Short fiction by Raoul Colvile
Ismar is a man of many sayings. When the little metal bell rings and a customer comes in is the time when he won’t say them. But when the shop is quiet and the big leather chairs are dented and empty, he often will.
“The customer is king, Ivan”, he will say sometimes. Or, “In good times, save for bad”. Or sometimes, “Bastard English”, he will say. He really likes to say that one when a customer doesn’t tip, “Bloody bastard English”.
Ismar is old with cracked-up skin and long, dark grey hair that he ties behind his head. I met him in a place off Bethnal Green Road one night a few months back. He told me he was a barber, and asked what did I do, so I told him about what I used to be.
He said, “So you’re good with your hands?”, and I said that they were steady.
He told me he was looking for someone to help out around his shop, asked if I needed a go – so I said yes.
“Fine”, he said, and smiled, swaying a bit, “but we have a problem – what do we call you?”
“You’re too young to be a barber…”, he was drunk I saw, “But with that nose…a hairdresser, ha!” he laughed. He said hairdresser a funny way. “I will have to think of a name for you”.
He was laughing a lot, and he stumbled off.
When I came to his shop the next day if he was surprised he didn’t really show it, just raised his baggy eyes a bit. Ismar understood the world – had come from Bosnia years ago – so he knew about surprising things.
“Come in then, Boy”, he said.
I am not a boy really. But you know old men – they like to speak that way.
Dino would do it too in the early days. “You have to get inside, Boy,” he would say, and pump his arms to show me, “That’s how to hurt him”.
I remember Josip would watch from the gym’s corner, and even though he was only the cutter he was old too, so when I was slow, “Boy”, he would grunt, and spit on the concrete floor, “You’ll never do anything like that”.
They stopped calling me ‘Boy’ eventually though – my third fight, in a cramped hall in the backcountry.
It was the day that in the sixth Jelavić split my nose, and that in the eighth I split half his head.
My favourite time in the shop is in the mornings.
Sometimes in the evening, Ismar and I will get a beer from the alley behind the shop – we hide them there so the air chills them – and those times can be good, until Ismar gets too drunk and will talk about his wife who is far away, or maybe dead, and I will look away and not say anything. But the mornings are better.
In the mornings I will sweep the floor and clean the combs and blades. I take the glass containers and refill them with their deep coloured liquids. Sometimes I will look at the pictures on the walls while Ismar sleeps in his chair. Others I might listen to the radio and think of home, or maybe a friend I once knew.
What I like most is looking out of the big window.
“Transparency”, Ismar says – it is a new word for him – “Transparent, Boy. Important”. He says them the same way.
“We show the customer what we are from outside”, he will look serious.
“Hide that nose though, Boy”, he will add (though I know he is joking about this part).
“Stand sideways! They’ll think we’re pirates!”
I blame Dino for the nose.
Mother had been there after that fight and she had said straightaway as she saw me, “Hospital! Hospital!”
But Dino had said that you only win a fight like that once, that the town would be waiting for us, that we shouldn’t disappoint it, and that we must all go to celebrate.
Besides, it was only mother and Dino had been my trainer for a while by that time, and so we all went out, and we did celebrate. But the nose had been twisted ever since.
Anyway, I marked Dino too – because his was the first hair I ever cut.
I did it one night after a fight in a hard town where the people grew to hate us because I beat one of their sons.
We couldn’t go out, so we drank spirits in the room we were staying in, and I told him and Josip I would smarten them up for the photos on the next day.
I did it with the scissors that Dino would cut the tape for my gloves with, and they were very blunt, and my hands were very numb.
When I speak to Dino now down our crackly phone line I joke with him about my crooked nose, and he tells me his hair has never recovered. Then he will talk about that fight for a bit and be excited, before a sigh, “And now Ana wishes me bald…”, he will say.
I remember now that Ana, who has become his wife since then, had thrown him out when he got back from that trip.
“How can I be seen in public with a man like that?!”, she had said.
Life can be.
I like to stand by the chairs sideways on as a joke to please Ismar, and I do like to look out through the big windows.
Sometimes, when I do, it feels to me like the first time I stepped into the ring.
You feel it strongly those days, that outside the window a whole other nation is living. And those mornings, sometimes I will shiver and wonder, if really, I am a boy.
I suppose that is appropriate, really.
Because, after all, through that window was the first time I saw her.
And the first time I saw her with him.
Ismar’s shop is his life.
It’s in the East End near a place the people call the City, and when they call it that they say it as if you understand that the name means something.
If you ask what they do, they will say they work there. If you ask where they work, they will the say the same.
At home where the cities stop the country begins, but on the border here, it is still all concrete and metal.
