massive hole. I liked to trace the length of the scar with my fingertips. For a few weeks, until the hair grew out again, my reflection didn’t look anything like me, and that was how I wanted it. I needed to stare in the mirror and see another person staring back.

* * *

The queue dwindles. The window’s steamed up and I can’t see outside. In between customers, Trent primps and preens himself, teasing a few stray strands of hair into place. He’s got it so gelled up the light reflects off it.

‘I was wondering if you could do me a cut,’ I say to him. ‘After we close up.’

He doesn’t look away from the mirror. ‘Sorry, mate. Can’t hang around.’ Now he does glance at me. ‘Besides, it would take hours to get that into shape.’

‘You’re a charmer.’

‘Who are you trying to impress?’

‘Why can’t it just be for me?’

He narrows his eyes and I can see that makes no sense to him. He’s all about the presentation, the way he comes across to others. Since splitting up with Lizzie I haven’t given much thought to my appearance.

‘Anyway,’ Trent says, ‘I’ve got loads of last-minute shopping to do.’

‘You haven’t done your Christmas shopping?’

‘All right, keep your hair on. I’ve done most of it, haven’t I? You don’t know what it’s like. I’ve got cousins coming out of my ears. Aunties, uncles. They’ll all be popping round at some point tomorrow and they’ll be expecting something.’

The door clangs open. My brother David stands there grinning. That same old shit-eating grin.

‘Can you fit me in?’ he says.

‘There’s a queue,’ I tell him.

‘I can wait.’

He’s got Dad’s old golfing umbrella, the kind that gets in everyone’s way. He slots it into the holder by the door, then sits with his coat folded on his lap. I can’t see him in the mirror as I work on my next customer, but I can sense him watching me, judging. There’s laughter now among the waiting punters, David throwing out wisecracks, holding court. Everybody’s suddenly demob happy, end of term, and one of them even starts singing along to ‘Fairytale of New York’.

I think about letting Trent do David but, the way things fall, my chair’s empty when my brother gets to the front of the queue, and he’s already on his way over before I can say anything. I grip the back of the chair to stop my hands shaking.

‘So this is where the magic happens, eh?’ he says as he eases himself into the seat.

‘What time did you get in?’

‘Early. Barely unpacked.’

‘What do you want? Hair-wise, I mean.’

‘Grade 3 back and sides,’ he says. ‘Keep it nice and easy for you.’

He’s inherited Dad’s thick mop, so I squirt his hair with water to loosen things up. As kids, we used to sit and watch the barber trying to chop through Dad’s wiry thicket, like an explorer hacking his way through a jungle. My hand moves automatically to my crown, where the hair is thin, and getting thinner.

Reaching for the clippers, I say, ‘Sorry about the shite weather.’

‘It was thirty-five degrees when I left Sydney,’ he says.

My hands are steadier now they’re actually doing the job. It’s like they’re separate from my whirring brain. Working on muscle memory. Plus it’s easier talking to him like this – in a mirror rather than face to face.

‘Aren’t you going to ask me about my holidays?’ he says.

‘That’s summer talk, usually,’ I say.

‘It is summer for me.’

‘Anyway, I thought you didn’t like relaxing?’

‘True, true.’ He tries to nod, but I hold his head still. ‘I’m doing things a bit differently these days, though. Spending more time with family.’

So there it is.

‘Did Mum send you?’ I say.

‘Well, Christ, Mike, you haven’t even bothered to reply to any of her messages. What else are you going to do tomorrow? Sit on your lonesome in your poky little flat?’

He’s never been to my flat. All right, so it is poky, but he’s never even been there. I look up and see that Trent is keeping half an ear on our conversation. It’s the way he dips his head towards us, like he’s got an antenna tuning in.

I take up the scissors. One slip, one little nick, and there’d be blood all down David’s neck. Sweeney fucking Todd.

‘Mum’s got plans,’ he goes on. ‘She’ll set a place for you regardless. And for Dad too, of course.’

And then Wham! starts up again.

