I first noticed it on Thursday following the first Lorne Bar quiz of the year. I was sitting on the end of my yoga mat putting my socks back on and looking every bit as limp as the fern on the coffee table to my right. Because it had been more than four weeks since I last took part in a pub quiz, I had just about forgotten how much of a struggle the hangover can turn the next day into. Often I would forgo my daily yoga practice on account of it, persuading myself that I was ‘too tired’ for a 30-minute exercise. My intention, if not my resolution, is to get better at sticking to my movement routine – mostly because I have found that days with yoga are much nicer than days without yoga, and the hangovers last longer without the mindfulness of half an hour on the mat. Effectively, I am trying to get in touch with my inner peace rather than my inner pissed.
My socks were coral pink and still a little damp from the rain, which forced me to immediately change out of them. Whilst peeling the socks from my feet again, I caught the distinctive whiff of smoke passing my nostrils. It was a peculiar thing to smell in my living room. While I could feel the burn from my side planks and tree poses, I knew that they weren’t sizzling that much. In the hallway, the aroma was so pungent that it could have been coming from inside my flat. For a moment, I was forced to convince myself that I hadn’t started smoking again. It was only a few beers after the quiz I kept telling myself, like it was a meditative mantra. Minds were only put at ease once I opened the door to my flat and found that the entire close smelled like a Marlboro production plant.
Usually the scent of cigarette smoke is inoffensive to me. In many ways, it is the thing I miss most about being a part-time smoker. The rest of the habit I found to be pretty disgusting and ultimately pointless, but I really enjoyed the smell of tobacco on my fingers – especially the morning after a night out. I could have lain in bed for hours savouring the space between my index and middle fingers. Sometimes it seemed a real pity to have to shower and lose everything that I had worked so hard for hours before. These days I find myself walking behind people on the street who are smoking and positioning myself in their slipstream, waiting to catch a puff of that sweet second-hand cigarette smoke, only to get a mouthful of wet melon or cotton candy. It is often tempting to wish for the vapers to walk into traffic.
In truth, my understanding of the physics of cigarette smoke is as paltry as the next person’s. I don’t know why the fragrance is so strong in my flat. There have been smokers living in the block before, but never anything like this. Considering that there was not a hint of smoke before I took to the floor for my yoga practice, it was remarkable that it would be so pungent less than thirty minutes later. They had to have blown through an entire packet of the things to create this much of a stink. You never get a neighbour’s batch of freshly baked bread or a homemade curry wafting under the door, at least not on Combie Street. What’s all the more difficult to comprehend is how the smell can be so overpowering in the living room and the hallway and for there to be no trace of it in the kitchen or the bathroom, the two rooms that have windows looking onto the garden. I also can’t smell it in the bedroom, but then nothing has ever been smoking in there.
If there was one positive to come from the unseemly smoke saga it is that it at least served to take my mind off the other matter which has threatened to consume the early part of my 2023. At the tail end of last year, my barber announced that his wife had accepted a new job in Dundee and the couple would be moving there in February, therefore closing the barber shop that he had opened in its current location more than thirty years ago. The news was swirling around my head like a cloud of nicotine. Some days it was all I could think about. Apart from the few years in late childhood and early teens when most boys seemed to get their hair cut at home, I have always gone to the same barber. It isn’t that he necessarily snips sideburns better than anybody else in town, that his scalpside manner is more entertaining, or that he keeps the best selection of newspapers for people to read while they’re waiting. Visiting the same barber for a lifetime is one of those things that men seem to do, the same way that we use only one butcher, trust the same tailor, or call on the same electrician. Mostly it is through laziness dressed up in the guise of “ach, he’s always done that for me.”
Throughout my adult life, I have never had to think about where I would get my next haircut. The laziness that I inherited from being born a male means that there has only ever been one person I could entrust with that job. Now my entire world has been blown up, it feels as though everything is all over the place, like my hair after a walk along the Esplanade on a February morning. I don’t know where to begin looking for someone to cut my hair. It’s not as if there can be an audition process – once a haircut has been fucked up, you’re forced to live with it until the next one. Apart from anything else, Oban these days seems to be suffering a dearth of traditional barbershops. There are plenty of hair salons and Turkish barbers, but very few old-school barbers. One of the guys who we play football with on a Monday night is a Kurd who works for one of the many Turkish barbers in town and I have considered taking my short back and sides to him, but I worry that it is enough being skinned by him on the football pitch without being skinned in the style that Turkish barbers are known for.
I went for my final cut on the morning of the latest Let’s Make A Scene open mic night, where I read a piece concerning the storage of my herbs and spices that sparked an intense discussion around the room. When I arrived in the barbershop on Saturday morning, there was already a student in the chair who had enough hair to help his secret lover scale a tower. I worried that I might miss our family’s weekly coffee at eleven, but to my relief, the young man was only in for a minor procedure. Taking my seat in the barber’s chair for the last time was a curious feeling. It was tempting to ask about getting a little more taken off to make up for the barber’s imminent departure, and were it not for genetics giving me a sparse head of hair as it is I probably would have.
Although this was definitely different to any other time I have been in the barber’s over the years, it was also exactly the same as always. As the sound of the clippers began to buzz around my ears like a determined bee, the barber told me about how he had recently entered into an eBay auction for an antique guitar. He was mostly just curious to see how much the vintage instrument would sell for, but as things developed his bid ended up being the winning one. I don’t remember how much he told me he paid for the guitar, which he believed he could sell for a profit in a few months anyway, but I know that I was suddenly thinking that £10 for a haircut doesn’t seem so outrageous after all.
While the barber was initially sceptical about his and his wife’s move to Dundee, he has recently found himself warming to the new life ahead of them. He is seeing it as his retirement and is planning on hanging up his scissors and working a small part-time job to allow him to pay for things like antique guitars. “I won’t even be telling people that I used to cut hair for a living,” he told me in a way that made it sound as though he is going on witness protection.
“If anybody asks what I did in Oban, I’ll tell them that I used to work in the distillery rolling barrels. Nobody asks any more questions after telling them that.” This has always been one of his favourite things to say. You usually hear him bring it out when he’s about to go on holiday to Italy or Spain. I’ve never fully understood why being a barber is something that he feels the need to be so secretive about, but I believe that it’s out of a fear that once people know that you can cut hair, they will start asking you if you can do them. Before you know it, you have a queue of folk looking to have their hair cut. I’m not convinced that’s the way it works. You might be on the flight to your sunny destination when another passenger takes unwell and the cabin crew ask if anyone on board is a doctor, but you never hear emergency requests for a hairstylist.
I don’t know if I’ll find another barber in town who has the same turn of phrase and the ability to turn a haircut into an adventure down all sorts of rabbit holes. The last hair was snipped on the back of my head, and the barber asked me to put my glasses back on and review his handiwork. This always struck me as the most awkward part of the haircut process. There isn’t a lot anyone can do about a terrible haircut when the hairs are on the floor of the barbershop. Like asking how a meal was after it has been digested, or if a demolition job was suitable when you’re standing amongst the rubble. I said that I was happy with the haircut, and the barber handed me a tissue, which I presumed was for dabbing the stray hairs from the back of my neck and not the anticipated tears from my cheek. When I left, I was walking into a world of uncertainty, a place that wasn’t the same as it was twenty minutes before. For the first time, I was a man without a barber or any idea where my next haircut would come from. It was unnerving, no different to coming up from a downward dog and finding the scent of cigarette smoke in your living room.
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Smokey and the Barnet
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