The place I stay is further east of the shop, and it is cheaper because there are no trains there, and in London the people think they need trains.
When I first came to London I noticed all of the strange things about it. The dirty markets sitting right alongside the clean office buildings. The fat African women who walk straight at you in the middle of the pavement, like they can’t even see you. The old badges and statues hidden on the corners of buildings, or tucked under the roofs, which no one sees or knows the meaning of. Plus, the English themselves, with all of their strange ways.
Before the end Dino told me that I needed to change my style, “You’ve done well so far, Ivan, and you’re a brave boy”, he said, “But you’re too direct. You’re going to walk into someone one day”.
He meant I was going to get hurt.
I told him it was the only way I had ever fought, and that I couldn’t think how to change.
He would look at me long and seriously, “You can get used to anything”, he said.
I notice the strange things of London far less now, and I suppose that shows Dino was right again. I think things seem less strange when you stop trying to understand them. The flats that used to be factories, or the big yawning churches, are brothers to the abandoned buildings and mostly just as empty.
These are the sorts of things I walk past in the mornings, but I don’t look too hard now and that makes it easier. So, sometimes I think perhaps I could have changed, for Dino, could have learned to fight a different way.
But to have a thought is easier than to make an action.
Your muscles remember the old ways and your brain won’t forget.
Some mornings when I wake up in my place I forget where I am.
It feels like being pulled out of the black the night I fought Burić. The last night I fought.
When I look at the dirty window and the mattress on its floor in my little room, it is sometimes like I can still hear mother crying, and feel Dino’s hand on my face trying to wake me. The blood-bubbles in my mouth.
I was on the floor in a side room of some town pub in the North, and there was dirt in the corners of the room, which they used to keep the barrels.
Then I was being sick, and there were lumps of blood on the floor too, and I could hear mother crying and muffle beyond her – the people singing Burić’s name.
When I feel like that it is hard to go to Ismar’s shop.
And even though it is that room that reminds me of that night, I want to stay in it and just sleep and never leave.
I want to close my eyes and let the world be black again. For Dino never to wake me.
Maybe it is not really that same hurt that I feel anyway – there are lots of ways to be hurt.
I remember a bit of time after that fight Dino came to see me at home.
I was recovering.
He looked sad when he explained it to me that the interest in me had gone now that I had lost. That it was over.
I felt sorry for Dino that he had to tell me that, and angry too. I was sorry to have hurt him.
“You’re a young man Ivan”, he had said, “And the world is a big place”. I remember the gesture he made with his arms.
In fact, the way I felt for Dino is sort of the same as I feel for Ismar, on those mornings. He likes to sleep in his chair when it is quiet and I am there. So, I will get out of that room and go to work and sharpen the blades on the scissors. I will let old Ismar sleep.
I like best the part when I clean the customer’s necks with the small, sharp razor blades. I like the cleanness of the skin stripped of the fuzz of hair. The skin is pink and fresh and raw. It feels good to tidy something in this city. To be able control that small area of skin.
On those days, I will hope Ismar wants to drink after we close the shop, and I will think about growing older.
The fuzz will always come back. But it can be cleaned away again.
These, Ismar says, are “The challenges of being human”.
“And, Ivan”, he exclaims, pointing to the till happily, “Our best friend!”.
When a customer comes in I tend to sit them in front of the mirror and stand behind them.
That way they see me and I see them. Our faces will be equal in the reflection.
The customers all treat the mirror differently. I suppose it is strange for them, to be shown themselves without a break for all the time they are in the chair.
Some of them look away, even the better-looking ones. And I like to look straight ahead when they do this. The twisted nose that Jelavić gave me pointing to Ismar asleep in his chair, the lip that Burić destroyed, snarling.
I always start with washing their hair, bending them over the steel basin, my hands deliberately always a little rough.
When there are no customers is when I look out of the widow and that is the other place that I learn.
The other day I told Ismar a joke I had thought of, I said that the mirror and the window were both my ‘looking glasses’.
He laughed, and it showed my English was getting better. “So you’re making jokes like those bastards now? – are you?”, he said, “I thought you were supposed to be a tough one, Boy”.
I don’t want to be friends with Ismar’s bastards though.
There are flats, as well as shops, on the other side of the road and not many cars so, through the window, I know the people who live in them.
There are the black boys that sit playing music on their market stalls, old Arabs that sell watches. There are the owners who have all the money and roll up in shining cars, and the Muslims who live in the flats which the council owns and are the most beautiful buildings around.
Then there are the Indians in Brick Lane, and the Bangladeshis who pretend they are Indian, but I don’t like going there – because they only want to give deals to the English and the tourists who come at nights and weekends.