Last Christmas, Dad said he didn’t want the tree lights to be set to flashing because they made his eyes hurt. Me and Mum propped him up on the sofa and put his dinner on a tray, and we sat with him, but he didn’t eat much. We pulled crackers and Mum put a hat on Dad’s head. It helped hide his scar. We tried to watch the Queen’s speech, but Dad said he didn’t know who she was or why she was gassing on.

As I cut, David goes on and on about Australia. The hairdryer drowns out his words. I aim it at his head like a weapon. When I show him the back of his head, he says, ‘Yeah, that’ll do. What’s the damage?’

‘On the house.’

‘Don’t be stupid.’ He folds some notes and hands them over. It’s way too much, but I take them.

I sweep up the dead remnants of his cut while he shrugs himself into his coat. Then he comes towards me, holding out his arms. I don’t go in for the hug and he stands there for a moment, arms still wide, before dropping them to his side.

‘I’ll see you tomorrow then, yeah?’ he says.

He doesn’t wait for a reply. Turning, he picks up Dad’s umbrella, tells Trent to have a good one, and then he’s gone.

‘He seems nice,’ Trent says. ‘I wouldn’t have guessed you were brothers.’


I carry on sweeping, even though there’s nothing left to sweep. I can’t stop thinking about Boxing Day last year, when Mum asked me if I would cut Dad’s hair. Just to tidy it up a bit, she said. He’d feel better in himself. Why not make use of having a barber in the family? Dad didn’t have much hair left by that point. The surgeons had shaved most of it off to get access. But I didn’t want to touch his scar. I didn’t want to go near it.

I told Mum I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.

And that was what tipped her over. She told me I was an ungrateful bastard. She pounded me with verbal jabs, right hook, left, before eventually delivering the knock-out blow: she said that David was always Dad’s favourite, and hers too.

Even though David wasn’t there to help, was never there, was on the other side of the fucking world.

* * *

Five o’clock. Trent turns the sign to Closed while I finish with the last punter. Once we’ve sent him on his way, me and Trent both puff out our cheeks and slump into the chairs. I can see now it was thoughtless of me to ask him to cut my hair as well. He won’t want to look at a pair of scissors now for a few days.

‘I can lock up,’ I say, ‘if you want to get going.’

‘All right, Mickey. That’s good of you.’ He begins to gather his kit, but then he stops and turns to me. ‘Listen, it’s probably none of my business, but I couldn’t help overhearing you and your brother there—’

‘It’s fine,’ I say. ‘Just family, you know?’

‘I do know. Christ, do I know. But look, if you want to pop over to ours at some point tomorrow—’

‘No, really, you don’t have to—’

‘One more’s not going to make any difference,’ he says. ‘My Mum makes enough to feed the five thousand anyway. I think we had that many last year.’

‘Thanks, Trent. But I’ll be fine. Honestly.’

He shrugs and carries on tidying up. ‘All right. Well, the offer’s there…’ When he’s done he holds out his hand and we shake. His palm is slippery with gel, but we both hold on tight until he says, ‘Gotta go. Thanks for all your help this year, Mickey. I mean it. This place would be on the canvas without you.’

After he’s gone, I turn off the music, and the silence makes my head hurt. Outside it’s drizzling. Surprise, surprise, no chance of a white Christmas. I stand in front of the mirror and pick up the clippers. The vibration runs right through me, shaking me up. I’m buzzing. It feels like Upper Kutz has become detached from its surroundings, floating far away from the high street and the big tree in the square, and from David and Mum and another difficult Christmas. Outside could be anywhere, another place entirely, my kind of town.

My phone vibrates.

Please Michael. I’m sorry.

The clippers are cold but I keep on running them up and over, seeking out my scar, searching for another me.

Ian Critchley is a freelance editor and journalist. His fiction has been published in several journals and anthologies, including Neonlit: Time Out Book of New Writing, Volume 2, The Mechanics Institute Review, Litro and Storgy. He has won both the Hammond House International Literary Prize and the HISSAC Short Story Prize, and been shortlisted for the Exeter Story Prize and H.G. Wells Short Story Competition. His journalism has appeared in the Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review. He can be found on Twitter @iancritchley4, and his website is iancritchley.wordpress.com.