And then us, Ismar and me, and the other various immigrants. To the English I think we seem without culture, or all the same. They even voted on it last year. Ismar finds it funny that they want people like us gone – “None of them want to cut hair the way we do anyway”.
The English boys are some of the strangest too – this is why I find it hard when Ismar calls me a boy – because they are soft and rich and narrow – and some have that confidence, like they know about life, and some pretend to be poor.
There are two who live across from Ismar’s shop that I know the best.
One is tall and thin. The other shorter with longer, fair hair that he runs his hands through, putting it behind his ears. He is the one I dislike most.
I remember the day they moved in because they left a TV outside on the street when they took their other things up.
It was in a box, but everyone could see what it was.
I remember Ismar saw me looking, and stood up from cutting, to give me a stern look.
The box was just sitting there, alone.
“Too close, Boy”, he said, quietly.
In the mornings during the week I watch the boys go to work, in their suits and with their shoes shined and hair neat. Sometimes they look tired and get back late. At weekends they will come out later and look over the market stalls, but they never buy anything from them.
Ismar says that this is one of the only parts of London left where people like that live with people who have been here all their lives.
I don’t know if this is true or not, but it seems right.
Still, they can have big mouths too, the English boys. One night in a place off the Edgware Road, one said something so I let him have it. Ismar bundled me out and we ran.
He couldn’t keep up with me, so I got far enough away and then I waited.
When he caught up, “Soft English pricks”, he said gasping, but when he had his breath back he looked at me steady, “but you need to be careful, Boy – the Police – It’s different here…”.
We both slept in the shop that night and opened early because there was no reason not to.
In the afternoon Ismar was tired and went to sleep. I remember thinking in those hours about the things he and Dino had said to me.
And then in the evening, in a way that because of that day made it feel like a story, she was there.
She was waiting there, on the corner.
When I think about it, what I remember seems special, and not.
It was quite late in the afternoon. She was by herself for maybe twenty minutes. She was traced her foot around the pavement and it made me think she was waiting for someone. I wondered who.
I remember sweeping the floor, clearing the hair into little piles, but each time I looked up she had stayed there.
Once she looked at the shop, and from behind the glass I looked back.
Her hair was sun coloured, golden – and she had a small shaped earring, silver against her skin. On her head were a pair of glasses.
I was too far away to see what shape the earring made, but I could see that her mouth was pink and full, and her face, clear, bright and smooth.
When the boy with the long hair came he was in his suit, and she dropped her glasses as he went to kiss her.
She picked them up and he placed his hand on her side. When they spoke their hips were close, she was smiling and tilting her chin up to his face. Then they kissed again and went into his building.
I felt strange and for a while I just looked after them.
I do not know how long Ismar had been awake.
But when I eventually turned around he was standing up, his arms crossed, looking at me.
“Good luck with that one, Boy”, he said, then in a different voice, “You’ll be nothing but trouble for me, will you?”. My face must have looked different.
I didn’t reply, and instead turned back to the pavement where she had stood.
I was trying to describe her to myself, to remember how she had looked before the boy had come. But there was only one thing I could think, no matter how I tried.
I think the thing I thought means the same in any language.
I thought she was the most beautiful girl.
I thought she shone.
Time passed through the window, and I watched him and her meet on that corner all through the summer.
At weekends they would get up late and walk holding hands and I would be jealous.
I liked better week day mornings when sometimes she would leave before he did, because I could stand at the window and watch her.
Sometimes I thought she looked at me, but I wanted her to, so maybe not.
One day I realised autumn had come. At home leaves would be turning from green to brown, but there are no leaves in East London.
It became cold and one morning I came to the shop to find Ismar asleep outside. He was drunk and stank, his keys unconscious in his hand.
I pulled him up and took him inside. I sat him in his chair and ran his hair under the cold tap in the basins, the way Dino had used to wake me up.
“Must you always be so rough, Boy”, he croaked at me, and his eyes were red and looked sore. “My wife was never that rough”. Then he shook. He still a bit drunk. “I loved her, you know. My poor wife”.
I saw in his hand that he was holding a ring.
“It’s my anniversary”, he said when he saw me looking at it, and I looked away because I had been thinking of the girl. But, “You’re a hard bastard, Boy”, he said, because he thought I did not want to look at him. Then he spat into the basin, “What would you know anyway..”.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. He took a towel and went through to the back.
That day Ismar did not speak to me, and I went about the customers as usual.
But then, later on, the tall, thin boy – the flatmate who lived across the road – came in.
This was another thing that made me think of it all as a story, because that was one of the few days that Ismar was angry with me.
Ismar greeted him as he did with all the customers.
“Hello, Sir”, he said, “Please let me take your jacket”.
He does this – he told me once – because it means they have surrendered you their jacket already, and it is hard to leave without a haircut once your jacket has been hung.
“I’ve just moved into the neighbourhood”, the boy said, and both Ismar and I knew that was a lie, because we knew his hair had been cut elsewhere at least twice between his moving in and that day, but we did not say anything because the customer is king, and Ismar instead started to wash and cut his hair.
When he had finished the boy was pleased because Ismar had done a good job, and he thanked him.
Ismar gave him back his jacket and said, “Of course, no problem! No problem! It is our pleasure”.
Then with a wicked look in his eye he glanced at me.
“Please tell your friends to come in too”, he said. “Call it, a welcome to the neighbourhood present, half price!”
The boy looked grateful, surprised. He had a kind face, actually. And he thanked Ismar and left.
When he was gone Ismar looked at me, “Now we are square, Ivan – Boy – bastard” he said, and grinned at me. “Perhaps, before long, you will have some company to enjoy!”
If I have learned anything though, it is that hair grows slowly.
And though I understood what Ismar had intended – as it was – almost immediately, a thought came.
And so I had time to plan.
When – as Ismar had foreseen – the boy with the long, fair hair did eventually come in, he asked if we remembered his flatmate and the deal that had been offered.
“Of course”, said Ismar, “We never forget a customer – half price” and with that same sneaky look, “Ivan will look after you”.
“Thanks”, the boy said, “I’ve just moved into the area. Sounds great”.
I began as usual by washing his hair. His neck was long and skinny. I sat him in front of the mirror.
“Plans for this evening?”, I asked.
He smiled, “Hot date actually”, he said, then looked up at me, “And you?”
Perhaps once I would have fought him, or chopped his ear off his head, which Ismar had told me he had done once accidentally. But I thought instead of Dino, and the Shop, my mother, and the pub off the Edgware Road.
Lastly, I thought of Ana, Dino’s wife who had kicked him out after that first haircut.
“So how do you want it?” I said – and smiled – like Ismar – a crooked smile.
Hours after he had left, that evening I watched them meet at the corner.
Immediately, I saw her arms drop to her sides when she saw him.
They didn’t kiss.
Then moved to go inside, but I saw she wouldn’t take his hand.
Then it was time for me to wait.
For a while I skulked around the shop but then Ismar said he needed to close. I said we should drink but he continued to look at me furiously.
“My reputation”, he said. “Bastard – idiot”. He spat, then he pushed me out.
When Ismar had gone I stood outside the shop and watched the boy’s door. I thought that it was when she came out that I would have my best chance.
It had begun to get dark. But I didn’t want to move in case I missed her. Very quickly, I went to buy vodka from a shop before it shut.
I remember thinking of the first time I had seen her. And as she done I began to trace my foot around the curb. I began to wonder again what the shape of her earring might be of.
Above me, in the skyscrapers, the lights were still on. And I thought of the lights of the shepherds that you could see at night in the hills above the village my mother lived in. There are swallows there sometimes, the trees are thick with them, and I wondered if the earring might be of that.
It got cold after a while. Then it got it very cold.
I went to the doorway of the shop where the wind was less, and I took most of the vodka. But she had not come.
After another while I lay down for warmth. I remember thinking that whatever happened, I would be there when she left.
But by then it was very dark and even in the skyscrapers, the lights were flicking off.
I think sometime after that, the thought did come, that maybe she wasn’t coming. And at times that night, like when I think of Dino and my mother at home, I felt very lonely and it kept me awake.
But it was very cold too, and I was drunk, and you can get used to anything, and some time I suppose, I must have fallen asleep.
The next morning Ismar’s shoe woke me, tapping me in the head.
It did not feel good to be woken up like that.
“Ivan”, he said, “Wake up”. Then he took me inside.
He made strong coffee and we stood together looking at the boy’s doorway.
A customer came in and I moved to help, but Ismar put a hand on my shoulder.
“Rest” he said, quietly.
The customer left and when the two of them eventually came out, they looked happy. He was wearing a hat and she was holding his hand.
I remember I felt I could not look as they walked past, so instead I turned my head, and unexpectedly, I found myself staring into Ismar’s eyes.
He was looking at me the way Dino had that last time. It made me feel strange, a something in my throat.
Neither of us said anything for a while.
“Ivan”, Ismar said and let out a long sigh.
I saw one of his hands was twisting the ring that he had put back on one of his thin fingers.
“You should know, they are the worst of them all, these women”.
Then he smiled, a sad smile, and spoke in our language which he rarely did.
“It is right now, Ivan”, he said.
“Now, we can call you a barber”.